Christoforos Milionis
translated from the Greek by Thalia Pandiri

COMPUTER VIRUS

All my friends kept telling me: keep up with the times. You keep rooting around in the past, forgetting that the world moves on and never turns back. We are living in the Age of Technology! Wake up to that reality! 2000 is just a year away. We're not living in the 1940s, the 1950s, or the 1960s. Not even in the 1970s. And of course you don't live in the provincial countryside any more. In fact, the Greek countryside no longer exists, and don't think this is some kind of riddle. Okay, we've heard it all before, don't start spewing out place names. All those cities, towns, even villages you've got stored in your head that you're always ready to serve up, they're all just part of urban sprawl now. Places like Aigaleo, Liosia, Agia Varvara, Perama, that used to be shanty-towns and villages. Same thing everywhere, different names. Eateries, discos, super markets. And in the evening, soap operas on tv, lips parted and eyes unfocussed by passion on the screen, and the viewers slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. You might still be able to find an old-style, smoke-filled cafe, maybe a dingy bakery where you can buy a couple of pastries and head out. It's not worth writing about those folks; but even if you do, they'll never know—they don't give a damn.

That's the kind of thing they kept saying to me, and the sad part, for me, was that they meant well. They were all more or less my friends. Imagine what others might be saying behind my back! What was worse, they didn't stop there: people usually don't respect boundaries. So they would forge ahead—always, of course, with good intentions. For instance, I'd happen to mention they don't make pens the way they used to—the things spit out blobs of ink on the page, or run dry in mid-sentence. I'd like to find a decent brand, one adequate to my needs. Any suggestions?

"You're still writing in long-hand?" they'd ask with gleeful contempt. "Sort of like hand-crafted furniture, fait main, as it were. Not to say it doesn't have its charm, but by the time you've written a page, the day is done and half the night besides." Get yourself a computer, and the good Lord will give you a break. Wait and see, you'll be churning out a whole document in no time.

To be honest, every time they said that last bit, "a document," I was distraught. I'd ask myself if we were talking about the same thing—because naturally I wasn't burning the midnight oil and sacrificing my life to write mere "documents." I wanted something different, I'm not sure what, but I knew I wanted my work to be called something else. And when I finally decided to publish my short stories in a volume, I would always think of Karyotakis, those verses of his about transforming his heart and his life blood into a great book . . . I would recite the words in my head, mentally make the sign of the cross to repudiate my friends' astoundingly alien perspective, and I would regain a little peace of mind. Just keep doing your thing, I'd tell myself.

Only one thing made me deeply uneasy, stirring up something like terror: that stuff they kept saying about the coming year 2000. And since talk always centered on computers, my mind would leap to the Y2K virus, not that I had a clear sense of what it was; I still don't. But since everyone was discussing it passionately, I began to think about it the way millenarians greet the end of the millennium, as the end of the world. Besides, I have an almost metaphysical fear of electronic devices.

But man is a weak creature, how much resistance can he put up? There comes a moment when he gives in, like the virginal shepherdess in those old, simple-minded tear-jerkers. Same thing happened to me. So it came about that I decided to get a computer. In fact, I thought: In for a penny, in for a pound, I'll get the best there is, no laptop for me. I want a big screen, so I won't go blind, and above all, I want all the accessories. A color printer, photo quality; CD ROM, speakers for CD's—just think, I can listen to music while I write! And later I'd get that scanner they told me about, though I didn't yet know what it was.

When the two technicians came to my house lugging all those boxes, real terror seized me. It was a whole factory, not at all what I had imagined. But there was no retreat. I just tried to exorcise the demon with a silent mocking formula: Document Production Factory, Inc. And then I would add "Limited," that is, limited responsibility.

In any case, they installed it, dealt with the wiring, and one of the technicians stayed for an hour or so to show me the basics: starting up, logging off—I was especially concerned with that last step—what a mouse is, how to open windows.

When he left and I was all alone, face to face with the beast, I sat myself down to examine it and try my hand at executing the instructions I'd received. While it's all fresh in my mind, I thought.

I'll admit that I was utterly enchanted by all those windows that you open onto a mysterious universe. Soon—Let me check this one out! Let's have a look at another!—I was opening windows upon windows and not closing them. Eventually I'd created a jumble, a shish-kebab of images, boxes, incomprehensible designs, hieroglyphics, a mess of red hues like clotted blood. I tried to chase them away, but in vain. As I tried to delete a box or a design, I would hit another key, and the result was a proliferation of new images: ocean deeps with variegated fish swimming by, octopuses, medusas, giant eels and other monsters, little men gesticulating obscenely at me, faces distorted in ugly grimaces, amputated hands in rigor mortis, threatening fingers pointing at me, huge eyes with their irises shifting from right to left and back—a dark, nightmare world, in short. I panicked and started striking keys at random. And then, all of a sudden, a small, blue rectangle popped up out of the chaos (just the shape and color of a policeman's identification card), with the imperious command:

GIVE ME YOUR PERSONAL IDENTIFICATION.

