A One-And-A-Half-Story House Is Commonly Known As A From The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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From The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s From the House of the Dead is not a novel, although its main character, its narrator, the upper-class Goryanchikov, is perhaps the author, himself, masked. We don’t know if the other inmates of the concentration camp where the book is set are faithful depictions of real people, but they certainly come across that way. If anything stays after reading this book, it’s its reality.

Dostoevsky spent years in one such camp in Siberia, of course, after escaping his own execution by a last-minute withdrawal, which, apparently, his executioners were ready to target. It was somewhat gimmicky and was often used by members of the Russian royal family and their systems. Perhaps they were always late in signing such orders, as they were probably busy calculating the earnings of their slaves, or should I say earnings from slaves. One has to look after the welfare of one’s subjects, for if these people are really starving, one has to spend some time and one has to drive the fountain to Peterhof in half an hour or less. Every month. I exaggerate, perhaps, but one senses that Dostoevsky did not.

And it is the details of the author’s description that bring this living death to life. When he describes how a wrong word or look can cause a prisoner to receive literally hundreds of lashes, one begins to understand the nature of absolute power derived from God.

Perhaps the description of this beating will stick in the reader’s memory the longest by the end of the book. Dostoevsky, through Goryanchikov, of course, describes the condition of the flesh on the backs of those who have just returned from their ordeal. He even allows those responsible for the delivery of these disciplinary measures to describe the minutiae of their tactics. For example, we learn that the ultimate weapon for the corporal punishment artist is the birch. It was the special flexibility of this wood that enabled the true expression of the beater’s personality, its ability to store energy meant that a few dozen lashes from a birch could be as destructive as a hundred from a cane. The reader should note the suggestion. It may come in handy.

One of the more arresting memories of the book is how often such punishments appear. After all, it is the preventive effect that is their most important function, so it should be used as often as possible to be effective. It will make them think twice, then thrice and more…

But in the end, as composer Laos Jansek concluded, it’s the humanity of the people involved that shines through. Some of these people committed the most horrific crimes and most of them enjoyed telling their stories. And always, it seems, there was an inner logic in their stories that arose to justify the action, however disastrous the effects might prove, however dire the consequences. Not that they were proud of what they had done, but reality had become part of them, part of their present and future as well as part of their past.

Overall, one wonders how the inmates of this prison go about their lives. They eat their food, whatever it may be, involve themselves in illicit trade, run their own drinking establishments, and engage in conjugal activities of probably every character imaginable. And if not beaten, they cooperate. Solzhenitsyn had a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich over the next century, and frankly, little seems to have changed except for the eventual ownership of the facility.

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