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Dainius Vanagas (b. 1989 in Kupiškis) is a writer, editor, and literary interpreter. He received his bachelor’s degree in the history of culture in 2012 and his master's degree in semiotics in 2014, both from Vilnius University. Since 2010, Vanagas has been writing for the cultural press and has published over 130 pieces of literary criticism and prose, which are distinct for their experimental structure and their dynamic and intense style. Oderis, his debut dystopian novel set in a fictional city in Central Europe in 2050, was published in 2021. To solve the problems of immigration and ineffective policies, the authorities of the city of Oder undertake a radical change by building a giant wall around the city and deporting all those who do not work and are deemed not useful to society. The novel is presented in three parts that differ in style as well as in the narrator’s perspective.

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Rūta Spelskytė, Miscommunication of the Masses. From the cycle "Miscommunications". 2008. Dry-point etching. From the MO Museum collection

An extract from the novel ODER by Dainius Vanagas

Translated by Medeinė Tribinevičius

 

I

Even though you may have won the municipal elections, it didn’t guarantee you an easy political start. The minute you suggested the implementation of unemployment reform to the Council, you were immediately met with harsh opposition. Is the reality more complicated than you imagined?

I don’t understand what you’re saying. The real and the imagined are the same, just two sides of the same coin. Of course we didn’t think it would be smooth sailing. It never is, is it? All manner of hypocrites and political charlatans insistently reminded us, on a daily basis, that we live in a free country, where an individual can choose whatever job they want, or even whether they wish to work at all. As if we didn’t know already!

In return, our political movement repeated, just as insistently, that the city is an economic community made up at its core of legal statutes and codes of conduct. If a city can determine the price of public transport, water, electricity, parking, waste removal and other services, it can also set other requirements for living there.

Today, no one questions this fact, but several decades ago very few people paid any attention to the fact that the city is a service in and of itself. It’s a place where you find shops, public transport, hospitals, security, entertainment, restaurants, cultural institutions, technology, universities, whatever you want. There are no dentists’ surgeries in the middle of nowhere, or furniture shops, or solicitors’ offices. Only fields of crops, stones and animal manure.

It has always been a privilege to live in a city, not a birthright. It just took society a long time to recognise the city as a democratic element.

You only allowed employed people to live in Oder. That doesn’t sound very democratic.

Why not? It sounds democratic to me. There were no ethnic, religious, political, racial or economic restrictions. It was not important how much a person earned, or how much they worked, or what they did, or the amount of taxes they paid. The only thing that was important was the fact that they worked, that they contributed, more or less, to the prosperity of the city. That was enough. If that’s not democracy, what is?

To categorise people as useful and useless is a crime against humanity. History has shown that every time anyone enacts this idea it ends in catastrophe.

Your generalisation is out of date. We only did what was necessary: we offered the city to those who really wanted it and who deserved to live there. Everyone else was left outside the gates.

You see, when a person works and pays taxes, the streets can be paved, the parks tended, hospitals built, city service workers’ salaries are paid, cultural activities can take place, schools are funded, and also sports teams, and it creates the ideal conditions for businesses to thrive. Nice, right?

An unemployed person does not pay taxes, and when they drive on the roads, walk on the verdant avenues, listen to free concerts or get treated in hospital, they deplete municipal resources, while not contributing to their maintenance.

And that’s not all. It would be possible to live this way. But not only do these kinds of people not create or contribute anything, not only do they utilise the city infrastructure for free; no, they also create traffic jams, take up space in parking lots, deplete the limited resources and time of special services, and swallow up a large part of the budget for various support systems and compensation funds. What’s more, they also commit the majority of crimes in the city. I’m not making this up. Look at the statistics.

Why should we bother with this kind of citizen, ones who aren’t even bothered about themselves? We have attracted many motivated and engaged people from all over the world, asking to be allowed to live in Oder. It would be silly to reject them.

