Notes from the House of the Dead
A New Translation.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2013
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Reviewed by Sara Olson Dean
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, imprisoned as a young man. In a moment of daring, working alone in the warden’s office, Andy locks the door and plays a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the PA system. Everyone in the prison can hear it, including the warden, who quickly begins the process of getting into his locked office. But while the music plays, the prisoners are transfixed. The film’s narrator, another convict, reflects, “I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
This scene came to mind as I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Convict Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov is serving a decade-long sentence in one of Russia’s penal colonies in Siberia. He recalls the Christmas program put on by his fellow convicts. “Picture the prison, the shackles, the captivity, the long, sad years stretching ahead, a life as monotonous as water dripping on a gray autumn day – and suddenly all these oppressed captives are allowed for one short hour to relax their souls (161).” And, a few hours later, “the convicts dispersed joyfully and contentedly… These poor men were allowed to live a little in their own way, to enjoy themselves like human beings, to live a brief hour outside their prison existence (168).” This moment poignantly stands out against the dismal backdrop of a dehumanizing prison.