If you think, don’t speak.
If you think and speak, don’t write.
If you think, speak and write, don’t sign.
If you think, speak, write and sign, don’t be surprised.
News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in a suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading, Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage. Following Directive No. 97 to Eliminate Dissemination of Untruths among Party Cadres and the KGB, my superior could not repeat the joke, but assured me it was grave enough to warrant our attention.
One can only argue with an intellectual like Konstantyn Illych if one speaks to him on his level. I was among the few in the Kozlov branch of the agency with a higher education, so the task of re-educating Konstantyn Illych fell to me.
Since Konstantyn Illych was a celebrated poet in Ukraine and the matter a sensitive one, I was to approach him in private rather than at his workplace, in case the joke had to be repeated. Public rebuke would only be used if a civil one-on-one failed. According to Konstantyn Illych’s personal file (aged forty-five, married, employed by the Cultural Club), the poet spent his Sundays alone or with his wife at their dacha in Uhly, a miserable swampland thirty kilometers south of town.
Judgment of the quality of the swampland is my own and was not indicated in the file.
The following Sunday I drove to Uhly, or as close as I could get to Uhly; after the spring snowmelt, the dachas were submerged by a meter of turbid water and people were moving between and around the dachas in rowboats.
I had not secured a rowboat for the task as the need for one was not mentioned in Konstantyn Illych’s file, nor in the orders I was given.
I parked at the flood line, where five rowboats were moored: two green, two blue, one white, none black. Our usual mode of transportation was black. I leaned on the warm hood of my car (black) and plucked clean a cattail as I deliberated what to do next. I decided on the innocuous white; anyway I did not want to frighten Konstantyn Illych and cause him to flee by appearing in a black one.
The dachas were poorly numbered and I had to ask for directions, which was not ideal. One man was half deaf and, after nodding through my question, launched into an account of his cystectomy; another elderly man, who clearly understood what I was saying, rudely responded in Ukrainian; one woman, after inquiring what in hell I was doing in her brother’s rowboat, tried to set her German shepherd on me (thankfully, the beast was afraid of water). I was about to head back to the car when an aluminum kayak slid out of the reeds beside me, carrying two knobble-kneed girls. They told me to turn right at the electric transformer and row to the third house after the one crushed by a poplar.
A few minutes later I floated across the fence of a small dacha, toward a shack sagging on stilts. On the windowsill stood a rusted trophy of a fencer in fighting stance, and from its rapier hung a rag and sponge. When no response came from an oared knock on the door, I rowed to the back of the shack. There sat Konstantyn Illych and, presumably, his wife Milena Markivna, both of them cross-legged atop a wooden table, playing cards. The tabletop rose just above water level, giving the impression that the couple was stranded on a raft at sea. The poet’s arms and shoulders were small, boyish, but his head was disproportionately large, blockish. I found it difficult to imagine the head strapped into a fencing mask, but that is beside the point.
‘Konstantyn Illych?’ I called out.
‘Who’s asking?’ He kept his eyes on the fan of cards in his hands.
I rowed closer. The wood of my boat tapped the wood of the table. ‘I’m Mikhail Igorovich. Pleased to meet you.’
Konstantyn Illych did not return my politesse, did not even take the toothpick out of his mouth to say, ‘You here for electric? We paid up last week.’
His wife placed a four of spades on the table. Her thick dark hair hung over her face.
I told Konstantyn Illych who I was and that the agency had received reports of how he had publicly disseminated wrongful evaluations of the leaders of the Communist Party and the Soviet society at large, and that I was here to have a conversation with him. Konstantyn Illych set his cards face down on the table and said in a level tone, ‘All right, let’s have a conversation.’
I had conducted dozens of these conversations before and always began from a friendly place, as if we were two regular people – pals, even – just chatting.
‘Quite the flood,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Konstantyn Illych, ‘the flood.’
‘I’ll bet the children love it here.’
Usually there were children. I stretched my legs out in the rowboat, which upset its balance, jerked them back.
‘No parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles either,’ said Milena Markivna. Her upper lip curled a little – the beginning of a sneer, as if to say, But you already knew that, didn’t you?
