The book I now sit down to write must seem pointless to many—if indeed I dare imagine "many" will have the opportunity to read it—since of my own volition, without anyone's request, I undertake such a work, and since I myself am not quite clear as to the purpose. I must and will, that's all. The demand for purpose and method in one's doings and sayings has become more and more exacting, lest a single word might be uttered haphazardly; but the author of this book has been forced to take the opposite course, out into purposelessness, because even though my years here as prisoner and chemist—they must be more than twenty, I suppose—have been well enough filled with work and urgency, there is a something that feels this to be insufficient and that has inspired and envisioned another labor within me, one which I myself could not have envisioned, and in which I nevertheless have been deeply and almost painfully involved. That labor will be completed when I have finished my book. Consequently, I realize how unreasonable and irrational my scribblings must seem in comparison to all rational and practical thinking; yet write I must.
Perhaps I would not have dared earlier. Perhaps it is simply that my imprisonment has made me heedless. My living conditions now differ only slightly from those I had as a free man. The food might have been a shade poorer here; I soon got accustomed to that. The mattress appeared to be a little harder than my bed at home in [p. 4] Chemistry City No. 4; I adjusted to that. I was permitted into the fresh air more seldom; this also I grew accustomed to. Worst was the separation from my wife and children, especially as I knew nothing, nor do now, about their fate; this filled me with uneasiness and apprehension during my first years of imprisonment. But gradually, as time passed, I began to feel more calm even than before and felt ever more at home with my existence. Here I have nothing to worry about, neither subordinates nor chiefs—with the exception of the prison guards, who seldom disturb me in my work and are only concerned about my obeying the rules. I have neither protector nor competitor. The scientists who have been introduced to me from time to time, to keep me up to date with what is new in chemistry, have always treated me pleasantly and with a matter-of-fact attitude, even though perhaps somewhat condescendingly because of my foreign nationality. I know that no one has reason to envy me. In short: in a way I can feel freer than in freedom. But at the same time as my calm increased, this strange connection with my past grew within me, and now I will have no peace until I have written down my memories of a certain eventful time in my life. The opportunity to write has been given me on account of my scientific work, and there is no inspection before the moment I submit a completed task. Consequently I am able to afford myself this pleasure, even though it might be my last.
At the time my story begins I was approaching forty. If any further introduction is necessary perhaps I might mention the way I symbolized life. Few things tell more about a person than his life-symbol: whether he sees it as a road, a great battle, a growing tree, or a billowing sea. For my part I looked at it, with the eyes of an obedient schoolboy, as a staircase on which one had to rush from level to level as fast as one could, short of breath, one's [p. 5] competitor at one's heels. Yet I had in reality very few competitors. Most of my colleagues at the laboratory concentrated their ambitions towards the military field and considered our daily work a boring but necessary interruption of the evening's military exercises. As for myself, I would hardly have dared admit to anyone of them how much greater was my interest in my chemistry than in my military participation, even though I was far from a poor soldier. Anyway, I was rushing ahead up my staircase. How many steps I actually had to put behind me I had never thought about, nor what kind of glory awaited me at the top. Perhaps I vaguely imagined life's house as one of our ordinary city dwellings, underground, where one emerged from the earth's bowels and at last reached the roof terrace, in open air, in wind and daylight. What wind and daylight might correspond to in my life-course was not quite clear to me. But certain it was that each new staircase level was indicated by short, official notices from higher authorities: a successful examination, a passed test, a promotion to some more important field of activity. I had already behind me many such important points of beginning and completion, though not so many that a new one would seem less important. It was therefore with a touch of exhilaration that I returned from the short telephone conversation which had advised me that I could expect my control-chief the following day, and consequently would begin to experiment with human material. Tomorrow, then, would come the final ordeal by fire for my greatest discovery up to that time.
I felt in such high spirits it seemed difficult for me to start anything new during the ten minutes still left of my working period. Instead I cheated a little—for the first time in my life, I believe—and began to put away paraphernalia too early, slowly and cautiously, while [p. 6] glancing through the glass partitions on either side to see if anyone was watching me. As soon as the signal bell announced that the day's work was over I hurried out into the long laboratory corridors, one of the first in the rush. Quickly I took my shower, changed my work clothes for the leisure-time uniform, jumped into the elevator and in a few moments was standing on the street above. Since our apartment had been allotted in my working district, I had been granted a surface permit there, and I always enjoyed stretching a little out in the open.
As I passed the Metro-station it occurred to me I might as well wait for Linda. Since I was so early she could not as yet have got home from her provision factory, a good twenty-minute subway ride away. A train had just arrived and a flood of human beings welled up out of the earth, pressed through the turnstiles where their surface permits were checked, and spread through the streets all around me. Standing there watching this swarm of humanity, these homeward bound fellow-soldiers in leisure-time uniform—the roof terraces in the background empty now except for the rolls of mountain-gray and meadow-green canvas which in ten minutes could make the city invisible from the air—it struck me suddenly that perhaps all these individuals harbored the same dream as I: the dream of the way up.
