Letters of insurgents - Fredy Perlman

Letters of insurgents - Fredy Perlman

1976 novel by Fredy Perlman, written as fictional letters between two Eastern European workers, Yarostan Vochek and Sophie Nachalo, who are separated after a failed revolution. Yarostan spends twelve years in statist jails, while Sophie escapes to the West. After twenty years without contact, they begin to write each other about their experiences, their lives, their hopes, and their memories of the past.

Yarostan’s first letter

Dear Sophia,

Forgive me for addressing you familiarly, as a friend; I have no way of knowing if you’re still the person I once knew. I can’t remember the sound of your voice, the shape of your face or the feel of your hand. I vaguely remember admiring the energy and intelligence in someone so young, but I regret that you didn’t leave a lasting mark, yon didn’t become my guide in my journey through hell.

I wouldn’t even remember your name if you hadn’t written me twelve years ago. My wife Mirna memorized the name and address on the envelope because she attributed a strange power to your letter. Unfortunately I never saw that letter and never learned its contents.

Part of my reason for writing you now is that the activities of our omnipotent and omniscient police have been blocked. Letters aren’t being read by the eagle-eyed censors and letter-writers aren’t being escorted out of their homes by middle-of-the-night visitors. So I’m told. I want to believe it. Rebellious words and even gestures are becoming frequent and I haven’t seen or heard of the arrest of the rebels. Something is changing in this city, in the entire land; I don’t know if the change is permanent.

This change is reviving my interest in my surroundings, in my fellow beings, in myself, in you. If there is no change, if this is another illusion, if I’m not writing to Sophia but to a benevolent protector of the people’s real interests, a censor, then I’d rather be back in prison than “free.” There’s no joy in such freedom. Such a life is filled with dread and the only ones free of that dread are those already in prison. If the change taking place around me is an illusion or a trap, then I no longer care if I’m arrested again. Even in solitary confinement a prisoner tortured by dampness and rats is comforted by the thought that others survived it, that they weren’t crushed by moving walls or descending ceilings. But the policed “free citizen” can’t ever get rid of the fear that he may be dragged off at any time, wherever he is, whoever he’s with; that all his friendships and all his projects can suddenly end; that the front door of his house can crash open at midnight; that the ceiling of his bedroom might start descending on him while he’s asleep. In a context where any word or gesture can lead to the dreaded arrest there’s no freedom. In such a context, beings vibrant with the will to live are transformed into beings for whom death is no worse than a life marked by the dread of death. The prisons and camps don’t contain only those inside them but also those outside them. All human beings are transformed into prisoners and prison guards.

I don’t put the blame on prison guards. They’re only workers. They’re not inanimate things, cement walls that can neither see nor hear nor think. Most of them didn’t choose their jobs; they ended up there because they thought they had no other choice. I’ve spent a total of twelve years inside walls, behind bars and fences, and I’ve never met a prison guard in whom I saw no trace of myself. I never met a guard who had dreamed that patrolling a convict yard would be the daily content of his life. Very few of those I’ve met admitted to never having dreamed, never having imagined themselves proud of projects undertaken with one or several genuine friends. Was our point of departure the same, and were we at some point interchangeable? How much has each of us contributed to what each has undergone? If a guard ever dreamed, was it of prisons and camps that he dreamed, and was he my jailer-to-be already then?

I can’t say I failed to write you sooner because there were censors. I could have found ways to reach you without sending a letter through their hands. I could also have devised simple ways to camouflage the letter’s origin, destination and content and sent it gliding unseen past the censor’s omniscient gaze.

It’s now three years since my release. During the first two years I wasn’t able to remain in one place long enough to write a letter. This is apparently an illness that affects many individuals released after a long imprisonment. When the day of my release was so distant that I thought I wouldn’t live to experience it, I was able to formulate clear and distinct ideas ordered with an impeccable logic. In conversations with inmates and in my imagination I composed one after another book unveiling the inverted practice that seized a field intended for a garden and built a concentration camp. I thought all I needed was a table in a small room, a pen and paper and an occasional meal; I thought the ideas would flow by themselves.

When I’d been home for only half an hour after my release I rushed out of the house and spent the remainder of the day walking aimlessly. It wasn’t because I wanted to see what had changed during my eight-year absence. I avoided studying the changes and gazed at the pavement. I was too familiar with the spirit in which those changes were created. Nor did I want to see or communicate with people who weren’t convicts. They were altogether unfamiliar to me, almost a different type of creature, and I avoided them. I longed for the comrades I had left inside. We had shared insights and hardships, we had shared a common world, a common enemy and common hopes. I could no longer imagine myself becoming a self-policed imbecile who voluntarily put an end to his sleep so as to voluntarily reach a workshop at eight in the morning only to spend the day voluntarily turning out the number of parts which planners and managers had assigned to “his” machine. In prison such idiocy had only characterized newcomers; if they weren’t quickly cured by fellow convicts, they became tools of the prison administration or else their stupidity was so abused by sadistic guards that they went insane or died of overwork.

For two years after my release I was unable to express myself in any form. I was “disoriented” and needed time to “adjust to freedom.” I had grown used to the routine, the meals, the jobs, the guards; I had become attached to my comrades, to our conversations and arguments, to our imaginary common projects and breathtaking escapes. I missed all that. I was an exile, an alien among people whose activity I found incomprehensible, whose language I could neither speak nor understand, whose sympathy and communication I rejected because they seemed condescending and hypocritical. Of course I understood then as I do now that factories are prisons, foremen are not unlike prison guards, and the threat of firing or eviction causes as much terror as the threat of solitary confinement or deportation. But during those two years I concentrated on the differences between the two situations. The prisoners I had known had repressed words and gestures in the face of a rifle, but had regained their humanity when the repressive force withdrew. Among the outsiders I became aware of an altogether different type of repression: self-repression. My next-door neighbor, a Mr. Ninovo, is a cleaning man in a bar. The first time I ran into him I smiled and said “good evening.” When he failed to respond to my greeting I apologized and said, “The evening obviously can’t be good for someone who is about to spend it cleaning up after drunken bureaucrats.” He responded by shouting, “You people are trouble-makers! They should never have let you out!” I had an urge to slap him, the same urge I’d felt in prison toward an informer. But I turned my back to him and walked away. According to Mirna, Mr. Ninovo likes his job, admires the president and is proud of “his” country. He enjoys listening to official propaganda on the radio. He has spent his life cleaning up the dirt of the bar’s customers and he’s satisfied with himself. I never met anyone like him in prison.

I was driven to despair by the thought that Mr. Ninovo was not the exception but the rule. It seemed to me that the last human beings were dying in prisons and camps and would leave no heirs, while a horrible mutation of the species was taking place outside. I thought of committing suicide, or of finding a way to return to my prison cell so as to live out my days among comrades and die among human beings.

But visions of horror are inverse Utopias. Recently my ten-year old daughter Yara put an end to my stupor, my “disorientation.” My condition began to improve the moment she entered the house. Her manner exuded the pride of a discoverer at the moment of completing a quest. The unqualified and unashamed happiness radiated by her face was an expression I hadn’t seen in years. On Yara’s chest was pinned a sheet of paper with the words, “Give us back our teacher!”

“What happened to your teacher?” I asked.

“They told us he had disappeared. But my girlfriend Julia wrote a sign that said, ‘People can’t disappear; something happens to them!’”

“What happens to them?” I asked.

“The same thing that happened to you. He was arrested.”

“How many took part in this protest?”

“All the kids in school,” Yara answered enthusiastically. “Everyone whispered about it all morning and after lunch everyone went to the school yard. Not a single student went back to class.”

“How did all this get started?” I asked. “Were the other teachers upset when he was fired?”

“The other teachers all seemed glad he’d disappeared,” Yara told me. “Yesterday I and three others in my class made some signs and this morning we told other kids we were going to wear them in the school yard. We told them not to let any of the teachers know. I loved him. I cried when he was replaced by another teacher who wouldn’t tell us when he’d come back’ and told us he’d disappeared. Lots of kids loved him, and if we hadn’t started making signs, other kids would have, because the schoolyard was full of signs.”

“But where did you and your friends learn how to do this sort of thing?”

“You mean demonstrations? We’re always being told about thousands of workers marching down the street carrying big signs. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

“So you all gathered in the schoolyard —”

“It was full of kids with signs. We stood quietly for a long time. Many kids were scared. Someone started to whisper that we would all be arrested. One of the teachers came out and stood with us. A boy standing next to her hugged her and burst out crying. We knew we had won. Other teachers joined us. Finally the principal came out. He said our teacher had been called away by mistake and that he’d be back next week. Everyone knew he was lying about it being a mistake. But no one cared. Kids started screeching, wrestling, hugging each other and hugging their teachers. Some kids even ran up to the principal and threw their arms around him.”

“Do you know why your teacher had been arrested?”

“Sure. He wants us to think on our own and they don’t, that’s why. He always told us the explanations in our books weren’t the only explanations, that many things have lots of different explanations and we have to choose the one we like best.”

Words are too poor to convey what I felt when Yara described her “protest.” I was “cured.” In one sudden leap I had rejoined the living. My species had not, after all, undergone a mutation — at least not a permanent one. Such an event would require a far greater catastrophe than the rule of an organization of prison officials. “People can’t disappear.” How right she is! Wherever there are people there’s negation, rebellion, insurrection. When twenty-year olds repress and mutilate their humanity, the repressed humanity reappears intact among ten-year olds. I threw my arms around Yara and she danced me around the room. “Father, would you teach me different explanations of things so I can choose the ones I like best?” she asked.

Mirna burst out crying. She had stood speechless in the corner of the room during the entire scene. I had wrongly interpreted her silence as hostility toward the girl’s rebellious act. Mirna ran to embrace Yara, rested her head on the girl’s shoulder and sobbed.

“Don’t be sad, mommy.”

Mirna whispered, “I’m not sad. I’m happy for both of you.”

I can’t convey to you what this meant to me. Mirna too emerged unscathed. All those long years of repressed humanity were overturned with a simple gesture and a few words.

That day I regained my desire to express myself. I have an urge to write everything down. Yet I can’t imagine who you are now, what you’re thinking, what you’ve done, if you’re married and have children, or even if you’re alive and well. I have no right to bore you with an interminable letter which you might regard as an unwanted intervention by a complete stranger. You did send me a letter once, but not having seen it I can’t assume it contained anything more than a delayed Christmas greeting. But you did write something, you did initiate some sort of correspondence, and I’m trying to write you an answer and to explain why I couldn’t write sooner. I want to tell you about myself and I long to learn about you. My daughter’s brave act renewed my interest in living and intensified my curiosity. Since that day I’ve learned that Yara’s demonstration was neither exceptional nor original. Protests against dismissals and arrests of teachers have recently become frequent events in the schools. And the protests aren’t limited to students. Full-fledged strikes complete with strike committees, bulletins and support groups are taking place in some large factories. Until recently everyone knew about these events yet everyone denied them. Officially they weren’t taking place. Everyday language — a language impoverished by official lies — had for twenty years ceased to be an instrument for communicating about real events. When I first returned from prison Mirna was afraid I would exert a demonic influence on Yara. She warned the child daily: “Don’t start anything; don’t get into trouble.” Trouble could only lead to imprisonment. But Yara began to experience “trouble” as something positive: trouble meant protests, demonstrations and strikes, it meant individual and collective acts of defiance. Trouble referred to the heroic deeds of individuals and groups praised in her schoolbooks. I was unaware of Yara’s growing defiance until the day of her demonstration, just as I failed to notice the grumbling in the shops and on the streets, the facial expressions in the trams and busses, the defiant gestures in bars, the slogans in toilets, the shouts in the night.

Yara helped me begin to see and hear the return of the repressed, and now I yearn to see yet further and hear yet more. I started this letter several weeks ago but convinced myself it would never reach you and abandoned it twice. My curiosity defeated my doubts. I long to know why you wrote me and what you said to me twelve years ago. I long to know who you are, what you’ve done, with whom, why. For months after my release I wanted to escape from this city and return to the finite world enclosed by prison walls. Now I find the city itself an enclosure and I’m reaching out to you to help me see and feel a larger world, if only through a letter.

If your only connection with the Sophia I once knew is your name, then please let me ask you to do a small favor for a fellow human being who has not fared well in this bizarre world: please let me know that you received this letter. I can’t hide the impatience with which I wait for your answer.

Yarostan.

Sophia’s first letter

Dear Yarostan,

What a marvelous surprise! Surely you remember Luisa. She was all excited when she came with your letter last night. Sabina and Tina, my house-mates, were both home. Luisa hadn’t ever been in our house before. We spent the evening and most of the night reading and rereading your letter, reliving our past for Tina’s sake, discussing events we’ve never discussed before. We were all amazed to learn how many years you’d spent in prison and we were deeply moved by the contrast between your beautiful letter and the miserable life you’ve led.

Luisa and I travelled twenty years backward in time, reconstructing the world of experience we shared with you. I still regard that experience as the key to my whole life. Luisa had lived through such significant events before, but for me the days I spent with you have always been unique.

As soon as she read your letter Tina asked who you were and if all three of us had known you. I started to tell her about that vast uprising we had all taken part in. “Yes, we were together — not just the four of us, but thousands of us,” I told Tina. “Those events released a surge of contentment, enthusiasm and initiative throughout the whole working population. At last we were going to run our own affairs, at last the people were masters, nobody would be able to exploit our efforts for their own ends, nobody would be able to deceive us, sell us to our enemies, betray us.”

“If that’s what happened, then why in the world did you leave, and why did Yarostan spend half his life in jail?” Tina asked.

“That wasn’t what happened,” Sabina said curtly.

“What do you mean ‘that wasn’t what happened’? You were there too! Don’t you remember?” I immediately wished I hadn’t said that to Sabina, because she has a phenomenal memory: she remembers events from her childhood as vividly as events that took place yesterday.

“What did happen, then?” Tina asked Sabina.

“An old boss was thrown out and a new one replaced him, that’s all. The contentment, enthusiasm and initiative were just a vast put-on,” Sabina told her.

Luisa turned indignantly to Sabina and shouted, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You were only twelve at the time!”

Disregarding Luisa, Sabina turned to Tina and told her, “Yarostan and two other workers, Claude and Jan, stormed into the office of the owner of a carton factory, a Mr. Zagad. I went with them. Claude threw the door open and shouted, ‘We’re the representatives of the plant council.’ We weren’t anything of the sort, but Zagad looked like a cornered rabbit. He ran straight to the coat rack, threw his coat over his arm and vanished, leaving all his important papers lying on his desk. Then another official installed himself in Zagad’s office. That’s what happened and that’s all that happened.”

“Was that all?” Luisa asked sarcastically. “Workers went into the office of a factory owner, threw him out, and that’s all?”

Sabina shrugged her shoulders and turned her back to Luisa. Those two have never gotten along and they still don’t.

I agreed with Luisa and was going to ask Sabina how many times in history workers have ousted their bosses.

But Luisa turned to Tina and pushed her argument in another direction. “Of course that wasn’t all that happened. Sabina is only talking about the events she took part in. She didn’t see past the end of her own nose. Masses of workers filled the streets for the second time in three years. The first time, when the liberation armies marched toward the city surrounded by enemy military forces, thousands of workers joined the resistance and fought to free their city. The second time, when they learned that reactionary elements were again powerful enough to resume the counter-offensive, they called a general strike.”

Sabina snapped, “The workers didn’t call that strike; the trade union called it.”

“Whoever called it,” Luisa snapped back, “it was a general strike.” Mimicking Sabina, she added, “‘A general strike? Is that all?’”

Tina, completely baffled, asked, “Why are you shouting at each other about something that happened twenty years ago?”

I tried to explain, “It was our most significant experience during the past twenty years and Sabina is ridiculing it.”

“What were you doing at the time?” Tina asked me.

I didn’t remember Mr. Zagad or the general strike or who had called it, but I did remember what I had done and the people I had done it with. “All I remember,” I told Tina, “is that I was home when Luisa rushed in and told Sabina and me, ‘Come on, this is no time to be sitting in the house; the workers are taking over the plant!’ I got all excited. I was three years younger than you are now. I had never been inside any kind of factory. Mountains of cardboard were piled along the sides. Huge machines stood idle; I had no idea what they all did. Workers sat on top of tables smoking and laughing. I remember Claude, Yarostan, Jan and four or five others. I couldn’t understand much of the discussion. But there was one thing I did understand, and I’ve understood it for the rest of my life. They were talking about social problems, about historical events. And they weren’t just talking about them but taking part in them, defining their own actions. They were making history and I was part of that.”

“What kinds of decisions did you make?” Tina asked.

Luisa turned to Tina as if to answer her question, but she addressed herself to Sabina’s comments instead: “Of course in the end one boss replaced another in government offices and factories. It was the same problem I had experienced before. We confronted enemies on two different fronts: capitalists ahead of us and statists behind us. Some of us thought the danger of one was as great as that of the other. Others thought the capitalists should be defeated first.”

“What did that have to do with the decisions you made?” Tina asked.

“The way we understood the situation affected the statements and slogans we put on our posters and placards,” Luisa explained.

“I remember those arguments!” I shouted excitedly “Luisa wanted to attack both sides simultaneously. Everyone paid attention to whatever was said and I thought the others were particularly attentive every time you spoke, Luisa. I thought at least half the people there supported you.”

“All those who seemed to support me thought something different,” Luisa said, “whereas all those on the other side had one single position. Two of them were convinced the only real threat came from the owners —”

“That was Adrian and Claude,” Sabina reminded us.

“And although the other two agreed that we faced enemies in front as well as behind —”

“Marc and Titus,” Sabina interrupted again.

“Marc and Titus agreed about the two dangers,” Luisa continued, “but they argued that unity was the first requirement, since by dividing we would be used by both sides to fight against each other.”

“What was your position?” Tina asked.

“I argued that it was impossible for workers to unite with statist politicians, since after the victory over the present rulers the workers would find themselves under the rule of their former allies. This is what happened in every revolution where workers’ unions allied themselves with politicians struggling for power. The workers always learned too late that their revolutionary allies got power over them.”

“Didn’t Yarostan agree with you, and two others as well?” I asked.

Luisa said, “Either they didn’t agree or they didn’t understand. That hothead Jan argued that the real battle would start when workers wrecked the machines by stuffing wrenches and bolts into the gears and rollers, when workers started tearing down the factories with saws and axes, when workers started rioting, dismantling, burning. Jasna applauded, and Yarostan laughed! That soft-spoken Adrian Povrshan, the one who never took sides until the argument was over, suggested a compromise and everyone agreed with it except Jan. Adrian suggested that the slogans need not describe what we were against, but only what we were for. For exampie: ‘The factories should be administered by the workers themselves.’ ‘The people should run their own affairs.’ And that was what we decided to do.”

“At that moment,” I told Tina, “ten separate individuals who a minute earlier had seemed unable to agree about anything became a coordinated group with a single project. Suddenly, without electing a chairman, without an assignment of tasks, everyone knew what had to be done next.”

“Jan still wasn’t satisfied,” Luisa remembered. “He went on grumbling about the need to fight with axes and not with words.”

“I remember that!” I exclaimed. “That was when Yarostan announced that while we were trying to decide whether to take over or take apart the plant, the boss was sitting in his office figuring out how much output he’d have to get out of the workers after the strike so as to make up for his losses.” How well I remember that! I really admired you at that moment; I think I fell in love with you then.

“That ape Claude suggested we arm ourselves and rush to the boss’s office,” Luisa exclaimed.

I went on, “Yarostan asked if we couldn’t simply ask the boss to leave. That’s when Sabina accompanied Yarostan, Claude and Jan to the office. Before they went Adrian suggested they tell Mr. Zagad to return after the revolution since he had experience in the work and the workers would remember him. Everyone laughed. The tension was over. We became a group of friends. I had the feeling I had known everyone there for years.”

Sabina put a blanket on my enthusiasm by saying, “And then we were all arrested.”

Luisa retorted angrily, “It wasn’t ‘and then’!”

I asked, “Sabina, how can you remember some things so well and others not at all? You took part in it all and you weren’t the least active among us!”

Sabina yawned. Her yawn had the same significance as her earlier statement, “And that’s all that happened.” Luisa must have thought Sabina’s yawn an insult aimed specifically at her and didn’t say another word until Sabina and Tina went to bed. But my enthusiasm was still rising and I wanted to communicate it to Tina. I told her those days were the only time in my life when I knew why I was in the world. It was the only time I knew what part I was playing in the creation of our common world, the only time I was part of a social project which wasn’t imposed on me from above. I told her about the wonderful days during which you patiently taught me how to run a press, the days I spent printing and silk-screening posters on my own. During every single one of those days I learned more than I’ve learned during all my years in school. I described our daily meetings, our discussions of the day’s tasks, I told Tina each of us could do whatever we wanted; no one was bound to a task, even for a day; no one was forced to complete anything. Yet in spite of this absolute freedom every task got carried out, decisions got made, the posters got printed. I tried to describe the bicycle trips you and I took to other plants to distribute posters and collect suggestions for new ones, about Sabina’s excursions with Jan, about the joy of seeing our posters on the walls of public buildings and on busses and trams. Wherever any of us went we were among friends. It was a rehearsal for what the new world would be like.

When I finally paused, Tina asked, “Why were you arrested?”

The question made my head spin. I looked helplessly toward Luisa, but she was staring at the wall, probably still seeing Sabina’s yawn and hearing “that’s all that happened.” I must have looked startled or even angry because Tina felt compelled to say, “I’m sorry.” She didn’t have to apologize. I hadn’t heard any hostility in her voice when she asked the question. Yet for some reason I felt that the question itself was hostile. I groped for an explanation but didn’t know where to begin. My vivid memories receded until they were again covered up by the impenetrable curtains of time. I forgot all the newly remembered names and experiences. I had never asked myself that question, and it was pointless to look in my memory for an explanation. I had experienced so much during those few days twenty years ago, so many of the events that affected my whole life had flown by so quickly, that I hadn’t had the time to absorb any of them fully, to re-experience them in my memory, to analyze or explain them. And when the storm was over I found myself in a completely different world, disoriented and frightened, surrounded by beings who were incomprehensible to me.

I groped, “What happened was exactly what Luisa had feared would happen. The workers were betrayed; they were stabbed in the back by their own allies. I do remember my first clue that something was wrong. One afternoon when Luisa and I returned home, George Alberts was already there. He usually worked until late at night. But that day, he was home before dark and we could see he was upset. Luisa asked him if anything had happened. He said he’d been fired. He was told never to come back. They had even called him a saboteur and some other things,”

Tina asked, “Who fired him? I thought the workers were on strike!”

“The trade union council,” Sabina answered.

I couldn’t say anything more; my throat was stopped up. Sabina got up and yawned again, as if to announce that she’d been right: “That’s all that happened.” She reminded Tina that it was three in the morning and if Tina was going to get up and go to work she might feel better if she got some sleep. I agreed. But dozens of “explanations” started to crowd into my mind as soon as Sabina left the room. I didn’t want Tina to go to bed without understanding why the events had turned out the way they had. But I didn’t stop her when she got up and said goodnight. She looked sad, perhaps because she saw the tears of frustration on my face, perhaps because she wanted in some way to apologize for having asked why we had been arrested.

As soon as Sabina and Tina left, Luisa, became talkative again. She too intended to go to work the following day, but she insisted on staying up the rest of the night; she said her job was so repetitive she could do it in her sleep. She has a horribly boring job in an automobile factory.

Luisa read your letter over again. Certain passages bothered her. She read them to me and we discussed them. I’d like to summarize that discussion; I hope you aren’t hurt or offended.

Both of us laughed and cried when we re-read your description of the censorship. Your letter doesn’t seem to have been opened. What bothered Luisa was the next section, where you identify yourself with censors and prison guards and even say that your point of departure could have been the same as theirs. This also bothered me when Luisa read the passage to me. Both of us applied the passage to ourselves, and as soon as we did, we felt there was something profoundly untrue about it. Would we have become jailers if we hadn’t been arrested? For example, if George Alberts hadn’t been Luisa’s “husband” (which in fact he never was) we wouldn’t have been directly affected by his dismissal. Would we have stayed on in the carton plant carrying on the urgent tasks of the day? Would we have sat in judgment while one worker was labelled a “counterrevolutionary” and another a “saboteur”? Would we have stayed and watched while one after another of our comrades were called “dangerous elements” and “foreign agents”? Did we misread what you wrote? Isn’t this what you meant when you said we all had the same starting point? You even wonder to what extent you contributed to your own imprisonment. Should Luisa and I wonder to what extent we were implicated in your arrest, and how much we contributed to the suffering you’ve undergone, for the past twenty years?

I think your premise is all wrong. I’m not altogether sure what you mean by “starting point,” but I am sure that my starting point as well as yours and Luisa’s was not the same as the starting point of those who fired Alberts, imprisoned you, arrested Luisa and me. It’s simply ridiculous to identify yourself with them. The people who arrested me weren’t workers but police agents. They had never been committed to the self-liberation of workers; on the contrary, their life-long commitment was to establish a dictatorship over the workers, to transform society into a beehive and themselves into queen bees, to become the wardens of a vast prison camp. They won and we lost. That sums up the entire history of the working class. But how can you say those who fought against them contributed to their victory?

Take the people in our group. Luisa and I spent a long time reminding ourselves of them. At most you can say that some of them didn’t know what they were doing. Jasna, for instance, became something like Luisa’s “disciple.” Luisa remembered that poor Jasna constantly repeated things Luisa had told her, but only the words and incidents, not the meanings. This doesn’t mean Jasna had the same starting point as an inquisitioner or a prison guard. Or take Jan. Luisa called him a hothead. Maybe he was, but his “hotheadedness” was a healthy and human response to abuse and exploitation. There isn’t even a question about any of the others. Vera and Adrian couldn’t let a stranger walk by without trying to convert him to the “self-government of the producers.” I remember how I admired the speed with which Vera answered people’s questions. Once, when someone asked her, “Who’s going to pick up the garbage if there’s no government?” she immediately retorted, “Who do you think picks it up now — the government?” Or take Marc. Luisa remembered him as being slower than Vera but more profound. He could spend hours talking about the types of social relations people would be able to create and develop as soon as they were free of authority. And he was so resourceful; whenever materials or tools were lacking, he knew either where to find them or what could be used instead. As for Claude: all I remember about him is that he seemed devoted to every project he undertook. I don’t remember Titus very well either. I do remember I didn’t like him; he struck me as too much of a “realist”, he was always calculating the “balance of forces.” But he was an old friend of Luisa’s and she was always convinced of his total devotion to the workers’ struggle. I also remember that you looked up to him for his knowledge and experience.

Whatever you mean by “starting point,” the starting point of my life was the experience I shared with you. That was the only time in my life when I was engaged in a group project. No outside force, no institution, boss or leader defined our project, made our decisions, determined our schedules or tasks. We defined and determined ourselves. No one pushed, drove or coerced us. Each of us was free in the fullest sense. We briefly succeeded in creating a real community, a condition which doesn’t exist in repressive societies and therefore isn’t even understood. Our community was a ground on which individuals could grow and flower; it was totally unlike the quicksand which pulls down the seed, the root and even the whole plant. If this was our starting point, then we differed from order-givers and order-takers as much as a healthy living cell differs from a cancer cell, as much as an oak tree differs from a hydrogen bomb.

Luisa and I discussed other things in your letter, but not as thoroughly; we were both very tired. You might think this all-night discussion of your letter bizarre. I should tell you that Luisa and I hadn’t seen each other since last year and we haven’t had anything to say to each other in ages, partly because I chose to live with Sabina and Tina, but mainly because we’ve stopped having anything in common. Your letter brought to life the one subject we do still share: our past. Thanks to your letter we learned we could be “old friends”; you helped revive a relationship which had degenerated to the level of polite indifference.

The question of marriage was another thing that bothered Luisa. This hadn’t bothered me at all until she started talking about it. You’re “married,” you have a “wife” and a “daughter.” Obviously! Why wouldn’t you? I accepted these things as matter-of-factly as you narrated them. But as soon as Luisa questioned all this I remembered who you were and kicked myself for having thought it all so obvious. I’m really not very observant: whenever I leave familiar surroundings I seem to lose my powers of observation and take everything for granted. Luisa said your statements about your “wife” and “daughter” seemed as strange as if you’d written us about the second coming of the savior.

My own memory has shut out everything except those wonderful days I spent with you on the streets and in the factory. Luisa reminded me that we had known you for years before that. It was Titus who first brought you to our house. You came at least once a week, and as Luisa put it, you were unquestionably one of “us.” You must know what she means.

Someone whose life goal was to have a nice house, a nice family and a nice job in the bureaucracy simply didn’t come into our house. Opposition to the state, religion and the family was taken for granted in anyone we considered a friend. And that’s an attitude we’ve continued to share, whatever differences have grown up between us over the years.

Luisa had innumerable relationships (I haven’t yet heard about all of them), but she never married. She always insisted she was genuinely in love only once, with Nachalo. her first companion, my father. But she was never his “wife.” She adopted his name as her own the day after he was killed: that was the only “memorial” she was able to build for him. The adoption of his name may have been a caprice, or an expression of romantic sentimentality, but it was not a concession to the institution; union with a corpse doesn’t count as marriage. Luisa’s next “husband” was George Alberts, and as soon as Luisa figured out he was transforming her into a “wife” she chased him out of the house. Sabina had a child and never married. As for me, I never wanted children, for any number of reasons; I can summarize them by saying I was always “too much of a revolutionary.”

None of us ever became institutionalized “mothers,” and none of us were ever institutionalized “daughters.” Surely you were aware of this. From the moment we could walk and talk, Sabina and I took part in the work, the discussions as well as the decisions. Even earlier, when Sabina was still a baby, it was I who “brought her up,” not her “parents.” Of course this is common among working people, but in our case it didn’t happen only because our “parents” both had to work. We had genuinely eliminated every trace of the hated institution, obviously only to the extent possible in a society which had not eliminated it. I can’t remember ever having thought of Luisa as “my mother”: at most we were friends, once very close friends, in recent years no longer even friends.

Sabina is Tina’s “mother,” but I’m certain that neither of them thinks of herself or of the other as mother and daughter. And the mere thought that Tina and I are “relatives,” that I’m something like Tina’s “aunt,” drives me up a wall. To each other and to our friends we’re simply three women who live together. It’s cheaper that way, we help each other, and we usually enjoy each other’s company. If one of us decided she’d had enough of the other two, nothing could keep her from leaving — certainly not the thought that we’re relatives. Not that it’s all so easy and obvious. On legal forms we’re “sisters” because of our name. And to inquisitive and hostile strangers who suspect we’re not “sisters,” we’re bizarre: we’re living proof that the world is indeed coming to an end.

You speak of “mother and father, wife and daughter” as if these were the most natural relations in the world, as if people had never lived outside these categories. Of course these things are “natural” to most people, but at one time they weren’t “natural” at all to you. They were as alien to you as religion, the state and capital. Was I mistaken? Was this only the way I imagined you? Or have you changed? Luisa remembered long talks she’d had with you, not just about “politics” in the narrow sense, but also about the senselessness of promising a stuffy judge that you’d spend the rest of your life with the individual you happen to like at the time, and discussions about the horror of locking children up in the family prison. Did you adopt those attitudes only because you knew how Luisa felt, or how I felt? I can’t make myself believe you were only pretending. I wouldn’t have been more disturbed if you’d told us you had invested millions in a uranium mine. How could you possibly have changed so much? I can obviously understand that you might introduce Mirna to a complete stranger as “your wife.” But I’m not a stranger to you. Neither are Luisa or Sabina. What do they do to people in those prisons?

Luisa and I made ourselves coffee, watched the sun rise above the buildings behind our snowy yard, and continued discussing your letter. By now you might think we spent the night dissecting it. We did in fact find another strange element in it, although by no means as bizarre as your becoming a husband to a wife and a father to a daughter.

We were moved by your tirades against the prison system, by your exposure of the petty informers and executioners our neighbors so often turn out to be, by your beautiful description of Yara’s protest. Yet you treated the whole subject of rebellion in a way we thought strange. In your words rebellion became something metaphysical, something that transcends individuals of flesh and blood and refers to the core of being. “Wherever there are people there’s negation.” That’s beautiful. I found the whole passage powerful and poetic. But we also found something wrong with it. (By “we” I mean that I noticed it after Luisa pointed it out.) Surely you didn’t discover “negation, rebellion, insurrection” only a year ago, and only because schoolchildren demonstrated for a teacher! There’s a war on! It’s been going on for centuries — ever since human beings found themselves in class societies. And the defeat, even the repeated defeat, of one of the protagonists doesn’t mean that the war is over. So long as the vanquished giant is not exterminated he’ll rise again and yet again, returning to battle with ever greater fury. You of all people ought to know that — you who took part in two massive uprisings, two unforgettable acts of rebellion by the working people.

But I realize I’m being unfair and extremely insensitive. Luisa and I are obviously aware that the world of jailers and convicts is not the world in which the workers’ commonwealth can be built. As I challenge conclusions you’ve drawn out of so much pain, I realize I’ve no right to challenge them and I’m ashamed. Not ashamed of what I said, but ashamed of my fairly comfortable surroundings and my generous friends. I’m ashamed that I was released two days after our arrest while you spent all those years in prison, ashamed I was arrested only once after that and was again released after only two days in jail. And I’m not even sure I agree with Luisa. I think what bothered her wasn’t so much your treatment of rebellion as your description of the self-repressed “imbecile.” Earlier in the evening, when Tina was reading your letter after the rest of us had already read it, she burst out laughing. We all knew she had come to the passage where you describe the imbecile who voluntarily exploits himself. Sabina and I laughed too: none of us can stand workers who “love” their jobs. But it wasn’t long before my laughter nearly turned to tears: I realized that Luisa, unsmiling and shocked, saw herself as the “imbecile.” Luisa has “voluntarily” gotten up every morning and gone to the same idiotic job for the past seventeen years. The schedule, the product, the task are imbecillic. Does that make Luisa an imbecile? My first impulse was to agree with you: I laughed too. But I’m not sure. When Luisa referred to your “metaphysical” attitude toward rebellion and your “simplistic” attitude toward work, I understood what she meant. I couldn’t help but understand: in a few minutes she was going to rush away to her job. As soon as she left, Tina rushed into the kitchen, gulped down some juice, rushed out without saying goodbye, and slammed the door as she always does. I know she won’t keep her job for as long as seventeen weeks. Yet it’s Luisa, not Tina, who attends every meeting she hears about, who is the first one out in every strike, who joins every picket line and carries the biggest sign in every demonstration. Tina stays home and reads during a strike. She’s as hostile to demonstrations as she is to girlie shows, and the one time in her life when she attended a “radical” meeting, her only comment was, “Every one of them thinks he’s Napoleon.”

The more I think about it the more disturbing I find your description of the “imbecile.” Several years ago I had a bad scene with Luisa. I was staying at her house. She came home from work and started sobbing. She kept saying that her life wasn’t any good to anyone, that she saw no reason for dragging it on any longer. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I could only ask her what had happened that day. And of course nothing had happened either that day or the day before or the year before. She described herself as an old rag that was being squeezed drier every day. What you said in your letter passed through my mind at that time. I knew I couldn’t spend every day of my life repeating the same motions, helping build the very machines that oppressed me, contributing to my own suffering, as you put it. I haven’t done that, by the way: my “work record” is worse than Tina’s. In practice I’ve agreed with you. Luisa somehow pulled out of it, although I was no help. She threw herself into new activities. And she continued to go back to work every day.

I wanted to summarize our reactions to your letter, and instead I’m summarizing my confusion. I’m no longer even sure my last few paragraphs have anything to do with your letter. They certainly don’t amount to a “reasoned critique” of anything you said.

When I started to tell you about our “night with Yarostan’s letter,” I thought this would be a way to begin to answer your questions: who I am, what I’m thinking, what I’ve done, if I’m “married” and have children, if I’m still alive. I’ve told you some of these things, and surely you weren’t expecting one-word answers. I assume you want to know as much about my life as I’d like to know about yours. Maybe it was a mistake to try to combine the story of my life with the story of our discussion. This happens to be one of the “devices” I was using on the two occasions when I started to write a novel.

Yet even if this combination of the present with the past is “only” a literary device, the novels in which I was going to use it were never anything more than answers anticipating your questions. This letter is the first chapter. Whenever I tried to imagine who my readers would be, I always focused on one and the same person: you. It was to be a novel about you and me, about the days we spent together. That was to be the “past.” The “present” was to consist of my frustrated attempts to recreate those days in impossible circumstances. It was all true, exactly as it happened; I was only going to change people’s names, and in my drafts I didn’t even do that: I only changed the names of the people I was still with; I was too attached to the other names to change them. A lot of it would have had to be “fiction” even if the names weren’t because I don’t have Sabina’s memory.

I was sorry you didn’t mention the experience we shared. I was sad that you had almost forgotten me. The experience I shared with you has marked everything I’ve thought and done. My life begins with it. That experience gave me a standard, a measure which I applied to all my later experiences and to all the people I met. Complete persons once picked up a corner of the world and began to reshape it. From them I learned what people and activity could be. From them I learned that every theoretical ideal was a mere combination of words, that every intellectual Utopia was a reshuffling of present repressions. I understood the shortcomings of the people I was with because I had known people without them; I had learned that people could be more than lifeless checkers waiting to be moved or removed by superhuman hands.

Luisa had lived through an experience far richer than mine, yet her demands on the present were far more modest. After we came here she threw herself into union activity and peace demonstrations with unqualified enthusiasm; no one could have guessed that three times in her life she had experienced eruptions that undermined the world’s foundations. Perhaps she nursed the illusion that every strike was the beginning of the general strike, every demonstration the signal for an insurrection, every movement the outbreak of the revolution. I threw myself into similar activities, but without the same enthusiasm. If I had shared Luisa’s exhilaration whenever the same burned-out mummy was publicly exhibited as the newest spark, Sabina and Tina wouldn’t have tolerated me. It’s not that either of them is “conservative.” When I compare Luisa’s personal life to Tina’s I can’t help feeling that Tina is the subversive. As for Sabina: she rejects convention so uncompromisingly that everyone considers her a “crackpot.” To Sabina, Luisa’s “revolutionary enthusiasm” is merely another convention. In Sabina’s words, all of Luisa’s attitudes can be summarized in two short sentences: whenever a worker farts, the ruling class trembles; whenever a worker pisses, the tidal waves of revolution begin to flood the world. I’ve never heard of two individuals who had less in common.

I ought to admit that most of my seeming “wisdom” is hindsight; in the heat of events I’m every bit as hysterical as Luisa. Only last year there was a large-scale riot here. People burned stores, broke shop windows and carried home as many loads as they could carry. I came home with a television; someone handed it to me and I couldn’t pass it on because everyone else’s hands were full. Tina came home with a new pair of shoes which fit her perfectly. The festival turned into a massacre; police and soldiers murdered a lot of people. Sabina commented, “At least Tina had good sense.” What she meant was, “That’s all that happened.” In purely selfish terms Tina’s shoes were all we got out of the riot, since I gave my television away the following day because none of us can stand to watch it. But I refused to reduce the event to Tina’s shoes. For me the glass walls of private property had at last been battered by the underlying population. The riot was the healthiest move I had seen the people of this city make in all the twenty years I’ve been here. I was teaching a university course at the time, and the day after the rioting ended I arrived in class full of the looting spirit. I asked which students had taken part in the riot. Then I turned to one of the students who had not taken part and asked if he had always been a good boy. It turned out he had, so I asked if as a boy he hadn’t secretly wished he had joined the more intelligent kids swimming in the pond instead of sweating in Sunday school like an obedient poodle in a suit and bow tie. Predictably, the good boy reported me to the dean and I was fired next time I went to teach my class. Unlike Yara, none of my students thought of demonstrating for me. It apparently didn’t occur to them. It didn’t occur to me either since I hated my job, and my “riot” was the pretext I’d been looking for to quit.

The riot was a carnival before the professional killers got into it. But ultimately Sabina was right. A few people got things they actually-needed, and that was all that happened. Most people got home with armloads of elephants, like mine, which they ended up storing in their attics or giving away. The walls of private property didn’t crumble. Tensions that had built up for years, for ages, were let out like farts into the already polluted air. Broken shop windows were replaced by brick walls and people went back to work to produce more commodities. Then they again waited in lines to pay for them. Some people made a fuss about those who had been killed by the army and the police — rightly so. But sueing the government for killing looters instead of jailing them isn’t equivalent to expropriating the exploiters.

I became wise only after the fact. But Luisa! I saw her soon after the riot. She told me that when the riot broke out she locked herself up in her house and turned on the radio. When I expressed amazement, she said the workers she had fought with had attacked the system of property, not the property itself. “What good would it do them to inherit a world in ruins?” she asked. She stayed away. But the cooler it got outside the warmer she got. She started to get excited when the army was called in. And she became her enthusiastic and militant self when everything was over. That’s when she joined a demonstration against police repression. When I saw her, she was working away in the dingy office of an anti-repression committee. Everything was over. The “committee” was nothing but a mop-up operation, the house-cleaning on the day after the big event. Yet Luisa was in a state of euphoria: she was positively sick with enthusiasm. For her the revolution was just beginning. I didn’t even try to argue with her. I was polite and indifferent. I smiled condescendingly. I hadn’t seen her for several years; I didn’t see her again until your letter came.

I still haven’t answered all your questions. Why did I write you twelve years ago? I had been looking for someone like you from the day I arrived here and the people I found weren’t enough like you to put an end to my search. So I decided to try to reach you, and in case you couldn’t be found, I tried to reach the other people in our group. I had just “finished” college (I should say it finished me: I was expelled). I had taken part in one of the earliest actions of what was later called the “student movement,” and it had all come to nothing. In later years that experience wasn’t even counted as part of the history of the student movement. But I won’t tell about that now. What bothered me at the time wasn’t the fact that no one knew what we had done, but the nightmarish quality of the experience itself: I ran with all my might and got nowhere. I couldn’t orient myself. I was desperate. It seemed that ever since I’d come here I’d been seeing only walls: concrete walls, brick walls, metal walls, all of them too high to see over. I had no idea what happened on the other side of the walls nor who was behind them. I’ve since learned that there are workshops behind the walls, workshops where most people spend most of their lives, workshops which are probably very similar to the prisons where you’ve spent most of your life. But at that time I only knew that the walls kept me out, that I was excluded, and I remembered that once in my life I hadn’t been excluded, that I had known live individuals and had taken part in meaningful activity; I remembered that once in my life the walls had stopped being impenetrable and had started to crumble. I thought that if I could only reach you or the others I’d find a frame of reference.

I waited and waited for an answer, but not a word came. I’m surprised to learn that Mirna had seen my letter; I had thought none of my letters had reached their destinations. I suppose you didn’t see my letter because, you were in prison. Why didn’t you see it afterwards? Was it lost? And why did she have to memorize the address; did she know the letter would be lost? What mystified me most was your statement that Mirna thought the letter peculiar and “attributed a strange power” to it. What in the world happened to my letter?

I want to know everything, and in detail. I want to know about the things you did and the things that were done to you, about the people you met and the people you liked. I want to know what you thought about the experiences and the people, and what you think of them now. I want to know about Yara and Mirna and about the people I knew twenty years ago.

Your letter made all of us aware of the chasm that separates your world from ours. None of us believes the official literature of either side (they’re both in fact the same side: the outside), but as a result no one knows what to believe. The impenetrable walls I mentioned seem to be the world’s main architecture. When you’re behind one wall, you can’t know that there’s yet another wail on the other side of it. As for the people behind that wall: they simply don’t exist. If one of them nevertheless appears among us, we’re suspicious: he must be a state agent; who else could scale both walls? I’ve heard about such state agents: they knew as little about the people who had been my comrades as I know about the mannikins at a debutante’s ball, and they were every bit as contemptuous. We do learn something from them: when you hear a horror story often enough you start to assume it’s true, although that’s a poor way to determine what’s true, especially if you know that the repetition of lies is the propagandist’s stock in trade.

I was dumbfounded when you said that at one point you felt homesick for prison. I have to admit I’m one of the many who fear arrest and dread imprisonment. In spite of my brief experience with jails I still imagine prison life as consisting of long lines of silent men and women pulling iron balls and chains. Luisa reminded me that the conditions of workers are often similar to those of convicts serving long prison terms, and that these conditions stimulate feelings of mutual aid, solidarity as well as shared goals and lifelong friendships. A person who is dumbfounded by their solidarity, their camaraderie, is not one of them but an alien, an outsider, possibly an enemy. I genuinely hope you won’t regard me an outsider, or what you called an “imbecile.”

All my encouragement and admiration go out to you, to Yara, to Mirna, to all your still-imprisoned comrades. And if you couldn’t hide your impatience for an answer, I won’t even try to hide mine.

Love,
Sophia.

Yarostan’s second letter

Dear Sophia,

My picture of you was hazy when I wrote you last time but now I remember you as if I had been with you only yesterday. No one who had known you twenty years ago could fail to recognize you. You wrote me a warm, comradely letter. I’d like to answer in the same spirit. I’d like at least to be polite. But twenty years have passed. Everyone around me has changed. Your picture of yourself as you are today is disturbingly similar to the person you thought you were twenty years ago. What I recognize in your letter is not the event we experienced together but an event we never experienced. I wrote to a living person and was answered by an imaginary person celebrating an event that never took place.

I admit that I once shared the illusion your letter celebrates. Twenty years ago you and I were like children who saw a group of people digging in a field and ran to join them. They were chanting. We misunderstood the chant; we failed to hear the suffering and resignation. We thought they were singing out of joy. We found spades and dug with them. We sang more loudly than the rest until one of them turned to us and asked, “Don’t you know what you’re doing?” Sophia, don’t you remember that terrified face wrinkled with pain? “Look over there,” he said, pointing toward rifles aimed at the group. We had joined a group of prisoners sentenced to die; we were helping them dig the mass grave into which they were to be thrown after they were shot. How can you have retained only the memory of the moment when we joyfully sang alongside them? Is it possible that after twenty years you still don’t know what we helped them do?

I was disappointed by your letter and infinitely more disappointed by Luisa. Maybe you were too young and full of life to grasp the nature of what you call your key experience. But I can’t make myself believe that Luisa — the Luisa I thought I knew — could nurse an illusion of this magnitude for two decades. That’s why I’m sending this letter to your address instead of hers.

When I started reading your letter I was overjoyed at having reached both of you. By the second or third page my joy turned to disbelief. I started again. My impression was confirmed. You locate your birth, your starting point, in the event that tore me apart; your growth coincides with my destruction.

And Luisa encourages you. Only Sabina seems to be aware of what happened even though she was only twelve at the time. Maybe my inability to recognize the Luisa in your letter is similar to your inability to: remember what we did together. I too nursed an illusion for many years, an illusion of a person called Luisa whose only common trait with the real Luisa was her name. I preserved my portrait of Luisa during my first prison term; no investigators could take it from me, no torturers could mar it, I admired and respected this Luisa. I loved her. She was the guide who led me unharmed through all the suffering, the hopelessness, the horror. She was my first real teacher. Every one of Luisa’s comments, from the words about the approach of liberation armies to the description of Jan Sedlak as a hothead, disfigured the picture I had guarded so carefully. My “Luisa” is now in shreds. You rid me of an illusion. My imaginary “Luisa” is shattered and fragments of a different person are returning to my memory. These fragments had been suppressed during the years when the mythical Luisa was the only Luisa I remembered. The return of the fragments suggests that I once knew a different Luisa from the one whose portrait I preserved; I once knew a person disturbingly similar to the one in your letter. I knew such a person and rejected her because she wasn’t someone I could admire, respect or love. The years of separation annihilated the traces left by the real person; the imaginary Luisa evicted the living Luisa from my memory.

I’m making this tedious effort to understand the workings of my memory so as to gain some insight into yours. Could it be that what you describe as our common experience was only partly a real event and mainly your own invention? Could it be that your illusory past experience was so gratifying, so complete, that in time you suppressed every trace of the real event? If so, and if you’re attached to your illusion, then you don’t have to read any further; the rest of this letter may have the same effect on you as yours had on me: my shattered illusion is being replaced by painful, long-suppressed memories; I’m seeing people and events I had warded off for two decades.

I was only fifteen when Titus Zabran first introduced me to your house. He and Luisa both worked at the carton plant. I had met Titus a year earlier, just before the end of the war; we were both in a resistance group that fought against the occupying army. I remember, even without your reminder, that Titus did not introduce me to a mother and her daughters. He introduced me to three women: Luisa, a woman in her late twenties; Sophia — you must have been twelve or thirteen — and little Sabina, nine or ten. You addressed each other by your first names, as equals. You and Sabina had prepared supper for all of us. Luisa asked Sabina if there was anything she could do to help, and the little girl answered with self-assurance: “Just sit clown and talk; everything is ready.” I was fascinated. I had never before experienced such a total absence of authority in relations between children and adults.

In retrospect it might be more accurate to say that I was entranced. I fell under a. spell. I started to create my mythical picture of the three of you from the moment I met you. From then on I saw, heard and felt only those expressions and gestures that fitted with the imaginary creatures you had already become. I suppressed everything that conflicted with my picture. The suppressed elements remained somewhere in my memory, buried under the myth. These elements are returning now, perfectly preserved but fragmentary. They had never been more than fragments.

I was drawn to your house like a bee to flowers, first once a week, then two and even three times. I plied Luisa with questions about the revolution in which she had taken part ten years earlier. I couldn’t hear enough about it. Titus had also taken part in it, but I didn’t ask him any questions. Whenever he made a comment, it consisted of vast historical generalizations. He referred to people and events that were unfamiliar to me and I was bored, confused and embarrassed to be so ignorant. I didn’t only want to learn about that revolution; I wanted to learn it from Luisa. I understood every word she spoke. Her descriptions were so clear, so vivid that as she spoke I imagined I was taking part in the events she described. She helped me live those events by comparing them to experiences I had myself lived.

Luisa compared the day of the outbreak of the revolution with the first day of the resistance, when my neighbors and friends ran out of their houses armed and filled with enthusiasm, the day when I helped build a barricade and then helped defend it. Nine years separated the two events, and in Luisa’s descriptions that was all that separated them. I knew then as clearly as I know now that the two events had nothing in common except the barricades. To Luisa they had everything in common; the two events were one and the same. Yet this didn’t bother me. Her comparison helped me understand. Groups of people who had never engaged in any activity together — some of them former acquaintances from the neighborhood or factory, most of them complete strangers — became the best of friends in an instant. They suddenly had everything in common: apprehensions as well as hopes, immediate tasks as well as distant projects. And I was one of them. I transferred the resistance experiences I had lived a year earlier to the revolutionary experience Luisa had lived. I became a member of a fighting community, an equal among people who were freeing themselves, a comrade among workers determined to destroy the repressive world. I was no longer the lousy kid, the vagrant, the lumpen I had been during the war.

I wasn’t proud of what I’d been earlier; my recent past was out of place in the world the three of you inhabited, that mythical world where I myself lodged you. You wanted to know about my “heroic” experiences during the resistance but I never told you about them. Luisa helped me forget them; she helped me transform the real events of my life into imaginary events which I “experienced” only while listening to Luisa’s stories.

My parents were taken away shortly before the war ended. I was supposed to hide in the coal bin of the house across the street. But I stood by the basement window and watched as they were escorted out of our house and helped to the back of a truck. They had both worked in factories. They’d just come home from work; it was dusk. Earlier that day, when my neighbors had forced me into the bin, I insisted on knowing why. They “explained” that my mother’s father had been Jewish. This explanation told me nothing. My parents had never discussed politics or religion or anything at all except the amount of money left to meet the week’s expenses. The explanation I understood was written on my neighbors’ faces: my parents were stained. I was stained. All the neighbors watched as my parents were taken away. Those who couldn’t see from the windows came out of their houses to look. No one did anything or said anything. It was like a funeral. All the faces were sad, yet they all expressed something other than sadness: they were relieved they didn’t have Jewish grandfathers.

My neighbors, as poor as my parents and nervous as squirrels, had already gotten false papers proving I was their son. But I couldn’t stay on with them. They weren’t used to having a permanent guest and I knew they couldn’t afford to feed me. Secondly, and I now think unjustly, I felt that just below their kindness and generosity they feared I would sooner or later stain them.

I left my “home town” and I’ve never felt the slightest desire to return there, even for a visit. I walked all the way to the city, sleeping in fields and barns, eating fruits and raw vegetables on the way. When I got here I roamed the streets like a stray dog, sleeping in doorways and alleys. In winter I pried open basement windows. My last “stolen home” was the storeroom of a factory, a vast gallery full of sheets and rolls of cardboard. I survived by stealing — not from the occupiers nor from the rich. One day I saw a boy my age running along the sidewalk; he snatched an old woman’s grocery bag without slowing down or even losing a step and disappeared. I practiced for several hours with a garbage bag, I acquired a “skill” and I went out to the world to earn my living.

One morning I overslept. I didn’t wake up until a man pulled me by the ear and shouted hysterically: “How did you get in here, you lousy vagabond? I’ll take you straight to the police.” Others ran in from the workshop. One of them ran up to my torturer and shouted, “Let the boy go!” “I will not! He’s going straight to the police!” the man shouted back, pulling my ear so hard I thought it would break; I later learned he was the foreman. The group surrounded the foreman; my defender planted himself right in front of him. The foreman left my burning ear alone and grabbed me by the arm. My defender then said, “He’s a friend of mine; he’s looking for work; I asked him to meet me here. It’s freezing outside and you can see he’s not dressed for it. Would you stand and wait in the cold if you were able to come inside?” The foreman visibly didn’t believe a word of it, but he let my arm go; he couldn’t prove anything except that I had found my way out of the cold, and besides, he was surrounded. That evening I learned my defender’s name: Titus Zabran. One of the people in the group that surrounded the foreman was Jasna Zbrkova. When I finally did get a job there after the war she called me “the vagabond who was caught oversleeping.” I returned to the plant that evening; I wanted to thank Titus. Instead, he thanked me for waiting for him. He asked if I would have been willing to work there if there had been an opening. I had never thought of working. I told him my parents had done nothing else with their lives and in the end were taken away in the back of a truck.

Titus introduced me to his friends. One of them housed me; others took turns feeding me. They were all workers. They all begged me to stop stealing; they said it would endanger their organization; the police would come looking for me and would arrest all of them. I stopped. But then I had nothing to do. I attended all the organization meetings but was bored to tears. When they argued I stared into space; nothing they ever said had anything to do with me. They used words like “revolution” and “liberation,” but in such strange ways; they seemed like exotic merchants screeching and tearing each others’ hair because one had cheated the other in a transaction that had taken place years ago in a different part of the world. (Later on I took part in such discussions; in retrospect I consider my first reaction to have been the healthier one.) I wasn’t idle very long. The war was nearing its end. The word “liberation” began to be used in increasingly comprehensible ways. It started to mean rifles, grenades, bullets. When it was learned that I was familiar with hiding places in every part of the city I no longer had time to steal or to stare into space during meetings.

The three days and three nights of the rising were the high point of my life. All the elements I later heard Luisa describe were present; they are probably elements of every popular uprising. But there were other elements, sinister ones; Luisa later helped me suppress them; she helped me remember those three days as if they had been the first three days of the revolution she had experienced. Yes, the cooperation, the sociability and the comradeship were all there. But I took all this for granted. After all, for several months I had used all my time and energy hiding weapons, preparing for this event; I didn’t expect less from others. The only emotion I felt during those three days — an emotion whose memory traces were later driven underground by Luisa ‘s edifying story — was a “bloodthirsty desire for revenge. Building the barricades was a profound experience, a social project as you call it, even a type of popular architecture. And I genuinely enjoyed the work in ways that the routinized, institutionalized daily work can’t be enjoyed. But the project was marred by its purpose. I worked enthusiastically, but my mind was on the enemy: I looked forward, not to the completion of the common project, but to the attack. And when they attacked, my sociability and my architectural interest vanished. I had only one goal: to lodge every single bullet in a uniformed body. At first I shot to avenge my parents. Later I just shot; my only concern was to hit.

I can already hear, “But that’s not just you; that’s war.” Yes it is. It’s just war. If we take it so much for granted, why do we suppress every memory of it? A few months earlier I had stolen the groceries of poor old women and I had been a vicious thief, a bully. Now I murdered dozens of human beings, most of them workers, many of them hardly older than I, and I was a hero. I haven’t been proud of my thefts, but I never felt the need to suppress them from my memory. As for the deeds that made me a hero: I couldn’t flee from them fast enough. I had to suppress them, replace them with other deeds — and even then I wasn’t self-assured in my hero’s pride.

Luisa helped me suppress my memory of the real uprising. She helped me drive out of my consciousness the shots, the falling bodies and the expressions on their faces. I met Luisa only a few days after the rising, when I was hired at the carton plant. Claude Tamnich. Vera Neis and Adrian Povrshan were also hired at that time. The rising had created lots of vacancies. Several workers had been killed by a single grenade as they were leaving the plant. It was probably thrown by a young worker avenging the death of his comrades, perhaps comrades I had shot some minutes or hours earlier. Even the foreman was gone; he had been killed by “our side,” the day after the rising; someone had shouted “Kill the dirty collaborator!” and several people had aimed and shot him as if he had been a diseased dog; if I had been there I would have been among the first to shoot. Perhaps the man who shouted “Kill the collaborator” was a truck driver; perhaps some two years earlier he had driven a truck in the back of which two old workers were transported to a camp.

Luisa’s inspiring narrative left no room for such speculations. I forgot about my resistance experiences when I listened to her describe the day when, nine years earlier, the army started to attack the population it supposedly defended. In response to the attack, the people rose; men, women, boys and girls, employed and unemployed workers began arming themselves and building barricades. The isolated cogs of the social machine became a community of human beings held together by a common project, a common goal: to defend their city and to build a new world, their own world. In my experience such a project had been neither the intention nor the outcome. But I wished it had been both, and I believed Luisa. Furthermore the three of you were living proof of the new world; at least all the proof I needed.

The climax of the story was the victory. The army was defeated. The old order crumbled. The revolution had triumphed at last. And the population was transformed. On the barricades and in the battles the passive, submissive and repressed underclass turned into a community of independent individuals. At that point a steady, unbroken process began. Churches were turned into nurseries and schools and meeting houses. Prisons were destroyed. Workers occupied the factories where they had worked and began to operate them on their own. without owners or managers. Busses and trams were operating normally only a few days after the victory. In the armaments factories workers began to produce weapons that had never before been made in those plants. The revolution spread. Peasants ousted landlords and took over the land.

How did such a sequence of victories end in such overwhelming defeat? The workers were attacked on two fronts: Luisa repeats this explanation in your letter. The power of the forces that oppressed the workers was overwhelming. The generals built powerful armies abroad; they got aid from every quarter and the workers got none. Besides which a fifth column developed internally. The revolution could have been victorious against one or the other front: it had already proved itself in its confrontation with the generals. But in the face of both it was defeated. Luisa’s picture is beautiful, edifying and sad. Everything our side did spread the revolution, strengthened it, deepened it. Those who worked against it were outsiders to it, foreign to its spirit, hostile to its project.

Years later, in prison, I met Manuel, a man who had taken part in that revolution. He had been in prisons and camps for fourteen years when I met him. He was arrested by the “people’s” police a few months after the revolutionary victory against the army, and he spent his life since then being transferred from one prison or camp to another. His account of the experience was similar to Luisa’s only to the extent that it reminded me of the events with which Luisa had familiarized me. The language was different, but the event was the same: I recognized it, down to details. What I failed to recognize was that the fragments Manuel narrated did not fit into Luisa’s picture at all. I failed to see that the language was different because it described a different picture. Luisa’s descriptions of the revolution, the resistance, the uprising in which you took part, have one thing in common: they are descriptions of imaginary events. The very language she used falsified the real events and replaced them with stories that were profound, complete and edifying only because they were myths. I can see this now because your letter applied the same magic to an experience I actually lived, an experience I still remember. You sent me a distorted mirror-image of myself, similar enough to be recognizable, engaged in activity that never took place. When I see what you and Luisa did to my experience I begin to understand what she has done to her own. She experienced one of the great moments of history and she suppressed every trace of it from her memory. She saw the repressed, the maimed and the stunted transform themselves into human beings who glistened with potentialities, and she looked away so as not to be blinded. On the barricades she took part in a project that was completely her own, a project born with the group engaged in it, a project that would make all projects possible. For a moment the imaginations of free individuals roamed through a universe of infinite possibilities, for a moment the possibility of genuinely human activity was in everyone’s reach. This was the peak of the revolution; everything that followed was a steep descent. Yet it is this moment that’s missing from Luisa’s account. Either she was looking away or she suppressed it. Instead, she glorifies the sequence of events that destroyed the possibilities, stunted the imaginations and maimed the lives of the individuals who had so briefly been free. Luisa’s “revolution” is still moving upward when, on the day after the victory, “our militants” met with ousted and powerless politicians of the ruined state apparatus and constituted themselves into a “people’s committee”; it is still moving upward when, instead of launching our own projects, we return to “our own” factories, busses and trams, when “our own’” militants replace the foremen, managers and directors; it is still moving upward when we produce “our own” weapons in “our own” armaments plants. It begins to move downward only when outside elements using foreign force betray “our militants” on the “people’s committee” and transform the committee into a police; when these elements force “our militants” to convince peasants to give their lands back to former landlords and to convince workers to accept a state-appointed manager or even the former owner as their boss; it begins to move downward only when the new “people’s army” and the revitalized “people’s police” begin to arrest workers who resist the reimposed boss and peasants who resist the reimposed landlord, when workers begin to be killed by “their own” bullets fired from rifles produced in “their own” plants, when the army and police parade through the streets with trucks and tanks of a type never before produced in “the workers’ own” armaments plants. We were overwhelmed by external forces, by “statists” and by the “fifth column.” At no point was there a trace of rot at our own core. Maybe’ a few, very few, of our militants made some mistakes, but they were minor and insignificant, and everyone makes mistakes.

I believed what Luisa told me. I had to. She had been there and I hadn’t. But when she uses the same language and imagery to describe the resistance which I did take part in, as well as the coup which cut away half my life, I realize she has done something drastic to reality: she has cut it out of her memory.

But what happened to you, Sophia? What have you done to your memory? How can you refer to the resistance by mentioning, in one and the same sentence, the “thousands of working people fighting and dying to free their city” and the “approach of the liberation armies”? If we fought to free the city, then we lost; the “liberation army” destroyed the city’s freedom. But if we fought to free the city, why did we — thousands of us in the streets, as you say — cheer and dance when the tanks and soldiers of the “liberation army” marched into the already liberated city? If we fought to liberate the city, why didn’t we turn our guns on the new occupiers? Why didn’t we shoot the commanders, fraternize with the soldiers and begin building our free city? It’s the same, familiar and distorted picture. We were pure; we fought for freedom, They were despotic; they fought to enslave us. This picture is false. I was one of those thousands. I shot to avenge and to kill. So did the people alongside me on the barricades. I learned that I had helped to “free the city” only after I met Luisa. And then I “remembered” having done that. But it’s not true. I didn’t for a moment believe that I and the people with whom I built barricades were going to create a new social activity, invent new modes of transportation, dream up new ways to relate to each other, to our activity, to our environment. I knew that gangsters, cops and soldiers had always governed in the past and I didn’t think anything I did would keep them from governing in the future. I didn’t relate any of that to my activity on the barricades. While I shot and while hundreds like me were killed, we cleared the streets for the “victorious liberation army.” I didn’t help clear their path intentionally; I wouldn’t ever have risked my life to do that. Yet among the thousands you say were “freeing their city,” there were some who did actually risk their lives in order to clear the path for the new occupiers. Perhaps they thought they’d be praised and rewarded by the new masters. Perhaps they were in fact rewarded. I had met some of them in the resistance organization. I suspect they couldn’t have fought hard and couldn’t have taken great risks since the dead can’t enjoy their rewards. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe like the noblest of slaves they risked everything, hoping that if they died the new masters would at least decorate their graves.

You refer to what happened three years later as the most significant experience in your life. “No outside force defined our project or made our decisions.” You’ve retained this picture for as long as I retained my picture of a Luisa who rejected wage labor, the family, the state, a Luisa who rejected all illusions. Yet surely somewhere in your consciousness fragments of another experience must survive. An “outside force” did in fact define your project and make your decisions. It was none other than the politicians who three years earlier had helped clear away one army in order to make room for another. You and I merely recited the lines of a script, moved under the control of a puppeteer. Even the emotions we expressed were predesigned. You apparently liked your costume and make-up so well that you’ve continued to wear them after the play ended. The play was a show of the politicians’ power “among the workers”:, the plot dealt with the “workers’ struggle” against the politicians’ enemies; the climax came when the workers ousted Zagad from the factory. At that point, behind the scenes, politicians ousted Zagad’s friends from government offices; anyone unfriendly to the politicians was automatically Zagad’s friend. The union apparatus acted as puppeteer. Union politicians initiated the strikes, prepared the spontaneous demonstrations and lectured about the solidarity, power and determination of the working class. It was our role to confirm our solidarity by reciting our scripts, to demonstrate our power by gesturing and to show our determination by making faces. The play was educational: its main purpose was to instruct the audience about their lines, gestures and feelings. The feeling you still express today: the illusion of autonomy, the illusion that we were defining our own projects and making our own decisions, was precisely the illusion the play was designed to communicate. Animated by the illusion of autonomy we didn’t only perform our roles with contagious enthusiasm; we also convinced audience after audience that we genuinely considered the enemies of the politicians to be our own enemies.

Of course I was taken in as much as you were. The carnival spirit took hold of everyone. We were all on stage, most of us for the first time in our lives. Sometimes as many as five puppet shows played for each other. It was impossible to tell who wasn’t on stage. Like everyone else, I took my role seriously; I wanted to perform well. When I carried a placard that said, “The factories to the workers!” I acted as if I meant what it said. I knew that politicians had arranged the demonstration, that the union had prepared it. Didn’t I know, then, that my slogan could only mean, “I support the new boss”? Maybe I knew. But I didn’t wish it. Maybe I thought the placards themselves would give rise to the situation they described. I did feel like an agent, an instrument, when we marched to Zagad’s office like a militia of four. But I thought I was an instrument of “the working class,” not an instrument of the union and the state. Yet the detail Sabina remembered should have put me on my guard. To Claude we weren’t mere workers, four among many; we were “representatives of the plant council,” agents of an apparatus.

I wasn’t only taken in; I was taken over. The carnival atmosphere was so contagious that it infected my deepest emotions. An experience I remember vividly had to do with George Alberts. I hardly knew him; the most we ever said to each other was “good evening.” Shortly before we were arrested, when slogans about “Factories to workers” had been replaced by slogans about “the enemy in our midst,” Claude and Adrian approached me, to “talk about Alberts.” They asked where Alberts had gone before the end of the war and why he hadn’t fought in the resistance. They asked which side he had fought on. I was angry. I told them to ask Luisa, who lived with Alberts, or Titus Zabran, who had fought with him several years earlier. I told them I didn’t know anything about Alberts. I had never considered it any of my business to ask where he had been or what he had done; I only knew that when he returned he was employed as a highly qualified specialist. Adrian said they didn’t want to confront Titus Zabran “prematurely,” before they had determined “all the facts.” As for Luisa: they were going to speak to her when the “case” was complete; they were going to confront her with an ultimatum: either denounce Alberts or leave the plant. I yelled at them furiously. I said they had gone crazy. I asked if they were in the pay of the police. But their performance, like all the other performances, succeeded. It communicated its message. On that day my dislike for Alberts turned to suspicion. Yes, he became suspicious to me. He was stained exactly the same way my parents had been stained. You tell me your projects and decisions were your own. Even my feelings weren’t my own. My suspicion of Alberts was no more my own than any of the rest of that “significant experience.” I reproduced inside myself the “feelings” of the state.

The significance of my suspicion of Alberts became clear to me during my first year in prison. I met countless prisoners whose sole crime had been the “act” of becoming suspicious to others. Sometimes,a politician started a rumor about someone he disliked: sometimes the rumor was started by a worker who thought he’d get another’s job. The victim was always helpless; everything he said and did only made the stain more visible. Soon everyone saw it, everyone was ready to turn him in. His fellow workers, his comrades, his neighbors all became police agents, pathetically pointing their fingers like my neighbor Ninovo, shouting,“You’re all troublemakers; they should never have let you out.”

Your letter goes on to describe the individuals who took part in this “significant experience”; you refer to them as “our group.” The only traits your portraits share with the individuals I remember “are their names. Since you’ve disabused me of my illusory portrait of Luisa, I should in fairness try to do as much for you. I had known most of those individuals for at least three years. You were with them for two weeks, during a crisis. I realize that people are often transformed by crises: they acquire traits they had never displayed in normal times, they undergo profound changes. I realize that you might have been seeing these individuals during the moment when they had ceased to be what they had been. But I vividly remember that this is not the case. Either because the crisis wasn’t real, or because these individuals weren’t able to shed their former personalities, they did not undergo profound changes; each of them remained what she or he had been before.

You remember the speed of Vera Neis’s wit. So do I. I was grateful to her quick wit every day I spent at the plant. Everyone was. She made the routine bearable. She was like a radio that was turned on when we started to work and couldn’t be turned off until we were through. In any other circumstances her quick wit would have been unbearable. In this particular circumstance it represented a great deal. She entertained us with gossip about the ruling class. Occasionally she taught us something about the machinery behind the facades. She was a missionary; apparently she really believed that as soon as all of us grasped the message of her stones, the world would change. This wasn’t what we liked about her. What made her a genuine heroine in the plant was that with her continual tirades she sabotaged production from the moment work began. She considered her crusades more important than the work she had been hired to do, and she never allowed the work to interfere with her lectures. The constant arguments in which she engaged one or another of us must have cut our output at least by half. Everyone expected her to be fired. The leniency of the foreman was one of the things we had won from the resistance. When the general strike began she remained what she had been; in your words: “she couldn’t let a stranger walk by without trying to convert him.” But at that point her quick wit no longer represented an escape from the boring routine; it was no longer unintended sabotage; At that point she was only a missionary preaching salvation through belief in half a dozen abstractions and a mound of gossip, converting present-day Romans to a new Christianity.

You say “there’s not even a question about any of the rest.” Yet all you say about Adrian is “Vera and Adrian.” That much is quite accurate. Before you met him, it had been “Titus and Adrian,” when the strike began it was “Vera and Adrian,” and before the strike ended, “Claude and Adrian.” That’s all that can be said about him. He was like a pin drawn to the most powerful magnet, like dough shaped by the nearest baker, a cog who could fit into any apparatus. When the unions launched the “campaign for a workers’ society,” Adrian became Vera’s only convert. He memorized two or three abstractions and set up a mission of his own: a slow, humorless version of the same theme. When the time came to “ferret out the enemy in our midst,” he became Claude’s disciple, pathetically trying to simulate what you call Claude’s “devotion,” his contempt for his fellow workers.

Your portrait of Jasna Zbrkova was less favorable. She was the exact opposite of Claude. She was by far the warmest, the most generous person in the group. She was one of those rare human beings who are able to feel another person’s pains and enjoy another’s hopes. It’s true that her empathy with others went to the point of feeling sorry for the “poor owner” who had so many problems running such a complex plant. It’s true that her generosity was blind to political and economic realities. But in a context where Claude was ready to shoot his fellow workers, where Adrian shifted overnight from universal solidarity to universal suspicion, it was precisely this “blind” generosity that was missing.

I don’t have a clear memory of Marc Glavni. He had been hired a few weeks, at most a couple of months, before the strike began. I remember staying away from him. He was a student, and was clearly on his way through the plant to something “higher.” He may have been resourceful, as you say. I only remember that he thought himself resourceful.

We know about Luisa. So this leaves only Jan and Titus. You didn’t like Titus. And Jan was “hotheaded.” This characterization of Jan appears early in your letter. I had a hard time reading past it. That was how his executioners described him.

Titus Zabran was a “realist.” At the time I thought his “realism” enabled him to see through the masquerade. He seemed to be as aware as Jan that the removal of Zagad was at most a beginning, that our victorious appropriation of the existing project was no victory at all. Unlike Jan, who was impatient, Titus seemed to have a long-range strategy; he seemed “realistic” because, he considered the present, move to be a necessary step or “stage” toward the next. Yet was Titus any more of a “realist” than Jan was a “hothead” Did Titus know that this step, this “stage,” was going to eliminate the possibility of taking another step?

By. the way, you’re also wrong about the reasons for our arrest. Your and. Luisa’s connection to Alberts had nothing to do with it, no matter how suspicious Alberts became to Claude. Thanks to imaginations like yours, and mine, Luisa’s and Vera’s, we all took our roles seriously. And we infected everyone else, with our enthusiasm. When the strikes and demonstrations ended, when most workers realized the carnival was over and returned to work, our group continued to perform its show. We were still printing posters, glueing “Factories to Workers” on recently cleaned walls, shouting about the workers’ commonwealth. At that point we became dangerous, because at that point people like us elsewhere saw that at least some had meant what they said and that the performance of a play had not, been the only possibility. If others didn’t realize this, at least the authorities thought they did.” Only at that point did we begin to “act on our own,” but we weren’t aware of this. We were so carried away by our performance that we failed to see that the curtain had fallen and the carnival had ended. Instead of acting on our own we continued reciting the lines of the script and performing the rehearsed motions even though the prompter and play director had left the theater. We were arrested because we unintentionally transported our performance out of the theater into the street, because we continued to play when it was time to return to work. Because of my. failure to turn off my act I spent four years moving from one dungeon to another. My overenthusiastic performance in a puppet show was interpreted by the all-knowing proletarian inquisitors as dangerous, anti-social activity, as sabotage of social means of production and therefore as a threat to the present and future well-being of the working class.

Four years later I was given an opportunity to enjoy the new society to which our significant experience had led. Much of the old society had survived in the new. Among other things, marriage. Why do you single out marriage? I remember the discussions at your house. I also remember that not only marriage but also wage labor, police, prisons, governments and schools were going to be absent from the new society. They all survived, intact, even reinforced. Or did you think our significant experience had changed all this, that marriage, wage labor and prisons had been abolished?

What I saw when I was released resembled the prison I had left more than it resembled a free city. There were inmates and guards. Officials were in automobiles, workers in busses and trams. And everyone was “in uniform.” I saw functionaries, policemen, soldiers, workers, shoppers and students. I didn’t see plain, uncategorized, ununiformed human-beings, i sensed that none of the people I saw met at houses like yours to discuss the abolition of marriage and wage labor. All such people had been arrested; all such discussions took place in jail.

I had no place to go since I had no family and my friends had all been jailed. Yet I was enthusiastic: the first term hadn’t broken me the Way the second was going to. I wanted to find work and then continue to fight, to express what I had seen and learned. I wanted to learn what was possible in the new situation. I visited the carton plant. Every face was new. Every member of the group you and I had known was gone, including the lenient foreman. That’s all that was new. The machines were the same. The walls were the same; they hadn’t even been painted. People worked in complete silence. I walked around and watched. People glanced at me and turned away. No one asked me who I was or what I wanted. The silence and indifference were new. Something else was new; maybe it was only a product of the indifference. Every carton I saw was poorly printed; we would have put them all in the stack of seconds. But now every stack in the plant was a stack of seconds. There were no longer any firsts. The workers were silent and seemed indifferent, but under those frightening masks they were still alive.

An old man was operating “my” press, at a snail’s pace. He had turned the speed down to the lowest notch. The press creaked and squealed. It obviously hadn’t been greased for four years. I didn’t see a can of grease in the entire plant; apparently the planners didn’t see why grease should be allocated to a carton plant. The absence of grease had caused the main cylinder bearing to turn to an ellipse. As a result there was no way to avoid printing a double image at every impression. The old man obviously couldn’t be held responsible for sabotage. He was visibly being as slow and careful as he could be. He was doing his very best. And who needs perfectly printed boxes anyway? I wanted to shake his hand, to congratulate him, to laugh and share the joke with him. Instead I asked him if it was possible to apply for a job in the plant. He told me to speak to an official on the trade union council. This was another novelty, a sign of the workers’ victory. Pointing in the direction of Zagad’s former office, I asked where I could find these officials. I had guessed right. I must have been there before.

The trade union official at Zagad’s desk was slightly chubbier than Zagad. And he called me “comrade.” In all other ways he was very similar. He asked my name. He telephoned. Then he said, very politely, “Sorry, comrade. The economic situation is extremely critical. We cannot afford to hire an individual who was found guilty of sabotage.”

Before leaving the plant, I stopped by the old man to ask him some questions. I wanted to find out to what extent the sabotage I saw was organized, what forms of communication the workers had succeeded in creating. But the old man was nervous; he kept looking around with a fear I had never seen on a worker’s face. As far as I could see, the foreman was out for the day, the manager must have had his office elsewhere, the union official was smoking in his office, and everyone else was working. Was the old man actually afraid of being watched and heard by the other workers? Vera couldn’t have lasted for a day in this plant.

I waited for him outside as I’d waited for Titus Zabran almost eight years earlier. He was more talkative. He asked if I’d been hired. “No jailbirds,” I said. He looked around as he had inside; I was afraid I’d put an end to our conversation. The look on his face was a look I had seen before. No one had ever looked at me that way in prison. So this was what I had been released into! I felt intense relief when the old man said many of his friends, the “more political” ones, had also been jailed, and my growing anger left me when he said, “One day these wiseacres are going to reap what they’re sowing.” He was aware that his earlier look had stung me, and he became more talkative, though by no means comradely. The union, he told me, duplicated the supervisory work of the management, and both were supervised by the police. The foreman was directly responsible to the police, and one or more workers were police agents. He laughed when I asked about informal organization in these conditions. There had never been more distrust among workers. “In addition to actual police agents,” he told me, “there are workers who seriously believe the factories are theirs and that therefore the workers are their own boss. They’re fanatics. Such people don’t remain workers very long, since their convictions lead to quick promotions. But while they’re workers, they’re far worse than the union officials or even the police agents. They work harder than anyone else, criticize other workers, have workers fired for sabotage and wrecking. The managers and union officials would of course like to hire only workers of this type. But this is impossible. The enthusiasm doesn’t last long if the promotions don’t follow. And they can’t promote the entire production crew. Consequently such workers are always in a minority. But this minority effectively prevents any kind of unified action. Even grumbling can lead to arrest. But don’t think they’ve turned us into oxen,” the old man concluded. “With all their threats, arrests and harassments, with all their talk about record productivity and record output, production still hasn’t reached the pre-war level.”

In parting, the old man gave me strange advice. He told me not to be disappointed at not having been hired. Factory life wasn’t for “political people.” “The good life is in politics: that’s the place for you activists,” he said. He had grasped the essence of what you call your significant experience. I was going to receive the same advice again.

I looked for jobs elsewhere. Sometimes I spoke to managers, sometimes to union officials. The outcome was always the same: the same phone call, the same “Sorry comrade, four years for sabotage ...” Production had not reached the pre-war level, but the centralization and communication of police files had broken all previous records and was continually climbing to new heights. The enthusiasm with which Thad left prison vanished. I became desperate. I was running out of money. I slept in alleys, but this wasn’t as easy as it had been eight years earlier. I was older and people were far more suspicious of strangers. I was afraid someone who saw me in the street or in an alley would turn me in as a vagabond. I began to understand why the police had grown so enormous. I was trapped. I had the choice of starving to death or killing myself. I had yet another “choice.” It was then I grasped that the police were not a different species. At least not all of them. Sooner or later I would be arrested. I would be under a roof, I would sleep on some kind of mattress. I might even tell them, “I give up. What do I have to do to survive?” They would smile, have me sit down, offer me a cigarette. “Yes, we’ve been expecting you, comrade. We thought you would return much sooner. Times are hard. If you want to work, we can find a job for you.”

This was my mood when I decided to try to find Jan Sedlak. I stopped worrying about adding to his problems in case he’d just been released. I needed to communicate with another human being. I had little hope of finding him. I didn’t know how long his sentence had been or if he’d been released. I had been to his house only once, shortly before our arrest. He had taken Sabina and me there one or two days after Zagad was ousted from, the carton plant. They lived in a poor working class quarter on the outskirts of the city. They had been driven from their farm during the war, and had moved to the section that most closely resembled a village. Like their neighbors, mainly former peasants, they raised chickens and geese and kept a large garden. Jan’s father had found a job driving a bus during the war, and had continued to drive the same bus through the war, the resistance, the coup and the arrests. As I rode the tram I convinced myself the Sedlaks would no longer be living, there. Surely the old peasant had found another job and moved to the city. Surely the one-time peasants of that quarter had finally become just workers and had left their houses and yards to new arrivals from villages. I found the quarter. The houses had deteriorated and many had been abandoned. Former occupants had not been replaced by new arrivals.

But there were curtains in the windows of Jan’s house. It was obviously inhabited. I knocked. The old woman who opened the door wore the same black dress and the same black shawl she had worn before. Her face was wrinkled with age. She was startled, as if she were looking at a ghost. Her shock gave way to an expression which has remained engraved on my memory. I’m still convinced it was an expression of regret. With unmistakable sadness, she said. “Jan’s friend,” and motioned for me to come m. She seemed to know already then the nature of the gifts I was bringing into the Sedlak household. She fed me sweets and coffee and left me alone in a large room.

There were several chairs and a table, but otherwise the room was barren except for three books stacked in a corner: mathematics, zoology, and a “history of the working class movement.” I leafed through the history. I learned that the working class had begun to move during the very moment when I thought it had stopped moving, and that the movements of the class consisted of moves of politicians. I was relieved when I leafed through the zoology book and saw that the names of animals had not been changed.

A young woman burst into the room carrying potatoes in her apron. She dropped them as soon as she saw me. I surmised they still kept a garden. Nothing had changed here. People were a little older, some of the neighbors had moved out, and that was all. The old man probably still drove the same bus. I assumed the young woman was Jan’s wife. She was clearly a peasant in spite of her city dress. She looked at me with an expression I can only call wild: like a lone shepherdess on a desolate mountain who had unexpectedly bumped into a stranger.

Suddenly she shouted, “You’re Yarostan!” She said this with such joy I thought she was going to throw her arms around me.

It was my turn to see a ghost. “How in the world do you know who I am?”

“You’re Jan’s friend!”

Beginning to doubt my first assumption, I nevertheless formulated the question, “And you’re — Jan’s wife?”

“No, silly! Don’t you remember me? I’m Mirna!”

Jan’s sister. How could I have remembered her, or even guessed? The last time I’d seen her she’d been at most ten or eleven years old, attending elementary school. That meant she was at most fifteen. I helped her pick up the potatoes. She said nothing more, just stared at me. I couldn’t help looking at her. She became embarrassed. She carried the potatoes into the kitchen and stayed there. I was again alone in the large room. My thoughts and feelings were in chaos. Isn’t it amazing how flexible we are, how quickly we can travel from one emotional extreme to another? Only two hours earlier I had been weighing and comparing my alternatives: imprisonment, suicide or capitulation. Now I was filled with enthusiasm again, filled with thoughts of living, of building a world together with these people, near this girl. I looked at the three books. I had an urge to hurl them out of the house. They were as out of place in this room as she was out of place in this city. What forces had driven this country girl away, from open fields and into authoritarian classrooms? Why? What is gained when this free being is confined to a desk and forced to recite a toady’s account of the words and gestures of his patrons?

Jan’s father returned from work wearing his driver’s cap. He embraced, me as soon as he came in. He was neither startled nor apprehensive. He acted as if I were an old friend, as if he had expected me to be there. “Living anywhere?” he asked.

I lied and told him I was renting a room in the city.

“Are your things there?”

“I have no things,” I admitted.

“Mirna!” he shouted, “fix up the guest room. Jan’s friend is going to stay with us.”

He seemed to know that I had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, that I had reached the end of my journey. “Relax,” he told me, as if he knew what I’d been thinking earlier. “Together we’ll straighten everything out.”

It was only when Jan came home that I started to relax. Jan was overjoyed. He had tears in his eyes when he embraced me. He said he had known I’d turn up. Released a few months before I was, he had somehow learned the date of my release. He knew I wouldn’t find a job and would have nowhere else to go. He had begun to worry when I failed to turn up; he wondered if they’d failed to release me or if I had already been arrested again.

Jan had a job in the transport depot repair shop. He got the job through an odd coincidence, A few months before his release, his father’s bus had broken down and the driver had accompanied it to the repair shop. While a clerk was asking Sedlak the usual questions: name, number, route, and so on, a union official who was standing nearby asked if the driver was related to Jan Sedlak. Suspicious of all officials, Sedlak warily asked the man why he wanted to know. The official apologized very politely, admitting that under the circumstances he had been insolent to ask him such a question. He then proceeded to explain he had been Jan’s friend since the war, they had worked together for several years, and he — the official — had only recently been released from prison. The day after Jan was released, he and his father went to see this official. It was Titus Zabran. The following day Jan was employed in the repair shop. He changed his first name and soon received a work booklet. Titus had discreetly recommended him as Sedlak’s country nephew, a hard-working peasant who had just arrived in the city.

That night I ate supper with friends who were not prisoners for the first time in four years.

Jan and I left his house an hour before sunrise the following morning. We travelled by tram and bus to the other end of the city. The headquarters of the trade union were located next door to the repair shop. Jan knocked on the door of Titus’ office. When Titus opened it, I was sure that for an instant I saw the same expression of alarm and disappointment I had seen on the face of Jan’s mother: he saw a ghost. Jan convinced me later that Titus couldn’t have been alarmed, since it was from him that Jan had learned the date of my release. In any case, Titus quickly recovered. He embraced me and asked if I needed money or a place to stay. Jan explained that I had “already solved” all my living problems; all I needed was a job.

Titus picked up the phone. He talked about another Sedlak newly arrived from the country. Suddenly he turned to me and asked, “Your first name?”

I fumbled. Then I almost shouted, “Miran!” And I glanced at Jan with a sheepish grin.

“Miran Sedlak,” Titus told the phone. He told me I was to start driving a bus in a week. I said I had never driven anything other than a bicycle. Titus laughed. He said I’d learn in a week, and by the second week I would already be bored; there were no fine adjustments to be made (as there had been on a press). Titus embraced both of us when we left. This was the second time he had pulled me out of a trap. The first time seemed to have taken place so long ago I wasn’t sure it had taken place at all; perhaps I had dreamed it.

Dinner that night was a celebration. I had rejoined humanity. I had found a home, a family, a job.

“We’re almost back on our feet,” Jan said. “Soon we’ll be running again.”

“And you’ll run right back to jail,” his mother grumbled.

But Jan’s father didn’t let his spirits be dampened. “Another relative!” he shouted. “Soon there’ll be Sedlaks driving half the busses, Sedlaks in half the factories. Welcome Yarostan Sedlak!”

“Miran Sedlak,” Jan corrected.

“Miran?” asked Mirna. “Then we’re twins!”

“Twins!” roared the old man. “Everyone for miles around can see you’re anything but twins!”

Mirna blushed, dropped her food, and ran to her room. Jan laughed. It was already understood that Mirna and I were to be married. No more was going to be said about it; the matter had been settled. I was overjoyed.

It wasn’t your letter that gave rise to my first doubts. These began to rise the very next morning, when I left the house with Jan’s father for my first driving lesson. What had I celebrated? What did my joy mean? Which humanity had I rejoined: a humanity of unshackled beings transforming their dreams into projects, or the humanity of home, family and job? Had I celebrated my self-betrayal? Had I become a traitor to my own commitment, to you and Luisa, to all the comrades with whom I had fought for a different world? Had the imprisonment broken me, tamed me, domesticated me? Would my betrayal of my past and my comrades have been any greater if I had joined the police or if, as you suggested, I had taken up religion or invested capital? Hadn’t I spent four years in prison for rejecting everything I was now embracing, enjoying and celebrating?

At the very beginning of my prison term I had grumbled about the food. I complained that the bread was stale and the soup was lukewarm sewage. A prisoner sitting across the table from me told me he had read about people who had so little food they ate the bark of trees; when a fire destroyed their forest, they dreamed about the bark as if it were a delicacy. Sometime later I spent a week in a damp, airless dungeon. My diet then was stale bread and cold water. When I rejoined the living, the warm sewage became a delicacy. I ate it slowly, sipping it so as to enjoy the flavor of every spoonful.

I was undoubtedly broken, tamed, but not by the four years in prison. I had left prison with a certain amount of enthusiasm. I had at least been eating bark. The fire that destroyed my forest burned during the nine or ten days after my release. It was only then that I was left with nothing at all. It was only then that I was deprived of all friendship, all communication, all hopes. I was excluded from every community and from all social activity. I longed for no more than bark, but it had all burned. The worst deprivation of all was my exclusion from work. I had fought against self-selling, I had engaged in the struggle to abolish wage labor, yet now I was tortured because I couldn’t sell myself for a wage. I was in pain because this exclusion was a far greater torture than solitary confinement. Though death and insanity were not infrequent results of solitary confinement, they were not inevitable. I had seen many emerge with their selves intact. It was this possibility of emerging intact that had been removed. A new arrest or starvation meant not emerging at all. Emerging by selling myself to the police meant I would murder my own self, my whole past life, and I would also suppress others like me, I would murder my other selves.

I had been excluded from humanity. This exclusion was the dungeon I emerged from when I rejoined humanity. And I sipped, with genuine enjoyment, the very soup I had rejected as sewage. I embraced a traditional, archaic, patriarchal family, and I was filled with joy. I would have been satisfied with bark and I sat in front of a complete meal, a virtual feast. I was with warm, sociable human beings who welcomed me as one of their own, with peasants who had never quite been urbanized; I was with people who were more human than my contemporaries precisely because they had been left behind, because they had not replaced kinship with civic responsibility or friendship with duty to the state. I was with people who did not experience our great society as their boon or their victory, but as their fate, their destiny, as an incomprehensible catastrophe, a punishment for unknown transgressions. And for an instant I felt I had rejoined my own. I was filled with joy. I embraced the world I had once rejected. I accepted what we had once called nepotism and was proud of myself as a nephew, a country cousin, a relative. I felt only gratitude when I was allowed to rejoin the community of wage laborers. And my happiness was crowned by the prospect of marrying the wonderful peasant girl who had remained unstained by urban corruption, unstained by the factories and prisons.

My stupor lasted for a day. I couldn’t permanently turn myself inside out, become someone else, turn my back on what I had wanted until then. And I couldn’t forget all those like me who were still in prison, all those who had died, all those who had emerged so maimed they could only hope for the next release.

The old peasant took me along in his bus for a week. There were hardly any passengers during two afternoon hours, when he had me drive the bus. On the fifth day he let me drive it all day. By the end of the week I was an experienced driver; all I had left to learn was the route. And by the end of the following week I was a seasoned driver. I began to recognize many of the passengers. I began to understand the nature of my useful social activity, the function of the job I had been so overjoyed to find. The morning passengers were almost all workers on their way to factories, warehouses and sometimes offices. They were in the process of selling their energy and time in exchange for a wage. The bus was the vehicle which delivered the sold item to its purchaser. The transaction was unusual because the sellers had to accompany the items they sold: they couldn’t stay home while the buyer walked away with their time. As a result the bus looked like it was transporting people, but the people were merely accompanying their merchandise. It wasn’t the people who were delivered every morning but only the merchandise. The afternoon passengers, generally relatives of the same workers, took the bus to shops; they bought back, not the living energy sold by the workers, but some of the objects which had consumed the energy. They spent the wage. When it was spent, the bus again delivered merchandise, this time tangible merchandise, material objects, things — the things into which the workers had poured their lives. In the evening the outer husks of the workers returned home. The specific content of each had dissolved into that homogeneous substance they had sold for a wage, it had dripped out of them during the day like liquid excrement. This excrement was the merchandise the bus had delivered in the morning. It was carried in the hands, arms, legs and eyes of the passengers. Potential energy had been transformed into a substance that could be discharged from the body and sold. Since the workers couldn’t separate themselves from the item they had sold, the transaction was not completed until the item was consumed. In the evening they returned home to refill their empty shells, to regenerate the energy, only to let it flow out again during eight hours of diarrhea the following day. It was my useful function to be a middleman in this transaction, to circulate the excrement among its consumers. And as I circulated it I studied the objects into which this liquid energy had flowed, the monuments into which it had been molded. I drove past these products of human labor every day: the cramped living quarters in which the consumed energy was nightly regenerated, the forbidding structures inside which the allocation of the excrement and the speed of its discharge were daily determined. I also studied the most sophisticated products of human labor, the most important monuments shaped out of the excrement: officials, politicians and police, as they drove by me in their glossy cars. This was the victory into which our significant experience was shaped. And you tell me: “I knew exactly what part I was playing in the creation of our common world.” Did you really? And are you proud, twenty years later, that you helped create this world?

My enthusiasm diminished the day after I experienced such joy at having rejoined this world, and it was all gone by the time I had driven the bus for a week. My interest in life returned. I had left prison with an intense desire to express myself, to communicate with others, to explore the possible and project the impossible. This desire returned as soon as I was “almost back on my feet” and had started “running again,” as Jan had put it. I regained the posture you remember: my “militant” posture. My hosts became my audience, my potential insurgents, my revolutionary community. I began arguing with the old driver about the significance of driving a bus in a society consisting of enterprises and wage workers. I argued about the significance of kinship relations in a society of buyers and sellers. And when he didn’t respond, I argued about the dangers of housing two saboteurs, two elements who threatened the present and future well-being of the working class.

The old peasant heard nothing, but he learned that his future “son-in-law” was an agitator. And his response to this discovery was identical to that of the old worker in the carton plant. “You won’t be driving a bus for long,” Sedlak said. “They’ve got other jobs for you up there.” He was proud of his future relative. Sedlak was a shrewd and calculating man. I knew that for once he was miscalculating but I couldn’t have known at the time how badly he was miscalculating me, my prospects, and the situation he would find himself in because of me. His wife’s expectations were far more modest, her guesses were based on more solid realities. She merely shook her head whenever I spoke and she said absolutely nothing.

I also argued with Mirna about marriage. I had not learned to consider marriage “the most natural relation in the world”; I had not convinced myself that “people never lived outside this category.” I agree with everything you say in this part of your letter, and I admire the way all of you have refused to compromise with this institution. But you provoke me to ask a question. Since you are also opposed to wage labor, have you refused to compromise with this institution? If so, how have you supported yourselves?

Mirna and I took long walks in that village-like neighborhood. Only then did everyone for miles around know that Mirna and Miran were not twins. I tried to explain to her that the proposed marriage was an absurdity, a mistake, possibly even a crime. Sooner or later I would be arrested again. My term would probably be much longer since I would be a repeated offender. We would both be old when I returned, if I returned at all. I doubted that I could live through a longer term. If I died she would as likely as not think I was still alive somewhere in that underworld of the living dead. Informing relatives about such details was not one of the priorities of our record-breaking control industry. Her archaic, monogamous and patriarchal peasant neighbors would not allow her to divorce me if it was thought I was still alive. She would be chained to a buried corpse. The marriage would rob her of her young life. She wouldn’t merely be bound for life to a person she might cease to love on the day after the ceremony. That possibility was at the core of every marriage. There was the additional possibility that I would be arrested the day after the marriage. The fifteen-year old girl would be bound for life to a person she might never see again.

