Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Oleg Kostoglotov, whose last name translates as ‘bone-chewer’, has been exiled in perpetuity to a village by the name of Ush-Terek, located on the steppe in Kazakhstan, a long way from home. Kostoglotov’s bad luck does not end there. Suffering from stomach cancer, he arrives at the cancer hospital in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, close to death.
The aptly named Cancer Ward follows the life of those on the hospital’s cancer ward. Although there are various ethnicities, religions, worldviews and perspectives on the ward, the patients share a common foe: cancer. There are discussions and much pondering too, about treatments, diagnoses and their former existences as officials, soldiers and inmates in gulags.
Our main character flirts with several nurses and receives treatment from the dedicated doctor Vera Gangart, who lost her sweetheart in the war. He also becomes acquainted with many of his fellow patients on the ward, including the rectal-cancer suffering librarian and critic of the regime, Aleksei Shulubin, as well as the disagreeable lymphoma sufferer Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a relatively important official and staunch communist.
Set in the post-Stalin era, Cancer Ward is an allegorical, semi-autobiographical novel, in which the cancer ward serves as a microcosm of Soviet society. Replete with social and political commentary, this profound, controversial, insightful and critical work explores a diverse range of themes, such as disease, hope, exile and the differing perspectives of patients and doctors.
Whilst the drab setting, morbid and morose subject matter, distressing scenes, and length (nearly 600 pages) will not appeal to everyone, this reader, an avid Solzhenitsyn fan, was captivated by the book’s diverse characters and poignant prose.