Primeira carta de Sophia (Cartas de Insurgentes)

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Fredy Perlman‎
Cartas de Insurgentes
(Original em Inglês)


Dear Yarostan,

What a marvelous surprise! Surely you remember Luisa. She was all excited when she came with your letter last night. Sabina and Tina, my house-mates, were both home. Luisa hadn't ever been in our house before. We spent the evening and most of the night reading and rereading your letter, reliving our past for Tina's sake, discussing events we've never discussed before. We were all amazed to learn how many years you'd spent in prison and we were deeply moved by the contrast between your beautiful letter and the miserable life you've led.

Luisa and I travelled twenty years backward in time, reconstructing the world of experience we shared with you. I still regard that experience as the key to my whole life. Luisa had lived through such significant events before, but for me the days I spent with you have always been unique.

As soon as she read your letter Tina asked who you were and if all three of us had known you. I started to tell her about that vast uprising we had all taken part in. “Yes, we were together — not just the four of us, but thousands of us,” I told Tina. “Those events released a surge of contentment, enthusiasm and initiative throughout the whole working population. At last we were going to run our own affairs, at last the people were masters, nobody would be able to exploit our efforts for their own ends, nobody would be able to deceive us, sell us to our enemies, betray us.”

“If that's what happened, then why in the world did you leave, and why did Yarostan spend half his life in jail?” Tina asked.

“That wasn't what happened,” Sabina said curtly.

“What do you mean `that wasn't what happened'? You were there too! Don't you remember?” I immediately wished I hadn't said that to Sabina, because she has a phenomenal memory: she remembers events from her childhood as vividly as events that took place yesterday.

“What did happen, then?” Tina asked Sabina.

“An old boss was thrown out and a new one replaced him, that's all. The contentment, enthusiasm and initiative were just a vast put-on,” Sabina told her.

Luisa turned indignantly to Sabina and shouted, “You don't know what you're talking about! You were only twelve at the time!”

Disregarding Luisa, Sabina turned to Tina and told her, “Yarostan and two other workers, Claude and Jan, stormed into the office of the owner of a carton factory, a Mr. Zagad. I went with them. Claude threw the door open and shouted, `We're the representatives of the plant council.' We weren't anything of the sort, but Zagad looked like a cornered rabbit. He ran straight to the coat rack, threw his coat over his arm and vanished, leaving all his important papers lying on his desk. Then another official installed himself in Zagad's office. That's what happened and that's all that happened.”

“Was that all?” Luisa asked sarcastically. “Workers went into the office of a factory owner, threw him out, and that's all?”

Sabina shrugged her shoulders and turned her back to Luisa. Those two have never gotten along and they still don't.

I agreed with Luisa and was going to ask Sabina how many times in history workers have ousted their bosses.

But Luisa turned to Tina and pushed her argument in another direction. “Of course that wasn't all that happened. Sabina is only talking about the events she took part in. She didn't see past the end of her own nose. Masses of workers filled the streets for the second time in three years. The first time, when the liberation armies marched toward the city surrounded by enemy military forces, thousands of workers joined the resistance and fought to free their city. The second time, when they learned that reactionary elements were again powerful enough to resume the counter-offensive, they called a general strike.”

Sabina snapped, “The workers didn't call that strike; the trade union called it.”

“Whoever called it,” Luisa snapped back, “it was a general strike.” Mimicking Sabina, she added, “`A general strike? Is that all?'”

Tina, completely baffled, asked, “Why are you shouting at each other about something that happened twenty years ago?”

I tried to explain, “It was our most significant experience during the past twenty years and Sabina is ridiculing it.”

“What were you doing at the time?” Tina asked me.

I didn't remember Mr. Zagad or the general strike or who had called it, but I did remember what I had done and the people I had done it with. “All I remember,” I told Tina, “is that I was home when Luisa rushed in and told Sabina and me, `Come on, this is no time to be sitting in the house; the workers are taking over the plant!' I got all excited. I was three years younger than you are now. I had never been inside any kind of factory. Mountains of cardboard were piled along the sides. Huge machines stood idle; I had no idea what they all did. Workers sat on top of tables smoking and laughing. I remember Claude, Yarostan, Jan and four or five others. I couldn't understand much of the discussion. But there was one thing I did understand, and I've understood it for the rest of my life. They were talking about social problems, about historical events. And they weren't just talking about them but taking part in them, defining their own actions. They were making history and I was part of that.”