Mirna listened to me the same way her father did. She heard nothing. Her energy, her passion and her joyful anticipation did not diminish for an instant. The marriage was simply a date on the calendar, a coming holiday that was one day closer with every sunrise. It was as unavoidable as the passage of time. There was no longer anything she or I could do about it — if we were decent. Her brother’s friend, the intelligent and sensitive young man who had experienced torture and imprisonment, was obviously decent. Such a person couldn’t possibly humiliate her, stain her for life, make her the laughing stock of the village by running out before the marriage. My talk didn’t even suggest such a possibility. Such things did happen. Brides who were coerced to marry a person they hated, bridegrooms who were afraid to face the world, sometimes ran away lust before the ceremony. But clearly neither of us had reason to run away. We loved each other and I wasn’t able to communicate my misgivings. Should I have run away? Where was I to go? Back to prison? Should I have sacrificed my own life so as to avoid ruining hers? And if I did. could I be sure the humiliation would be less severe to her than the marriage? Could I be sure she wouldn’t torture or maim herself because I had “run out” on her, leaving her the “laughing stock of the village”?

I spoke to her parents as well. But that was like talking to stones. Her father “knew” that I’d “go far.” And her mother heard nothing at all. At first I thought I could reach the old woman: she had disliked me since the day I had arrived and she seemed to foresee a catastrophic fall where her husband foresaw a steep and unlimited ascent. But the coming catastrophe might as well have taken place already. In her view we couldn’t avoid our future any more than our past; all we could do was to resign ourselves to what was to come. My jabbering was mere noise, since to her I could no more undo what was to come than I could undo my arrival at their house.

Jan was the only one who heard me, but he didn’t help. My arguments and my doubts angered him. He accused me of destroying the basis of all friendship and all solidarity. He argued that anyone might die of an illness the day after forming a relationship with another person and that was no reason to avoid forming such relations. As for the institutionalization of the relationship, Jan argued that if our lives were to acquire any meaning at all, we would soon be rid of the institution and Mirna and I could choose or reject each other freely.

In spite of my doubts those were the happiest moments of my life. As the day drew nearer, Mirna beamed constantly. On our evening walks she threw her arms around children and old people, she danced with perfect strangers in the street. I talked less about the possibility of my arrest and more about the possibilities of our lives together. I talked about the day when all the working people of the city would embrace each other and dance in the street.

The ceremony was archaic, patriarchal and authoritarian. I experienced it as beautiful. Mirna seemed like a feather floating through air. She didn’t make the slightest effort to hide a happiness that was as clear as a cloudless sky. She literally flitted from one person to the next, infecting them all with her unrestrained joy. I had been walking on clouds from the moment I had gotten up; for me the event was a dream. I was in a stupor, as unconscious as if I hadn’t woken up. at all. I don’t think I spoke a single coherent word all day long. All I did was laugh.

We didn’t stop loving each other the day after the ceremony or later. There were times when I cursed the marriage because of the torture and misery it had carried in its train, but I never regretted it. Mirna embraced the happy moments — and there were many but they all flew past us during the first few months — with undisguised joy, and she accepted the tragedies with silent resignation, though never with her mother’s absolute, unquestioning resignation.

I drove a bus for a year, during which time Mirna and I lived with her parents. Jan moved out soon after we were married. He explained that he didn’t enjoy travelling across the entire city twice a day. That was undoubtedly part of his reason for moving out. He had probably also come to feel like a stranger to our happiness. He had lost his sister as well as his best friend, and the house must have started to seem crowded to him: crowded with strangers.

Toward the end of the first year Vesna was born. This unlucky, unhappy child was born into something like a pit surrounded by the unscalable walls you described so vividly in your letter. It wasn’t Mirna I should have worried about, but Vesna. The baby girl born late that fall hadn’t asked to be brought to this world, she hadn’t asked to be born into the cage from which she was never to emerge. We had neglected this topic in our discussions at Luisa’s: birth. By what right do we drag a helpless infant into a world we’ve left unchanged, by what right do we force another human being to breathe an air, that’s suffocating us, by what right do we leave a little girl scratching her fingernails until her hands bleed in a pathetic attempt to scale a wall we could neither climb nor destroy?

I can’t read Luisa’s or your description of our significant experience without remembering the significance of that experience. I can’t forget the significance it had for the old peasant, for his wife, for Jan and Vesna, for Mirna, for me and others like me. How can you remind me of the dreams we shared and the possibilities we anticipated while you glorify the event which deformed the dreams and destroyed the possibilities? How can you point to everything that died in that event, tell me it was born then and ask me to celebrate the birth?

I’m able to write you now only because, after twenty years, the significance of our experience is at last being exposed. I can reach you now only because those impenetrable walls have started to crack. It’s not so much because of the efforts of my contemporaries, my likes, that the walls are crumbling, and certainly not because of my efforts. They’re coming down more or less on their own. The city is — waking up from a twenty-year long death-like sleep. Corpse-like husks with shrivelled capacities, dried up imaginations and used up lives are beginning to exhibit new gleams in their eyes and new energies in their limbs.

The people of this city are suddenly realizing they’ve been building those walls: high and low walls, outer and inner walls, yet more walls within the inner walls; they’ve been building the walls that imprison them. Perhaps they’re not realizing this only now; perhaps they were aware of it all along. But their awareness didn’t affect their activity. They acted as if they were unaware of the walls. It was as if huge signs, massive colorful tapestries, had been hung in front of the walls. The signs depicted free human beings engaged in common projects, working people engaged in creating their own history. You and I helped to paint those signs. If people realized there were walls behind the signs they couldn’t refer to the walls without being arrested; if they knew their activity wasn’t the activity depicted on the signs but the activity of constructing and reinforcing the walls behind the signs, they had to keep this knowledge to themselves. The only activity they could refer to and communicate about was the activity on the signs. People saw open, vast, unlimited fields while they accommodated themselves to cramped prison cells. All of a sudden those tapestries are being torn down and the walls behind them are being attacked. It’s all happening because of a quirk in the prison machinery, a mistake on the part of a prison warden. A few weeks before I wrote you my first letter, one of the normal changes of the prison guard took place. This particular change was slightly less routine than the daily changes because it was accompanied by a less frequent, though still periodic, replacement of the head warden by his understudy. Due to the fact that the prison administrators had been careless and had neglected to replace the warden many years earlier, this warden had gotten used to his job and had grown senile in his office. When the time came for him to leave his office, he refused. Instead, he and the head prison guards, who had remained faithful to him, hatched a plot: they were going to lock up all the other members of the prison administration in order to keep him in his office. But one of the guards who was to take part in the conspiracy lost faith in the senile warden and told the remaining administrators they were about to be arrested. The administrators promptly replaced the warden and blocked the conspiracy. The plotters were routed. One of them, the second or third highest official in the prison, ran off to sell himself to the prison administrators of what he had until then called the enemy camp. The administrative shuffle ended; it had been fairly routine.

Such changes had taken place before, and even the conspiracy was nothing out of the ordinary. Such events didn’t normally create ripples among the inmates, if for no other reason than because the prison population was told nothing about them. But this time something else happened. The nearly-arrested administrators discovered that all the prison guards had been involved in the conspiracy. To protect themselves, they suspended the activity of the guards. They couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. Maybe they had no choice. By suspending the guards they removed the glue that held the whole system together and it all started to fall apart. People started to pull at the tapestries, to tear them, to point to the walls behind them. “This is what we’ve been building, and this is all we’ve been building,” someone shouted. And when that person wasn’t shot or even locked up others started shouting and tearing down the signs. And nothing happened to any of them. People who had been silent for twenty years suddenly started to speak. Many were unable to find words. For two decades they had only spoken about the people and activities depicted on the tapestries. Suddenly people started talking about themselves and their own real activities, about jailers and prison walls, about their sacrificed lives and about the tortures. Many failed to understand. Yet still nothing happened to those who tore at the signs and spoke about the walls. Gradually those who had forgotten how to refer to themselves or their own activity began to remember or learn the words, and those who had thought their lives were described by the tapestries learned to experience their own lives. Even children who had never known any language other than the language on the signs and students who had experienced life only as it was depicted on the tapestries began tearing down signs and communicating about the prison walls. They had to invent words with which to talk about themselves and their real surroundings.

It’s only because the significance of the event you glorify is finally being exposed that I’m able to write you now. If these events weren’t taking place my letter probably wouldn’t even reach you and I might not even be here. In my first letter I told you about a demonstration in which Yara participated at her school. In slightly different circumstances that demonstration could have led to my third and surely last imprisonment. My neighbor Mr. Ninovo, the self-repressed bar cleaner who expresses himself only in the language of the signs, learned about the demonstration and about Yara’s role in it. He promptly reported me to the police. In other circumstances I would have been re-arrested, accused of instigating dangerous anti-social activity and jailed. I could hardly believe what happened instead. An official came to the house. He was extremely polite and he apologized for his visit. He told us Mr. Ninovo had reported me and then he proceeded to warn us to beware of our neighbor, telling us Mr. Ninovo was a spiteful, envious and dangerous man. (Of course in other circumstances there would have been no demonstration at Yara’s school and Mr. Ninovo wouldn’t have reported me for instigating it.) We’ve been looking for Mr. Ninovo but he apparently hasn’t been coming home to sleep. There have been two more demonstrations at Yara’s school since them.

An unbelievable metamorphosis has been taking place. With the exception of the Ninovos (who unfortunately aren’t rare), predictable machines are turning into human beings, specialized instruments are turning into living creatures with unlimited possibilities. The emergence of so many human beings out of the shells, the husks and the cages is stupefying. The first thing it indicates is that so long as the repressive apparatus had functioned, human beings had disappeared. The human community had ceased to exist. There had only been deaf and dumb aggregates of specialized instruments, collections of Ninovos who related to each other by way of the police.

The repressed are returning in a very literal sense as well. I’ve heard rumors that released prisoners are starting to form clubs, to communicate their experiences and expose their significance. I want to take part in this activity but so far Mirna has kept me from contacting these groups. She doesn’t believe that what we’re experiencing today will last and she’s convinced my contact with other former prisoners will only shorten the duration of my release.

I’d like to believe that Mirna’s apprehension is exaggerated, that her fears have no basis in present reality, but I can’t keep myself from hearing what she hears. The situation is still unclear, the newborn communication still contains some old and sinister sounds. The politicians still use the language and the imagery of the torn tapestries. The fawning priests who run the press still preach about the omniscience of their gods and justify the wisdom and goodness of their past, present or future patrons. But an altogether different type of communication is gradually drowning out these sounds from the past. It is a communication among likes, a communication about themselves, their lives and possibilities. It is a communication I first experienced on the barricades of the resistance twenty-three years ago, a communication whose significance I learned only when Luisa told me about the barricades of the revolution she had experienced. Such communication has so far existed only in situations of crisis, on barricades, in the face of almost certain death. Yet even if it has so far existed nowhere else, it revealed itself there as a permanent human possibility, and it’s this possibility that is being grasped by those around me today.

This rebirth of communication is what stimulates me to seek out my likes, not only among other former prisoners and other workers, but everywhere in the world. I wrote you because I wanted to explore the present, to probe its possibilities, to move beyond the past. I didn’t write you in order to revive the past and certainly not to celebrate the events which had put an end to all communication, at least for me. It’s because we were in the throes of the victory you now celebrate that the letter you sent me twelve years ago couldn’t reach me. I would have welcomed it then. That was another period of ferment, a ferment that was immediately suppressed, a ferment that created cracks in the walls but not for long enough to allow human messages to get through. That was also the moment of my second arrest. Mirna tells me the police came looking for” that letter only a few hours after it came. By sheer coincidence I didn’t come home from work on the day your letter came, nor the following day nor any day after that for the next eight years.

A few days ago I asked Mirna if she still remembered the walks we took just before we were married. She remembered the walks but not the talks. When I reminded her I had once tried to warn her not to chain herself to a convicted saboteur, a socially dangerous element, she asked furiously, “Were you God? Did you know that cursed letter was going to come years before it was even written?” Mirna holds that letter responsible for my second imprisonment. She still thinks it caused my arrest. I’ve tried to explain to her that the arrival of the letter on the day of my arrest was a pure coincidence, but she merely tells me, “There are no coincidences.” That’s why she thought the letter peculiar and attributed a strange power to it, and still does today: she thinks your letter had the power to imprison me for eight years.

Yarostan.

Sophia’s second letter

Dear Yarostan,

Your letter was cruel. You were obviously aware of that. It doesn’t call for an answer. It’s the last word. Victims don’t share their experiences with their executioners. That’s clear. Why should they? Since you’ve defined me that way, I’m surprised your letter was so long! Why didn’t you communicate exactly the same message by not answering me at all? Why did you feel you owed an explanation to that type of person?

You can’t possibly imagine what a sad experience your second letter was for me. If you can then you’re even crueller than your letter. For countless years I dreamed of finding you, of sharing a project with you once again, of telling you what I’d experienced since I was with you, of comparing it with what you experienced; if I failed to see you again I hoped I’d at least reach you with one after another letter, each crossing at least one of yours, each as long and full of detail as your last letter. That dream was starting to come true; at least one of the longings of my life was being fulfilled. But I never dreamed I’d get a letter from you with that content, a letter which so cruelly ended the correspondence when it had barely begun.

I can’t say I never dreamed of such a content. I did in fact dream of it — in a nightmare. It was my greatest fear. It did pass through my mind that the long separation and the different experiences would create a wall between us, that we would no longer have anything to say to each other, that we would be merely polite, cold and strange to each other. But not even in a nightmare did I dream that you’d ever see me as your enemy!

The same letter wouldn’t have been so cruel if you’d sent it from jail. I would have understood your anger, your desire to destroy my frame of reference. I would have understood it as resentment against someone who is not in jail. But you didn’t write from jail. You wrote from a situation that’s far happier than mine. You described a world which is again in ferment, a social context which is alive with hopes and possibilities. You described exactly the experience I longed to learn about and share, the experience that would heal the open wound I’ve carried in my being since I was torn from you. And you excluded me from that experience. Yours wasn’t a letter from one in jail but from one becoming free and it was sent to one who is still in jail. Instead of sharing the joy, the promise of new life, you spat on me, pushed me aside, discarded me. Why?

I recognize the pain and suffering you’ve undergone. I say “recognize” because in your description I saw my own pain and suffering. The forms were different, though sometimes not so different; the pain was communicated by your letter because I had felt it too. I also recognized the bitterness, a bitterness I had felt toward those who inflicted the pain, never toward others who suffered from it. The cold, calculated cruelty is what I can’t understand, a cruelty aimed at “a fellow human being” asking for help in “this bizarre world,” as you said with such a different spirit in your first letter.

Do you actually think the suffering excuses and justifies that cruelty, that inhumanity toward me? Inhumanity. I can’t find a better word. A complete lack of human warmth, understandings sympathy, comradeship. A cold, dispassionate dissection of an animal. Under the guise of unmasking what you call my illusions, you tear apart my past experiences, my commitments, my few accomplishments and all my dreams.

Wouldn’t silence be the most appropriate response to your letter? That might be what you expect. You would have severed me from your life for good, and my silence would confirm the truth of your analysis. But I won’t keep silent! I won’t let our correspondence end where you ended it. Because you’re wrong. You’re wrong about me, about the friendships and experiences I shared with you, about yourself. Your cruelty is blind and unjust. I won’t be silent until I show you how wrong you are. And if you throw my letter into the garbage unread, you won’t have confirmed the truth of your analysis but its complete falsity and its cruelty.

Unfortunately I can’t refute you point by point, I can’t expose every false detail and erroneous judgment in your letter because I can’t get myself to read your letter yet another time. I’ve already drenched it with tears twice. Tears of shame and humiliation. This wasn’t the only time I was excluded from my world by my comrades. It’s probably not the last. But this exclusion pushes me out of the one world I thought was mine; you’re the single friend who, I thought, would never push me away.

You can’t simply turn my own experience upside down and tell me I remembered it wrong. You’re the one who is wrong. If I carried a sign that said, “The factories to the workers!” I didn’t mean “I support my new boss!” If this was what you meant then you were a hypocrite and your letter is a confession of your own hypocrisy. But you know perfectly well that neither you nor any of our friends anticipated the establishment of new bosses, the reinforcement of prisons or the enlargement of the political police. How can you be so absurd? How can your imagination even formulate the bizarre vision of thousands of people joyfully and enthusiastically anticipating their own incarceration?

I think it’s not Luisa or I who have lost touch with reality, but you. I think your mind is fogged by a terrible confusion. Your first letter already contained hints of it, when you treated inmates and guards as interchangeable. You seem to have lost your ability to distinguish victory from defeat, executioner from victim. Our activity was followed by our imprisonment. Your confusion begins when you modify this sentence ever so slightly and say: our activity led to our imprisonment. Having put it this way you conclude that our activity was the cause of our imprisonment and that we were our own judges and guards, and the builders of our own prisons.

If our struggle was followed by the reinstatement of factory bosses and prison guards, then this means our struggle came to nothing. We were defeated. Our intentions were thwarted. In no way does it mean that the bosses and guards are the fruit of our victory and the realization of our intentions. The bosses and guards are what we fought against. And they won. Not because of us but in spite of us. To cement their victory they had to jail us. This is so obvious!

The world you walked into when you were released from prison wasn’t the world I fought for, no matter how often you say I helped build it. Does it show a single trace of my commitment, yours, Luisa’s? Where are the destroyed prisons? Where’s the rubble of former government buildings? Where are the human beings engaged in projects chosen by themselves, without supervisors or guards? The world you describe hasn’t a trace of the world I fought for. What you describe is the very world I fought to destroy. Don’t you recognize it? You should. Your descriptions of it were vivid enough. It’s the world of wage labor and capital, the world of inmates and jailers. It’s the world you and I were born into. We couldn’t possibly have helped build this world: it was built before we were born.

If you claim this world was the outcome of our struggle, you have to admit it’s been the outcome of every struggle. So far there’s been no other outcome in history. It’s the outcome of struggles in which those who fought against it lost. They were defeated, as we were. You build your whole argument by omitting this small detail: the defeat. It’s this omission that enables you to say that the world of bosses and jailers was rebuilt, not by those who fought to reinstate it and won, but by those who fought to destroy it and lost.

If this is what you learned in prison, then prison is not the great school Tolstoy said it was. Or else you learned your lessons very badly. Can you really be saying that insurgents only rise against the ruling order so as to reimpose it? Can you really be saying that the only dreams of rebels are dreams of authority and submission? You even accuse me of having helped deform dreams and destroy possibilities. What dreams were deformed, suppressed, destroyed? Clearly not the dreams of reimposing authority but the dreams of destroying it. You admit that insurgents fought to destroy the world of jailers. Yet you say they reimposed that very world. How? By fighting against it, by fighting to realize their dream of a world without jailers? Is this paradox the ultimate wisdom of a prison education?

I don’t really understand your letter. Parts of it are so full of resentment, all of it aimed against Luisa and me. Other parts are so full of compassion, especially your descriptions of Mirna. You said Jan moved out of the house when you and Mirna were married. He felt like an outsider to your happiness. If you began to treat him the way your letter treats me, I can understand perfectly why he left. You drove him out, just as you’re driving me out of your life. I’m sure he didn’t feel jealous or resentful, just confused and stunned. Until the day before yesterday he’d been your best friend; suddenly he was a stranger. You wrote the first letter to one who had once been a friend, a comrade, and more: someone you had loved. Why shouldn’t I remind you? You’ve obviously forgotten; in your first letter you even said you hardly remembered me! Well, I haven’t forgotten. I can understand how I might become a stranger to you over so many years; I can even understand that we might have become enemies. What I can’t understand is how you can treat me as if I’d been your enemy then, precisely during the moment when we loved each other. And we did love each other. Passionately. You can’t discard that. It’s already inscribed in time. You can’t take that love from me no matter how often you accuse me, exclude me or insult me. Because the person I loved is not the person who wrote those accusations. The person I loved was present in your letter, not in your statements about me but in your descriptions of Mirna. I recognized your love for me in your love for Mirna. I recognized the evening walks, the conversations, even the expectation that working people would soon join us, embrace us and dance with us in the street. If you tried to present yourself to me as a completely different person from the one I once knew, you failed. You made me want to be Mirna. Not in spite of your bitterness toward me but because of it. The Sophia in your letter is a treacherous wretch who caused you only pain and suffering, whereas Mirna is a wonderful, unspoiled creature who brings you happiness. Could any conceivable reader of your letter want to be Sophia? I don’t. I want to be the one who shares the embrace as well as the happiness; I want to be on the street with you when the dancing begins. Even to the point of consenting to marriage? Oh, but you’ve disposed of that question altogether. Yes, under the circumstances: if I’m a shepherdess, a village girl, yes. To share the happiness. I don’t want to be an outsider to that happiness. I don’t want to be excluded. Why can’t you share it with me? I don’t begrudge your moments of happiness with Mirna. On the contrary, I found joy in your descriptions of them because I found myself. How could I help it? I was exactly the same age when I knew you as Mirna was when you met her. You were younger for me, but for me you haven’t aged. And the joy you described was recognizable to me because I, too, had experienced it once, though only once in my life — with you.

Pain and suffering predominated in your life. Does that justify the pain your letter inflicts on me? Pain predominated in my life too; it was undoubtedly less intense than yours, but my moments of happiness were also less intense and fewer than the ones you’ve described. My relationship to you, my participation in the project we shared with others, account for the happiest moments of my life. Why do you want to take that away from me now? Don’t you see that your argument puts the guilt on Luisa and me because you spent twelve years of your life in prison and we didn’t? Can’t you see the absurdity of accusing slaves of enslaving themselves through the very act of trying to free themselves? Can’t you remember that my project was to destroy the world that caused your suffering, not to reimpose it?

Can’t you recognize my project in the agitation taking place around you while you wrote me? The people tearing down the signs, the tapestries — where did they come from? Did they drop from the sky? You admit they didn’t. You admit they’re the same individuals who were nothing but moving corpses only yesterday. Today empty shells are suddenly becoming full of life, imagination and potentiality. Dreams are once again becoming realizable. Where did that life and those dreams come from? You don’t say. But I know those dreams didn’t suddenly drop from the sky any more than the people did. They’re dreams that have been suppressed, dreams that were held inside until the day when they could again be expressed. They’re my dreams and Luisa’s and yours. What you’re describing is the rebirth of our struggle, our project, our hopes. Why are you so intent on excluding us — all of us: Vera, Marc, Jasna, Titus, Adrian and Claude? Were we so criminal for having tried and failed where no one else has yet succeeded?

The walls that are crumbling around you today were the prisons that suppressed our struggle. Why are you trying to prove that we ourselves imprisoned our own hopes, that we were the tombs of our dreams? I don’t understand! Without that struggle, without that project we’re nothing. Your letter abounds in imagery that shows how well you understand this: without those dreams we’re corpses, shells, husks, instruments, machines. If you raze the rest of us to the ground you may find yourself standing very high, Yarostan, but not in a human community.

You shatter my dreams, revise my past, and then tell me I’ve deformed both. You’re the one who deforms. I shouldn’t have told you I had a poor memory. Maybe you thought I’d let your revision stand unchallenged, or even that I’d believe you. But you’re telling me about my own past! And Luisa’s fantasy, as you choose to call it, happens to coincide with a large part of my own life, so that I have some familiarity with that as well.

You made a cryptic reference to a certain Manuel you met in prison. He helped you see everything clearly. He provided the missing facts. He completed a picture that until then was incomplete. And the complete picture shows Luisa and her comrades stabbing each other in the back. I don’t know where Manuel’s facts come from but I know that mine come from several individuals who actually lived them. The reason I remember them is because they happen to be part of my own life. Nachalo, Luisa’s first companion (and my father) is the first fact that doesn’t fit your picture, and his whole life undermines what you learned from Manuel. I was only two years old when he was killed, but I learned about him ever since then, not only from Luisa, whose veracity you discount, but also from Alberts, who never had any illusions (or dreams). Nachalo was a peasant, like the Sedlaks, but when he met Luisa he had already divorced himself from all the village traditions, taboos and ceremonies. He was considerably older than Luisa. When they met he had already experienced a revolutionary peasant uprising which had been defeated by statists parading as revolutionaries. He had seen his village destroyed, his friends and his wife killed by a gang of murderers who called themselves a workers’ army. He fled with a newborn baby, together with a handful of his comrades. He later learned that none of the insurgent peasants who stayed behind became jailers or executioners because every single one of them was killed. In exile he worked at odd jobs and drank. His daughter, whom he named Margarita, grew up as a street urchin: ragged, hungry and illiterate! On one of his jobs he met Luisa, a girl who was only three or four years older than Margarita. Luisa, in her own words, seduced him. She was fascinated, even hypnotized by Nachalo, not only by the man but also by his experiences. Her mother had died when she was a girl; her father had been shot by the police in a strike. Before she met Nachalo she had been actively involved in union activities. Nachalo brought her a totally new perspective, new hopes and possibilities. Here was a man who hadn’t only fought losing defensive battles against the oppressors but who had actually gone on the offensive, routed the exploiters, and held the ground for a period of years. She couldn’t hear enough from him. She followed him after work, to the bars, and then to his miserable room. She took Nachalo and Margarita to union meetings and introduced them to militant comrades. It was at one of these meetings that the three of them met George Alberts.

After I was born. Nachalo, Luisa and Margarita moved to a larger and cleaner apartment. It was so large that their comrades used it to hold meetings. Alberts was the most regular visitor; he and Margarita became inseparable.

When the army attacked the city, Nachalo was among the first workers in the neighborhood to run out armed and begin building barricades. Luisa ran after him. Margarita joined them although she was pregnant, and she refused to return home until a bullet grazed her arm. She died while giving birth to Sabina. Nachalo died two or three months later, while fighting against the combined forces of the army, the landowners and the church.

I’m not asking you for tears or even sympathy. All this happened very long ago, and I’ve already shed all the tears I’ll ever shed over it. All I’m asking is why you sent me such a letter. How can you tell me that a certain Manuel said Nachalo, Luisa, Margarita and all their dead and wounded comrades fought only to reimpose the landlords, the state and the church? What have I become to you? Why?

You proceed to revise my equally illusory picture of the resistance. It so happens that I was there as well, and I was considerably older; I even remember some events on my own, not just from the stories told to me by others. What you tell me is that the workers of the city, some of whom I knew personally, fought to liberate themselves from a military dictatorship only to make room for another. I found your account of your own activity during the war fascinating; you had never spoken about that. But your new insight, your exposure of the true nature of the event, is neither insightful nor true. Do you really expect me to purge my memory of what you call Luisa’s fantasy in order to replace it with yours? It seems to me that I’d then be even worse off than the workers in your fabricated resistance fighting in an already liberated city to make room for a military dictatorship.

You describe my activity with you as a puppet show. Your description corresponds neither to the events I experienced at the time nor to events I experienced later. I’m not misreading your letter. I think I understand perfectly well what you’re saying. We thought we were acting freely while in fact we were being manipulated. Therefore we were puppets. Since we’re not in fact puppets but people, we must have turned ourselves into puppets. Therefore we manipulated ourselves.

Your conclusions don’t follow from your premises. I’ll show you. I won’t refer to my experience with you to illustrate my argument, since that experience has become so foul to you. I’ll refer to a similar experience which had nothing to do with your imprisonment. Two years ago I got a lob teaching a university class. The first thing I noticed was that students, especially the men, were not the same people I had gone to school with. My contemporaries had been short-haired automatons who applauded in movie houses whenever a bomb destroyed a village. The new students were almost a different species. Instead of considering the “university a training ground which would magnify their power to kill, many thought of school as a way of avoiding or postponing going to war. They no longer applauded mass killings. Most of them didn’t want to become professional murderers, and none of them wanted to die for the flag. Ways to avoid killing and dying constituted the main topic of their conversations. Some months after the beginning of the school year I was visited by two young people who weren’t students. They called themselves revolutionary organizers. They introduced themselves to students who published the radical newspaper, to outspoken students and to what they called radical faculty members like me. They announced a meeting in the school’s largest auditorium; they had made previous arrangements with students who were to be the local hosts of the event, and I agreed to be the faculty sponsor. These two organizers were no longer, subject to the military draft. They saw the draft as a lever, an “issue” around which to organize a following. They saw the protesting students as a potential “base” for their organization. In other words they were professional politicians. Over two hundred students came to the meeting. It was the largest political gathering that had taken place at this university for several decades. Students came with the hope of communicating with their likes, as you put it; they came to learn what others had learned, to help and be helped. All their hopes were thwarted. They were subjected to several hours of political harangues that were far less inspired than most of their daily lectures. The organizers had picked the speakers, among whom they had included themselves; they had defined the topics of the harangues; they had even planted people in the audience to ask questions at the end. Most of the two hundred people who had originally come to the meeting left before it was over. At the end there were only eight left besides the organizers. I stayed in the back of the auditorium until the end. Those eight students elected themselves to be the local chapter of the organization. I later learned that seven of them had already elected themselves to this office earlier. For the remainder of the year these eight students became representatives and spokesmen, not only of the two hundred students who had come to the meeting, but of all the students in the university.

In terms of your analysis, the students who originally came to the meeting shackled themselves, as well as all other students, with these political bureaucrats. They were manipulated into legitimating the power of these politicians. But that’s absurd. They all left as soon as they realized the speeches came from tin cans. Only one out of two hundred was taken in by the political marmalade dished out by those political bosses who differed from professors and factory managers only in age. Of course you’ll say that by the time they realized the program was canned it was too late. Their mere presence at the meeting had already validated the politicians’ claim to be the spokesmen of the mass of students. After that single act they could no longer meet publicly with each other without having the politicians preside over them (which was in fact what happened). Therefore merely by attending the meeting they had muzzled themselves, bound themselves to new bosses who were more insidious than the old bosses because they came from among themselves. Therefore the students had been puppets, inert things, objects moved by forces outside themselves, dolls manipulated by puppeteers.

Your analysis reduces a two-dimensional picture to a single dimension, it reduces two sides to one. The protesting students were on one side, the politicians and all other officials were on the other. The fact that the university officials accepted the student politicians as the spokesmen of protesting students doesn’t mean that any of the protesting students accepted them as their spokesmen. It merely means that officials recognized and embraced other officials and momentarily disregarded their club’s age requirements. By omitting the second side you lose sight of the relation between the two sides. You leave out what we used to call the struggle between the ruling class and the repressed class, the class struggle. The fact that the rulers recruit their agents from among the repressed doesn’t mean that the repressed are the agents of their own repression.

You don’t only omit the fact of struggle. In one part of your letter you even make fun of Luisa’s description of the external forces that suppressed revolutionary workers and peasants who had not become puppets. According to you there were no external forces. The rot is always within. Whatever happens to me is my own fault. Your profound new insight is no more than the ancient doctrine of original sin. You misunderstand Cassius’ observation, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” In your version, the bullets, dear Sophia, are not in their guns, but in our brains, that make us underlings.

Those who arrested you and me were not imaginary beings, nor was I arrested by myself. My memory did in fact freeze certain facts, and they’ve been perfectly preserved. One of these facts is that I was arrested by police agents. Another fact is that I was taken to a police station and a jail which I had not helped build: both were much older than I was. A third fact is that the statements on my posters and the words on my lips were not secret instructions to the police for your arrest. The police received their instructions from their superiors, ultimately from the politicians in the state apparatus, and not from the likes of you or me. If you think I was a puppet displaying the warrant for my own arrest, you’re hallucinating, not Luisa or I.

It was absurd of me to tell Tina we were arrested because we were Alberts’ relatives, since eight or nine of us were arrested and only two of us were related to Alberts. Furthermore Alberts wasn’t arrested. I suppose it’s this ridiculous slip of my memory that confirms your statements about my inability to remember my own real past. This slip embarrasses me, it makes me wish I had a more trustworthy memory, but it doesn’t convince me that I’ve systematically falsified my past, it doesn’t convince me that my modest exterior houses an ogre who, after exterminating her victims, makes them vanish to oblivion.

I do remember that Alberts had nothing to do with our arrest, but I don’t remember that I helped paint signs and tapestries which were hung in front of prison walls; I don’t remember that I helped bury a human community and drown the sound of human voices. My own life has been surrounded by those very signs and tapestries, by those very walls, by that very silence and lack of community. All my life I’ve longed for nothing more than to communicate with my likes on a field without signs or walls. How can I prove this to you? You reached out to me and I responded. I would have tried to reach you the day after my release from jail and every day after that if I had thought my letters would be delivered. But you know perfectly well that letters were being returned without any explanations.

I had my first real chance to reach you only twelve years ago. A friend of mine, Lem Icel, was going to be near you on his way to some international conference. I frantically wrote letters to all of you. I was terribly sad when nothing came in response to those letters. I didn’t see Lem again until several years later. He told me he had been arrested because he’d been carrying my letters. He proceeded to list the horrors he had undergone in prisons and camps and concluded by telling me about his recent conversion to an ancient Egyptian religion. I hardly listened to what he told me and I didn’t believe any of it. I concluded he had lost my letters and had made up the stones about the imprisonment and the tortures. I thought he was covering up his guilt by pretending I was guilty of his imprisonment. Now you tell me that one of my letters did reach its destination, though you never saw it. Lem didn’t lose the letters after all. This means that the rest of his story may also have been true. I might have caused Lem’s arrest. And according to Mirna I also caused yours. This makes me a dangerous schizophrenic: mild and well-intentioned during the day while at night I plot the arrest, imprisonment and torture of my friends.

I can’t stand seeing myself where your letter leaves me. Can’t you see there’s something ridiculous about these insinuations and accusations? When I wrote you twelve years ago, and when I wrote you last time in answer to your warm and comradely first letter, I was desperately reaching for understanding, sympathy, human communication. Your last letter reduces both my gestures to terrible crimes. You, Lem and Mirna suggest I’ve done nothing in my life except send instructions to the police. Though I don’t feel like laughing, I’m convinced something funny is going on. I’m no more schizophrenic than the rest of my contemporaries and my paranoia is generally lower than the average. I can’t make myself believe that my letter had anything to do with Lem’s arrest or with yours. I have no idea what Lem was doing there besides delivering my letters, but I do know that my letters didn’t contain instructions to the police. They were private, personal letters. They referred solely to my own insignificant experiences and didn’t contain a single reference to politics or politicians. I didn’t know what the president’s name was or even if there was a president. Do the police arrest, imprison and torture people for carrying such letters? Does that police really have nothing else to do? Are they madmen? Doesn’t this sound awfully silly and terribly paranoid?

I had known Lem for many years and I knew that paranoia wasn’t out of the question as far as he was concerned. Paranoia was the root of his conceit; it confirmed his importance and his political effectiveness. He always saw himself as persecuted. When he called himself a revolutionary he convinced himself his phone was tapped; he was forever being followed and watched. All the attention he got proved how revolutionary he was. When he later became a mystic he convinced himself that objects persecuted him. Could I believe such a person when he told me my letters caused his arrest?

I don’t know what to say about Mirna’s suspicions. Does she, too, have traces of paranoia? You certainly suggest as much when you tell me you don’t consider my letter the cause of your arrest. I obviously can’t prove anything since I don’t have access to the police files. All I can say is that the accusation sounds silly.

I’m going to admit something else, because suddenly I no longer care what you make of this admission. I haven’t told you all my reasons for thinking that Lem was lying to me when he told me about his arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t only because I was familiar with Lem’s persecution mania that I didn’t believe him. The story itself sounded phony to me. I didn’t pay any attention to him. The sequence of horrors didn’t only seem terribly exaggerated but was also similar, down to details, to the pictures drawn by official propagandists. I was sure he had read the whole story in a newspaper. And at that time I was convinced that those stories were pure fabrications, fictional from the first word to the last. No, I wasn’t taken in by the opposite propaganda. I knew about the prisons and camps, the political purges, the state-run unions, the speed-ups and productivity campaigns. What I didn’t believe were the stock stories about the priests, nuns and itty-bitty children tortured in medieval dungeons, since these stones were obviously journalistic fictions pulled out of dusty war-hysteria files, with names and dates changed for every occasion. I recognized these newspaper articles in Lem’s account; I didn’t recognize a single element of a world which should have been familiar to me because, as you so crudely put it, I’d helped build it. He was, after all, talking about a place where I had once known several workers who were not unlike thousands of other workers. He was telling me that all the people I had lived with and worked with, and all others like them, had simply vanished into thin air and had been replaced by chains, gates and horrifying instruments of torture. He was telling me that all those workers had either allowed those horrors to take place or else that they’d all been imprisoned and executed and that the only people left were apes or sheep. I couldn’t believe any of that. I couldn’t believe all those people had vanished, all the dreams I had fought for had disappeared without leaving a trace. I couldn’t accept a vision similar to the one you expressed in your letter; I couldn’t believe the last human beings were dying in prisons while self-repressed beings had replaced them outside.

I nursed my illusion. I deluded myself. Put it any way you want. If I had believed Lem I would either have gone straight to a mental hospital or I would have killed myself. I believed there were people like me over there, that they had retained their dreams and hopes, that they were still struggling. I tried to reach them. Does that make me a criminal? Is it criminal to have hopes and dreams which reality might invalidate? Are a prisoner’s dreams about his projects after release illusions because he might die in prison? Since we all know we’ll eventually die, since any of us might die tomorrow, are all our hopes and dreams illusions? Are we criminals when we fail to realize them?

You contradict your main argument. You tell me that, in spite of the uncertainty of your release, you made plans in prison. In every other paragraph you speak of projects, dreams and hopes. You write poetry about the unshackled imagination, about the possibility of creating our world in the light of our dreams. You’re insincere. I think you were equally insincere when you told Mirna and her parents that you were opposed to marrying her. Your arguments against marriage seemed as hollow as your arguments about my illusions. At no point in your narrative did I feel you had the slightest doubt that you;d marry Mirna. When you told me how certain they all were that the event would take place I felt you were every bit as certain from beginning to end. And when you tell me about my illusions I’m convinced you share every last one of them. If you didn’t share those illusions you wouldn’t be able to describe the ferment surrounding you today; you wouldn’t even be able to see it. If those in ferment today didn’t share what you call my illusions there would be no ferment around you today. People without such hopes and dreams are not human beings, and only human beings can give rise to a ferment of the type you describe. You’re insincere, and you’re applying a double standard. When I express the hope that we’ll tear down the walls that imprison us, that hope is an illusion; when you express the same hope, it becomes an intention, a project, a motive for communication, comradeship and struggle. I remember my past only in order to hallucinate whereas you remember your past in order to understand your present.

Believe it or not. I use my past exactly the same way you use yours. I don’t use it as a subject for admiration, distortion or hallucination, but as a perspective from which to view my present. Exactly as you do! If I hadn’t once in my life been with people who had momentarily stopped being wage workers, I would have been perfectly satisfied to remain a wage worker the first time I got a job. Just as you would still be driving that infernal bus delivering human excrement to the city’s sewers. I quit my first job, as well as my second, because I had known human beings who had been more, much more, than wage workers. If I hadn’t once had a genuine learning experience I would have accepted my years in high school and college as a learning experience; I couldn’t have imagined education in any other form. My past experience helped me see through, expose and rebel against my present experience; it helped me see through the systematic stunting and incapacitation which passes as education. If I hadn’t once experienced friendship, solidarity and communication I would never have been able to guess what was wrong with all the Mr. Ninovos who populate the world, and nothing in my life would have kept me from becoming one of them.

The people you and I once knew, the hopes we shared with them, the projects we undertook together, have served me as a standard of comparison. Perhaps imaginary people and projects would have served as well. Isn’t that the sensible meaning of utopia: a standard against which to measure the present? My utopia was slightly more vivid than most people’s because I had actually experienced moments of it. This is why all your accusations miss their mark. I’m not. after all, competing in a memory contest, nor writing a history, nor am I engaged in scholarly research into my past. If I were, you would have devastated my project as inept, inaccurate and totally untrustworthy. Since I’m only trying to determine who I am and what I’m doing you fail to make a point and you punch holes in an imaginary balloon. Far from trying to reconstruct the actual sequence of past events, I’m only using my own and to some extent Luisa’s and Nachalo’s past as a standard of comparison and guide for present decisions and actions. You’ve been my lifelong guide just as Luisa was yours. And you’re wrong to uproot her from your memory, to discard her. You’re only impoverishing yourself. By eliminating this standard you’re left with nothing but the world as it is. If you deprive yourself of the ability to see what people can be and what life can be you’ll only be able to see what they are and you’ll conclude that’s all they can be.

Yet even while you uproot Luisa from your memory, you reject the world into which you’ve been released. Even while you’re discarding your standard of comparison you’re comparing and measuring. By what standard can you define a person as a stunted human being if all conceptions of fully developed human beings are illusions? How on earth can you even know you’re in prison if you can’t imagine there are human beings out of prison?

If I froze the memory of my experience with you, I didn’t do this to glorify the outcome of that experience , since it had no outcome, but to transport that experience to a new terrain. If I preserved the hopes and dreams I shared with you, it wasn’t because I thought you and I had realized them but because I wanted to go on struggling to realize them. I brought those hopes and dreams to a world that lacked them, a world that uprooted and killed such hopes and dreams. If those dreams now seem stunted to you it’s because this world to which I was brought didn’t contain the soil in which they could grow. Accuse me of having dragged those dreams into an environment unfavorable to them, accuse me of having failed to realize them, but don’t in the same breath accuse me of having suppressed them.

I’m sorry you didn’t read my last letter in the spirit in which I wrote it. I’m sorry because our lives were not so different after we were arrested and separated. I understood perfectly the desperation you felt right after your release from prison. I understood why you considered those few days bleaker than all your years in prison. I understood because, when I wrote you twelve years ago, I considered the eight years after my release bleaker than imprisonment. I apologize for the way this sounds. When I sent that letter I had no idea you had spent four years in prison. Luisa and I were released after two days in jail and for some reason I’d thought you had been released shortly after us. Yet even if I’d known you had spent half those years in jail I would have preferred to spend those eight years as you spent them. I would at least have been in prison for acts I had known I’d committed. And on release I would once again have been in a world that was familiar to me with people who were friends. Please don’t misunderstand me again. I’m not glorifying the bureaucracy and the police who installed themselves as rulers. I don’t know much about them but everything I do know sends shivers down my back. That’s not at all what I’m writing about. I’m trying to tell you that all my life here I’ve wished I had never-left you, that my emigration was nothing but a big mistake, that here I wasn’t able to become more than I already was when you knew me. I hope this time I’m making myself clear. You told me the world you found after your release wasn’t paradise. I never thought it was. I’m trying to tell you something similar about myself. The world I came to wasn’t paradise either; it wasn’t even as close to paradise as my experience with you.

The world to which I was brought was publicly considered humanity’s first earthly paradise, the most perfect community of happy human beings. It took me only a few minutes to learn that the happy human beings were images on signs and tapestries identical to those you described, that the milk and honey were spilled willy-nilly on a desert that contained neither community nor comradeship nor human warmth. I had been brought to this Utopia of objects for no reason at all. I was imprisoned here, not because of acts I had committed, but because someone thought he was doing me a favor by bringing me here. And in this desert paradise there’s no hope of release. This is the apex of everything that can be desired, though not by human beings. All roads leading from the apex are steep descents. From here I can only go down; from here I can only be released into the prisons in which you’ve spent half your life.

I wish I knew what you heard me saying. How frustrating it is to communicate across such a great distance. Surely you don’t again hear me saying that your imprisonment was the realization of my dreams! If I refer to my experiences with you while describing the world I was brought to, it’s because those were the only experiences I’d had before coming here; they were the vantage point from which I saw where I was. You described Vesna as being born into a cage from which she never emerged. I suppose you mean she had never known life outside the cage since her earliest memories were memories of the cage. She had no other memories, not even frozen ones, to compare and contrast with her experiences in the cage. Consequently she couldn’t know that she was in a cage. I do have memories and it’s thanks to them that I’m able to describe this paradise as a cage. And so do you! If you didn’t how would you know Vesna was born in a cage? If you didn’t remember a moment of life outside the cage, no matter how brief, you, like Vesna, would think of the cage as the world, the only possible world, perhaps even the best of all possible worlds.

I remember my release from jail and my journey here as a terrible trip through a very long tunnel. My life was at the opening I was moving away from and I expected to find nothing at the other end. Released after two days in jail, I thought Luisa and I would return to our friends, I thought we would continue the work we hadn’t finished; I thought the struggle had only begun. I expected to find you and all our other friends engaged in the activities from which I had suddenly been cut off. “We’re leaving!” Luisa said. Leaving what? Our friends? Our project? But our project wasn’t yet off the ground; the new world wasn’t yet built. Was everyone leaving? Were we going to continue our struggle elsewhere? Was our world already built somewhere else? If not, why were we leaving and where were we going?

I didn’t understand. I was frustrated and shocked. I froze every detail of that project and those friends as well as every hope I had shared with them. I fixed my experience in my memory as if I knew already then that I was being taken to a cage from which I would never emerge. If I hadn’t frozen those memories, if I had forgotten my experiences and my friends, then like Vesna I would only have known the cage. I would have grown up like those around me who don’t know any life outside. I would have accepted my cage companions as the only possible human beings and my cage experiences as the only possible human experiences. I couldn’t have compared my life in the cage to the life I’d had before I was caged. If I’d forgotten you I couldn’t have written you twelve years ago and I’d have no reason in the world to write you now. I wouldn’t have responded to your first letter because I would have thought you alien and bizarre. I would have been a bird of paradise who couldn’t possibly have understood a letter from a foreigner and even if I’d read it I wouldn’t have sent a word of mine to an insurgent who was a jailbird to boot.

Luisa later told me I was sick during the entire journey, that I broke down. I was extremely hostile to Alberts, and ungrateful. I didn’t show the slightest appreciation for the favor he was doing us. I was as rude to him as I had been to my jailer. Luisa acted grateful. I remember that. This was partly what made me sick. As things turned out later she had been wrong. Her gratitude only lasted a few months. I clung to Luisa but for the first time in my life I didn’t trust her. I suspected she didn’t know where we were going, why we were going or what we would do when we got there. And I was right. Sabina was the only one of us who knew exactly where she was going and what she would do there. Alberts had told her she was going to the land of gigantic objects and monstrous toys. (He was right.) She bubbled over with enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get there. She jumped around like a monkey released from its cage. I hated her for that enthusiasm; I did everything I could to block out the noise she made. I saw her as a chicken running around a yard cackling during the few minutes before her head is chopped off.

Sabina’s wishes were fulfilled. This Eldorado was everything Alberts had promised. The original Eldorado, where streets had been paved with nuggets of gold and where people had walked on the gold and respected each other, had disappeared long ago; its inhabitants had all been exterminated. In its place had grown up another Eldorado, where gold is stored in underground vaults and the streets are paved with flesh, where objects walk on people and respect each other. It is indeed the land of gigantic toys. The toys have defeated the people. Objects rule city streets, country highways, bridges and underpasses; objects are housed, fed and nursed; objects are displayed, praised, honored and worshipped. The people are small and fearful; they’re mere attendants to the needs of the objects. When they’re not nursing objects, the people are nothing more than obstacles on the paths of rushing objects. Every collision between a person and an object destroys the person while leaving the object intact. Only the objects have purposes and directions. When people aren’t tending objects they drift. They don’t rest; on the contrary, they’re always on the alert; they keep their eyes on the objects so as to avoid colliding with them. They don’t even dream about communicating with each other. They don’t have the time. They know that in the time it took to establish contact with one of their likes they’d be crushed. They eavesdrop on conversations among objects. Without communication they can’t launch common projects and they no longer even imagine them.

Where did I find the language and imagery with which to understand and describe this world? You know exactly where: in the carton plant twenty years ago, when I was among fearless, unintimidated human beings communicating with each other, engaged in a common project, among individuals who walked on objects and respected each other. That was my utopia, my Eldorado. Haven’t you been carrying a similar picture for at least as many years? What are those barricades which existed so briefly and then only in situations of crisis but which nevertheless revealed a permanent human possibility? That’s what my picture shows me: a permanent human possibility. By showing me what people can be it helps me understand what those around me have become. By showing me people engaged in common projects it informs me that drift is not the only possible content of human life.

No, I haven’t been a hermit for the past twenty years. I haven’t remained totally isolated from the people around me. I haven’t sat in my room contemplating the picture of my one time friends. My breakdown didn’t last from then until now. I met innumerable people. I worked with many of them. I’m trying to describe how I experienced them. I’m trying to tell you who they were and what they were by contrasting them with what they weren’t. I’m trying to describe a cage as the cage I experienced it to be and not as the paradise its other inmates imagine it to be. I can only do this from a vantage point outside the cage, from the vantage point of the experience I shared with you, from the vantage point of that picture I kept for all those years.

By tearing my picture to shreds as you tore your picture of Luisa, you tear my life as well. The possibilities I reached for in every encounter and every event were the only live elements of my experiences. Please don’t rob me of the people who informed me of those possibilities. They’re among the few people I knew who weren’t puppets. They’re the only human community I ever experienced. They weren’t perfect. They weren’t gods. They were flawed and human, identical to millions of others. That’s why they revealed a human possibility. Yet you make their very humanity appear inhuman. It’s you who are looking for gods. I’m only looking for more Veras, more Adrians, Marcs, Claudes.

I remember a Vera who talked, but not like a radio. The radio is an instrument which kills communication; it robs people of their tongues; it broadcasts the voice of a single individual to millions of listeners, reducing them to passive receptacles. If communication has the same root as common and community, the radio is an instrument for uprooting all three. The Vera I remember had the unmagnified voice of a single individual among thousands of other individuals; she was one of the thousands who were turning off the radios and regaining their own voices. To me she’s the very opposite of the countless politicians I’ve met since who dreamed only of the day when their voices would be the only sound in a sea of silent listeners.

I remember an Adrian who moved with the tide. When the people around him began to throw off the muck of ages, he was infected by their spirit and did his best to liberate himself. If the spirit of liberation could spread to Adrian it could spread to all. He was living proof of what was possible. I’ve met many conformists since but none of them were ever infected by a spirit of liberation or by any spirit at all: they all moved within the rigid confines of official routine.

I remember a Claude who was an oaf, but I also remember that at least for an instant he was using his bulk to defend himself and his comrades. You expressed intense dislike for him. To me he was a symbol of the working class, waking up from the stupor of wage labor, at last turning its bulk against capital. The bullies I’ve known since have used their weight to defend their masters and oppress their peers.

You describe Marc as a self-styled expert. I thought he was a worker like the others. I remember him as a dreamer. He let his imagination wander freely over the field of possibilities (the expression is yours). He gave me a glimpse of what the world might be like if everyone’s imagination wandered so freely. I’ve met many people who thought themselves experts, but I never wished for a world which contained more of them.

According to you these people whose emotions and projects were their own existed only in my private imagination. You have good words only for Jasna, Jan and Titus, precisely the three whom I didn’t consider models or guides. I was never able to consider Titus a comrade because after Nachalo’s death both he and Alberts acted as fathers toward me. But have it your way. Say the workers I remember are imaginary. Say the experience I shared with them never took place. It doesn’t really matter. Even if I never lived such an experience, I can still say that my imagination once glimpsed the possibility of genuine social activity which was neither trivial nor marginal. Even if I never knew those people, I imagined insurgents who struggled to shake off their chains and not to shackle others with them. Imaginary or not, that experience and those people informed all my senses from the first moment after my release. It’s because of them and because of you that I experienced my release from jail and my emigration as a descent to hell. Instead of being overjoyed I was morose. Instead of being grateful to Alberts I thought he had cut me off from the living. I didn’t accept events the way Mirna’s mother accepted them, as the unwinding of fate. My real or imagined experience had made me a critic.

Alberts already had a job when we came here. This had been arranged by people he had worked with during the war; I never knew them nor what he had done with them. He taught natural science in high school, although your imagery describes his activity much more accurately: he paced in front of thirty or forty teen-agers from nine to three while excrement dripped from him. I know because a year after we came I watched him drip for a whole semester. Thanks to you I know what a teacher is.

When we arrived we were greeted — I should say fawned over — by a self-appointed reception committee. They told us that freedom was the nickname of their flag, that the mortal danger of crossing the street was proof of a high standard of living, and that we would be happy when we learned to live like them. They were jingoes, war hawks. They found us a place; they called it a home, the local euphemism for the walls that separate people from their neighbors. They told us they would gladly help us solve any problems we might have, but they left us neither names nor phone numbers and we never saw any of them again.

I had my own room in our home. I had never had one before. It wasn’t damp or cold and it had no roaches, mice or rats. There was a bed and there were walls. It wasn’t like a prison cell because I could leave whenever I pleased. For several days I sat on the bed and stared at the walls and then it was just like a prison cell. It separated me from my friends and from my activities. My life was elsewhere, outside, far away. I was a prisoner. Luisa brought me my meals. At times she was the old Luisa: she understood, she sympathized, she regretted the journey and hated the home, the reception committee and Alberts. But at other times she was a new Luisa, the Luisa who had been grateful to Alberts and polite to the reception committee, who called me a stubborn goose and insisted I’d find new friends and forget my old ones.

Neighbors came to visit. I wanted to go out and stare at them but I stayed in my room and listened. They said they wanted to introduce themselves, but in fact they had come to snoop. They asked Luisa how old her two daughters were. They must have counted us when we moved in. I hadn’t once left my room since that day. They asked Luisa why we weren’t in school. Luisa told them we were learning the language. That wasn’t true. Sabina was already fluent, thanks to Alberts, and I could understand most of what was said. Luisa also told them the trip had been a shock to both of us and we were recovering. That wasn’t true of Sabina and the neighbors must have known Luisa was lying. Sabina had already run all around the neighborhood and no one could have thought her sick. Sabina simply refused to go to school. She argued that neither she nor Luisa nor I had come here to go to school; only Alberts had.

A few days after our neighbors’ thoughtful visit, two officials came. They too asked Luisa why her daughters weren’t in school. You’re not the only one who has Mr. Ninovo for a neighbor. Luisa was intimidated. She promised to pack both of us off to school the following morning. (You aim your critique at the Luisa who fought bravely in a revolution. You don’t even seem aware of this second Luisa, the one who ran away from her friends and projects twice, the one who was afraid and intimidated. You’re disillusioned with the wrong Luisa.)

Luisa begged me to go to school, and I was disillusioned. But I felt sorry for her and gave in, since I had never intended to spend the rest of my life in that room. Sabina was more principled than I, and Alberts was less slavish than Luisa. He telephoned someone he knew and had Sabina enrolled in a private school which she never attended. Sabina was simply told to stay out of the neighbors’ sight during school hours, which she managed to do quite successfully until she and Alberts moved out several months later. She didn’t spend a single day in school.

How sickeningly adaptable people are! During my first few days in school I was revolted, shocked and indignant. Lively young people sat like trained poodles and let ignorant functionaries stuff their heads with garbage, I tried to think of ways to expose and undermine the poodle-training sessions. But all I ever thought of doing was to refuse to answer questions on the ground that they were biased or trivial. Instead of taking notes about the lectures I took notes about the teachers and the students. I intended to use those notes when I wrote letters to my former comrades. I was going to describe to you what happened to human beings if they lost the struggle we had fought. I still have those notes. I reread some of them before I started this letter; I wanted to see to what extent my memory contained only experiences I had invented. I found myself innocent of your charge. I never wrote the letters those notes were intended for. Yet I continued to take notes. Later I rearranged them; I was going to write a novel comparing my past with my present. Gradually my shock, my indignation, my desire to expose the farce called education were confined to my notes. My life was confined to my notebook. I dragged myself to school mechanically, absently, as if I were taking a garbage bag to a dump. I adapted. I became like the others. Only my notebook continued to rebel, and I never showed those notes to anyone. They were intended for you. Yet now that I’m finally showing them to you I’m embarrassed; your letter makes me defensive about them. I had always been sure you’d understand. Your letter makes me suspect I did have one illusion after all: the illusion that you’d understand. In any case your letter wasn’t a letter from a complete stranger. I recognized you every time you stopped talking about me; the passages where you described yourself and the people around you were the passages in which I recognized my own experience and it’s because of them that I think you’ll understand mine.

I understood your anger and frustration when you leafed through Mirna’s history book. My history book was similar to Mirna’s; it contained the same accounts of the rise of bureaucrats to government offices. Though I lived in an environment where every single human attribute and every facet of nature had been transformed into wage labor and capital, the textbook history of that environment didn’t mention wage labor or capital. Though. I lived in a city where the systematic despoliation and oppression of human beings had reached a level unknown to any previous human beings, the textbook history spoke only of equality and freedom. The students didn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention, but the lies nevertheless got through to them, by osmosis. One of the first students who talked to me was another foreigner. He told me his father had worked in a steel plant for two years; he had lifted a load that was too heavy for him and had injured his back; when he failed to recover and return to work, he was fired. The boy’s mother had gone to work to support him and his sick father. The boy asked me: “The place where you come from — is it part of the free world too?”

The language teacher spent six months reading a single novel to the class. Can you imagine that? Since I had already read the book I spent my time elaborating my notes. There was even a class in cooking which I simply refused to attend. As soon as I refused, I was told I was free to take a class in wood-turning and carpentry. I was the only girl there; apparently no other girl refused to take the cooking class and consequently no other girl had learned she was free not to take it.

You described how out of place Mirna’s schoolbooks seemed to be in her house. Books seemed at least as misplaced in the hands of some of my teachers, particularly my mathematics teacher. In addition to being the math teacher this man was the school’s sports expert. He was one of the few teachers in the school who possessed the highest academic degree. He was called a doctor and it was said he had framed his diploma and hung it in his living room. It was also said the thesis for which he had been granted this degree dealt with basketball dribbling. I think both stories were true. He may in fact have been very good at writing about dribbling a basketball, but he couldn’t divide fractions and I suspected he had never learned to solve simple algebraic equations. He would solve on the blackboard precisely those problems that were solved in the book. One day he made a mistake copying. In order to go to the next step he had to divide the same quantity out of both sides of the equation. He divided each side by a different quantity and nonchalantly continued copying. I was furious. “Hey, you can’t do that!” ! shouted. “You wouldn’t have to do it if you had copied the right numbers out of the book!”

He turned red as a beet. “You Bolshies are too smart for your own good!” he shouted. The athlete then walked right up to me and slapped me. I screamed and he became as rigid as a board. Some students cheered him and shouted, “You show ‘er, coach!”

Those students cheered him because they considered him the rebel. I was in a world where everything familiar to me stood on its head. The roles were inverted. The bullying teacher was seen as a rebel and the rebellious student as a representative of authority. The police were experienced as agents of freedom and insurgents as agents of repression. Authoritarian conformists considered themselves individualists and revolutionaries were called Bolshies and Commissars. The greatest inversion of all was that the most authoritarian of the authoritarians, those who glorified the state and dreamed of becoming omnipotent police chiefs, thought of themselves as revolutionaries. My friend Lem Icel, the one who later carried my letter to you, was one of these.

I met Lem the day the dribbling expert slapped me. Lem ran after me when school was over, in his suit and tie, wearing glasses, carrying his leather bag.

“I think you were right,” he told me.

“What do you mean you think I was right? I know I was!” I shouted. “Look into your book!”

“Yes I know,” he said. “I had the book open too. What I wanted to ask you was about that name he called you.”

“You mean Bolshie? That’s not my name!”

“I know it’s not your name. What I mean is, is it true? Are you? Do you believe in tendencies and things?” He asked this last question in the same tone in which someone might have asked, “Do you believe the sun is going to fall into the lake the day after tomorrow and the world is going to end?” or “Do you believe every statue of Jesus bleeds every night?” And I knew he was dying to relieve himself by telling me, “So do II”

“Tendencies and things! What on earth do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, you can tell me. I’m a Comrade. I’m no stool pigeon!” He whispered all this.

I shouted, “What are you talking about? What do you want?”

“Shh. You know what I mean. Tendencies. Forces. The Dialectic!” Yes, unfortunately I knew what he meant. It was nothing very exciting; it wasn’t even altogether alive. But it was something. It was the form rebellion took in this environment, and I was extremely lonely. I’m reminded of the people you described who ate bark. Lem was a disgusting clown, a tidy bureaucrat who might someday transmit the order to exterminate thousands of workers, a stuffy state agent who was old long before his time. But I hadn’t had a conversation with anyone except Luisa since we’d come here, and after I’d started going to school I had avoided Luisa. I couldn’t keep myself from reaching out to Lem.

“Tendencies,” I said, hesitating, as if I were remembering something. “Why yes, of course! Tendencies!” I forgot to add, “And things.”

“I knew you were one of us as soon as the coach called you a Bolshie!” And I knew what Lem was going to say long before he said it.

“And did I confirm, what you already knew?”

“You sure did! We can keep it a secret from them, but not from each other!” He was obviously a novice in the conspiratorial profession, and had as yet learned nothing about security,

“Does no one else know you’re one of them — I mean of us?” I asked.

“I’ve kept it a secret from everyone. Even from my parents,” he proudly boasted.

“My! Imagine that!” I didn’t even try to hide my admiration for his ability to keep secrets. “Not even your parents! You must be very courageous!”

“I thought it would be hard, but it isn’t really,” he explained. “My study group meets every Friday night and I tell my parents I go to movies. I used to go to movies a lot on Friday nights. I always make sure I know what’s on at one of the theaters, though they haven’t yet asked what I’d seen.”

“And the study group,” I ventured, “it must be even better than our classes in school.”

“Oh yes, it’s much more disciplined,” he said predictably. “Anyone who did what you did today would be expelled right away.”

“How marvelous!”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Oh no!”

“Of course none of the lecturers in the study group would ever be caught making such a dumb mistake!”

“Can you tell me your name?” I asked to change the subject; I had heard enough about the study group. “Or is that a secret?” I felt silly for adding this question, and I hoped he wouldn’t spoil my fun by remembering that I’d learn his name tire next time the teacher revealed this secret in class.

“Oh no, I can tell you my name!” he said eagerly and obligingly. “It’s Lem. Lem Icel. It comes from the Greek god Icelus. My grandfather shortened it.”

“I’m Sophia.”

“Yes I know. Sophia Nachalo. I saw it written on your notebook.”

“You pronounced it right!” My name was the only thing he had said that pleased me.

“Does it bother you when that jock pronounces it Natural?”

“His pronunciation is his problem, not mine.”

“It’s obviously no better than his math,” Lem said.

“Do you want me to get slapped for correcting his pronunciation as well? Why don’t you correct him?”

Lem blushed. He could at least have corrected the athlete’s math, since he’d had the book open too. “Objective conditions.” he answered hesitantly. “You know what I mean?”

“Oh yes, of course! They weren’t ripe.”

“Wow! You know a lot!” He was genuinely impressed. “I only learned about that a couple of weeks ago!”

“Aren’t you tired of learning by the end of the week, and wouldn’t you rather go to movies on Friday nights?”

“Haven’t you ever been to study groups?” he asked.

I didn’t answer. I was already tired of my game, and of Lem.

“The study group is completely different,” he explained as I walked away from him. “Here everything they tell you is a lie. There I learn about tendencies and forces. You know, the truth about things. You and I ought to talk more. You know. We ought to become friends, since we’re already comrades.”

My first friend was an admirer of those who had betrayed Luisa, arrested me, imprisoned you. The more I learned about him the less likeable he became. Lem was one of the wealthier students in the school. His father was the manager of a department store. Other people of his social class were sent to private schools, but Lem’s father wanted to give his son what he considered a taste of reality. Lem’s newly acquired political religion provided him with a new way of expressing his social status, and nothing more. He considered himself superior to the working class students because of his social class. He thought himself more intelligent as well, since he had been trained to memorize and obey from childhood on. And when one of the teachers introduced him to the world of tendencies and forces, he became a giant who towered above the others, being the only student in school who had been initiated into the dialectical truth about things. He was as much a member of the ruling class after his political conversion as he had been before.

I let him walk me home several days a week. We frequently went to movies together, and once I invited him to a dance. Although he insisted I accompany him to his study group, I didn’t once go. I don’t think we talked a great deal after our first encounter; at least I didn’t record any other conversations. And because he had been friendly to me when I had been completely alone, this travesty of a rebel, this pompous leech was to cling to me for much of the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I need to mention this or if I’m being clear this time: if I hadn’t known you I wouldn’t have seen through Lem. I might have seen him as he saw himself and as the official mythology defined him: as a rebel, an insurgent. Lem obviously didn’t fill the gap I’d felt since my release.

Unlike you I didn’t have any friends here; there was no Jan Sedlak I could run to. When I finally did find a genuine friend, it was someone who had something in common with the Sedlaks. Like them he moved on the fringes. He wasn’t a peasant but he was just as much of an outsider. His name was Ron Matthews, I had seen him walk through the halls of the school with his three companions, all in leather jackets, long before I met Lem. I had seen him during lunch hours, heading toward a wall behind the parking lot to smoke with his companions. Other students as well as most of the teachers were afraid of them, though I had never seen any of them raise a hand against anyone. Lem called them “the lumpen.” They modeled themselves after gangsters in movies and comic books. Ron, the tallest and strongest of the four, was the leader. Behind his back students called him “The Commissar,” a nickname he was known to dislike. His mother taught at the school and it was said she was a subversive. She was in fact fired sometime later for her political beliefs. It was she who converted Lem; I didn’t meet her until years later. Ron was repeating the first year of high school for the third time. He had left elementary school only because the school’s principal had been afraid of him. His three companions were supposed to be his bodyguard, but in terms of size and strength he was obviously theirs; on their own they wouldn’t have made much of an impression.

I began to look forward to the lunch hour. Boredom, loneliness and curiosity drove me further and further into the parking lot, closer to the wall. One day I walked to the other side of the wall. One of the lieutenants nudged Ron, who turned to look at me.

“Well, well, what have we got over here? Come a little closer, baby, so we can have a better look at you. You want a smoke?” While Ron spoke the other three grinned stupidly.

“I’m not a baby and I have a name!”

“Let’s see. Soap-fee Natural. Is that a name, boys?”

All three nodded.

“Okay, Natural. Would you like to join us in the pleasure of smoking a cigarette?” He handed me his pack.

“Thank you, Tarzan. Pleasure is exactly what I came for.” I wasn’t sure exactly what role I wanted to play, nor how far I wanted to play it.

“Hey, we’ve been wondering about you. If you’re smart enough to ace out that wise-assed coach, why d’ya let him sock you?”

“Because you weren’t there to protect me, Superman!”

So far so good, but then I tripped. I burst out coughing when he lit my cigarette, and it became obvious to all four that I had never smoked before.

Roil took up the offensive again. “Now look what we’re doing boys, dragging this nice girl across the state line. We’re committing the Mann Act.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, muscles; I walked here by myself.”

“What’ll your boy friend say about that? He’ll say we committed the Mann Act. While we’re on the boy friend, tell us what a nice girl like you wants with that shit-on-a-stick professor.”

“If I’d known there were commissars like you around, I wouldn’t ever have noticed that one.”

“You’ve got a sharp tongue. Miss Not-so-low. If you don’t watch out they’ll clip it right out of your mouth.”

“They wouldn’t dare if you four strong men protected me.”

Ron laughed; his three cronies just continued to grin. He turned to them and said, “You meatheads hear that? She’s just contracted us as private dicks.”

That angered me and I started to walk away. “Goodbye. Tarzan. Thanks for the cigarette.”

“Don’t leave yet, baby. We didn’t mean that the way it sounded, did we boys? We ain’t even got half acquainted yet.”

“I didn’t hear what you meant, Tarzan, and it sounded like goodbye.” I continued backing away from them.

“Not so low, baby. You get sore too easy.”

“I’m not sore!”

“Prove it, Natural! How’s about meeting me here around midnight tonight?”

“You’re too much, Tarzan! Do you think I’d trust my body to someone who butchers my name?”

The three body guards responded for the first time: they laughed at Ron. I rounded the wall and started back across the parking lot. Ron followed me to the parking lot and shouted, “I get it! A nice girl like you wouldn’t want to be stuck in an empty lot with a crazy ape that’ll rape her and then knife her! You wouldn’t want to get stuck at night, but you want to see what the ape looks like in broad daylight. Right?”

“That’s right,” I shouted back. “I’ve never seen an ape before.”

For an instant before he turned his back to me, Ron looked like an injured child who was going to cry. “You bitch!” he whispered, kicking the dirt as he disappeared behind the wall. I regretted my last comment. I liked him. Under the mask of the dunce who failed all his courses I saw a lively intelligence which refused to submit to the school routine. Under the leather jacket and the gang leader’s pose I thought I recognized a genuine rebel, the first one I’d met here.

I was hungry for activity that was not part of the official routine. I was hungry for the companion who had not been cast in one of the standard molds. I longed for you, for the comrades

and projects I had left behind. I thought there was a strong resemblance; the form was altogether different; the content seemed the same.

I crossed the school yard again the following day. With his back toward me, Ron said quietly, as if he were pleading with me: “Look, lady! Do us the favor of letting us enjoy our privacy on our own grounds, by which we mean we would like for you to remove yourself from this territory.”

“I apologize, Ron.”

“We would like for you to get out of here,” he said, still quietly.

“I didn’t mean what I said yesterday,” I told him.

He turned toward me; his face was flushed. The anger mounted in his voice as he said, “We don’t accept apologies from the likes of you, lady! Now kindly do us the favor of getting the hell out of here!”

“It was you who put those words in my mouth, Ron,” I pleaded.

All four were staring at me now. Ron turned to the other three and shouted, “Looks like the lady is deaf, boys!”

“I’ll meet you here any time —”

He stepped backward and almost fell. “You’ll what?”

“ — of day or night,” I continued, almost whispering.

“Lady, would you please repeat that?” All his anger was gone.

“What’s my name?” I asked, still whispering. I was afraid.

“Sophie Nachalo,” he shouted. Had he known it all along or had he learned it since the previous day?

“Set the time.” My knees were trembling. I thought I’d start crying.

“Do you mean that you, Sophie Nachalo, are going to trust me —”

I didn’t let him finish; I could no longer hide my nervousness. “Right here?” I asked, starting to run off. “At midnight? Tonight?” I ran as fast as I could.

I shook for hours. I thought I’d get sick. My fear didn’t leave me until midnight that night. Ron was already there, sitting up against the part of the wall closest to the street lamp, smoking. He didn’t look up. I sat down an arm’s length away from him. He didn’t move. I suddenly realized that he was as nervous as I had been. It was I who asked, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”

He looked at me. He seemed so sad. “I was going to wait here all night. But I never thought you’d come.” He turned to look at the ground again and puffed on his cigarette. I saw that he had shaved and combed his hair. By himself he was only a boy: shy, nervous and lonely.

“I thought you met girls here every night,” I said, although I didn’t really think that.

“Are you kidding?” he asked, somewhat bitterly.

“Haven’t you ever been with a girl at night?”

“Yea, sure,” he said, with growing bitterness. “I’ve spent lots of nights with two-bit whores. The others talk a lot, but that’s all they ever do. And that’s right, too. You shouldn’t have come out here, Sophie. No decent girl goes out at night looking for an ape.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, reaching for his hand.

He took my hand and squeezed it. “Yea, I know. I put the words in your mouth.”

We sat like that for at least half an hour, I was relieved to learn he was harmless, but half an hour of sitting on concrete is awfully long; I got bored and extremely uncomfortable. “Is this all that’s going to happen?” I asked.

He jumped up as if I’d woken him. “Would the lady like to have a guided tour of the city at night?”

“Why yes! That’s exactly what the lady would like!” I said eagerly, squeezing his hand with both of mine when he helped me get up. My eagerness was genuine; I hadn’t yet seen the city even in daytime.

The city Ron showed me must have been very similar to the city you knew during the war. It consisted of hideouts, danger zones, places to investigate and places to avoid. It was Ron’s personal, private world; he had never shown it to anyone else; he let me share it.

“Someday I’ll show you where the other half lives,” he said as we walked along one after another street lined with almost identical two-storied houses. “This is where the ants live. Sometimes I come here before school starts, about six or seven in the morning. I watch them all file out of their houses with their lunch boxes, like kids coming out of johns; they all pile into their cars at the same time and then they all sit on the highway blowing their brains out because the traffic can’t move. The ones who live here drive to a plant on the other side of town, and those who live there drive all the way over here. If they’re not deaf when they get there, the noise in the plant finishes them off. But they honk their brains out all the way back home because they’re all on the road again.”

“It’s not their fault, is it?” I ventured.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. “Some of those guys drive bulldozers. They could push the factories straight into the river if they wanted to.”

We walked on. He led me through quarters that looked like forests that had burned. Pointing to an immense lot that looked like the city’s garbage dump, he said, “That’s what they spend all their time making in this town.” As we got closer I noticed that it was a dump for wrecked cars. Beyond the lot there were two-storied houses that were more run down than the ones we tad passed earlier. Pointing to one of them he said, “The guy who lives there makes it without going to the plants. He takes batteries out of cars and resells them in a store he runs. Once I watched him and another guy clean out all the batteries in a parking lot. It’s hard fucking work though,”

We sat down on the sidewalk. “I know the kid next door too,” Ron continued. “His old man’s a cop. You’d think he’d be on to the batteries by now, but that’s not his job. He spends his time patrolling this whorehouse on the other side of town: downstairs there’s a bar where lots of dope is sold. He makes twice as much from the bar as he gets from his job and they go on a big trip every year. But shit, who wants to be a cop?”

We sat down and smoked. I asked Ron how he knew these people. He said he had lived here before moving near the school. “I know this other guy down the street,” he said. “His old man builds motors. He works in a machine shop and every day he takes home a small part in the false bottom of his lunch box. Every six or seven months he’s got a whole motor put together. Then he sells it to this place that deals in motors. I used to think that was neat. But now I think he must have his brains up his ass: he could have started his own machine shop twenty years ago and he’d have it made by now.”

We got up and walked on. The structure on the corner looked like an abandoned railway car. That’s what it was. On top was a sign that said, “Diner.”

“That’s where my old man hangs out,” Ron told me.

“You mean he eats there?”

“No, he runs it. He flips the eggs and butters the toast, from eight in the morning ‘til eight at night, six days a week. He saved for years to buy this dump. He thought it would make him a businessman. Me and my buddies skip afternoon classes lots of times just so as to get here around noon. That’s when it’s busy as hell here; everyone’s hollering at him, lots of ;em are eating standing. As soon as we go through the door the hollering stops and everyone looks at us like we’re dignitaries or something. My old man gets mad as hell but he doesn’t let on he’s ever seen me before. He skips everyone else and asks what we want, and no one objects; it’s like they’d all agreed that we get served first, and he sure as hell doesn’t want us standing around waiting. We really get on his ass. Eight eggs, I tell him, sunny side up, on the double, we ain’t got all day. You should see him run! He moves so fast you’d think the eggs fell from the ceiling. Just like a flunkey getting an order in the army. The only thing he doesn’t do is say Yessir! Some businessman! He holds it all in ‘til he gets home, and then he goes off like a time bomb. I ask him why the hell he’s so mad; I was just bringing him some business; that’s what he’s in there for, isn’t it? Didn’t we pay for our eggs like everyone else? Is he going to put up a sign that says No hoods, dogs or relatives allowed?”

We walked by the house where Ron used to live. “Don’t know who lives here now. Must be a gardener.” There were flowers on the front lawn. I asked Ron about his mother.

“She’s a commie,” he said, as matter-of-factly as if he were saying, “She’s tall.” He had considered and rejected this possibility as well. “She started being one during the depression. She likes to talk about it, but I never understood any of that shit about workers wanting commies to run the unions and factories. I never met any who wanted that. But she thought that’s what they wanted and the union paid her to organize workers to want that. After the war the union threw her out on her ass and not one worker stood up for her. She still thinks that’s what everyone wants. She’s like this religious nut I know who thinks everyone wants to die so as to see Jesus in the sky. Now the school’s getting ready to throw her out on her ass again, and those crazy bastards’ll do it too. I don’t understand any of that shit either. When the commies had a chance, before the war, they left them alone. Now that there are hardly any of them left and they don’t have a chance, everyone’s jumping on them like a gang of perverts raping a kid. Shit!” he concluded, flinging his cigarette into the gutter; “those are the bastards who say I’m the one that’s dangerous!”

It was starting to get light out when Ron walked me to my house. He squeezed my hand and asked me to take a bike trip with him the following weekend. I accepted. I was happy. I had found a friend. The next day I dozed during all my classes. I looked forward to the weekend. I was in love for the second time in my life, yet I imagined I was continuing my first love. In my daydreams I imagined myself riding with leaflets under my arm and you were on the bicycle next to me.

I was out of practice and we didn’t get far, though we did get out of the city. We left our bikes in a corn field and walked until we reached a pond. We were completely alone. The road and the nearest farmhouse were at least a mile away. Ron told me the owner sometimes fished in the pond but only early in the morning; he’d been there before. Although the sun had gone down and it hadn’t been a warm day, we were both sweating from the ride and the walk. Ron removed his clothes and slipped into the pond. I followed him. When we came out we made love on the grassy bank. That night a full moon made the mist on the pond look like steam; the pond seemed to be evaporating. I felt as if I were spending the night in a Dutch landscape painting. But I couldn’t sleep. I had never before experienced such silence; I missed the city noises I’d grown so used to blocking out, and I concentrated on the few sounds there were, sounds that were completely unfamiliar to me; rustling leaves, crickets, and Ron’s breathing. I watched the moon fall into a field on the other side of the pond, and when it got completely dark I started worrying that the farmer would choose the next morning to come fishing. I heard the farmer coming — I imagined him coming with a rifle and not a fishing pole — whenever a squirrel or a bird stirred on a branch of a nearby tree. When the sky started to get light I woke Ron and told him I’d heard someone coming. He jumped up and we put our clothes on; we’d used them as blankets. As soon as he was dressed he stood still and listened.

“Oh shit, Sophie,” he said, annoyed and somewhat angry; “that’s the crickets you heard! Those people don’t fish on Sunday morning! They go to church!” But when I yawned and he saw how tired I must have looked he put his arms around me and whispered, “I should have turned those crickets off before going to sleep so they wouldn’t keep you awake. I heard them all night once too. You sorry you came?”

“No, I’m happy,” I whispered, and to prove it I started crying, probably because I was exhausted. “I’d like to come every weekend.”

We did go there two more times, but I never again saw the steam rise from the pond, nor did I listen to the crickets and leaves all night, and we didn’t once meet the fisherman farmer.

The following weekend we set out on two completely different bikes. I learned that Ron had sold the previous two bicycles and stolen the new ones. “How do you think I get my spending money — from my old man?” he asked. “I’ve been stealing them since elementary school. It’s easy. You take a pocket-sized saw to the back of any movie house and you can select whichever one you want. I only take the chained ones. I figure if a kid is so poor he can’t buy a chain he wouldn’t want to lose his bike. I puncture a tire and take it down to the basement and I tell my mom that kids pay me to fix and paint their bikes. She actually thinks that’s what I do. The old man thinks I steal them but then he thinks I robbed a bank every time I stayed out all night so he doesn’t bother making a fuss about little things like bikes. He couldn’t prove much anyway unless he caught me doing it, which he’d love to do, but he loves to flip his eggs even more. A little spray paint takes care of the body, sandpaper and a little solder takes care of the number and a little sticker takes care of the registration. No sweat, and it’s like new; I learned it all from my half-brother. All you have to watch is that you don’t dangle the sawed-off chain in front of a cop, like one kid I know who got sent to reform school.”

It sounded easy enough but I didn’t volunteer to join Ron in this activity, as Sabina did sometime later. I only enjoyed the fruit of Ron’s labors. For the sake of our weekend trips he started specializing in bicycles that were lighter and better suited for long journeys, and by our third or fourth excursion I could ride as far and as long as he. Two or three times we ran into storms and once we spent an afternoon and night in a barn with horses.

In addition to our sandwiches I frequently took my notebook with me on the excursions, especially when we decided ahead of time not to spend the whole weekend riding. I loved to sit under a tree in a field, or on a rock by a lake, jotting down my observations about myself and about Ron. Much of this letter is taken directly out of that very notebook. I told Ron that someday I’d write a novel about him. He assured me he’d never read it, so I could write about him if I saw a point in that, but I shouldn’t bother writing it for him. I told him his name would be Yarostan. He said the name alone would keep him from recognizing himself. I did in fact intend to write a novel about Yarostan; he was going to be a composite of you and Ron. But I never got further than to jot down some of my experiences and conversations with Ron. The better I got to know him the less suitable he became for the story I had in mind. The character in my story, composed of the two of you, was going to express my own feelings, my own observations, my own choices. I gradually, and sadly, realized that Ron was not the same as I at all.

Ron became aware of this difference much sooner than I. The very first time I opened my notebook, when we had just sat down by a tree on top of a hill, he got up and said he was going for a walk. He wasn’t jealous of the notebook; he didn’t consider it an intruder or an obstacle that came between us; he didn’t even mind when I wanted to write instead of accompanying him for a walk. The notebook instantaneously defined me as a person who would one day be very far away from him, a person he would not recognize and probably wouldn’t even remember as a one-time friend. The first time I opened my notebook he knew our relationship would be short. He probably thought he would be the one to end it. If so, he was wrong only about that; I was the one who ended it, and for the very reason he thought it would end. But before it ended I did have a chance to undergo two adventures which compare with nothing I experienced before or since.

One Sunday we returned from our weekend very late at night. We had spent most of the day sleeping on a lakeside beach and both of us were wide awake. We rode to Ron’s house and he asked me to accompany him to his room. I agreed, partly because I wanted to play, but mainly because I wanted to see what his room was like. As we were tiptoeing in the dark up the stairs from the basement, the light suddenly came on and a voice thundered: “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

A tall, thin, vicious-looking man wearing pajamas and an overcoat glared down at us from the top of the stairs. It was Ron’s father. I was out of my wits with fright.

“Oh shit!” Ron said. “Why don’t you go to bed and mind your own fucking business!”

“You punk!” the man shouted. “You’re not bringing any broads into my house!”

A woman’s voice, Ron’s mother, shouted, “Come back to bed, Tom, and leave the kid alone for chrissake!”

“He’s bringing a woman into the house!” Tom Matthews shouted.

“So what, you jackass! Haven’t you ever heard of that?” she shouted back.

“You heard her, pop,” Ron said, still calm. “Now go back to bed and leave us alone.”

“I’m not going anywhere until you get that whore out of here!” the man said. I started trembling.

“Don’t you call her that, pop,” said Ron, raising his voice.

“I’m calling her a whore and I’m telling you to take her back to the whorehouse!”

I could feel Ron starting to shake; he waved his fist, took a step toward the man and shouted, “Call her that one more time and I’ll —”

“You’ll what, sonny boy? Kill me? You’d love to do that, wouldn’t you? Don’t you think I’ve been waiting for that every day for years? You don’t think I went out and bought this thing so as to keep someone from taking twelve dollars out of my cash register, do you? I bought it just to keep you and your whore from breaking into my house!”

I heard Ron’s stunned voice saying slowly: “You crazy bastard!” But I heard it as in a dream. I must have fainted. All I remembered was the gun pointing at us and that voice, which I can only describe as evil.

I didn’t know how we’d gotten there, but suddenly Ron and I were in the street. He held me; I was trembling like a leaf. I couldn’t walk. I asked him to take me to my house; he almost carried me. When I opened the door, I begged him to stay with me, not to go back to his house.

“Won’t your father blow my head off?” He didn’t know who Alberts was; he hadn’t once asked me anything about myself.

“No one’s going to shoot you here. I’ll introduce you in the morning.”

The following morning we all had breakfast together. As we told the story of our previous night’s escapade, Sabina laughed and Luisa gasped. Alberts paid no attention to the story or to Ron, although when he saw Ron reach into the pocket of his leather jacket and pull out an empty cigarette pack he offered Ron a cigarette and lit it for him. Luisa visibly didn’t like Ron; she made no effort to hide her fear of him. Sabina was drawn to him like a needle to a magnet.

Ron stayed with us, in my room, for a week. He didn’t go to school, and he left the house only once, during school hours, when neither his father nor his mother were at home; he brought back three bicycles. That weekend, although both of them acted as if Ron and I were married, Sabina and Ron became good friends, lifetime friends; their relationship lasted until Ron was killed. We rode to a forest. At night I slept with Sabina; Ron slept by himself. The previous night had been our last night alone together.

When we got back Ron telephoned his mother (her name is Debbie). She cried all the time she talked to him, telling him she’d thought he had left for good. She had come out of her room before we had left the house and had seen Matthews pointing the gun at us. She had grabbed the gun, hysterically slapped his face with it, and told him to get out of the house and never come back. Matthews had returned two days later with a gift, begged her forgiveness and even promised to apologize to Ron. Debbie begged Ron to return, and told him the gun had been taken away with the garbage. Ron decided to go home.

I experienced my last escapade with Ron shortly after that. He came over on a week night and asked us to go riding. We went out expecting to find bikes. He had a car.

“It’s the old man’s,” he explained. “He’s all soft on me now. He hands me the keys and says, Here, punk, you want to take your broad for a ride?” His imitation was perfect; I believed him.

“Where are you going to take us?” I asked.

“Where would you like to go?” he asked.

“To the beach!” Sabina answered.

Ron drove us to the lake. The three of us were alone on the enormous sandy beach. It was a moonless night. Ron removed his clothes and ran to the water. Sabina ran after him. “Hey Sophie,” he called. “You coming?”

“I’m cold,” I yelled back. “Have fun in there.”

I heard them splashing, shouting, laughing. I looked up at the stars. After a while I no longer heard them. The only sound came from the water hitting the shore.

I don’t know how long we were there. When I woke up Ron was carrying me in his arms. They were both dressed. He let me down when I objected to being carried.

Sabina gently pushed me into the front seat of the car before going in, so that I sat between them. I was sure they had made love. Neither of them said anything. Making a sudden turn off the main road Ron asked, as if he’d just thought of it, “Hey Sophie, you remember that first night when I told you I’d show you how the other half lives? Well feast your eyes ‘cause this is where they live.”

I stared blankly at enormous mansions surrounded by fountains and gardens. The only places like it I’d seen before bad been museums or public monuments; here we drove past one after another mansion, each with its own beach and dock. But the last day of my tour came to an abrupt and unpleasant end. Three boys in a sports car drove up to us and cruised next to us. They were obviously residents of the mansions. Ron said, “Oh shit, let’s get out of here. Those creeps’ll get the cops on me and I don’t have a license.”

One of the boys shouted, imitating inner-city slang, “Hey hood! What cha doin witha spare broad?”

“I’m not eating shit from a silver spoon like you. Bozo!” Ron answered, He pulled into a driveway, turned the car around and headed back toward the highway. They caught up to us at the light.

“Where did you steal that limousine, boy?” shouted another one.

Sabina stretched herself to the window and shouted, “Why aren’t you in your baby carriage, mamma’s boy?” to which Ron added, “Get that can off the road before I tear it up with my can opener!”

Ron pulled away at the light, but when the oncoming traffic had passed they pulled up alongside us, driving on the wrong side of the road. One of them shouted, “Thieves and whores aren’t permitted on this highway,” and another added, “Yea, we saw your picture in the post office and there’s a posse out looking for you.”

Sabina, who knew as much about cars as I did, urged Ron to drive faster. He pressed the gas pedal to the floor but they stayed alongside us shouting, “Give ‘er all she’s got, boy!” and “They’ll sign you up in the kiddie car races.” Then they flew ahead of us, swerving to avoid an oncoming car and just barely missing Ron’s car.

“Those rich bastards don’t give a shit if they pile up those souped up cars; they go through them like toys,” Ron muttered. I, characteristically, started to tremble.

“Ron, slow down!” I pleaded. “Let’s just close the windows and ignore them. They’ll get bored.”

Sabina objected, “Catch up to them! Run into them!” She was obviously as unconcerned about the Matthews’ car as the rich boys were about theirs.

When they were alongside again, one of them shouted. “You’ll never get anywhere that way, boy. Let the girls get out and push!”

Ron yelled back, “This ain’t no car, kiddo; it’s a bulldozer.”

Sabina shouted, “We’ll flatten you out and use you as rugs!”

I shouted to Sabina, “You’re crazy! Tell him to slow down!”

Sabina shouted to me, “Coward! You’re just like your mother!”

Suddenly we were blinded by the bright lights of an oncoming car. The sports car bumped us and apparently moved us to the extreme right side of the road, because we were heading straight into a parked car. Ron slammed on the brakes, but we piled into the car’s trunk. We heard the sports car speed around a corner; they disappeared.

Ron got out. He kicked the fender and said, “Shit! It’s wrecked! And the cops’ll be here any minute.” Suddenly he rushed into the car, grabbed the key, and said with urgency, “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”

I got out. Ron and Sabina rushed around a corner but I walked along the highway. Ron came up behind me and grabbed my arm. “Come on, Sophie! You’re making it easy for the police.”

I shook myself loose and continued walking. I let the tears run freely down my face and could barely see where I was going. Too many things had happened that night. I was alone again. I was hurt and humiliated. I kept repeating Sabina’s last comment before the crash. That caused me greater pain than everything else that had happened. She might say it today, not in anger but coldly and analytically. It’s obviously true.

I must have been walking for at least an hour when Ron and Sabina rode up to me on bicycles. “Get on the bar, Sophie!” Ron said, half pleading, half ordering.

I ignored them and walked on.

“Come on, smart ass! You’ve still got almost ten miles to go!”

I didn’t care if I had a hundred. The last thing I heard him say was, “Oh shit!” He was probably waiting to see if I’d hesitate. I didn’t. I walked and sobbed. I knew I wasn’t going to spend any more weekends bicycling with Ron. I also knew I wasn’t ever going to write my novel about him.

I did see Ron again, twice: I saw him more than a year after the car wreck, in a courtroom, when he was on trial for a robbery. And I saw him again, for the last time, after he was released from reform school. But on both of those occasions I saw a completely different person. As I walked away from his father’s wrecked car I knew that the Ron I had known, the Ron I had loved, had been an illusion. Ron may in fact have been a rebel but his rebellion wasn’t one I understood; his life’s project wasn’t mine. I had never known Ron. As I walked home sobbing I knew I’d never use those notes I had scribbled about him. He was as out of place in my life’s project as I was in his.

I learned long after the event that Tom Matthews had not in fact lent Ron the keys to the car; Ron had taken them from his father’s pants pocket. After the collision, when he had rushed into the car and grabbed the keys, Ron had already planned a strategy, which succeeded up to a point. He and Sabina rode two bicycles straight out of a luxurious garage and rushed to Ron’s house after they’d convinced themselves I wouldn’t go along. Ron slipped the keys back into Tom’s pants pocket. In the morning Ron and Sabina joined Tom and Debbie Matthews at breakfast. Ron introduced Sabina and Tom was extremely friendly toward her since he took her to be the “broad” he had almost shot. Then Ron established his alibi. “Hope we didn’t wake you when we came in at one. Sure was a quiet night; no fire engines or anything.” He hoped they hadn’t been awake at one and that there had in fact been no nearby fires. He had guessed correctly, and had almost carried out his strategy. Matthews predictably returned to the house right after he’d left. “The car’s gone!” That’s when Ron almost ruined his whole plan. “Jesus Christ that’s terrible, pop! We ought to call the police right away!” His concern was so excessive and so uncharacteristic that Tom became suspicious immediately and gradually convinced himself it was Ron who had wrecked the car. Characteristically Ron would have said, “What the hell did you expect?” or “It was bound to happen sooner or later.” To express concern he would at most have said, “Oh shit!” Matthews’ suspicions were confirmed by the police investigators, who insisted the thief must have had a key since there was no sign the car had been broken into. None of this proved Ron had stolen it since many car thieves have universal keys and the police don’t always figure out just how a car is stolen. Debbie was unshakably convinced that Ron was innocent; she firmly believed Ron had come home at one and had spent a quiet night with Sabina. But Tom was firmly convinced Ron had stolen and wrecked his car. He knew he couldn’t prove anything; his anger simmered for over a year, when he finally found a bizarre way to get even with his hated son.

This episode coincided with an uproar that took place at my house, about which I know nothing at all, strange as this may seem. A few nights after the car wreck, when I returned to my house from a lonely walk, I found Sabina and Alberts packing suitcases. I asked what was going on but neither of them would say a word to me. I concluded that my behavior after the car wreck was at the root of it and I became hysterical. I grabbed Sabina, shook her and screeched at her: “It’s because we’re cowards that you’re leaving us! You’re not a coward! You wanted to get us all killed!” Sabina shook herself loose and turned to me with a look of fierce hatred, saying only, “Mind your own business. Sophia!” I ran to my room and bawled. They slammed the door when they left. When Luisa came in several hours later I was still bawling. She must have heard me but she went straight to her room and closed the door Iran to her room and threw the door open. I could see she had been crying too. “What’s the matter with you?” I screeched. “Go to bed, Sophia; this has nothing to do with you,” was all she said, and that’s all I ever learned about what had happened. I never saw Alberts again. He and Sabina moved into another house, not far from ours. I later learned that Ron moved in with them. ‘His father’s suspicions had made Ron feel unsafe in his own house. This permanent departure obviously turned his father’s suspicion into certainty. Ron no longer came to visit our house. For a short time I had glimpses of him in school, but I avoided him. When his mother was fired he quit school and I no longer saw him there either.

Luisa and I were alone and I hated it. I hated being where I was. I had become nothing and had done nothing. All I could see ahead of me was an endless desert and an inner void. I shuffled to school and back as indifferently, as mechanically as I had during my first days here. But I no longer took notes and I no longer looked for people who resembled those I had once known. I don’t know how fair it is to put it this way; I became what your letter seems to advocate. I lost my illusions. I stopped trying to interpret my experience, to compare it, to grasp its meaning. I simply underwent a meaningless routine passively and indifferently. I became an object. My present friends tell me I still frequently lapse into the pose I acquired during those days: I stop paying attention, stare blankly and move like a robot; they flatteringly assume I’m lost in thought but I’m not; my mind is a complete blank. I don’t understand your letter because for me those moments without illusions are not moments when I experience reality. They’re moments when I don’t experience anything at all, moments which I imagine are very similar to death.

My only crutch during those last months in high school was Luisa. She never abandoned her dreams, she never let herself be reduced to an inert thing. If she sometimes became desperate it wasn’t because she lost her grip on her past but because the present failed to live up to it.

I leaned on Luisa again after I read your letter. Yes, I showed her your letter, in spite of all the pain it caused me and in spite of your warning. It was in fact Luisa who formulated my arguments against your philosophy of universal guilt. If I hadn’t shared your letter with her I wouldn’t have been able to answer it. I would only have cried until it receded in my memory as yet another bad experience, until I suppressed it.

I called Luisa a few days after your letter came. I tried to warn her before she read it. I told her you had changed very much as a result of your imprisonment. She could also read on my face that I hadn’t received a joyful letter. But she didn’t read it as I had. She didn’t cry; she wasn’t torn by it. She became increasingly enraged. You were wrong about the effect your letter might have on her; your revised portrait of her can’t be more accurate than the one you’ve suppressed.

Luisa didn’t read your letter as an attack aimed at her, but as a confession about yourself. “He certainly has changed,” she said. “These aren’t the arguments of a comrade who is still committed to the struggle. They’re the arguments of a former comrade who has become a reactionary. He’s confessing that he now thinks the struggle was nothing but a trick of his memory and a youthful illusion.”

