Not Design

Borges in Berlin (a new agency in a new town)

May 02, 2015

In Borges’ story The Lottery in Babylon, we read about a company or government agency which may not may not exist, and may or may not have the power to decide people’s fate, down to the most minute detail.

On a different note, I've long been fascinated by the Stasi, East Germany's Ministry for State Security, a pervasive secret police that seems to have specialized, not so much in imprisonment and torture (although they did their share of that), and more in ruining people's lives. According to the fantastic non-fiction work Stasiland, the Stasi might kick your kid out of their chosen university, or make your wife abandon you. Then again, maybe your kid was underperforming, and your wife met someone else.

Take The Lottery in Babylon and the Stasi, rub them together, and what do you get? I wrote this story as an attempt to explore that.

The Ministry

In the darkness of my room, I look between the swaying curtains at the street below. Steps emerge from the silence. I hold my breath as they become louder. It is a young couple, strolling by. Have I been standing here for days, or only a few hours, watching the empty sidewalk, waiting? The men of the Ministry will be here tonight, this I am sure of.

No one speaks of the Ministry anymore, but all of us remember its appearance in the early 60s. No one thought much of it. We were already accustomed to watching our words. We went to work, came home, kissed our wives, read the paper, went to bed. We complied, and things were going well.

In the beginning the Ministry operated like any secret police. Stiff officers, wearing slate-colored tunics, glossy leather boots and vacant stares, seized and imprisoned dissidents and rabble-rousers. Arrests were followed by colorful news reports assuring us that the integrity of the State had been preserved. We continued working, reading the paper, going to bed.

But soon the Ministry’s appetite could no longer be satisfied by radicals and objectors. By 1965 every citizen was presumed a conspirator against the State, and every citizen was closely monitored. The signs were at first subtle, then inescapable: the opened and resealed mail, the clicks on the telephone line, the veiled glances from strangers on the street.

As this close surveillance demanded more and more manpower, the Ministry began recruiting part-time informers from the civilian population. It was not long before we were all collaborators—men, women, children. And with prisons crammed and executioners overloaded, the Ministry was forced to experiment with more subtle disciplinary methods. Disappearances gave way to unexplained job dismissals, housing evictions and marital intrigues. Mr. G. from our manufacturing plant committed suicide in 1967 after he found himself divorced and estranged from his children because of an illicit affair. A rumor spread at the plant (but was never verified) that he had been the victim of a set-up by the Ministry after he made a complaint about the price of oats.

My own recruitment summons, which came in the summer of 1966, was a typical one. It came in the form of a typewritten notice on blank paper with an address, date and time. The address was one of a row of identical, unmarked brown buildings, each occupying an entire block, 40 minutes away from the center of town by train. I presented my summons notice and was ushered wordlessly through a maze of silent hallways with beige paneling, low ceilings, buzzing fluorescent lights, and door after numbered door, to a small waiting room——just a vestibule with few chairs—where I waited alone for what felt like an hour. An official finally appeared behind the door to the inner office.

The office was small, with barren beige walls and no windows, and barely enough room for the green metal desk and matching file cabinet to its left. To the right there was a tiny cot, unmade. Without preamble the official, Lt. M.—around 50, bald, small jaw—congratulated me at being selected as a collaborator of the State. It was a privileged role, he explained (or recited) but also a sensitive one that demanded absolute secrecy. In exchange for the trust placed in me by the State I could expect its full support and gratitude. He slid a sealed, blank envelope across the desk and thanked me for my service. The meeting was over. I put the envelope in my coat pocket and stood up.

The notice on the envelope was followed by others that appeared at our doorstep at regular intervals. They indicated the individual to follow, the length of the assignment and the nature of the report I was to write and duly return to the Ministry every week. Reports were to be deposited in unmarked steel-gray mailboxes that had sprung on sidewalks and corners all over the city.

Mr. H was my first assignment. For three years I noted his work habits and pastimes, his visits to his elderly mother, his conversations at the pub. In the cold dark evenings I scoured his trash, or stood under his window and made note of his favorite radio stations, all the while knowing there was surely a man or woman, friend or stranger, rummaging through my own trash at that very moment.

You may wonder what kept us from falsifying our reports. The Ministry came up with a solution to this quandary almost as soon as it appeared: it placed several informants on every case. A mismatch between two reports lead to immediate discipline for all involved. A professional setback, a minor accident or a ruined vacation were all plausible outcomes.