But what about the people who didn’t meet your criteria? People who were unemployed because of rapid technological changes, people who were unable to adapt to the changing market conditions? And what about individuals who contribute to the betterment of society in other ways, not just by working at regular jobs? Artists, for example, or religious leaders? They also suffered under these reforms. But instead of helping them adjust to the new world, you decided to punish them. Why didn’t you consider other ways of reducing unemployment? Work programmes? Re-qualification courses? Education reform? A gradual reduction of rights? There are many countries that have achieved positive results in much more liberal ways.

Hmmm, of course; but look at the kind of countries you’re referring to. They have had a lot of time to change! These are ongoing projects in places that don’t have new political movements appearing every election, or new reforms being enacted. They don’t start again every four or five years. It’s different here. One term of office comes to an end, and the government changes. We need to see results in a short time, no one has time to spare.

So this is the real reason?

Pardon me?

Political desperation encouraged you to enact drastic measures?

I could tell you so many stories of political desperation it would make your head spin, but don’t put me in that category. Our ideas were well thought out and evaluated, and we implemented them in a targeted manner. I had already been convinced by study after study that total human equality was only possible in mainly non-democratic, totalitarian regimes, and where it takes on a generally negative form, becoming equally appalling, subjugated and warped. The rain falls on everyone, and the sun shines on everyone, in the same way, irrespective of individual efforts or qualities. And in free market conditions, equality is downright injurious. It erases differences, blunts the edges, and distorts facts. It is completely unacceptable. It is nothing but lies.

This is exactly why in the free market one person can be worth millions, another several tens of thousands, and a third can drown in debt. One person’s death is met with intense media attention, whereas another one dies and not even their closest family shed tears. All of them are equal under the law, yes, they have the same human origins, the same divine forefathers, if you like, but they are not granted equal worth and respect. This is the way it has always been, you see, except in the last few decades, when it has become fashionable to repeat the phrase ‘we are all equal’, although no one has even the slightest understanding of what this actually means.

It seems to me that you don't care much for the idea that it is impossible to put a price on life?

You are a good person, Detective, but impractical. Please understand me properly: I like beautiful things. In the same way, I also like beautiful ideas. And the pricelessness of life, no doubt, is exactly that. A beautiful idea. And I like the idea, really, and if you were talking about my mother, my wife, or even me, I would say exactly that. These lives are priceless.

But does everyone see it this way? Absolutely not!

We put a value on people on a daily basis, because that is the essence of communication: valuation.

We sort each other into categories all the time: poor and rich, black and white, men and women, young and old, working class and elite, educated and simple, useful and useless.

The idea isn’t very beautiful, of course. But it is realistic.

And how did your competitors react to these views?

What do you mean, how? The way you’d expect competitors to react: they ground them up and spat them out. They pointed out, as you are doing, by the way, that there are many reasons why people don’t work. They cannot find a suitable job, they don’t have the right qualifications, they have health problems. They pointed out that many people who look hard for work don’t find it, and that this in itself is not a crime, it’s bad luck, and so on.

But you didn't agree?

Of course I agreed! Obviously. But what does that change?

There are always many details, nuances and exceptions. All these personal stories are important, but if you spent all your time looking at the small details, nothing would ever get done.

For example, there are many people who, for very clear reasons, don’t have passports. That does not make them guilty of anything, but we still don’t let them travel. They cannot cross borders freely. It is simply national politics.

There are students who don’t want to go to school, but we still require them to. That is the politics of our education system.

Life is complicated, but politics is not. Clearly, our approach doesn’t conform to everyone’s expectations, but it does provide a clear orientation and direction.

But this type of politics leaves less and less room for individual decisions.

How? The capacity for individual decision making is exactly the same. Nothing is enforced from above.

You enforced a definition of useful and not useful, one that was restricted to economic value.

You are mistaken. The definition was not obligatory. If it didn’t suit someone, they were able to leave and make a new life elsewhere, under different definitions, conditions and agreements. We did not demand that anyone reside in Oder.

And the current city dwellers? How did they find the changes?

