Monday, August 3, 2020

Forward: March by Mike Lee

Mike Lee tells the story of two American political refugees in the South American country of Antanzia, with a complicated personal history; by Mike Lee.

"How exhausting all this was. In fact, if only people knew how madly tiresome it is to be a criminal!" 

- Hermann Hesse, Klein and Wagner 

The question was resolved with an answer I steadfastly refused to accept. My hands became putty in this memory of a profoundly painful aspect of my past. That is, doing something that seemed a good idea at the time, but really never was to begin with.

This fact was laid out before me while with my old camp mate Stefan at a table at the beach in Antanzia City.

We sat under a fuchsia umbrella chatting over some business regarding his novel and likely temporary employment writing copy for a public relations firm I had an excellent connection with.

I am his literary agent; managing his often-difficult navigation through the publishing trade in the country we now call our home. As refugees coming to grips with the truth that we may never return home, Stefan and I carve out our own palos in this new garden in South America, channeling our lives in a manner where we have a sense that we no longer have to look over our shoulders in the street, or listen for the baleful knock on the door by the national police. Having said that, living in Antanzia is a struggle, and today's business meeting was no exception.

Being in a new land, though with us having now spent three years for me, and coming up on one for Stefan, has its issues once you get over the relief of escaping a dictatorship and finding room to breathe and hopefully thrive. After that sense of relief passes, one is confronted with the difficulties of being accepted. Antanzians are outwardly welcoming, but we certainly have collectively been grating on their nerves since the United Nations negotiated for political refugees to come to this country.

The Antanzians tire of being a dumping ground while we weary of being treated like shit by our hosts. This creates an impasse that is an abyss to traverse in what can best be described as a politely passive-aggressive manner.

Yet for some reason that none of us could quite put our hands on, they were indifferent to our plight, and often angry. We were an inconvenient presence, often ghettoized in Briklin, the slums in the inner part of Antanzia City, or sent off to the mountains, or worse yet working in the steel mills and iron ore mines in the northern border areas around the city of Bataille.

It was sometimes hell. Shopkeepers threw change at us at the markets, and landlords overcharged for rent. Employment services usually shifted Americans into construction, and contractors consistently violated the labor codes regarding wages and work conditions.

We took it, though, because in these transactions both parties knew we had no power to complain. We could not go back, unless you saved enough money and moved on to Brazil and Argentina, which treated us a little better. Not by much, but there were better opportunities and a modicum of respect that was lacking in our hosts.

But I was a literary agent for non-citizen writers, namely my fellow Americans, and a subeditor for a refugee journal and website. I had a visa and permanent work permit, and citizenship was on the horizon. My Portuguese was good, and I got respect from my indigenous peers.

Stefan was a dreamer. Isolated in a house in the far mountains of the O'Doul Range, writing his novel, and churning out book reviews and literary essays for print and online journals catering to our growing community.

I thought of him as a man trying to erase memory. This was reflected in his writing: scribing dreamy parables influenced heavily by Hermann Hesse and Ernst Junger that I believed had more appeal for the locals than it did for exiles.

We liked words that tasted of the whips we endured. Fiction that threw us against the wall, sentences that burned like the cattle prods. Shoved face down in toilet seats, sitting hungry in isolation cells, martyrdom with a bullet was what appealed to us, because it was all we knew. In America, political conflict eventually was settled by the crack of gunfire and people dragged into darkness at four in the morning. That's our game.

In this country, you can spot one of us by the look of past incarceration. We have a post-traumatic stare. We do not look at you, but through.

Looking at Stefan I saw something lacking in his expression. He was direct and steady. He was not one of us. It was becoming apparent during the conversation, I made a mistake befriending this man.

I did not trust him. I long ago learned not to.



Today is a Thursday late morning in March, the end of the Antanzian summer. I am older now, and I like fitting in so I dress my age, and try to look local in my tan linen suit and black oxfords. I began sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat, my vanity too much to show my receding hairline. Fitting in is something I didn't do well back home, but here I found it easy - to a point.

As I sat across from Stefan my nascent disdain began to slowly percolate. Dear Stefan in his blazer and ill-fitting slacks. He needed to dress better, and I know he could, so I decided to keep our encounter on the beach, but intended to tell him to dress better when I took him to the editorial meeting.

The work I had for him was simple enough. After countless delays, the RSA had planned the first human mission to Mars. The Gagarin mission was cobbled together under Russian/Indian leadership, using whatever resources were left in the now-collapsed European Union, and American technicians who no longer had a country willing to engage in anything other than staring at their navels. The international crew was mainly Russian, and Stefan minored in Russian in college, so it was a fit - somewhat - mainly because he spoke the language and knew Soviet history.

