On the Yard- Malcolm Braly
Spanish literature lovers: we should all celebrate the existence of this refreshing and flourishing small editorials like Libros del Asteroide, Blackie Books, Libros del Silencio or Sajalín, to name a few, who are giving us the chance of discovering modern and classic authors that were neglected by the majors, who prefer to keep with their regular publishing of all kinds of rubbish instead.
This time Sajalín bring us a major American novel, praised by totems like Kurt Vonnegut as "surely the great American prison novel". Originally published in 1967 and recently back in print (with the inclusion of an epilogue by the mesmerizing author Jonathan Lethem), "On the Yard" is a unique take, surprisingly penetrating and deep on psychology, of the penitentiary world. A microcosm of their own.
Author Malcolm Braly knew what he was writing about. He spent more than twenty years in prison, and wrote the book while spending his days in San Quentin. That personal experience explains his ability to go further that usual in this quite familiar ground. Books and cinema of the life in jail abound, but very very few with that level of insight on the prison's dynamics and foremost, on the minds of the prisoners. Linked with that comes my only real concern on the book: the omniscient narrator has no limits to write how each prisoner or worker feels, but the voice that tells the stories is frequently much more cultivated, miles away, than his characters. To me, in such a realist piece of work, it seems a considerable flaw.
Anyway, let's continue with its many virtues. We are used to prison tales about heroes and villains, violence and redemption. "On the Yard" shift the focus to complex human beings who have/try to carry on with their ordinary lives inside the walls of the prison. Its a place of desperation, depression and survival. Braly's prose is masterful in recreating a vibe, an atmosphere, even a rhythm in what refers to the prisoner's dialogues. The reader could say there are moments where he/she feels part of it. Thanks that's not the case.
The whole picture of the prison is a very discouraging one. There's a lot of fear inside, and violence seems the only resource it can be used to confront it. The structure of the book intertwines the stories of a dozen of prisoners all around Chilly Willy, unarguably the self-proclaimed "boss", the head of the prison, responsible black market and corruption that seems to give him and his core virtual immunity. But we soon realise that's not the real centerpiece of "On the Yard". Braly uses ambivalence and distance, even some peculiar irony, a humour that is part of the exclusive logic of the prison to reduce the dose of desolation, despair and traumatised minds that conform the real truth of the small universe. It's raw, but there are occasional moments of tenderness. It's crude, but you can laugh. It has its own rules and logic. And Malcolm Braly is capable of showing everything all to us.