This post will be less a review of the book and more a review of some portions of the book that I highlighted myself. I’ll explain, sometimes with illustrations from my own life, why the parts I highlighted resonated so much with me. First, I must point out that, I believe, anyone who has spent any amount of time in prison will appreciate the accuracy of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of both the physical and emotional experience of prison life. I also want to point out that, while Fyodor Dostoyevsky did spend four years in a Siberian prison, this book, The House of the Dead, is said to be a fictionalized account of the years he spent in that prison. Dostoyevsky is not just a well-respected author of Russian literature but popularly regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time, and he spent years in prison. So, to all ex-prisoners, keep that in mind if you ever feel like giving up. But I digress. Let’s get back to the book. The particular work I’ll be citing from is the PENGUIN CLASSICS edition of The House of the Dead, beautifully TRANSLATED BY DAVID MCDUFF.
From the “Translator’s Introduction,” from a letter that Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother: “I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin. Just how horrible that time was I have not the strength to tell you…it was an indescribable, unending agony, because each hour, each minute weighed upon my soul like a stone.” (p.6)
MY THOUGHTS: I can relate to Dostoyevsky’s feelings of being “buried alive and shut up in a coffin.” In one of my earlier posts (not one of my best posts), titled Rap Sheets, I referred to myself as being “banished to the wastelands” and “with the walking dead.” Imprisonment brings with it feelings of isolation and powerlessness. You feel as if you’re literally trapped in a box, and, well, sometimes you are, but even when you aren’t, you’re still always surrounded by darkness, in one form or another, you’re still unseen by anyone, your voice can’t be heard, and your movements are extremely limited, as if you were buried alive, with the world outside going on as usual, as if you don’t exist, and there is nothing you can do about any of it, whether true or not, that’s the feeling you get.
From PART ONE, THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD: “A convict is obedient and submissive to a certain degree; but there is a limit beyond which one should not go. Incidentally, there is no phenomenon more curious than these strange outbursts of impatience and obstinacy. Often a man will suffer in patience for several years, resign himself, endure the most savage punishments, and then suddenly erupt over some trifle, some piece of nonsense, almost over nothing at all.” (p.35)
MY THOUGHTS: I’m reminded of a time I was in my dormitory. It was evening so the yard was closed. Every convict housed in the dorm was either in the Day Room playing cards, in the TV Room, or in his cell. It was a normal day, but then we were ordered to report to our assigned cells for an “emergency lockdown.” This happened a couple of times a month. An emergency lockdown usually took place when an inmate was unaccounted for or when there was a violent disturbance in one of the dorms, usually the latter. Anyway, what happened was, in one of the other dorms, a group of inmates was in the TV Room, watching wrestling, when one of the guards walked into the TV Room and yanked the television plug out of the wall, and, based upon some reliable first-hand accounts, all hell broke loose. The inmates in the dayroom, extremely angry at the lack of consideration and show of disrespect, reacted immediately, punching and kicking the officer, hitting him with chairs – I imagine it being done in typical WWE style, with those overly exaggerated motions – and, finally, tossing him down a flight of stairs. Now, honestly, I didn’t intend for that story to sound hilarious. Anyway, the point is that Dostoyevsky’s words are all too accurate. I’ve actually witnessed many inmates “erupt…almost over nothing at all,” which makes complete sense given that angry outbursts could be one of many other symptoms of PTSD. Dostoyevsky seems to be describing a symptom of PTSD in this excerpt.
From PART ONE, NEW ACQUAINTANCES. PETROV: “But time went by, and little by little I began to settle down. With every day that passed, the ordinary scenes and events of my new life had a less and less disturbing effect on me. Incidents, surroundings, people all became familiar.” (p.126)
MY THOUGHTS: I guess this is true of anyone, anywhere, in any new environment. When I think about my own prison experiences, how I initially regarded my surroundings, the constant vigilance and heightened alert, I am still amazed at how the mind can encounter extreme circumstances and utter craziness and begin to view it through a lense of normality. I learned through experience that a person can get used to anything, and that, to me, is scary and inspiring at the same time. Dostoyevsky, in this excerpt, expertly captures the familiarity that comes with the passing of time, with fascinating accuracy and a depth to his simplicity.
