Segunda carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Sophia,
My picture of you was hazy when I wrote you last time but now I remember you as if I had been with you only yesterday. No one who had known you twenty years ago could fail to recognize you. You wrote me a warm, comradely letter. I'd like to answer in the same spirit. I'd like at least to be polite. But twenty years have passed. Everyone around me has changed. Your picture of yourself as you are today is disturbingly similar to the person you thought you were twenty years ago. What I recognize in your letter is not the event we experienced together but an event we never experienced. I wrote to a living person and was answered by an imaginary person celebrating an event that never took place.
I admit that I once shared the illusion your letter celebrates. Twenty years ago you and I were like children who saw a group of people digging in a field and ran to join them. They were chanting. We misunderstood the chant; we failed to hear the suffering and resignation. We thought they were singing out of joy. We found spades and dug with them. We sang more loudly than the rest until one of them turned to us and asked, “Don't you know what you're doing?” Sophia, don't you remember that terrified face wrinkled with pain? “Look over there,” he said, pointing toward rifles aimed at the group. We had joined a group of prisoners sentenced to die; we were helping them dig the mass grave into which they were to be thrown after they were shot. How can you have retained only the memory of the moment when we joyfully sang alongside them? Is it possible that after twenty years you still don't know what we helped them do?
I was disappointed by your letter and infinitely more disappointed by Luisa. Maybe you were too young and full of life to grasp the nature of what you call your key experience. But I can't make myself believe that Luisa — the Luisa I thought I knew — could nurse an illusion of this magnitude for two decades. That's why I'm sending this letter to your address instead of hers.
When I started reading your letter I was overjoyed at having reached both of you. By the second or third page my joy turned to disbelief. I started again. My impression was confirmed. You locate your birth, your starting point, in the event that tore me apart; your growth coincides with my destruction.
And Luisa encourages you. Only Sabina seems to be aware of what happened even though she was only twelve at the time. Maybe my inability to recognize the Luisa in your letter is similar to your inability to: remember what we did together. I too nursed an illusion for many years, an illusion of a person called Luisa whose only common trait with the real Luisa was her name. I preserved my portrait of Luisa during my first prison term; no investigators could take it from me, no torturers could mar it, I admired and respected this Luisa. I loved her. She was the guide who led me unharmed through all the suffering, the hopelessness, the horror. She was my first real teacher. Every one of Luisa's comments, from the words about the approach of liberation armies to the description of Jan Sedlak as a hothead, disfigured the picture I had guarded so carefully. My “Luisa” is now in shreds. You rid me of an illusion. My imaginary “Luisa” is shattered and fragments of a different person are returning to my memory. These fragments had been suppressed during the years when the mythical Luisa was the only Luisa I remembered. The return of the fragments suggests that I once knew a different Luisa from the one whose portrait I preserved; I once knew a person disturbingly similar to the one in your letter. I knew such a person and rejected her because she wasn't someone I could admire, respect or love. The years of separation annihilated the traces left by the real person; the imaginary Luisa evicted the living Luisa from my memory.
I'm making this tedious effort to understand the workings of my memory so as to gain some insight into yours. Could it be that what you describe as our common experience was only partly a real event and mainly your own invention? Could it be that your illusory past experience was so gratifying, so complete, that in time you suppressed every trace of the real event? If so, and if you're attached to your illusion, then you don't have to read any further; the rest of this letter may have the same effect on you as yours had on me: my shattered illusion is being replaced by painful, long-suppressed memories; I'm seeing people and events I had warded off for two decades.
I was only fifteen when Titus Zabran first introduced me to your house. He and Luisa both worked at the carton plant. I had met Titus a year earlier, just before the end of the war; we were both in a resistance group that fought against the occupying army. I remember, even without your reminder, that Titus did not introduce me to a mother and her daughters. He introduced me to three women: Luisa, a woman in her late twenties; Sophia — you must have been twelve or thirteen — and little Sabina, nine or ten. You addressed each other by your first names, as equals. You and Sabina had prepared supper for all of us. Luisa asked Sabina if there was anything she could do to help, and the little girl answered with self-assurance: “Just sit clown and talk; everything is ready.” I was fascinated. I had never before experienced such a total absence of authority in relations between children and adults.
In retrospect it might be more accurate to say that I was entranced. I fell under a. spell. I started to create my mythical picture of the three of you from the moment I met you. From then on I saw, heard and felt only those expressions and gestures that fitted with the imaginary creatures you had already become. I suppressed everything that conflicted with my picture. The suppressed elements remained somewhere in my memory, buried under the myth. These elements are returning now, perfectly preserved but fragmentary. They had never been more than fragments.
I was drawn to your house like a bee to flowers, first once a week, then two and even three times. I plied Luisa with questions about the revolution in which she had taken part ten years earlier. I couldn't hear enough about it. Titus had also taken part in it, but I didn't ask him any questions. Whenever he made a comment, it consisted of vast historical generalizations. He referred to people and events that were unfamiliar to me and I was bored, confused and embarrassed to be so ignorant. I didn't only want to learn about that revolution; I wanted to learn it from Luisa. I understood every word she spoke. Her descriptions were so clear, so vivid that as she spoke I imagined I was taking part in the events she described. She helped me live those events by comparing them to experiences I had myself lived.
Luisa compared the day of the outbreak of the revolution with the first day of the resistance, when my neighbors and friends ran out of their houses armed and filled with enthusiasm, the day when I helped build a barricade and then helped defend it. Nine years separated the two events, and in Luisa's descriptions that was all that separated them. I knew then as clearly as I know now that the two events had nothing in common except the barricades. To Luisa they had everything in common; the two events were one and the same. Yet this didn't bother me. Her comparison helped me understand. Groups of people who had never engaged in any activity together — some of them former acquaintances from the neighborhood or factory, most of them complete strangers — became the best of friends in an instant. They suddenly had everything in common: apprehensions as well as hopes, immediate tasks as well as distant projects. And I was one of them. I transferred the resistance experiences I had lived a year earlier to the revolutionary experience Luisa had lived. I became a member of a fighting community, an equal among people who were freeing themselves, a comrade among workers determined to destroy the repressive world. I was no longer the lousy kid, the vagrant, the lumpen I had been during the war.
I wasn't proud of what I'd been earlier; my recent past was out of place in the world the three of you inhabited, that mythical world where I myself lodged you. You wanted to know about my “heroic” experiences during the resistance but I never told you about them. Luisa helped me forget them; she helped me transform the real events of my life into imaginary events which I “experienced” only while listening to Luisa's stories.
My parents were taken away shortly before the war ended. I was supposed to hide in the coal bin of the house across the street. But I stood by the basement window and watched as they were escorted out of our house and helped to the back of a truck. They had both worked in factories. They'd just come home from work; it was dusk. Earlier that day, when my neighbors had forced me into the bin, I insisted on knowing why. They “explained” that my mother's father had been Jewish. This explanation told me nothing. My parents had never discussed politics or religion or anything at all except the amount of money left to meet the week's expenses. The explanation I understood was written on my neighbors' faces: my parents were stained. I was stained. All the neighbors watched as my parents were taken away. Those who couldn't see from the windows came out of their houses to look. No one did anything or said anything. It was like a funeral. All the faces were sad, yet they all expressed something other than sadness: they were relieved they didn't have Jewish grandfathers.
My neighbors, as poor as my parents and nervous as squirrels, had already gotten false papers proving I was their son. But I couldn't stay on with them. They weren't used to having a permanent guest and I knew they couldn't afford to feed me. Secondly, and I now think unjustly, I felt that just below their kindness and generosity they feared I would sooner or later stain them.
I left my “home town” and I've never felt the slightest desire to return there, even for a visit. I walked all the way to the city, sleeping in fields and barns, eating fruits and raw vegetables on the way. When I got here I roamed the streets like a stray dog, sleeping in doorways and alleys. In winter I pried open basement windows. My last “stolen home” was the storeroom of a factory, a vast gallery full of sheets and rolls of cardboard. I survived by stealing — not from the occupiers nor from the rich. One day I saw a boy my age running along the sidewalk; he snatched an old woman's grocery bag without slowing down or even losing a step and disappeared. I practiced for several hours with a garbage bag, I acquired a “skill” and I went out to the world to earn my living.
