This book is a treatise on the process of dehumanization that the prison experience implies. Let no one expect the epic of Life imprisonment, let no one look for a de profundis. Here the reader, uncomfortable, feels like dying while alive because Victor Serge explained everyday life in jail as a sentence worse than the death sentence.
His story begins with his arrest and ends with his release, but this book published in 1930 (in French and Spanish) does not explore his personal evolution. Men in prison is part of a fight against the system because it shows how the penitentiary machine is designed to gradually laminate layers of identity and thus, from the first day of deprivation of liberty, transform man into a being with the constants of humanity under minima.
On one page there is an allusion to their battle. Despite the isolation between inmates, news from the outside world reaches him from the other side of the wall: “Your friend B. has killed the head of the Surete. Oremos!”. B. was the anarchist and criminal Jules Bonnot. The victim was the deputy head of national security and responsible for dismantling the Bonnot group, which had committed various crimes and robberies in Paris – the Societe Generale bank, for the record, was the first perpetrated by car in all of history. We are in the spring of 1912. After that robbery, Serge sheltered them. And said relationship led him to jail for five years, an experience that is at the base of the book that is now reissued. Four days after the crime, the police liquidated Bonnot.
When Serge was released from prison, he moved to Barcelona to continue his fight. His radical militancy, always critical, led him to live an epic political life. From Barcelona he jumped to France, more prison, and in 1919 he was already in the Soviet Union to collaborate in the construction of the socialist state, until he was purged for challenging the Stalinist drift by placing himself in the New Left. His first books are from that time. Soon the Russian secret police confiscated his manuscripts and he was deported to the Urals. He was able to save himself thanks to an international support campaign and, after surviving various attacks dictated from the Kremlin, after denouncing the Moscow Trials, he died in Mexico.
Serge’s adventurous journey is so pure and fascinating, sometimes epic and risky, that his literature does not always manage to live up to his biography. He is not an excellent writer, but he is a magnetic man and there is a dimension of the 20th century that cannot be understood without his history books or his autobiographical testimonies. Orwell or Gorkin, Sontag or Hitchens knew it. That revolutionary fury is in the pages of this book that attacks the bourgeois order —”crime will close the circle of crime”— and, at the same time, it is also a survival manual for those who were militants like him and could live an experience like his. hers. There is his monotonous and disturbing intelligence to explore the operation of that destruction machine that was jail and its physical and psychological consequences, which range from fear to obsession, madness and suicide. There are the most humane portraits of his fellow prisoners. And there is also the resistance to survive and continue their fight. “To the monstrous prison machine one opposes, in silence, the firmness and stoic intelligence of man stronger than the pain of his flesh, stronger than madness.”