Gulag Archipelago: the beginning

I have tried a few times to read Gulag Archipelago. I remember it being present in my childhood home as it was one of my dad’s favourite books. He lived through WWII / Nazi occupation in Greece as a very young child  (b. 1938, d. 2016). He was permanently affected by early traumatic experiences (witnessing mass executions and fleeing bombing raids, for example).  Over the years of my childhood and youth, the shelves of our home accumulated more and more fiction and non fiction books about the wars of the 20th century: everything from pulp fiction to serious historical material.

We did not have a TV till I was 11, but used to have periodic family movie weekends where we would rent a projector and a pile of movie reels from the library, hang blankets over the windows and watch one film after another. There was no specific criteria for how these films were selected, but among them were documentaries with footage of the Nazi death camps. I remember seeing the gas chambers and ovens in these films, but the image that stuck with me was a bulldozer scooping up emaciated corpses and shovelling then into a pit. When we did eventually get a TV, my dad liked to select video rentals based on WWII, again everything from the serious to the cliffhangers. He never forced anyone to watch them with him, but I recall chocolate bars being always available to anyone willing to sit through Bridge on River Kwai or some such. When the CBC produced a miniseries of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, it was a family event of great excitement.  My dad’s obsession with WWII, Stalin and Hitler was at times  bizarre and even a bit ridiculous to his wife and children who have a very different background (we were all born in Canada). However, I think his almost obsessive reading and viewing was him trying to make sense of experiences that were impossible to make sense of. I say impossible because while he increased his understanding (and ours) I do not think he ever made peace with his experience of war.

Against this backdrop, I didn’t think twice about pulling Gulag Archipelago off the shelf as a child. I was an avid and fast reader and had no sense that some books might be out of my depth; I would try to read anything and if I didn’t like it I would simply choose another book. But I liked far more things than I didn’t like and it hurt my pride to admit something was too hard for me.

I couldn’t get through Gulag Archipelago, or even past the first chapter. I must have tried many times because as I read the first chapter recently I had déjà vu several times. But I would make it maybe to the end of the chapter and simply couldn’t go on. When Solzhenitsyn died in ...., I became interested in him and read and enjoyed several novels, such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward. But memories of Gulag Archipelago and how impenetrable it was prevented me from attempting it again.

I became interested in the books in the last few months, however, after getting interested in Jordan Peterson’s work. We share Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky as favourite authors, and having a like minded person enthuse about GA made me want to try again. Also, Dr Peterson made me feel a bit better about my previous failures by noting it’s a very difficult book. He says it is like having someone scream at you for hours and hours, and with this in mind, I’m actually able to tolerate it better. It really isn’t written to be likeable, and that’s ok.

To motivate myself, I decided to write my observations of each chapter so I have a record. I hope this will also help me think about and recall the content. 

Details of the edition I’m reading: 
The Gulag Archipelago 1918 to 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.  Copyright 1973, 1974 by Harper and Row publishers Inc.


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