Sunday, February 22, 2009

The House of the Dead

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

The House of the Dead was published in 1862. The story begins in a provincial town where a mysterious tutor dies. In his papers are found a collection of memoirs detailing his time spent in a Siberian prison. The simple device makes what follows believable and authentic. The main character is Alexandr Petrovich. He offed his wife and gets sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. As a gentleman he is kept at distance from his peasant comrades. The book is thematic rather than linear making it more of an examination of the prison system than a typical novel.
The prison is plagued by thievery, but there is sort of an understanding about it. No one really gets mad about having their things stolen. The work is monotonous and hard, but there is a freedom for those capable of a trade. The nearby settlement works symbiotically with the prison. 
I found this tale of prison life pretty dry, but a few scenes stand out. The prisoners put on a play that absorbs the attention of the entire camp. The small room bursted with prisoners who overflowed into the entry way and withstood subzero temperatures. They were enchanted by the passionate amateur production. It provided a needed diversion for the prisoners. It was also interesting that there were only bits and pieces of a script, most of the production was based on oral accounts from other prisons and towns.
The other memorable scene was the yearly trip to the bathhouse. Alexandr Petrovich aptly compared the event to hell. The writhing mass of prisoners trying to clean themselves in a steamy, disgusting room was disturbing. 
The House of the Dead is interesting because of its authenticity. Dostoyevsky spent some time himself in a labor camp so the strange characters we meet and the tortured feelings that AP endures feel real. 

Rating 6/10: The details are interesting but the story moves slowly. 

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