One morning I overslept. I didn't wake up until a man pulled me by the ear and shouted hysterically: “How did you get in here, you lousy vagabond? I'll take you straight to the police.” Others ran in from the workshop. One of them ran up to my torturer and shouted, “Let the boy go!” “I will not! He's going straight to the police!” the man shouted back, pulling my ear so hard I thought it would break; I later learned he was the foreman. The group surrounded the foreman; my defender planted himself right in front of him. The foreman left my burning ear alone and grabbed me by the arm. My defender then said, “He's a friend of mine; he's looking for work; I asked him to meet me here. It's freezing outside and you can see he's not dressed for it. Would you stand and wait in the cold if you were able to come inside?” The foreman visibly didn't believe a word of it, but he let my arm go; he couldn't prove anything except that I had found my way out of the cold, and besides, he was surrounded. That evening I learned my defender's name: Titus Zabran. One of the people in the group that surrounded the foreman was Jasna Zbrkova. When I finally did get a job there after the war she called me “the vagabond who was caught oversleeping.” I returned to the plant that evening; I wanted to thank Titus. Instead, he thanked me for waiting for him. He asked if I would have been willing to work there if there had been an opening. I had never thought of working. I told him my parents had done nothing else with their lives and in the end were taken away in the back of a truck.
Titus introduced me to his friends. One of them housed me; others took turns feeding me. They were all workers. They all begged me to stop stealing; they said it would endanger their organization; the police would come looking for me and would arrest all of them. I stopped. But then I had nothing to do. I attended all the organization meetings but was bored to tears. When they argued I stared into space; nothing they ever said had anything to do with me. They used words like “revolution” and “liberation,” but in such strange ways; they seemed like exotic merchants screeching and tearing each others' hair because one had cheated the other in a transaction that had taken place years ago in a different part of the world. (Later on I took part in such discussions; in retrospect I consider my first reaction to have been the healthier one.) I wasn't idle very long. The war was nearing its end. The word “liberation” began to be used in increasingly comprehensible ways. It started to mean rifles, grenades, bullets. When it was learned that I was familiar with hiding places in every part of the city I no longer had time to steal or to stare into space during meetings.
The three days and three nights of the rising were the high point of my life. All the elements I later heard Luisa describe were present; they are probably elements of every popular uprising. But there were other elements, sinister ones; Luisa later helped me suppress them; she helped me remember those three days as if they had been the first three days of the revolution she had experienced. Yes, the cooperation, the sociability and the comradeship were all there. But I took all this for granted. After all, for several months I had used all my time and energy hiding weapons, preparing for this event; I didn't expect less from others. The only emotion I felt during those three days — an emotion whose memory traces were later driven underground by Luisa `s edifying story — was a “bloodthirsty desire for revenge. Building the barricades was a profound experience, a social project as you call it, even a type of popular architecture. And I genuinely enjoyed the work in ways that the routinized, institutionalized daily work can't be enjoyed. But the project was marred by its purpose. I worked enthusiastically, but my mind was on the enemy: I looked forward, not to the completion of the common project, but to the attack. And when they attacked, my sociability and my architectural interest vanished. I had only one goal: to lodge every single bullet in a uniformed body. At first I shot to avenge my parents. Later I just shot; my only concern was to hit.
I can already hear, “But that's not just you; that's war.” Yes it is. It's just war. If we take it so much for granted, why do we suppress every memory of it? A few months earlier I had stolen the groceries of poor old women and I had been a vicious thief, a bully. Now I murdered dozens of human beings, most of them workers, many of them hardly older than I, and I was a hero. I haven't been proud of my thefts, but I never felt the need to suppress them from my memory. As for the deeds that made me a hero: I couldn't flee from them fast enough. I had to suppress them, replace them with other deeds — and even then I wasn't self-assured in my hero's pride.
Luisa helped me suppress my memory of the real uprising. She helped me drive out of my consciousness the shots, the falling bodies and the expressions on their faces. I met Luisa only a few days after the rising, when I was hired at the carton plant. Claude Tamnich. Vera Neis and Adrian Povrshan were also hired at that time. The rising had created lots of vacancies. Several workers had been killed by a single grenade as they were leaving the plant. It was probably thrown by a young worker avenging the death of his comrades, perhaps comrades I had shot some minutes or hours earlier. Even the foreman was gone; he had been killed by “our side,” the day after the rising; someone had shouted “Kill the dirty collaborator!” and several people had aimed and shot him as if he had been a diseased dog; if I had been there I would have been among the first to shoot. Perhaps the man who shouted “Kill the collaborator” was a truck driver; perhaps some two years earlier he had driven a truck in the back of which two old workers were transported to a camp.
Luisa's inspiring narrative left no room for such speculations. I forgot about my resistance experiences when I listened to her describe the day when, nine years earlier, the army started to attack the population it supposedly defended. In response to the attack, the people rose; men, women, boys and girls, employed and unemployed workers began arming themselves and building barricades. The isolated cogs of the social machine became a community of human beings held together by a common project, a common goal: to defend their city and to build a new world, their own world. In my experience such a project had been neither the intention nor the outcome. But I wished it had been both, and I believed Luisa. Furthermore the three of you were living proof of the new world; at least all the proof I needed.
The climax of the story was the victory. The army was defeated. The old order crumbled. The revolution had triumphed at last. And the population was transformed. On the barricades and in the battles the passive, submissive and repressed underclass turned into a community of independent individuals. At that point a steady, unbroken process began. Churches were turned into nurseries and schools and meeting houses. Prisons were destroyed. Workers occupied the factories where they had worked and began to operate them on their own. without owners or managers. Busses and trams were operating normally only a few days after the victory. In the armaments factories workers began to produce weapons that had never before been made in those plants. The revolution spread. Peasants ousted landlords and took over the land.
How did such a sequence of victories end in such overwhelming defeat? The workers were attacked on two fronts: Luisa repeats this explanation in your letter. The power of the forces that oppressed the workers was overwhelming. The generals built powerful armies abroad; they got aid from every quarter and the workers got none. Besides which a fifth column developed internally. The revolution could have been victorious against one or the other front: it had already proved itself in its confrontation with the generals. But in the face of both it was defeated. Luisa's picture is beautiful, edifying and sad. Everything our side did spread the revolution, strengthened it, deepened it. Those who worked against it were outsiders to it, foreign to its spirit, hostile to its project.
