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Paperback Originals

Solzhenitsyn by Heart

December 14, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

"Composed orally while on gang labour" is the playwright's note to "Victory Celebrations," one of a trilogy of plays that Alexander Solzhenitsyn committed to memory while serving a sentence at hard labor in a Soviet prison camp in the 1950s. The three plays, only one of which has ever been performed, are collected in Victory Celebrations, Prisoners, the Love-Girl and the Innocent (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $12.50; also available in hardcover, $30). What we have here is the very earliest work of Solzhenitsyn, and we can see the dark humor, the dangerous irony, the curious blend of compassion and contempt which are more fully played out in his later and more celebrated novels.

"Victory Celebrations," originally composed in iambic verse but presented in a readable prose translation, is set in the final chaotic days of World War II as secret police and political commissars follow the Red Army into Germany. "There's always a reason for being nervous," observes the SMERSH counterintelligence agent who haunts his own comrades and thus reminds them that the conquest of fascism will not end the oppression of their homeland. "A typically Russian celebration," says the artillery officer who seems to embody Solzhenitsyn himself. "It started sideways, and ends sadly."

"Prisoners" also is autobiographical: Solzhenitsyn plays out the agonies and ironies of newly liberated Soviet prisoners of war who find themselves prisoners of their own government. "Question three. What was your aim when you gave yourself up? Why didn't you shoot yourself?" the secret police interrogator demands. "Ever seen an anti-tank gun? How do you think you can shoot yourself with that?" replies the battle-weary soldier. "You snake! You vermin!" says the interrogator. 'I gave myself up my aim being to betray my Socialist country.' That's the sort of answer we want."

"The Love-Girl and the Innocent" brings us into the heart of the gulag at last, where Solzhenitsyn offers the same matter-of-fact depiction of hell and horror that he will later elaborate in "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The GULAG Archipelago." Explains one prisoner to another: "This is Campland, an invisible country . . . This is the famous country where 99 men weep while one man laughs . . . It won't take long to lose that pride and those rosy cheeks. Then you'll jump at the chance of going to bed with some bum for 500 grammes of sticky bread."

These three plays of Solzhenitsyn's early calling are entirely worthy of the Nobel laureate--literate, lyrical, alternately comic and tragic--but the work is ultimately disquieting. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn unambiguously prefigures the themes that have emerged full-blown in his New England exile: a mystical attachment to the soil, blood and faith of Mother Russia, a tragic and even apocalyptic vision of her destiny. Some of the lines that may have once seemed ironic in intention now appear to be quite literal: "Oh my unhappy people, keep your hope, / God's grace will shine over you. / Having astounded the world with your crimes / You will astound it with your penitence. / People will make new paths to the neglected and reviled sanctuaries, / They will follow their priests, ikons and banners in great multitudes."

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