This week saw the death of arguably the 20th century’s greatest novelist, and certainly one of its moral consciences, with the passing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn . Solzhenitsyn was also a mathematician and physicist, teacher, and most famously a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag.
Although the first Solzhenitsyn I read was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (required reading for school kids studying Russian back in the days when we still had a Cold War), the book that I have re-read the most over the years is The First Circle. The Ukranian Professor down the corridor from me insists this is actually a lazy translation of the Russian title, “V krugye pyervom”, which means “In the First Circle”. The title is a literary allusion to the First Circle of Dante’s Hell in The Divine Comedy. As Wikipedia puts it:
“[In] Dante‘s first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy … the philosophers of Greece live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.”
The small space of Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle is a special prison, or sharashka, where an assortment of engineers, scientists, mathematicians and philologists – all prisoners of the Soviet state – work on special technical projects for the Soviet Interior Ministry or MVD. So – a slave labour camp for scientists. Perhaps it is this which has me re-reading the book every so often. Many of the characters in The First Circle are recognisable scientist types, trying to find some escape, and some reason to carry on, in the technical problems that they are set by their work, and in the fellowship of scientific colleagues. Solzhenitsyn’s early training as a mathematician and physicist explains how he ended up in the sharashka (the character of Gleb Vikentich Nerzhin in The First Circle is autobiographical) some time after his original arrest for writing a letter criticizing Stalin.
Solzhenitsyn is not what you would call a humorous writer, but there is a black humour in his work. He, and his characters, are ever alive to (usually bitter) irony.
So after the preamble, here, as a small personal tribute to Solzhenitsyn, is a short piece written by a friend of mine who uses the pseudonym “Mark Cain”. It was originally written as a Christmas Story for the magazine Physiology News. The story is set in a modern British University, but is a kind of homage to Chapter 54 of The First Circle, “The Smile of the Buddha”. Read the book (which you should anyway) to see why.
Anyway, without further ado:
The Multi-coloured golf umbrella
By Mark Cain
Once upon a time, a few years ago, and somewhere in the UK, there was a medical school – a fairly typical one. The medical school building was showing its age. The drains and sinks stank, especially after the ventilation was turned off at 5.30 pm. The smell of phenol-chloroform mixture would often waft down from the molecular biology labs upstairs. The cleaners came every couple of weeks to re-arrange the dust on the floor, but avoided the really nasty bits under the benches, and also most of the labs (too hazardous). The tops of the 1970s wooden benches were thick in accumulated sticky grime, because there were no technicians left to clean them (cut-backs and voluntary redundancies). And it was always dark. The windowless corridors were gloomy. Even the light fittings that worked had only half the number of fluorescent tubes they were made for, since every second tube had been removed in an early 80s ‘electricity economy drive’. So half the proper number of flickering, bare, fluorescent tubes shed a sickly light as the workers scurried along.
Then, one day, strange things started to happen.
First, extra cleaners started to appear – or at least, the same cleaners appeared more often. Rubbish was removed every day. Corridor floors were scrubbed and polished every week – even the dark corners that were usually ignored. Posters and notices stuck on the doors and walls were pulled down, and the lab staff sternly admonished not to put them up again. The next week painters came and repainted several corridors in sunny yellow-white tones, rather than the usual institutional pale green.
The staff was surprised, and asked each other what it could all mean.
Next, something truly astonishing happened. A man in brown overalls appeared, and began to put fluorescent tubes back in the light fittings. Not all of them, to be sure, but all the light fittings in the main corridors. And then he started re-fitting the diffuser panels to the light fittings.
The staff was amazed. The light fittings had had no diffuser panels since half the tubes had been removed all those years ago. Where had these diffuser panels come from? Had they been hidden away somewhere for the intervening nigh-on two decades? Had they been specially cleaned? Were they new? And what did it all mean?
And then – the rumours began to circulate. An Important Visitor was expected, people whispered. More than merely Important – a VERY Important Personage altogether. Though no-one knew when, the unusual events gathered pace. The grass in the building quadrangle was cut, and all rubbish bins were emptied twice daily. Extra cleaning patrols scoured the building picking up stray food wrappers and crisp packets. The windows and glass doors at the medical school entrance were cleaned and all the signs renewed. The battered chairs by the reception area were replaced by ones newly re-covered in bright floral fabric, and fresh flowers in a vase appeared on the reception desk.
Finally, it was whispered that the senior secretary had been seen coming into the building with two brand-new, especially-large, multi-coloured golf umbrellas.
The great day came at last. A convoy of chauffeur-driven government Jaguars arrived, disgorging the Very Important Visitor, his assistants and his security men. A thin rain was falling, but the Very Important Visitor reached the front door without a single raindrop touching him, thanks to the resourceful chief secretary and an assistant wielding the multi-coloured golf umbrellas. The Important Visitor and his entourage passed rapidly down a pre-planned route through the medical school’s well-lit and re-painted corridors. They stopped briefly to look at the newest refitted laboratory, where they were greeted by several senior professors wearing white coats. (When photographs of this historic occasion later appeared, everyone agreed it was the only time they had ever seen the professors wearing white coats.) After ten minutes of photographs in the lab, the Important Personage, his retinue, and the professors proceeded to the site of the new medical school annexe. Here the Important Visitor donned a hard-hat and posed for more photographs with a ceremonial pickaxe and several important university administrators, including the University Vice Chancellor. Pausing only to tell everyone how immensely impressed he was, the Important Visitor and his entourage returned to their cars and left.
The next day, staff entering the medical school building saw that the flowers were gone from the reception desk. On their way to the labs they passed a man in brown overalls, who was removing every second fluorescent tube from the light fittings in the main corridors. Soon life returned to normal. The floors went back to a fortnightly clean. The piles of undisturbed dust returned to the corners, barely visible in the half-light. The drains smelled as bad as they ever had. The pictures of the Very Important Person with the University Vice Chancellor and the senior Professors appeared in the university newsletter a week after the visit, but they were soon forgotten too.
Before long, people began to wonder if it had all been a dream. Some even said it had been. Apart from the new annexe building going up next door, everything in the medical school was exactly as it always had been.
Except for one thing.
In the corner of the chief secretary’s office, leaning against the wall, stood an extra-large, multi-coloured, golf umbrella.
 Alexsandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, decorated soldier, political prisoner, teacher writer and Nobel Laureate, born December 11 1918; died August 3 2008. His Guardian obituary is here, and one from The Times here.