There had indeed been mention of a mass reprimand of Milena Markivna’s relatives in the fifties, but amid all the other facts about all the other citizens of Kozlov – all their sordid family histories – the detail had slipped my mind. Still, the woman did not need to dampen the spirit of the conversation.
Konstantyn Illych broke the silence. ‘So what’s the joke?’
‘I haven’t made a joke,’ I said.
‘No, the joke I supposedly told about the Party.’
Already he was incriminating himself. ‘The term I used was “wrongful evaluation”, but thank you for specifying the offense, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, unexpectedly. ‘What was it?’
‘I cannot repeat the joke.’ I admit I had searched Konstantyn Illych’s file for it, but one of the typists had already redacted the words.
‘You can’t repeat the joke you’re accusing me of telling?’
‘Correct.’ Then, before I could stop myself: ‘Perhaps you could repeat the joke, and I’ll confirm whether or not it’s the one.’
Konstantyn Illych narrowed his eyes.
‘We aren’t moving any closer to a solution, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘Tell me the problem first,’ he said.
A brown leaf, curled into the shape of a robed figurine, floated by Milena Markivna’s foot. She pressed the leaf into the murky water with her thumb before turning to her husband. ‘Just say sorry and be done with it.’
I thanked her for her intuition – an apology was precisely what was in order, in the form of a letter within thirty days. Milena Markivna advised me not to thank her since she hadn’t done anything to help me, in fact she hated officers like me and it was because of officers like me that she had grown up alone in this world, but at least she had nothing to lose and could do anything she wanted to: she could spit in my face if she wanted to, which I did not recommend.
Konstantyn Illych was tapping his fingernails on the table. ‘I’m not putting anything in writing.’
It is usually at this point in the conversation, when the written word comes up, that the perpetrator becomes most uncomfortable, begins to wriggle. Most people fail to grasp the simple logic of the situation: that once a transgression occurs and a case file opens, the case file triggers a response – in this case, a letter of apology. One document exposes the problem, the second resolves it. One cannot function without the other, just as a bolt cannot function without a nut and a nut cannot function without a bolt. And so I told Konstantyn Illych, ‘I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.’
He reached for the small rectangular bulge in his breast pocket. ‘Ever read my poetry?’
I expected him to retrieve a booklet of poems and to read from it. Dread came over me; I had never been one to understand verse. Thankfully he produced a packet of cigarettes instead.
‘Come to my next reading,’ he said. ‘You’ll see I’m as ideologically pure as a newborn. Then we’ll talk about the letter.’
Normally I’d have a letter of apology written and signed well under the thirty-day deadline and I took pride in my celerity. Even the most stubborn perpetrators succumbed under threat of loss of employment or arrest. The latter, however, was a last resort. The goal now was to re-educate without arrest because the Party was magnanimous and forgiving; moreover prisons could no longer accommodate every citizen who uttered a joke.
In Konstantyn Illych’s case, next came gentle intimidation. If Konstantyn Illych stood in line for sausage, I stood five spots behind him. If Konstantyn Illych took a rest on a park bench, I sat three benches over. He pretended not to see me, but I knew he did: he walked too fast, tripping on uneven pavement; bills and coins slipped from his fingers regularly. His head jerked right and left to make sure he never found himself alone on the street. He needn’t have worried – always the odd pedestrian around – and anyway I did not intend to physically harm or abduct Konstantyn Illych, though that would have been simpler for both of us. My older colleagues often lamented the simpler times.
Four days passed without a word exchanged between us.
On the fifth day I went to see Konstantyn Illych give his poetry reading at the Kozlov Cultural Club. I took a seat in the front row of the lecture hall, so close to the stage I could see the poet’s toes agitate inside his leather shoes. In the dim light I was able to transcribe some of his poetry:
Helical gears, cluster gears, rack gears,
bevel and miter gears, worm gears, spur gears,
ratchet and pawl gears, internal spur gears,
grind my body
gr gr grrr
ah ah ah
aah aah aah
bares his flesh
skinless, bears the burden
of the air wooooooooooooooosh
not me forgets.