Quarta carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Sophia,
The arrival of your letter coincided with Jasna Zbrkova's first visit to our house. Jasna, Mirna and I read your letter simultaneously; each of us waited anxiously for the others to finish a page and pass it on. Each of us was fascinated, surprised, disappointed and angered by your account.
My situation has changed considerably since I last wrote you. I've gone back to work at the carton plant. As a result Yara now does most of the housework as well as the cooking. On the day your letter came Jasna helped Yara prepare a surprise banquet for Mirna and me, to celebrate a victorious “strike” that had just taken place at their school.
When Jasna started to read your letter she exclaimed, “They remember me!” She was flattered. But the more she read the more confused she became. “I had never known what had happened to Sophia and Luisa after they were arrested twenty years ago, and I can't understand this argument she describes; were they released before their terms were over?” Jasna asked me. I told her you and Luisa had spent only two days in jail and she was as stunned as I had been. “Two days! Even I was imprisoned for a year, and I didn't have a notion of what I was doing!” Please understand, Sophia, that our astonishment about this fact is only natural; after all, Jasna spent a year in prison and I spent four. Luisa is extremely unfair when she interprets my references to George Alberts as accusations. I'm not accusing. I'm simply very curious about the fact that George Alberts managed to have both of you released after only two days in jail. What power did Alberts have to arrange your release?
One of the comments Jasna made while reading the rest of your letter was, “What a strange world that must be. I can't imagine what I would have done there.” When she finished reading the letter she said, “Sophia and Luisa don't seem to have any idea what happened here after they left.”
We were all bothered by what Jasna called your strange world. The whole system of alternatives and choices you describe seems strange and unreal. The choices you say you faced are incomprehensible to me. Yet these choices seem to be the source of your attitude toward me, toward people you knew twenty years ago and toward the pedagogues who were your university friends. You say that at one point in your life you faced a choice between Luisa, Ron and the university, and you chose the university. You say you rejected Luisa's life, the life of a wage worker, a life of boredom without any prospects, sustained only by the dream that wage labor will soon end. You've eliminated some of the contradictions and anachronisms. That leaves the part of Luisa's life that consists of daily wage labor. In what sense have you rejected this? Wage labor is still the condition for your physical survival. In fact you admit that the evening classes you teach are sold activity in the same sense as Luisa's factory work. Something is wrong with your description of your alternatives. You didn't reject Ron's actual life but your picture of his life. You made this clear by describing Tina's and Sabina's views of him in addition to yours. From them, and also from your earlier letters, I got a view of an individual who uncompromisingly rejected repressive relations and tried to overcome them, even if his attempts seem childish and directionless. You depict an individual who didn't want to overcome constraints, who wanted to adapt to repression and derive personal benefit from it, and after this misleading description you tell us you chose to live your life among journalists. You chose to spend your life among people I consider opportunists, and in your letter you identified those journalists with people we knew twenty years ago in the carton plant. You made that identification, not I. It's ironic that the arrival of your letter coincided with Jasna's visit. After our banquet Jasna gave us detailed accounts of the people you've come to consider your models. Most of the people we used to know happen to be people who've been willing to sell, not only the motion of their limbs, but their will and their consciousness, for a wage; I'd call them “opportunists.”
Before telling you what we learned from Jasna, I'd like to try to describe two events which made Jasna's narrative particularly significant to me: the first is my recent return to work and the second is Zdenek Tobarkin's visit a few days before Jasna's. In the context of these events Jasna's account made me realize that you and I experience two completely different worlds. It's not clear to me what place I occupy in your world but it's becoming clear to me what place you occupy in mine: it's the same place you and I occupied twenty years ago during our activity in the carton plant. But during those twenty years the carton plant changed and I changed. I've come to realize that my Life was derailed precisely at the intersection which you consider the fulfillment of your life. I flirted with your world much the same way as Tina accused you of having flirted with Ron's world. In this respect at least I'm not comparable to Ron. He never accompanied you into your world; it was you who intruded into his. Unlike Ron, I did enter into your world: Luisa introduced me into it. Today I view that experience as alien to me; my life had veered off its course. Thanks to my encounters during my first prison term with individuals like Manuel and Zdenek I eventually woke up and realized I was heading toward my destruction as a human being. Today I'm ashamed of the fact that I once took part in that type of activity. My correspondence with you is forcing me to deal with that moment of my life.
A few days after I sent you my previous letter I accepted the “invitation” of the workers at the carton plant. I got my old job back. This “invitation” is a direct result of the ferment that's taking place here. Before the political police was suspended two months ago I was unemployable and as a result when I was released from prison Mirna merely acquired another burden to support with her job at the clothing factory. Of course I helped prepare meals, clean the house and fetch the groceries while Mirna was at work and Yara in school, but this didn't ease Mirna's burden significantly. My unemployment pension didn't pay for even a quarter of the food I myself consumed. The invitation extended to me by the workers in the carton plant isn't only flattering but is also a solution to a pressing need.
A few days ago I brought home my first weekly wage, which was twice as large as Mirna's despite the fact that she's been working at the clothing factory for thirteen years. We immediately had a discussion almost identical to one we'd had several years ago. I suggested she could finally quit her job. Mirna emphatically said she wouldn't dream of quitting. “It's only thanks to my job that Yara and I survived during all those years you were in prison and I don't intend to throw that income away just because our situation during one week has been different. The last time you made that suggestion you were jailed a few days later.” To Mirna our present situation is an abnormal state of affairs and she's convinced it will only be temporary; prison and poverty is our normal state of affairs.
My task at the carton plant is the same as it was twenty years ago when I worked with Luisa and met you. I operate a newer model of the press that prints labels on cartons; the old press must at last have given out. There were openings for several other tasks. All the openings have been created by the departure of police agents, or rather of workers who were paid by the police to spy on other workers. I could have chosen another task. But there was no real reason to choose between the tasks since they all require one and the same act: the exchange of my living time for a wage. Since all the tasks in question required the same hours and paid the same wages, my choice between them could only be whimsical. It was on the basis of whims that I chose. One of my whims was to familiarize myself with a task I had never performed before.
Another whim was to return to the machine I had operated at the time of your life's key experience. I chose in favor of the second whim, thinking that the familiarity of my motions and my surroundings would remind me of the experiences and the people you've carried in your head for the past twenty years.
The strike I described in my last letter ended soon after I wrote you. It ended with a compromise. The plant's manager agreed to accept a union representative elected by the workers, who in turn dropped their demand to elect a different union representative each month as well as their original demand to rotate the post among all the workers in alphabetical order. I was disappointed by their compromise with the manager. I argued that such a partial victory was actually a defeat because compromising with the manager meant recognizing the legitimacy and authority of the management. Several workers said they agreed but argued that in conditions of the present ferment, when much more would become possible, it was necessary to proceed with caution since otherwise we might cause the field of possibilities to close prematurely. I argued that caution was the first step toward defeat and expressed the view that the manager should have been ousted along with the union representative, that both posts should be rotated alphabetically or eliminated altogether, and that we should examine our field of possibilities only after this much had been accomplished. I was told that a position like mine had been defended and that the overwhelming majority had been opposed to it. Several workers told me the view of the majority: “It is essential to see what other workers do in other factories, to wait and see if they succeed, and then to proceed along similar lines; if we run ahead of all the rest we'll soon be all alone, and by ourselves we won't get much further.” I disagree with this attitude but during these days such waiting isn't an altogether passive activity. Ever since I've returned to work I've become intensely aware of changes taking place all around me, not only at the factory but also at home, in other plants, in the streets of the city. I have to admit that I've come to feel the same mixture of daring and caution expressed by the workers at the carton plant. “Daring” and “caution” are such miserable words. My sensitivity to words comes mainly from Zdenek Tobarkin. Already when I knew him in prison he understood the ways in which language was used to deform reality. He has helped me understand that words can't communicate realities like the ones we're currently experiencing here. Words can only refer to things or conditions which have a certain degree of permanence or which at least recur periodically. There can be no words to describe a condition which never existed before, which changes from one moment to the next and which has no known stages or outcome. Even the word “revolution” is miserable because it conveys nothing more than a summary of past events known as revolutions, events which have nothing in common with the present.
What I'm experiencing can't be expressed by words like “daring and caution.” The condition I'm describing isn't inexpressible; it isn't a mystical experience. It's an experience shared by thousands of people who are in fact expressing themselves, many for the first time in their lives. But the communication has not been taking place only through words. The words acquire their meanings from motions, acts and steps. The words by themselves only refer to other conditions, earlier periods, and even when they're used in the context of the present ferment they suggest faulty analogies to earlier conditions. What I mean by “daring” is a readiness to walk into terrain which none of us explored before. What I mean by “caution” is the perception that our ability to approach this terrain grows only to the extent that all those like us approach it with equal daring. We're reaching for a field of possibilities that can be reached only if we move together as we've never moved before; we proceed with caution because those who move too far ahead will be caught without a lifeline to the rest. What I think is taking place around me is an advance consisting of small steps taken by all simultaneously. Each small step creates the conditions for taking the next. Any move that prevents the continued advance of all cuts off the possibility of further advance by any. All around me human beings are attempting to come to life as human beings, as universal individuals, as species beings, each advancing with all and all with each.
One day twenty years ago, while I was running the same machine at the same plant, I thought the epoch of wage labor had suddenly come to an end. I responded by formulating slogans, printing them on signs, and displaying the signs. During the past week I've experienced a far greater tumult but I've felt no impulse to print or carry signs with slogans. I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago, the person you knew. My commitment to slogans, words, programs, abstractions on signs, was a commitment to death. Twenty years ago I was the victim of a mystification. I began with vague yearnings for free activity; I began with a longing for freely chosen projects carried out within a community that made the projects possible and appreciated them. But instead of taking steps with those around me to realize my desires, I transformed my desires into what seemed to be the first step toward their realization, namely into a program of action. But by this transformation I negated my real desires; I replaced them with ideas, with words, with notions in my brain. Instead of a life I had a credo. Instead of taking steps with other people toward real projects carried out during our living moments of time, I took steps to convert other people to my credo, my religion, my words. I replaced the concrete practical activity of the whole human being with merely mental activity, with activity that took place inside my mind, with combinations of written letters or spoken sounds, namely with non-activity. I inverted my urge to live and turned it into its opposite. My desire for liberated activity became a belief in liberated activity. My longing for a human community was replaced by a longing for a community of believers, a religious community, a community of converts to my credo. And instead of finding myself among living, independent and creative individuals, I found myself in the frock of a priest in the midst of a flock. It has taken me twenty years to realize that I had been a priest — even if a heretical one — of what must surely be humanity's last religion, that religion of liberation from the illusions of religion, that religion which was used by a group of pedagogues to establish unprecedented power over populations who had desired, not the words of the credo, but the world those words seemed to suggest.
