Sunday, August 26, 2012

Making History

Gregor lived in a house beside a vast, rambling abandoned factory. He lived there with his wife, an invalid who spent her days in a room on the second floor staring out the window at the horizon. A local girl came in three hours a day to care for her. At other times it was Gregor who answered the bell, or did not answer the bell, according to his mood. Mostly he answered the bell and the errands resulting from the answering were simple ones – two eggs fried and toast, a glass of orange juice, a trip to the library run by an old crone three fields away on the bank of the river. Occasionally he would be required to listen to his wife’s chronicle of aches and pains but he didn’t mind. When they were young she was beautiful, ravishing and he loved her with a great passion. Now they were old Gregor loved her in the way an old man loves his wife – a way having more to do with agape than eros.

The factory had once processed sugar beets. Financiers had decided they could buy sugar  cheaper from another country. The old beast – evil smelling and belching clouds of stench laden air - had limped on for a decade or two and then slowly ground to a halt. Afterward neighborhood boys had occupied it as their fort and castle for a generation but now even they were gone – off to join the army or dig in the mines or get drunk in seaports and sleep in alleys. Bats slept their days away in the lacing of the high roof girders but other than they and insects who live everywhere, no living beings entered the building, excepting Gregor.

The girl came at seven in the morning and as soon as she came into the house Gregor, after a polite good morning, left through the same door she had entered and walked across the yard into the front door of the factory. This led him onto the main floor, a vast area as long as a football field. After walking this, the hollow sounds of his footsteps hitting the concrete floor echoing off the walls and ceiling, he came to spiral stair made of dark, rusting metal. This he climbed slowly for it rose four stories and there were many stairs. At the top there was a foyer leading into a large room, once the office of the factory manager. The rest of the building was crumbling to ruin but oddly enough, because it was under a section of roof covered with steel still proof against the snow and rain, the office was in good shape. The outer walls were concrete, then insulation, a surprising amount for the construction techniques of its day, and then wood paneling, peeling in a few spots but essentially sound. The floor was covered with linoleum, worn and in the corners peeling back but still serviceable. The only furniture was a gigantic oak desk sitting in the very center of the room. The floor was clean and the corners free from cobwebs. In one corner were a mop, a pail, a broom and a dustpan.

Each morning Gregor walked directly to the desk, sat down in its chair and began to work. And what would an old man be doing working at a desk in an abandoned factory, you might ask. He was writing a history. Most likely it was a history which no one but himself and a few friends would read but Gregor was of the opinion who read it or who didn’t read it was of no matter. It was necessary that he have something to do, otherwise he would go mad. Even if the writing of his history was only an avoidance of madness then that would be enough.

At seven fifteen in the morning the sun poured in a long bank of windows on the east wall so there was no necessity for electric lights which was good for there were none. Sometimes in the evenings when his wife had gone to sleep for the night he came back carrying with him two storm lanterns. These provided more than enough light for night work and Gregor had a love for the yellowish light they produced. But the supply of kerosene was limited so he could not come at night as often as he would have wished. Beside the desk were three tall wood filing cabinets jammed with papers. The desk held a computer, covered when Gregor was not there by two layers of plastic sheeting. He did not trust the roof.

Gregor had money and not the script issued by the present regime which gave you the right to stand in long lineups, an activity rewarded in the end with things you did not want but had no choice but to take unless you wanted to starve – half rotted cabbages, mouldy rice, bread so hard it would break the teeth of a rat. Until the authorities shot him through the head’ Gregor’s son was a successful thief. Besides being a successful thief he was a careful man who saved a portion of his profits in the form of small gold ingots, one quarter of an ounce a piece. Several plastic buckets of these ingots, wrapped in plastic, were hidden in secret places only Gregor knew. Twice a year he took some out and traded them for script on the black market. The amounts of script he was given for the gold enabled him to buy on the black market – food, clothing, tools, computer gear, paper, etc.

