This long novel is complex and very gripping. It is a portrait of the Soviet system of oppression, seen through the eyes and thoughts of a range of different characters. There are bad people but they are not presented as all that much worse than most others; it is the system that is analysed and picked apart, and it is horrifying.
The novel is set, mostly, in a prison that is one of the better places to be among the forest of prisons, camps and detention centres that make up the vast architecture of militarised repression in the Stalinist Soviet Union. The characters include prisoners, so-called ‘free workers’, who come in from outside to work with them, wardens, officers and soldiers. All of them, in their different ways, feel the system of organised repression bearing down on them. None of them can relax. It is a brilliant description of how such systems can be both banal and depraved.
The ‘first circle’ of the title refers to the first circle of hell, in Dante’s Inferno. The lower circles are even worse, and include the labour camps and the extermination camps.
I remember another of his books in my house as a child, The Gulag Archipelago. I looked at it a lot, but remember mainly the pictures now. I had him in mind as a dissident, rather than a novelist, but this really is an excellent novel. A sort of Russian epic of politically-induced misery and squalor. Excellent and, today, a reminder of how bad things can become under a ‘strong leader’.