“What kinds of decisions did you make?” Tina asked.

Luisa turned to Tina as if to answer her question, but she addressed herself to Sabina's comments instead: “Of course in the end one boss replaced another in government offices and factories. It was the same problem I had experienced before. We confronted enemies on two different fronts: capitalists ahead of us and statists behind us. Some of us thought the danger of one was as great as that of the other. Others thought the capitalists should be defeated first.”

“What did that have to do with the decisions you made?” Tina asked.

“The way we understood the situation affected the statements and slogans we put on our posters and placards,” Luisa explained.

“I remember those arguments!” I shouted excitedly “Luisa wanted to attack both sides simultaneously. Everyone paid attention to whatever was said and I thought the others were particularly attentive every time you spoke, Luisa. I thought at least half the people there supported you.”

“All those who seemed to support me thought something different,” Luisa said, “whereas all those on the other side had one single position. Two of them were convinced the only real threat came from the owners —”

“That was Adrian and Claude,” Sabina reminded us.

“And although the other two agreed that we faced enemies in front as well as behind —”

“Marc and Titus,” Sabina interrupted again.

“Marc and Titus agreed about the two dangers,” Luisa continued, “but they argued that unity was the first requirement, since by dividing we would be used by both sides to fight against each other.”

“What was your position?” Tina asked.

“I argued that it was impossible for workers to unite with statist politicians, since after the victory over the present rulers the workers would find themselves under the rule of their former allies. This is what happened in every revolution where workers' unions allied themselves with politicians struggling for power. The workers always learned too late that their revolutionary allies got power over them.”

“Didn't Yarostan agree with you, and two others as well?” I asked.

Luisa said, “Either they didn't agree or they didn't understand. That hothead Jan argued that the real battle would start when workers wrecked the machines by stuffing wrenches and bolts into the gears and rollers, when workers started tearing down the factories with saws and axes, when workers started rioting, dismantling, burning. Jasna applauded, and Yarostan laughed! That soft-spoken Adrian Povrshan, the one who never took sides until the argument was over, suggested a compromise and everyone agreed with it except Jan. Adrian suggested that the slogans need not describe what we were against, but only what we were for. For exampie: `The factories should be administered by the workers themselves.' `The people should run their own affairs.' And that was what we decided to do.”

“At that moment,” I told Tina, “ten separate individuals who a minute earlier had seemed unable to agree about anything became a coordinated group with a single project. Suddenly, without electing a chairman, without an assignment of tasks, everyone knew what had to be done next.”

“Jan still wasn't satisfied,” Luisa remembered. “He went on grumbling about the need to fight with axes and not with words.”

“I remember that!” I exclaimed. “That was when Yarostan announced that while we were trying to decide whether to take over or take apart the plant, the boss was sitting in his office figuring out how much output he'd have to get out of the workers after the strike so as to make up for his losses.” How well I remember that! I really admired you at that moment; I think I fell in love with you then.

“That ape Claude suggested we arm ourselves and rush to the boss's office,” Luisa exclaimed.

I went on, “Yarostan asked if we couldn't simply ask the boss to leave. That's when Sabina accompanied Yarostan, Claude and Jan to the office. Before they went Adrian suggested they tell Mr. Zagad to return after the revolution since he had experience in the work and the workers would remember him. Everyone laughed. The tension was over. We became a group of friends. I had the feeling I had known everyone there for years.”

Sabina put a blanket on my enthusiasm by saying, “And then we were all arrested.”

Luisa retorted angrily, “It wasn't `and then'!”

I asked, “Sabina, how can you remember some things so well and others not at all? You took part in it all and you weren't the least active among us!”