Even if Luisa didn’t see your letter as an attack, she must have felt attacked by it since all her reactions to it were defensive. I latched on to every one of her defensive reactions because she was defending me as well. She dismissed your treatment of our revolutionary experience as illusory: “That’s nothing but a thinly disguised justification for the status quo: the present is real; opposition to it is illusory.” She reminded me that she had spotted one of your characteristic arguments already in your first letter: “That Christian proposition that we’re all responsible for our own condition, that serfs are responsible for feudalism and workers for capitalism. He talks as if historical systems imposed on people by force were the outcome of their struggles against them.” She didn’t even comment on your descriptions of her past experiences and simply dismissed all of them as reactionary arguments bolstered by fabricated facts. “He obviously didn’t meet any Manuel while he was in prison. Manuel is nothing but a name he gave to his reactionary arguments. In his next letter he’ll tell us he met Jesus in prison. Yarostan had a hard life. Haven’t we all? But not all of us have used that as an excuse for denying our experiences and turning our backs on our comrades.”

I didn’t read your letter as the confessions of an insurgent who had turned reactionary. I knew you hadn’t renounced our struggle for a human community; I knew you hadn’t turned against the dreams we had shared. That’s why I was so hurt by your letter. But Luisa nevertheless communicated her anger to me and in fact stimulated me to formulate arguments against the parts of your letter I found offensive. The most offensive are precisely the sections which deal with Luisa, the sections which contrast her supposed illusions with some supposed reality. I’m convinced that in those passages you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

Luisa’s experiences after her release were no more edifying than mine. The reality to which she came was not more real, meaningful or human than what you call her illusory past experiences. The shedding of illusions which you seem to advocate would not have set Luisa on her feet. Without those dreams based on past experiences she would simply have been a caged bird without hope of release, as you described Vesna. The only mystery to me is why she ever consented to coming here, why she let Alberts take her away from her struggle and her comrades. Did she actually hope to find a more meaningful struggle here? Or was Sabina’s explanation complete? Did Luisa consent to that flight only because of cowardice, because she feared long imprisonment? If so, she made a tragic mistake; she escaped from a cell only to land in a tomb. She landed in an environment where she permanently remained a foreigner, an environment that did not contain more meaningful struggles nor more human comrades. What’s surprising is not that she froze her memories of earlier experiences, but that she retained them at all; her new world didn’t contain anything that reminded her of those experiences. After a lifetime of agitation with fellow workers, after the experience of several social dramas in which the foundation of the ruling order was shaken, she found herself in a world where the ruling order had never even been challenged.

Luisa got a job shortly after Alberts and Sabina left our house. She started working on an assembly line in an auto plant. She still has the same job today. From the very first day she tried to communicate with the people at work. She met people who were experts in watching baseball games, people who had memorized unbelievable lists of trivia from the sports pages of newspapers, people who knew nothing at all about the events she had experienced. They were not only ignorant of all the struggles in which workers had fought for themselves, but proud of their ignorance. They were workers who had become what they are for capital: labor time, the exchangeable and expendable entity you compared to excrement. They were dead as human beings. Luisa’s hopes rose when she was accepted into the union. She couldn’t wait to attend her first union meeting. She thought she’d find a comrade, perhaps even more than one. Instead of comrades she found comic book he-men whose model was the uniformed killer in the war-hero movies. A friend of mine — Daman (I’ll tell you more about him later) — claims that the post-war generation of workers Luisa met when she started working was every bit as militant as every other generation. If he’s right, then workers here are a different breed from those I used to know or else what he means by militancy is very strange. In any case, Daman derives his facts from his political ideology. The workers Luisa met aspired precisely to those things capital offered them: the house filled with commodities, the grotesque hunk of metal on wheels that has to be replaced every year, the standardized universal household appliance known as a wife, and two and a half little ones to replenish the labor market. The political commitment of these workers consisted of admiration for the army and the police: their main political observation was: “We’ll smash them,” and by “we” they meant “our army and our police.” Never before have workers been so completely despoiled of their human characteristics. The union meetings Luisa attended couldn’t have been very different from those of the state-run union you’ve become familiar with. Only a handful of workers attended, all of them men. These men had never dreamed of meeting with each other to discuss strategies for taking over the plants. They didn’t even discuss strategies for eliminating health and safety hazards or for slowing down the pace of the work. The fact is that they didn’t even have strategies for fighting for wage raises. This was the role of the gangs of racketeers who capitalized on the price of wage labor. At one meeting the union members discussed a picnic, a Sunday outing which was also to be attended by the wives and the children. What they discussed was who would bring the punch and the silverware. For these men the union meeting served the same function church meetings served for others. Luisa was as out of place at the union meeting as she would have been in a men’s toilet. Several men made crude jokes about women; the biggest joke of all was her presence at the meeting. These union meetings were part of what Luisa called the workers’ movement. The men could see no reason for Luisa’s presence at the meeting and thought she had gone there in quest of a he-man like each of them. The workers’ movement was dead. If there had once been one here then this was its corpse and the air would have stunk less if the corpse had been buried instead of being left exposed; it had become putrid.

What did Luisa have in this world except what you call her illusions? If she had shed those illusions would she have been more like the Luisa you remembered and discarded, or would she have been no more than the defeated workers on that bus you drove? Should she have accepted herself as a wage-earning machine, decorated her house, bought a car, used up her life exchanging it for objects, and forgotten that she had once experienced human life as something altogether different? She did in fact use up most of her life exchanging it for a wage, but she didn’t erase her past experiences from her memory, and she didn’t stop trying to realize the dreams she had failed to realize in the past. In time Luisa did find comrades with whom she was able to communicate; in time she even took part in events which had some semblance of social significance, which in some small way resembled the large events she had experienced in the past. Without her dreams, without those illusions you now find so objectionable, she wouldn’t have looked for comrades who differed from the professional admirers of baseball pitchers and she wouldn’t have recognized them if she had met them. It seems to me that if Luisa had followed your advice and shed her illusions she would have confronted the same hopeless situation you faced during the days after your release. If she’d had to choose between giving up the dreams for which she had fought or committing suicide I suspect she would ultimately have chosen suicide, in spite of the cowardice Sabina takes to be Luisa’s main quality. Turning her back on everything she had fought for and yet remaining alive as a mere quantity of labor-time exchangeable for money would have meant remaining alive as a corpse, an entity that no longer has any life in it.

The only one of us who lived up to the standards your letter sets up is George Alberts. He shed all his illusions. But I don’t really think you would hold him up as any sort of model in spite of the fact that you might feel apologetic because you were once suspicious of him. I can’t say when it was that Alberts suppressed his dreams or if he ever had any. I was never close to him. I don’t know how deep his commitment was when he fought alongside Nachalo, Luisa and Titus Zabran; I only know that he and Titus helped Luisa escape from that struggle when I was only two. Twelve years later he helped Luisa escape again, pulling me away from you. And I know that he had neither dreams nor illusions when we settled here; he had neither principles nor scruples.

Alberts can’t always have been the unscrupulous person I knew, since Luisa respected him once and considered him a comrade. And Sabina, who is anything but uncritical, used to adore him; she considered him a god, not only when she was a child, but until her late teens, long after she had ceased to depend on him financially. Years after she and Alberts left our house Sabina mysteriously left him; she hasn’t seen him since. I don’t know if he suddenly changed or if Sabina suddenly saw him as I had always seen him. Most of what I know about Alberts I learned during the brief period when he lived with us after we got here. He transported Luisa and me like country relatives, like baggage he had left behind. He disposed of us as if he were the one who was responsible for our lives. He lodged us in the house as if we were furniture or exotic animals. He was our keeper; his role was to house, clothe and feed us. Our role was to cease to be exotic, to learn to behave like the furniture in all the other little houses. Luisa became aware of the nature of her relationship to him almost as soon as we got here. They never touched each other; I don’t remember that they ever talked to each other. I really can’t imagine how they had related to each other earlier.

Although Luisa is as unwilling to talk about him as Sabina, I think the reason she asked him to leave our house is that she knew what a despicable role he had played in an event I only learned about years later and only by chance. Alberts had begun his teaching career here during a period of reaction. Individuals who were nonconformists, or who had in the past diverged from the official model, were being fired from their jobs. Our century seems to have outrun all previous epochs in hysterical witchhunts. Subversive teachers were a choice target for inquisitions. In my school one rumor followed on the tail of another; every teacher in the school was at one or another time accused of being a subversive. I had known only the outcome: Debbie Matthews and two others-were fired; George Alberts continued to teach. Years later I learned that Alberts had been on friendly terms with the three fired teachers; he had introduced himself to them, continually engaged them in discussions and acted as if he had been their friend for years. Yet when the official inquisition began he characterized each of them in colorful detail and with dossiers of documentation as a person who had daily intercourse with the devil, as a pied piper who was pulling schoolchildren straight down to hell. He became a Mr. Ninovo, a state agent. He shed all those qualities you call illusions: solidarity, comradeship, even sheer decency. He actually did to several people what you say Claude had once wanted to do to him, only Claude failed where Alberts succeeded.

You tell me Claude and Adrian were suspicious of Alberts and then you became suspicious too. You pretend that something was wrong with the three of you while nothing about Alberts was strange. You exaggerate. I was suspicious of Titus Zabran and of Alberts as well. They were not among the people I considered my comrades. But this doesn’t mean I wanted to jail them! I never in my life dreamed of a situation where I’d have the power to do that!

While Luisa was reading your letter she made a crude comment about you. I didn’t consider it relevant at the time but now I think it reveals something else about Alberts. She said, “George considered him a hooligan. He was right. Yarostan moves from absolute destruction to absolute acceptance. The two extremes meet because he’s moving along the circumference of a circle without ever stepping inside; he’s always rejected real struggles.”

I don’t accept Luisa’s analysis because I don’t think your letter indicates absolute acceptance. What interests me is that Alberts considered you a destructive hooligan. That’s revealing because that’s exactly what our jailers called us. You think Claude had no reason at all to be suspicious of Alberts? I doubt that. I suspect that Claude knew something about Alberts involvement with those who arrested us. I suspect that Alberts was already then saving his skin by ranting and raving about subversives and hooligans. I suspect that Alberts had already then shed his illusions and accommodated himself to the realities. Would you like Luisa better if she had done that? I suspect not, since your portraits of Mr. Ninovo are not drawn with any great sympathy for that type of person.

Even if you’re right, if Claude’s suspicion was groundless, if Alberts was at that time selflessly devoted to his comrades, what would this prove? That Claude’s and your suspicion of Alberts indicate a mentality similar to that of the police? That’s ridiculous! My lack of trust in someone simply meant I preferred not to work with him. It couldn’t possibly mean that I wanted him jailed since my entire life’s project aimed at the abolition of jails and jailers. Our project was to communicate, not excommunicate.

By this point I’ve convinced myself that you didn’t mean half of what you said in your letter. There are too many contradictions. You must have let yourself be carried away by your own rhetoric. The only person I know who seems to have lived up to your demand that we shed our illusions is George Alberts, and he’s obviously not your model of a fully developed human being. Even if he were, neither Luisa nor I could have followed Alberts’ path; neither she nor I could have saved our skins by selling or repressing our insides. Why would you have written me in the first place if you had thought I had suppressed my wants and had become a commodity that walks and speaks?

Isn’t it enough that the world I live in mobilizes all its forces to suppress my wants and dreams? Why should I let my own will be recruited alongside those forces? Why should I let myself become a mere function of my environment? And why would you want to exchange letters with such a function? The functions are as predictable as they are dull. Shedding our illusions, repressing our wants, forgetting our possibilities: these are the slogans of the ruling order; coming from you they sound bizarre.

I became a function again a few weeks ago. After all, self-repression, even if only temporary, is still the condition for survival in this society. Yet I don’t completely repress my desires even when my survival depends on it. In my first letter I told you how I lost my last job, during last year’s riots. I enjoyed being unemployed since then but I don’t want Tina to support me so I sold myself again. Daman Hesper, a college friend who is now a university professor, told me about an opening for something called a sociology instructor in something called a community college. My job there is to lecture to workers three evenings a week. The whole thing is designed to give some people the illusion they’re moving while in fact they’re standing still; it’s like a simulated railway car where the moving scenery is actually a projection on a screen. First of all I’ve no idea what sociology is and I’m convinced it’s nothing more than a job classification: someone is a sociologist the same way someone is a director or a secretary. Secondly the community college deserves every attribute except “community,” which is not merely lacking, but is negated by this very institution. Thirdly the workers who attend my course are precisely those workers whose aim in life is to oppress other workers. In fact, the sole purpose of this activity euphemistically called adult education is to provide credentials to aspiring foremen, union bosses and even managers. The role of the credentials is to give these people an appearance of legitimacy as order-givers. The students experience these evening courses as one of Hercules’ labors: this is one of the many arbitrary rites which are performed as part of the initiation to a higher rung on an endless ladder. Fourthly I don’t give any lectures. That’s my own innovation. The first day I simply sat down and waited, like everyone else. When one of the students got up to leave I asked him if he’d stay if someone in the room turned out to be the instructor. He didn’t answer but he stayed. I was of course suspect number one. Someone else then got up to leave. He was quite determined and quite angry. He said he was going home since the teacher, even If present, obviously wasn’t doing her job. I suggested that instead of going home he should report such a teacher to the school authorities, since he had paid his fee and wasn’t getting anything in return. Everyone seemed to agree so I added: “Whenever you see someone who isn’t doing his job you should report him to the authorities.” At this point he lost his determination and returned to his seat. Of course at this point I had given myself away. I was asked if I intended to continue not doing my job and I said I did. An argument began. Some didn’t like to be cheated; when they drop a coin into a cigarette machine they want either the cigarettes or the coin returned. Others didn’t think it was right to be informers. The argument continued for half an hour after the class was scheduled to end. It was I who got up and put on my coat. I was asked if I’d be there again next time and I said I would. I should probably have said I didn’t know. Every single student returned for the next session. They talked almost exclusively to each other during the entire session. Yet if they had known I wasn’t going to be there none of them would have come back. Isn’t that funny? If dogs were officially certified as sociology instructors a roomful of people supplied with the right dog would qualify as a sociology class. Yet some of my so-called colleagues think the students come to be ennobled by the precious words which drop like diamonds from their mouths. During an argument about sabotage — mostly about how to stop it, unfortunately — one of the students triumphantly shouted, “But this is sociology, for chrissake! I never knew it was so interesting.” Everyone seemed to agree with that comment except me, although I characteristically said nothing. I disagreed because it wasn’t socio-anything; it was pure time-serving for the sake of future rewards. My remuneration is immediate, theirs is deferred; the slogan that describes the activity in its entirety is “education pays.” If everyone agreed that these sessions were interesting you can imagine what the other courses are like, the ones where lecturers impart wisdom to ignorant and attentive listeners. The fact is that the sessions are not interesting. The language, the concepts and even the experiences that are discussed are hardly ever an individual’s own; they’re almost always the stock terms, the trivial ideas and the stereotyped experiences repeated daily by the propaganda apparatus; these people speak the language and think the images on the signs you described. These sessions are nothing more than forms of adapting to boredom. They reinforce closed minds and negate the very possibility of learning. The anticipation, exploration and adventure involved in every experience of learning are lacking; there’s no feeling of discovery; everything that’s discussed is predictable; every insight is already known. If this is interesting what must the rest of their lives be like?

I’ll obviously be fired sooner or later but by then I’ll have saved up some money again and won’t have to depend on Tina. If I’m not fired soon enough I’ll quit. Why? Because I experienced learning, comradeship and community in that event you tried so hard to smear and distort and therefore I refuse to accept this activity as anything but a degrading sham. I decided during my first teaching job that I wasn’t going to let myself be reduced to a means of production for the production of means of production. It’s true that merely by accepting this job I play a role similar to the one you played when you drove your bus, but I don’t do any of the driving. The only discussion in which I took any part at all was the discussion about sabotage. Only one of the students had anything good to say about sabotage: “It might be necessary in some circumstances.” I eagerly asked him what types of sabotage he was personally familiar with. Although his accounts were tame and he lumped simple gestures of solidarity together with sabotage, that was the only time I felt I was communicating with someone, the only time we talked about our activity in the light of a different, unrealized yet possible activity. He was mildly interested when I told him I had known workers who had locked up the owners and had run the plant on their own. But as far as all the other students were concerned, I had started to talk in a foreign language.

I’ve tried to show you. that my whole life has revolved around the experience I shared with you and that all my life I’ve sought to communicate with you. I hope I’ve clarified what I mean. Without that experience my life is reduced to the life of a lifeless object: it becomes the period of time during which the object is consumed, a trivial episode in the life of capital. On my way to my job I take a bus through the part of the city where the city’s “life” takes place, and I pass through there during the hours when the city’s inhabitants do their “living.” The city’s life consists of a display of commodities: behind glass, behind concrete walls, on screens. “Life” is a proliferation of items for sale: everything from toilet bowls to human beings has a price tag. All art, philosophy, science and history, the entire past and present of humanity are enjoyed, not-by individuals, but by money. “Life” doesn’t consist of projection, communication or creation, but of a wallet with bills inside. The act of “living” consists of spending the money for which living time is exchanged during the working day. The only shred of human life in this dance of objects with corpses is the struggle to destroy the dehumanizing game; the only shred of humanity in me is the memory of that struggle.

I think you’re wrong when you say my memory of our struggle is frozen. I think the fact that it informs every moment of my present life means that it’s very much alive. I do know someone in whom similar past experiences and hopes are frozen. That’s my friend Daman, the one who helped me find my job. His one-time commitment has become his profession. His past experience is the subject of his lecture notes. He’s been teaching for three or four years now. He has enacted the same revolution in his classroom year after year; he’s broken it down into assignments and test questions. He froze and packaged his life’s dreams and sold them to his employers; he has been thawing and serving them in sauces to customers who simply swallow them along with the other ingredients in the sauce. I haven’t done that to my past.

Whether or not you intended it, you’ve validated the very dreams your arguments dismissed as illusions. You told me that people who had seemed to be no more than inert objects were turning into human beings. You told me that human voices could again be heard in a space where human voices had seemed forever drowned by the sounds of electrical contrivances. You told me that my hopes and Luisa’s hopes were coming back to life. Yet you insist that neither Luisa nor I ever shared those hopes. Luisa was obviously wrong when she said you had become a reactionary; if you had you wouldn’t be able to describe what’s happening around you. But why do you insist Luisa and I were reactionaries all along? If that were true, we wouldn’t understand your descriptions, we couldn’t begin to grasp what yon meant by a new birth of dreams, of projects, of communication.

What’s alive in my memory, what you claim I froze, is precisely what causes your enthusiasm about the events you describe. Communication about such events is what I’ve missed ever since I’ve been here. Your letter brings me so close to realizing this communication — and then slams the door in my face.

I’m begging. I know it. I really don’t think I deserved your letter. I wasn’t your jailer. You weren’t arrested either because of my relation to George Alberts or because of the letter I sent you by way of Lem. Neither Luisa nor I shackled you with a distorted view of the past. Luisa wasn’t your nurse when you were too young to formulate your own thoughts and she wasn’t a hypnotist who insinuated herself into your consciousness while you were in a trance. The most significant moments of my life were not moments during which I deformed your dreams and destroyed your possibilities. My previous letter was not a glorification of your imprisonment but a call for warmth, comradeship and understanding.

Please don’t leave our relationship where your last letter left it. You would be killing something I’ve kept alive in an environment which tried repeatedly to kill it and failed. Please don’t drive me out of the single context in which I haven’t felt like an outsider. Please don’t put an end to the only real friendship I’ve succeeded in forming.

Apprehensively, with love, your,
Sophia.

Yarostan’s third letter

Dear Sophia,

Your letter was comradely and. I’ll try to answer in the same spirit. But I don’t agree with you. You make the statement: “Our project was not to excommunicate but to communicate.” This is a bad joke. I’ll try to show you that our project was to excommunicate, not to communicate.

I read your letter several times. Mirna read it. She’s still convinced you’re the ogre who caused my arrest but she now considers you a rather pleasant ogre. She even expressed a desire to get together with you and Sabina if circumstances should ever allow such a meeting. But she thought the passages where you glorify your past experience must have been taken from the speeches of our politicians.

Mirna and I were stunned to learn certain facts from your letter. I was amazed to learn that George Alberts had not been arrested at the time when you. Luisa, I and the rest of us were arrested. I also think it curious that you and Luisa were released after spending only two days in jail; I spent four years there and as far as I know very few of us were sentenced to terms shorter than that.

The reason I was amazed Alberts hadn’t been arrested is because I had always thought he’d been arrested before any of the rest of us. I had thought Claude’s suspicion of him a part of an official campaign designed to prepare Alberts’ friends and acquaintances for his arrest. Such campaigns to stigmatize an individual as a suspicious character normally originated high up in the political hierarchy and were passed down to susceptible people like Claude. An instruction was thus transformed into a widely circulated rumor, the rumor gradually became a widely held certainty, and in time all the victim’s friends acquiesced in his temporary or permanent liquidation, frequently feeling relieved to be rid of such a dangerous acquaintance. The fact that Alberts wasn’t arrested suggests that the suspicion was not an instruction from the top but originated with Claude. Since Claude had never had personal contact with Alberts he must have been pointing his finger at Luisa or else at Titus Zabran or me, since we were Luisa’s closest friends and therefore by extension Alberts’ friends. Claude’s act must have been a classical political move: he was incriminating one or all three of us in order to establish his power over the rest. His success against us would be a permanent threat he could hold over the others and his position as gang leader would be assured by his power to eliminate real or potential opponents. This wouldn’t mean that Claude Tamnich was any less of a gorilla than I had remembered him to be but it would mean that he was considerably more intelligent.

Another reason I’m amazed to learn that Alberts wasn’t arrested is because this conflicts with an event you mentioned in your first letter, namely with the fact that he was fired from his job. I had known about his expulsion at the time and had assumed this had been the first step toward his arrest and imprisonment. I had assumed he had been arrested for exactly the same reason we were. I had thought his firing had been something like a forecast of our arrest; he was accused of sabotage, of being a foreign agent and of representing a danger to society’s productive forces. I know he wasn’t the cause of our arrest but I was sure he had been arrested. Are you sure about this? I’m not asking to catch you in another slip of memory but to clarify my understanding. Since Titus Zabran as well as Luisa had long been his comrades I had assumed his activity had been similar to Luisa’s, at least before he emigrated, and that consequently he had been arrested for the same reason.

The detail that upset Mirna concerned the letter you sent me twelve years ago. You make me feel I should apologize for bringing this up again. Before mentioning what bothered Mirna I should make it clear that I don’t consider either you or Luisa personally responsible for my arrest or imprisonment. You apparently read my critique of our shared past activity as a critique of you and Luisa and you understood Mirna’s suspicions about your letter to be part of that critique. My critique is primarily a re-evaluation of my own past and has nothing to do with Mirna’s suspicions. I told you I didn’t consider that letter responsible for my arrest and I didn’t make the absurd suggestion that you sent instructions to the police. At the time of my second arrest thousands of people were imprisoned; they were accused of engaging in acts hostile to the state. I was arrested because of the activities in which Jan Sedlak and I and several other comrades were engaged at the time. The arrival of your letter happened to coincide with a vast uprising that broke out in Magarna, an uprising which had numerous echoes here. Jan and I were among those echoes; all the echoes were suppressed. Mirna saw a causal connection where there was nothing more than a pure coincidence. Yet my mention of Mirna’s erroneous conclusion led you to think I was accusing you indirectly, backhandedly. Such an understanding of my letter makes it difficult for me to deal with Mirna’s response to your most recent letter.

Mirna was upset when she learned that the messenger who delivered your letter was arrested. This information confirms her belief that your letter was the cause of my arrest. Her belief remains groundless, but your friend’s arrest does pose another question. What was he doing here besides delivering your letter? Why was he so important to the police? Did they think your letter was an important document, or was he delivering something else besides?

You didn’t believe your friend’s account of the experiences to which he was subjected in prison. You very honestly admitted you couldn’t believe a world we had helped build could have degenerated into such a primitive torture chamber. I don’t know what he told you but I know that some of the experiences I have undergone are difficult to put into words. I suspect that your greatest injustice to him was to think he was lying.

The fate of your letter illustrates a point I’m trying to make. What is the relation between the intentions of our acts and the significance our acts have to others? How do others understand and respond to our words and gestures? Mirna’s response to your letter illustrates that this relationship is not as clear and obvious as you make it seem. Living in a world where arrests are frequent, where news is rarely good, where the outcome of unusual events is not anticipated with joy but with fear, Mirna saw your letter as an omen. For Mirna that letter could only have been a threat or a summons; those were the only types of messages she had ever received. My point isn’t to suggest that Mirna is right in thinking your earlier letter the cause of my arrest. My point is to understand what her attitude to your letter means. What you exclude from your analysis is the social context in which our acts take place. When you wrote that letter twelve years ago your intention was to communicate about experiences we had shared. This was the content of your letter. Yet to Mirna that letter was an omen; it was an object which had nothing in common with your intentions. Mirna was wrong. But let’s imagine that she was right, that your letter did have something to do with my arrest. In that case your letter would have been precisely the object Mirna saw and not the communication you had intended. In that case there would have been a great discrepancy between your intention, to communicate, and the significance of your gesture, to cause my arrest.

After my first release from prison my outlook was very similar to your present outlook. Much of what I experienced during that four-year term should have changed that outlook but failed to do so until many years later. Like you, I treated my past, my experience with you and my understanding of Luisa’s experience as a standard of comparison, as a stark contrast to the world into which I was released. The four years in prison only strengthened my desire to communicate this experience to others. Like you, I wanted to bring my earlier experience back to life; I looked for comrades with whom to resume the same struggle. Like you, I didn’t want to become a “blind tool of the world that surrounded me. I saw through that world, I saw it as a cage, because I had experienced an outside, a Utopia, because I had struggled together with others to realize a different world.

This was my outlook when I embraced Mirna and her parents. I saw them as the common people, as typical examples of the broadest sector of the working population. I was convinced that if I could communicate my project to these few people they would themselves communicate it to all those like them and the revolutionary project would spread like a tidal wave. I was convinced that in time Mirna’s father would translate into his own language his understanding that the constraints and the deadening routine were not imposed by nature like the cycle of planting and harvesting but were socially imposed, largely because he and his likes consented daily to reproduce the constraint and the routine. I was sure he’d find his own words for expressing his understanding that he and his likes had the ability to end the infernal routine and the ability to project and build an altogether different world. I was also convinced that Mirna would easily grasp that marriage, childbirth and housekeeping were not her lot, that those activities couldn’t continue if she and her likes didn’t submit to them. I was convinced that as soon as she translated this understanding into her own words she would communicate it to others like her, and a new field of possibilities would open up.

When Jan still lived at the Sedlak house I sensed a certain hostility toward my arguments. Though I knew he agreed with me, he never supported me. Once, after a long argument the subject of which I’ve forgotten, he told me he had never realized how much of a missionary I was. He treated my arguments as attempts to convert his family to a religion. I didn’t try to understand his attitude. Later, when he and I worked together, I didn’t draw any conclusions from the blatant difference between his behavior and mine. Like your friend Ron he flouted authority, didn’t submit to discipline, avoided work whenever possible and stole as much as he could. Also like Ron and unlike you and me he didn’t argue, he didn’t try to convert anyone to his Utopia, he made no attempt to communicate his past experiences to others. I didn’t learn the significance of Jan’s hostility until several years later, when it had long been too late to let him know I finally understood what he had tried to tell me. My activity during those heated after-dinner arguments was not communication; it was missionary activity. It was exactly the type of activity that takes place in that school you described; it couldn’t generate a community but only destroy it. I acted toward my hosts and future relatives as a priest, a professor, a pedagogue. My mind had transformed my past experiences into revelations of truth and I professed this truth in order to convert Mirna, her father and if possible even her mother. I had convinced myself that as soon as I communicated this truth from my head to theirs they would spread it further.

Every evening after dinner I launched into a tirade against one or another type of sold activity, usually bus driving. What Mirna’s father heard was a tirade, a lecture, which referred only marginally to his own activity as bus driver and which had nothing at all to do with rebellion or insurrection. He knew people who rebelled in various ways: some came to work drunk, others damaged or wrecked busses, yet others used their busses on weekends for family outings. He may have sympathized with all of them and he understood they were all rebels in some sense. I clearly wasn’t like them. My discourses on the need to abolish vehicles were not rebellion but pedagogy.

Professors of insurrection are not insurgents. Later in this letter I’ll try to describe what I think they are. Most people know this. For example when Mirna read your letter she remarked that your friend Ron reminded her of her brother. Ron rejected wage labor, private property, education and his family through concrete acts; he fought against these institutions in his daily practice. Ron was an insurgent whereas you and Luisa are pedagogues, missionaries. You recognize the contradictory nature of such pedagogy in your description of your academic friend Daman but you don’t seem to recognize it in Luisa or in yourself.

To Mirna’s father I was neither a drunkard nor a thief nor much of a rebel. I went to work on time, drove the scheduled route, didn’t get drunk and never tried to borrow the bus. Sedlak had no trouble at all understanding what I was in his world: a political pedagogue. And in his world such people were not bus drivers but politicians. He recognized me, not because of my birth or my social function but because of my behavior. He knew that in his world political philosophers didn’t long remain peasants or bus drivers; they were eventually transferred to rungs on the ladders of union bureaucracies or government bureaucracies. When I tried to communicate my intentions he only heard me express the aspirations of a politician. All he saw in my gestures was the ability to satisfy such aspirations. And he related to me in terms of the way he saw me, not in terms of the projects and possibilities I thought I was communicating to him. I’ve already told you that he was very enthusiastic about my marriage to Mirna. His enthusiasm can’t be explained by the fact that he liked me nor by the fact that he had fallen in love with my dreams and hopes, my projects, my past experiences. He was a generous and warm person but he was also a shrewd, calculating and observant peasant. The years of bus driving hadn’t deprived him of the peasant’s ability to orient himself to the village market. He could still sense the precise moment when the price of his commodity rose; he still knew which buyers were willing to pay the highest price. He hadn’t lost the commercial instincts of peasants whose productive activity is oriented to the market. He was also aware that politicians had become the diamonds and caviar on the market of human commodities. My attempts to communicate with him had merely informed him that I was a commodity of this type. His enthusiasm for the marriage was motivated by a combination of traditional and commercial considerations. Traditionally the husband or wife of a villager had to be strong and healthy; the same standard was applied to cows and horses. A sick cow or a weak horse would constitute a burden; what was desired was an animal that would contribute to the maintenance of the peasant household and would assure the survival of the parents in old age. Sedlak applied this standard in the conditions of the society in which he found himself. The husband still had to be healthy and strong but these requirements lost their physical meaning and referred to commercial qualities. Thus healthy became equivalent to marketable, namely the quality of being useful to specific potential buyers. He had to be strong, not physically but commercially, in the quantitative sense of commanding a high price, as opposed to a weak ordinary commodity the low quality of which is proved by its low price. Consequently for Sedlak the marriage was a shrewd commercial transaction; he sold his daughter in exchange for an anticipated future which would more than recompense his original investment. He made only one mistake in his calculations, and considering the limits of his knowledge of the market his error was really very minor. His main estimates were all precise. The conditions of the market were exactly those he surmised: today’s buyers do in fact pay more for politicians than for any other human commodity; our century is after all the golden age of the political racketeer. And thanks to Luisa I was in fact a commodity of that genus. His only miscalculation was caused by his lack of familiarity with the specific commodity in question. If apples had been in question he would have known that only certain types of apples were selling for an exaggeratedly high price and he wouldn’t have erred by bringing the wrong apples to the market. But he wasn’t as familiar with politicians as with apples. He didn’t grasp the subtle differences between politicians; he didn’t even know there were such differences. To him all politicians were the same. He lacked the system of classification of this commodity. This is what caused him to err. He mistakenly placed his expectations on a commodity of the right class, even the right genus, but the wrong species. He never understood his error.

My words didn’t inform Sedlak about my past experiences or my hopes or my determination to struggle for a different world. They informed him about the characteristics and the potential selling price of a commodity. I thought that by communicating those experiences and formulating those arguments I was ceasing to be a tool of my environment, a mere object in a world of objects. Yet the end result of my activity was a complete inversion of my intentions: I succeeded only in defining myself as a specific type of object.

My point isn’t to expose a peasant’s motives or idiosyncrasies but to understand what happened to the hopes and projects I once shared with you when I tried to communicate them to other human beings. How did others perceive me, my project and my past experience? Was Sedlak’s perception of me distorted? Or was it my self-perception that was distorted? He recognized the pedagogue behind the speechmaker, the politician behind the pedagogue, and the repressive machinery of the state behind the politician. He recognized the political rhetoric as the main attribute of today’s rulers. It was I who didn’t understand the nature of my activity. I only understood it in terms of my intentions, as you still do today. At that time I shared your present commitment. That’s why you’re right when you compare my release after my first prison term with your experience after you emigrated. Both of us lacked and tried to reconstitute the project we had shared. I saw the Sedlaks as people with whom I could share that project; you saw Ron as such a person. But you failed to learn from Ron what I eventually learned from the Sedlaks: that I wasn’t one of them but one of the pedagogues; that my teaching wasn’t distinguishable from the one that had created their repressive world; that this pedagogy was nothing more than a series of rationalizations which justified the rule of pedagogues over the rest of society. When Mirna’s father saw a politician behind the pedagogue he wasn’t exhibiting his ignorance but rather his acute powers of observation. He saw my dreams as illusions and linked my gestures to the repressive acts of the ruling order. It was he who exposed the nature of your and my past experience, not because he was a social philosopher or critic but because he had a fairly lucid awareness of the world he inhabited and because, like a prisoner in a crowded cell, he tried to accommodate himself as well as possible without causing discomfort to others and without dehumanizing himself.

The commitment I once shared with you rebounded from the world and hit me in the face. At some point I had to reexamine that commitment. When I found that my past experience as well as my attempts to communicate it were flawed I began to reject them. I consider it highly significant that teaching happens to be the branch of activity in which you’ve engaged yourself. I’m sorry if I seem intentionally cruel. I know from your description of your life’s activities and from your attachment to experiences I’ve been rejecting that you’re offended by my present attitudes. When I first wrote you I wondered if you had changed and if I’d recognize you; when I read your first letter I recognized you far too well; I realized it was I who had changed. I had reexamined and rejected the qualities you had maintained. That’s why I responded to your letter with a certain amount of anger. I wasn’t responding to you but to myself and my own recent past, to attitudes I had only recently wrestled with and rejected in myself. If you thought my attacks were aimed specifically at you then you misunderstood me. They were aimed at a past which I share with most of my contemporaries. Today I’m one among hundreds, maybe thousands, who are rejecting and uprooting and exposing that past. Contrary to what you say repeatedly in your last letter, the ferment surrounding me today is not a continuation of any project you and I took part in. All around me in factories and schools and on the streets my contemporaries are turning their backs to the experience you celebrate in your letters and also to the dreams you and I once shared.

A few days ago I visited the plant where I had found my first job, where I had met Titus and Luisa and you. The last time I had been there was fifteen years ago after my first release. Your letters and my attempts to remember and describe the plant stimulated me to see it again. I also had a vague desire to find out what happened to the people who have played such a significant part in your life.

I was stunned by what I saw there although I should have expected it. Zagad’s name has now been removed from the front of the building, from all the windows and from the cartons; it has been replaced by the word “popular.” And hardly anything else in the plant has changed — in more than twenty years! In fact it is now more similar to the place I once worked in than to the plant I visited after my first release. The machinery seemed greased and oiled; everything seemed to be in working order. On the other hand the building is deteriorating, the walls haven’t been painted for at least a quarter of a century, the work space is even dirtier than it had been fifteen years ago and the printing on the cartons is of even lower quality. The red posters on the walls with their messages celebrating the glorious victory of the working class are covered with grime.

The first major change that took place there during the past, twenty years was taking place before my own eyes; the workers were on strike. It’s the first strike there in twenty years. It started a week ago.

Everything about this strike glaringly demonstrates that it has nothing in common with the last strike that broke out in that plant, the one you and I took part in. And everyone in the plant was aware of this. I didn’t even have to ask questions. As soon as I introduced myself as someone who had worked there once and had been imprisoned for sabotage, everyone started talking at once. What everyone expressed most clearly and unmistakably was relief: “It’s over! The terror is over!” It’s as if a war or a plague had suddenly come to an end. Various workers told me that for several weeks they’d been skeptical and cautious. They had read about the attempted coup by the president and the army and about the suspension of the police but they didn’t discuss these events. They listened to the speeches of politicians, at first only on their radios at home; later a worker brought a radio to work and they listened all day. They started to talk about the speeches. But they didn’t act. They were suspicious. They thought the whole sequence might be nothing more than a performance conducted by those on top, an intermission between two acts, a change of guard, a mere replacement of one repressive group by another group with different names and slogans but equally repressive. Then they began to hear of outbreaks of strikes in other plants, oustings of police agents, managers and union representatives. They learned that the workers who took part in those acts weren’t arrested, imprisoned or even fired. At that point they stopped discussing the speeches on the radio and started talking about their plant. The decision to strike grew out of those discussions. It was the collective decision of the workers in the plant. It wasn’t a decision taken by politicians and transmitted to the workers by union representatives or any other agents of those in power. In fact the purpose of the strike was to oust the union representative. They won this demand immediately: the official left his post as soon as the strike broke out. But the workers remained on strike. They worked out a scheme for replacing the union representative. They wanted the post to rotate among all the workers in the plant, in alphabetical order. Each worker was to occupy the post for a month. The manager insisted on a permanent and appointed union representative. The workers abandoned their initial scheme and insisted only on the right to elect a permanent representative, a demand the manager is ready to grant. I asked them why they gave up their demand and why they didn’t oust the manager along with the union representative. Various workers explained that the present manager is a pliant and mediocre bureaucrat who performs his functions reluctantly and obeys instructions like everyone else whereas the previous union representative had been the real power behind the management arid the most feared and hated individual in the plant. The union representative was a member of the political police and his actual function was that of prison warden. As soon as he was ousted all the minor police agents among the workers quietly disappeared. Thus the removal of this single functionary clears the air and creates an atmosphere of freedom never before experienced by most of the workers in the plant. I was told that all the other steps they might take were minor by comparison; now that they’ve recovered their ability to act and removed their main fetter they’ll wait and see what other steps the situation makes possible. Behind this realism I sensed a certain amount of fear.

Despite their apprehension and their caution these workers are not the puppets we were. This time the project is genuinely their own. I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of what they’ve done so far. Strikes initiated by workers have been nearly impossible here for twenty years but such strikes are not a new discovery. Nor is the ousting of a union representative a novelty. All I want to emphasize is the difference between this event and the one you and I experienced. The forces in play are almost identical. A group of politicians is jockeying for positions of power. The politicians’ journalistic admirers are designing haloes and crowns for their patrons, hysterically trying to stimulate displays of reverence for one or another clique of racketeers. Professors and union bureaucrats are flying from one plant to another frantically and pathetically seeking applause for one or another bureaucratic panacea. Each political group is trying to plant its agents among workers, each group is trying to stimulate workers to demonstrate support for one or another part of its program. But unlike twenty years ago the politicians aren’t succeeding. The speeches are cheered and ignored. Workers invite speakers, praise them, applaud them and then discuss the next steps to be taken with each other; the steps they take are almost always diametrically opposed to those advocated by the speech-maker they applauded. The workers I saw in the plant weren’t carrying out the directives of officials but exploring and carrying out their own desires. I sensed a feeling of solidarity I hadn’t felt twenty years ago; it was a solidarity cemented by mutual aid instead of mutual suspicion.

And this group of people welcomed me. Unlike my experience fifteen years ago, when the union bureaucrat told me he couldn’t afford to hire a convicted saboteur, these workers invited me to join them before I even asked. Several people asked me if I had another job and since I didn’t they urged me to “come back.” Several openings have been created by the sudden resignation of the police agents who fled when their chief was ousted, fearing the other workers’ revenge. I told them I’d think about it and they said they’d reserve a place for me. The very possibility of such an invitation is probably the greatest change in the plant’s history. I wasn’t being hired but invited: the difference in words alone indicates that a profound change is under way. One is hired to a job; I was being invited to take part in an experience whose content is as yet unknown. And the people inviting me were neither owners nor managers nor union bureaucrats but workers. They were inviting me to join them in an activity which was about to be transformed from a deadening routine to a project, although no one as yet knew just how it was to be transformed.

What I saw, heard and felt amounted to a complete rejection of your and my past experience. I’m sorry if this sounds cruel or callous. You sound even more callous to me when you describe our past activity as a project in which the whole population raised itself out of submission. Such a description is a travesty of the real event. Your description refers to the moment when the whole population immersed itself in unprecedented submission. The population is raising itself out of that submission only now, scarred and weakened after twenty years of bending but not defeated. What these workers are finally questioning is everything that was imposed on them twenty years ago — everything except the function of the plant itself, which Jan Sedlak and your friend Ron would have questioned but not you or I or Luisa. They’ve discussed everything except the nature of their activity, an activity in which people sell their lives so as to package other people’s sold lives, an activity that epitomizes the cannibalism of the commercial monstrosity that nourishes itself on human lives. I have no idea whether or not these workers are going to storm that fortress. If they do, you and I will not have contributed to that struggle with our slogans about workers administering and managing their own factories.

Before I left the plant I asked the workers if any of them might know what happened to our former comrades. Several people had heard of three of our friends but they were all surprised to learn our comrades had once worked at the plant. You will surely be more surprised by what I learned than I was. The dreamer, according to you a worker like all the rest, Marc Glavni, is one of the more important bureaucrats in the state apparatus; he has been on the central committee of the state planning commission for several years. They found my ignorance more surprising than I found the news; I had to admit I never looked into newspapers. They were even more surprised when I asked about Adrian Povrshan. “Don’t you listen to the radio either?” one person asked. I do listen to the radio occasionally but apparently I’m not very attentive. Our friend Adrian, to whom you say the spirit of liberation once spread, gives frequent speeches over the radio and is a well-known politician “of the new type,” I was told. Like old Sedlak I can no longer distinguish between politicians.

One woman also knew Jasna Zbrkova and this surprised me a great deal more, not because Jasna has become rich and famous too, but because she teaches in Yara’s school and lives in my neighborhood. I could have asked Yara about her; Jasna could just as well have asked Yara about me. I rushed to the school as soon as I left the plant.

When Yara came out of school she thought I’d come to walk her home and was pleased, since I had never done that before. I told her I had just learned an old friend of mine taught in her school.

“Do I know her?” Yara asked.

“I suppose so,” I answered. “It’s Jasna Zbrkova.”

“Oh, not her!” Yara said, intensely disappointed. “She was the last one to join us; she stayed out of every demonstration except the last and she came out a week ago only because it’s become fashionable.”

I saw Jasna come out of the school while Yara was still speaking and I didn’t have time to respond to Yara’s perfect description; I would have told her, “Yes, that’s the one, that’s exactly the person I knew.”

Jasna looked twenty years older. I don’t think I would have recognized her if I hadn’t been looking for her. She seemed embarrassed to see both of us. She greeted Yara politely. Then she ran to embrace me and burst out crying. With a voice muffled by sobs she said, “Thank god it’s finally over!” Letting me go, she embraced Yara and told her, “And thank you for being the most mature and the most courageous of all of us!” Jasna began to apologize profusely to Yara and to me although neither of us had said anything. She admitted having known for years that Yara was my daughter; she apologized for never having told Yara that she knew me. She had known when I was released and that I was home. “I wanted very badly to come to see you,” she told me. Turning to Yara she continued, “Just as I wanted very badly to take part in the first two demonstrations. But I stayed away. I was afraid. I was imprisoned too, not as long as Yarostan, but long enough to have filled the rest of my life with fear of being arrested.”

I told Jasna about my correspondence with you and asked if she remembered you and Luisa and Sabina.

“I could no more forget them than I could forget you!” she said. “It’s because I remember all of you that I began to hate myself for my fear and cowardice, for staying away from the students and the demonstrations; I felt I was betraying not only the students but everything and everyone I loved.”

I asked if she was still afraid to visit our house.

“If you hadn’t come today I would have come to see you,” she answered. “The spell broke a week ago. I’m no longer afraid. What kept me from coming yesterday or the day before was no longer fear of arrest but embarrassment; I couldn’t face your brave Yara; I was ashamed of being such a coward.”

Yara reached for the teacher’s hand and held it in her own; she had apparently become convinced she had misjudged our comrade.

“That fear is so irrational, so senseless and yet it holds you as if you were locked into a box,” Jasna explained. “But as soon as I took part in that demonstration a week ago the fear vanished as if I had suddenly left the box. It was wonderful! Just like old times!”

To find out if she was really saying what you’ve been saying in your letters I asked her, “Just exactly like old times?”

The same Jasna whom you and I remember answered, “No, it wasn’t really like old times at all. This was completely different. These kids have far more courage than I ever had. I never did anything unless I thought everyone else was doing the same thing. The kids began completely on their own when no one was on their side, when they didn’t know what would happen to them, when all the officials and teachers were against them. And Yara was among the first.”

I asked Jasna if she ever saw any of the people you and I had known. She said she had seen Titus Zabran regularly over the years. She also knew something about all the others and promised to tell me about them when she visits us; all she said about them was, “They’re all doing better than I am.”

That evening I told Mirna about my visit to the plant and about Jasna. I decided to accept the workers’ generous invitation and go back to work in the carton plant. I asked Mirna if she would quit her job when I started working. She said she wouldn’t dream of it.

When I spoke to Mirna about my intense desire to visit the recently formed political prisoners’ club she again said such a visit would only cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth. However when I mentioned Jasna’s reluctance to visit us and the reason for her reluctance, Mirna said, “It’s one thing to be afraid to take part in a demonstration. If Yara had asked for my permission I’d never have given it to her. But it’s terrible to be afraid to visit old friends. She was my brother’s friend! She should have come to see me long before you were released.”

“Don’t you see I have as much reason to visit the prisoners club?” I asked. My concern wasn’t to have her permission but to calm her fears. Mirna was once as reckless and adventurous as Yara; two decades of “paradise” have made her fearful, cautious and resigned.

I went to the prisoners’ club the following day. I had the impression I was visiting the underworld of the ancient Greeks, the place where people went after they died. Everyone in the room turned to look at every newcomer; on every face there was the same question: is this another ghost of a former friend? Newcomers continually shouted with glee as they recognized their former friends. It was very moving. Men and women mostly older than I continually called out the names of people they suddenly recognized. People who had met in prison wept, people who hadn’t seen each other for twenty years embraced. Each thought the other had long been dead. But it wasn’t Hades. The people I saw were very much alive. They all expressed the same sense of relief I had felt everywhere else: “It’s finally over!” These people were not spirits meeting in the underworld but living beings dancing on a tomb; the tomb contains what you call our project. These people are at last emerging from that project’s spell, ridding themselves of its power; you are among the last who are still in a trance.

I didn’t long remain an outsider observing a ceremony but quickly became one of the celebrants.

“Yarostan!” someone shouted, someone I didn’t recognize. He was a grey-haired man who looked over sixty. When he embraced me and shook me to make sure I was alive, I was overwhelmed. I recognized him. “Zdenek Tobarkin!” I shouted.

I first met this one-time union organizer during my first prison term. I had thought he wasn’t much older than I. He’s aged terribly. He briefly told me about his experiences after his release; they were quite different from mine. He was released a few months after my first release. He too was turned down by a union bureaucrat when he tried to get his former job back. But many workers at his plant remembered him. They threatened to strike if he wasn’t reinstated. What happened then was almost unheard of in those days. The workers won. Zdenek was rehired. He told me he then spent several weeks trying to locate me; he even asked a friend to do research in union files. He laughed when I told him I had become Miran Sedlak, a newly-arrived peasant.

“I’ve been shuffling from home to work and back home again. The only extraordinary thing I’ve done over these years was to come to this prisoners’ club,” he told me. “It’s not the prisons that have to be exposed. Wherever there are prisons they’re going to be the same. What has to be exposed is the activity that led workers to put up with the imprisonment of their comrades, to accept without struggle the complete destruction of their rights and the constant police surveillance.”

I asked him what forms these exposures might take and he said, “I don’t know but I do know it will be the most useful work I’ve done in my life.”

My views had been similar to Zdenek’s when we’d first met. I was intensely happy to learn he had undergone a similar change as I and that we again had a similar outlook. He’s as convinced as I am that the type of activity to which we were, committed when we first met lies at the root of the relations which have shackled us. This activity is precisely the experience which for you has become a standard by which you judge your present practice. You’ve intoxicated yourself with that experience and you’re offended by my attempt to understand its nature. But if we refuse to see where it led us. we can hardly avoid reproducing the same outcome over and over again. If we’re to avoid that outcome, we should confront the elements that led to it, expose them, uproot them and bury them. Please understand that I’m not devising an argument to throw at you or Luisa. I’m trying to describe a process in which not only Zdenek and I but most of the people around me are engaged. This process is an extensive examination of the roots of our submission. If I find that my own past activity is one of those roots then I have to expose that activity along with all the other roots.

I first met Zdenek in prison about a year after you and I were arrested. Halfway through a meal I started listening to a discussion taking place at the other end of the table. Someone said that before the war the union had fought for workers’ interests and secured the workers’ share of the social output. Another person said unions had always been pliant instruments in the hands of the most influential sections of the ruling class and that our newly-installed state-run unions were different only in degree but not in kind from all other unions. A third person — this was Zdenek — argued that the pre-war as well as the post-coup unions were not workers’ unions at all but capitalist organizations within the working class. He said a genuine union was an instrument for the appropriation of society’s productive forces by the workers; an organization which consisted of racketeers who enriched themselves by selling labor power and assisted the police in disciplining workers was not a genuine union. In Zdenek’s argument I recognized what I had learned from Luisa and I looked for opportunities to talk to him. For several months Zdenek and I talked continually during exercise sessions and during meals. He was fascinated by my accounts of Luisa’s experiences; in my descriptions of those events he saw a reflection of his own activities as a union organizer.

Zdenek had been active in union politics, in the same plant where he still works today, already before the war. During the war he had been a member of a resistance organization. After the war he was appointed to a minor union post. He never tired of explaining to me that, although he identified with the union bureaucracy at the time, he took his function seriously only with respect to the workers’ demands and fought to increase wages and improve safety standards and working conditions; he didn’t take seriously the directives that came from the top regarding work discipline and productivity. His first major political engagement coincided with yours and mine — but unlike you and me, Zdenek was a member of the union bureaucracy. He took seriously the state propaganda about dangerous reactionary circles who threatened to deprive workers of their rights and institute a repressive military regime. He engaged himself in the official struggle to neutralize those reactionary circles by mobilizing workers to demonstrate and strike. He knew that workers did not initiate the strikes and demonstrations since the initiatives were instructions handed down to him by union officials. But he didn’t question his role; he was convinced that the threat had to be removed and that the strikes and demonstrations were appropriate responses to it.

Zdenek initiated the strike at his plant, called for the expulsion of the manager and personally accompanied the delegation that carried out the expulsion. Although he had become critical by the time he told me about these events, he communicated the enthusiasm he had felt at the time they had taken place. He attended the congress of works councils as the official delegate for his plant. “Hundreds of delegates arrived,” I remember him telling me; “We decided to declare a general strike, and only ten votes were recorded against it.” Although I don’t remember his descriptions word for word, his summary of his experiences was very similar to yours; he considered this the greatest event in his life; “The event released a surge of contentment, enthusiasm and initiative throughout the working population; at last we were going to run our own affairs, at last the people were masters, nobody would be able to exploit our efforts for their own ends, nobody would be able to decieve us, sell us to our enemies or betray us.” He remained enthusiastic when, at least in appearance, armed workers occupied radio stations, post and telegraph offices, railway stations. When action committees and workers’ militias sprang up in every factory and every public institution he thought the workers’ community had been born.

Zdenek didn’t begin to have doubts until he was ousted from his union post. A new plant council was appointed and he was excluded from it. Zdenek himself hadn’t been elected either but had been appointed by resistance politicians and he had never questioned his own right to the post he occupied. As he narrated this he was bitter about the fact that he became critical of his own usurpation only after he was himself usurped. Zdenek was excluded because a temporary trade union council had appointed itself as an organ higher than the plant council; this temporary body consisted exclusively of workers who had been members of one organization: the government party. The temporary body then proceeded to appoint a new plant council consisting of workers who were members of the same party or who were at least enthusiastic sympathizers. Zdenek was popular among workers for his consistent defense of their interests as workers but he was known as a critic of the government party. The newly appointed plant council then proceeded to elect a new trade union council and voted back the very individuals who had previously appointed the plant council; by this maneuver the status of the trade union council was legitimized as an organ higher than the plant council and therefore empowered to appoint the members of the plant council. Zdenek set out on a lone campaign to expose these machinations but his exposures had no effect. Workers who knew him merely winked knowingly and reminded him that he hadn’t made such critiques when he had been a creature of self-appointed politicians. He had known about these things all along but hadn’t concentrated on them during the years when he had himself been part of the machinery. By the time I met him he couldn’t say enough about the spurious nature of the workers’ victory or the orchestrated character of the strikes and demonstrations. It was from Zdenek I learned that the initiative in those events didn’t come from the workers themselves, that the enthusiasm was artificially stimulated by seasoned bureaucrats, that instructions were skilfully transmitted from the top of the political hierarchy to the rank and file. In my last letter I tried to summarize what I learned from Zdenek but your response to my description of the puppets and puppeteers makes me aware that I failed to communicate what I learned. Zdenek’s descriptions were filled with vivid details; having himself played a role in stimulating the artificial enthusiasm he was intimately familiar with the ways in which this was done; he knew perfectly well how the decisions to demonstrate and to strike had been reached.

I still remember every detail of one of his descriptions. Several days before a scheduled union meeting he was informed by the local secretary of the government party that on the day of the union meeting several plants were going to proclaim themselves on strike in opposition to the machinations of reactionary circles. Since Zdenek was glad to learn this, seeing it as an appropriate response to a real threat, on the day of the meeting he was the first to speak in favor of proclaiming the strike. Three or four others immediately followed with speeches in favor of the strike and a couple of minutes after the last speech the decision to go on strike was unanimously acclaimed. The decision which had been transmitted to Zdenek by the secretary of the local organization had been transmitted by the same secretary to the three others who spoke in favor of it. The decision had obviously been transmitted to the local secretary by the regional secretary, since otherwise the local secretary couldn’t have known ahead of time that several other plants were going to make identical decisions on the same day. When the strike broke out and almost all plants were on strike when the day began, it became clear that not a single one of these strikes was a spontaneous gesture of solidarity; it became obvious that the decision to strike had originated yet higher, that it was the decision of the general secretary of the organization, who was at that time jockeying for the post of prime minister. The decision had originated at the peak of the state apparatus and by transmitting it, Zdenek had been a state agent.

Only after he was arrested did Zdenek realize that all the demonstrations and strikes, all the shows of force by armed workers, had a similar origin; only then did he lose his enthusiasm for the events that had taken place. The plant militias and action committees, which he had earlier seen as detachments of armed workers spontaneously created by the workers as organs of struggle and self-defense, were composed exclusively of workers who had long been members of the same organization that ousted him from his post. In jail he realized that the members of this organization had succeeded in becoming the only armed body in every factory and public institution. Since the police was by then under the command of the same organization, the role of the action committees, militias and other groups of armed workers was to act as an adjunct to the police. He realized that the entire movement of armed workers had not constituted a workers’ community but a gigantic police network, that whole sections of the working class had been recruited to do police work, that under the banners of the self-liberation of the’ working class workers had attacked and arrested other workers.

What Zdenek realized was that he had played his part, not in a victory of the workers’ movement but in its complete defeat. What pained him even more was the realization that this defeat had annihilated everything the workers had won during all the earlier decades of struggle: militant workers who had fought for workers’ demands were all jailed; workers lost the right to strike; the possibility of forming independent workers’ organizations was destroyed. Although Zdenek had helped inflict this defeat as a member of the union apparatus, at the time of our discussions he still didn’t grasp the role his activity as union organizer had played in this defeat. His outlook was identical to the position Luisa still expresses today. He blamed himself only marginally and only for his blindness; he blamed external elements for the defeat. He argued that the workers’ real union had been transformed into a sham union, that the real workers’ movement had been replaced by a simulated workers’ movement which in fact consisted of politicians and bureaucrats. The politicians had infiltrated the workers’ union and destroyed it from within; they had taken over and then derailed the real workers’ movement. Zdenek felt that he and the rest of the workers had been betrayed. Instead of taking over the plants and running them on their own the workers had replaced a Zagad only to find themselves bossed by a Genghis Khan. They had averted the military and police dictatorship which was to be carried out by reactionary circles that later turned out to have been pure inventions of propagandists, and found themselves surrounded by the military and the police, by an immensely enlarged police which included former friends, fellow workers, relatives and neighbors in its ranks.

Throughout his prison term Zdenek remained convinced that the real workers’ movement was still alive, that workers could still revitalize the union, that all they had to do was to oust the alien elements that had infiltrated it. At the end of his term he was as much of a missionary as I was. He left prison with the enthusiasm of the first union organizers. His mission was to expose what the workers didn’t know: that they had been duped, that agents of the state and racketeers had taken over their union and made it serve their own ends. He was as convinced as you and Luisa that his past experiences, intentions and hopes were an adequate basis for his relations with others. His aim was to return to the struggle as it had been before these external forces derailed it from its real course and temporarily defeated it.

Zdenek was always bitter about the fact that he didn’t begin to reexamine his past until after he lost his union post. Even when I talked to him only a few days ago he insisted he would still be a trade union bureaucrat today if he hadn’t been ousted twenty years ago and that he wouldn’t have developed any critical insights if he had continued to carry out his official function. He admits he would sooner or later have been removed from the apparatus because he would have continued to use his position to further the workers’ interests whenever this could be done. But he says that if the apparatus had been flexible enough to allow him to do only that, he would never have turned against it on his own.

When I first met him, his critique was similar to yours. His earlier hopes and projects as a union organizer were the basis for his commitment and he didn’t try to examine the nature of his earlier activity. He defended the union not only as an instrument with which workers could appropriate the productive forces but as the only instrument suitable for this task. He rejected councils and all other forms of workers’ organizations. He didn’t classify councils into genuine and spurious types but held that all councils could be manipulated by any well-organized group of politicians. He insisted that councils were by nature local organizations whereas the union was a mass organization and therefore was less susceptible to being used by an outside group. He held on to these views even though he had watched a political group use councils as well as unions as the instruments with which it destroyed everything Zdenek had fought to build.

When I saw Zdenek at the prisoners’ club a few days ago he had changed his mind about virtually everything he had defended when I first met him. I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to him because he got involved in an argument which became quite heated and which lasted most of the evening. We exchanged addresses and he agreed to visit me in the near future. I learned from his arguments that he has reached conclusions very similar to my present outlook. The argument began when an elderly man overheard Zdenek tell me, “The very language we once used has to be demystified; terms like workers’ movement, union, popular will should be abandoned until humanity regenerates itself and knows what it means by them.”

“That sounds like an ambitious project, my friend; it would require organizational resources that are not available to us at present,” said the man; I later learned he had once been a politician, had been arrested as a member of an inexistent oppositional organization and had been an elementary school teacher since his release.

Zdenek turned to the man and snapped, “Organizational resources are one of the things we don’t need; that’s yet another mystification.”

“I don’t understand you,” the teacher said. “Terms like workers’ movement and union have been transformed into synonyms of the word state. They must be demystified; their real meanings have to be restored. This requires some type of organization, minimally some type of publishing activity.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” Zdenek said, “Those terms don’t have any real meanings. Perhaps demystification is the wrong word. Perhaps they have to be eliminated altogether. Each of those terms and countless others, including the word organization, refer to opposites. Take the word union. It refers at one and the same time to all workers and to the politicians who speak in the name of the workers. It’s exactly the same type of term as commonwealth, which seems to refer to all human beings and to the world they share whereas in practice it refers only to the monarchs who ruled over human beings throughout history.”

“I agree with you,” the teacher said. “There’s no question that countless terms have been distorted out of recognition. But surely you’re not denying that some kind of organized activity is required to combat this. I don’t mean an organization of experts or a circle of intellectuals. I’m referring to an organization that transforms language by transforming reality itself, like the workers’ organizations of the past, councils, unions and other forms which workers found useful in their struggle.”

Zdenek raised his voice. “Those organizations were never useful to workers. Unions as well as councils were useful only to politicians. All the forms you mention are forms which allowed politicians to make themselves representatives of the working people, embodiments of the workers’ movement. You missed my comparison with a commonwealth. Just as in a commonwealth, the monarchs of a union speak for, dominate, repress and sell their subjects.”

“That’s of course true today, but —”

Zdenek interrupted the teacher and shouted, “That’s true whenever working people lose control over the language they use, whenever their very thoughts are couched in terms they don’t understand, terms like organization!”

“But that’s ridiculous,” the teacher objected. “You seem to want every generation to destroy the language and invent one of its own.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what I want,” Zdenek said. “For people to destroy the language along with all the other conditions they’re born into, for every generation to shape its own world and invent its own language. How can we talk of a revolution in which people reshape their world if we can’t even imagine people shaping their own language? How can people shape anything if they never leave the world they’re born into?”

“How can you even communicate with people if you don’t agree to use the language they use?” the teacher asked.

“Do you think you communicate anything when you do use that language?” Zdenek asked.

“Of course there’s a vicious circle in the whole problem of communication, but it’s not as closed as you make it seem,” the teacher said. “I’m obviously aware that the language of an epoch expresses the ideas of the ruling class, but this has never meant that it is therefore impossible to find support for a struggle against the ruling class; this has never meant that a disciplined revolutionary organization need be permanently trapped in your vicious circle.”

“Hasn’t it meant that? Really never?” Zdenek asked. “I’m under the impression that this was always the case. The very organizers of such a struggle are the instruments who restore the ruling class. Whether it’s a question of unions or councils or workers’ movements, the organizers’ very language already embodies relations between rulers and ruled, relations of domination and submission. What in the world do you think support and discipline mean?”

“Please don’t identify my words with the words of the ruling politicians,” the teacher insisted. “I’m talking about opposition to the ruling order.”

“You’re talking about support for the politicians who head the organization,” Zdenek insisted. “When I support the organization’s leading politicians I make their enemies my enemies, I become suspicious of their enemies and in the end I even become grateful to the police for liquidating people who were never my enemies but enemies of the organization’s leaders. You’re talking about the ruling order, not about opposition to it.”

While Zdenek spoke I was again reminded of Claude’s suspicion of George Alberts twenty years ago. You made a great deal out of the fact that Alberts was a strange person and that therefore it wasn’t surprising if people were suspicious of him. Claude’s or my suspicion of Alberts had nothing to do with Alberts’ personality or with his acts. I was making the same point Zdenek made. My suspicion illustrated the fact that I, like Claude, had become an instrument of the authorities, that I had come to think of their enemies as my enemies. The fact that Alberts had shortcomings is as irrelevant as the fact that Sabina had an exaggerated idea of his virtues. This had nothing to do with Claude’s or with my suspicion. What was Alberts to me?

Everyone in the room was listening to the debate and Zdenek was shouting. I don’t know how many people agreed with what Zdenek was saying, but I do know that everyone understood what he was talking about; he was damning the role he had played in the establishment of the ruling system. “When you talk about support you talk about obedience,” Zdenek continued. “When you talk about a disciplined organization you’re talking about people who transmit instructions from the higher ups to those lower down.”

“In present-day historical circumstances it is impossible to overthrow a ruling social order without discipline and organization,” the teacher objected.

“But my good fellow.” Zdenek shouted, “don’t you see that it’s impossible to overthrow a ruling social order with organization and discipline? What you’re talking about is the reinstatement of the ruling order, not its overthrow. We begin by fighting, not for each other and for ourselves, but for the organization, and we end by suspecting and fighting each other; at the end it is neither your will nor my will that determines decisions but the will of the state: decisions are implemented at the end not by you and me but by the central organ of the state’s will: the police! At that point our plant militias and trade union councils and action committees cease to be our instruments for overthrowing the ruling order and become the state’s instruments for repressing us. At that point our own initial commitments jump back at us as the state’s commitments.”

“That’s of course what happened here,” the teacher admitted. “But what happened here was due to very specific historical circumstances which you leave totally out of account. You forget that the ruling clique used a great deal of chicanery and double-talk to secure its power and that it was largely through this chicanery that they took the workers’ organizations away from the workers and transformed them into their own instruments.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple and I don’t think chicanery is a good word,” Zdenek said. “Chicanery suggests a one-sided relationship and what I experienced was two-sided. I suspect you were among those who helped the present clique to power —”

“Yes, I, but —”

Zdenek cut him short saying, “So was I. And I don’t remember thinking either that I was duped by those above me or that it was my task to dupe those below me. Do you? I transmitted instructions and waited for the world to change, for factories to be transformed, for the state to disappear, for capitalism to crumble. What was I doing to make all this happen? Transmitting instructions. What were you doing?”

“Of course —”

“Of course,” Zdenek interrupted again. “Weren’t we all? Was I a victim of chicanery? No, I was perfectly aware of what was happening. I was transmitting instructions, the next person was transmitting them further, and eventually we all acted them out. As for the factories, the state and capitalism, I assumed as everyone around me assumed that someone would take care of all that if I took good care of what I was doing. And who was to take care of all that while I was busy carrying out my instructions? The organization, of course! The councils! The union! The workers’ movement! I’m powerless but the organization is all-powerful! Its power and its efficacy were constantly being verified. Don’t you remember what proved the power and efficacy of the organization? The efficiency with which it removed enemies. Here was one, there was another, right in our midst! The organization removed them both. Thank god the organization knows how to recognize them! Thank god the organization removed them! Thank god the organization knows what it is doing and knows how to bring about my goals! The organization will remove the emperor, the capitalists, the state, the police, and in their place will institute a new world. All I have to do is obey the instructions and stay at my post.”

At this point in Zdenek’s tirade I thought of the comments you had made in your letter. You and I, after all, merely carried our signs at the appointed time and the appointed place; did we think that our walks with those signs would undermine the ruling order or that with our motions we were building a new world? And if we weren’t destroying the old world and building the new with our acts then who was doing this? I’m convinced we were among those Zdenek described.

“It was the same all along the organizational line. The working class had risen, the workers were moving. But we all looked above to see motion. For all of us only the top moved. Its motion was confirmed by acts of repression. Our enemies were rounded up and the defeat of those enemies was our victory and our only victory. Soon we thought the victory over those enemies was the ultimate victory. But where had we moved and where had we started? Didn’t we notice that the enemies who were wiped out had never been our enemies? Did we forget that the enemy we started combatting was the situation into which we were born? That situation remained intact yet we experienced a victory. Victory against enemies. Which enemies? Not mine. Groups hostile to the leading group were wiped out and when the last group of enemies was wiped out and victory was proclaimed we found ourselves face to face with the police, the outfit that liquidated the enemies. The only thing our struggle for liberation didn’t bring about was our liberation. The police were the only victors. We didn’t recover our lost powers, we didn’t become communal beings, we didn’t even begin to communicate with each other, we didn’t constitute ourselves into a community that determined its Own relations, environment and direction. You can’t tell me that I was duped. I was wide awake. If I was duped then I duped myself; no one used chicanery on me. I myself fought for the victory of the entities that held me in their grip, the unions and workers councils, the movement — entities which have as much to do with human life as saints and angels. These words —”

This time the teacher interrupted Zdenek. “That’s the most consistently nihilistic analysis I’ve ever heard. First you identify the workers’ organizations with the police and then you claim that unions and councils are religious organizations.”

“Precisely,” Zdenek said. “What you call workers’ organizations are mere words. Unions, councils, movements — they’re words on banners carried by opportunists, racketeers and gangsters as well as inquisitioners and executioners. We, you and I and probably the majority of the people in this room, at one time or another marched behind those banners; we provided the backing, the mask that enabled those gang leaders to call themselves the union, the council and the workers’ movement. Thanks to our discipline and support the unions and the politicians became the same entity, the struggle to build a new world became synonymous with the seizure of power by the political racketeers. And in the act of supporting inquisitioners and jailers we became powerless and acquiescent things, at most cannon fodder in their struggles. Only our representatives had the power to act. Our own independent action became impossible and inconceivable. Call it what you like. Our role was to reintroduce religion into a world where it had been dying. We helped empty human beings of their humanity, we helped turn their humanity into an image, a word which we carried in our heads; we dislodged the real potentialities of people from their real gestures and lodged them in the heads of priests. You understood me perfectly. Union, council, movement — all our favorite words became synonyms of heaven. But we never saw heaven. All we saw was the witch hunts and the purges and we thanked the powers of heaven for liquidating imaginary beings which we experienced as the only evil that oppressed us.”

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine the experiences which had led Zdenek to those conclusions. His experiences must have been similar to mine. The entire environment that surrounded us in prison was filled with meanings we failed to grasp. We didn’t look or listen. We were spellbound by images we carried in our heads. We failed to grasp the meaning of the walls or the guards or the interrogations; we failed to draw conclusions when we experienced what a human being became when he had total power over another.

Zdenek and I were together during the early part of my first prison term. What I experienced after we were separated should have led me to reexamine my earlier commitments. But I didn’t revise them during that term nor during the four years of my first release. I emerged from my first term with an outlook almost identical to your and Luisa’s present outlook. Soon after my release, when Jan Sedlak accused me of exaggerating the importance of my clear and distinct ideas, I defended myself with arguments similar to your present arguments. At one point in your letter you said I had given you the impression that I considered myself more observant and more insightful than you. The opposite is true. I held on to conclusions similar to yours in the face of experiences that completely undermined those conclusions; I was neither observant nor insightful; I was blind. I’m unravelling the significance of those experiences only now, almost two decades later; many of my insights are being formulated for the first time only in response to your letter. During the four years of my first prison term I seemed to be two different people: one of them saw, heard and felt events take place, the other responded as if he were deaf and blind. I stored the prison experiences in my memory but my behavior and my outlook weren’t affected by them until several years later.

My experience during the first weeks after my arrest was in many ways similar to your experience after your release and emigration, when you found yourself alone in a hostile environment. I was an alien in a world I couldn’t understand. The prison authorities seemed like beings of a different species. They were cruel, sadistic and arbitrary; they were incomprehensible to me. These brutes and sadists weren’t my likes, they weren’t similar to people with whom I had shared hopes and projects, they weren’t beings with whom I could communicate. I was filled with anger when I learned that many of the guards had themselves been prisoners during the war and that their most vicious practices were practices they had learned from their jailers.

But the impression that the jailers were a different species didn’t stay with me. Many guards had themselves been prisoners and many prisoners had been guards. I soon met prisoners who had been prison or camp authorities or police agents during the war. Their behavior in the cells, in the exercise yard, in the prison corridors and during meals didn’t differ from the behavior of other prisoners. They weren’t a different species. I even met people who had been jailers only a few months or weeks before I met them and during that brief period had acquired human characteristics totally lacking in jailers. And the first person who became a friend, Zdenek Tobarkin, had been an integral part of the bureaucratic apparatus before his arrest, yet when I met him he was someone whose experiences and outlooks I shared. Did a mutation take place when a person moved from one side of the bars to the other? I’m not saying what you and Luisa understood me to be saying. I don’t consider prisoners interchangeable with guards. I’m not suggesting that you and I might have been jailers. Such a hypothesis may or may not be absurd; I don’t know; it’s not my point to explore it. All I’m saying is that at some point I learned that at least some of the jailers were not a different type of being. Below their social function there was something recognizable. Below the gestures and attitudes they had learned from other jailers I saw other gestures and attitudes. These attitudes hadn’t been learned in prisons but on streets and in factories; they referred to experiences I had shared; they indicated that at some time in their lives these people had engaged in a struggle similar to mine, that they had once taken part in strikes and demonstrations, that they had once shared my perspectives and hopes. Of course this wasn’t true of all the jailers. Some were so brutalized that they remained the same on both sides of the bars; it wasn’t in them that I recognized any trace of myself. The jailers I’m describing were equally brutish in their behavior but the brutality wasn’t the only component of their personalities. There was something else, something familiar, something that resembled me. The resemblance wasn’t superficial; it didn’t consist of a mere similarity of words which in reality had different meanings. What I recognized wasn’t the words but the hopes and experiences behind the words. What I recognized was the experience around which you have built your life. I recognized dreams and hopes I had shared with you and Luisa. The role hid the dreams, just as several years later my role as bus driver hid them. Yet as soon as a bureaucrat like Zdenek was dislodged from his post, as soon as a guard was jailed, the person below the mask became visible. Those experiences, hopes and dreams weren’t born after the guard was jailed; they had been there all along, masked by the jailer’s social role. It’s ironic that some of the guards in whom I recognized my own past experiences were the strictest disciplinarians and the cruellest torturers. Habitual sadists were arbitrary and therefore inconsistent and corruptible and sometimes lenient. But those who had once engaged themselves in a struggle similar to mine and who saw themselves as still engaged in it were incorruptible, pitiless and unswerving. They were the strictest guards and the cruellest torturers precisely because they were still committed to that struggle. In their own eyes they weren’t cruel but committed. They saw themselves as embodiments of the working class struggle and they saw prisoners as enemies of the working class. Their cruelty wasn’t aimed against individuals but against the principle of evil; through them the workers’ movement was protecting itself from its enemies. Such jailers were convinced that the struggle you and I had waged had been victorious, that the workers had seized power over all social activity. These jailers saw themselves as the protectors of that victory. The proof of the victory was the fact that people like themselves were in power, people whose words expressed the liberation of the working class, whose brains contained a representation of the self-liberation of the workers. Their power over prisoners was the proof of the success of the project. As Zdenek observed in his argument with the former politician, these were people who had transformed the workers’ movement into a religion. They were its priests. They served their religion by suppressing its enemies. Prisons and concentration camps were the living proof of the religion’s victory, strict surveillance of inmates was the proof of its vitality and the liquidation of all the enemies would herald its ultimate realization.

Carriers of my own project were my own worst torturers. They were my likes, not in the sense that I could have been like them, but in the sense that they carried the project I had carried. And I was their like, not in the sense that I’ve ever been the jailer of another human being, but in the sense that I still carried the project in whose name they tortured me. Throughout my prison term I remained committed to the same representations, the same religion; I too was a priest. I didn’t grasp the repressive character of my commitment, I didn’t see that prisons and concentration camps were outcomes of my religion’s victory, not of its defeat.

My previous letter was one-sided. I threw at you conclusions I’ve reached over a twenty-year period but I didn’t describe the experiences which led me to those conclusions. I made it seem that you had intoxicated yourself with illusions which I had never shared and which I found incomprehensible. Actually, despite the fact that I recognized my own project in my jailers and despite the fact that I recognized myself in a former union bureaucrat, my commitment remained unchanged during all the four years of my term and I left prison with the same enthusiasm that you express. I went out into the world determined to spread that project. Your letter angered me because it reminded me how long and how stubbornly I held on to that commitment. You confronted me with attitudes I had only recently rejected. I had never before couched that rejection in words. You weren’t far wrong when you said I was carried away by my rhetoric. I was putting into words for the first time what I had just learned and I made it appear that I had always known it. I’m now trying to remedy that one-sidedness by describing the experiences which led me to reject the attitudes I once shared with you. It was only gradually that I learned to see those attitudes as a poor basis for present action. Only after innumerable shocks did I begin to see that such attitudes and such behavior were elements of social relations common to religions, that the concrete outcome of such practice was the palace, the church and the dungeon, and that in an age of fusion and fission such a project was unimaginably repressive.

I experienced another one of these shocks when I learned about our wartime resistance from prisoners who had taken part in it. I met several people besides Zdenek who had “been active in the resistance. Almost every single one of them had become critical of his part in that struggle only after he was excluded from an official function. Before the exclusion they, like Zdenek, had not questioned the nature of their engagement. This fact is very significant but its significance isn’t the one Luisa read into my first letter. I don’t mean that every victim would have been an executioner if he had only been allowed to remain on his post. The prisoners I met would all have been removed from their posts eventually; they would all have stopped carrying out their official functions at one or another time. Some would have stopped sooner, others later. They were willing to go to a certain line but no further. They differed from each other in terms of where each drew this line. And those who were still carrying out their functions and who therefore seemed so different from the rest of us might draw that line at the next turn or the turn after that. Today’s jailers would then join yesterday’s victims and be victimized by tomorrow’s.

What about you and Luisa and me? Didn’t we carry a project up to a point beyond which we refused to carry it? Luisa’s answer to my last letter is that the project we carried was insurrection and that my rejection of our former activity is a rejection of insurrection in favor of acquiescence to the ruling order. In other words I’m a traitor, and no one wants to be a traitor. The fear of being considered a traitor is what keeps most of us moving longer than we want in a direction we’ve started to suspect is wrong. Those of Luisa’s accusers who took part in arresting the enemies of the working class but refused to take part in their execution were accused by their previous day’s comrades of turning their backs on the revolution, abandoning their commitment, becoming soft and conservative and ultimately of becoming reactionary and counter-revolutionary. We become critical only after we cease to go along, and even then most of us become critical only of the events that took place after we stopped going along.

I met only one individual who fought in the resistance on his own, who had no connection at all with any of the organized resistance groups. I no longer remember his name; I’ll call him Anton. When I met him I considered him very different from me and from most of the other people I met. He was completely apolitical. He didn’t express dreams or hopes that you and I would have recognized as our own. Anton was a worker a few years older than I. He had many of Ron’s traits. He rejected social institutions in practice but not in words. As a boy he had left his family, run away to the city and gotten a job. He rejected all the rules of work and was repeatedly fired for absenteeism and theft. He was evicted from one after another apartment for refusing to pay rent. On the first day of the resistance he joined a group of people who were building a barricade. He hated the militarists who occupied the city and was determined to do all he could to rid the city of them. When the liberation army entered the city he returned to the barricade and continued shooting. He didn’t distinguish between the two armies; to him they were the same. For him the resistance hadn’t ended. He was arrested immediately as an enemy agent and sentenced to life imprisonment.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that if I hadn’t met Luisa and if I hadn’t learned to express myself in political terms, I might have been very similar to Anton when we met. I myself had fought in the resistance with very few political conceptions. since I hadn’t learned a great deal from Titus Zabran or his friends. The only reason I didn’t shoot when the “liberators” marched into the city was because of my ignorance; Anton was much better informed than I. When he told me about the events that had preceded the liberation army’s entrance into the city I was convinced that if I had known about those events at the time I would have shot too.

Anton’s account of the end of the resistance was identical to accounts I had heard from other people who had fought in it and had been informed about the forces in play. But Anton’s account was unique and horrifying. Unlike all the other accounts it wasn’t couched in the political language that had recently become familiar to me, it didn’t contain the qualifications, the ifs, the political interpretations and pseudo-explanations. He described a sequence of events whose significance spoke as loudly as drops of blood dripping from_a wound. No one I’ve met ever contested the facts of Anton’s narrative. All the other accounts I’ve heard as well as numerous figures I’ve seen have only confirmed the accuracy of Anton’s description down to the smallest details.

“During the first night of the rising, thousands of barricades were built throughout the city, across streets and alleys.” (I am retelling Anton’s story from memory.) “The entire city was held by the inhabitants, except for a few sections which were still held by the occupying army. The following day the occupiers mobilized all nearby troops, tanks and artillery against the city. There were at least four heavily armed soldiers for every three poorly armed workers. Resisters dispatched envoys to the two armies which were on their way to ‘liberate’ the city, armies which had been urging the population to rise against the occupiers. Both armies were within a few hours march of the city. Each of them outnumbered the forces of the occupiers. Yet for three days and three nights neither army made a move. Camped so close that they could almost hear the shells explode, they waited while men and women and children were massacred in all the streets of the city. Several thousand people were butchered. Yet people fought with such determination that the occupying forces were defeated; they capitulated at the end of the third day and started to evacuate the city. On the day after the capitulation of the last occupying forces, the so-called army of liberation marched into the city. People who could not have taken part in the rising, who must have stayed in their basements during all the fighting, lost their heads cheering for these liberators. I got behind a wall and started shooting. When I was captured people looked at met as if I was a lunatic. I’ve often wondered why more people didn’t continue shooting when the new occupiers entered the city. The explanation is that most of the people who would have kept on fighting were killed during those three days and nights. The ‘liberators’ waited while people like I were exterminated by the former occupiers. It would have been embarrassing for so-called liberators to begin liberating the city by shooting thousands of its inhabitants. Those who died were those who fought hardest, those who were most exposed, those who would have shot at the next occupiers. And I was called a foreign agent for shooting at a foreign army that marched in and occupied the city.”

Other accounts I heard differed from Anton’s only in terms of the meanings into which the same facts were inserted. Some people considered it reasonable that the liberation army had let the occupiers clean up riff-raff like Anton so as not to have to do it themselves; they considered this a necessary purge of dangerous elements carried out without trouble or expense to those who benefitted from it. Most people weren’t so crude as to actually justify the massacre. All those I met admitted they had known at the time that the liberation armies were within a stone’s throw of the fighting during all three days and nights yet alt of them had cheered when the liberation army marched into the city on the day after the massacre, when it was already liberated. They admitted the facts only after they were jailed. Earlier, when they’d held official posts, they had denied that the liberation army had been anywhere near the city at the time. Yet even when they admitted the facts they didn’t admit their significance. They suddenly discovered, in their brains, all kinds of military reasons for the fact that the liberation army hadn’t moved: the supply lines were overextended, the rearguard had fallen behind the front lines and left them exposed. They hadn’t ever dreamed of invoking these reasons before they were imprisoned. They never faced the contradiction between their knowledge and their cheering. They knew that troops, tanks and artillery had camped nearby while thousands of people were slaughtered. But they refused to see this army as an army. They saw it as the working class movement. What entered the city wasn’t tanks and soldiers but the representative of the victory of the working class. It was our dreams, aspirations and hopes that marched into the city. It was the image of our liberation, of our determination to run our lives free of armies and prisons and tanks. This is what these blind comrades saw entering the city when they cheered.

I heard Anton and I sympathized with him, but I didn’t learn. I still identified with politicians. Although my own participation in the resistance had been almost identical to Anton’s, my later political experiences had transformed me to such an extent that I no longer recognized myself in him. Before I could do this I had to peel off one after another layer of the political skin that had covered up the person who could have recognized himself in Anton. First of all I had to peel off the layer I had acquired from Luisa. This is what Manuel did for me. He didn’t actually remove that layer, but he provided me with a vantage point from which I was able to remove it. No, Manuel is not an embodiment of my reactionary arguments: he’s not an invention.

Manuel was a prisoner I met during the second year of my term. In an argument with another prisoner, I was defending the revolutionary potential of unions. At one point I referred to an example I had learned from Luisa; I illustrated my case by referring to a historical event in which workers had used the union as an instrument with which to carry on their own struggle. Manuel interrupted my argument. He said he was familiar with the event I was citing because he had fought in it. He said he had once agreed with the position I was defending but that life itself had disabused him of this view; he also said I was supporting my arguments by suppressing nine-tenths of the actual picture.

Manuel grew up in a peasant village. Poverty drove him to the city and he became a transport worker. At the time of the rising of the army against the population he was a member of a small political organization. He explained that he had not joined this organization because he had selected it from among the others nor because he agreed with its program more than with other programs but only because the first worker who became his friend was a member of it. At the time of the rising all the members of Manuel’s organization were in the streets along with the rest of the population. In a single day working people from all quarters of the city, having transformed every available implement into a weapon, defeated the army. For an instant, but only for an instant, the population was on the verge of making its own history. For an instant it looked as if the revolution would spread, as if it would continue to grow until it encompassed all working people everywhere, until all the armies of the world were defeated. But the instant was short-lived. While the smoke still filled the air, unknown to the workers who had risked their lives all day and had seen countless friends and relatives slaughtered, a meeting took place. It was something like a private meeting between the government that had been discarded and destroyed during the day, the government that had lost its armed force and ceased to function — between that former government and four or five workers. These were not nameless workers. They were not any four or five among thousands. They were workers who were known as fierce fighters and uncompromising union militants, They were workers who were known not to tolerate any authority whether it be boss or government official. The politician of the ousted old order offered these workers posts in the government. Instead of turning their backs to this wily politician and telling him the workers had just destroyed governments and had become their own masters, these union militants accepted the offer. They told themselves that a government with their presence was no longer a government but a mere organ of the workers’ self-government. And they told other workers that they were not a government at all but a revolutionary committee; they said the state had been abolished. And many workers accepted this. For years they had respected and admired these militants, they had come to regard them as leaders, they had seen them as carriers of their own aspirations. They accepted the entry of these militants into the government as their own self-government. When a member of Manuel’s own organization accepted a post in this revolutionary committee, Manuel turned in his membership card. He found himself isolated. Gradually he found other people who understood and tried to expose the-fact that the union had not served the workers as an instrument of their liberation but of their reenslavement. Ironically, Manuel was arrested shortly after he quit his small organization; the reason for his arrest was his membership in this organization. It was thanks to this arrest that he was still alive when I met him. He learned later that the other individuals he had met who had tried to expose the incorporation of the union into the state apparatus had all been shot.

In my discussions with Manuel, I countered every observation he made with an observation I had learned from Luisa. I have no idea if he’s dead or alive today. At the end of my second year in prison he was transferred to another prison and I never heard of him again. During the brief time I knew him, I defended Luisa’s views with such self-assurance that he must have known he wasn’t convincing me. He must even have thought that I hadn’t heard a single word of his account. I’ll probably never be able to tell him that I did hear him, years later, and that his account helped me understand, not only the event he described, but many of my other experiences as well. It was Manuel who helped me understand the difference between the rebel and the philosopher of rebellion, between someone like Ron and someone like Luisa, between workers and the representation of workers by unions, councils, parties and movements. He also helped me see how easily we delude ourselves and take one for the other, how easily we become carriers of the representation and agents of our own repression. But it was only during my second prison term that I began to hear what Manuel had told me. It was only then that I began to compare his account to Luisa’s. As soon as I did begin to replace Luisa’s account with Manuel’s I was able to imagine myself a participant in the events Manuel narrated, just as I had earlier imagined myself a participant in Luisa’s narrative. The day when workers filled the streets and began to build barricades couldn’t have been very different from the first day of the resistance here. As in my experience, barricades sprang up in every quarter of the city. The main difference was that in Manuel’s account there were no liberation armies camped nearby observing our slaughter. This difference doesn’t blur the similarity of the events for me because I didn’t know about those armies at the time.

Imagine that we’re among neighbors and friends, that during the course of a day and a half we rid the city of the last militarists. Imagine the city is ours to shape with each other as we shaped the barricades. We’ll organize our social activity with each other in terms of our dreams. If the possibilities to realize all our dreams don’t exist we’ll create the possibilities. We’ll communicate with each other, we’ll coordinate with each other, we’ll organize with each other — without politicians who speak for us, without coordinators who manipulate us, without officials who organize our activity. To communicate with each other we hold large and small meetings where we exchange suggestions, initiate projects, solve problems. At the largest meeting, we attentively listen to the protects of all, the decisions of all. Yet when we leave the largest of all the meetings we all feel cheated, we feel that something has been taken from us, that something, somewhere has gone wrong. At that mammoth meeting we listened to speeches given by our union militants, by workers who had fought alongside us, who had always been the first to attack. Many such militants have died. We listened to them as we had always listened to them: as our voices, as the formulators of our deepest aspirations, as comrades and fellow workers who had always before put into words the decisions of the union, the decisions of all the workers. Yet at this meeting the decisions of all the workers were unlike the decisions we had been making with each other since the day we built the barricades; the projects of all the workers were unlike the projects we had launched with each other, whether it was to repair disabled vehicles or to appropriate a restaurant so as to prepare our own meals. At this meeting the most militant, admirable and courageous of our comrades, standing and sitting on the speakers’ platform, were transformed into something we cannot quite understand. We had come to the meeting in order to organize social activity with each other and we found our organization on the platform. We had come to coordinate activity with each other and we found five coordinators on the platform. We had come to formulate our collective decisions and we heard our collective decisions formulated from the platform. We had always before listened to the collective decisions formulated and expressed from the platform. Yet now we pause, look around and ask ourselves what it was we had always before listened to. We begin to realize that the decisions of all the workers, the decisions of the union, were the decisions of the secretary of the union, of one individual. One, perhaps five, at most ten individuals had expressed our aspirations, formulated our projects, made our decisions. Yet who are they, those influential militants we had so greatly admired? What is this union? Who is the secretary of the union? Is this really our union or is it a sham? It’s our real union. It’s the same union it has always been. The people on the platform are the very people who should be on the platform. They’re the militants who devoted their lives to us, who always fought alongside us in our struggles to govern ourselves, to reshape our own social activity, to define the content of our own lives. This is the union we’ve known; it hasn’t turned into a sham; it hasn’t been betrayed. It’s we who changed. We changed the day before yesterday. Not all of us. Maybe only miserably few of us. We suddenly discovered our own and each other’s humanity only yesterday, and we began to act as a human community. And today we suddenly realize that this union we had fought to build and whose victory we assured the day before yesterday is not our project at all. It’s not a human community. It’s a power above us, as alien and hostile as the powers we’ve just overthrown. And now we realize that the project of the people on the platform is about to replace the projects of thousands of human beings who only yesterday learned they had the ability to initiate projects. We become nauseated when we realize we’ve just taken part in an event which robbed us of the fruit of our struggle, an event in which the representatives of the union of all the workers replaced the union of all the workers. The union has robbed thousands of workers of their eyes, ears and voices only one day after they had learned to use organs which had until then grown weak and passive from disuse. We’re learning, and we’re nauseated because we’re learning too late. Couldn’t one of us have gotten up at that vast meeting and shouted? Couldn’t he have asked why the influential militants were on the platform the day after we had eliminated the need for influential militants as well as platforms? Would anyone have heard? Was it already too late even then? Should those questions have been raised years earlier, should we have shouted them during the days when we ourselves helped build the workers’ organizations and the influential militants in whose grip we now find ourselves? At that meeting we acquiesced in our own reenslavement, we accepted the reconstitution of the entire state apparatus. The influential militants who argued that their presence in the state apparatus was equivalent to the abolition of the state will quickly become engulfed by the apparatus, they’ll soon be ministers. As rulers they’ll differ in no way from earlier or later rulers. The politicians will let our militants call themselves whatever they please, even representatives of the abolition of the state. These miserable politicians know that they need the influence our comrades exert among us to rebuild the state apparatus. As soon as the legitimacy of that apparatus is reestablished those seasoned politicians will skillfully use our comrades the way craftsmen use tools. They’ll transform the one-time union militants into agents of the state. They’ll use the former workers to turn one group of workers against another. They’ll use the influential militants as trouble-shooters; they’ll send them to disarm the workers, turning us once again into helpless victims of the army and the police. And like classic monarchs, the influential militants, our onetime comrades, will lull us back to sleep with speeches in which they glorify their rule. They’ll tell us their presence in the state apparatus is equivalent to the victory of the working class and the realization of Utopia on earth. And some of them will go to greater lengths than any monarch who ever said: I am the people. Some of our influential former comrades will not only tell us their rule is our rule but also that their presence in the government is equivalent to the realization of all humanity’s deepest aspirations.

Manuel’s account destroyed the picture Luisa had drawn for me. I’m obviously not surprised by Luisa’s response to my rejection of her analysis of her first struggle. I’m not surprised she considers my rejection of her struggle a rejection of all struggle, nor that she considers Manuel reactionary. Manuel’s account shows that the sequence of events celebrated by Luisa didn’t lead to the triumph of the workers but to their repression. Luisa is using the word reactionary the way politicians use it: all those who challenge the politicians’ premises are reactionary. In my understanding a reactionary is a person who favors a return to an earlier system of social relations, an earlier mode of being, an earlier form of political engagement. If the term is to define Manuel or me it has to be drastically redefined. All my life I’ve rejected all earlier systems of social relations including the one I was born into, all earlier modes of living, and for the past ten years I’ve been rejecting my own earlier forms of political engagement. Since Luisa introduced this term I no longer see any need to keep myself from asking who among us glorifies, intoxicates herself with, an earlier form of political engagement? Who among us makes a virtual Utopia out of a miserable practice that has repeatedly led to the physical and spiritual destruction of those engaged in it? Who among us uses repressive activities of the past as guides to the present and future? If I had thought about it during the past ten years I would have known that I would never again be able to have a comradely or even a polite conversation with Luisa unless she too changed. I knew this as soon as I began to grasp the significance of Manuel’s narratives. Yet I learn from your letter that Luisa knew this much earlier, perhaps as many as twenty years ago. You don’t seem to realize you told me this. You tell me George Alberts had considered me a hooligan; you tell me this illustrates the similarity of Alberts’ outlook with that of my jailers. You also tell me what Luisa thought of Alberts’ opinion of me: “Alberts was right.” Did she already consider me a destructive hooligan twenty years ago?

Manuel helped clear my mind of everything I had learned from Luisa. But I had to undergo many other shocks before I could come to grips with the significance of what he told me.

During the third year of my first term, several months after Manuel had been transferred to another prison, all the cells filled to capacity. Workers from a small industrial town were crowded into every cell. I had the impression that the inhabitants of a whole town had been rounded up and jailed. All of these workers were furious. I had never before seen so many prisoners with so much spirit and so much anger. They refused to stop shouting during the day or night. They gave the impression they were determined to bend the steel bars and dismantle the stone walls of the prison. After a few weeks most of them were released, while a few of them were separated from each other and sentenced to incredibly long prison terms. For the first time since the resistance the workers of a whole town had risen. As far as I remember there had been nothing extraordinary about the circumstances that led to the rising: working conditions went from bad to worse, jobs were unsafe, real incomes were falling, houses were deteriorating. But the response of the workers grew to proportions which made this event unique in our recent history. All the workers of the town went on strike and demonstrated their discontent. Unlike workers at previous or later demonstrations, these workers called for the abolition of the political police, the abolition of the factory managers, the abolition of union representatives. In Luisa’s language, all these workers were hooligans; all their demands were destructive. They called for nothing less than the abolition of the ruling system. One worker proudly told me, “When a union rep got on” a platform and started lecturing’ about the victory of the working class, about workers administering their own factories, we carried off the rep, the microphone as well as the platform. When the police came in to clear the streets of workers, we cleared the streets of police. We thought workers everywhere would follow our example.” These workers were more distrustful of politicians and pedagogues than any workers I’ve met before or since. They trusted only each other; they learned only from each other. They had put an end to the power of representatives, if not throughout society, at least over themselves. “We were able to hold our own against what they call the workers’ militia and the workers’ police,” the same worker told me. “but we couldn’t hold out against the army.” The greatest achievement of technological progress, the army, defeated them. Approximately half the inhabitants of the town were arrested and imprisoned — in the name of the workers’ self-administration of their own productive forces. They were repressed by the official representatives of the workers’ movement. The repression was organized by pedagogues whose project is the liberation of the working class. These political racketeers presented the repression of these workers as yet another great stride toward the liberation of the workers.

It was the seizure of total power over society’s repressive apparatus by pedagogues, philosophers and dreamers that created conditions in which workers were arrested and imprisoned under the banner of their own liberation. Today’s fanatics consider human beings obstacles on the paths of their gods. The gods are today called workers but are in fact mental categories lodged in the brains of pedagogues and have nothing in common with living beings. In the name of these gods the earthly representatives of these deities, the politicians, recognize no human or natural limits. For the sake of their deities they depopulate cities and even entire regions. These gods are more jealous than the patriarchal despot Jahweh; they don’t only demand the destruction of other gods that threaten to stand beside them; they call for the liquidation of all human beings who refuse to bow to them.