What kind of a history was Gregor writing? A dangerous kind or at least if you were associated with the government you would consider it dangerous, not because it was anti government in any narrow sense but because it considered governments to be small islands of human effort floating upon a great sea of human energy. He was writing a history which included as many things about the human beings as possible. And what was his training? He didn’t have any which meant, of course, that he was the perfect person to write such a history. There were official historians who worked in an old building in the center of the nearby city, but they were bought and paid for. They often spent a lifetime ‘writing’ the official history of a small section of ‘historical events’ assigned them. The wise ones, by various subterfuges, managed to make sure their histories were not published in their lifetimes. The unwise were often arrested, tried and shot. It was not that the authorities objected to anything they said, especially since what they said was so guarded and obscure as to be incomprehensible, but that they said anything at all. Reality was something created by the government and if this was so then a historian publishing was tantamount to treason. Treason was the catch all charge in those days. Even thieves were convicted of treason rather than stealing.

When the present government took over power there remained remnants of the old elites which they systematically eliminated. This was the government language. They did not kill people, they eliminated them, a much more scientific and hygienic term denoting a passionless objectivity which did not exist. In actuality these people were killed by thugs and sadists who thoroughly enjoyed their work. After this period of wholesale slaughter, the government, very wisely if you have read Machiavelli, rounded up most of its thugs and sadists and killed or eliminated them. They were not the kind of people who would succeed at the next stage, that of ‘pacifying the people’ and they were not the kind who went off quietly into retirement. They were replaced by more moderate types who beat and tortured people only on the direct request of government ministers. This was heralded by the government as a return to ‘due process’ and trumpeted as a triumph in ‘the fight for the rights of the people’.

But there were many of the old elites left and even some who had morphed from being an enemy of the people to being their tribune and protector. The later were to be found in government offices and on the whole to be avoided. The former lived quiet lives most often in the rural areas where they farmed and raised animals. They kept a low profile and the government, other than spying on them in a desultory sort of way, left them alone. These people were the source of most of Gregor’s information.

Private vehicles were not allowed in or near the cities but some exceptions were made. By astute bribery Gregor recieved a permit for his motorcycle under the pretence that he used it to do Christian work in the outlying areas well known to be in need of an input of Christian energy, for they were, on the whole, wild, wooly and lawless. This, of course, was a fiction. He drove his motorcycle around the country all summer talking to people.  In the fall he organized his recordings (he took no notes rather recording with a machine hidden in his clothing). Through the winter he added new chapters to his book. He had been doing this for twenty years. All of his informants knew he was recording but most thought it for an anecdotal history the compiling of which was a private pleasure. Only a few old friends knew the real scope of his project and he trusted them implicitly.

As a cover, behind his house were two small barns housing sheep and goats. During the warm season these creatures roamed about grassy fields fending for themselves but in the winter they were brought in. Two hired men looked after them, slaughtered, made cheese and supplied the meat and cheese directly to a store for members of the government only. Officially Gregor did the work himself and there were no hired men. He made the monthly deliveries to the store himself and signed all receipts, bills of laden and other documents having to do with the business.

Yet one September, five years into his project, he was paid a visit by an army officer, a young man of twenty-five. There were rumors the young man told him, that he was constructing a history. It was forbidden, the young man told him, for private citizens to write histories. Such things were reserved for the proper institutions funded and overseen by the government.

No, no, Gregor replied, there was a misunderstanding. He knew very well it was forbidden to write histories and would not even dream of doing such a thing. Probably there was some misunderstanding of his summer activities. He went about the countryside on his motorbike doing good work among the rural people using some small amounts of money raised among his good hearted neighbors. This work involved talking to people in the villages, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in Inns and Hotels. Perhaps people watching this activity from the outside misconstrued what he was actually doing.

