The Hole by José Revueltas (New Directions, 2018)
Reviewed by Andres Vaamonde
In 1969, writer and leftist revolutionary José Revueltas was in prison. It wasn’t his first time. More than thirty years earlier, when Revueltas was a teenager, he served multiple bids for his participation in the then-outlawed Communist Party of Mexico. He never attended university. Still, he became an important (if controversial) intellectual figure in Mexico, eventually finding himself in a cell in the infamous Lecumberri Prison in 1969 with nothing but time, fury, and, somehow, a typewriter.
It only took Revueltas a few weeks to write The Hole (El Apando, in the original Spanish) but it took almost fifty years for the book to appear in English (New Directions, 2018). This is a gift for English readers. The Hole should be considered a fixture of 20th century Latin American fiction due to its evident inspiration to many bright lights, especially Roberto Bolaño.
But the publication is also somewhat a curse. The Hole is one of the darkest, sharpest, most brutal acts of fiction in any language. The Hole isn’t the sort of book you read pleasurably. It’s the sort of book that fucks you up.
The premise is simple: three inmates, Polonio, Albino, and the Prick, hatch a plan with three accomplices on the outside to smuggle heroin into their prison. The novel depicts only the day of the smuggling. The narrative is a mostly straight line, the story unfolding in one long, continuous paragraph. The Hole (which clocks in at around fifty pages, one for every year it took to be published in English) is the type of book that should be read straight through, without a break. This is not only due to its abridged length but also its harrowing and wildly hypnotic flow. Every next sentence is its own meticulously designed labyrinth. But be careful: just because The Hole should be read in one sitting doesn’t mean that the reading experience will be easy. Revueltas’ dense, hopscotching prose requires a lot of attention and it is very easy to lose your place, something that feels rather appropriate given the book’s setting and the location in which it was written. Prison is a place where you lose track of everything—your time, your days, your self. In this way, The Hole is a stylistic allegory: you enter the book as if entering prison itself, and Revueltas ensures that your time inside will be equal parts arduous, uncomfortable, and confounding.
Though reasonably realistic in plot, the tone of The Hole has a distinctly unreal feeling—not in the ethereal sense like a fairy, but in a diabolical sense, like the devil dictating Armageddon. A character isn’t fat; “her worm-filled belly [is] like a bundle of laundry slumped over her stumpy legs…” (36) Life isn’t depressing; it is “one long not knowing anything at all…” (30) The darkness is pervasive. Take the character of the Prick, for example. A drug addict and self-harmer, the Prick is the most depraved of the three plotting inmates. His mere existence is revolting to everyone in his life:
“The rage at having the prick banged up beside them now in the same cell, right beside Polonio and Albino, and the acute, urgent, craven desire for him to die once and for all, to cease roaming the earth in that debased body of his. His mother desired it too, just as deeply, just as keenly…” (34)
Polonio, Albino, and even his mother “crave” the Prick’s death. This is some serious horror and it is echoed throughout the book in a variety of ways. But Revueltas does not shock for the sake of shocking alone, not even when he details how the Prick cuts himself only “so they’d take him from the hole to the infirmary where he’d find a way to wangle more drugs, setting off the cycle all over again.” (35) The purpose of the Prick as a character is to disgust the reader, that’s true. But, more importantly, Revueltas is trying to make a point about the cyclical nature of imprisonment. The Prick’s real crimes aren’t those that put him in prison but his grotesque lifestyle—a lifestyle that the prison culture promotes and advances. This is Revueltas’ ultimate point: depravity is inevitable and inescapable under systematic oppression like that in prison.
But Revueltas isn’t just talking about inmates. His philosophy extends beyond, including the prison visitors who smuggle in drugs, and the guards, too. He even implicates the reader.