Today like twenty years ago we're daily bombarded with slogans and programs, with platforms and reforms, with revolutions ever so carefully worked out on paper by those who live in paper worlds. But today I'm not among those printing or carrying posters with slogans nor among those arguing in defense of one or another platform. In the framework of your world I've joined the ranks of the inarticulate. I can't formulate either my goals or my means. I can tell you neither where I'm going nor how I'll get there. Yet I feel more vibrant, more alive, than I felt when I thought I knew my direction and my destination because I had words for them. I feel alive precisely because I don't know what the next moment will bring. Time has once again become a dimension that reveals possibilities and has ceased to be a dreary schedule of expected events. I came to life when the events I had learned to expect suddenly stopped recurring. Only a few months ago Yara took part in a completely unexpected demonstration. A few weeks ago workers invited me to join them. A week ago those workers ousted their union representative. This week we elected one from among ourselves to replace the ousted official. Next week we may learn that the workers of a neighboring factory have started tearing down the factory walls. And a month from now we might invite our neighbors, especially the children, to our factory to begin dismantling the machinery into as many pieces as Sabina's friend the car thief dismantled a car. At that point we might begin an altogether different life on a terrain from which every trace of our former activity has been removed. A human life might begin, inhibited by no barrier external to the developing individual. The realization of one's potentialities would then be accompanied by the enjoyment of the infinite potentialities realized by all those around one. Such a prospect cannot be the program of an individual or a group, and it cannot be articulated. It is not a religion to which people are to be converted. It is a practice which I and those around me are trying to invent.
Although I sense that we're moving, I still perform the familiar motions at my press, I go home after work and I return to work the following morning. The contradiction makes me tense. It's a tension I share with all those around me. At any moment the regularity might end and we'll plunge forward and cross a frontier we can't see today. Our willingness to cross that frontier is what I called “daring.” But there's also “caution.” There's apprehension. My heart beats faster and I feel dizzy and nauseated; the anticipation is accompanied by a certain fear. I know and those around me know that the conditions which open up a possibility for a new life also give rise to forces which negate life. Human life itself has this double character. Growth takes place through cell division, through the realization of the potentialities carried within each cell. Yet the ugliest form of death also takes place through cell division. Such death is also a growth, one that annihilates potentiality and replaces living cells with monstrosities. All around me people are trying to move to a ground on which the specific potentialities of each individual can develop, like plants seeking sunlight and moisture. And life-negating forces are accompanying every move we make. Just as the power of one cell to split into two is the power that turns against the further division of living cells, so the power that enables us to move together out of slavery to a terrain where the free development of each individual becomes possible is the power that turns against our ability to move at all. The power to conceptualize and communicate, the power that enables us to move together as a community, is the very power that turns against us and deprives us of community. The reality we strive to reach comes back to us several times a day in the form of a concept, a substanceless unreal thing, a mere combination of words. I think that up to now we've steered clear of these traps; I think we're still alive. But the traps are heavily comouflaged and we still aren't very practiced in recognizing them. At any moment, instead of taking another step forward, we might again blindly confuse the concept with the reality and again waste ourselves reaching out for nothing. If that should happen once again then our present ferment will again give rise to that negative cell division, that deformed development of monstrosities which exterminate our real desires. If we recoil from leaping into the unknown and again take refuge in the concept, we'll plunge right back to our starting point. The deadliest of the traps is being set by those who are transforming the leap into a phrase, by those who are naming our destination and transforming our real desires into their political program. If we again recoil from real motion and development and replace it with the motion and development of concepts in the heads of priests, we'll only produce another religion with its church and its priests. We would again cease to be the agents of our own struggle; our desires would again become disembodied concepts carried in the heads of intellectuals.
Politics: that's the religion of today, that's the cancer that annihilates every possibility of community and puts an end to every period of ferment. This deformity divides and multiplies precisely during periods of ferment. Because it's unnatural it outruns our natural development of capacities. It plants itself at all intersections long before we reach them. Political militants are its missionaries. Committed intellectuals are its priests. The state is its church. Like all religions it transforms the human community into a herd. Its agents, the organizers and pedagogues, are the spiritual leaders of flocks of animals. It grows, like its biological analogue, inside the very body it attacks. It reproduces itself within the living members of the human community, extinguishing them as living beings, annihilating the very possibility of community. Its instruments are the entire armory of life-destroying gadgets devised by technology, everything that can serve to police a herd, from bombs to walkie-talkies, including the newspapers that proliferate the words and the loudspeakers that magnify the voices of the high priests. Contrary to what you think, I don't see your newspaper activity as similar to the ferment surrounding me but as activity which can only annihilate the ferment.
We all carry the possibility as well as the negation within ourselves. At work we listen to the radio all day. Even though each of us is nervously anticipating our next concrete step, we nevertheless feel exhilarated when the words of a politician seem to express the exact nature of the step we long to take. We applaud phrases like “new democracy” or “new socialism” or “genuine workers councils.” We walk into the politicians' traps like newborn children who have learned nothing from countless previous generations. While applauding the speaker or praising the writer we momentarily forget that we haven't been longing for a new phrase but for a new life; we forget that we've only just begun to explore a new possibility, the possibility of creating the world ourselves. When we applaud we again become the lifeless globs of organic matter we've been nearly every moment of our normal lives. We cheer the pedants and we're again helpless, like the spectators of a sporting match rooting for a team. We're hypnotized by the bouts and struggles among the concepts; we passively admire reflections of our own real longings and we passively admire the politicians who return our longings to us in the form of images.
That's why we feel tense. I'm convinced that the present ferment carries real possibilities for life. But I'm also aware that every time we take a step we're surrounded by the ideological birds of prey who feed on our possibilities, fill themselves with concepts of our desires and reenslave us with beautiful combinations of words which seem to depict the world we failed to realize.
A few days before Jasna's visit I had a very stimulating discussion with Zdenek Tobarkin. When I first met Zdenek, during my first prison term, he was intensely interested in everything I told him about the workers' struggle with which Luisa had familiarized me, the struggle in which she, Manuel, Titus Zabran and George Alberts took part when you were two years old. When Zdenek visited us a few days ago he made several comparisons to the earlier struggle which have helped me understand some characteristics of the present situation. I told Zdenek that in recent years I had completely discarded Luisa's view of that struggle, the view I had expressed when Zdenek and I were in prison together. I summarized Manuel's analysis of those events.
Zdenek said he had long suspected that something like Manuel's analysis had been missing from my earlier accounts. “I found your earlier stones exciting because they justified my attachment to the union,” he told me. “But when I began to reexamine my commitment I also became suspicious of your account. The union you described so enthusiastically was led by politicians. Those politicians probably expressed the urges of workers more accurately than any previous group of politicians, if words can ever express real urges accurately. Workers accepted the politicians as their spokesmen. This is why the workers were defeated on the day after their victory. This is why the working population came to life only for a day, the day of the rising against the generals. At the very moment of victory the union consolidated the power it had already established over the workers. The working people were reenslaved before they had the time to realize that for twenty-four hours they had begun to live without chains.” Zdenek contrasted that situation with the ferment surrounding us here today. “Our present situation is unique. When the ferment began, all politicians, organized intellectuals and bureaucrats of liberation were completely discredited.” He also contrasted the origins of the present ferment to the origins of the earlier rising. “We weren't suddenly attacked by the military and consequently we didn't have to concentrate all our energy on a single act of self-defense. We've had time to explore new ground, to consider alternatives, to move ahead slowly, absorbing the significance of each step. We weren't attacked during one day but over a period of twenty years. Those who attacked us weren't army generals but every species of representative of the working class, of revolution, of liberation, of self-determination that has been coughed up by history. Consequently, although our steps have been small and undramatic, we've moved on our own and not under the hegemony of politicians. Instead of being attacked, we were suddenly let free; the repressive power of all representatives was suddenly suspended. Unlike the workers who were attacked, we've had a chance to rise and stretch, to test the abilities of our unused limbs and to explore our ability to act communally. We haven't moved far, but we've moved on our own.”
I expressed misgivings about the rate at which we were moving and about the fact that the politicians were moving much faster than the rest of the population. Zdenek brushed my arguments aside. “You don't seem to realize that this is one of the few times in all history when a population has moved without politicians. I don't want to say the recuperators are absent. You're perfectly right. They're all around us. Every day a new group of aspiring bureaucrats presents a new program in the press and on the radio. Every day a new speaker tours the factories, schools and meeting houses. Yes, they're omnipresent. But they're not omnipotent. That's why there's a new program and a new speaker every day. Not a single group among them has established its hegemony over the population. People haven't been infected by a single politician's credo. The politicians are moving fast, but the people are staying clear of them. The steps being taken may be small, but they're real, they're taking place in this concrete world and not in an organization's program. The politicians are all discredited. Due to the ideological character of the regime we've experienced for the past twenty years, ideologists and theorists as such, politics as such have been discredited. Don't exaggerate the applause speakers are getting. There's nothing wrong with applauding a good speech. The applause only expresses appreciation for the speaker's talent as a speaker. The fact that people applaud doesn't mean they're being hypnotized.”
I told Zdenek that only the recognizable politicians of the old regime have been discredited. I said that all types of politicians with a “new face” have been transforming the present ferment into their profession and that at least the workers at my plant were not altogether hostile to such “new” politicians. I admitted that as yet there were no large numbers of people repeating the formulas of any politician but I said I didn't exclude the possibility that one of the “new faces” would “realize our goals” by installing himself in the state apparatus.
Zdenek thought I was unjustifiably pessimistic. “You're too much of a Cassandra,” he told me. “It's of course true that only one variant of the theory of the proletariat reigned supreme during the past twenty years. But I'm convinced that the rule of this variant discredited all the variants of the theory of the proletariat, from the tyrannical variant to the self-determined variant. Today everyone sees through the absolute, omniscient and omnipotent embodiment of the proletariat. Maybe some people aren't as overtly hostile to the other versions because they haven't had to live under them, but no one can help recognizing them as variations on the same theme. Your view is extremely pessimistic. If humanity had to experience every single variant of representation before it rejected all of them, it would never emerge from its morass. I think you're wrong. I think the experience with one variant has taught us lessons about all of them. I think humanity is finally rejecting what has always been an impossible project, the project of representation. The present proliferation of major and minor pharaohs around the world is the final and ludicrous stage of that impossible project. My life can't be lived as a representation; my representative can't realize my aspirations, take my steps or engage in my actions. The pharaohs are the final and definitive proof of the impossibility of representation. I think we've all finally learned what took me so long to learn, namely that I'm robbed of my enjoyment if my representative enjoys himself for me, that my hunger remains when he eats for me, that I don't express myself when he speaks for me, that my mind and my imagination stagnate when he thinks for me and decides for me, that I lose my life when he lives for me.”