Ah, said the young man, this was indeed possible but he had in a dossier at his office a copy of a report that Gregor was overheard in a certain Inn in a certain village, speaking of politics before the Great Change and the young man wondered if he was doing Christian work what he was doing speaking in this manner.

Unless he was given the village and the Inn and the date then Gregor found it impossible to answer such a question in detail but in general he was an old man often talking to old men and it was only natural that they occasionally spoke of events which occurred in their youth. He realized that the officer, being a very young man, would have no direct experience of this yet if he consulted his memories of the conversations of his uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, he would see that what Gregor was saying was true. But this kind of talk about the past indulged in by the older generation was very different than the construction of histories, very different indeed. Rather it was the sharing of personal reminiscences from the past, the most natural thing in the world for those who actually lived the sad days before the Great Change.

After a few similar exchanges the young officer left, leaving behind him a copy of the regulations dealing with historical public discourse. Gregor thanked him profusely saying that although he knew the general drift of the law he had never seen a copy of the regulations and would treasure them dearly. Perhaps, he said, the next year before going off on his rounds the officer would like him to submit an itinerary but the officer said this would be unnecessary and made a joke about the filing cabinets already being filled to bursting at which they both laughed, Gregor perhaps a little too robustly.

When the officer left Gregor’s wife’s bell rang and, as it was afternoon and the girl gone, he went upstairs to see what she wanted.

“Who was that?” she asked when he came into the room.

“Just a friend,” replied Gregor.

“Do you think I’m so dumb that I can’t look out the window and see the official car in front of the house?” his wife asked.

“Ah. Well, I didn’t want to disturb you, dear. It was an officer from some Directorate or other who came to explain the new rules for pig marketing. Apparently the Directorate is concerned piglets are being sold on the black market and shipped to the north where it is against the law to have pigs. I, of course, informed him that no such thing was going on here. We are the most law abiding farm in the whole district I told him, which is true. All of our piglets are accounted for and grow to slaughtering size here on the farm and the meat delivered to the proper store as is required and expected.”

“Then why did the car have on the door The Ministry of Information?” his wife asked.

“Because it is that institution which deals with providing the public with all information, including that concerning pigs.”

His wife looked suspicious but as she had no knowledge to contradict what he said she said nothing.

“Please get me a glass of orange juice,” she said.

“Of course,” said Gregor and he went off down the stairs.

It was after this visit by the officer that Gregor moved all his files, etc out of the house into the old factory. He also took the precaution of creating a code for his book and even created a computer program which translated his prose into the code. After typing his summer recordings he translated them to code and destroyed both the recordings and the original prose.

“You are becoming an paranoid,’ an old friend in a village one hundred miles to the north told him.

“Perhaps,” Gregor replied, “but that young man was very intelligent and I don’t think he believed a single thing I told him.”

This was true but as well as not believing a single thing Gregor told him, the young officer didn’t care that he was lying. In his experience everyone was lying. The file was a routine affair which was not expected to turn into an investigation and he saw no reason to make it otherwise. So what if the old bugger was writing a history? Who cares? Let him write all the histories he wanted. No one would publish them anyway and when he died the papers would be dumped into the garbage along with the rest of his personal effects. He had bigger fish to fry and they included building a base of people well disposed toward him. Some day the old bugger might be of use. Every year after his visit, Gregor received a Christmas card from the young officer. On the front was a picture of himself with his wife and three children.

On the eve of the twenty-first year of writing his history Gregor’s wife died, of a heart attack, apparently, although it was unsure for there was no autopsy. Gregor found her one morning cold in the bed, her face arranged in repose as if she were sleeping. The death of her son was her death really. It was after that she took to her bed and never left the second floor. She was a maternal woman and when her only son died she had little to live for. There were no grandchildren. The daughter in law, after her husband’s shooting, moved away and they lost contact with her. Gregor was of little use to her, an old man who disliked personal reminiscing and seldom spoke a word excepting if they had to do  with historical subjects. In the last ten years he had sat for an hour a day in her room in the afternoon but most of that had been spent in silence. When they did talk usually it was her wife speaking of her childhood in the province she came from far off to the east and Gregor listening.

