11. Certain messages travel in the fast lane

Certain HGV's travelled by more direct routes than others, in particular where the road conditions favoured excursions in the tangential direction. Certain messages travelled by more direct routes than others, or had an easier passage. When a HGV, loaded with fruit, skidded on ice and overturned at the approach to the town, spreading its load over five acres of farmland, a dozen persons unknown always took the opportunity to help themselves to coconuts and Christmas oranges before upholders of order arrived to direct the traffic. In such cases one might even speak of a collision between two related tendencies to leave the narrow, beaten track: rumour that a cornucopia had strayed in the tangential direction was spread far and wide by means of what even in the advanced and technisized sphere was called: the jungle telegraph.
Which channels were used by the jungle telegraph and who had access to them wasn't easy to say. There was nothing primitive about it; you could take for granted that general telecommunications were involved, and all the official communication systems were tapped. In all likelihood computers, modems and faxes had been incorporated into the standard equipment, here was a demand for modernity that no one could evade. At the same time messages by word of mouth were the backbone of the system and would probably remain so for a long time to come. One hub was the dressing-room where men changed after work or sports, another the lunch-bar, where they had pizza or kebab between twelve and one, a third the stand of the trotting track; in all these places participants knew where contraband and stolen goods were sold off, where the prostitutes were on display, where home-brew was peddled, how you cheated at taxes and charges, and where the safe winners were to be found.
The bandwidth of the system wasn't exhausted by this list, however. When Harry felt for the tenth time in the same day the same opening sweep across his brow, uttered as if in passing: '...I heard that your sister...', it blurted out of him: 'I must say, some news travel in the fast lane!' His counterpart answered with an offended air, as if it went without saying: 'I heard it on the jungle telegraph.'
'If one could hear something important that way, for once!'
'Why don't you go it alone and see if you can find out anything more sensible that way, then?'
Harry probably couldn't, and he regretted losing his temper. This way of speaking was sanctioned by long usage, and when it came to it, it was harmless. It masked a widespread conversational inability, a lack of spirituality, maybe a lack of empathy with the opposition as well. People ran into each other in the street and commented as in passing: I heard that you got a new garage door, or (with the same tone of voice): Heard there was a death in the family.
The jungle telegraph was the special network serving damned saints, hells angels, idiots savants, the oxymoron mirroring the contradictory corporate names of its clients. But who was behind the bold connection between a Sanskrit word for wasteland and one of Culture's highest achievements: the telegraph? Criminals were known to be less gifted than law-abiding citizens from the very outset; they made their debut as dyslexics and ended their careers as bank robbers and police murderers, the thought that some gifted person had joined their camp was a little worrying. In a normal non-criminal language you never mixed apples and pears indiscriminately, although even law-abiding citizens might at times be tempted to appropriate the catch phrase of the oxymoron. (It was used on a regular base in politics, to confuse issues, but that shouldn't cause any surprise: politics had its shady sides and its black sheep). So, what had poor Jenny done in order to get mixed up in this company?
Besides, he didn't need to go it alone, the jungle telegraph saw to it that he always was the first one to know.

A tanker loaded with hydrochloric acid had overturned on black ice in a bend at the approach to the town, a tank had cracked and scattered its contents over five acres of sugar beets. It was a trivial event, similar things occurred once a week in a medium-sized municipality at the sea-front. Oil from some unknown source drifted ashore or suddenly made itself felt in some groundwater well, an unforeseen emission of gas could be traced back to one of the town's industries, the sewage treatment works had an overdose of galvanising cleanser and all biological activity was knocked out. It was important not to lose one's head over such events but to act according to a predetermined pattern, not causing unnecessary worry, giving each one something for him- or herself. The local league of Party women had allied with the local nature conservancy and demanded ban on all transport which could be harmful to the environment, farmers had joined road safety lobbyists and demanded that the curve be straightened. Whatever measures were taken they wouldn't be cheap; the cost of liming the field alone had made the insurance company rear.
