The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Several times in the past years I had attempted to read Dostoyevsky’s novels, but at some point I gave up. I guess I was not ready yet for him.  The House of the Dead is my first novel of Dostoevsky that I successfully completed reading and it is awesome.

Dostoevsky is one of those few authors that transcend time and cultures and this is perhaps one of the reasons  why he is regarded as one of the best writers ever.  He lived during the end of the 19th century, a time during which Russia was undergoing  several social changes against the power of the upper social classes. His  involvement in literary associations was seen as progessive and  eventually he was arrested and sent to prison in Siberia where he collected the experiences that are presented in this book.

The main character in the book –Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov– has been sent to a prison located in a remote area in Siberia for the murder of  his wife. Over the course of several years Aleksandr witnesses the sordid life in the military prison with  hundreds  of inmates cramped in a few buildings. The prisoners fight and steal from one another and commit all sorts of horrible actions. During this time Aleksandr learns to understand and appreciate his fellow inmates. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Dostoevsky constructs and analyzes the whole physiological profiles of his  fellows.  And this is why this book is atemporal. It goes beyond time and geographical borders and accurately describes the human mind in astonishing detail. He explains, for instance, why a convict behaves in prison even worse than he would if he was in  his normal life as a free man. The reason is that a convict is already a convict and can act dirty and there is  no need to feel ashamed. Dostoevsky also explains the concept of freedom and how inmates idealize their freedom as their ultimate goal,  even though most of them will spend decades in prison and many of them die without going out ever again. 

The book deals with forced labor, violent corporal punishments that send inmates to the hospital, and gives a detailed portrait of pain and loss of hope. All of this is in this book and perhaps one of the takeaways of the book is that all human beings share  a core of psychological  features, regardless of their social  class.

Russian musician D. Shostakovich was under constant  risk of  execution or deportation to a labor camp during the autocratic  regime of Stalin. Shostakovich couldn’t premiere his 4th symphony until 25 years after he had completed it. The first movement is my favorite of this weird and mesmerizing  work, which  BTW in the hands of V. Petrenko sounds very fresh.
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