Are We Free?: A Review of "The Hole" by José Revueltas

“The Hole”
By José Revueltas
Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes
77p. New Directions Books. $12.95.

Most of us have at least glanced at one of the “inside look” into prison TV shows. Whether it’s “Orange is the New Black”, “Prison Break”, or “Scared Straight” we think that these TV shows give a somewhat honest portrayal of prison life. But as is the case with most representations, they are processed and edited imitations. We on the outside of the gates can not comprehend the reality of life behind locked doors.

What makes “The Hole” so masterful is its vantage point: inside a prison cell looking at the hellscape of an ecosystem of the prison. The novella/long short story is based on Jose Revueltas’s time in prison as a political prisoner and is written in a mix of prison lingo and political/religious fever dream prose.

Three inmates Polonio, Albino, and The Prick are waiting for The Prick’s mom to sneak in a package of heroin. They all hate each other for the most part and the possibility of shooting up seems to be the only thing keeping them from killing each other.

What hurts about the story–yes, hurts: the story is painful to read–is that we are trapped inside the cell with the inmates. We can see and feel the lacerations on The Prick’s arms as he scratches them open and over again in hope of getting drugs from the prison pharmacy. We see the guards through Albino’s eyes and how they are just as trapped as the inmates: “Down below were the apes, in the box, with all the vacant and primordial presence of caged ages.”

There are some psychological and philosophical comments by the narrator that do take you out of the narrative and force you inside the collective mind of the prisoners. The most fascinating reflection is: “‘Visiting time.’ Visitors. Drugs. The bodies of smoke dissolved, merged into one another, reconstructed reliefs and structures and trails, subject to their own laws–obedient to those of the solar system–now wholly divine, free of all human traits, part of a new and freshly invented natural world, whose demigod was the sun, and where the nebulae, with scarcely a whisper of geometry, before all Creation, occupied the freedom of a space that had been formed in their own image and likeness, like an immense, interminable desire that never permits its own realization, nor does it describe its own limits, refusing to be in any way contained, just like God.”

While the story will strike even the most experienced reader as surreal and inspired, the final 15 pages force you into a blood red tinted narrative that gets complicated. Revueltas is moving the plot so fast that he ends finding himself at a loss for words; but you can easily imagine what is happening.

We all hope to stay as far away from prison as possible, but what The Hole teaches us is that if we can’t even comprehend prison, how do we know that we are not all inhabiting one?