The Unbearable Lightness of Ink · 6:06am
So, a girl made me read this:
Then she made me write fanfiction of it, which I can only cite as proof that I really like her.
So, if you're into longwinded, pretentious, unnecessarily suggestive eastern European philosophy, I give you: The Unbearable Lightness of Ink.
For many years I have thought of those days in Prague, when the shadow of the Russian empire fell over Czechoslovakia. It was as a fever full of heat and life that swept the nation only to transform into malaise and weakness, and then finally to give way to delirium. As all great fevers, it was filled with an intensity that does not survive the moment—scattered thoughts and images and that can only be understood when the fever has passed.
It is when those reflections turn to Tomas that I understand what became of Prague most clearly. He had first met Tereza at a small hospital function whose purpose he did not know. So slight was her figure and so effectively was her hair hidden under her olive cap that he mistook her for a boy. She said nothing to tell him of his mistake, and they spoke for barely an hour.
The next day he learned of his error from a colleague. Worry festered within him, and he spent several hours avoiding the topic until he at last walked to the window to consider. Did he call her and apologize? Or would that only deepen his error?
Should he refrain from approaching her?
What would come if she was displeased? He could not recall the shape of the pins and patches she wore. The function was a sea of olive green and crisp collars, shiny pins and dark patches. He thought of a video that a college had once played, showing a herd of zebra in motion. In his mind as in the film, all the details blurred together into an impossible mass.
Tomas did not understand the women in olive. He thought himself well informed on the female of his race. He understood the creatures young men swooned over—children put in a bulrush basket daubed with pitch and set down in the stream for them to rescue. And he understood his mistress, Sabina, a powerful feminine beast. But he did not understand the women in olive.
They came to him. They were not machines as some of his colleagues would assert. Tomas had long ago derived his rules of “erotic friendship,” where the only relationship he would make was one in which sentimentality had no place, and neither partner made any claim on the life or freedom of the other. By those rules, he had attracted several women such as Tereza to his bed, but none had returned, and they often parted on bad terms.
He did not understand why. Some were sensual, some were strong, but when he would call them a woman by word or deed, they would grow angry. They would ask what he meant by a woman, and he would have no answer, for he did not understand how they could not see. Then to maintain his rules, they would go, and only the anger—not the erotic friendship—would persist.
Now he did not know what to do. Would she take a perverse joy in his error? As the zebra does its stripes, would she be pleased he saw not a woman but a uniform? Or would her strangeness only compound his error?
Einmal ist keinmal, said Tomas to himself. What happened once may as well not have happened at all. He resolved to return to his desk, and think no more of the matter. But the worry within him would not depart.
Tomas lived a scant year with his wife, and she bore him no children. The judge in the divorce proceedings was an old and unkind man, and he awarded her nothing, citing as he called her failure of her marital obligations. Tomas found many sympathizers, greatest of all his mother and father, but he did not heed their direction. Thomas knew he had not left his wife for her failure to produce children, and the distance shown to her from those who trumped their sense of justice elicited only disgust.
This he told them, and thus in practically no time he managed to rid himself of a wife, a mother, and a father. Though he permitted his wife to leave with many possessions, he retained a keen mistrust of women and all professions of sentimentality. It was in this state that he derived his concept of “erotic friendship,” which has been previously defined. It allowed him to maintain long-term liaisons while also enduring he could carry on many shorter term relationships.
He found little support, and was judged unkindly by many of his colleges. Most particular of these was the Chief of Medicine, who was an outspoken critic of Tomas’s behavior, and ensured his career would not advance past its present point. This did not trouble Tomas, as he enjoyed his present circumstances greatly.
That all changed in 1968, when Russian tanks and soldiers could again be seen in Prague. The Chief of Medicine who had so loudly criticized Tomas had occasion to loudly criticize other things, and thereafter was not seen about the hospital. By ones and twos, men in olive began to appear about about the building, first where the records were kept, then elsewhere. They came to know many things, including that Tomas had earned the ire of the now-absent Chief of Medicine. They suggested that he might be suitable for the role.
Tomas did not desire promotion, but his colleagues insisted, and he was helpless against their collective temper.
It was on an overcast day in July, one month from their first meeting, that Tomas and Tereza spoke again. She knocked twice, and when he called, entered his office at a quick stride.
Again, Tomas did not see her. He saw olive cloth, a straight pressed collar, red patches with three silver stars, and a drab cap with a leather brim. He saw a leather sandwich case, and polished boots, and a watched turned so the face was on the inner wrist. But he did not see her. Not until she sat in front of him, and removed her cap. Only then did he see her long hair tied back in a bun, and recognize her slight stature and piercing eyes.