But there were no Soviets, only Russians again, and the lot of them seemed to be blissfully unaware that being the last nation of any technological might left standing after a political and economic collapse does not leadership make. But, they did enough to launch for Mars, with grandiose plans to planet hop through the solar system and on to the stars.

Considering the Antanzians had the tracking station in the northern mountains near the border, it was planned to boost their national pride by playing up their role in the Gagarin mission.

So he was tasked to find someone who could write something for the local papers. Who better than an American?

Why not us? We kicked the whole thing off with a few dreamers such as Goddard, a few weirdoes like Jack Parsons, and a slew of Nazis to work on releasing humanity from the taut bounds of Earth. We were the dreamers, with the means and spirit to get it done. We were Americans, and after World War II ruled - well, half the world. But we had a competitor with a knack to beat us. They got a satellite up first, shipped up a dog, a man, then a woman in space, did the first walk outside of a space capsule.

Then we got serious, using the improved rocket design developed by our Germans using the fuel that Parsons invented, and set out for the big prize: the Moon.

The other half withered and eventually crumbled, canceling their planned missions. Eventually we worked on a joint project, and then the other side totally collapsed, unable to keep up economically. The vastness of space before us was an American opportunity. At that moment, we were the only ones.

The problem was, we lost our faith, distracted by events and an innate ability to stare at our navel and question ourselves endlessly. Dreams soon ceased to be. Sure, we managed to send out and land various craft, and launch exploratory vehicles which kissed the planets and several moons of our Solar System, but when it came to human exploration, as we had done with the Moon decades ago, we stayed with both feet on the ground.

Then, due to events unforeseen, the balance of power shifted. One empire that had collapsed regenerated while the other - ours - crumbled into tertiary status.

So, who better than an American? We still loved our country, though neither of us at this table liked it for what it had become, and America hated us to the point where we had become landless individuals cast out to at a table under an umbrella on the shore, under azure southern skies, marking time with all the other exiles, dreaming of a home that no longer was.

So I did not trust this man. Not in the least. But I needed someone for the job.



The camp was situated in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The stark, treeless mountains framed our landscape beyond the wire fence. I found out after my arrival that communications to the camp headquarters was by landline telephone only and all radio and wireless communications were jammed by satellites.

This was complete isolation, but we made do with the Saturday visits from relatives who drove on the single two-lane blacktop leading to the main gate. We furtively did our work there.

Our resistance was to the banal, and our enemies were in the main rather boring. They dumped us in camps, fed us the three square meals consisting of aging meat and stale potatoes, and when in the mood occasionally kicked the shit out us, usually without warning.

In that regard, their neglect gave us an internal freedom that quite often at times gave us a false sense of fearlessness. We could talk amongst ourselves, and communicate messages to our loved ones visiting us at wire beside the front gate.

That went on for a year. Then things suddenly transmogrified into horror.

It began when the camp commander issued orders to forbid the visits. The posting was announced at morning roll call as we watched a detachment of reserve units guarding the fence perimeter. They also announced that the road to the camp was ordered as a secure military zone with shoot-to-kill orders for any nonmilitary personnel. Mail and packages were now to be confiscated.

Guards ransacked our huts while we stood in the high desert heat.

That night came the first raids. Units of five soldiers each entered at both entrances and their commanding officer ran off names from a computer printout. Sometimes only two or three were taken from a particular hut; other times far more.

Most were members of the camp resistance. The others known personalities from the old days, former elected officials, military, writers, professors. Anyone who had been in a position of power before the onset of the current regime.

They were loaded on buses and taken out of the camp.

We only heard the trucks move out because we were ordered to stay in our bunks. Two soldiers stood at the doors, their guns pointed in our general direction.

The raids continued nightly for a week, until the entire active membership of the resistance was removed. Those who remained were the cursed lucky, the noninvolved and suspected informers.

Stefan, of course, was one who remained. Before the camp lockdown and the raids, I never paid much attention to him. I do remember that because of his journalism background he was approached by the resistance to do occasional writing. He wrote a few minor efforts that were passed through the fence, but as far I knew was not involved more than that. Stefan usually sat at a bench, reading his novels. He liked Hermann Hesse, which made sense because before the camp he taught German literature in a university.

