Book

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson, 2015) and One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1963)

This weekend I’d managed to finish two completely different books which I’d been reading over the last two weeks.

The first I’d started was Solzhenitsyn’s short semi-fictional novelette inspired by his experiences of surviving a political criminal in the Gulags prison camps in Stalinist Russia. This very short novel (140 pages) published by Penguin Classics, translated by Ralph Parker, was naturally a dark and dispiriting journey into the hardships of character surviving in the hostile and barren conditions in one of the worst environments on earth. The language and structure make it very readable, and was not harrowing as I had expected, especially in contrast to Primo Levi’s similarly astonishing true-life survival of Nazi concentration camps, If This Is A Man (1947) and The Truce (1963), but claustrophobic and disturbing nonetheless. This had been a fourth (?) book on 2016 reading list after China Melville’s science fiction thriller The City & The City, which had also dealt with themes humans rights and a brutal Totalitarian regime.

At roughly page 100 of One Day, I’d picked up a copy of  So You’ve Been Publicly  Shamed by the popular journalist Jon Ronson (published by Picador 2015), a topic that had immediately caught by interest when I’d read the book cover in my local library, and seen  Ronson’s name as the author. I didn’t know much about Ronson, and had often got him confused with the pop-musican Mark Ronson who’d released several electro dance albums I didn’t like the sound of. In 2014, I’d gone to see the musical comedy film Frank (directed by Lenny Abrahamson), a fictionalised version adapted from Ronson’s non-fiction book following the events that happened when the author met and briefly joined Manchurian comedienne and performer Frank Sidebottom band’s  disasterious UK tour during the early nineties.

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The film was funny and unusual story about a journalist, in the film played by timid Domhnall Gleeson, who meets the mercurial, supercool Jim Morrison-style rocker ‘Frank’ played by Michael Fassbender, who’s face is always hidden under a giant paper-mache mask. Similar to the themes of Ronson’s previous non-fiction book and film adaption Men Who Stare At Goats (directed by Grant Heslov, 2009), the story deals with the conflicts of creativity, freedom, the search for happiness and truth, power and authority,  and also mental health, but often explored in a self-deprecating, satirical and darkly comic tone.

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As you would expect, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day contains no humour, despite the surreal and absurd punishments and rituals that comprise the grueling routine and boredom of life in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn’s central character Ivan Denisovich spends his day preparing, monitoring and contemplating his routine tasks from being woken up early for work by the guards right until sundown when he falls to sleep, in a seemingly never ending state of fear and anxiety. He must remain cautious, paranoid and vigilant at all times, and which he has done for the past ten years of twenty year sentence of being an enemy of the state. However, like most criminals sentenced to a life of hard labour, is not a spy and was not guilty of any crime, and despite his accolades in service of the state, he was first suspected before being forced to confess.This was Stalin’s era of secret police and state of terror where a person only needed to be suspected to be found guilty.

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Following Solzhenitsyn’s release from prison in 1953, the novel was published in the famous Soviet literary journal by editor Aleksandr Tvardovsky. After it was a success the author published The Gulag Archipelago in 1969 and 1974, but was later attacked by The Soviet Writers’ Union and Russian Literary Gazette for being a dissident, before he was then arrested and deported, although he’d eventually returned to Russia in 1994.

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Perhaps like George Orwell, Primo Levi and Truman Capote, Solzhenitsyn’s journalistic prose was both a major influence and turning point for modernist literature in the twentieth century; this sounds like an understatement. These authors had skill with prose, and an ability to examine the world and events either through their own narrative voice as witness and arbitrator, or through their characters, who often seem like extensions of their own personalities.

One Day presents is a gritty modernist novel revealing the brutality and desperation of prison life in the Gulag camp, the protagonist Ivan Denisovich spends his time counting the seconds and minutes of his survival from one moment to the next. He describes the rituals and routines of camp life from the morning headcounts to the work details, beatings and threats of punishments from the prison guards.

I had assumed that perhaps Solzhenitsyn would attempt to invoke Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo which would culminate in an escape adventure, but quickly released that this was not the case.  Denisovich ruminates mournfully his misfortune and denies himself the comfort of communicating with his wife and children in order to protect them persecution by the authorities. He feels empathy and distrust of those in his workforce, who’s favor and generosity could easily lead to betrayal to the camp’s many informers.

The leader of this crew, a man called ‘Tsezar’, although prisoners are mostly called by their prison ID numbers or nicknames, risks his life to grant Denisovich a extra ration in lieu of an earlier favor.  Tsezar himself comes under scrutiny from the guards and almost loses possession of parcel sent by his family, but Denisovich and his allies protect it. In the final scene, Denisovich lies on bunch discussing the meaning of life and religion with a bunk mate who conceals a tiny bible in wall-space.  I actually don’t remember what the Christian prisoner was trying to convince Denisovich of, other than that the material world was meaningless along with their oppresses, and it was better to worship God than believe in nothing. Denisovich remained skeptical, but after a day in which, despite an illness and inability to be sent to the camp hospital, he’d managed to conceal a knife and not be punished, and received double rations which somewhat strengthened both his mental well-being, health and his friendships within the camp for another day at least.