When taking action Harry needed to reflect on every single step as much as the rope walker did under the circus dome. Each footfall was obvious, performed in an automatic way that would only have been disturbed by conscious thought. He intended to visit the scene of the accident early in the morning, having photos taken while he inspected the damages together with the landowner. After that he would step up onto the verge of the road and walk the bend accompanied by the road director. Pictures, interview, discussion of proper action to be taken. Next he would receive Party women and nature conservancy, new pictures taken, new interview. Press, local radio and television always provided useful idiots, garrulous persons, to officiate at this kind of ritual.
Apart from its corrosive quality hydrochloric acid wasn't particularly harmful, you could live with a little spillage. Things were worse with the young rascals who called themselves drivers, exceeded speed limits, and were likely to speed again, with more dangerous cargo next time. There was no reason for hurry when hauling acid. By such thinking Harry had separated the event into two separate levels. The first one contained the public forum, white counterpart of the jungle telegraph; it was because of it that he tramped over fields and trod the roads. He wasn't going to repair the damage with spade and rake on his own, but it was important that somebody officiated, delivered the right signals. In this matter, the public forum was unproductive, it was compulsory repetition, a ritual which held out the prospect of something being done, delayed its implementation and finally reconciled the public with the fact that little had been achieved. Harry in turn entered this precursory state with intentions which he knew were to be redeemed only in some more or less distant future, hoisting a flag within himself and to the surrounding world: 'Here I, Harry Jönsson, am transcending into the political sphere.' If he wanted something to be done about the matter, he would have to tread on other roads, and above all: he must evade the public forum. Society offered no fast lane for complaints against employers; such criticism was allowed to pass and travel on public roads, but it was kept on record and a fine would be imposed with a few years' delay. A wise politician kept silent on topics like that. Instead the working hours of drivers and the duration of shifts was a matter for the transport union and the Party, it was all about reducing the vulnerability of employees by means of regulations and curbing for employers' shortsightedness and sensitivity to economic trends. He had brought these things up for discussion countless times and was content with the result, the charts of accident frequency showed a slow but steady decline. This level could be called "acting withouth being seen", its roads were rough and full of bends but quite passable if you pressed the accelerator lightly.
Another possibility could be to increase the number of flying controls on this particular road section, he could bring the matter up with the county police. Nor need such action be announced beforehand, it was better to strike some terror into the concerned and let the news of intensified surveillance spread by way of the jungle telegraph.
First be seen without intervening, next intervene without being seen, this is how he had divided his morning. Harry left the municipal building with a contented smile on his lips, feeling that he had a firm grip on existence.

'Well, Harry. This is how it's looking. We have limed, but it still stinks like hell. I think we'll have to replace some of the soil.'
The sugar beet harvest had begun, a heap of newly dug beets lay close to the road, narrowly escaping the acid bath. It had the form of an elongated banana, faithfully reproducing the curve. Harry took up a beet from the base of the heap, weighed it in his hand, threw it on the top.
'How do they withstand frost?'
'Frost comes little by little, and beets can stand a little frost. If necessary. we cover them with straw.'
'But you start digging them out when you get the first warning?'
'Oh no, all work is done according to schedule. The factory would be unable to cope if everybody came running with their beets at the same time.'
'It's the same problem everywhere. If we get a couple of these things at the same time our resources are stretched, then we are bound to clear away on a running basis... It's the third time in this bend, isn't it?
The other tittered. 'Last time it was oranges, they are not that bad in themselves. But all the same they have to be removed. They asked me if i could give them to the pigs, but that wouldn't do, nowadays pigs get nothing that isn't checked, outside and in, from the day they are born till the day they are dispatched. That's more than you could say about some things that people put away.'
Harry turned half-way, to allow the journalists to hear: 'You are right there, sometimes pigs eat better than humans... If an exchange could be arranged - would you be willing to let us have a piece of land on the other side, so that the bend could be straightened?'
