Atoms in Motion: A Historical Event as Literary Fiction Zbyněk Baladrán
That morning I’d made up my mind to go have a look at the demonstration. My fellow students had been having lively discussions about it all afternoon. I felt suspense. It wasn’t my first demonstration; I’d already been to two. Demonstrations all took the same course. There’d be a core with the most hard-line opponents of the regime in the middle; I’d always recognize a few of them from mug shots on the front pages of party newspapers. Then there were dispersed clusters of dawdling secret agents. For the most part, they tried to pass themselves off as ordinary people. I’d mix them up with taxi drivers. Green jacket, blue jeans, and a mighty mustache. And, to top things off, a cigarette. There were always yellow-white trucks marked “Public Security” on the side streets destined to take in all the people on the square and haul them off into the woods somewhere, far from the city.
I arrived at the square an hour before the demonstration was slated to begin, went into a bookstore and bough Lucretius Carus’ On the Nature of Things. Bookstores back then were well stocked with ancient literature. Paper-wrapped book in hand, I headed to a snack bar on the square, where I bought a little open-faced sandwich and some tea and then sat on a stool facing the shop window. The snack bar offered a good view of almost the entire square. The view of the spot designated for the demonstration was optimal. It was freezing outside and I was giddy with excitement. When I was in middle school, my father once took me aside and said, “Don’t do drugs and don’t go to any demonstrations!” I’d already tried pot, so now I was going to a demonstration. So as not to call attention to myself, I unwrapped my book, intending to make believe I was reading. At random, I opened to a page with the heading “The Motion of Atoms”:
“Wandering in the void, all atoms move thanks to their own weight or by rebounding off of other elements, by chance. They often meet or clash, leaping asunder in all directions. It is no wonder. Being most hard, and solid in their weights, nothing opposes them from behind.”1
Even though I wasn’t really interested in doing any reading, it seemed strangely fitting and accurate considering the situation that was unfolding, so I read it again. Initially a cover, the ancient reading drew me in; I read on and lost track of my surroundings. Soon I got to a part which explained the visual process: thin layers peel off the surfaces of things and then fly toward the eye—that’s how we see. Instinctively, I looked up and let a layer peel off the square and come at my eye. It looked the same as it always did. People rushing about, minding their own business. At 3:45, though, people started milling about in small groups. I couldn’t tell if they were demonstrators or secret police. At four o’clock sharp I put the book in my bag and left the snack bar. About 15 people had assembled at the demonstration site, looking worried. Their faces reflected a tension mixed with a casual expression, as if it were a normal occasion for them. I started feeling anxious, but it was because I was standing still and not moving around, thus making myself rather conspicuous. I looked away from the demonstrators in a direction I hadn’t turned my gaze to yet. What I saw took my breath away. All at once, columns of baton-wielding uniformed soldiers were streaming out of the side streets, wearing white helmets and ready to uphold the law. Some of their ranks joined into one current, which then turned into skirmish lines partitioning off the square. It reminded me of a diagram out of a geometry textbook (very popular at the time2) illustrating the difference between finiteness and infinity. The security forces’ drill formations probably had little in common with them, but the diagram was similar nonetheless:
All at once, the groups of demonstrators and the agents blended into one big muddle and someone started shouting antiregime slogans. Then two mustached men in civil dress lunged at him and twisted his arms up behind him, but not before he was able to throw some fliers up in the air. As they fell to the ground, I realized that people who had been hurrying across the square on their way home from work or on their way to do some shopping had also become demonstrators. A crowd gathered. A small number of people—including me—stood by on the sidewalks, taking in the show, acting like impartial observers, undecided as to whether they were going to remain nonparticipating spectators or enter the fray as active participants. Then events quickly took their course and their minds were made up for them. They became participants—just as I did—and they were to remember the occasion and maybe take part in it too. We were part of a long tradition of witnesses like that soldier of Stendhal’s who described war as a welter of chaotic impressions. Someone yelled, “Let go of me!” The same course of events as before followed: heightened activity in one area of the crowd, then a twisting of arms and more pacification. Suddenly, a bunch of uniformed men appeared not far from where I was standing. One of them had a megaphone and started shouting into it. “This is an unauthorized demonstration. Disperse now!” I was quite scared now. I looked around me; the whole square was surrounded by uniformed men with batons. At one point it seemed as if everything had gone quiet. Nothing happened for some time. Then, on some secret order, the men in helmets started clapping the batons into their palms. I almost fainted with terror. It was extremely effective, and I think I wasn’t the only one stricken with panic. I felt like fleeing and shouting, “I’m just a kid still! I got trapped here by chance!” On another secret order the skirmish lines started moving toward the bewildered demonstrators. They started chanting, “Vile!” and “Gestapo!” It was then that I noticed that there were a few gaps at the edges of the barricades of soldiers where escape was still possible.
