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Cancer Ward

The Cancer Ward - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn All the horrors of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union fall away when cancer enters one's life. Its impact on daily existence is much more immediate than any political system's. Cancer Ward explores how the disease transforms the lives of ten men on the oncology ward of a small hospital in Uzbekistan in 1955... but it is not a "medical drama". That is to say, its plot does not focus on the process of making diagnoses or rendering treatments, and there is no sense that the author is enamoured with the exoticism of medical hardware, or awed by the staff's knowledge and training. What this really is, is a story about the humbling and equalizing power of serious illness. The main characters comprise a mix of cultural, ethnic, and social-status backgrounds, representing all walks of Soviet life. They would have never come in contact with one another, but for their disease. Now, facing death (Vadim's melanoblastoma) or debilitation (Dyomka's amputation), they grow to know one another and depend on each other for support. There are no earth-shaking plot twists here, and no life-or-death high drama (i.e. no one-in-a-million surgeries, no risky experimental drugs with a slim chance of complete remission) instead, life is a boring grind of radiation treatments in front of a dull humming metal box. Despite the lack of "action", the novel is a showcase for Solzhenitsyn's skill in creating memorable characters and exploring what they do in these most difficult circumstances.Aleksi suffers rectal cancer, and looks back on a life of quiet sufferring under the totalitarian system. An intellectual who kept his criticisms to himself, either to avoid "rocking the boat", to benefit his career, or to protect his family from adverse consequences, Aleksi now contemplates how the system never did change for the better, despite his hopes. He considers the bleak future, with its promise of continued oppression for his children, stretching out indefinitely, and wonders how things might have been different if he had found the courage to say something. Anything. Could he have made a difference, or is he just torturing himself? Who could ever know? The point is, this is the sort of tough appraisal of one's life which cancer forces on people. Another character, Yefrem, has an unnamed, but fatal diagnosis. After a long career as a hard-edged pragmatic upper-level bureaucrat, he wonders what it was all for. Three decades spent pouring over production quotas, fixing industrial equipment rotation schedules, answering to overseers in endless committee meetings... how did this become the stuff of his brief walk on planet Earth? With a few months left, he picks up Tolstoy and begins to read.Meanwhile, Friedrich- ever loyal to the Party, refuses to let cancer invalidate his past. In a way, this is his own way of defying his diagnosis: refusing to let it change his mind, however much it is changing his body.Please don't think Cancer Ward is continually ponderous and gloomy; there are some lighter moments. Main character Oleg rebels against his stomach cancer the best way he knows how: with a life-affirming effort to bed beautiful nurse Zoya... and later, to do the same with the more sophisticated Dr. Vera Kornilyevna! For her part, Vera is a complex character who raises some important questions about maintaining an appropriate professional distance from patients. Ever politically-minded, Solzhenitzen uses these men as vehicles to explore aspects of Soviet life, but he never allows the commentary to overpower his handling of the characters (contrast to Ayn Rand!). Cancer Ward is considered semi-autobiographical, in that it draws heavily from Solzhenitsyn's own experiences with cancer in his forties, which kept him incapacitated for almost a year during a period of imprisonment on political charges. The novel is at its best when showing how cancer recasts one's priorities, particularly the last several chapters, which follow Oleg after his discharge from the hospital. It is here that Solzhenitsen so artistically renders the world transformed through the eyes of patient who has battled for his life. The ideas of "simple pleasures" or a sense of wonder at the world around us do not seem trite or cliche; they are embraced with a deeply-felt sense of gratitude. The gift of being allowed to exist one more day is not taken for granted by somebody who very nearly had it taken away.