The thought stirred me. I knew that in days gone by, during the Civilian Era, it had been necessary to entice people to effort and work through hope for roomier living quarters, better food, and more attractive dress. Nowadays nothing of this sort was required. The standard apartment—one room for unmarried, two for a family—was sufficient for all, from the lowest to the most deserving. The food of the establishment satisfied the top general as well as the private. The common uniform—one for work, one for leisure, and one for military and police [p. 7] service—was the same for all, for men and women, for high and low, except for the insignia. This last was actually no fancier for one than for another. The desirability of higher insignia lay purely in what it symbolized. I thought happily, so highly spiritualized is actually every fellow-soldier in the Worldstate that the goal he visualizes as the paramount attainment needs no more concrete expression than three black chevrons on his sleeve—three black chevrons which are collateral for both his own self-respect and the respect of others. Of material enjoyments one can assuredly obtain enough, and more than enough (and therefore I suspect that the old civilian-capitalistic twelve-room apartments were hardly anything more than a symbol), but of this something, most subtle of all, pursued in the shape of insignia, there can never be a surfeit. No one can enjoy so much esteem, and so much self-esteem, that he does not crave for more. On this, the most sublime, most lofty, and most sought after, rests our solid social system, secure for all time.
These were my thoughts as I stood at the subway exit and saw only as in a dream the guards patrolling along the barbed wire fence surrounding our district. Four trains had arrived, four times the mass of humanity had streamed up into daylight, when at last Linda emerged through the turnstile. I rushed up to meet her and side by side we walked homewards.
To talk was of course out of the question due to the constant maneuvers of the air force which day and night prevented any conversation out of doors. Anyway, she acknowledged my happy looks and nodded encouragingly, although serious as ever. Not until we reached our living-complex and the elevator was taking us underground to our apartment did a comparative quiet envelop us—the noise of the subway which shook the walls was not loud enough to hinder conversation—yet we cautiously [p. 8] delayed all talk until we were inside our home. Had someone happened to overhear us in the elevator no suspicion could have been more natural than that we were discussing subjects which we did not wish the children or the home-assistant to hear. Cases were indeed on record where the State enemies and other criminals had attempted to use the elevator as a place of conspiracy; this was obviously safer since police-ears and police-eyes for technical reasons could not be installed in the elevators, and the janitor of course could not be expected to listen at the elevator opening every moment since he also had other duties. Cautiously, then, we said nothing until we reached our family room, where the home-assistant for that week had already put the evening meal on the table and was waiting with the children, whom she had fetched from the apartment house kindergarten. She seemed a decent and capable sort of girl, and our friendly greeting was motivated by more than just our awareness that, like all home-assistants, she was charged with the duty to report on the family at the end of the week; this was a reform generally considered to have improved the atmosphere in many homes. There was an air of happiness and coziness at our table, especially as our oldest son, Ossu, was with us. He had come for a visit from the children's camp, since this was home-evening.
"I've something nice to tell you," I said to Linda over the potato soup. "My experiment has reached the stage where I am to be allowed to use human material beginning tomorrow, under the supervision of a control-chief."
"Do you know who he is?" asked Linda.
Outwardly it was not noticeable, I am sure, but inside I winced at her words. They might be said quite innocently. What could be more natural than that a wife should ask her husband who his control-chief would be! On the control-chief's hypercritical or understanding attitude, [p. 9] the length of the testing period was indeed dependent. It had even happened that covetous control-chiefs had made their subordinates' discoveries their own, and there was of course slim chance of defending oneself against anything like that. So it was not strange that one's nearest should ask who he would be.
But I was conscious of an undertone in her voice. My nearest chief, and probably also my control-chief-to-be, was Edo Rissen. And Edo Rissen had formerly held a position in the factory where Linda worked. I knew that they had had a great deal to do with each other, and from certain small signs I deduced he had made an impression on my wife.
With her question my jealousy was aroused. How intimate was the relationship between her and Rissen? In a big factory it could often happen that two people would be out of view of others, in the warehouses for example, where bales and boxes prevented a clear vision through the glass walls, and where perhaps no one else might be occupied at the time. . . . Linda also had done her night-guard duty in the factory; Rissen might very well have done his duty at the same time. Anything was possible, even the worst of all: that she was in love with him still, and not with me.