I agreed with Zdenek but I still had misgivings. I told him that he had gotten his insights from very specific experiences which had not been shared by many people, that the mystifications which he had seen through were not necessarily as transparent to everyone else.
“What are you suggesting?” he asked. “That I go out into the streets like a prophet and communicate my insights about the danger of prophets? Do you remember the former politician with whom I argued at the prisoners' club — the one who emphasized the need for organizational resources and publishing activity? We would once again reconstitute a group with a theory and a publication, we would once again replace the concrete activity of thousands of people with the image of that activity communicated in words by our publication and our group. I've had specific experiences and so have you, but these experiences are specific to our whole historical period. If I'm able to draw conclusions from them so can all my contemporaries. I can't understand my experiences any other way. If I've had experiences no one else has had then I can't hope to communicate with anyone. One human being can no more demystify another than eat for another. But I haven't had experiences no one else had. The concrete activities of those around me prove this to me, just as my activities surely communicate the experiences I've had. Organizational resources and publications would only separate me from those with whom I want to communicate.”
I feel that Zdenek is right. The strike that recently took place at the carton plant showed me that those workers must have had experiences and drawn conclusions similar to mine. Their concrete act communicated this to me. They didn't carry signs nor proclaim a program nor engage in any of the activities which seem so dear to you. They simply removed the local representatives of the repressive apparatus, directly, without a platform, without representatives. That done, we're ready to take our next concrete step. The politicians have been unmasked, not only for Zdenek and me, but for all of us. At the plant we listen to political speeches broadcast by the radio but we don't act on them; we watch for the next step people like us will take elsewhere.
I think Zdenek is also right in considering the present ferment in many ways more profound than the uprising Luisa and Manuel taught me about. In that earlier event repressed and self-repressed human beings suddenly came to life — but for a period that lasted less than twenty-four hours. Here the concrete steps have been small and undramatic but those who came to life are still living. Can this ferment continue to spread without being caught in the webs of the politicians? Can we get past the spokesmen, coordinators and organizers who extinguished the earlier struggle? My first impulse is to doubt it. So many people have never before become independent without provoking the concentrated resentment of those who wanted to rule over them. Such “directionless” and “spontaneous” activity has never before held its own against the blows dealt against it by organizational militants and their infallible leaders. Manuel and Luisa, in their descriptions of the events they both experienced, concur on one and only one detail: on the day when the generals attacked, the people ran into the streets on their own; the “leaders” ran behind and placed themselves on the front lines so as not to “lose” their followers. For an instant it was the influential militants who were lost among the independent individuals whom they later claimed to have led. The first individuals at the barricades were not there under orders but on their own. Each individual formulated his or her own task, and by carrying out that task, each implemented the project of the group, which was inseparable from the projects of each individual. Each coordinated and organized, not because he or she was the official coordinator or organizer, but because one and then another was closest to the problem that needed to be coordinated and organized. Individuals who have this capacity for self-directed activity during an insurrection are in all ways identical to the individuals with whom I work in the plant, with whom I share this city, with whom I inhabit this globe. Individuals who have such capacities during twenty-four hours have the capacity to appropriate human life and make it a project of the living.
I've tried to give you some idea of the ferment which surrounds me. I've tried to describe my hopes as well as my apprehensions, and I've summarized Zdenek's view of the prospects of this activity. It's perfectly clear to me that this activity has nothing in common with the journalistic activity to which you compared it. The type of activity which you chose has much in common with the activity of the politicians who lecture to us on the radio and in the newspapers; it has nothing in common with the actions and apprehensions of the people with whom I work in the carton plant. I resent the fact that you compare the ferment around me with your academic and journalistic activities. I think the two projects are not only different from each other but also hostile to each other: the projects you've chosen can only take place if my present project fails. That's why I can't recognize myself in your choices or in your enthusiasms. I can understand the world you describe, the world in which you've so carefully steered toward your chosen alternative, only because I once stepped into that world. But I stepped out of that world long ago. I think you're right when you compare your chosen activities to those of the people we knew twenty years ago. Jasna described those people to us on the very day your letter came. During these past twenty years I've changed and you haven't. You've retained the commitments we shared twenty years ago. Jasna's account of the individuals you remember so fondly makes it clear to me that your chosen activities have a great deal in common with theirs, not with mine. After the luxurious meal she and Yara had prepared to celebrate the “victory” at their school, Jasna told us everything she knew about the present activities of those individuals.
Jasna and Yara were waiting for me when I returned home from my third day of work. Jasna was anxious to read your letter, but Yara couldn't wait to tell me about the day's events. It's amazing how quickly the ferment spreads once a population regains creative initiative. Several students, among them Yara, began a campaign to oust the assistant head of the school, the person responsible for maintaining discipline among students as well as teachers. All the students stood quietly in the halls and let the head of the school know they wouldn't enter their classrooms until the disciplinarian resigned. They were joined by every single teacher. Even the head of the school gave a speech praising their determination. Jasna said she was profoundly moved by this speech. The disciplinarian resigned after having occupied her post for twenty years. She was undoubtedly a police agent, although neither Yara nor Jasna knew if she was actually in the pay of the police.
Mirna came home soon after I did and we all read your letter. After supper Mirna asked Jasna when she had first met Jan and how long she had worked with him.
“He was hired right after the resistance,” Jasna said. “We worked together for three years, three unforgettable, wonderful years.”
I begged Jasna to start her story earlier, to tell us how and when she had come to work at the carton plant.
“I started working there before the war,” she told us. “Among the people you knew, I was the first one there. I had just finished high school and I'd always known I'd have to find a job the day after I finished school. My parents both worked in factories. All the money they earned went to pay for the little house they had bought. I still live there. My father was a horribly bossy man. I was afraid of him. I was like a servant in the house. After I started working that changed. I went to several factories but none of them had openings for someone without any experience. When I went to Mr. Zagad's office he hired me even though I told him I didn't have experience. He was really such a decent man. I still feel sorry for him. A few months after I started work the war broke out and the city was occupied. I went to work every day and returned to my parents' home every evening. I wasn't much bothered by the war or the occupation at first. I knew something horrible had happened but I didn't understand what it was. Then one day, during the second year of the war, my father brought home a man he worked with. He explained that the man was homeless and that he'd spend the night with us. Late that night the police came to our house, broke our front door and arrested the stranger as well as my father. They insulted my mother and me for hiding a Jew. Then they took both men away in a police car. I never saw my father again. I never learned if he was shot or sent to a concentration camp. A year later a man from my mother's factory came to the house to tell me that my mother had died in an accident. I was sure she had committed suicide; she had talked about killing herself ever since my father was taken away. The war and the occupation became very meaningful to me. I hated it. I hated the occupiers because of what they had done to both my parents. But when I saw the occupiers in the streets I was deathly afraid of them. I was — I still am — afraid of every person with authority, just as I had been afraid of my father. But people with authority aren't all the same. I was never afraid of Mr. Zagad. He was decent, and I've always been grateful for that. He heard about my mother's accident and told me to leave work for two weeks with pay. He even attended my mother's funeral.
I've never understood why it was Mr. Zagad that you and the others turned against. Maybe it was wrong for him to have so much power over others, but that can't be the reason he was removed since his successor had even greater power. But I'm running ahead. Either shortly before or shortly after my mother died, Titus Zabran was hired. He had returned from abroad just before the war started. During breaks he would tell several of us about his earlier adventures and I was hypnotized by his stories. He told about workers who had fought against a whole army, not for three days but for three years, to defend their own popular government.”
I was amazed by Jasna's last statement. “Is that how Titus understood that struggle?” I asked. I had never heard Titus say anything about that struggle nor about his role in it.
“Of course I don't remember the actual stories he told me,” Jasna said. “I don't think I paid too much attention anyway. Titus frightened me. I shared his hatred for the occupiers. But I was afraid of his constant talk about the need to arm and shoot. He seemed like the kind of person who would do everything he said he'd do. He reminded me of my father. I shared his hatred but not his manner. I remember that I liked Mr. Zagad a lot better. I sensed that he hated the occupiers as much as Titus or I but he didn't growl and show his teeth like a vicious dog. Whenever soldiers or inspectors came to the plant he was always courteous. He wasn't slavish, just courteous.”
I interrupted Jasna to point out, “If everyone had been so courteous those occupiers would still be here.”
“I know,” Jasna said. “I'm just telling you what I felt at the time. After the war ended I felt that Titus had been right. Actually I got to like him even before the war ended, mainly for his knowledge. He seemed to know everything. Luisa Nachalo was another person who seemed to know everything but I disliked her when she first came to the plant. She was hired a few months after Titus.”
At this point Yara had a question. “Did you say you liked him because he was smart but you disliked her because she was smart?”
Jasna laughed. “You caught me, didn't you? No, I guess I'm not being altogether truthful. I was afraid of Titus but I liked him at the same time. And I think I disliked Luisa at first because I was jealous. In a way I did dislike her because she was so smart; that was what made me jealous. I suppose I wanted to form a closer relationship with Titus but he seemed to consider me a goose, especially after Luisa started working at the plant. Next to Luisa I was a goose. She was so quick, so well informed, so brilliant with her foreign accent and her sharp tongue. I knew I'd never live up to that woman. She had been married before, already had two daughters, and had nevertheless managed to familiarize herself with everything under the sun and seemed as independent as a bird. My mother had only had one daughter and she had used me as her lifelong excuse for her abysmal ignorance. Yes, I envied Luisa. But I didn't even try to compete with her. I knew I'd only make myself more of a goose. I stopped thinking of forming a closer relationship with Titus.”
I told Jasna that Titus and Luisa had merely been friends and that Luisa had lived with another man when we knew her.
`T think I knew that,” Jasna said. “I dimly remember having known that, but I lied to myself. Titus took no interest in me. I was hurt. I convinced myself that he ignored me because I was no Luisa. But I didn't spend too many hours feeling sorry for myself. I read novels instead. Later on, after I dropped the idea of falling in love with Titus, I got to like Luisa. But that was only a few months before we were all separated. I've always been sorry I never had a long talk with her. We were together for such a short time.”
I asked Jasna what she had done during the resistance.
“Nothing,” she answered. “Absolutely nothing. During the whole last year of the war Titus had repeatedly asked me to attend meetings of the neighborhood resistance organization. Several times I promised I'd go, but when the time came to go to the meeting my whole body started shaking. I had visions of police knocking on the door and dragging me away, along with Titus and all the others, to be shot or deported to a concentration camp. During all three days of the uprising I locked myself into my house and I didn't come out again until several hours after I heard the last shot. I was deathly afraid. When it all ended I was as glad that the shooting was over as I was that the occupation was over. The following day I went back to the plant. Many of the people I had worked with had been killed by a single explosion when they were leaving the plant on the last day of the uprising. Several others had been killed in the fighting. That was when I met your brother,” she told Mirna. “They were all hired at the same time: Yarostan, Vera Neis, Adrian Povrshan, Claude Tamnich, Marc Glavni.”