Slowly and inconspicuously, I started making for one of them. Terror stricken, I snuck past a man with a cigarette poking out underneath a mustache. He wore a hard expression. The skirmish line was getting closer, as was the rhythmic thudding. Just as I was about to reach one of the gaps, the uniforms started running, galvanizing the crowd, which ran off in all directions—tending toward the gaps. Dozens of people started pressing into the funnels forming by the gaps. The security forces had planned their tactics well. Soldiers started beating people pell-mell about the head and shoulders. Those—including me—who made it through the funnels to the other side had a surprise waiting for them in the form of a violent blast of ice-cold water from a water cannon. I hadn’t even noticed any vehicles like them coming into the square. Then pure panic set in. Disoriented, I ran this way and that according to the choreographed motions of the security forces, the water cannons and the orders barked by the provocateurs within the mob. The soldiers started chasing the crowd, which had started regrouping at one point, into the surrounding streets. People kept running off and disappearing for a bit among the shops and passageways, only to resurface on another street and be dispersed once again. When it got dark, I was exhausted, so I hid in one passageway for a long while, after which I made for the metro and went home. Sitting in the metro car, I looked into the indifferent faces of those seated opposite me. Most of them were dressed like ordinary people: green jackets, jeans, and mustaches.
Describing an event is always based on the assumption that there is some sort of observer or a quantity of documentary evidence on the basis of which the event can be reconstructed. This relates to another problem associated with such descriptions—that is, with views on the event from the inside and from above, with the roles of the participant and the observer. The view from the inside is the viewpoint of the participating spectator, somewhat overloaded with impressions which he assembles based on previous experience and the need to react on the spot rather than through analysis.3 I’ve set down my recollections of the event described above, reproducing them from memory, without letting myself be influenced by other documentary sources or the memories of others. I’ve also included above one of the diagrams I made the day after the demonstration, for I returned to the site with a notepad and tried to make drawings portraying the events as they occurred, minute by minute. Maybe that’s where my interest in history was born—for I went on to study history. My thesis was titled “A Reflection on Time and Memory in Pre-Modern Societies” and was inspired by the following passage from St Augustine’s Confessions:
“I am about to repeat a Psalm that I know. Before I begin, my expectation is extended over the whole; but when I have begun, how much soever of it I shall separate off into the past, is extended along my memory; thus the life of this action of mine is divided between my memory as to what I have repeated, and expectation as to what I am about to repeat; but ‘consideration’ is present with me, that through it what was future, may be conveyed over, so as to become past. Which the more it is done again and again, so much the more the expectation being shortened, is the memory enlarged: till the whole expectation be at length exhausted, when that whole action being ended, shall have passed into memory. And this which takes place in the whole Psalm, the same takes place in each several portion of it, and each several syllable; the same holds in that longer action, whereof this Psalm may be part; the same holds in the whole life of man, whereof all the actions of man are parts; the same holds through the whole age of the sons of men, whereof all the lives of men are parts.”4
I returned to the square and the outlying streets the next day so I could—with a clear head now—try to describe how everything had transpired the day before. For some reason it seemed important to create a sort of four-dimensional map of the movements of the demonstrators, the onlookers, the agents, and the security forces. I filled my notepad with sketches of directions, funnels, clusters, throngs, ranks, skirmish lines, and the ranges of water cannons.