Sabina yawned. Her yawn had the same significance as her earlier statement, “And that's all that happened.” Luisa must have thought Sabina's yawn an insult aimed specifically at her and didn't say another word until Sabina and Tina went to bed. But my enthusiasm was still rising and I wanted to communicate it to Tina. I told her those days were the only time in my life when I knew why I was in the world. It was the only time I knew what part I was playing in the creation of our common world, the only time I was part of a social project which wasn't imposed on me from above. I told her about the wonderful days during which you patiently taught me how to run a press, the days I spent printing and silk-screening posters on my own. During every single one of those days I learned more than I've learned during all my years in school. I described our daily meetings, our discussions of the day's tasks, I told Tina each of us could do whatever we wanted; no one was bound to a task, even for a day; no one was forced to complete anything. Yet in spite of this absolute freedom every task got carried out, decisions got made, the posters got printed. I tried to describe the bicycle trips you and I took to other plants to distribute posters and collect suggestions for new ones, about Sabina's excursions with Jan, about the joy of seeing our posters on the walls of public buildings and on busses and trams. Wherever any of us went we were among friends. It was a rehearsal for what the new world would be like.

When I finally paused, Tina asked, “Why were you arrested?”

The question made my head spin. I looked helplessly toward Luisa, but she was staring at the wall, probably still seeing Sabina's yawn and hearing “that's all that happened.” I must have looked startled or even angry because Tina felt compelled to say, “I'm sorry.” She didn't have to apologize. I hadn't heard any hostility in her voice when she asked the question. Yet for some reason I felt that the question itself was hostile. I groped for an explanation but didn't know where to begin. My vivid memories receded until they were again covered up by the impenetrable curtains of time. I forgot all the newly remembered names and experiences. I had never asked myself that question, and it was pointless to look in my memory for an explanation. I had experienced so much during those few days twenty years ago, so many of the events that affected my whole life had flown by so quickly, that I hadn't had the time to absorb any of them fully, to re-experience them in my memory, to analyze or explain them. And when the storm was over I found myself in a completely different world, disoriented and frightened, surrounded by beings who were incomprehensible to me.

I groped, “What happened was exactly what Luisa had feared would happen. The workers were betrayed; they were stabbed in the back by their own allies. I do remember my first clue that something was wrong. One afternoon when Luisa and I returned home, George Alberts was already there. He usually worked until late at night. But that day, he was home before dark and we could see he was upset. Luisa asked him if anything had happened. He said he'd been fired. He was told never to come back. They had even called him a saboteur and some other things,”

Tina asked, “Who fired him? I thought the workers were on strike!”

“The trade union council,” Sabina answered.

I couldn't say anything more; my throat was stopped up. Sabina got up and yawned again, as if to announce that she'd been right: “That's all that happened.” She reminded Tina that it was three in the morning and if Tina was going to get up and go to work she might feel better if she got some sleep. I agreed. But dozens of “explanations” started to crowd into my mind as soon as Sabina left the room. I didn't want Tina to go to bed without understanding why the events had turned out the way they had. But I didn't stop her when she got up and said goodnight. She looked sad, perhaps because she saw the tears of frustration on my face, perhaps because she wanted in some way to apologize for having asked why we had been arrested.

As soon as Sabina and Tina left, Luisa, became talkative again. She too intended to go to work the following day, but she insisted on staying up the rest of the night; she said her job was so repetitive she could do it in her sleep. She has a horribly boring job in an automobile factory.

Luisa read your letter over again. Certain passages bothered her. She read them to me and we discussed them. I'd like to summarize that discussion; I hope you aren't hurt or offended.

Both of us laughed and cried when we re-read your description of the censorship. Your letter doesn't seem to have been opened. What bothered Luisa was the next section, where you identify yourself with censors and prison guards and even say that your point of departure could have been the same as theirs. This also bothered me when Luisa read the passage to me. Both of us applied the passage to ourselves, and as soon as we did, we felt there was something profoundly untrue about it. Would we have become jailers if we hadn't been arrested? For example, if George Alberts hadn't been Luisa's “husband” (which in fact he never was) we wouldn't have been directly affected by his dismissal. Would we have stayed on in the carton plant carrying on the urgent tasks of the day? Would we have sat in judgment while one worker was labelled a “counterrevolutionary” and another a “saboteur”? Would we have stayed and watched while one after another of our comrades were called “dangerous elements” and “foreign agents”? Did we misread what you wrote? Isn't this what you meant when you said we all had the same starting point? You even wonder to what extent you contributed to your own imprisonment. Should Luisa and I wonder to what extent we were implicated in your arrest, and how much we contributed to the suffering you've undergone, for the past twenty years?

