Notes on a Prison Wall


104 pages
ISBN 0-921870-26-4
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by Peter Babiak

Peter Babiak teaches English at the University of British Columbia.


Poised on the cusp of poetry and memoir, Notes on a Prison Wall is an
intriguing, if somewhat dispiriting, re-creation of a diary the author
kept as a young cadet in his native Rumania when he was imprisoned by
the invading Soviets after World War II.

Though the book is organized chronologically—its sections are named
after the four seasons, beginning and ending with “Autumn”—
Catanoy does not develop a narrative account of his year-long
confinement. Much like the lines prisoners draw on cell walls to record
the passage of time, every section comprises a series of aphorisms,
epigrams, fragments, and quotations, each set apart from the others by
the symbols for the various phases of the moon. The entries range from
pedestrian comments such as “I am number: 94” and “We must love
one another or die,” to darkly lyrical statements such as “I hold a
sparrow in my mouth, because I want to give the image of me flying.”
There are a few arresting passages in the book, but most of them rehash
clichéd ironies of the human condition (“It is often safer to be in
chains than to be free” and “Life is possible only by the
incompetence of our illusions”).

Catanoy’s paratactic style and stark perceptions put him in the
tradition of Ion Barbu (1895-1961), the Rumanian mathematician and poet
who composed tightly structured, semantically loaded verses representing
philosophical propositions. We relate to these threadbare lines as we
might appreciate grammatically correct graffiti scrawled on a wall: they
are competent flashes of insight, but they do not evoke the level of
empathy and understanding that an ode to imprisonment demands. It may be
that Notes on a Prison Wall is intended to simulate the artistic
barrenness imposed by the Soviet regime, but by choosing such a
disjointed style, Catanoy considerably decreases the impact of his


Catanoy, Nicholas., “Notes on a Prison Wall,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024,