I reminded Jasna that Marc was hired three years later.
“Three years!” she exclaimed. “I had forgotten. They were the happiest years of my life. I think I would have been content to remain on that job with those people. You, Titus and Luisa were the most thoughtful, the most intelligent people I've known. Recently I've known mainly teachers; none of them are as well informed, as educated and perceptive as the three of you were. And your brother, Mirna, was the gentlest, warmest, most generous individual I've ever met or read about. He was the only one who never treated me as a goose. He paid attention to what I had to say even though I usually contradicted myself.
He took me seriously even when I didn't take myself seriously. He sometimes had die most absurd ideas, like wanting to drag the machinery into the street and converting the factory into a dance hall, but he was never malicious. All his suggestions seemed like fun and I was usually the main supporter of his crazy schemes. At that time I also loved Vera and Adrian. They were so comical. I thought already then that they ought to be entertainers in a theater. I wasn't far wrong. Vera was so funny with all her stories about the crooked deals of what she called the ruling class. I was in stitches during half of every working day. I even liked that ox Claude, mainly because I felt sorry for him; he was the only person there who was dumber than I. Yes, Marc was the last. And I liked him least. He was fresh out of high school and such a clod. I can't believe what he is now. He always spoke with the self-assurance of a spoiled brat but couldn't do a thing on his own. I constantly had to show him what to do, and almost every day I repaired something he had ruined. I don't think any of those people would have been remarkable by themselves. Something strange happened during those three years. We were all deeply affected by something, perhaps by each other. I think those years made all of us what we became. I know that Vera would have quieted down and become like everyone else if Titus and Luisa hadn't continually encouraged her, and if Titus hadn't used his influence to keep her from being fired. You, Yarostan, would have been a completely different person if you hadn't met Luisa. The only one who didn't change during those years was your brother, Mirna. I think Jan was the only one of us who would have led the same life he led.”
I told Jasna you considered your brief contact with that group of people the central experience in your life and asked her what she thought extraordinary about those people or that situation. Her answer gave me some insight into the life choices you've made.
“I've never in my life experienced such a turn-about, except when I was arrested,” she said. “I went to college later on, but I didn't learn nearly as much as I learned during those three years. The real university I attended was the carton plant after you, Jan and the others were hired. I knew already then that none of the people in our group would spend their lives in the carton plant or in any other kind of factory work, except possibly Jan. We were simply transformed by that experience.”
I asked her what she thought had happened to us during those three years.
“It's something I've never before tried to put into words,” she said. “Not that it was so mysterious. When I attended college several years later I knew that none of my fellow students would ever go back to factory jobs no matter what their social background was. In the university this was simply taken for granted. In our group this wasn't ever stated but it seemed just as obvious to me. I'm surprised you're still working in a factory. i was wrong about you.”
I told her I had changed and reminded her that Luisa too was still working in a factory.
“I'm not surprised about Luisa,” she said. “I wouldn't have expected her to undergo the same changes. She was different. She's the one who set it all off. I don't think Titus by himself would have had such an impact. I think it was the presence of Luisa that was so explosive, that caused such profound transformations in the people around her. I wasn't the first to be affected by her. Unfortunately I was one of the last. I think you and Vera were the first. Luisa obviously didn't have the same effect on everyone. You and Vera were affected so differently. Everyone was affected differently. It wasn't only what Luisa said that affected us, although that too was exciting. I still remember the stories she told us about workers she'd known who hadn't only fought in a resistance like ours but had gone from the barricades to their factories to lock out their bosses and install their own friends in all the managerial offices. Those stories were exciting but only as topics of conversation, as stories. I heard them as fairy tales. That alone wouldn't have transformed me. What transformed us was how she acted: her manner, her behavior, her personality. Even if her stories weren't true, if workers had never done what she said they had done, Luisa made us all feel that she was determined to do exactly that, and right in our plant. From the first day she came to the plant she started asking where the materials came from, what was to be done with them in the plant, where the products were sent afterwards. Maybe she only asked those questions so as to familiarize herself with every aspect of the plant's activity, but she made us all feel we knew infinitely more about the process than Mr Zagad; she made us feel that Mr. Zagad was superfluous and that we could run the plant much better without him. She communicated her impatience to us. With everything she said and did she seemed to be asking the rest of us what we were waiting for. She made us feel like cowards for not doing all the things that had been done by the workers she described. This had a strange effect on all of us, and first of all on you.”
I admitted having been affected by Luisa the very first time I met her.
“You weren't only affected, you were completely transformed. You became just like her. I think Luisa could have left the plant a few months after you came and you would have exerted the same influence on the rest of us. You acquired the same self-assurance, the same impatience. You made us feel like cowards for not going ahead with all those schemes. You weren't her disciple but her exact replica. You gave the impression that you had actually lived all the experiences she had narrated to us, and that you were as determined as she to make them happen here. I could see you change from one day to the next. No one else was so completely transformed by Luisa. Vera was also profoundly affected, but she didn't become another Luisa. I'm convinced that it was only because of Luisa that Vera became such an entertainer, such a radio, as you used to call her. Luisa's mere presence provoked Vera. It was as if Vera felt compelled to compete with Luisa every minute of the day, as if she had to outdo Luisa in intelligence, knowledge and even self-confidence. I could almost see the changes Vera underwent. She wasn't that talkative when she first came and she did do her job. But after listening to Luisa's stories for only a month Vera started to tell her own stories. At first she bombarded us with statistics about the output for which workers were responsible and the income we were paid. She must have spent her nights rummaging through government publications and official documents so as to spend her days telling us about the financial dealings of bankers and factory owners. The statistics were appreciated by Titus but they didn't go over very well with the rest of us. We still found Luisa's observations more exciting. So Vera started collecting all kinds of anecdotes, hair-raising accounts of crooked deals. She was determined not to be outdone by Luisa. Three or four times she even told us the details of major scandals several days before the newspapers reported them. And Adrian, who had worshipped Vera since high school, became something like her straight man. Vera would make a grandiose statement and Adrian would leap in with detailed documentation. Sometimes they even acted out the scenes of a recent scandal. Do you think they'd ever have done those things in normal circumstances? I was affected too. Everything seemed so much fun, I was swept along by all the excitement. Even Marc was affected, though he was in the carton plant so briefly before we were arrested. Inept as he was in everything he did, he treated himself as someone who knew more about workers running their own plants than anyone else, even Luisa. Every other day he described a complex scheme; he figured out how people were going to supply each other with raw materials, electricity, housing and everything else under the sun. Luisa seemed to admire him for the effort he put into these schemes. I was surprised she didn't see through him. He was nothing but a conceited boy trying desperately to prove that he was better than the rest of us. He may have been intelligent, but since it was I who ran behind him repairing what he had ruined, I wasn't impressed by his abilities. Claude was affected too, but in a strange way; he had such a one-track mind. His single response to Luisa's impatience and to Vera's exposures was to want to liquidate obstacles, liquidate enemies; he even spoke of liquidating Mr. Zagad. Claude seemed to think already then that all our excitement was only a preparation for the day when our group would order him to carry out his liquidations. I don't think I knew this at the time; I must have realized it when I saw him years later. What I felt at the time was that he loomed above us like a threatening cloud. Whenever he spoke he turned our enthusiasm into something frightening. He made all our fun seem like a prelude to something horrible.”
I interrupted Jasna's narrative and told her I thought she was exaggerating the magnitude of Luisa's influence. In my view it wasn't only the experiences we shared at the carton plant that made those people what they later became. The traits they exhibited when Jasna knew them must already have been integral parts of their personalities.
Jasna disagreed quite vehemently. “Without the experiences we shared in that plant none of those people would have moved in the directions in which they've moved since then. Every single one of those people would have been a factory worker today. Well, of course I can't be sure about that. But I do know that hardly any of them are factory workers today and what changed them was the time we spent together. Do you think Claude would ever have left his first factory job if something extraordinary hadn't happened to him? Of course they all came there with personality traits. That's why they all responded so differently. When I got to know Vera she boasted she'd been a troublemaker in high school during the war, she'd given speeches attacking the occupiers. But the mere ability to give speeches wasn't enough. She'd have lost this ability as soon as she was fired for giving a speech and had to find another job; if she'd gotten a job in a place where the noise drowned her out or where talk wasn't allowed, she'd have been as quiet as anyone else. She was talkative already in high school. But she became a self-assured social reformer only after she ran into Luisa. And what personality traits did Marc have? His conceit came from his having been one of the brighter students in a provincial school where over half the students missed school for several weeks every spring and fall because of farm work and every winter because of lack of transportation. His conceit would have been knocked out of him by any normal group of city workers who were as educated as he was. If Luisa hadn't considered him such a genius he'd never have dreamed of going to the university and he'd never have thought himself able to occupy the posts he occupies today. When Marc started to climb to those high posts it became clear to me what kind of people occupy them. Nor would Adrian have gotten where he is now on his own. He merely drifted in the direction the rest took, which is all I've ever done. Neither Adrian nor I would ever have drifted out of the factory if we hadn't been able to drift along with the others.”
Mirna asked why her brother had remained unaffected by Luisa and by all the excitement we had shared.
“Jan wasn't like the rest of us,” Jasna said. “Neither was Titus. It's funny. I've seen much more of Titus than of any of the others. I've known him since the war and I saw him frequently during the past twenty years. But I don't understand him at all as well as I understand the others. I never really got to know him. If he took part in discussions at all, it was only to advise others to be patient. After his first year at the plant, he no longer said anything about the experiences he had shared with Luisa. I don't suppose he changed during those years any more than Jan did. But I don't know to what extent Luisa affected him before I met him. I do know that Jan wasn't affected by Luisa. He opposed Luisa the very first day he came to the plant. He ridiculed her. He said that if he had been one of the workers who had ousted a plant's owners and managers he couldn't imagine why in the world he would return to the plant the next day unless he had some personal use for one of the machines in the plant. He said he couldn't imagine a situation in which workers ousted all social authorities and then continued doing what they had done before. He even accused Luisa of lying. He said no worker he'd ever known would return to work if he no longer had to. Much as I admired Luisa, I was convinced by Jan every time he argued with her. If Jan had had his way none of us would have gone back to the plant the day after Mr. Zagad was thrown out. Or we'd have gone back only to throw out Mr. Zagad's machinery. Of course if we'd done what Jan wanted we'd have been arrested even sooner than we were.”
