CSN is 50: Review of “In the Penal Colony” by Cormac Mee Nov19


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CSN is 50: Review of “In the Penal Colony” by Cormac Mee

The idea of reviewing a work such as In The Penal Colony, of a sixteen-year-old finding flaw with and attempting to analyse a work of this complexity is comical. I’m not attempting to rate it; I’m not attempting to suggest ways that this piece could be improved. When I first read this novella I was captivated by what I understood but, more so from what I perceived lurking just behind the surface, I knew that to gain a true understanding of this work I would have to reread it, not just to read but to attempt to study the writer’s intent, the message the writer wanted to relay about society as a whole and about the barbarism of blindly following orders and tradition.

A traveller, an outsider who visits a strange land with customs that appear ancient, is invited by an officer to witness the execution of a commended soldier. This officer seems infatuated with the age-old, impossibly complex machine that enacts a brutal idea of justice on those who are deemed guilty. The practice of execution is slowly falling out of fashion; there was a time when these executions captured the imagination of all of the people in this small island, a time when people would celebrate and congregate to watch a list of a man’s crimes being carved into his very flesh until he fell into a state of absolution and died supposedly absolved of all sin. This is a running motif in Franz Kafka’s work: suffering being enjoyed by the masses. In the story The Hunger Artist the eponymous artist starves himself in front of an adoring and fascinated public – although as time passes fewer and fewer people have any interest in his dubious art. This parallels the people of this island’s reaction to these executions. There was a time when the executions held the people of this remote island spellbound, but now it is considered almost a dirty secret, shunted to one side, slowly falling to the wayside. Possible allusions to the falling practice of organized religion seem to be written into this story, and the almost prophetic role of the old commandant, who is in essence a god to this officer. This officer believes that the old commandant will rise again, which amuses the new commandant and his supporters.

The specific mechanics of this machine are described in great detail, every part described in detail by the devoted officer. At the same time the particulars of the machine are almost irrelevant. This machine carves, agonizingly, a brief description of the crime committed into its victim’s chest. This is repeated all over the offender’s body until before the point of dying of blood loss they are “redeemed.” This is the fate of the officer, who ends up putting himself in the machine he loves so dearly. The story ends with the traveller visiting the town where he drinks tea on the coffin of the old commadant, his supposed return a joke to the remaining people of the town. The traveller leaves and though the accused soldier wishes to accompany him he turns him down and returns home to a civilization that in some ways is more civilized but which shares many of the brutal characteristics of this remote island.

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone; I think it is a grand concept put simply and elegantly. I think that the use of stark and violent imagery makes the message more effective.