Years later, in prison, I met Manuel, a man who had taken part in that revolution. He had been in prisons and camps for fourteen years when I met him. He was arrested by the “people's” police a few months after the revolutionary victory against the army, and he spent his life since then being transferred from one prison or camp to another. His account of the experience was similar to Luisa's only to the extent that it reminded me of the events with which Luisa had familiarized me. The language was different, but the event was the same: I recognized it, down to details. What I failed to recognize was that the fragments Manuel narrated did not fit into Luisa's picture at all. I failed to see that the language was different because it described a different picture. Luisa's descriptions of the revolution, the resistance, the uprising in which you took part, have one thing in common: they are descriptions of imaginary events. The very language she used falsified the real events and replaced them with stories that were profound, complete and edifying only because they were myths. I can see this now because your letter applied the same magic to an experience I actually lived, an experience I still remember. You sent me a distorted mirror-image of myself, similar enough to be recognizable, engaged in activity that never took place. When I see what you and Luisa did to my experience I begin to understand what she has done to her own. She experienced one of the great moments of history and she suppressed every trace of it from her memory. She saw the repressed, the maimed and the stunted transform themselves into human beings who glistened with potentialities, and she looked away so as not to be blinded. On the barricades she took part in a project that was completely her own, a project born with the group engaged in it, a project that would make all projects possible. For a moment the imaginations of free individuals roamed through a universe of infinite possibilities, for a moment the possibility of genuinely human activity was in everyone's reach. This was the peak of the revolution; everything that followed was a steep descent. Yet it is this moment that's missing from Luisa's account. Either she was looking away or she suppressed it. Instead, she glorifies the sequence of events that destroyed the possibilities, stunted the imaginations and maimed the lives of the individuals who had so briefly been free. Luisa's “revolution” is still moving upward when, on the day after the victory, “our militants” met with ousted and powerless politicians of the ruined state apparatus and constituted themselves into a “people's committee”; it is still moving upward when, instead of launching our own projects, we return to “our own” factories, busses and trams, when “our own'” militants replace the foremen, managers and directors; it is still moving upward when we produce “our own” weapons in “our own” armaments plants. It begins to move downward only when outside elements using foreign force betray “our militants” on the “people's committee” and transform the committee into a police; when these elements force “our militants” to convince peasants to give their lands back to former landlords and to convince workers to accept a state-appointed manager or even the former owner as their boss; it begins to move downward only when the new “people's army” and the revitalized “people's police” begin to arrest workers who resist the reimposed boss and peasants who resist the reimposed landlord, when workers begin to be killed by “their own” bullets fired from rifles produced in “their own” plants, when the army and police parade through the streets with trucks and tanks of a type never before produced in “the workers' own” armaments plants. We were overwhelmed by external forces, by “statists” and by the “fifth column.” At no point was there a trace of rot at our own core. Maybe' a few, very few, of our militants made some mistakes, but they were minor and insignificant, and everyone makes mistakes.
I believed what Luisa told me. I had to. She had been there and I hadn't. But when she uses the same language and imagery to describe the resistance which I did take part in, as well as the coup which cut away half my life, I realize she has done something drastic to reality: she has cut it out of her memory.
But what happened to you, Sophia? What have you done to your memory? How can you refer to the resistance by mentioning, in one and the same sentence, the “thousands of working people fighting and dying to free their city” and the “approach of the liberation armies”? If we fought to free the city, then we lost; the “liberation army” destroyed the city's freedom. But if we fought to free the city, why did we — thousands of us in the streets, as you say — cheer and dance when the tanks and soldiers of the “liberation army” marched into the already liberated city? If we fought to liberate the city, why didn't we turn our guns on the new occupiers? Why didn't we shoot the commanders, fraternize with the soldiers and begin building our free city? It's the same, familiar and distorted picture. We were pure; we fought for freedom, They were despotic; they fought to enslave us. This picture is false. I was one of those thousands. I shot to avenge and to kill. So did the people alongside me on the barricades. I learned that I had helped to “free the city” only after I met Luisa. And then I “remembered” having done that. But it's not true. I didn't for a moment believe that I and the people with whom I built barricades were going to create a new social activity, invent new modes of transportation, dream up new ways to relate to each other, to our activity, to our environment. I knew that gangsters, cops and soldiers had always governed in the past and I didn't think anything I did would keep them from governing in the future. I didn't relate any of that to my activity on the barricades. While I shot and while hundreds like me were killed, we cleared the streets for the “victorious liberation army.” I didn't help clear their path intentionally; I wouldn't ever have risked my life to do that. Yet among the thousands you say were “freeing their city,” there were some who did actually risk their lives in order to clear the path for the new occupiers. Perhaps they thought they'd be praised and rewarded by the new masters. Perhaps they were in fact rewarded. I had met some of them in the resistance organization. I suspect they couldn't have fought hard and couldn't have taken great risks since the dead can't enjoy their rewards. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe like the noblest of slaves they risked everything, hoping that if they died the new masters would at least decorate their graves.
You refer to what happened three years later as the most significant experience in your life. “No outside force defined our project or made our decisions.” You've retained this picture for as long as I retained my picture of a Luisa who rejected wage labor, the family, the state, a Luisa who rejected all illusions. Yet surely somewhere in your consciousness fragments of another experience must survive. An “outside force” did in fact define your project and make your decisions. It was none other than the politicians who three years earlier had helped clear away one army in order to make room for another. You and I merely recited the lines of a script, moved under the control of a puppeteer. Even the emotions we expressed were predesigned. You apparently liked your costume and make-up so well that you've continued to wear them after the play ended. The play was a show of the politicians' power “among the workers”:, the plot dealt with the “workers' struggle” against the politicians' enemies; the climax came when the workers ousted Zagad from the factory. At that point, behind the scenes, politicians ousted Zagad's friends from government offices; anyone unfriendly to the politicians was automatically Zagad's friend. The union apparatus acted as puppeteer. Union politicians initiated the strikes, prepared the spontaneous demonstrations and lectured about the solidarity, power and determination of the working class. It was our role to confirm our solidarity by reciting our scripts, to demonstrate our power by gesturing and to show our determination by making faces. The play was educational: its main purpose was to instruct the audience about their lines, gestures and feelings. The feeling you still express today: the illusion of autonomy, the illusion that we were defining our own projects and making our own decisions, was precisely the illusion the play was designed to communicate. Animated by the illusion of autonomy we didn't only perform our roles with contagious enthusiasm; we also convinced audience after audience that we genuinely considered the enemies of the politicians to be our own enemies.
Of course I was taken in as much as you were. The carnival spirit took hold of everyone. We were all on stage, most of us for the first time in our lives. Sometimes as many as five puppet shows played for each other. It was impossible to tell who wasn't on stage. Like everyone else, I took my role seriously; I wanted to perform well. When I carried a placard that said, “The factories to the workers!” I acted as if I meant what it said. I knew that politicians had arranged the demonstration, that the union had prepared it. Didn't I know, then, that my slogan could only mean, “I support the new boss”? Maybe I knew. But I didn't wish it. Maybe I thought the placards themselves would give rise to the situation they described. I did feel like an agent, an instrument, when we marched to Zagad's office like a militia of four. But I thought I was an instrument of “the working class,” not an instrument of the union and the state. Yet the detail Sabina remembered should have put me on my guard. To Claude we weren't mere workers, four among many; we were “representatives of the plant council,” agents of an apparatus.
I wasn't only taken in; I was taken over. The carnival atmosphere was so contagious that it infected my deepest emotions. An experience I remember vividly had to do with George Alberts. I hardly knew him; the most we ever said to each other was “good evening.” Shortly before we were arrested, when slogans about “Factories to workers” had been replaced by slogans about “the enemy in our midst,” Claude and Adrian approached me, to “talk about Alberts.” They asked where Alberts had gone before the end of the war and why he hadn't fought in the resistance. They asked which side he had fought on. I was angry. I told them to ask Luisa, who lived with Alberts, or Titus Zabran, who had fought with him several years earlier. I told them I didn't know anything about Alberts. I had never considered it any of my business to ask where he had been or what he had done; I only knew that when he returned he was employed as a highly qualified specialist. Adrian said they didn't want to confront Titus Zabran “prematurely,” before they had determined “all the facts.” As for Luisa: they were going to speak to her when the “case” was complete; they were going to confront her with an ultimatum: either denounce Alberts or leave the plant. I yelled at them furiously. I said they had gone crazy. I asked if they were in the pay of the police. But their performance, like all the other performances, succeeded. It communicated its message. On that day my dislike for Alberts turned to suspicion. Yes, he became suspicious to me. He was stained exactly the same way my parents had been stained. You tell me your projects and decisions were your own. Even my feelings weren't my own. My suspicion of Alberts was no more my own than any of the rest of that “significant experience.” I reproduced inside myself the “feelings” of the state.
The significance of my suspicion of Alberts became clear to me during my first year in prison. I met countless prisoners whose sole crime had been the “act” of becoming suspicious to others. Sometimes,a politician started a rumor about someone he disliked: sometimes the rumor was started by a worker who thought he'd get another's job. The victim was always helpless; everything he said and did only made the stain more visible. Soon everyone saw it, everyone was ready to turn him in. His fellow workers, his comrades, his neighbors all became police agents, pathetically pointing their fingers like my neighbor Ninovo, shouting,“You're all troublemakers; they should never have let you out.”