“Since you didn't do any of those things, why were you all arrested?” Mirna asked.
“Didn't you know?” Jasna asked. “I figured that out — or rather, it was explained to me during my year in prison. Every one of our signs was different from the official signs. Yarostan, Luisa and sometimes Vera argued all night long to make our signs different. Jan had absolutely nothing to do with that. He even refused to take part in the printing and distribution of our signs after Mr. Zagad was ousted. He grumbled that by continuing to work inside those factory walls without tearing them down we were only imprisoning ourselves. And he was right.”
“You were arrested because your signs were different?” Yara asked.
“And I was so stupid I didn't know that at the time,” Jasna said. “During one of my first days in prison, in the dining hall, a woman asked me why I'd been arrested. I honestly told her I didn't know. The investigator's questions had been totally incomprehensible to me and I didn't understand the accusation either. The woman then asked what I had done during the days of the coup. I told her I had printed slogans on signs and marched around with the signs like everyone else. Eventually she asked me what slogans were on my signs. As soon as I started to describe some of them all the women in the dining hall began to laugh at me. Several days later I asked one of the women why everyone had laughed at me. She asked with disbelief if I really hadn't known that every one of my slogans was a parody of the official slogans. Wherever the official signs had the word state, our signs had the word workers; wherever the official signs said party, ours said union; wherever their signs said power, ours said self-management. I felt like an absolute idiot. I had been totally unaware of these differences. To me all the signs in the streets had looked identical. It was only after I learned about these differences that I remembered all the arguments between Luisa, Vera and Titus about the slogans that were to go on our signs. At the time I had thought they were arguing in a foreign language. I still don't understand why this was so important. If I didn't see our signs as any different from anyone else's I'm sure no one else did either. I'm sure the police were the only ones who were aware of these differences, Yarostan, surely you knew why we were arrested. You and Luisa attached so much importance to those differences. The differences mattered to Marc and Adrian only because you and Luisa thought them so important. I didn't know anything about them. When I was arrested I insisted I hadn't ever done anything in my whole life; I hadn't even had the nerve to take part in the resistance against the occupiers who killed my father. But my protests were all irrelevant. The trial rolled over me like a locomotive, and no matter how loudly I shouted I couldn't affect its course. I didn't understand a thing. I don't remember all the accusations that were thrown at me. At that time I didn't even know what the word sabotage meant. I was nevertheless sentenced to a year in prison. How is it possible that Luisa spent only two days? She, at least, knew why she was there. Prison life was a nightmare for me. Most of the women I met were mean to me. After I made such a fool of myself I became the prison dunce. One woman told me that after my year was over I'd automatically get another sentence because during the first year I had become a jailbird and therefore a socially dangerous person. And she said there was no telling how long the next sentence would be but that one-year terms were unheard of. Another woman filled me with horror stories about the torture chambers to which I'd be sent. I shook with fear every waking moment I spent there. I was so relieved when I finally left that hell. Luckily my house was exactly as I'd left it. It hadn't been confiscated. I decided I'd never again take part in political groups. I'd never again carry signs or go to demonstrations. I stuck to that decision until a few weeks ago. But I took part in the activities in our school only because everyone else is taking part in them; in that situation it would require bravery not to take part.”
I gave Jasna a brief summary of my miserable experience after my first release and asked if she had been able to find a job.
“I was so glad to be out of that prison that nothing else mattered,” she said. “Of course I was lucky to have that little house. I had also saved some money. I did look for a job, and had experiences similar to yours. I went to the carton plant first. The people in charge were apes compared to Mr. Zagad. Of course they turned me down. I was turned down at three other factories as well. But I didn't really care. I had enough money to buy groceries for several months and my little house has been paid for since before the war. I just read and waited to see what would -happen. I envy the courage of women like Sophia and Sabina. I didn't have the nerve to leave the house and go looking for adventure. Not on my own. I read. I thought. Mainly I felt sorry for myself. I was completely lost. I knew that my savings would run out eventually. I knew I couldn't just stay inside my house. But the prison term had made me unemployable. There was nothing I could do. It was only some months after I was released that I began to feel the way you must have felt. Fear took hold of me. I was afraid of my neighbors because they seemed to look at me funny, they seemed to think me strange; I remembered what I'd been told about being a dangerous convict. I was afraid of the police. I was afraid of strangers on the street. I didn't know anyone. I was twenty-eight years old and I was deathly afraid to leave my house.”
Yara was moved. “We didn't know what you'd been through when we called you a traitor for not taking part in the demonstrations. I'm sorry,” she told Jasna.
“Don't be sorry,” Jasna said. “You and your friends were right. People who are afraid of their own shadows aren't very admirable. I had good reason to be afraid but not of everything and everyone, not all the time. I didn't think of killing myself. That takes courage too. I just didn't know what to do. So I waited. I don't know what would have happened to me if Vera hadn't literally saved me from some awful death or from insanity. Vera was released almost a year after I was. Her apartment had been confiscated. She didn't have any living relatives and she hadn't been able to locate any of the other people we'd worked with. She had nowhere in the world to go. How happy she was when she saw it was I who opened the door of my house. She was overjoyed to learn I was living alone. But her happiness at seeing me was nothing compared to mine. I hugged her and acted as if my father as well as my mother had returned home. I begged her to stay with me and to treat my house as if it had always been hers. Vera was completely transformed by her prison term. She was quiet and bitter. I was grateful to her for coming to me. I did everything I could for her. I shopped, cooked, cleaned the house. Vera spent every day outside the house, meeting people, learning what openings might be available for her. I'm embarrassed to admit how quickly she oriented herself. During almost a year I had assumed everything was closed to me, and I did nothing. Vera had only been with me for a week when she began talking about enrolling in college. She said that was the only way to become someone nowadays; furthermore it was an alternative that wasn't closed to former prisoners. A few weeks later she was enrolled in the university. She expressed relief about the fact that she'd been turned down at every factory where she had applied for a job; she said she might have gotten stuck in one. By enrolling in the university she acquired a small stipend as well as a large hope that she'd never have to look for factory work again.”
I made a comment about the passage near the end of your letter where you describe the students in your course. I compared Vera to those former workers who, in your words, are repairing and painting themselves in order to get out of the factory.
“That's not really a fair comparison,” Jasna said. “That was literally the only alternative available to her and to me. We looked for factory jobs and were turned down. But you're not altogether wrong. We had all decided to get out of factory work, but several years earlier. The hope that we'd never work in factories again was born during the days when we worked at the carton factory together. It was then that Vera dreamed of becoming something like a popular tribune, some type of public speaker, exactly what she is now. Our experience in the carton plant taught every one of us that we didn't have to spend our lives doing that work. It was on that point that Jan always disagreed with Luisa. Jan continually said that as soon as we knew we didn't have to do that work none of us would ever return to it.”
I objected to Jasna's interpretation of Jan's attitude.
“I know Jan didn't mean that we'd go on to the university and to higher paying jobs,” Jasna admitted. “He wanted to destroy the factory so that no one else would have to work in it either. But the rest of us weren't about to do that. We didn't acquire the desire to put an end to factories but to push ourselves out of them. And that's what Vera did after her release. As soon as she was enrolled in the university she started teasing and prodding me. She would tell me I was an old maid and would soon become the neighborhood witch if I stayed locked up in the house. She told me that if I enrolled in college I'd get a stipend for workers and one for war orphans, since I was both, and if I graduated I'd never again have to work in a factory, but if I waited any longer I'd be older than the professors. I was afraid. I was sure that a dunce like I was had no place in the university. I remembered the women who had laughed at me in prison. I imagined that all the students at the university would laugh at me merely for enrolling. One day Vera told me she had learned about a college that was specifically designed for dunces and geese: the college for teachers. She assured me I'd have no trouble being accepted there. She was right. I applied and was accepted. I attended for four years and was no more of a dunce than anyone else. At the end of four years I was a teacher. But I'm going too fast again. During my second year in college we got a surprise visit from Adrian Povrshan. He had just been released and he needed a place to stay. Suddenly my little house was full for the first time since the war. I expected you to be our next visitor.”
I told Jasna that I hadn't known where she lived.
“Neither did Adrian but he found out easily enough,” she said.
I had to admit that it had never occurred to me to look her up. I thought she would be offended.
But she laughed. “I don't know what would have happened if you had come! Vera stayed in what used to be my parents' room. Adrian moved into the living room. He thought he'd take up with Vera where he'd left off. The first thing he did was to enroll in the university. I'm not the one to say it, but Adrian is really dumb. He didn't even suspect that anything strange was going on. It wasn't until ten years later that he found out about Vera's relationship with Professor Kren.”
Mirna and I begged Jasna to tell us the details of Vera's adventures.
“I'm sorry I'm jumping around so much,” Jasna said. “I don't know what to tell first. I had known about this professor long before Adrian came to stay with us. During her first year at the university Vera had told me about a certain Professor Kren who taught a course in political economy which she attended. She described him as an incredibly sleek politician who came to class in a spotless black suit. He lectured for two hours about the transformation of society and about revolutionizing the living conditions of the working people. After his lecture students lined up on the street to watch him enter his chauffeur-driven limousine and be driven away to the government palace. He was a high official in the state bank. Later on he became the head of the bank. It's funny how Vera's views of that professor changed during that year. When she first told me about him she ridiculed him and called him a revolutionary who had servants. Gradually she told me less and less about his sleekness and his limousine and more and more about his position, his importance; she also told me he wasn't married. Two or three months before Adrian returned she told me she was “madly in love” with Professor Kren's limousine and with his power. She attended every lecture he gave at the university. She even went to hear lectures she'd heard before. And Adrian, who was two years behind her in school, simply assumed she was specializing in the things taught by Professor Kren. When she graduated she enrolled in a program of postgraduate studies under Professor Kren. After I graduated I got my first teaching job in a primary school on the other side of the city. But my domestic drama and my first teaching job ended abruptly, before I'd taught for half a year. All three of us were suddenly arrested.”
Mirna was stunned. “You were arrested a second time? Why?” she asked. I was stunned too.
“I don't know why,” Jasna said, “and that time no one explained it to me. The first time I had at least been doing something. The second time I was doing absolutely nothing. That happened twelve years ago. Suddenly everything came to an end and that terrible nightmare started all over again; the searches, the investigations, the cells. And for no reason at all. During my first few months as a teacher I had done everything exactly as I'd been taught. I had gone to school on time. I had spoken only to people I knew and even then I had only said good morning and good night. In my classes I had repeated what the textbooks said and I hadn't added a word of my own even when I'd known the textbook was wrong.”
I asked her what she was accused of.
