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The House of the Dead

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I picked up Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead in a charity shop in Epsom, where I had half an hour to idle away before the next bus. I was so gripped by the opening that I continued reading the next 30 pages on and off for the rest of the day. After a week I've finished it, to the exclusion of other pressing engagements and books on the pile, some recently bought.


What it is about this author that has always stirred my spirit I can't exactly say. I've read The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov(twice) and all have haunted me. I've still got The Possessed, The Gambler and the short stories to read one cold gloomy winter when the heating fails and I'm in bed with a fatal illness.


He's not exactly a barrel of laughs, is he, Dostoyevsky! But what a writer to get under your skin and make you feel this is my story, everyman's story. Solitude, self-loathing and despair at the sheer cruelty of man's fate are his common themes. In The House of the Dead, the hero or victim is sent to Siberia to live in fearful conditions amongst men who are often cruel, loathsome, self-seeking, cunning, always filthy, and always dreaming of escape. We meet a cross-section of the criminal class, some of whom are utterly despicable, but yet understandable. Floggings - sometimes up to 5000 lashes happen continuously, but even worse, it seems, is the spite, bitterness and hatred between convicts.


The story is semi-autobiographical, for Dostoyevsky himself was sent to Omsk for 4 years of penal servitude. The crime or 'crimes' committed are immaterial. as it the arbitrary nature of justice - an old man is given a hundred lashes for supposed insolence before he has even settled in to the hostile shed where he is to serve an indeterminate sentence. That's life at the rough end. You'd better get used to it!


Beneath all this torture and hatred, however, a political message emerges from time to time. This was life under a totalitarian regime of oppresive czars; there is hope in the working man, in the simple peasant class or in the artisan. Well, that sounds too sentimental of course and we know what Communism gave the average Russian - an even harsher deal, just as brutal and corrupt, and just as, or even more, intolerant of dissent.


However, this is not a political pamphlet but a human document; a plea not so much for social justice as for an awareness of the strangeness and surprising nature of fate and one man's reflections on it. Thus Goryanchykov, the narrator, concludes:


There is in the Russian character so much down-to-earth sobriety, so much inner sobriety, so much inner mockery directed at the self ... It may be that it was this perpetual state of secret discontent that caused these men to be so impatient in their day-to-day dealings with one another, to be so implacable and jeeringly malicious in one another's regard.


Prison is the microcosm, the crucible that brings to boiling point the discontents lurking in what the author would call the soul of man.

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