I think your premise is all wrong. I'm not altogether sure what you mean by “starting point,” but I am sure that my starting point as well as yours and Luisa's was not the same as the starting point of those who fired Alberts, imprisoned you, arrested Luisa and me. It's simply ridiculous to identify yourself with them. The people who arrested me weren't workers but police agents. They had never been committed to the self-liberation of workers; on the contrary, their life-long commitment was to establish a dictatorship over the workers, to transform society into a beehive and themselves into queen bees, to become the wardens of a vast prison camp. They won and we lost. That sums up the entire history of the working class. But how can you say those who fought against them contributed to their victory?

Take the people in our group. Luisa and I spent a long time reminding ourselves of them. At most you can say that some of them didn't know what they were doing. Jasna, for instance, became something like Luisa's “disciple.” Luisa remembered that poor Jasna constantly repeated things Luisa had told her, but only the words and incidents, not the meanings. This doesn't mean Jasna had the same starting point as an inquisitioner or a prison guard. Or take Jan. Luisa called him a hothead. Maybe he was, but his “hotheadedness” was a healthy and human response to abuse and exploitation. There isn't even a question about any of the others. Vera and Adrian couldn't let a stranger walk by without trying to convert him to the “self-government of the producers.” I remember how I admired the speed with which Vera answered people's questions. Once, when someone asked her, “Who's going to pick up the garbage if there's no government?” she immediately retorted, “Who do you think picks it up now — the government?” Or take Marc. Luisa remembered him as being slower than Vera but more profound. He could spend hours talking about the types of social relations people would be able to create and develop as soon as they were free of authority. And he was so resourceful; whenever materials or tools were lacking, he knew either where to find them or what could be used instead. As for Claude: all I remember about him is that he seemed devoted to every project he undertook. I don't remember Titus very well either. I do remember I didn't like him; he struck me as too much of a “realist”, he was always calculating the “balance of forces.” But he was an old friend of Luisa's and she was always convinced of his total devotion to the workers' struggle. I also remember that you looked up to him for his knowledge and experience.

Whatever you mean by “starting point,” the starting point of my life was the experience I shared with you. That was the only time in my life when I was engaged in a group project. No outside force, no institution, boss or leader defined our project, made our decisions, determined our schedules or tasks. We defined and determined ourselves. No one pushed, drove or coerced us. Each of us was free in the fullest sense. We briefly succeeded in creating a real community, a condition which doesn't exist in repressive societies and therefore isn't even understood. Our community was a ground on which individuals could grow and flower; it was totally unlike the quicksand which pulls down the seed, the root and even the whole plant. If this was our starting point, then we differed from order-givers and order-takers as much as a healthy living cell differs from a cancer cell, as much as an oak tree differs from a hydrogen bomb.

Luisa and I discussed other things in your letter, but not as thoroughly; we were both very tired. You might think this all-night discussion of your letter bizarre. I should tell you that Luisa and I hadn't seen each other since last year and we haven't had anything to say to each other in ages, partly because I chose to live with Sabina and Tina, but mainly because we've stopped having anything in common. Your letter brought to life the one subject we do still share: our past. Thanks to your letter we learned we could be “old friends”; you helped revive a relationship which had degenerated to the level of polite indifference.

The question of marriage was another thing that bothered Luisa. This hadn't bothered me at all until she started talking about it. You're “married,” you have a “wife” and a “daughter.” Obviously! Why wouldn't you? I accepted these things as matter-of-factly as you narrated them. But as soon as Luisa questioned all this I remembered who you were and kicked myself for having thought it all so obvious. I'm really not very observant: whenever I leave familiar surroundings I seem to lose my powers of observation and take everything for granted. Luisa said your statements about your “wife” and “daughter” seemed as strange as if you'd written us about the second coming of the savior.

My own memory has shut out everything except those wonderful days I spent with you on the streets and in the factory. Luisa reminded me that we had known you for years before that. It was Titus who first brought you to our house. You came at least once a week, and as Luisa put it, you were unquestionably one of “us.” You must know what she means.

