I recently read these three books within one week.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn,
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and
- How to Rule the World the Essential Handbook for Aspiring Dictators by Andre de Guillaume
After reading them I realised that by coincidence all three books had a common theme of life under a dictatorship or in a totalitarian state.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is told from the perspective of a wrongly accused political prisoner in one of Stalin’s “Special” camps for long term prisoners.
This crisp, shattering glimpse of the fate of millions of Russians under Stalin shook Russia and shocked the world when it first appeared.
Khrushchev himself during the russian thaw, is said to have authorised the publication of this spare, stark description of life in a Siberian labour camp.
The New York Times review (January 22, 1963) of the first English translation concluded that:
It is not an easy world for Americans to comprehend. As Ivan muses: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” It is a world in which to live through one more day is an achievement. When Shukov has gone through his day he falls asleep in a glow of contentment. It has been a lucky day. He has not been put into the punishment cells. He has not been sent to the open steppe to work in the 20-below zero wind. He’s gotten an extra bowl of mush for supper. He’s worked at building a wall and gotten pleasure from it. He’s gotten a hacksaw blade into camp without being caught. He’s bought some good tobacco. And he hasn’t gotten sick. And the book closes:
“A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch….
“Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
“The three extra days were for leap years.”
This quiet tale has struck a powerful blow against the return of the horrors of the Stalin system. For Solzhenitsyn’s words burn like acid.
The fourth translation, the only one authorized by Solzhenitsyn, was done in 1991 by H.T. Willetts, and is generally considered to be the best
Fahrenheit 451 is told from the viewpoint of Montag, a firemen whose job unlike our firemen is to start fires, not put them out.
Montag is an inhabitant of an unnamed country in the not too distant future where happiness is allocated on on a four-walled TV screen, where individuals, eccentrics and scholars are outcasts of society and where books – “the cause of all unhappiness and disruption” are burned by a special task force of firemen.
Trained by the totalitarian state to burn all books, one day he surreptitiously begins to read a book … thereby starting a train of events which lead to him being labelled a subversive and enemy of the state.
Several aspects of the fictional future depicted in the novel have become reality in the late 20th and early 21st century:
- There are now live television broadcasts of police pursuits of fugitives, aided by helicopter-mounted cameras and supplemented by voice-over commentary by announcers.
- “Seashell radios” closely resemble earbuds such as those found in portable audio/mp3 players, the two-way version that Faber gives Montag could be considered a highly miniaturized version of mobile phone ear-clip accessories.
- Some people believe that television content has become more empty eg: reality television
Note: The first page of the book explains that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.
How to Rule the World is a tongue in cheek guide for Aspiring Dictators.
Taking inspiration from many of the great leaders/dictators through history (including Attila the Hun, Lenin, Napoleon and Thatcher), de Guillaume encourages the reader to believe in their dream of reaching the top and offers invaluable advice on how to get there, for example:
“Not everyone starts off with fully-formed despotic tendencies. Politicians are made by spin doctors and fawning toadies, but true leaders make themselves. Consider the writings of the great leaders, learn their histories and model your behaviour on theirs. Read the business pages and subscribe to The Economist. Aim to take one step towards your goal every day: work on your charisma, start a pub brawl, practice saluting in the mirror”.
de Guillaume often uses quotes to make a point eg:
“When he seizes a state, the new ruler must determine all the injuries he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once and for all”
– Niccolo Machiavelli
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”
– Mao Tse Tung
“The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to decide for themselves”
– Henry Kissinger (supporting the right wing coup in Chile which toppled the democratically elected Allende government and replaced him with a right-wing military dictatorship which tortured and killed thousands of Chilean citizens)