Having been unemployed sporadically and struggling to find permanent full-time work, and often feeling overwhelmed by debts, family matters and mental strain, although my own situation is far from the minute desperation and fatalism, part of me relates to the fear, loneliness and frustration that Solzhenitsyn and his persona Denisovich must’ve felt. So far within the last six months I’ve had three temporary jobs abruptly end for no other reason than spiteful managers and personal differences, and one temporary position working as an IT helpdesk assist for a University resulted in legal action where the recruitment agency unlawfully deducted wages from my final pay over ‘admin and training costs’ following my resignation.  This often leads me to wonder whether my feelings of anxiety and depression somehow cause these events to transpire, or whether it’s simply the pitfalls of the employment market in the UK today, logically I would choose the latter.

This feeling of anxiety, shame and upheaval of public life is closely and humorously explored in Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly  Shamed. Although I’d finished both books over three weeks ago, Ronson’s book had been one of the enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. For me it was particularly poignant and illuminating, since in 2014 I was dismissed I was dismissed from my job as a production editor for gross misconduct following several disagreements I’d had with my line manager and HR team, and after disclosing to them I’d been receiving treatment for depression, which constituted as a disability under the Equality Act 201o and had spent several months embroiled in an Employment Tribunal for discrimination but which I’d lost for lack of evidence.

Although, my experience of the dismissal and then pursuing a bitter court battle against my employer is not that uncommon at all it’s no where near as fascinating as many of the personal stories collected by Ronson, who shows the sense of anger, indignation and shame. These I’d felt both immediately following my dismissal and still even today two years later, and makes for a fascinating for its vicarious and deviant read of exploring the true life experienced of people who have failed and been humiliated by the legion of online bullies and trolls who use social media to attack and expel justice on a public platform.

Ronson describes how at first this new form of justice actually that appeared on twitter during 2011-2012 actually seemed to make the world a better place. Ordinary people suddenly had a voice to express their anger and raise awareness of politicians, celebrities and corporations who’d transgressed, or at the very least expressed opinions which were offensive or politically incorrect.

Interestingly, and this is one point that Ronson discovers whilst interviewing Justine Sacco, a PR assistant from New York who’d twittered an inappropriate joke about racism and Aids sufferers in Africa on 20th December 2013, that social media, although a brilliant device for global communication and free speech, was also a stomping ground for incidents of online bullying, harassment, negative publicity and mass hysteria, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Public outrage fueled by journalists in the media is nothing new, and has probably been in existence since the public became literate and organisations began printing propaganda as early as the thirteenth century when warring nations reported on the bloodthirsty habits of Vlad II Dracul, who’s legend would inspire Bram Stoker to write his Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897) and the modern vampire mythology.

In sameways, the modern the Vampire myth is the perfect analogy to the evil bloodsucking villains who remain hidden in plain sight, but at night time, behind closed, seek to commit evil crimes and harbour their secrets, and so it is the responsibility of the common people and the internet trolls to take matters into their own and impose justice upon the wrongdoers. Perhaps, vigilantism and online mob justice would be fine if it didn’t have a insidious, underlying darker side – a side that treats social media as a spectator sport, that often feels like petty name-calling, bullying and ‘trolling’ – I for one, have found myself at the receiving end of someone’s else anger and been the victim of abusive or threatening language. Often when engaged in a heated discussion on current affairs it feels empowering and important to get your opinion, but these can descend into mudslinging and exchanging insults which don’t win an argument. Sometimes it feels as if people use social media simply to have an argument and vent their frustrations, regardless of who they criticise, where or why.

Several months after I’d lost my tribunal I’d spent most of my time alone, drifting, staying up late watching movies alone in my empty flat, struggling with debts, rent and find work. My situation felt extremely dire and I’d felt like it was partly my fault for behaving badly, antagonizing my colleagues (whom arguably hadn’t behaved much better). Eventually, I’d written my an article about my dismissal and the tribunal in an attempt to both shame my employer and raise awareness of the issues I’d making my claim for discrimination and the employment law.

I’d share the article on websites and even with colleagues I’d used to worked with, but I’d gained little satisfaction or justice from this, although I believe it may have at least raised some awareness of the problems that existed with the departments, and, perhaps by some small measure, curbed the degree of bullying and ignorance that I felt was present among the department. Ultimately however, except for my own piece of mind, and forced my employer to hire lawyers and attend a court hearing, it seemed like a waste of time and energy that essentially came down to my own self-esteem, and one I have not yet recovered from, and may never come to terms with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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