I froze. My eyes dimmed. The screen seemed to grow bigger, rushing towards me, becoming a vast darkness that swallowed me up.

Standing in front of me was a man with a crew cut, grim-faced and tight-lipped. He wore a gray trench-coat, with the collar turned up. I didn't need to make any effort to read what was printed on his card—he virtually stuck it in my face—to know that he was from the security police. His look was familiar to me from the movies, and I suspect that's where he'd gotten it himself. Besides, I thought it pointless to look for confirmation, since the hallway in which he stood was dimly lit; the manager of the apartment building had obeyed with alacrity the Energy Conservation Order, and had installed low-wattage bulbs. Anyway, it was dangerous to question the legitimate authority of an officer of the law. I remembered the courtroom, about a year earlier, where I had been summoned for a traffic violation. When I dared to challenge the validity of the charge, the judge asked me: "So, the officer is lying?" Terrified, I retreated immediately, rushing to suggest it was I who had made a mistake about the dates, surely I was guilty even if I had no recollection, I deserved to be punished, only that way could law and order be upheld, and so on.

"Yes. Of course. It's me," my fear made me whisper. That is to say, I was the person he was looking for, and I came close to confessing, on the spot, that I was the guilty party, that I had been expecting him, in fact wondering that he hadn't come sooner, because that's how citizens would learn to respect the Government and the photographs of our leaders and even their ducklings.

He handed me a piece of paper and said: "Present yourself at Security Headquarters on a matter concerning you!" Then he indicated I should sign a receipt for the summons.

Once he was gone, I closed the door and slumped into an armchair. I had been expecting it. I closed my eyes and I was back in Terovo, at "The Pavilion" which had just opened. That fateful evening the restaurant was full and every so often the door would open as new parties came in, folded their umbrellas and stood near the entrance trying to spot a free table. As it turned out, we were among the lucky ones: if we had arrived a little bit later, we would have had to stand in a corner and wait, counting every mouthful of those lucky enough to find a place. The alternative was to return to town, heading out in the stinging icy rain, and eat at one of the same old restaurants we had grown sick and tired of. My wife, Manolis and his wife, and Zoe. And Manolis kept singing dangerous songs by Theodorakis under his breath:

Katerina, Zoe, Antigonaki and Zinovia . . .

The waiters rushed in and out of the kitchen carrying trays laden with steaming dishes: duckling au vin, smoked duckling, duckling roasted in the fireplace embers. It was winter, and the lake was full of wild ducks. The room was stuffy and full of smells, and although everyone was trying to speak in a low voice, there was a continuous din that made you think—the way deaf people do—that no one at the next table could hear you, no matter how loud you talked.

Manolis was in a mischievous, playful mood. Was he ever not? He was babbling on, making cracks and puns about the residents of Yiannina who had mobilized against the papakia, the "ducklings," about the "ducklings" that had had to organize and become alkimakia, "stronglings," in order to escape extinction.  He was alluding to the Alkimoi, the youth organization the Junta had just established on the model of Metaxas' youth organization.  Delighted by his own wit, he began to call out to the waiters: "The ducklings? The ducklings? Are they stronglings? Who here is the leader of the ducklings?" I looked around and a big poster caught my eye, mounted on the door: a photograph of Papadopoulos. I leaned over towards Manolis and tried to whisper as softly as I could, "cave canem! " And I showed him the photograph on the door.

Unfortunately, this idea appealed to him too, and every so often he would interrupt our conversation, no matter what the topic was, point towards the door and repeat "cave canem! Cave canem!"

The rest of us were choking on our food, but we hoped that in all the din and the transports of gluttony no one would notice us. But things got really out of hand when Manolis said to our waiter: "Please, save the bones for the dog." We froze, but we assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that the waiter was too busy to pay close attention to what Manolis had said. When we paid the bill and got up to leave, the busboy brought Manolis a small package. Manolis was surprised.

"What's this?"

"The bones for your dog."

"Ah, you know, I don’t want them for my dog," Manolis said, "I want them for that dog behind the door."

The boy looked in the direction of the door, then asked: "What dog?"

"That one there, kid! That dog!" And he pointed to the poster.

