Long before the 20th century, prison literature was an old and varied genre ranging from the Consolations of Philosophy by the late Roman Empire writer Boethius to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Thus, while it is not new or unique to the 20th century, prison literature has been important in defining eras of political upheaval and the movement of millions of individuals into prisons, concentration camps, or the Soviet complex known as the gulag. The Cell by the German-Polish writer Horst Bienek (1930–90) was a significant addition to that body of literature. In some ways, however, it was a departure in large part because of its ambiguity and its concentration on the present experience rather than the circumstances that led to imprisonment. The larger political and cultural context that informs Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler or the novels and stories of Varlam Shalamov or Aleksandr Solzhenitsy is absent.
Bienek, who spent four years in the Vorkuta camps of the gulag as a political prisoner, has created in The Cell a nonstop monologue, a personal narrative that focuses inward. It seldom reaches beyond the cell, which is essentially his universe with only occasional references to the outside. The narrator’s existence takes place in an eternal present, with only occasional forays into the past and none into a future. His poor health and isolation are his main reference points.
The narrator is 58 years old and German, from Silesia, the eastern section that borders on Poland and is known for its mixture of Polish and German language and culture. (In this respect the narrator reflects his creator; Bienek lived in and wrote extensively about Silesia.) As the book was published in 1968, the reader assumes a fairly specific set of historical events that would have shaped this individual as he grew, matured, and lived out his life. Before coming to his 12-foot by 5-foot cell, the narrator spent 35 years as an art teacher in a girls’ school. As far as we know, he has no family and is not married. He has not been tried for his offense, and his time in the cell is revealed during odd circumstances. Despite the fact that he has a serious infection on his left leg and one that is developing on his right, he is never taken to the infirmary. Rather, a medical attendant comes to him to replace his dressings and medicate him.
The narrator tells us about his daily life and the details of finding a lock of hair on his cell floor and enshrining it (a detail that has a particularly disturbing resonance later in the book). He describes his system of marking the walls, keeping his diary in this fashion. Those marks, combined with the signs and graffiti of earlier prisoners, constitute his means of marking time and organizing his world.
He was not always alone. At some time, before we become observers of his world, he had had a friend named Alban who was in an adjoining cell. He talks about their discussions, which ended when Alban was taken out of his cell, never to return. Initially, we accept the fact of Alban’s existence just as we accept nearly everything the narrator tells us, at least at first. He tells us how he passes the time, including reliving special days, such as one he refers to as his “path-to-the-river” day. In another portion of the monologue, the narrator talks about his mother and father, who died when he was 10 years old. They had been standing on the frozen river when the ice they were standing on broke off, and they were carried off with the current—or, as he tells us, perhaps they were “pushed off by someone.”
Why is he there in a cell? We receive clues, but these are quite contradictory, and our temptation to read the reason from Bienek’s own history may be misleading. The narrator tells of trouble at the school when a banned book somehow got into the library and was discovered. As the library’s substitute supervisor, he may now be in prison for that incident. He describes his interrogation, and the subject of making contact with some sort of resistance organization is raised. He claims that this is the prime cause of his interrogation (and hence his imprisonment). Slowly, however, the reader begins to piece together another possibility. He may not be there at all for political or subversive activity but may actually have committed a criminal act.
Near the end of the narrative, Alban returns, this time physically in the narrator’s cell and not as an inmate tapping messages from another cell. Alban is now an interrogator and asks the narrator not about politics but a murder. A child, age 12–15 years, was raped, killed, and dumped in a rubbish heap near a river. The corpse was found with locks of hair cut off. We are reminded of the lock of hair he enshrined earlier in the narrative. We wonder what his “river” day really was, and whether it had anything to do with the child or his parents 48 years earlier. Alban’s identity and actual existence become unclear. We further question if the narrator is guilty of a criminal action against a human being and not a political crime. Alternatively, is this something he wishes were true (criminals in the gulag were treated much better than political prisoners)?
The narrator finishes as he began, saying he cannot bear repetition and he will tell no stories—although he has told us, albeit in very indirect terms, a story that is chilling regardless of his guilt or innocence or guilt.
The question for us is whether the narrator is delusional or a rational, sane man trying to survive and come to terms with a world mostly deprived of human contact. We never know if he is guilty or innocent or, if guilty, whether he is guilty of political offenses or of performing heinous acts against the innocent. The ambiguity of The Cell is striking. We may assume that the narrator is a political prisoner at first, although we may question it, but what becomes less ambiguous is that we are dealing with and confronting a tortured mind that may or may not have been so before the imprisonment but most certainly is now.
Bienek, Horst. Reise en die Kindheit: Wiedersehen mit Schlesien. Munich: C. Hanser, 1988.
———. Selected Poems, 1957–1987. Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead. Greensboro, N.C.: Unicorn Press, 1989.
Urback, Telman, ed. Horst Bienek: Aufsätze, Materialen, Bibliographie. Munich: C. Hanser, 1990.