Affecting what he hoped was an air of calm, he faced her and asked her what the trouble was. Without a word, she reached into her case and withdrew a stack of documents, placing them before him. A lump formed in Tomas’s throat, and he found it difficult to breathe. They were copies of the hospitals supply requisition forms for the month, his signature affixed at the bottom. Tereza said nothing, and Tomas tugged at his collar.
The longer the silence lasted, the harsher Tereza’s gaze became. Tomas had thought nothing of the form when he signed it, and under her stare, he thought too much of it.
Had some malicious subordinate tricked him into signing something other than the petty form he thought it was? Was one of the many doctors it named now a person of interest? Perhaps there was nothing wrong with it, and the heavy silence was to see if he would confess some crime. He clung to that possibility, and chuckled to show he ease.
“Do you find something funny?” Tereza asked.
Tomas did not.
Tereza arose from a situation of great shame, though who the shame fell upon was unknown and unknowable. Her mother was a woman without shame, who marched about the flat in her underwear or even stark naked. Her stepfather too was free of such things, and would go into the bathroom every time Tereza was in the bath. Tereza’s mother would bear no complaints of such things. “Who do you think you are anyway? Do you think he’s going to bite off a piece of your beauty?”
Tereza too was without shame, as offspring often bear the traits of their progenitors. The more her parents opened to the world, the more she would conceal, with the righteous anger that only a child or a fool can bear. Once, she took a screwdriver from her father’s shed and wedged it in the lock of the bathroom door. So great was her parents’ ire that her father kicked the door open, and the swinging frame struck her.
Thus Tereza came to be walking down the street with a bruise upon her face, and her parents words against privacy ringing in her ears. It was in this state that she was approached by a young man in olive, who asked her how she came to be struck.
She spoke to him of the things her parents had done.
She spoke to him of things her parents had not done. And the things they said and of things they had not said. She spoke of a shame that was not there, and finally, spoke those words she knew even her parents dared not say.
The man in olive listened, and then took her to the buildings in the center of town. He placed her in a chair, and gave her his coat. Other men in olive came and listened, as she repeated the stories she had told. They were the first adults to truly listen to her, and she found she liked them for it. When she was done, they gave her real tea with sugar, as she was not otherwise allowed to have.
She never saw her mother or stepfather again.
The question then of how Tereza arose as she did is a mysterious one. There can be little doubt that she was born of shame, but there are no parties who may bear such traits. Certainly not her parents, who as it was established, were shameless. Nor may Tereza bear the weight, as she acted as her parents and in ignorance. The man in olive accepts no blame, and no other played a part in what occurred.
Tereza was thereby an immaculate conception: born of nothing but the divine spirit, and the shame that is her birthright. It was only natural then that like all things of God—the air, the land, and everything in between—she soon became a ward of the State.
“Your requisitions,” Tereza explained, “are unacceptable. You must resubmit them.”
Tomas considered the papers in front of him, flipping through them without reading. The document was well over a dozen pages, and while Tomas had once considered every line at length, he found he could not focus on the words. “What is wrong with them?” he asked.
“They do not meet with the approval of the State,” she repeated, a note of irritation entering her words, Tomas might use when dealing with a particularly slow child. Tomas flipped through the form again, and then looked at Tereza.
He tried to picture her naked upon his bed to dismiss the fear in his heart, but found that he could not. Though he had seen the women in olive disrobe before, he could not force them in his mind. He could not issue a command of “Strip!” so loud as even a thought when he was in their presence, and otherwise only with great reluctance.
He wondered what compelled a woman to seek such a job, where she would be reduced from a living, sensual creature to a few square feet of fabric and pins.
There was therefore a considerable silence before he spoke. Acting of their own accord, one of his hands removed his glasses, while his other tapped the tabletop. “May I ask what makes this a concern of State Security?”
“You may not,” she replied. And she said nothing further.
Berating himself for his foolishness, Tomas feigned itching his nose and then returned his glasses to his face as quickly as he dared. “I have requested the supplies the hospital requires in the quantity it requires them in so as to accomplish our objectives for the year.” For a moment, his jaw worked without a sound. “As the Institute of National Health has defined them,” he added.
“Yes,” she said. “That is the problem.”
“I do not understand,” Tomas said. The look she gave him was pitying, and he found an sudden temper rising inside him in response. Only the aura of authority that surrounded her prevented his sudden action, and he sat in a tense silence until she spoke.
