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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 15)

2006-08-22 20:49

  15

  Several days later he read about the petition in the papers.

  There was not a word, of course, about its being a politely worded plea for the release of political prisoners. None of the papers cited a single sentence from the short text. Instead, they went on at great length and in vague, menacing terms about an anti-state proclamation meant to lay the foundation for a new campaign against socialism. They also listed all the signatories, accompanying each of their names with slanderous attacks that gave Tomas gooseflesh.

  Not that it was unexpected. The fact that any public undertaking (meeting, petition, street gathering) not organized by the Communist Party was automatically considered illegal and endangered all the participants was common knowledge. But it may have made him sorrier he had not signed the petition.

  Why hadn't he signed? He could no longer quite remember what had prompted his decision.

  And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel: standing at the window and staring across the courtyard at the walls opposite.

  This is the image from which he was born. As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about. But isn't it true that an author can write only about himself? Staring impotently across a courtyard, at a loss for what to do; hearing the pertinacious rumbling of one's own stomach during a moment of love; betraying, yet lacking the will to abandon the glamorous path of betrayal; raising one's fist with the crowds in the Grand March; displaying one's wit before hidden microphones-I have known all these situations, I have experienced them myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own I ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. But enough. Let us return to Tomas.

  Alone in his flat, he stared across the courtyard at the dirty walls of the building opposite. He missed the tall, stooped man with the big chin and the man's friends, whom he did not know, who were not even members of his circle. He felt as though he had just met a beautiful woman on a railway platform, and before he could say anything to her, she had stepped into a sleeping car on its way to Istanbul or Lisbon.

  Then he tried again to think through what he should have done. Even though he did his best to put aside everything belonging to the realm of the emotions (the admiration he had for the editor and the irritation his son caused him), he was still not sure whether he ought to have signed the text they gave him.

  Is it right to raise one's voice when others are being silenced? Yes.

  On the other hand, why did the papers devote so much space to the petition? After all, the press (totally manipulated by the state) could have kept it quiet and no one would have been the wiser. If they publicized the petition, then the petition played into the rulers' hands! It was manna from heaven, the perfect start and justification for a new wave of persecution.

  What then should he have done? Sign or not?

  Another way of formulating the question is, Is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?

  Is there any answer to these questions?

  And again he thought the thought we already know: Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

  History is similar to individual lives in this respect. There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end as surely as Tomas's life, never to be repeated.

  In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.

  Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs' country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?

  If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to test the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses.

  Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all. The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience. History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.

  Once more, and with a nostalgia akin to love, Tomas thought of the tall, stooped editor. That man acted as though history were a finished picture rather than a sketch. He acted as though everything he did were to be repeated endlessly, to return eternally, without the slightest doubt about his actions. He was convinced he was right, and for him that was a sign not of narrowmindedness but of virtue. Yes, that man lived in a history different from Tomas's: a history that was not (or did not realize it was) a sketch.

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