“Only God knows!” she said. “They asked me such ridiculous questions; they asked about things I couldn't possibly know and mixed these questions up with questions about things I couldn't help but know. They asked if I knew some notorious foreign spy and then they asked if I knew my own friends. It was all so stupid. They had arrested me together with Vera and Adrian and they asked if I knew them. When I admitted knowing them they insisted I must know the spy and the whole thing started all over again. They even had a wrong last name down for Sophia and Luisa but I didn't correct their mistake. The people hired to do those interrogations are even dumber than I am. But suddenly, when I'd been in jail only two days, I was released!”
Mirna and I again expressed our surprise.
“Yes, I was released after two days, I never did find out why we were arrested, but several years later I did learn why I was released so fast. I obviously didn't go to a lot of trouble to find out why I was released. The same officials who'd been ready to chop my head off if I didn't tell them things I didn't know were suddenly so polite, so full of smiles and handshakes. They bowed to me and apologized. They told me my arrest had been a `mistake.' Such mistakes could take place at any time several times a year! By the time I got home my fear came back. The day after my release I went to my school to teach. The head of the school told me he had learned about my arrest and had already replaced me! And he said there were no other openings in the school. I was heartbroken. I had lost the job for which I had studied for four years. My house was empty again. Adrian and Vera were both gone, God knows for how long. I was all alone and once again I didn't know what I'd do. As if my misery wasn't complete enough I had a bad experience a few days after I was released. There was a loud knock on the door. I thought the police had come to get me again. I peered out the window and recognized Claude Tamnich. He looked strange. I trembled as I opened the door and immediately regretted letting him in. He slammed the door shut and slapped me so hard I fell to the floor. He accused me of having caused his arrest. I bawled like a baby. I told him I'd just been arrested myself for no reason at all and that as a result I had lost my job, my only two friends and my whole reason to remain alive. His anger decreased somewhat because he could see I was ready to die right on the spot where I lay on the rug. He accused me of having told them he was a member of a spy ring organized from abroad. I told him they'd asked me about spies but I'd never had anything to do with any spies; I told him they'd asked me if I knew him and all the other people I knew and of course I told them I knew him; they knew perfectly well we had worked together. But Claude insisted they wouldn't have released me so soon if I hadn't told them he was a spy. When I told Claude they had apologized to me for making a mistake, he said, literally, `They never make mistakes.' Then why, I asked him, didn't he go and ask them why they had released me and what I had told them. I said they hadn't ever slapped me the way he had. Claude muttered that I must have told them but he helped me up and apologized. Years later I learned why I was released so suddenly. It wouldn't really have mattered if I'd known at the time. Claude rushed in and slapped me before I even had a chance to say hello. I don't know how I convinced Claude I was innocent. He suddenly lost interest in my guilt or innocence. He asked if I had anything to drink and then he started asking about the people we used to know. He continued drinking until he'd swallowed almost every bottle of alcohol Vera and Adrian had accumulated in my house during all the years they lived there. He seemed to pour it all into a barrel. The more he drank the more he told me about himself. He had been arrested along with the rest of us at the carton plant at the time of the coup and had been sentenced to four years. But he was released after he'd served one year of his term. He boasted about it. He was stinking drunk. He said it was the easiest thing in the world to be released from prison: all you had to do was to carry out your obligations to the state, like any good patriot. I asked what he meant by that and he told me that in prison he had spied on other prisoners. At the end of his first year an official asked him if he wanted an important job. Claude didn't turn it down. He said that after he'd taken part in ousting the enemy of the working people he wasn't going to spend four years in prison only to return to his job in the carton factory, and he certainly wouldn't return now that Marc was head of that factory. I asked if he meant our Marc. Exactly the same Marc, he said, and he called Marc a worm who had wiggled his way into the leadership of the factory's party organization. So Claude accepted the important job they offered him. He became a police spy. He didn't describe the work he did and I didn't ask him about it. He did boast that he was so good at it he was promoted a few years later. I can't remember what kind of post he got. He became some kind of prison official or security administrator; he was put in charge of other people who did the spy work he had done earlier. And then he was suddenly arrested, accused of conspiring with foreign agents to overthrow the state. They had asked Claude, too, if he knew the rest of us, and when he said he knew me they told him that I, Jasna Zbrkova, had admitted he and I had both been members of that foreign espionage ring. I asked him why they would have released me if I had admitted being a foreign spy but he was too drunk to answer that. He only ranted about efficiency; he said that's the way they do things and that's the only efficient way. And then he fell asleep in his chair. I locked myself in my room. When I got up the following morning Claude was gone. I haven't seen him or heard of him since then. I don't know if all the things he had told me while he was drunk were true but only one of those things mattered to me. He had told me that Marc Glavni had become an important person in the carton plant.”
Yara had started to yawn during Jasna's narrative but at this point she perked up and asked. “Do you mean Marc Glavni the government official? Was that the Marc who used to be a friend of yours?” Yara was obviously impressed by the fact that we had once been the “friends” of that conceited provincial who had considered the rest of us halfwits.
“He's exactly the same Marc,” Jasna said. “I went to see him the day after Claude's surprise visit. He was there all right — in Mr. Zagad's office! He recognized me, but not as a former friend. He didn't remember me as the person who had helped him learn his job at that very plant, as the person who had repaired his blunders. I'm sure if you asked him he wouldn't admit that Yarostan and I had ever been his friends. He recognized me only as someone he had seen before, someone whose name he knew. And that was all. He wasn't unkind. I don't want to suggest that. He was every bit as cordial and decent and courteous and distant as Mr. Zagad had been the first time I had walked into that very office nineteen years earlier. The scene was an exact repetition of the earlier scene, only Zagad's role was being played by the boy wonder from the provinces whom Luisa had liked so well. I asked if there were any openings. Marc said there just happened to be one opening and they would be very happy to `have me.' Mr. Zagad couldn't have said it any differently. The only difference was that this time I didn't have to apologize for my lack of experience. This time I had infinitely more experience than the man who was hiring me and I didn't need Luisa to tell me I could carry out my task more efficiently without the boss. It was then that I realized Luisa had been wrong and Jan had been right. Without the rest of you around me I hated the work in that plant. If I hadn't had to support myself that way I'd never have returned to that boring routine, even if all the Mr. Zagads and Marc Glavnis had been ousted. Jan was right. Those eight hour days were the nearest thing to prison. He'd always objected to Luisa's comments by saying that only an idiot or a brainless mechanical slave would return to his prison cell after all. the gates were opened and all the guards were gone. I wasn't at all as pleased with myself when Marc hired me as I had been when Mr. Zagad had hired me. I hated every minute of it. At night I dreamed of going back to teaching. But I only dreamed about it, and every day I went back to work there. I'm such a timid person. I stayed in that plant for three more years. My body and my mind got numb. I became what Jan had described: a brainless, mechanical slave. I wasn't in any way distinguishable from my alarm clock. I went off at the same hour every morning, wound myself up every night and went off again the following morning. During those three years Marc rose to yet another post. He became a member of the city planning commission. He had the power to help me find another teaching job simply by talking into his telephone. I don't know where I found the nerve to go into his office one day to ask his help in transferring me to a teaching job. I told him how many years I'd spent preparing to become a teacher. And I don't know where he found the nerve to turn me down. No, he said. Without any explanation. I'm sorry comrade, but! For the first time in my life I wanted to do something violent. I had a strong desire to push the desk into his belly — Zagad's old, heavy desk. I'm proud of what I did after that. I walked out of his office, through the workshop, out to the street and straight to my house. I haven't once returned to that plant since. Several of the workers came to my house to ask if I'd been fired. I told them I had simply quit because I'd had enough. And every one of them congratulated me for my courage. It was the only time in my life when I was congratulated for my courage.”
I asked Jasna how in the world Marc had become so important in the carton plant.
“The same way we all became what we are now,” she said. “He started to rise the first day he took part in the political discussions we had twenty years ago, when he elaborated those schemes Luisa admired so much. The workers at the plant were familiar with every step of his rise; they told me all about him during those three more years I spent there. Some time later Titus Zabran told me some funny things about him. Marc too was arrested twenty years ago. He was released after half a year in jail. I've never allowed myself to wonder why he was released so soon. That only leads to wondering why most of the people around me weren't arrested at all, and once you start thinking like that nothing makes any sense. After his release Marc applied for his old job at the carton plant and he was turned down by the new officials. Some of the workers I worked with later had been there at the time of his rejection and they told me how surprised they were when he turned up at the plant again several months later. They thought he must have had important contacts already then, so soon after his release from prison. This mystery was clarified for me by Titus sometime after I walked out of Marc's office. After being turned down by the plant officials Marc learned that Titus had some kind of trade union post. He visited Titus and with a single telephone call Titus got Marc hired at the carton plant. This same Marc refused to do that much for me several years later. As soon as he had his old job back Marc started to attend night classes at the university. It was an educational program paid for by the union to give rank-and-file workers diplomas with which they could apply for posts in the union bureaucracy.”
I commented that Marc must have attended a program similar in purpose and content to the program of the institution where you teach.
“And Marc certainly used it to his fullest advantage,” Jasna continued. “He was a good student as he'd always been. He enrolled in a course in economic planning, which must have suited his talents perfectly. After attending the course for a year he was appointed to the plant council and got his own office. That was all he needed. From that point on he merely rose. He continued to be paid by the carton plant although he no longer did any work; he spent his days in his office studying for his courses. He did so well in his studies that he was appointed party secretary of the plant council. This appointment automatically made him a member of the trade union council. When he finished his course he had higher academic credentials than anyone else in the plant and he rose yet another notch; this time he was `elected' head of the plant's party organization. He spent the next two years inside his office, writing a dissertation based on statistics collected for him by minor union officials in the plant. He became Dr. Glavni. What happened to him next was funny to the workers who told me about it. Late one night a car pulled up in front of Dr. Glavni's house, two men knocked at his door, and they arrested him exactly the same way they would have arrested any ordinary saboteur. But unlike ordinary saboteurs, Dr. Glavni was immediately released. I was told that the regional party secretary personally took a trip to the prison to apologize to Dr. Glavni for the mistake. After his release Marc wasn't only reinstated in all his posts. He also became a representative in the city planning commission. It was then that I went into his office and asked his help in transferring me to a teaching job. I haven't seen him since that day but two people who still work there have children in the school where I teach and they've kept me informed about his continuing successes. Shortly after I walked out of his office never to see him again, Dr. Glavni became general manager of the carton plant. The following year he became a member of the state planning commission and also of the foreign trade commission. Only last year I read in a newspaper that he had become a member of the central committee of the state planning commission. Today you can keep up with his titles simply by reading the newspapers. He's mentioned at least once a day.”
We asked Jasna if she had gotten a teaching job on her own after she left the carton plant.
“I didn't even try,” she said. “I again did absolutely nothing for several months. I had grown so used to spending months at home doing nothing.”
