Review: Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead

Did I abuse the contrast and exposure on this one? Absolutely.

So a few weeks ago, Penguin Classics had a massive booksale in some pop-up shop in Shoreditch (I sound like a real Londoner now, right? Right?). I, being a fanatic without self-restraint, quickly waltzed inside and marveled at the amount of books. I quickly bought a Dostoyevsky and a Chekov book before I went to work a few stores down the street. When I came back again, the store was in a frenzy. Some sales assistant put a bag in my hand and told me that I could fill up the entire bag for ten quid. And so the hunt began.

I found weird books. I found interesting books. Mainly due to the fact that most things were sold out at the time. But I did get my tiny gremlin hands on The House of the Dead and it is the first book I decided to read and review. Buckle down, people. There are plenty more to come.

So what is this book all about?

In 18-something, Dostoyevsky had fucked around with some revolutionary conspiracy and was thrown into the prison at the Peter and Paul Fortress (been there! seen that! got the picture for the post!) before he was sentenced to death. He was escorted out to be shot, but it was decided the very last minute that he better get a time-out instead. A four year time-out. In Siberia. And so off he goes, probably still mildly traumatised by that whole situation, to what he described as the most horrific years of his life. He worked on this book during his years in prison and wrote down memoirs for reference. Now, the book is fiction, but we can see some heavily autobiographical elements here. Some very specific events that also reoccurs in his other works. He knows what’s up inside that prison, and the story basically functions as a memoir for the fictive person Aleksandr Petrovich – a nobleman serving ten years for the murder of his wife.

We follow the daily life of the prisoners, their work and the meddling. At first, the sheer amount of names and places were overwhelming, but, much like the main character, they become familiar by the end of the book. Dostoyevsky dives down into the workings of these prisoners, analyses them, tries to show us the nuances of good and evil, and the workings of human nature. It is excellent, it is something we can recognise, and it is also tragic and terrifying. Hell, we even have some hope for the more innocent existences, such as Aley (also pretty funky name), inside that prison.

Since we are talking Siberia in the nineteenth century, pretty much the whole prison system thought that torture and corporal punishment were excellent ideas. At first, the whole procedure and execution of these practices seem almost barbaric, but are described with nonchalence. I mean, I get the book was published in a different time, but something that really stood out to me, was the fact that the guy quite simply left a freaking footnote about torture in prison, just to clarify for the readers that the practices may have changed since he tried it, but at least the torture went down as described in the book while he was in there.

Of course, it is not all about torture and dread – what stood out to me, was how most of the guards and the town close to the prison actually saw these people as humans. Maybe because of the sheer amount of political prisoners, but they would have banter and the town would even send them some gifts during Christmas and Easter.
There are so many finer details to pick out and dive into in this book, but I would say it is an excellent account of life as a prisoner at the time, and the motivations and backgrounds of prisoners. It all comes together as we set out on a journey with Aleksandr Petrovich – and we can almost feel the longing for freedom and the co-occuring patience as the years go by.

So should I read it?

If you find Russia interesting or you have a slightly too romantic view of the Tsarist regime after watching Anastasia too many times, then you should definitely have a go at it. There are loads of names to look out for, but perhaps have a look at notes (if any) in the back of the book to make life a bit easier on you. I also believe this is a good book for a nice little warm-up before I embark on Crime and Punishment. I need more laser-sharp immersion and focus, so I can read the shit out of it. Yeah! Motivation!

Stay tuned for my next book review, which will be Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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