In those days I seldom wondered about myself, what I thought or felt or what others thought or felt, unless it had a direct practical meaning to me. Only later, during my lonely time as a prisoner, have certain moments returned as riddles and forced me to wonder, solve, and solve again. Now, so long afterwards, I know that when I then so eagerly hoped for certainty concerning Linda and Rissen, I did not wish to have assurance that nothing went on between them. Actually, I wished to be assured that she had an outside interest. I wanted an assurance that would put an end to my marriage.[p. 10]
But in those days I would have repelled such a thought with disdain. Linda played too important a role in my life, I would have said. And it was true; no subsequent brooding or intimations about it have been able to change that. In importance she could easily have competed with my career. Against my will she held me in a quite irrational way.
One might speak of "love" as an obsolete, romantic concept, but I am afraid it exists anyway, and from its very inception it contains an indescribably painful element. A man is attracted to a woman, a woman to a man, and for every step that they move closer together each one loses something of himself or herself; a series of defeats where victories had been expected. Already in my first marriage—childless and thus not worth continuing—I had had a foretaste. Linda increased it to a nightmare. During our first years of marriage I actually had a nightmare, although I failed to see the connection with her: I was standing in a great darkness with a strong spotlight on me; from out in the darkness I felt the Eyes directed on me, and I wriggled like a worm to escape, while unable to deny my feeling of shame over the disgraceful rags I was wearing. Only later did I realize that it was an expression of my relationship with Linda, in which I felt myself frighteningly transparent, although I did all I could to withdraw and hide myself, while she seemed to remain the same riddle—fascinating, strong, almost superhuman, but eternally disturbing, because her riddle gave her a hateful superiority. When her mouth drew together in a narrow red line—oh no, it wasn't a smile, either of derision or of joy, rather it was tension, as when a bow is drawn—and her eyes meanwhile would be wide open and unblinking—then the same feeling of anxiety filled me through and through, and all the time she held me and pulled me with the same mercilessness, [p. 11] and yet I suspected she would never reveal herself to me. I suppose it is appropriate to use the word "love" when in the midst of hopelessness two people still cling to each other, as if, in spite of all, a miracle might take place—the agony itself having assumed a value of its own, having become a testimony that at least there is something in common: a hope of something that does not exist.
Round about us we saw parents separate as soon as their children were ready for the youth camps—separate and remarry to produce more children. Ossu, our oldest one, was eight and consequently had been in the children's camp for a whole year. Laila, the youngest, was four and had three more years to be at home. And then? Should we also separate and remarry, with the childish notion that the same expectation would be less hopeless with someone else? All my common sense told me it was a deceitful illusion. One single little irrational hope whispered: No, no—your failure with Linda is due to her desire for Rissen! She belongs to Rissen, not to you! Make sure it is Rissen she is thinking of—then everything is explained, and you can still have hope for a new love with meaning to it!
So strangely entwined was that something that was awakened by Linda's simple question.
"Probably Rissen," I said, and listened eagerly in the silence that followed.
"Is it too much to ask what experiment is in question?" put in the home-assistant.
She had of course a right to ask; in a way she was there to keep track of what happened in the family. And I could not see that anything could be misinterpreted and used against me, or how it might hurt the State if a rumor of my discovery were spread in advance.
"It is something I hope the State will gain a great deal from," I said. "It is something that will make any person [p. 12] disclose his secrets, all those things he previously has kept to himself, either from shame or fear. Are you from this city, Fellow-Soldier Home-Assistant?"
Occasionally one encountered people who had been brought in from other places in times of personnel shortage and who consequently lacked the general education of the chemistry cities' people, except for what they had picked up as grown individuals.
"No," she said, and blushed. "I am from the outside."
Further information about where one came from was strictly forbidden as it might be used for espionage. This explained her blushing.
"Well, then I won't try to explain the chemical formula or its preparation," I said. "Perhaps it's best anyway since the preparation under no circumstances must fall into private hands. But perhaps you've heard about alcohol in the old days, how it was used to bring on intoxication, and the different effects intoxication produced?"
"Yes," she said, "I know it used to make homes miserable, ruin health, and in the worst cases lead to a trembling of the whole body, with hallucinations of white mice, chickens, and such."
I recognized the words from the most elementary textbooks and smiled to myself; apparently she had not as yet been able to acquire the general education of the chemistry cities.
"Quite right," I said. "It was sometimes like that in the worst cases. But before it reached such a stage it often happened that the intoxicated one blabbed, disclosed secrets, and did reckless things, because his capacity for shame and fear was disturbed. My discovery has the same effect, I believe, though it has not yet been proven. It has this difference, however, that it need not be swallowed but is injected into the bloodstream, and has altogether a [p. 13] different composition. The unpleasant aftereffects you spoke of are also absent; and only very small doses are required. A light headache is all that the experimental person feels afterwards, and it does not happen, as it often did with the alcohol-intoxicated, that one forgets what one has said. You must realize how important a discovery it is; from now on no criminal can deny the truth. Not even our innermost thoughts are our own, as we so long have believed, unjustifiably."