At first, I thought he was lucky like me. I was into the resistance a bit deeper, certainly enough to be taken away into the night to unknown destinations. I kept caution from the wind and figuratively burrowed further underground. The remaining members of the resistance did the same, exchanging furtive glances in the yard, in our huts, and during muster, like gangsters in a French film noir. We did not know which from whom anymore. All of us were innocent, or a traitor. Or a bit of both. One cannot separate in these stressful conditions.

We passed each other as the dead to one another. The triumph of the regime over us was clear to all. Take a few of us, and leave the remainder to quietly question their worthless place in our universe, was the message we received. Paranoid, and remaining silent while waiting out our lonely days and nights in the desert camp.

I did talk to Stefan during this time. Nothing much in common except for a shared interest in academia. I was a journalist and found him an interesting companion regarding book recommendations. I kept the conversation to that, and the miserable desert heat in spring and summer, and equally wretched cold in winter.

I thought those conversations were unrevealing. Sometime I lay awake at night trying to remember everything we said. My memory of those days is still shot. All I can recall is fragments of mid-century European literature and the desperate need for shade from May to October.

But like in Melville's Army of Shadows, there would be a reckoning once we put together another resistance unit in the camp to find the traitor. That never happened, unfortunately. A second early morning raid followed, and this time I was unlucky.

Yet in torture I gave no one up. This last time was a week in a basement, somewhere. My knees ache in the wet winters, and the burn scars from the cattle prods still mark my back and upper thighs. I also came close to a heart attack in the experience.

At the conclusion I learned who ratted me out.

It was a phrase I overheard at the end, while lying on the concrete floor.

The man in the blue serge suit, looking for all the world like a dandy, oversaw my interrogation. He had clean, well-manicured hands, and as he stood over my prone body, he told the brute with the cattle prod that there was nothing else to get from me.

The man in the suit was a big chief. He told the guy to quit, and ordered over his cell phone for medical personnel to collect me.

As I was loaded on the gurney, I heard the suit say, "Yet again, the scribbler is more wrong than right. This one is of no use to us."

He looked at me, grimacing, and I detected a mere smidgen of mercy.

"Yes, that man is a Klein, not a Wagner," he said, sighing. "Well, enough of him. He's got his walking papers and out of our hair."

I immediately recognized the reference. That was the book Stefan read. I had read it, too.

Klein and Wagner was a novella in Hermann Hesse's Klingsor's Last Summer. This was the only book I read completely through while imprisoned at the camp.

I knew it was Stefan who betrayed us. All of us.



My erstwhile betrayer asked for another coffee, for which I had to pay. I do not have a problem with covering his expenses, viewing it as a means to fatten the cow, gaining his trust. Stefan also needed me to provide him a job. I willingly - happily - complied.

I motioned for the waiter and ordered two American coffees. As we sat in our seats under the fuchsia umbrella, we concluded our plans, relaxing quietly before taking our leave for the appointment. I had already called ahead. Goltz, the senior assistant public relations director at the firm, was expecting us.

During the coffee I studied Stefan's face as we conversed. It was light speak. He talked about his girlfriend, a photographer he knew in the years before the regime, and of his writing cabin in the mountains. He was deep in the forest, and it dawned on me that this made perfect sense. I suspected he assumed we would be looking for him if we got to Antanzia.

But what surprised me is he searched me out for work. I wondered if he was mad, clueless, a sadist. Innocent never entered my mind. He was guilty as hell.

We spoke of writing. I dared to mention Herman Hesse.

Without registering a reaction Stefan talked about the Hesse novels, from Peter Camenzind to The Glass Bead Game. I mentioned I particularly enjoyed the novella collection he produced relatively early in his career.

"My favorite is Klein and Wagner. I love the story of a normal family man, who commits a crime and flees to Venice under an assumed identity. Eventually one identity takes over another and this dooms the character."

Stefan paused before responding. "I don't think that was the motive for Klein's suicide. I believe guilt did him in. Hesse was going through a marriage breakup at the time, and his feelings of guilt were worked through on the pages of that story."

That got him. I already figured out what his code name was. I fantasised of that man in the blue serge suit, sitting behind his desk looking at Stefan's file, and probably laughing his ass off.

"Yes," I said. "In the end, the truth will tell."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Just that the truth wins out over all the subterfuge." I sipped my coffee. "We had those hopes in the camp that the truth wins out. In a manner, it happened. We exist. We live." I swung my arm across this beach. "We have all this beauty that surrounds us. Sure, this isn't home, but we are safe."

"Yes," Stefan's gaze was a little glazed. He shifted nervously in his seat. "We are safe."

