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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 6)

2006-08-22 20:49


  After the talk with the man from the Ministry, Tomas fell into a deep depression. How could he have gone along with the jovial tone of the conversation? If he hadn't refused to have anything at all to do with the man (he was not prepared for what happened and did not know what was condoned by law and what was not), he could at least have refused to drink wine with him as if they were friends! Supposing someone had seen him, someone who knew the man. He could only have inferred that Tomas was working with the police! And why did he even tell him that the article had been cut? Why did he throw in that piece of information? He was extremely displeased with himself.

  Two weeks later, the man from the Ministry paid him another visit. Once more he invited him out for a drink, but this time Tomas requested that they stay in his office.

  I understand perfectly, Doctor, said the man, with a smile.

  Tomas was intrigued by his words. He said them like a chess player who is letting his opponent know he made an error in the previous move.

  They sat opposite each other, Tomas at his desk. After about ten minutes, during which they talked about the flu epidemic raging at the time, the man said, We've given your case a lot of thought. If we were the only ones involved, there would be nothing to it. But we have public opinion to take into account. Whether you meant to or not, you fanned the flames of anti-Communist hysteria with your article. I must tell you there was even a proposal to take you to court for that article. There's a law against public incitement to violence.

  The man from the Ministry of the Interior paused to look Tomas in the eye. Tomas shrugged his shoulders. The man assumed his comforting tone again. We voted down the proposal. No matter what your responsibility in the affair, society has an interest in seeing you use your abilities to the utmost. The chief surgeon of your hospital speaks very highly of you. We have reports from your patients as well. You are a fine specialist. Nobody requires a doctor to understand politics. You let yourself be carried away. It's high time we settled this thing once and for all. That's why we've put together a sample statement for you. All you have to do is make it available to the press, and we'll make sure it comes out at the proper time. He handed Tomas a piece of paper.

  Tomas read what was in it and panicked. It was much worse than what the chief surgeon had asked him to sign two years before. It did not stop at a retraction of the Oedipus article. It contained words of love for the Soviet Union, vows of fidelity to the Communist Party; it condemned the intelligentsia, which wanted to push the country into civil war; and, above all, it denounced the editors of the writers' weekly (with special emphasis on the tall, stooped editor; Tomas had never met him, though he knew his name and had seen pictures of him), who had consciously distorted his article and used it for their own devices, turning it into a call for counterrevolution: too cowardly to write such an article themselves, they had hid behind a naive doctor.

  The man from the Ministry saw the panic in Tomas's eyes. He leaned over and gave his knee a friendly pat under the table. Remember now, Doctor, it's only a sample! Think it over, and if there's something you want to change, I'm sure we can come to an agreement. After all, it's your statement!

  Tomas held the paper out to the secret policeman as if he were afraid to keep it in his hands another second, as if he were worried someone would find his fingerprints on it.

  But instead of taking the paper, the man from the Ministry spread his arms in feigned amazement (the same gesture the Pope uses to bless the crowds from his balcony)。 Now why do a thing like that, Doctor? Keep it. Think it over calmly at home.

  Tomas shook his head and patiently held the paper in his outstretched hand. In the end, the man from the Ministry was forced to abandon his papal gesture and take the paper back.

  Tomas was on the point of telling him emphatically that he would neither write nor sign any text whatever, but at the last moment he changed his tone and said mildly, I'm no illiterate, am I? Why should I sign something I didn't write myself?

  Very well, then, Doctor. Let's do it your way. You write it up yourself, and we'll go over it together. You can use what you've just read as a model.

  Why didn't Tomas give the secret policeman an immediate and unconditional no?

  This is what probably went through his head: Besides using a statement like that to demoralize the nation in general (which is clearly the Russian strategy), the police could have a concrete goal in his case: they might be gathering evidence for a trial against the editors of the weekly that had published Tomas's article. If that was so, they would need his statement for the hearing and for the smear campaign the press would conduct against them. Were he to refuse flatly, on principle, there was always the danger that the police would print the prepared statement over his signature, whether he gave his consent or not. No newspaper would dare publish his denial. No one in the world would believe that he hadn't written or signed it. People derived too much pleasure from seeing their fellow man morally humiliated to spoil that pleasure by hearing out an explanation.

  By giving the police the hope that he would write a text of his own, he gained a bit of time. The very next day he resigned from the clinic, assuming (correctly) that after he had descended voluntarily to the lowest rung of the social ladder (a descent being made by thousands of intellectuals in other fields at the time), the police would have no more hold over him and he would cease to interest them. Once he had reached the lowest rung on the ladder, they would no longer be able to publish a statement in his name, for the simple reason that no one would accept it as genuine. Humiliating public statements are associated exclusively with the signatories' rise, not fall.

  But in Tomas's country, doctors are state employees, and the state may or may not release them from its service. The official with whom Tomas negotiated his resignation knew him by name and reputation and tried to talk him into staying on. Tomas suddenly realized that he was not at all sure he had made the proper choice, but he felt bound to it by then by an unspoken vow of fidelity, so he stood fast. And that is how he became a window washer.

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