A Few Moral Problems
You Might Like to Ponder, of a Winter’s Evening, in Front of the
Fire, with a Cat on Your Lap
In this era of the insulted and the reeducated, you have the correct family
background to be a model student. Your father was a peasant and your second
elder sister was sold as a servant before Liberation. Chairman Mao is
your sun and you are his sunflower. When he selects you to go to university,
you denounce to your girlish heart the pride you feel.
The things you love are these: Chairman
Mao, the Chinese people, the quiet in the Garden of Virtue at the Summer
Palace, the plays of Tian Han, and The Lady of the Camellias,
which you have read three times. At night, in bed, you sometimes imagine
Alfredo coming to you. In these dreams, a yellow Chinese moon hangs in
a violet Parisian sky.
At university you no longer take literature
classes. The bourgeois subjects have been replaced by Mao Zedong Thought
and Skills to Serve the People. In order to pass your course in Applied
Marxist Dialectics you must denounce a counterrevolutionary revisionist
element. You must follow the Four Methods and speak out freely. It is
necessary to demonstrate your revolutionary zeal.
So you make a big-character poster about
your Department Head. He has already been denounced by others so you do
not feel responsible. You attend mass criticism sessions. In one, your
Department Head is shouted at and slapped. His head has been shaved and
there are little streams of blood running down his cheeks from razor cuts.
He wears a dunce cap, and a tablet slung around his neck. He is made to
turn round and round as you shout criticisms at him. You remember how
he once spoke to you about Dumas père and Dumas fils,
once about Flaubert. Afterwards, you destroy your copy of The Lady
of the Camellias.
More struggle sessions ensue. You stand
with the others in a circle and shout humiliation. But you have run out
of criticisms and are repeating yourself. The others look at you. The
harsher one is, the more revolutionary. But you are not creative. You
repeat yourself. You repeat what others say. The Head sits with neck bowed
and sobs. He will not look at you.
And then you make a mistake. As you are
copying one of Chairman Mao’s sayings for a big-character poster,
your mind drifts, and instead of writing “Whatever the enemy opposes,
we should uphold,” you write “Whatever the enemy opposes,
we should oppose.” It’s a silly mistake. It’s the sort
of thing you sometimes do. Sometimes you add the salt twice to recipes
for dough. But it is noticed. Your roommate moves out. You begin to see
posters about yourself. One says you are guilty of Class Revenge, of being
a Rightist. Another says you are the Department Head’s concubine.
You come home to your room one day and discover that it has been ransacked.
At your struggle session you are made to
sit in the middle of a classroom on an upended wastebasket. Someone has
drilled a hole through your copy of Tian Han’s plays and hung it
around your neck. Your head has been shaved. You can feel the blood trickling
down behind your ear. When they shout at you, sometimes their spittle
reaches your face. It is only the first of many such sessions of correction.
In the spring you are sent to the countryside
for reeducation. You work in the fields and sleep in a cowshed. You undergo
much hardship. It is cold and there is not enough to eat. From time to
time you are put in a laundry room with other enemies of the people where
you are told to slap one another. If you do not do as you are told you
will be taken out and executed. So you slap and are slapped back. Your
face turns black and blue and you cannot see out of your right eye. But
you are lucky. It is not as bad as it could be.
There is someone here you recognize from
the university. A librarian. She sits every morning in a pigsty reading
Mao. You try to speak to her but she will not answer. She only bows her
head and keeps reading. Her clothes are filthy with mud and urine. You
leave her alone but come back the next day. You tell her about your Department
Head and ask her if she knew him. You see tears come to her eyes. On the
third day when you tell her you want to cleanse yourself of revisionist
ideas, she finally speaks to you. She still will not look at you, but
she tells you if you have a favorite book, find a passage you love. Criticize
it. It is sure to be wrong.
You are getting thin. A gust of wind could
blow you away.
Okay, this is the scene: You’re wearing
your murder-ones and the world’s got that dark, smoked look you
love. You’re hanging with your vatos at the corner of Euclid
and Whittier and there’s a serious philosophical discussion underway.
You’ve got to strike the right pose when serious philosophical discussions
are underway, so in addition to the dark glasses you’ve got your
sea-green drape wide at the shoulders, tight at the rear, your raspberry-colored
shirt to add just the right touch, and on your feet your new Stacy Adamses.
If anybody messes with the knife-edge crease in your pants there’s
the .44 Bulldog strapped against your ribs. That about covers it.
Over at the curb Psycho Chico is mad-dogging
every car that pulls up at the stoplight. He is not paying attention to
the philosophical discussion.
It’s Plato doing most of the talking.
