1939: Reading Karl Marx in the Attic
(Excerpt #6 from The Ultimate Patient)
“The Ultimate Patient” — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20thcentury. Tina is one of four major characters in my novel. This excerpt describes the moment in Câmpulung when she becomes interested in the communist ideology. Please let me know what you think.
The two girls stopped by the slim trunk of a blossoming apricot tree. The delicate aroma of flowers filled the air, and petals danced against the blue morning sky.
“It’s peaceful here,” Rita said.
“I’ll tell you where else it is beautiful.” Rita allowed silence to linger before continuing. “In the Soviet Union, that’s where. They are building a new society in which people are treated as equals. All people. No anti-Semitism and no discrimination because of your religion or the color of your skin. In fact, they are creating a new concept — the new Soviet man.”
“Man, like the opposite of woman?”
“No,” Rita said. “Man, in the general sense of a human being, men and women alike.”
“But the Soviet Union is a communist country,” Tina said.
“Yes,” Rita said. “That’s exactly right.”
“They deny the existence of God.”
“Then how can you say they treat religions equally?”
“Exactly because of that. Religion doesn’t matter to them. They understand that the ruling class created religion to oppress the poor, and they are reeducating their citizens. Marx calls religion the opium of the people. I’ll tell you something else, too, but please, don’t tell anybody.”
“All right,” Tina said.
“Radu’s father is in prison because he belongs to the illegal Communist Party. Most people don’t know that, and that’s why Radu is so afraid. If our school found out, they might expel him.” Rita looked at the sky. “In this country, being a communist is worse than being a Jew.”
“Until now it wasn’t that bad being Jewish,” Tina said.
“Yes, but you said it yourself: anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
“Maybe we should all go to Palestine.”
“Radu wouldn’t come,” Rita said.
“Because he’s not Jewish, and because our religion keeps us separate from the others like every religion does.”
“I’m not sure…” Tina said.
The wind rose, and white petals fell like snowflakes. Rita lifted a few off the grass, placed them on her open palm and offered them to Tina. “Look, the fragility of life.”
That afternoon, and during the days and evenings that followed, the two girls talked and dreamed together. They dreamed of a world where poverty and social injustice didn’t exist, and where apricot trees bloomed year-round.
Tina felt fate had brought her together with Rita to be friends. Real friends. She had never trusted anybody that much. Not Adina, nor Iboy, not even Stella.
The two of them, Rita and Tina, were young women with a conscience, preoccupied by matters of social importance, not like Stella who was obsessed by the simple matters of the heart. All right, maybe not simple, but problems that only affected her. While Rita — look at Rita! — she was able to think about others and have a boyfriend at the same time. Kind of a boyfriend, she said. Some day, Tina hoped, she would do that as well.
Experiencing a sudden upsurge in self-awareness as teenage girls often do, Tina became convinced she had discovered her true meaning in life. Communism was like the apricot flower, white and pure, forever harboring the fragile fruits of life. Fighting for justice, now that was a true and worthwhile cause. Not Judaism, nor poetry, nor fashionable outfits. Her discussions with Rita reminded her of Margarita, the free-spirited, mature woman who had been the first person to talk to Tina about the Soviet Union and tell her that God was a complicated idea, an esoteric concept that helped explain the world. Margarita didn’t deny God’s existence, whereas Communism did. That was the dilemma that Tina had to settle in her mind. And she needed to study hard, because learning resulted in knowledge, which would be her tool in this struggle. As Stella would say, use all the tools that you have.
“Is Radu a communist like his father?” Tina asked.
“He is,” Rita said, “and we work side by side. One evening we’ll take you along. But you have to prepare, and for that I’ll give you some books.”
When Tina departed, she carried in her satchel Das Kapital by Karl Marx and two novels by Emile Zola. She hid Karl Marx in the attic, while Emil Zola ended up on her nightstand.
“You’re taking an interest in French literature,” a happy Babtzia observed.
Tina smiled guardedly — if her grandmother only knew. The steps to the attic were steep, and the old woman had trouble climbing up there to hang her laundry to dry.
