We've all gazed in wonder at a restored art masterwork, where vibrant colors and rich texture were heretofore obscured by decades of grime and dust. Just as the canvas seems entirely new, so, too, does this literary masterpiece, which has been restored to its original luster and published in trade-paperback form to make it accessible to a new generation of readers.
"In the First Circle" (Harper Perennial, 741 pages, $18.99) was first published in the West in 1968 as "The First Circle." The decision back then to excise the preposition inadvertently shifted the emphasis from people in a place to the place itself, in this case the special prison for political prisoners at Marfino outside Moscow, which the author depicted as the Soviet Union in microcosm.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the literary giants of the 20th century, was never happy with the expurgated edition of the book, which had been smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. When he was expelled from his homeland in 1973 after the publication abroad of "The Gulag Archipelago," he enlisted the help of his most trusted translator, the superb Harry T. Willetts, and the book was completely revised. Nine chapters were restored that had been pruned by Western editors, no doubt for length, and 12 others were recast from the original Russian.
The result is amazing! It's an entirely different book. The transliteration is compellingly smooth and captivating. That's saying quite a lot, for Russian is exceedingly subtle and does not travel well.
The novel, which boasts a fascinating cast of characters and is, by turns, sometimes witty and often devilishly wry, is ultimately deadly serious. It is a damning indictment of an intrinsically evil system.
Solzhenitsyn, who returned to Russia in 1994, died in August 2008. Restoring this book was one of the final achievements in a life of monumental literary triumphs.
Michael J. Bonafield, who lives in Apple Valley, has visited Russia five times.