That winter the deafening noise of tank tracks along the central boulevard, the machinegun fire whose tracers whizzed above our block in the middle of the night, and all the tragic atmosphere of a European Beirut had helped me to break away from the past in a single bound. Unthinkingly, I treated all the people who did not later place themselves in power (in every revolution there are people who hijack its meaning and place themselves in power) as being “on my side”, in the same camp. […]
The blue-green train I had taken from Stockholm was now stopping at unfamiliar stations, all of them announced over the speakers at short intervals. […]
The offices of The Intellectual and the headquarters of the group that went by the same name – whose platform of social dialogue had been drawn up on the last day of 1989 in the lobby of an Intercontinental Hotel lit and heated only by candles – were both located in the same building. […] A stylish boyar period building, rather like a manor house in the middle of the capital, one of the hundreds of houses that had thitherto been hidden from the gaze of passers-by behind tall fences guarded by goons in blue uniforms with pistols at their hips, menacingly whacking rubber truncheons in their palms, and by sentry boxes with tinted glass. A free dialogue between intellectuals and society, the masses, is what they decided upon at the time, to the sound of the machinegun fire outside. And in the candlelight their faces glowed with happiness. A dialogue of intellectuals on genuinely social topics, an increased propensity for dialogue on the part of society, reaching as far as its unlikeliest strata. […]
I entered and said I knew how to write and wished to write.
And I wrote. I wrote about them, the new regime, for a time. I was there when the few in number held to an extreme conservatism, and well that they did, so I told myself. […] The conjoined words “civil society” went from mouth to mouth and how pleasing they were to every one of us! They imposed a drastic selectiveness on membership of our close-knit group (that January, when the first snowfall covered the blood stains on the cobblestones, there must have been twenty of us in all). Obviously, to be a member they demanded you have a different kind of background file than the one required by the Communist Party. […] They didn’t demand a file with cardboard covers and a rusty metal runner, but it still amounted to information about your past, the past of each person that tried to gain ingress to the group. And well that they did, so I thought. In spite of their three, eight or twenty-two published books (and those who had published the most had been the masters of compromise prior to that bloody winter), all aspiring members were viewed with great reserve, as if by a new Securitate. After all, The Intellectual had every right to have its own watchdog; at least it had something to defend. It did not invent merits for itself. It existed and wished to guard itself against being sullied. The group kept any intruder at a distance. The purity of that movement seemed beautiful to me. And even if I was only a foot soldier armed with a fountain pen and a notebook, ready to chase after news stories for them day and night, to write, to take interviews, to proofread their texts dozens of times, the feeling I experienced alongside them was, in the beginning, exalted. […]
The editor-in-chief of The Intellectual was a burly, bearded man, a kind of Danubian Castro, who (also) resembled the Cuban when it came to his tumultuousness, his vital energy; he was the kind of editor who demanded strict control over all the material that ended up on the page. That Castro took me to heart. I’ve no idea why. And he did me ill thereby. For a while, I did secretarial work, trying to swallow my pride and telling myself that any kind of work was good in the presence of such men. It was better than having my name appear on the masthead of some old newspaper that had been renamed and which to legitimise itself needed a few young (post-)revolutionaries in its cesspit of corrupt timeservers. […] It was preferable to accept for the time being the dubious status of a job on the editorial staff of The Intellectual.
But I couldn’t go on closing my eyes to it all forever. The more its articles originated from the upper echelons of Europe’s revolutionary intellectuals, the more arid the magazine’s articles became. True, there were figures that had to be introduced to East-European readers who had been kept in the dark for a very long time. But the texts themselves, even if they were representative of their authors, and this was something I was beginning to doubt, were pushing the magazine further and further away from the idea of “social dialogue.” […] For a while I preferred to deceive myself, keeping faith with the magazine’s attitude. But then the doubt began to resurface.