"Yes, of course. From thoughts and feelings, words and actions are born. How could these thoughts and feelings then belong to the individual? Doesn't the whole fellow-soldier belong to the State? To whom should his thoughts and feelings belong then, if not to the State? Only, before this it has been impossible to control them; but now the means have been found."
She gave me a quick look but lowered it immediately. Her expression did not change in the slightest, though I had an impression that she turned a little pale.
"You couldn't have anything to be afraid of, Fellow-Soldier," I tried to comfort her. "It's not the purpose to disclose every individual's little likes and dislikes. If my discovery should happen to fall into private hands, well, then I can easily see what chaotic conditions might result! But of course this must never happen. The preparation must serve only our security, the security of all of us, the security of the State."
"I'm not afraid, I've nothing to be afraid of," she replied, quite coldly, and yet I had only meant to be friendly.
The talk drifted to other matters. The children told about what had happened to them in the kindergarten. They had played in the play-bowl—a huge enamelled [p. 14] basin, a yard or more deep, where they not only could explode their play bombs and set fire to forests and house roofs but also, if they filled the bowl with water, could engage in miniature sea battles, using the same explosives for the naval cannons as were used in the play bombs; torpedo boats also were available. Thus the children played their way into a grasp of strategy, it became their second nature, an instinct almost, and at the same time it was entertainment of the first order. There were times when I envied my children their fortune to grow up with such exquisite toys—in my childhood the light explosive had not yet been discovered—and I could not quite understand why they still longed with their whole souls to be seven years of age when they could join the youth camps, where the exercises were more military and where they stayed day and night.
Often it seemed to me that the younger generation was more realistically inclined than in our childhood. On the very evening I am speaking of, I was to receive a new proof of this fact. Since it was family evening, when neither Linda nor I had military or police duty, and Ossu, our eldest, was home for a visit—in this way the intimate family life was taken care of—I had thought out a means to entertain the children. I had bought at the laboratory a very small piece of sodium which I intended to ignite and let float on water with its pale purple flame. We filled a dish with water, turned out the lights, and gathered around my little chemical wonder. I myself had been highly entertained by this phenomenon when I was small and my father performed it for me, but to my children it was a complete fiasco. Ossu, who already was allowed to build fires, shoot a children's gun, and throw little imitation hand grenades—well, his failure to appreciate the pale flame might have been quite natural. But that not [p. 15] even Laila, the four-year-old, was interested in an explosion which failed to kill any enemies, this startled me. The only one entertained was Maryl, the girl in between. She sat quiet and dreaming as usual, following the spluttering will-o'-the-wisp with wide-open eyes, so much resembling those of her mother. Yet, at the same time as her interest gave me a certain satisfaction, it disturbed me also. Clearly and unmistakably, it dawned on me, Ossu and Laila were the children of the new age. Their approach was matter-of-fact and right, while my own was a remnant of obsolete romanticism. And in spite of the satisfaction she gave me, I suddenly found myself wishing Maryl were more like the others. It promised no good that she thus fell outside the healthy development of her generation.
The evening passed, and it was soon time for Ossu to return to the children's camp. If he had any desire to stay home, or was afraid of the long ride in the subway, he showed no sign of it. With his eight years he was already a well-disciplined fellow-soldier. I, on the other hand, felt a warm wave of longing back to those days when all three of them crept into their small beds. A son is after all a son, I thought, and he is closer to his father than the daughters. Yet I dared not think of the day when Maryl also, and then Laila, would be gone, and only return twice a week for an evening visit. I was very careful not to let anyone notice my weakness; my children need not one day complain about a poor example, and our home-assistant would have no slackness on the father's side to report, and Linda—Linda least of all! I did not wish to be despised by anyone, but least of all by Linda who herself never was weak.
And so the wall-beds in the family room were let down and made up for the little girls, and Linda tucked them in. [p. 16] The home-assistant had just placed dinner remnants and chinaware in the dumb-waiter and was preparing for departure, when she happened to think of something:
"There was a letter for you, my Chief," she said. "I put it in the parental room."
Somewhat surprised Linda and I looked at the letter, an official document. Had I been the home-assistant's police chief I would certainly have reprimanded her for this. Whether she actually had forgotten the whole matter or purposely failed to investigate, it was considered equally careless not to ascertain the contents of an official letter—it was her right and duty. At the same time a suspicion filled me that the contents of the letter might be such that I ought to be thankful she had been careless.
The letter was from the Propaganda Ministry's Seventh Bureau. And in order to explain the contents I must go back a little in time.
Copyright © 1940 by Albert Bonniers Förlag AB Stockholm, Sweden. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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