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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 5)

2006-08-22 20:49


  First he went to work in a country clinic about fifty miles from Prague. He commuted daily by train and came home exhausted. A year later, he managed to find a more advantageous but much inferior position at a clinic on the outskirts of Prague. There, he could no longer practice surgery, and became a general practitioner. The waiting room was jammed, and he had scarcely five minutes for each patient; he told them how much aspirin to take, signed their sick-leave documents, and referred them to specialists. He considered himself more civil servant than doctor.

  One day, at the end of office hours, he was visited by a man of about fifty whose portliness added to his dignity. He introduced himself as representing the Ministry of the Interior, and invited Tomas to join him for a drink across the street.

  He ordered a bottle of wine. I have to drive home, said Tomas by way of refusal. I'll lose my license if they find I've been drinking. The man from the Ministry of the Interior smiled. If anything happens, just show them this. And he handed Tomas a card engraved with his name (though clearly not his real name) and the telephone number of the Ministry.

  He then went into a long speech about how much he admired Tomas and how the whole Ministry was distressed at the thought of so respected a surgeon dispensing aspirin at an outlying clinic. He gave Tomas to understand that although he couldn't come out and say it, the police did not agree with drastic tactics like removing specialists from their posts.

  Since no one had thought to praise Tomas in quite some time, he listened to the plump official very carefully, and he was surprised by the precision and detail of the man's knowledge of his professional career. How defenseless we are in the face of flattery! Tomas was unable to prevent himself from taking seriously what the Ministry official said.

  But it was not out of mere vanity. More important was Tomas's lack of experience. When you sit face to face with someone who is pleasant, respectful, and polite, you have a hard time reminding yourself that nothing he says is true, that nothing is sincere. Maintaining nonbelief (constantly, systematically, without the slightest vacillation) requires a tremendous effort and the proper training-in other words, frequent police interrogations. Tomas lacked that training.

  The man from the Ministry went on: We know you had an excellent position in Zurich, and we very much appreciate your having returned. It was a noble deed. You realized your place was here. And then he added, as if scolding Tomas for something, But your place is at the operating table, too!

  I couldn't agree more, said Tomas.

  There was a short pause, after which the man from the Ministry said in mournful tones, Then tell me, Doctor, do you really think that Communists should put out their eyes? You, who have given so many people the gift of health?

  But that's preposterous! Tomas cried in self-defense. Why don't you read what I wrote?

  I have read it, said the man from the Ministry in a voice that was meant to sound very sad.

  Well, did I write that Communists ought to put out their eyes?

  That's how everyone understood it, said the man from the Ministry, his voice growing sadder and sadder.

  If you'd read the complete version, the way I wrote it originally, you wouldn't have read that into it. The published version was slightly cut.

  What was that? asked the man from the Ministry, pricking up his ears. You mean they didn't publish it the way you wrote it?

  They cut it.

  A lot?

  By about a third.

  The man from the Ministry appeared sincerely shocked. That was very improper of them.

  Tomas shrugged his shoulders.

  You should have protested! Demanded they set the record straight immediately!

  The Russians came before I had time to think about it. We all had other things to think about then.

  But you don't want people to think that you, a doctor, wanted to deprive human beings of their right to see!

  Try to understand, will you? It was a letter to the editor, buried in the back pages. No one even noticed it. No one but the Russian embassy staff, because it's what they look for.

  Don't say that! Don't think that! I myself have talked to many people who read your article and were amazed you could have written it. But now that you tell me it didn't come out the way you wrote it, a lot of things fall into place. Did they put you up to it?

  To writing it? No. I submitted it on my own.

  Do you know the people there?

  What people?

  The people who published your article.


  You mean you never spoke to them?

  They asked me to come in once in person.


  About the article.

  And who was it you talked to?

  One of the editors.

  What was his name?

  Not until that point did Tomas realize that he was under interrogation. All at once he saw that his every word could put someone in danger. Although he obviously knew the name of the editor in question, he denied it: I'm not sure.

  Now, now, said the man in a voice dripping with indignation over Tomas's insincerity, you can't tell me he didn't introduce himself!

  It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie. The Tell the truth! imperative drummed into us by our mamas and papas functions so automatically that we feel ashamed of lying even to a secret policeman during an interrogation. It is simpler for us to argue with him or insult him (which makes no sense whatever) than to lie to his face (which is the only thing to do)。

  When the man from the Ministry accused him of insincerity, Tomas nearly felt guilty; he had to surmount a moral barrier to be able to persevere in his lie: I suppose he did introduce himself, he said, but because his name didn't ring a bell, I immediately forgot it.

  What did he look like?

  The editor who had dealt with him was a short man with a light brown crew cut. Tomas tried to choose diametrically opposed characteristics: He was tall, he said, and had long black hair.

  Aha, said the man from the Ministry, and a big chin!

  That's right, said Tomas.

  A little stooped.

  That's right, said Tomas again, realizing that now the man from the Ministry had pinpointed an individual. Not only had Tomas informed on some poor editor but, more important, the information he had given was false.

  And what did he want to see you about? What did you talk about?

  It had something to do with word order.

  It sounded like a ridiculous attempt at evasion. And again the man from the Ministry waxed indignant at Tomas's refusal to tell the truth: First you tell me they cut your text by a third, then you tell me they talked to you about word order! Is that logical?

  This time Tomas had no trouble responding, because he had told the absolute truth. It's not logical, but that's how it was. He laughed. They asked me to let them change the word order in one sentence and then cut a third of what I had written.

  The man from the Ministry shook his head, as if unable to grasp so immoral an act. That was highly irregular on their part.

  He finished his wine and concluded: You have been manipulated, Doctor, used. It would be a pity for you and your patients to suffer as a result. We are very much aware of your positive qualities. We'll see what can be done.

  He gave Tomas his hand and pumped it cordially. Then each went off to his own car.

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