'And where would I find land of equal quality, if I may ask?'
'Nowhere that I know of. But the municipality is right in the centre, and there is the possibility that we might intervene if something should come up.'
'Lorries would only speed even more in the bend and come off further on.'
'Some probably would, but others would stay on their wheels.' Harry sighed. 'Another two or three of these accidents, and we have already paid what it costs to straighten the bend.'
'By all means, if there is a tangible proposal, I'll consider it.'
'Good, good, that's what I wanted to hear.'
'What are you going to do about the barrels in the harbour then?'
Harry fixed his eyes on him: 'Is the jungle telegraph humming again? I heard about them last night, how did you hear?'
The other tossed his head at the journalists.
'I don't believe in them one bit, it's a hell of a silly season story. Have you heard about anyone who had his groundwater contaminated? Anyone who had respiratory problems? Anyone getting a rash? Or other reactions? Nothing!'
The other shook his head. 'There is so much junk buried around here that no one knows of.'
'Not in this municipality! But that doesn't mean that such rumours are entirely harmful. They may be useful in some way, too, because they sharpen our attention. People share suspicions, tell each other what they have seen, authorities check a little here and a little there, afterwards the air has been cleaned, so to speak. A good environmental control gets even better.'
The last addressed unmistakeably to the journalists.

At the top of a page the tabloid radiated the headline: Sometimes pigs eat better than people. A line down the sub-headline: Municipal councillor cleans air: tightens up control. Finally the hopeful: We will not be taken by surprise, we are well prepared. Harry nodded in approval when he saw this: here was a gifted man at work. Erlandsson was a useful idiot, in addition a gifted member of the same trade, having the game at his fingertips and with an eye for greater situations and tasks. In due time he would no doubt advance to a chief editing chair, for the benefit of the Party. To a politician it was a great relief not needing to write the message on the nose of the journalist, still knowing for certain that the pearls were extracted, the right messages conveyed, as long as the person in question was present and listening, from an advanced position in the rear rank.
The municipal councillor himself didn't believe in the myth of a trigger to society, didn't believe that intentions, good or bad, could be brought to realization without roundabouts. He might have done in his early years, but reality's overwhelming submission of evidence had changed his mind. This didn't mean that he, like many others, who had lost the compass of childhood faith, began shooting from the hip and talking in the wind. Instead he became twice as careful in his political display, always anxious to put the right words and the right actions in the right places. He believed in intentions that were intentions and nothing else. You hung out your intentions like laundry on a line, and this could and should not be done at random, any housewife knew. At the same time this posting of intentions, ultimately aiming for penetration to reality, was a markedly masculine duty, here lay the only advantage of male politicians over female. Women couldn't promote their intentions with the necessary posture; they lacked male self-evidence in their actions on the great scene (at least for the time being, things might be otherwise the day Harry Jönsson retired from the public forum). In the Jönsson family Ruth sorted the laundry, any of them might switch on the machine and add the detergent, but Harry wouldn't let anybody else hang up the clean garments. It was his big performance, a happening for the whole neighbourhood, timidly peeping at the Jönsson show from its regressive, navel-watching tumble-driers.
From this we must not conclude that society in Harry's perspective had dwindled into a dead heap of beets, a dumb resistance giving way only when someone put a bucket under the mass and heaved with hydraulics. For certain society was a heap of beets, but there was nothing dead about it; its particular parts were very much alive and slowly moving, like air bubbles in a window-pane. The messages between beets, the movement of the whole, the contradictions between movement and message, everything had consequences, although seldom obvious, seldom accessible to an outside observer. The heaps had prominent wings, not the left and right wings of politics, but the left and right wings of justness. There was a stable, hard-to-get-at balance between legal courses of action and illegal and a continuous flow of information between the two poles. This flow was the proper factor behind the movement of the heap; if power and glory (the sunny side of the beet heap) collected too many tops or exerted too much pressure on the rest, the opposite flank started to recede along the axis of illegality, slowly, silently, so that no one noticed at first. After some time everybody was aware of this insidious separation, but it wasn't openly talked about. The resultat was a schizophrenic or dreamlike state, where double messages opposed each other in an inextricable deadlock. And the heap settled down, the way it had always done, didn't acknowledge the fact that it had a repressed side, a duality and a repetition the same way as in the beet itself. And amidst this the jungle telegraph hummed all the time, without interruption.