One evening, I was reading some proofs, happy at having had my second article published in the magazine in the company of so many prestigious names. It was cold in the boyar palace, in the large, high-ceilinged rooms, which seemed very tall to all of us, who came from eighth-floor bedsits and mansards with sloping roofs. The walls of the ballrooms dazzled me with their phosphorescent whiteness, the old-fashioned furniture made me feel tense, and I could barely open the solid-wood doors with their gold appliqués, so heavy were they. The red velvet armchairs and long meeting tables, at the ends of which lords had once sat facing each other at breakfast, but at which in the last forty years the comrades had held their meetings on how to bury us, were covered in hoarfrost due to the unwonted cold inside the building. God had been on the side of the children, I thought, on the side of those who that December had taken to the streets wearing only shirts and light jackets as they faced the tanks. It had been a warm December. But now God had started to lose patience with us, those who had begun to forget the sacrificed lives and were now caught up willy-nilly in the game of the reinstalled communists. Even if they were caught up in that game only as peaceful opponents. Around the tables in the meeting rooms, the members of the group were wearing mittens and were smiling icily. After all, at the time the great thaw had barely begun.
That evening Castro came up to the editorial office from the kitchen, munching on a huge schnitzel and holding a mug of hot tea in his left hand. He sat down without paying any attention to me: I was in his office, as it was the only one that was habitable, given its two radiators. A creature always pallid, with a smile that had pretensions to concealing thousands of hidden meanings, the editorial secretary (a great dissident, so I had been told) suddenly entered and displaying the said enigmatic smile tossed an article on Castro’s desk. It was an article that he had passed – that had passed the censorship he had put in place – and was to be printed the very next day. Yes, Castro knew about it, he knew about it, and had specially allowed it. “Let him break his own neck,” he added.
Where is he supposed to break his neck, I wondered, in a magazine where there wasn’t room to publish even three lines among all the illustrious contributors, the winners of peace prizes, the Nobels and the Goncourts, the experts in human rights, the exiled philosophers, and the intellectuals who had been political prisoners? And then Castro went out in order to write up his editorial on the electronic typewriter “donated to us by Mr Genscher,” as he proudly used to put it. I picked up the article from the table and read it. […] I couldn’t understand how the author would be breaking his own neck by publishing it. Above all I was intrigued at why a man that the Intellectual group published on a weekly basis and eagerly courted should have to break his own neck. […] The article had a broad democratic viewpoint and was one of the best I had read.
I didn’t know at the time and nor do I know today how he could “break his own neck,” but break it he did, for it was the last article he published. Either the members of the group had understood it differently or it had been “presented” to them differently. Afterwards, I saw him at the newspaper office a few times, increasingly humble, increasingly stooped. The first time was one week later, when I was present at his meeting with Castro. After deliberately having made him wait in the antechamber for a long while, Castro had come out of his office, as if in passing, to collect from the hall the letters and the magazines that daily arrived from all over the world. Without shaking his hand, although the little old man had politely risen from his chair, Castro had scolded him with a wagging finger, as if he were a pupil whose parents had been summoned to school:
“Have you any idea what you have done? Enough is enough. We’re through. Collect the money for your articles to date and get out.”
Then Castro vanished back into his office. As the little old man was looking in bewilderment now at me, now at the secretary, the head of The Intellectual stuck his head around the door of his office and added demonstratively:
“I don’t want to be disturbed. I’m going to be on the phone to Prague.” And then to the old contributor, heightening the already embarrassing atmosphere, he added a monosyllabic “Yes?” as if he were asking a child finally to admit that he had made a mistake and never to ask to sit at the same table as the grown-ups again.
I was struck not so much by the fear of the article-writer or that final demonstration of cheap theatricality on Castro’s part, in his role of disappointed benefactor, as much as the fact that a microbe, a virus had infiltrated the machinery which the intellectuals of the group, the uncompromised elite, had conceived.
...Nästa Södertälje! Nästa...
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth