18. Epitaph for Homer

When the municipal environmental & health inspector had left, the telephone rang. Harry was quick to grab the handset, it might be Ruth or Jenny calling. 'Harry. Harry Jönsson.'
Delay, delay. He saw the caller in his mind's eye: somewhat tipsy, forced to pull himself together in order to steady his voice. 'H-Harry, this is Erlandsson. Somebody from the paper passed by your house five minutes ago and saw that the lights were on. I didn't wake you up, did I?'
'No, no, I was working. What's the matter?'
'I was at the club tonight, there was a ballot about "The Man of the Year in politics".'
'But it's not due until New Year.'
'I just wanted to forewarn you, the thing is being prepared now. You are the top candidate. Congratulations.'
Harry sighed. 'I guess I'll have to come up with some sort of mischief in order to get out of that jam, then.'
'I thought you would like to know beforehand. Goodnight.'
The shade had been pulled down, transforming the only window of the room into a mirror; when Harry had hung up he nodded in confirmation at his mirror image, as if he had expected this: The Clown of the Year in polemics. The other answered with a grimace and nodded back in confirmation. No use struggling, you have to take things the way they came.

It was common knowledge that Homer never existed. Odyssey and Iliad had been spoken by ancient Greek citizens, shuffling and dealing out again and again from one and the same pool of formulae. Without the pool there would be nothing, no Odyssey, no Iliad and no ambiguous individual copyright at the dawn of history. And weren't things the same in other areas; didn't biology permutate all the time from a small stock of formulae (and at that: rather clumsily), had this individual, "Darwin", existed at all? And politics should lie low in such matters, the tailor August Palm might pass for its Homer, but the only definite and tangible political matter was the political Pool.
Municipal representatives in the remote spots of the world were well aware of this state of things; their weight as individuals was minute, their Art consisted in transmitting and interpreting the correct Pool. For this reason the municipal council of the county capital was ascribed the same rank as Bertsolari Txapelketa, and its sittings were broadcast on the music radio (but the municipal poets bungled by spelling through their manuscripts). The meagre delivery was noted and regretted: for the broad mass of the people still imagined that there had been days when crucial impulses to society's motion were transmitted by the emotions and passions that sprang from the Pool, urging individuals to outdo themselves on the public scene. In addition: days when the contents of the Pool were still associated with warmth, aura, lustre, electrical charge, none of this reduced to mannerism and polish and empty rote-learning.
With characteristic nostalgia the nation looked backwards at these golden days and exerted itself to raise the brilliant individuals of the past from the dead. It was done by bringing out the "Individual of the Year" in some respect or other, whether: "Entrepreneur of the year", "Innkeeper of the Year" or just: "Kebab-cutter of the Year". Time and again a horrified audience had experienced how the chosen had stumbled on the first threshold that came up, however, performing a somersault that brought the smell of canvas and sawdust into the halls, where the nation staged its great moments. The prizewinner didn't master his game, revealed himself as a dilettante in the limelight, fumbling with his Pool or denying it entirely. If a Peace Award was given away, you could rest assured that the winner escaped from the solemn ceremony, running amok with an assault rifle, if A Man of Honour was appointed, next morning he was revealed by the tabloids as a vile deceiver of widows and infants unborn. After a couple of horrifying experiences the Supreme Prize-Awarding Authority of the nation thought it better at least to investigate the solvency of candidates, so there was some cash reference when the choice came under fire; the nominee wasn't blacklisted by the Revenue. In that way the title "Man of Honour of the Year" had regained part of its originally axiomatic aura of personal integrity. On the other hand, "The Collective of the Year", or for that matter, "The Pool Juggler of the Year", would not for the foreseeable future be distinguished by the more lofty prize-awarding authorities of the nation, that was evident.
Harry Jönsson served himself a brandy, raised his glass and bowed to the window for the second time that night: We must see to it that we deserve this award, then! Next he threw himself into an armchair, put the glass down, leant backwards and meditated over the incident.
The caller wanted to be of service in some respect, score a point by being the first to bring the news. That was the impulse of a journalist, member of the clergy that officiated at permutations of the Pool. Still, the deepest design wasn't there. Heart and soul Erlandsson was a Loke, a defamer that scorned his own trade, and the message most likely was an Eris apple, a fruit designed to sow dissension, chaos and bloodshed. He himself, Harry, was assigned the task of defusing this obtruding mine in some constructive way. Amidst these concerns he felt resentment bubbling on the inside: the award was a contemplated violation of his collective integrity, his bondage under the political Pool. The whole situation required more meditation, preferably supported by a beer and a shrimp sandwich with mayonnaise. He entered the kitchen to prepare it.