College fucked up Plato something bad and you can hardly understand what
he says anymore. But all the vatos listen because he’s
Plato, you know? What he’s on about now is moving the gang out of
banging into something more intellectually satisfying. That’s what
he says, “intellectually satisfying.” From behind your murder-ones
you catch Extra-Cheese’s eye and the look that passes between you
is messed up for sure. But you don’t want to disrespect Plato so
you think you’ll just check out for a minute or two, let the smoke
take over, observe the world at the corner of Euclid and Whittier: the
Saturday-night lowriders on parade, the chicas going by with
their asses in the air, the pizza smell, the taillights smearing the boulevard,
and the six of you—Plato, Psycho Chico, Extra-Cheese, Inca, Little
Inca, and you, Homo—hanging in your trapos like a Vanity
Fair photographer is due any minute.
“¡Qué es el vigio!”
Psycho Chico shouts at a car full of Americans. He shows them his gun
from out of his waistband and they take off, right through the red light.
You laugh, everybody laughs. The smoke gets handed to you from Little
It’s got something to do with gambling,
what Plato’s on about, only he doesn’t mean that gambling,
it’s metaphysical gambling he means. (Man, it hurts your
brain listening to this vato.) Like you are all the victims of
fate, chance, shit like that.
“Like hanging here,” Plato says,
“inviting a bullet.”
Extra-Cheese and you exchange looks: you
are hanging here offering bullets is what you and Extra-Cheese
are doing, Psycho Chico too, though you might be willing to admit Plato’s
is another way of looking at it. Street corner roulette, he calls it.
He likes saying this so much, he says it again, then hangs back, looks
you all over. He’s got his pants pegged and that cool white tando
but you are beginning to wonder about him. Probability, he says
like he’s taking out his double deuce, only it’s words instead
“Man, what you on?”
“Like last Christmas, when Little
Homo got jumped in that fucked-up jack.” He purposely doesn’t
look at you. Little
Homo was your brother. This is some sore shit for you and your heart.
“Check out the variables,” Plato says. “Suppose that
night we hang on the northbound instead of the southbound. Or we don’t
go after the Honda, but wait for something with more huevos.
The variables, man—”
But you are remembering that night. The
sorry-ass Christmas decorations on the avenue. The cold that made you
want to jack in the first place. You were wearing your Killer 54’s
and your Ben Davis pants. Little Homo was khakied down, except with sandals
so his feet were cold. When the Honda pulled up it was you who went and
stood in front of the bumper so they couldn’t scoot, Inca at the
rear, and Little Homo flashing his 9-mm at the driver’s window.
There was the terror-struck face you could see through the windshield,
and Little Inca laughing, and then the car you should’ve seen drawing
alongside the Honda, the cherried-out Galaxie you should’ve recognized
before the window rolled down, before the single-shot stuck out its sawed-off
nose, before Little Homo was blown against the side of the Honda, the
back of his shirt suddenly crimson, and before he collapsed on the pavement,
looking up at you and whispering your name, not Homo, but your name,
man: Luis! Luis!
“You’re all fucked,” Plato
is saying. “What you got to do is be fucked on your own terms.”
Psycho Chico says. He’s come over from the curbside.
“You got to take control,
man,” Plato says and he draws himself up, throws his shoulders back,
like there, he’s said it.
“What, exactly, do we got to take
control of?” you say.
He still doesn’t look at you. He’s
got his eyes swinging out over the boulevard like there’s something
to see. “You got to eliminate the middleman,” he says.
And then—it is one of the coolest
things you will ever see—he does it. He takes from out of its strap
his Redhawk with the blued barrel, flicks open the cylinder, and lets
the cartridges fall out of their chambers into his hand. Then he takes
one of them between his fingers, shows it around the circle like a magician
making sure everyone sees he’s legit, and then slips it into the
revolver. He closes the cylinder and gives it a spin. You want to say
something, you want to put out your hand, touch his arm, but it’s
too beautiful to stop, too cool, too righteous. He lifts the revolver
to his temple. He smiles, finally looks at you, at each of the vatos,
and then the hammer is drawing back, in slow-motion like a Jackie Chan
movie. . . . And then there is the click, the empty click.
“Shit, man,” says Inca, who
never says anything.
But you are rooted to the sidewalk. Even
when Psycho-Chico spits and takes the revolver from Plato, gives the cylinder
a spin, and with a fuck-you look puts it to his own temple, even then
you can’t move, can’t move even when there’s an explosion
somewhere and a piece of Psycho-Chico’s skull spins into your white
chinos leaving a map of blood you will never wash out—because you
know a new world has happened, you have been given a new world and the
question is, ese, what are you going to do with it?
It is 1934 and you are the principal of
the Schiller-Oberschule. You have received a directive from the Reichsministerium
für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda that all students are
to be instructed in the proper performance of the National Socialist salute.
