I have had this book for quite some time now — a lucky find in a library book sale — but I freely admit that the title was intimidating enough to keep me from really attempting to read it until a few months ago. I still need to get my hands on a copy of First Circle at some point.
The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Shortly before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward was banned from publication in 1966, Solzhenitsyn attempted to respond to criticisms that he had written the novel as a deliberate attack on the Soviet regime. ‘There are too many medical details for it to be a symbol,‘ he said, adding that the manuscript was ‘about cancer…not as it is written about in literature devised to entertain people, but as it is experienced every day by the sick.’ Although One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s novella about the Soviet labour camps, and the short stories ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’ and ‘Matryona’s House’ had been approved for publication during the political thaw that followed the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn’s latest work pushed the boundaries of appropriate literature in a post-Khrushchev USSR. And in spite of Solzhenitsyn’s protests that the intent of The Cancer Ward was to show a more realistic depiction of the physical and psychological sufferings of cancer patients, he made little attempt to disguise the fact that the pain he was writing about went beyond that of tumours and treatments: the cancer, in fiction and in real life, was the Soviet system itself.
The Cancer Ward is set in the men’s cancer treatment ward of a provincial hospital in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, present-day Uzbekistan, a few years after the death of Stalin. The patients on the ward are a mixed lot, young and old, Russians and non-Russians, and range from a former political prisoner in permanent exile to an officious ‘personnel director’ who actively resents being treated in such a shabby hospital with the poor and the indigent. The doctors, nurses, and technicians who staff the hospital do the best that they can in spite of their own set of problems — oppressive bureaucracy and politically motivated meddling, incompetent colleagues who cannot be removed or demoted, and the constant grind of working too many hours with too many responsibilities — that hamper their professional abilities. But as the treatments progress and the patients improve or worsen, bits of strange news begin to filter in from outside the hospital. Why are so many of the old guard Party members, the stalwarts of Stalin’s day, resigning their posts or being replaced in their positions? What is this rumour that thousands of prisoners — people who surely must have done something wrong, since they confessed to all manner of crimes against the State — are to be released and rehabilitated, even allowed to return to their old homes? Something seems to be eating away at the old order bit by bit, and even those who have no love for the Party are forced to wonder whether, in this instance, the cure might be worse than the disease.
The extended allegory of Stalinism-as-cancer makes it very easy to read The Cancer Ward as an anti-Soviet polemic from start to finish. However, Solzhenitsyn himself was a cancer survivor whose illness went untreated until it was almost too late, and his writing brings out the dread, isolation, and uncertainty experienced by cancer patients, who can never be certain whether their discharge from the cancer ward means complete recovery or imminent death. For those who have experienced cancer firsthand, whether their own or that of a loved one, The Cancer Ward will be a painful book to read at times. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s story is not merely a roman à clef or political protest — it celebrates the determination of the human spirit, the desire to live and love and hope and enjoy life in any way possible, whether in the shadow of cancer or in the shadow of the gulag. And even though The Cancer Ward is less well known than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the breath-taking Gulag Archipelago, it deserves to be more widely read.