BASS 2019: Maria Reva, “Letter of Apology” from Granta #145

A few years ago I read that the KGB had to stop arresting citizens for telling political jokes in the 1960s, due to the Khrushchev thaw, but also because it was impossible to lock up the entire Soviet Union. Instead, officers were to engage offenders in a (re)educational conversation and have them submit a letter of apology.
Shortly after I learned this, my father told me that the KGB tried to recruit him to the Honor Guard in the 1980s. He was a model student and athlete, but the last thing he wanted was to guard Lenin’s Tomb. …
These two sources inspired “Letter of Apology.” I’d already written a story from the perspective of a character who suspects she is being trailed by the KGB, but not one from the perspective of a KGB agent doing the trailing. I wanted to explore the loss of power a Secret Service agent must have felt, having to chase after citizens for a chat and letter. Finally, I wanted to examine the mechanisms of self delusion: how does a person escape a terrible truth?

Maria Reva, Contributor Note

The story starts with a joke. It ends with a joke. In between, it uses irony, sideswipes, descriptive humor, and deadpan silences. And woven into that humor is so much more: a deeply symbolic Russian cartoon about a hedgehog, Schrodinger’s Cat, and Bolshevik sloganeering. I kept thinking of the pre-disco BeeGees: “I started a joke which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me.” The joke is definitely on Soviet agent Mikhail Igorovich, but if he doesn’t get the joke, does anyone laugh?

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.

Complete story available online at Granta

The story is online, not very long, and very readable (and, by the way, it will be in Reva’s forthcoming collection, Good Citizens Need Not Fear), so I’ll focus on the peripheral issues. Like how underappreciated humor is, and how effective. Chances are you’ll remember a Trevor Noah bit long after a well-researched PBS piece on the same subject has faded from memory. Humor shines a spotlight on the sore spots, the rusty hinges, the wobbly underpinnings we overlook while gazing at the magnificent edifice. Like a good massage, humor pokes us where it hurts, so we know where we have to heal.

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.’

Mikhail is just aching to know what the joke is. But Konstantyn is nobody’s fool. That’s Mikhail’s job.

I found two of the scenes in the story highly cinematic. It’s not the description; I often get bored with detailed lists of colors and materials, cleverly chosen similes acting to reinforce an atmosphere. But these scenes don’t depend on such writing techniques, they depend on stark contrasts between characters, between expectations and realities, and on freight trains of emotion in simple actions and words. First, there’s the rowboat in Konstantyn’s dacha. Second is the poetry reading featuring Konstantyn’s challenge to Mikhail, so proud of his education and his position, so dismissive of the presented poem, “Who, whom?” until it is revealed that those are the words Lenin chose decades before as a slogan framing the conflict between capitalism and communism as the essence of the Bolshevik movement.

The animated Soviet film The Hedgehog in the Fog, where Mikhail follows Konstantyn on the day before the deadline for the letter of apology, is well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch. It’s a constantly shifting metaphor that seems to be, in a couple of ways, a blueprint for the story. The hedgehog, lost in the fog, can’t tell what is danger and what is safety. He resigns himself to the river, until an unseen fish brings him to dry land, and he finally joins his friend the Bear for tea and raspberry jam. But most importantly, it brings up the white horse in the fog: if the hedgehog can’t see her, is she alive or dead? She could be either! I was thrilled to see this thinly-veiled reference to Schrodinger’s Cat in the story, and was all set to dive in up to my neck, but Jake Weber does a great job of laying it out so I’ll just refer to his post and move on.

The film ends with our little hedgehog, comfortably situated with the Bear awaiting tea and raspberry jam, staring numbly into the night and wondering about the horse: “How is she, there in the fog?”

The question is whether Hedgehog would prefer to keep the fog or have it lift to discover what is behind its thick veil. I would keep the fog. For instance, I cannot know the whereabouts of my parents because they are part of me and therefore part of my personal file and naturally no one can see their own file, just like no one can see the back of their own head. My mother is standing proud among the Honor Guard. My mother is standing elsewhere. She is sitting. She is lying down. She is cleaning an aquarium while riding an elevator. Uncertainty contains an infinite number of certainties. My mother is in all these states at once, and nothing stops me from choosing one. Many people claim they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true – it is uncertainty that gives freedom of mind. And so, while I longed to be reassigned to Moscow, the thought of it shook me to the bones with terror.

Looks like Mikhail has an inkling of what selection to the Honor Guard really means, he’s just choosing to stick his fingers in his ears and yell “nyah nyah I can’t hear you.” Because what’s the alternative? And now, unable to get the Letter of Apology on which his own selection to the Honor Guard may depend (one way or another), he’s just floating down the river, clutching his raspberry jam, maybe to drown, maybe to be rescued. This is the central question of the story: is it better to live in ignorance – that is, to believe a comforting lie – or to face a devastating reality? And his family, his mother: How is she, there in the fog?

