Monday, 19 November 2012

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (5/5)

The back says: One of the great allegorical masterpieces of world literature, Cancer Ward is both a deeply compassionate study of people facing terminal illness and a brilliant dissection of the ‘cancerous’ Soviet police state. Withdrawn from publication in Russia in 1964, it became, along with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a work of that awoke the conscience of the world.

Translated by: Nicholas Bethell and David Burg

I say: Every once in a while I have the fortune to come across a book that I fall so deeply in love with I just want to spend an entire lifetime re-reading it, and this is one of those books. I cannot even begin to explain how utterly perfect this masterpiece is without allocating about an hour of my time for the introduction, but I shall give it a try.

As the title indicates, the majority of the story takes place in a cancer ward in Soviet Uzbekistan, and we get to follow a group of cancer patients and the staff as they try to get well. There are quite a few characters in this story, but the main protagonists are Kostoglotov (which is said to mean bone crusher) an exiled former soldier and Rusanov, a government officer suffering from lymphoma and enters the hospital with a huge tumour on his neck. The two do not get along and spend a lot of time having hilarious, and serious, arguments about pretty much everything.

Considering that my copy is 570 pages I cannot really get too deep into their conversations, but despite their humour they were extremely thought-provoking.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the critique and satire of Soviet and their procedures. The entire hospital is, of course, an allegory for the state and I love the way that Solzhenitsyn pokes fun of the treatment of the cancer patients while keeping that serious undertone. Most of the patients consider a bed in the cancer ward as a death sentence, and even when they are released it’s so that they won’t die in the hospital and ruin their statistics. They are given endless medication and radiation treatment, even for cases that are useless, and the doctors and nurses refuse to tell the patients what’s wrong with them or what the treatments are for.

The entire cancer ward was so absurd and mindboggling it’s difficult to imagine a state functioning in that way. But then the more Russian literature I read the more plausible it all gets.

I love this beyond reproach; the humour, the satire, the despondency, the language, the everything. As always with books I fall in love with, I will be singing its praises to everyone I encounter and I am already looking forward to re-entering the cancer ward.


  1. This sounds like it would be right down my alley. I have become very interested in anything having to do with Russia in the present or the past. Soviet Russia is very interesting to me!

    1. Same here, I am fascinated with all things Russia - especially anything satirical. I was trying to teach myself Russian, but with going back to uni it's been pushed to the side. But yeah, Solzhenitsyn is a great writer and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.