Innokenty’s Phone Call

I just sort of reread Alexsandr Solzhenitysn’s In The First Circle. Sort of reread because the English version I read as a teenager was an expurgated version called The First Circle – the only version available then. So I’m comparing different translations of different drafts of the novel…

The plot’s set in motion when Innokenty, a Soviet diplomat, makes a rash phone call to the West. In the expurgated version, the purpose of Innokenty’s call is to warn a colleague not to give some medicine to some foreigners. In the unexpurgated version, the purpose of the call is to prevent a Soviet agent receiving technical information about the atom bomb. Innokenty’s hasty plea, and the drunken confusion of the speaker at the other end of the line, suggest that Solzhenitsyn himself is desperately trying to transmit a message to a decadent, uncomprehending West.

After One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in Russia, Solzhenitsyn edited down In The First Circle in the hope of getting it published there too. Besides the nuclear context, he also cut a scene where Innokenty visits a desecrated church, a scene where Innokenty’s wife implores him to beat her, and the idea that Stalin may have been a Tsarist double-agent. The logic of the cuts is not always obvious – in retrospect the book seems so comprehensively anti-Soviet, it’s hard to see how its publication in the USSR ever seemed to be a possibility. But I guess after Khrushchev allowed Ivan Denisovich to be published, all bets were off for a while…

To develop the voice recognition technology necessary for Innokenty’s capture, the Soviet government harnesses the efforts of some engineers imprisonsed in a “sharashka” — a special prison camp for engineers, like one in which Solzhenitsyn had himself done some time. When I was a teenager, what most impressed me about The First Circle was how noble Solzhenitsyn makes the “zeks” (prisoners) seem —

“The mugs outside did not have immortal souls. Zeks earned them the hard way, serving their never-ending sentences. Outside, men used the liberty allowed them selfishly and stupidly, mired in their petty schemes and futile endeavors.”

Today it strikes me that the engineers in the gulag are remarkably like other engineers I’ve known: some scenes where technologically-minded zeks deride the apparatchiks they work under eerily recall the world of “Dilbert.”

Does reintroducing the nuclear non-proliferation element actually improve the plot? The restored text did not appear in English until 2009, a year after Solzhenitsyn’s death. By then a line like “If the Communists got the atom bomb, the planet was doomed” was somewhat nostalgia-inducing — however this long delay is hardly Solzhenitsyn’s fault. Here’s a Daniel Kalder interview from Publishing Perspectives with Solzhenitsyn’s son Ignat, about why it took so long for a complete version of In The First Circle to appear in English, and about the distressing absence of plans for an English translation of The Red Wheel cycle or Solzhenitsyn’s other late works.

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