In the self-service of history the great, urgent tasks had always been dished up that way, like shrimp sandwiches in plastic cover, and anyone with the proper appetite was free to help himself. This picture appealed greatly to Harry, in the self-service no one paid any attention to the person: a tailor had sewn the first stitches of a People's Home, the son of a carpenter had set up the crossbeam on which a world religion rested - and God should know that he had shuffled and dealt quite generously from the contemporary pool. (Man of the Year in religion). But who relished shrimp sandwiches any longer, in particular with mayonnaise? They had been transformed into a matter of wallet, or cost of calories, shrimp sandwiches with mayonnaise were low-ranked in contemporary lean cuisine. No one had the courage to help himself, no one felt a vocation. The individual resource, the juggler who juggled the balls of the Pool, was exhausted, spent, the shewbread fared badly, had passed its use-by date. And this absence was most evident in the camp that had at all times of the day preached the Individual, the unbound ion, the grain of dust in eternal brownian movement; the class of private entrepreneurs. In that camp the individual had been extinct for at least fifty years, that was a fact that couldn't be refuted.
(The agitator within took his opportunity, stepped forward and thundered: Isn't the population of the whole of this long country one single, indivisible individual? If there were ever distinct individuals in some not too distant past, then all I can say is: Heaven help us, how that individuality has deteriorated! It begins in school, God help the one who differs from the flock by as much as an eyelash! He is a pariah after one month in kindergarten! In working life it goes on the same way, and in particular at the top; where do you stumble upon an individual among the cattle you encounter at fairs or conferences? Or look at leisure time, visit an ordinary seaside or skiing resort! Play eighteen holes at a golf course, if you can stand that! The trimmings differ, but it's one and the same individual behind them all! And what lies behind it? It's Capital, capital that was a thousand times better at tying up into bundles and socialising than the miserable jugglers out east, that were swept away by the broom of history. My God, how I laughed at that time, what a conversion! That lot over there ready to throw all collective projects on the dump and us over here with ready-to-take-off collectives, willing to be put on any large-scale historical task! Comrade Stalin would have begged on his bare knees to be allowed to take over our collectives!)
Well, steady now, some self-control if you please. (The controlling self in Harry was of a composed, moderate nature, in particular when it was fed with beer and shrimp sandwiches). What we see is nothing but a rightful and desirable development. Capital only plays its civilising role - and were things much different before it stuck its nose over the horizon? Prognoses cannot be made as long as the individual savage of the bourgeois era is present, successful prognoses require mediocrity. We should say "thank you", we finally got ourselves a manageable population! At last the collective character of emotions and visions is recognised, and plans can be laid to administer them from the ideological hub of the nation.
Why were Ruth and Jenny so late?
For politics, where it cherished ambitions to understand society as it was, this state of things created problems. It was important, not least in politics, to show a congruence between surface and deep contents. Politics was expected to reflect the state of the nation as well, and it didn't matter if the political parties lost all individual features in that process. On the contrary citizens were quite content to have their small concerns writ large in this way, too. Luckily he had passed through the eye of the needle in this respect; in Per Albin he had found a formula that allowed him to express the most hair-rising and deviant opinions on society and existence; still, he remained respected and loved by his voters. If you wanted to juggle balls that didn't belong to the Pool, you had to protect the integrity of your action with a suit of armour, or a disguise. Seer in clown hat, clown in seer's cloak; he had done this instinctively in the past, playing by ear. Maybe he should dedicate himself more to the costume, if he wanted to survive as man-of-the-year in politics.