Indeed, the Ministry prided itself on its implacable efficiency. By the 1970s, and with the aim of increasing productivity, it was requiring reports on our own spouses and children. The reports, too, became more detailed, the particulars more and more banal: preferences in food and drink, length of sleep, frequency of bowel movements. Next (1976, I believe) came the self-reports. These were to include not only our own activities during every waking hour, but also our thoughts and desires. By this time informing had become our full-time occupation; our work, home life, and even our sleep, were all merely an act, the setting for our one, single and all-consuming task.

We are all players on a stage with no exit. Our audience follows us from our first breath to our last. We get no reprieve, and we are never alone. On the street below, the same still air, the same pit-like silence. More steps emerge from the distance, then dissolve into it. Here or there a motorcycle roars by. Every moment I stand here in the dark is an act of defiance, every thought a thundering revolt. It’s too late. The men of the Ministry will be here soon. But there is still much to tell. I will try to be brief.

In the late 1980s the Ministry went underground. This seems irrefutable to me, but it is not a fact, only a belief. It is true that I cannot prove it. All I have is a burning and unyielding certainty. I will explain.

In 1989 the Government made an official declaration that the Ministry had ceased operations and closed its doors. We continued with our work, our family duties, our modest amusements. Believing, rightly or wrongly, that any mention of the Ministry had been forbidden, we no longer spoke of it.

And yet secretly we all feel (none would dare mention it, but I see it plainly written on each spent, sallow face) that our every breath, blink and heartbeat, the faint shadows of worry or joy on our brows, the passage of time on our bodies, the onset of creases and ailments, of slow dissolution and decay, all are somehow accounted for, noted and recorded by the Ministry. At night, as I make love to my wife, I am certain she makes note of the quality of my erections and length of my orgasms; just as I record, only moments later, the probable nature of her dreams. Driven by caution, or perhaps superstition, we continue after decades to write our weekly reports; the Ministry’s mailboxes, seemingly abandoned, rusted and bent under the weight of time and cold and rain, continue to receive them.

And we continue dreading the Ministry’s tacit discipline. A habitual parking space, found occupied at the most inopportune moment; the inexplicable disappearance of a cherished object—say, a prized leather cigarette case—and its equally mysterious reappearance several hours later; the seemingly accidental swap of one’s suitcase for another’s at the train station—these are events that, I am sure, can all be traced back to the Ministry in some way.

I said that we do not speak of the Ministry these days. It is true that any mention of the Ministry is met with an averted gaze, a pained smirk or a clearing of the throat. While we dare not name the Ministry directly, we have found ways to indirectly refer to it; and it sometimes seems that every word we mention somehow alludes to it. Thus, in conversation, I once or twice found myself puzzled at words like “commission,” “relocate,” or “August,” unsure of whether they were being used in their literal sense.

Despite these obstacles, it is easy to see that the Ministry hides in everyone’s words at all times; and I have been able to identify and catalogue an assortment of popular beliefs—some more plausible than others—about the Ministry, its aim and its nature; a few of which I will presently enumerate.

The more superstitious among the citizenry postulate a divine nature, equating the Ministry with a Final Executioner—and a very fastidious one, judging by the meticulousness of his tally. Need I mention that I do not count myself among this group?

Others, more rationally inclined, see a metaphysical project of inscrutably large proportions, and whose aim is record-keeping for its own sake. They point to the fact that each file records every moment of a citizen’s lifetime; each file, therefore, would take a lifetime to read through. This, they assert, renders the files essentially useless, and is proof that there is no conceivable purpose to them.

Still others believe that the Ministry operates in vastly powerful ways, but not the ways we have been led to believe. These cynics posit that the Ministry ignores and discards our weekly reports, while at the same time it controls the subtle rhythms of our bodies or the seasons. Then there are those who maintain that the Ministry is much less powerful than assumed, and our misfortunes mostly the work of pranksters and misanthropes, those who seek ruin for their enemies or those who revel in causing general grief.

Another theory holds that the Ministry is the blind and blunt instrument of another, much greater and more powerful Ministry that oversees it and thousands of other identical Ministries in places we whose existence we are not aware of. But certainly most farfetched of all are those who insist—strangely, improbably—that there is no Ministry, that it closed back in the late 1980s, and that the unexplained events that rule our lives are purely the work of chance.

There is little left but to wait. They will be here any moment now, for the men of the Ministry cannot be diverted, fooled or misled. I pray they come soon and put an end to this harrowing vigil.

Have I been standing here for years, or only a few days, watching the empty sidewalk, waiting?

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