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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 13)

2006-08-22 20:49

  13

  Recently she had made another entry into his mind. Returning home with the milk one morning as usual, she stood in the doorway with a crow wrapped in her red scarf and pressed against her breast. It was the way gypsies held their babies. He would never forget it: the crow's enormous plaintive beak up next to her face.

  She had found it half-buried, the way Cossacks used to dig their prisoners into the ground. It was children, she said, and her words did more than state a fact; they revealed an unexpected repugnance for people in general. It reminded him of something she had said to him not long before: I'm beginning to be grateful to you for not wanting to have children.

  And then she had complained to him about a man who had been bothering her at work. He had grabbed at a cheap necklace of hers and suggested that the only way she could have afforded it was by doing some prostitution on the side. She was very upset about it. More than necessary, thought Tomas. He suddenly felt dismayed at how little he had seen of her the last two years; he had so few opportunities to press her hands in his to stop them from trembling.

  The next morning he had gone to work with Tereza on his mind. The woman who gave the window washers their assignments told him that a private customer had insisted on him personally. Tomas was not looking forward to it; he was afraid it was still another woman. Fully occupied with Tereza, he was in no mood for adventure.

  When the door opened, he gave a sigh of relief. He saw a tall, slightly stooped man before him. The man had a big chin and seemed vaguely familiar.

  Come in, said the man with a smile, taking him inside.

  There was also a young man standing there. His face was bright red. He was looking at Tomas and trying to smile.

  I assume there's no need for me to introduce you two, said the man.

  No, said Tomas, and without returning the smile he held out his hand to the young man. It was his son.

  Only then did the man with the big chin introduce himself.

  I knew you looked familiar! said Tomas. Of course! Now I place you. It was the name that did it.

  They sat down at what was like a small conference table. Tomas realized that both men opposite him were his own involuntary creations. He had been forced to produce the younger one by his first wife, and the features of the older one had taken shape when he was under interrogation by the police.

  To clear his mind of these thoughts, he said, Well, which window do you want me to start with?

  Both men burst out laughing.

  Clearly windows had nothing to do with the case. He had not been called in to do the windows; he had been lured into a trap. He had never before talked to his son. This was the first time he had shaken hands with him. He knew him only by sight and had no desire to know him any other way. As far as he was concerned, the less he knew about his son the better, and he hoped the feeling was mutual.

  Nice poster, isn't it? said the editor, pointing at a large framed drawing on the wall opposite Tomas.

  Tomas now glanced around the room. The walls were hung with interesting pictures, mostly photographs and posters. The drawing the editor had singled out came from one of the last issues of his paper before the Russians closed it down in 1969. It was an imitation of a famous recruitment poster from the Russian Civil War of 1918 showing a soldier, red star on his cap and extraordinarily stern look in his eyes, staring straight at you and aiming his index finger at you. The original Russian caption read: Citizen, have you joined the Red Army? It was replaced by a Czech text that read: Citizen, have you signed the Two Thousand Words?

  That was an excellent joke! The Two Thousand Words was the first glorious manifesto of the 1968 Prague Spring. It called for the radical democratization of the Communist regime. First it was signed by a number of intellectuals, and then other people came forward and asked to sign, and finally there were so many signatures that no one could quite count them up. When the Red Army invaded their country and launched a series of political purges, one of the questions asked of each citizen was Have you signed the Two Thousand Words? Anyone who admitted to having done so was summarily dismissed from his job.

  A fine poster, said Tomas. I remember it well. Let's hope the Red Army man isn't listening in on us, said the editor with a smile.

  Then he went on, without the smile: Seriously though, this isn't my flat. It belongs to a friend. We can't be absolutely certain the police can hear us; it's only a possibility. If I'd invited you to my place, it would have been a certainty.

  Then he switched back to a playful tone. But the way I' look at it, we've got nothing to hide. And think of what a boon it will be to Czech historians of the future. The complete recorded lives of the Czech intelligentsia on file in the police archives! Do you know what effort literary historians have put into reconstructing in detail the sex lives of, say, Voltaire or Balzac or Tolstoy? No such problems with Czech writers. It's all on tape. Every last sigh.

  And turning to the imaginary microphones in the wall, he said in a stentorian voice, Gentlemen, as always in such circumstances, I wish to take this opportunity to encourage you in your work and to thank you on my behalf and on behalf of all future historians.

  After the three of them had had a good laugh, the editor told the story of how his paper had been banned, what the artist who designed the poster was doing, and what had become of other Czech painters, philosophers, and writers. After the Russian invasion they had been relieved of their positions and become window washers, parking attendants, night watchmen, boilermen in public buildings, or at best-and usually with pull-taxi drivers.

  Although what the editor said was interesting enough, Tomas was unable to concentrate on it. He was thinking about his son. He remembered passing him in the street during the past two months. Apparently these encounters had not been fortuitous. He had certainly never expected to find him in the company of a persecuted editor. Tomas's first wife was an orthodox Communist, and Tomas automatically assumed that his son was under her influence. He knew nothing about him. Of course he could have come out and asked him what kind of relationship he had with his mother, but he felt that it would have been tactless in the presence of a third party.

  At last the editor came to the point. He said that more and more people were going to prison for no offense other than upholding their own opinions, and concluded with the words And so we've decided to do something.

