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The protagonists of Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as their comrades or friends, live servile lives and are constantly under the command of a controlling power. In Houseboy, the character, Toundi, is under the colonial authority of the French in Cameroon, while in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, the main character, Ivan, is a captive of the GULAG, the Russian Prison Camp authority. Injustice is a common theme in both novels, is something which both characters face, and is something that this essay will explore.
The authors’ motivation behind both novels, seems to be to use them as vehicles to expose the injustice that exists ‘behind the scenes’ of the respective systems which, might be unknown to most readers. The authors’ personal experience of the colonial and GULAG systems inform the novel. The intention of both Oyono and Solzhenitsyn seems to be to educate the readers and arouse feelings of shock at the protagonists’ hardship.
The authors achieve this mainly via the use of dialogue and the thoughts of the protagonists.
In the opening chapter, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the writer uses harsh and stark imagery to describe the severe conditions of the GULAG. The description of the prisoners’ insubstantial breakfast illuminates the cruelty of the system, which in turn arouses sympathy in the reader for the protagonist. Their breakfast ‘skilly’ includes ‘little fish’ whose flesh had ‘disintegrated’, ‘cabbage’ and sometimes it consists only of ‘carrot’, which is followed by ‘magara porridge’, which was “tasteless when hot, and left you no sense of having filled your belly”(p.
18). The first line of the novel details the way in which the inmates are forced to get up every morning without abatement. It starts with the very sound of injustice as the “morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters”(p.7). The first line seems to alert us in an almost alarming way to the injustices of the Gulag system. The novel is imbibed with many instances of this type of injustice and control, revealed through the use of stark and chilling imagery.
By being made privy to Ivan’s thoughts, even through the third person narrative, the readers are able to learn about the difficulties that the prisoners of the GULAG encounter day to day. This mode of narration is more personal as readers find out how injustice feels to the affected person, making it more impactful. The breakfast table is where Ivan recounts his times of freedom during the day: “Apart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner, and five at supper” (p. 17). Again, the author communicates Ivan’s hardship via the use of his personal thoughts. By making the zeks work inhumane hours per day, it stops them from thinking for themselves; which in turn stops them from creating, or even thinking about, a mutiny within the GULAG prison camp. This might indicate the Russian government’s paranoia of an uprising and also an obsession with work and industry.
The use of dialogue is another way in which the writer conveys the sense of injustice and control in the GULAG. Speech is personal, dynamic and engaging, and tends to engage readers more. The humour, often imbibed in the prisoners’ dialogue, reveals how the Government does not want the inmates to think for themselves, and would like to control their thoughts and lives. “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.” “Who decreed that?” “The Soviet government”(p. 57). The ex-naval captain, Buynovsky’s dialogue with Ivan contains subtle sarcasm, which is beneficial in criticizing the system.. The use of humour in the men’s exchange reveals the absurdity of the system as well as the inmates’ awareness of it. Buynovsky proclaims that the Soviet Government has declared a new time for noon. In revealing this, it can be learned that the Government is well known for declaring absurdities without substantiation, perhaps assuming gullibility on the part of the zeks.
Another exchange, between the heads of teams when they meet for the morning temperature check, tells us that the government unjustifiably hides and discolours the truth from the inmates in order so that they can get the maximum work out of them. “Oh, it’s cock-eyed. It always lies. D’you think they’d hang one up that gave the true temperature?” (p. 13). If the camp authorities had displayed the correct temperature, instead of a skewed one, then they would have to stop the workers from working and would have lost out on a day’s work. Solzhenitsyn again informs the readers of the inhumane conditions of the prison camp.
Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono is a novel which centres on the French Colonisation of the Cameroons and the injustice that existed within the colonial systems at the time. Toundi, the protagonist, communicates to the readers more effectively as his thoughts are in the first person narrative, while Ivan’s thoughts are written in the limited third person narrative. Using the first person narrative, the reader is able to understand the protagonist and along with the diary format, the author is able to communicate in a more personal way. When under the care of Father Gilbert and being clothed for the first time, Toundi, says, “Now and then he gives me an old shirt or an old pair of trousers”(p. 15), it signifies that Father Gilbert considers Toundi as his personal ‘masterpiece’ or something that he has created himself. This thought signifies that Toundi is a sort of an animal, one who does all the work for the colonials, while not being paid for it as an ordinary worker. Using Toundi’s direct thoughts, Oyono communicates this unjust treatment. At this early stage in the novel, Toundi is naï¿½ve, and he is not necessarily aware of this injustice.
Another occurrence in the novel where racial inequality is shown at its peak is when Father Vandermayer scolded a native for the manner in which he relayed the news about Father Gilbert’s death. In an unusual retort by a pastor, Father Vandermayer, shouted out to a native “Go and get drunk somewhere else! Go and get drunk at home!”(p. 17), assuming that the grieving native has been drinking. Here, Oyono, effectively communicates the way in which the natives were treated differently to the colonials. It also suggests that if in place of a native there had been a white person giving the same kind of news, Father Vandermayer would have reacted differently. Using dialogue is effective as it is direct, allowing readers to interpret the message more deeply.
The discrimination between the Africans and Europeans is apparent where each group sits separately from each other in church. The Africans sit uncomfortably on tree trunks while the whites sit in armchairs. The Africans have to stay for the sermon while the Europeans are allowed to leave. Nowhere is the injustice in the colonies more apparent as it is implied here “…Can follow the Mass comfortably seated in cane armchairs covered with velvet cushions.” Where as “…Africans sit on tree trunks instead of benches…” and “…the catechists close the door so that the Africans have to stay for the sermon.”(p. 34). The injustice displayed here is relayed to the readers of the novel via the medium of Toundi’s thoughts. The ideas represented here are ironic as in the eyes of God all men, both Africans and Europeans alike, are equal.
Both novels relay their message of injustice through different means. The common mediums utilised are the use of dialogue and the inclusion of the personal thoughts of the protagonist. Both methods are highly effective in presenting the viewpoints of the writers, regarding the issue of injustice between the controlling powers and the controlled workforce. One Day in the Life of Ivan Densiovich further utilises imagery, humour and sarcasm to convey the inequality that the protagonists face. Humour helps the prisoners to retain their sense of self amidst the monotony of their work-day in One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In Solzhenitsyn’s work, political prisoners, for no fault of their own, are held and mistreated while in the latter, the native Cameroonians are colonised and mistreated against their own will as well. In using the various methods of revelation, the authors succeed in communicating the injustice of these two diverse systems to the readers. The novels might also have motivated readers at the time to act against the systems. By communicating this injustice, Oyono and Solzhenitsyn achieve their goal of educating the readers about the problems of the GULAG and the French colonial system. The books, although fictional, were based on facts, and they serve as a ‘historical’ reminder of actual events. By reading these ‘historical’ novels, readers in the modern world can observe the consequences of the two systems, and relive them through literature. This in turn may stop such things
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