Someone whose life goal was to have a nice house, a nice family and a nice job in the bureaucracy simply didn't come into our house. Opposition to the state, religion and the family was taken for granted in anyone we considered a friend. And that's an attitude we've continued to share, whatever differences have grown up between us over the years.

Luisa had innumerable relationships (I haven't yet heard about all of them), but she never married. She always insisted she was genuinely in love only once, with Nachalo. her first companion, my father. But she was never his “wife.” She adopted his name as her own the day after he was killed: that was the only “memorial” she was able to build for him. The adoption of his name may have been a caprice, or an expression of romantic sentimentality, but it was not a concession to the institution; union with a corpse doesn't count as marriage. Luisa's next “husband” was George Alberts, and as soon as Luisa figured out he was transforming her into a “wife” she chased him out of the house. Sabina had a child and never married. As for me, I never wanted children, for any number of reasons; I can summarize them by saying I was always “too much of a revolutionary.”

None of us ever became institutionalized “mothers,” and none of us were ever institutionalized “daughters.” Surely you were aware of this. From the moment we could walk and talk, Sabina and I took part in the work, the discussions as well as the decisions. Even earlier, when Sabina was still a baby, it was I who “brought her up,” not her “parents.” Of course this is common among working people, but in our case it didn't happen only because our “parents” both had to work. We had genuinely eliminated every trace of the hated institution, obviously only to the extent possible in a society which had not eliminated it. I can't remember ever having thought of Luisa as “my mother”: at most we were friends, once very close friends, in recent years no longer even friends.

Sabina is Tina's “mother,” but I'm certain that neither of them thinks of herself or of the other as mother and daughter. And the mere thought that Tina and I are “relatives,” that I'm something like Tina's “aunt,” drives me up a wall. To each other and to our friends we're simply three women who live together. It's cheaper that way, we help each other, and we usually enjoy each other's company. If one of us decided she'd had enough of the other two, nothing could keep her from leaving — certainly not the thought that we're relatives. Not that it's all so easy and obvious. On legal forms we're “sisters” because of our name. And to inquisitive and hostile strangers who suspect we're not “sisters,” we're bizarre: we're living proof that the world is indeed coming to an end.

You speak of “mother and father, wife and daughter” as if these were the most natural relations in the world, as if people had never lived outside these categories. Of course these things are “natural” to most people, but at one time they weren't “natural” at all to you. They were as alien to you as religion, the state and capital. Was I mistaken? Was this only the way I imagined you? Or have you changed? Luisa remembered long talks she'd had with you, not just about “politics” in the narrow sense, but also about the senselessness of promising a stuffy judge that you'd spend the rest of your life with the individual you happen to like at the time, and discussions about the horror of locking children up in the family prison. Did you adopt those attitudes only because you knew how Luisa felt, or how I felt? I can't make myself believe you were only pretending. I wouldn't have been more disturbed if you'd told us you had invested millions in a uranium mine. How could you possibly have changed so much? I can obviously understand that you might introduce Mirna to a complete stranger as “your wife.” But I'm not a stranger to you. Neither are Luisa or Sabina. What do they do to people in those prisons?

Luisa and I made ourselves coffee, watched the sun rise above the buildings behind our snowy yard, and continued discussing your letter. By now you might think we spent the night dissecting it. We did in fact find another strange element in it, although by no means as bizarre as your becoming a husband to a wife and a father to a daughter.

We were moved by your tirades against the prison system, by your exposure of the petty informers and executioners our neighbors so often turn out to be, by your beautiful description of Yara's protest. Yet you treated the whole subject of rebellion in a way we thought strange. In your words rebellion became something metaphysical, something that transcends individuals of flesh and blood and refers to the core of being. “Wherever there are people there's negation.” That's beautiful. I found the whole passage powerful and poetic. But we also found something wrong with it. (By “we” I mean that I noticed it after Luisa pointed it out.) Surely you didn't discover “negation, rebellion, insurrection” only a year ago, and only because schoolchildren demonstrated for a teacher! There's a war on! It's been going on for centuries — ever since human beings found themselves in class societies. And the defeat, even the repeated defeat, of one of the protagonists doesn't mean that the war is over. So long as the vanquished giant is not exterminated he'll rise again and yet again, returning to battle with ever greater fury. You of all people ought to know that — you who took part in two massive uprisings, two unforgettable acts of rebellion by the working people.