Stefan straightened up and refocused his attention. I believed he knew what I implied. "I love my mountains, and the forest passage I walk in the morning with Patricia."

"Yes, I understand," I said, wanting to reach out and strangle him. I sucked in a breath. "How is she doing with finding work? I read in NdM that she will be exhibiting at the Refugee Center in May."

Patricia wasn't one of us, having been fortunately stuck on assignment in Australia when the regime came down on us all like sleep in the night. She had the reputation, though, to be seen as not one of us. I noticed her upcoming gallery show at the center was about us refugees. There was a certain irony to that. Engineers digging ditches, doctors as restaurant doormen, professors working behind the counter at gas stations. We, like everyone else in similar circumstances throughout the world, were exiled to a country that doesn't like us, begrudgingly accepted with sneering caveats, and starting again from the bottom up. Yeah, isn't this ironic?

Goltz and I were among the lucky ones. Or clever - pick one, or take both.

As for Stefan, he had his house with the artist girlfriend deep in the woods, yet so desperate for cash he relied on people he'd sold out for a passport out. That's the way I saw it.

Maybe he saw it, too, and in his desperation he was taking this risk with me. He had to know one of us figured his game out. This was only a matter of time and I didn't understand it. For now, I think several motives were running through his mind. I settled on sadism: being represented by the guy who spent a week being beaten, his head shoved in ice water, and struck with a cattle prod. Getting a problem resolved by someone who nearly had a heart attack while writhing on a cold, damp concrete cellar floor.

And here we were talking about Klein and Wagner. The character of Klein could no longer live with his guilt and the person he became. So he got in a rowboat, paddled out and drowned himself. Klein could no longer bear to be Wagner, and it killed him.

Stefan kept his name, and was the same erudite, quiet and distant man he was at the camp.

I paid for the lunch, and the coffee. I was getting him a job. He sat there across from me, enjoying the scene, hopeful for a potentially big payday, a favor from an old camp comrade.

When the waiter looked in my direction, I raised my index finger.

"A conta, por favor."

Nodding, the waiter moved toward the wait station to fetch our bill.



The auditorium was in the Neuenschwander, built in the style of neo-Brutalism architecture favored by the Antanzians. The eggshell-white concrete windowless skyscraper loomed over the northern part of the central city, casting its shadow over the Bricklin neighborhood.

We took a cab from the taxi stand by the beach and avoided the old neighborhood. While the driver took the fabled short cut around the Cathedral Plaza to avoid the congested main avenue, I pondered what I intended to do with Stefan once I had the chance. The problem with murder in Antanzia is that it gets the death penalty, and a crime of revenge doesn't cut it around here. The justice system in this country views these acts as a personal insult to their hospitality.

In tandem with the driver, I instinctively cross myself as we pass the National Cathedral. I say a silent prayer for guidance. This never works, but I never give up trying. A higher power will eventually hear me, or at least give me a nudge.

Stefan stared out the window, his hands carefully folded across his lap.

I stared out the window of the taxi and looked for familiar landmarks. We were skirting the edges of Bricklin. I see the American-style diner where I used to take breakfast before starting my first job at the newsstand, standing behind a counter selling cigarettes and beer, watching his neighbors reading the newspapers instead of buying them - with few exceptions.

He tolerated it, because back then everyone arrived broke and out-of-work while waiting for their permits. Beyond the scraps provided by Catholic Charities and the Refugee Center, we received nothing in terms of support. A work permit - a permiso - was what you received if you kept your nose clean and didn't scare the locals too often.

Some had to wait months to receive one, depending on the waiting list. In the meantime, you existed on rice and beans and the housing was predicated on the kindness of strangers. It was a hard life.

Stefan arrived and received a cottage gifted by one the leaders of the resistance, who was his friend and admired his writing. He was the one who insisted I take him as a client, citing loyalty to the cause and the brotherhood of experience in the camps.

In that conversation, I never mentioned Klein and Wagner. Instead, I said yes. I didn't have a choice. After the meeting, I felt betrayed again, this time by myself.

Stefan and I sat in the darkened auditorium and listened to the lecture.

The main speaker was one of the cosmonauts returning from the first mission to the Mars colony. He was the chief engineer of the mission, and spent a year at the colony working mostly in near-isolation in the pod that provided access to the computers that kept the colony going.

I could identify with the solitude he described in relating his experiences. I'd been alone for many years, now.