Why are you asking me? You already know. There are many articles, interviews, studies, visual records, whatever you want. Or you can go and ask them yourself.

You weren’t worried they'd take to the streets when confronted with this new reality and demand your head as mayor?

Why should I worry? There was no reason for them to protest. We’re talking about the same people who gave my party a mandate. They voted us in, so why would they take to the streets? Besides, we offered them the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of global development. An intriguing offer, I’m sure you’d agree. The majority of the city’s inhabitants, at least 75 to 80 per cent, were working people. These changes posed no threat to them. They saw much more benefit in these reforms than harm. That’s just how it was.

 

 

 

Truman More
From the essay collection ‘You’

The Biological Machine

You are a biological machine. If your buttons are pressed the right way, you turn on and perform previously programmed tasks. Hundreds and thousands of scholars, psychologists and analysts spend their days trying to figure out how to programme you even more effectively, how to determine what will resonate most strongly in your irritated brain, how to connect with the words oscillating in your mind, how to choose colours that will attract your attention more quickly, how to arrange products so that you’ll find them more easily, how to offer you services you cannot refuse, how to collect even more information enabling them to know you even better than you even know yourself, how to entice you into handing over your money and assets.

They seek out your most vulnerable parts: your dreams, your thoughts, your fears, your shame. But they are very careful. They make you believe they are not trying to convince you of anything. They only offer things. Possibility. To feel good and to want more.

Of course it’s your choice. Yours alone. No one forces you, but the well-informed algorithms do help you to decide.

These scholars, psychologists and analysts really know their stuff, but there’s one important thing they did not anticipate: you are a clever biological machine. You see easily through their trickery. No one will treat you like a fool. Absolutely not. You know all too well what they want from you. And you think this is why you do the opposite. Out of principle. Even if it’s not what you want to do. Even if it causes you pain.

You do not wear branded shoes or clothing because you don’t want to pay to be an advertisement. There are only two types of shoes you wear: those bearing your own name, and those with no markings. No logo, no story, just pure function. You don’t read the news. You ignore trends. You try not to buy anything, to make everything yourself. You gather berries and mushrooms. You are never ill. You do not go to the doctor. You do not have any problems, so there is nothing to solve. You do not socialise with people, at least not people who tell you how to live.

You oppose with all your strength. You are a true soldier. A warrior. But no one appreciates the battle you are fighting. No one writes about it or makes movies about it. And this annoys you.

You’ve always wanted to be recognised, for your work, for your bravery, for finding the biggest mushroom in the forest, and for being the fastest in your class, or because you worked the hardest and amassed the most beautiful collection of butterflies.

But no one gave you a prize. They always found someone better, someone cleverer.

Not to worry, it’s easy to fix. Your garage is full of tools: hammers, pliers, welding equipment. You begin to make sculptures. From wood at first, and then metal. You’re not yet thirty-five, and already you have two Emmys, three Grammys, and four Golden Globes.

By the time you are forty, you have a Pulitzer, a pair of Palme d’Ors, and three Baftas.

By fifty, your collection has grown to include six Oscars, and when you turn sixty-five it includes four Nobel Prizes: economics, physics, medicine and peace.

And by the end, what a bounty! At eighty, you have all the most important state prizes and orders from around the world. You have received the most honorary doctorates. Your prize collection is the biggest in human history. Your name is everywhere. Finally, you are properly recognised.

When a local journalist, looking for a subject for an article, finally comes round to interview you, you have gone completely mad.

His article is entitled: ‘The Biological Machine has Faults, but They Can be Fixed’.

 

 

* * *

 

 

He learns how to shoot, how to twist an arm, and how to speak calmly and clearly.

They say to him: No one wants to leave their home without a fight. If they wanted to, they would have left already. They will try to argue and evade you. They might attack you, hurt you, or worse. They will tell you terrible stories, especially the women, especially those with children. You need to listen to them, but you don’t need to hear. Nothing personal, you understand? Just do your job. It’s not your decision, it’s not your responsibility. Don’t take it on.

That is how they prepare them for work.