But I realize I'm being unfair and extremely insensitive. Luisa and I are obviously aware that the world of jailers and convicts is not the world in which the workers' commonwealth can be built. As I challenge conclusions you've drawn out of so much pain, I realize I've no right to challenge them and I'm ashamed. Not ashamed of what I said, but ashamed of my fairly comfortable surroundings and my generous friends. I'm ashamed that I was released two days after our arrest while you spent all those years in prison, ashamed I was arrested only once after that and was again released after only two days in jail. And I'm not even sure I agree with Luisa. I think what bothered her wasn't so much your treatment of rebellion as your description of the self-repressed “imbecile.” Earlier in the evening, when Tina was reading your letter after the rest of us had already read it, she burst out laughing. We all knew she had come to the passage where you describe the imbecile who voluntarily exploits himself. Sabina and I laughed too: none of us can stand workers who “love” their jobs. But it wasn't long before my laughter nearly turned to tears: I realized that Luisa, unsmiling and shocked, saw herself as the “imbecile.” Luisa has “voluntarily” gotten up every morning and gone to the same idiotic job for the past seventeen years. The schedule, the product, the task are imbecillic. Does that make Luisa an imbecile? My first impulse was to agree with you: I laughed too. But I'm not sure. When Luisa referred to your “metaphysical” attitude toward rebellion and your “simplistic” attitude toward work, I understood what she meant. I couldn't help but understand: in a few minutes she was going to rush away to her job. As soon as she left, Tina rushed into the kitchen, gulped down some juice, rushed out without saying goodbye, and slammed the door as she always does. I know she won't keep her job for as long as seventeen weeks. Yet it's Luisa, not Tina, who attends every meeting she hears about, who is the first one out in every strike, who joins every picket line and carries the biggest sign in every demonstration. Tina stays home and reads during a strike. She's as hostile to demonstrations as she is to girlie shows, and the one time in her life when she attended a “radical” meeting, her only comment was, “Every one of them thinks he's Napoleon.”

The more I think about it the more disturbing I find your description of the “imbecile.” Several years ago I had a bad scene with Luisa. I was staying at her house. She came home from work and started sobbing. She kept saying that her life wasn't any good to anyone, that she saw no reason for dragging it on any longer. I couldn't think of anything to say. I could only ask her what had happened that day. And of course nothing had happened either that day or the day before or the year before. She described herself as an old rag that was being squeezed drier every day. What you said in your letter passed through my mind at that time. I knew I couldn't spend every day of my life repeating the same motions, helping build the very machines that oppressed me, contributing to my own suffering, as you put it. I haven't done that, by the way: my “work record” is worse than Tina's. In practice I've agreed with you. Luisa somehow pulled out of it, although I was no help. She threw herself into new activities. And she continued to go back to work every day.

I wanted to summarize our reactions to your letter, and instead I'm summarizing my confusion. I'm no longer even sure my last few paragraphs have anything to do with your letter. They certainly don't amount to a “reasoned critique” of anything you said.

When I started to tell you about our “night with Yarostan's letter,” I thought this would be a way to begin to answer your questions: who I am, what I'm thinking, what I've done, if I'm “married” and have children, if I'm still alive. I've told you some of these things, and surely you weren't expecting one-word answers. I assume you want to know as much about my life as I'd like to know about yours. Maybe it was a mistake to try to combine the story of my life with the story of our discussion. This happens to be one of the “devices” I was using on the two occasions when I started to write a novel.

Yet even if this combination of the present with the past is “only” a literary device, the novels in which I was going to use it were never anything more than answers anticipating your questions. This letter is the first chapter. Whenever I tried to imagine who my readers would be, I always focused on one and the same person: you. It was to be a novel about you and me, about the days we spent together. That was to be the “past.” The “present” was to consist of my frustrated attempts to recreate those days in impossible circumstances. It was all true, exactly as it happened; I was only going to change people's names, and in my drafts I didn't even do that: I only changed the names of the people I was still with; I was too attached to the other names to change them. A lot of it would have had to be “fiction” even if the names weren't because I don't have Sabina's memory.