These are conclusions I’ve drawn from painful experiences. I didn’t draw them easily and I think I can therefore understand why you haven’t come to such conclusions. All the experiences of my first prison term didn’t affect my outlook until several years later. During those four years I had learned how workers had been transformed into police detachments which repressed other workers; I had met prison guards whose conceptions had once been identical to my own; I had learned that we had embraced as liberators those who allowed our comrades to be massacred; from Manuel I had learned that all groups and organizations that embody the aspirations of others can only be victorious by repressing those aspirations; I had met workers who had risen against all forms of representation and had found themselves face to face with the entire repressive apparatus of society. Yet after all those experiences I left prison like a new organizer. It was at the end of those four years that I carried my insight and my project to Mirna and her parents, determined to communicate to them, not what I had experienced in prison, but the activities my prison experiences had undermined. I went to them as a pedagogue who had learned nothing about the significance of his own teachings: I went to them determined to enact the same drama yet another time.

I think I do understand how you’re using what you call your standard of comparison. You’re comparing the repressive society that surrounds us with an earlier experience that reproduced the same repression. It seems to me that this experience provides you with a faulty standard of comparison. What you told me about your friend Ron made me think that his genuinely rebellious acts provide a standard of comparison far superior to the orchestrated mass activity which placed the repressive machinery of society in the hands of representatives of human liberation. Your comparison of yourself to Vesna and of your environment to Vesna’s cage were very moving. But I’m convinced the experience you’ve preserved with such care does not give you a vantage point outside the cage. I’m convinced you’re looking at the cage from a vantage point inside it. You’re doing precisely what you say permanent inmates of a prison can’t help but do: you’re confusing a corner of the prison with the outside world.

I’d like to learn more about your life. I found your descriptions fascinating and some of your analyses profound and informative. But I won’t be converted to your life’s central project. I was converted to it once, by Luisa, and I’m still struggling to rid myself of my entanglement with it. I can’t honestly say I admire you for holding on to that project so tenaciously and for such a long time.

Yarostan.

Sophia’s third letter

Dear Yarostan,

You should be happy to learn that Sabina’s comment after she read your letter was, “He’s absolutely right.”

With this comment, Sabina lit a fuse on a stick of dynamite. Her comment gave rise to a discussion that lasted all night and to some of the most bitter arguments I’ve ever experienced. During this discussion Sabina and Tina forced me to admit that I did actually make a choice of the type you described, a choice between Luisa and Ron, between the pedagogy you condemn and the “individual act of rebellion” you glorify.

I had invited Luisa to supper as soon as your letter came. She read the letter as soon as she arrived but the only comment she made during supper was, “Be sure to tell him how pleased I was to hear about Jasna.”

Tina read the letter when she got home from her job. While we ate she didn’t take her eyes off Luisa; she couldn’t hide her impatience to see Luisa respond to the critiques you made of her.

Sabina didn’t show any impatience at all. “Have we institutionalized the letter-reading party?” she asked. (Neither she nor Tina had read your previous letter when it came; when Sabina finally did read it after I sent my answer, she had been very excited to learn that “The Mirna he married was Jan’s sister!” She told me “I knew her; she was a marvel!”)

Our whole discussion-revolved around the questions you raised in your letter. I can think of no better way to answer you than to give you an account of the discussion.

Sabina’s opening comment yields the expected response from Luisa: “Absolutely right about what? About Manuel and Zdenek and Anton? They’re obviously fictions. He’s merely giving names to his ridiculous arguments. After all, he can tell us anything he pleases. He can tell Sophia her letter caused his arrest. He can tell us Marc Glavni and Adrian Povrshan are television stars. From here we can’t prove otherwise.”

“He did go out of his way to tell me he didn’t think my letter caused his arrest,” I insist.

Tina grabs your letter saying, “Not exactly,” and finding the spot, she points out, “He asks what Lem was doing there besides delivering your letter.”

I tell Tina that as far as I knew that was all Lem was doing.

“That doesn’t exactly clear you,” Tina points out.

Luisa adds. “Lem told me the investigators tortured him to find out who else he had letters for. Your letter was precisely what interested them.”

“What does that prove?” I ask her; “that I was in fact responsible for Yarostan’s arrest?”

“It proves,” Luisa says insistently, “that Yarostan is using that ancient letter of yours to support arguments which Sabina considers absolutely right. Specifically the reactionary argument that victims are responsible for their own oppression.”

I try to defend you. “He’s not ‘using’ the letter that way. He doesn’t mean that argument to be taken personally. The point he makes is perfectly clear to me. We don’t always know the consequences of our acts. He doesn’t say my letter caused his arrest. He says it might have. And he’s right when he says I couldn’t have imagined it might have had such a consequence.”

“You’re apologizing for him,” Luisa insists. “His point is to make all of us responsible for the establishment of a police state.”

Now Tina comes to your defense by pointing out, “He doesn’t exactly say that either.”

Luisa insists, “That’s exactly what he does say! He insinuates it throughout his letter. Even that cryptic reference to George Alberts not being jailed is an accusation —”

“Come off that,” Tina objects. “He says it was Sophia’s reference to Alberts that was cryptic. She told him Alberts wasn’t arrested. Well I’m as surprised as Yarostan must have been. The last time you were here you told me Alberts had been fired from his job just before you were all arrested so I obviously assumed Alberts was arrested like the rest of you.”

“Alberts obviously wasn’t arrested!” Luisa tells us.

“What’s so obvious about it?” Tina asks.

“It was Alberts who made our release possible! He couldn’t have done that from jail,” Luisa says.

“Does Yarostan know that?” Tina asks.

“Of course he does!” Luisa insists. “And he acts as if all of us were suspicious because of that, as if all of us had conspired to keep him in jail.”

“No he doesn’t,” Tina says, handing your letter to Luisa. “Read it again. You treat this letter exactly the same way he says you treat your past: by disregarding the facts.”

“Really, Luisa, you’re making him say the opposite of what he said,” I point out. “In both letters Yarostan makes it clear that he had no reason in the world to suspect Alberts, that the suspicion was created by Claude.”

“You’re both leading me away from the point,” Luisa insists. “When Yarostan speaks of his suspicion of Alberts he invariably uses words like ‘suspicion’ and ‘enemy’ exactly the same way the police use those terms.”

“That’s a different point,” Sabina tells her, pouring each of us coffee.

“Don’t interrupt me! In both letters he drags his suspicion of Alberts —”

“Well it is a different point!” Tina tells her.

“Then let me finish my different point!” Luisa shouts. “He says that whenever we consider someone suspicious we hand him to the police to be shot! Whenever we consider someone an enemy we carry out a pogrom! Sophia rightly told him our project was to communicate, not excommunicate. He turned that completely around —”

Tina interrupts again. “He only said he had seen a lot of people passively accept the arrest of their friends.”

“That’s what I’m talking about! Arrests and imprisonments are his whole frame of reference. It’s the frame of reference of the police. When I’m suspicious of someone, I don’t think of arrest and imprisonment. The point is to destroy the institution, not the individual.”

“How do you do that?” Tina asks.

“If you can’t distinguish the institution from the individual, your unorthodox education didn’t amount to much!”

I swallow the insult because I’m embarrassed for Tina, and my embarrassment grows when Tina asks, “How do you distinguish between them?”

Tina’s naive question transforms Luisa into the pedagogue you remember so well. “A priest without a cloak or a church is merely an individual. Such a priest is like a child who doesn’t know how to make anything useful. He ought to be treated like a child and taught to do useful things.”

“What about a soldier or a boss or a bureaucrat?” Tina asks.

“A soldier without a gun or an army is like a priest without a cloak or a church; he should be kept from dangerous implements like a child from fire, but he should be given a chance to develop in other ways.”

“What if he holds on to his implements and threatens to kill you?”

Exasperated, I ask Tina, “What are you getting at?”

“Either I’m defending violence or I’m lost,” Tina tells me. She crouches down in her chair when Luisa and I laugh at her.

Sabina doesn’t laugh. “What is your point, Luisa? Yarostan uses terms like suspicion and enemy the way the police use them. So?”

“He can use terms any way he pleases. I don’t mean the same thing by them,” Luisa tells her.

“A person who says one thing and means another is a hypocrite.” That statement summarizes Sabina’s view of Luisa. “Take the slogan, ‘Factories should be administered by the workers themselves.’”

“What about it?” Luisa asks.

“What do you mean by it?” Sabina asks her.

“I certainly don’t mean ‘Genghis Khan for boss’! I mean exactly what the slogan says!” Luisa shouts.

“Yet all those factories are now bossed by Genghis.”

“Not because of me!” Luisa shouts.

“Who installed them?” Sabina asks.

“The new bosses obviously weren’t installed by the very people who fought against them!” Luisa answers.

Sabina asks, “Did you ever meet anyone who fought to install a new boss?”

“Some people fought with nothing but words! In practice —”

“In practice they carried the same placard you carried,” Sabina tells her.

I intervene in favor of Luisa. “That’s not fair, Sabina. Some of the people who carried those placards knew perfectly well that their own party leaders were going to set themselves up as new bosses.”

“Were some of those people workers?” Sabina asks me.

“I didn’t say they weren’t. Some workers looked forward to the day when their politician would be boss,” I admit.

“But the overwhelming majority of workers opposed the establishment of the new bosses?” she asks me.

“Obviously!” I insist. “Yon know that as well as I do.”

“Then why didn’t the overwhelming majority throw out the new bosses as soon as they installed themselves?” Sabina asks me. “According to Yarostan only the workers of a single town rose against those bosses during the past twenty years.”

“The fact that those workers rose proves that workers were opposed to the new bosses,” I argue.

“Really?” Sabina asks sarcastically. “Doesn’t it prove that all other workers submitted to the new bosses?”

“They were overpowered,” I insist.

“Yes they were! Precisely because all other workers acquiesced! If workers had risen in all the towns, no force could have overpowered them.” While saying this. Sabina leaps out of her chair, grabs me and then Tina by the waist, and starts tugging us toward the kitchen. “Your place is in the kitchen!” she shouts.

“Let go of me!” Tina shouts, pulling herself loose, while I scream, “Sabina! What’s gotten into you?”

Sabina lets me go. Then she points toward the kitchen door and, trying to act like an army officer giving a command, says, “Luisa! Tina! Take Sophia into the kitchen! On the double!”

“What on earth for?” Luisa protests. “Have you gone crazy?”

“And you’re telling me a handful of politicians can give orders to the majority of workers without the majority’s acquiescence?” Sabina asks.

While Sabina glares triumphantly at Luisa. Tina slyly slips behind Sabina, gets on all fours and nods to me. I give Sabina a slight push and she falls flat on her back. Tina slips out from under Sabina’s legs, raises Sabina’s hand and proclaims, “The loser!”

Luisa and I laugh and applaud. This is to be Luisa’s only moment of relief.

Remaining stretched out on the floor, Sabina tells Luisa and me, “This is what happens to a jailer when the majority doesn’t want jailers. You think the majority didn’t want jailers back then. But Yarostan is right. You’re nursing an illusion. Sophia, you didn’t believe Lem when he told you he’d been tortured. What about you, Luisa? Did you become disillusioned with those fellow workers when Lem told you about the tortures?”

“Lem wasn’t tortured by workers but by inquisitors, by prison officials,” Luisa insists. *

“By workers who obeyed the orders of prison officials.”

“That’s how Yarostan sees it,” Luisa tells her.

“Why did you disobey me when I ordered you to drag Sophia to the kitchen?” Sabina asks her.

“You unprincipled —”

“Try again!” Sabina shouts to her.

“Would you two like to fight it out with knives or do you want guns?” Tina asks, but her joke goes unappreciated.

“You spent your whole life among hoodlums. You have no right to breathe a word about workers who fought to free themselves.” Saying this, Luisa gets up, turns her back to Sabina and walks toward the bookcase.

Sabina turns to me. “Next time you write Yarostan ask him to tell you more about Manuel. Ask him how many friends he had when he refused to obey the orders of the union leaders. Ask him if they were the majority. Ask him if those friends were hoodlums, like Ron and I.”

Keeping her back to Sabina, Luisa snaps, “There aren’t any hoodlums like Ron or you among genuinely revolutionary workers.”

“Ask Yarostan,” Sabina continues, “if Manuel’s friends wanted to take pot shots at the union leaders the way that resistance fighter shot at the new occupiers. Ask him if they wanted to deal with the union officials the same way you and Tina dealt with me —”

“What’ll that prove?” I ask.

“Ask him which side liquidated those friends of his. Ask if they were shot by the army generals or by the revolutionaries who spoke in the name of the workers.”

“But it’s perfectly clear who killed them!” I insist.

“Who?” Sabina asks.

While I say, “The generals,” Tina simultaneously says, “The revolutionaries.”

Sabina wins another bout and, as if she had suddenly gone over to her side, Luisa blurts out, “There were obviously enemies behind the lines as well as across the trenches.”

“Really?” Sabina pounces. “Enemies who were shot? I had thought enemies were defrocked and treated like little children!”

“There were paid enemy agents who murdered revolutionary workers and sabotaged production,” Luisa continues.

“And what happened to them?” Tina asks.

“They were shot!”

“But a while ago you said you didn’t use the term enemy that way!” It’s Tina’s turn to embarrass Luisa.

Not embarrassed in the least, Luisa continues, “If those saboteurs and assassins hadn’t been caught, the revolution would have been defeated right at the start.”

“Then why did everyone laugh at me before?” Tina asks.

Disregarding Tina, Sabina plunges in. “Such saboteurs and assassins were an even greater threat to the revolutionaries than the attacking militarists, weren’t they?”

I try to warn Luisa that Sabina is leading her into a trap, but Luisa insists on walking right into it. “That’s right, such people were the greatest danger. The militarists were visible enemies, they were openly reactionary, they were on the other side of the trenches, whereas these weasels were indistinguishable from workers. They infiltrated union meetings and workers’ militias; they paraded as the greatest revolutionaries. Usually they couldn’t be spotted until after they had done their deeds or proclaimed their reactionary programs.”

“You just said there weren’t any such people in that revolution,” Tina observes.

“There weren’t,” says Sabina. “Destructive hoodlums like Ron didn’t exist because they were all shot by the good revolutionaries.”

I protest. “Yarostan didn’t say anything like that.”

“Ask him!” Sabina insists. “Ask him what Manuel’s friends were like and who shot them!”

Luisa is intent on continuing her argument. “Yarostan compares a great historical rising of the working population with the petty thievery of a hooligan. He damns revolutionaries and glorifies gangsters. Jan, Manuel, Ron and Yarostan himself are types that become shock troops of reactionary movements.”

Deliberately disregarding Luisa’s newest observation, Sabina asks me, “What did you tell him about Ron?”

Luisa says, “You obviously glorified Ron in your letter to Yarostan.”

“No I didn’t,” I tell her. “I only described Ron. I told him Ron stole bicycles. To Yarostan those thefts were individual acts of rebellion. It was Yarostan who glorified him.”

“And you never saw him as a rebel?” Sabina asks me.

“Well yes, I did at the beginning,” I admit. “I compared him to Yarostan and I glorified both. But I was wrong about Ron.”

“When did you know that?” Sabina asks me.

“I knew it before that night when I walked away from both of you, the night when you told me I was just like Luisa.”

“Did you bother to remember that over all these years?” Sabina asks me.

“I wrote it down so as never to forget it. You had no right to say that.”

Luisa asks, “Was that insulting to you?”

Leaving me no chance to answer, Sabina says, “You wrote it down wrong. I said that before you walked away from us, before the car was wrecked. You were an ass that night.”

“I thought you and Ron had just made love on the beach!”

“Ron and I swam together and that was all! Surely you know that now! Ron knew what you’d think. He said if you suspected your best friends without asking them anything, he was through with you.”

Luisa says to me, “It’s a good thing you walked out on them or you’d have stayed with that nest of —”

Tina cuts her short. “Don’t say it. Please. You’re talking about the people who gave me food, love and shelter, who made me what I am now. They were not a nest. They were the great sages of the age.” Feigning an upper class air she continues, “If you would care to compare my wit with that of your own protege, sitting on your immediate left, I would be glad to demonstrate —”

“Tina!” I whisper, embarrassed for Luisa because Sabina is roaring with laughter. I can hardly keep myself from bursting out laughing, but Luisa looks miserable.

“I’m here too, you know,” Tina pleads.

Something in me explodes. “I know you are. So am I. Luisa. you have no right to call our friends a nest of anything. My weeks with Ron were the only happy weeks I spent here until I left for college. Yes, happy, filled with activity, with humor, with life. When I lost Ron and Sabina my insides emptied. I spent my time staring like an owl. You thought everything was fine because we talked about the past every evening. Please don’t get up to leave, Luisa! I enjoyed our discussions and they meant a great deal to me — But I didn’t want to live only in the past. I wanted a present as well. No, you didn’t keep me from anything. You prohibited nothing. I knew I could do whatever I pleased and leave whenever I wanted, but I didn’t want to tell you our evening talks weren’t enough for me, I didn’t want to tell you I loved Ron —”

Sabina interrupts me, “I never thought —”

“I’m not done yet!” I tell Sabina. “If Ron loved me, he loved only half of me. He rejected the other half. I knew that long before the night we went to the beach, Ron knew it and you knew it too! It was all so obvious to me on the night of that school theft when you and Ron came to the house with the two bikes you wanted me to keep for you. I hadn’t seen either of you for almost a year and Ron didn’t even show his face. You didn’t tell me what you were doing or where you were going. The two of you used me but you didn’t trust me. That’s not the way you treat what you’re calling your best friend.”

Luisa asks Sabina, “Did you take part in that school theft?”

I turn angrily to Luisa, “Is that all you heard me say? Yes, she took part in it! So did I! Even you were an accomplice in it!”

“Don’t play Sabina’s games on me!” Luisa shouts.

“I’m not playing games!” I shout back. “One night, after you had gone to sleep, I woke up with a start because someone was throwing pebbles at my window. I looked out and saw Sabina grinning innocently, as if throwing pebbles at windows at that time of night were perfectly normal. I ran to the door and let her in. I thought something horrible had happened. Sabina calmly brought two bicycles in.”

“Would you mind keeping these for half an hour? And please leave your door unlocked.”

“That’s exactly what you said then, Sabina! And you said it with that same grin. Since you remember it so well, tell me why you came alone. Why didn’t Ron come with you? What was I to Ron then? Do you also remember what state you left me in? I stood by the door trembling during the entire half hour; I felt as if several hours had gone by. I was sure you’d tell me what happened as soon as you got back. I was so sure you’d explain everything that I wasn’t prepared to stop you from leaving before you told me anything. But you came back with that same demonic grin and all you said was — no, don’t remind me, how could I forget? — ‘Thanks a lot.’ That’s all! You vanished with the bikes before I could open my mouth. I’d never felt so humiliated. I thought you had completed the blow you had begun to strike at me the night we went to the beach. The following morning I preferred to think I’d had a nightmare.”

Luisa points a shaking finger at Sabina. “You had the nerve to use my house for that theft?” Turning to me she asks, “And you helped her?”

“That wasn’t what bothered me!” I shout. “Ron was in jail before I learned what had happened. That was what bothered me. Sabina, why didn’t you tell me what you and Ron had done? Why did I have to go see you after Luisa told me there was a story in the paper about ‘that awful Ron’.”

Sabina reminds me, “You came to Alberts’ house before the trial. The story was in the paper after the trial.”

“But I already knew about the robbery when I went to see you.”

“Lem Icel told you about it,” she reminds me.

“That’s right. The police had contacted Debbie Matthews. She told Lem about it. At the end of a class Lem told me, ‘They’ve caught the lumpen; he’ll be on trial next week.’ I left school and ran directly to your house.”

“George Alberts’ house,” she corrects.

“To me it was your house. I was furious. I wanted to let you know how mad I was at you for letting me stand behind my door trembling, staring at the two bikes. You said ‘Come in’ as nonchalantly as if nothing had happened. I was boiling.”

“Well, what did you do?” Tina asks me.

“Nothing, because I saw a tiny shrieking bundle on the couch and I forgot everything I had intended to shout. I asked Sabina whose it was —”

“You asked what it was,” Sabina reminds me.

“The bundle was you, Tina, brand new.”

“My! What an exciting story!” Tina says sarcastically. “Has it all been building up to my grand entry into the world?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Tina. As soon as I learned ‘what’ you were I lost interest in you. I’ve never been fascinated by people who only know how to goo and pee.”

“Neither have I, so you don’t have to apologize,” Tina says.

“I remembered why I was there and some of my fury returned. Sabina continued to act as if nothing had happened. She still didn’t tell me —”

“Tell you what?” Sabina asks, purposely acting out the role she had played then.

“That’s what you said! ‘Tell you what?’ Of course I knew about the robbery by then. I wanted you to tell me why you’d let me stand behind my door waiting ignorantly. But without saying a word you led me down to your basement. I was stunned. It was full of bike parts, motors and all kinds of other junk; it smelled like grease and paint. I again forgot what I’d come to ask. I asked if you’d stolen all those things and you said you’d stolen half. When I asked what you did with it all, you said you repaired some things, changed others and then sold them. My anger disappeared. For some reason I thought everything was clear, but nothing was.”

Luisa mutters, “Is this what Yarostan considers heroic acts of individual rebellion? Stealing from working people and schoolchildren is worse than scabbing.”

“That was how I felt when I walked home from Sabina’s after she showed me her basement,” I admit. “I understood Ron wasn’t what I had thought he was. He wasn’t a rebel. He was no different from any unscrupulous businessman.”

“Ron and I both knew that was how you felt,” Sabina tells me.

“Is that why you didn’t tell me anything? Were you afraid I’d give Ron away to the police?” I ask. “If that was the extent to which he trusted me how can you tell me I was his best friend? What difference would it have made if I had known? It was his own fingerprints that gave him away.”

“Ron wasn’t arrested or convicted because of those fingerprints,” Sabina says mysteriously. “The prosecutor had no way to connect the fingerprints with the robbery.”

“You mean you stole that lens?” I ask Sabina.

“We both stole it,” she says. “Ron climbed into the principal’s office through the window. I stayed across the street and kept watch.”

“And he left his fingerprints all over that slide projector!” I point out.

“It was the lens of a brand new movie projector,” Sabina says. “The school had bought it mainly for George Alberts’ science classes.”

“How did Ron know that?” I ask. “He was no longer in school.”

“Ron had seen it when it had first arrived,” she explains. “Shortly before he quit school he was called to the principal’s office for having frightened a teacher. He was kept locked in the office for over an hour. He was alone with the projector. He studied it and unscrewed the lens but he screwed it right back because he knew he’d be caught if he took it.”

Tina asks her, “But why did he leave his fingerprints on it the night he stole it? Didn’t he know —”

Sabina answers, “He didn’t leave them that night. He wore gloves when he climbed into the principal’s office. He came out with the lens, showed it to me and threw it into a garbage can. It was carried off by the garbage truck the following morning.”

Tina anticipates my question, “What? He threw it away? Then why did he steal it?”

“Because Debbie had been fired from her job,” Sabina explains. “Ron quit school when that happened. But he wanted to do more. He talked of burning the school down. Then he remembered the projector.”

“Why couldn’t you have told me that at the time?” I plead.

“Because we thought your response would be identical to Luisa’s: ‘Stealing from the children of the working class.’ We didn’t need that kind of wisdom. We wanted the trial to expose the school officials who had fired Debbie as a subversive. At the trial we were going to show they had arrested Ron without any evidence, merely because he was the son of a subversive.”

“How could you have done that?” I ask. “They found his fingerprints all over the machine.”

“Ron hadn’t ever been arrested before, so they didn’t know whose fingerprints they had found,” Sabina explains. “They had arrested him because he was Ron Matthews, the notorious hoodlum, son of Debbie Matthews the subversive.”

“But the fingerprints they found did turn out to be his,” I insist.

“They couldn’t have been his if he wore gloves on the night of the robbery,” Tina points out.

“Debbie had gotten Ron a lawyer,” Sabina says. “Ron told the lawyer he had been locked into the principals’s office with the projector for an hour. The lawyer checked into that and found out it was true. Ron told him he’d played with the projector from boredom during that hour. The lawyer wasn’t only convinced of Ron’s innocence. He said there was no way they could prove Ron stole the lens. Ron wasn’t convicted because of those fingerprints but because of that ass he had for a father.”

“I remember it now!” Tina shouts. “Jose told me all about that trial. Ron’s father lied like a cop and got the judge to convict Ron without even listening to the testimony.”

* * *

Suddenly I remember that trial too. Everything I had found so strange about it at the time becomes clear.

The strangest thing of all was that, except for the judge and Tom Matthews, I seemed to be the only person in the courtroom who thought Ron was guilty.

I went to the trial with Lem. Sabina was already in the courtroom, alone. She sat in the front row, near the bench where Ron was going to sit when he was brought in. I recognized Tom Matthews when he came in. He sat down at the opposite end of the front row. I thought of his wrecked car and cringed. He didn’t recognize me. A woman Luisa’s age came in, visibly drunk. She held on to the young man who came with her. Lem nudged me and whispered that she was Debbie Matthews. I told Lem I wanted to meet her and the jerk introduced me as Sabina’s sister. Debbie mumbled that she hadn’t known George Alberts had two daughters and she glared at me with hatred. I tried to tell her I wasn’t exactly Sabina’s sister but failed to communicate anything. The young man with her said, “Hi, I’m Jose; I’m not exactly Ron’s brother.” A man with a briefcase came in and whispered something to Debbie. Then he sat down in the center of the front row and spread out papers; he was obviously the lawyer.

After the judge came in and asked everyone to stand, Ron was brought in, escorted by a policeman. Ron looked around; when he saw me he smiled. I didn’t return his smile. I was mad at him for not telling me about the robbery. His smile turned to a frown and he looked away from me. When he saw Jose he grinned and waved his fist, as if to say “We’ll get these bastards.” I heard Jose whisper to Debbie, “Don’t worry, they won’t get him.” I didn’t understand that. I knew Ron had done it. I thought the only thing in question was the length of his sentence.

* * *

Luisa responds to Tina’s last comment by shouting, “How can you have such a twisted picture? Ron stole that machine, not his father! That hoodlum got exactly what he deserved!”

Tina reminds her, “I thought in your view no one deserved to go to jail.”

“If countless workingmen are imprisoned daily for stealing food for their children,” Luisa retorts, “it would have been the grossest injustice if this boy had been set free after stealing from a public school.”

* * *

Was that what I thought at the time? If so, I can’t blame Ron and Sabina for not telling me anything. I thought the trial was ugly but it seemed that no one could have expected another outcome. The trial seemed like a pure formality. The prosecutor gave a short speech, arguing that the evidence proved Ron was guilty beyond any shadow of doubt; he said Ron was a hardened criminal of long standing and that his behavior had to be reformed so that he wouldn’t continue to endanger the lives of honest citizens and their children. Ron’s defense seemed petty to me. I considered his lawyer’s arguments sophistic and irrelevant. When Ron was called to the stand, his lawyer asked where Ron had seen the movie projector. Ron told the story of his imprisonment in the principal’s office. He admitted playing with the projector at that time. The lawyer asked Ron if he’d seen the projector after that and Ron said he hadn’t. I didn’t blame Ron for saying that but I didn’t see how anyone would believe him. The lawyer then called the police investigator to the stand and asked him if Ron’s fingerprints had been found anywhere else in the room. They hadn’t. The lawyer sat down, evidently satisfied with himself, though I couldn’t imagine why.

The prosecutor called Ron to the stand. He asked Ron if he was in school. No. Did he work? No. That was all he asked Ron. He called Debbie Matthews. She obviously wasn’t prepared for that. “Do you mean me?” she asked. She could barely walk to the stand. Ron’s lawyer objected but the judge overruled him. The prosecutor asked Debbie if she was Ron’s mother and she said she was. Then he asked her two more questions. Had she been dismissed from the high school? Yes, she had. Would she describe the reason for her dismissal? The lawyer objected and was overruled again. She defiantly announced she had been dismissed for inciting schoolchildren to overthrow the government, violently. The thought that passed through my mind was that of all the people in that room Debbie and Lem were probably the strongest supporters of government; they worshipped the state; how ludicrously ironic! That was all the prosecutor wanted to know from Debbie. He called Tom Matthews to the stand. He asked if Ron lived at home. Matthews answered, “No, he doesn’t; I asked him to leave about a year ago, your honor, because I found out he was stealing and storing his stolen goods in the basement of my house.” I heard Jose whisper, “That bastard!” The judge must have heard him too because he turned to Jose and rapped his wooden hammer on his table. Then the judge told Matthews to continue. “I should have reported him at that time, your honor, especially when he boasted he was going to put a stick of dynamite in the wall of the school.” The judge rapped his hammer again. He announced he wouldn’t listen to any more evidence; the trial was over. He gave Ron six months in reform school and a large fine. (Debbie later paid the fine.) Ron’s lawyer looked stunned. He shouted that he objected. But the judge got up and left the courtroom.

While Ron was being escorted out he looked helplessly at Jose and Debbie. Jose’s eyes were red with anger; Debbie was as pale as a sheet. Tom Matthews stormed out of the courtroom as soon as the judge left; Matthews looked victorious; he’d gotten his revenge for the wrecked car. I wasn’t surprised by what he had done. Sabina remained sitting in her corner, sobbing. I had never seen her cry. Debbie and Jose didn’t budge. They stared at the absent judge; they both looked hypnotized, or as if they had just seen someone run over by a truck. Lem and I got up and left. No one looked at us. I had the strange feeling that something had happened that I hadn’t understood.

The following day Luisa handed me the newspaper and asked, “Isn’t this the boy you brought to the house?” I acted surprised. I tried to give her the impression that I hadn’t thought Ron capable of such an act. I didn’t tell her the bicycles had been at our house on the night of the robbery, nor that I had been to the trial. I told her I had been wrong about Ron.

And that was exactly what I felt. Wrong, wronged and cheated. The Ron I had once looked for, found and loved wasn’t the Ron I had just seen in the courtroom. I had looked for the Ron described in your letter: the insurgent, the rebel who rejects all social institutions through his acts. I had found such a person; my picture of him wasn’t destroyed when I learned he stole bikes, since he didn’t steal them from boys who couldn’t afford to buy chains. But the Ron I saw at the trial was no insurgent. He didn’t steal from the rich but from his “likes.” He was a gangster who stole for money. The only thing he had in common with a genuine insurgent was that he was going to become a permanent fugitive from the police, he was going to live his life in an environment consisting of prisons and courtrooms. But unlike an insurgent, his activity was going to remain irrelevant to the struggle against the institutions of which prisons and courtrooms were mere symptoms. I was relieved that I wasn’t Sabina, sitting and sobbing in that courtroom. I was relieved that in six or seven months I was going to leave the high school, the neighborhood and Luisa, relieved that I was going to move to a new environment where I would find new problems, perhaps new friends, possibly even worthwhile projects, projects which would in some meaningful way be the projects of an insurgent.

I saw Ron for the very last time just before the school year ended. Sabina again threw pebbles at my window at night. Both she and Ron were outside. They refused to come in. I got dressed and went out. In spite of everything I had felt, in spite of all my pent up anger, I was overjoyed to see them. I threw my arms around Sabina and cried. It was the first time I had let Sabina know I didn’t hate her. She must have been as surprised as I was. I gave Ron my hand. He pulled me to him and kissed me. Fighting tears and trying to smile I said, “Didn’t I tell you I’d come out to meet you any time of day or night?” “Lady, would you repeat that?” he asked. “Only if you say my name correctly,” I sobbed. “Sophie Nachalo,” he said, and kissed me again. Suddenly he asked, “Does that mean you trust me?” I remembered how angry I had been because he hadn’t trusted me. I didn’t answer. He became stiff and let me go. We started walking.

Sabina broke the silence. “Ron wanted to tell you about the people he met in reform school.”

I said, “Really?” with feigned indifference. I immediately regretted saying it. I would have loved to listen to Ron’s observations about reform school; I had always loved to listen to his observations. That “Really?” deprived me of my last chance to hear them. Ron had heard every nuance of meaning I had put into that single word. With undisguised hostility — with a tone in which he might as well have said, So you’ve joined the police! — he said, “I hear you’re going to college.” That was the last thing he said to me. He didn’t want an answer or an explanation. He seemed to become deaf and dumb.

We walked on in silence. Everything had been said. But Sabina became impatient. “Go ahead and tell her!”’ she insisted, but Ron shook his head. He didn’t intend to say another word that night, any more than I had intended to accept a ride on the bar of his bicycle on the night of the car wreck. Sabina did all the talking. She told me he had met teenage scientists, engineers, artists and acrobats. “The best minds of our time are in that reform school.” One mind had especially impressed Ron: a boy called Ted. Sabina, trying unsuccessfully to imitate Ron, described Ted as a genius who could pick the lock of any brand new car and get the car started in less than a minute; the guy he worked with drove the car into his garage where he and Ted dismantled it into parts; Ted was caught only because he had stolen a sports car and driven his girl friend around the city with it in broad daylight — his girl friend was only ten and Ted didn’t look much older.

As soon as Sabina began, I was sorry she was telling me these things instead of Ron. How badly I wanted to hear the story in Ron’s own words, with his characteristic comments and digressions. Sabina’s erudite, perfectly grammatical narrative sounded so artificial; she took all of Ron’s spirit out of his experiences. I felt miserable for having ruined my chance to hear about these experiences at first hand, but I resented having to hear a second hand account. Whenever Sabina paused I cut her and Ron with that same word: “Really?” My tone communicated to Ron immediately; I couldn’t have been more explicit if I’d told them I resented being woken so late at night merely to be told such boring trivialities. Ron told Sabina, “Oh shit, let’s go home.”

They walked me home. No one said a word. I wanted to ask Ron to tell me again what Sabina had just told me. But the gap between us had grown too large. Ron and I both knew it. Only half of me wanted to hear Ron describe “the greatest minds of the age.” The other half saw a Ron who had graduated from bicycles and was moving on to cars, a Ron who was about to become a professional criminal. I saw a person who was in no sense a rebel, a person who didn’t feel comradeship and solidarity with his fellow beings, a person to whom others are mere objects to be used the way he’d used me on the night of the school theft. That night Ron knew as well as I did that only half of me wanted to hear about his newest adventure, to share his observations, to laugh with him and to explore possible projects with his new friends. He recognized the other half as the dominant half, the real Sophia. That half was a stranger to him, a hostile stranger, an outsider. Ron’s “I hear you’re going to college” was equivalent to, “Oh shit, when the hell did I have anything to do with anyone like you?” I was an alien to his world, his friends and his projects. Telling me about his newest experiences was a mistake. “Oh shit, let’s go home” meant, “Oh shit, let’s not waste time talking to this teacher; let’s get out of here; this is like telling a cop what we intend to steal next.”

* * *

I ask Sabina, “Couldn’t you at least have told me Ron had only stolen that lens because of what they had done to Debbie?”

“It wasn’t up to me to tell you anything,” Sabina answers. “Ron was dying to tell you. But you didn’t once visit him in jail before the trial and you didn’t once go see him in reform school. I knew he’d want you to join us when he came out of reform school but I also knew all you’d say would be, ‘Really?’ You were spending your time with that nitwit Lem Icel. It was clear to everyone but Ron that you had made your choice. Yarostan’s letter describes that choice perfectly. You had already chosen to join the moralists, the priests, the judges. He was an idiot not to see that. By the time of the trial you were as repelled by him as Luisa was. If we’d told you we intended to win the trial and have Ron emerge innocent, if we’d told you we intended to expose the persecution of Debbie, what would you have done? I expected you to start shouting about the injustice and immorality of causing a poor working man to be persecuted for a crime Ron had committed.”

* * *

Sabina is probably right. By the time of Ron’s trial I had already made my choice. But I don’t think either you or Sabina are right about the nature of that choice. I don’t think I chose between Ron and what you call “pedagogy.”

I certainly didn’t choose “pedagogy” in the conventional meaning of that term. That kind of pedagogy didn’t appeal to me at all. The people I admired — you, Luisa, Nachalo, Sabina, Ron — had never even finished high school. George Alberts was the only pedagogue I had ever been close to and I couldn’t stand him. Maybe Luisa was a type of pedagogue too. I understand what you mean in your letter. But I can’t apply it to my own life. During my last year in high school I didn’t see Luisa the way you describe her. Nor did I choose between Ron and Luisa. If I rejected Ron at that time I rejected Luisa as well. I rejected the prospect of spending my days in a factory dreaming of the day when the general strike would put an end to wage labor. It was precisely the experiences and hopes I had learned from Luisa that made me permanently unable to accept the boredom, the scheduled routine, the supervision and the submission.

I rejected both Ron and Luisa but I didn’t affirm official “pedagogy.” I didn’t challenge Ron’s observation that the greatest scientists, engineers and artists were in reform school. I knew already then that great literature wasn’t created by textbook writers or experts in creative writing, that great discoveries weren’t made by the bureaucrats called researchers, that revolutions weren’t carried out by academics who dreamt of governing society the way they governed their classes. Ron, the high school dunce, was more perceptive and resourceful than I was ever going to become. And in terms of sheer information, Sabina already then knew more than I was going to learn during all my years in college even though she hadn’t ever finished elementary school. She had pumped out of George Alberts every scrap of physics, chemistry and biology he had ever learned. She and Alberts had converted the entire second story of their house into a laboratory and a library. And then Sabina abandoned all that and joined “the greatest minds of the age,” minds capable of driving off with a brand new car in less than a minute in broad daylight on a crowded street. She spent several years living in an underworld that you seem to glorify abstractly. You characterize as “individual acts of rebellion” what to me looked like theft, constant fleeing and prostitution. Maybe I’ve always been as narrow as Luisa about this possibility. Sabina offered me this alternative two years after Ron died and I rejected it for the second time. Maybe I never really understood that alternative. All I do know is that at some point Sabina rejected it as well. Maybe I’m not as self-assured about my choice as I was then, but neither you nor Sabina have convinced me that the choice I made was wrong.

What I looked for wasn’t related to the official purpose of the university, although I admit I did have some vague hopes that by studying history and sociology I’d at least clarify my own and Luisa’s past experiences. The first few months of classes knocked those hopes out of me. About this, at least, I don’t disagree with you. State functionaries do see the world from their offices. All their textbooks and all their lectures celebrated the existing social order; the apparatus they called “knowledge” seemed to have been created expressly for the purpose of making the overthrow of the social order appear inconceivable. Everything I valued was considered dangerous and violent. I entered the university at a time when the normal barracks-like life of this medieval monastic institution was supplemented by modern forms of militarization. Numerous professors were directly in the pay of the armed forces. Whole branches of activity that had once been scholarly pursuits were transformed into weapons-development factories: physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, sociology and psychology. Instead of being taught to formulate questions, students were being bombarded with answers. Open apologists for capital and for the state treated their classrooms as pulpits from which to give sermons eulogizing the official religion. Students were brainwashed into believing the state’s enemies were their own enemies. Critics of every shade, even state worshippers of a different brand, were systematically prevented from speaking. Male students were actually recruited directly into the armed forces when they enrolled in the university; military training became another academic discipline. Several professors were fired for refusing to swear to serve the state unconditionally; all the professors who remained signed the oath; they swore to lie systematically, to distort and falsify whatever threatened the interests of the state. No, I didn’t go to the university because of anything it had to offer. I went there because I rejected Ron’s world and Luisa’s world, not because I saw a community in the military enclave that exists only to destroy community. I went there because I hoped to find others like me, others who had rejected what I had rejected. The community I wanted to find was a community of people whose choices were similar to mine. I looked for people with whom to shape meaningful responses to the world we rejected, responses which went beyond sheer opportunism for the sake of survival.

I made the mistake of moving into a dormitory, I stayed there for three months. It was the closest thing to prolonged imprisonment that I’ve experienced. I did learn to play pranks, but even then I couldn’t endure that regime of rules and regulations to which I had never in my whole life been subjected. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment of my own. Then I found some women students who owned a house and ran it on a cooperative basis; those who could afford to pay less did more of the housework. I washed dishes and got free room and board.

My first friend was my roommate at the co-op, Rhea Morphen. I liked her very much at first, mainly because of how enthusiastic she was about me. I suppose you always like people who think a lot of you. She made me tell the story of my life at least a dozen times during my first few weeks at the co-op. The fact that my “mother” worked in an auto plant and supported me already recommended me to Rhea. She was even more impressed by the fact that my “mother” had never finished high school, that my “sister” hadn’t finished elementary school and that my “father” hadn’t ever spent a single day in school. Rhea’s perpetual comment was, “I don’t believe it!” But after a few weeks of being admired as such a perfect proletarian I got sick of her admiration and when I learned more about her I resented it. It turned out that she was a member of the same political church as Lem Icel, that she and Lem were friends, and that Lem was responsible for the fact that Rhea and I were roommates.

Rhea perfectly fits your portrait of the politician. Her world was populated by constituents and leaders. In her eyes I was a perfect constituent, a potential cadre, a potential rank-and-file leader, a full-fledged proletarian intelligent enough to understand the dialectic and to know how to interpret it to my fellow rank-and-filers. Her father was a lawyer who was later to become a city politician.

The part of my past I had failed to rid myself of was Lem. He was in one of my classes. It was from him that I learned about the co-op when I wanted to leave the dormitory. It was also largely because of Lem that I met the people who were to be my friends throughout my university years. Lem and Rhea more or less conspired to recruit me to their organization. It took me several weeks to figure out that I was a fly in a spider’s web. I got my first clue when, during one of Rhea’s admiration sessions, she commented, “You really have a highly developed consciousness; you see a lot of things the way we do,” implying that there were a few things about which I still had to be straightened out. I immediately asked her if she happened to know Lem Icel. The moment of silence before she answered gave her game away. When at last she said, “Yes, he’s a good friend of ours,” I knew she had known about me before I had moved to the co-op. She admitted she had lacked a roommate and I had sounded ideal; she asked if I minded. I really didn’t mind. I had hated the dormitory and I was glad to find new friends. Rhea’s friend Alec Uros visited her every other day and she invariably recited my proletarian virtues to him. Alec was at least as impressed as Rhea. He was another person to whom the daughter of a worker was as exotic as a Martian.

Ultimately their conspiracy backfired. Because of me their little university group fell apart. It would probably have fallen apart anyway, but not the way it actually happened.

Rhea was the “open” member of the organization. She attended all sorts of events and meetings where she announced her organization’s position on the topics under discussion. Alec and Lem were “secret” members. All three attended organization meetings, which were frequently held at Debbie Matthews’ house, but when Alec and Lem were asked if they were members they denied it. All three pressured me to attend at least one of their meetings merely in order to see what “wonderful people” they all were, but I invariably turned down the invitation, passing up my chance to meet all those wonderful people.

When he came to visit Rhea, Alec would tell us about his projects on the school newspaper staff. The more he talked about that, the more interested I became. He talked about professors who were being fired for refusing to sign the oath of loyalty to the state, about students who refused to take part in the military training program, about the latest speaker who had been banned from speaking on campus. He saw his role on the newspaper staff as that of a muckraker who exposed these infringements on the students’ right of speech and of assembly. He didn’t see any contradiction between his newspaper campaigns and his organization’s denial of all such rights. Alec’s naivete recruited me, not to his organization, but to his campaigns. This was a project I recognized; I wanted to take part in it. I joined the newspaper staff. So did Lem.

Yarostan, your letters inhibit me. No, I’m no longer angry. I’m frustrated. For twenty years I longed to tell you about myself, if not in letters then in a novel which was addressed to you even if it never reached you. I wanted to tell you about my life because I thought I’d lived up to what you might have wanted me to be. I looked at myself through what I took to be your eyes and I wasn’t ashamed. I was in fact somewhat proud of myself. Not altogether. I hadn’t taken part in the overthrow of the ruling system. But I hadn’t succumbed to it either. I hadn’t emerged unscathed but I wasn’t destroyed either. Unlike Luisa, I hadn’t sold my productive energy. Unlike Sabina, I hadn’t sold either my body or my soul. Until your letters challenged my self-evaluation I’d thought I had done rather well. My activity on that university newspaper staff was one of the high points of my story. I saw it as a continuation of activity I had once shared with you. Yet now that I can finally tell you about my little victories I feel embarrassed and inhibited. I can’t help seeing myself through the lenses you’re now wearing and I look ludicrous to myself. The very words with which I would have boasted about my activity are the words with which you ridicule it. If my desire to communicate and defend my insights and past experiences was pedagogy, then it was precisely the opportunity to engage in this pedagogy that attracted me to the newspaper staff. I think you go too far when you characterize every instance of such activity as an attempt to convert people to a religion. I understand the way your analysis applies to Lem, Rhea and Alec; I recognized them as missionaries of a repressive religion. I can even see how your analysis applies to certain aspects of Luisa’s relation to the world. But I don’t see how your analysis applies to me. To communicate a religion you need to have certainties and I never had any. At most I had past friends and experiences, but the answers those friends and experiences gave me in any given context were never clear. Even if I granted that your description of me was valid down to your characterization of my pedagogical activity as a type of missionary activity, I still wouldn’t see that I had chosen the worst of the alternatives available to me. In retrospect I’m still convinced that under the circumstances I did rather well, since I know what other alternatives were available to me. I’ve had a few chances to sample Luisa’s as well as Sabina’s alternatives. I might in time have reconciled myself to Luisa’s situation, but I couldn’t have retained the amount of energy she has managed to keep alive. I could never have been Sabina; I wouldn’t have survived either physically or psychologically.

In a way it’s ironic that you describe the activity I chose as a type of religious activity. I visited Luisa soon after I started to work on the newspaper. She had just been called to testify at an official inquisition; she was asked where she was from, what she had done, what she thought. Later she learned that the inquisition didn’t concern her but George Alberts. His turn had come to undergo the treatment to which he had subjected Debbie Matthews. George Alberts, the person I’ve always regarded as a model opportunist, was called a subversive and fired from his teaching job. (Don’t shed tears for him though; he immediately opened up some kind of research organization connected to the military and he again sold his talents to the same government that had just fired him.) When Luisa told me about that, I had the feeling that I was among the pitifully few people who were engaged in a struggle against the state religion and its inquisition. I saw myself as an atheist during a witch hunt aimed not only at people playing at being revolutionaries but even at totally unprincipled individuals like Alberts who had once in their lives been swept along by a revolutionary upsurge.

Some of my newspaper friends were devoted to a counter-religion as repressive as the religion we fought against, and they tried to convert me. Lem’s and to a smaller extent Alec’s goal was to convert all the students of the university to their form of state worship. But my approach, influenced by Luisa and by my experiences with you, was significantly different from theirs. I don’t think you can really characterize it as religious. Unlike Lem and Alec, I didn’t write articles about fired professors in order to prove that they wouldn’t have been fired if the counter-religion prevailed. I knew perfectly well that the professors would never have been hired in the first place if that religion prevailed. My sole aim was to describe the militaristic lectures, the banning of speakers, the firings of professors, and to let readers draw their own conclusions from the facts themselves. To me reality itself was so scandalous that I was sure numerous students would act as soon as they knew what the facts were. I was wrong, but not altogether. Several years later a large number of students did in fact respond to the scandal; that movement is today being drowned by variants of the religion then carried by Rhea and Lem. I didn’t only resist Rhea’s and Lem’s attempts to recruit and use me; by resisting them I helped mess up their other plans and ruin their miniscule organization.

The editor of the campus newspaper, Hugh Nurava, was a very mild-mannered, very middle-class student. I was immediately fascinated by him. The words he used most frequently were “responsible” and “fair.” He seemed convinced there were always two and never more than two sides to every question. The task of the “responsible” editor was to be “fair” to each of the two sides. Once Alec wrote an article on some students who had refused to swear to be loyal to the state; they were forced to march in a military parade in their street clothes; they looked ridiculous, even to their own friends, and everyone laughed at them. Hugh went out of his way to give equal space to the other half of the question. He interviewed a military “professor” and published, alongside Alec’s article, an equally long article depicting the dangerous and all-pervasive enemy against whose imminent invasion the uniformed students were protecting civilization. One time I wrote an article about a pacifist who was to speak in a university lecture hall but who was denied permission to speak in the hall just before the event was scheduled to take place. For the sake of “fairness,” Hugh telephoned the university administration and alongside my article he published the administration’s official statement that it was the university’s policy never to prevent anyone from speaking on campus since free speech was an indispensable condition for education The fact that one article flatly contradicted the other didn’t prove to Hugh that one of them had to be false; it convinced him that “the truth” lay “somewhere between the two extremes.”

The person on the next rung of the newspaper hierarchy was Bess Lach. She was the managing editor. She was the only person on the staff besides me who didn’t have a middle class background. I learned that her mother worked as a cleaning-woman for people who were managers in the plant where Luisa worked. Her father had run off when she was a baby. Yet although she was even more “proletarian” than I, neither Lem nor Alec took the slightest interest in her. It was impossible to communicate with her. She was literally a machine. I’m sure she was the best managing editor that newspaper had before or since. She read, measured, counted with the speed and precision of a computer. But whenever she opened her mouth she articulated a law. “Don’t, can’t, not allowed, against regulations” appeared in every statement she made. She had internalized all the written and unwritten codes of the state, the university, and while Hugh was editor she internalized the code of “fairness and responsibility” as well. Bess and Hugh went with each other when I met them. I can’t imagine what they could have said to each other and I never asked him. Perhaps by enumerating the regulations she familiarized Hugh with his “responsibilities.” I have to admit I wasn’t able to muster up any solidarity toward my fellow worker Bess.

The most bizarre member of the newspaper staff was Thurston Rakshas. He came from the very top of the social hierarchy and I’m sure that’s where he is again today. He considered himself superior to the rest of us in wit, knowledge as well as looks. He thought himself a humorist. He wrote a regular joke column which was in fact very clever and occasionally he wrote an article. I laughed whenever he said anything at all. He thought I appreciated his brilliant sense of humor. In fact I laughed at him. I thought his poses were ludicrous and hilarious. I had never been so close to a real dilettante, a genuine heir to the wealth wrenched from the labor of millions of wage workers. He never saw through me. Genuinely convinced that my laughter expressed appreciation of his wit, one day he asked me to accompany him to a dance which was going to take place several weeks later. I accepted his invitation immediately. In a flash I figured out this was my chance to slip away from the unwanted attentions of Lem as well as Rhea. I made it a point of announcing to everyone on the staff that I had accepted Thurston’s invitation to the dance.

My strategy was completely successful, but in ways I hadn’t expected at all.

When I told Rhea, she said, “I guess I overestimated your class consciousness.” That put an end to her admiration for her proletarian roommate. She never again asked me about the educational background of my “family.” And she never again asked me to join her organization.

Lem caught me late one afternoon when I was alone in the newspaper office typing an article. He sat down next to me and started to cry. “Are you actually going to go through with that?” he asked.

“With what, Lem?” I asked innocently.

“Are you going to go out with that reactionary, that exploiter of the working class?” he asked.

“He’s really a wonderful person when you get to know him, Lem,” I lied.

In Lem’s eyes I was “lost.” My strategy was an instant success; from that day on I no longer had a private missionary trailing me like a shadow. Lem retreated to Debbie Matthews and to his organizational meetings.

What took me completely by surprise was Alec’s response to my insincere flirtation with Thurston. Alec was jealous. He hatched a plot to “save” me from the claws of the “dangerous reactionary.” And in the process of working out his exquisitely designed plot he threw all of his political commitments overboard, spoiled the plans and projects of his organization, and created absolute chaos on the newspaper staff.

Alec didn’t confront me with the problem directly. In fact he took such a round-about approach that I didn’t figure out what he had done until several months later. His strategy was brilliant and like all brilliant strategies it led to completely unexpected consequences.

He began by breaking up his relationship with Rhea. He told her he was disillusioned with the organization and tore up his membership card in her presence. Rhea blamed me. She accused me of brainwashing him with reactionary arguments. I argued from the bottom of my heart that I’d had nothing to do with Alec’s disillusionment. I felt sorry for her. Little did I know then the place I occupied in Alec’s scheme. When I began to figure it out I silently moved into another room.

Alec’s “defection” from the organization and my deficiency as a “rank-and-file leader” left Lem isolated on the newspaper staff. To remedy this Rhea herself joined the staff.

After breaking up with Rhea, Alec formed a clique with Minnie Vach and Daman Hesper, the remaining two regular members of the newspaper staff. Minnie and Daman were members of a political sect which was indistinguishable from Lem’s organization in terms of its internal relationships but which considered Lem’s and Rhea’s organization the main evil that plagued humanity. I actually agreed with much of what they said. Many of their views even had a superficial similarity to views you’ve expressed in your letters. For example, they held that an organization of professional revolutionaries which claimed to liberate the workers would only enslave them; they held that the workers’ revolution could only be led by the workers themselves. What I couldn’t understand then and still can’t now is how they viewed their own sect. They never tired of telling me that the role of their organization was not to lead the workers but to educate them. It never seemed to occur to them that the teacher is the one who leads, the student the one who follows.

Alec’s resignation from Lem’s and Rhea’s sect was a precondition for his alliance with Minnie and Daman. (If I refer to Minnie and Daman as a single person it’s because at that time they were like Siamese twins; Minnie formulated the arguments and Daman merely emphasized them.) Alec had a long talk with Minnie and Daman a few days after he broke up with Rhea. He told them he had finally been convinced by their arguments and had quit his organization; he proved this by showing them his torn membership card. He even attended a few meetings of their organization, although he later told me he didn’t agree with their organizational practices at all. As soon as he gained their trust, the three began to plan a series of articles which would systematically expose the bias of the education, the extent to which militarists and state officials dominated the university’s policies, the cowardice of administrators and professors, the apathy of students.

Every day one of them submitted exposures of the military curriculum, articles on fired professors, interviews with pacifists. Hugh couldn’t possibly keep up with “the other side” of all the questions raised in their articles. Consequently there was a lively confrontation in the newspaper office almost every day. Bess and Thurston argued that if the “other side” weren’t given equal space, the paper would become a propaganda sheet and that consequently the articles of Minnie, Daman or Alec should be suppressed whenever a rejoinder couldn’t be published with them. Hugh’s position wasn’t as clear as that. Committed though he was to publishing two sides to every question, he had yet another principle; no article should ever be suppressed. Since he couldn’t resolve the conflict between his two principles he would put the question to a staff vote. At first the result of the voting was that Minnie, Daman and Alec outnumbered Bess and Thurston because Hugh, Rhea, Lem and I abstained. As a result all their articles were published. The reason Lem and Rhea abstained was that they refused to be on the same side as Minnie, Daman and the “renegade” Alec. I abstained because, although I favored including the articles without views of the other side, my vote wasn’t needed for their inclusion. But this state of affairs didn’t last. On one occasion Minnie wrote an article which contained a critique of Lem’s and Rhea’s organization. From that day on, both Rhea and Lem formed a ludicrous bloc with Bess and Thurston and voted against the inclusion of every article written by Alec, Minnie or Daman, who were outnumbered four to three. I was forced to take sides. Of course I voted in favor of including every article without a rebuttal and as a result there was a tie: four in favor and four against. Tempers rose and cliques hardened. After one particularly heated exchange which took place only a few days before the dance to which I was to accompany Thurston, he very politely told me he would prefer not to go with me. I was relieved. Alec had known that sooner or later I’d take sides and at that point I’d clash with Thurston. I was no longer inhibited from openly joining the “clique.” But the ultimate decision as to whether or not to include the articles again depended on Hugh. He once again found a way to be fair to each of the two sides. He voted with us one day and against us the next, so that nearly every other one of our articles was suppressed. In spite of the exclusion of almost half of our articles I felt that my new friends and I were engaged in a virtual crusade to expose the repressive atmosphere of the university.

My acceptance of my new friends wasn’t unqualified. I rarely argued with Minnie and Daman. They were infinitely better informed than I and the convoluted sentences in which they couched their arguments intimidated me. Yet despite their erudition and their rhetorical talents I saw through their outlook; I thought it was a superficial version of Luisa’s. Their affirmation that working people were perfectly capable of running their own affairs seemed to be a mere slogan that neither Minnie nor Daman really believed. The workers’ ability to run their own affairs seemed to depend on their ability to learn this from Minnie’s and Daman’s organization. And they were convinced, believe it or not, that their sect had discovered that workers were able to run their own affairs, that their sect had discovered workers’ councils, and that their sect had discovered the reactionary character of the role of revolutionary politicians. Nachalo, Margarita and Luisa had learned all this from experiences they had lived; this knowledge had flowed in their blood; they had learned from painful counterrevolutionary wars how revolutionary politicians transformed the workers’ movement into a gang of government bureaucrats. To Minnie and Daman these painful experiences were nothing but phrases discovered by their sect only yesterday and not yet applied to their relationships with each other within their organization. I couldn’t respect them. But I did enjoy muckraking with them.

I accepted Alec with fewer misgivings. He was politically unformed. He had joined Rhea’s sect for the same reasons you said Manuel had joined his organization. Alec had been Rhea’s boy friend and had followed her into the organization on a date. When he became interested in me, he abandoned Rhea as well as the entire credo of her organization. After he left the organization he worked out a political potpourri consisting of Minnie’s and my observations couched in phrases he had retained from his earlier commitment. Alec had nothing at all in common with you or Jan Sedlak or Ron Matthews. But in spite of his naivete, perhaps because of it, I liked him a lot.

One night, a few weeks after I moved out of Rhea’s room, Sabina surprised me with a visit. She burst into my room at the co-op late at night. Alec had just brought me home. He and I had taken the paper to the printer’s that night; we had done all the last minute proofreading of galleys and shortening of articles. Sabina had waited outside for Alec to leave. I was dead tired and my head was filled with the day’s events. Minnie had submitted a very long interview with a campus general who had boastfully showed her the files he kept on all the students in the university. He classified students in terms of their degree of patriotism, from loyal to apathetic, disloyal, dangerous and subversive. The article was one of the biggest exposures of the year. Hugh had voted with the four of us to include the article.

I wasn’t glad to see Sabina that night. I knew that I had turned against her and Ron long before they had left me standing next to their bicycles. I knew that my hostility toward Sabina and Ron had been only partly motivated by the fact that they hadn’t trusted me at the time of the robbery. I knew that I had rejected Ron even before our excursion to the beach in the car Ron wrecked. This was very clear to me when I saw Sabina that night because I was then in the midst of the activities and friends I had hoped to find when I had first turned against Ron. It was clear to me that I had rejected Ron already when our relationship was at its peak, at the time of our earliest bicycle excursions. Ron had known that as early as I had. It had been as obvious to him as to me that he could no more take my path than I his, he would have suffocated in an atmosphere of petty quarrels couched in erudite language; he couldn’t have fought his battles on that terrain. Yes, Yarostan, I knew how early I had made the choice you describe. It wasn’t Ron’s terrain or Sabina’s. But I knew it was mine. It wasn’t all petty quarrels. By that night I had already fought some meaningful battles. I don’t want to exaggerate their significance, but I’m certain they were far more meaningful than any battles I could have fought on Ron’s terrain. As I studied Sabina, wondering why she had come, I didn’t regret having rejected their path; I couldn’t imagine anything socially relevant growing out of stolen cars. This was the only time I saw Sabina until I was expelled from college. The following morning I remembered her visit as a bad dream.

Sabina spoke like a robot. She looked past me and seemed not to care whether or not I heard her. “Ron is dead.”

“Dead! How? When?” I asked.

“You and George Alberts are responsible,” she droned.

I thought her coldness and her seeming indifference were symptoms of hysteria. I paid no attention to the accusation. I repeated my questions.

“Missing in action,” she answered. “They didn’t say when or how.”

“But when did he join the army?” I asked with disbelief.

“Air force. He signed up because of you,” she told me without raising her voice, without seeming to be aware that she was telling me anything extraordinary.

“Sabina!” I shouted. “I don’t understand!” I burst into tears.

“I didn’t think you would. But I thought you ought to know.” Saying that, she left as abruptly as she’d come. I cried, uncomprehending, until I fell asleep without undressing or washing.

The next morning Alec’s knock on the door woke me. He was annoyed. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “This is a hell of a day to oversleep.” We had intended to rush to the boxes where the papers were distributed so as to see how students responded to Minnie’s article. We spent the day interviewing students who were willing to express their responses to the article. Sabina’s visit and Ron’s death receded in my memory.

* * *

“You’re absolutely right,” I admit to Sabina. “By the time of Ron’s trial I had already made my choice. I had walked out on Ron. But why did you say I was responsible when you came to tell me Ron was dead?”

“You and George Alberts were responsible,” Sabina says in the same tone she had used fourteen years earlier.

“How can you repeat that accusation today?” I ask her. “When you said it that night you visited me at the co-op, I thought you were hysterical. Ron had left you and he’d just been killed in the war.”

“Ron never left me,” she says. “He left you. And he wasn’t killed in the war.”

“Would you stop being so cryptic and mysterious!” I shout. “What you’re saying doesn’t mean anything to me!”

Tina asks me, “Are you sure it was Sabina who was hysterical that night?”

“What the hell do you know about it?” I ask Tina. “You were only four years old at that time.”

“I know a hell of a lot more about it than you do,” Tina proclaims. “First of all I was almost five, and secondly Jose told me about his last days with Ron at least a dozen times before you came to the garage. You were always the villain of his story. I thought of you along with George Alberts and Tom Matthews as the bad people of this world.”

“If you knew so much, why didn’t you tell me after you left the garage?” I ask her.

“Are you kidding? You were about as interested in Ron as Luisa is,” Tina says. “Whenever I mentioned Ron you went into your professional pose. ‘Oh really? What else did he steal?’”

Luisa contributes: “What else was there to tell about him?”

“Nothing,” I say to her; “absolutely nothing.”

“So why should Sophia have wanted to hear about Ron?” Luisa asks Tina.

I answer, “Because I want to hear about him now, that’s why. I want to know what it was that Tina knew about Ron during all these years.”

“The day Ron got out of reform school Jose and Sabina went to get him,” Tina begins. “Instead of being glad to see his two best friends Ron got into the car and asked, ‘Where’s Sophie?’”

I ask Sabina, “Is Tina making that up?” Sabina shakes her head.

“Jose thought Ron was joking,” Tina continues. “He asked Ron who the hell Sophie was. Then he got mad at Ron for expecting someone else to have come for him instead, but he saw tears in Ron’s eyes and asked Sabina who else Ron was expecting. Sabina told him you hadn’t known when Ron was supposed to be released.”

“You never told me anything about that,” I say to Sabina.

Sabina answers, “We visited you after Ron was released and all you said was ‘Really?’”

“Ron hardly said a word to me that night,” I insist. “You did all the talking. He seemed to be in a different world.”

“Different from whose?” Sabina asks.

“Mine! From mine!” I answer angrily. “You’re so right! Have you ever been wrong, Sabina, about anything?”

Tina continues, “Jose said Ron changed after he and Sabina visited you. Jose thought it was then that Ron decided there were two or three more things he wanted to do in his life before he was through.”

“It always looks like that after a person is dead,” I tell her. “The last things a person does always look like the last things he had intended to do.”

“Jose hadn’t just met Ron, you know!” Tina exclaims. “He had that feeling before Ron died, not after.”

“I know how long Jose had known Ron,” I admit. Tom and Debbie Matthews had adopted Jose during the depression. It was mainly Jose who brought up Ron when both Tom and Debbie had jobs during the war. Some years after the war Tom accused Jose of teaching Ron to be a criminal. Jose angrily left the Matthews and didn’t see them again until Ron’s trial.

Tina continues, “The first thing Ron wanted to do after visiting you was to find Ted, who had left reform school some months before Ron.”

“To start the garage: stolen parts at cut rates and heroin for the health of the poorer folk,” I say sarcastically.

“But you’re just like Luisa!” Tina says to me.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “Please go on.”

“Ron and Jose looked for Ted because he was good at stealing cars.” Tina says. “Ever since the trial one idea had been on both their minds: to get even with Tom Matthews. Ron had wanted you to be in on the revenge. That’s why he and Sabina visited you.”

“To take part in revenge?” Luisa asks. “Is that the act of individual rebellion Yarostan praises in his letters?”

Tina disregards Luisa’s interruption and continues, “Tom Matthews had bought a brand new car right after the trial. He would park it right in front of his diner and he’d spend half the day looking through the window to see if it was still there. Jose, Ron and Ted drove off with it in broad daylight a couple of seconds after he’d just looked at it and probably a couple of seconds before he looked at it again and saw that it was gone. The first comment Ron made when they drove off was: ‘I bet Sophie would have loved to see the old man’s face when he saw that car gone. I’d give my right arm to hear what she’d have said; if she could only have stood across the street and watched his expression this would have been perfect.’”

“Good grief!” Luisa yells. “Why you?”

I answer, “Because Ron’s old man almost shot me the night Ron took me to his house. Yes, Ron was right; I really would have liked to see that old man’s face.”

Tina continues, “They drove it away and dismantled it so completely that Matthews himself couldn’t have recognized his new car if he’d walked into the garage and looked right at it. He went out of his mind when he saw his new car was gone. He hunted for Ron all over the city. One day he even came to our house —”

“Alberts’ house,” Sabina corrects.

“He came with a gun, looking for Ron. He would have shot Sabina if I hadn’t screamed,” Tina says proudly.

“Do you remember that?” Sabina asks.

“I almost remember,” Tina says. “Anyway I thought I remembered when you first told me about it. You laughed at him. You told him —”

“ — that Ron had just become a professional killer,” Sabina says, “and that he’d drop a bomb on Matthews’ house.”

“Matthews went wild,” Tina continues. “He waved his gun in Sabina’s face; he waved it at me when I screamed; and then he ran out of the house.”

“You had some nerve to laugh at him when he was in such a state!” I tell Sabina. “He could have killed both of you!”

“We’re both still here though,” Tina says. “Matthews closed his diner during all the weeks he spent looking for Ron. When he opened the diner again hardly any of his former customers returned. Most of them went to a franchised restaurant across the street which hadn’t done very well until Matthews closed down. At the end of that month Matthews didn’t have enough money to pay all his bills. A few months later he was bankrupt. His diner was auctioned off.”

“Couldn’t Debbie get some kind of job?” I ask.

“I was with you once when we saw what a state she was in,” Tina reminds me. “Jose told me she had been something of a drunkard ever since she’d been thrown out of her union job after the war. When she lost her teaching job she was drunk all the time. Matthews tried to get a factory job. He did get some low paying job but was fired after a few weeks; maybe it was just a temporary job; Jose never told me the details. What Debbie told Jose was that one day she heard a shot. She dragged herself to the basement. Matthews was lying on the floor. He had shot himself.”

Luisa mutters, almost to herself, “He was murdered by his own son.”

“Oh shit!” Sabina exclaims.

I object too. “That wasn’t exactly what Tina said.”

“I didn’t say he shot himself because his new car was stolen,” Tina explains. “That’s only part of the reason —”

I add, “Debbie’s drunkenness must have had something to do with it. Several years earlier Ron had told me how bitter she’d been about being thrown out of the union she’d helped build. I can understand why she broke down when that happened to her a second time. I still remember the hatred with which she looked at me at Ron’s trial because she thought I was George Alberts’ daughter.”

“Do you see any connections yet?” Sabina asks Luisa. “Don’t you know why you and Sophia and I got out of jail two days after being arrested and why our emigration was so easy?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with it.” Luisa says.

“Why do you think he had a job waiting for him as well as a house for the three of us when we got here?” Sabina asks her, immediately answering her own question. “Alberts saved your skin by selling his soul! Debbie Matthews was only one of his victims. When Debbie fell she drove the sinking Tom Matthews all the way to the bottom. You came here on the devil’s pay, Luisa!”

Luisa objects, “If you’re suggesting I was implicated in that man’s suicide you’re completely deranged. Your reasoning is as distorted as Yarostan’s.”

“I’m not suggesting anything,” Sabina says. “I’m only stating facts.”

“All right, you’ve made that point,” I concede to Sabina. “But you still haven’t told me what I had to do with Ron’s death.”

“Haven’t we?” she asks.

“No you haven’t,” I insist. “I don’t know any more now than I knew that night you came to my room at the university co-op; you shouted that I was responsible for Ron’s death,”

“I didn’t shout,” Sabina says. “And I said you and Alberts.”

I get impatient “Would you mind explaining that, Sabina? I don’t care how long it takes.” Noticing Luisa’s pained expression, I tell Sabina, “I don’t care whether Luisa stays or leaves. Now that you’ve unearthed the details of my relationship to Ron I’d like to hear all of it. And please don’t ask what good it’ll do to tell me.”

Luisa leans back on the couch, yawns and closes her eyes so as to communicate to all of us that she’s not interested in the details of my relations with Ron.

“The day before I went to see you at the university,” Sabina begins, “Debbie Matthews showed up at Alberts’ house. I was alone with Tina, Debbie collapsed into an armchair the moment she walked in. She was stone drunk. ‘You hussy,’ she told me; ‘Why did you walk out on my son when he needed you? And where’s that filthy father of yours? Where’s that son-of-a-bitch Alberts?’ I asked her what had happened and why she wanted Alberts. She said, ‘I want to see his face now that they’ve thrown his ass out of school, I want to see what he looks like now that he’s gotten what he gave me, I want to ask him if he’s happy now about himself and me; where the hell is that slimy bastard that called himself my friend and then cut me up one limb at a time?’ I told her Alberts was working and asked if something had happened to Ron. She said, ‘He’s working? He can’t be working, deary; he’s off in some bar; he got booted out like I was; he’s not allowed to work; he’s a subversive.’ I described the work he was doing and Debbie got hysterical. ‘That bastard is doing research for the air force?’ she asked; then she shouted, ‘That low unprincipled bastard! The air force! He’s working for the outfit that killed my son!’ I had been afraid that was the news she’d come with. She worked herself up into a frenzy about the fact that Alberts was already employed again. She walked around the house, knocked down chairs and threw books on the floor. She yelled, ‘What are you people? Who sent you? You’re some kind of agents. You were sent to get rid of us. Well kill me right here, get it over with!’ Then she collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or dead. I set a pillow under her head, put a blanket over her and ran to the garage. Fortunately Jose was there.”

Tina tells me, “That was when they found out where you fit in —”

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

Tina says, “When Jose got to know you years later he often said, ‘She’s as innocent as a baby that started a fire that burned down a city.’”

I become impatient. “Tina, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Jose told me never to tell you,” Tina claims.

Sabina says to Tina, “Go ahead and tell her; there’s nothing left to tell she doesn’t already know.”

“Jose said you’d have become a completely different person if you’d known the truth,” Tina tells me.

Exasperated, I ask, “The truth about what? Aren’t you confusing Jose with Yarostan?”

“The truth about you and Ron,” Tina says. “Jose often told me he wouldn’t have liked what you’d have become if you’d known. That’s exactly the opposite of what Yarostan says.”

“Tina, don’t play Sabina’s games with me!” I shout.

Tina calmly muses, “I wonder if it would really have made any difference if you’d known.”

I grab her by the shoulders and shake her, shouting, “Don’t dangle a string, Tina! I’m not a cat!”

Tina shouts back, “That’s what Jose said about you! You kept dangling a string in front of Ron and he kept jumping at it. Only you never knew you were dangling it.”

My patience wears out. “Go to hell, Tina! If this is another one of your jokes you can shove it up your ass because I’m going to sleep.”

“This one doesn’t have a funny ending, Sophia,” she says. “And I’d just as soon not tell you about it so if you want to go to sleep that’s fine with me; I’m sleepy as hell.”

I plead with Tina, “What is it you’d just as soon not tell me?”

“What you’ve been asking about for the past two hours, Sophia! Your connection to Ron’s death.”

“How can you know anything about that?” I ask her.

“It turned out that Debbie Matthews was the only one who knew anything about it. When she told Jose and Sabina all they could say was My God!”

I turn to Sabina. “You never breathed a word to me about what Debbie told you!”

Sabina says, “I told you everything that night when I visited you at the co-op. You didn’t ask me to go into details and in any case it was too late to do anything about it.”

Tina adds, “Ron was already dead.”

“All you told me was that I was responsible for Ron’s death,” I say again. This time it’s Tina who says, “You and George Alberts.” She continues. “That was really a very complete summary. And if it was too late to tell you the details then, it’s way too late now! I have to be at work in four hours and we should carry Luisa to a bed.”

“Don’t worry about Luisa,” I insist. “Nothing wakes her once she’s asleep. Please, Tina, I want to hear those details now. Go to sleep on your job.”

“Don’t keep repeating that Sabina told you that you were responsible for Ron’s death,” Tina tells me. “Alberts’ role was much more important to Sabina than yours. We were still living in his house when she learned about it. Didn’t you know what Sabina thought of Alberts then?”

Sabina asks Tina, “Would you mind leaving that out?”

“If I’m going to lose my night’s sleep telling her,” Tina says, “I’ll at least tell her everything I know. I’m sure she’ll never learn that part from you.” Tina turns toward me. “Jose told me he and Sabina were both stunned when they heard what Debbie had to say but they were stunned for different reasons. Every time Jose said My god! because of something Debbie said about you, Sabina said it because of something she said about Alberts. Sabina didn’t tell you about your role because that wasn’t what mattered to her and she had in any case learned most of that before, from Ron. What mattered to her was what she learned about her life’s hero. All that math and physics she had learned from him ever since she was a little girl, all those laboratory experiments which she thought revealed the secrets of the universe — she hadn’t ever connected any of that with the slaughter of thousands of human beings. Debbie uprooted all of Sabina’s admiration for Alberts; she gave Sabina a picture of a cold-blooded murderer of thousands and maybe even millions of people. And not only a murderer, but the worst kind, the one who doesn’t kill a single opponent in face-to-face combat but who exterminates unseen victims from the safety of his laboratory. Sabina went completely wild. She left Jose at Debbie’s and ran to Alberts’ house. She completely destroyed the lab he’d built for her on the second floor. She took all the books he’d ever given her and threw them into the incinerator. She burned all her clothes, all of mine, all my toys, everything. The clothes she was wearing were the only things she took with her. She’d even have burned his house —”

“My god!” I exclaim.

“Sabina blurted it all out once, years later, only because she was completely stoned. The day after she told us she tried to convince us she’d lied to us. She never again got stoned after that. Jose didn’t know any of this had happened at the time: he only knew that Sabina had decided to move into the garage with him, Ted and Tissie. She hasn’t once seen Alberts since then, Sabina was calmer the day after she moved out of Alberts’ house, when she visited you. She went to tell you Ron was dead and that was all she intended to tell you. She thought you ought to know. She probably hadn’t paid much attention to what Debbie had said about you. It was Jose who heard that.”

I beg Tina. “Would you mind being a little more coherent? I know you can do it.”

Tina is offended. “You don’t have to be sarcastic! This is the first time I’ve ever pieced the whole story together from the bits and snatches dropped by you, Sabina and Jose. I’ve never before realized what all those pieces added up to.”

I try to apologize, “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic; I got lost, that’s all.”

Tina turns to Sabina and asks. “Why don’t you tell her? You were there too. I only know these things at second hand.”

Sabina says, “Just you go ahead, Tina, you’re doing fine.”

“Don’t you be sarcastic too,” Tina tells her. “I’m sorry it’s so confusing, Sophia. It’s awfully late. Why don’t you get Sabina to tell you these things some other time?”

I object. “You told me those were precisely the things that didn’t matter to her. Besides, I want to hear it now and from you. Sabina would only confuse me even more.”

Tina says, “I’ll try to tell it in order. Sabina already told you Debbie had gone to look for Alberts. That happened the day before Sabina visited you at the university co-op. Debbie was drunk and collapsed on the couch. Sabina ran to get Jose. She wanted to get Debbie out of Alberts’ house before he returned. She couldn’t do that alone. She got Jose to help her drag Debbie to Jose’s car and drive her home. They both sat by her bed while she slept for several hours. She was relatively sober when she woke up; Jose gave her coffee. Pointing her finger at Sabina, Debbie said to Jose: ‘Keep away from that snake, kid. She’ll stab you in the back.’ Jose asked what Sabina had done. That’s when Debbie blurted out the whole story. Her finger hadn’t been pointed at Sabina but at you.”

I start to feel sick.

Tina continues, “She thought Sabina was the girl Tom Matthews had tried to shoot that night Ron tried to take you to his room —”

“She didn’t see me that night; Debbie and I didn’t meet until Ron’s trial,” I tell Tina. “But Lem introduced me to her at the trial; she couldn’t have thought Sabina and I were the same person since we were both at the trial.”

“She didn’t know you had anything to do with Ron when she saw you at the trial,” Tina tells me.

“What story did she blurt out?” I ask Tina.

“When Jose asked her what she had against Sabina, Debbie said she’d visited Ron in reform school after the trial. Ron told her that as soon as he got out he’d get even with Matthews. Debbie said she didn’t blame Ron because Tom Matthews was a bastard who’d jailed his own son. Ron told her he wasn’t going to get even with him about that; he had expected that. He wanted to get even with Matthews for breaking up Ron’s relationship with his girl. Ron told Debbie that when Matthews tried to shoot you he had scared the shit out of you and you had changed as a result, you had become afraid of Ron.”

“If Ron said that he was lying to himself,” I tell Tina. “Our relationship was already over when Matthews threatened us with his gun. Ron met Sabina the very next day —”

Sabina, trying to imitate Ron, says, “Oh shit. Sabina, you know it’s Sophie I want, but she thinks I’m someone else, someone she must have known someplace else —”

“When did he tell you that?” I ask Sabina.

“A week after he moved in with me,” she says.

“So soon after the car wreck!” I exclaim. I turn to Tina and ask her, “Is that true?”

“Now how in the world would I know that, Sophia?”

“You seem to know everything else!”

Tina says, “I know that when Sabina and Jose got Ron the day he was released from reform school —”

I interrupt, “He asked why I wasn’t there. I already know that.”

Sabina says, “Right after his release from reform school —”

“ — you and Ron got me up at midnight,” I interrupt again. “Ron was as talkative as a mummy.”

“He talked to you,” Sabina says.

“You mean at the beginning?” I ask. “I tried to joke with him.”

“What did you say?” Sabina asks.

“Just trivialities, “ I say. “I reminded him of our first meeting.”

“Your words?” she asks.

“I said I’d meet him any time,” I admit.

“You said that to him?” Tina asks. “Jose was right! You really did dangle a string in front of him. Jose said that before and after they drove off with Matthews’ car Ron kept mumbling, ‘She’ll meet me any time.’”

“I couldn’t have joined him in the air force!” I exclaim.

“Ron didn’t mean the air force,” Tina tells me. “He thought the garage idea would appeal to you. If it didn’t he was ready to leave the city with you after Matthews’ car was stolen.”

“Leave and do what?” I ask.

“Go travelling, stealing and camping, I suppose,” she says.

“He was crazy! I’d never have agreed to that!” I exclaim.

Tina says, “That’s what Sabina told Ron. She told him he was crazy, that you were set on becoming a professor.”

I bite my lip until it bleeds. Would I have joined Ron if I had known?

“Sabina told Ron you’d gladly meet him any time but not any place; she told him you’d meet him in college,” Tina adds. “And Ron must have known Sabina was right. That’s why he joined the air force.”

“What do you mean, ‘that’s why he joined the air force’?” I ask her. “Couldn’t he have done thousands of other things? Did he have to become a killer for the state?”

“Maybe he thought he’d communicate something to you by doing that,” Tina says.

“Are you suggesting he joined the air force because he knew I’d hate him for it?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she answers; “Ask Sabina.”

Sabina says, “Revenge was always important to him.”

Tina continues, “I was telling you what Debbie told Jose after he asked her what she had against Sabina. She told about her conversation with Ron in reform school. Then she got out of bed and showed Jose a letter she had gotten from Ron only a few months before he was killed. Jose kept the letter. Once I saw him reading it and crying. I saw the letter. It said, ‘Dear mom, I didn’t want you to think I came out here because of you, or even because of the old man. All that got balanced out. I came out here to balance out some other things that had nothing to do with you. But I can’t go through with what they’re doing out here. Your loving son, Ron.’”

“He didn’t kill himself!” I exclaim.

“Several months later Debbie was informed that he was missing in action,” Tina tells me.

“Why?” I ask.

“Do you want me to repeat his letter?” Tina asks. “I know it by heart.”

“I don’t understand!”

“Do you want to?” she asks.

No, I suppose I don’t want to understand that Ron killed himself because I was wedded to my past experience, to you. to pedagogy, to everything you now dismiss as illusions. Would it really have made any difference if I’d known that I could have saved Ron’s life by ceasing to be what I was? I didn’t answer Tina’s question.

It was morning when our discussion ended. Tina and Luisa went to work. Sabina and I went to sleep. I got up in time to go to my evening class. We haven’t discussed the subject since. Our lives have reverted to normal. I still can’t answer Tina’s question. Can you? It was your letter that gave rise to that systematic dissection of my life’s choices. Your letter makes it all sound so simple. In your view I could have chosen to be a genuine rebel like Ron and instead I chose to make myself a pedagogue. By choosing what I did, I led Ron to commit suicide.

But is it really so simple? Apparently even Ron couldn’t put all the blame on me. He tried to blame Tom Matthews for creating the gap between us. He tried to convince himself that if Matthews hadn’t tried to shoot me I would have been delighted to share his individual acts of rebellion while we travelled, stole and camped. Yet Ron knew perfectly well that my fear of his father wasn’t what separated me from Ron. If he placed the blame on Tom Matthews it was because he knew that the blame lay somewhere outside of me. He knew that I couldn’t have gone stealing and camping with him, that our life together would have been a miserable attempt to adapt to the margins of society. He must have known that he didn’t kill himself because of me but because there was no room in this society for someone like Ron. He was a romantic with an unattainable goal. He made me the symbol of the goal. He became aware that he would never reach that goal. That was why he committed suicide.

What was his goal? Maybe it was the goal of a genuine rebel: to live freely, rejecting the constraints of society. But you know perfectly well that this goal can only be realized by all human beings at once, or by none. It can’t be reached by an individual. What you call individual acts of rebellion quickly turn into their opposites. Individual thefts aren’t acts of rebellion but forms of adaptation to private property. If you thought they were more than that why didn’t you steal and hide when you were first released from prison, why did you look up the Sedlaks, why did you get a job? When workers appropriate the productive forces, they don’t steal them from former owners but take what’s theirs: the former owners are the thieves. By stealing we accept the legitimacy of the owners and by fleeing we accept the legitimacy of the armed force with which they protect their ownership.

It’s easy to romanticize Ron precisely because he was such a romantic. But the daily reality isn’t romantic at all. You wait for your chance and you pounce. That’s stimulating because it’s a dare, a challenge. If you aren’t thrown into jail it’s a victory. Then you wait for another chance. This time Ron might have to take an enormous risk, next time he might have to send me out as a lure. Sabina can tell you all about the chances you take. And at that point we’re right back where we started before we raised the question of rebellion. At that point we’re right back to the students in my “community college” class: they no longer want to sell themselves as mere workers, namely as low-quality merchandise, and to deal with that problem they’re repairing and painting themselves so as to sell themselves at a higher price. At that point we’re back to George Alberts, whose choices never entered within my spectrum, whose life I’ve always regarded as the opposite of what I wanted mine to be.

You, Sabina and Tina have forced me to reexamine my past. I still embrace my own choice. Call it pedagogy if you like. But please don’t call it politics. If Marc and Adrian are successful politicians now it’s not because they realized the aspirations we once shared but because they betrayed those aspirations. I was surprised and disappointed to learn about them. I can’t quite believe they were capable of such a turnabout. But you can’t use them as proof that every “pedagogical” rebel aspires to a government post. Of the friends I made on the college newspaper, every single one remained some kind of social outcast and rebel for as long as I kept track of them. At most you can say we were ludicrous Don Quixotes, that our pens and typewriters were ridiculously inadequate weapons with which to fight the battles we threw ourselves into. But the giants we confronted were real. We tried to cope with some socially meaningful reality. Among the alternatives available to me, only the one I chose enabled me to engage in activity in any way similar to the strike you’ve lust experienced in the plant where I first learned about such activity.

Please tell me more about yourself and the exciting events around you, and less about me.

And do, please, give Jasna my greetings, and Luisa’s as well.

Love,
Sophia.

Yarostan’s fourth letter

Dear Sophia,

The arrival of your letter coincided with Jasna Zbrkova’s first visit to our house. Jasna, Mirna and I read your letter simultaneously; each of us waited anxiously for the others to finish a page and pass it on. Each of us was fascinated, surprised, disappointed and angered by your account.

My situation has changed considerably since I last wrote you. I’ve gone back to work at the carton plant. As a result Yara now does most of the housework as well as the cooking. On the day your letter came Jasna helped Yara prepare a surprise banquet for Mirna and me, to celebrate a victorious “strike” that had just taken place at their school.

When Jasna started to read your letter she exclaimed, “They remember me!” She was flattered. But the more she read the more confused she became. “I had never known what had happened to Sophia and Luisa after they were arrested twenty years ago, and I can’t understand this argument she describes; were they released before their terms were over?” Jasna asked me. I told her you and Luisa had spent only two days in jail and she was as stunned as I had been. “Two days! Even I was imprisoned for a year, and I didn’t have a notion of what I was doing!” Please understand, Sophia, that our astonishment about this fact is only natural; after all, Jasna spent a year in prison and I spent four. Luisa is extremely unfair when she interprets my references to George Alberts as accusations. I’m not accusing. I’m simply very curious about the fact that George Alberts managed to have both of you released after only two days in jail. What power did Alberts have to arrange your release?

One of the comments Jasna made while reading the rest of your letter was, “What a strange world that must be. I can’t imagine what I would have done there.” When she finished reading the letter she said, “Sophia and Luisa don’t seem to have any idea what happened here after they left.”

We were all bothered by what Jasna called your strange world. The whole system of alternatives and choices you describe seems strange and unreal. The choices you say you faced are incomprehensible to me. Yet these choices seem to be the source of your attitude toward me, toward people you knew twenty years ago and toward the pedagogues who were your university friends. You say that at one point in your life you faced a choice between Luisa, Ron and the university, and you chose the university. You say you rejected Luisa’s life, the life of a wage worker, a life of boredom without any prospects, sustained only by the dream that wage labor will soon end. You’ve eliminated some of the contradictions and anachronisms. That leaves the part of Luisa’s life that consists of daily wage labor. In what sense have you rejected this? Wage labor is still the condition for your physical survival. In fact you admit that the evening classes you teach are sold activity in the same sense as Luisa’s factory work. Something is wrong with your description of your alternatives. You didn’t reject Ron’s actual life but your picture of his life. You made this clear by describing Tina’s and Sabina’s views of him in addition to yours. From them, and also from your earlier letters, I got a view of an individual who uncompromisingly rejected repressive relations and tried to overcome them, even if his attempts seem childish and directionless. You depict an individual who didn’t want to overcome constraints, who wanted to adapt to repression and derive personal benefit from it, and after this misleading description you tell us you chose to live your life among journalists. You chose to spend your life among people I consider opportunists, and in your letter you identified those journalists with people we knew twenty years ago in the carton plant. You made that identification, not I. It’s ironic that the arrival of your letter coincided with Jasna’s visit. After our banquet Jasna gave us detailed accounts of the people you’ve come to consider your models. Most of the people we used to know happen to be people who’ve been willing to sell, not only the motion of their limbs, but their will and their consciousness, for a wage; I’d call them “opportunists.”

Before telling you what we learned from Jasna, I’d like to try to describe two events which made Jasna’s narrative particularly significant to me: the first is my recent return to work and the second is Zdenek Tobarkin’s visit a few days before Jasna’s. In the context of these events Jasna’s account made me realize that you and I experience two completely different worlds. It’s not clear to me what place I occupy in your world but it’s becoming clear to me what place you occupy in mine: it’s the same place you and I occupied twenty years ago during our activity in the carton plant. But during those twenty years the carton plant changed and I changed. I’ve come to realize that my Life was derailed precisely at the intersection which you consider the fulfillment of your life. I flirted with your world much the same way as Tina accused you of having flirted with Ron’s world. In this respect at least I’m not comparable to Ron. He never accompanied you into your world; it was you who intruded into his. Unlike Ron, I did enter into your world: Luisa introduced me into it. Today I view that experience as alien to me; my life had veered off its course. Thanks to my encounters during my first prison term with individuals like Manuel and Zdenek I eventually woke up and realized I was heading toward my destruction as a human being. Today I’m ashamed of the fact that I once took part in that type of activity. My correspondence with you is forcing me to deal with that moment of my life.

A few days after I sent you my previous letter I accepted the “invitation” of the workers at the carton plant. I got my old job back. This “invitation” is a direct result of the ferment that’s taking place here. Before the political police was suspended two months ago I was unemployable and as a result when I was released from prison Mirna merely acquired another burden to support with her job at the clothing factory. Of course I helped prepare meals, clean the house and fetch the groceries while Mirna was at work and Yara in school, but this didn’t ease Mirna’s burden significantly. My unemployment pension didn’t pay for even a quarter of the food I myself consumed. The invitation extended to me by the workers in the carton plant isn’t only flattering but is also a solution to a pressing need.

A few days ago I brought home my first weekly wage, which was twice as large as Mirna’s despite the fact that she’s been working at the clothing factory for thirteen years. We immediately had a discussion almost identical to one we’d had several years ago. I suggested she could finally quit her job. Mirna emphatically said she wouldn’t dream of quitting. “It’s only thanks to my job that Yara and I survived during all those years you were in prison and I don’t intend to throw that income away just because our situation during one week has been different. The last time you made that suggestion you were jailed a few days later.” To Mirna our present situation is an abnormal state of affairs and she’s convinced it will only be temporary; prison and poverty is our normal state of affairs.

My task at the carton plant is the same as it was twenty years ago when I worked with Luisa and met you. I operate a newer model of the press that prints labels on cartons; the old press must at last have given out. There were openings for several other tasks. All the openings have been created by the departure of police agents, or rather of workers who were paid by the police to spy on other workers. I could have chosen another task. But there was no real reason to choose between the tasks since they all require one and the same act: the exchange of my living time for a wage. Since all the tasks in question required the same hours and paid the same wages, my choice between them could only be whimsical. It was on the basis of whims that I chose. One of my whims was to familiarize myself with a task I had never performed before.

Another whim was to return to the machine I had operated at the time of your life’s key experience. I chose in favor of the second whim, thinking that the familiarity of my motions and my surroundings would remind me of the experiences and the people you’ve carried in your head for the past twenty years.

The strike I described in my last letter ended soon after I wrote you. It ended with a compromise. The plant’s manager agreed to accept a union representative elected by the workers, who in turn dropped their demand to elect a different union representative each month as well as their original demand to rotate the post among all the workers in alphabetical order. I was disappointed by their compromise with the manager. I argued that such a partial victory was actually a defeat because compromising with the manager meant recognizing the legitimacy and authority of the management. Several workers said they agreed but argued that in conditions of the present ferment, when much more would become possible, it was necessary to proceed with caution since otherwise we might cause the field of possibilities to close prematurely. I argued that caution was the first step toward defeat and expressed the view that the manager should have been ousted along with the union representative, that both posts should be rotated alphabetically or eliminated altogether, and that we should examine our field of possibilities only after this much had been accomplished. I was told that a position like mine had been defended and that the overwhelming majority had been opposed to it. Several workers told me the view of the majority: “It is essential to see what other workers do in other factories, to wait and see if they succeed, and then to proceed along similar lines; if we run ahead of all the rest we’ll soon be all alone, and by ourselves we won’t get much further.” I disagree with this attitude but during these days such waiting isn’t an altogether passive activity. Ever since I’ve returned to work I’ve become intensely aware of changes taking place all around me, not only at the factory but also at home, in other plants, in the streets of the city. I have to admit that I’ve come to feel the same mixture of daring and caution expressed by the workers at the carton plant. “Daring” and “caution” are such miserable words. My sensitivity to words comes mainly from Zdenek Tobarkin. Already when I knew him in prison he understood the ways in which language was used to deform reality. He has helped me understand that words can’t communicate realities like the ones we’re currently experiencing here. Words can only refer to things or conditions which have a certain degree of permanence or which at least recur periodically. There can be no words to describe a condition which never existed before, which changes from one moment to the next and which has no known stages or outcome. Even the word “revolution” is miserable because it conveys nothing more than a summary of past events known as revolutions, events which have nothing in common with the present.

What I’m experiencing can’t be expressed by words like “daring and caution.” The condition I’m describing isn’t inexpressible; it isn’t a mystical experience. It’s an experience shared by thousands of people who are in fact expressing themselves, many for the first time in their lives. But the communication has not been taking place only through words. The words acquire their meanings from motions, acts and steps. The words by themselves only refer to other conditions, earlier periods, and even when they’re used in the context of the present ferment they suggest faulty analogies to earlier conditions. What I mean by “daring” is a readiness to walk into terrain which none of us explored before. What I mean by “caution” is the perception that our ability to approach this terrain grows only to the extent that all those like us approach it with equal daring. We’re reaching for a field of possibilities that can be reached only if we move together as we’ve never moved before; we proceed with caution because those who move too far ahead will be caught without a lifeline to the rest. What I think is taking place around me is an advance consisting of small steps taken by all simultaneously. Each small step creates the conditions for taking the next. Any move that prevents the continued advance of all cuts off the possibility of further advance by any. All around me human beings are attempting to come to life as human beings, as universal individuals, as species beings, each advancing with all and all with each.

One day twenty years ago, while I was running the same machine at the same plant, I thought the epoch of wage labor had suddenly come to an end. I responded by formulating slogans, printing them on signs, and displaying the signs. During the past week I’ve experienced a far greater tumult but I’ve felt no impulse to print or carry signs with slogans. I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, the person you knew. My commitment to slogans, words, programs, abstractions on signs, was a commitment to death. Twenty years ago I was the victim of a mystification. I began with vague yearnings for free activity; I began with a longing for freely chosen projects carried out within a community that made the projects possible and appreciated them. But instead of taking steps with those around me to realize my desires, I transformed my desires into what seemed to be the first step toward their realization, namely into a program of action. But by this transformation I negated my real desires; I replaced them with ideas, with words, with notions in my brain. Instead of a life I had a credo. Instead of taking steps with other people toward real projects carried out during our living moments of time, I took steps to convert other people to my credo, my religion, my words. I replaced the concrete practical activity of the whole human being with merely mental activity, with activity that took place inside my mind, with combinations of written letters or spoken sounds, namely with non-activity. I inverted my urge to live and turned it into its opposite. My desire for liberated activity became a belief in liberated activity. My longing for a human community was replaced by a longing for a community of believers, a religious community, a community of converts to my credo. And instead of finding myself among living, independent and creative individuals, I found myself in the frock of a priest in the midst of a flock. It has taken me twenty years to realize that I had been a priest — even if a heretical one — of what must surely be humanity’s last religion, that religion of liberation from the illusions of religion, that religion which was used by a group of pedagogues to establish unprecedented power over populations who had desired, not the words of the credo, but the world those words seemed to suggest.

