One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey

Can it really be 50 years since the publication of this book, I remember my first reading in the mid 70's and it has been a great pleasure, and a walk down memory lane, to once again make the acquaintance of the residents of an Oregon Psychiatric Hospital and in particular one Randle P McMurphy. Most people will remember the 1976 movie and the electric  performance of Jack Nicholson as the audacious and colourful "Mack", in a movie that won many awards. The book has lost none of its magic even now reading the it so many years later, and the emotions that it can produce are still very real.

 

McMurphy is moved  to the mental institution from a prison farm where he was serving a sentence for the rape of a 15 year old girl. Although he is not mentally ill, he is hoping to avoid hard labour and serve the rest of his sentence in a relaxed environment. The life of the rest of the inmates is now turned on its head as McMurphy proceeds to wreck havoc in an attempt to control and alter the mundane existence of lethargic and inactive inmates...."We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psychoceramics, the cracked pots of mankind."....The only obstacle standing between Mack and his dreams is the formidable figure of the steely strict Nurse Ratched....."Her face is still calm, as though she had a cast made and painted to just the look she wants. Confident, patient, and unruffled."...

 

The story is told in the first person through the eyes of one long term resident Chief Bromden a tall native American believed to be deaf and mute. Through a series of minor misdemeanours and coercion McMurphy is hoping to breakdown the stranglehold of power that Nurse Rached holds over the inmates, who  are dulled and kept under control by the constant and daily consumption of medication. It would therefore appear that the prime function of the institution is to manage, by this use of drugs, the minds and temperaments of the residents,  rather than try to rehabilitate them and reintroducing them back into society where they might once again make a useful contribution. If the use of drugs and stimulants fails to pacify the disturbed mind the institution is willing to apply electroshock therapy and in the most severe cases a lobotomy is performed.

 

This is a book fully entrenched in the methods and institutions of its time. It is also a story of power and authority, those who wheel it and those who would attempt to question it by any means possible. It is a wonderful and colourful narration, strong and memorable characters, essentially funny yet ultimately sad. To me Randle P McMurphy is more than a comic figure, he chooses to question the reality and sense of his surroundings and by doing so set himself on the road to confrontation with the soulless Nurse Ratched and ultimately there can only be one winner, and an ending that is both shocking and captivating. Highly Recommended.