A depressing book, but high quality and occasionally quite moving. The First Circle refers to a system of gulags for the engineers who are too useful to be sent to hard-labor camps. Those in the First Circle of hell enjoy a measure of safety and physical comfort, in exchange for working on technical projects for Stalin's regime. The book itself is a 48-hour window into the lives of those engineers and the people around them. Generally, each of the 50+ characters will get one PoV chapter, and the book covers not just engineers, but also wives, girlfriends, security officers, janitors, administrators, and party bosses. There is a plot to the book, but it is rather slight and incidental. The majority of the book's 750 pages consists of camp stories and life histories from those under the regime.
These life histories are well done, and they take a foreign and confused time and make it vivid and real. At its best, the book manages to convey and make real the immense human potential that was squandered by the regime. The author spent 10 years in the gulag system, and that lived experience comes through in his writing and in a wealth of small details. For engineers, this book will have an extra piquance, as there are many recognizable scenarios from your own life in the book. There are tech demos, schedule estimation meetings with the boss, and being called away from interesting work in order to attend
Human Resources Communist Party meetings. Of course, each these scenarios in the book has its own special Stalinist flavor.
I feel like a bit of an asshole for not giving this book 5 stars, however the high points of the book were too diluted with writing that was merely good. There were too many characters for me to keep track of their interrelations, and this was compounded by the short PoV time for each character, as well as the fact that each Russian apparently has 5 different names. I also felt a slight disconnect from the story in many places, which I think is partially due to the fact that it is translation, and partially due to the fact that it is from a different culture. So in that sense I couldn't appreciate the nuances as much I could with someone like Nabokov.