You are practicing it yourself in the mirror in your office. You are a
little dismayed to see that the shoulder of your tailored suit bunches
up whenever you perform the salute, but that is not the question before
you. The question before you is what to do with the Jewish students—are
they to be included in the lesson, or are they to be excused? The directive
is unclear, saying in one place “alle deutsche Studenten”
and in another “alle Studenten in Deutschland,” which,
as you see, leaves the question unsettled. You do not wish to be delinquent
in your responsibilities in this matter but—damn that suit jacket!—but
just what are your responsibilities?
You were born in the village of the streams.
Your father and your grandfather were charcoal-makers in the Jbalan highlands.
Even today, though you have lived all of your young life in Tangier, they
call you a Jibli, a person from the mountains.
There are two girls. They are both—strange,
yes?—they are both named Hannan. There is Hannan of the cobblestone
quarter and there is Hannan of the Suq al-barra. You are meant to marry
the first Hannan—how lucky you are! people tell you, how good she
is! how beautiful, her skin is like milk!—but it is Hannan of the
Suq al-barra you cannot get out of your thoughts.
The brideprice for Hannan of the cobblestone
quarter is two hundred thousand francs. Your stepfather cannot help mentioning
this. He is proud that it is so much. She is the daughter of al-Hajj Murad
Zillal, who owns a tobacco store. He has educated her well and she has
passed the exam for the brevet and is qualified to be a secretary.
There is even talk that she may go on to the École Régionale
d’Instituteurs when, after a year, she will have the certificate
to teach elementary school. If this happens, your stepfather boasts, her
brideprice will be even higher.
You do not know what the brideprice is for
Hannan of the Suq al-barra. There is no one to inquire on your behalf.
It cannot be much.
You limit yourself to going every third
day, walking after school up the Street of the Jewelers. To disguise your
interest you usually buy some bread or gwaz and wander among
the stalls, eating. You do it in such a way that it will appear that you
have just happened upon the mother and daughter who sell coriander and
parsley. Each day you pray that she will be there, because sometimes her
mother sends her to the muqaf, the “standing place”
where women offer themselves for menial labor. You are old enough to know
that, for a poor girl, it is only a step from the muqaf to the
bars of the Bni Yidir quarter.
She is not as pretty as the other Hannan.
Her skin is dark and there is hair—like black cirrus clouds—along
her cheeks. But her eyes have light in them. Her hips move like animals
inside her jillaba. She smiles at you, laughs at you, ridicules
your school jacket and tie. She calls your family the parsley-eating family.
She arches her eyebrows as if daring you to claim her.
They live, you have found out, in a hut
made of flattened oil drums in the eastern shantytown.
You go to your eldest stepbrother for advice.
He is a talib and is known for his calm ideas. A Moroccan man
does not fall in love with a woman, he says. To fall in love with a woman
is to cause your manhood to leave you. His name is Si Ahmad Qasim. He
has memorized the Quran. Go to the mosque, he tells you—he touches
you kindly—go to the mosque and wash your heart.
You climb the Street of the Jewelers. You
take off your tie on the way.
Her hair is black like charcoal. Her laugh is like a shooting star. When
you hear the call to prayer coming over the rooftops it is to Hannan of
the Suq al-barra that you wish to turn, to her you wish to kneel. Allahu
akbar, you whisper in penitence, La ilaha illa Allah, but
it is no good. You cannot help yourself. Allah is in her hair, in her
hips, in the hem of her jillaba dragging in the dust.
It’s 1941. You are in Dachau. Do you
. . .
