I’ve just finished reading “The Penal Colony,” and I have to say that this is a really good book, which takes a look inside the human spirit. It’s not about good guys, it’s about bad guys. There are those bad guys who do things for reasons beyond comprehension, and are sentenced to the worst possible punishment. This is a book about them. But it’s also a book about people who find themselves in an impossible situation, and take the only way out that they know how to. Those folks who are pushed up against the wall, and take matters into their hands, which should best be left in the hands of others.
“The Penal Colony” is primarily a book about what you can do when pushed hard and far enough. There are 3 or 4 main characters, and 2 real opposing forces. The “hero” of this story is one of those who claims his innocence, but still manages to take actions that would be considered wrong, or even evil, on the “outside” of the penal colony.
Feeling for Routledge is natural, and acceptable, he’s our hero who is imprisoned for a murder he claims he never committed. It’s easy to sympathize with him, with his confusion and finally acceptance of his situation. It’s also understandable when he takes those actions that would put him in a similar situation, had they happened on the outside. He’s a likable fellow.
At the beginning of the story, he finds himself introduced to the “civilized” portion of the island,but is told he must first understand what is outside, and is thrust among the outsiders for a probation period where he must survive against the elements, as well as the others who have not been accepted into the village. On the outside he meets up with elements of the “others” those who will not live in a society, except for that of a fellowship of thieves and murderers. Routledge sees how this group behaves first hand when he is accosted by two of their number on his second morning of imprisonment. Finding what he thought was a safe hiding spot, they come upon him, and he takes decisive action to protect himself. Afterwards he comes to understand that the outsiders are aware of the new recruit and have been looking for him, and eventually they catch him. He sees how this type of society behaves and is soon looking for a way to escape. Because his captors are also involved in trying to gain more for themselves, he finds his way out and to a more secure location. He defends this location effectively before he is able to rejoin the village.
In the village, he can resume a somewhat normal lifestyle, while those on the outside try to destroy the village. It appears that this is because of their having so little, while the village has so much. Something we all have to deal with at one point or another. Can we live with what we have, or must we find a way to better ourselves? There are those that will bring down those around himself, rather than improve his own lot. This is what happens in the colony, the have-nots want what they don’t have, and will do anything to get it.
In the end we come to know also that this penal colony is illegal, according to international law, and it is because of this, and a general desire for freedom, that a group of villagers tries to escape.
The fight between the haves and have-nots becomes one of success or failure of the escape plan, and anything can happen. In the end, Routledge is one of the haves, and he continues to have to protect this against those others.
A truly good read, I look forward to reading more from Richard Herley. For those who are interested, the book was the basis of a movie starring Ray Liotta. From what I can tell, the book and movie are quite different though, so approach with caution.