Your letter goes on to describe the individuals who took part in this “significant experience”; you refer to them as “our group.” The only traits your portraits share with the individuals I remember “are their names. Since you've disabused me of my illusory portrait of Luisa, I should in fairness try to do as much for you. I had known most of those individuals for at least three years. You were with them for two weeks, during a crisis. I realize that people are often transformed by crises: they acquire traits they had never displayed in normal times, they undergo profound changes. I realize that you might have been seeing these individuals during the moment when they had ceased to be what they had been. But I vividly remember that this is not the case. Either because the crisis wasn't real, or because these individuals weren't able to shed their former personalities, they did not undergo profound changes; each of them remained what she or he had been before.
You remember the speed of Vera Neis's wit. So do I. I was grateful to her quick wit every day I spent at the plant. Everyone was. She made the routine bearable. She was like a radio that was turned on when we started to work and couldn't be turned off until we were through. In any other circumstances her quick wit would have been unbearable. In this particular circumstance it represented a great deal. She entertained us with gossip about the ruling class. Occasionally she taught us something about the machinery behind the facades. She was a missionary; apparently she really believed that as soon as all of us grasped the message of her stones, the world would change. This wasn't what we liked about her. What made her a genuine heroine in the plant was that with her continual tirades she sabotaged production from the moment work began. She considered her crusades more important than the work she had been hired to do, and she never allowed the work to interfere with her lectures. The constant arguments in which she engaged one or another of us must have cut our output at least by half. Everyone expected her to be fired. The leniency of the foreman was one of the things we had won from the resistance. When the general strike began she remained what she had been; in your words: “she couldn't let a stranger walk by without trying to convert him.” But at that point her quick wit no longer represented an escape from the boring routine; it was no longer unintended sabotage; At that point she was only a missionary preaching salvation through belief in half a dozen abstractions and a mound of gossip, converting present-day Romans to a new Christianity.
You say “there's not even a question about any of the rest.” Yet all you say about Adrian is “Vera and Adrian.” That much is quite accurate. Before you met him, it had been “Titus and Adrian,” when the strike began it was “Vera and Adrian,” and before the strike ended, “Claude and Adrian.” That's all that can be said about him. He was like a pin drawn to the most powerful magnet, like dough shaped by the nearest baker, a cog who could fit into any apparatus. When the unions launched the “campaign for a workers' society,” Adrian became Vera's only convert. He memorized two or three abstractions and set up a mission of his own: a slow, humorless version of the same theme. When the time came to “ferret out the enemy in our midst,” he became Claude's disciple, pathetically trying to simulate what you call Claude's “devotion,” his contempt for his fellow workers.
Your portrait of Jasna Zbrkova was less favorable. She was the exact opposite of Claude. She was by far the warmest, the most generous person in the group. She was one of those rare human beings who are able to feel another person's pains and enjoy another's hopes. It's true that her empathy with others went to the point of feeling sorry for the “poor owner” who had so many problems running such a complex plant. It's true that her generosity was blind to political and economic realities. But in a context where Claude was ready to shoot his fellow workers, where Adrian shifted overnight from universal solidarity to universal suspicion, it was precisely this “blind” generosity that was missing.
I don't have a clear memory of Marc Glavni. He had been hired a few weeks, at most a couple of months, before the strike began. I remember staying away from him. He was a student, and was clearly on his way through the plant to something “higher.” He may have been resourceful, as you say. I only remember that he thought himself resourceful.
We know about Luisa. So this leaves only Jan and Titus. You didn't like Titus. And Jan was “hotheaded.” This characterization of Jan appears early in your letter. I had a hard time reading past it. That was how his executioners described him.
Titus Zabran was a “realist.” At the time I thought his “realism” enabled him to see through the masquerade. He seemed to be as aware as Jan that the removal of Zagad was at most a beginning, that our victorious appropriation of the existing project was no victory at all. Unlike Jan, who was impatient, Titus seemed to have a long-range strategy; he seemed “realistic” because, he considered the present, move to be a necessary step or “stage” toward the next. Yet was Titus any more of a “realist” than Jan was a “hothead” Did Titus know that this step, this “stage,” was going to eliminate the possibility of taking another step?
By. the way, you're also wrong about the reasons for our arrest. Your and. Luisa's connection to Alberts had nothing to do with it, no matter how suspicious Alberts became to Claude. Thanks to imaginations like yours, and mine, Luisa's and Vera's, we all took our roles seriously. And we infected everyone else, with our enthusiasm. When the strikes and demonstrations ended, when most workers realized the carnival was over and returned to work, our group continued to perform its show. We were still printing posters, glueing “Factories to Workers” on recently cleaned walls, shouting about the workers' commonwealth. At that point we became dangerous, because at that point people like us elsewhere saw that at least some had meant what they said and that the performance of a play had not, been the only possibility. If others didn't realize this, at least the authorities thought they did.” Only at that point did we begin to “act on our own,” but we weren't aware of this. We were so carried away by our performance that we failed to see that the curtain had fallen and the carnival had ended. Instead of acting on our own we continued reciting the lines of the script and performing the rehearsed motions even though the prompter and play director had left the theater. We were arrested because we unintentionally transported our performance out of the theater into the street, because we continued to play when it was time to return to work. Because of my. failure to turn off my act I spent four years moving from one dungeon to another. My overenthusiastic performance in a puppet show was interpreted by the all-knowing proletarian inquisitors as dangerous, anti-social activity, as sabotage of social means of production and therefore as a threat to the present and future well-being of the working class.
Four years later I was given an opportunity to enjoy the new society to which our significant experience had led. Much of the old society had survived in the new. Among other things, marriage. Why do you single out marriage? I remember the discussions at your house. I also remember that not only marriage but also wage labor, police, prisons, governments and schools were going to be absent from the new society. They all survived, intact, even reinforced. Or did you think our significant experience had changed all this, that marriage, wage labor and prisons had been abolished?
What I saw when I was released resembled the prison I had left more than it resembled a free city. There were inmates and guards. Officials were in automobiles, workers in busses and trams. And everyone was “in uniform.” I saw functionaries, policemen, soldiers, workers, shoppers and students. I didn't see plain, uncategorized, ununiformed human-beings, i sensed that none of the people I saw met at houses like yours to discuss the abolition of marriage and wage labor. All such people had been arrested; all such discussions took place in jail.
I had no place to go since I had no family and my friends had all been jailed. Yet I was enthusiastic: the first term hadn't broken me the Way the second was going to. I wanted to find work and then continue to fight, to express what I had seen and learned. I wanted to learn what was possible in the new situation. I visited the carton plant. Every face was new. Every member of the group you and I had known was gone, including the lenient foreman. That's all that was new. The machines were the same. The walls were the same; they hadn't even been painted. People worked in complete silence. I walked around and watched. People glanced at me and turned away. No one asked me who I was or what I wanted. The silence and indifference were new. Something else was new; maybe it was only a product of the indifference. Every carton I saw was poorly printed; we would have put them all in the stack of seconds. But now every stack in the plant was a stack of seconds. There were no longer any firsts. The workers were silent and seemed indifferent, but under those frightening masks they were still alive.
An old man was operating “my” press, at a snail's pace. He had turned the speed down to the lowest notch. The press creaked and squealed. It obviously hadn't been greased for four years. I didn't see a can of grease in the entire plant; apparently the planners didn't see why grease should be allocated to a carton plant. The absence of grease had caused the main cylinder bearing to turn to an ellipse. As a result there was no way to avoid printing a double image at every impression. The old man obviously couldn't be held responsible for sabotage. He was visibly being as slow and careful as he could be. He was doing his very best. And who needs perfectly printed boxes anyway? I wanted to shake his hand, to congratulate him, to laugh and share the joke with him. Instead I asked him if it was possible to apply for a job in the plant. He told me to speak to an official on the trade union council. This was another novelty, a sign of the workers' victory. Pointing in the direction of Zagad's former office, I asked where I could find these officials. I had guessed right. I must have been there before.
The trade union official at Zagad's desk was slightly chubbier than Zagad. And he called me “comrade.” In all other ways he was very similar. He asked my name. He telephoned. Then he said, very politely, “Sorry, comrade. The economic situation is extremely critical. We cannot afford to hire an individual who was found guilty of sabotage.”
Before leaving the plant, I stopped by the old man to ask him some questions. I wanted to find out to what extent the sabotage I saw was organized, what forms of communication the workers had succeeded in creating. But the old man was nervous; he kept looking around with a fear I had never seen on a worker's face. As far as I could see, the foreman was out for the day, the manager must have had his office elsewhere, the union official was smoking in his office, and everyone else was working. Was the old man actually afraid of being watched and heard by the other workers? Vera couldn't have lasted for a day in this plant.
I waited for him outside as I'd waited for Titus Zabran almost eight years earlier. He was more talkative. He asked if I'd been hired. “No jailbirds,” I said. He looked around as he had inside; I was afraid I'd put an end to our conversation. The look on his face was a look I had seen before. No one had ever looked at me that way in prison. So this was what I had been released into! I felt intense relief when the old man said many of his friends, the “more political” ones, had also been jailed, and my growing anger left me when he said, “One day these wiseacres are going to reap what they're sowing.” He was aware that his earlier look had stung me, and he became more talkative, though by no means comradely. The union, he told me, duplicated the supervisory work of the management, and both were supervised by the police. The foreman was directly responsible to the police, and one or more workers were police agents. He laughed when I asked about informal organization in these conditions. There had never been more distrust among workers. “In addition to actual police agents,” he told me, “there are workers who seriously believe the factories are theirs and that therefore the workers are their own boss. They're fanatics. Such people don't remain workers very long, since their convictions lead to quick promotions. But while they're workers, they're far worse than the union officials or even the police agents. They work harder than anyone else, criticize other workers, have workers fired for sabotage and wrecking. The managers and union officials would of course like to hire only workers of this type. But this is impossible. The enthusiasm doesn't last long if the promotions don't follow. And they can't promote the entire production crew. Consequently such workers are always in a minority. But this minority effectively prevents any kind of unified action. Even grumbling can lead to arrest. But don't think they've turned us into oxen,” the old man concluded. “With all their threats, arrests and harassments, with all their talk about record productivity and record output, production still hasn't reached the pre-war level.”
In parting, the old man gave me strange advice. He told me not to be disappointed at not having been hired. Factory life wasn't for “political people.” “The good life is in politics: that's the place for you activists,” he said. He had grasped the essence of what you call your significant experience. I was going to receive the same advice again.
I looked for jobs elsewhere. Sometimes I spoke to managers, sometimes to union officials. The outcome was always the same: the same phone call, the same “Sorry comrade, four years for sabotage ...” Production had not reached the pre-war level, but the centralization and communication of police files had broken all previous records and was continually climbing to new heights. The enthusiasm with which Thad left prison vanished. I became desperate. I was running out of money. I slept in alleys, but this wasn't as easy as it had been eight years earlier. I was older and people were far more suspicious of strangers. I was afraid someone who saw me in the street or in an alley would turn me in as a vagabond. I began to understand why the police had grown so enormous. I was trapped. I had the choice of starving to death or killing myself. I had yet another “choice.” It was then I grasped that the police were not a different species. At least not all of them. Sooner or later I would be arrested. I would be under a roof, I would sleep on some kind of mattress. I might even tell them, “I give up. What do I have to do to survive?” They would smile, have me sit down, offer me a cigarette. “Yes, we've been expecting you, comrade. We thought you would return much sooner. Times are hard. If you want to work, we can find a job for you.”
This was my mood when I decided to try to find Jan Sedlak. I stopped worrying about adding to his problems in case he'd just been released. I needed to communicate with another human being. I had little hope of finding him. I didn't know how long his sentence had been or if he'd been released. I had been to his house only once, shortly before our arrest. He had taken Sabina and me there one or two days after Zagad was ousted from, the carton plant. They lived in a poor working class quarter on the outskirts of the city. They had been driven from their farm during the war, and had moved to the section that most closely resembled a village. Like their neighbors, mainly former peasants, they raised chickens and geese and kept a large garden. Jan's father had found a job driving a bus during the war, and had continued to drive the same bus through the war, the resistance, the coup and the arrests. As I rode the tram I convinced myself the Sedlaks would no longer be living, there. Surely the old peasant had found another job and moved to the city. Surely the one-time peasants of that quarter had finally become just workers and had left their houses and yards to new arrivals from villages. I found the quarter. The houses had deteriorated and many had been abandoned. Former occupants had not been replaced by new arrivals.
But there were curtains in the windows of Jan's house. It was obviously inhabited. I knocked. The old woman who opened the door wore the same black dress and the same black shawl she had worn before. Her face was wrinkled with age. She was startled, as if she were looking at a ghost. Her shock gave way to an expression which has remained engraved on my memory. I'm still convinced it was an expression of regret. With unmistakable sadness, she said. “Jan's friend,” and motioned for me to come m. She seemed to know already then the nature of the gifts I was bringing into the Sedlak household. She fed me sweets and coffee and left me alone in a large room.
There were several chairs and a table, but otherwise the room was barren except for three books stacked in a corner: mathematics, zoology, and a “history of the working class movement.” I leafed through the history. I learned that the working class had begun to move during the very moment when I thought it had stopped moving, and that the movements of the class consisted of moves of politicians. I was relieved when I leafed through the zoology book and saw that the names of animals had not been changed.
A young woman burst into the room carrying potatoes in her apron. She dropped them as soon as she saw me. I surmised they still kept a garden. Nothing had changed here. People were a little older, some of the neighbors had moved out, and that was all. The old man probably still drove the same bus. I assumed the young woman was Jan's wife. She was clearly a peasant in spite of her city dress. She looked at me with an expression I can only call wild: like a lone shepherdess on a desolate mountain who had unexpectedly bumped into a stranger.
Suddenly she shouted, “You're Yarostan!” She said this with such joy I thought she was going to throw her arms around me.
It was my turn to see a ghost. “How in the world do you know who I am?”
“You're Jan's friend!”
Beginning to doubt my first assumption, I nevertheless formulated the question, “And you're — Jan's wife?”
“No, silly! Don't you remember me? I'm Mirna!”
Jan's sister. How could I have remembered her, or even guessed? The last time I'd seen her she'd been at most ten or eleven years old, attending elementary school. That meant she was at most fifteen. I helped her pick up the potatoes. She said nothing more, just stared at me. I couldn't help looking at her. She became embarrassed. She carried the potatoes into the kitchen and stayed there. I was again alone in the large room. My thoughts and feelings were in chaos. Isn't it amazing how flexible we are, how quickly we can travel from one emotional extreme to another? Only two hours earlier I had been weighing and comparing my alternatives: imprisonment, suicide or capitulation. Now I was filled with enthusiasm again, filled with thoughts of living, of building a world together with these people, near this girl. I looked at the three books. I had an urge to hurl them out of the house. They were as out of place in this room as she was out of place in this city. What forces had driven this country girl away, from open fields and into authoritarian classrooms? Why? What is gained when this free being is confined to a desk and forced to recite a toady's account of the words and gestures of his patrons?
Jan's father returned from work wearing his driver's cap. He embraced, me as soon as he came in. He was neither startled nor apprehensive. He acted as if I were an old friend, as if he had expected me to be there. “Living anywhere?” he asked.
I lied and told him I was renting a room in the city.
“Are your things there?”
“I have no things,” I admitted.
“Mirna!” he shouted, “fix up the guest room. Jan's friend is going to stay with us.”
He seemed to know that I had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, that I had reached the end of my journey. “Relax,” he told me, as if he knew what I'd been thinking earlier. “Together we'll straighten everything out.”
It was only when Jan came home that I started to relax. Jan was overjoyed. He had tears in his eyes when he embraced me. He said he had known I'd turn up. Released a few months before I was, he had somehow learned the date of my release. He knew I wouldn't find a job and would have nowhere else to go. He had begun to worry when I failed to turn up; he wondered if they'd failed to release me or if I had already been arrested again.
Jan had a job in the transport depot repair shop. He got the job through an odd coincidence, A few months before his release, his father's bus had broken down and the driver had accompanied it to the repair shop. While a clerk was asking Sedlak the usual questions: name, number, route, and so on, a union official who was standing nearby asked if the driver was related to Jan Sedlak. Suspicious of all officials, Sedlak warily asked the man why he wanted to know. The official apologized very politely, admitting that under the circumstances he had been insolent to ask him such a question. He then proceeded to explain he had been Jan's friend since the war, they had worked together for several years, and he — the official — had only recently been released from prison. The day after Jan was released, he and his father went to see this official. It was Titus Zabran. The following day Jan was employed in the repair shop. He changed his first name and soon received a work booklet. Titus had discreetly recommended him as Sedlak's country nephew, a hard-working peasant who had just arrived in the city.
That night I ate supper with friends who were not prisoners for the first time in four years.
Jan and I left his house an hour before sunrise the following morning. We travelled by tram and bus to the other end of the city. The headquarters of the trade union were located next door to the repair shop. Jan knocked on the door of Titus' office. When Titus opened it, I was sure that for an instant I saw the same expression of alarm and disappointment I had seen on the face of Jan's mother: he saw a ghost. Jan convinced me later that Titus couldn't have been alarmed, since it was from him that Jan had learned the date of my release. In any case, Titus quickly recovered. He embraced me and asked if I needed money or a place to stay. Jan explained that I had “already solved” all my living problems; all I needed was a job.
Titus picked up the phone. He talked about another Sedlak newly arrived from the country. Suddenly he turned to me and asked, “Your first name?”
I fumbled. Then I almost shouted, “Miran!” And I glanced at Jan with a sheepish grin.
“Miran Sedlak,” Titus told the phone. He told me I was to start driving a bus in a week. I said I had never driven anything other than a bicycle. Titus laughed. He said I'd learn in a week, and by the second week I would already be bored; there were no fine adjustments to be made (as there had been on a press). Titus embraced both of us when we left. This was the second time he had pulled me out of a trap. The first time seemed to have taken place so long ago I wasn't sure it had taken place at all; perhaps I had dreamed it.
Dinner that night was a celebration. I had rejoined humanity. I had found a home, a family, a job.
“We're almost back on our feet,” Jan said. “Soon we'll be running again.”
“And you'll run right back to jail,” his mother grumbled.
But Jan's father didn't let his spirits be dampened. “Another relative!” he shouted. “Soon there'll be Sedlaks driving half the busses, Sedlaks in half the factories. Welcome Yarostan Sedlak!”
“Miran Sedlak,” Jan corrected.
“Miran?” asked Mirna. “Then we're twins!”
“Twins!” roared the old man. “Everyone for miles around can see you're anything but twins!”
Mirna blushed, dropped her food, and ran to her room. Jan laughed. It was already understood that Mirna and I were to be married. No more was going to be said about it; the matter had been settled. I was overjoyed.
It wasn't your letter that gave rise to my first doubts. These began to rise the very next morning, when I left the house with Jan's father for my first driving lesson. What had I celebrated? What did my joy mean? Which humanity had I rejoined: a humanity of unshackled beings transforming their dreams into projects, or the humanity of home, family and job? Had I celebrated my self-betrayal? Had I become a traitor to my own commitment, to you and Luisa, to all the comrades with whom I had fought for a different world? Had the imprisonment broken me, tamed me, domesticated me? Would my betrayal of my past and my comrades have been any greater if I had joined the police or if, as you suggested, I had taken up religion or invested capital? Hadn't I spent four years in prison for rejecting everything I was now embracing, enjoying and celebrating?
At the very beginning of my prison term I had grumbled about the food. I complained that the bread was stale and the soup was lukewarm sewage. A prisoner sitting across the table from me told me he had read about people who had so little food they ate the bark of trees; when a fire destroyed their forest, they dreamed about the bark as if it were a delicacy. Sometime later I spent a week in a damp, airless dungeon. My diet then was stale bread and cold water. When I rejoined the living, the warm sewage became a delicacy. I ate it slowly, sipping it so as to enjoy the flavor of every spoonful.
I was undoubtedly broken, tamed, but not by the four years in prison. I had left prison with a certain amount of enthusiasm. I had at least been eating bark. The fire that destroyed my forest burned during the nine or ten days after my release. It was only then that I was left with nothing at all. It was only then that I was deprived of all friendship, all communication, all hopes. I was excluded from every community and from all social activity. I longed for no more than bark, but it had all burned. The worst deprivation of all was my exclusion from work. I had fought against self-selling, I had engaged in the struggle to abolish wage labor, yet now I was tortured because I couldn't sell myself for a wage. I was in pain because this exclusion was a far greater torture than solitary confinement. Though death and insanity were not infrequent results of solitary confinement, they were not inevitable. I had seen many emerge with their selves intact. It was this possibility of emerging intact that had been removed. A new arrest or starvation meant not emerging at all. Emerging by selling myself to the police meant I would murder my own self, my whole past life, and I would also suppress others like me, I would murder my other selves.
I had been excluded from humanity. This exclusion was the dungeon I emerged from when I rejoined humanity. And I sipped, with genuine enjoyment, the very soup I had rejected as sewage. I embraced a traditional, archaic, patriarchal family, and I was filled with joy. I would have been satisfied with bark and I sat in front of a complete meal, a virtual feast. I was with warm, sociable human beings who welcomed me as one of their own, with peasants who had never quite been urbanized; I was with people who were more human than my contemporaries precisely because they had been left behind, because they had not replaced kinship with civic responsibility or friendship with duty to the state. I was with people who did not experience our great society as their boon or their victory, but as their fate, their destiny, as an incomprehensible catastrophe, a punishment for unknown transgressions. And for an instant I felt I had rejoined my own. I was filled with joy. I embraced the world I had once rejected. I accepted what we had once called nepotism and was proud of myself as a nephew, a country cousin, a relative. I felt only gratitude when I was allowed to rejoin the community of wage laborers. And my happiness was crowned by the prospect of marrying the wonderful peasant girl who had remained unstained by urban corruption, unstained by the factories and prisons.
My stupor lasted for a day. I couldn't permanently turn myself inside out, become someone else, turn my back on what I had wanted until then. And I couldn't forget all those like me who were still in prison, all those who had died, all those who had emerged so maimed they could only hope for the next release.
The old peasant took me along in his bus for a week. There were hardly any passengers during two afternoon hours, when he had me drive the bus. On the fifth day he let me drive it all day. By the end of the week I was an experienced driver; all I had left to learn was the route. And by the end of the following week I was a seasoned driver. I began to recognize many of the passengers. I began to understand the nature of my useful social activity, the function of the job I had been so overjoyed to find. The morning passengers were almost all workers on their way to factories, warehouses and sometimes offices. They were in the process of selling their energy and time in exchange for a wage. The bus was the vehicle which delivered the sold item to its purchaser. The transaction was unusual because the sellers had to accompany the items they sold: they couldn't stay home while the buyer walked away with their time. As a result the bus looked like it was transporting people, but the people were merely accompanying their merchandise. It wasn't the people who were delivered every morning but only the merchandise. The afternoon passengers, generally relatives of the same workers, took the bus to shops; they bought back, not the living energy sold by the workers, but some of the objects which had consumed the energy. They spent the wage. When it was spent, the bus again delivered merchandise, this time tangible merchandise, material objects, things — the things into which the workers had poured their lives. In the evening the outer husks of the workers returned home. The specific content of each had dissolved into that homogeneous substance they had sold for a wage, it had dripped out of them during the day like liquid excrement. This excrement was the merchandise the bus had delivered in the morning. It was carried in the hands, arms, legs and eyes of the passengers. Potential energy had been transformed into a substance that could be discharged from the body and sold. Since the workers couldn't separate themselves from the item they had sold, the transaction was not completed until the item was consumed. In the evening they returned home to refill their empty shells, to regenerate the energy, only to let it flow out again during eight hours of diarrhea the following day. It was my useful function to be a middleman in this transaction, to circulate the excrement among its consumers. And as I circulated it I studied the objects into which this liquid energy had flowed, the monuments into which it had been molded. I drove past these products of human labor every day: the cramped living quarters in which the consumed energy was nightly regenerated, the forbidding structures inside which the allocation of the excrement and the speed of its discharge were daily determined. I also studied the most sophisticated products of human labor, the most important monuments shaped out of the excrement: officials, politicians and police, as they drove by me in their glossy cars. This was the victory into which our significant experience was shaped. And you tell me: “I knew exactly what part I was playing in the creation of our common world.” Did you really? And are you proud, twenty years later, that you helped create this world?
