CALL me Jonah. Some years ago, I spent a stint in the belly of the whale. That meant I was one of the chosen to be detained without trial for three months for speaking truth to the Higher-Ups about what was wrong in the land. As our town evolved more sophisticated ways developed to limit criticism and truth told about the Higher-Ups: the Fake News laws implemented by the Bureau of Truth (BoT). I knew the guy who was friends with Joe K., the Faker (the moniker given to those who work in the BoT). His name was Pete and we had a mutual friend called Kay (she was his ex-girlfriend) who became a lover of mine. She left Pete because he did not share her view of what she called ‘social justice’, and she became close to me because she said I reminded her of her father (my being older had something to do with it). When I said that was a problematic way to put it, she said, “The last two guys I was with said I reminded them of their mother”. Fair enough. (Apparently Pete added that she also reminded him of the sister he never had: perhaps he needed to get some help).
But in my first conversation with Pete, who was born here though his parents migrated from abroad, I realised he had no idea how Kafkaville got its name. So I said it had partly to do with fakery of merit (officially known as Faketocracy) that was used to induct and promote Higher-Ups. There was also a penchant for references to animals: for instance, the initial name for Kafkaville was associated with a lion (no one used that name anymore); some of the politicians from the dominant party were associated with monkeys, and its detention centre, used for political dissidents as well, was known as the whale (my parents must have known something when they named me Jonah). To my close my friends I said, "You know, I've done whale time". People who were less friendly asked if I had a whale of a time. They asked if I had learnt my lesson; I replied it may have kept me in darkness for awhile but it had not swallowed up my conscience.
Once the Fake News laws were passed in parliament, entirely dominated by the one party, our town was called Fakaville or Fakevill (I cannot remember which as age is catching up). Then some smarty-pants type from the political opposition, but a rather popular fellow in his own way, said we should be called Kafkaville since it was almost an anagram derived from the original for a writer from the last century whose stories were quite relevant to our town. At least there was one politician who read (it was then that I too started reading online stories by K.).
The law was passed just as the Minister for Integrity Resorts announced that the resorts he oversaw would be expanded upon with theme parks. He went on about the billions that would be brought into town (in terms of investment). That would add on to the billions spent in gambling for the Integrity Resorts (IRs) were high-class gambling dens that allowed all kinds of characters with dubious finances to roll the dice in a safe zone. The minister claimed that such resorts provided ample employment opportunities for locals in the gambling sector. Modules would also be available in schools (I thought they already were offered) to allow the next generation to learn the skills that would allow them to man such resorts. I recalled all that because the announcement about the theme parks was made the day I had that discussion with Kay at her apartment which left me with a smile as usual. Due to strict smoking laws she was largely restricted to smoking at home where I visited her one afternoon. She said,
“Listen, you cannot say there is inconsistency in what the guy says, the IR minister; they belong to the school of great leaders where consistency is for the small minded.” She blew smoke into my face.
“I hear you, but my point is about why are they called Integrity Resorts?”
“Because there is a minister for that.”
“I thought, or I remember something of the sort, they said you had to declare upfront if you had a gambling addiction, if you are a citizen—are those reasons for using Integrity? And, of course, you are taxed for going in, so in addition to even more revenue for the government, it is meant to discourage gambling: Integrity again, I suppose. But why use the line that employment openings outweigh the ills of those places?”
“Because gambling is a form of illness, I mean gambling addiction is a form of mental illness. If you don’t gamble here you can go elsewhere, and if you go elsewhere to gamble you give employment to the gambling industry in other countries: why do you want to do that?”
“Wait, I don’t get it. You were against the Fake News laws and were unhappy about the BoT, and made fun of the Fakers at one time but you are okay with what the Higher-Ups say about everything else these days?”
She crushed the cigarette, clasped her hands on her knees and rocked slowly and smiled: “What did I say about small-mindedness?” It was one of the things I liked about her. She continued,
“You need a nuanced approach, not everything spouted by the Higher-Ups should be rubbished.”
“Where did you get the idea about gambling addiction, that it cannot be stopped so you might as well cash in on it, otherwise the addicts go elsewhere?”
“A letter in the press.” She looked past my head at the open window for it had darkened suddenly. It was a large cloud that dropped by to listen in: I almost said that but did not, as I did not want her to think I was paranoid.
“Do you realise there are Fakers who do that for the Higher-Ups. Ask Pete, he knows a Faker. They get people to write those letters and troll social media, to cover the Higher-Up’s back and counter criticism.”
“Don’t be paranoid.”
“I’m not, you know that too.”
“Don’t get cynical.”
“Why are you defending these people at every turn?”
“Don’t get defensive.”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Don’t get personal.”
“Why do you start everything with ‘Don’t’?”
“Don’t be absurd, I’m a citizen of Kafkaville.” She smirked.
To try and change the subject and get closer, I casually left my seat and sat down beside her. She lit another one.
To try and change the subject then, I asked about the PM being awarded the International Joseph Goebbels Award for True Facts in recognition of the battle against Falsehood against Higher-Ups. She snorted, what about it? I asked: was it not odd that the award was in the form of a figurine that depicted a Potemkin Village? It was a papier-mâché village with a façade made of plaster that gave the front a solid image with only mashed paper to back it up. She spoke with flues of smoke from her nostrils,
“It’s about that Russian general who was the lover of the Empress, he tried to impress her with a false front, to show all’s well in town when it wasn’t. Because of that you think the Higher-Ups are presenting merely a façade to everyone everywhere that nobody ever had it so good over here. As an aside, are you aware that no matter how draconian things are that is what they are mandated to do?”
This was not going well. She had to put the cigarette out first, and I had to change the subject to something intimate. So I mentioned it was enlightening to learn that Potemkin was a lover of the Empress.
“That’s not all. In American law the term ‘Potemkin Village’ refers to a contorted attempt to apply the law to a situation to justify something. It was meant to mask the real problems that a certain matter brought up.” She tapped her fingers on the arm rest and eyed the pack of cigarettes. Before she could draw another one out, I reached for the packet and started reciting the warning on it. The pictures on the pack of diseased body parts had an effect, it turned me off. I replaced the pack on the small table before us.
With a different approach, I tried,
“You know, if you say someone’s a scoundrel and list things associated with that you could be accused of fake news, if you praise someone unduly and make things up about how good they are: like the citation which went with the Joseph Goebbels Award, no one is said to be manufacturing truth. It becomes a fabrication when you point out the blackguardly aspects.”
My hand carelessly fell beside her thigh and my fingers coincidentally touched her but the images from the cigarette pack filled my vision.
“Hey, hold on, what is false praise? Does that exist? If you deny the praise and say the person is the exact opposite, how do you prove it; if you can’t you’re spreading malicious statements, lies, you get it?”
I got it, I was leaving her place with pictures of cancerous polyps embedded in my mind. Forcing the images away I asked slowly,
“Are you aware that the largest IR will have a Potemkin Village theme park built in it? They are building a replica of the Potemkin Stairs, you know those shown in The Battleship Potemkin, that most famous film sequence in the world…”
Wearily I watched her light up again, she grinned, “You mean the Odessa Steps scene?”
“That one, is that not strange? And the fact that, the title of PM has been officially changed to Potemkin Minister. It’s a fact, isn’t it?”
She sighed, “But it’s your opinion that it signifies something less sanguine.”
“Wait, has it never struck you that it is odder still that, when you think of it, the ruling party has also changed its name to the Potemkin Party?”
“If that encourages more high-rollers from Russia and the Caucasus to come here, why not?” She switched on her phone and showed me a clip of a model of the Potemkin Stairs that were to be built at the IR that had appeared in the mainstream media. A tune went with it which I had heard before, I asked if she knew who it was by.
“Some guy called Khachaturian, I think.”
“You really think all this is a coincidence, all that is happening in town?”
“Sorry, I have to say this—I think you have been badly affected by your detention, it does something to you, doesn’t it?” She smiled sadly.
“Does that require a factual response or only my opinion?”
She looked grim and said she was busy. I got the message. When I was in the lift, in fact before I got into the lift, I smiled at all the cameras. I did the same when I left the lift. I also smiled at the cameras at the train stations, on board the trains, at the bus stops, at the malls, and outside and inside the public toilets. I have this perpetual smile on my face that may give the impression I am happy all the time.
When I left the train platform to head back to my flat, I smiled at another one-eyed glass blob on the ceiling watching me. When I went online at home, I found the clip (I assumed no one was watching me): it was the Waltz from Masquerade based on Lermontov’s play, and it was indeed by Khachaturian. Somehow the music reminded me of the people I knew from the detention centre and elsewhere. I had dreams for months after I left the belly of the whale of interrogators, officials, bureaucrats, politicians in immaculate white, and various women who dumped me in colourful garb, all waltzing together with smiley faces (perhaps they were masks) and—would I believe it—all to the strains of that waltz. Yes, that’s what was playing, I was convinced. I had always known that music. When I looked at myself in the mirror that evening that smile was there, the one I always seemed to wear. No matter what I did, I could not remove it. I placed my hands on my face. It did not help. My face was a rictus.
Trying to distract myself I went online again and checked up on Grigory Potemkin, it was all there; he was also quite famous for his love of wine, women, song, and wealth; he was quite the materialist: that kind of aristocrat. There it was. It was there: he also liked gambling.
What a coincidence.
© 2019 Sanjay Perera. All rights reserved
[Original post: Kafkaville; picture credit: Franz Kafka.]