“Many of the supplies you require,” she explained, “are transferrable between hospitals. Thus, if one hospital has a surplus of such materials, it may supply another facility in the event of a sudden shortfall.”
“So I am expected to order in surplus?” Tomas surmised. “In case other facilities require resupply?”
Tezera shook her head. “No. Ordering in surplus is wasteful, and reflects poorly on your department.”
“Then I am expected to to order in deficit?” Tomas asked. “And another facility will resupply me?”
Again, she shook her head. “No. If you order in deficit, you may fail to make your quota, and that will reflect poorly on your department.”
“Then I suppose I should order the correct amount!” he snapped as his temper bubbled to the surface. In her lap, she folded her hands over her hat and said nothing. After a time, his temper cooled, and he asked, “What is the amount the State wishes me to order?” Still she said nothing, and the silence grew heavy.
“What would you do in my place?”
The look of pity returned to her eyes, and she spoke with a deliberate sloth. “Your fellow hospital administrators have rendered great service to the State and the communist party,” she explained. “Some of them are laudable because of the great efficiency they bring to their departments, cutting budgets and requisitions by large fractions on arrival—”
Tomas’s temper exploded, and he rose up from behind his desk. “You admitted not a moment ago that ordering less than I needed would end in trouble!” She again answered him with silence, until he sunk seething back to his chair.
“It would end in failure, yes,” she spoke calmly. “Unless another hospital was able and willing to resupply you. Many of your senior administrators are praiseworthy because of their foresight, and their careful planning has aided other officials.”
Tomas considered that for a long time. When he spoke, he spoke slowly, but while Tereza’s voice was pitying and soft, his was harsh and loud. “So if I order too little,” he summarized, “and another hospital fails to come to my aid, I will be...”
“Disappointing,” Tereza said.
“But if I order too much,” he continues, “and another hospital does not come to me for assistance, I will be...”
“Inadequate,” Tereza nodded.
“Then why did you not simply tell me upon entering that it was my responsibility to pick up the phone and call the other hospitals to see what they ordered?” Tomas said, gesturing sharply at the phone.
“In order to prevent collusion, the law does not permit you to discuss your requisitions with other department heads before presenting your initial requests to the Institute.” Tereza rose from her chair, returning her cap to the top of her head. It took her several moments to fit it comfortably over her head, so the mass of her hair was hidden. “It would be conspiracy.”
“So I am to be judged for a decision I can only make with information I’m not allowed to have!?” Tomas shouted.
“In school,” Tereza said, “they informed me that doctors were intelligent.” She nodded. “Good day, sir.”
Tomas said nothing. And Tereza left.
Tomas sat in his office, just where he had been when Tereza left hours ago. Before him was spread a sea of paper, foretelling two possible futures he might occupy. In one, he would have the most lavishly equipped hospital in the city, and would every day sit by the phone, reeking of fear as he waited for it to ring. In another, he would pace the halls, snapping at doctors about every bandage they wrapped and every pill they issued, not knowing if he could get another should the hospital run short.
Neither future enticed him quite so much as the bottle that rested within his desk drawer.
He was sitting in a stupor when the phone rang, and he answered it with such ferocity he nearly ripped the cord from the wall. A disorientation overcame him as he held the receiver not to his ear, but out in front of him.
Is this what the call would be like that ended his career?
Was that the call? Had he erred once too much by sending Tereza away? But it was only Sabrina. “Where are you, Tomas?” she asked. “I missed you tonight.”
Tomas cursed himself for forgetting his engagement that evening. “I am sorry, Sabrina,” he said, and faithfully meant it. “Something... terrible happened in the hospital today. Our engagement wholly slipped my mind.”
“Oh! I’m sorry,” Sabrina said, images of human suffering passing before her eyes, though not the suffering Tomas then experienced. “What happened?”
“A matter of... inadequate supplies,” Tomas said slowly, leaning back in his chair.
“I’ve heard of that,” she said. “It’s terrible the stories you hear out of the country. Peasants being treated with veterinary supplies and horse tranquilizers by doctors who don’t have anything else to use.”
Tomas paused. He looked at the papers before him. He selected one from the stack, and considered it more carefully. It was one of the many plans where his hospital ordered short, and he considered just what it would take to render the sparse list sufficient.
“Tomas?” Sabrina asked.
“I am here,” he said. “And yes, it is terrible. We have had similar problems. But I think I just figured out a solution.”
A moment later, he asked: “Do you still have time to meet this evening?”