*

Alan puts on his overalls and waits for his colleagues.

They say to him: You’re the fifth. He knows his place. The first is the negotiator: he talks. The second is the doorman: he breaks in. The third is the muscle: he does the dirty work. The fourth is the informant: he knows things. The fifth helps to carry out the inhabitants’ things, helps the other members of the team, and is responsible for the vehicle: he’s the driver. Alan is the driver.

They say to him: At first, the work was unpleasant but easy. It’s not dangerous. You would go and collect them and take them away. They say to him: Now things are different. More conflict, more injuries. A few weeks ago, a deportation team broke into a home, and two of the team died right there and then, and a third died on the way to the hospital.

They say to him: Good luck.

*

Alan is careful. He doesn’t go near the door until they tell him to.

Usually, no one opens. The people inside pretend they are not at home, but they are.

The doorman picks the lock. When he hears a soft click, the door opens.

The muscle examines every corner of the flat carefully. This time, they are in luck.

The negotiator opens the fridge and takes out a blackened banana. He sits down at the table, chomping. He records the visit, and the doorman installs a new lock. If the inhabitants return they won’t get back in. Alan doesn’t have anything to do, so he sits on the sofa. Right there, outside the window, stands another high-rise, and he watches how on the seventh floor of the building, as if in slow-motion, another deportation team drags a runaway out of a closet where he’s hidden.

These boxes are no longer homes.

*

Alan no longer pays any attention to the deportees’ chatter. Instead, he looks at their hands, checks that they are not carrying anything sharp. He doesn’t worry if household things are scattered about the flats; it’s more important that they are not scattered with bullets. Crying children upset him, but it’s more important to check that their parents have not tucked grenades in their pockets.

They say to him: Do your job.

And he works.

*

He waits in the courtroom. He does not speak to the government-appointed lawyer, although he has no doubt they’d have something to say. Soon, the judge joins them, as well as a woman he’s never seen before.

Where is Ana?

Ana cannot attend, and this lawyer will represent her. The participants in the case begin to speak among themselves, occasionally asking him questions, but he does not listen or hear. If Ana is not coming, why are they all sitting here?

*

Time passes slowly, so slowly that Alan loses his wits.

They say to him: Keep your wits about you.

But still, he loses them.

Those poor people he extracts clump together into an endless knot of humanity that he rolls out of the door, down the stairs, across the street, into the car, and then out of sight. When will it end?

The doorman rings the bell, but no one opens the door. He breaks the lock and slowly enters. The next moment, he slumps to the floor.

The wall soaks up the bullets that don’t hit the body, and also those that have gone right through it. Alan crouches down, covers his head, and nearly throws himself down the stairwell. The heavy fires back; the negotiator calls for reinforcements; the informant grabs the crowbar, pulls the doorman towards him, and tries to revive him.

Everyone moves except for Alan. He sees the pool of blood spreading around the doorman’s chest. The muscle runs inside, and after several seconds, or maybe minutes, he shouts: All clear. But what does ‘All clear’ mean if Alan can still smell the bodies and the bullet-ridden air? Somehow, he stands up and enters the flat timidly. In the middle of the room lie the bodies of three men, two of whose faces are split in half.

‘Are they dead?’ Alan asks.

‘There are more weapons,’ the muscle replies, rifling through the kitchen cupboards.

‘What about the doorman?’ Alan asks again.

‘Four automatics, two grenades, four pistols,’ continues the muscle, ignoring him. No one answers stupid questions.

*

They say to him: Be vigilant. And he does his best, he stares with wide open eyes, and listens with carefully honed ears.

They say to him: People without visas often go to stay with friends. It is more difficult to find them, especially if they don’t leave any electronic traces.

They say to him: Aiding and abetting used to mean disciplinary punishment, but it didn’t make any difference. A friend, and it doesn’t matter what kind of friend, always takes pity, and pretends no one is at home when there is a knock on the door. At first, the agreement is very clear: just a few days, they will soon find work, and leave; somehow, they will leave. Because they didn’t want to be a bother in the first place, they are endlessly thankful, and very sorry they got their friend into such a mess.

