The other day, we visited one of New York's most distinguished bookstores in search of "The Gulag Archipelago," by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Failing to find it in the hardcover division, under either "World History" or "Current Events," we proceeded--passing shelves with such designations as "Occult," "Self-Help," and "Computer," all groaning with volumes--to the paperback department and asked a salesman there if he could find the book.
He looked blank. "What's it about?" he asked.
"It's about the concentration-camp system in the Soviet Union," we answered.
He paused for a moment, then said, "You might try fiction."
Solzhenitsyn's towering work of fact--certainly the greatest act of historical witness of our century--was not, we are pleased to report, to be found on the fiction shelves. It was, we regret to have to add, to be found nowhere in the store that day--or, at any rate, none of three further salespeople we asked were able to locate it for us. Leaving empty-handed, and with our mind full of despondent thoughts about the state of letters in general in the United States and of bookstores in particular, we recalled Kafka's parable of the imperial messenger in his story "The Great Wall of China." In the parable, the Emperor has sent a message to "you, the humble subject . . . from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone." The messenger sets forth: "A powerful, an indefatigable man; now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng. . . . But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fists on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed." And even if he should overcome all those difficulties and more, and reach the outer gates--though "never, never can that happen"--he would then still face the imperial capital, "the center of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment." And "nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man." Such, it seems to us, are the difficulties that Solzhenitsyn has met with in his quest to bring the truth about his country and his time to the world. The story, or much of it, is told in his memoir "The Oak and the Calf," among other places. It contains the stuff of myth. No dragon or Minotaur would be more daunting than the antagonists he faced. First were the camps and their guards: "The First Circle" and worse--Hell itself. Against the isolation of captivity he pitted memory. He began by composing verse, and memorized that. Then, having tested and disciplined his powers, he turned to prose: "Dialogue at first, but then, bit by bit, whole densely written passages. My memory found room for them!" Deprived of the external world, he forged a literary world--built to endure--within. The next adversary was the universal one of death. A few months after Solzhenitsyn was released from the camps and sent into internal exile, he was told that he had incurable cancer. "All that I had memorized in the camps ran the risk of extinction together with the head that held it," he realized. He proceeded, therefore, in the three weeks of life allotted him by the doctors, to write down on scrolls of paper everything he could of what he had memorized, stuff the scrolls into a champagne bottle, and bury it. Like Zeus cracking open his head to give birth to a fully grown and fully armed Athena, Solzhenitsyn spilled completed works from his mind onto the page. However, thanks to what he regards as a divine miracle, he did not die, and, having, like Lazarus, been given back his life, he concluded, "It is not mine in the full sense; it is built around a purpose." And that purpose was to bring his message to the world. Now he decided to "master a new trade"--making "hidey-holes" for his work. Soon, one new skill leading to another, he was busy microfilming his writings. Further, he had to shape his life to "the need for tight security." He shunned all invitations, and never extended any. As additional disguise, he pretended indifference to all literature (while composing literary work non-stop at home). In the hope of escaping any official notice, which might lead to discovery of his secret work, he carefully suppressed all signs of indignation at the daily humiliations of life under the Soviet bureaucracy. And although he thought it might be safe to express his indignation in the works he was secretly writing he "would not allow that either, because the laws of poetry command us to rise above our anger and try to see the present in the light of eternity." Then, after Khrushchev, with "sudden fury" and "reckless eloquence," attacked Stalin at the Twenty-second Party Congress, in 1961, our messenger began to make his way through a new realm--the labyrinth of the Soviet literary bureaucracy. There, too, he met myth-sized figures--helpers and antagonists both. There was, for example, Aleksandr Tvardovsky (brilliant editor and poet, sometime drunkard, wily bureaucrat), who published Solzhenitsyn's pathbreaking "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," and who seemed to contain in his conflicted soul the full range of possible responses--from the lowest abasement to the highest purity, from cowardice to superhuman courage--of those whose lot it is to tangle with the Soviet state. And, finally, throughout, there was the omnipresent, brutal, whimsical Soviet state itself, with which Solzhenitsyn somehow managed to battle as an equal. ("I shall continue returning blow for blow, and perhaps hit still harder," he wrote at one point to Tvardovsky, adding, "So that if they are wise, they will think twice before touching me again.")
Solzhenitsyn got through to our shores. But here a new gantlet was waiting. The difficulties this time were not a Minotaur or dragon--not imprisonment, hard labor, and death, not even government harassment and censorship--but cupidity, boredom, sloppiness, indifference: not the acts of a mighty, all-pervading repressive government but the failure of a listless public to make use of the freedom that is its birthright. This painless gantlet, which instead of torturing and killing people stupefies them and puts them to sleep, stretches past the "Occult," "Self-Help," and "Computer" shelves and, at the end, brings one to the voice that suggests, "You might try fiction."
Reprinted by permission; 1986, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.