  What is it you want to do? asked Tomas.

  Here his son took over. It was the first time he had ever heard him speak. He was surprised to note that he stuttered.

  According to our sources, he said, political prisoners are being subjected to very rough treatment. Several are in a bad way. And so we've decided to draft a petition and have it signed by the most important Czech intellectuals, the ones who still mean something.

  No, it wasn't actually a stutter; it was more of a stammer, slowing down the flow of speech, stressing or highlighting every word he uttered whether he wanted to or not. He obviously felt himself doing it, and his cheeks, which had barely regained their natural pallor, turned scarlet again.

  And you've called me in for advice on likely candidates in my field? Tomas asked.

  No, the editor said, laughing. We don't want your advice. We want your signature!

  And again he felt flattered! Again he enjoyed the feeling that he had not been forgotten as a surgeon! He protested, but only out of modesty, Wait a minute. Just because they kicked me out doesn't mean I'm a famous doctor!

  We haven't forgotten what you wrote for our paper, said the editor, smiling at Tomas.

  Yes, sighed Tomas's son with an alacrity Tomas may have missed.

  I don't see how my name on a petition can help your political prisoners. Wouldn't it be better to have it signed by people who haven't fallen afoul of the regime, people who have at least some influence on the powers that be?

  The editor smiled. Of course it would.

  Tomas's son smiled, too; he smiled the smile of one who understands many things. The only trouble is, they'd never sign!

  Which doesn't mean we don't go after them, the editor continued, or that we're too nice to spare them the embarrassment. He laughed. You should hear the excuses they give. They're fantastic!

  Tomas's son laughed in agreement.

  Of course they all begin by claiming they agree with us right down the line, the editor went on. We just need a different approach, they say. Something more prudent, more reasonable, more discreet. They're scared to sign and worried that if they don't they'll sink in our estimation.

  Again Tomas's son and the editor laughed together.

  Then the editor gave Tomas a sheet of paper with a short text calling upon the president of the republic, in a relatively respectful manner, to grant amnesty to all political prisoners.

  Tomas ran the idea quickly through his mind. Amnesty to political prisoners? Would amnesty be granted because people jettisoned by the regime (and therefore themselves potential political prisoners) request it of the president? The only thing such a petition would accomplish was to keep political prisoners from being amnestied if there happened to be a plan afoot to do so!

  His son interrupted his thoughts. The main thing is to make the point that there still are a handful of people in this country who are not afraid. And to show who stands where. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

  True, true, thought Tomas, but what had that to do with political prisoners? Either you called for an amnesty or you separated the wheat from the chaff. The two were not identical.

  On the fence? the editor asked.

  Yes. He was on the fence. But he was afraid to say so. There was a picture on the wall, a picture of a soldier pointing a threatening finger at him and saying, Are you hesitating about joining the Red Army? or Haven't you signed the Two Thousand Words yet? or Have you too signed the Two Thousand Words? or You mean you don't want to sign the amnesty petition?! But no matter what the soldier said, it was a threat.

  The editor had barely finished saying what he thought about people who agree that the political prisoners should be granted amnesty but come up with thousands of reasons against signing the petition. In his opinion, their reasons were just so many excuses and their excuses a smoke screen for cowardice. What could Tomas say?

  At last he broke the silence with a laugh, and pointing to the poster on the wall, he said, With that soldier threatening me, asking whether I'm going to sign or not, I can't possibly think straight.

  Then all three laughed for a while.

  All right, said Tomas after the laughter had died down. I'll think it over. Can we get together again in the next few days?

  Any time at all, said the editor, but unfortunately the petition can't wait. We plan to get it off to the president tomorrow.

  Tomorrow? And suddenly Tomas recalled the portly policeman handing him the denunciation of none other than this tall editor with the big chin. Everyone was trying to make him sign statements he had not written himself.

  There's nothing to think over anyway, said his son. Although his words were aggressive, his intonation bordered on the supplicatory. Now that they were looking each other in the eye, Tomas noticed that when concentrating the boy slightly raised the left side of his upper lip. It was an expression he saw on his own face whenever he peered into the mirror to determine whether it was clean-shaven. Discovering it on the face of another made him uneasy.

  When parents live with their children through childhood, they grow accustomed to that kind of similarity; it seems trivial to them or, if they stop and think about it, amusing. But Tomas was talking to his son for the first time in his life! He was not used to sitting face to face with his own asymmetrical mouth!

  Imagine having an arm amputated and implanted on someone else. Imagine that person sitting opposite you and gesticulating with it in your face. You would stare at that arm as at a ghost. Even though it was your own personal, beloved arm, you would be horrified at the possibility of its touching you!

  Aren't you on the side of the persecuted? his son added, and Tomas suddenly saw that what was really at stake in this scene they were playing was not the amnesty of political prisoners; it was his relationship with his son. If he signed, their fates would be united and Tomas would be more or less obliged to befriend him; if he failed to sign, their relations would remain null as before, though now not so much by his own will as by the will of his son, who would renounce his father for his cowardice.

  He was in the situation of a chess player who cannot avoid checkmate and is forced to resign. Whether he signed the petition or not made not the slightest difference. It would alter nothing in his own life or in the lives of the political prisoners.

  Hand it over, he said, and took the sheet of paper.

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