She was buried from the local church for she was a believer. The old neighbours who remembered her came and a smattering of relatives not too far off to make the ceremony. She was laid to rest in the churchyard on the left side of her son. When the time came Gregor would be buried on the other side. Gregor was surprised how much he missed her. He would wake in the morning and be halfway up the stairs before he realized she was gone. He dreamed of her when she was young and beautiful and they were making love. Sometimes, in the afternoons at the time he once visited her he would allow his mind to construct imaginary conversations with her. This always ended in his weeping and he would end this by lying down and taking a nap.

Much of Gregor’s history had to do with gruesome events – massacres, torture, mass starvations, etc. When he gave chapters (digital copies in code with a separate decoder) they would often say to him after they had read it, “Why so gruesome? Why so tortured?”

“Because so may died,” he would say, “and the ones surviving carry in their bones the memory of all that brutality. What do you want, stories of heroes?”

This would insult his friends and he had few enough to begin without insulting them but in this he was relentless. It is often this way in the world – it is friends wanting to protect us who can do us more damage than the enemies who want to destroy us. Some of his friends dropped out of the readings and avoided him thereafter. He couldn’t blame them. The real possibility of being strung up in a jail cell and beaten to death was not something to be taken lightly. The pressure in families for its members to avoid anything implicating was enormous. Most of the friends he still had left he met in out of the way places, places they had a legitimate reason to be in, in other words an alibi. Gregor was sometimes followed as just about anyone was who moved about on a regular basis but he was an expert at detecting shadows (very easy for the most part for they were amateurish and lazy). His method of dealing with them was to veer off his planned itinerary and lead them on a merry goose chase through the outback using the tent and food he carried on the bike to avoid talking to anyone. After a day or two of his playing the lover of nature in mystic union with streams and forests, the followers would disappear. Sleeping in a cramped car and eating bread and cheese they bought along the way from farmers was not enjoyable to them.

Twenty-five years after starting his project Gregor finished the first book. He envisioned three books but as he was already old and creaky and as it took him twenty-five years to complete the first he considered it unlikely he would finish more than a few chapters of the second. He was not discouraged by this but rather was happy he had managed to complete at least one book and would have, if lucky, time to do some work on the second.

Then things changed completely.

His Christmas card sending army officer raised a rebellion in the west of the country, succeeding in taking over all the western provinces and then moving on and taking the capital. Strangely there was little blood spilt in all this because the old guard had lost the support of the population and when the officer and his troops appeared before a town the local militia charged with defense would throw down their arms and join the uprising. When he arrived at the capital the rulers had deserted it in favor of melting into the rural areas and the officer led his forces through the main streets to the cheers of the populace.

Two months later Gregor received a letter from M. Kafka. He knew M. Kafka in a sort of way as a friend of a friend of a friend. He admired his writings and occasionally would give a copy of one of his books to an old friend whom he knew would enjoy it.

The letter asked for a copy of his history book. M. Kafka had backers both in the government and among private financiers and intended to publish it along with several other ‘new’ books of history. If Gregor wished the book would be published anonymously or under a pen name.

Strangely this request threw Gregor into a terrible crisis. He had never thought such an offer to be even remotely possible and had always thought of his project as a kind of private solace. The possibility of it being published widely and read by many thousands astounded and flattered him but it also made him think deeply about exactly what this would mean. He no longer thought the facts of history, even when they had long been suppressed and distorted, could lead to a ‘freeing’ of anyone. He had come to the conclusion, as had the Greeks many years before, that the terrors of history were both cyclical and inevitable and could not be avoided by cerebral epiphanies, no matter how desirable and individually satisfying, among the intellectual elites. He had also came to the conclusion that all histories were ‘used’ by someone. In other words, leaving aside the odd bookworm reading an old history for his own pleasure, and the rippling effect that such a pleasure could have on the people around him, they were pushed by people who had a purpose in mind and that purpose had to do with authenticating a new ‘view’ which was the foyer of, the introduction to, a new tyranny.