“You really did absolutely nothing?” Yara asked with disbelief. “Did you just sit home and stare?”
“I mean nothing outside of my house,” Jasna said. “No, I didn't sit and stare. I didn't feel particularly sorry for myself any more. Although what I did do amounts to nearly nothing. I have a weakness for reading novels, especially long novels, and the periods when I did nothing were in many ways the fullest periods in my life. Those were the months when I lived all the possible lives I was never going to be able to lead in real life.
During that time I was vaguely aware that Vera had been released. I wondered why she didn't visit me, but I made no effort to try to see her. I just stayed home and read. My reading spree came to an end when I got another surprise visit. Titus Zabran came to see me. We hadn't seen each other in more than ten years. He had recently been released from prison. I think his arrest had been another mistake. He worked in the trade union bureaucracy and he somehow learned that I had quit my job at the carton plant. I learned from Titus that Jan had disappeared, that you were still in prison, and that Mirna and your two daughters lived in my own neighborhood.”
“But you never came to see us,” Yara said reproachfully.
“I always intended to visit,” Jasna told us. “But I'm such a timid person. I was afraid. Titus was shocked when I told him I just stayed home and read. He asked why I had walked out of Marc's office. When I told him, he asked me with the seriousness of an old official what kind of work I'd like to do. I told him I wanted to teach again. Two days later he visited me again and told me there was an opening for me in the elementary school in my own neighborhood. I was overjoyed. I prepared a feast for him. I was so grateful to him. He visited me quite frequently after that. But I couldn't get any closer to him than when we'd worked together years earlier. This time it wasn't because I had to compete against the incomparable Luisa Nachalo, but because Titus had grown so dull, so robot-like, so official. He was hardly more human than an office desk. I continually asked him about his life, but unlike everyone else I know he had no desire at all to talk about himself. It was like pulling his teeth to get him to tell any details. He didn't tell me a single thing I didn't specifically ask him. That's why I know only fragments of his life. After we were all driven from the carton plant in so many different directions, Titus got a post in the trade union. It was through this post that he was able to help Marc get rehired at the carton plant. He told me he had been imprisoned for `cosmopolitanism,' whatever that was. The second time he was arrested he was charged with `revisionism.' I never heard of the things he was accused of. He seemed extremely lonely and told me he had no friends at all. I could see why; he was as sociable as a stone. About four years ago, when I had been teaching again for over a year, after Yara had already enrolled in our school, Titus told me he had seen Adrian, who had just been released from his second term two years before your release. Adrian had visited Titus to ask his help finding a job. Titus found Adrian a job in the trade union council. Titus didn't know where Adrian was living but he told me where his office was. I was annoyed by the fact that Adrian hadn't come to see me after his release. I hadn't seen him since we'd been arrested at my house six years earlier. I got a substitute to replace me in school one day and went to his office. Adrian and his office were both terribly depressing. Adrian had grown as skinny as a skeleton. Dark rings surrounded his eyes. His face and his hands seemed to consist only of skin and bones. And his office was just as sparse as he was. It was larger than the average prison cell. It had a desk and a chair. But that was all. There was nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor, nothing on the desk. We shook hands. I couldn't keep myself from asking what in the world he did in that room. Looking around at the bare walls he said, `This is my job. I'm a researcher.' I asked him exactly what Yara just asked me: did he just sit there and stare at the walls? Didn't he ever read? He pulled the sports section of a newspaper out of the top drawer of his desk to show me that he did read. I could see that there was nothing else in that desk drawer. As if to explain his situation to me, he told me he was waiting. Waiting for what? I asked. All day long every day? He reminded me that before his arrest he had been on the verge of finishing his studies at the university. If he had taken three more exams and submitted one paper he would have finished. His paper was written and he was waiting to take the exams. After that he'd get another appointment. Adrian was simply sitting in that office waiting for the appointment. He literally had nothing to do there. I spent most of the day in his office. I asked him why he hadn't come to see me after he was released. I'd gladly have put him up in the same room where he'd stayed before. He said he couldn't stand anything that reminded him of Vera. And then, calmly, almost mechanically, he started telling me what had happened to him after he was arrested. I couldn't believe what he was telling me, although it clarified why I had been released so quickly and. why I'd been told I'd been arrested by mistake. Adrian had also been accused of having contacts with a foreign spy ring and he too had been asked if he knew the people we all knew, including Vera and Marc. Of course he admitted knowing them. He was sentenced to two years. At the end of the two years, instead of being released, he was swept into another trial. I was reminded of the story a woman had told me during my first prison term: as soon as one term ended a longer one began. That was what happened to Adrian. He was interrogated again. This time the interrogators wanted him to deny he had ever known Vera Neis or Marc Glavni and to say he had lied at the first trial.”
I told Jasna I'd had similar experiences during my second prison term. At one trial they asked me to admit I knew all my friends and I was sentenced to eight years because I refused to admit I had ever known any of them. I thought I'd get them into trouble if I admitted knowing them. At the time I didn't know most of them had already been arrested. Some two years later an interrogator asked me to sign a paper to the effect that I had never known Vera or Marc. I obviously signed it since I had already told them I didn't know them; I thought I couldn't possibly harm people by admitting I had never known them.
“But that wasn't Adrian's situation,” Jasna said. “First of all he, Vera and I had been arrested together so the interrogators would have known perfectly well that he was lying when he said he didn't know Vera. Secondly he was sure they were trying to trap him or Vera into contradicting each other so as to build a case against one of them. He thought he was protecting Vera by refusing to sign that paper. He told me he was completely dumbfounded by the trial. During his remaining four years in prison he couldn't figure out what had happened. It all became clear only after he was released, when he finally located Vera's office and saw the plaque on her door. At that trial he was accused of perjury, intentional defamation of the characters of two important state officials. The prosecutor railed against Adrian as a known foreign agent who had tried to implicate Vera Neis and Marc Glavni in his spy ring. Adrian was supposed to have caused the arrest of two comrades above suspicion by claiming they were members of his group. The prosecutor told the court that Comrade Vera Neis, full professor of political economy, had been cleared of this malicious slander through the personal intervention of Professor Dr. Kren, head of the state bank; Comrade Marc Glavni, head of the party organization of the carton factory and representative of the city i planning commission, had been cleared through the personal intervention of the head of the state planning commission. For this malicious slander Adrian was sentenced to four more years in prison. During all those years he wrestled with the significance of that trial. All he figured out was that Marc and Vera must have been released and that his denial that he had known them might have been needed to expedite their release; he said if he'd known that during the interrogation he would gladly have signed the paper. Everything finally cleared up after he was released. He went to the university and looked for Vera Neis. He was told there was no such person. Someone told him to ask in the rector's office. Imagine his surprise when he saw the plaque on the door: rector of the faculty of political economy, Prof. Dr. Vera Krena! Adrian then remembered the name of the bank official who had personally intervened to release Vera.”
Yara was impressed once again. “Do you mean Vera Krena the minister? Was that the Vera Neis you used to know?”
“She wasn't a minister yet when Adrian found her office,” Jasna said. “Adrian told me he hesitantly went in. There were three secretaries there. They asked if he had an appointment with the rector. He told them he didn't want to see the rector; he only wanted to learn something about her because he had known her once, in high school, as Vera Neis; he said he wanted to know how she had come to her present position and asked if they would be willing to tell him. One of the secretaries left the office with him and they went to a coffee shop. She told him she had been Vera's classmate in the university and knew exactly how Vera had become rector of the university. From her Adrian learned that Vera had begun her affair with Professor Kren already during the days when Adrian and Vera had lived happily at my house. Adrian didn't tell the secretary he'd known Vera after high school. She told Adrian she and Vera had graduated together and after graduation she had gotten the job as the rector's secretary and had been on that job ever since. But when Vera graduated she enrolled in a postgraduate course in political economy so as to be close to the bank official, Professor Kren. Vera and the professor became inseparable during the day while, according to the secretary, Vera returned to another lover every night. The secretary told Adrian that Vera's career was almost cut short soon after her postgraduate program started, because a foreign spy had claimed that she was a member of his spy ring. She was arrested and Kren himself had to intervene to get her released. My hasty release was suddenly explained. Vera must have asked Kren to intervene for me as well. Adrian was annoyed when I told him this, because he had been the one who'd had to suffer because of Vera's release. He had been left in jail so as not to be in Vera's way. The secretary had told him that Vera had protested to the police for arresting her. Marc apparently did the same thing. The way the police cleared themselves of these mistakes was to put all the blame on Adrian, slapping another four years on him for having implicated Vera and Marc and then announcing they had discovered the cause for their mistake. The woman told Adrian that as soon as Kren got Vera out of prison she abandoned her lover and moved into the professor's house. From that point on she walked on a golden carpet. She finished her studies under him and became Dr. Vera Neis the same year when he became the head of the state bank. The following year she became professor of political economy; such a quick journey from student to full professor was unprecedented. She was probably the youngest professor in the university's history and one of the few women on the university's regular teaching staff. The secretary said all the men professors were charmed, there was a great deal of talk about the equality of women in all fields of social endeavor, and all of it was a mutual sham. A year later Vera married the professor and shortly after the marriage Prof. Dr. Vera Neis Krena became assistant rector of the faculty of political economy. And then the rector of the university was arrested in the middle of a night by the security police. That had happened only a year before Adrian's release. Professor Kren's candidate for rector, his wife, was unanimously elected to the post; there were no other candidates. After Adrian learned all that, he must have suspected that I had known about Vera's relations with Professor Kren all along, but he didn't ask. After his session with Vera's secretary, Adrian wanted to look up the other important state official whose character he had defamed by claiming to know him, Comrade Marc Glavni. Adrian went to the carton factory, but Marc no longer occupied Mr. Zagad's office, where I had found him six years earlier. Adrian was told that Dr. Glavni was the general manager of the plant but that his office was located in the state planning commission building. Adrian went to the government building, found Marc's office, but got no further than the desk of a secretary. Adrian was asked his reasons for wanting to see Dr. Glavni. When he said he wanted to apply for a job at the carton factory, the secretary told him that hiring was handled by an official at the plant itself, and she promptly wrote an official's name and office number on a slip of paper. Adrian then tried another approach. He telephoned Marc's office, introduced himself as Comrade Kren from the state bank and said he needed to discuss urgent business with Comrade Glavni. He was given an appointment for the following day. When Adrian entered Marc's office and introduced himself as Comrade Kren, Marc's face fell. Marc didn't even shake Adrian's hand. He merely asked Adrian what he wanted. Adrian said he wanted a job at the plant. Marc, flushed with anger, shouted: `You want my help after what you've done to me? Couldn't you have told them you didn't know me? You've put a permanent blot on my name!' Adrian shouted back. `A blot on your name! You lunatic! I've just spent six years of my life in prison. What wouldn't I do to have a mere blot on my name in exchange for those six years!' Marc didn't respond. He regained his composure, sat behind his desk and called his secretary to accompany `Comrade Kren' out of his office, saying `I'm sorry comrade, there aren't any openings for your friend.' Adrian was furious when he left Marc's office. But he didn't know what to do. He was miserable for several weeks. Then he somehow learned that Titus Zabran was a trade union official and went to see him. That was when Titus got him the job in that office where I found him. I told Adrian something about my own life since our arrest and I invited him to visit me for old time's sake, but he never came. I didn't see him again for a whole year. Titus visited me two or three times during that year. I went to school every day and read my novels at night. And then — was it three years ago? — I learned that your older daughter Vesna was sick. I didn't even know her. She hadn't ever been in my class and I hadn't ever tried to talk to her. I told Titus, but I didn't come. When I learned she had died in the hospital I felt awful. I cried every night. I even burst out crying during one of my classes. But I just couldn't bring myself to come and see you, Mirna. I had stayed away so long and you didn't know me. I was afraid you wouldn't trust me. I had to go somewhere, to see someone. I decided to visit Adrian again. Nothing had changed in his office. The walls were still bare, there was still nothing in the room except the desk and the chairs and there was nothing on the desk. I asked Adrian if he was still waiting. Adrian told me he had one exam left to finish his studies. He was sure he'd be promoted as soon as he got his degree. I asked him what kind of life that was, waiting in that empty room for a promotion like a prisoner waiting to be released. He told me he had done a great deal since I'd last seen him. He had been seeing Vera's secretary regularly, the one who had told him about Vera's successes, although he hadn't yet seen Professor Dr. Vera in person. He had told the secretary that he'd been the one responsible for Vera's arrest. He insisted on telling me the details of his self-exposure. The secretary trapped Vera into admitting she had lied about the foreign spy who had caused her arrest. The secretary had told Vera that in her student days she had met an Adrian Povrshan who had told her he had known Vera in high school. Vera admitted having known Adrian in high school; she even told the secretary she and Adrian had grown up together. When Adrian told the secretary about his arrest, his near release and the new trial where he was to admit he had never known Vera, the secretary was indignant; she realized Vera had caused Adrian to be imprisoned for four extra years merely in order to rehabilitate her name. She wanted to expose Vera's duplicity, to make a public scandal. Adrian told me he was pleased by the secretary's reaction but he begged her not to mention the details to anyone; he was afraid that a scandal would interfere with his coming promotion. I felt a mixture of disgust and shame when I left Adrian's office. I haven't ever gone to see him again. I was disgusted by Adrian. I regretted having gone to see him after I had learned of Vesna's death. I was ashamed of myself, of my life, of all my former friends.”
