Book #116: The Cancer Ward

I liked Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward much, much more than I thought I would.

It takes place in a cancer ward in a hospital in a city in the USSR, sometime in the 50s – after Stalin’s death but before the Khrushchev “thaw,” though I don’t think it was ever specified. The men in the ward are a colorful cast of characters, from the self-important, bureaucratic Pavel Rusanov, to the young student Dimka, whose leg needs to be amputated, to the main protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov, who was allowed to come back from exile somewhere in the steppes to seek treatment, they are a diverse group.

Solzhenitsyn moves in and out of these – and many other – characters’ minds as they grapple with their mortality and illnesses, while in the background Stalin’s death and the fall of the secret police chief Beria have the USSR roiling.

The book is somewhat autobiographical – like Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn was a political exile. He also based the events of the book on his own experience in the cancer ward during his own treatment.

The book is almost the perfect combination of events and plot and reflection on mortality, the government, and many other things. Sometimes the Russians tend to wax a bit too philosophical in their fictions, going on and on and sometimes abandoning the plot for way to long. Solzhenitsyn found a good balance though, and all reflection felt natural, but the characters were still important and real, and I still found myself really caring what happened to them.

It was a pretty long book – about 800 pages in my edition – but I read it pretty quickly and was sad when it was over.

If you’re thinking about reading it, I say go for it. I think it’s much more accessible than some 19th-century Russian novels like those by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Plague


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