At five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they'd begun. It was cold outside, and the campguard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.
Summary: Shukhov -- the Ivan Denisovich of the title -- was a loyal soldier in the Russian army who was captured by the Germans in 1942. He and a few others managed to escape and get back to Russian lines, but their story about being POWs was not believed, and he was given ten years in labor camps.
The book, as the title says, follows him through one day, from morning to evening. It's a fairly good day for life in a prison camp: he stays out of serious trouble, he doesn't get sick, his squad got one of the better job assignments, by fast thinking he had had a little extra for breakfast and by helping out another prisoner he got something extra for supper, and so forth. Along the way we learn the truths that make up gulag life: A man who is warm does not understand a man who is cold, a zek's worst enemy is often another zek, survival requires looking after those who look after you. One of the most interesting things about the story is how it shows society developing under these artificially restricted and hostile conditions, and the capacity of the human mind to combine both animal cunning and social reason to adapt impressively even to otherwise degrading conditions.
In addition to reading the book, I also watched the 1970 British-Norwegian film of the same name. It stays extremely faithful to the book -- a commenter at IMDB noted that he had never seen a movie that managed to stay so close to the original work, and it is indeed quite close. The language is cleaned up a bit, some description becomes dialogue, and a few things are slimmed down, but the movie captures the book in an extraordinary way. It has one of the most absurdly incongruous trailers I have seen:
That's not really the moral one draws, good as the movie and book are! You can watch the movie online thanks to the Solzhenitsyn Center.
He yawned once more. "Well, don't let it get you down, men," he said. "We'll live through it, even in this power station. Get going, mortar mixers. Don't wait for the whistle."
That's what a squad is. A guard can't get people to budge even in working hours, but a squad leader can tell his men to get on with the job even during the break, and they'll do it. Because he's the one who feeds them. And he'd never make them work for nothing. (p. 73)
Recommendation: This is a genuinely excellent short read -- Highly Recommended. I also recommend the movie, which captures it quite well.
Quotations from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Ralph Parker, tr., Signet (New York: 1998).