A union man travelled east in order to convey union common sense to comrades on the other side, there he went with whores, was assaulted and returned in cortège, the event took place under Harry's early years as an ombudsman. He heard it discussed in the lunch bar, in the dressing-room, at the trotting track, and he understood the tenor of the discussion: back to square one, ten years lost. You didn't rid yourself of the Old Adam in a single election period. Directors of the large insurance company enriched themselves on pension funds; people who were expected to act as mediators, in-betweens, catalysts, not keeping a penny for themselves! How much of the overall devaluation of pension funds was due to cheating and irregularities: fifty per cent? Certain errors should be avoided under all circumstances, the costs for cleaning-up couldn't be sustained. Still he saw events of the same kind occur in his environment, every day, every hour, and the perpetrators were not always carried home in mourning attire, to serve as warning examples. People nodded at each other and asserted: That's the way it is, the world is the way it always was. That is not my conclusion, Harry countered, and if the world is that way the world is a case for Reform. Some cross the speed limits, others take a sidestep, and in both cases we who tread the narrow path have to tidy up, that's the way it is, I can say that with certainty.

Was there more to be taken into account; a third level, a third axis? A message that was neither law-abiding nor law-defying, but just wild, irrational, psychotic? Or antediluvial, regressive? On this point Harry had to admit lack of insight; if the third camp existed he wasn't on its mailing list. He didn't even know for sure if he had ever run into one of its representatives, knew even less where to look for them. If the flight into the grey and black zones was a reaction to inconsequences of legal procedure, then was there in turn a movement escaping from this flat either-or, a fall into the abyss? Considering the facts, there were neither legal nor illegal reasons for the jungle telegraph to busy itself with Jenny, and still it did, was it the abyss asserting itself?
'Jenny, you are broad of the day on the jungle telegraph.'
'Tell me something I don't know about this town. I heard you had anonymous calls, too.'
'I'm not telling you because I mind. But what do you think of it? Does it make you ill at ease that so many people that you don't know, and probably wouldn't like if you met them, are links of the chain distributing the message of your marriage?'
'Nobody says anything to me, I'm surrounded by silence. I believe the target of the messages is the chief himself, and as far as I can hear they are asking you: Is the chief's sister allowed to marry outside the clan?'
'If that is so, I think some sacrifice is needed, to end all the turmoil, don't you agree?'
'The question is how much is needed to satisfy your cannibals. If you want to hear my opinion only you will do, I won't satisfy their hunger, I'm too small a fish.'
'But I was just re-elected.'
She burst out laughing, an almost choking sequence that never would cease, as if he had just come up with something unspeakably funny. 'Do you know what there should be? A fire alarm, a gadget that started beeping when gossip exceeded some limit value. Gossip is like firedamp or carbon monoxide, when concentrations get too high there should be a warning.'
'There already is, I hear it beeping all the time.'
'How do you mean?'
'There is a threshold value when it starts beeping. If the public forum is exposing a person very intensely there is practically always a sediment of ill will or distancing contained in the attention; you expose in order to make the whole world aware of some less pleasant feature, that is lurking at the edge of the picture. The goal is to achieve a state of saturation, exceed some limit value, where alarms start beeping. And in the end they are not beeping, we hear funeral bells tolling. Countless politicians have taken their hats and given in their notice under such conditions.'
'It was well-founded in most cases.'
'You're right! And the ones throwing the stones, would they escape unscathed from a similar scrutiny?'