On the first page I wrote down a schematic list of participants:
Uniformed security forces (and megaphones here and there)
Uniformed security forces with helmets and batons
Secret agents and provocateurs
Extemporaneous opponents of the regime
Beginning opponents of the regime
Then I sketched out the situation, frozen as it were, at 3:45 pm. I drew an X representing myself standing in front of the snack bar in a daze. On the following pages a line issued forth from the X and wound confusedly through the diagrams of attacks and mad dashes. I noticed that I hadn’t fled from the site of the demonstration the day before, but returned repeatedly to its center instead. I’d gotten especially confused in the adjacent passageways. I couldn’t remember exactly which passageways I’d used to flee and which stairwells I’d hidden under. The passageways had been designed to cross from one end of a building to another, ending in another street. Here’s a drawing illustrating this:
That was the reason why the cat and mouse game lasted until it got dark. I calculated that the security forces must have outnumbered the demonstrators by a factor of eight or ten in order to be able to cover the exit of every passageway. They didn’t dare enter them. They’d easily lose the advantage of their greater numbers. Despite the demonstration’s well-planned choreography, the clampdown, and the individual strategies of chance participants, it was clear to all that this was a demonstration unlike all others before it. I sat in a snack bar again that day with my notepad—on the opposite side of the square this time. I wanted to change perspectives and concentrate on things that might have escaped me. I’d amply regained my composure by then; I wasn’t even ashamed of the fear that had overtaken me the day before. On the contrary, I felt proud of myself for taking part in it, for none of my fellow students had been there. Well, there had been one guy from third form, but he’d looked on from a distance and hadn’t even been misted by the water cannons. Then it occurred to me that the most important moment of the demonstration had been when those thousands of passers-by and shoppers had turned into demonstrators. I’m not talking here about motives, but about fear as the main impulse behind that day’s events. The whole year had been one of counterbalanced fear. The white helmets and batons had been sent into the streets out of fear. It had been a standoff to see whose fear would abate first. It would have been best if both parties—both society and the authorities—had ceased being afraid. The fears of the nomenklatura were exaggerated, which was why the actions of the security forces had been so drastic. They hadn’t yet grasped the full meaning of the demonstrators’ joking slogan, “Give up. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”5
The demonstration site looked like a battlefield that had been cleared long ago. I searched for traces of the previous day’s flurried events. I took a look in the gutters and examined the cracks between the curb and the sidewalk to see if I might find a bit of a flier or a button that had popped off. Presumably, there should have been some frozen water in the gutters at least, but there was nothing there; despite the frost, the cobblestones and asphalt were perfectly dry. People were walking about on the square just as they had before the demonstration and it really seemed as if nothing had happened at all. A friend later brought me one of the fliers someone at the demonstration had handed to him. It was a mimeograph, quite faded by then, and had been matted together by the rain anyway, so to this day I’ve been unable to unfold it and read it. I imagine the text of the opposition’s position statement was printed on it in full. I’ve kept it as a souvenir. The words on it have bled into one another; it kind of reminds me of a poem I once read which was arranged in the middle of the page and looked something like this.6
1 / Titus Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. W.E. Leonard, Dent & Sons & E.P. Dutton, London 1938, p. 48.
2 / Petr Vopěnka, Rozpravy s geometrií, Panorama, Prague 1989, p. 467.
3 / Zdeněk Vašíček, Archeologie, historie, minulost, Karolinum, Prague 2006, p. 108.
4 / St Augustine, Confessions, trans. Edward B. Pusey, Random House, New York 1999, p. 266.
5 / Milan Šimečka, Konec nehybnosti, Lidové noviny, Prague 1990.
6 / Bohumila Grögerová, Josef Hiršal, BOJ JOB, Československý spisovatel, Prague 1968, p. 91.