|Alice Poon||Aug 9, 2008|
My translation of the piece:-
“Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winner and one whom the Russians honor as ‘the Prophet’, passed away on August 3 at the age of 89. This old gentleman lived an afflicted life – he had gone to prison because of his judgmental stance on real life, had suffered from cancer and been exiled from his own country. But he always cared about Russia’s fate. He loved this piece of land, because he had been born there. At a more profound level, it was because he had experienced indescribable sufferings there. Perhaps it can be said that Solzhenitsyn’s writings are in the category of memoirs, or empirical literature. People who want to understand the twentieth century have to read his writings. A lot of China’s readers have been deeply affected by Russian literature – it’s as familiar to them as their own country; they are familiar with Russia’s birch forests and snow fields. But it is because of Solzhenitsyn that Russia has become more lucid and more real to us. As a matter of fact, it is only common knowledge that literature is something that reflects the époque in which one lives. But for a very long time, we actually believed that exposing the dark side of reality could only be a job for writers of the past, and that this was not something for writers of the present to do.
Such kind of pre-conditioned judgment of literature that is based on the assumption of the goodness or badness of an era has mired our literary perception in a paradox. All our literary text books persuade us that literature is the image reflection of a social condition, but the catch is that such ‘social condition’ must be something that is pre-determined – it cannot be left to the writer to decide. Yet our literary history shows that all genuine literature is a product of poets’ and writers’ urge to voice injustice.
We used to view Solzhenitsyn in this light – that he is a controversial writer, especially for his political ideas and religious thoughts. But throughout history, which great writer or great poet did not possess a world view that was not both ironical and convoluted? Is it not exactly because what he portrays is so close to the living experience that we are familiar with, so close to the truth, that we saw him thus? For doing this, Solzhenitsyn was forced into exile from his country and had his citizenship right revoked. But he never forgot about his homeland. Even in serious illness he never stopped using his pen. After he died, the Russian media has described him as ‘a famous writer, political commentator, historian, poet, social activist, who made himself known to the world with his literary achievement and historical research’. The world looks upon him as the ‘Conscience of Russia’. This is not because the writer has changed; it is because the times have changed – the way Russians view their lives has changed. Now, this writer has become the ‘pride’ of the Russians. Because of his existence, this great nation does not have to live with the shame for having no one to voice out grievances in that era.
Solzhenitsyn was by nature a writer. One cannot expect him to produce a perfect blueprint for a new world. Even now nobody believes there is such a thing as a perfect blueprint in this world. Many of his viewpoints are definitely less than accurate. Last year after he received a national award of honor, during an interview he gave to Germany’s Mirror Weekly he said, ‘With the passage of time, my views are gradually changing and improving. But I have always believed that my words and actions have never contradicted my conscience.’ Not contradicting one’s conscience is what really counts – in Solzhenitsyn’s own words: ‘I have used my whole life’s energy to diligently reveal the genuine face of history to the people, so that they can learn from past mistakes and be levelheaded.’
Solzhenitsyn was a die-hard dissident. Neither readers who like him nor those who dislike him can deny this point. When he lived in the United States, he was still full of grudges in the society he lived in. He was no less harsh in his scrutiny and thoughts about the country that received him with generosity and passion. In 1978, he gave a famous speech at the Harvard University, strongly criticizing the American society over various problems. His stinging words, while drawing ire from many Americans, nonetheless forced the media to conduct a big debate on the American political system and ideological development, which even led to the then First Lady (Mrs. Carter) coming out to defend her country. Meanwhile, as the Russian society was undergoing labor pains that arose from restructuring, he was ceaselessly accusing the bureaucrat cartel of embezzling national funds under the guise of privatization of enterprises, causing polarization of the rich and the poor and social affliction.
The duty of a writer is to cast a critical eye on life as it is. In a speech he gave when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Solzhenitsyn said that literature is an art for human beings – the spirit is always above the pain suffered; the real power embedded in literature can demolish a world made up of lies.
This is a writer who told truths that have upset a lot of people. Through his works, Solzhenitsyn bore witness to the twentieth century and is deservedly entered into the list of historically acclaimed writers. His passing away will soon make people feel the spiritual void that he left behind.