Dog Bite Degustation: Solzhenitsyn's "For The Good Of The Cause"

on Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has a well-deserved reputation for impenetrability. I have tried and failed to read both The Gulag Archipelago and In The First Circle, making Solzhenitsyn the only author whose books I have abandoned on more than one occasion. Cancer Ward takes up an imposingly large chunk of space on my bookshelf and is, no doubt, as dense as it is long. Even his slim, highly-regarded novel A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is bleak and laborious which, as a pared down version of the Gulag brick, is what I suppose it is intended to be. Whatever. It bored me to tears. I don't really know, then, what made me pick up For The Good Of The Cause when I saw it on the shelves of an old second hand bookstore in Sydney. Perhaps it was the fact that the author had just died and was at the forefront of my mind. Or maybe it was because this book seemed to not be about life as a political prisoner and I was curious as to whether Solzhenitsyn actually had anything else to say. Maybe I just liked the front cover. Whatever the reason, I felt compelled to make the purchase.

Before you bother trying to find it, I should point out that For The Good of the Cause has long been out of print which is a great shame because, from my experience, it is by far Solzhenitsyn's most accessible book. Set in a rural Russian town, it tells of a small, woefully under-resourced school that is promised and then denied a new premises nearby. The kids get excited, pitch in to help build the place, only to have their dreams shattered "for the good of the cause". As it turns out, the council has decided that the new building is better off used as a research facility for some unknown government department. Granted that might all sound rather unremarkable, but this book is one of the most seething indictments on the idiocy of communist bureaucracy ever written.

When I first read For The Good Of The Cause, I loved it so much that I came to think of it as my favourite novel of all time. On rereading it, I still really liked it but suspect I was a little hasty in putting it on such a towering pedestal. Sure, the novel is still funny. Solzhenitsyn puts himself in for some gentle self-abasement, especially regarding the length of his major works, while showing a nifty propensity for classic absurdist humour. It is also just as frustrating as when I first read it. I really felt for the kids, and hoped there would be some satisfying resolution. And, of course, to a certain extent, Solzhenitsyn out-Kafkas Kafka by bringing the ridiculous machinery of opaque, pen-pushing despotism into the very real world of Cold War-era communist Russia. However, For The Good Of The Cause is not the perfect novel I had thought. I guess the very fact that I had found, finished and actually enjoyed a book by the bearded one caused my rating-radar to go askew. If I remember some of the other books I have for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge correctly, this one is unlikely to keep its place in the top twelve, let alone at number one. Looks like my list is in for a real shake-up.


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