Today like twenty years ago we’re daily bombarded with slogans and programs, with platforms and reforms, with revolutions ever so carefully worked out on paper by those who live in paper worlds. But today I’m not among those printing or carrying posters with slogans nor among those arguing in defense of one or another platform. In the framework of your world I’ve joined the ranks of the inarticulate. I can’t formulate either my goals or my means. I can tell you neither where I’m going nor how I’ll get there. Yet I feel more vibrant, more alive, than I felt when I thought I knew my direction and my destination because I had words for them. I feel alive precisely because I don’t know what the next moment will bring. Time has once again become a dimension that reveals possibilities and has ceased to be a dreary schedule of expected events. I came to life when the events I had learned to expect suddenly stopped recurring. Only a few months ago Yara took part in a completely unexpected demonstration. A few weeks ago workers invited me to join them. A week ago those workers ousted their union representative. This week we elected one from among ourselves to replace the ousted official. Next week we may learn that the workers of a neighboring factory have started tearing down the factory walls. And a month from now we might invite our neighbors, especially the children, to our factory to begin dismantling the machinery into as many pieces as Sabina’s friend the car thief dismantled a car. At that point we might begin an altogether different life on a terrain from which every trace of our former activity has been removed. A human life might begin, inhibited by no barrier external to the developing individual. The realization of one’s potentialities would then be accompanied by the enjoyment of the infinite potentialities realized by all those around one. Such a prospect cannot be the program of an individual or a group, and it cannot be articulated. It is not a religion to which people are to be converted. It is a practice which I and those around me are trying to invent.

Although I sense that we’re moving, I still perform the familiar motions at my press, I go home after work and I return to work the following morning. The contradiction makes me tense. It’s a tension I share with all those around me. At any moment the regularity might end and we’ll plunge forward and cross a frontier we can’t see today. Our willingness to cross that frontier is what I called “daring.” But there’s also “caution.” There’s apprehension. My heart beats faster and I feel dizzy and nauseated; the anticipation is accompanied by a certain fear. I know and those around me know that the conditions which open up a possibility for a new life also give rise to forces which negate life. Human life itself has this double character. Growth takes place through cell division, through the realization of the potentialities carried within each cell. Yet the ugliest form of death also takes place through cell division. Such death is also a growth, one that annihilates potentiality and replaces living cells with monstrosities. All around me people are trying to move to a ground on which the specific potentialities of each individual can develop, like plants seeking sunlight and moisture. And life-negating forces are accompanying every move we make. Just as the power of one cell to split into two is the power that turns against the further division of living cells, so the power that enables us to move together out of slavery to a terrain where the free development of each individual becomes possible is the power that turns against our ability to move at all. The power to conceptualize and communicate, the power that enables us to move together as a community, is the very power that turns against us and deprives us of community. The reality we strive to reach comes back to us several times a day in the form of a concept, a substanceless unreal thing, a mere combination of words. I think that up to now we’ve steered clear of these traps; I think we’re still alive. But the traps are heavily comouflaged and we still aren’t very practiced in recognizing them. At any moment, instead of taking another step forward, we might again blindly confuse the concept with the reality and again waste ourselves reaching out for nothing. If that should happen once again then our present ferment will again give rise to that negative cell division, that deformed development of monstrosities which exterminate our real desires. If we recoil from leaping into the unknown and again take refuge in the concept, we’ll plunge right back to our starting point. The deadliest of the traps is being set by those who are transforming the leap into a phrase, by those who are naming our destination and transforming our real desires into their political program. If we again recoil from real motion and development and replace it with the motion and development of concepts in the heads of priests, we’ll only produce another religion with its church and its priests. We would again cease to be the agents of our own struggle; our desires would again become disembodied concepts carried in the heads of intellectuals.

Politics: that’s the religion of today, that’s the cancer that annihilates every possibility of community and puts an end to every period of ferment. This deformity divides and multiplies precisely during periods of ferment. Because it’s unnatural it outruns our natural development of capacities. It plants itself at all intersections long before we reach them. Political militants are its missionaries. Committed intellectuals are its priests. The state is its church. Like all religions it transforms the human community into a herd. Its agents, the organizers and pedagogues, are the spiritual leaders of flocks of animals. It grows, like its biological analogue, inside the very body it attacks. It reproduces itself within the living members of the human community, extinguishing them as living beings, annihilating the very possibility of community. Its instruments are the entire armory of life-destroying gadgets devised by technology, everything that can serve to police a herd, from bombs to walkie-talkies, including the newspapers that proliferate the words and the loudspeakers that magnify the voices of the high priests. Contrary to what you think, I don’t see your newspaper activity as similar to the ferment surrounding me but as activity which can only annihilate the ferment.

We all carry the possibility as well as the negation within ourselves. At work we listen to the radio all day. Even though each of us is nervously anticipating our next concrete step, we nevertheless feel exhilarated when the words of a politician seem to express the exact nature of the step we long to take. We applaud phrases like “new democracy” or “new socialism” or “genuine workers councils.” We walk into the politicians’ traps like newborn children who have learned nothing from countless previous generations. While applauding the speaker or praising the writer we momentarily forget that we haven’t been longing for a new phrase but for a new life; we forget that we’ve only just begun to explore a new possibility, the possibility of creating the world ourselves. When we applaud we again become the lifeless globs of organic matter we’ve been nearly every moment of our normal lives. We cheer the pedants and we’re again helpless, like the spectators of a sporting match rooting for a team. We’re hypnotized by the bouts and struggles among the concepts; we passively admire reflections of our own real longings and we passively admire the politicians who return our longings to us in the form of images.

That’s why we feel tense. I’m convinced that the present ferment carries real possibilities for life. But I’m also aware that every time we take a step we’re surrounded by the ideological birds of prey who feed on our possibilities, fill themselves with concepts of our desires and reenslave us with beautiful combinations of words which seem to depict the world we failed to realize.

A few days before Jasna’s visit I had a very stimulating discussion with Zdenek Tobarkin. When I first met Zdenek, during my first prison term, he was intensely interested in everything I told him about the workers’ struggle with which Luisa had familiarized me, the struggle in which she, Manuel, Titus Zabran and George Alberts took part when you were two years old. When Zdenek visited us a few days ago he made several comparisons to the earlier struggle which have helped me understand some characteristics of the present situation. I told Zdenek that in recent years I had completely discarded Luisa’s view of that struggle, the view I had expressed when Zdenek and I were in prison together. I summarized Manuel’s analysis of those events.

Zdenek said he had long suspected that something like Manuel’s analysis had been missing from my earlier accounts. “I found your earlier stones exciting because they justified my attachment to the union,” he told me. “But when I began to reexamine my commitment I also became suspicious of your account. The union you described so enthusiastically was led by politicians. Those politicians probably expressed the urges of workers more accurately than any previous group of politicians, if words can ever express real urges accurately. Workers accepted the politicians as their spokesmen. This is why the workers were defeated on the day after their victory. This is why the working population came to life only for a day, the day of the rising against the generals. At the very moment of victory the union consolidated the power it had already established over the workers. The working people were reenslaved before they had the time to realize that for twenty-four hours they had begun to live without chains.” Zdenek contrasted that situation with the ferment surrounding us here today. “Our present situation is unique. When the ferment began, all politicians, organized intellectuals and bureaucrats of liberation were completely discredited.” He also contrasted the origins of the present ferment to the origins of the earlier rising. “We weren’t suddenly attacked by the military and consequently we didn’t have to concentrate all our energy on a single act of self-defense. We’ve had time to explore new ground, to consider alternatives, to move ahead slowly, absorbing the significance of each step. We weren’t attacked during one day but over a period of twenty years. Those who attacked us weren’t army generals but every species of representative of the working class, of revolution, of liberation, of self-determination that has been coughed up by history. Consequently, although our steps have been small and undramatic, we’ve moved on our own and not under the hegemony of politicians. Instead of being attacked, we were suddenly let free; the repressive power of all representatives was suddenly suspended. Unlike the workers who were attacked, we’ve had a chance to rise and stretch, to test the abilities of our unused limbs and to explore our ability to act communally. We haven’t moved far, but we’ve moved on our own.”

I expressed misgivings about the rate at which we were moving and about the fact that the politicians were moving much faster than the rest of the population. Zdenek brushed my arguments aside. “You don’t seem to realize that this is one of the few times in all history when a population has moved without politicians. I don’t want to say the recuperators are absent. You’re perfectly right. They’re all around us. Every day a new group of aspiring bureaucrats presents a new program in the press and on the radio. Every day a new speaker tours the factories, schools and meeting houses. Yes, they’re omnipresent. But they’re not omnipotent. That’s why there’s a new program and a new speaker every day. Not a single group among them has established its hegemony over the population. People haven’t been infected by a single politician’s credo. The politicians are moving fast, but the people are staying clear of them. The steps being taken may be small, but they’re real, they’re taking place in this concrete world and not in an organization’s program. The politicians are all discredited. Due to the ideological character of the regime we’ve experienced for the past twenty years, ideologists and theorists as such, politics as such have been discredited. Don’t exaggerate the applause speakers are getting. There’s nothing wrong with applauding a good speech. The applause only expresses appreciation for the speaker’s talent as a speaker. The fact that people applaud doesn’t mean they’re being hypnotized.”

I told Zdenek that only the recognizable politicians of the old regime have been discredited. I said that all types of politicians with a “new face” have been transforming the present ferment into their profession and that at least the workers at my plant were not altogether hostile to such “new” politicians. I admitted that as yet there were no large numbers of people repeating the formulas of any politician but I said I didn’t exclude the possibility that one of the “new faces” would “realize our goals” by installing himself in the state apparatus.

Zdenek thought I was unjustifiably pessimistic. “You’re too much of a Cassandra,” he told me. “It’s of course true that only one variant of the theory of the proletariat reigned supreme during the past twenty years. But I’m convinced that the rule of this variant discredited all the variants of the theory of the proletariat, from the tyrannical variant to the self-determined variant. Today everyone sees through the absolute, omniscient and omnipotent embodiment of the proletariat. Maybe some people aren’t as overtly hostile to the other versions because they haven’t had to live under them, but no one can help recognizing them as variations on the same theme. Your view is extremely pessimistic. If humanity had to experience every single variant of representation before it rejected all of them, it would never emerge from its morass. I think you’re wrong. I think the experience with one variant has taught us lessons about all of them. I think humanity is finally rejecting what has always been an impossible project, the project of representation. The present proliferation of major and minor pharaohs around the world is the final and ludicrous stage of that impossible project. My life can’t be lived as a representation; my representative can’t realize my aspirations, take my steps or engage in my actions. The pharaohs are the final and definitive proof of the impossibility of representation. I think we’ve all finally learned what took me so long to learn, namely that I’m robbed of my enjoyment if my representative enjoys himself for me, that my hunger remains when he eats for me, that I don’t express myself when he speaks for me, that my mind and my imagination stagnate when he thinks for me and decides for me, that I lose my life when he lives for me.”

I agreed with Zdenek but I still had misgivings. I told him that he had gotten his insights from very specific experiences which had not been shared by many people, that the mystifications which he had seen through were not necessarily as transparent to everyone else.

“What are you suggesting?” he asked. “That I go out into the streets like a prophet and communicate my insights about the danger of prophets? Do you remember the former politician with whom I argued at the prisoners’ club — the one who emphasized the need for organizational resources and publishing activity? We would once again reconstitute a group with a theory and a publication, we would once again replace the concrete activity of thousands of people with the image of that activity communicated in words by our publication and our group. I’ve had specific experiences and so have you, but these experiences are specific to our whole historical period. If I’m able to draw conclusions from them so can all my contemporaries. I can’t understand my experiences any other way. If I’ve had experiences no one else has had then I can’t hope to communicate with anyone. One human being can no more demystify another than eat for another. But I haven’t had experiences no one else had. The concrete activities of those around me prove this to me, just as my activities surely communicate the experiences I’ve had. Organizational resources and publications would only separate me from those with whom I want to communicate.”

I feel that Zdenek is right. The strike that recently took place at the carton plant showed me that those workers must have had experiences and drawn conclusions similar to mine. Their concrete act communicated this to me. They didn’t carry signs nor proclaim a program nor engage in any of the activities which seem so dear to you. They simply removed the local representatives of the repressive apparatus, directly, without a platform, without representatives. That done, we’re ready to take our next concrete step. The politicians have been unmasked, not only for Zdenek and me, but for all of us. At the plant we listen to political speeches broadcast by the radio but we don’t act on them; we watch for the next step people like us will take elsewhere.

I think Zdenek is also right in considering the present ferment in many ways more profound than the uprising Luisa and Manuel taught me about. In that earlier event repressed and self-repressed human beings suddenly came to life — but for a period that lasted less than twenty-four hours. Here the concrete steps have been small and undramatic but those who came to life are still living. Can this ferment continue to spread without being caught in the webs of the politicians? Can we get past the spokesmen, coordinators and organizers who extinguished the earlier struggle? My first impulse is to doubt it. So many people have never before become independent without provoking the concentrated resentment of those who wanted to rule over them. Such “directionless” and “spontaneous” activity has never before held its own against the blows dealt against it by organizational militants and their infallible leaders. Manuel and Luisa, in their descriptions of the events they both experienced, concur on one and only one detail: on the day when the generals attacked, the people ran into the streets on their own; the “leaders” ran behind and placed themselves on the front lines so as not to “lose” their followers. For an instant it was the influential militants who were lost among the independent individuals whom they later claimed to have led. The first individuals at the barricades were not there under orders but on their own. Each individual formulated his or her own task, and by carrying out that task, each implemented the project of the group, which was inseparable from the projects of each individual. Each coordinated and organized, not because he or she was the official coordinator or organizer, but because one and then another was closest to the problem that needed to be coordinated and organized. Individuals who have this capacity for self-directed activity during an insurrection are in all ways identical to the individuals with whom I work in the plant, with whom I share this city, with whom I inhabit this globe. Individuals who have such capacities during twenty-four hours have the capacity to appropriate human life and make it a project of the living.

I’ve tried to give you some idea of the ferment which surrounds me. I’ve tried to describe my hopes as well as my apprehensions, and I’ve summarized Zdenek’s view of the prospects of this activity. It’s perfectly clear to me that this activity has nothing in common with the journalistic activity to which you compared it. The type of activity which you chose has much in common with the activity of the politicians who lecture to us on the radio and in the newspapers; it has nothing in common with the actions and apprehensions of the people with whom I work in the carton plant. I resent the fact that you compare the ferment around me with your academic and journalistic activities. I think the two projects are not only different from each other but also hostile to each other: the projects you’ve chosen can only take place if my present project fails. That’s why I can’t recognize myself in your choices or in your enthusiasms. I can understand the world you describe, the world in which you’ve so carefully steered toward your chosen alternative, only because I once stepped into that world. But I stepped out of that world long ago. I think you’re right when you compare your chosen activities to those of the people we knew twenty years ago. Jasna described those people to us on the very day your letter came. During these past twenty years I’ve changed and you haven’t. You’ve retained the commitments we shared twenty years ago. Jasna’s account of the individuals you remember so fondly makes it clear to me that your chosen activities have a great deal in common with theirs, not with mine. After the luxurious meal she and Yara had prepared to celebrate the “victory” at their school, Jasna told us everything she knew about the present activities of those individuals.

Jasna and Yara were waiting for me when I returned home from my third day of work. Jasna was anxious to read your letter, but Yara couldn’t wait to tell me about the day’s events. It’s amazing how quickly the ferment spreads once a population regains creative initiative. Several students, among them Yara, began a campaign to oust the assistant head of the school, the person responsible for maintaining discipline among students as well as teachers. All the students stood quietly in the halls and let the head of the school know they wouldn’t enter their classrooms until the disciplinarian resigned. They were joined by every single teacher. Even the head of the school gave a speech praising their determination. Jasna said she was profoundly moved by this speech. The disciplinarian resigned after having occupied her post for twenty years. She was undoubtedly a police agent, although neither Yara nor Jasna knew if she was actually in the pay of the police.

Mirna came home soon after I did and we all read your letter. After supper Mirna asked Jasna when she had first met Jan and how long she had worked with him.

“He was hired right after the resistance,” Jasna said. “We worked together for three years, three unforgettable, wonderful years.”

I begged Jasna to start her story earlier, to tell us how and when she had come to work at the carton plant.

“I started working there before the war,” she told us. “Among the people you knew, I was the first one there. I had just finished high school and I’d always known I’d have to find a job the day after I finished school. My parents both worked in factories. All the money they earned went to pay for the little house they had bought. I still live there. My father was a horribly bossy man. I was afraid of him. I was like a servant in the house. After I started working that changed. I went to several factories but none of them had openings for someone without any experience. When I went to Mr. Zagad’s office he hired me even though I told him I didn’t have experience. He was really such a decent man. I still feel sorry for him. A few months after I started work the war broke out and the city was occupied. I went to work every day and returned to my parents’ home every evening. I wasn’t much bothered by the war or the occupation at first. I knew something horrible had happened but I didn’t understand what it was. Then one day, during the second year of the war, my father brought home a man he worked with. He explained that the man was homeless and that he’d spend the night with us. Late that night the police came to our house, broke our front door and arrested the stranger as well as my father. They insulted my mother and me for hiding a Jew. Then they took both men away in a police car. I never saw my father again. I never learned if he was shot or sent to a concentration camp. A year later a man from my mother’s factory came to the house to tell me that my mother had died in an accident. I was sure she had committed suicide; she had talked about killing herself ever since my father was taken away. The war and the occupation became very meaningful to me. I hated it. I hated the occupiers because of what they had done to both my parents. But when I saw the occupiers in the streets I was deathly afraid of them. I was — I still am — afraid of every person with authority, just as I had been afraid of my father. But people with authority aren’t all the same. I was never afraid of Mr. Zagad. He was decent, and I’ve always been grateful for that. He heard about my mother’s accident and told me to leave work for two weeks with pay. He even attended my mother’s funeral.

I’ve never understood why it was Mr. Zagad that you and the others turned against. Maybe it was wrong for him to have so much power over others, but that can’t be the reason he was removed since his successor had even greater power. But I’m running ahead. Either shortly before or shortly after my mother died, Titus Zabran was hired. He had returned from abroad just before the war started. During breaks he would tell several of us about his earlier adventures and I was hypnotized by his stories. He told about workers who had fought against a whole army, not for three days but for three years, to defend their own popular government.”

I was amazed by Jasna’s last statement. “Is that how Titus understood that struggle?” I asked. I had never heard Titus say anything about that struggle nor about his role in it.

“Of course I don’t remember the actual stories he told me,” Jasna said. “I don’t think I paid too much attention anyway. Titus frightened me. I shared his hatred for the occupiers. But I was afraid of his constant talk about the need to arm and shoot. He seemed like the kind of person who would do everything he said he’d do. He reminded me of my father. I shared his hatred but not his manner. I remember that I liked Mr. Zagad a lot better. I sensed that he hated the occupiers as much as Titus or I but he didn’t growl and show his teeth like a vicious dog. Whenever soldiers or inspectors came to the plant he was always courteous. He wasn’t slavish, just courteous.”

I interrupted Jasna to point out, “If everyone had been so courteous those occupiers would still be here.”

“I know,” Jasna said. “I’m just telling you what I felt at the time. After the war ended I felt that Titus had been right. Actually I got to like him even before the war ended, mainly for his knowledge. He seemed to know everything. Luisa Nachalo was another person who seemed to know everything but I disliked her when she first came to the plant. She was hired a few months after Titus.”

At this point Yara had a question. “Did you say you liked him because he was smart but you disliked her because she was smart?”

Jasna laughed. “You caught me, didn’t you? No, I guess I’m not being altogether truthful. I was afraid of Titus but I liked him at the same time. And I think I disliked Luisa at first because I was jealous. In a way I did dislike her because she was so smart; that was what made me jealous. I suppose I wanted to form a closer relationship with Titus but he seemed to consider me a goose, especially after Luisa started working at the plant. Next to Luisa I was a goose. She was so quick, so well informed, so brilliant with her foreign accent and her sharp tongue. I knew I’d never live up to that woman. She had been married before, already had two daughters, and had nevertheless managed to familiarize herself with everything under the sun and seemed as independent as a bird. My mother had only had one daughter and she had used me as her lifelong excuse for her abysmal ignorance. Yes, I envied Luisa. But I didn’t even try to compete with her. I knew I’d only make myself more of a goose. I stopped thinking of forming a closer relationship with Titus.”

I told Jasna that Titus and Luisa had merely been friends and that Luisa had lived with another man when we knew her.

‘T think I knew that,” Jasna said. “I dimly remember having known that, but I lied to myself. Titus took no interest in me. I was hurt. I convinced myself that he ignored me because I was no Luisa. But I didn’t spend too many hours feeling sorry for myself. I read novels instead. Later on, after I dropped the idea of falling in love with Titus, I got to like Luisa. But that was only a few months before we were all separated. I’ve always been sorry I never had a long talk with her. We were together for such a short time.”

I asked Jasna what she had done during the resistance.

“Nothing,” she answered. “Absolutely nothing. During the whole last year of the war Titus had repeatedly asked me to attend meetings of the neighborhood resistance organization. Several times I promised I’d go, but when the time came to go to the meeting my whole body started shaking. I had visions of police knocking on the door and dragging me away, along with Titus and all the others, to be shot or deported to a concentration camp. During all three days of the uprising I locked myself into my house and I didn’t come out again until several hours after I heard the last shot. I was deathly afraid. When it all ended I was as glad that the shooting was over as I was that the occupation was over. The following day I went back to the plant. Many of the people I had worked with had been killed by a single explosion when they were leaving the plant on the last day of the uprising. Several others had been killed in the fighting. That was when I met your brother,” she told Mirna. “They were all hired at the same time: Yarostan, Vera Neis, Adrian Povrshan, Claude Tamnich, Marc Glavni.”

I reminded Jasna that Marc was hired three years later.

“Three years!” she exclaimed. “I had forgotten. They were the happiest years of my life. I think I would have been content to remain on that job with those people. You, Titus and Luisa were the most thoughtful, the most intelligent people I’ve known. Recently I’ve known mainly teachers; none of them are as well informed, as educated and perceptive as the three of you were. And your brother, Mirna, was the gentlest, warmest, most generous individual I’ve ever met or read about. He was the only one who never treated me as a goose. He paid attention to what I had to say even though I usually contradicted myself.

He took me seriously even when I didn’t take myself seriously. He sometimes had die most absurd ideas, like wanting to drag the machinery into the street and converting the factory into a dance hall, but he was never malicious. All his suggestions seemed like fun and I was usually the main supporter of his crazy schemes. At that time I also loved Vera and Adrian. They were so comical. I thought already then that they ought to be entertainers in a theater. I wasn’t far wrong. Vera was so funny with all her stories about the crooked deals of what she called the ruling class. I was in stitches during half of every working day. I even liked that ox Claude, mainly because I felt sorry for him; he was the only person there who was dumber than I. Yes, Marc was the last. And I liked him least. He was fresh out of high school and such a clod. I can’t believe what he is now. He always spoke with the self-assurance of a spoiled brat but couldn’t do a thing on his own. I constantly had to show him what to do, and almost every day I repaired something he had ruined. I don’t think any of those people would have been remarkable by themselves. Something strange happened during those three years. We were all deeply affected by something, perhaps by each other. I think those years made all of us what we became. I know that Vera would have quieted down and become like everyone else if Titus and Luisa hadn’t continually encouraged her, and if Titus hadn’t used his influence to keep her from being fired. You, Yarostan, would have been a completely different person if you hadn’t met Luisa. The only one who didn’t change during those years was your brother, Mirna. I think Jan was the only one of us who would have led the same life he led.”

I told Jasna you considered your brief contact with that group of people the central experience in your life and asked her what she thought extraordinary about those people or that situation. Her answer gave me some insight into the life choices you’ve made.

“I’ve never in my life experienced such a turn-about, except when I was arrested,” she said. “I went to college later on, but I didn’t learn nearly as much as I learned during those three years. The real university I attended was the carton plant after you, Jan and the others were hired. I knew already then that none of the people in our group would spend their lives in the carton plant or in any other kind of factory work, except possibly Jan. We were simply transformed by that experience.”

I asked her what she thought had happened to us during those three years.

“It’s something I’ve never before tried to put into words,” she said. “Not that it was so mysterious. When I attended college several years later I knew that none of my fellow students would ever go back to factory jobs no matter what their social background was. In the university this was simply taken for granted. In our group this wasn’t ever stated but it seemed just as obvious to me. I’m surprised you’re still working in a factory. i was wrong about you.”

I told her I had changed and reminded her that Luisa too was still working in a factory.

“I’m not surprised about Luisa,” she said. “I wouldn’t have expected her to undergo the same changes. She was different. She’s the one who set it all off. I don’t think Titus by himself would have had such an impact. I think it was the presence of Luisa that was so explosive, that caused such profound transformations in the people around her. I wasn’t the first to be affected by her. Unfortunately I was one of the last. I think you and Vera were the first. Luisa obviously didn’t have the same effect on everyone. You and Vera were affected so differently. Everyone was affected differently. It wasn’t only what Luisa said that affected us, although that too was exciting. I still remember the stories she told us about workers she’d known who hadn’t only fought in a resistance like ours but had gone from the barricades to their factories to lock out their bosses and install their own friends in all the managerial offices. Those stories were exciting but only as topics of conversation, as stories. I heard them as fairy tales. That alone wouldn’t have transformed me. What transformed us was how she acted: her manner, her behavior, her personality. Even if her stories weren’t true, if workers had never done what she said they had done, Luisa made us all feel that she was determined to do exactly that, and right in our plant. From the first day she came to the plant she started asking where the materials came from, what was to be done with them in the plant, where the products were sent afterwards. Maybe she only asked those questions so as to familiarize herself with every aspect of the plant’s activity, but she made us all feel we knew infinitely more about the process than Mr Zagad; she made us feel that Mr. Zagad was superfluous and that we could run the plant much better without him. She communicated her impatience to us. With everything she said and did she seemed to be asking the rest of us what we were waiting for. She made us feel like cowards for not doing all the things that had been done by the workers she described. This had a strange effect on all of us, and first of all on you.”

I admitted having been affected by Luisa the very first time I met her.

“You weren’t only affected, you were completely transformed. You became just like her. I think Luisa could have left the plant a few months after you came and you would have exerted the same influence on the rest of us. You acquired the same self-assurance, the same impatience. You made us feel like cowards for not going ahead with all those schemes. You weren’t her disciple but her exact replica. You gave the impression that you had actually lived all the experiences she had narrated to us, and that you were as determined as she to make them happen here. I could see you change from one day to the next. No one else was so completely transformed by Luisa. Vera was also profoundly affected, but she didn’t become another Luisa. I’m convinced that it was only because of Luisa that Vera became such an entertainer, such a radio, as you used to call her. Luisa’s mere presence provoked Vera. It was as if Vera felt compelled to compete with Luisa every minute of the day, as if she had to outdo Luisa in intelligence, knowledge and even self-confidence. I could almost see the changes Vera underwent. She wasn’t that talkative when she first came and she did do her job. But after listening to Luisa’s stories for only a month Vera started to tell her own stories. At first she bombarded us with statistics about the output for which workers were responsible and the income we were paid. She must have spent her nights rummaging through government publications and official documents so as to spend her days telling us about the financial dealings of bankers and factory owners. The statistics were appreciated by Titus but they didn’t go over very well with the rest of us. We still found Luisa’s observations more exciting. So Vera started collecting all kinds of anecdotes, hair-raising accounts of crooked deals. She was determined not to be outdone by Luisa. Three or four times she even told us the details of major scandals several days before the newspapers reported them. And Adrian, who had worshipped Vera since high school, became something like her straight man. Vera would make a grandiose statement and Adrian would leap in with detailed documentation. Sometimes they even acted out the scenes of a recent scandal. Do you think they’d ever have done those things in normal circumstances? I was affected too. Everything seemed so much fun, I was swept along by all the excitement. Even Marc was affected, though he was in the carton plant so briefly before we were arrested. Inept as he was in everything he did, he treated himself as someone who knew more about workers running their own plants than anyone else, even Luisa. Every other day he described a complex scheme; he figured out how people were going to supply each other with raw materials, electricity, housing and everything else under the sun. Luisa seemed to admire him for the effort he put into these schemes. I was surprised she didn’t see through him. He was nothing but a conceited boy trying desperately to prove that he was better than the rest of us. He may have been intelligent, but since it was I who ran behind him repairing what he had ruined, I wasn’t impressed by his abilities. Claude was affected too, but in a strange way; he had such a one-track mind. His single response to Luisa’s impatience and to Vera’s exposures was to want to liquidate obstacles, liquidate enemies; he even spoke of liquidating Mr. Zagad. Claude seemed to think already then that all our excitement was only a preparation for the day when our group would order him to carry out his liquidations. I don’t think I knew this at the time; I must have realized it when I saw him years later. What I felt at the time was that he loomed above us like a threatening cloud. Whenever he spoke he turned our enthusiasm into something frightening. He made all our fun seem like a prelude to something horrible.”

I interrupted Jasna’s narrative and told her I thought she was exaggerating the magnitude of Luisa’s influence. In my view it wasn’t only the experiences we shared at the carton plant that made those people what they later became. The traits they exhibited when Jasna knew them must already have been integral parts of their personalities.

Jasna disagreed quite vehemently. “Without the experiences we shared in that plant none of those people would have moved in the directions in which they’ve moved since then. Every single one of those people would have been a factory worker today. Well, of course I can’t be sure about that. But I do know that hardly any of them are factory workers today and what changed them was the time we spent together. Do you think Claude would ever have left his first factory job if something extraordinary hadn’t happened to him? Of course they all came there with personality traits. That’s why they all responded so differently. When I got to know Vera she boasted she’d been a troublemaker in high school during the war, she’d given speeches attacking the occupiers. But the mere ability to give speeches wasn’t enough. She’d have lost this ability as soon as she was fired for giving a speech and had to find another job; if she’d gotten a job in a place where the noise drowned her out or where talk wasn’t allowed, she’d have been as quiet as anyone else. She was talkative already in high school. But she became a self-assured social reformer only after she ran into Luisa. And what personality traits did Marc have? His conceit came from his having been one of the brighter students in a provincial school where over half the students missed school for several weeks every spring and fall because of farm work and every winter because of lack of transportation. His conceit would have been knocked out of him by any normal group of city workers who were as educated as he was. If Luisa hadn’t considered him such a genius he’d never have dreamed of going to the university and he’d never have thought himself able to occupy the posts he occupies today. When Marc started to climb to those high posts it became clear to me what kind of people occupy them. Nor would Adrian have gotten where he is now on his own. He merely drifted in the direction the rest took, which is all I’ve ever done. Neither Adrian nor I would ever have drifted out of the factory if we hadn’t been able to drift along with the others.”

Mirna asked why her brother had remained unaffected by Luisa and by all the excitement we had shared.

“Jan wasn’t like the rest of us,” Jasna said. “Neither was Titus. It’s funny. I’ve seen much more of Titus than of any of the others. I’ve known him since the war and I saw him frequently during the past twenty years. But I don’t understand him at all as well as I understand the others. I never really got to know him. If he took part in discussions at all, it was only to advise others to be patient. After his first year at the plant, he no longer said anything about the experiences he had shared with Luisa. I don’t suppose he changed during those years any more than Jan did. But I don’t know to what extent Luisa affected him before I met him. I do know that Jan wasn’t affected by Luisa. He opposed Luisa the very first day he came to the plant. He ridiculed her. He said that if he had been one of the workers who had ousted a plant’s owners and managers he couldn’t imagine why in the world he would return to the plant the next day unless he had some personal use for one of the machines in the plant. He said he couldn’t imagine a situation in which workers ousted all social authorities and then continued doing what they had done before. He even accused Luisa of lying. He said no worker he’d ever known would return to work if he no longer had to. Much as I admired Luisa, I was convinced by Jan every time he argued with her. If Jan had had his way none of us would have gone back to the plant the day after Mr. Zagad was thrown out. Or we’d have gone back only to throw out Mr. Zagad’s machinery. Of course if we’d done what Jan wanted we’d have been arrested even sooner than we were.”

“Since you didn’t do any of those things, why were you all arrested?” Mirna asked.

“Didn’t you know?” Jasna asked. “I figured that out — or rather, it was explained to me during my year in prison. Every one of our signs was different from the official signs. Yarostan, Luisa and sometimes Vera argued all night long to make our signs different. Jan had absolutely nothing to do with that. He even refused to take part in the printing and distribution of our signs after Mr. Zagad was ousted. He grumbled that by continuing to work inside those factory walls without tearing them down we were only imprisoning ourselves. And he was right.”

“You were arrested because your signs were different?” Yara asked.

“And I was so stupid I didn’t know that at the time,” Jasna said. “During one of my first days in prison, in the dining hall, a woman asked me why I’d been arrested. I honestly told her I didn’t know. The investigator’s questions had been totally incomprehensible to me and I didn’t understand the accusation either. The woman then asked what I had done during the days of the coup. I told her I had printed slogans on signs and marched around with the signs like everyone else. Eventually she asked me what slogans were on my signs. As soon as I started to describe some of them all the women in the dining hall began to laugh at me. Several days later I asked one of the women why everyone had laughed at me. She asked with disbelief if I really hadn’t known that every one of my slogans was a parody of the official slogans. Wherever the official signs had the word state, our signs had the word workers; wherever the official signs said party, ours said union; wherever their signs said power, ours said self-management. I felt like an absolute idiot. I had been totally unaware of these differences. To me all the signs in the streets had looked identical. It was only after I learned about these differences that I remembered all the arguments between Luisa, Vera and Titus about the slogans that were to go on our signs. At the time I had thought they were arguing in a foreign language. I still don’t understand why this was so important. If I didn’t see our signs as any different from anyone else’s I’m sure no one else did either. I’m sure the police were the only ones who were aware of these differences, Yarostan, surely you knew why we were arrested. You and Luisa attached so much importance to those differences. The differences mattered to Marc and Adrian only because you and Luisa thought them so important. I didn’t know anything about them. When I was arrested I insisted I hadn’t ever done anything in my whole life; I hadn’t even had the nerve to take part in the resistance against the occupiers who killed my father. But my protests were all irrelevant. The trial rolled over me like a locomotive, and no matter how loudly I shouted I couldn’t affect its course. I didn’t understand a thing. I don’t remember all the accusations that were thrown at me. At that time I didn’t even know what the word sabotage meant. I was nevertheless sentenced to a year in prison. How is it possible that Luisa spent only two days? She, at least, knew why she was there. Prison life was a nightmare for me. Most of the women I met were mean to me. After I made such a fool of myself I became the prison dunce. One woman told me that after my year was over I’d automatically get another sentence because during the first year I had become a jailbird and therefore a socially dangerous person. And she said there was no telling how long the next sentence would be but that one-year terms were unheard of. Another woman filled me with horror stories about the torture chambers to which I’d be sent. I shook with fear every waking moment I spent there. I was so relieved when I finally left that hell. Luckily my house was exactly as I’d left it. It hadn’t been confiscated. I decided I’d never again take part in political groups. I’d never again carry signs or go to demonstrations. I stuck to that decision until a few weeks ago. But I took part in the activities in our school only because everyone else is taking part in them; in that situation it would require bravery not to take part.”

I gave Jasna a brief summary of my miserable experience after my first release and asked if she had been able to find a job.

“I was so glad to be out of that prison that nothing else mattered,” she said. “Of course I was lucky to have that little house. I had also saved some money. I did look for a job, and had experiences similar to yours. I went to the carton plant first. The people in charge were apes compared to Mr. Zagad. Of course they turned me down. I was turned down at three other factories as well. But I didn’t really care. I had enough money to buy groceries for several months and my little house has been paid for since before the war. I just read and waited to see what would -happen. I envy the courage of women like Sophia and Sabina. I didn’t have the nerve to leave the house and go looking for adventure. Not on my own. I read. I thought. Mainly I felt sorry for myself. I was completely lost. I knew that my savings would run out eventually. I knew I couldn’t just stay inside my house. But the prison term had made me unemployable. There was nothing I could do. It was only some months after I was released that I began to feel the way you must have felt. Fear took hold of me. I was afraid of my neighbors because they seemed to look at me funny, they seemed to think me strange; I remembered what I’d been told about being a dangerous convict. I was afraid of the police. I was afraid of strangers on the street. I didn’t know anyone. I was twenty-eight years old and I was deathly afraid to leave my house.”

Yara was moved. “We didn’t know what you’d been through when we called you a traitor for not taking part in the demonstrations. I’m sorry,” she told Jasna.

“Don’t be sorry,” Jasna said. “You and your friends were right. People who are afraid of their own shadows aren’t very admirable. I had good reason to be afraid but not of everything and everyone, not all the time. I didn’t think of killing myself. That takes courage too. I just didn’t know what to do. So I waited. I don’t know what would have happened to me if Vera hadn’t literally saved me from some awful death or from insanity. Vera was released almost a year after I was. Her apartment had been confiscated. She didn’t have any living relatives and she hadn’t been able to locate any of the other people we’d worked with. She had nowhere in the world to go. How happy she was when she saw it was I who opened the door of my house. She was overjoyed to learn I was living alone. But her happiness at seeing me was nothing compared to mine. I hugged her and acted as if my father as well as my mother had returned home. I begged her to stay with me and to treat my house as if it had always been hers. Vera was completely transformed by her prison term. She was quiet and bitter. I was grateful to her for coming to me. I did everything I could for her. I shopped, cooked, cleaned the house. Vera spent every day outside the house, meeting people, learning what openings might be available for her. I’m embarrassed to admit how quickly she oriented herself. During almost a year I had assumed everything was closed to me, and I did nothing. Vera had only been with me for a week when she began talking about enrolling in college. She said that was the only way to become someone nowadays; furthermore it was an alternative that wasn’t closed to former prisoners. A few weeks later she was enrolled in the university. She expressed relief about the fact that she’d been turned down at every factory where she had applied for a job; she said she might have gotten stuck in one. By enrolling in the university she acquired a small stipend as well as a large hope that she’d never have to look for factory work again.”

I made a comment about the passage near the end of your letter where you describe the students in your course. I compared Vera to those former workers who, in your words, are repairing and painting themselves in order to get out of the factory.

“That’s not really a fair comparison,” Jasna said. “That was literally the only alternative available to her and to me. We looked for factory jobs and were turned down. But you’re not altogether wrong. We had all decided to get out of factory work, but several years earlier. The hope that we’d never work in factories again was born during the days when we worked at the carton factory together. It was then that Vera dreamed of becoming something like a popular tribune, some type of public speaker, exactly what she is now. Our experience in the carton plant taught every one of us that we didn’t have to spend our lives doing that work. It was on that point that Jan always disagreed with Luisa. Jan continually said that as soon as we knew we didn’t have to do that work none of us would ever return to it.”

I objected to Jasna’s interpretation of Jan’s attitude.

“I know Jan didn’t mean that we’d go on to the university and to higher paying jobs,” Jasna admitted. “He wanted to destroy the factory so that no one else would have to work in it either. But the rest of us weren’t about to do that. We didn’t acquire the desire to put an end to factories but to push ourselves out of them. And that’s what Vera did after her release. As soon as she was enrolled in the university she started teasing and prodding me. She would tell me I was an old maid and would soon become the neighborhood witch if I stayed locked up in the house. She told me that if I enrolled in college I’d get a stipend for workers and one for war orphans, since I was both, and if I graduated I’d never again have to work in a factory, but if I waited any longer I’d be older than the professors. I was afraid. I was sure that a dunce like I was had no place in the university. I remembered the women who had laughed at me in prison. I imagined that all the students at the university would laugh at me merely for enrolling. One day Vera told me she had learned about a college that was specifically designed for dunces and geese: the college for teachers. She assured me I’d have no trouble being accepted there. She was right. I applied and was accepted. I attended for four years and was no more of a dunce than anyone else. At the end of four years I was a teacher. But I’m going too fast again. During my second year in college we got a surprise visit from Adrian Povrshan. He had just been released and he needed a place to stay. Suddenly my little house was full for the first time since the war. I expected you to be our next visitor.”

I told Jasna that I hadn’t known where she lived.

“Neither did Adrian but he found out easily enough,” she said.

I had to admit that it had never occurred to me to look her up. I thought she would be offended.

But she laughed. “I don’t know what would have happened if you had come! Vera stayed in what used to be my parents’ room. Adrian moved into the living room. He thought he’d take up with Vera where he’d left off. The first thing he did was to enroll in the university. I’m not the one to say it, but Adrian is really dumb. He didn’t even suspect that anything strange was going on. It wasn’t until ten years later that he found out about Vera’s relationship with Professor Kren.”

Mirna and I begged Jasna to tell us the details of Vera’s adventures.

“I’m sorry I’m jumping around so much,” Jasna said. “I don’t know what to tell first. I had known about this professor long before Adrian came to stay with us. During her first year at the university Vera had told me about a certain Professor Kren who taught a course in political economy which she attended. She described him as an incredibly sleek politician who came to class in a spotless black suit. He lectured for two hours about the transformation of society and about revolutionizing the living conditions of the working people. After his lecture students lined up on the street to watch him enter his chauffeur-driven limousine and be driven away to the government palace. He was a high official in the state bank. Later on he became the head of the bank. It’s funny how Vera’s views of that professor changed during that year. When she first told me about him she ridiculed him and called him a revolutionary who had servants. Gradually she told me less and less about his sleekness and his limousine and more and more about his position, his importance; she also told me he wasn’t married. Two or three months before Adrian returned she told me she was “madly in love” with Professor Kren’s limousine and with his power. She attended every lecture he gave at the university. She even went to hear lectures she’d heard before. And Adrian, who was two years behind her in school, simply assumed she was specializing in the things taught by Professor Kren. When she graduated she enrolled in a program of postgraduate studies under Professor Kren. After I graduated I got my first teaching job in a primary school on the other side of the city. But my domestic drama and my first teaching job ended abruptly, before I’d taught for half a year. All three of us were suddenly arrested.”

Mirna was stunned. “You were arrested a second time? Why?” she asked. I was stunned too.

“I don’t know why,” Jasna said, “and that time no one explained it to me. The first time I had at least been doing something. The second time I was doing absolutely nothing. That happened twelve years ago. Suddenly everything came to an end and that terrible nightmare started all over again; the searches, the investigations, the cells. And for no reason at all. During my first few months as a teacher I had done everything exactly as I’d been taught. I had gone to school on time. I had spoken only to people I knew and even then I had only said good morning and good night. In my classes I had repeated what the textbooks said and I hadn’t added a word of my own even when I’d known the textbook was wrong.”

I asked her what she was accused of.

“Only God knows!” she said. “They asked me such ridiculous questions; they asked about things I couldn’t possibly know and mixed these questions up with questions about things I couldn’t help but know. They asked if I knew some notorious foreign spy and then they asked if I knew my own friends. It was all so stupid. They had arrested me together with Vera and Adrian and they asked if I knew them. When I admitted knowing them they insisted I must know the spy and the whole thing started all over again. They even had a wrong last name down for Sophia and Luisa but I didn’t correct their mistake. The people hired to do those interrogations are even dumber than I am. But suddenly, when I’d been in jail only two days, I was released!”

Mirna and I again expressed our surprise.

“Yes, I was released after two days, I never did find out why we were arrested, but several years later I did learn why I was released so fast. I obviously didn’t go to a lot of trouble to find out why I was released. The same officials who’d been ready to chop my head off if I didn’t tell them things I didn’t know were suddenly so polite, so full of smiles and handshakes. They bowed to me and apologized. They told me my arrest had been a ‘mistake.’ Such mistakes could take place at any time several times a year! By the time I got home my fear came back. The day after my release I went to my school to teach. The head of the school told me he had learned about my arrest and had already replaced me! And he said there were no other openings in the school. I was heartbroken. I had lost the job for which I had studied for four years. My house was empty again. Adrian and Vera were both gone, God knows for how long. I was all alone and once again I didn’t know what I’d do. As if my misery wasn’t complete enough I had a bad experience a few days after I was released. There was a loud knock on the door. I thought the police had come to get me again. I peered out the window and recognized Claude Tamnich. He looked strange. I trembled as I opened the door and immediately regretted letting him in. He slammed the door shut and slapped me so hard I fell to the floor. He accused me of having caused his arrest. I bawled like a baby. I told him I’d just been arrested myself for no reason at all and that as a result I had lost my job, my only two friends and my whole reason to remain alive. His anger decreased somewhat because he could see I was ready to die right on the spot where I lay on the rug. He accused me of having told them he was a member of a spy ring organized from abroad. I told him they’d asked me about spies but I’d never had anything to do with any spies; I told him they’d asked me if I knew him and all the other people I knew and of course I told them I knew him; they knew perfectly well we had worked together. But Claude insisted they wouldn’t have released me so soon if I hadn’t told them he was a spy. When I told Claude they had apologized to me for making a mistake, he said, literally, ‘They never make mistakes.’ Then why, I asked him, didn’t he go and ask them why they had released me and what I had told them. I said they hadn’t ever slapped me the way he had. Claude muttered that I must have told them but he helped me up and apologized. Years later I learned why I was released so suddenly. It wouldn’t really have mattered if I’d known at the time. Claude rushed in and slapped me before I even had a chance to say hello. I don’t know how I convinced Claude I was innocent. He suddenly lost interest in my guilt or innocence. He asked if I had anything to drink and then he started asking about the people we used to know. He continued drinking until he’d swallowed almost every bottle of alcohol Vera and Adrian had accumulated in my house during all the years they lived there. He seemed to pour it all into a barrel. The more he drank the more he told me about himself. He had been arrested along with the rest of us at the carton plant at the time of the coup and had been sentenced to four years. But he was released after he’d served one year of his term. He boasted about it. He was stinking drunk. He said it was the easiest thing in the world to be released from prison: all you had to do was to carry out your obligations to the state, like any good patriot. I asked what he meant by that and he told me that in prison he had spied on other prisoners. At the end of his first year an official asked him if he wanted an important job. Claude didn’t turn it down. He said that after he’d taken part in ousting the enemy of the working people he wasn’t going to spend four years in prison only to return to his job in the carton factory, and he certainly wouldn’t return now that Marc was head of that factory. I asked if he meant our Marc. Exactly the same Marc, he said, and he called Marc a worm who had wiggled his way into the leadership of the factory’s party organization. So Claude accepted the important job they offered him. He became a police spy. He didn’t describe the work he did and I didn’t ask him about it. He did boast that he was so good at it he was promoted a few years later. I can’t remember what kind of post he got. He became some kind of prison official or security administrator; he was put in charge of other people who did the spy work he had done earlier. And then he was suddenly arrested, accused of conspiring with foreign agents to overthrow the state. They had asked Claude, too, if he knew the rest of us, and when he said he knew me they told him that I, Jasna Zbrkova, had admitted he and I had both been members of that foreign espionage ring. I asked him why they would have released me if I had admitted being a foreign spy but he was too drunk to answer that. He only ranted about efficiency; he said that’s the way they do things and that’s the only efficient way. And then he fell asleep in his chair. I locked myself in my room. When I got up the following morning Claude was gone. I haven’t seen him or heard of him since then. I don’t know if all the things he had told me while he was drunk were true but only one of those things mattered to me. He had told me that Marc Glavni had become an important person in the carton plant.”

Yara had started to yawn during Jasna’s narrative but at this point she perked up and asked. “Do you mean Marc Glavni the government official? Was that the Marc who used to be a friend of yours?” Yara was obviously impressed by the fact that we had once been the “friends” of that conceited provincial who had considered the rest of us halfwits.

“He’s exactly the same Marc,” Jasna said. “I went to see him the day after Claude’s surprise visit. He was there all right — in Mr. Zagad’s office! He recognized me, but not as a former friend. He didn’t remember me as the person who had helped him learn his job at that very plant, as the person who had repaired his blunders. I’m sure if you asked him he wouldn’t admit that Yarostan and I had ever been his friends. He recognized me only as someone he had seen before, someone whose name he knew. And that was all. He wasn’t unkind. I don’t want to suggest that. He was every bit as cordial and decent and courteous and distant as Mr. Zagad had been the first time I had walked into that very office nineteen years earlier. The scene was an exact repetition of the earlier scene, only Zagad’s role was being played by the boy wonder from the provinces whom Luisa had liked so well. I asked if there were any openings. Marc said there just happened to be one opening and they would be very happy to ‘have me.’ Mr. Zagad couldn’t have said it any differently. The only difference was that this time I didn’t have to apologize for my lack of experience. This time I had infinitely more experience than the man who was hiring me and I didn’t need Luisa to tell me I could carry out my task more efficiently without the boss. It was then that I realized Luisa had been wrong and Jan had been right. Without the rest of you around me I hated the work in that plant. If I hadn’t had to support myself that way I’d never have returned to that boring routine, even if all the Mr. Zagads and Marc Glavnis had been ousted. Jan was right. Those eight hour days were the nearest thing to prison. He’d always objected to Luisa’s comments by saying that only an idiot or a brainless mechanical slave would return to his prison cell after all. the gates were opened and all the guards were gone. I wasn’t at all as pleased with myself when Marc hired me as I had been when Mr. Zagad had hired me. I hated every minute of it. At night I dreamed of going back to teaching. But I only dreamed about it, and every day I went back to work there. I’m such a timid person. I stayed in that plant for three more years. My body and my mind got numb. I became what Jan had described: a brainless, mechanical slave. I wasn’t in any way distinguishable from my alarm clock. I went off at the same hour every morning, wound myself up every night and went off again the following morning. During those three years Marc rose to yet another post. He became a member of the city planning commission. He had the power to help me find another teaching job simply by talking into his telephone. I don’t know where I found the nerve to go into his office one day to ask his help in transferring me to a teaching job. I told him how many years I’d spent preparing to become a teacher. And I don’t know where he found the nerve to turn me down. No, he said. Without any explanation. I’m sorry comrade, but! For the first time in my life I wanted to do something violent. I had a strong desire to push the desk into his belly — Zagad’s old, heavy desk. I’m proud of what I did after that. I walked out of his office, through the workshop, out to the street and straight to my house. I haven’t once returned to that plant since. Several of the workers came to my house to ask if I’d been fired. I told them I had simply quit because I’d had enough. And every one of them congratulated me for my courage. It was the only time in my life when I was congratulated for my courage.”

I asked Jasna how in the world Marc had become so important in the carton plant.

“The same way we all became what we are now,” she said. “He started to rise the first day he took part in the political discussions we had twenty years ago, when he elaborated those schemes Luisa admired so much. The workers at the plant were familiar with every step of his rise; they told me all about him during those three more years I spent there. Some time later Titus Zabran told me some funny things about him. Marc too was arrested twenty years ago. He was released after half a year in jail. I’ve never allowed myself to wonder why he was released so soon. That only leads to wondering why most of the people around me weren’t arrested at all, and once you start thinking like that nothing makes any sense. After his release Marc applied for his old job at the carton plant and he was turned down by the new officials. Some of the workers I worked with later had been there at the time of his rejection and they told me how surprised they were when he turned up at the plant again several months later. They thought he must have had important contacts already then, so soon after his release from prison. This mystery was clarified for me by Titus sometime after I walked out of Marc’s office. After being turned down by the plant officials Marc learned that Titus had some kind of trade union post. He visited Titus and with a single telephone call Titus got Marc hired at the carton plant. This same Marc refused to do that much for me several years later. As soon as he had his old job back Marc started to attend night classes at the university. It was an educational program paid for by the union to give rank-and-file workers diplomas with which they could apply for posts in the union bureaucracy.”

I commented that Marc must have attended a program similar in purpose and content to the program of the institution where you teach.

“And Marc certainly used it to his fullest advantage,” Jasna continued. “He was a good student as he’d always been. He enrolled in a course in economic planning, which must have suited his talents perfectly. After attending the course for a year he was appointed to the plant council and got his own office. That was all he needed. From that point on he merely rose. He continued to be paid by the carton plant although he no longer did any work; he spent his days in his office studying for his courses. He did so well in his studies that he was appointed party secretary of the plant council. This appointment automatically made him a member of the trade union council. When he finished his course he had higher academic credentials than anyone else in the plant and he rose yet another notch; this time he was ‘elected’ head of the plant’s party organization. He spent the next two years inside his office, writing a dissertation based on statistics collected for him by minor union officials in the plant. He became Dr. Glavni. What happened to him next was funny to the workers who told me about it. Late one night a car pulled up in front of Dr. Glavni’s house, two men knocked at his door, and they arrested him exactly the same way they would have arrested any ordinary saboteur. But unlike ordinary saboteurs, Dr. Glavni was immediately released. I was told that the regional party secretary personally took a trip to the prison to apologize to Dr. Glavni for the mistake. After his release Marc wasn’t only reinstated in all his posts. He also became a representative in the city planning commission. It was then that I went into his office and asked his help in transferring me to a teaching job. I haven’t seen him since that day but two people who still work there have children in the school where I teach and they’ve kept me informed about his continuing successes. Shortly after I walked out of his office never to see him again, Dr. Glavni became general manager of the carton plant. The following year he became a member of the state planning commission and also of the foreign trade commission. Only last year I read in a newspaper that he had become a member of the central committee of the state planning commission. Today you can keep up with his titles simply by reading the newspapers. He’s mentioned at least once a day.”

We asked Jasna if she had gotten a teaching job on her own after she left the carton plant.

“I didn’t even try,” she said. “I again did absolutely nothing for several months. I had grown so used to spending months at home doing nothing.”

“You really did absolutely nothing?” Yara asked with disbelief. “Did you just sit home and stare?”

“I mean nothing outside of my house,” Jasna said. “No, I didn’t sit and stare. I didn’t feel particularly sorry for myself any more. Although what I did do amounts to nearly nothing. I have a weakness for reading novels, especially long novels, and the periods when I did nothing were in many ways the fullest periods in my life. Those were the months when I lived all the possible lives I was never going to be able to lead in real life.

During that time I was vaguely aware that Vera had been released. I wondered why she didn’t visit me, but I made no effort to try to see her. I just stayed home and read. My reading spree came to an end when I got another surprise visit. Titus Zabran came to see me. We hadn’t seen each other in more than ten years. He had recently been released from prison. I think his arrest had been another mistake. He worked in the trade union bureaucracy and he somehow learned that I had quit my job at the carton plant. I learned from Titus that Jan had disappeared, that you were still in prison, and that Mirna and your two daughters lived in my own neighborhood.”

“But you never came to see us,” Yara said reproachfully.

“I always intended to visit,” Jasna told us. “But I’m such a timid person. I was afraid. Titus was shocked when I told him I just stayed home and read. He asked why I had walked out of Marc’s office. When I told him, he asked me with the seriousness of an old official what kind of work I’d like to do. I told him I wanted to teach again. Two days later he visited me again and told me there was an opening for me in the elementary school in my own neighborhood. I was overjoyed. I prepared a feast for him. I was so grateful to him. He visited me quite frequently after that. But I couldn’t get any closer to him than when we’d worked together years earlier. This time it wasn’t because I had to compete against the incomparable Luisa Nachalo, but because Titus had grown so dull, so robot-like, so official. He was hardly more human than an office desk. I continually asked him about his life, but unlike everyone else I know he had no desire at all to talk about himself. It was like pulling his teeth to get him to tell any details. He didn’t tell me a single thing I didn’t specifically ask him. That’s why I know only fragments of his life. After we were all driven from the carton plant in so many different directions, Titus got a post in the trade union. It was through this post that he was able to help Marc get rehired at the carton plant. He told me he had been imprisoned for ‘cosmopolitanism,’ whatever that was. The second time he was arrested he was charged with ‘revisionism.’ I never heard of the things he was accused of. He seemed extremely lonely and told me he had no friends at all. I could see why; he was as sociable as a stone. About four years ago, when I had been teaching again for over a year, after Yara had already enrolled in our school, Titus told me he had seen Adrian, who had just been released from his second term two years before your release. Adrian had visited Titus to ask his help finding a job. Titus found Adrian a job in the trade union council. Titus didn’t know where Adrian was living but he told me where his office was. I was annoyed by the fact that Adrian hadn’t come to see me after his release. I hadn’t seen him since we’d been arrested at my house six years earlier. I got a substitute to replace me in school one day and went to his office. Adrian and his office were both terribly depressing. Adrian had grown as skinny as a skeleton. Dark rings surrounded his eyes. His face and his hands seemed to consist only of skin and bones. And his office was just as sparse as he was. It was larger than the average prison cell. It had a desk and a chair. But that was all. There was nothing on the walls, nothing on the floor, nothing on the desk. We shook hands. I couldn’t keep myself from asking what in the world he did in that room. Looking around at the bare walls he said, ‘This is my job. I’m a researcher.’ I asked him exactly what Yara just asked me: did he just sit there and stare at the walls? Didn’t he ever read? He pulled the sports section of a newspaper out of the top drawer of his desk to show me that he did read. I could see that there was nothing else in that desk drawer. As if to explain his situation to me, he told me he was waiting. Waiting for what? I asked. All day long every day? He reminded me that before his arrest he had been on the verge of finishing his studies at the university. If he had taken three more exams and submitted one paper he would have finished. His paper was written and he was waiting to take the exams. After that he’d get another appointment. Adrian was simply sitting in that office waiting for the appointment. He literally had nothing to do there. I spent most of the day in his office. I asked him why he hadn’t come to see me after he was released. I’d gladly have put him up in the same room where he’d stayed before. He said he couldn’t stand anything that reminded him of Vera. And then, calmly, almost mechanically, he started telling me what had happened to him after he was arrested. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me, although it clarified why I had been released so quickly and. why I’d been told I’d been arrested by mistake. Adrian had also been accused of having contacts with a foreign spy ring and he too had been asked if he knew the people we all knew, including Vera and Marc. Of course he admitted knowing them. He was sentenced to two years. At the end of the two years, instead of being released, he was swept into another trial. I was reminded of the story a woman had told me during my first prison term: as soon as one term ended a longer one began. That was what happened to Adrian. He was interrogated again. This time the interrogators wanted him to deny he had ever known Vera Neis or Marc Glavni and to say he had lied at the first trial.”

I told Jasna I’d had similar experiences during my second prison term. At one trial they asked me to admit I knew all my friends and I was sentenced to eight years because I refused to admit I had ever known any of them. I thought I’d get them into trouble if I admitted knowing them. At the time I didn’t know most of them had already been arrested. Some two years later an interrogator asked me to sign a paper to the effect that I had never known Vera or Marc. I obviously signed it since I had already told them I didn’t know them; I thought I couldn’t possibly harm people by admitting I had never known them.

“But that wasn’t Adrian’s situation,” Jasna said. “First of all he, Vera and I had been arrested together so the interrogators would have known perfectly well that he was lying when he said he didn’t know Vera. Secondly he was sure they were trying to trap him or Vera into contradicting each other so as to build a case against one of them. He thought he was protecting Vera by refusing to sign that paper. He told me he was completely dumbfounded by the trial. During his remaining four years in prison he couldn’t figure out what had happened. It all became clear only after he was released, when he finally located Vera’s office and saw the plaque on her door. At that trial he was accused of perjury, intentional defamation of the characters of two important state officials. The prosecutor railed against Adrian as a known foreign agent who had tried to implicate Vera Neis and Marc Glavni in his spy ring. Adrian was supposed to have caused the arrest of two comrades above suspicion by claiming they were members of his group. The prosecutor told the court that Comrade Vera Neis, full professor of political economy, had been cleared of this malicious slander through the personal intervention of Professor Dr. Kren, head of the state bank; Comrade Marc Glavni, head of the party organization of the carton factory and representative of the city i planning commission, had been cleared through the personal intervention of the head of the state planning commission. For this malicious slander Adrian was sentenced to four more years in prison. During all those years he wrestled with the significance of that trial. All he figured out was that Marc and Vera must have been released and that his denial that he had known them might have been needed to expedite their release; he said if he’d known that during the interrogation he would gladly have signed the paper. Everything finally cleared up after he was released. He went to the university and looked for Vera Neis. He was told there was no such person. Someone told him to ask in the rector’s office. Imagine his surprise when he saw the plaque on the door: rector of the faculty of political economy, Prof. Dr. Vera Krena! Adrian then remembered the name of the bank official who had personally intervened to release Vera.”

Yara was impressed once again. “Do you mean Vera Krena the minister? Was that the Vera Neis you used to know?”

“She wasn’t a minister yet when Adrian found her office,” Jasna said. “Adrian told me he hesitantly went in. There were three secretaries there. They asked if he had an appointment with the rector. He told them he didn’t want to see the rector; he only wanted to learn something about her because he had known her once, in high school, as Vera Neis; he said he wanted to know how she had come to her present position and asked if they would be willing to tell him. One of the secretaries left the office with him and they went to a coffee shop. She told him she had been Vera’s classmate in the university and knew exactly how Vera had become rector of the university. From her Adrian learned that Vera had begun her affair with Professor Kren already during the days when Adrian and Vera had lived happily at my house. Adrian didn’t tell the secretary he’d known Vera after high school. She told Adrian she and Vera had graduated together and after graduation she had gotten the job as the rector’s secretary and had been on that job ever since. But when Vera graduated she enrolled in a postgraduate course in political economy so as to be close to the bank official, Professor Kren. Vera and the professor became inseparable during the day while, according to the secretary, Vera returned to another lover every night. The secretary told Adrian that Vera’s career was almost cut short soon after her postgraduate program started, because a foreign spy had claimed that she was a member of his spy ring. She was arrested and Kren himself had to intervene to get her released. My hasty release was suddenly explained. Vera must have asked Kren to intervene for me as well. Adrian was annoyed when I told him this, because he had been the one who’d had to suffer because of Vera’s release. He had been left in jail so as not to be in Vera’s way. The secretary had told him that Vera had protested to the police for arresting her. Marc apparently did the same thing. The way the police cleared themselves of these mistakes was to put all the blame on Adrian, slapping another four years on him for having implicated Vera and Marc and then announcing they had discovered the cause for their mistake. The woman told Adrian that as soon as Kren got Vera out of prison she abandoned her lover and moved into the professor’s house. From that point on she walked on a golden carpet. She finished her studies under him and became Dr. Vera Neis the same year when he became the head of the state bank. The following year she became professor of political economy; such a quick journey from student to full professor was unprecedented. She was probably the youngest professor in the university’s history and one of the few women on the university’s regular teaching staff. The secretary said all the men professors were charmed, there was a great deal of talk about the equality of women in all fields of social endeavor, and all of it was a mutual sham. A year later Vera married the professor and shortly after the marriage Prof. Dr. Vera Neis Krena became assistant rector of the faculty of political economy. And then the rector of the university was arrested in the middle of a night by the security police. That had happened only a year before Adrian’s release. Professor Kren’s candidate for rector, his wife, was unanimously elected to the post; there were no other candidates. After Adrian learned all that, he must have suspected that I had known about Vera’s relations with Professor Kren all along, but he didn’t ask. After his session with Vera’s secretary, Adrian wanted to look up the other important state official whose character he had defamed by claiming to know him, Comrade Marc Glavni. Adrian went to the carton factory, but Marc no longer occupied Mr. Zagad’s office, where I had found him six years earlier. Adrian was told that Dr. Glavni was the general manager of the plant but that his office was located in the state planning commission building. Adrian went to the government building, found Marc’s office, but got no further than the desk of a secretary. Adrian was asked his reasons for wanting to see Dr. Glavni. When he said he wanted to apply for a job at the carton factory, the secretary told him that hiring was handled by an official at the plant itself, and she promptly wrote an official’s name and office number on a slip of paper. Adrian then tried another approach. He telephoned Marc’s office, introduced himself as Comrade Kren from the state bank and said he needed to discuss urgent business with Comrade Glavni. He was given an appointment for the following day. When Adrian entered Marc’s office and introduced himself as Comrade Kren, Marc’s face fell. Marc didn’t even shake Adrian’s hand. He merely asked Adrian what he wanted. Adrian said he wanted a job at the plant. Marc, flushed with anger, shouted: ‘You want my help after what you’ve done to me? Couldn’t you have told them you didn’t know me? You’ve put a permanent blot on my name!’ Adrian shouted back. ‘A blot on your name! You lunatic! I’ve just spent six years of my life in prison. What wouldn’t I do to have a mere blot on my name in exchange for those six years!’ Marc didn’t respond. He regained his composure, sat behind his desk and called his secretary to accompany ‘Comrade Kren’ out of his office, saying ‘I’m sorry comrade, there aren’t any openings for your friend.’ Adrian was furious when he left Marc’s office. But he didn’t know what to do. He was miserable for several weeks. Then he somehow learned that Titus Zabran was a trade union official and went to see him. That was when Titus got him the job in that office where I found him. I told Adrian something about my own life since our arrest and I invited him to visit me for old time’s sake, but he never came. I didn’t see him again for a whole year. Titus visited me two or three times during that year. I went to school every day and read my novels at night. And then — was it three years ago? — I learned that your older daughter Vesna was sick. I didn’t even know her. She hadn’t ever been in my class and I hadn’t ever tried to talk to her. I told Titus, but I didn’t come. When I learned she had died in the hospital I felt awful. I cried every night. I even burst out crying during one of my classes. But I just couldn’t bring myself to come and see you, Mirna. I had stayed away so long and you didn’t know me. I was afraid you wouldn’t trust me. I had to go somewhere, to see someone. I decided to visit Adrian again. Nothing had changed in his office. The walls were still bare, there was still nothing in the room except the desk and the chairs and there was nothing on the desk. I asked Adrian if he was still waiting. Adrian told me he had one exam left to finish his studies. He was sure he’d be promoted as soon as he got his degree. I asked him what kind of life that was, waiting in that empty room for a promotion like a prisoner waiting to be released. He told me he had done a great deal since I’d last seen him. He had been seeing Vera’s secretary regularly, the one who had told him about Vera’s successes, although he hadn’t yet seen Professor Dr. Vera in person. He had told the secretary that he’d been the one responsible for Vera’s arrest. He insisted on telling me the details of his self-exposure. The secretary trapped Vera into admitting she had lied about the foreign spy who had caused her arrest. The secretary had told Vera that in her student days she had met an Adrian Povrshan who had told her he had known Vera in high school. Vera admitted having known Adrian in high school; she even told the secretary she and Adrian had grown up together. When Adrian told the secretary about his arrest, his near release and the new trial where he was to admit he had never known Vera, the secretary was indignant; she realized Vera had caused Adrian to be imprisoned for four extra years merely in order to rehabilitate her name. She wanted to expose Vera’s duplicity, to make a public scandal. Adrian told me he was pleased by the secretary’s reaction but he begged her not to mention the details to anyone; he was afraid that a scandal would interfere with his coming promotion. I felt a mixture of disgust and shame when I left Adrian’s office. I haven’t ever gone to see him again. I was disgusted by Adrian. I regretted having gone to see him after I had learned of Vesna’s death. I was ashamed of myself, of my life, of all my former friends.”

I asked Jasna if she knew what all those people were doing today.

“I lost track of Claude nine years ago, after the day when he came to my house to accuse me,” she said. “I don’t even know if he’s still alive. If he is, he’s probably a prison or police official. You don’t need to ask me about the others. They’re in the newspapers. Vera and Adrian appear together on speakers’ platforms. I have no idea how or when they became friends again. Vera has fulfilled her life’s dream. She’s a popular tribune. She lectures to applauding audiences, talks on the radio at least once a week about the urgent political tasks of the day and the need for reforms. And Adrian is still her straight man; he still documents the things she says. I listen to them on the radio whenever I can. They’re not nearly as funny as they used to be. Whenever they’re mentioned in the newspapers their names are accompanied by titles that fill whole paragraphs. Vera is still rector of the university. She’s also deputy minister of the ideological commission and I don’t know what else besides. Adrian got all the promotions he had waited for; he’s first party secretary of the commission for problems of standard of living. Marc has more titles than either of them. He’s a member of the central committee of the state planning commission, he’s on the foreign trade commission, his name is mentioned whenever there’s an international trade conference. And me: I get up at the same time every morning and go to teach my classes at the elementary school. I’m neither a head nor a member nor a party secretary nor anything else. But somehow I’m one of them too. I’ve also abandoned people who were killed and jailed, who suffered because they wanted to live another kind of life. I too am a traitor to people like Jan who disappeared so many years ago, and to little Vesna who wasn’t even given a chance to survive. Our famous friends have succeeded in getting the life we used to talk about; they got it for themselves.”

It was very late when Jasna finished. Before she left she said to me, “Be sure you tell Sophia about the people we knew twenty years ago. They don’t all deserve the sympathy she expresses for them in her letter.”

I suspect that you know who our friends were and that you’re one of them; my suspicion is confirmed by your descriptions of those people and by your description of your life’s choices. You describe Marc and Vera as committed revolutionary workers. Luisa regards Jan and me as hotheads. You recognize the repressive aspirations of your university friends Lem and Rhea, but only because these two people expressed their aspirations openly. You fail to realize that those who announce their repressive aspirations are not the only carriers of repression. You fail to see through people who do not carry the world of repression in their mouths but in the motions and decisions they make every day of their lives. Today it doesn’t take great insight to see through people like Lem and Rhea. People like them have realized their aspirations in a third of the world and the repressive character of these aspirations has become public knowledge. You reject Lem and Rhea because they’re antiquated, not because they’re repressive. You glorify their modern cousins. You glorify Marc, Vera, Adrian, Claude and those like them in your environment. You describe them all as rebels. I would like to think, as Jasna does, that you don’t know what kind of people these are. But I think you do know who they are. I think you use language the same way they do: not to unveil and clarify but to mask and obscure. I think you know that the terms with which you describe these people are the terms behind which they hide. I think you know that terms like independent, committed, revolutionary, do not describe the characters or activities of these people. In plainer terms, you’re lying about these individuals. Vera, Adrian, Claude and Marc are people for whom the organized system of repression is the only possible form of life. They perceive their own personal development in the form of active participation in the repression. For them the university hierarchy, the union hierarchy, the enterprise hierarchy and the state hierarchy are the hothouses in which human life flowers and grows, and it’s within these contexts that they define their choices, their life projects and their success. Their aim in life is to occupy positions in these hierarchies, to play the roles defined by the previous occupants of their offices. They’ve renounced their own projects and their own lives in order to live what has already been lived. They ran to sell themselves or sat like commodities in display windows waiting to be bought. And while they grow inside their hierarchies the rest of us manure the hothouse soil and maintain the heat with our submission and our admiration.

Several times during Jasna’s narrative Yara interrupted with comments that expressed admiration for our one-time co-workers. Even Jasna and I became more admirable to Yara because we had once known these paragons of integrity and solidarity; we shone in the light reflected from these suns. It’s true that Yara is only eleven years old, but her admiration nevertheless disappointed me. She happens to be the individual who had so much to do with stirring up the ferment at her school. Her self-assurance in matters that concern her directly, combined with passive admination for the occupants of social offices, is identical to the mixture of self-assurance and passivity among my fellow workers in the carton plant who determinedly oust a union bureaucrat and then applaud speechmakers waiting to replace the ousted bureaucrat in the same post. From her own experience Yara knows that she and her friends are able to move the world, while her education has imbued her with the illusion that only the tops of the hierarchies move the world. Yara’s admiration for Vera and Marc has much in common with the mirages people experience in a desert. The illusion is caused by the heat, the distance, and the thirst one feels. The mirage continues receding; no matter how far one goes one seems to get no closer to it. One who does finally reach it finds there is no water there but only more sand. The aura which seems to surround the admirable people of our society is an illusion caused by the poverty of everyone’s personal life in contrast to the brilliant public life of the personalities daily displayed to thousands. Some of those who watch, condense their life projects to one single goal: to be watched, to be seen daily by thousands. But this goal is a mirage. Being watched is no more of an activity than watching. The observed is as passive as the observer. It seems to me that the personal lives of those who occupy the highest offices are as miserable as the personal lives of those who are victimized by the officials. When Marc reached his goal and became manager of the plant he renounced his own life to such an extent that when Jasna visited his office she saw in him, not the individual we had known, but the previous occupant of that office, Mr. Zagad. Having annihilated himself to such a degree he turned his back on Jasna and Adrian when they needed his help. Adrian had to serve four years in prison so that a blot could be removed from Marc’s name. Adrian’s prolonged imprisonment served Vera’s interests as well: she could marry her banker without having to explain anything to her lifelong friend. We don’t know how many others Marc had to repress, in order to rise to his heights but we have strong grounds for thinking it was Vera or her future husband who removed the previous rector of the university from his post. And Adrian, after having been victimized by both Vera and Marc, outdid both of them: Adrian’s self-debasement for the sake of bureaucratic advancement is scandalous. He simply gave all of himself to the bureaucracy; he denuded himself of all internal and external characteristics, of all marks that might even superficially define him as a specific individual, and waited like an unlabelled bottle ready to be filled and sold. Claude had succeeded in attaining his repressive ideal earlier and more grossly. Having repressed their own desires to live without bureaucratic structures, they hit out blindly against all those who have not repressed such desires. I think Luisa shares one trait with her former comrades. I think she too, a long time ago, gave up her desires for her own self-liberation and gave herself to the last of the repressive institutions, the representative of liberation, the union. She poured her life into meaningless drudgery for the sake of that repressive Utopia where rank and filers are said to rule when they are ruled by a rank and filer, where workers are said to manage when they are managed by a worker, where the people are said to be victorious when one of the victors governs. I think this is why Luisa responds so irrationally whenever Ron is mentioned, whenever Manuel, whom she never met, is mentioned, whenever Jan is mentioned. I think she responds that way because these individuals refused to repress their own desires, because they refused to submit to the victory of repression called by another name.

I was amazed by the exchange between Sabina and Luisa about all those whom Luisa called enemies behind the trenches. Luisa is straightforward when she speaks of saboteurs and assassins as if they were first cousins; to her, people who sabotaged production are the same as people who murdered revolutionary workers, and she defends the repression of both. Isn’t it perfectly clear that if Luisa’s ideal had triumphed, people like Manuel, Jan and I wouldn’t have fared any better than we did? Sabina guessed exactly what Manuel had told me: the revolutionary saboteurs were killed alongside the hired assassins, not by the order of the generals, but by the order of the revolutionary general staff. That’s what would have happened to Manuel if he hadn’t been arrested earlier because of his membership in an organization to which he no longer belonged when he was arrested.

The weekend is over and tomorrow I return to work. I’d like to end this letter on a more cheerful note. I would genuinely like to carry on this correspondence with you in a spirit of understanding and mutual aid, not only for the sake of our past friendship, but also because communication across such large chasms will have to take place if our meager beginnings are going to continue growing and not be drowned in blood spilled by those of our likes who remain under the spell of their rulers.

I hope my letter, and especially Jasna’s narrative, has at least clarified the character of the individuals and the experiences on which you based so many of your life’s choices.

Yarostan.

Sophia’s fourth letter

Dear Yarostan,

So much has happened since I sent you my last letter and most of it has confirmed your statement that you and I live in completely different worlds. I have no idea what place you would occupy in my world and you can’t know what place I’d occupy in yours. It certainly wouldn’t be the place you assign me!

I admit I was shocked by what Jasna told about the people I’ve regarded as my comrades. I was particularly shocked by the ruthlessness and inhumanity with which Marc and Vera attained their bureaucratic goals. But I don’t have even a shred of sympathy for the path they took. Nothing in me could have accepted, or even drifted in. the direction in which they moved. Your characterization of me fails. I didn’t identify with Marc, Vera or Adrian and I obviously didn’t identify with Claude. If I identified with anyone in Jasna’s or your narrative it was with Jasna herself and, much as you hate my saying it. with you. I identified with you, Yarostan, not because my life was anything like yours but because I wish it had been, particularly right now. I’m genuinely overjoyed that you’re finding in your present life everything I sought but never found throughout my life: a real and significant project with people who are alive and want to be. I came close to that kind of activity only once and you’ve just about convinced me that I wasn’t close to it even then. Since then I’ve come no closer than a caricature comes to an original event. My experiences during the past two weeks have been such caricatures of the experiences I’ve longed for.

Two weeks ago there was a demonstration at the university where Daman Hesper teaches. Daman was my friend during my student days; we were on the university newspaper staff together. He’s the person who helped me find my present teaching job. At the demonstration, about a hundred students barricaded themselves into the university administration building and announced they wouldn’t leave until the university accepted a long list of demands. The university president announced that if the students didn’t leave the building immediately, he would call on the police to evict them by force. In response to this announcement several hundred students and teaching assistants planted themselves in front of the administration building to act as a kind of “buffer” between the police and the occupying students. Only one professor was among hose in front of the building: Daman Hesper. That evening the police attacked. According to Daman it was more like an invading army. The police, who far outnumbered the people inside as well as outside the building, simply pushed their way into the building. They arrested all the students inside as well as most of the people outside, including Daman, whom they beat. Daman called me that night and told me to be ready with bail money in the morning. I went to jail the following morning but he was already out. Everyone had. been released. Daman had an ugly cut across his face. We came to my house by taxi and I called a doctor.

Daman is really the only good friend I have now except for my two housemates. He’s the only one of the people with whom I worked on the newspaper staff whom I still see. Sabina has an intense dislike for him and Tina doesn’t think a whole lot of him either. My own respect for him went down considerably during the past two weeks and your letter had a lot to do with this. I think that without the observations you made I wouldn’t have been so critical of the role Daman played in the events that followed that demonstration.

A week ago Daman came to the house to tell me several students were going to call for a strike to protest against the police repression of the students who had occupied the building. He brought me several copies of a leaflet they had prepared announcing a student general strike. I thought it was a good leaflet. It didn’t only attack the repression of the student demonstrators but also raised questions about the university’s involvement in weapons development and war strategy, questions about the ugly relationship between the university and the working class community that surrounds it and questions about the education itself, about its authoritarian form and its apologetic content.

Although I’m no longer connected to the university, I decided to take part in the strike. I became very excited thinking I would be involved in activity that in some way resembled the strike you described in your previous letter, i was intensely disappointed. The event resembled a strike only in name.

The day after Daman’s visit I went to my job at the community college. Since the leaflet wasn’t addressed only to students of the university but to all students and was a call for a general strike, I read it to my class. I also announced that I wasn’t a strikebreaker and wouldn’t come to class on the day of the strike. This was probably the longest lecture I had given in my class. Not a single one of the “students” expressed the slightest sympathy for the leaflet, for the coming strike or for me. Most of them were completely indifferent and some were actually hostile. One person criticized the students who had occupied the administration building because they had “illegally trespassed on private property.” What was more upsetting to me was that I was the only one who laughed when he said this. I should remind you that the people in my class axe workers, they haven’t yet reached the managerial posts to which they aspire, they still work in factories. “Since they trespassed on private property,” the person continued, “the police were only doing their job when they arrested them.”

Another student argued that strikes were for higher wages and improved working conditions, and that therefore the leaflet was not calling for a strike but for a not. I argued that it was up to strikers to define what they were striking for, but this statement provoked protests from almost all the workers in the room, workers who had all participated in strikes. “If everyone defined his own strike it would be anarchy,” one student complained. The dominant view was that the unions and the government define the aims of a strike. There seems to be a great deal of similarity between a situation where strikes are illegal and a situation where strikes are institutionalized. Here strikes are nominally legal but only those strikes which are called by the unions and sanctioned by the law are legal. In practice this means that any genuine strike, any strike organized by workers themselves with aims which they themselves define is as illegal as it was in your environment for the past twenty years, and is just as savagely repressed.

Even the fact that I talked about such a strike in my class led to my being intimidated. Or rather, it wasn’t just the fact that I talked about it but the fact that I acted on it, took part in it, called off my class, that led to intimidation. Just talking is all right.

My last class before the “general strike” was dull. No one even mentioned the coming event. Everyone seemed to know that something was going to happen. Later on I learned that several of the students in my class were also in a psychology class and that they had talked about me in their class. When my class ended some of the students left but others stood in the hall and were joined by a professor I had seen before: he teaches behavioral psychology and is on some administrative body of the college. The professor shouted at me as I came out of the classroom. “I understand you’ve decided to revise the length of the school term.”

“You understand correctly,” I told him. “I’m not a scab and I won’t come to work during a strike.”

“Such matters are taken up by the proper authorities, Miss Nachalo,” he said.

“No they’re not,” I said. “Since when did the bosses determine when a strike was to take place?”

“You encourage violence against what you call the bosses, don’t you Miss Nachalo?” he asked.

“What does that have to do with it?” I shouted. “I’m taking part in a strike and you’re not going to stop me!”

“That’s just the point, Miss Nachalo,” he said, and he grinned. “Nothing at all is going to stop you. You’re a dangerous person. You shouldn’t be teaching in a college. You should be undergoing treatment in a hospital.”

His statement, his smugness and his idiotic grin enfuriated me. Such people and their cousins in the police are called “pigs” by a small number of radical students; I certainly sympathize with this attempt to call certain people by their proper names. “Why you bastard!” I shouted. “I’ll show you just how dangerous I am!” I slapped his face twice with all my might.

He didn’t raise his hands to protect himself. Instead he grinned even more stupidly, like a genuine masochist. He said, “Everyone can see you’re an extremely violent person. Miss Nachalo.”

One student yelled, “Bravo, champ!” The rest dispersed like zombies. I walked away trembling with anger and frustration. After that event as a build-up, the actual “strike” that took place was a real let-down.

Your letter arrived one day before the “general strike.” I was so excited by certain passages that I translated and typed them up; I wanted to show Daman that experiences similar to ours were taking place on the other side of the world. What struck me most was your description of your situation in the carton plant; I then imagined my own situation was about to become similar to yours. I thought I was about to experience a progression of events similar to the one you described: last week there had been an unprecedented demonstration; today a general strike of students was breaking out; next week workers might go on strike and if the ferment continues then a new life might be possible here too — as you put it: a human life inhibited by no barriers external to the developing individuals. But I was only dreaming, so please don’t take this as another of my misguided attempts to identify my situation with yours.

On the morning of the “strike” I waited impatiently for Daman to come by for me. He normally didn’t start teaching until noon and consequently wasn’t in the habit of starting out early. When he finally picked me up at lunchtime I left the house without the pages I had typed up for him — but you’ll see that those pages, in fact your entire letter, strongly affected my perception of the day’s events and particularly of Daman. My disappointment with Daman began the moment he arrived; I was peeved because of how late he had come and how nonchalant he acted about the whole thing. He seemed to be going to the university the same way he would have gone any other day, at the same hour, apparently with the same thoughts. He seemed completely indifferent about the strike and didn’t talk about it. I realized that I had magnified the importance of what was going to happen because of what had already happened to me. I even asked him, “Aren’t you excited?”

“No,” he said. “Why should I be excited?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What if the police attack again?”

“What makes you think they’re going to attack again?” he asked, snickering at me.

I really do have a vivid imagination when I think about strikes and demonstrations. That’s one critical observation of yours that really hits its mark. I suppose I got that from Luisa, Every time a group of people get together to protest, I see the revolution around the corner. The expectations I had built up in myself for that strike certainly had no relation to what actually happened. It was a beautiful spring day, the first really warm day of the year. The strike, it turned out, was one vast picnic which seemed to extend over all the lawns of the university campus. I’m not saying this with irony. I was actually somewhat pleased. Nothing of this sort had ever happened at the university when I had been a student. The picnic seemed enjoyable enough. Students had come with their lunches and thermos bottles. I even saw groups of students with large coolers, with boxes full of picnic supplies, and some had even brought lawn chairs and folding tables. It was a nice picnic, but it wasn’t the event I had anticipated from the leaflet that had announced a “general strike,” and it certainly wasn’t the violent riot anticipated by the domesticated students who attended my night class.

The event wasn’t particularly festive. There was no singing or dancing or theater. There were just groups of friends picnicking on the grass. The event didn’t indicate the end of the university or the beginning of anything new. Everyone knew that classes would resume “normally” the following day. I suppose that would have bothered me less if your letter hadn’t arrived that very day. I looked for signs of something new but there wasn’t a trace of the ferment your letters have described. As a general strike this event was a bad joke. Only one minor detail reminded me that the event was not merely a picnic. A young woman ran up to Daman and announced, very proudly, “You know what. Professor Hesper? A group of us ran through the administration building yelling ‘Jailbreak!’”

Daman smiled and said, “That’s great. Was anyone there?”

Losing most of her enthusiasm, she answered, “The secretaries and deans.”

Several students sitting on the steps of the administration building caught sight of Daman and began waving and shouting for him to join them.

“Come on,” Daman told me. “I’ll introduce you to the political students.”

Normally I would have said that I’d be delighted to meet the political students; normally I would have preferred, the company of “political” students to that of apolitical students. I don’t mean “normally.” I mean before your last two letters came. Because of your letters I began to hear words I had never really heard before and I began to see a Daman I had never really looked at before. When we came up to the group, Daman introduced me: “Sophie Nachalo, meet the organizers of this unusual event.”

One of the “organizers” said, “I know who you are. You’re the faculty radical who was fired a year ago right after the riot.”

“I recognize you too,” I told him. I recognized two or three of the others as well. A couple of years ago, right after I had gotten my first teaching job, I attended a large protest meeting which was destroyed by manipulative politicians who had elected themselves the leaders of the student movement. I think I told you about that meeting. Three or four of those very politicians were among the “political students” to whom Daman introduced me.

What happened next on the steps of the administration building was so bizarre that I’ll try to describe it in detail, first of all because I’d like to engrave that event on my memory and secondly because I’d like to show you that I do read your letters attentively. Your letter is what made this event clear to me.

It was the day of the great strike against the university. The leaflet announcing the strike had specifically described the authoritarian character of the education as one of the targets against which the strike was launched. Yet Daman placed himself on the bottom step and began lecturing like an orator in a colosseum, the omniscient professor lecturing to his ignorant admirers. What took place on the steps of the administration building was the most authoritarian classroom situation I have ever experienced, and those subjected to it were the students who had been introduced to me as the organizers of the strike against that type of authoritarianism.

Daman always introduced himself to people as “basically a worker.” He had worked in a factory for several years before he was employed in the university. In this context, among those he called “the political students,” the fact that he considered himself “basically a worker” made him their idol. The lecture began when, after introducing all the students to me by name, Daman said, “This was easy! But this isn’t what counts.” (By “this” he meant the student strike.)

A young woman I didn’t recognize objected to this put-down of the student strike. “I think this does count. Many of the students come from working class homes and most of them are going to be workers of one type or another.”

At that point Daman began a tirade. At one or another time I had agreed with most of what he said, and I still do agree with much of it. But he spoke in a tone that was terribly intimidating and in a context which totally falsified what he said. I remembered what you had written about the ‘mirrors’ created by politicians, mirrors which reflect people’s desires and transform them into images, words. Daman turned to the young woman and said, “That theory of students and professors being part of the so-called new working class is so much baloney invented by petty-bourgeois academic sociologists.” He spoke calmly but what he said was so intimidating to the young woman, to the rest of the group and even to me that he might as well have shouted at the top of his voice. It’s probably true that the “theory of the new working class” is baloney invented by academic sociologists, but Daman’s statement had nothing to do with what the young woman had said. He intimidated her by identifying her comment with a theory she was probably unfamiliar with; he transformed what she had said into an expression of sympathy for a petty-bourgeois theory. He then continued to push his point in the same direction. “The only test of class is someone’s relation to production. People whose function is to manipulate others, like professors, are best defined as middle class.”

I felt like shouting and telling the “political students” that they were being taken in by a hoax, precisely the type of hoax you described. I again agreed with his words. But how were his listeners and he related to those words? He was talking to students some of whom were already experienced manipulators. He was himself a professor. Yet he spoke as if his and their lives and functions were totally unrelated to what he said, as if he were talking about other professors, other manipulators, other members of the middle class.

“The best paid and most thoroughly unionized workers in the basic and heavy industries are crucial to revolutionary potential and cannot be brushed aside and replaced by clerical workers, students, professors and so on,” he continued. “The fact that workers are at the point of production is the source of the revolutionary capacity of the working class. Their work teaches them how to run production.”

Up to this point I thought I agreed with every statement Daman had made. But the very fact that I agreed with his words made me realize that such agreement has nothing to do with shared commitments and projects. I agreed with the statements but the context of those statements made me want to shout my disagreement. I grew increasingly frustrated as Daman’s lecture progressed further. I stopped agreeing with the statements he made, although I wasn’t able to articulate my disagreements until later that evening, when Tina tore into Daman’s arguments.

He must have talked without a break for at least an hour. The main point of his lecture was that capitalism, by concentrating workers in the basic industries, had itself created the organization and discipline of “the new society.” I had heard that whole argument innumerable times before and I used to agree with it. I started to doubt its validity before I started corresponding with you but thanks to your letters and especially your brief descriptions of Jan Sedlak’s insights I’m finally able to express my understanding of what’s wrong with that argument. Daman glorifies the absolute degradation of the human individual and the human community for which capitalism is responsible. He locates “the new society” in the assembly lines, the furnaces and the mines. His argument is an apology for the unprecedentedly inhuman hell created by capitalism.

I was so irritated by what Daman said that it didn’t dawn on me until later that I had heard every single one of his statements before, in exactly the same words. He had already said the same things fourteen years earlier! The context was apparently irrelevant; it was nothing but an occasion for repeating the same performance. The statements he made on the steps of the administration building were the political beliefs of the organization to which he had belonged when I had met him on the newspaper staff. Despite all that’s happened during the past fourteen years, Daman has somehow managed not to change a single one of his ideas! I can now understand why you were so shocked when you read my first letter and recognized a person and an outlook you had known twenty years ago. I hope I haven’t been as rigid as Daman! That’s frightening. He could have put all his views on a phonograph record fourteen years ago and anyone who wanted to meet him could simply play the record. That’s eerie. Daman isn’t altogether a living person.

There were no questions when Daman finished his lecture. He simply said, “Well, see you next week.” This was incomprehensible to me. The students got up and joined picnickers on a lawn.

I asked Daman, “What do you mean you’ll see them next week? Are they going to call for another general strike just so they can listen to you deliver the same lecture another time?” I was furious at Daman. I was also furious at myself for having made such a scene at the community college for the sake of this travesty of a strike and especially for the delusions with which I had filled myself while anticipating this great day.

He either disregarded my anger and frustration or else he didn’t notice it. Very matter-of-factly, as if everything was exactly as it should be, he told me, “I’ll see them next week because we get together one night a week. Since there was no school today we had decided to meet during the day.”

Indignantly I asked, “You mean this was a class? And you carried it on precisely with the group who had organized the strike against classes?”

Still matter-of-factly, as if he were unable to grasp the contradiction, he said, “This isn’t a formal university class. It’s an altogether informal affair and it was convenient to all concerned to meet today.”

“You hypocrite!” I shouted. “You call people to a strike and you’re the one who breaks it! That was the most formal university class I’ve ever attended. Informal my ass! It’s infinitely more formal than mine and I walked out of my teaching job because there was a strike!”

He looked at me with genuine surprise and asked, “Did I ask you to do that?”

Of course he hadn’t asked me to walk out of my job nor had he told me that this strike would be the first stage of a revolution. He had merely given me a leaflet and I had asked him to drive me to campus on the day of the strike. I had neglected to ask if the leaflet meant what it said.

I asked Daman to take me home. On the way to his car I asked about the class he was giving to those he called the “political students.” He told me that some of the students I had just met were “in the process of forging a relevant type of organization.” I could guess which ones. He went on to say there had already been talk about publishing a newspaper.

“Another student paper?” I asked.

“No, not a student newspaper,” he said. He was peeved. “I’ve had my fill of student newspapers, haven’t you? What I’m talking about is an organization that organizes itself to publish a workers’ paper.”

“But you’ve just convinced me that you and those other members of your organization are anything but workers,” I said. “What do you mean by a workers’ paper? You’ve just spent an hour describing the paper’s publishers as middle-class manipulators.”

With an appearance of genuine surprise he asked, “What’s that got to do with it?” The naivete with which he asked this made me suppose that I had missed something which would have been perfectly obvious to anyone else. I recognized the source of his ability to intimidate.

Echoing your argument (probably word for word) I said that such a newspaper, published by Daman and his group of “political students,” could only transform the real activity of workers into the political program of Daman’s organization, once again representing and replacing the workers like all the other politicians who speak in their name.

Daman finally lost his matter-of-factness. He spoke to me in a tone he’s rarely used on me before, a paternalistic, condescending tone. “I didn’t say we were going to write the paper. The workers themselves are going to write it. I’m not talking about a newspaper for workers. You’re the one who is talking about that. I’m talking about a workers’ newspaper. Its I task will not be to speak for the workers but to let the workers I themselves speak. There’s no question here of representing j workers or replacing them or any of that old crap. I said earlier , that the new society is created at the point of production, particularly in the basic industries. It’s not created in the heads of intellectuals. The sole task of this paper will be to recognize the existence of the new society and to record the facts of its existence.”

This statement mystified me completely. The words described a project I would have embraced without reservations under other circumstances. Yet under the present circumstances everything about it seemed false. The selflessness that such a project would require was to be carried precisely by people who were among the crassest politicians I’ve ever seen. That paper would recognize, not the new society, but merely Daman’s ideology, and it would record, not the facts of the struggle for the creation of the new society, but the rising influence of Daman’s organization among workers. But it sounded like something altogether different.

It became clear to me why Daman had remained consistent for so many years. He had answers to everything, detailed and documented answers which he had worked out and perfected years ago, and the more he repeated them the more perfect they became. He carried a corpse in his mouth.

On that day I recognized Daman as the pedagogue who deserves all the critiques you’ve formulated. How grateful I am for your letter. I really don’t think I could have seen through him on my own. How perfectly he fits your description! He and his students are going to edit “a workers’ paper, not a paper for workers.” Daman agrees with your critique of representation. He agrees so much that he’ll represent the end of representation. He knows who the real revolutionaries are and therefore his paper will really be revolutionary. He knows that professors and students are middle class and therefore his paper will not be a students’ or a professors’ paper. He knows that the new society is located at the point of production and therefore his paper will not be merely another political gimmick nor his organization another racket. He’ll reflect the new society.

On the way to my house I tell Daman about my correspondence with you and I beg him to come in and read the excerpts from your letter. When we go in, Sabina and Tina are sitting in the living room discussing your letter. Daman takes the translated sections and goes to my bedroom to read them.

I tell Sabina and Tina that I’m going to call Luisa. Tina asks if I really think Luisa will be willing to experience another scene like the one we had last time we discussed your letter. I call Luisa and tell her your letter contains a long account of Jasna Zbrkova’s life. Luisa says she’d like to borrow the letter and read it by herself at her house. I guess she was really upset by our all-night session.

Tina’s first comment about your letter is, “Wow. what a put-down of all your friends, Sophia!” Tina, predictably, is enchanted by the put-down.

Tina goes to the kitchen; it’s her turn to make supper. When I go to the kitchen to make myself coffee she makes another comment about your letter. She raises the same question you and Jasna both raised. “You know, neither you nor Luisa have explained why you three were released twenty years ago after you spent only two days in jail. Saying that George Alberts arranged your release doesn’t explain anything. Yarostan wants to know what power Alberts had to arrange your release. I’m curious about that too.”

I can’t answer Tina because I don’t know. I vaguely remember that the police apologized to us. Perhaps they told us that our arrest had been a “mistake,” as they later told Jasna. I also vaguely remember that George Alberts wasn’t arrested. But it was Luisa who said that Alberts made our release possible. I didn’t think to ask her how he had done that; I simply passed her comment on to you. I’ll try to remember to ask her.