Tina found Zola engaging although a little predictable, and Karl Marx difficult to read and understand. Up in the attic, seated directly under the cracked skylight, dust dancing in the sunrays, she struggled, going through paragraph after paragraph of arid language full of a meaning she didn’t immediately grasp. She read on with devotion and even a small measure of piousness, treasuring it, trying hard, hoping to earn the key to a new world and to garner Rita’s approval. She confessed she needed help understanding the text.
“Of course,” Rita said. “Maybe you should meet Oliver.”
They met on a Tuesday afternoon, on the path to the summit of Deia. She knew the area well after her hikes there with Margarita. Tina, Rita and Radu entered the forest path expecting to see Oliver any minute, and just when Radu started to doubt whether he would show up, Oliver appeared from between the tress, and cautiously advanced towards them.
“It’s Wednesday morning,” Radu said and raised his right hand in a short greeting.
Oliver lowered his chin, and replied, “It’s Wednesday afternoon. Regards from your father. He needs money. That’s all he needs.” He was a tall and slender man dressed in black, his long and disheveled ash brown hair covered by a dark beret. Age wise, Tina guessed he was slightly older than Bebe.
At first, he stayed back to ensure nobody was following them; then he caught up, and they walked a short distance together.
“You must be Tina,” he said. “Our new recruit.”
“I am,” Tina said.
“Hey, let’s stop and rest,” Rita said pointing at a fallen tree trunk along the path. “I have flat feet, and it’s hard for me to hike up these trails.”
“Is that so?” Oliver asked with mock incredulity. “Then how do you spread the word, Comrade? You know very well that everywhere we go, we follow treacherous and untrodden trails.”
“We’ll manage, Daniel,” Radu said. “No need to be condescending.”
“Daniel?” Tina asked.
“Yes,” Radu said. “He’s both Daniel and Oliver.”
Oliver shook his head. “No, I’m not,” he responded. “Oliver is my nom de guerre, and the only one you should remember and use. Forget the other one. And by the way, Radu, I wasn’t condescending.”
“Yes you were,” Radu said. “That’s the way you all think, once you’ve joined the Party.”
Oliver took a step forward. He was taller than Radu. “What are you talking about? Party members are never elitist.”
“I didn’t say they were,” Radu backed down. “But you seemed to make fun of my girlfriend, and I don’t like it.”
“Radu, drop it,” Rita said.
“No, no, no. Let him speak. I know danger, like glue, brings people together, but I had no idea you two were a couple.”
From up close, Tina saw the premature wrinkles on Oliver’s face, and anger in his dark brown irises darting around with unrestrained passion, the surrounding white of his eyes carrying a sickly tinge of yellow.
“Well, Daniel, now you know,” Radu said spitefully.
“Now I know,” Oliver acknowledged. “Congratulations, Comrades. The Party is proud of you and of your contribution. Too bad you have to be twenty-one in order to join. I didn’t write the rules, and that’s the way it is. We have to follow them and be patient. Because where there are no rules, there is chaos. And no jealousy amongst us. We have a common enemy, the exploiters. And on that note, Radu, let me tell you about your father.” Oliver sat on the tree trunk and took a deep breath to calm himself.
“He’s all right,” he started. “Martha, Vertzman’s wife, stopped by the prison yesterday and spoke to another comrade. They’re all doing well, considering, and they’re strong. Some of the guards are pigs. They do the bidding of the oppressors, and the only way to placate them is with money.”
“We’re gathering funds,” Rita said.
“Well,” Oliver said. “You’ll need to ramp it up. And give everything you collect to the Red Help courier, tomorrow at our meeting.”
Radu looked at Rita and nodded. “We’ll do it.”
“Tina here, she’s reading Marx, and we thought you could help her clarify a few concepts,” Rita said. “You know, she’s got stuck on the surplus value, and the means of production.”
“Don’t ask me about theory, talk to Vertzman,” replied Oliver. “I’m a Party member, but I am just a foot soldier.” He winked at Radu, then turned to Tina, and addressed her directly. “I’m facilitating contacts between comrades and organizing meetings. Right now, the push is for us to get weapons. The only way forward is through armed struggle. You understand how risky this is, but the idea came directly from our contacts in the Soviet Union. Radu’s father and many other comrades are paying the price for it. But victory is unavoidable and we’ll all rejoice.”
“Enough,” Radu said. “You’re scaring her. We’ll go back, talk to Vertzman, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
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