From PART TWO, THE SUMMER: “Those men who have been sentenced for a given term are likely to try to escape only at the beginning of their time in prison. By the time he has put in two or three years of penal servitude, a convict has already begun to attach some value to those years, and he gradually concedes to himself that it will be better for him to finish his sentence properly and leave for a settlement at the end of it, rather than expose himself to such a risk and such dire penalties if his escape attempt fails.” (p.273)
MY THOUGHTS: If a convict or ex-convict says he never once contemplated escaping, he’s lying. Of course, there’s no way I could prove it, but, in my mind, there is no way that anyone who has ever been in prison can honestly say that he never wanted to or thought about escaping. I see it as a natural response to captivity. Escape-related questions arise automatically. What if I tried to escape? How would I go about it? How many convicts have actually tried it? In comparison with the amount of people in prison, it’s a very small number, I know, so, although most prisons appear to be knowledgable about what to do with a missing inmate, they wouldn’t really know how to handle it because escape attempts are rare, so they’re unexpected, and that lack of anticipation must favor the person who’s trying to escape. I certainly considered it at the beginning of my sentence. Actually, in that same past post I referred to earlier, I mention that, when I got to prison, my “first thought was to devise a wicked escape plan.” I started to memorize shifts, hours and habits, anything I could use to my advantage. But, ultimately, I didn’t act on the idea. In that same post I keep referring to, that old rap verse, I wrote, “…but my sister told me, that her friend seen a vision/of me gettin’ hurt in prison/implement the plan, I didn’t…” And it’s true. In the middle of me gathering information for a possible escape plan, my sister warned me not to do anything foolish and told me about her friend’s “dream.” It seemed to be too much of a coincidence. I dispensed with all ideas of fleeing. Maybe it’s exactly as Dostoyevsky writes, that I had begun to place some value on the (almost three) years I had completed and just figured it’d be best to finish out my sentence properly, rather than risk any harsh penalties if my attempt failed.
From PART TWO, COMPANIONS: “In prison, as in every other place where human beings are herded together by force, against their will, I think it is true to say that men fall out with one another and even grow to detest one another more readily than they do in freedom.” (p.325)
MY THOUGHTS: One day I was chatting with a few friends in the rec yard. We were talking about how weird and funny confinement can be. I said, “Doesn’t it seem like when you’re in confinement, and you get a cellmate, that, after a couple of weeks, you start to hate him?” Everybody laughed and a couple guys nodded in agreement too. Now, I meant for the question to be funny, and I used the word “hate,” which was an extreme exaggeration, but they got it. They knew what I was talking about. They were familiar with the feeling. They knew it wasn’t hate but more of an increased irritability at having to live in such close quarters with someone. You start learning things about that person that you really would rather not know. Arguments are almost inevitable in confinement. Dostoyevsky was right, men in prison will fall out quickly. I’ve seen guys get into fights over the silliest things.
From PART TWO, AN ESCAPE: “I remember that it was only a passionate desire for resurrection, for renewal, for a new life that strengthened my will to wait and hope. And in the end I did grow stronger: I waited, I counted off each day and, even though there were still a thousand of them left, I marked them one by one with satisfaction, escorted each, buried it and at the beginning of each new day felt glad that there remained not a thousand days, but only nine hundred and ninety-nine. I remember that during all this time, in spite of having hundreds of companions, I experienced the most terrible isolation, and in the end I came to cherish that isolation.” (p.339-340)
MY THOUGHTS: So much of Dostoyevsky’s writing I can perfectly relate to, but none so much as the sentences above. That feeling of being isolated while in a crowd of exiles is real. And the eventual introversion, where I found comfort and solace, is still, to this day, my safe place.
From PART TWO, LEAVING PRISON: “I will observe here in passing that all our daydreaming about it and our lack of habitual contact with it made freedom seem to us in some way freer than freedom itself, the freedom that is to be found in the real world, that is.” (p.355)
MY THOUGHTS: After a certain amount of years spent in prison, you will forget what it feels like to be free. You will always remember the things you were able to do as a result of your freedom, but you will forget the actual feeling of freedom, so you begin to imagine what it is, you fill in the blanks. This, I believe, is what Dostoyevsky is referring to, that imagined freedom a prisoner constructs in his mind after he has forgotten what actual freedom is like. You realize you were wrong about it only after you’re released and you discover that the “freedom” you longed to get reacquainted with was never really “freedom” at all. There are lessons of freedom one can learn only by having it taken away.
From PART TWO, LEAVING PRISON: “How much youth had been buried in vain within these walls; how much power and strength had perished here for nothing!” (p.355)
*The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is one of my favorite books of all time.