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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 3 chapter 4)

2006-08-22 20:21


  Sabina once allowed herself to be taken along to a gathering of fellow emigres. As usual, they were hashing over whether they should or should not have taken up arms against the Russians. In the safety of emigration, they all naturally came out in favor of fighting. Sabina said: Then why don't you go back and fight?

  That was not the thing to say. A man with artificially waved gray hair pointed a long index finger at her. That's no way to talk. You're all responsible for what happened. You, too. How did you oppose the Communist regime? All you did was paint pictures. ……

  Assessing the populace, checking up on it, is a principal and never-ending social activity in Communist countries. If a painter is to have an exhibition, an ordinary citizen to receive a visa to a country with a sea coast, a soccer player to join the national team, then a vast array of recommendations and reports must be garnered (from the concierge, colleagues, the police, the local Party organization, the pertinent trade union) and added up, weighed, and summarized by special officials. These reports have nothing to do with artistic talent, kicking ability, or maladies that respond well to salt sea air; they deal with one thing only: the citizen's political profile (in other words, what the citizen says, what he thinks, how he behaves, how he acquits himself at meetings or May Day parades)。 Because everything (day-to-day existence, promotion at work, vacations) depends on the outcome of the assessment process, everyone (whether he wants to play soccer for the national team, have an exhibition, or spend his holidays at the seaside) must behave in such a way as to deserve a favorable assessment.

  That was what ran through Sabina's mind as she listened to the gray-haired man speak. He didn't care whether his fellow-countrymen were good kickers or painters (none of the Czechs at the emigre gathering ever showed any interest in what Sabina painted); he cared whether they had opposed Communism actively or just passively, really and truly or just for appearances' sake, from the very beginning or just since emigration.

  Because she was a painter, she had an eye for detail and a memory for the physical characteristics of the people in Prague who had a passion for assessing others. All of them had index fingers slightly longer than their middle fingers and pointed them at whomever they happened to be talking to. In fact, President Novotny, who had ruled the country for the fourteen years preceding 1968, sported the very same barber-induced gray waves and had the longest index finger of all the inhabitants of Central Europe.

  When the distinguished emigre heard from the lips of a painter whose pictures he had never seen that he resembled Communist President Novotny, he turned scarlet, then white, then scarlet again, then white once more; he tried to say something, did not succeed, and fell silent. Everyone else kept silent until Sabina stood up and left.

  It made her unhappy, and down in the street she asked herself why she should bother to maintain contact with Czechs. What bound her to them? The landscape? If each of them were asked to say what the name of his native country evoked in him, the images that came to mind would be so different as to rule out all possibility of unity.

  Or the culture? But what was that? Music? Dvorak and Janacek? Yes. But what if a Czech had no feeling for music? Then the essence of being Czech vanished into thin air.

  Or great men? Jan Hus? None of the people in that room had ever read a line of his works. The only thing they were all able to understand was the flames, the glory of the flames when he was burned at the stake, the glory of the ashes, so for them the essence of being Czech came down to ashes and nothing more. The only things that held them together were their defeats and the reproaches they addressed to one another.

  She was walking fast. She was more disturbed by her own thoughts than by her break with the emigres. She knew she was being unfair. There were other Czechs, after all, people quite different from the man with the long index finger. The embarrassed silence that followed her little speech did not by any means indicate they were all against her. No, they were probably bewildered by the sudden hatred, the lack of understanding they were all subjected to in emigration. Then why wasn't she sorry for them? Why didn't she see them for the woeful and abandoned creatures they were?

  We know why. After she betrayed her father, life opened up before her, a long road of betrayals, each one attracting her as vice and victory. She would not keep ranks! She refused to keep ranks-always with the same people, with the same speeches! That was why she was so stirred by her own injustice. But it was not an unpleasant feeling; quite the contrary, Sabina had the impression she had just scored a victory and someone invisible was applauding her for it.

  Then suddenly the intoxication gave way to anguish: The road had to end somewhere! Sooner or later she would have to put an end to her betrayals! Sooner or later she would have to stop herself!

  It was evening and she was hurrying through the railway station. The train to Amsterdam was in. She found her coach. Guided by a friendly guard, she opened the door to her compartment and found Franz sitting on a couchette. He rose to greet her; she threw her arms around him and smothered him with kisses.

  She had an overwhelming desire to tell him, like the most banal of women, Don't let me go, hold me tight, make me your plaything, your slave, be strong! But they were words she could not say.

  The only thing she said when he released her from his embrace was, You don't know how happy I am to be with you. That was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express.

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