Ruth and Jenny arrived an hour after midnight, subdued, almost devout, roses in their cheeks. Harry put his papers aside and switched off his reading-lamp.
'Have you been sitting here drowning your sorrows in brandy? Not only brandy, beer as well! And shrimp sandwiches... It tastes to me like celebration.'
'I was celebrating "Man of the Year in politics".'
'Holy moly! How are you going to survive such an attempt on your life?'
'I must, some way or other. How was the hen party?'
Ruth giggled: 'It wasn't a hen party. We were testing the suitor.'
'And did he stand up?'
'Don't get vulgar now, my dear. We could say that he measured up.'
'And that would be less vulgar?'
'Stop now', Jenny cut in. 'I am past forty, you can spare me all the innuendo.'
'It was a thing Jenny told me, I wanted to hear more about it.'
'And what was it about?'
'Jenny said that he was collecting material, maybe for a book.'
'An author?'
Ruth weighed her words: 'A researcher. No, I would rather say a man with a project, a life-project.'
Jenny shook her head: 'Harry: now you're sitting there asking questions, being curious. You should have come with us. You never take risks.'
'Don't I? Each time I've taken a risk the last few days I got a wallop that made me see stars. You have to put yourself in quarantine after the kind of ordeals I've been exposed to. The moral for me is: keep within the given framework, if you kick over the traces there is some form of instant punishment.'
'You, our hero? We believed that you always stuck your neck into unknown territory, inviting wallops. Don't disappoint us now, Harry.'
'Now then! While you were gone Heikki and I had a very interesting chat about everything between heaven and earth.'
'I wonder if earth wasn't more on the carpet than heaven, if Heikki was part of it.'
'At any rate, it was quite interesting! Now tell me: why does this remarkable and obviously also educated person work with children at a daycare institution in our municipality?'
'You have been making enquiries!'
'I don't need to make enquiries, everything reaches my ears anyhow. But I must admit that I listen intently, since my sister is involved.'
'He lost his family four years ago, wife and four children. When he had buried them he decided to change himself, completely. After that he came here and has been living here since.'
Jenny burst into tears when she had said this.
Harry nodded in confirmation, he knew this, too: 'No investments are safe in this world. He lost his family - and wants to change himself? That points to a feeling of guilt.'
Ruth, to whom this information was new, paled and pulled her sister-in-law close to herself on the sofa.
'He was a peaceful man already before he came here, I can say that much.'
'But still he experienced himself as failing so much that he needed to change. Why did he choose this point on earth? Because we are so exemplary in some respect?'
'That is the only reason you could think of.'
'It's a question, not an assertion.'
'He sought our company because he had a feeling there was more peace here than in other places.'
'Because there was more peace here? Would that be typical of us?' Harry had taken his clown hat off, listened calmly and intently. 'Everyone thinks so. But has he come to the right place? I wouldn't like to migrate such a distance - and then be done out of it. So that is his project: the peaceful individual? As a hypothesis.'
After a while he added. 'It's not inconceivable, to change here, although you never see people perform the act. I am not saying that he won't make it, maybe it's a question of showing that it is feasible. Someone should be the first.'
After a while he added: 'Africa was out of consideration.'
'Sometimes your pessimism is more than reasonable, Harry.'
'But I am not a pessimist. I don't believe that individuals can change, they are collectively determined, and I don't think that societies can change, they are determined by their individuals, but somewhere in between there must be a narrow zone where both societies and individuals shed their skins. If we could locate that zone, extend it a little, we might play it like a drum...'
'Then you would strike up for dancing', Ruth attempted.
'Change himself altogether? It's an interesting project. But the collective must be addressed first, or all efforts will be in vain.'
'Will you marry us?'
'Of course I will.'
'And afterwards we'll have our picture taken by Lars-Allan.'
'Are pictures of that kind lasting? I'm thinking of future generations.'
Jenny's expression became stiff, negative. 'Don't imagine anything. There is no reason to reproduce in this world, and besides I'm too old for that.'

Harry was in the throng of the town's shopping street, thrusting himself ahead in the crowd, everywhere he saw well-known faces, fronts announcing the presence of people with known capacities. He met Pettersson, who worked at the petrol station of the western sliproad, he met Sonja, who sat in the reception of the municipal office, he met the bath-house superintendent Ohlin. Through the throng he reached out towards them, caught them, appealed with choking voice, as if his lungs were giving out: I need help, Pettersson, Sonja, Ohlin. The battery is empty. The battery is finished. Isn't there anyone who has a charger? But the words met with no response, didn't lead to action, not with Pettersson, who must have charged thousands of batteries, not with Sonja, who better than anyone else knew how to get through on the telephone, not with Ohlin, who was helpfulness personified. They stood there like silent cattle, their eyes unlit by the glint that would have signified: I understand. You need help. The battery is finished. He was annoyed with their cattle-like phlegm, pushed them aside and hurried along the street, hunting for assistance among faces known and unknown. Suddenly, in his wildest rampagings, he ran into a wheelchair. The next moment the street was quite empty, the murmur ceased and the view opened up in all directions.
He found himself surrounded by a silence, an expanse of the kind that accompanies the significant moments in films: the settling of accounts, the final sighs. The whole world held its breath, waited for his next move.
On the seat of the wheelchair was enthroned a dwarf, smiling at him conspiratorially, in agreement, in spite of the bump he had just received. He scrabbled under the blanket covering his legs and produced a twelve-volt battery, as good as new, to judge from its general appearance. Harry recoiled and defended himself: he couldn't take anything from an invalid, it wasn't proper. Life wasn't supposed to be that way: taking from the poor and giving to the rich. He looked around, seeking for a way out, an escape, and again the prospect surrounding him made him feel dizzy. Yes, yes, the dwarf insisted, take it, take it. No, no, Harry reared; I can take nothing from you, under no circumstances. Was there something familiar in the face of the other?
There he woke up, or: he didn't remember more.
What an anticlimax!
In real life he never allowed himself to get annoyed or angry at the shortcomings of other people, when failures surfaced they might be constitutional and pardonable. Lack of understanding could be caused by the fact that the other party was dyslexic, a functional analphabet or just generally ill-equipped when it came to brains. Because of this he was annoyed with the dream, annoyed with this particular dream, its unknown director; it equipped both him and other, excellent citizens with qualities that they were devoid of in real life. It was infamous, a dirty trick. And how about the final point: accepting help from an invalid, wasn't that close to bribery? The dream simply didn't consider realities like the conditions of municipal politics and the prevailing legislation.
The battery, it could be interpreted as the driving force, or better: the starting impulse. These damn objects, with their treacherous meanings.

20 kB, last corrected 21.5.06, 27.11.08.

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