When news came yesterday of the death of Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn (right), I just happened to be reading the galley of a new book of essays by novelist Ha Jin. Titled The Writer as Exile, due to be published by the University of Chicago Press in November, it is Jin's first published book of nonfiction. The essays were revised from the Rice University Campbell Lectures, which Jin gave in 2006.
The first essay, "The Spokesman and the Tribe," begins with the story of Solzhenitsyn, whose 18 years of exile in the United States was both a time of freedom and a time of painful separation from his creative foundation. A couple of passages, quoted with permission of the University of Chicago Press:
"Still, unlike Odysseus who restored his household and regained the kingship of his city-state, Solzhenitsyn had a rough time in his homeland. His patriotic views, mingled with Orthodox Christianity, fell on deaf ears, as his political books -- Russia in Collapse (1998) and Two Hundred Years Together (2001) -- were coldly received, and he was considered a has-been, out of touch with reality. ... Solzhenitsyn, once a powerful spokesman in the West for the oppressed Russians and an impassioned critic of the Soviet regime, seemed to be losing his voice and unable to play any significant role in Russian society, like a tired diplomat whose career and service had taken place elsewhere. But Solzhenitsyn is Solzhenitsyn, as a genius is genius. In late January 2006, the state television broadcast a ten-part series adapted from his novel The First Circle. The show became one of the most watched programs on Russian television. Solzhenitsyn, now eighty-seven, wrote the screenplay and even narrated some long passages. It was said that he had turned tearful when he saw the edited version of the show.
"A decade after Solzhenitsyn moved back to his homeland, we can say that he had at last returned to Russia, finally having gotten the acceptance of his people -- though we should also bear in mind that this return was possible mainly through literature. Granted, it is the political situation in today's Russia that allows for his literary works to participate in reshaping the nation's identity and cultural heritage, but, had he not written significant literature, Solzhenitsyn might never have found access to the Russians' hearts again. ..."