But the minute they are inside it’s too late.

And it’s different now. People who aid and abet deportees, or know about others doing so, will also be deported. Some people choose to rat on their neighbours and acquaintances: so-and-so is behaving strangely; they go to the basement too often; they buy more food than usual; they leave the house late in the evening.

Their suspicions remain mostly unconfirmed, but this can only mean one thing: one must remain vigilant.

Alan fastens the bulletproof vest they gave him.

*

Now look, there is a woman; or a man; it’s not important which.

Okay.

So, let’s say he or she works in a big company, makes a lot of money, you understand?

Yeah, it’s clear.

But you know, the market is tricky, fuck. He, or she, has just started, when suddenly he, or she, finds himself, or herself, out on the street without a job.

And?

Think about it, hey? He, or she … okay, let’s make it a she, it’ll be simpler. She has about two months to find a job. At first, this seems to be enough time, there is work to be had. She can knock on any number of doors looking for work, and they will respond: Sure, come on in, we need a cashier, a robot cleaner, a nurse. But she will stare at them, what the fuck? In her old job she was a big shot. People queued up to come and see her, to kiss her ring. Of course she won’t say this out loud, but this kind of job is below her. She values every profession, and so on and so forth ...  But she thinks ... she thinks she is worth more. She needs a good, serious job, and not to mess around in a hospital.

Okay, so off she goes to look for a serious job.

But think about it, dummy. That kind of job, the kind she wants, is very difficult to find. It can take months. And her visa is valid for only two months. So you can easily imagine how she finds herself on the deportation list.

So what now? You deport her?

No, just hold on a minute. We arrive, knock at the door. She answers, and in a cold, restrained voice she begins to explain how she’s given more to this city than all of us together. And seriously, if you think about it, she’s right. But do you know what happened?

What?

This truth means nothing now. It’s clear to us that she wants us to take this into consideration, to make an exception for her. But there are no exceptions. She is on the list, that is the truth. You cannot change that.

So what does she do?

Well … She offers money, she’s got plenty. She tries to bribe me, and I reckon it must work sometimes. Not all of us are saints, right? What are you laughing at? You’re no saint, that’s for sure. Anyway, it might work for the first one who comes; but someone else will follow, and maybe they won’t accept it, or maybe you’re broke by then. So think about it now, what are this woman’s prospects?

Well, they're bad.

Fuck, man, they’re not bad. They’re shitty.

*

The muscle restrains the suspect, presses him down on the floor. He says: Check the place. Alan checks the kitchen: nothing. The front room: nothing. The bedroom: nothing. But then that nothing begins to rustle in the closet, and Alan, startled, shoots.

That nothing is unarmed. And not dangerous. And will never be dangerous.

*

At first, they say to him: We’ll fix it. In the official documentation, the unarmed and non-resistant nothing will be armed and dangerous. You’ll see, Alan. You’ll even get a medal for bravery.

Later, they say to him: Sorry, it didn’t work. Someone leaked the story to the media. We should have leaked something about the journalists, so that they would not go public.

But the damage is done.

Then they say to him: It’s over. But Alan, you know what, you’re in luck, there won’t be a trial. It would only do more damage to the deportation programme. But you are relieved of your duties, and are required to leave Oder. If you return, it will be your last time.

Alan is furious, and yelling, frothing at the mouth. No, he can’t leave. You bastards. This is unbelievable. In a couple of weeks he has to attend a second court hearing, where he might see his wife.

They say to him: Don’t play games, we know very well that you’re not married.

Alan argues, and froths even more. He goes down on his knees and begs, but the people who make the decisions are not listening. The only ones who are listening are the people who do not make the decisions. They lead him from one darkened room to the next.

*

He climbs out of the vehicle. All right, no, they push him out. A foot nudges him into the dark and cool night.

He picks his rucksack off the ground, looks around, and heads towards the light.

 

 

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