Stefan sat in rapt attention, taking notes on his electronic pad, filling the screen, scribbling. He took to this with the intensity that only an artist of words could. Yes, he did write very well. I recall the polemics he wrote that later were smuggled through the fence. Yes, messages of hope and defiance. Pretty little words that eventually landed us all here.

On Mars, I suppose.

The speaker was familiar. He was one of the two mission participants from the Western Hemisphere. The cosmonaut was from Trinidad, and talked about his childhood, raising horses with his family. Talked rather wistfully of riding a pony along the surf. While listening, I smiled, thinking of ponies on Mars.

The cosmonaut talked of the dust storms that blew from the mountain range into the deep valley where the colony was situated; describing the dangers the colonists faced as the high winds buffeted the small, hardened pods that dotted the valley. They had been spread out in distance far enough for a quick walk in full gear in the thin Martian atmosphere. He explained this helped lessen the wind speed associated with a tunnel effect found in urban areas during storms. A good-sized piece of titanium used in the unsecured heavy equipment at the colony could pierce the pod walls. Even with the sophisticated weather gauging instruments at his command, it was often too soon to see a windstorm before they were able to move all the equipment into the hangers.

As he talked, I continued to feel sympathy for his loneliness in performing his duties. He told that at times he was alone in the engineering pod for as much as a week, checking on life support, energy and above all, the weather. His only contact was with his commander, who remained at the colony. He spoke of her with a certain longing. I could tell by the change of tone in his voice. It was softer, poetically heartbreaking as he described their intense relationship during times of crisis, and the languid longer-than-Earth hours when there was little to do. He obviously loved her. I was moved by his words.

Yet, this cosmonaut had to be the one to return. The commander was due to leave in six months. I wished their future well.



After the question time, where the gathered reporters asked the cosmonaut dumb questions about sustainability, terraforming and the like, I motioned for Stefan to follow me. The interview with Goltz was in a conference room at the end of the corridor behind the auditorium.

Goltz waited at the door as various individuals, including the cosmonaut, passed through. After I introduced Stefan, Goltz took Stefan gently by the shoulder and led him through the door.

Goltz turned to me before the guard closed the double doors.

"I already got the call from upstairs. He's got the job."

I shrugged. "Cool. So how long is this?"

"He should be done in two hours. If it is longer, I will call."

"Okay then, I will wander. Good luck."

I wandered through the park near the Cathedral, brooding about the choices I made.

I made my way to a bench far from the granite fountain, a gift from the French Third Republic dating from 1880, honoring the 50th anniversary of Antanzian independence, citing its commitment to the principles of liberty.

I read the inscription often when I stop in the park. I do not do it as much anymore. The words are written in four languages, and reading them helped me learn two of them, and the third a little better.

Carved on the granite is a quote by Jose de San Martin. A military leader, he played the decisive role in the liberation of Argentina, Chile and Peru. Late in life, San Martin assisted the Antanzians in negotiating their own freedom, using words as his saber in a complicated series of negotiations with the Argentines, Brazilians and the British. If not for that, I would not be here, and so I look at those words a little differently on this day.

This line always struck me as apropos, particularly more so in the moment I am living in: "The conscience is the best and most impartial judge that a righteous man has."

A few blocks away sits a cosmonaut waiting for a woman on Mars, while being interviewed by a man who betrayed me. Caused me pain. Destroyed others. Yes, he is being protected, and I believe I will never know why. This is a terrible piece of judgment, but people above my rank made a decision.

My conscience is torn between choosing whether I will be Klein, or be Wagner.

Both drowned. I would rather not be either. Stefan likely faces the same contradiction from the decisions he made. Perhaps he isn't mad, sadistic or stupid. There is something else at play in that man's mind.

It struck me then that there is the possibility he is capable of feeling guilt. That will do. I can accept that.

I have a life I do not want to lose. When I was told to help Stefan out and be his agent, I am left with no choice. I did not like the decision I struggled to reach, finding it personally immoral, but wisdom prevailed.

I stare up. As I scan the sky I try to find Mars. I cannot see it, but the planet is there, behind the cumulus formed at the left.

I will pick Stefan from the Neuenschwander, give him an advance check for the project and drop him off at the train station. He returns to his house in the woods to his Patricia, either as Klein or Wagner.

Whoever Stefan comes home as matters nothing to me, because I will collect my fee. Goltz is quick with the paperwork. I'll get the check by the end of the week.

I return to my home with my conscience intact.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting take on a possible near-future. The geo-political climate feels very plausible, as does the state of the scientific community and space race. Good read.

    ReplyDelete