When I return to the living room, Sabina reminds me that you didn’t answer the questions she had asked about Manuel. You commend her for “guessing” that Manuel and his friends were repressed by the revolutionary leaders and not by the reactionary generals, but you don’t elaborate. She says the comment she made wasn’t really a guess. She learned a great deal about that uprising from George Alberts; that’s why she never accepted Luisa’s view of that struggle. Although Alberts didn’t explicitly tell her that revolutionaries had been jailed and shot by the “revolutionary government,” she suspected this from what Alberts did tell her. Your account of Manuel confirmed her suspicions. She tells me that Alberts viewed that struggle as a struggle for industrialization and nothing more. In Alberts’ view everything else was romanticism or ideological obfuscation. That’s also Sabina’s view of that struggle. To her I’m an example of the romanticism and Luisa of the obfuscation. Alberts told her that the sole task of that revolution was to sweep away the dark ages and create the conditions for progress; all those who opposed industrialization had to be pushed out of the way. These reactionaries included the church, the landowners and the military. What always bothered Sabina was that Alberts also included “reactionary saboteurs among the workers and peasants.” Alberts, like Luisa, called these people “lumpen” and “hoodlums.” Sabina was always suspicious about the inclusion of “saboteurs” among the “reactionaries” for the very reasons you mention in your letter, but she had no way of knowing who they really were and what they were fighting for. She had thought they were revolutionary workers and peasants who fought against both regimes because they wanted to industrialize on their own, without “revolutionary leaders,” without managers like George Alberts, without a “revolutionary army.” Manuel was apparently one of the people Alberts described as a saboteur and a lumpen. But what you’ve told about him so far doesn’t exactly fit the picture she’s constructed of these revolutionary saboteurs. That’s why she wants to know more about Manuel.

Sabina also wants me to ask you and Jasna a question about Jasna’s second arrest. Jasna says that the police insisted she had known a “notorious foreign spy.” They also asked her if she had known Luisa and me. Then Jasna comments mysteriously that “they had the wrong last name down for Sophia and Luisa.” Sabina asks if Jasna happens to remember the name the police had for us; was that name, by any chance, Alberts? When Sabina raises this question I ask her if she’s suggesting that George Alberts was that foreign spy. “I’m not suggesting anything,” Sabina says; “I’d just like to know if she remembers.”

We call Daman when supper is ready. Tina and I look at him quizzically; we can’t wait to hear his response. It’s the first time Daman has ever eaten at our house and I can see that Sabina is waiting for the slightest pretext to tear into him. She dislikes academics in general; she dislikes Daman even more because he pretends not to be one.

Daman starts eating and his sole comment is, “Mm, this is very good. What is it?”

I ask myself if he’s going to avoid your letter. I’ve seen him do that before. Whenever he confronts a situation he doesn’t want to face he’s like an ostrich with its head in sand; he simply pretends the situation isn’t there.

The three of us eat in silence, glancing at Daman between bites. Finally I can’t stand waiting any more and I blurt out, “Did you read it?”

“Every page,” he says.

“Well?” I ask. “What did you think?”

“I don’t understand why you asked me to read It,” Daman says. “The entire exposition revives the worn out theory of the backwardness of the working class.”

All three of us are startled.

“The what of the what?” Tina asks, almost spitting out the mouthful of food she’s just taken.

Assuming his pedagogical posture again, Daman explains to Tina: “The theory, or so-called theory, of the backwardness of the working class. It’s nothing but a rationalization of the prejudices of petty-bourgeois writers who don’t know a thing about the revolutionary potential of the working class.”

Before Daman is done speaking Sabina throws her knife down on her plate, gets up so abruptly she knocks the chair down behind her, and pointing her fork at Daman she shouts, “You’re full of shit, professor!” Carrying the fork, she rushes away and slams the door of her room.

Daman remains perfectly calm. “She obviously agrees with him,” he says, and continues eating.

Tina, who remains as calm as Daman, asks him, “How does that so-called theory apply to those sections of Yarostan’s letter?”

“Is anyone else going to wave a fork in my face?” Daman asks, but neither of us laughs. “If workers were as backward as he describes them, socialism would be impossible.”

“Show me where he says workers are backward!” Tina insists.

How glad I am that Tina never attended school and therefore never learned to be intimidated by pedagogues who force one to assume what they then proceed to prove.

“Do you want me to quote the actual lines where he says it?” Daman asks, trying to suggest that the passage I typed is full of such lines.

“How else could you show me what he says?” Tina asks.

“The idea of the workers’ backwardness pervades his whole argument,” Daman says curtly, as if with that statement he had definitively proved his accusation rand he proceeds to shift the conversation to something else: “The working class is inherently revolutionary. This is not a matter —”

“Hey!” Tina interrupts. “Aren’t you going to show me where he says the workers are backward?”

Daman is obviously not used to arguing with a person whose perception hasn’t been dulled by formal education, and he proceeds as if he had succeeded in shifting the topic. “The working class continually develops the capacity to create a new society, there as well as here. The workers always and everywhere exhaust the available possibilities.”

Tina just glares at him.

“Now wait a minute. Daman,” I say, becoming as frustrated as Tina seems to be. “Do you think the police regime Yarostan lived under for the past twenty years exhausted the available possibilities?”

“I didn’t say that,” Daman insists. “I said workers create organizations to struggle for whatever seems useful to them. These struggles win for the working class whatever it is objectively possible to win. These victories are never granted without struggle, and they are never tricks to deceive the working class.”

“If you’re not saying that police regime was a working class victory then what in the world are you saying?” Tina asks, apparently giving up her attempt to get her earlier question answered.

“What’s wrong with your friend’s comments,” Daman says, “is that he criticizes the role of all types of organizations and leaders in restraining and limiting the revolutionary capacity of workers. But he never deals with the question of organizations and leaders in a fundamental way. Unless you accept a conspiratorial theory of history — that organizations and leaders are always and everywhere introduced to restrain and defeat the workers.”

“I’m lost,” Tina says. “At least I think I’m lost. Everything you say sounds like an evasion and seems to have nothing to do with what anyone is saying.”

“I’m lost too,” I admit. “What’s your point? That Yarostan doesn’t deal with organizations and leaders in a fundamental way whereas you do?”

“That’s right,” he says. “His critique of organizations and leaders is totally misplaced.”

“Misplaced!” I shout. “He’s been experiencing the effects of those organizations and their police for the past twenty years!”

“He’s not the only one experiencing those effects; so are millions of other people,” he says.

“What in hell does that mean?” I ask, starting to shake with frustration. There’s no way to talk to him! I begin to wish I had walked out like Sabina instead of trying to communicate with him.

“Your friend doesn’t like real revolutions,” Daman says. “That comes through every line. He wants a revolution to be pure. But real revolutions are the only ones that take place and workers’ struggles are never pure. Your friend is against all real struggles.”

“You’re a real card, professor!” Tina says, unsuccessfully pretending to be amused. “Next time you come to dinner I’m going to fry you a turd fished straight out of the toilet bowl and if you don’t like it I’ll ask; What’s the matter with you, professor? Do you only like food when it’s pure?”

Daman turns to me pretending that he’s being persecuted and asks, “Do I have to listen to that?”

Without a trace of sympathy for his plight I tell him, “Daman, you don’t have to listen to anything except your own inner voices.”

“I’m trying to make the point,” he continues, “that your friend is like ail those petty-bourgeois writers who condemn real revolutions because they don’t live up to certain standards set up, not by the struggling workers, but by the bourgeois writers. Workers always struggle for whatever is objectively possible, whether or not it’s pure, whether or not it lives up to the standards set up by the bourgeois writers.”

I start to boil. “That’s an apology for police states if I ever heard one!” I shout. “Whatever happens to workers is for you a working class victory. If workers are shot and jailed then that’s the only victory that was objectively possible! Whatever happens to workers is all that was objectively possible. You’re an apologist for the status quo!”

“Yarostan is no more of a bourgeois writer than I am!” Tina shouts.

Daman at last shows signs of becoming angry. He turns to me and pretending to be injured at the very core of his being, he says, “Sophie, your last statement is a complete distortion of everything I have ever said, and you know it. You know perfectly well that I’m not talking about counter-revolutions so don’t you dare call me an apologist for counter-revolutions. I’m talking about revolutions that don’t live up to the expectations of a middle class intellectual.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Tina shouts. “You, a full-fledged university professor, are calling someone who spent half his life working in factories a middle-class intellectual. Talk about distortions! How do you dare —”

“That’s just plain horseshit!” Daman shouts, cutting Tina short and losing his professorial detachment altogether. “No factory worker I know could have written anything like this!”

“Wow!” shouts Tina. “Look who’s talking about the backward workers who can’t write and have no standards!”

“Do you want to talk seriously or do you want to have a shouting match?” he shouts. “If you’d like to have a shouting match then count me out because I’ve got more important things to do and my nerves can’t take it. So what if he spent half his life in a factory? So have I!”

“And you sure have capitalized on that fact,” I comment sarcastically.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” he shouts. “That doesn’t make me a factory worker any more than it makes him a factory worker or anyone else in this room. It’s obvious that he spent the other half of his life getting a political education every bit as complete as mine.”

Without the slightest hope of getting through to him I comment, “But Daman, this afternoon you said that one’s relation to production is the only test of one’s class.”

Tina says with venom, “You’re not the one to talk about other people’s distortions, professor! You’re talking about someone who spent the other half of his life in prison, and if you call that a university education you can kiss my ass and call it love at first sight since it’s obvious that with all your education you didn’t learn to call things by their names!”

Pretending not to have understood what Tina said, Daman turns to me and asks, “Is this the level of your usual political discussions?”

“No it isn’t,” I say with a venom that by this point matches Tina’s. “Neither Tina nor I have ever discussed anything at such a low level.”

“I can see that it’s time for me to leave,” he says, getting up.

I get up too and continue in the same tone, “You’ve evaded every one of Tina’s questions with cheap tricks and sneaky shifts of topic. She asked you how you could call a worker who spent half his life in prison a middle class intellectual. And not just any prison, but a prison created by the organizations and leaders you defend.”

Fidgeting with the doorknob he says, “I hate to say this, Sophie, but when it comes to politics you’re a complete ignoramus. If you knew anything at all about the working class, you’d know that leaders don’t simply impose themselves on the working class. Leaders are products of the working class. If workers are defeated, it’s not because of the evil ways of leaders but because the working class isn’t able to take control of the means of production. It’s not their leaders but their work itself that teaches workers how to run production.”

Shaking with frustration, I try to talk calmly, “Daman, you just keep repeating that, but you obviously don’t believe it. You learned your whole argument, not from work itself, but from the writings of so-called revolutionary leaders. Half of your statements are quotations from the writings of the first dictator of the working class.”

“Your naivete simply amazes me,” Daman says, still fidgeting with the doorknob. “It so happens that workers produce their strongest leaders when they’re themselves strongest. The strength of the leaders derives from the strength of the working class!”

“Now you’ve said it!” I shout. “The stronger the leader the greater the triumph of the workers. You’re an out and out apologist for the police state and you camouflage it with such unbelievable claptrap about the workers themselves. For you the total enslavement of the workers by the first so-called proletarian dictator is the model of the workers’ victory. That’s what you call the new society. The almighty leader is the sign of the strength of the workers. Slavery is freedom.”

Daman throws the door open but remains in the doorway. “Your critique of the first great leader —”

“Is misplaced!” I cut in. “All critiques of the great leader are misplaced, because under all your talk about workers at the point of production you worship the great leader. The sun rises and sets with the great leader!”

While I’m shouting at him, he walks halfway to his car, then turns around and shouts: “That’s right! Misplaced! By raising the role of the great leaders in that way, you assume nothing has changed during the past fifty years. You’re only demonstrating your complete ignorance of the fact that the working class today is even better educated and even better organized, not by political organizations but by production! With modern technology and advanced means of communication, nothing can stop the workers from building a new society and a new state!”

“A new state! You said it! An even newer state and an even more total dictator of the proletariat!” I shout while Daman rushes to his car.

Tina runs behind Daman. It looks like she’s going to rush into the car with him. He slams the car door. She plants herself by the driver’s side of the car and starts shouting at him through the closed window. “Now I understand what you’re all about, professor! You’re a conservative bureaucrat who thinks workers are all popcorn eaters and baseball fans who don’t know they’re being had when someone calls himself their leader. To you all those popcorn-eaters are impure and that’s why they’ll always be tied to the point of production. And that’s why there’ll always be room for flunkies like you in the government palaces —”

Daman drives off. Tina, standing in the middle of the street, continues shouting at the quickly vanishing car: “And anyone who tells you they’re not going to remain at the point of production, that they’re going to come out in mass to destroy the government palaces, is a misplaced petty-bourgeois intellectual and an ignoramus who doesn’t know that workers are impure. And you’re betting they’ll remain impure. They sure as hell better remain impure if you’re going to keep your cushy job!”

I burst our laughing. Tina looks so ludicrous standing in the street shouting at nobody. When she sees me she starts laughing too, and when we go in she comments, “Some fancy friends you’ve got.”

Yes, I certainly do have “fancy” friends. You and Jasna made that perfectly clear to me. I obviously couldn’t have known it before your letter came, but now I see that Daman is in suitable comany with Marc Glavni, Vera Neis Krena and Adrian Povrshan. Your letter was the instrument that unmasked this academic with a corpse in his mouth. This phoney factory worker who parades as an expert on factory workers perfectly fits the picture you drew of him before you knew anything about him, He really is everything you say. The rigid theory he’s been carrying around all these years transforms revolution into something like his own private domain. He’s a priest of a sect of believers. That organization he’s trying to found will only spread his own rigor mortis to others, and the aim of that newspaper he’s talking about is to plant corpses in lots of people’s mouths.

Thanks to your letter I can see through Daman. And I obviously understand that Adrian, Vera and the others are opportunists. But I think your comments about me are extremely unfair. I once engaged in projects with those people and those projects were very important to me. Does that make me one of them? Does that mean I was an opportunist too? I once shared a project with Daman. Does that mean I’m like him?

I think it’s mean of you to identify me with them. What I did and who I was can’t be defined by what Daman became nor by what Marc and Vera became. Even if Jasna is right, even if Marc, Vera and Claude were already starting to climb bureaucratic ladders at the time I knew them, this doesn’t mean that I was climbing such a ladder too.

Daman was already a priest of a sect when I first met him and worked with him. But that doesn’t mean I was a priestess of a sect, nor does it mean that the activity we shared consisted of propagating a religion. The activity I was engaged in, however flawed it might have been, was some kind of affirmation of life, not any kind of affirmation of death. If Vera, Marc and Daman were running alongside me but heading elsewhere, you can’t say that I was heading toward the destination they reached. What they’ve all become doesn’t tell you anything at all about who I am, nor even about what I did with them.

Yes, like Daman, and like Marc, Vera and Adrian, I went to the university. I do have that much in common with them, but not much more. Jasna went to college too, and she’s neither an official nor a missionary. And if you call the carton plant our “first university,” then you too have that much in common with the rest of us. My similarity with Vera and Daman ends where it begins. My life in the university has nothing at all in common with Vera’s or Adrian’s or Marc’s bureaucratic ambitions, just as my activity on the university newspaper staff had nothing in common with Daman’s missionary activity.

When I first met Daman on the newspaper staff his relation to Minnie Vach was very similar to Adrian’s relation to Vera. Daman and Minnie were members of a political sect like the one Daman is trying to bring to life again now. Minnie was always the theorist and Daman was something like her henchman. Their organization published a paper but I never read it and consequently I can’t tell you how well the self-chosen prophets recognized and recorded the new society while workers remained at the point of production. What I can tell you is that I did not work, and would never have worked, on their organization’s newspaper, and that Daman and Minnie did not transform the university newspaper into their organization’s organ. In this respect Daman and Minnie were much more decent than their political enemies on the staff, Lem Icel and Rhea Morphen. Lem and Rhea would have liked nothing better than to transform the university newspaper into a propaganda sheet for their organization, and I was as hostile to their attempts to do this as anyone else on the staff.

You’re probably right in saying that I recognized the repressive aspirations of Lem and Rhea mainly because they expressed them so openly. But you’re wrong when you say I glorify their more sophisticated political cousins. If I “glorified” Minnie and Daman in my last letter, it was because the moments I shared with them on the newspaper staff were among the happiest moments of my life, not because I shared any of their organizational commitments. I really do think you get carried away by your own rhetoric. In my last letter I told you that my friend Alec had to trample publicly on all his past political commitments before Minnie and Daman accepted him as a friend and ally. Admittedly I didn’t make an exhaustive critique of Minnie and Daman but the little I did say hardly amounted to a glorification. And I certainly didn’t glorify anyone else on the staff. I rather think I made the others seem more ridiculous than they really were.

I’ll stop trying to compare my activity to yours. I realize that the circumstances are too different and I’m obviously failing to communicate the similarities I see between the two situations. I finally understand your critique, and I recognize some of the people I worked with as the targets of that critique. But I don’t think the activity itself was determined by what those people were, nor by what they’ve become since. I think that my activity in the university was a modest but genuine act of rebellion against a repressive social system. I see that Daman fits your description of a repressive “revolutionary.” But I don’t think the activity I shared with him can be described as “repressive rebellion.”

The activity I’m about to describe began fourteen years ago. We were among the first students who raised our voices against the witch hunts taking place at that time. Our activity didn’t stop the witch hunts and it obviously didn’t destroy the social system that perpetrated them. But by raising our voices we did stimulate others to raise theirs and this is why I’m proud of having been part of that activity. Students at another university followed our example and in time moved much further than we had ever dreamed of moving. In time the protest movement grew so vast that it did play a role in putting an end to witch hunts, while it simultaneously reproduced i relationships which were at least as repressive as the ones we had started to fight against. Our initial gestures weren’t as far-reaching as those of the movement which later grew to such proportions, but the repressive overtones of our activity weren’t as far-reaching either. Not that ugly relationships were absent among us. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case at all. A great deal was ugly. But there was one trait we didn’t share with the later “student movement,” or at least with its spokesmen. In the activities I shared with them, these individuals didn’t consider themselves spokesmen or representatives despite the fact that almost half the people on that staff were members of political organizations which did claim to represent the interests of other people. Whatever they might have done in their organizations, when I worked with them they didn’t act as if history had elected them to reflect, represent, recognize or record the desires of workers, students or anyone else. Each one of us fought to realize her or his own desires. We represented no one but ourselves. No, we didn’t even represent ourselves. We were ourselves.

In my last letter I told you something about the articles we wrote, articles which exposed the militarization of professors and students and documented the repression of radicals. I also mentioned the biggest article of the year, Minnie’s interview with a campus general who kept files on all the students in the university.

Minnie’s article caused a scandal on campus. Alec and I were night editors on the issue in which Minnie’s article was published. We worked on it on the very night when Sabina came to the co-op to tell me Ron had been killed. The following morning, Minnie, Daman, Alec and I went to four of the boxes from which students took the paper. We engaged students in conversations about the article and asked their permission to publish their comments in the paper. We then ran a series of interviews with students in several consecutive issues.

Some of the students’ comments were priceless, especially those which expressed sympathy for the campus military establishment. I still remember the gist of what a bristle-haired athlete told me. He said he wasn’t at all surprised that the army and the police (Minnie’s article hadn’t said anything about the police) kept files on the entire population. “After all,” he explained to me, “It’s their job to protect society from dangerous elements, and the only way they can do their job properly is by constant surveillance of all actual and potential dangerous elements. They ought to use those files they’ve got and start rounding up all subversives, homosexuals, pacifists and other crackpots so as to make life safe for the rest of the population.” He ventured to guess that “the reason the government isn’t rounding up all those sick perverts is because the cost of imprisoning or exterminating them would be too great for the government’s present budget.” He concluded by saying that “I, for one, would be glad to pay more taxes so as to enable the government to carry out that enterprise.”

I got several other interviews similar in outlook to this one, but none of them were as rabid. Minnie’s interviews were precisely the opposite from mine. She said she couldn’t stomach students who sympathized with the military and she only interviewed those whose comments were hostile to the general’s files. One student she interviewed said he wouldn’t be able to sleep any more because every time he heard the police siren at night he’d think the police were coming to arrest him. Others she interviewed spoke at length about the “unconstitutionality” of the general’s files, and one student commented on the general’s anti-Semitism. One of the “insights” the general had gotten from his files was that “subversive traits” appeared more frequently among “Baltic Jews” than among any other “easily identifiable” group.

I felt that my articles were much better than Minnie’s precisely because I didn’t just interview students who said things I agreed with. I felt that the students who defended the general exposed him much more effectively than those who attacked him. Besides which it was such a ball to interview those reactionaries. I did them the favor of making their statements coherent and grammatical. Most of those protectors of civilization and culture, future officials and managers, hadn’t ever learned to use their own language.

Daman and Alec were terribly disappointing. They didn’t contribute a single article. Instead of interviewing students they had gotten into heated arguments with them, and Alec even got injured in a fight with a student he was supposedly interviewing.

Every single one of Minnie’s and my articles were published. It was obvious to Hugh (the editor) that my articles reflected “one side” of the picture whereas Minnie’s reflected “the other side,” and consequently there was never any question of excluding any article.

This series of interviews caused as much of a scandal as Minnie’s original interview, and the scandal led directly to the repression of the newspaper staff.

Professors and students discussed these articles in their classes, and the city newspapers started to take an interest in the question. But the two city papers were owned by people just like the general who kept the files, and they weren’t interested in our exposures of the general’s files but in us. They started publishing stories which said the university newspaper had been “taken over by a clique of reds and pinkos,” and that this clique was intent on defaming and destroying “the university, the army and the flag.” They quoted some of the most extreme statements of students we had interviewed and said the statements had been parts of editorials which “expressed the newspaper staff’s policy.”

I’ve never known if it was the campaign carried on in the city newspapers, or pressure from the campus military, or the university administration’s own embarrassment that set off the repression. It was probably all of these things plus some others I’m not even aware of. Only a few days after Minnie’s original article appeared, we got a note from the administration ! demanding that the editor and managing editor go to the office of the university president “immediately, before the preparation of another day’s issue.” Hugh and Bess rushed to the president’s office, and the rest of us continued working on the next day’s paper. When Hugh and Bess returned an hour later all the work stopped. Bess said the president had told them that the paper would have to stop publishing articles about the general’s files. If such articles continued appearing, there would be “severe consequences.”

Hugh said he had objected to being called to the president’s office “on a matter that is completely within the competence of the elected editor,” and that he would disregard the president’s threat and continue to edit the paper “according to strictly journalistic standards.”

Every one of us jumped up with relief and congratulated him for his principled stand. But he still wanted a vote of confidence. “Since I was elected by the staff, the final decision has to be made by the staff. I feel that these articles are of high quality and of great public interest and that each article expresses a different side of the problem. Therefore the question is whether or not the staff wants to continue to do what is perfectly justifiable from a journalistic standpoint, but may lead to severe consequences the nature of which is unknown to us.”

None of us could imagine what the “severe consequences” might be, and no one was particularly worried. Minnie and I still had several more interviews to publish and the vast majority of the staff voted in favor of publishing them. Lem and Rhea abstained from voting.

After all our articles were published we all thought the crisis had blown over, although the city papers continued carrying completely made-up accounts of who we were and what we did.

About two weeks after my last article appeared, two weeks during which there hadn’t been anything really interesting in the paper, the university administration struck. Something called a “directive” was released by the administration to the city press and the student government. We all gathered in the office and read the statement with disbelief. Minnie started crying. I felt like crying too. Hugh seemed thunderstruck and just paced back and forth.

According to this directive, the student newspaper would be “given back” to the student community at the end of that week. Since the directive came out on a Thursday, this meant we would only put out one more issue. The directive went on to say that “after a brief delay, competent journalists selected from among the student body will resume publication of a newspaper that reflects the interests of the student community.” This sentence suggested that we were neither competent nor students, but it also suggested something much more ominous. As far as any of us knew, the editors of the university’s newspaper had always been elected by the staff, and this was now going to end; the selected journalists would obviously be people appointed by the administration. The statement also gave away what kind of people were going to edit a paper that “reflects the interests of the student community”: obviously not people like Lem and Rhea who in their own eyes reflected the interests of the student community, but rather people who reflected those interests in the administrations eyes, namely people who served the administration’s interests, stooges appointed by the administration.

The directive went on to explain the reasons for this action, It said that “a self-perpetuating clique of radical agitators has taken over the publication of the student newspaper, thereby endangering the education and well-being of the student body and doing irreparable damage to the university’s public image.” This statement was not an outright lie. It was authority’s way of stating the truth. “Self-perpetuating” simply meant that we elected our own editors, as opposed to the new arrangement which introduced an administration-perpetuated clique. But the expression “self-perpetuating clique” made the electoral arrangement sound so underhanded and manipulative.

It was also true that there were proportionally many more “radicals” on the newspaper staff than there were in the student body as a whole. For all I know every “radical” in the university at that time was on the newspaper staff. But it’s perfectly obvious why this should have been the case. It was a period when all self-expression was being fiercely repressed. Those few students who refused to be muzzled were by definition “radicals” since they were swimming against the stream. These were the only students who tried to express themselves at a time when self-expression was taboo, and where should they have gone if not to the newspaper staff, the only place in the university where self-expression was still possible? The directive also said that the present staff of the paper was not being fired; on the contrary, the staff was being urged to cooperate with the new editorial board to make the paper “a representative student newspaper which is a positive asset to the university community.”

All of us skipped our classes and spent the day at the office, planning our last issue. I felt as if a major historical event had taken place, as if a world war had just been declared.

Hugh suggested that each of us write an editorial expressing our side of the question; he said the bias of the last issue would be more than compensated for by the fact that all the issues from then on would express the other side.

I suggested that black borders be placed around every page, expressing the fact that the press had just died at the university. Bess Lach was violently opposed to this. “Just because we won’t be the editors doesn’t mean there won’t be a paper!” she said. Someone called for a vote and everyone but Bess was in favor of the black borders.

Rhea suggested that we use the front page to call for a mass demonstration against the suppression of the paper. Bess objected, “You can’t use the school paper to advocate a demonstration!” and Hugh agreed. I tried to argue that we were no longer bound by regulations that the university itself had just broken, but only Lem and Rhea agreed with me.

Suddenly Thurston Rakshas, of all people, made a suggestion that seemed to be similar to Rhea’s, although Rhea didn’t think so. Thurston argued that it was perfectly legitimate to announce a coming event, since this was one of the paper’s functions. We could announce that on Friday morning the former staff members of the university newspaper were going to march in a funeral procession across campus, carrying the corpse of the university newspaper inside a coffin. That upper class dandy always did have a sense of humor. I was immediately fired up by the idea. Hugh and Alec were also enthusiastic about it from the start. Minnie favored some kind of demonstration but she argued that a funeral would only suggest that we had been defeated and had given up the struggle. For once Lem and Rhea agreed with Minnie; Daman obviously did too.

The argument about the nature of the demonstration was sidetracked by Bess, who had worked herself up into a hysterical state. “We can only express our opinions of the university directive! We can’t use this paper to advocate one or another course of action. That’s a betrayal of our trust! It’s a crime! By calling for such a demonstration we would be using the paper as our own private organ. But the paper doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to all the students. And it won’t be dead just because some of us no longer work on it.”

Thurston defended his idea of announcing the mock funeral by pointing out that by the time it took place the people taking part in it would no longer be the paper’s staff but merely a group of anonymous students.

Bess shouted at Thurston, “But we’re not anonymous students today. We’re the editorial board and staff of the university newspaper, and today you can’t transform this paper into an instrument for your own demonstration. Tomorrow you can carry all the coffins you want!”

Thurston angrily called for a vote.

Bess shouted, “It’s not in our jurisdiction to vote about university regulations!”

“It isn’t?” Thurston asked. “Watch this! All” in favor of Bess’s position.”

No one voted in favor, not even Bess since she disapproved of the vote.

“All in favor of mine!”

Everyone’s hand went up except Bess’s. But that was a sneaky maneuver. Thurston hadn’t only put an end to Bess’s objections; he had also closed the discussion on the nature of the demonstration. We were all aware of this but no one reopened that discussion. I suppose we all knew that if we spent the day arguing we wouldn’t have time to prepare any kind of demonstration, to write our editorials or to put out our last paper. And I suppose Minnie and Rhea considered Thurston’s suggestion better than no demonstration at all.

Bess stormed out of the office while Thurston’s hastily called vote was taking place. She returned later in the day, but only to submit her editorial. She didn’t take part in the work on the last issue.

Later in the day Rhea suggested that we run off leaflets announcing the demonstration and that we distribute them to all the student dormitories. I was in favor of doing that. Hugh objected to this type of “agitation” because the very nature of the demonstration required us to be “dignified and responsible.” Minnie said we simply didn’t have time to do that, and she was right.

We worked feverishly. Since everyone was composing an editorial, no one started doing the typing and editing until evening. Hugh did the layout in Bess’s absence, and although he was as good at it as she, he wasn’t nearly as fast.

Late that night Rhea made another suggestion. She said the former staff should start publishing an off-campus paper as soon as possible. Only such an act would clarify the real significance of the black borders and the funeral procession. The official university newspaper would have died, but not the people who had given it life. The contrast between the two publications would make it obvious to all that the press was still alive in our publication, whereas the university paper had become a corpse.

I was moved by Rhea’s suggestion but no one discussed it. We were simply too busy. We didn’t get the paper to the printer’s until two in the morning; we didn’t leave the printer’s until five, and we had to get up again a few hours later to carry out the demonstration we were announcing.

Fortunately, when Thurston had made his suggestion he hadn’t expected the rest of us to do the work of implementing it. Thurston himself worked out the details of his mock funeral after he left the printer at five in the morning. One of his father’s friends ran a funeral parlor. Thurston went there at six in the morning and explained to the undertaker that he needed a coffin as well as several wreaths and bouquets of flowers for a theatrical performance. He drove all the props to campus in a hearse.

All of us except Bess gathered at the newspaper office at eight in the morning, but the copies of the paper hadn’t been delivered to their boxes yet because of how late we’d gotten the layout to the printer. The papers didn’t arrive until nine, and we spent the hour frustratedly waiting for them, since our “funeral” would have been incomprehensible without any explanations. Rhea, naturally, reminded us that leaflets would have solved this problem.

We were all dead tired, but we started out full of enthusiasm. Thurston came dressed in a tuxedo and Hugh wore a black suit and a comical black hat. Daman and Minnie walked in front of the procession giving out copies of the newspaper. Hugh, Thurston, Alec and Lem carried the coffin, which was covered with flowers. Rhea and I walked behind the coffin with wreaths. We walked, very slowly, in front of all the administrative and academic buildings and in front of all the dormitories.

But our initial enthusiasm died. The mock funeral was a big disappointment, even to Thurston. Students would pause briefly, stare at the paper, stare at us, and then continue along their varied paths. The main response was an icy indifference. Some students said things like, “Go back where you came from!” and “Who do you think you’re fooling?” Not one student said anything sympathetic. I had hoped there’d be a mile-long procession, but not one student joined us. I don’t think the fault lay with Thurston’s idea. The eight of us would have looked even more ridiculous if we had announced a “mass demonstration” instead of the “funeral.”

After walking for two hours which seemed as long as two years, the “procession” returned to its starting point and the coffin was taken into the editor’s office. Lem and Alec came back out, but Hugh and Thurston stayed inside the editor’s office and closed the door. I lay down on the bench. I. was exhausted and I felt like crying.

Minnie asked if we had all read the managing editor’s final statement. I lazily picked up the paper and started leafing through it. I thought I had seen all the articles the night before, when I’d edited the copy, but I remembered I hadn’t seen Bess’s editorial.

“You don’t have to hunt for it. Sophie. It’s right on the front page,” Minnie told me.

I sat up. I was furious. The headline in the middle of the front page said, “Shades of Grey.” The first line of Bess’s editorial said, “There is no “black and white; there are only shades of grey.” That didn’t apply to the university’s directive, which is what her article was about. Her next statement said, “There are some arguments in favor of the staff’s point of view, but there are also arguments in favor of the administration’s point of view.” The argument in favor of the staff was that the staff had consisted of “relatively competent journalists” and that the coverage had “in general been responsible and fair. But responsibility and fairness broke down when some staff members engaged themselves in an anti-military campaign.” According to Bess the editors, “including the undersigned managing editor,” convinced themselves that by printing articles favorable to the general and his files alongside articles hostile to the general, the paper was expressing both sides of the question. But those were not really two sides of the question; according to Bess they were the same side, since the administration had made it clear that both types of articles created an image which damaged the university. “Yet the editors and staff voted in favor of excluding the administration’s side.”

I asked, “Who put this garbage on the front page?”

Alec answered, “Hugh typed it. edited it and laid it out in the middle of the front page so that the last issue wouldn’t spoil the paper’s tradition of fairness.”

“But it’s full of distortions and outright lies!” I said.

“Hugh must have known we’d all want to leave it out,” Alec said. “That’s why he didn’t let us see it before putting it in the middle of the front page.”

I felt like vomiting. I had not only hoped that a mile-long procession would follow our coffin. I had also hoped that our course of action would somehow be very clear when the demonstration ended, that we would know what we had to do next. But nothing was clear except that my project was over. It had ended as abruptly as my activity at the carton plant had ended when we were arrested. And at that moment I blamed Hugh for the failure of the demonstration: I convinced myself we would have had support, and lots of it, if Bess’s ugly argument hadn’t appeared in the middle of the front page.

But instead of storming into Hugh’s office, I lay back down and closed my eyes. My exhaustion was greater than my anger. I must have dozed because I wasn’t aware until later that a strange sequence of events had begun to take place. Hugh and Thurston had been in the editor’s office for over an hour. I vaguely knew that at some point Thurston had asked Daman as well as Alec to join them in the office and that sometime later Lem was called in as well. But I didn’t respond to the strange fact that Rhea, Minnie and I were left outside, I asleep, Minnie and Rhea wondering what was going on but far too hostile toward each other to start a conversation.

I woke up when Alec stormed out of the editor’s office and slammed the door behind him.

“What in hell is going on in there? What’s all the shouting about, and why aren’t we in on it?” Minnie asked him.

Alec sat down next to me. I could see he was agitated. “Were you fighting in there about that dumb editorial?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you exactly what’s going on in there!” he said. “It’s the dirtiest shit I’ve ever seen. Hugh and Thurston had worked out a filthy strategy when Daman and I were called in. I made such a stink about it that they dropped it. But then Thurston convinced all four of them to accept an even filthier scheme, so I walked out.”

“Can you hold yourself together enough to tell us about it?” Minnie asked him.

“Thurston had this idea that we ought to publish an off-campus paper —” Alec began.

Rhea interrupted him to say, “That wasn’t Thurston’s idea; it was mine, Alec!”

“So it was! I remember that now. Sophie was the only one who responded when you suggested it. That was your idea. God damn them!” Saying this, Alec shook his fist at the door of the editor’s office. “Well, they stole it from you, Rhea. That’s what happened. Thurston loves your idea, but he doesn’t want you to be part of it. He convinced Hugh that if you and Lem were both on the staff he, Thurston, would soon quit, Hugh would be outnumbered, and the paper would become a propaganda sheet, and when Thurston says propaganda sheet he makes it sound like toilet paper with shit on it. Even if he didn’t say it that way, you know that Hugh must have nightmares about being caught in a paper that’s biased. Fair and responsible. He’s got those damned words etched on his brain. He thinks he’s still editing the university paper. When they call Daman and me in, Thurston tells us we’re going to put out this off-campus paper, all of us except Lem and Rhea. I ask what’s wrong with Lem and Rhea. That fucker Daman grins and doesn’t say anything. I tell Hugh and Thurston I don’t understand. Hugh, tells me this shit about not putting out a propaganda sheet and then I do understand. I start shouting and telling Hugh and Thurston to crawl to the administration, ask to be forgiven and beg to be rehired on the administration-run paper. I tell them they’re about to do to Lem and Rhea exactly what the administration just did to us. Hugh pretends he’d never thought of that, and says I’m right. I argue that if we’re going to put out that kind of sheet, we’ve got to include every single member of the fired staff, even Bess if she’s not about to sell out to the administration’s staff. At that point Thurston calls Lem into the office and I’m under the impression that I won the argument. But that Thurston is as slippery as a fish. He explains the idea to Lem and then tells him that all the men on the staff are going to put out the off-campus paper. That blockhead Lem says that he understands that! He starts talking about how dangerous it is to publish what he calls an underground newspaper — much too dangerous for women. Thurston has to cool Lem down when he starts talking about a revolutionary underground newspaper. I shout at Lem and call him a stupid asshole. I tell him that a minute ago it was he who was being excluded. But I can see that he’s enchanted about being included. Lem may be your comrade and all that, Rhea, but you can’t deny that the fucker is dumb! What cheap shit! I can see right through it! Thurston thinks Lem and Daman won’t ever vote on the same side. That means the vote will always be three to two, and Thurston and Hugh will always be on the winning side. If the three of you were included the vote would usually go the other way. That’s why they’re leaving you out and that’s why I’m walking out. Without me the vote will always be three to one. They can have it!”

“Didn’t Daman say anything?” Minnie asked.

“They can have that bastard too!” Alec said. “No, he didn’t say a word. He rust sat there and listened. That’s why they wanted him in there instead of you.”

Alec squeezed my hand and said to me, “I’ll talk to you some other time, Sophie. I can’t stand this place for one second longer.” He walked out of the office. I started to cry.

The door of the editor’s office opened and Lem stepped out, grinning, looking as if he were intentionally trying to confirm Alec’s characterization of him. “The press is dead! Long live the press!” Lem shouted. The three of us didn’t respond. We stared at him with intense hostility. He continued, revoltingly self-satisfied: “I’d like to announce the birth of a new publication out of the womb of the old. It will be an underground newspaper, and two names were under consideration: The Spark, suggested by me, and Omissions, suggested by Hugh. The majority voted in favor of Omissions because the specific task of this underground newspaper will be to publish the news which will from now on be omitted from the crippled official newspaper.”

“That’s a perfect title for it,” I told him. “It began its career by omitting half the people who ought to be on it.”

Rhea got up and started walking slowly toward Lem. She looked as if she intended to strangle him. When she was a foot away from him she said, through her teeth and with her mouth nearly shut, “It was my idea to publish that paper.” Then she started trembling. I asked her if she was all right. She walked out of the office, her eyes red with rage. She looked hysterical.

Today I think it strange that Lem and Rhea were so committed to that paper. The project which it was to carry out had much more in common with my outlook than with theirs. It was I who was in favor of printing omitted facts and letting scandalous information speak for itself. Letting facts speak for themselves and letting readers draw their own conclusions conflicted with Lem’s and Rhea’s political commitments.

As soon as Rhea was gone Lem turned toward me and tried to explain that it hadn’t been his idea to exclude anyone. This had already been decided without him. And then he went on to talk about the dangers of publishing and distributing an “underground” newspaper: “Counter-revolutionaries might attack the newspaper headquarters at any time of day or night; goons might attack us while we’re distributing it.” I turned my back to him and he left the newspaper office.

Daman came out of the editor’s office looking like a dog that had just been beaten, shuffling his feet, his head bobbing from side to side. Thurston came out behind Daman, slapped him on the back, said, “See you next weekend,” and rushed out of the office with a victorious grin smeared across his face.

Minnie walked toward Daman, shouted, “You traitor,” hit him twice across the face so hard that I jumped up both times, and she too rushed out of the office.

I remained on the bench, staring at the typewriter I had used so many times. I turned around when I heard Hugh come out of what had been his office ever since I’d been on the staff. He was surprised to see me. In his arms he held a large bundle of papers he had collected. He had tears in his eyes. Looking away from me he said, “I’m awfully sorry.” He walked away slowly. He was just another student now. To me he was still the editor.

I was alone with the typewriters, the u-shaped desk in the middle of the room, the doors to the editor’s and managing editor’s offices, the pages tacked to the walls with errors circled in red. I cried. I was going to miss the typewriter, the desk, the walls and the people with whom I had spent so many hectic days. I hadn’t felt so lonely, so excluded since the night I had gone to the beach with Ron and Sabina and had walked home by myself after Ron wrecked his father’s car.

I started to think they would all miss this office. And then the thought passed through my mind that Alec hadn’t told us the truth about the meeting that had just taken place in Hugh’s office. I convinced myself that they hadn’t wanted to exclude Rhea, but rather Minnie and me, and that Rhea had “been excluded with us just for the sake of appearances. They had all turned against Minnie and me because we were the ones who had provoked the repression with our articles. I convinced myself we were being blamed for having destroyed the paper for everyone else. I simply couldn’t accept Alec’s explanation of my exclusion. I couldn’t make myself believe that I had been excluded from the “underground” paper because Thurston was counting votes. I couldn’t accept such an explanation because the exclusion meant so much to me and the motives for it were so petty. My exclusion from Omissions by my own friends was much more painful to me than my exclusion from the university newspaper by the administration. Not only because the newest exclusion was so personal but because Omissions was a project being launched by the people who were going to engage in it, whereas the university paper was an institution that had existed before any of us had ever joined it; it was not our project. I was hurt because Omissions was precisely the kind of project I had hoped I’d find when I first enrolled in the university. It seemed to me then that this project was identical to the project I had taken part in years earlier, with you and Jasna and the others at the carton plant, when we formulated our own goals and strategies, printed our own posters, distributed them ourselves. I was excluded from the only genuine community I had found here, the second community I had found in my whole life.

I now recognize the validity of your critique of my earlier activity. I didn’t understand the context in which it took place and I wasn’t aware of the motives that animated the people around me. But I don’t think you can impute their motives to me. The activity in the carton plant was not a rung of a bureaucratic ladder for me, and unlike Vera and Marc, I haven’t risen in any hierarchy. My desire to participate on Omissions wasn’t motivated by bureaucratic ambitions. I was pained by my exclusion not because it deprived me of opportunities or comforts but because it deprived me of a project, of a community, of genuinely independent activity. I sat in that office and cried because my project with you, Jasna, Vera and Marc was going to remain the only genuine project in which I had taken part.

I understand Jasna’s narrative. I’ve even extended it by telling you who Daman was and what he has become. I’m sure I’d be equally disappointed if I learned what the other people on that newspaper staff were doing today. But that’s not the point. My point is that the activity I wanted to share with them was not composed of their character traits, any more than the activity at the carton plant was composed of Marc’s or Vera’s bureaucratic ambitions, and no matter what they’ve become I since then, you can’t take away from me what I experienced I because what I experienced was my project, not their ambitions.

What I don’t seem able to convey to you is that what I sought all my life is something that’s completely my own. It’s a significant project within the context of a community. When I tell you that I learned about the possibility of such a project and such a community during those days I spent with you, I’m merely telling you a fact about myself, a detail of my biography; I’m not telling this to you in order to glorify those specific people nor that specific project. The reason I felt so miserable when I was excluded from the off-campus paper was because I was deprived of something I had learned to want many years earlier. It had nothing to do with Vera’s or Marc’s titles. It had to do with activity and with human relationships. What I learned to want didn’t have to be related to posters or newspapers. After my exclusion from Omissions I became desperate and I leapt from one world of activity to another in search of such a project and such a community. I sought it with Alec within the university itself, and we both got expelled from school; I sought it by trying to correspond with you, and failed to reach you; I sought it in a fictional world that I myself invented, but I never finished my novel; finally I went to the underworld where Sabina and her Mends were living, still seeking the kind of life I had learned to want during those full few days I spent with you twenty years ago.

It was dark when I finally dragged myself out of the newspaper office and back to the co-op. I fell asleep as soon as I got to my room and I slept through most of the following day, a Saturday. Alec came shortly after I woke up. We had supper in a small restaurant and then we took a walk around the campus. It was early spring, as it is now. The campus was deserted. We mechanically retraced the path of the previous day’s funeral procession.

For a long time we just walked silently. Then Alec started to express thoughts that perfectly echoed my own. “It’s funny,” he said; “I always thought putting out that paper was a lot of hard work and I never thought all of it was such great fun. Sometimes I even wondered if it was worth all that work. But now that it’s over I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it around here.”

“I know I won’t,” I said. “I know I’ll hate it.”

We sat down on the steps of the administration building, the very same steps on which the striking students sat a few days ago when Daman lectured to them about the point of production.

“Why don’t we do something together, just you and I?” Alec asked.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” I said. “I was thinking about that military professor and his files.”

“You mean writing more articles about him? I’m sick of that,” Alec said.

“But you didn’t write a single one of the articles,” I reminded him, laughing. “No, I wasn’t thinking of more articles. I was thinking that you and I could sit in on one of his classes and ask him questions about his files.” That wasn’t really such a daring suggestion. In recent years students have planted bombs in such files.

Alec was enchanted by my suggestion. “That would drive him up a wall!” he said. “He might even try to exterminate a couple of reds right in the classroom. Doesn’t that frighten you?”

“You just said you wouldn’t be able to stand it around here if we didn’t do something like that,” I reminded him.

Alec got all excited. “If that works out, we could go visit some other classes and do the same thing. I can think of at least a dozen where I’d like to do that. Those smug bastards are always asking if anyone has questions, and they’re used to hearing some pip-squeak say he didn’t have a chance to write down every one of the professor’s words. We’ll give them questions. God damn it, maybe some other students will learn how to ask questions. This place would have to shut down!”

We continued speculating about the possible effects of our activity until late into the night. We decided to launch our project the following Monday.

We didn’t talk about the kinds of questions we’d ask nor about what we’d do if we were thrown out or if the professor didn’t call on us. We didn’t prepare a single thing. We simply decided to sit in on the general’s class. That Monday I decided to skip all my classes again. When Alec came for me at the co-op, I could see that he was as nervous as I. We hardly spoke to each other. We found the room where the general’s class was supposed to take place and, trying to look inconspicuous, we sat down in the last row.

We didn’t succeed in our attempt to be inconspicuous. The room gradually filled up with identical-looking young men in suits and ties, all of them short-haired. Alec wore jeans and a T-shirt and I was the only woman in the room. The students kept turning around and looking at us; several of them made obscene gestures. I don’t know if those gestures meant that the students guessed who we were or if the people in that class were automatically vicious toward women and casually dressed men. They all looked at me like bloodthirsty marines’; and I’m sure every single one of them has by now exterminated countless human beings on some distant battlefield.

The professor paid no attention to us; he simply pretended we weren’t there. He lectured during the whole hour and didn’t ask if there were any questions. I couldn’t believe that lecture. I had known that such people existed but I had never spoken to any and had never looked at military literature. That man talked about the slaughter of thousands of people as if he were describing a game of chess. If a person who cannot distinguish people from roaches is a psychopath when he starts talking about exterminating the vermin, then this professor was the i most dangerous psychopath I had ever seen. I couldn’t have asked him a question if I had memorized one. I was frozen in my seat. I imagined myself being exploded into scraps, being burned alive and being shot full of holes by the weapons he described. I was chilled to the bone. I don’t think I’ve ever been j so frightened. When I got home I vomited.

Alec apparently didn’t respond to the lecture the way I did. When the hour was nearly over he became impatient and raised his hand. The professor didn’t call on him. So Alec interrupted the lecture and started shouting. “Why do you keep talking j about such far away places, professor? Why don’t you describe what those weapons will do right here in this town, when you start killing off those enemies you keep files on? Tell us about burning out certain parts of this city. Some of us might have relatives there. That’ll help us understand your lecture a lot better.” Alec was sweating when he finished and he started shaking like a leaf.

The professor paused while Alec spoke, but then he ignored Alec completely and continued his lecture, as if he had been interrupted by a psychopath. When the bell rang he walked up to us, said he didn’t remember having seen us in his class before, and asked if we were registered for his course. Alec told him we were considering enrolling the following semester but before doing so we had wanted to hear one of his lectures and, having heard it, we were no longer considering enrolling. The professor then said that we couldn’t simply walk “off the street into a classroom,” but that we first had to have permission from the proper authorities.

When we left the classroom, five or six of the students were waiting for us. In spite of their suits and ties they looked like a pack of vicious bristly-haired dogs. I was scared to death. Ever since that day I’ve sympathized with anyone who urged the population to “get guns and protect yourselves,” even in situations where that slogan was totally inappropriate. And I’ve certainly sympathized with every guerrilla anywhere in the world who ever shot one of these monsters. Alec was scared too. We didn’t exchange any words with them. Alec grabbed my hand and we started running without looking back to see if they were following. We ran to Alec’s car, drove to the co-op, and I rushed to the bathroom and threw up.

We didn’t know whether to consider the first stage of our project a partial success or a complete failure and we didn’t have the time to evaluate it, nor the chance to try another approach. Two days after our visit to the military lecture one of the city papers carried a long story about our escapade. The story was so distorted that if we hadn’t known the mentality of its authors we wouldn’t have recognized ourselves in it. The few facts there were in the story must have come out of the professor’s files and even those facts were wrong. I realized that the files we had made so much noise about couldn’t have been of much use to anyone. The headline was: “Outside Agitators Disrupt University Lecture.” The names of the agitators were “Miner Vach and Sophia Narcalo,” namely the authors of the articles that had appeared in the school, paper rendered in the city reporter’s or the professor’s spelling. The article described the two agitators as the leaders of the “cell” that had temporarily taken over the student publication. According to the article, the university had taken vigorous measures to remove from the newspaper staff “all communists, homosexuals, fellow travellers and other outside agitators” and had given the publication back to “the student community.” However, the article observed critically, the university’s measures had not been vigorous enough, because “dangerous elements are still being allowed to run rampant in our university, among our sons and daughters, among tomorrow’s leaders.” The last paragraph stated that “Miner Vach and his consort” were obviously no students, but did not explain why this was obvious; undoubtedly the name they chose for him made this obvious. The article concluded by describing Miner and his consort as dangerous elements who were intent on disfiguring the minds of the entire younger generation and who would stop at nothing in their determined attempt to bring the university to a complete halt. This article was an example of journalism as it was practiced outside the university. We had been fired from the newspaper staff so as to be replaced by people who aspired to this type of journalism.

The following morning both Alec and I were served subpoenas by the university administration, or something just like that. A messenger brought both of us notes which told us to appear in the office of the president “immediately.” Alec came over as soon as he got his notice and we discussed what we would do about it. Our first impulse was to disregard the president’s invitation. But on second thought both of us wanted to have a taste of that experience. Neither of us had ever seen the university president or his office and we were certain that whatever happened, it would not be as terrifying as the moment when we left the general’s class and faced a pack of his snarling students.

We obviously didn’t dress up for the occasion, but I must admit that the president as well as his secretary were very open minded about that. The secretary told us, “The president will be right with you; please sit down,” and indicated that we should install our dirty-looking jeans on the plush chairs in that carpeted room.

The president came in, introduced himself, and shook our hands while we remained seated. He asked if we wanted coffee.

“Yes, please,” we both answered simultaneously. Later on Alec told me he wished he’d thought of asking for breakfast as well.

The president himself went out and a few minutes later returned carrying a tray with two cups of coffee, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. Apparently he wasn’t going to join us.

“Did you summon us here so as to serve us coffee?” Alec asked.

In a very apologetic tone, the president said, “Oh, that note. Yes, it was excessively harsh. We merely wanted to get somewhat better acquainted with you.” Then he grinned and added, “I hope you don’t mind.”

Oh, not at all,” I said. “The coffee is very good and the room is nicely decorated. I wouldn’t mind coming here every morning.”

“Yes, well,” the president continued, “I should tell you that I understand you young people perfectly. I was quite a gay blade myself during my college days.” Alec snickered and the president paused. “However,” he then said, “you have to understand that we must face certain realities.”

Alec and I obviously didn’t understand that; if we did we wouldn’t have been drinking coffee in the president’s office.

“Realities like the present war hysteria?” Alec asked. “Is this a university or an army barracks?”

“I understand your point perfectly,” the president said. “However, there are certain political considerations, and also certain financial ones.”

“The hysterical politicians could fire you and the war profiteering corporations pay your salary; is that what you mean?” I asked.

My comment irritated the president ever so slightly. He said, “I can see that you’re both reluctant to face these realities.” Then he immediately reverted to his original tone; he didn’t want us to think he was an evil man. “Your point of view is in many ways justified, I might even say admirable.

Unfortunately, I have certain responsibilities and the university has certain responsibilities toward a larger community, and your uncompromising attitude makes it very hard for me, and for the university at large, to carry out these responsibilities.”

I got angry and said, “If you think we’re going to compromise our attitudes —”

“Oh, no,” he interrupted. “Nothing of the sort. I merely wanted to get better acquainted with you. From my point of view this interview has been completely satisfactory.” He got up and shook our hands again, saying, “I honestly wish you the greatest success in your endeavors.”

I certainly didn’t regret having accepted the president’s invitation: I had never before met such a completely unprincipled person, such a perfect politician. The following morning the same messenger who had brought us our invitations brought Alec and me notes informing us that we were being expelled from the university.

Neither Alec nor I were terribly upset by our expulsion. We had already felt expelled when the administration directive had closed the newspaper office to us and neither of us had wanted to remain in the university without working on the newspaper.

Alec found an apartment and moved away from campus on the very day the notice came and a few days later he already had a factory job. He asked me to move to his apartment but I knew that I’d be making a terrible mistake if I did that. We hadn’t ever discussed the question of marriage and I knew that the day after I moved in with him it would already be too late to begin that conversation. Besides my lack of desire to become a wife, I didn’t want to leave the university environment so quickly for several reasons. First of all I wanted to see how the purged newspaper functioned and I also wanted to be on campus when the first issue of Omissions came out. Secondly I had started writing my novel again. This time my experience on the newspaper staff was its central topic and I was afraid that if I removed myself from that environment I would lose my desire to continue working on it.

The university newspaper didn’t come out for a week but when it did come out it looked almost the same as when we had put it out. I must admit I was disappointed by this fact. I had thought that somehow its very appearance would reveal what it had become. Bess Lach hadn’t merely been accepted on its staff; she had been appointed news editor, a position which was only one notch lower than her previous position. I assumed that the paper looked so much like ours because Bess had done all the editing as well as the layout, but maybe I gave too little credit to those pliant journalism students picked from the fraternities and sororities. Of course the paper.didn’t have the kinds of articles Daman, Alec, Minnie and I had written, but not all of our issues had carried such articles either, nor had all I of our articles been masterpieces.

A few days later the first issue of Omissions came out. I was disappointed by that too: it was so small! Only two letter-sized pages, with, typewritten articles. But it was beautifully laid out and the articles were fun to read. I was particularly moved by Hugh’s description of the purpose of the paper. Thurston’s humor column was hilarious.

I had called Minnie to find out if she knew when the first issue was going to come out. She told me that she and Daman had become friends again and that she was going to help distribute the paper. They had been denied the right to distribute the paper on campus and consequently they were going to give it out across the street from the administration building, namely on the side of the street which was not on university property. I joined Minnie and Daman there and without even being asked I grabbed a bundle and gave out copies to the men students who lived in the fraternity houses across the street from the administration building. Hugh and Lem were giving them out at the other end of the campus to students who drove their cars to school. The paper was given out free, like the official paper; the editorial asked people to subscribe to it so as to help defray printing expenses which were being paid by the editors.

When we ran out of copies Daman asked me to come to the next staff meeting at Hugh’s house. I didn’t say I’d come. I thought of Rhea and Alec. I didn’t want to be one of those who had betrayed them.

But I couldn’t stay away. Minnie and Daman came for me on the day when the second issue was to be laid out. When I walked in with them, Thurston and Hugh acted as if they took my presence for granted. I sat and listened while they discussed the materials to be included in the issue. There were no arguments, no cliques, no majorities or minorities; there was no reason for voting. Hugh asked me to write an article but that was where I drew the line. I was willing to help with the typing and the distribution but I refused to become one of the editors.

I went out with Alec once a week. I told him I was taking part in the distribution of Omissions and gave him a copy whenever it came out. I didn’t tell him I was also taking part in the production of the paper. I was ashamed to tell him that. I also felt ashamed at the co-op several times when Rhea saw me go out with Daman and Minnie on our way to Hugh’s house; she must have known that I was on my way to work on the off-campus paper originally suggested by her.

I took part in the production of the paper but I continued to be an outsider, not only in my eyes but in theirs as well. After the second issue all four editors as well as Minnie urged me to write articles and take part in the decisions, but I continued to refuse. I just couldn’t forget the way the paper had been started and my failure to participate in those activities didn’t let them forget either. They hardly spoke to me; they were afraid I’d take offense at something they said or even at the tone in which they said it. They didn’t want me to walk out. The production of that little paper was a lot of hard work and by the third issue I had become indispensable for the paper’s distribution as well. Daman and Lem helped distribute only the first two issues. Both had morning classes every day and Daman had always been a good student. Lem also went back to being a good student, although I can’t imagine why, since he then left the university before finishing the school year. And of course the upper class dandy Thurston never took part in the distribution. He’d as soon have been a peasant guerrilla. Handing out the paper across the street from the university was for Thurston an activity worthy of outside agitators and union organizers, and he was equally hostile to both. The only reason he found himself in our company was that the witch hunt mentality of that time was even interfering with the ability of the ruling class to make jokes about itself, which was all he wanted to do. As a result, Hugh, Minnie and I were the paper’s only distributors. Minnie and I continued to give it out across the street from the administration building and Hugh continued to distribute it to commuting students on the other side of the campus. How ironic. The argument that had justified our exclusion had been that the distribution of the “underground” paper would be far too dangerous for the women. I did undergo a terrible experience before the year ended, which I’ll describe later, but this experience had not been one of the dangers that had been anticipated when our exclusion had been justified.

There were numerous favorable responses to the publication of Omissions: several encouraging letters, some classroom discussions of questions raised by Omissions, a certain growth of political awareness on the official newspaper staff which would not have taken place if Omissions hadn’t been published and if it hadn’t maintained such a high level of quality. I’ll only describe one of the responses because it’s related to events that took place long after the first Omissions had been forgotten.

Around the middle of the year we learned that a group of students at another university had heard about our series of articles in the school paper, about the directive and about the mock funeral. One of those students was one of the first paying subscribers to Omissions. Stimulated by our example these students launched a similar publication, which they also named Omissions. They were not former editors of the official publication. The official paper of that university had apparently always been as self-repressed as the one here became after the directive. Another difference was that the kinds of articles they carried were not at all like those that appeared in our Omissions but rather like the articles Minnie and I had been publishing in the official paper just before the directive; they were exposures of the militaristic and repressive engagements of professors and academic departments. That group of students didn’t disperse at the end of the school year, the way we did. They kept their publication going. Its staff as well as its readers increased. Its name changed several times; new students replaced those who graduated. Several years later the entire editorial board of that publication got themselves elected to the student government: it was the first time within memory that radical students had been so prominent. These students became the first official spokesmen of what became “the student movement.” I learned all this many years after the demise of the original Omissions when I re-enrolled in college. I’m mentioning all this because I do understand what you mean when you describe our activity in the carton plant or mine on the newspaper staff as a stepping stone toward a political career. That’s what it was for Marc Glavni, Vera Neis and the group of students I’ve just described. But the activity was not a stepping stone in and of itself and I’m not the only one who knows this. Nowadays, when the student movement is vast, several of its politicians are writing the history of their movement. They invariably identify the origin of the present movement with the publication of the first issue of the Omissions that was published at the other university, which came out several months after our first issue. There’s a very good reason why they locate the origin there: that group was a group of politicians and the historians are politicians writing the history of their “likes.” They don’t mention our activities because we weren’t politicians, because we spoke only for ourselves. They know it, I know it, and I think you should know it too. If our activity were ever included in a history, it wouldn’t be a history of politicians but a much vaster history of people’s attempts to fight against repression on their own, for themselves, without politicians. Our activity had innumerable flaws. Our motives weren’t pure and our achievements weren’t terribly impressive. But the establishment of political careers was not what motivated us and that certainly wasn’t what we achieved as a result of that activity.

Some months before the end of the school year, Lem Icel announced that he would be leaving the Omissions staff as well as the university. He was one of the students selected by his political organization to attend a world student conference which was to take place in your part of the world. I had thought Lem had left that organization when he’d joined the Omissions staff and had fallen out with Rhea but I’d been wrong. To his credit he hadn’t once let his organizational commitment define his relations to the other people on the staff. I reluctantly admitted to myself that Thurston’s calculations had not been altogether without substance: if Lem and Rhea had both been on that staff they would have blackmailed each other into implementing the organization’s position on every question. Not that their positions would always have been wrong. They would always have been rigid, inflexible. and consequently the discussions wouldn’t have had the character of genuine communication but of people shouting at phonograph records that just kept repeating themselves. But even that would have been preferable to the exclusionary course that was taken.

Lem’s coming trip gave me an idea. I asked him if he’d be willing to deliver letters to all the friends I had known eight years earlier. I didn’t tell him we had all been arrested; I was afraid Lem would suspect there was something wrong with my friends, that they were all “stained,” as you put it in your second letter. Lem was delighted by the fact that I asked him for a favor. I hadn’t asked him to do anything for me since high school. He was also enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting people who had once been my friends, and was positively enchanted when I told him they were all workers.

I had two weeks to write letters to all of you and except for the day I spent working on Omissions and the morning I spent distributing it, I did nothing else during those weeks. The uprising in Magarna had just broken out. Lem had told me something about that uprising and the city papers carried front page articles about it which conflicted in every detail with Lem’s account. I suspected that both accounts were wrong and some of the descriptions in the city papers gave me the impression that the Magarna rising was in some ways a continuation of our activity in the carton factory eight years earlier. In fact, the vehemence with which Lem denied certain details even led me to suspect that the events unfolding in Magarna went far beyond anything I had experienced, that in fact a revolution was taking place which was as extensive and profound as the revolution Luisa had described to me. Those suspicions were of course confirmed in later years, when I read documented accounts of the Magarna revolution, but at the time I had no way of learning those facts. The closest I could come was to reach you.

I feverishly wrote long letters to every one of you. Once I wrote straight through the night and continued writing the whole next day. The letter to you was the longest. In my recent letters I’ve repeated most of what I told you then. I described the extent to which two key events had affected my life: the revolution with which Luisa had familiarized me, and the agitation in which I myself took part with you and the others in the carton plant. I told about my lifelong search for the elements which had made those experiences significant to me; I narrated all I’ve just finished telling you about my activity on the newspaper staff and the off-campus paper, and I summarized my earlier attempt to compare you to Ron. I was eager to hear about your life and the lives of the others, about your experiences, activities and projects. I wanted to hear about the rising in Magarna; I was sure those events were giving a new life to the community I had once known. I wanted desperately to be in touch with those of my friends who were closest to it; I wanted to be part of it and part of them. At that time I felt that I was still an integral part of that community. I still thought of myself as one of you. If I had gotten your newest letter and read Jasna’s account then, I would have been heartbroken. I imagined all of you were still in the carton plant. I had no way of knowing what dreadfully long prison terms so many of you had served already then. I obviously thought of all of you as I remembered you, as you had been when I had known you.

When I wrote those letters, there was nothing I wanted more than to be asked to return, by one and all of you. My letters almost begged for such an invitation. In each letter I described my life since my emigration as the life of a foreigner, the life of an outsider. I described the environment and the population that welcomed me with the slogan “Go back where you come from,” and the university in which I had never been anything more than an “outside agitator.” I also described my exclusion from the single activity I had found here which I would have embraced as my own: the off-campus newspaper, I waited for a letter, a postcard, a word or a mere sign. I was ready to fly out of here as abruptly as Alec had left the university on the day of our expulsion. But no word came. Even Lem didn’t return. When I finally did see Lem again several years later, his account of what happened to him was so unrelated to the letters I had written that I barely listened to what he told me: I was convinced it had nothing to do with me. Poor Lem.

Soon after Alec and I were expelled I started my novel again, for the second and last time. How well I understand why Jasna reads long novels whenever she’s excluded from the activity of those around her: to live all the possible lives she knows she’ll never have a chance to live. I suppose I wrote for similar reasons. Unlike Jasna, I didn’t wander through worlds others had created; I wandered through my own, and while wandering I changed it here and there to make it more like the world I would have wanted it to be. I spent almost every day working on it, alone in my room at the co-op. I saw the Omissions people only one day every two weeks and at no other time, since the activity that drew us together on that single day, the preparation of the paper, was the very activity that separated us the rest of the time. I saw Alec on weekends; during the week the job he’d gotten used up all his energy and he simply ate, slept and went back to work. I was glad to be left alone in my room. I was close enough to the people and experiences I was writing about to continue to be stimulated by them, while at the same time I was able to look at them from a distance, the distance which my exclusion had created between us.

My second novel wasn’t a love story but the story of two projects. Ron was replaced by the group of people with whom I bad shared the experience on the newspaper staff, the people who had excluded me from Omissions. I contrasted this project and these people with my experience at the carton factory eight years earlier. I described the first group as a genuine community, one which could not have excluded me, and I tried to explore the reasons for my exclusion from Omissions, reasons which I didn’t locate in Thurston’s vote-counting but in the character of the participants. Since I was using my experience with you as a model, I obviously glorified the people I had known in the carton plant as well as the project I had shared with them. Jasna’s account of who those people really were and what they’ve become since then is not really relevant to the way I described them. The characters in my novel were products of my own imagination. In a sense my characters were all different facets of my own self. Through them I contrasted the pettiness of those around me with a picture of what I would have wanted those people to be. Through those characters I tried to say that the world around me was not the only possible world and certainly not the best of all possible worlds. I never accepted Daman’s philosophy according to which all that happens is explainable afterwards as all that was “objectively possible.” Now I understand why Daman hadn’t said a word when Rhea, Minnie and I had been excluded from Omissions. With all its revolutionary language, Daman’s philosophy is merely another version of the submissiveness to fate which you attributed to Mirna’s mother. By describing characters who in some ways resembled you and Vera and Marc, I was trying to depict a possible community. I wasn’t trying to describe a community that had actually existed precisely because I didn’t submit to the flawed community that existed as the only “objectively possible” community.

Unfortunately my second novel never became more complete than my first. I was forced to abandon it abruptly and I’ve never returned to it. I re-read it before writing you about my experiences on the newspaper staff, and I have to admit that some of the events I’ve just described come directly out of that manuscript. I apologize for that, but I can no longer remember the sequence of the actual events.

My project was cut short by an incident which I do remember, and very vividly. It happened several weeks after Lem left with the letters I wrote to all of you. Minnie and I were distributing copies of the newest issue of Omissions across the street from the administration building. The students who came out of the fraternity houses lined up for copies. Minnie and I were delighted. We thought there had been a revolution in the fraternity houses. On all previous occasions, only an occasional student had been willing to accept a copy; others had either insulted us or had avoided walking near us. Since we were surrounded by people reaching for copies, we couldn’t see what was happening. Suddenly we heard the siren of a police car. The students around us moved some distance away and we saw that copies of Omissions were scattered all over the street and sidewalk, over the lawn of the administration building, on the hoods and in the door handles of cars. Minnie and I just stood there, holding bundles of copies of the publication that was scattered like fallen leaves all over the landscape. The police grabbed us and pushed us into their car. The whole thing had obviously been pre-arranged, probably by the university administration, since the events which followed were clearly parts of a scheme that had been well worked out ahead of time. Those fraternity boys were always such “good” students; it’s too bad that a word like “scab” doesn’t exist for them. At the police station we were asked our names. The police called someone in the university, gave our names and learned that I was no longer a student. We were given a long lecture, which was directed only at me, about “littering and defacing public and private property.” We were told that if we ever “littered” the street again we would have to appear before a judge and be subject to a jail sentence. This obviously meant that we could be jailed for trying to distribute Omissions again.

Minnie was called into the university president’s office and reprimanded, but she wasn’t suspended from school. What happened to me was much worse.

The co-op where I lived was governed by a “board” which consisted of four students who were elected by all the occupants. Two days after the “littering” incident the university administration sent the co-op board a threatening note which said that “university approved housing is intended exclusively for the use of students and not for the general public. The university cannot grant recognition to facilities which are run like hotels or other public accommodations.” In other words, if I wasn’t evicted from the co-op, the co-op would lose “university recognition.” I still haven’t learned what “university recognition” is. I think that without it the co-op would not have been placed on a list of “university approved” student housing facilities. But no one was in the co-op because it was “university approved”; we were there because it was cheap.

The co-op board called for a meeting of all the occupants. No one had ever been evicted from the co-op before. Numerous students went to school one semester and worked one semester, so that I wasn’t the only non-student living there. But as soon as the board members started speaking I knew that the whole business revolved around me. One of the board members said that the loss of university recognition would do irreparable damage to the co-op, and two others said that it would do irreparable damage to the careers of all the students in the co-op. The three board members who spoke (the fourth didn’t say anything) were law students. This was not a coincidence. Law students were normally the only people who ran for board posts; no one else wanted to be a board member. The law students listed the fact that they’d been on the “board of directors of the university co-operative dormitory” on their list of accomplishments; they were politicians. I had heard that when the co-op was first organized it had been a center for radical students, but this had ceased to be the case long before I had come there. These board members apparently thought that my presence there was going to revive that long-lost reputation of the co-op. In that case they would no longer be able to list the co-op among their accomplishments. It’s in this sense that my presence there was harmful to their careers.

There was a very brief discussion. Only two students expressed opposition to the university’s threatening note. The others just sat and said nothing. I looked desperately toward Rhea; she would be the next one whose presence would be harmful to the lawyers’ careers. But she avoided my glance and said nothing.

It all happened so fast that I couldn’t put my thoughts together. Someone called for the vote. I started to say, “But you can’t —” I couldn’t say any more. I gagged and started sobbing. They voted. Two students voted against my eviction, about a third of the students abstained and all the rest, including Rhea, raised their hands in favor of evicting me.

That was Rhea’s revenge for the fact that Alec had abandoned her as well as her organization, and probably also for the fact that she had been excluded from what was in a way her creation, the off-campus paper. With that vote she was also getting even with herself for having admired this “perfect proletarian” so much when we first met. Perhaps in some strange way she was also acting as the instrument of Debbie Matthews’ revenge against George Alberts, although Rhea couldn’t have known about my connection to Alberts. I understood how Debbie must have felt when she was fired, and particularly when she learned the role her former friend had played in the firing.

After that horrid vote I started to bawl. Everyone left the room. Not one person stayed with me, even to console me. I felt like a leper.

I dragged myself to my room and cried myself to sleep exactly the way I had done when I’d been excluded from Omissions. When I woke up in the morning I started crying again. How terribly cruel it is to evict someone. I looked helplessly at my familiar room, at my unfinished manuscript, at my stack of newspapers. I had nowhere to go and I wasn’t able to go anywhere else even if I had wanted to. I had no money. I’d had a tuition scholarship during my three and a half years in school and my room and board at the co-op had been free. Luisa had given me money when I had started college but I had always returned it because I really hadn’t needed it. The little I’d kept when Luisa insisted was in a savings account, and I hadn’t spent any of it. But all my savings couldn’t have paid for a single week’s rent and food.

I didn’t have much to pack except manuscripts, notebooks, newspapers and books. I hadn’t bought clothes since high school and some of them were so old I stuck them into the garbage instead of packing them.

I went to the bus station and stuck all my belongings inside a locker. I wandered around the ugly station and walked aimlessly amidst the crowds on the downtown streets. I was like a person who had just arrived in the city, a person who didn’t know what she would do here, whom she’d meet, what she’d become.

I went to a drug store and sipped a cup of coffee. It was only then that I started to think about what I would do next. But I couldn’t think about it coherently. Images kept flying through my mind: images of the disappointing funeral procession, of Alec telling us why we had been excluded from Omissions, of Rhea’s hand raised in favor of my eviction.

The most obvious thing would have been to go to Luisa. But I couldn’t stand the thought of doing that. I knew I’d spend all my time sitting in my room staring at the walls the way I’d done before I started high school. In that room I wouldn’t be able to continue my novel about the university newspaper, and I certainly wouldn’t pull out the manuscript of my first novel. And the thought of breaking down and bawling in front of Luisa frightened me. It would create a relationship that hadn’t existed between us for as long as I could remember: I would become a helpless and dependent child and she’d become my protective mother. I didn’t know if she was able to play that role, but if she did play it, I knew I’d hate her afterwards because I’d be terribly humiliated to have to assert my independence again.

I could have gone to Alec. He had already asked me to move in with him. But in the state I was in, that would have been even worse than returning to Luisa. Helpless and completely lost, I would automatically have become his “burden” and his “responsibility.” I could imagine him saying, “Just go ahead and cry on my shoulder, Sophie; everything’s going to be all right.” Soon I’d be his wife, and then his “old lady.” By then any kind of separation would be extremely painful if not altogether impossible. I decided not even to contact Alec until I had solved my living problems.

Of course I could have thought of going to work like any “normal” person, but I had never worked before and the mere thought of looking for a job made me feel like vomitting. Is this revulsion a trait I share with the people Jasna described, or does it have something to do with the nature of “work” in this society?

Lem would have been delighted to put me up, and I could easily have dispelled any expectations he might have had, but Lem was by then in your part of the world. And I didn’t want to seek help from any of the others on the Omissions staff. My exclusion from the paper was far too similar to my eviction from the co-op.

While I was considering and rejecting all these alternatives, the solution was already in the back of my mind. I would turn to Sabina. At that moment it seemed that she was the only person in the world I could turn to. She wouldn’t ask any questions. She wouldn’t become my protectress. I could come and go as I pleased and when I pleased. And I knew she wouldn’t turn me away.

I had no idea where Sabina was. I hadn’t seen her for two years, since the night she had come to the co-op to tell me Ron had been killed. I didn’t even know how to start looking for her. I had a hunch and it turned out to be right. I suspected that she was still together with Ron’s friends, or even that she was directly in contact with Debbie Matthews, since that was probably how she had learned of Ron’s death. I also remembered that Sabina had once stayed at Debbie’s house.

Debbie Matthews suddenly became very important to me. I hadn’t ever gone to see her when she’d been fired from high school and I particularly regretted not having gone to her when I’d learned about Ron’s death. I became so convinced that Debbie would know where Sabina was that I returned to the bus station and took my things back out of the locker.

It was still morning when I rang the bell at the Matthews house, hugging all my possessions. Debbie opened the door. We had seen each other at Ron’s trial but she didn’t recognize me. She asked what I wanted. She was drunk. I told her I was Lem Icel’s friend and Sabina Nachalo’s sister, that I had once gone with Ron, and that I was desperately trying to find Sabina.

“You’re the other Alberts girl!” she exclaimed, but she asked me in anyway.

As soon as I was in the living room I became hysterical. I shouted that I wasn’t George Alberts’ girl, that Alberts had never been either my friend or my father, that I hated him as much as she did. I told her I hated Alberts more than ever at that very moment because Debbie’s own friends Lem Icel and Rhea Morphen had done to me exactly what Alberts had done to her. I bawled. I acted out the very scene I hadn’t wanted to perform for Luisa. I told her about Lem’s role in my exclusion from Omissions and about Rhea’s role in my eviction from the co-op. I told her Sabina was the last person I had left in the world and that I had no idea what would happen to me if I didn’t find her.

Debbie poured me a drink and said almost exactly what I would have expected Alec to say if I’d gone to him. “Take it easy, kid. Everything is going to be all right. There’s no reason to have a fit; that won’t help any.”

She left the room to wash and put on a dress. She looked almost sober when she returned. “Come on,“she said; “their garage is right down the street. I’ve never gone there before. Now’s as good a time as any.”

When we left her house she carried most of my packages. I must have been the one who looked drunk.

By the time we reached the garage I might as well have been in a foreign land where I knew neither the language nor the customs. I had cried so much that day that a film of tears had formed in my eyes and everything looked distorted. I was like a person walking in her sleep or under hypnosis. Nothing would have surprised me. I had stopped responding to what was happening around me.

One of the mechanics ran up to Debbie and asked, “Is something wrong?”

Debbie answered, “Not with me. This girl says she’s Sabina’s sister. She needs a place to stay.”

“So you’re Sophie!” the mechanic said. “Ron never stopped talking about you. I remember seeing you at his trial.”

I remembered seeing him too. He was Jose. Pointing to the other two mechanics he said, “That’s Vic Turam over there and this is Ted Nasibu.”

“I remember Ted,” I said, trying to smile. “He’s the car thief Ron told me about.”

Jose looked embarrassed by my comment. Apparently “Debbie didn’t know what kind of garage it was. I wanted to apologize but just then a little girl ran up to us. She must have been six years old. Jose told Debbie and me, “This is Ron’s kid.”

Debbie embraced the little girl and said, “She sure doesn’t look like him.”

It was Tina. I hadn’t seen her since she’d been a bundle on the couch in George Alberts’ house.

Tina ran into the house and a few minutes later returned with Sabina. As soon as I saw Sabina I ran to her and threw my arms around her. I hadn’t been so glad to see anyone since the night, four years earlier, when Sabina had thrown pebbles at my window, the night when she and Ron had come to tell me about Ron’s experiences in reform school. I held on to Sabina and let all the rest of my tears run down to her shoulder. “I’ve been excluded from everything,” I sobbed; “I’m a complete outsider.”

Sabina loosened herself from my embrace. I saw that there were tears in her eyes. She put her arm around me and helped me to the apartment behind the garage. After letting me down on a kitchen chair she went back to the garage to ask Debbie if she wanted to join us for coffee. Debbie apparently didn’t want to be entertained by both “Alberts girls” because Sabina came back alone. She gave me a wet towel so I could wipe the streams of tears off my face. Then she gave me a cup of strong black coffee and a bowl of thick so up. I felt much better, though I was still as disoriented as a tourist in an exotic land.

A young woman — or rather a girl: she couldn’t have been over fourteen — burst into the kitchen from another room, rushed to the stove and poured herself coffee. Her hands trembled and she had dark rings around her eyes.

Sabina said, ‘Tissie, this is Sophia. She’s going to stay with us.”

Tissie turned to me and said, “So you’re the college sister!” and she abruptly left the room with her cup of coffee.

I asked Sabina if Tissie was sick and Sabina said, very matter-of-factly, “She’s a heroin addict.” I had never seen a heroin addict before.

Sabina told me there was an extra bed in her room as well as in Tina’s room and suggested I stay in Tina’s room because Sabina slept during odd hours. I asked Sabina if she took part in the car thefts.

“Not any more,” she said. “It’s mainly Ted who does that. Tina helps fix the cars up. She’s getting quite good at it. Vic specializes in heroin. He sells it to the rich at a bar run by a friend of his and to the poor right in the garage.”

Tissie came back into the room and poured herself another cup of coffee.

“Tissie and I work in the bar,” Sabina continued.

Tissie turned to Sabina and said, “You ought to bring your sister along and show her what we do.”

Sabina snapped at Tissie, “Sophia can do whatever the hell she wants, and I’m not taking her anywhere.”

When Tissie left again I asked what kind of work they did.

“It’s like everything else we do here, Sophia,” Sabina answered. “It’s easier than many other things, it pays better than most, there’s no drudgery, sometimes there’s a lot of adventure, and we can work whenever we please.”

I didn’t ask Sabina if she and Tissie were waitresses. I said, “I don’t mind, you know. I came to ask for help. I haven’t come to judge you.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” she said. “Why don’t you go get some sleep. You look just like a heroin addict.”

Sabina was right. I was exhausted. I fell asleep as soon as I lay down. When I woke up Tina was already asleep. I went to the kitchen to find something to eat. It was past midnight. Tissie was sitting at the kitchen table sipping her coffee.

“You sleep all day, sis?” she asked. “So did I. I’m getting a late start. Want to come along?”

“To the bar?” I asked, looking around nervously. “Where’s Sabina?”

“She must have left two or three hours ago,” Tissie said. “She’ll never take you there. She told me. Want to come?”

“I don’t have a dress,” I said. I was afraid. But I was also curious. All day long I had felt like a tourist but I had been too upset and too tired to absorb my new surroundings. After having slept I felt refreshed and wanted to see more,

“You can wear one of Sabina’s dresses. She’s got dozens and we trade all the time. She’ll never miss it,” Tissie said.

I can’t say that I was intrigued by the prospect, because that word suggests a much more active state than the one I was in. I was half-way in a stupor. I think at that moment I would have let anyone take me anywhere. I wanted to see whatever there was to be seen, to take part in everything those around me did.

As we left the garage, Tissie told me, “Don’t you ever let them know I took you there, neither Sabina nor Jose nor Ted. They’ll give me hell.”

“Won’t Sabina see me there?” I asked.

Tissie said, “She’ll be gone by now. I’m telling you, she’ll never know unless you tell her.”

The only bar I had ever been to before was a bar near campus where Alec had taken me. Students drank beer there, sitting on plastic-covered seats watching television. The bar I entered with Tissie looked like my idea of a nightclub. There were chandeliers, live musicians and a singer, plush chairs and professional waiters. I had never seen anything so luxurious.

Tissie placed me on a stool at one end of the bar. “But what am I supposed to do?” I asked her.

“It’ll all come to you, sis,” she said patronizingly, and walked off to talk to someone.

I must have gone into a trance. When I came out of it I found myself inside a chauffeur-driven car. Next to me sat a large, middle-aged man who must have been a city politician or a corporation executive. Absolute chaos swept through my mind. I started to shake with fear. The chauffeur, the man next to me, the noise, the neon signs, the car lights all terrified me. I felt my heart pounding in my stomach and I wanted to vomit.

The man must have noticed my agitation. “Something wrong with you?” he asked.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought so quickly in a crisis. “Yes,” I said. “I forgot my tranquilizer pills. I’ve got to stop at a drug-store.”

He had the driver pull over by a drugstore. But then he said, “I need cigarettes anyway. I’ll get your pills. What kind are they?”

“Oh. I have a prescription for them,” I said as calmly as I could, “and I’m the only one who can use it. I’ll get your cigarettes.”

He started reaching for his wallet but I jumped out of the car before he had a chance to give me the cigarette money. I immediately wished I’d asked what brand he smoked, or had at least waited for the money. I was afraid he’d come running after me.

I tried to walk nonchalantly to the drugstore entrance, but as soon as I was inside I ran to the white-frocked man behind the counter. He was alone. I started shaking him by the shoulders. “Someone’s after me,” I stammered. “Please, where’s your back door?”

The poor druggist looked as frightened as he might have looked if someone were holding him up. I suppose he was glad that I wasn’t asking for his money. He rushed to the back door, frantically undid several bolts and removed an iron bar. Holding on to the bar, he opened the door and peeked out to see if anyone was in the alley. I suppose he thought I might be luring him into an ambush. Satisfied that there was no one there, he opened the door. I bolted through it without thanking him.

I ran through alleys and along deserted streets like a hunted animal. I wanted to run to the university co-op, to my familiar surroundings. But that was no longer my world. I ran to the garage and pounded hysterically on the door. Jose let me in. He and Ted were still working.

“God damn it!” Jose murmured. “Did Tissie already take you there? Or was it Sabina?”

I suddenly felt terribly ashamed. I had betrayed my new hostesses. “Please don’t mention this to Sabina or Tissie! Nothing at all happened,” I said. “I got scared and ran away.”

Jose and Ted both laughed. Then Ted said, “Good for you, kid.”

Jose said, “Look, Sabina should have told you this: no one around here expects you to do any work. Ron’s girl is our guest, do you understand that?”

I was hurt and humiliated by Jose’s statement. I was to be a guest, a permanent visitor. I was an outsider again, only a few hours after my arrival. But I just couldn’t make myself do the things that would have made me a part of that community. Those things may have been part of Ron’s world but they had not been the part I had sought when I had gone walking and riding with him. I couldn’t turn myself into a professional prostitute. Why? Is it really because of what you and Jasna say in your letter? Is it really because my activities in the carton plant spoiled me, turned me into a traitor against my class and taught me to seek my role above my class? I didn’t think so that night when I ran back to the garage, and I still don’t think so. I didn’t think that fay leaving the university I had abandoned the opportunists and rejoined the working class. Nor did I think that it was opportunistic to refuse to engage in Tissie’s and Sabina’s activity. For you it’s so clear and obvious where the opportunism lies. For me it’s not nearly as obvious. My activities on the newspaper staff didn’t give me money or fame and they didn’t secure my future rise in any bureaucratic hierarchy, whereas Sabina’s activity would have given me money, probably a car of my own, as well as a certain type of adventure. It’s not that I consider Sabina an opportunist. She’s always wanted to immerse herself in everything, to try everything out, to live every possible adventure. She never drew any lines, she never established any limits. I always did. Yet even though I was the one who drew the lines, she was ultimately more principled because the lines I drew were arbitrary. I dreaded selling my mind, time and energy yet eventually I did sell these parts of myself; I nevertheless convinced myself that selling my body was worse and I drew the line there because that’s where the ruling morality draws it. The activities I had left were the activities I wanted. To me those activities had something to do with what was happening in Magarna; they were the kinds of projects I tried to describe in my novel and in the letters I wrote to all of you. It was for the sake of such projects and such a community that I rejected the world to which Tissie introduced me.

After my experience at the carton plant I was never able to find anything that resembled the kind of project I had sought and when something like it was born with Omissions, I was excluded. What I sought is unfolding around you right now and your letters tell me that everything I stand for is alien to that activity. All right. Maybe that’s what I’ve become and maybe that’s what I’ve always been. But I want you to know that from the bottom of my heart I hope you and your friends are now creating the community I sought in every environment down to the underworld, the community I tried to invent in my novel because I never found it in my life.

My love to Jasna, Mirna, Yara and you,
Sophia.

Yarostan’s fifth letter

Dear Sophia,

Your letter arrived yesterday. Mirna and I both read it before sitting down to the supper Yara had prepared for us. Yara was annoyed. “After the way she insulted you last time I wouldn’t think you’d skip supper to read another one of her letters.”

Mirna told Yara, “It’s a very moving letter, Yara; you and Sophia have a lot in common.”

I felt this too. For the first time since the beginning of our correspondence I was able to recognize myself in you. This isn’t only because you used my arguments or Zdenek’s in your quarrel with your friend Daman but because your letter made me aware of similarities in our experiences and outlooks. I now feel I should apologize for the way I treated your earlier letters. I did treat you as an outsider, as a person with whom I couldn’t communicate about my present situation. I was wrong.

During supper last night Mirna commented, “Sophia is a born troublemaker, just like Jan and Yara. She shares Jan’s recklessness as well as his courage. I’m glad for her sake that she was taken away from here even if her emigration caused her some pain. There’s no room here for people like that. If she’d stayed she would have disappeared years ago in a prison or concentration camp.” Mirna loved her “reckless” brother and she’s very proud of Yarn’s rebelliousness. Your letter convinced me that Mirna is right: if you’d stayed here you could well have followed a path very similar to Jan’s. And you’re right: you certainly wouldn’t have occupied the “place” I assigned to you in my earlier letters. The tenacity with which you pursued your struggle, even in the face of certain repression, is something you share with Jan, not with people we both consider opportunists. Your recent confrontation with the administrative psychologist at your college, your exposures of militarism during your university years, your disruption of the war expert’s class, are clearly not opportunistic acts, and you make it perfectly clear to me that you couldn’t have derived any privileges from engaging in those acts. You’re right when you accuse me of failing to distinguish your commitment from the commitments of those around you. I did accuse you of being a carrier of the repressive fuctions of the university and the press and I recognize that this accusation was unfair. I did identify your engagements with engagements that are as unacceptable to you as they are to me. I think I did. this because the contexts in which you’ve chosen to struggle are contexts in which I had thought genuine rebellion impossible. In my world the political militant, the journalist and the academician do not and cannot help establish a human community because their very existence presupposes the absence of community. This must be true in your world too; Tina expressed it very colorfully when, standing in the street, she shouted at Daman that his “cushy job” depended on the passivity of the rest of the population.

You’ve convinced me that your engagement in Daman’s activity, or in Marc Glavni’s and Vera Neis’s activities, doesn’t make you like them, and that your engagement was “some kind of affirmation of life,” as you put it. But you haven’t convinced me that the kind of struggle you’ve waged is actually possible in the contexts in which you fought it. Every one of your experiences convinced me that the instruments you chose are useless for the kinds of ends you tried to make them serve. You were trying to fight for liberation with this society’s instruments of domination. I think this is why you always remained an outsider while those alongside you became priests of political sects, missionaries of repressive religions and officials in government bureaucracies. In my earlier letters I failed to distinguish you from your context and my understanding of your activities was very one-sided. You’re right to emphasize the side I had excluded and you do force me to recognize my narrow-mindedness. But I think you still leave some veils hanging, you still hide some parts of the picture. I see the picture in a new light now but I still don’t see an altogether different picture from the one I saw before. I now see that your own goals were not repressive but I’m still convinced that the context in which you fought for those goals was repressive.

In order to combat my one-sidedness you have recourse to arguments that are equally one-sided. You pretend that the contexts in which you located your struggles were accidental and that your own activities had “nothing to do” with those contexts. I think you’re wrong. I think your activities were reduced to nothing by those contexts. I think it’s no accident that the agitational activity at the carton plant twenty years ago served Vera and Marc as a stepping stone toward the establishment of bureaucratic careers. I think it’s no accident that your co-worker on the university newspaper is now a functionary in the ideological establishment, nor that the students who were stimulated by the example of your journalistic activity became politicians. The contexts in which you sought a project and a community are institutions which thrive on the absence of what you sought and you couldn’t have been anything more than an outsider there. I’ll try to clarify what I mean by telling you about my recent encounter with two of our onetime friends.

Last Saturday Jasna and I attended a lecture in the auditorium of the House of Culture. The speakers were Vera Krena and Adrian Povrshan. Their speeches were critical exposures of the repression we’ve undergone during the past twenty years. In terms of their words alone, Vera and Adrian couldn’t have been very different from you at the time when you exposed the militarization of the university on the school’s newspaper staff. They sounded like rebels, even revolutionaries. But in terms of their relations to those around them, in terms of the context in which they spoke, they are not rebels but political opportunists.

I agree with you: the similarity of their activity to yours does not make you one of them. But I don’t agree that the context is or can be as hospitable to your goals as to theirs. You seem convinced that speakers’ platforms, newspapers and pedagogical institutions can be serviceable to the struggle for freedom. I’m convinced of the opposite; I think such contexts are antithetical to your goals and hostile to your struggle and by engaging in them you merely strengthen forces whose very existence negates your project and your community. Maybe I’m being unfair again. If so, I hope you’ll show me where I’m wrong. I’ll try to express my doubts as clearly as I can, even at the risk of being unfair and overstating my case again. If I do get “carried away by my rhetoric” once again, I hope you’ll understand that it’s not because I feel that everything you stand for is alien to me. On the contrary, I’m not addressing my comments to a stranger but to a comrade and it seems to me that such critical appreciation is not an expression of hostility but is at the very basis of communication and friendship.

Last Friday Jasna walked Yara home from school and waited for me to return from work. She told me Vera and Adrian were scheduled to speak the following night and she was quite excited about it. She hadn’t seen Adrian since she’d visited him three years ago in his empty office in the trade union building. And the last time she saw Vera was twelve years ago, on the day when all three of them were arrested at Jasna’s house and accused of having contacts with a foreign spy. I did remember to ask Jasna if she could answer Sabina’s question about the last name the police attributed to you and Luisa when they questioned her about her former acquaintances, but Jasna didn’t remember the name.

I didn’t share any of Jasna’s enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing Adrian and Vera. In fact, I refused to accompany her to the lecture when she first mentioned it. I told her that if two politicians ever came to the carton plant to lecture to me during work hours, I’d walk off my job, so that I obviously wasn’t disposed to go out of my way to hear the politicians. Jasna said she wasn’t going because of her interest in political speeches but because these speakers had once been her friends. If my correspondence with you hadn’t revived my memories of a distant past, I doubt if I’d still remember that Adrian Povrshan and Vera Krena had once been my friends. But I did remember this bizarre fact and I changed my mind, not so much because I wanted to see or hear Adrian or Vera, but because of you, because they’ve come to occupy such an important place in your life.

The auditorium was almost empty. The audience consisted mainly of young people, probably students, although there may have been a few young workers among them.

Vera Krena was introduced first, along with all her titles: honorable rector, honorable member, honorable deputy minister. There was little applause. She spoke very eloquently about what she called the “errors” which had been committed here during “recent years.” She was applauded when she said that these “errors” and “shortcomings” had all been brought about by the “deformations of our social system.” I didn’t applaud, since I felt that by linking the “errors” to the “deformations” she merely linked two equally empty words. Her concluding speech was a rousing call for what she called “action.” Vera’s words were as out of place in the midst of the present ferment as Daman’s lecture was in the midst of the student strike. “We must find our way out of this vicious circle where bureaucratic attitudes reinforce passivity and passivity reinforces bureaucratic attitudes. We must create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of initiative. The prohibition and repression of criticism, the stifling of democratic relations, only inhibit the growth of initiative. Such deformations paralyze initiative at all levels and lead to indifference and to the cult of mediocrity. We stand at a historical crossroads. We face a great task. The time to act has come. Let us not be satisfied with half measures.”

The audience applauded and some people stood up. I felt uneasy. I had of course known that politicians were very busy trying to derive personal profit from the present ferment. But it is one thing to know this and quite another to experience it directly. No one in the audience could doubt Vera’s sincerity or determination. She is still a very powerful speaker — much more powerful than most of the politicians I hear on the radio in the carton plant. She’s also more courageous than most of the other “radical” politicians of today; perhaps she still has some of the traits you admired her for twenty years ago. She’s the first politician I’ve heard in recent months who referred, in one and the same speech, to the stifling of democratic relations, the repression of criticism and the paralysis of initiative. But like all politicians in power, Vera presents all this as “errors” and “deformations,” and not as the very nature of the system of which she’s an integral part. If the system is only “deformed” then it can be cured. However, if this social system is itself the deformity then it can only be destroyed, root and branch. Vera’s remedy follows from her own diagnosis: the system has to be cured. How? “We must find ... We must create ... We stand ... Let us...” “We” of course means Vera Krena together with her audience, Vera together with the working population. And how will “we” cure the system “together”? Obviously the same way “we” have always done anything “together.” We the workers will do our share by remaining at our posts in the factories, while Vera will do her share by remaining at her posts in the offices of the academic and ideological establishments. In other words, we will cure the system “together” by continuing to reproduce it. And why do we face this “great task” only now, why have we suddenly arrived at this “historic crossroads” when “the time to act has come”? Because a ferment began at the bottom of this society and this ferment has spread to such an extent that it threatens to sweep away all the offices that Vera and her comrades occupy. For Vera the time has come to put an end to this ferment. That’s the “great task” she faces. The offices she fought so hard to reach are endangered by the ferment. That’s why she sounded so sincere and so determined. She’s determined not to lose a single one of her conquests. Her heart may even be set on reaching new heights of bureaucratic power, on profiting from the opportunities created by the ferment itself. The present situation would then indeed be a historic crossroads — for Vera Krena.

I don’t think Vera is an unusually brutal, cynical or unscrupulous person. I think the brutality is in her social activity, in the offices she occupies. These offices are part of the state apparatus. That apparatus can perform its functions only so long as a passive and submissive population lets itself be expropriated of those functions. For the past few months thousands of people have started to perform functions they had never performed before, functions which had been the exclusive domain of the state. This is especially true in the area of communication, namely the area which contains all of Vera Krena’s academic and ideological offices. People have started to communicate with each other directly; they’ve been forging their own terminologies and infusing them with their own meanings. The ideological establishment and all its means of propaganda are being superseded by human forms of communication. If this process continues, all those offices and instruments will become historical junk, curiosities discarded by a reawakened humanity.

