Book review: Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

April 15, 2008

Title: The Cancer Ward
Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Pages: 619

The author

Alexander SolzhenitsynAlexander Solzhenitsyn was born in December 1918.

Solzhenitsyn fought in World War II as a commander in Russia’s Red Army and was decorated twice. He was arrested in 1945 for making derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was subsequently sentenced to eight years imprisonment to be followed by permanent internal exile.

He is a stomach cancer survivor and his experiences serve as the basis for this novel.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. He is currently the oldest living Nobel laureate in literature.

The plot

The novel is set in the cancer ward of a medical center. It has no central character as such, the focus cycles among the the various characters as the novel progresses.

This book has very little to do with the suffering of cancer patients; instead Solzhenitsyn uses the patients and staff of the hospital to explore post-Stalin communist Russia.

The verdict

Although it may not be obvious at first, this book is a scathing attack on the Communist regime of the time. I liked the subtle manner in which Solzhenitsyn uses the various characters in the ward to attack Communism. For example, Rusanov, the patient who is a government agent, feels disgusted whenever he comes in contact with common people although he thinks he works for the benefit of “The People”.

After reading retarded attempts at romantic scenes by Jeffrey Archer and David Baldacci (both of whom seem to think that women find stalkers and rapists attractive) I find that Solzhenitsyn appears to have an eerie talent for romance. Reading Kostoglotov’s (a patient based on Solzhenitsyn himself) conversations with the women doctors in the ward left me feeling warm and happy inside.

Highly recommended, but make sure you read a bit of modern Russian history to better understand the political undertones throughout the book.

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