A lot of my bookish friends consider me a serious reader, and I only shrug my shoulders at that. I don’t think David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Jose Saramago, et al, are utterly serious writers. Why yes, they are serious about their craft, but their works are not too serious in the sense that they are stiff, droll, and boring reads.
So what kind of books do I consider serious? Ah, books that deal largely with politics. Not my strongest point; it’s actually my Waterloo, a belief strengthened by the notion that students who get good grades at both English and Math tend to suffer at Social Studies. Read that again and you’d get a hint of the figures in my class cards.
So it is not without trepidation when I ventured to read this book. I was intrigued by it for two reasons: its title and its inclusion in the top ten of Modern Library’s list of Top 100 books. The latter I find a little controversial because it is only in that list where the book can be found (and I am only speaking of five lists, including that ridiculously long 1001 list).
It’s a slim book, yes, but I daresay it’s not for the person with slim patience.
But how can the present decide what will be judged truth in the future? We are doing the work of prophets without their gift. We replaced vision by logical deduction; but although we all started from the same point of departure, we came to divergent results. Proof disproved proof, and finally we had to recur to faith–to axiomatic faith in the rightness of one’s own reasoning. That is the crucial point. We have thrown all ballast overboard; only one anchor holds us: faith in one’s self. Geometry is the purest realization of human reason; but Euclid’s axioms cannot be proved. He who does not believe in them sees the whole building crash.
That is taken from the diary of Rubashov, an ageing revolutionary caught by the Party to confess his sins. Wait, the Party? Doesn’t that ring a bell? 1984, anyone? Anyway, Rubashov is imprisoned in one of those dark cells, which pretty much gives away the literal interpretation of the title. In this prison, the inmates are referred after their corresponding cell numbers. We don’t have names for the other prisoners here. Rubashov, known to others as No. 404, is acquainted with No. 402 and No. 406 by the sole virtue of cell position.
You see, the prisoners do not talk to each other. They don’t even see each other. They can only communicate with the immediate neighbors through wall tapping. This wall tapping is the source of entertainment for both the prisoners and the reader. Or maybe just for me, for I found myself tapping along any part that involves it just to get a feel of how limiting and suspenseful this sort of communication is.
Let me explain the mechanics in my own words. Imagine a 5 x 5 grid. Fill the top row with the letters A-E, the next with F-J. And so on. Wall taps come in pairs. The first tap is for the row, the second is for the column. So if you want to wall tap my name, do this: 1-1, 3-4, 2-2, 4-5 (Q not included), 4-3. Do not tap evenly; there should be a slight pause between the row and column, and a slightly longer one between pairs.
And I really went to the trouble of demonstrating, huh? Because it’s the thing that kept me reading. And it might be useful in the future, no? I even imitated the furious wall taps when the prisoners are relaying news regarding who’s being tortured or who’s going to be executed. You can imagine Rubashov waiting patiently for 402, and then passing the news to 406 on the other wall.
But surely, this novel has more merits than wall tapping. I won’t even attempt to explain the novel’s historical context as I did with the wall tapping, though here are keywords: Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, communism, totalitarianism. Call me a philistine with regard to this matter: they all sound the same banana to me. So yes, Rubashov lived in those turbulent times, so you can expect the pages to smell of impending death.
The confession sessions are pretty interesting because physical torture is not the choice of method to proceed with them. Instead, a more potent one is employed: psychological torture. Rubashov is interrogated for hours, repeating or hearing the same things. He is then allowed a wink of a sleep, and then the same cycle. I don’t know about you, but I get really cranky when someone wakes me up knowing that I’ve only been asleep for two hours.
But no, you just don’t confess. You even agree to everything, that yes, my interrogator is correct, I actually did this heinous crime. You have accepted responsibility for orchestrating a fabricated crime. You have signed the pertinent documents to make the confession official. And then what?
You will then be situated in the center of your own public trial. You will count the days in your prison cell and listen to the last wall tappings you will ever hear. Or perhaps the last tap you will hear is the smashing tap of bullet through your skull. And where’s the sense in that, which is just an extended suicide? Really, there is none, but at least there’s the unsmashed hope that history will vindicate you.