Vera’s interest in derailing and stopping this ferment is not so much her own personal interest as it is the interest of an ideological establishment struggling to reimpose itself over human beings who are running out from under it. Vera Krena, director and ideological minister, didn’t speak as an individual but as an agent of directorship and ideology. Through her these institutions, these abstractions which are nothing but summaries of regularized submission, acquire a voice and a will; through her these abstractions assert their insatiable hunger, their will to devour every human thought, word and sound, to digest all forms of human communication and excrete them as ideology.

Adrian wasn’t applauded when he was introduced; several people snickered when his full title was announced; “Chairman of the central committee of the commission for problems of standard of living.” His speech was short and dull. He did exactly what he used to do twenty years ago. He didn’t add anything at all to what Vera had already said; he merely repeated a few of her platitudes and then proceeded to document them. He documented “errors” and “deformities” with statistical data. He cited facts about the stagnating rate of industrial development and the declining standard of living, facts which are well known to a population that has experienced them daily. Adrian, like Vera, called for the reproduction of the very system whose ills he documented, but he was much more straightforward about the “cure” than Vera. When he said, “The leaders must apply policies which will earn them their leading roles in society,” he was hissed by several people. He apparently didn’t hear the hisses because he continued in the same vein: “We can no longer impose our authority but must conquer it through our acts.” The hisses became so loud that I could barely hear his concluding sentence, which was something like, “We can no longer impose our line by commands, but only through our work, only through the truth of our ideals.” A few people applauded; over half the audience hissed. He could not have been more pathetic if he’d begged, “Please let us stay where we are; we promise to be good next time.” The rulers apparently think the population is ready to overthrow them. If only the rest of the population had such a high opinion of its own potential!

The fact that Adrian was hissed whereas Vera was applauded puzzles me. I’m equally puzzled in the carton plant, where people condemn some of the radio politicians as “rotten bureaucrats of the old school” while praising other politicians as people who are “basically on our side.” I’m puzzled because I can’t see any essential difference between the politicians who are so different in the eyes of those around me. Either I’m failing to see some very important differences or else those around me are failing to see the similarities.

This is related to something I experienced in prison. We often discussed the behavior and character of prison guards and we classified guards in terms of their degree of brutality: some guards were “vicious,” others “so-so,” a few were “fairly decent.” But on several occasions I heard a prisoner refer to a guard as a person who was “on our side.” I could never understand this type of characterization of a prison guard. Or rather, I understood it and considered it absurd. In prison the absurdity of such an observation is made obvious by the walls, gates and bars. A person who was not inside a cell, who policed us in the yard, who left the prison every night, was clearly not on our side. The comment was absurd if it was understood literally. But it was much more disturbing if it was not understood literally because it described something very real about our situation as prisoners. It meant that prisoners have no “side,” that our fate depended completely on the wills and whims of the guards. We were things, inhuman entities without interests, desires or potentialities. The closest we could come to regaining our humanity was to have our interests and desires represented among the guards. Saying that a guard was on “our side” meant that all that remained of our humanity was lodged in the guard.

The applause given to politicians like Vera Krena in the present situation is even more disturbing than it would have been in prison. Our survival as human beings in prison did in fact depend on the prison guards, on the presence or absence of “our side” among the guards. Every attempt to affirm our humanity on our own led directly to severe repression, mutilation, even death. But this isn’t the case in the present situation, a situation Vera described as a “historic crossroads.” For the first time in twenty years the extent of our development as human beings has not depended on the extent to which our humanity was represented among the prison guards, the ruling politicians. For the first time in twenty years we’ve begun to take steps to regain our own potentialities and realize our own desires. For the first time in twenty years we haven’t been prisoners at the mercy of guards but free human beings discovering our freedom and beginning to forge our own humanity. The applause given to politicians like Vera indicates that many, disturbingly many people are not able to leave the prison in which they’ve been locked up. It means that many of my contemporaries are unable to accept the reality of their own desires even in the act of realizing them. They are unable to accept themselves as human beings. They’ve been locked up too long. They can no longer imagine any freedom other than the freedom of the prison guard. They’ve repressed all desires except those represented among the guards. Even while they take steps to realize their own project they affirm a politician’s project and deny their own.

Most of the audience left after Adrian’s speech. A group of i people gathered around Vera and a smaller group around Adrian. Jasna told me she wanted to talk to Adrian, or at least to shake his hand. She told me she felt sorry for him. I stayed in my seat when she walked up to the circle of people surrounding Adrian. He was very busy grinning and shaking hands. He didn’t seem aware that anyone had hissed his speech. The enthusiasts surrounding him probably gave him the impression that everyone in the audience considered him a seer.

Most of Adrian’s admirers were gone when he noticed Jasna. He shook her hand as if he were pumping water from a well. She must have asked if he remembered me, because both turned to look at me. Adrian’s face didn’t show the slightest sign of recognition. He immediately turned to the young man next to Jasna and started pumping his hand. Jasna’s turn had ended.

Jasna walked toward the large group which still surrounded Vera, and waited. I saw Vera look at Jasna several times and then turn to someone else. Jasna waited until she and a girl who couldn’t have been over twelve were the only people who still wanted to shake Vera’s hand. Vera shook Jasna’s hand without even looking at her, said, “Thank you very much, comrades,” shook the girl’s hand and turned to Adrian saying, “Well, that didn’t go over as badly as I’d thought it would.”

Jasna walked toward me with tears in her eyes. “Adrian at least remembered my name,” she sobbed. When we left the auditorium she was crying. “Vera lived with me for five years! We could have been sisters. She doesn’t even know who I am!”

I tried to console Jasna by telling her that I wouldn’t have recognized either Vera or Adrian if I hadn’t been reminded of them by our recent conversations and by your letters.

“You haven’t seen them for twenty years, and you never knew them the way I did,” Jasna said, and continued to cry. She knew that it wasn’t only time that separated her from her former housemates. The distance between two worlds separated her from them. Jasna was as alien to Vera and Adrian as you were to Ron on the night of your last encounter with him. When Ron said. “I hear you’re going to college,” you heard him ask: “When did I ever have anything to do with you?” Adrian remembered only Jasna’s name. Vera didn’t remember that she’d ever had anything to do with Jasna, not only because twelve years have turned Jasna into a stranger, but also because Jasna’s world is strange to Vera. The people who inhabit Vera’s world have names, “real” names, like “chairman,” “first secretary” or “president.” They have titles, posts, offices. They’re the people Vera remembers. Jasna doesn’t have a title. She doesn’t have a name. Jasna isn’t somebody. She’s nobody. Jasna is a cipher in the population statistics, a grain of sand indistinguishable from all the other grains on a beach, a face indistinguishable from all the other faces in an audience; she’s merely another hand to shake after a speech, another member of the working class whose noble cause Vera serves.

Jasna and I walked silently toward my house. I stopped trying to console her. I thought of your first two letters. I understood perfectly why I had responded to them so “unfairly.” You had described these politicians as your “community,” as the only people you knew who weren’t puppets, as insurgents who had struggled to shake off their own chains without enslaving others. I had responded as if you’d told me you had modeled your life on the life of the Roman emperor Caligula. I hadn’t seen Vera or Adrian for twenty years and I had never exerted the type of social power they aspired to. I’ve never seen Caligula either, nor have I occupied any post comparable to his. But I’ve experienced some of the effects of the projects of their likes. When you identified yourself with them I thought of you as one of them. I’m now convinced that you’re not one of them, that your project has nothing in common with theirs. But the terrain on which you’ve chosen to struggle for your project is their terrain. Every one of the activities you’ve described is an activity of politicians and ideologues. This is what led me to respond so “unfairly.” I couldn’t imagine that anything human could grow on that terrain and I still can’t.

During our walk home I could have tried to cheer Jasna up by telling her she ought to be flattered not to be recognized as a comrade by two opportunistic politicians, but I didn’t think of this. Yet this is what Mirna must have had in mind when we got home and she saw Jasna’s tears; she asked us what had happened.

“They didn’t recognize us,” I said.

“Did you think those people would recognize you?” Mirna asked. “How important do you think you are?”

Jasna smiled in response to Mirna’s question but protested, “I’m as much of a person as they are!”

“Maybe you are in Yarostan’s eyes and in my eyes,” Mirna said. “At my factory there are dozens like me in my section and there’s one manager. Do you think I’m as important as he is?”

“Much more important,” I said.

Mirna laughed and said, “Come with me on Monday morning and tell him that!”

Jasna laughed too. At this point Yara turned to Jasna and asked, “Could you tell if they were lovers?” Yara had apparently been bursting to ask this question from the moment we had entered the house but had been inhibited by Jasna’s sadness.

“Could I tell what?” Jasna asked.

“Krena and Povrshan: aren’t they lovers?” Yara asked.

“What in the world do you know about that?” I asked her.

“Jasna told us all about them!” Yara insisted.

“What Jasna told us was that Vera married the bank director and when Adrian was released from prison and found that out, he stayed away from Vera,” I reminded her.

“Jasna also told us Povrshan went out with the rector’s secretary,” Yara reminded me. “I told my girl friend Julia everything Jasna told us. Julia’s father works in the state bank and knows all about the bank director and his wife. Julia says they talk about them all the time. But they didn’t know anything about Povrshan. Julia told me the bank director is old and his wife isn’t nearly as old. In their mansion they sleep in separate rooms.”

“Did your girl friend’s father tell you about all that?” I asked.

“No, Julia figured it out,” Yara said.

“You mean she made it up,” I said.

“She did not!” Yara snapped back angrily. “She’s not a liar!”

I said, “I’m sorry. I was amazed that you and your friends discussed such things.”

“Why shouldn’t we? You do!” Yara retorted.

Mirna laughed and said, “We keep forgetting that you’re already eleven years old.”

I asked Yara to tell us what Julia had figured out.

“Her father had talked about deputy minister Krena having a lover, but no one knew who he was until I told Julia about Povrshan.”

I burst out laughing and couldn’t keep myself from asking, “Do you actually know what a lover is?”

“Do you want me to bring mine home and show you? His name is Slobodan!” Yara snapped.

Jasna and I were embarrassed. Mirna laughed. Unfortunately not one of us can take credit for Yara’s sophistication. Periods of ferment undoubtedly have a stimulating effect on everyone. I begged Yara to go on.

“Julia’s father only knew that Krena’s lover was some kind of official, that he was married, and that Krena had him appointed to a commission,” Yara continued. “But it was Julia who put all the pieces together. She’s read stories like that in magazines, but usually it’s the woman who does what Povrshan did. And she knew from the papers that every time he and Krena gave a speech together he got another promotion until he became commission chairman. When I told her what Jasna told us, Julia figured out that Povrshan had never stopped loving Krena, even though he hated her for what she’s done to him. But he knew Krena would throw him out if he simply showed up in her office. She’d think he wanted to get even with her. So he married her secretary, the one Jasna told us about. That way, when he turned up at the rector’s office he wouldn’t be looking for Krena but for his wife, and it would be Krena who would accidentally run into him. Can you imagine her expression when she asks, Are you looking for me? and he answers, No, I’m waiting for my wife. Julia figured out something else too. Krena would have thrown him out of her office if he’d turned up there unmarried, but she must have turned green with envy when she learned he was married to her secretary. Julia says it doesn’t really matter if he planned all this from the start or if he married Krena’s secretary because he actually loved her. In either case he obviously ran into Krena, since they’re together now, and his wife is Krena’s private secretary. Julia’s father said it was Krena who appointed him and Jasna told us that he was someone who’d do anything for an appointment. Don’t you see? Krena appointed him and then he had to see her about his post, sometimes at night, sometimes even all night. Krena was tired of that old bank director. When they started giving speeches they were together all the time.”

We were stunned. I had no reason to doubt the plausibility of any part of Yara’s story. After a long pause I asked, “How old is your girlfriend Julia?”

“She’s ten and a half,” Yara answered. Then, by way of explanation, she added, “But we’re both in the same grade in school.”

I was stunned by the worldly wisdom of Yara and her ten year old girlfriend. I was also disturbed. What bothered me was related to what had bothered me in your letters and also to what had bothered me when young people had applauded Vera Krena’s lecture. What disturbs me is not Yara’s sophistication but her frame of reference. She and her friend have unbelievable insight into the private lives of the ruling bureaucrats. They’re familiar with the most intimate details of a world that’s completely alien to them. They’re as interested in the love affairs of officials as the ancient Greeks were in the love affairs of their gods. The world of officials is the world that matters. Officials are today’s gods. They’re omnipotent and immortal. Not as individuals: Krena and Povrshan are mortal; they’re also replaceable. The deputy minister and the chairman are neither mortal nor replaceable. They’re the essential beings, the permanence behind the flux, the fixed stars of an ever-changing universe. They’re immortal. They can conceivably be dislodged from their positions, but only through a cosmic cataclysm which takes place in the sky. They cannot be dislodged by mere mortals. Nothing we do down here affects them. The projects which Yara has already forged with her companions have not dislodged the all-powerful beings who inhabit her imagination. The solidarity, the community, the potentiality she and her likes experienced in their demonstrations are transitory and trivial compared to the love affairs of a deputy minister and a chairman. Yarn’s acts may at times be courageous and exciting but they can never be fascinating, admirable or awesome. Fascination, admiration and awe are reserved for the acts of the gods.

Like those of my fellow workers in the plant who applaud the speeches of certain bureaucrats, Yara is already a fascinated admirer. Like them, she has already experienced in herself a capacity, however modest, to overthrow the ruling relations and like them she lodges all capacity in the gods. Like them, she has already experienced a glimmer of freedom yet still she can’t imagine any freedom other than the freedom of prison guards. Yara and her friend are our contemporaries, not only because of the sophistication of their perceptions, but also because they’re already prisoners of the ruling ideology. Like the students who applauded Vera Krena’s speech, Yara and her friend remain locked up within this ideology at a time when their own acts are undermining the ideology’s social foundations. With half of their being they dig the grave for the expiring corpse of the repressive world while with the other half they infuse the corpse with new life and carry it through yet another crisis.

In one of your earlier letters you and Luisa argued very eloquently that slaves are not responsible for their misery nor workers for their exploitation nor the poor for their poverty nor prisoners for their imprisonment. That’s true, but only superficially. Where do masters derive their mastery? From the stars? Where do the rich get their wealth if not from the poor? Where do guards and exploiters derive their power? You and Luisa are right in a very narrow sense: we don’t shoot ourselves. They shoot us. But it’s we who produce them, it’s we who staff their armies, it’s we who produce the weapons that kill us. It isn’t even true that they shoot us. They only order us shot, and it’s we who implement their orders. We butcher ourselves.

I’m not suggesting that Yara’s imagination has been permanently maimed. If this were so she wouldn’t have been able to engage in the demonstrations in which she’s been taking such an active part. All the lively activities taking place around me prove that no one has been permanently maimed. Human beings cannot be permanently transformed into insects or robots. But all the half-revolutions of the past show that human beings are as reluctant to reclaim the totality of their repressed humanity as they are to lose it. I think you illustrate this as much as Yara and my fellow workers in the carton plant. I’m not talking about opportunism now. I finally do recognize that you have nothing in common with Vera Krena. I’m talking about an ambiguity you share with people who are genuine rebels. I’m talking about the fact that you’ve reproduced the official project in the very act of struggling to realize your own; you’ve re-enacted repressive relations in the very act of fighting against them. The world in which you’ve tried to realize yourself is the world Yara carries in her head. It is the official world, the world of officials. The context in which you’ve chosen to fight your struggle makes your acts ambiguous, it robs your acts of their intentions and turns them against you.

You haven’t been uncritical of the environment in which you’ve sought to realize your projects. In fact, some of your critiques of the academic world are devastating and they’ve been very instructive and novel to me because I know so little about it. Yet how am I to understand your critiques if you conclude every one of them by telling me this was the world in which you sought your project and your community? Would you understand someone who gave a lucid analysis of the social function of the police and concluded by telling you he had joined the police in order to struggle against its social function? I won’t say that this situation is identical to yours. But there are similarities. The social function of bureaucratized education and communication is not identical to the function of the police, but the two functions are not mutually exclusive and their consequences are terribly similar. A prisoner whose helplessness leads him to seek out guards who are “on our side” is terribly similar to the worker who thinks a politician is “on our side.” The prisoner’s justification is that the guards are armed. The prisoner’s human prospects do in fact reside in the guard. But a worker who thinks his human prospects reside in a politician is deluded. He is imprisoned, not by concrete walls and iron bars, but by delusions implanted in his mind. The schools, the newspapers, the official and unofficial propaganda machines, the proclamations of the rulers and the “consciousness-raising” campaigns of “revolutionaries” are the instruments which create these delusions, they are the walls and bars which imprison him.

You’ve told me that in your activities you didn’t aim to implant the ruling delusions but to undermine them. You’ve convinced me about the integrity of your intentions. But you’re not as lucid about your own intentions as you are about Daman’s. As soon as he began talking about his intention to found a newspaper in which the “inherently revolutionary” workers would “speak for themselves,” you spotted the saint, the prophet, the shepherd and guide lurking behind the intentions. You’re not nearly as lucid about yourself. Surrounded by prophets, politicians and aspiring bureaucrats, you fought for your own project on a terrain where only theirs could grow. You fought against repression within the repressive apparatus itself. You don’t claim to have realized any of your own goals in that context, but you claim that it was not your intention to contribute to the realization of their goals. Are you sure you didn’t in fact strengthen their goals, the apparatus’ goals, by your mere presence within it? Did your intentions really matter?

It’s not Vera’s intentions that make her a bureaucrat but her social activity. Her intentions are “to find our way out of bureaucratic attitudes” and to “create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of initiative.” In terms of her intentions Vera is probably still the devoted revolutionary, the humorous and quick-witted militant you remember. I’m sure that in her own eyes she’s devoted, not to herself, but to the workers’ cause, not to the repressive apparatus but to society’s liberation from it. But in her daily life she’s an integral part of the repressive apparatus and she’s determined to remain within it. The bridge between her intentions and her practice is the ideology which allows her to equate her own success with the success of the workers. I’m sure Vera is convinced that the higher she rises in the bureaucratic apparatus, the closer we all are to “finding our way out of bureaucratic attitudes,” and the greater the power she and her friends are able to exercise over the rest of society, the more favorable the atmosphere becomes for the growth of initiative. She identifies her importance in the repressive apparatus with the workers’ cause and her freedom to exercise repressive powers with society’s liberation from repression.

If this repressive ideology were confined to Vera Krena, she could be dismissed as a very cynical and profoundly deluded individual and the rest of us could then turn to life’s real problems. But Vera’s delusions are not confined to Vera and Adrian; they’re shared to some extent by all of us, even by people who can’t use these delusions as masks for their own private ambitions. Vera’s applauding audiences share her delusions; people with whom I work share them; Yara shares them; you share them.

When we shut down the carton plant in order to oust the union functionary, we began to find our way out of the bureaucratic society and to create an atmosphere favorable to our own growth and our own freedom. But when we praise the speech of a radio politician we back away from our own deed and return to the safe terrain of the official delusion, the delusion that we can’t find our own way. We revert to the comforting conviction that our growth and our freedom are being realized by one or another politician. And, like Vera Krena and her likes, we identify our own growth and freedom with the advancement and power of politicians “who are on our side”: we give up our own struggle and become passive admirers and supporters of “our” bureaucrat; we renounce our projects and our potentialities and lodge them in “our representatives,” who realize them for us.

The programs and commitments of Krena and Povrshan are nothing but veils which cover their own private goals. Theories of liberation are the clothes of dictators. Vera Krena “finds our way out of bureaucratic attitudes” by marrying the head of the state bank, by using his influence to imprison the university rector, by replacing the former rector, by rising to the post of deputy minister of the ideological commission. Vera Krena serves the cause of the workers by reviving her love affair with Adrian Povrshan, by promoting Povrshan to member and then chairman. And we sit by our radios and newspapers, admiring the progress of our struggles and the flowering of our humanity during the official daily sessions and the unofficial nightly sessions. Our projects and our freedom become mere concepts; the reality behind the concepts consists of the love affairs of the deputy minister and the chairman of the commission for problems of standard of living. Our struggle is played out in the corridors of government palaces and the bedrooms of country houses.

We identify our lives with the private lives of bureaucrats because our own lives have stopped being real to us. We have no projects; only the rulers have projects. If we nevertheless want projects, we think we can have them only in the world of the all-powerful bureaucrats, not in the world we share with others like us. Thus we seek to realize ourselves by negating ourselves. We seek to express ourselves, not directly, not as individuals, but indirectly, as voices magnified a thousandfold by electronic instruments; we seek to communicate, not within the community of our likes, but within the community of written words, the community of newspapers, books and leaflets. But in that community there is no communication because that’s not a human community, and we either accept our bureaucratic assignments or we’re evicted as outsiders. I believe you fought bravely in the university and on the newspaper staffs, but I don’t believe you took any steps toward the realization of your projects because I don’t believe such steps can be taken in that world.

From our vantage points in repressive societies it’s as hard to imagine a world without newspapers as it is to imagine a community of free human beings. But if your whole life has been a search for such a community, how could you possibly have thought you’d find it on a newspaper staff? A community of free human beings is first of all a community in which every individual defines reality, and it is on this basis that the community builds its own environment. Journalism can only exist where there are no free human beings, where there is no community. The person who specializes in informing others about the “news” is a usurper. The newspaper establishes a reality which is common to all but alien to each, a reality expressed by all which is the self-expression of none. By letting “the news” be defined for us, we allow our definition of reality to be imposed on us from outside ourselves and we lose our ability to define, express or project ourselves; we lose precisely those faculties that make us communicative and communal animals, the faculties that make us human beings.

You treat your exclusion from the university newspaper and from the oppositional newspaper as an exclusion from Utopia, and you describe your trip to Sabina’s garage as a descent to the underworld. In the newspaper world you saw yourself as a participant but in Sabina’s world you saw yourself as a disoriented tourist. Yet the garage in which Sabina and her friends lived is an environment far more familiar to me than the world of the university or the newspaper. Your descent to Sabina’s world is a descent to my world. I recognize the people as well as the activities: those are the people with whom I shared cells during both prison terms, those are the activities and the choices I confronted when I was released from prison, those are the activities in which most of the people I’ve known have engaged. I hope you’re beginning to understand why I treated your previous letters as the letters of a stranger: you describe my world as a world which is far stranger, far more exotic to you than your world ever was to me.

Nevertheless, you did descend from the world of the newspaper, even if not by your own choice. The moments during which you considered your alternatives in the world below the propaganda apparatus must have been very much like the days I spent facing similar alternatives after my first release. As soon as you start moving in an environment very much like my own, I understand you and I admire you. I think Mirna was right when she compared your courage as well as your recklessness to Jan’s. You refused to become a protected daughter or a protected wife. You refused to sell your labor for a wage. You left yourself no other choice but to “descend” yet further, to a place you call the “underworld.” And once there, you refused to submit to the requirements for survival imposed by that world. You refused to sit inside a display window waiting to be bought. I’m obviously very interested in learning what you did do in the garage operated by Sabina and her friends.

When you wrote about your search for genuine friends and for a human community in the world of academics and journalists, I responded with hostility and I didn’t understand your search. But when you carry that search into the world of Tissie, Jose and Sabina, I suddenly understand. That’s why I’d like to know what you did in Sabina’s world, why you and Sabina both left it, why your only friend today is the pedagogue Daman. It seems to me that your search is transformed as soon as you leave the academic world and descend to the “underworld.” Looking for community in the world of academics is like looking for trust among informers or for sympathy among executioners. In that world it’s impossible to distinguish the desire for self-realization as a human being from the desire for self-realization as a bureaucrat. It’s only when you descend among those who are nothing in this society that your search becomes meaningful as a struggle against this society. Tissie, Jose, Ted are nothing; in order to become anything at all they have to become everything all at once, and that can only happen through the complete destruction of this society. For them there are neither transitional stages nor illusory victories along the way to self-realization. To look for a human community among them is to look for the destruction of everything that makes them and their likes an “underworld.”

I think I share your lifelong commitment. But I also think you don’t grasp the nature of that commitment. You still refer to our experience in the carton plant twenty years ago as the original stimulus for your commitment. I think the project and community you seek were as absent from that experience as they were from all your subsequent experiences. I think that experience played an altogether different role in your life from the one you attribute to it. I think your attachment to that experience stems from a desire to materialize your dreams, a desire to visualize what cannot be visualized, a desire to resurrect what can only be created. I share your commitment if it’s a commitment, not to a corpse, but to a community that has never existed, a community that cannot coexist with the world that represses it. But I don’t share your understanding of that commitment: by locating its source in a repressive experience, you make the goal itself repressive.

Yet I also understand your desire to resurrect the past. You’re not unique in having such a desire. When I was first released from prison I wanted to relive the very experience you’ve placed at the center of your life. Luisa’s life has revolved around the revolution she experienced before she came here. Every politician seems to be motivated by the dream of stepping into the shoes of a past prophet, dictator or executioner. Nor is this desire to resurrect the past confined to priests and politicians. It’s probably shared by all individuals who have desires. I think it’s related to your commitment, but very differently from the way you say it is.

After my first release from prison I would probably have expressed myself in terms very similar to yours. I didn’t only feel hostile toward the police society into which I had been released; I also felt that I had lost something, that something was missing, something I had learned to want. Like you I thought that this missing element was something I had possessed sometime in the past, perhaps during the agitation at the carton plant or during the resistance, or perhaps only when I had listened to Luisa’s accounts of the revolution she had experienced. I was convinced that I had been whole and alive in the past and I wanted to be whole and alive again; I wanted to resurrect the past situation. If my memory isn’t exaggerating I think I was at that time convinced that anyone who had experienced such a community and wanted to resurrect it was an insurgent, my comrade and my like.

I sensed that Mirna had a similar dream and a similar commitment. I thought that she too had lost a community and that she too was committed to resurrecting her lost community. I idealized the village where she spent the first six years of her life. I imagined she had lost the rebirth of plant life in springtime, the summer walks in the countryside, the chores as well as the festivals, the wood burning during the long winter. Above all I thought she had lost a world of human beings each of whom had recognized the other’s humanity.

The war and the occupation had driven the Sedlaks out of that community. They had tried to resurrect the village environment on the fringes of this bureaucratic city. Mirna seemed awkward and out of place; I interpreted her awkwardness as a form of resistance to the environment to which she’d been brought, as a form of affirmation of the community she’d been forced to abandon. I saw Mirna as a patient but committed insurgent determined not to lose forever the communal relationships she had once experienced. I understood Mirna’s life the same way I understood my own, the same way you still understand yours. I thought all her gestures, including her attachment to me, were motivated by a search similar to mine, a search for something lost, for something missing, for something she had learned to want.

I was as wrong about Mirna as I was about myself. And I’m convinced you’re just as wrong about yourself. The community I thought Mirna had lost was a product of my imagination. Her actual village was no more of a community than the neighborhood into which her family settled on the outskirts of the city. Later on Mirna told me that when she’d still lived in her village she’d dreamed only of moving to the city, and once in the city she never dreamed of returning to the village. I don’t know if a genuine community ever existed in a peasant village. I doubt it. Even if it did, this community disintegrated so long ago that our memories couldn’t possibly retain any trace of it. Mirna’s village, like all the other villages that survive today, was a food factory; its inhabitants were commodity producers; its project was the production and sale of merchandise.

I idealized Mirna’s village for the same reason that I idealized my own past experience: because it was in the past. Since that past experience existed only in my memory, I continually infused it with present desires until it grew into a golden age, a Utopia that contained everything my present lacked. I think this is what you’ve done with your experience in the carton plant. You’ve made it your Utopia. You’ve convinced yourself that it had contained people, relations and projects you haven’t been able to find since. But by doing this we turned our heads backward while we continued to walk forward. My understanding of Mirna wasn’t only wrong; it was inverted. Mirna herself, unlike you and me, never looked for her future in her past. She wasn’t self-satisfied, like the numerous complacent patriots whom neither you nor I seem to include among our acquaintances. She wasn’t submissive, like her mother, who accepted whatever happened as the inevitable unwinding of fate. Nor was she an opportunist like those of our friends who waited for a buyer to offer them a future in exchange for their lives. Mirna’s life, like yours and mine, was motivated by a search. But it wasn’t a search for something she had lost. If something was missing in her urban world, it wasn’t something that had existed in her village. Whatever was missing in her present had already been missing in her past. What she felt in the city was not nostalgia for the village but relief at having left it.

Near the end of your letter you say that for me “it’s so clear and obvious where the opportunism lies.” I only wish it were clear and obvious. To me it’s only clear and obvious that during most of the time I’ve spent out of prison I’ve collaborated in the reproduction of the repressive apparatus. To me it’s clear and obvious that whatever it was Mirna sought, she has only moved further away from it. It’s not so clear where the opportunism lies. We’ve sold our lives in order to survive. In this respect we don’t differ from Vera, Adrian, or Marc Glavni. They were once rebels too, like you and me; they too were motivated by a search for something missing; they too felt desires that were repressed by the ruling society. But unlike Mirna, you and me, they didn’t sell only their lives in order to survive; they also sold their desires. They weren’t unwilling collaborators in the reproduction of the repressive apparatus but became its carriers and its functionaries. They appropriated its desire, the desire to contain, repress and extinguish the humanity of each. The extinction of their initial goal became their project; they realized themselves within the apparatus that makes self-realization impossible. Vera, Marc, Adrian and Claude are on the upper levels of a pyramid while we’re at its base. We’ve wanted and we’ve tried to overthrow the pyramid yet we’ve been among those who supported it. We did it in order to survive. We were opportunists to that extent. We sold our humanity in order to keep it. By selling it we lost it, we merely added to the weight that crushed us. By surviving we kept alive, not our humanity but at least its potential. And by keeping alive that potential, that nothing which can at any moment become something, we’ve kept alive a flame that can at any moment set fire to the entire bureaucratic pyramid we call society. I think an opportunist is an individual who extinguishes that flame, and I think what you call your search for a community is the struggle to keep that potential alive.

When Mirna and I were married we confirmed the reality of our desires because we found them in each other. Both of us expected the future to be nothing like the present or the past and each of us thought this future was guaranteed by the other. We were both wrong. After our marriage the world remained the same. The only change was that I replaced her brother in her parents’ house. We continued to live on the outskirts of the city, and urban worker though I was, I drove a bus — just like her father. Mirna’s enthusiasm, her lust for life, adventure and change, were frustrated. She talked less. Our walks grew shorter. She didn’t tell me she was unhappy; she didn’t even hint that she wanted to leave her parents’ house. Not that I was observant enough to understand a hint. I was too busy proselytizing, telling her about Luisa’s experiences. She made me feel self-conscious, just as Jan did whenever he came to visit. I talked, and I remained where I was. I even talked about driving that wretched bus and I continued to drive it. It was Jan who finally put an end to a situation that couldn’t have gone on much longer. He asked if I’d be willing to work in the vehicle repair depot where he worked, at the opposite end of the city. The possibility of working with Jan appealed to me, but I didn’t like the idea of spending two hours a day travelling on a bus in addition to eight hours at the depot.

“You could get an apartment,” Jan suggested. “Mirna would welcome the change.”

I obviously didn’t go to the depot to apply for the job. Such a procedure is archaic under the dictatorship of the proletariat. I don’t really know if anyone gets a job that way any more. I got my second job the same way I’d gotten the bus-driving job. Jan went to the trade union building next door to the depot, spoke to Titus Zabran, and Titus pulled strings. An official pulled strings. And some workers I’ve met thought they’d won a victory twenty years ago! I didn’t even have to go to Titus’ office the second time. Jan went alone. He told me Titus picked up the phone, listed the qualifications of “the mechanic, Miran Sedlak,” and told Jan that I would start working in the depot the following Monday. I suppose everyone must know someone like Titus Zabran. I wonder what happens to people who don’t. This was the third time he had pulled me out of a trap, and it wasn’t the last. What gave Titus Zabran the power to pull strings? My powerlessness. If I had picked up the telephone and introduced myself as Yarostan or Miran, the person at the other end would have laughed and said, “Comrade, if you’re not an official you can’t be heard; this is a people’s democracy.”

For several weeks I actually enjoyed my new job. I had repaired presses in the carton plant, but I had never dismantled a vehicle. I was impressed by the ingenuity of the generations of workmen who had connected the power of an engine to the motion of axles and wheels without concerning themselves about the use to which their work would be put. Would they have worked so hard if they had known what their work was for, or didn’t they care? After the first few weeks the work became familiar and then routine. My initial awe gave way to resentment toward the tinkerers who had given their lives to the project of transporting ever larger quantities of commodities with ever greater speed. Working alongside Jan, I couldn’t forget what my work was for, because he continually reminded me. Once, when I was still new on the job, I went on working on an engine when the others took a smoking break. Jan grabbed my wrench and asked, “What’s your hurry, brother? If the busses pile up, some people won’t be able to get to work and they’ll have a day off.” He didn’t let any of us forget that the busses didn’t serve our aims but only the managers’, the bureaucracy’s, the state’s aims, and that the faster we worked the more we increased the power of the forces that policed us. Jan didn’t let any of us forget that those vehicles were not our protect.

It was during those first weeks on my new job, when Mirna and I were still living at her parents’ house, that I stopped trying to convert my hosts to the wisdom I had learned from Luisa. I finally gave up the project I had embraced so enthusiastically when I’d first visited the Sedlaks, the project of “going to the people” with news about a past experience. It wasn’t only Jan’s hostility toward my missionary activity that made me give it up but also my own growing hostility towards it. I became ridiculous to myself. My situation, my daily activity, made me sense that my closely reasoned arguments were incoherent, contradictory and irrational. I spent an hour every morning and another every evening on a crowded bus, usually standing, letting myself be conveyed to and from a garage where I repaired busses. Some of my fellow passengers rode to factories where they produced the tools or the parts with which I repaired the busses. I spent all the motion of my limbs tightening chains that bound us to a monster, yet every evening I spoke to my hosts about a community of free human beings. I had learned about such a community from Luisa. One of my favorite stories had to do with workers who drove and repaired 1 busses. I told it to the Sedlaks as enthusiastically as Luisa had : told it me me. Bus drivers and bus repairmen like I, like Jan and his father, had once turned against the monster; they had taken over the entire transportation network of their city. Like a schoolboy reciting a memorized lesson I stressed the fact that shortly after the takeover the busses were again running on schedule, they were again transporting workers to factories and buyers to markets, they were again repaired. The workers themselves were doing without capitalists and managers exactly what they had done with capitalists and managers. In other words, with naive enthusiasm I told my hosts, over and over again, that workers had defeated the monster and yet remained chained to it. My hosts didn’t respond; they evidently didn’t understand why I was so enthusiastic, and they obviously didn’t think that such a victory was worth a drop of a worker’s blood.

Let your friend Daman call me an “intellectual.” I was educated and informed by Luisa if by no one else. Because of this education I had to think hard in order to figure out what was perfectly obvious to Jan and his father. Who but workers have ever driven and repaired busses? Who but workers have ever transported other workers to and from factories? If those workers fought on barricades in order to do voluntarily what they’d been forced to do before, then there was something wrong with those workers, or else with Luisa’s story. But my hosts were polite. They didn’t ask me if I’d be willing to risk my life in order to drive a bus “on my own.” They’d heard such meaningless jargon before: on the radio. They still had high hopes for me.

But I lost my missionary zeal as well as my self-assurance and grew increasingly depressed. Everything I knew was false and everything I did was harmful. On balance it was my activity that bothered me more than my ignorance, because I spent only an hour a day talking compared to the ten I spent working and travelling. You’re perfectly right. Survival or not, there’s only one word for that activity. It’s prostitution. From morning to night I sold myself, I exchanged my life for a sum of money. What I knew or thought I knew was completely irrelevant. I sold myself when I was a missionary and I continued selling myself after I stopped being a missionary. The only concrete thing I did with my life was to keep some busses running, to contribute to the efficient circulation of commodities and labor power. The hopes Mirna and I had shared vanished like childhood illusions about the adult world.

While I became increasingly depressed, Mirna grew more hopeful. Vesna was born shortly before I got my new job, and to Mirna the birth of the child and my job transfer were the first of a series of changes that were going to transform our lives. My job transfer confirmed some of her more extravagant expectations. One day, after I complained bitterly about the social function of my new job, she said, “Don’t be such a pessimist; that’s only a beginning.” A beginning of what? I didn’t ask her but I think I knew. It was the beginning of our journey from the village to an imaginary place where all desires could be fulfilled. In her eyes I had apparently stepped backward into the village when I had become a bus driver like her father. The move to her brother’s job was a move out of the village. Jan lived by himself in the city; he didn’t grow chickens or potatoes in his own back yard; he was no longer a peasant but a worker. And the fact that I moved at all confirmed her most profound hope: it confirmed that I was able to move.

But it was only after I had been on my new job for several weeks, after I asked her if she wanted to move closer to the center of the city, that Mirna expressed any of this.

“An apartment in the city!” she exclaimed. “If you only knew how long I’ve dreamed of that and how afraid I’ve been that I’d never get there. Of course I want an apartment in the city! There’s no reason for Vesna to be brought up by my mother when she’s already so close to a different kind of life. How badly I’ve wanted to leave, Yarostan! I hate it here! Didn’t you know?”

If I hadn’t known, I knew then. It became very clear to me why my new job was a “beginning.” It was the beginning of Mirna’s final break with the village, the beginning of Mirna’s journey to the dream world she had seen from far away: the beginning of Vesna’s upbringing as an urban worker, a citizen, someone like Jan and Sabina; the beginning of a different kind of life.

Since neither of us had to be convinced, our next problem was to find an apartment. Various monuments were built after the war to celebrate the workers’ victory, but very little had been done to house the victorious workers. The consciousness of the working class had to be housed first, and all the new buildings were inhabited almost exclusively by bureaucrats. I could have turned to Titus Zabran once again but I had misgivings about the strings he had already pulled for me. I decided to consult the people with whom I worked in the depot. That was how Jan had found his place: a worker offered to share his apartment with Jan. But since there were three of us, this possibility was out of the question. My fellow workers promised to keep their eyes open for any vacancies that might turn up in their neighborhoods.

But weeks passed, and then months. Mirna grew impatient. She decided to look on her own. She visited addresses advertised in the newspaper. They were all privately owned houses or apartments. Her experience was the same wherever she went. She was asked what her husband did, and as soon as she said “mechanic,” she was told the apartment was already rented. She cried as soon as she got home. After four or five days she gave up.

Finally, several months after our search began, one of the workers at the depot told me there was a vacancy in the building across the street from where he lived. I went to see the place as soon as I got off work. The building was an ancient two-storey mansion that had been divided up and turned into an apartment house already before the war. After the coup the four downstairs and four upstairs apartments were classified as doubles so that the one-time single private house now consisted of sixteen living units. Each double unit consisted of two bedrooms and a single living room, bathroom and kitchen. In other words, the vacant apartment consisted of a vacant bedroom. An old worker who had occupied it had just died.

When I described the place to Mirna, she was overjoyed. She was so frustrated and so desperate that she’d gladly have run to a rat-infested basement that had been used to store coal. All that mattered was that there were neither geese nor chickens in the yards and that all the neighbors got their potatoes and vegetables from stores. She didn’t even want to see the place first. We simply moved in, and all her enthusiasm returned. Mirna greeted and embraced our new neighbors as if they were long-lost friends. She carried Vesna around the neighborhood, in and out of all the stores, as if to familiarize the baby with her new, genuinely urban surroundings. In the evenings we took long walks. Mirna studied all the passers-by, their expressions as well as their clothes. She also studied all the commodities displayed in the store windows.

Mirna fulfilled her life’s dream. She became a city dweller, a citizen, the wife of a city worker, with an apartment of her own and a child who would be no more of a country bumpkin than her urban neighbors or her brother. But that school-created dream masked a shallow reality. She became everything she was going to become on the day she moved out of her parents’ house. The following day, or week, or month, she didn’t become more of a citizen or more of a worker’s wife. She didn’t become more creative nor more imaginative nor — after her enthusiasm dissipated itself — more energetic. She didn’t become anything she hadn’t been before. She merely lost her life’s dream.

But that dream is a chameleon. It changes whenever we think we’ve reached it. Mirna knew that something had gone wrong, that something was still missing. I remember one of the statements she made only a few weeks after we moved: “I had expected everything to be so different.” She had expected a new life. She had expected what you express with the words project and community. But she didn’t become desperate or depressed. She still experienced reality as she’d been taught to experience it. She held on to her dream. The chameleon transformed itself. Whatever was still missing, whatever she hadn’t become, could be bought in a store. She didn’t buy very much. We had saved a considerable sum of money during the year when I had driven the bus and we had lived and eaten at her parents’ house. She spent very little of it; she’s always been afraid to spend money. But the few things she did buy were very important to her. Since our room was adequately furnished, we didn’t need to buy furniture. But we did need curtains. I’m sure that no city has ever been built with the love and care with which she bought those curtains. She looked at shop windows for several weeks; every night we walked to look at another pair. When she finally bought them she treated them as a second newborn child. After the curtains were hung she repeated the entire ceremony with a bedspread. Jasna read novels in order to experience in fiction what she’d failed to experience in her life; Mirna bought curtains and a bedspread. The objects replaced her project as well as her community. But like the apartment itself, the objects lost their promise on the day they were acquired. No new life began. Nothing was different. Even the curtains and the bedspread remained new only for a few days. The chameleon changed again. But the more it changed the more it remained the same. The lack, the gap that reappeared every time it was filled, could be refilled continually only to reappear again. If this object failed to satisfy, surely the next object would succeed — or the next job transfer, or the next apartment.

The next object was to be the largest of all our objects. It was Vesna’s baby carriage, a four-wheeled vehicle complete with bed and canopy, two axles, springs and brakes. It was the only vehicle we ever owned. And it was from that vehicle that I learned the narcotic potency of the manufactured thing. We scrupulously examined every carriage in the city before deciding which one was to be our carriage. We wheeled it to our apartment as if it were made of glass, carefully avoiding every pool of dirty water, raising it gently over every bump. We carried it upstairs to our bedroom, and we continued to keep it in our bedroom, not so much because we were afraid it would be stolen from the hallway but because we wanted it where we could see it. In other epochs people looked for gods, saints and revelations to confirm their lost humanity. In ours the commodity embodies all the gods, saints and revelations. Whenever we were depressed by the hollowness of our lives, whenever we felt the still unfulfilled gap, we looked at Vesna’s carnage. The object confirmed our purpose and our worth. It was the meaning of the endless waiting and the meaningless work.

Our evening walks on the neighborhood streets, and especially our Sunday walks in the city park, became the high points of our lives. It was on those walks that we displayed our qualities, the qualities we had bought in stores. As soon as we had the carriage we needed the clothes that went with it. I bought a suit identical to the suits I had seen in the city park, the suits of young men who accompanied their baby carriages and their wives. Mirna and Vesna each acquired a dress with similar properties. We were now complete. When we promenaded Vesna through the park, we felt ourselves admired the same way we had admired the well-dressed couples with baby carriages. Passers-by looked into the carriage and smiled at Vesna. We were proud of Vesna, proud of our success, proud to be admired. Vesna, Mirna and I were like all the others in the park, like the admirable others, the members of the working class. We were complete human beings, citizens. Our clothes and Vesna’s carriage proved it. At the end of the promenade we removed our attributes and hung them in the closet, always keeping them spotless and uncreased. We set Vesna’s carriage in the corner of our room. It was a very pretty carriage. We still have it. But Vesna is no longer with us.

Our bliss lasted for two seasons. I don’t know how long we could have remained intoxicated by our objects if the ground under out feet hadn’t shifted, but I suspect the drugs would have lost their power on their own during the third season. In any case, we weren’t given a chance to enjoy the full effect of our narcotics; our frail house of cards collapsed around us.

The event that put an end to our blissful stupor was a violent encounter between Jan and the foreman at the depot where we worked. The foreman was the type of person usually described as dumb and ruthless. He was several years younger than we were and had started working at the depot three years before Jan was hired. He was immediately recruited as a police informer and he apparently did this job so well that he was appointed section foreman only a few months after he was hired, and general foreman a few months after that. Although he had spent a few months working as a repair mechanic, by the time he was general foreman he had become convinced that the mechanics were all mindless robots and that the only thinking in the depot took place in his head. He thought of the rest of us. not as complete human beings, but as human fragments, as extensions of his limbs, as instruments which mindlessly implemented his orders.

The only consequence of the foreman’s attitude was that his intentions were completely undermined. Since we were brainless, we didn’t use our brains to implement his wishes but only to thwart them. As extensions of his limbs we were worse than lifeless limbs; we were rebellious implements that continually frustrated their user. No one expressed this rebelliousness as explicitly as Jan. Whenever the foreman called his name, Jan instantly dropped whatever he was holding, even if it was an oil pan, jumped up, saluted, and shouted, “Yessir!” Jan was the only one who tried to conform in every single detail to the way the foreman saw him. If all the foreman told him was, “Pull that carburetor out,” Jan took a winch or a pry bar and pulled the carburetor out, without removing any of the bolts. One day Jan was removing a rear wheel to replace a worn bearing. “What the hell are you doing? All it needs is grease!” the foreman shouted. Jan furiously replaced the wheel and packed it with grease. The bus was towed back to the depot two weeks later with a ruined axle and wheel. The rest of us also implemented the foreman’s orders to the letter, but none of us were as scrupulous as Jan. If some busses were nevertheless repaired, it was only because the foreman couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, and all of us worked with relative efficiency when we weren’t carrying out a command.

Some weeks after the incident with the broken wheel, the foreman again pulled Jan off the job he was doing and bellowed, “See if there’s oil in this engine. And don’t let me catch you doing anything to the engine!” The foreman had conveniently forgotten that he’d been wrong when he’d kept Jan from replacing the wheel bearing.

Jan did exactly what the foreman told him to do and two days later the bus returned with a burned out engine. The foreman was furious. He ran to Jan and shouted, “I thought I told you to see if there was oil in that engine!”

Jan dropped his tools and saluted, saying, “Yessir!”

“There couldn’t have been a drop of oil in it!” the foreman shouted.

“Yessir!” Tan said again.

“You imbecile!” the foreman bellowed. “I told you to put oil in! Did you put oil into that engine?”

“No sir!” Jan answered.

The foreman’s eyes were red with fury. He leered at the rest of us, ran to get a crowbar and swung it at Jan’s head. Jan ducked and was hit lightly on the shoulder. Jan picked up a wrench.

The foreman started to swing his crowbar again but I ran up from behind him and yanked the bar out of his grasp. “You’re lying,” I told him, holding on to the bar; “I heard what you told Jan to do. You told him to see if there was oil in the engine and you explicitly told him not to do anything else.”

“You’re crazy!” the foreman shouted. “Whoever heard of sending a bus on the road with a dry engine?”

“Everyone here has heard of that,” I answered. “We’ve also heard of sending a bus out with a worn bearing and of stopping j someone who wanted to fix it.”

Backing away from me and the crowbar, the foreman shouted at the top of his voice, “Put that bar down! You can’t threaten me! You Sedlaks are lunatics. I’ll have you locked up. You’re sick! Someone sent you here to wreck the workers’ busses! Who pays you to wreck busses?”

Jan turned to the foreman and said calmly, “No one pays us to do it. We wreck the busses on our own and for ourselves. We can’t stand them. They use up our space, our air and our energy. We’re lunatics determined to drive you and your busses out of our asylum.”

I’m reminded of your scene with the school official who said you were deranged and dangerous when you called off your class to take part in the student strike. I commend you for your courage; you really do share that with Jan. Your courage was in fact greater because Jan and I weren’t nearly as isolated as you were. The foreman backed away from us like a cornered beast. He grabbed another bar and then a wrench, but he didn’t try to use them. He no longer faced only the two of us. Every single worker in the depot had picked up a tool and joined the semi-circle of angry workers surrounding the foreman. Every single person was waiting for the foreman to take the slightest step toward Jan, toward me, toward any other worker. We were all waiting for him to start swinging his bar, his wrench or even his fist. The foreman was pale with fright. He cringed away hugging the wall, trembling, not taking his eyes off us for a second.

The foreman didn’t return that day, nor did we continue our work. We sat down and smoked. All of us were furious. Someone said, “Let him try that just one more time. We’ll show him!”

“What’ll we show him?” Jan asked.

“We’ll show him who does the work; we’ll show him that we can do without him,” the man answered.

“That’s a lie,” Jan snapped. “Do you think I’d repair these contraptions if no one forced me to do it? What on earth for?”

Everyone drew back when Jan said this. The others probably hadn’t ever heard anyone express such an attitude. I drew back too, although I had heard such a view before, during my first prison term. Jan’s attitude to work was identical to Manuel’s. It was also similar to the attitude your young high school friend Ron expressed when he took you on your first tour of his city. To Jan it wasn’t the presence or absence of the foreman that made our work prostitution but the fact that we sold our lives to a project that wasn’t our own. At that time I didn’t understand him, just as I hadn’t understood most of what Manuel had told me in prison.

Jan had expressed the same attitude six years earlier, during our agitational activity at the carton plant. Luisa still remembers him for that. In your second letter you told me George Alberts had considered Jan and me “destructive hooligans” and Luisa agreed with Alberts. It’s not at all surprising that she included Ron and Manuel among the “hooligans.”

According to Sabina, George Alberts thought that workers had fought a revolution in order to replace reactionary foremen with revolutionary foremen, that workers had fought a revolution in order to place George Alberts in an important post. All those opposed to this, like Manuel, had to be swept out of the way. Where was Luisa when revolutionaries like Manuel were swept out of the way? Was she alongside the aspiring foreman Alberts, helping to sweep people like Ron, myself, Manuel and Jan out of the way? She virtually admitted this when she said that “such people” were a greater threat to the revolution than the militarists. I’d really like to know where Luisa stood during this purge of saboteurs. I’ve long ago become suspicious of her interpretations; your letters have made me wonder about her activity as well.

Incidentally, I’d still like to know how Alberts succeeded in having you and Luisa released from prison twenty years ago.

Sabina wants me to tell more about Manuel. Unfortunately I knew him only in prison, and our conversations were neither very thorough nor were they very relaxed in the circumstances in which they took place. Also, at the time I knew him I spent as much time defending Luisa’s arguments as I spent listening to Manuel’s. I didn’t really understand Manuel’s positions until I worked with Jan at the bus repair depot, and even then I resisted the implications of that position. Emotionally I agreed with Jan. His attitude to the work we did expressed exactly what I felt toward my job and toward my life. Emotionally I had also agreed with Manuel, and even while defending Luisa’s arguments I had known that I would have been among those of Manuel’s friends who were jailed and killed as saboteurs. Intellectually I must have held a view similar to the one Sabina expressed in your letter although I don’t remember that I had any intellectual view at all; I only had vague feelings. I suppose that I, like Sabina. thought that busses and factories were useful and that their only dehumanizing characteristic was that they were managed by bureaucrats and policed by armed torturers and murderers; if we could only get rid of those predatory parasites, we would humanize the factories as well as ourselves. Such may have been my view when I drew back in response to Jan’s comment after the scene with the foreman, and such may still be Sabina’s view today, but this view has nothing in common with Jan’s or Manuel’s. Manuel had nothing good to say about what Sabina, following Alberts, calls “industrialization.” Manuel’s name for it was Capital, and he called j the revolutionary politicians who murdered his comrades; “capitalists.” For Manuel, industrialization was merely another name for humanity’s disease, it was a synonym for dehumanization. He called it Capital because he didn’t see it as a human activity, as a project launched by living individuals for themselves and for each other, but as a process that grew apart from them and against them, as a growth which they fed with their living energy but which they didn’t control. He had been with people who had temporarily defeated the forces that repressed them, had shared with them the experience of projecting a world that would be for human beings, and had watched most of those people reimpose on themselves the very forces they had defeated the day before because someone had told them industrialization was for them. He saw workers re-shackle themselves to a process over which they had no control because someone convinced them their desire for their own life and their own project constituted sabotage and hooliganism. Manuel and Jan taught me that if we don’t destroy the old life, whether we call it capital or progress or industrialization, and if we don’t project and begin to create a new life, then we’re only going to reenact our slavery on the graves of our fallen comrades, some of us managing and most of us managed, some of us repressing and all of us repressed.

When Jan said he wouldn’t repair any busses if a foreman didn’t force him to, I drew back. I suspected that I wouldn’t either, but I refused to draw any conclusions. I knew that on a superficial level Jan’s statement was false, since the only time any of us repaired any busses was when the foreman was out of our sight. But Jan meant something more profound, and it was this that I resisted. My resistance to his argument helps me understand why we still produce busses, bureaucrats and bombs. I resisted because I worried for the busses. I wondered who would repair them and produce them if the revolution I then had in mind ever took place and overthrew all foremen, informers and influential comrades. I worried for the future of Capital. It was only years later that I began to ask myself who had decided that several of us were to spend parts of our lives repairing busses. This certainly wasn’t the project of the living individuals engaged in it. None among the living, nor even among those who had lived before, had ever come together and decided that this activity was to be the content of our lives. It was as if we had no choice in the matter, as if we were irremediably condemned to spend our lives at forced labor. The progress of things determined the content of our lives. Things defined us, things dominated us and things consumed us. And when Jan expressed the desire to run out from under them and let them crash, I worried, not for myself or for any of us, but for the things. I wondered how the things would fare when we were no longer under them. I knew we had the ability to communicate. to determine our own individual and collective projects, to launch them together and to enjoy our common creation. I knew that such abilities were inherent to our being, that they were our very essence if we have a specific essence, that they were not aberrations or Utopian dreams. I knew this with as much certainty as I know that my heart beats: because I feel it. Yet every day I negated my being, I suppressed it; every day of my life I nursed the thing, I worried for it, I repaired it, cringed under it and died for it. The progress of the thing matters more to us than our development, more than the flowering of our own capacities. It is more important than our lives. If the progress of the thing ever requires us to stop breathing, I wonder if we’ll be flexible and accommodating enough to do that for it as well.

I drew back from Jan’s conclusions but I couldn’t draw back from the experiences that had led Jan to those conclusions. I couldn’t draw back from the world I lived in. I couldn’t keep myself from experiencing what I still refused to believe: that the thing didn’t exist for me but only for itself, that its well-being coincided with my immiseration, that its progress was built on my stagnation.

The day after our confrontation with the foreman I went to work at the usual hour. When I reached the entrance to the depot two men in street clothes rushed toward me, grabbed me by the arms and dragged me to the back seat of a car. Jan was already there. He laughed when I was placed next to him arid shouted, “What’s this? Have you ever seen these gentlemen before? Did you ever have anything to do with them? I’d thought we were having an argument with the foreman, an argument that concerned only us and the foreman. Are these gentlemen the foreman’s relatives or his personal body guard?”

We were taken to the police station. I felt frustrated and indignant. It wasn’t hard to surmise where the foreman had gone the previous day after he had cringed away from the circle of angry workers surrounding him. Nor was it surprising that going directly to the police would have been the normal reflex for this individual who had started his career as a police informer. What was so frustrating, and so revealing, was that all this took place without any communication among the individuals who were involved. Nothing was discussed, nothing was decided by the workers in the depot. The whole matter was settled by the foreman and the police, by the agents of order, by the agents of an order that doesn’t concern those who maintain it because it isn’t theirs and doesn’t exist for them; they merely undergo it, as their lot.

Everything that happened at the police station was predictable except the fact that we weren’t sentenced to a new prison term. We were locked into a room with nothing in it ! except a bench. Jan grumbled, “Here we go again.” We were both convinced that we were going to spend the next few years, perhaps the rest of our lives, in prison. We sat quietly and waited. Jan stared at the blank wall; his laughter was gone. I started to cry, not because I would miss my walks in the park, wearing my suit and pushing Vesna’s carriage, but because that activity suddenly seemed so ludicrous, such a miserable way to use up life’s time. I cried because I would miss all that I hadn’t done, all the possible lives I had failed to live. I thought of a story I had read about a man who realized only on his deathbed that during all his years in the world he hadn’t once lived.

We were wrong. The repressive apparatus decided to dispose of us in a more economical way, without incurring the costs of maintaining us.

We were summoned to the office of what must have been the station’s head bureaucrat. As soon as we were seated the bureaucrat turned to me and, fumbling with a dossier that must have been mine, asked, “Are you Yarostan Vochek?”

“Would you believe me if I told you I wasn’t?” I asked.

Pointing his forefinger at me, the bureaucrat threatened, “If you parade as Miran Sedlak one more time, you’ll be imprisoned for fraud, do you understand that?”

Jan and I looked at each other; we were relieved. “If” and “one more time” meant that we weren’t going to be imprisoned this time. We wanted to laugh.

The bureaucrat turned to Jan and, with the same threatening tone, said, “You know that you can both get ten years for insulting and beating the foreman.”

Jan didn’t respond.

“You could get another ten years for instigating a riot inside a workplace, and another for wrecking social means of production. All this on top of your criminal record would land you in prison for life,” the bureaucrat said, threateningly but calmly, as if he were explaining a mathematical problem to us.

Both of us stared at him. We no longer felt like laughing.

He continued, “We’re not going to imprison you. We don’t run a nursery for wild beasts.” (That explained our good fortune.) “Parade under false names one more time, go into or near the bus repair depot for any reason whatever, wreck any more social property, fight with the same or another representative of the working class, and we’ll take care of you — this time permanently. Do you understand that?”

We were being told that we would be exterminated like “wild beasts” if we protected ourselves from abuse one more time. We were being fired from our jobs. We were being given a picture of our future: either to live as dead things or else not to live at all. We were being deprived of uncertainty.

“Yes,” I answered, “We understand that.”

The small amount of conventional happiness Mirna and I had nursed with such loving care disintegrated all around us. We could enjoy the illusory satisfaction offered by the objects only if we served them; as soon as we stopped serving them we learned that they were not for us but that we were for them. The moment we transgressed the rules of progress and found ourselves alone with our rewards, the objects lost their auras and revealed their essence: they were garbage.

I returned to our apartment long before the end of the working day. Mirna started crying before I even told her Jan and I had been arrested. She knew as soon as I walked in that I’d been fired. The previous night I had told her about our encounter with the foreman; her only comment had been, “What’ll become of us?” I had been angered by her comment because I’d interpreted it to mean, “What’ll become of the curtains, the bedspread, Vesna’s carriage and our Sunday clothes?” I’d been angered mainly because I had shared exactly the same concern: I had worried for the objects.

When I told Mirna what happened at the police station she started to tremble. Her face took on an expression of undisguised, raw fear. She threw herself at me, sobbing and shaking, and uttered weakly, “They can’t, Yarostan, they can’t!” Mirna saw what I had seen a few hours earlier while waiting with Jan in the room at the police station; she saw how ludicrously poor our lives had become since the day when we’d started pouring them into our objects. We stopped worrying for the objects and started worrying for ourselves. We became aware of our own lives for the first time only when we began to be hounded, when we faced the danger of losing them.

That day was a beginning, but not the kind of beginning Mirna had looked forward to. It was the beginning of our persecution. From that day on we were hounded so persistently that we never again had the opportunity to worry about the future of our objects. That day was the beginning of our human lives. We ceased to be objects in a world of objects; we ceased to be things that produced and things that consumed. I began to understand Jan’s outlook as well as Manuel’s.

Only two days after Jan and I were “briefed” by the police bureaucrat, there was a knock at the door. Mirna jumped up as if a cannon had exploded; she backed against the wall, pale with fear. The moment misfortune begins all news is bad news and every change is likely to be a change for the worse. I let in a man who introduced himself as the president of the neighborhood council. His eyes didn’t once stop shifting from side to side. He was as suspicious as a mouse sitting in the middle of a room, ready at any instant to flee back to its hole. He even i studied Vesna with apprehension, probably fearing that her paw would fly out and claw his face before he’d had a chance to defend himself or escape. Years later our neighbor, the police informer Mr. Ninovo, reminded me of this council president.

The president announced, as if he were reading, although he didn’t have a text: “At its last deliberative session the neighborhood council resolved that convicted criminals and other parasites who suck the blood of the working people will not be harbored within the living units of said council.”

Mirna started to bawl and Vesna joined her. I flung the door wide open, grabbed the president by the back of the collar, and sent him flying out of our apartment with a kick in the rear, so as to justify the need for his vigilance, his suspiciousness and the constant shifting of his eyes.

Mirna became hysterical. She was sure the police would come to arrest me for the last time because of the way I had treated the council president. I tried to calm her by telling her the president’s behavior had indicated that he hadn’t expected to be treated any other way. But as soon as her fear for my arrest receded, she started worrying about our situation. She convinced herself that the neighborhood council had no right to evict us, since they didn’t even live in our building. She talked me into taking our predicament to the neighbors. I agreed with the principle of doing this, but I assured her that our neighbors had no more power to stop our eviction than we did; right or wrong, the neighborhood council had the police behind them.

Even so, I went with Mirna to knock on the doors of our neighbors’ apartments. This was a mistake; it only informed us how alone we were. One of the women downstairs opened the door and immediately slammed it in our faces. None of the others let us into their apartments. We were forced to stand in the doorways and explain our situation as if we were dirty beggars asking for food, and as we spoke we heard the doors we’d just left open slightly. Apparently people wanted to hear our story a second and then a third and even a fourth time, or else they were eavesdropping so as to hear what the others would tell us. When we reached our third or fourth door, the man interrupted us before we were finished and said, “I’m sorry for you, but you really should have told us you were a convicted criminal.”

The next neighbor interrupted us almost as soon as we began and she made the advice more succinct: “You should have told the council you were convicts.”

Mirna angrily grabbed the woman by the shoulders and shouted, “You idiot! We’re workers just like you! Convicts are people who are inside prisons, and most of them are workers too!”

The woman was apparently intimidated. She said, “I’m sorry for you,” backed away from us and closed her door.

We heard the next door close while we walked towards it. We knocked and a man shouted, “I don’t talk to criminals!”

I got furious and, banging on the door with all the strength in my arms, I shouted, “That’s because you’re a pig, and pigs never talk to human beings!”

We didn’t knock on the remaining three or four doors. We didn’t have the nerve. We were defeated. All of our neighbors were workers; there wasn’t a single clerical worker, student or bureaucratic official in the building.

According to your friend Daman, workers are “inherently revolutionary.” I suppose what he means by that is identical to what our neighborhood council president would mean. Daman doesn’t mean all workers; he means those workers who have learned to submit to authority, those workers who would be willing to obey any authority that speaks in their name, those who would be willing to evict and ultimately to maim and kill other workers for the sake of a politician who considers them “inherently revolutionary.” Daman is a politician or a saint: in his mouth “revolutionary” means the same thing as “blessed” and is merely a way to flatter his future followers.

Our situation was similar to the one I had faced during the weeks after I had been released from prison. We had no place to go and I had no job. We still had some savings but now there were three of us. We were stained, exactly the way Jews had been stained during the occupation. Only now there was no resistance movement; the dregs of that movement had replaced the previous occupiers; the rest of the movement had been slaughtered during three days and nights of senseless butchery.

If we found another apartment, we would be hounded out as soon as the police informed our neighbors that we were “convicts.” I couldn’t find a job for the same reason. I didn’t even think of looking for one. I knew I’d have the same luck I’d had before: “I’m sorry comrade, but with your record... we can’t afford...”

We went to Jan for help and advice. He was able to remain in the apartment of his former fellow worker, and as a result he was able to communicate our situation to the other workers in the depot. The police had told us to stay away from the depot; they hadn’t told Jan to move out of his apartment. I suppose the police had expected Jan to be evicted the same way we were, but Jan’s friend, not being a “criminal,” had managed to reason with his neighbors, convincing them that Jan couldn’t be evicted since the apartment wasn’t in his name; he was simply a guest.

Jan said that he would contact Titus Zabran once again about our getting another job; he’d have to telephone Titus to avoid being arrested, since Titus’ office was next door to the j bus depot. As for our housing problem, Jan looked sadly at Mirna and suggested that we move back to their parents’ house, at least until I found another source of income.

Mirna swallowed her pride together with her life’s dreams and took Jan’s advice. We moved back to the fringes of the city, back to the yards with chickens and vegetable gardens, back to the neighborhood which was no longer a village but was not yet part of the city. We packed our curtains, our bedspread and our Sunday clothes; we wouldn’t need them where we were going.

Vesna’s carriage had to be transported on a truck. We were ashamed of it when it arrived. There were no baby carriages on the unpaved streets where Mirna’s parents lived; they weren’t built for such streets. We stored the carriage in what had been Jan’s room and covered it with an old sheet. Unlike an old trunk after a journey’s end, it couldn’t be used as a storage box nor as a seat or surface; it had no use at all; it was simply a large mistake.

What upset Mirna most of all was the thought that Vesna would grow up in the environment where Mirna had grown up, that Vesna would be brought up by Mirna’s religious mother, and that Vesna’s whole life would consist of experiences like the one we had just undergone. I argued that there was no reason to project our misfortune into the child’s life, but ultimately it was Mirna who turned out to be right.

When we told Mirna’s father what we had undergone, he nodded with approval for what Jan and I had done. He said, “You can’t teach mules to fly,” referring to those who had evicted us; his conclusion was as fatalistic as his wife’s: “That’s how it is. What matters is that you’re alive and well. Worse things have happened.”

In other words, a healthy horse can still be made serviceable; only a lame horse is good for nothing. In his view our adventure was nothing more than a temporary setback comparable at worst to a healthy and vigorous peasant’s loss of a year’s crop. Next year was another year, and if we stayed alive and well we’d surely emerge with a better crop, perhaps even coming out as far ahead as we’d fallen behind. He was still convinced that I would go far, perhaps to a bureaucratic office, perhaps even to the university. But he noticed that I talked less and sometimes not at all: he suspected that something had gone wrong. One evening during dinner he asked me. half jokingly, “What’s the matter with you, boy? Have you lost your politics? This is no time to lose that type of talent!”

Mirna’s mother didn’t share Sedlak’s high opinion of me. She had seen me as an omen, an evil omen, since the day when I first came to her house. I didn’t learn this until several years later, because she didn’t say anything at all at the time. She saw me as hell’s messenger, sent from afar to bring destruction, misery and death to the entire family. Everything I had done until then confirmed this suspicion — or rather this certainty, since she didn’t once show that she doubted the truth of her initial impression. The newest episode showed her that I had already started to carry out my destructive assignment. By taking part in Jan’s fight with the foreman, and especially by calling myself Miran Sedlak, I had caused Jan to get into far more trouble than he’d have gotten into by himself. It’s possible that this was when she linked me to Jan’s first arrest, since a few years later she was going to blame me for everything that had happened to Jan, and she knew that Jan and I had been arrested together six years earlier at the carton plant. Finally, by getting myself evicted, I was starting to bring pain and humiliation into Mirna’s life and even into little Vesna’s life. I didn’t know these details at the time, but I sensed her intense hostility toward me, a hostility that couldn’t be pacified with a kindly gesture, a pleasant word or a smile.

Mirna and I helped with the housework, read a little, took care of Vesna and waited. There was snow on the ground and we rarely left the house; in any case, Mirna no longer had inclinations to take walks in that familiar neighborhood.

We waited for something to change for the better. Our main hope was Jan; we waited for him to come with good news about a job, perhaps about an apartment.

Jan came, but not with good news. He had telephoned Titus Zabran. Titus knew about our firing. He told Jan that our situation was made difficult by the fact that the police had reported our behavior to the trade union bureaucracy and consequently no official would be willing to hire us, even with “pull.” But he told Jan he would continue to try to find a “place” for us.

Mirna grew increasingly frustrated and impatient. “We can’t simply sit here and wait,” she insisted. “Nothing is ever going to happen here, absolutely nothing!”

She decided to try to get a job on her own. First she went out with a newspaper. Then she started to ask young women on busses what kinds of jobs they had and where their factories were located. She visited every factory she could find.

After three or four weeks of daily journeys to large and small workshops she found a job in a clothing factory not far from the carton plant. She announced it with a certain amount of pride, but without a trace of the childlike optimism with which she had greeted earlier changes. Already before she started to work, her passion and her pride were mixed with a certain resignation, a certain helplessness in the face of an indifferent. arbitrary and cruel environment. She became increasingly silent, increasingly patient; her life’s dreams continued receding. Mirna became a member of the working class but not on her own terms. She became a wage worker, a citizen of Capital. She described her job with one word: “drudgery.” In the clothing factory she learned boredom, the endless repetition of the same motions, the gloomy foreknowledge that the following day, week and year would be the same as all the yesterdays. Her daily activity enriched humanity only in clothes; it consumed Mirna, swallowed all her projects, extinguished her hopes. By becoming a member of the working class she annihilated the possibility to become a member of a human community, she gave away the time and energy necessary for the creation of that community. The resignation Mirna expressed the first day she worked in the clothing factory was the resignation of a person whose life is no longer one’s own, of a beast of burden.

About a month after Mirna started working, Jan learned about a job for him and me. Titus Zabran had actually gone to Jan’s apartment to tell him about the job. A steel plant in a small town about 100 kilometers from the city was short of unskilled laborers. There were not enough workers in the town or the surrounding villages to supply the needed labor force and city workers were either unwilling to move or unwilling to travel such a great distance twice a day. Consequently the plant officials were willing to overlook our prison past as well as our employment records. Titus suggested that Jan and I accept the job, assuring him that such “emergency situations” were the best we could expect under the circumstances and that the next emergency might not pay as high a wage as the steel plant.

Mirna refused to hear of our travelling 100 kilometers away. I argued that we apparently had no other choice. Jan suggested that we postpone making our decision until he learned more about the job.

Jan came again two weeks later, on a weekend. He told us that housing was cheap and plentiful in the steel town and that he was going to rent an apartment near the plant. He urged us to do the same. Mirna burst out crying, turned to the wall and beat her fists against it. She shouted, “I don’t want either of you so far away from me, in the wilderness!”

Jan sadly told her, “The heart of this city is the only wilderness in this part of the world.”

Mirna turned to Jan with a look of desperation and said, faltering, “I’ll kill myself before I go there! I’m going to stay in the city and I’ll support Vesna as well as both of you for the rest of my life if necessary!”

“Mirna, don’t be a mule,” Jan pleaded. “You’re not living in the city now, and we don’t have a choice.”

Mirna told us, “They’re building houses for workers near my factory. Several women in my department have already signed up. I’m going to sign up to buy one!”

“And what’ll you pay for it with?” Jan asked. “Your wages don’t support Vesna or Yarostan. Father supports them; he gets twice as much as you do. In the steel plant I’ll be paid three times what you get.”

“They told me I’d get a raise,” Mirna said.

“When?” Jan asked.

“In two years.”

“Two years!” Jan exclaimed. “And when will you buy your house?”

Mirna collapsed into a chair and cried. “I don’t know,” she said desperately. “But I don’t want you to go there and I don’t want Vesna to grow up there!”

I suggested a compromise. “We could move back to the city if I took the job in the steel plant. That way we could afford to buy the house and stop being a burden to your father.”

“You’d spend half your day travelling,” Mirna objected.

I said, “I don’t see any other acceptable alternative.”

Mirna didn’t say anything. I decided to take the job. Jan moved to an apartment near the plant.

A certain feeling of happiness accompanies self-realization. During those days I learned that another type of happiness accompanies resignation. I was convinced that I had no other choice and I resigned myself to a twelve-hour working day, four hours of which I spent going to and from the plant. As soon as I resigned myself to that situation everything became easier and more pleasant than I had expected it to be; I experienced lesser pains as pleasures. The work was hard; it consisted of shoveling scraps of hot metal onto a moving conveyor belt. We sweated in winter; in summer the place became an unbearable inferno. Small wonder that other workers didn’t want to travel a hundred kilometers for the sake of such activity. But on the other hand, the foreman didn’t take his job seriously and was in no way different from any other worker; no one had been willing to accept the task and the workers had drawn lots to determine which one of their names would be entered as foreman on the official forms. As a result there was no supervision; the people I worked with were among the freest human beings I’ve encountered inside a factory or prison.

The time I spent travelling used up what remained of my living day. I got up every day long before sunrise. I rode a tram and a bus to the train station and then spent nearly an hour and a half on the train. I returned home long after sunset, dirty and exhausted. I bathed, ate and collapsed into bed — six days a week. I degenerated as a being with specific capacities, with the power to create. I stagnated. Whatever potentialities I had were stunted. Please mention this to Sabina. What she calls industrialization is impossible without steel. That process is not our project; it’s not for us; it thrives only by destroying us.

However, since I was resigned, even the discomfort of I spending so many hours a day travelling contained a pleasure. , I took books with me and read on the train every morning: philosophy, history, science, as well as several novels. I was fascinated; I even came to look forward to my train ride to work. On my way back home at night I was usually too tired to read.

As soon as I started working I insisted that Mirna quit her job. I argued that since my wages were three times hers, we could easily support ourselves and also move on what I earned, so there was no reason for both of us to turn ourselves into oxen. But Mirna was adamant. If she quit her job she wouldn’t be able to buy the house she’d signed up for, since those houses were earmarked for workers in her plant. That would mean we’d have to rent another apartment and would again be subject to victimization by the bureaucrats who administered them. She also insisted that she’d never be fired from her job as a troublemaker whereas there was no telling how long I’d keep my job. Mirna was determined not to let anything like our eviction happen again and she was equally determined to move out of her mother’s house and into the housing complex near her factory. I asked who would replace her mother as Vesna’s nurse when both of us were working, but learned that the planners had already removed this obstacle to the unfettered development of the productive forces: the children were going to spend the day in a nursery while their parents reproduced Capital.

Mirna’s application was accepted, the house was built and we moved in. It’s the house in which I’m writing this letter. Mirna still works in the clothing factory a few blocks from here. Today there are blocks of similar houses, the streets are paved, there are streetlights and sidewalks, and a bus stops half a block from our house. When we moved here there were neither blocks nor streets nor lights. It was late spring. Our house and two of its neighbors stood in a pool of mud with trails consisting of narrow, slippery planks of wood. Our baby carnage was as useless here as it had been at the Sedlaks’ house. The house was built for workers, which meant that it was built shoddily. The roof began to leak during our first heavy rainfall; during my second prison term Mirna had to have the entire roof replaced. The plaster on the walls and ceilings has cracked and left large fissures. The foundation was set in mud and one side of the house has been sinking ever since we moved in; everything in the house stands at an angle. We got used to that. In fact, we got used to everything: the jobs, the mud, the nursery. What mattered to Mirna was that there were no chickens and no gardens. Eventually there were small front lawns, only grass grew on them, and we didn’t even plant our own grass; that was done for us by the builders; we only mowed it. What mattered was that we finally had our house in the city and no one could evict us from it.

We were happy in our new house. It was the happiness of permanent exiles, of survivors from a shipwreck or a war. It was the happiness of wage workers resigned to their lot, the kind of happiness that comes with resignation. We had shed almost everything: our dreams, our projects, our unrealized potentialities and our unused abilities. Consequently we embraced what little we had retained with all the joy that was in us. We threw ourselves into the project of fixing our little house with the same enthusiasm with which we might have joined human beings building a new world. I wasn’t able to do much during the week but every Sunday I became a master carpenter and painter. Mirna worked every night and did most of the building and decorating. We built our own bed and tables and for chairs we use backless stools. In time we again had enough money to buy what we needed but the main thing we bought was a sofa. Wood as well as paint were plentiful while the housing complex was being built since the quantities we needed were always available in the scrap piles. We left all our earlier purchases packed away. Mirna made all the curtains and bedding as well as all our clothes. We spent our money only on food and saved the rest. Mirna insisted on saving money for the same reason that she had insisted on buying the house: she didn’t want to be dependent on a world she couldn’t trust, she didn’t want to be at the mercy of a merciless bureaucracy ever again.

Mirna, Vesna and I had lived in our house for a year when I started to hear rumors about a vast uprising breaking out in Magarna. I say rumors because every account I heard contradicted the previous one. The press organized a systematic campaign to create ignorance and confusion. I don’t know what I would have thought of you if I had received the letter you sent me at that time, describing your newspaper activity as your life’s project and reporters as your community. The newspaper’s systematic falsification of the acts of the Magarna workers convinced me that the press was an instrument of domination and couldn’t be anything else.

You commented on the press’s falsification of the Magarna events but you suggested this was due to the bias of the reporters or owners and not to the very nature of the instrument. I think you fail to grasp something about the press, probably because you were so deeply involved with it. You fail to understand that instruments of domination and destruction can’t be used for anything else. Surely it’s obvious to you that a bomb doesn’t become a benevolent instrument if it’s controlled by a benevolent person. A newspaper destroys communication as certainly as a bomb destroys life and this was plainly visible during the Magarna rising. The people who reported the Magarna events were not like the people engaged in the events, just as they were not like Jan or Mirna or her parents or me. They were different, not because of their views or their biases, but because of their activity. These differences didn’t reside in the personal benevolence or malevolence of the reporters but in the instrument they served. Gross, unbridgeable chasms separated two groups of people engaged in mutually antagonistic activities. The workers of Magarna were desperately trying to cease to be what they were, to free themselves from the routine that had repressed them, while the reporters made no effort to cease to be what they were but on the contrary threw themselves passionately into their special routine. The Magarna workers were desperately trying to communicate directly with each other and with their likes elsewhere while the reporters were spreading their reportages between like and like, interpreting each to the other, portraying each to the other through a glass that didn’t reflect the experiences of the individual on either side but only the reporter’s. The workers were struggling for lives which were not interpreted, defined, mediated or represented while the newspapers could only interpret, define, mediate and represent because that’s their essential purpose, their nature. Locked into the world of representations, the reporters couldn’t see a struggle against representations as anything other than a struggle between one representation and another. I’m not even mentioning the fact that almost all the reporters were actual agents of the State, officials who earned their livelihood by falsifying workers’ struggles. Newspapers can’t coexist with or serve human beings fighting to abolish reportage and create communication; they’re based on the impossibility of community.

This was what I was learning about newspapers twelve years ago when you were writing me about your newspaper articles. I didn’t see your letter; I can’t guess if I would have been angry or pleased, I know I wouldn’t have been pleased by your high regard for our activity at the carton plant eight years earlier, nor by your enthusiasm for the press. But I think one aspect of your letter would have pleased me very much. Your letter was an attempt at direct communication between two individuals separated by impenetrable political and geographical barriers, an instance of the communication the Magarna workers were desperately struggling to create. Maybe it was this characteristic of your letter that antagonized the authorities. Maybe their fear of direct communication across their frontiers is far greater than our trust in it. Maybe the ultimate concern of the State is to keep such communication from taking place: that’s the central purpose of the fences and the walls, the censors and the paid liars. Letters like yours vanish in normal times; it would have been a miracle if such a letter had reached its destination in a time of crisis.

I can believe that such a letter would have been confiscated, and even that a messenger carrying such letters would have been arrested. But I still can’t believe that Jan and I could have been arrested merely because such letters were addressed to us. and before we had even seen them. This possibility would be slightly more plausible if we hadn’t been doing anything at the time, if I had remained in the stupor of resignation, if I had continued to channel all my energy and enthusiasm into Sunday afternoon repairing and decorating of the interior of this house. It wasn’t your letter but the event you asked about in that letter, the Magarna uprising, that woke me from that stupor and shamed me in the face of my resignation.

When I heard the first rumors of a widespread rising I paid no attention to them. It’s not that I thought they weren’t true. I had learned during my first imprisonment that such rumors contained descriptions of real events. I began to take an interest when Jan and several other workers brought newspapers into the steel plant. The fanaticism with which the newspapers denied all the rumors indicated that at least some of them weren’t only true but also current.

However, what confirmed the rumors wasn’t the press but direct communication with Magarna workers. One of the workers in the steel plant pretended to be ill and went to visit his family, who lived in a small village on the frontier of Magarna and had relatives across the frontier. He succeeded in evading the border guards and in communicating with his relatives.

As soon as he returned from his village all the workers in our section of the plant gathered around him like flies, questioning him about every detail of what he had learned. Jan was the most persistent; he simply couldn’t stop asking questions and he repeatedly asked the same questions. He couldn’t believe what he heard. Somewhere in the world people just like us had started doing exactly what Jan had always wanted to do; they had started to break the chain that shackled them to the monster that consumed them; they had started to move for themselves.

Our fellow worker wasn’t able to answer several of Jan’s questions and I still don’t know the answers today. He told us that repressive old functionaries were being ousted from their posts but couldn’t tell us if they were being replaced by repressive new functionaries in similar posts. He told us workers’ councils were being formed in factories and workshops but couldn’t tell us about the extent to which politicians and their organizations were behind the councils. Jan repeatedly asked, “Are they doing this for themselves or for the productive forces?” This couldn’t be answered either.

Yet in spite of all the unanswered questions it was clear to us that a population had begun to stir, that ancient social structures had started to crumble. People like ourselves had suddenly turned against the apparatus into which they had been pouring their lives. We didn’t know if they were determined to recover their whole lives or if they were already looking for half-way stations, if their struggle was already being channeled into dead ends. But wherever their struggle ended, we were convinced that it had begun as a struggle against the entire social apparatus that had shaped individuals into tools that served its ends. Wherever they were eventually channeled, it was clear that the workers of Magarna had stopped being workers and by that act had already made the impossible possible; they had already created the field in which jobs could give way to projects and production to creation.

I don’t think I could have answered any of your questions; I didn’t know any more about the Magarna struggle than you did. Our fellow worker’s visit to his family was the only direct information we had. My nearness to Magarna was counteracted by a more total suppression of information. I was convinced, as you were, that a revolution had broken out, a revolution as extensive and profound as the one Luisa had experienced. It was during those events that I began to question Luisa’s interpretation of her experience and to contrast it with Manuel’s accounts. It was then that I began to understand Manuel’s as well as Jan’s arguments. It became clear to me that if there were workers in Magarna whose job had been to shovel scraps of burning hot metal onto a conveyor belt, those workers couldn’t possibly be motivated by the desire to shovel the same burning scraps onto the same conveyor belt “on their own.” We didn’t need strikes, barricades or bloodshed for that; we were already doing that on our own. This was clear not only to Jan and me but to everyone I worked with.

This was also clear to Mirna, despite the fact that the supervision as well as the noise at her clothing factory made communication impossible, despite the fact that after work she didn’t talk to anyone but ran directly to the nursery to pick up Vesna. “Officials we’ve never seen before walk up and down the aisles,” she told me. “And they’re so nervous, so afraid; they act as if at any instant we were going to walk off with the machinery and the clothing. If we only had the nerve!”

Discussion of the Magarna events was almost impossible at Mirna’s factory, as it was in most other factories and workshops. But it wasn’t impossible at the plant where Jan and I worked, certainly not in our section. There were no aisles in which police agents could walk up and down, and the heat in which we worked didn’t motivate any officials to take an interest in our conversations. I’ve already mentioned that our foreman was a foreman only on paper and consequently we weren’t supervised. I’m also convinced there were no police agents among us; the authorities had a hard enough time finding people willing to do the shoveling. We were unsupervised but we were also completely isolated from all the other workers in the steel plant; from the moment we entered our section of the plant to the moment we left we hardly saw anyone who didn’t work in our section. This didn’t prevent several of my fellow workers from trying to communicate with others. The communication took place after work hours in the restaurants and bars, on the street corners and in the park of the steel town. It was direct, face-to-face communication; it didn’t take place through a newspaper like the one your friend Daman described, a “workers’ newspaper”, the very existence of such a newspaper would have replaced and ultimately suppressed the type of communication that took place. One individual exchanged views and feelings with another; before long everyone in the steel plant, perhaps everyone in the town, felt what the Magarna workers must have felt on the eve of their revolution: the desire as well as the ability to throw off their chains.

In spite of the deafening noise and the unbearable heat, my workplace turned into a discussion club. Every day someone had heard more rumors that had slipped across the border; every day the press confirmed the rumors with its fanatical denials and distortions. We discussed the implications and prospects of every act; we discussed our own possibilities and prospects. And we knew that similar discussions were taking place elsewhere in the plant, if only because fewer and fewer wagons of metal passed through our section. The entire town could have been located in Magarna; it responded to events in Magarna as if they were taking place inside the steel plant.

Unfortunately I didn’t take part in the all-night discussions that took place after work in the restaurants and bars; I would have had to catch a train that left three hours later and thus eliminate the small amount of time I spent with Mirna and Vesna. But Jan’s accounts of those meetings and discussions made me feel that I had taken part in them. Whenever two or more people met they exchanged, not greetings, but news from Magarna; before long all were shouting, each outdoing the other in denouncing the lies fabricated by the press. Although formal meetings were banned, steel workers who met informally in bars and restaurants talked about writing letters to the newspapers, about passing resolutions criticizing the press, about sending delegations to the newspaper offices and even about going on strike for the sake of honest information about the revolution in Magarna.

I was enthusiastic about all the suggestions and proposals, but my enthusiasm was dampened by Jan’s misgivings. Jan was enthusiastic too, but only about the fact that the human beings around us had come to life and started to stir. He considered the agitation around the press a wasteful expenditure of energy that couldn’t find other outlets. Jan stated his misgivings to others whenever the occasion arose, but he did so quietly, without insistence, without a politician’s rhetoric or a missionary’s self-righteousness. He was convinced that what was clear to him would sooner or later become clear to everyone. It did become clear to me and perhaps to many others that our agitation for an honest press was grounded in an illusion and that this activity was a substitute for the real activity, we were unwilling or unable to launch.

What became perfectly obvious to me is illustrated by your experience on the university’s newspaper staff. Your activity was the type of “honest journalism” we were agitating for. But when you practiced this “honest journalism,” authority immediately suppressed the newspaper. You claim that this suppression was caused by the spinelessness of the university administrators. You’re wrong. Your newspaper was suppressed because it had stopped carrying out its function. The newspaper is an instrument by which the ruling minority shapes the conceptions of the majority. “Honest journalism” is not its function but its mask. Those in power may at times tolerate honest journalism but only if they consider it harmless. Your own experience proves this. Authority had only to place its signature on a “directive” and your honest journalism vanished. Your attitude to this is as ridiculous as the idea that a general’s brain can be a warmonger while his mouth and his other organs are pacifists. The newspaper is an organ of the rulers; it serves those in power or else it is nothing, it doesn’t exist. That’s why our agitation for an honest press was a waste of time. I’m not talking about honest reporters. We heard about honest reporters — after they were fired.

Resolutions were passed and sent to newspapers; letters were written; there were several brief work-stoppages at the plant. But I sensed a general feeling of frustration. We seemed to be in constant motion but we remained where we’d been before. The newspapers obviously didn’t publish our letters or resolutions nor did they give the slightest indication that similar activity was taking place elsewhere. But the newspapers weren’t the cause of our inability to communicate with our likes elsewhere; they were merely a symptom of that inability. What made direct communication with our likes impossible was the absence of community, the fact that intermediaries stood between ourselves and our likes. We didn’t know how to bypass the intermediaries nor how to extend our hands to those who stood on the other side. That’s why we turned to the intermediaries themselves for help, asking them to reflect accurately what our brothers were saying and doing, asking them to communicate our words and our gestures to our brothers. But the intermediaries, the professional interpreters and ideological specialists, could communicate and reflect only their own words and gestures, they could display only the insights derived from their own mode of living.

We thought we had nowhere else to turn and we convinced ourselves that if only the intermediaries reflected a portion of the truth about the Magarna workers’ struggle and if only they communicated our desire to take part in that struggle then workers elsewhere would begin to rise as well. If the intermediaries could only be brought to our side, if their instruments could only be made to serve our struggle, the police-run regimes would tear at the seams — in the factories, workshops and mines.

We were wrong. Such instruments couldn’t be made to serve our struggle; such intermediaries couldn’t communicate our desires. They separated worker from worker and brother from brother like fortified walls standing between them. The only one who moved in response to another’s motion was one who communicated with the other face to face. One who depended on intermediaries for information depended on them also for guidance, motion and life.

The workers in my section of the plant succeeded in communicating with the rest of the workers in the plant, but that was the beginning and the end of our success. To go beyond the plant we turned to intermediaries, just as to reach their comrades elsewhere the Magarna workers turned to intermediaries. And the intermediaries they turned to turned against them.

Workers in tanks murdered their brothers on the streets of Magarna. The workers in the tanks had been informed about the struggle, not by those engaged in it, but by politicians’ speeches and newspaper articles; their gestures were guided, not by the sense of solidarity with their likes, but by submission to the commands of superiors. They aimed and fired without scruple or hesitation because they couldn’t see their opponents; their vision was blocked, not by the metal casing surrounding them, but by the ideological casing that gripped their minds. They aimed at the demons described by the speeches and newspapers. They fired at images. But they killed human beings.

The Magarna workers couldn’t aim or fire with the same lack of scruple, with the same certainty, because they knew that their scruples and their uncertainties were only a few days old; they knew that only a few days earlier they too had known about each other only what they’d seen on the opaque screens that stood between them. They hesitated before they fired. But those in the tanks didn’t hesitate.

For a moment our stupor and our resignation gave way to hope, to the anticipation of a life where large projects are possible, where dreams can be realized in the company of vibrant, imaginative and sympathetic human beings. But our hopes were short-lived. The society held together by the market and the police didn’t disintegrate. Magarna workers were buried in mass graves and our hopes were buried with them. We hadn’t been able to add anything more than hopes to their struggle; our gestures had remained confined within boundaries we hadn’t created, boundaries we hadn’t been able to cross. Something like your journalistic project had been all we had reached for during a moment when a universe of possibilities wasn’t very far from our grasp. We called for good intermediaries instead of creating conditions in which no intermediaries could thrive. We called for an honest press instead of forging our own communication as our first step toward the creation of our own community. The people of Magarna had started to struggle for such a community. They were isolated and defeated. They were isolated from us and from those like us who remained fascinated by all or part of the glitter of the monarchs’ world. We were isolated too, but we weren’t defeated. We hadn’t even begun to struggle.

Yarostan.

Sophia’s fifth letter

Dear Yarostan,

Your letter was beautiful. I wish I had joined you at the time of the Magarna uprising instead of having Lem take you my silly letters.

I have a little bit more in common with you now than I did when I last wrote you. I’ve just come out of jail!

A few days after the so-called “general strike” which I attended with Daman, a loud noise woke me at seven in the morning. At first I thought it was thunder; a storm was raging outside. Then I heard it again: a loud, insistent knocking. I ran to the door in a stupor and opened it. Two huge uniformed policemen stood in front of me, both grasping the handles of the guns in their holsters!

“Mrs. Nachalo?” one of them asked.

“Miss Nachalo. Which one? There are three of us here.” My first thought was that something horrible had happened to Tina, who is no longer with us.

“Miss Sophia Nachalo.”

“That’s me,” I said.

“You’re under arrest.”

“Me? Why?”

“That’s for the court to determine; anything you say now may be used as evidence against you. Come with us.”

“Can’t I get dressed?” I asked.

“Don’t take all day.”

“Would you mind waiting for me outside?” I asked.

“Not this time, Miss. We’ll wait right here. Step on it!”

“Could you at least keep your voice down? You’ll wake everyone up,” I whispered.

“Just make it snappy, Miss, or you’ll have to come in the clothes you’re wearing.”

I took my time dressing and tiptoed out of my room so as not to wake Sabina. They were sitting when I came out. They both rushed out of the house after me. “O.K. Let’s go.”

I started to Turn back in, asking, “Can I at least leave a note for my sister?”

“You’ve taken enough of our time, Miss. You can call her from the station.”

A third policeman was sitting in their car listening to the radio while waiting for his colleagues to escort me out of the ram. I’d forgotten my umbrella but I didn’t ask for another favor. I got drenched.

“You’ve been charged with assault and battery,” I was told in a cold, matter-of-fact manner; it didn’t seem to occur to any of them that the charge was ridiculous for a person of my stature. What had they thought when they saw me open the door in my pajamas and barefooted — that I might slug two enormous protectors of law and order? They’d kept their hands on their guns just in case. Maybe they thought I was “wiry.”

“Is my victim dying of the injuries I inflicted?” I asked, trying to imitate their cold matter-of-fact tone.

All of them including the driver turned to look at me. One of them mumbled something more about the court determining the extent of the injuries and about the possibility that my words might turn up as my accusers. They and I were silent for the rest of the trip.

I asked for the phone as soon as I got to the station. Everyone I asked was very cordial; I was told I could use the phone “right away,” as soon as I was interviewed and searched. But after I was interviewed once, I was interviewed again. And after I was searched one time, I was searched a second time and then a third. I won’t bore you with the details; you must be familiar with them; police stations all over the world must have more in common with each other than with the neighborhoods in which they’re located.

It must have been noon before I got to use a phone. I rang and rang but there was no answer. Of all days to decide to go out before lunch Sabina had chosen this one! I was escorted to a room full of women sitting on benches. I was furious at myself. How stupid I had been not to wake Sabina! In my early morning stupor I had thought my arrest was so trivial compared to the event that had taken place two days earlier — Tina’s departure — that I had even whispered and tiptoed so as not to disturb Sabina’s sleep with my silly “tragedy.” I could at least have written her a note during the time I was alone in my room dressing. How dumb! I felt so frustrated I bit my lip until it bled.

My anger gradually shifted to the sneaky psychology professor who was responsible for my arrest. I have to give him credit for one thing: he certainly is a psyche-manipulator. He had grinned when I’d slapped him in response to his intimidating insults. I had interpreted his grin as a sign of masochistic enjoyment. But I’m not a psychologist. His grin was the grimace of the victor! His insult-strategy had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: he had provoked the criminal to enact the crime! He’s no masochist. He’s a sadist, an ordinary bastard, an agent provocateur for the police. I didn’t regret slapping him. In fact, I wished I had done something which deserved the description “assault and battery”; I wished I had given that morning’s policemen some reason to keep their hands on their guns; I wished they had in fact told me that my victim was in a critical condition because of the wounds I had inflicted. Various colorful and ingenious forms of “assault and battery” drifted through my mind, none of which would ever be within my reach, none of which I’d ever be able to carry through. And while I pondered my total inability to torture my torturer the cracks on the blank wall across from me formed themselves into a smug face with a stupid grin whispering at me through its teeth; “Everyone can see that nothing is going to stop you, Miss Nachalo; you’re a dangerous person; you should be undergoing treatment in a hospital, Miss Nachalo.”

Toward evening we were moved from the room with the benches to a similar room with cots but no blankets. I had been there, or in an identical room, once before. When trays of food were brought in I realized I hadn’t been given any lunch but I didn’t feel the urge to complain. After supper I asked to use the phone but the guard told me I could phone in the morning; she turned off the lights and shut the door; I thought we were locked in for the night. I was wrong. Sometime during the dead of night, blinding lights were turned on and I was one of several women herded out of the building into a van. Barely awake, I asked the woman next to me what was happening. “Nothing much, dearie; we’re being transferred,” she said. Maybe such middle of the night transfers are “normal,” but for all I knew we were being taken to the river to be drowned. I was too sleepy to care.

I’ve never familiarized myself with the city’s prison system and wouldn’t have known where I was if I’d stayed awake in the van. The building to which the van transported us was the “classical” jail, the castle-like fortified monstrosity which is an architectural (and no doubt also social) monument to the first cities, the building with the thick stone walls, iron gates and endless corridors of cells with metal bars. When I was arrested several years ago I had only been shown the accommodations available in the courthouse building. This was my first visit to the “correctional institution” properly speaking. My first impression was favorable: the cot had a neatly folded blanket on it. But I didn’t sleep well: the clanging gates, the footsteps on metal floors and a woman’s shriek all conspired to destroy any comfort the blanket might have given me.

