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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 19)

2006-08-22 20:56

  19

  During the five years that had passed since the Russian army invaded Tomas's country, Prague had undergone considerable changes. The people Tomas met in the streets were different. Half of his friends had emigrated, and half of the half that remained had died. For it is a fact which will go unrecorded by historians that the years following the Russian invasion were a period of funerals: the death rate soared. I do not speak only of the cases (rather rare, of course) of people hounded to death, like Jan Prochazka, the novelist. Two weeks after his private conversations were broadcast daily over the radio, he entered the hospital. The cancer that had most likely lain dormant in his body until then suddenly blossomed like a rose. He was operated on in the presence of the police, who, when they realized he was doomed anyway, lost interest in him and let him die in the arms of his wife. But many also died without being directly subjected to persecution; the hopelessness pervading the entire country penetrated the soul to the body, shattering the latter. Some ran desperately from the favor of a regime that wanted to endow them with the honor of displaying them side by side with its new leaders. That is how the poet Frantisek Hrubin died-fleeing from the love of the Party. The Minister of Culture, from whom the poet did everything possible to hide, did not catch up with Hrubin until his funeral, when he made a speech over the grave about the poet's love for the Soviet Union. Perhaps he hoped his words would ring so outrageously false that they would wake Hrubin from the dead. But the world was too ugly, and no one decided to rise up out of the grave.

  One day, Tomas went to the crematorium to attend the funeral of a famous biologist who had been thrown out of the university and the Academy of Sciences. The authorities had forbidden mention of the hour of the funeral in the death announcement, fearing that the services would turn into a demonstration. The mourners themselves did not learn until the last moment that the body would be cremated at half past six in the morning.

  Entering the crematorium, Tomas did not understand what was happening: the hall was lit up like a film studio. Looking around in bewilderment, he noticed cameras set up in three places. No, it was not television; it was the police. They were filming the funeral to study who had attended it. An old colleague of the dead scientist, still a member of the Academy of Sciences, had been brave enough to make the funeral oration. He had never counted on becoming a film star.

  When the services were over and everyone had paid his respects to the family of the deceased, Tomas noticed a group of men in one corner of the hall and spotted the tall, stooped editor among them. The sight of him made Tomas feel how much he missed these people who feared nothing and seemed bound by a deep friendship. He started off in the editor's direction with a smile and a greeting on his lips, but when the editor saw him he said, Careful! Don't come any closer.

  It was a strange thing to say. Tomas was not sure whether to interpret it as a sincere, friendly warning ( Watch out, we're being filmed; if you talk to us, you may be hauled in for another interrogation ) or as irony ( If you weren't brave enough to sign the petition, be consistent and don't try the old-pals act on us )。 Whatever the message meant, Tomas heeded it and moved off. He had the feeling that the beautiful woman on the railway platform had not only stepped into the sleeping car but, just as he was about to tell her how much he admired her, had put her finger over his lips and forbidden him to speak.

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