I was sorry you didn't mention the experience we shared. I was sad that you had almost forgotten me. The experience I shared with you has marked everything I've thought and done. My life begins with it. That experience gave me a standard, a measure which I applied to all my later experiences and to all the people I met. Complete persons once picked up a corner of the world and began to reshape it. From them I learned what people and activity could be. From them I learned that every theoretical ideal was a mere combination of words, that every intellectual Utopia was a reshuffling of present repressions. I understood the shortcomings of the people I was with because I had known people without them; I had learned that people could be more than lifeless checkers waiting to be moved or removed by superhuman hands.

Luisa had lived through an experience far richer than mine, yet her demands on the present were far more modest. After we came here she threw herself into union activity and peace demonstrations with unqualified enthusiasm; no one could have guessed that three times in her life she had experienced eruptions that undermined the world's foundations. Perhaps she nursed the illusion that every strike was the beginning of the general strike, every demonstration the signal for an insurrection, every movement the outbreak of the revolution. I threw myself into similar activities, but without the same enthusiasm. If I had shared Luisa's exhilaration whenever the same burned-out mummy was publicly exhibited as the newest spark, Sabina and Tina wouldn't have tolerated me. It's not that either of them is “conservative.” When I compare Luisa's personal life to Tina's I can't help feeling that Tina is the subversive. As for Sabina: she rejects convention so uncompromisingly that everyone considers her a “crackpot.” To Sabina, Luisa's “revolutionary enthusiasm” is merely another convention. In Sabina's words, all of Luisa's attitudes can be summarized in two short sentences: whenever a worker farts, the ruling class trembles; whenever a worker pisses, the tidal waves of revolution begin to flood the world. I've never heard of two individuals who had less in common.

I ought to admit that most of my seeming “wisdom” is hindsight; in the heat of events I'm every bit as hysterical as Luisa. Only last year there was a large-scale riot here. People burned stores, broke shop windows and carried home as many loads as they could carry. I came home with a television; someone handed it to me and I couldn't pass it on because everyone else's hands were full. Tina came home with a new pair of shoes which fit her perfectly. The festival turned into a massacre; police and soldiers murdered a lot of people. Sabina commented, “At least Tina had good sense.” What she meant was, “That's all that happened.” In purely selfish terms Tina's shoes were all we got out of the riot, since I gave my television away the following day because none of us can stand to watch it. But I refused to reduce the event to Tina's shoes. For me the glass walls of private property had at last been battered by the underlying population. The riot was the healthiest move I had seen the people of this city make in all the twenty years I've been here. I was teaching a university course at the time, and the day after the rioting ended I arrived in class full of the looting spirit. I asked which students had taken part in the riot. Then I turned to one of the students who had not taken part and asked if he had always been a good boy. It turned out he had, so I asked if as a boy he hadn't secretly wished he had joined the more intelligent kids swimming in the pond instead of sweating in Sunday school like an obedient poodle in a suit and bow tie. Predictably, the good boy reported me to the dean and I was fired next time I went to teach my class. Unlike Yara, none of my students thought of demonstrating for me. It apparently didn't occur to them. It didn't occur to me either since I hated my job, and my “riot” was the pretext I'd been looking for to quit.

The riot was a carnival before the professional killers got into it. But ultimately Sabina was right. A few people got things they actually-needed, and that was all that happened. Most people got home with armloads of elephants, like mine, which they ended up storing in their attics or giving away. The walls of private property didn't crumble. Tensions that had built up for years, for ages, were let out like farts into the already polluted air. Broken shop windows were replaced by brick walls and people went back to work to produce more commodities. Then they again waited in lines to pay for them. Some people made a fuss about those who had been killed by the army and the police — rightly so. But sueing the government for killing looters instead of jailing them isn't equivalent to expropriating the exploiters.