By the time breakfast was brought to my cell I was hysterical. I dropped the tray to the floor and shouted my demand to use the telephone. Eventually two guards escorted me out of my cell into a waiting room — where I was subjected to a medical examination. When that was over they escorted me back to my cell. I screamed about my rights and threatened to sue the prison authorities. In this I was somewhat hypocritical: I knew I had a right to use the telephone, but during all my years as a! “troublemaker” I had never familiarized myself with any of the , other “rights” I might have. I’m not apologizing for my ignorance. I know that “prisoners’ rights” are little more than documents shifted to and fro by legislators and reformers. The physical set-up alone precludes a prisoner’s having any rights, or as you put it so aptly, the prisoner’s rights reside in the humanity of the jailer.

Shortly after my “examination” one of the guards returned and explained that I couldn’t telephone just then because I would soon be up for trial. She seemed convinced that her explanation was perfectly logical. But it failed to pacify me; I continued to shout about my “rights.” She returned again, intensely annoyed, and at last accompanied me to a telephone.

I cursed Sabina for not being home to answer my call. I cursed Tina for having walked out on us just before my arrest. I cursed Daman; he never leaves his house before noon, but that morning he was out. Maybe he and Sabina were out together! (The very idea was absurd. Yet I later found out that they were in fact out together — looking for me.) Out of sheer desperation I tried Luis a although I knew she was at work. The guard triumphantly escorted me back to my cell; she had succeeded in pacifying me.

It turned out that I was “up for trial” all day long and by supper time I was wondering how many days or months I would continue to be “up for trial.” Some of my wondering can undoubtedly be traced to paranoia but as you well know the paranoia is itself grounded in terrible reality. How many have spent their last days waiting for the promised trial!

I only had to wait until the following morning. I was roused before sunrise and “transferred” back to the courthouse, not in the back of a van this time but in a car’s comfortable back seat, which I shared with two other sleepy women.

As soon as we reached the courthouse I started demanding my “rights” again. An officious clerk with a clipboard enumerated the exact number of telephone calls I had already been “allowed.” Trying to grab his clipboard I asked if it showed how many times I had reached anyone. He backed away and returned shortly to tell me I could call my lawyer.

I finally reached Sabina. She sounded groggy; I hoped she wouldn’t think she had dreamed my phone call. “Sophia, where are you?” she asked sleepily; “we thought you’d been kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped? I was! Two burly policemen kidnapped me and had me locked up. I’m in the courthouse now.”

“Ill call Daman; if I can’t reach him I’ll come by cab,” she said.

I felt lighter. I was even somewhat flattered: they had missed me.

The clerk asked, “Did you reach your lawyer?”

“Yes, thank you,” I said; “she’ll come for me after the trial.”

He shrugged his shoulders with an “Another one of those nuts” expression and ordered me to follow him out of the waiting room. I followed him into another world, the world of the courtroom. A black-robed judge was already installed in almighty god’s seat, passing judgment on lowly humans; on both sides of him divine clerks recorded his every word and gesture, divine messengers waited to fulfill his every wish and command.

Totally unlike my previous courtroom experience, I didn’t have to wait all day only to return to court a week later. It was my turn as soon as I entered. My court-appointed lawyer made his way toward me to ask for my name and “occupation.”

The only familiar face in the entire courtroom was the face of my accuser, my “colleague,” the professor of behavioral psychology. He gave a brief but pungent account of the misfortune that had befallen him. He had come across Miss Nachalo in the hallway of their shared workplace and they had exchanged a few words; this much was all perfectly “normal,” and neither my court-appointed “defender” nor I pointed out that he had never before come across nor exchanged words with Miss Nachalo in their “shared workplace.” Everything was “normal” — when suddenly a snake reared its head in paradise. Totally unprovoked by any concrete physical deed on his or anyone else’s part, Miss Nachalo “started to inflict physical blows” on his innocent person.

My presentation didn’t match his either in eloquence or in penetrating behavioral insight. I said he had insulted me and I had slapped his face as hard as I could; my slapping his face couldn’t be described as assault and battery; therefore I was innocent of the charge. I repeated my statement three times, once for my defense, once for my prosecution and again for the judge. In the judge’s view, it was not within my competence to define the nature of my deed, but within his. Since I confessed to a deed which he classified as “assault and battery,” he found me guilty, fined me, and my trial ended. I saw my accuser’s face grimace with dissatisfaction when the judge announced the fine: it was a trivial sum.

I paid my fine and rushed out of the courtroom. I pranced up and down the hall clutching my purse in my left hand, my right hand ready to swing. I vaguely hoped to give my community college “colleague” a chance to “come across Miss Nachalo” in a different hallway. Concluding for the second time that he wasn’t a masochist, I abandoned my hope and left the courthouse.

A familiar car was parked across the street, empty and locked. Daman and Sabina must have gone inside to find me — no easy task, since I hadn’t told Sabina where I was going, to be tried.

I sat down on the hood and waited. The car reminded me of Tina. I hadn’t seen Daman since our argument about you and your previous letter, the argument which ended with Tina standing in the street shouting at Daman’s vanishing car. I thought of her comment “Some fancy friends you’ve got” as I sat on the hood of my fancy friend’s car. A few days after that argument Tina had left Sabina and me and my fancy friends.

I was intensely upset by Tina’s departure. Not because it was totally unexpected. Sudden departures are in my own best style. Nor because I had ever thought Tina would remain by my side until the end of my days. On the contrary: I’ve often thought Sabina and I cramped Tina’s development in our own peculiarly insidious ways.

What upset me about Tina’s departure originates in experiences that took place eleven years ago in that garage I described so briefly in my last letter.

Two days before my arrest, Tina failed to leave for work in the morning. I assumed she was taking sick leave and thought the better of her for it: she had been excessively conscientious about her job. But just before lunch she pulled what must have been all her things out of her room.

Sabina asked, “Are you moving into the living room?”

“I’m leaving,” Tina announced.

“You could have avoided all questions by leaving at night,” Sabina said.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” Tina retorted.

“Are you leaving town or just this house?” Sabina asked.

“Just this house.”

“And your job?” I asked.

“In about a week they’ll figure out that I’m not coming any more and they’ll hire someone else,” Tina answered.

“Good for you,” Sabina said. “Do you mind my questions?”

“Yes I do, Sabina,” Tina said sadly, “because you’ll mind my answers. I know that the only way you’d ever go to a university building would be with a stick of dynamite in your hand. Maybe I’ll feel that way too, but if I do, I’d like it to be for my own reasons. You’ve been crutches, both of you, and thanks to you I haven’t learned to walk on my own. At least not very well. Some kids occupied a university building and inside it they’re forming something they call a commune. I’d like to figure out how I feel about that by being part of it.”

“But Tina,” I protested, “surely you’re not taking all your things to a building occupied by its students; do you expect this commune to last?”

Tina didn’t smile. “I’m taking my things to Ted’s.”

I jumped. “To Ted Nasibu’s house?”

“Yes, to Ted’s,” she repeated; “he’ll be here in five minutes.”

“Couldn’t you leave them here?” I asked; “this is as much your house as anyone else’s.”

“It’s not a question of leaving my things, Sophia, and I mind your questions too. I don’t know what you’ve always had against Ted and I no longer care. I’m not just leaving my things there. I’m moving. I’m going to live in the commune and I’ll be staying at Ted’s.”

“At Ted Nasibu’s?” I asked again, stupidly. I was on the verge of tears.

“Yes, Sophia, at Ted’s! Do you have wax in your ears? Look at the scene you’re making! Do you really want me to tell you why I’m leaving? I loved you, both of you. But I’ve come to hate you. I feel like your prisoner. The university, Ted. What else is taboo? Oh, I know it’s not taboo to you. You have your reasons. But your reasons aren’t good enough for me. They don’t grow out of my own life. I do things for Sabina’s reasons and I do others for Sophia’s but I never do anything for my own reasons. I don’t even know what my own reasons are. And that’s all I want right now. To discover my own reasons. To become me, Tina, a human entity, someone who’s neither Sophia nor Sabina. I’ll wait for Ted in the street. It’s getting stuffy in here.”

Tears rushed to my eyes and I ran to my bedroom while Tina turned around to go outside. I heard Sabina help Tina carry her things out. heard their shouts of “goodbye.” Then the front door slammed shut and Sabina burst into my room shouting, “Shame on you, Sophia!”

I was ashamed only of my uncontrolled crying. “You’re not bothered in the least, are you Sabina?” I asked, no longer crying.

“I was bothered by the fact that she spent so many years with us! It’s about time she asserted her independence. And you of all people presume —”

“I don’t presume anything,” I interrupted. “You know perfectly well that we’ve always agreed about that. One and only one thing bothers me.”

“Namely?”

“Namely Ted Nasibu!” I shouted. I was angered by Sabina’s mock innocence.

“Sophia! She’s her own person!” Sabina responded indignantly. “You’re using Ted to mask your possessiveness. Somewhere along the way you’ve acquired a mother complex.”

“That’s ridiculous, Sabina!” I shouted. “You know perfectly well what I’m talking about, and I’m amazed that it still doesn’t bother you!”

“Still?” Sabina asked, acting puzzled.

“Have you forgotten that I spent several months in that house behind the garage? I became familiar with everything that happened there!” I shouted.

Sabina’s face hardened. She planted herself in my doorway and stared at me for several minutes. Then she said, “Really? You’ll have to tell me about it sometime.” She marched straight to her desk, slamming her door shut.

Ghosts. I feel so strange in their presence. For all these years I prided myself for the open relations Sabina, Tina and I maintained with each other. Everything was always in the open. None of us ever had anything to hide. Suddenly a ghost walks out of the closet where we’d locked it for good and it mocks our hypocrisy with its hideous laughter.

The three of us shared an experience eleven years ago and each one of us was profoundly marked by it. Yet except for passing references to it we’ve never once discussed it nor its significance. Not once during all the eight years we’ve been together. Yet if it hadn’t been for that trial and its aftermath I would have been thinking of nothing other than that experience since the day Tina left. I continued thinking about it as soon as the trial ended, sitting on the hood of Daman’s car waiting for him and Sabina to emerge from the courthouse. I can’t even force myself to go on telling you about my trial before telling you what I experienced behind the garage eleven years ago. I had suppressed every memory of those events for so many years. Yet for the past few days the suppressed memories have been coming up like vomit. I don’t know anything about the supposed connection between remembering and eating but I do know that as soon as Tina mentioned Ted, as soon as one element of that repressed experience came up, all the other elements came up behind it.

I apologize for having flown so far away from the subject with which I started this letter. Tina’s decision to live with Ted is far more important to me than that “fancy” job I had at the “community” college. My experience in the garage should in any case be more “interesting” to you, since you claim that you “recognize” yourself in the “garage world” while feeling a complete stranger in my corner of the “academic world.” I wonder if you’ll still recognize yourself when I’m through.

The only similarity between your experiences during the Magarna uprising and my experiences in the garage is that they both began at the same time. But I’ll let you be the judge of the similarities and the differences; you’ve scolded me enough for my comparisons and contrasts.

* * *

I learned about the prostitution during my first night at the garage. But that was only the beginning of my education.

I was a slow learner. During the middle of my first lesson I got scared and ran away. Jose and Ted both laughed — at the dunce, I thought. But then Ted congratulated me and I didn’t know what to think. Was he a puritan about everything except stealing? Or did he have hopes that I would reserve my favors for him? I’m not mentioning any other alternatives because that very night I became convinced that the second alternative explained his congratulations. I went to Tina’s room and slipped into the bed next to hers. Suddenly I heard a noise outside. I rushed to the door, which I had left ajar just as Tina had left it. I saw Ted tiptoeing away from it! I thought he had been there since I had entered the room, watching me undress.

I went back to bed and started to shake with the same fear I’d felt earlier that night, when I’d found myself in the back of the chauffeur-driven car next to the fat executive. No matter which way I turned, my heart pounded in my stomach. I couldn’t sleep. (Part of the reason for that was that I’d spent the whole previous afternoon sleeping.)

My fear of being attacked during the night diminished the following day. Later it vanished completely, but only because it was replaced by another fear.

I got up early the next morning, scrupulously dressed in the most masculine clothes I had, and went to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of Tissie’s coffee. Ted came in as soon as I’d sat down.

“Did you have a good night’s sleep? You must have, since you’re the first one up. I sure am glad you’re joining us.” He looked like he wanted to embrace me.

Grabbing a fork on the table, my lips trembling, I asked, “Why did you do that? Why did you look at me? What do you want to do to me?”

“Oh that,” he said. “I always do that. But I can see how you’d worry, me being a stranger. Just checking things out, you know what I mean? Seeing if everything’s all right.”

What a strange explanation, I thought. As if his peeping didn’t even concern me. “You’ve got some nerve!” I snapped.

“It’s you who’ve got nerve,” he said, responding to my words but totally missing their meaning; “that’s what I tried telling you last night. Takes nerve to get scared and run. Wish me and some others here had nerve!”

“What the hell are you talking about? Are you trying to talk yourself out of —”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Ted said, pointing at Tissie, who was making her way toward the coffee pot.

Tissie sat down next to Ted, sipped her coffee, and suddenly looked up at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. “Hey, gorgeous, who dolled you up so early in the morning? How did you do last night?”

“Fine, Tissie, just fine,” I lied. “Thanks a lot for taking me.”

Ted got up from his chair as if he’d been stung. He glared down at me. “You’re not telling her?” he asked.

“Tell her what, Ted?” I asked innocently, at last seeing a way to spite him. “I really enjoyed it, Tissie.”

I got the effect I wanted. Ted backed away seemingly horrified, his face expressing a combination of disappointment and disgust. If he already knew I hadn’t gone through with the previous night’s escapade, now he also knew it wasn’t because I was saving myself for him. “Honestly, Tissie, it was wonderful; I hope you’ll take me along again sometime,” I continued, watching Ted back out of the kitchen.

“Now get off it, sis!” Tissie grumbled as soon as Ted was gone. “No one thinks it wonderful and no one enjoys it. You’re saying that to rile his ass ain’t you?”

“No I’m not, Tissie,” I insisted, carried away by my performance. “I was afraid at first, but once the fear passed I got to like it.” I said this loudly, for Ted’s benefit, in case he was still listening. But I was also performing my act for Tissie’s benefit. I didn’t want her to think me a snobbish puritan. I wanted very badly to be part of her world. Don’t forget that I was still aching from the series of exclusions I had experienced in the university. I didn’t want Tissie to turn against me on the second day of my new life.

But I was too ignorant of my new world, and of Tissie, to perform an act that simultaneously estranged me from Ted while it endeared me to Tissie.

“I used to think your sister was weird,” Tissie said slowly, sipping her last drop. “But you really take the cake, baby. Enjoyed it! God damn!” With that, she got up and returned to her room. She, like Ted, seemed disappointed and even disgusted.

I sat in the kitchen alone, taking stock of my partial victory. I had succeeded in pushing Ted away from me. But that wasn’t my main project. That was a trivial goal born in the previous night’s fears. I had failed in my main goal. I had failed to insert myself into my new community.

In your letter you described Mirna’s dreams of moving to the city and becoming part of its life. Not the city of bureaucrats, traffic jams or cops but an altogether different city, a city that never existed, a city that contained something she had learned to want. And when she finally reached the real city she peered behind its curtains and its walls, convinced that her city was there, somewhere, never once giving up her search for whatever it was she had once learned to want.

I can easily appropriate your entire vocabulary and apply it to my own search. You’ve convinced me that my glorification of our activity in the carton plant was nothing more than an exercise in rhetoric; it was only a way of referring to a present gap, a lifelong gap, a way of describing my search for something I had lost although it had never existed, something I had learned to want although I had never experienced it.

As I sat in the kitchen behind the garage eleven years ago, I knew nothing of Mirna and I had failed in my foolhardy attempt to communicate with you. I thought of my past hopes, my dreams of finding a human community and becoming part of its life. Not the “communities” of politicians, academics and journalists. The only thing those “communities” shared with my dream was the absence of what I sought. When I entered the garage I had the impression that I was on the verge of finding a trace of what I had sought. This, I thought, is at least something different, something I had never experienced before. And that world did in fact contain elements of what I had sought so desperately elsewhere. That’s why I held on despite a long train of shocks and disillusionments. That’s why I wanted so badly to be accepted by Tissie and to be like her. I wanted to be a prostitute and a heroin addict for exactly the same reason that Mirna wanted to be a citizen, an urban worker. In your letter you say, “Your descent to Sabina’s world is a descent to my world.” That was what I felt during those first days. That was why I felt ashamed for having run away from Sabina’s and Tissie’s nightly activity. That was why I tried so awkwardly to lie to Tissie, to convince her I wasn’t an alien in her world. Yet instead of winning Tissie’s sympathy and friendship I had only roused her suspicion.

I sat in the kitchen feeling miserable. That kitchen behind the garage was like a snack bar in a bus station. Busy people continually ran in and out while I sat waiting for a bus that never came. I recognized my next visitor as Vic Turam, the “mechanic” I had seen in the garage when I’d first arrived with Debbie Matthews. He ate his breakfast in silence, never once taking his eyes off me, never once saying a word. Tina came in next. She asked if I’d really known her “father,” and “What was he like?” I told her she didn’t look the slightest bit like him and immediately regretted making that pointless observation; it certainly didn’t encourage Tina to pursue the conversation further. She finished her breakfast in silence and left without a word. Tina was followed by a person I hadn’t met yet. “You’re the sister,” he said, ascertaining a fact. The way he said it shamed me further; he might as well have said, “You’re the nun,” I asked who he was. “Seth,” he answered. I later learned he was a heroin dealer, but he always remained undefined for me. shadowy and hostile. I didn’t like him any better than he seemed to like me. After Seth left there was a lull. It was noon before Sabina and Jose joined me in the kitchen. I assumed they had gotten up together and came from the same room; I soon learned I was mistaken.

Jose greeted me so jovially that he jarred me out of my pensive mood. “Is Ron’s girl brooding? It’s too early in the day for that!” Then he turned to Sabina and added, referring indirectly to my previous night’s embarrassment, “We ought to spend some time showing the sister the sunny side of life, right Sabina? Letting her brood when she’s just arrived — that’s not right, Sabina; that’s not showing proper respects to our founder.”

I thought I heard a note of hostility. My impression was confirmed as soon as Sabina spoke. “Take her on a tour, Jose,” she said. “You’re the sun of the underworld. Light everything up for her. I won’t cloud her vision; I’m leaving.”

I reached across the table for Sabina’s hand and pleaded, “I have to talk to you, Sabina — a long talk.”

Sabina pulled her hand away as if mine were diseased. I was amazed and hurt. She finished sipping her coffee and said curtly, “Sure, Sophia, but I’ve got to run now. I have a free hour between three and four this afternoon.” She got up and left like a businessman with important appointments.

“Your sister is a very busy woman,” Jose said, explaining the obvious. Then he added, with the same hostility I had noticed before, “She don’t have time to brood.” Suddenly he reached for my hand, held it in his and said, laughing, “But we’re not all like that. Come on, I’ll show you around.”

Jose gave me a complete tour of the accommodations behind the garage. I was struck by how clean and well arranged everything was. And how expensive! When I’d first seen the building from the outside it had looked run down; the garage through which I’d entered had seemed dirtier and messier than most garages I’d seen. But when Jose escorted me through the hall from one room to the next, I realized for the first time that the garage was literally a “front,” a facade. I’d been impressed by the night club to which Tissie had taken me but I’d been too preoccupied by my fears to look around the house. The walls and ceilings were all paneled and at frequent intervals paintings were set into the wall panels, as were most of the cupboards. The floors were all covered by heavy rugs. The basement contained a laundry room, a marvelously equipped and very clean workshop and a “recreation room” which, Jose said, hadn’t ever been completed because no one used it. He told me the second floor consisted of lofts and an “experiment room,” and that if I wanted to see them I’d have to go up with their users, Ted, Sabina and Tina. My head was swimming; I wasn’t able to take it all in.

What struck me almost as much as the luxury was the fact that each person slept in a separate room, although there were twin beds or a double bed in every bedroom. I asked Jose awkwardly, “Aren’t there any couples?”

“Couples?” he asked, visibly annoyed. “Sure there are couples. Lots of them. There’s hardly anything else.”

Without even trying to interpret his answer I asked, “You and Sabina?”

“Not on your life!” he said angrily. “You never got to know your sister, did you? This is her room; mine’s over there; we were never a couple and never will be. Any more questions?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing just what I was sorry about.

Jose’s anger vanished and he smiled. “Nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one that’s sorry. I wanted to show you the work in the garage next.”

But I was too confused and too tired to continue the tour. “How about tomorrow?” I asked. “I had a terrible night last night.” I liked Jose. I wanted to go on and tell him about my fears, about Ted, but I held myself back.

“Sure,” he said; “I hope you don’t have any more terrible nights.”

I fell on my bed in Tina’s room as soon as I reached it. I woke up, like the previous night, at midnight. Tina was sound asleep. I had missed my afternoon “appointment” with Sabina. I had also missed all my meals. I crept to the kitchen and literally looted the refrigerator. When I was finally satisfied I sat down and waited for Tissie but realized that she must have gone to work on time. When I heard the heavy garage door closing I turned out the kitchen light, rushed back to Tina’s room, left the door ajar and slipped back to bed with my clothes still on. I listened to Ted and Jose walk to their rooms. After a long silence I heard someone tiptoeing toward my room. I kept my eyes glued to the door — and saw Ted creep through the opening! For an instant he just stood there and stared; then he backed out of the room. I started shaking again. I hadn’t only failed to communicate with Tissie; I had also failed to communicate anything to Ted.

I lay awake all night. When Tina got up in the morning I pretended to be asleep — and fell asleep until noon. When I reached the kitchen I found Sabina pouring Tissie a cup of coffee. Tissie didn’t even notice me.

“Sabina —” I said.

“I know,” Sabina said. “Let’s go to my room.”

As soon as we reached her room she said, “Wait for me just for a minute, would you? I have to make some phone calls.”

Just like a businessman! Anger and resentment filled my every pore as I paced back and forth like a caged animal. I was determined to have it all out with Sabina. I pounced as soon as she returned. “Sabina, why did you pull your hand away from me as if I were a leper? What am I to you?” I went on pacing.

Sabina closed her door and then just stood and stared at me. Suddenly she burst out laughing. “I’ve never seen you like this, Sophia. You’re marvelous. Running around in a circle, filled with righteous fury, frustrated out of your wits — you look just like a circus clown!” Sabina threw her arms around me and pressed me, tightly.

I collapsed in her arms. My anger melted away. I forgot what I’d resented. I felt at home. “I love your house, Sabina,” I whispered.

Sabina said, “I’m glad you do.” Then she kissed me — on my lips. I was surprised — but also pleased because I knew then that I wasn’t an intrusive stranger to Sabina. She asked, “Do you mind?”

“You’re the only friend I wanted to turn to in the entire world,” I whispered.

Sabina stiffened as she let me go. “So much for the preliminaries,” she said, making herself comfortable on her bed. “Let’s talk, about anything and everything. As long as you want. No time limits. No secrets.”

“Sabina, I’m frightened,” I whispered, sitting down next to her.

“You, a Nachalo, frightened?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Is someone after you?”

I knew she meant someone outside but I answered, “Yes, it’s Ted!”

“Oh, get off it, Sophia!” she shouted, angrily hurling a pillow across the room. She seemed disappointed, even disgusted, as Tissie and Ted had seemed the previous morning when I’d announced I’d enjoyed my first experience as a prostitute. “Are you serious?” she continued. “We haven’t been together for years. We’ve both lived whole lives since we’ve last talked to each other. And all you tell me is that Ted is after you! Are you sure you don’t mean Seth?”

I was in a panic. I wanted to apologize. I didn’t want Sabina to turn against me. I shook my head.

“I could understand your being afraid of Seth,” she said. “He might shoot you or stab you. Or even Vic. But not Ted! What happened to you. Sophia? What have you become?”

I was deathly afraid Sabina was going to add, “Coward! You’re just like your mother!” I felt the tears rushing toward my eyes. But for once in my life I caught myself before breaking down crying. I bit my lip, stiffened up and looked right into Sabina’s eyes. “Why did you pull your hand away yesterday?”

“I’m schizoid!” she said. “What are you?”

“I’m only joking,” I said, trying hard to smile. “I was just trying to devise an original way to start. I’ll try again. Just to get started, let’s turn to Ted. Who is Ted? What is he?”

“Holy, wise and fair is he; the heaven such grace did lend him, that he might admired be,” Sabina mocked, unconvinced by my act. but not determined to look under my veil. “You’d know who he was if you’d listened, and you’d know what he was if you’d heard and been moved.”

“Please don’t be cryptic,” I begged.

“An unused memory is like a pair of eyes that have never been opened,” Sabina said.

“I’ve always wanted to have memory training from you, Sabina. Is this to be my first lesson?” I asked.

“There’s the Sophia I remember!” Sabina retorted. “Sarkasmos. It means to cut or bite another’s flesh. Ron was trying to tell you all about Ted. But you bit right through him with your: (imitating me) “Really?”

I remembered. Sabina and Ron had visited me five years earlier, when Ron was released from reform school. Ron had tried to tell me about all the people he’d met, but I’d shut him up with my stupid “Really?” That had been the last time I’d seen Ron. “Thanks for the memory lesson,” I said, confirming her characterization of me. “Ted is Ron’s reform school philosopher.”

“Not philosopher,” Sabina corrected. “Scientist, engineer, artist, acrobat. One of the best minds of our time.”

“He can pick the lock of any brand new car and drive away with it in less than a minute,” I added. “If I’d remembered last night I would have known it wouldn’t do me any good to lock my door. But to compensate for that, I could at least have consoled myself with the thought that he was Ron’s friend and one of the best minds of our time. Is he at least nice?”

Sabina kicked me and laughed, saying, “But you haven’t changed at all! You’re —”

“Just like my mother!” I interrupted.

Sabina stopped laughing. “I wasn’t going to say that again, Sophia; it’s too mean. Besides, if you ever compare me to my so-called father, I’ll kill you.”

“In the flesh or just with words, the way I bite?” I asked. “Don’t worry, I don’t know enough about either of you to hazard such a comparison. And I’d asked you about Ted.”

“Is he nice?” she repeated. “You’d probably know that now if you’d curbed your sarcasm five years ago. No, that’s not true, since then you probably wouldn’t have gotten along with Ron and consequently wouldn’t have met Ted then either. Ron admired your sarcasm.”

“Did he like me for my sarcasm?” I asked.

“Not altogether,” Sabina answered. “He only liked your sarcasm when it was aimed at other people. How badly he wanted you along when they stole Tom Matthews’ brand new car! Your sarcastic comments would have put the crowning touch on that event. Ron missed your comments; the event was incomplete without them. He never got over your absence; he had staged it all for you and you never saw it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“You do and you don’t,” Sabina said cryptically. “It was your sarcasm that was missed, yet it was that very sarcasm that kept you away. Did Ron like you for your sarcasm? Do I? I do like you, Sophia. And you’ve always been sarcastic. Close enough? I’m only guessing; I never asked Ron precisely that question. Is Ted nice? You’d know if you’d watched Ted break into Matthews’ car and if you’d finished Matthews off with your biting comment. Ron thought he was nice. Ted was the first person he looked up when we left you after your ‘Really?’”

“Is Ted really everything Ron thought he was?” I asked, immediately regretting the presence of that silly word, since Sabina caught it right away.

“Is he really?” she mocked with a sarcasm far superior to mine. “Believe me, Sophia, everything! Engineer; he’ll slip into your room in a flash without a key. Scientist: before you can shout for help, he’ll turn your flesh to liquid and carry you off in a vial. Artist: he’ll pour you out in his loft as a marble statue, life size and a perfect likeness. Acrobat —”

“Sarkasmos my ass, Sabina!” I interrupted. “You love my sarcasm! Do you want to know why?”

“Don’t you think I know? Did you think we were considered sisters because we looked alike?”

We both burst out laughing. Sabina and I became friends for the first time in our lives.

“If Ted is everything Ron thought he was. why don’t you like him?” I asked.

“I don’t remember your being that observant,” Sabina said. “In fact I don’t like him, though this is the first time I’ve been aware of my dislike. It’s not because of anything he is, did or said, but because I know he despises me. It’s normal to dislike someone who despises you, isn’t it? Ask him sometime when you’re reconciled with him. Tell him you’re afraid of me. He won’t laugh at you or call you a coward. He’ll drown you with friendship and shower you with a barrel-full of sympathy. He might even ask you to kill me.”

I was horrified. I reached instinctively for her hand and asked, “Sabina! Why?”

Sabina raised my hand to her throat and asked, “Would you do it?”

“Of course! Like this!” I said, pressing her neck lightly and kissing her cheek, Sabina smiled.

It was precisely at this moment that Tissie burst into the room. I’d thought such coincidences took place only in novels. There we were, sitting next to each other on Sabina’s bed, “necking,” my lips on Sabina’s cheek, a blissful smile across Sabina’s face. Tissie stood in the doorway and stared at us, absolutely stupefied, while Sabina lowered my hand from her neck.

Tissie completed the scene by making it clear she had “understood” everything perfectly. “I’m awfully sorry,” she said, backing away with the same stupefied stare; “I thought you were alone, Sabina. I didn’t know.”

“And that’s that!” I shouted as soon as Tissie was gone. I jumped off the bed laughing. “I wouldn’t even try explaining. She’d only think we were liars besides.” I stopped laughing when it occurred to me that Tissie already thought me a liar “besides.” It had done me no good at all to insist that I’d enjoyed having sex with a man for money. If Tissie also remembered how profusely I’d thanked her for taking me to the bar, she’d think me not only a lesbian and a liar but a hypocrite to boot. I had obviously lost Tissie. But I wasn’t depressed. I had won Sabina. “Does it bother you?” I asked.

“Me?” Sabina asked. “Tissie can think whatever she wants.” Sabina didn’t laugh. She looked sad.

I put the incident out of my mind. I didn’t in fact understand its full meaning until much later. I sat back down and returned to the point we’d reached before we were interrupted. “Why in the world would Ted want to kill you? I think that’s awful!”

Sabina stared blankly at the door for a few seconds and then answered in a monotone, as if my question bored her, “I didn’t say he wanted to kill me. He’s incapable of wanting that. He’s one of the few people I’ve met who knew the difference between things and people and never confused the two. He can do anything that’s ever been done with a tool, but he’ll never touch a weapon, and he’ll never confuse the two. He doesn’t step on a worm if he sees it in time, and he looks sadly at a dead fly. You’re afraid of him? Sophia, believe me, the world will end before Ted attacks you. I can’t imagine his wanting to kill you or me.”

“Then why would he ask me to kill you?” I asked, totally bewildered, although I was also relieved to learn that my pursuer wouldn’t hurt a worm.

“I said he might,” Sabina continued. “But I know he never would. It’s what I’d do in his shoes. All I know for a fact is that he fears and despises me. He’s odd. We’re all odd, but each in a different way. Ted’s oddity is that he’s gone through life making his own decisions but he’s convinced that everyone else is manipulated. If you want a more theoretical explanation: in his practice he’s a perfect democrat while in his political philosophy he’s an absolute elitist. But he’s not a philosopher; he doesn’t think; he just acts and feels. He acts as if I were the one responsible for everything that happens here and he despises me for it.”

“Responsible for what kinds of things?” I asked, becoming increasingly bewildered.

“Everything,” she repeated. “For Tissie. For Vic and Seth. For what Jose or Tina might do. For everything. It’s a long story and I’m not a mind reader. I’m just guessing. He’s of a piece all right: perfectly consistent. One hundred percent right. And he knows it. His contempt for me is completely justified.”

“Would you mind explaining?” I begged. “I’m confused.”

“I don’t guarantee to clarify anything,” Sabina said. “The garage was Ted’s and Ron’s idea. They dreamed of buying it when they were in reform school. Ted had worked for the former owner —”

“Stealing cars and selling heroin?” I asked.

“Just the cars,” Sabina continued. “The heroin came later. The former owner became increasingly careless, spent half his time in jail, and let the place get all run down. Ted rented it as soon as he was released and we bought it soon after Ron was released. The original group was to include Ted and Tissie, you and Ron, and Jose.”

“Me? What about you?” I asked.

“I’ll get to that. Tissie was to be included because she’d been Ted’s girl friend since they were kids. He thinks I’m responsible for what she chose to do with herself but he’s wrong; he didn’t know Tissie when they were kids together. That’s what makes him nice,’ I suppose. I call it dense. Ted and Ron might as well have been twins in that respect. You were to be included because you were Ron’s girl. Ron cried ‘Sophie!’ every time there was a knock on the door. And of course Jose was included because he was Ron’s best friend. But that didn’t work out. Ron finally convinced himself that you weren’t coming and went off to get himself killed. And Jose didn’t like the idea of moving in on Ted and Tissie; he thought he and Ted would kill each other over Tissie. Tissie was terribly pretty but Jose didn’t know her then. So Jose suggested a different arrangement. He recommended his and Ron’s friend Seth for his money, and Ron’s friend Sabina for her brains. Ted was absolutely opposed to that suggestion, but Tissie was carried away by it. I forgot to tell you another one of Ted’s traits: he’s a perpetual loser. This follows from his other traits. Seth moved in and brought Vic. I came with Jose and Ted’s original project started to collapse. Seth started dealing heroin from the garage. Then Tissie got hooked on it. Ted raised a big fuss and succeeded in getting Seth to move out of the house. But things didn’t improve for him. Jose and I and Seth went in on the bar together and soon Tissie and I were working there.”

“And he blames you for all that?” I asked. “Why did he want to exclude you from the original group, before any of those things happened?”

“I already gave you part of the answer,” she said obscurely. “Ted draws a perfectly clear line between people and things; ‘the heaven such grace did lend him, that he might admired be,’ And I do admire him for it, whether his ability comes from grace, instinct or personal insight. ‘Holy, wise and fair is he,’ applying his standard impartially to all situations. Depriving the rich of their objects and transforming those objects with a view to increasing the well-being of the underlying population is an unambiguously human and possibly revolutionary project. Selling one’s body, ruining one’s own or another’s health cannot be means to reaching the same goal because our humanity would be maimed when we reached it, and our humanity is our goal. Ted’s logic is impeccable. But of course he never formulates it as a logic, he never expresses his philosophy, he acts it out. And that’s why the trouble started. He disliked me the very first time we met, soon after Ron tried to tell you about Ted and the garage. Ron told Ted about his half-brother Jose and then started talking about this rich friend of his, Seth. ‘A dope dealer?’ Ted asked. Ron dropped the subject right away but I didn’t. At that time Ron and I thought everything a person was jailed for was a revolutionary act. But I learned something from Ted that night. I drew answers from him like a dentist pulling his teeth out. I made sentences out of his single words and logical propositions out of his grimaces and groans. Before the night ended I hadn’t only drawn his entire philosophy out of him but had become completely convinced by it Ron fell asleep. Ted’s philosophy isn’t all that difficult. It all hinges on Ted’s distinction between people and things, and his corollary distinction between weapons and tools. Once you get hold of the axiom everything else follows. And he exhibits his axiom on his face and in every gesture: he grins when a tool is in question and groans when it’s a weapon. But Ted didn’t appreciate what I did for him. He squirmed every time I put his attitude into words. He became increasingly frightened of me, as if I were depriving him of something precious, as if I were undressing him stitch by stitch, as if I were reaching inside him and pulling his guts out for all to see. He hated me from that day on and he never forgave me. That’s why he hoped you’d join Ron. Ted is everything but a philosopher. He fears philosophy, he’s suspicious of logic, even of words. He expresses himself in metal, wood, marble, canvass — everything but words. To him philosophy isn’t a tool but a weapon; its only purpose is to manipulate people. And he’s convinced it’s the weapon with which I’ve manipulated every person here except himself and Tina, and he’s not sure about Tina.”

Sabina suddenly jumped off the bed like an energetic cat, pulled me up as well, and shouted, “Hey it’s dark already! Why are we spending the day cooped up in here like prisoners? Let me take you on a tour!”

“Jose took me on a tour of the house yesterday,” I told her.

“Let’s go to the bar, then,” she suggested.

“Tissie took me there on my first night here,” I admitted, remembering afterwards that Tissie had begged me never to tell Sabina.

“Tissie took you!” Sabina exclaimed. Clenching her fists she added, “Why the little hypocrite!”

“I asked her to take me,” I added, trying to protect Tissie, and surprised by Sabina’s outburst.

Sensing my surprise she calmed down and said, as if by way of explanation, “I thought I was going to have that honor. What’s left for a hostess if she can’t show off?”

“I asked Tissie to take me because you’d told her you’d never take me there,” I said, still protecting Tissie.

“Not to work there, Sophia,” she said. “That’s for you to choose or not choose. We haven’t eaten all day, I’m starving and the food there is as tasty as the girls are beautiful.”

I laughed, thinking she was referring to herself and Tissie, and I started heading toward my room.

“’Hey, where are you going?” she shouted, grabbing my arm.

“To change my clothes,” I said, pointing to my bluejeans and workshirt.

“You look perfect as you are,” she said.

“But I wore these clothes all night!” I protested.

“You also smell perfect,” she insisted, pulling me out of the house.

We walked to the bar, continuing our conversation every step of the way. I told her I spotted a contradiction between her praise for Ted’s “philosophy” and her activity in the bar. Sabina admitted the contradiction but we reached be bar before she had time to deal with it.

Sabina did something strange as soon as we entered. She put her arm through mine and escorted me along the stools of the bar right past Tissie. “Evening, Tissie,” she said nonchalantly, but with a mean grin on her face.

I said, “Hi, Tissie,” and tried to smile, but I felt intensely embarrassed. I knew I was right in the middle of something I couldn’t understand. Sabina exchanged greetings with some of the other “girls” and I noticed that they were indeed pretty, and all very tastefully dressed. I was surprised. My notions of how prostitutes looked and dressed had come from newspapers and novels. When I saw them in the flesh I felt like a homely clod among them: Sabina’s country sister, maybe even her aunt.

As we walked across the floor toward a table, a frighteningly large man grabbed Sabina’s arm and said, “Hey, Sabina baby! Thought you weren’t coming tonight.”

Sabina jerked herself out of his grasp so quickly that I thought she’d sent an electric shock through him, and she hissed at him through her teeth: “Don’t lay your hands on me, Bozo. I’m busy tonight!”

“Gee, Sabina, how’s a guy to know that?” the huge man asked, backing away from us.

As soon as we reached a table in a dark corner of the enormous room Sabina asked me, “Are you shocked?”

Before I could answer a waiter came, greeted Sabina and bowed to me.

“The works!” Sabina told him. “I’ve got a very special guest tonight.”

“Shocked?” I asked. I was confused, flattered, distressed, pleased. I felt dense, ignorant and lost. But I wasn’t shocked. “Why should I be shocked? You’ve told me what you do. And I’ve seen this place already.”

“You’re being evasive,” she said. “Do you disapprove?”

“Do you disapprove of my being sarcastic?” I asked.

The waiter brought us the best drink I’d ever tasted and I started sipping.

“Good answer!” she said, but then pushed on: “What were you saying about the contradiction between Ted’s philosophy and my practice?”

She’s really all brain, I thought. But I changed my mind immediately when I remembered several of the day’s events that led to a very different conclusion. I tried to concentrate my thoughts, or rather to find out what they were. The band was playing a familiar tune and I listened and started to hum. I couldn’t keep up with Sabina. Finally I admitted, “I’m completely lost. I don’t understand you, Sabina. I don’t understand Ted, although I’m less afraid of him now. And I don’t see how I fit into it all!”

Sabina reached for my hand and said, looking straight into my eyes, “There’s nothing to understand, Sophia, and nothing to fit into. It’s your life to do with as you will. There’s no structure. Nothing is banned. Everything is allowed. No holds are barred.”

“What’s everything?” I asked hesitantly.

Letting go of my hand, she said, “My life, my desires, my capacities; those are my axioms.”

“And this?” I asked, my glance sweeping across the bar, the sex-crazed men, the prostitutes.

“A person freely creates her own life, but in circumstances not of her own choosing,” she answered.

“I’ve heard that before, but I don’t see how it applies,” I said.

“All this, as you call it, is part of the circumstances not of my own choosing,” she answered.

Just then the waiter arrived with “the works.” I had never in my life eaten so much delicious food. The meal was indeed as tasty as the place was lush. We continued our conversation all through the meal, and I grew increasingly giddy from the wine.

“That sounds terribly cynical,” I said with my mouth full.

“It is!” Sabina admitted. “But I’m not being cynical. The cynicism is part of the world I was born into, the world I’m trying to get out of.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said, and then probed further: “The fullest development of my life, my projects, my capacities —”

“Desires,” she added.

“Yes, all of it,” I granted; “I think I understand that. But I —”

She interrupted again: “With which organ do you understand that?”

I was stunned. “Organ? What do you mean?”

“I know some people who understand that — but only in their sexual organ. We both know people who understand it only in their political organ, people who understand everything you’d want to know about life, capacities and desires, who accept themselves as slaves, who’ve never lived in their lives, who’ve stunted all their capacities, who’ve annihilated their desires.” Her anger grew as she spoke.

“And their collective name is Luisa Nachalo,” I ventured.

“I didn’t name any names!” she shouted. “Anyway, she’s not the only one. You must have met dozens if not hundreds of them during your years in the university. Life, desires, capacities — they’ve reduced them all to words, words which they carry around in their political organs. And they’re the ones who impose life on everyone else. They don’t know what life is because they’ve never lived and they’re intent on generalizing their own condition — for the sake of the word, for the primacy of the political organ.”

“What about the means, Sabina, the tools?” I asked. I was getting dizzy from the wine and I had a hard time formulating my question. “Earlier you said you could get maimed by the tools you used — or was it weapons?”

“We come maimed!” Sabina exclaimed. “The question is whether or not we’re able to heal. Not abstractly but here and now. Look around you. Look closely at the waiters, the band members, the prostitutes. None of them are people born with golden spoons in their mouths. They’re down-and-outs, every last one of them. They ‘re the underclass. All of them came here off the streets or out of jail. They were already dope pushers, prostitutes, hustlers and pimps. That’s part of the circumstances they didn’t choose. They came maimed. And they’re starting to heal!”

“In what way?” I asked.

“Did you look at that ape who grabbed me earlier?” she asked. “He’s part of the apparatus that does the maiming. He’s one of the biggest crooks in this city. He’s an official in one of the international corporations. When he snaps his fingers, people all over the world respond like caged rats responding to an experimenter’s stimulus. See the girl he’s with at the bar? She used to be lower than the lowest rat in his cages. She was the slave of every two-bit pimp on her street and if she’d wound up in the garbage dump no one would have missed her. And look at her now! She’s on her ninth or tenth drink and probably on her fifth dessert and he’s ordering another round. The price of food and drinks here is over a hundred times the cost. And you know what? She’ll go to the john after a while, slip out the back and go home. Eventually he’ll turn to someone else and start all over again. He’s Mister International. But here it’s we who snap our fingers and he who jumps. One of us always goes in the end, but first we soak him to the limit. And everything we get out of him stays right here: it’s all ours. This is anti-imperialism in practice, Sophia. This is class war. And we’re winning. We all have expensive hobbies now, and some of us have more than hobbies. All the way from sex to crafts, painting and playing with the sciences. I’ll show you sometime. We’re all expanding, discovering ourselves. We’re starting to live and we want to live more. If we’re ever going to destroy what maims us it’ll be because we’ve started to live. Those who love life will be the ones who’ll push the fucker into the sea! Look toward the door. See that weasel who just came in? He’s the local police chief. Look at him putting his hand on that girl’s ass. Watch what happens now!”

I saw the girl turn around and sock the police chief, who went reeling backward until he tripped over a stool and fell.

“Outside he does that to the likes of us whenever he pleases!” Sabina said. “Watch him get up and go back to her. The funniest thing is that she’ll probably go out with him; it’s getting late. Is that demeaning?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled; my head was swimming and I was getting sick.

“Is that maiming? Maybe it is,” she continued. “I know it is. But we didn’t create the means. We found them and we’re learning to use them. The chiefs making up to her now. She’ll decide to go with him.”

The room was moving up and down like a ship. I felt worse every minute. But Sabina didn’t notice; she kept on talking. “She’ll sell him sex for money. You notice a contradiction and you’re right. Sex is also her hobby. Hobby is a lousy word. It’s her life. You know what she does with her money? She had her apartment redone. Wall-to-wall mattresses, all down. In every room except the bathroom and kitchen. She fills her apartment with everyone she can find between the age of six and sixty. Every conceivable shape, size and age. And then she lives. She satisfies every desire, every whim; she engages in every conceivable and inconceivable perversion, if you like that word; I don’t.”

I held on to the table to keep myself from falling. I heard her words but all I saw was a blur; my insides felt like bubbling lava.

“But she pays some of them,” Sabina continued. “That’s a contradiction, a terrible contradiction. She still hasn’t healed. She’s still revenging herself for what she was forced to undergo. She still can’t tell people from things nor distinguish her life from the means that make it possible. She hasn’t learned to draw Ted’s fine line. Ted won’t ever be caught in such a contradiction. He’ll never make that mistake. He works in the garage: that’s the circumstances, the means. But he plays in the loft and in the basement workshop: that’s his goal, his life. She confuses the two; she hasn’t learned to make Ted’s distinctions and maybe never will. We all come maimed. But don’t think Ted doesn’t. She’s healthier than Ted in at least one respect. She knows people; he only knows things. She knows the boundlessness of desires; he only knows the possibilities of things. She knows love in every conceivable form and sex in every imaginable combination, position or pattern; he only knows love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed, by those with stunted imaginations and dead desires. He can imagine things in all combinations, positions and patterns. He knows people aren’t things. And he’s profoundly right. He’s wise, even holy. But he doesn’t know people. He also came maimed.”

I must have passed out. The next thing I remember is being carried through the garage to Tina’s room. Jose carried my feet — and Ted’s arms were under my back. I must have fallen asleep right away.

I heard someone tiptoeing toward my door. I watched Ted slip through the opening and walk right up to my bed. He stood staring down at me. Suddenly he pulled the blanket off me. I saw that he held a wrench in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. I jumped out of bed terrified — and found myself lying on the floor next to my bed. It was a nightmare, but I couldn’t stop my trembling. The sun was already up, but Tina was still sound asleep. I was panicky. I crept toward Sabina’s room, shook her hysterically and whimpered, “Help me, Sabina.”

Sabina swung her arm and hit my side so powerfully that I fell to the floor. Looking right at me, seemingly wide awake, she hissed through her teeth, “Don’t touch me!” She spoke to me in the same tone in which she’d spoken to the corporation executive who’d grabbed her arm.

“Sabina!” I cried with disbelief. “It’s me, Sophia, your friend, your sister!”

“Get out of my room, Luisa!” she hissed viciously. “You’re not my sister!”

I gathered myself up off the floor and backed away from her, horrified. Snatches of the previous night’s conversation flashed through my mind, particularly her statements, “I’m schizoid, what are you?” and “He only knows love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed.”

“You’d like nothing better than for Ted to rape me!” I cried hysterically. “You’d say he was healed!”

“For his sake and for yours!” she hissed.

I slammed her door and ran back to my bed. In a few minutes I stopped trembling. I was wide awake and felt dumber than a baboon. I realized that I had run to Sabina’s room under the spell of my nightmare. That was the only time in my life that I acted out the remainder of a dream after waking. I felt ashamed of myself; I was afraid to face Sabina.

I lay in my bed feeling intensely embarrassed long after Tina got dressed and left the room. I had a splitting headache. I reached the kitchen around noon, a couple of minutes before Sabina.

She set me at ease immediately. “I had the strangest dream. Or did you actually come to my room last night and —” she started to ask.

“You dreamed it, Sabina,” I insisted. “I just got up.”

“That’s a relief!” she said. “It was awful!”

“What was it about?” I asked, frowning.

“Do you really want to hear about it?” she asked.

“I’d rather not,” I said. “But I would like to ask you one question.”

“Want me to call off my day’s projects?” she asked, smiling and friendly, sisterly again, but surely unconvinced that last night’s visit had been a dream.

“No, please, not even one. It’s only a bitty question,” I insisted, trying hard to smile. “What’s my name?”

Of course she knew then that I’d lied. How sad she suddenly looked. But she’s so crazy and such a ham that I couldn’t possibly nurse my resentment against her. She walked around the table, kneeled to me and placed her contrite head in my lap. Lifting her head I begged, “Please look at me, Sabina, and tell me who I am. And please don’t kneel!”

“Pray, do not mock me,” she quoted. “I am a very foolish fond young maid. A score and upward, not an hour more nor less; and, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you. You are a spirit, I know. Yet I feel this pinprick. Oh, do not laugh at me; for as I am a woman, I think this lady to be my sister Sophia. If you have poison for me, I will drink it. You have some cause.”

“No cause,” I whispered, smiling through my tears. “Now get up! You have a busy day!”

Ruthless and contrite, icy and warm, monarch, enemy and sister — I couldn’t hold on to my resentment against any of the four, or ten or a hundred Sabinas. Nor could I make her activities the model for mine. Probably because I, too, came maimed. “You describe your trip to Sabina’s garage as a descent to the underworld,” you said. And that’s exactly what it was, and remained, no matter how “familiar” it might seem to you. I remained a disoriented tourist, a visitor from another world. It didn’t even occur to me to ask Sabina to take me along on her day’s “business rounds.” Did she go out to look for more “beautiful girls” for the bar? Was it her turn with the international executive? Or was she going to her friend’s wall-to-wall down mattress to satisfy “every desire, every whim — every conceivable and inconceivable perversion”? I admit I was curious. But I wasn’t curious enough to go along, or even to ask. And Sabina didn’t make the slightest effort to influence my choice. She let me know that I could have her friendship if I wanted it, and whenever I wanted it. But that was all. I was my own person and she didn’t impose herself. Ted wasn’t the only person in that house who was perfectly consistent. Sabina wouldn’t have interfered if I’d spent every day in bed, started taking heroin, or floated down the river. She’d have stopped me from setting fire to myself only if she’d thought the flame would burn the house. (I’m exaggerating.) It became perfectly clear to me she wouldn’t raise a finger to keep Ted away from my bed until he actually injured me.

There was no structure, Sabina had told me. How true this was! Everything was allowed, no holds were barred. I could have joined anyone, or taken up with anyone, at anytime of day or night. Or I could have indulged some fancy of my own. If it had been expensive Sabina would have paid for it. If I’d wanted to pay for it myself she would have showed me how. There were no limits to what I could choose. But I couldn’t choose. I realized that I had never made a real decision before. I’m sorry if the sequel disappoints you: I didn’t make one then either, and I haven’t made one since. I don’t know how. I came maimed.

Unable to lean on Sabina, I tried to lean on Tissie, though, lot for long. She obviously wasn’t as well disposed toward me is she had been the first day. She sat across from me, ate a meager lunch drowned by an enormous quantity of coffee, and made small talk.

When I asked if she’d ever take me to the bar again, she became indignant and announced, “You don’t look like Sabina’s sister!”

I guessed that Tissie wasn’t only ascertaining the fact that Sabina and I didn’t look alike (there being no reason why we should). Since she already knew me to be a liar, she was letting me know she’d had no trouble at all figuring out who and what I really was: I was obviously Sabina’s “man” parading as her sister. I couldn’t have explained anything; I had advised Sabina not even to try.

Tissie spoke to me again slightly later; she was suddenly a lot friendlier. “If you’d ever like to have a shot,” she said, “just let me know. Seth will be glad to give you as many as you need.”

“Need” was the word I latched on to. As many as I need! So much for leaning on Tissie, I thought. How helpful! She was certainly willing enough to help me with my choices. She certainly wasn’t above imposing herself on another. I should really have thanked her. Instead I said, “No thank you,” trying very hard to reciprocate her earlier hostility. I apparently succeeded. She kept her distance for several weeks. But I hadn’t gotten a step closer to making a decision, to choosing the shape of my self in the world.

I really should explain my hostile “No thank you,” since nowadays it might be attributed to prudishness. Radicals who are Tina’s age today might think me “maimed” in that respect as well. That explanation would be false because my generation of radicals (there were pitifully few in that generation) explicitly ranged narcotics among the weapons of the oppressor. The anti-utopia I grew up with was a “brave new world” of nodding imbeciles kept in line by tranquilizers and kept happy and pacified by narcotics. I simply can’t stomach those of Tina’s peers who today consider the imbecilic nod of an addict the supreme revolutionary act. Not that Tina shares that idiocy; in this respect as in many others she might as well belong to Sabina’s and my generation. My “No thank you” was an expression, not of prudishness, but of genuine hostility.

My hostility wasn’t personal; it wasn’t aimed against Tissie, but only against the offered drug. I made no effort to impose myself on Tissie, to convert her to my attitude. I did try to avoid Vic, and particularly Seth, but I didn’t once confront them about the dope dealing. The heroin was largely responsible for my final departure from the garage, but it wasn’t I who started the scene about it. I only stayed away from it, and responded with hostility to all offers.

By rejecting the heroin I antagonized Tissie and, by implication, Seth and Vic. Since I didn’t know how to lean on myself, and didn’t want to learn, I was left with the garage crew: Ted, Jose and Tina. And I wasn’t about to lean on Ted.

I turned to Jose first. But that day really wasn’t my lucky day. I went to the garage and paced, waiting for him to return from an errand. Ted and Tina were so busily at work they didn’t even notice me. Vic just stood there, like a fixture. The day I’d arrived I’d thought Vic another mechanic. But he did nothing at all. He was like an aged cat that looks on but never moves; you might think he was the commissar assigned to watch the others work. I paid more attention to Vic’s presence than I did to anything Tina or Ted were doing.

When Jose finally came back, i went up to him and put my foot straight into my mouth. “I’d like to accept your offer,” I said. I was of course referring to his offer to show me the work in the garage.

Jose grabbed my wrist and literally dragged me out into the street. “Let me get just one thing clear,” he shouted when we were outside of anyone’s hearing. “Ron’s best friend never made Ron’s girl any kind of offer!”

Oh no, what have I done now? I thought. “But you said yesterday —” I started.

“You don’t understand!” he shouted. “I never made you an offer!”

“I’m sorry!” I said, trying to look sorry but wanting to laugh. “I didn’t mean that kind of offer. You said you’d show me —”

He cut me off again. “I’ve got to explain something to you,” he said insistently. “I used to dream about you long before I met you. I thought about that big guy wanting a broad badly enough to go and kill himself because of her; I thought that’s not something you’ll find every day; I thought I’d really like to meet up with her; I thought, Wow! That must really be some piece of ass! I’m sorry, I don’t mean that. I mean some dame! He told me you were sensitive about the names we give to — er, broads, chicks, you know —”

“Try women,” I suggested.

“That’s what it says on shithouses! Is that better?” he asked.

“You’re a little bit like him,” I said. I liked him. A lot.

“I’d never kill myself over a br — a girl, a woman,” he said.

“Why do you keep repeating that?” I asked. I had no idea what any of it meant, but I didn’t care. He did remind me of Ron.

“Because that’s what made me think I wouldn’t want to meet her. That’s when I remembered she left him when he needed her most, she left him when he was just about ready to take off and do some big things on his own, with her and for her. And that’s when I thought that a girl who’d done that to him wasn’t for me. And then, almost four years later, she comes walking right into the garage as if nothing ever happened. And she lets me take her on a tour of the house. Something funny must have happened inside me. I must have gone back to my first thoughts. I must have thought, Wow! She really is some woman! And it must be when those thoughts were in my head that something I said might have sounded like an offer. But you’ve got to understand that whatever I said, I didn’t mean it, because those first thoughts aren’t the thoughts I have now. You’d better understand that I’m not about to make Ron’s girl any kind of offer!”

“I understand,” I lied; I didn’t understand anything. “What can I do to make up for what you blame me for?”

“Just stay out of my sight,” he answered. “Because you really are —”

“Some piece of ass!” I finished his sentence with the words he’d have preferred, and added coquetishly, “And you’d better understand that Ron’s girl isn’t going to accept any kind of offer.” I ran back through the garage to the now-empty kitchen. I wasn’t hungry and ate from habit. I then took a long walk along streets where there were lots of people; I thought that with more of the same luck I might successfully antagonize a complete stranger. But I didn’t meet anyone and turned in before Tina did. I had a long, marvelously restful sleep, without interruptions, fears or nightmares.

It was only on the following day that my active life in the garage began. Tina was already gone when I woke up. I reexamined my situation as I sipped my breakfast coffee. I had knocked down every one of my potential props except one: seven-year old Tina. And rather than face up to Sabina’s challenge, I went to the garage looking for Tina.

I squatted next to her and silently watched her work. She seemed annoyed by my presence. “Would you mind showing me how you do things here?” I asked, begging.

“Ted’ll show you; he’s much better at it than I am; he showed everyone,” she said innocently.

“I don’t want Ted to show me,” I insisted. “I want you to show me.”

Tina stopped what she was doing, turned to me and looked into my eyes as if she were searching for something. Suddenly she said, “You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

I almost fell over backwards. “Why in the world do you say that?”

“You were Ron’s girl, weren’t you?”

“Yes I was, for a time,” I admitted, “but I swear I’m not your mother!”

“Why did you leave us?” she asked.

Oh no! I thought. There goes my last prop! “Tina, I swear I never left you,” I whispered insistently and I hoped convincingly.

Tina went back to her work and I went on squatting next to her. Fortunately for me, Tina was more compassionate than her older but not wiser housemates. She worked in silence for a while. Suddenly she said, “Here, hold this!” And my apprenticeship began.

The seven-year old teacher and her twenty-three year old student became inseparable. I went to bed when she did and got up when she did. We ate our meals together and spent most I of the day working together. I became a crack auto mechanic, I an amateur carpenter and something less than an amateur I (namely a lousy) welder, wood turner and machinist. Tina I knew what to do with every tool in the garage and she could operate every machine in the downstairs workshop. Let no one tell me about the virtues of specialization, the lifelong training required by each trade, or the helplessness of children! Tina taught me infinitely more than the uses of the tools or the operations possible on each machine. She taught me what human beings might be if —

But there was one thing she didn’t show me: the lofts. She assured me I could have a loft of my own if I decided to paint or sculpt and then I could visit the other painters and sculptors (namely Ted and Tina) to study their materials and techniques. I told Tina I preferred to express myself with a full pen and an empty piece of paper. Admission to the lofts, and to Sabina’s lab, was restricted to the artists themselves. The finished works were brought down, and could be criticized or admired only then. I learned that some of the most beautiful objects in the house and in the tiny garden were Tina’s. But no one except another painter or sculptor was allowed to see the work before it was finished since the outsider might influence the artist’s decision or even distort the original intention. One had to decide and choose on one’s own.

It all sounds so idyllic, doesn’t it? Almost Utopian. I’m trying to describe those days as I experienced them, not only because they were the happiest days I spent there, but also because it’s the only way I can clarify why I feel so sour about that experience today. It all turned sour gradually; everything turned out not to be what it had seemed. But I should tell you about three more trivialities I experienced before the souring began.

The first concerns Ted. He continued to tiptoe to our door and to look in on me every single night. I started to take his modest “perversion” for granted. If that was the extent to which he satisfied his sexual desires, then I had to agree with Sabina: he really didn’t have very extensive desires. I started to feel sorry for him.

The second concerns Tina. She repeatedly talked about wanting to leave the garage, “just me and you and Ted.” I asked jokingly if we couldn’t take Jose along and she explained, “Oh no. he’d want to bring Seth along and Seth would bring Vic,” and I understood that Seth and Vic would bring the heroin so I didn’t pursue that. I asked why we couldn’t bring Sabina along and Tina said, “She’d bring Tissie and Tissie can’t live without Seth,” and we’d be right back where we started. I didn’t take any of this very seriously and I didn’t put all the pieces together until much later; I’m not sure I’m aware of all the pieces even now.

The third has to do with Jose. He and I had simultaneously avoided and courted each other since our bout in the street. I worked facing him as often as I could and whenever I faced him he turned his back to me. But I knew that whenever my back was turned to him he didn’t take his eyes off me.

One day Seth rushed to Jose and I overheard him whisper something about “Sabina’s kid and sister.”

Jose “corrected” Seth in a way that struck me as totally bizarre. He said, “Ron’s kid and Ron’s girl are staying right here in Ron’s garage, so either say what you’ve got to say or get out of here!”

It did become perfectly clear to me why Tina had an identity crisis: she was a dead man’s daughter in her living mother’s house. Furthermore, if she was perpetually “Ron’s kid” while I remained “Ron’s girl” it was obvious that I was the girl’s mother.

I decided to have it out with Jose. I was anxious to learn if he too thought I had walked out on Ron and Tina, if he too thought I was Tina’s mother. I also wanted to put an end to our silence, to place our courtship on more solid ground. But I didn’t have a chance. That’s when everything began to sour.

That night, when Tina was ready to turn in, I told her I wanted to stay behind to finish the work on my own; she could inspect it in the morning and tell me how I had done all by myself.

Tina left. A few minutes later Ted said goodnight and left. Jose and I were alone. Suddenly a terrible thought flew through my mind. Ted never went to bed before me!

I rushed into the house, took my shoes off, and crept to an alcove in the hallway. I watched Ted come out of his room, tiptoe across the hall and slip into Tina’s room. I was terrified. A few seconds later he came out. and returned to his own room. I ran to Tina’s room. As soon as I reached my bed I started trembling again. I broke out in a cold sweat. I realized that Ted came to our room every night, not to look at me, but to look at Tina!

I stupidly thought I ought to tell Sabina. The following day I went to the kitchen at noon, when she usually got up. I waited for her impatiently. When she came in I told her, “I have something really urgent to tell you.”

As soon as Sabina looked at me I realized I hadn’t chosen the best day to reveal my discovery to her. She looked at me but saw Luisa. “If it’s about Ted again, save it; I’m busy,” she said.

“It’s not about me and Ted. It’s about Tina and Ted,” I said insistently.

“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime,” she said, and yawned.

I was horrified. It was Sabina the prostitute talking to one of her buyers, coldly, indifferently, absently. “Sabina!” I shouted. “There’s a funny relationship between them. I’m not imagining it.”

“It’s only funny where you come from,” she said contemptuously. “To him she’s a fully developed person. That must be very funny to you, because where you come from she’d be a thing, a pet, a child. What a funny relationship: a man and a pet! But why does it bother you? Aren’t all relationships funny where you came from?”

I got mad. “I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; I’m sorry to bother you with my funny sensibilities,” I said sarcastically.

“Don’t ever apologize for your sensibilities, Sophia! Develop them, refine them. They’re all you’ve got.” And then, adding, “See you around,” she vanished.

I sat in the kitchen biting my lip with frustration. What in the world could I make out of any of that? You would have been a great help just then, Yarostan. Didn’t you tell me that “Sabina’s world” was completely familiar to you, that you felt perfectly at home there? I didn’t know what to think. Was Sabina simply indifferent? Did she simply not care what happened to seven-year old Tina? Or did she know all about Ted and Tina, everything “conceivable and inconceivable,” and did her philosophy account for it all as normal, as part of the process of healing? And were my sensibilities right after all? Or was I one of those who “only know love and sex in the forms practiced by the maimed, by those with stunted imaginations and dead desires”? And even if my sensibilities were right, was I right to want to impose them on the other people in the house? Who was I, after all? In terms of experience and in almost every other way as well I was the youngest person in the house, the only real “child” there. I was Tina’s apprentice. I wasn’t her guardian but her charge. She was my teacher and my model. It was she who defined my day’s activities, not I hers. It was I who turned to Tina to ask, “What should I do next?” That relationship was funny too, where I came from.

That afternoon I rejoined Tina in the workshop, as her apprentice. Outwardly everything remained the same. But inwardly I was transformed. I stopped my flirtation with Jose and forgot the urgent questions I’d wanted to ask him. I turned all my attention to Ted. I accompanied Tina when she went to tell Ted she was stuck with a problem and asked for his advice. They discussed the problem like two explorers setting out into uncharted territory. They were the adults. I was the child. They obviously knew what they were doing. I was completely lost.

I became obsessed with the desire to take a trip, if only a brief trip, out of “Sabina’s world” and its “funny relationships.” I longed to see how it all looked from outside, from where I came from. I hadn’t called Alec or any of my university friends since the day I’d been evicted from the co-op three weeks earlier. I had simply disappeared. I wondered if they too would present me with a child I had mothered and ask me why I had abandoned it. Surely not after only three weeks!

It was Saturday evening, Alec’s habitual date-night. The school year had just ended. If Alec and I hadn’t been expelled we’d both be college graduates. I wondered if he’d be dating someone that night, perhaps someone I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine him without a woman. But he was home, and excited to the point of hysteria; he obviously wasn’t dating anyone else.

“For Christ’s sake Sophie where the hell have you been?” he shouted. “Everyone’s looking all over for you. Even your mother —”

“My what?” I asked.

“Your mother, for Christ’s sake!” he shouted. “Minnie and I found her through the phone book thinking she’d know where you were but even she hadn’t heard from you. What the hell happened? When can I see you?”

“How about tomorrow morning, breakfast time?” I suggested.

“You’ll come over?” he asked.

I almost consented — but a “brilliant” idea flashed through my mind. “Why don’t you come here?” I asked. I gave him the address and insisted, “Don’t tell anyone where I am and come alone, understand?” I thought my idea was “brilliant” because Alec’s visit would bring the world I came from right into the midst of Sabina’s world. That way I’d see how I looked from outside much more vividly than I ever could if I went outside.

On Sunday morning I got up before sunrise, panicky with anticipation. Alec didn’t come until nine. I ran to the garage when I heard a knock, but Vic was there before me. Alec had gotten all dressed up in his Saturday night date suit. He looked as frightened as a rabbit that’s ready to bolt away. Vic refused to let him in.

“Ain’t no cop going to get inside here!” Vic grumbled.

“He’s no cop! He’s my best friend!” I shrieked. I threw my arms around the scared rabbit and kissed him. Then I led him past Vic, through the messy garage, through the plush hallway with its panels and inset pictures and sculptures, to the kitchen. Tissie was the next member of the welcoming committee.

“Cripes, what’s that you’re bringing in here?” Tissie asked, almost dropping her cup.

“Tissie, this is my friend Alec,” I said.

“Alec! That’s short for Alexandra ain’t it?” she asked.

“Tissie! Don’t be mean,” I begged.

“Can’t tell from looks these days,” she exclaimed vengefully. “Don’t worry, sis, I’m through here; I won’t spoil anything for you.” She left us alone.

Poor Alec still looked like he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. He paced back and forth and asked, “Couldn’t we have breakfast out someplace?”

I finally succeeded in pushing him down into a chair and told him. “I wanted to see you right here.”

Looking suspiciously at me, then at the hallway. Alec asked with unambiguous hostility, “What the hell you got into, Sophie? A whorehouse?”

I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. Alec’s words were like gusts of air from the world I’d come from. Gusts of foul air. Farts. Alec and I had never talked about prostitutes but I’m sure he’d have set forth the standard “radical” views of them: guilt less victims of a predatory society, exploited by the bourgeoisie like the rest of the working class, basically proletarian — until the day when he finds his girl friend among “sluts in a whorehouse.” Alec disappointed me. I’d expected him to lean over backward with hypocritical understanding and sympathy, even encouragement. I would then have bombarded him with revelations about the “negative aspects” of the good life. But his instant hostility put me on the defensive immediately.

“A whorehouse?” I asked. “I thought you knew I was evicted from the whorehouse! Or didn’t you know my colleagues at the co-op were all for sale — to anyone willing to buy them: the city, the state, any corporate bureaucracy, any academic bureaucracy, law firms, rich husbands, even cops?”

“I get the point, Sophie,” he said contritely. “I didn’t mean to come on like that. But ever since you told me to be hush hush about where you were, and what with that guy stopping me at the door, I thought —”

“You thought I’d become a prostitute,” I cut in.

“I didn’t say that,” he insisted.

“But you thought it,” I said.

“Get off it, Sophie,” he begged. “You can’t read my mind and I can’t read yours, so tell me what you’ve been doing and I’ll stop trying. You told that guy I was your best friend, but you sure don’t act like you believe that.”

“All right, comrade, you asked for it,” I announced, proceeding defensively every step of the way. “I’ve gone back to the working class, which is where I started, where I found my first love —”

“And where I’ve never been! Only I never expected you to throw that in my face!” he exclaimed.

“I’m answering your question,” I said calmly. “I’m an apprentice mechanic, carpenter and welder; in a few days I start out as apprentice machinist and later on as electrician, plumber —”

“Aw get off it, Sophie,” he said, annoyed. “I know you can’t be all those things. What’s the big secret you’re keeping from me?”

I was annoyed too. For once I wasn’t being sarcastic and as a result I sounded like a liar. I grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him downstairs to the workshop. “You don’t believe me? I’ll show you!” Like a magician performing a trick, I showed him a rectangular block, inserted it into the lathe and transformed it into a cylinder. I didn’t know how to do anything else on the lathe but Alec had never even seen that done.

He was greatly impressed. “Jesus, Sophie, is this a school?” he asked, now all modesty and admiration.

I gleamed in his admiration, proudly absorbing credit for what I had neither conceived nor built nor helped maintain. “Something like a school,” I answered, “but so different from the schools we know that it shouldn’t be called by the same name. The state doesn’t pay for it and professional educators don’t run it.”

“Who does, then?” he asked.

“Exactly who you thought ran it. It was founded by street people, lumpen, whatever you choose to call them: professional hustlers, prostitutes, dope dealers, pimps and thieves — the works! They pay for it by stealing and hustling and they run it themselves. They’re the freest people I’ve known; they sell less of their time, their bodies and their talents than anyone I’ve ever been with. It’s a school, but there’s no curriculum and no structure. Everyone does exactly what he or she pleases.” As I talked, Ted and Tina walked into the workshop.

Alec exclaimed, “Jesus, this place is great! I didn’t think such things were possible. Are there kids here too?”

Tina planted herself in front of Alec and asked, “Are you Sophia’s professor friend?”

Suddenly Ted faced Alec and asked, “What’s great here, mister? The heroin? The prostitution?”

“Heroin?” Alec asked, backing away from Ted. “Jesus, I don’t know, buddie. She was just telling me —”

Pointing his finger at Tina, Ted asked, “Is it great for her, mister? I heard you say this place was great. Is it great for her? You hear my question?”

“Sure, I heard you, buddie,” Alec said; “I never said heroin was great.”

“It ain’t great for her, mister! She ain’t into it. And what she’s into don’t need this place. Her and me either. What her and me are into don’t need to be built on heroin and prostitution. This place ain’t great for her and me!”

I heard “her and me, her and me” over and over, louder and louder, like a sledge hammer pounding in my brain. I felt myself sinking. Alec must have caught me because I suddenly found all three of them carrying me upstairs. I asked to be placed in a kitchen chair. I sat and stared, oblivious to Alec and to the others gathering around me. I kept hearing Ted’s voice repeating “her and me.” Suddenly everything had fallen into place and the place had fallen apart. Suddenly everything had meaning and became meaningless.

When Ted repeated “her and me” for the third time, everything flashed through my mind simultaneously; Tina talking about leaving, “just me and you and Ted”; Jose telling me, “Sure there are couples; lots of them; there’s hardly anything else”, Ted’s nightly visits to Tina’s and my room. When I’d thought he looked in on me, I’d concluded that he found me attractive. It now dawned on me that the only time he really looked at me or spoke to me was when I squatted alongside Tina, when I looked her size and seemed her age. “Her and me.” “Just me and you and Ted.” “You’re my mother, aren’t you?” The mother of Ted’s seven-year old bride. And where was the honeymoon to be? Not in Sabina’s world, where “nothing is banned, everything is allowed, no holds are barred,” but in the world I came from, the world where “all relationships are funny.” But why me? Why not Sabina? Because “she’d bring Tissie” and Seth and the rest of the crew and the honeymoon wouldn’t even be as private as the iofts by Sabina’s laboratory. “He might even ask you to kill me,” Sabina had told me. I wouldn’t bring anyone along. I’d be a far better front for Ted’s “funny relationship” than Ted’s garage ever was for Seth’s heroin. It was no longer a question of not imposing my sensibilities; it was now a question of not being imposed on. I felt like vomiting. I couldn’t keep my mind off the yet more private loft, just for “her and me,” with yet more rigid admissions requirements, with a steel door and a combination lock, with a wall-to-wall down mattress for “every conceivable and inconceivable perversion — in every conceivable shape, size and age —”

Those were the thoughts that flew through my mind as I sat in the kitchen eleven years ago, staring at the bewildered faces surrounding me.

* * *

Those are the thoughts that fly through my mind as I sit on the fender of Daman’s car waiting for him and Sabina to come out of the courtroom, four days after Tina announced, “I’m leaving. I’ll be staying at Ted’s.”

Finally Daman emerges from the courthouse alone. He sees me, waves, runs across the street and the first thing he talks about is Tina. “I didn’t expect to be seeing you again so soon, and certainly not under such unusual circumstances. That fireball you keep in your house with you —”

“Scared the hell out of you and you deserved it! She’s no longer with us.” I look expectantly toward the courthouse entrance and ask him, “Where’s the other fireball I keep in my house with me?”

“No longer with you? My fault I suppose?” he asks. He starts driving.

“Your fault?” I ask. “Why are you so paranoid? Where’s Sabina?”

“I told her I’d pick her up after I found out where your trial was. Couldn’t you tell her on the phone? It was over before I found anything out,” he says.

“When did you two get so chummy?” I ask.

“You can call it chummy,” he says with sarcasm. “That’s not what I call it! She was waiting for me after my last class — with a switchblade knife!”

I can’t keep myself from laughing. “Sabina? She was playing wasn’t she? When was that?”

“Day before yesterday,” he says. “If she was playing, I didn’t think her game very funny. She pressed that knife to my stomach and asked, ‘Where is she?’ As if I’d locked you into my desk drawer! Don’t laugh, Sophie! I don’t see how you can live with that woman and still be alive. She pressed the knife until I felt it — I still have a wound — and demanded, ‘Where’s Sophia? What did you do with her, professor?’ All right, go ahead and laugh; it was hilarious! ‘How the hell should I know?’ I said, and I was sure I’d had it. That was as chummy as we got. For some reason she spared me. She put the knife away and said, ‘She’s been kidnapped.’ ‘Kidnapped,’ I shouted. ‘Why would I want to kidnap her?’ Answer: ‘I don’t know, professor; I can’t read your mind’!”

“She was right!” I shout.

“Right?” he shouts.

Still laughing, I say, “She was right! You, a professor, were completely exposed in an argument; every mask you wear was pulled off; you were shown up as a cop for capital. But a professor, a powerful member of the establishment, doesn’t have to let himself be exposed like that, certainly not by people who don’t have the proper credentials. He picks up the phone and sends out a goon squad —”

“Sophie, god damn it, you’re going to walk home!” he shouts.

“Only she had the wrong professor,” I continue. “But she was right! I exposed a professor in an argument and he sent out the goon squad!”

“Hm,” he says, bristling with frustration. “I just found out they had you in there for assault and battery.”

“I also slapped him,” I admit.

“Oh, you slapped him,” he says self-righteously.

“Yes, Oh, I slapped him!” I shout. “Just like I wanted to slap you when you said Yarostan’s years in prison were equivalent to a university education. That would have justified calling the goon squad, wouldn’t it?”

“Hm,” he says again, turning onto my street.

“What’s hm?” I ask. “What happened after Sabina put her knife away?”

“I obviously became concerned, whatever you say about professors — the entire genus. I didn’t think you ever made such sweeping generalizations,” he says, parking the car in front of my house.

“I usually don’t, but Sabina does. So what happened next?” I ask impatiently.

“She had me drive her to your mother’s. Then she had me drive all over town looking for someone else. At one point I suggested calling the police. She screamed, ‘If you call the police — ’ ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I’ll get knifed.’ But you have to admit I was right at least about that! It would sure have saved a lot of gas!”

“I’m grateful for all your trouble,” I tell him. “Would you like to come in?”

“No thank you,” he says emphatically. “My life is too precious to me.”

“Then tell me one more thing. What do you know about that commune some students got going?” I ask.

“Nothing much,” he says. “Some wild new ‘cultural radicals’ have got it into their heads that they can make a revolution without the working class, inside a university building.”

“Thanks again, Daman,” I say, climbing out of his car.

“But none of my students are involved in that,” he adds, boasting.

“Because they’re the working class,” I shout.

He shouts back, “That’s right, they’re the working class. Goodbye, Sophie. Give my regards to the knife thrower. And send my greetings to the fire eater!” He drives off.

I walk up to the door and knock lightly. No response. I pull out my key and let myself in. Still no Sabina. I walk to her room. She’s sound asleep. It’s not noon yet. I go up to her quietly and kiss her. She sits up abruptly and stares at me. I whisper, “If you were so worried about me that you went out looking for me with a knife, why did you go back to sleep?”

“What did you expect me to do?” she asks, hugging me. “March in front of the courtroom carrying a sign and shouting ‘Free Sophia!’?”

“You couldn’t have looked funnier than when you poked Daman with a knife,” I say, starting to laugh again.

“Did he come in with you?” she asks.

“Oh no, if he ever sees you again he’ll run as fast as he can!”

Both of us burst out laughing. Sabina gets up and starts dressing.

“What made you think I was kidnapped?” I ask.

“Look around the living room and tell me what you’d have thought,” she answers.

I run into the living room and look around for the first time since my arrest. The rug is decorated by enormous footprints of dry mud. Under the pillow on the couch there’s a smashed record and in front of the couch there’s a mess: a shattered lamp and a spilled ashtray next to the tipped coffee table. I try to explain the “evidence” to Sabina. “It was pouring out when they came for me — and they probably walked around the house before they came in. One of the oafs crushed the record because I’d left the pillow over it; the other one bumped into the coffee table on his way out.”

“It was sunny and dry when I got up — but never mind; you sure would write lousy detective stories,” Sabina shouts from her room. “It’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it? Two giants crawled in through your window in the middle of the night. I know there were two because I measured the footprints; there were two different sizes. They gagged you and started carrying you out through the front door. You put up a good fight in the living room, but they knocked you out cold, threw you into a sack and carried you away.”

“You mean you measured their footprints but you didn’t go into my room?” I ask. “My pajamas were under my pillow and my bed was made up! Some detective you’d make!”

“I obviously didn’t sit around here playing detective!” she shouts. “I went out to find you.”

“But why Daman?” I ask.

“Who else?” she asks.

“And why the knife?”

“Sophia, I — if I’d wanted a house all to myself, I would have looked for one several years ago,” she shouts.

“Aha!” I shout. “Are you the one who lectured to me about possessiveness? Is it possible that somewhere along the way you’ve acquired a mother complex?”

Sabina runs into the living room and puts both her hands on my throat — gently. “Say that again, smart-ass,” she hisses through her teeth, “and I’ll have a home all to myself. I’ll admit only one thing,” she says, removing her hands and turning away from me, as if ashamed; “I was sorry I lectured to you when you weren’t here any more. You were wrong about Tina and I was furious. But I wasn’t furious enough to want you beaten and carried away. That’s why the knife. Losing both of you so suddenly didn’t give me time to adopt a detached, speculative attitude. But what business did you have with the police? And why didn’t you tell me about it beforehand? What about your job? Come on, let’s have breakfast. There are two letters for you in there.”

We go to the kitchen; I’m glad to be home. I open your letter first and start reading it while eating, handing Sabina each page I finish. “A born troublemaker,” she comments. “Reckless and courageous. Like all of Nachalo’s brood” (I being his daughter, Sabina his granddaughter and Tina his great-granddaughter). Suddenly she says, “Hey, troublemaker, it’s a beautiful day; how about spending the afternoon in the park?”

It really is a beautiful spring day, one of the first cloudless and warm days this year. We catch a bus near our house and ride to a bridge that leads to an enormous island park. On the bus I tell Sabina why I was arrested, tried and fined. She laughs at every detail and obviously doesn’t respond with “Oh, you slapped him!” On the contrary, she’s sorry about the fact that my slaps could hardly be more than gentle pats on the professor’s cheeks. I don’t know how well you remember Sabina. She still looks like a gypsy whatever she wears, and she’s still smaller than I am, but over the years she’s learned every conceivable technique of self-defense, and she always was terribly strong; I suspect she could easily have committed “assault and battery” against both of the cops who arrested me — if they hadn’t had guns. The behavioral psychologist would have smarted for a long time from Sabina’s slaps and then he’d really have been disappointed by the smallness of the fine.

We get off the bus and she runs across the bridge; I walk across, and I’m exhausted by the time I reach the bench where she waits for me. We’ve gone mountain climbing several times — but I’ll strike that out; I’ve digressed enough already, and this is my third day on this letter. We walk to an isolated spot by the river and lie down on the grass, sunning ourselves while reading your letter. We spend the rest of the afternoon watching the birds and the passing boats and discussing your letter. Before telling you about that discussion, I’d like to tell you about the second letter that was waiting for me, so that I can at least finish telling you what happened to my teaching job. I haven’t forgotten that I’ve left you dangling right in the middle of my experience in the garage. I’m sorry. Ten things can happen in an instant and ten thoughts can fly simultaneously through your mind but you can only tell about one thing or one idea at a time and that fact alone falsifies what really happened and how I really felt.

The second letter that was waiting for me is from the administration of the community college. It’s almost identical to notes Alec and I received years ago from the president of the university. The main difference is that this note came by mail instead of being delivered by special courier. It only contains one line: “Please report to the office of the Dean at 9 a.m. Friday.” How quickly that note came! The “assault and battery” trial and my interview with the dean must have been planned at the same time and by the same people. I show the note to Sabina and she responds by giving me advice. “Next time you want to slap someone, clench your fist — not like that! Fold your thumb on the outside, like this!” She shows me.

I arrive at the dean’s office on Friday morning half an hour late. I usually get up at nine. Since I knew, more or less, what was going to happen, I thought I was making enough of a concession by setting my alarm for quarter to nine.

The “interview” with the dean isn’t nearly as congenial as my earlier interview with the president. The first difference is that the dean is nervous and rude, not at all the smooth politician the president was. It’s through this dean that I got the job. He makes public displays of his liberalism and is a great friend of Daman’s whenever they’re both visible to others. Daman had recommended me to him. The second difference is that there’s a hostile presence in the room: the behaviorist. And lest I forget: no coffee is served, although the hour would warrant it.

“Sophia,” the dean starts out; “I must confess that I am at once surprised and disappointed.”

“So?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders.

“This proceeding is highly irregular,” he says, fidgeting with some papers on his desk.

“Please come to the point,” I say; “I really don’t have all day.”

Lifting some of the papers, he says, “I have a report here —”

I grab the report out of his hands and the psychologist starts running toward me. “Am I not allowed to read a report about me?” I ask, clutching the papers.

The liberal dean shoves his arm in the psychologist’s path and says, “Surely Sophia is entitled to read the report!”

“But it’s the only copy!” the behaviorist shouts with amazing psychological insight.

The dean keeps his arm between the predator and his prey and assures me, “You may study the report if you wish.” Liberalism: authority granting its victims the right to live a minute longer.

Turning my back to the frustrated behaviorist, but listening attentively for every move he might make, I leaf through the report. It’s a medical report, or rather a mental report, about the state of Sophia Nachalo’s health. And it concludes that the subject is urgently in need of care: unbalanced, with strong symptoms of psychosis, disposed to acts of extreme violence, and not only unfit to teach but socially dangerous as well.

“In short, a witch!” I announce.

“Pardon me?” the dean asks.

“The accuser, the judge and the executioner are all one and the same person; how does that fit into your political philosophy?” I ask the liberal dean.

“Of course you are entitled —” he starts.

“Oh, am I?” I ask with mock enthusiasm. “In that case I’d like my own defense attorney, expenses to be paid by the institution; I’d like a trial by jury; and I’d like the right to examine my jury to make sure my accusers aren’t sitting in judgment over me.”

The liberal dean is really nervous now and his free hand fidgets with everything on his desk. “You’re entitled — yes, of course — a review board will have to be appointed — surely —”

While the dean fishes for words, I fish for the lighter in my purse. I’m grateful for the noise the dean makes, both with his mouth and his hands, and also for the numerous disappointments with which he threatens to frustrate the behaviorist. All four corners of the report are on fire before either of them smell what’s happening to the only copy.

“The trial is over! She’s a witch! Burn her!” I shout as I throw the report on the dean’s paper-laden desk. Before leaving I start laughing. The laughter is the crowning touch: it must really sound demonic to them. Neither of them moves to put out the fire on the dean’s desk before I leave the room.

That afternoon Daman calls. His friend the dean told him everything. “Gee, I just heard. I didn’t think you’d lose your job, Sophie. That’s terrible. I’ll be right over.”

The hypocrite. He talks about working class revolutions from morning to night. But losing an academic job is terrible.

That’s serious. The job is the only thing in life that really matters. He refused to come into the house after such a trivial event as my arrest. But now he rushes over.

Sabina had laughed until she’d ached when I’d told her I’d burned part of the dean’s office as well as the only copy of the document that proved me to be a maniac. Daman doesn’t laugh. He fidgets, like the dean. His hands mechanically leaf through the stack of paper on the coffee table; they’re the pages of your letter. “Do you really think you helped your case by doing that, Sophie?”

“In every conceivable way,” I answer. “I’ve regained all the self-respect I lost when I accepted that job. I’ve regained my time. I didn’t demean myself, and I was so proud of myself when I walked out of that room that I felt three feet taller.”

“This is a serious matter, Sophie, and I’m not joking,” he says.

“Neither am I! For you it’s not a serious matter to kiss the dean’s ass. It is for me!” I shout.

“You won’t easily find another job like that,” he says, threatening never to recommend me again.

“I won’t ever look for another job like that,” I assure him. “You can keep them all yourself!”

Still fidgeting with your letter but never once looking at ii, he asks, “Is this a novel you’re working on?”

“No,” I tell him, “it’s another letter from my friend Yarostan.”

He drops your letter as if it, too, had been burning. “Well, I guess I’d better be shoving along,” he announces.

“I’ll read you parts of the letter,” I suggest. “I told Yarostan about you and he said some really interesting things about professors and journalists. You’ll be fascinated.”

“I’d rather not,” he says. “The idea of the workers’ backwardness pervades his whole argument. He doesn’t understand that the working class is inherently —”

Sabina cuts Daman short. Until now she’d stayed out of the conversation in deference to me: with Tina gone, the circle of my friends is diminishing. But now she leaps in front of Daman and snaps her fingers in his face. “Are you alive, professor, or are you some type of robot?”

“I’d better be shoving along,” Daman repeats uneasily.

“You said that before too,” Sabina reminds him, blocking his path. “I’ve always wondered how you professors managed to say the same thing with the same tone year after year. Now I know. You’ve got a phonograph installed in your throat. Open your mouth and let me see, professor. I’ve never seen a phonograph that could fit into a man’s throat. But what happens to you? How does it feel? Don’t you feel frustrated when you hear someone ask you one thing and your throat answers something else? Sophia told you Yarostan had things to say about professors and journalists, not about backward workers. Does the academic phonograph kit include ear plugs? They must be absolutely perfect plugs. Let me see your ear. What about your eyes, professor? Can you see us standing here? Or is your vision plugged up too?”

Daman looks uneasily at the door, then at Sabina and me.

I suggest: “Here’s the phone; you could call the police.”

Sabina steps out of his way. Daman glares at me and then bolts through the door.

You wrote that the political militant, the journalist and the academician couldn’t help establish a human community because their very existence presupposed the absence of community. I don’t disagree. Daman is all three in one, and he’s all the proof I need. I also agree with what you say about the “context” Daman moves in: it’s a desert and nothing human can grow there. But I’m not sure all this applies to the people I met on the university newspaper staff fifteen years ago. I’m not even sure it applies to Daman as he was then. You seem to assume that once people have chosen their “context,” they’ve chosen it once and for all, they can’t get out of it, they can’t change. You certainly make your argument convincing by citing the case of Vera Neis and of Adrian Povrshan. Once they chose their “starting point,” they seem to have gotten on an express train which didn’t stop until it reached its final destination. The people with whom I spent over three years on the newspaper staff didn’t exhibit such demonic consistency. If I had tried to guess then where all those people would end up, I would have missed every single time. The only genuinely “professorial type” among us was Hugh, the liberal editor, the one who claimed to have no views of his own because there were always two equal and opposite views of every problem. Yet he’s the one who wound up with the “down and outs,” and the last time I saw him he expressed an anti-professorial attitude very similar to yours, and lived it. As for Daman: at that time I thought no one less likely to become a professor. He was so totally dependent on Minnie for everything he professed that I couldn’t have imagined him addressing a classroom all by himself. Of course I can trace the “basic continuity “of his character today — but only through hindsight, only because the “basic starting point” would be what he is today, not what he was then. I could do that just as easily if he were a bank clerk today, or a street cleaner. With the end-point as the “basis” we can trace the origin of anything back to the beginning of time. Surely that’s not all your argument boils down to.

I’m moved to tears when I read your description of the role of journalists in the Magarna uprising: “spreading their reportages between like and like, interpreting each to the other, portraying each to the other through a glass that didn’t reflect the experience of the individual on the other side but only the reporter’s.” That’s horrifying, I agree. And that’s what I was at that time: a reporter. That was my “context,” my “world.” But when I think about what you’re telling me I can’t help rebelling. It all makes so much sense when you refer to your past experience. But does it make any sense at all when you apply it to mine? Are you really sure I would have been a reporter if I’d been in your world at the time of that uprising? Are you really sure you’d have been miles away from the university newspaper if you’d been in mine? Those are senseless questions, but it’s you who raise them. You tell me, “It’s only when you descend among those who are nothing in this society that your search becomes meaningful as a struggle against this society.” Until then my search was “a search for a corpse.” I come alive only on the day when I move into the house behind the garage. And of course that’s where you would have been all along. You say so. “The garage in which Sabina and her friends lived is an environment far more familiar to me than the world of the university or the newspaper. Your descent — is a descent to my world. Those are the activities I confronted — the people I’ve known. Yet you describe my world — as exotic.” Exotic: that’s the exact word for it. That’s exactly how I experienced it. Just like a tourist. I kept my distance. I didn’t become involved until I was threatened personally, even physically. You’re right about my detachment. You know perfectly well that my “social origins” weren’t responsible for it. Was my experience in the carton plant responsible for that detachment? Or my three years in the university? Was I really so determined by my “starting point,” whenever I reached it, that I couldn’t have made myself someone like Tissie? Was it really my “search for a corpse” that made the people in Sabina’s world exotic to me? Are you really so sure the house behind the garage wouldn’t have been “exotic” to you — every bit as exotic as it was to me and Alec?

I’m not asking rhetorical questions. I’m asking questions I couldn’t answer for myself then and can’t answer for you now. In many ways I did find in the garage something that was profoundly “meaningful as a struggle against this society.” If I hadn’t found that there, I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did; I would have walked out with Alec the day I figured out what Ted was. I didn’t only stay there. I didn’t ever decide to leave. In the end I was carried out. I did find the experience meaningful — more meaningful than all the other experiences of my life lumped together. Yet once I left I suppressed every detail of that experience from my memory, and I went on suppressing them for ten years. I haven’t given one thought to Ted, Tissie or Seth until only a few days ago, when Tina announced she was moving in with Ted. If all those events were so meaningful to me, why did I repress every trace of them so thoroughly? Was it really because I belonged to that other, alien and hostile and inhuman world, the world of academics and journalists? I don’t think so, but I’ll let you be the judge. Since Tissie’s world is already familiar to you, I have no reason to spare you any of the details, do I? Since my experience was so meaningful, I have no reason to be ashamed of any of it, nor to continue repressing it. But I wonder if you’ll be able to tell me just what is so familiar to you about my experience — and just what it all meant. That’s the one detail I still can’t provide.

* * *

I wanted very much to run out of that kitchen with Alec eleven years ago, to move in with him, to get away from that world where “nothing is banned, no holds are barred” for “her and me,” the world of wall-to-wall mattresses for “every conceivable shape, size and age.” But I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by faces I failed to recognize, until Alec’s voice roused me.

“What’s the matter with Sophie?” he was asking Ted. “Is she on heroin? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, buddie?”

Ted backed away from Alec and I jumped out of my chair at Ted, determined not to let him repeat “her and me” one more time. “Get out of this room,” I hissed; “Get out of my sight. You’re disgusting!”

For an instant Ted froze where he stood and glared at me, his face expressing bewilderment more than anger. Then he turned around and slowly walked out of the room. As soon as Ted was gone, Tina ran up to me, bawling, and started to beat my chest and my stomach with her powerful fists until I cried out from pain. She asked, “What’s the matter with you? Why do you hate Ted so much? What did he ever do to you?”

I could see the same question on Tissie’s face and also on Jose’s. I sank back into my chair, rested my head on the table, between my arms, and cried. Tina walked out of the room sobbing. Tissie stomped out. Jose stayed but said nothing. Alec stroked my hair as if to “comfort” me; I pushed his hand away.

“Jesus, Sophie, what was that all about?” Alec asked. “Are you on heroin?”

“No, god damn it!” I shouted. “I’m not on heroin. You’re the only dopes in this room!” I was furious at both of them for being so blind, so dense, for thinking there was something wrong, not with Ted, but with me.

“I’m sorry Sophie,” Alec said awkwardly. “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for me to come here.”

“What are you sorry about?” I bellowed at him.

“Jesus Christ, Sophie! Don’t start shouting at me now! I’m sorry about everything. You, the heroin, this place. I don’t know what to think. First you make this place sound great and you make me feel like a jerk. You tell me about street people raising themselves up with their own forces, running their own lives, showing others that it can be done and showing how. That’s just great. That’s something I’d like to be part of. Then this guy starts telling me about prostitution, about selling heroin and about taking it. And then you collapse like you’re having a fit. I think that guy is right and I don’t see why you chewed him out. I don’t think prostitution is great and I don’t think heroin is great, and if you’re not having a heroin fit I’d like to know what the hell you’re having and why you collapsed when he said it isn’t great!”

“Maybe you’re right, Alec,” I said weakly. “Maybe this wasn’t a good day for us to meet. Maybe I should have gone to your place.” Jose jumped when I said this, but quickly turned his face away when he saw I’d noticed. Looking right at Jose, I added, “Maybe we should go to your place right now.”

But Alec let himself be carried away by his socio-political program now that he realized he had one. “Why don’t you answer me, Sophie? If you’re not on heroin what are you on? Do you think I’d take you home in the shape you’re in? These people probably know how to take care of you if you have another fit. You know that I don’t know shit about that. I don’t even know any doctors.”

“Why don’t you go home then?” I suggested.

“Why did you do it Sophie?” he continued. “Was it because they threw you out of that co-op? Why bother yourself about that? You yourself admit it was nothing but a whorehouse, an establishment whorehouse. Was it because they kept you off that Omissions rag? It wouldn’t be the first time you did something like this. I remember that time you had some resentment against Rhea or Lem and you took it out on them by getting a date with that idiot Rakshas. That was some novel way to spite somebody — to go to a military dance with a playboy from the suburbs! And that time it worked. Lem and Rhea dropped their golden apple as if they’d bitten into a worm. But what are you doing now? Is this your way to spite that Omissions crew? Don’t you know Omissions is all over and done with, that it’s absolutely dead, part of the forgotten past? I called them when I couldn’t find you — every one of them except Rakshas. They’ve all graduated and they’re all into other stuff now. Not a one of them talked abo