How he lamented that this offer had not come some ten years before when he was still possessed by the sureness of his historical intent! It was rumored that M. Kafka had connections to the new regime. It was said that the book would be published illegally but that those arrested by the authorities for doing so would be protected and used as a wedge to destroy the legitimacy of the judges, a pack of murdering gangsters if ever there was one. This would be a desirable effect thought Gregor but then there would be no shortage of books which could achieve it as well or even better than his history. M. Kafka’s own works would be a much better choice and since they were imaginative and mythological, they would be less open to the fermenting of a ‘new’ round of thought control which in turn could lead to a new round of demonizing and murdering. He realized what they would do with his book. He had lived too long to have illusions about the endless human capacity for vengeance, self-righteousness and self-justification. To tell the truth about the suffering of those now dead was a noble thing but to have that truth distorted to justify the visitation of more suffering upon the living was not worth it and he knew in his bones that this is exactly what would happen. No guessing, no apologetic, Pontius Pilate-like washing of the hands; he knew.

It took Gregor two weeks to transfer all the files and computer paraphernalia to the old factory’s concrete floor. He was an old man and could work only an hour or so at a stretch. At the end, instead of carrying an armload of files down the spiral stair, he tied them tight with string and tossed them over the balcony and loaded them into the wheelbarrow at the bottom. He made a great pile in the center of the main floor.

Gregor met in the early morning, one bright August day, with the two brothers who did the work on the farm.

“I have made arrangements with the authorities (bribes in other words) for you to deliver the produce yourself and sign yourself,” he said. “They will not make difficulties. They pay for the last shipment when you make the next. They decide how much so you don’t have to worry about that. Cash the check at the bank leaving a small amount in the account and work with cash. That’s what every one does. Just keep a record of how much they give you and all the expenses. The tax bill goes to the bank and you pay it there. It’s not difficult. You just have to make sure you record things as they are paid in and out so you don’t get confused. The old records are in the office in the barn. If you get mixed up about something, consult them. There is a yellow file in the file drawer listing the gifts given to the people at the office. No cash excepting for the Director once a year. The rest are by the month in produce. With all these takeoffs it’s a wonder anyone in this country produces anything. But it is the way it works and if you are diligent in the payments you will have no trouble. Occasionally someone lower down tries to squeeze. Tell them you will see and then report it to the Director. He will take care of it.”

“And your salary?” asked the older brother.

“Split half of it between you and put the rest aside. I may contact you with an address to send it to and I may not. If you don’t hear from me then it is yours. As well, eventually I will make an arrangement to transfer the title to you. We will create a little fiction of a payment to me so the relatives cannot claim fraud. But we will have to see how things go generally before the details can be worked out.”

That evening, after the brothers left, Gregor loaded the motorcycle trailer. Then he crossed the field to the factory, entered through the main door and walked to where the pile of files and computers were in the middle of the floor. He doused the base of the pile with gasoline and then threw a lighted match onto the gasoline soaked paper. Whoosh!

Three years later the brothers received a notarized transfer of the farm’s title into their names. Included in the envelope was a copy of a fictitious receipt signed by Gregor for the sale price. He never sent an address for his half of the manager’s salary, so the brothers got to keep it. This was no doubt because the last of his dead son’s ingots, glued to the inside of the rear motorbike tire, was more than enough to keep him wherever he went and for however long he lived.

There were rumors; there always are. But since Gregor contacted no one from his past life they were mere tales made up by those who like to pretend they are in the know.

He died very far away in an obscure place living among people who measure time in millennia rather than historical epochs. He died peacefully and without the slightest regret.


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