'I guess not.'
'Certainly not! The pen pushers are wild dogs, assigned the task of doing the dirty jobs. If they themselves were exposed in the limelight, a majority of the population would demand that they had their tails docked. Still we are obliged to defend free speech, in spite of the slovenly practitioners, aren't we?'
'First I thought you were referring to the poor tax-paying people.'
'Oh, them. Whoever throws the stones; our precipice isn't pretty. But can you think of anything better? We must be able to cancel certain - mistakes - from the lists. Besides it seems to me that the same poor appraisal of qualification prevails wherever I turn; people are appointed ministers, managers, professors almost as an experiment, a kind of have-a-try that changes into public trial when the worst comes to the worst. What is there to do but accept this as the normal state of things? I can see from your expression what you are thinking. Of course we should have a more strict appraisal of qualifications. We ought to demand more at all levels. But there is a catch: the human material. You have made up your mind to excavate five-hundred carat of diamonds - but to what end if you have a ton of coke in your bin? Are you willing to subject this whole mass to the necessary pressure? No, you are not, you are too pampered, and the same applies to me. We are too pampered; we want to live and let live.'
Jenny sighed. 'But the question is: will they let you live, Harry?'
'What do you mean by that?'
'I mean that an evil intention may assert itself amidst all the humming and beeping and command mighty resources against a valuable human being. To start with nobody understands what it's all about, everybody believes that it's just one of thousand stillborn trial balloons, but the mobilization just grows and grows, and finally, when it's too late, the good man is lost. This is the way the Devil pursues his game in the world.'
She nodded emphatically at the last words, if Jenny didn't believe in anything else, she believed in the Devil, taking the mickey out of human intent.
'You have to accept a certain margin of error in all cleaning processes,' Harry answered soothingly. 'But I don't agree with you that an evil intention should lie behind. That would make the Devil a sort of arithmetic mean of all drivel and slander.'
He fell silent, as if the thought demanded some examination all the same. 'How about good intentions, wouldn't it be possible to extract them from the collective mumbling in a similar way?'
'Where? In the competitive press? The primrose path to hell is strewn with good intentions...'
'No, no, that's your mistake, that's an invitation to pessimism! If i am going to use your way of speaking, God and the Devil are fighting face to face in the world, both by way of a silent mumbling. People are their weapons, and journalists their tools - at least tools of the latter potentate. And the outcome is by no means predetermined.'
Jenny giggled. 'My point was: it's you who are on everybody's lips, not me. They are not talking about me, they are talking about your twin sister. And you are some kind of an angel, Harry, you are hell's own angel, while I am just - a wicked bitch. But I do not want you to pay for my sins, do you hear that!'

No human being stood outside this private conversation, no one could claim to be the researcher who dissecated it with cool distance. You joined arm-in-arm with your neighbour and sang it as sing-song in open-air theatres, picked it up by way of the respiratory passages, its substances were running in the circulation of the blood, contagious. Slander, prejudice, doubting holy cows: all this had touched the individual at some time, causing chronic disease or calling to life new agents of the immune defence. You had had it, you had it, the same way you were hit by flu at intervals or suffered from bronchitis for ten years. The cures had their trade conditions as well, coming and going with a rhythm, that reflected the epidemics: try ginseng, install air humidifiers, seat yourself at the front of the bus. In the end the same kind of dynamic might lie behind it all, maybe you could gain some sort of insight into the way of the world just from participating in the gossip, being part of it? Wasn't it the same pattern, that was instituted again, in larger and larger scale: from village gossip over the freemasonry of national politics to the peculiar mixture of sobriety and hysteria of the global market?
In this turmoil Harry was on the lookout for the good mumbling. He flapped his ears in the rooms where he had his way, listened to the left, listened to the right, hoovering the conversations for possible confirmation, that he wasn't alone in the world, that there were good intentions out there, potential allies.

27 kB, last corrected 17.5.05,27.11.08.

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