A dramatic scene with Kostantyn’s wife follows. It’s just a little too Man from U.N.C.L.E. for my tastes (though I once was all about Illya Kuryakin), with touches of Boris and Natasha. But it forces Mikhail up against his deepest fears, as Steve Almond puts it, and leaves him staring ahead in numb shock, like our little hedgehog friend. It left me, as well, wondering about Mikhail: how is he, there in the fog?

And if you think this is a period piece all about the Soviet past, you haven’t been paying attention to a world where the fog is designed by and for power. I see a strong connection to my favorite tweet encapsulating the current era in the U.S.: Adrien Bott’s pithy “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” from October 2015, a sentiment that only gets more true every day.

The story ends with a recapitulation of the original Joke, to remind us how all this started and to reintroduce the humor in a wonderfully self-referential typographical pun. Konstanyn’s wife makes the understatement of the century: “It’s not even that funny.” I’m sure Mikhail agrees.

BASS 2017: Maria Reva, “Novostroika” from The Atlantic 12/16

“Next!”
Daniil took a step forward. He bent down to the hole in the partition and looked at the woman sitting behind it. “I’m here to report a little heating problem in our building.”
“What’s the problem?”
“We have no heat.” He explained that the building was a new one, this winter was its first, someone seemed to have forgotten to connect it to the district furnace, and the toilet water froze at night.
The woman heaved a thick directory onto her counter. “Building address?”
“Ivansk Street, No. 1933.”
She flipped through the book, licking her finger every few pages. She flipped and flipped, consulted an index, flipped once more, then shut the book and folded her arms across it. “That building does not exist, Citizen.”
Daniil stared at the woman. “What do you mean? I live there.”
“According to the documentation, you do not.” She looked at the young couple in line behind him.
Daniil leaned closer, too quickly, banged his forehead against the partition. “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street,” he repeated.
The woman considered an oily spot on the glass with mild interest. “Never heard of it.”
“I have 13, no, 14 citizens, living in my suite alone, who can come here and tell you all about it,” he said. “Fourteen angry citizens bundled up to twice their size.”
She shook her head, tapped the book. “The documentation, Citizen.”

Complete story available online at The Atlantic

It’s not going to come as a surprise to anyone that life was tough in the USSR. I kept wondering why I was reading another story about it, though I suppose every story goes over well-trod ground in some way. But this came at an interesting moment, as so many of these stories have: I’d just seen a story about which countries feel they’re better off than 50 years ago, and which don’t. It seems half of Russians feel they’re better off; about a third feel they’re worse off. Americans, on the other hand, have more people thinking they’re worse off than better. Maybe that’s why we turned our government over to them (oh, yes she did).

I felt very much suspended between two poles while reading this. Many of the events are funny. Come on, being told the building you’re living in doesn’t exist, because it’s not on the city ledger? And then we have Daniil’s job, which seems to involve fitting more food into less tin can:

He set to work drawing diagrams of food products in 400-milliliter cylinders. Chains of equations filled his grid paper. Some foods posed more of a packing problem than others: Pickles held their shape, for instance, while tomatoes had near-infinite squeezability. Soups could be thickened and condensed milk condensed further, into a cementlike substance. String beans proved the most difficult: Even when arranged like a honeycomb, they could reach only 91 percent packing efficiency. In the middle of every three string beans hid an unfillable space. Daniil submitted a report titled “The Problematics of the String-Bean Triangular Void” to Sergei Ivanovich’s secretary.

The official reply to his report: “TO FILL UNFILLABLE STRING-BEAN TRIANGULAR VOID, ENGINEER TRIANGULAR VEGETABLE. DUE FRIDAY.”

Now, packing problems are a neat little subset of mathematics, simplified versions of which show up on geometry, algebra, and calculus tests all the time. Vi Hart even made a green bean vector Matherole for Thanksgiving a few years ago (displaying one of the many reasons why she was just named, along with Matt Parker, named Math Communicators for 2018 by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics). And I have no doubt that, though there is a biological reason botanical products tend to be round, it is possible to engineer – or, breed, as we used to say before genetic engineering was a thing – a vaguely triangular green bean, though it would take much longer than the end of the week (and possibly techniques that were unknown at the time of the story). But it’s funny nonetheless.

This is all tucked around the human story, which is not so funny. Sometimes that works out great; here, I just felt disoriented, by the coffin coming down the stairs and breaking the space heater purchased with the life savings of one of the 14 people living in the apartment. I think I was supposed to cheer when Daniil carved out the building number to show the Office so they would believe the building existed – but I just didn’t feel it.

I tried to look at it as pure metaphor, a State that has lost all sense of the humanity of its people, and yes, I figure that connects to today, where what is said has more impact than what is real. But I just ended up back in the USSR.

I see from the Contributor Note that this is part of a linked-story collection now in progress; that could be interesting, to see different points of view – no doubt, the stubbornly dubious bureaucrat has her story, too – or maybe move back or forward in time.