Let’s first talk about the prison guards. Revueltas only refers to them as “apes,” rendering the guards just as miserable as the people they control. It’s not only our drug-smuggling, wrist-cutting, crime-committing protagonists who are deplorable. No, the guards are bastards too. Revueltas bridges the ostensible distance between inmate and guard from the very first sentence of the novel: “They were captive there, the apes, just like the rest…” (28) Throughout the text Revueltas hammers home the concept: “Those fucking ape sons of bitches.’ They were captive. More captive than Polonio, more captive than Albino, more captive than the Prick.” (29); “Down below were the apes, in the box, with all the vacant and inexplicable primordial presence of caged apes.” (53); “Although the ‘box’ formed part of the wing…the presence of guards, shut up there inside, made it look like a separate prison, a prison for guards.” (59) Revueltas dehumanizes the guards, deprives them of their titles, and thereby dismisses the order of punitive justice. But that’s not all he’s doing. Ironically, Revueltas also humanizes the guards. He could have easily called the guards “dogs” or “snakes” or “beasts”—but he chose “apes,” as in, primates, thereby alluding to one of the core universalities of humanity: our ancestry, our species, the apeness of us all. That’s the real meanness of The Hole. Revueltas is arguing that depravity is ubiquitous amongst humans and is expressed, like a genetic trait, when the environment is just right for the ripening. And guess who is included in that indictment? That’s right—us, the readers.
Let me tell you why I agree with him.
Every Thursday night for a year I went to Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, as a teaching assistant in the Cornell Prison Education Program. I won’t blabber about my life-inverting time with the men inside. Instead, I’ll just tell you this one thing: I often wonder if I was actually helping at all. Sure, I provided writing assistance and gave my attention to folks otherwise neglected by society. But, when I break it down in my head, it’s easy to imagine that I was just a lecherous voyeur, loitering for a few hours only to immediately vanish back into the rest of the world afterward, stories and anecdotes tucked under my arm like strange flowers for the showing. I have lots of stories and anecdotes about Auburn, all of which I tell in good faith. Still, sometimes, I hold them back. Reading The Hole makes me want to never tell them again.
It’s great that Revueltas’ work is finally appearing in English so that more people can learn about his work. But it’s a big deal that The Hole in particular has been published now, in our modern America, a place that hosts the largest prison population in the world and, simultaneously, an entertainment culture that loves content about prison. The Hole isn’t important because it will appeal to the millions out there who love hearing about prison; The Hole is important because it subverts the notion that these types of stories should be sold for consumption in the first place.
Lecumberri Prison, where Revueltas did time while writing The Hole, was built in the style of the “panopticon.” First ideated by Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon is a prison in which cells are built in a circle around a tower. At the top of the tower are guards, who, from their high vantage point, can see into every cell. The line of sight goes only one way. In the panopticon, inmates cannot see up into the guard post, and so are unable to determine when and if they’re being watched. Thus, the panopticon turns a prison into a kind of a stage. In his introduction to this edition of The Hole, Álvaro Enrigue says that Revueltas would have known this, citing that: “The greater the visibility of its inmates, the greater the benefit a society obtains from their punishment, which keeps the prisoners out of circulation while transforming them into an example and a spectacle.” (11) The Hole is conscious of this phenomenon, frequently alluding to the many performances of prison. But Revueltas’ thesis is buried a little deeper. The book itself is a panopticon. Revueltas’ omniscient narrator is a wordsmith, a prose-architect. But the narrator is not an inmate and doesn’t speak their patois. As Enrigue says, the narrator of The Hole is an intellectual, a “master of the grammatical rules that shape society’s norms…there to narrate the theatre of the panopticon…” (23)
That’s where we come in. The Hole is a panopticon, the omniscient narrator its architecture. But that leaves us, the reader, guards of a type, watching the show. We look down onto this underworld from our distanced yet unobstructed vantage point, astounded, a “public applauding from the outside.” We are affected by Revueltas’ prose, thrilled by his plot, stunned by the wickedness he depicts, and—here comes the trick—utterly complicit in the cycle of depravity commented on by the author himself. We greedily consume his book, gulping it down in one sitting, even—and all from the comfort of our personal “towers.” There’s a shocking twist in the plot at the end of The Hole, yes. But the real twist ending of The Hole is, like Enrigue says, that “we’re all accomplices and we are all directly compromised.” (25) We’re all in the hole—author and character and reader alike—terribly, horribly, together.