My enthusiasm diminished the day after I experienced such joy at having rejoined this world, and it was all gone by the time I had driven the bus for a week. My interest in life returned. I had left prison with an intense desire to express myself, to communicate with others, to explore the possible and project the impossible. This desire returned as soon as I was “almost back on my feet” and had started “running again,” as Jan had put it. I regained the posture you remember: my “militant” posture. My hosts became my audience, my potential insurgents, my revolutionary community. I began arguing with the old driver about the significance of driving a bus in a society consisting of enterprises and wage workers. I argued about the significance of kinship relations in a society of buyers and sellers. And when he didn't respond, I argued about the dangers of housing two saboteurs, two elements who threatened the present and future well-being of the working class.
The old peasant heard nothing, but he learned that his future “son-in-law” was an agitator. And his response to this discovery was identical to that of the old worker in the carton plant. “You won't be driving a bus for long,” Sedlak said. “They've got other jobs for you up there.” He was proud of his future relative. Sedlak was a shrewd and calculating man. I knew that for once he was miscalculating but I couldn't have known at the time how badly he was miscalculating me, my prospects, and the situation he would find himself in because of me. His wife's expectations were far more modest, her guesses were based on more solid realities. She merely shook her head whenever I spoke and she said absolutely nothing.
I also argued with Mirna about marriage. I had not learned to consider marriage “the most natural relation in the world”; I had not convinced myself that “people never lived outside this category.” I agree with everything you say in this part of your letter, and I admire the way all of you have refused to compromise with this institution. But you provoke me to ask a question. Since you are also opposed to wage labor, have you refused to compromise with this institution? If so, how have you supported yourselves?
Mirna and I took long walks in that village-like neighborhood. Only then did everyone for miles around know that Mirna and Miran were not twins. I tried to explain to her that the proposed marriage was an absurdity, a mistake, possibly even a crime. Sooner or later I would be arrested again. My term would probably be much longer since I would be a repeated offender. We would both be old when I returned, if I returned at all. I doubted that I could live through a longer term. If I died she would as likely as not think I was still alive somewhere in that underworld of the living dead. Informing relatives about such details was not one of the priorities of our record-breaking control industry. Her archaic, monogamous and patriarchal peasant neighbors would not allow her to divorce me if it was thought I was still alive. She would be chained to a buried corpse. The marriage would rob her of her young life. She wouldn't merely be bound for life to a person she might cease to love on the day after the ceremony. That possibility was at the core of every marriage. There was the additional possibility that I would be arrested the day after the marriage. The fifteen-year old girl would be bound for life to a person she might never see again.
Mirna listened to me the same way her father did. She heard nothing. Her energy, her passion and her joyful anticipation did not diminish for an instant. The marriage was simply a date on the calendar, a coming holiday that was one day closer with every sunrise. It was as unavoidable as the passage of time. There was no longer anything she or I could do about it — if we were decent. Her brother's friend, the intelligent and sensitive young man who had experienced torture and imprisonment, was obviously decent. Such a person couldn't possibly humiliate her, stain her for life, make her the laughing stock of the village by running out before the marriage. My talk didn't even suggest such a possibility. Such things did happen. Brides who were coerced to marry a person they hated, bridegrooms who were afraid to face the world, sometimes ran away lust before the ceremony. But clearly neither of us had reason to run away. We loved each other and I wasn't able to communicate my misgivings. Should I have run away? Where was I to go? Back to prison? Should I have sacrificed my own life so as to avoid ruining hers? And if I did. could I be sure the humiliation would be less severe to her than the marriage? Could I be sure she wouldn't torture or maim herself because I had “run out” on her, leaving her the “laughing stock of the village”?
I spoke to her parents as well. But that was like talking to stones. Her father “knew” that I'd “go far.” And her mother heard nothing at all. At first I thought I could reach the old woman: she had disliked me since the day I had arrived and she seemed to foresee a catastrophic fall where her husband foresaw a steep and unlimited ascent. But the coming catastrophe might as well have taken place already. In her view we couldn't avoid our future any more than our past; all we could do was to resign ourselves to what was to come. My jabbering was mere noise, since to her I could no more undo what was to come than I could undo my arrival at their house.
Jan was the only one who heard me, but he didn't help. My arguments and my doubts angered him. He accused me of destroying the basis of all friendship and all solidarity. He argued that anyone might die of an illness the day after forming a relationship with another person and that was no reason to avoid forming such relations. As for the institutionalization of the relationship, Jan argued that if our lives were to acquire any meaning at all, we would soon be rid of the institution and Mirna and I could choose or reject each other freely.
In spite of my doubts those were the happiest moments of my life. As the day drew nearer, Mirna beamed constantly. On our evening walks she threw her arms around children and old people, she danced with perfect strangers in the street. I talked less about the possibility of my arrest and more about the possibilities of our lives together. I talked about the day when all the working people of the city would embrace each other and dance in the street.
The ceremony was archaic, patriarchal and authoritarian. I experienced it as beautiful. Mirna seemed like a feather floating through air. She didn't make the slightest effort to hide a happiness that was as clear as a cloudless sky. She literally flitted from one person to the next, infecting them all with her unrestrained joy. I had been walking on clouds from the moment I had gotten up; for me the event was a dream. I was in a stupor, as unconscious as if I hadn't woken up. at all. I don't think I spoke a single coherent word all day long. All I did was laugh.
We didn't stop loving each other the day after the ceremony or later. There were times when I cursed the marriage because of the torture and misery it had carried in its train, but I never regretted it. Mirna embraced the happy moments — and there were many but they all flew past us during the first few months — with undisguised joy, and she accepted the tragedies with silent resignation, though never with her mother's absolute, unquestioning resignation.
I drove a bus for a year, during which time Mirna and I lived with her parents. Jan moved out soon after we were married. He explained that he didn't enjoy travelling across the entire city twice a day. That was undoubtedly part of his reason for moving out. He had probably also come to feel like a stranger to our happiness. He had lost his sister as well as his best friend, and the house must have started to seem crowded to him: crowded with strangers.
Toward the end of the first year Vesna was born. This unlucky, unhappy child was born into something like a pit surrounded by the unscalable walls you described so vividly in your letter. It wasn't Mirna I should have worried about, but Vesna. The baby girl born late that fall hadn't asked to be brought to this world, she hadn't asked to be born into the cage from which she was never to emerge. We had neglected this topic in our discussions at Luisa's: birth. By what right do we drag a helpless infant into a world we've left unchanged, by what right do we force another human being to breathe an air, that's suffocating us, by what right do we leave a little girl scratching her fingernails until her hands bleed in a pathetic attempt to scale a wall we could neither climb nor destroy?
I can't read Luisa's or your description of our significant experience without remembering the significance of that experience. I can't forget the significance it had for the old peasant, for his wife, for Jan and Vesna, for Mirna, for me and others like me. How can you remind me of the dreams we shared and the possibilities we anticipated while you glorify the event which deformed the dreams and destroyed the possibilities? How can you point to everything that died in that event, tell me it was born then and ask me to celebrate the birth?
