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the daily review, thu., mar. 11

In the 1960s and 1970s, the books of an obscure Russian high-school science teacher named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shook the world and changed history. The 1962 publication of his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich marked the beginning of the slow ending of the Soviet empire. It was followed in 1968 by two long novels, Cancer War and The First Circle, and in 1974 by The Gulag Archipelago, a comprehensive account of the Soviet prison system. The last sent a tsunami through the Soviet Union and European communist parties and assured Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from Russia.

When he went into exile in 1974, he was not only the world's most famous writer but one of its best-known individuals. I find it difficult to think of a cultural or political figure of the time to match him in moral stature and lasting historical importance. He once suggested that the heroes of Russian fiction were primarily concerned with justice, goodness and truth; this is also true not only of him but also of his books. His body of work from Ivan Denisovich to the still-untranslated Dvesti Lat Vmeste ( Two Hundred Years Together, 2002) can be seen as an attempt to unwrite the century-long nightmare of Russian history. He's one of those rare writers, like Milosz or Skvorecky, in whom we sense a full engagement with a national patrimony.

The recently issued In the First Circle is an expanded - there are nine new chapters - and lightly annotated version of the novel that first appeared in the West in 1968 without the preposition. Hoping to publish it immediately after Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn had cut many passages sure to be censored. When it was rejected, he had this self-censored version smuggled abroad. The original uncut version wasn't published until 1978, and then only in Russian, in his 20-volume Collected Works.

This ambitious autobiographical novel is set in 1949 and moves back and forth between prisoners ( zeks) in "a prison research institute" ( sharashka) in a Moscow suburb and nearly countless people from different classes variously connected to them. (The Cast of Characters runs to four pages.)

Solzhenitsyn's intention is to show a rich microcosm of Soviet society under Stalin. But the presence of so many characters and narrative strands over nearly 800 pages - 830 in the Russian - tends to disperse the reader's attention. We are inevitably distracted both from Gleb Nerzhin, the prisoner who is the novel's autobiographical hero, and the plot set in motion by a well-intentioned phone call. The two strands of the narrative join when the sharashka prisoners have to produce a machine to identify the voices on a tape of the conversation.

I suspect that, when he was working on the novel from 1955 to 1958, Solzhenitsyn must have feared that it might be his only chance to write about his eight years in the Gulag (1945-1953). One senses not only a will to write but also a moral and historical urgency behind the mass of material, the pressure of what he calls in The Oak and the Calf "a duty to those who have perished." The result is a compelling but often too expansive novel that is unsure whether its primary commitment is to fiction or to history.

Along the way, Solzhenitsyn also tries to remind Russians to look beyond Soviet writing to the rich tradition of Russian fiction represented by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, references to whom punctuate the novel. Tolstoy's influence is felt most obviously in Spiridon Yegorov, a blind peasant in the sharashka, who is clearly based on Platon Karatayev in War and Peace. The ideological arguments in Dostoyevsky's The Demons are behind the prisoners' arguments about skepticism and Marxism. And a late reference to "Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky's confessions" is a reminder that In the First Circle is both a fictional autobiography and a roman à clef, in which the names have been changed to quite literally protect the innocent.

The restored version - "the writer's cut" - has many amplifications but only two important changes, one in the plot and one in characterization. The 1968 edition shows the novel's secondary hero, Innokenty Volodin, telephoning the family doctor to warn him not to share information about an experimental drug with foreigners; in the new version, he informs the U.S. embassy that a Soviet spy will be receiving secret information in New York about the atom bomb. In both cases, the phone has been bugged.

The other substantive change involves the expansion of Stalin's role. Those who had doubts about Solzhenitsyn's monochrome portrayal of the dictator in the first version will be even unhappier with this one. This is a case where less is clearly more. Stalin is, so to speak, the Satan at the centre of the Soviet hell, and as with Satan it's difficult to do much more than play variations on the sentence "He's bad, real bad, believe me."

Solzhenitsyn's problem is how to bring a sick, sadistic and paranoid old man to fictional life. Unlike Martin Amis's Koba the Dread or Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, his novel can't provide any shading to the portrait because it can't describe Stalin's youth except from an old man's distorting viewpoint. These chapters have an inevitable fascination, but they stop the narrative flow. The novel recovers, but it would have been a stronger (and tighter) piece of work had Stalin been more of an ominous absent presence, like Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The publication of In the First Circle is a welcome addition to Solzhenitsyn's body of work, but it doesn't change my impression that Ivan Denisovich is his most fully realized novel - the only one in which he is completely at home in the form - and that The Gulag Archipelago is his masterpiece. It's worth adding, however, that had he written only In the First Circle, he would still have become an important figure in Russian history and literature.

Sam Solecki is the author of books about Josef Skvorecky, Al Purdy and Michael Ondaatje.