Okay, this is the problem: your goddamn
mother takes your eight-year-old daughter to the library and unbeknownst
to you lets her check out a book on her card and of course you have no
cognizance of this fact so when the library sends your mother
an overdue notice you have to turn the house upside down and you’ll
be damned if you’re going to trek halfway across Memphis
and return the book yourself, so you instruct your daughter to walk over
to her grandma’s house and leave the book in some clear and
obvious place like the hall table where she puts her mail or even
on the Mr. Coffee in the kitchen, somewhere she’s sure to find it,
which is what the little angel does, only your other daughter, your elder
daughter, the slut, is helping your mother move some things that weekend
and somehow (“inadvertently,” the slut says later) she inadvertently
puts the book in her car and drives off with it, only when she stops at
a Jack-B-Nimble for a Big One she leaves her engine running and her car
gets carjacked (you are not making this up!) by a teenage lowlife who
you later opine to the police could’ve gotten more than just the
car from your daughter if he’d only asked, but who turns
out to be a sad case with issues, being a product of divorce
and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and not getting proper nutrition as a child
because of Republican cuts to adc and the car is found later in Nashville
with not only the CD-player missing and your daughter’s cell phone
too but of course the library book, and now your mother’s got a
lump in her breast and your elder daughter’s moved back into the
house but what you want to know is who’s going to pay the $17 library
No one asks anymore except the ghosts, but
if they did, this is what you would say:
You would say that the letter was written
by you and by no one else. That you yourself posted it to Leningradskaya
Pravda. That you were not and had never been approached by anyone
from the Union of Soviet Writers or the secret police. That Comrade Akhmatova’s
subsequent expulsion from the writers’ union and the arrest and
imprisonment of her son had nothing to do with you. You wrote the letter
because your husband died in the war and your baby died during the siege
and because you saw her when she returned after the blockade and the sight
of her alongside the Fontanka Canal—well-fed, celebrated, alive—angered
It was summer then. Your knees were still
bulbous from the famine, your arms like wands, but you were feeling so
much better that you managed to walk the kilometer to the Hall of Columns
where you heard some of her poetry read. And there was that one poem about
her Leningrad and the war suffering and the pigeons in front
of Kazan Cathedral and that is what you attacked her for. Because there
had been no pigeons in front of Kazan Cathedral during the siege, no pigeons
there or anywhere else in Leningrad. They had all been eaten. The pigeons
and the crows, the dogs and the cats. You had been there. You had seen
it. You had boiled your handbag into jelly, fed your baby the horsehide
paste from off the back of your bedroom wallpaper. Comrade Akhmatova had
So you wrote your letter and it became part
of the uproar, evidence of the famous poet’s enmity to the Soviet
order, her antinarodnost. And people knew who you were. They
pointed you out. The braver ones asked you about it.
That was sixty years ago. Now in front of
the Winter Palace half-naked teenagers eat out of McDonald’s bags
and listen to Run-DMC. BMWs fly past the Admiralty. You walk through the
tangerine- and lemon-colored city in a kind of delirium, talking to the
statues, to the ghosts, to the mounded earth in the Piskariovskoye Cemetery.
The tourists wonder at you, but they have come to see St. Petersburg,
and you, you live in Leningrad.
In the winter you can still see them, the
corpses on the street corners. They are wrapped in sheets or someone’s
parlor curtains. Up and down Nevsky Prospekt the trolley cars sit shagged
in ice. There is no electricity to run them. No way to clear the tracks
of snow. Inside—did they stop to rest and never get up again?—there
are corpses seated, facing forward, waiting. They will still be there
tomorrow when you pass, and the next day.
In Hay Square you can tell the ones who
have given in. They have hot eyes and pink cheeks. They sell packets of
ground meat for rubles, for jewelry, for your wedding ring. If you ask
them, they will tell you it is horsemeat. You cross yourself at the sight
of them, step into the street to go around them. A car honks at you but
of course there are no cars. There is no petrol. You make your way through
the snowdrifts. There is the impossible smell of American French fries.
Somewhere a businesswoman is talking on a cell phone. When finally you
reach the cemetery the corpses are stacked like railroad sleepers.
When you saw her, years later, standing
in the market along the Obvodny Canal in a shawl and a karakul coat, sorting
through a vendor’s pile of boots—how worn her own were!—should
you have gone up to her? Should you have gone up to her and explained
who you were, asked her for forgiveness?
On Sadovaya Street you walk behind a child’s
sled being pulled by two skeletons. Draped across the sled is a woman
with frozen skin. She stares up at the winter sky. She has no coat on.
Her hair trails behind her in the snow.
Back at your flat you lie on your bed. In
the next room your nine-month-old daughter lies in a laundry basket. She
has been dead for six days. For six days you have not had the strength
to get out of bed and carry her across the city to the stack of dead outside
the cemetery. The wallpaper is gone from the walls of your room. Out your
window a foot is sticking out of the ice in the Obvodny Canal. In a moment,
you tell yourself, you will get up. In a moment you will have the strength
and you will get up and go out into the city. You will walk to the cemetery.
You will do that, at least, for her.
You are the Creator. It is 1.8 (to
the second power) seconds after the Big Bang and everything is
going swimmingly. The other universe that could have happened at 10 (to
the negative one power) seconds didn’t, in fact, happen (as
You knew it wouldn’t), and You are in the first microseconds of
being distributed through time and space. Electrons and positrons are
zipping about annihilating one another. Every few minutes, just as a divertissement,
You double in size. In a little while it’ll be every million years.
At the tips of Your fingers and toes the first galaxies are beginning
to form, and You are already looking forward to the details: stars, planets,
life. It’s twelve billion years away but what the heck, You’re
in no hurry. You’ve been through this before—expansion and
contraction, bang and crunch—only this time, on some out-of-the-way
planet, how about a race of ethical beings, someone to keep You company
in the interstellar dark, not like the last universe with its clockwork
animalism, its amoral squids—pah! all that instinct!
You lean back and stretch Your toes, sip
Your cosmic daiquiri. You can hardly wait. This is going to be a good
one. This is going to be fun.