I asked Jasna if she knew what all those people were doing today.
“I lost track of Claude nine years ago, after the day when he came to my house to accuse me,” she said. “I don't even know if he's still alive. If he is, he's probably a prison or police official. You don't need to ask me about the others. They're in the newspapers. Vera and Adrian appear together on speakers' platforms. I have no idea how or when they became friends again. Vera has fulfilled her life's dream. She's a popular tribune. She lectures to applauding audiences, talks on the radio at least once a week about the urgent political tasks of the day and the need for reforms. And Adrian is still her straight man; he still documents the things she says. I listen to them on the radio whenever I can. They're not nearly as funny as they used to be. Whenever they're mentioned in the newspapers their names are accompanied by titles that fill whole paragraphs. Vera is still rector of the university. She's also deputy minister of the ideological commission and I don't know what else besides. Adrian got all the promotions he had waited for; he's first party secretary of the commission for problems of standard of living. Marc has more titles than either of them. He's a member of the central committee of the state planning commission, he's on the foreign trade commission, his name is mentioned whenever there's an international trade conference. And me: I get up at the same time every morning and go to teach my classes at the elementary school. I'm neither a head nor a member nor a party secretary nor anything else. But somehow I'm one of them too. I've also abandoned people who were killed and jailed, who suffered because they wanted to live another kind of life. I too am a traitor to people like Jan who disappeared so many years ago, and to little Vesna who wasn't even given a chance to survive. Our famous friends have succeeded in getting the life we used to talk about; they got it for themselves.”
It was very late when Jasna finished. Before she left she said to me, “Be sure you tell Sophia about the people we knew twenty years ago. They don't all deserve the sympathy she expresses for them in her letter.”
I suspect that you know who our friends were and that you're one of them; my suspicion is confirmed by your descriptions of those people and by your description of your life's choices. You describe Marc and Vera as committed revolutionary workers. Luisa regards Jan and me as hotheads. You recognize the repressive aspirations of your university friends Lem and Rhea, but only because these two people expressed their aspirations openly. You fail to realize that those who announce their repressive aspirations are not the only carriers of repression. You fail to see through people who do not carry the world of repression in their mouths but in the motions and decisions they make every day of their lives. Today it doesn't take great insight to see through people like Lem and Rhea. People like them have realized their aspirations in a third of the world and the repressive character of these aspirations has become public knowledge. You reject Lem and Rhea because they're antiquated, not because they're repressive. You glorify their modern cousins. You glorify Marc, Vera, Adrian, Claude and those like them in your environment. You describe them all as rebels. I would like to think, as Jasna does, that you don't know what kind of people these are. But I think you do know who they are. I think you use language the same way they do: not to unveil and clarify but to mask and obscure. I think you know that the terms with which you describe these people are the terms behind which they hide. I think you know that terms like independent, committed, revolutionary, do not describe the characters or activities of these people. In plainer terms, you're lying about these individuals. Vera, Adrian, Claude and Marc are people for whom the organized system of repression is the only possible form of life. They perceive their own personal development in the form of active participation in the repression. For them the university hierarchy, the union hierarchy, the enterprise hierarchy and the state hierarchy are the hothouses in which human life flowers and grows, and it's within these contexts that they define their choices, their life projects and their success. Their aim in life is to occupy positions in these hierarchies, to play the roles defined by the previous occupants of their offices. They've renounced their own projects and their own lives in order to live what has already been lived. They ran to sell themselves or sat like commodities in display windows waiting to be bought. And while they grow inside their hierarchies the rest of us manure the hothouse soil and maintain the heat with our submission and our admiration.
Several times during Jasna's narrative Yara interrupted with comments that expressed admiration for our one-time co-workers. Even Jasna and I became more admirable to Yara because we had once known these paragons of integrity and solidarity; we shone in the light reflected from these suns. It's true that Yara is only eleven years old, but her admiration nevertheless disappointed me. She happens to be the individual who had so much to do with stirring up the ferment at her school. Her self-assurance in matters that concern her directly, combined with passive admination for the occupants of social offices, is identical to the mixture of self-assurance and passivity among my fellow workers in the carton plant who determinedly oust a union bureaucrat and then applaud speechmakers waiting to replace the ousted bureaucrat in the same post. From her own experience Yara knows that she and her friends are able to move the world, while her education has imbued her with the illusion that only the tops of the hierarchies move the world. Yara's admiration for Vera and Marc has much in common with the mirages people experience in a desert. The illusion is caused by the heat, the distance, and the thirst one feels. The mirage continues receding; no matter how far one goes one seems to get no closer to it. One who does finally reach it finds there is no water there but only more sand. The aura which seems to surround the admirable people of our society is an illusion caused by the poverty of everyone's personal life in contrast to the brilliant public life of the personalities daily displayed to thousands. Some of those who watch, condense their life projects to one single goal: to be watched, to be seen daily by thousands. But this goal is a mirage. Being watched is no more of an activity than watching. The observed is as passive as the observer. It seems to me that the personal lives of those who occupy the highest offices are as miserable as the personal lives of those who are victimized by the officials. When Marc reached his goal and became manager of the plant he renounced his own life to such an extent that when Jasna visited his office she saw in him, not the individual we had known, but the previous occupant of that office, Mr. Zagad. Having annihilated himself to such a degree he turned his back on Jasna and Adrian when they needed his help. Adrian had to serve four years in prison so that a blot could be removed from Marc's name. Adrian's prolonged imprisonment served Vera's interests as well: she could marry her banker without having to explain anything to her lifelong friend. We don't know how many others Marc had to repress, in order to rise to his heights but we have strong grounds for thinking it was Vera or her future husband who removed the previous rector of the university from his post. And Adrian, after having been victimized by both Vera and Marc, outdid both of them: Adrian's self-debasement for the sake of bureaucratic advancement is scandalous. He simply gave all of himself to the bureaucracy; he denuded himself of all internal and external characteristics, of all marks that might even superficially define him as a specific individual, and waited like an unlabelled bottle ready to be filled and sold. Claude had succeeded in attaining his repressive ideal earlier and more grossly. Having repressed their own desires to live without bureaucratic structures, they hit out blindly against all those who have not repressed such desires. I think Luisa shares one trait with her former comrades. I think she too, a long time ago, gave up her desires for her own self-liberation and gave herself to the last of the repressive institutions, the representative of liberation, the union. She poured her life into meaningless drudgery for the sake of that repressive Utopia where rank and filers are said to rule when they are ruled by a rank and filer, where workers are said to manage when they are managed by a worker, where the people are said to be victorious when one of the victors governs. I think this is why Luisa responds so irrationally whenever Ron is mentioned, whenever Manuel, whom she never met, is mentioned, whenever Jan is mentioned. I think she responds that way because these individuals refused to repress their own desires, because they refused to submit to the victory of repression called by another name.
I was amazed by the exchange between Sabina and Luisa about all those whom Luisa called enemies behind the trenches. Luisa is straightforward when she speaks of saboteurs and assassins as if they were first cousins; to her, people who sabotaged production are the same as people who murdered revolutionary workers, and she defends the repression of both. Isn't it perfectly clear that if Luisa's ideal had triumphed, people like Manuel, Jan and I wouldn't have fared any better than we did? Sabina guessed exactly what Manuel had told me: the revolutionary saboteurs were killed alongside the hired assassins, not by the order of the generals, but by the order of the revolutionary general staff. That's what would have happened to Manuel if he hadn't been arrested earlier because of his membership in an organization to which he no longer belonged when he was arrested.
The weekend is over and tomorrow I return to work. I'd like to end this letter on a more cheerful note. I would genuinely like to carry on this correspondence with you in a spirit of understanding and mutual aid, not only for the sake of our past friendship, but also because communication across such large chasms will have to take place if our meager beginnings are going to continue growing and not be drowned in blood spilled by those of our likes who remain under the spell of their rulers.
I hope my letter, and especially Jasna's narrative, has at least clarified the character of the individuals and the experiences on which you based so many of your life's choices.
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