I became wise only after the fact. But Luisa! I saw her soon after the riot. She told me that when the riot broke out she locked herself up in her house and turned on the radio. When I expressed amazement, she said the workers she had fought with had attacked the system of property, not the property itself. “What good would it do them to inherit a world in ruins?” she asked. She stayed away. But the cooler it got outside the warmer she got. She started to get excited when the army was called in. And she became her enthusiastic and militant self when everything was over. That's when she joined a demonstration against police repression. When I saw her, she was working away in the dingy office of an anti-repression committee. Everything was over. The “committee” was nothing but a mop-up operation, the house-cleaning on the day after the big event. Yet Luisa was in a state of euphoria: she was positively sick with enthusiasm. For her the revolution was just beginning. I didn't even try to argue with her. I was polite and indifferent. I smiled condescendingly. I hadn't seen her for several years; I didn't see her again until your letter came.

I still haven't answered all your questions. Why did I write you twelve years ago? I had been looking for someone like you from the day I arrived here and the people I found weren't enough like you to put an end to my search. So I decided to try to reach you, and in case you couldn't be found, I tried to reach the other people in our group. I had just “finished” college (I should say it finished me: I was expelled). I had taken part in one of the earliest actions of what was later called the “student movement,” and it had all come to nothing. In later years that experience wasn't even counted as part of the history of the student movement. But I won't tell about that now. What bothered me at the time wasn't the fact that no one knew what we had done, but the nightmarish quality of the experience itself: I ran with all my might and got nowhere. I couldn't orient myself. I was desperate. It seemed that ever since I'd come here I'd been seeing only walls: concrete walls, brick walls, metal walls, all of them too high to see over. I had no idea what happened on the other side of the walls nor who was behind them. I've since learned that there are workshops behind the walls, workshops where most people spend most of their lives, workshops which are probably very similar to the prisons where you've spent most of your life. But at that time I only knew that the walls kept me out, that I was excluded, and I remembered that once in my life I hadn't been excluded, that I had known live individuals and had taken part in meaningful activity; I remembered that once in my life the walls had stopped being impenetrable and had started to crumble. I thought that if I could only reach you or the others I'd find a frame of reference.

I waited and waited for an answer, but not a word came. I'm surprised to learn that Mirna had seen my letter; I had thought none of my letters had reached their destinations. I suppose you didn't see my letter because, you were in prison. Why didn't you see it afterwards? Was it lost? And why did she have to memorize the address; did she know the letter would be lost? What mystified me most was your statement that Mirna thought the letter peculiar and “attributed a strange power” to it. What in the world happened to my letter?

I want to know everything, and in detail. I want to know about the things you did and the things that were done to you, about the people you met and the people you liked. I want to know what you thought about the experiences and the people, and what you think of them now. I want to know about Yara and Mirna and about the people I knew twenty years ago.

Your letter made all of us aware of the chasm that separates your world from ours. None of us believes the official literature of either side (they're both in fact the same side: the outside), but as a result no one knows what to believe. The impenetrable walls I mentioned seem to be the world's main architecture. When you're behind one wall, you can't know that there's yet another wail on the other side of it. As for the people behind that wall: they simply don't exist. If one of them nevertheless appears among us, we're suspicious: he must be a state agent; who else could scale both walls? I've heard about such state agents: they knew as little about the people who had been my comrades as I know about the mannikins at a debutante's ball, and they were every bit as contemptuous. We do learn something from them: when you hear a horror story often enough you start to assume it's true, although that's a poor way to determine what's true, especially if you know that the repetition of lies is the propagandist's stock in trade.

I was dumbfounded when you said that at one point you felt homesick for prison. I have to admit I'm one of the many who fear arrest and dread imprisonment. In spite of my brief experience with jails I still imagine prison life as consisting of long lines of silent men and women pulling iron balls and chains. Luisa reminded me that the conditions of workers are often similar to those of convicts serving long prison terms, and that these conditions stimulate feelings of mutual aid, solidarity as well as shared goals and lifelong friendships. A person who is dumbfounded by their solidarity, their camaraderie, is not one of them but an alien, an outsider, possibly an enemy. I genuinely hope you won't regard me an outsider, or what you called an “imbecile.”

All my encouragement and admiration go out to you, to Yara, to Mirna, to all your still-imprisoned comrades. And if you couldn't hide your impatience for an answer, I won't even try to hide mine.

Love,
Sophia.


Cartas de Insurgentes
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