I'm able to write you now only because, after twenty years, the significance of our experience is at last being exposed. I can reach you now only because those impenetrable walls have started to crack. It's not so much because of the efforts of my contemporaries, my likes, that the walls are crumbling, and certainly not because of my efforts. They're coming down more or less on their own. The city is — waking up from a twenty-year long death-like sleep. Corpse-like husks with shrivelled capacities, dried up imaginations and used up lives are beginning to exhibit new gleams in their eyes and new energies in their limbs.
The people of this city are suddenly realizing they've been building those walls: high and low walls, outer and inner walls, yet more walls within the inner walls; they've been building the walls that imprison them. Perhaps they're not realizing this only now; perhaps they were aware of it all along. But their awareness didn't affect their activity. They acted as if they were unaware of the walls. It was as if huge signs, massive colorful tapestries, had been hung in front of the walls. The signs depicted free human beings engaged in common projects, working people engaged in creating their own history. You and I helped to paint those signs. If people realized there were walls behind the signs they couldn't refer to the walls without being arrested; if they knew their activity wasn't the activity depicted on the signs but the activity of constructing and reinforcing the walls behind the signs, they had to keep this knowledge to themselves. The only activity they could refer to and communicate about was the activity on the signs. People saw open, vast, unlimited fields while they accommodated themselves to cramped prison cells. All of a sudden those tapestries are being torn down and the walls behind them are being attacked. It's all happening because of a quirk in the prison machinery, a mistake on the part of a prison warden. A few weeks before I wrote you my first letter, one of the normal changes of the prison guard took place. This particular change was slightly less routine than the daily changes because it was accompanied by a less frequent, though still periodic, replacement of the head warden by his understudy. Due to the fact that the prison administrators had been careless and had neglected to replace the warden many years earlier, this warden had gotten used to his job and had grown senile in his office. When the time came for him to leave his office, he refused. Instead, he and the head prison guards, who had remained faithful to him, hatched a plot: they were going to lock up all the other members of the prison administration in order to keep him in his office. But one of the guards who was to take part in the conspiracy lost faith in the senile warden and told the remaining administrators they were about to be arrested. The administrators promptly replaced the warden and blocked the conspiracy. The plotters were routed. One of them, the second or third highest official in the prison, ran off to sell himself to the prison administrators of what he had until then called the enemy camp. The administrative shuffle ended; it had been fairly routine.
Such changes had taken place before, and even the conspiracy was nothing out of the ordinary. Such events didn't normally create ripples among the inmates, if for no other reason than because the prison population was told nothing about them. But this time something else happened. The nearly-arrested administrators discovered that all the prison guards had been involved in the conspiracy. To protect themselves, they suspended the activity of the guards. They couldn't possibly have known what they were doing. Maybe they had no choice. By suspending the guards they removed the glue that held the whole system together and it all started to fall apart. People started to pull at the tapestries, to tear them, to point to the walls behind them. “This is what we've been building, and this is all we've been building,” someone shouted. And when that person wasn't shot or even locked up others started shouting and tearing down the signs. And nothing happened to any of them. People who had been silent for twenty years suddenly started to speak. Many were unable to find words. For two decades they had only spoken about the people and activities depicted on the tapestries. Suddenly people started talking about themselves and their own real activities, about jailers and prison walls, about their sacrificed lives and about the tortures. Many failed to understand. Yet still nothing happened to those who tore at the signs and spoke about the walls. Gradually those who had forgotten how to refer to themselves or their own activity began to remember or learn the words, and those who had thought their lives were described by the tapestries learned to experience their own lives. Even children who had never known any language other than the language on the signs and students who had experienced life only as it was depicted on the tapestries began tearing down signs and communicating about the prison walls. They had to invent words with which to talk about themselves and their real surroundings.
It's only because the significance of the event you glorify is finally being exposed that I'm able to write you now. If these events weren't taking place my letter probably wouldn't even reach you and I might not even be here. In my first letter I told you about a demonstration in which Yara participated at her school. In slightly different circumstances that demonstration could have led to my third and surely last imprisonment. My neighbor Mr. Ninovo, the self-repressed bar cleaner who expresses himself only in the language of the signs, learned about the demonstration and about Yara's role in it. He promptly reported me to the police. In other circumstances I would have been re-arrested, accused of instigating dangerous anti-social activity and jailed. I could hardly believe what happened instead. An official came to the house. He was extremely polite and he apologized for his visit. He told us Mr. Ninovo had reported me and then he proceeded to warn us to beware of our neighbor, telling us Mr. Ninovo was a spiteful, envious and dangerous man. (Of course in other circumstances there would have been no demonstration at Yara's school and Mr. Ninovo wouldn't have reported me for instigating it.) We've been looking for Mr. Ninovo but he apparently hasn't been coming home to sleep. There have been two more demonstrations at Yara's school since them.
An unbelievable metamorphosis has been taking place. With the exception of the Ninovos (who unfortunately aren't rare), predictable machines are turning into human beings, specialized instruments are turning into living creatures with unlimited possibilities. The emergence of so many human beings out of the shells, the husks and the cages is stupefying. The first thing it indicates is that so long as the repressive apparatus had functioned, human beings had disappeared. The human community had ceased to exist. There had only been deaf and dumb aggregates of specialized instruments, collections of Ninovos who related to each other by way of the police.
The repressed are returning in a very literal sense as well. I've heard rumors that released prisoners are starting to form clubs, to communicate their experiences and expose their significance. I want to take part in this activity but so far Mirna has kept me from contacting these groups. She doesn't believe that what we're experiencing today will last and she's convinced my contact with other former prisoners will only shorten the duration of my release.
I'd like to believe that Mirna's apprehension is exaggerated, that her fears have no basis in present reality, but I can't keep myself from hearing what she hears. The situation is still unclear, the newborn communication still contains some old and sinister sounds. The politicians still use the language and the imagery of the torn tapestries. The fawning priests who run the press still preach about the omniscience of their gods and justify the wisdom and goodness of their past, present or future patrons. But an altogether different type of communication is gradually drowning out these sounds from the past. It is a communication among likes, a communication about themselves, their lives and possibilities. It is a communication I first experienced on the barricades of the resistance twenty-three years ago, a communication whose significance I learned only when Luisa told me about the barricades of the revolution she had experienced. Such communication has so far existed only in situations of crisis, on barricades, in the face of almost certain death. Yet even if it has so far existed nowhere else, it revealed itself there as a permanent human possibility, and it's this possibility that is being grasped by those around me today.
This rebirth of communication is what stimulates me to seek out my likes, not only among other former prisoners and other workers, but everywhere in the world. I wrote you because I wanted to explore the present, to probe its possibilities, to move beyond the past. I didn't write you in order to revive the past and certainly not to celebrate the events which had put an end to all communication, at least for me. It's because we were in the throes of the victory you now celebrate that the letter you sent me twelve years ago couldn't reach me. I would have welcomed it then. That was another period of ferment, a ferment that was immediately suppressed, a ferment that created cracks in the walls but not for long enough to allow human messages to get through. That was also the moment of my second arrest. Mirna tells me the police came looking for” that letter only a few hours after it came. By sheer coincidence I didn't come home from work on the day your letter came, nor the following day nor any day after that for the next eight years.
A few days ago I asked Mirna if she still remembered the walks we took just before we were married. She remembered the walks but not the talks. When I reminded her I had once tried to warn her not to chain herself to a convicted saboteur, a socially dangerous element, she asked furiously, “Were you God? Did you know that cursed letter was going to come years before it was even written?” Mirna holds that letter responsible for my second imprisonment. She still thinks it caused my arrest. I've tried to explain to her that the arrival of the letter on the day of my arrest was a pure coincidence, but she merely tells me, “There are no coincidences.” That's why she thought the letter peculiar and attributed a strange power to it, and still does today: she thinks your letter had the power to imprison me for eight years.
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