In the meantime, everyone had got wind of what was going on and had turned towards us, laughing. I took the parcel, thanked the boy effusively to create a distraction, and rushed out into the cold, wet night. We all piled into the car, mute except for Manolis, who was roaring with laughter. I was terrified. Terrified and pissed off.

"Go stuff yourself !" I said, handing him the parcel.

He took it and tossed it out of the car. "They’re for the dog, get it?" And with that he shut the car door. I sped off into the darkness with the wind and freezing rain beating on the windshield. Not another word  spoken until we arrived in town and I dropped them off. At home, I quarreled with my wife: "Where do we find these people and drag them around with us? We’ll get into serious trouble, remember I told you so. Just wait for the good news . . ." "You're the one who finds them!" "No, you are!" Mutual recriminations of that sort.

The "good news" arrived sooner than we expected, and it came in the form of a political joke, an anecdote that made everyone laugh uproariously. Everyone else, that is. We felt suspicious, uneasy, as if poisonous snakes were coiled around us waiting to strike. The incident had made the round of of the city, with no names. Everyone thought it was a clever invention, one of the many political jokes of this sort that circulated at the time, and that had in the past made us laugh wholeheartedly too. Only now did we realize that those jokes could have two faces, as diametrically opposed as hilarity and terror. Our terror increased when we heard our story—as a humorous anecdote—from a woman friend of ours who belonged to the Establishment "elite" and had heard it at an exclusive gathering from the Prefect himself. 

Obviously the story would have also reached the ears of the security police, who always had their ears pricked up in any case. It would just be a matter of days . . . Only that the visit, as I said, took place in the evening, when I was home alone mulling things over. The doorbell rang, loud and insistent, and I ran to the door. As soon as I opened it, he stuck his card in my mug and said: "Your identification!" I was dressed—just in case—and I always had my identification card in my pocket . . .

So, slumped in the armchair, almost paralyzed, I kept turning all these events over in my mind, over and over, stuck in a groove.

When my wife got home, we talked, we discussed different scenarios, we tried to come up with excuses, certain that nothing can convince those who have no intention of being convinced. In the end, we left the outcome to fate and to the inspiration of the moment, and tried to sleep while we both tossed and turned in bed until morning.

The next day, at eight in the morning, I was at Security Headquarters. When I gave the desk officer my name, he looked at his watch: "You've come ten minutes early!" Then he added, "Wait in the corridor, until your name is called. The Director is busy." So I went out into the corridor and waited. Time passed, people went in, people came out, some in uniform, some in civilian clothes. No one talked to me. I moved so I would be facing the door when it opened, but he was hunched over his papers at his desk, at the far end of the office. I should have been at work already: I was a civil servant, and they must have known that. Finally a well-dressed man arrived; he was wearing a freshly-pressed suit and carrying a bunch of files under his arm. Just as he was about to enter the office, he turned to me and asked: "What are you doing here? "

I replied that I had an appointment, that I was waiting for the Director and they'd told me to wait, because he was busy.

"What’s your name?"

I told him.

"Tomorrow, same time. The Director can’t see you today."

I tried to make some reference to my job: "My Bureau, you know . . ."

"I know, I know!" He cut me off and went into the office, shutting the door behind him.

It was the same story three days in a row; for three entire mornings I waited like a dog outside the door. Added to my fear and anxiety now was the dilemma: how could I excuse my absence from my job? On the first day, I'd called in sick: I was in bed with the flu; you know, with all the nasty weather we've been having . . . But I couldn't keep up that charade without a doctor's certificate and all the requisite paperwork. And of course I had to sneak through alleyways and back streets when I left Security Headquarters, for fear of running into someone who knew me.

Finally, on the fourth day, the man in the office said: "Go home, and we'll notify you when you should come back."

Of course, I could see that this was far worse, that the uncertainly would be prolonged indefinitely, that every day I had to be on my best behavior, that I could make no plans. But until the fateful hour was upon me, I could at least keep going to work, although even there I no longer felt safe.
Weeks passed, months, years. The Junta fell. The security police never rang my doorbell again, and at last I forgot about the man, although I would often  catch myself  tensing with vague but visceral uneasiness. Especially when I had to go to a police station to get my signature notarized, or to be issued some certificate or other. Even when I went to other government offices, I didn't feel too comfortable. But this was a far cry from that card shoved into my face when I opened the door. And now here it was again, after all these years, just as imperious as ever, just as menacing, coming at me from the dark and frenzied computer screen:

GIVE ME YOUR IDENTIFICATION.


In a panic, I abandoned the computer and phoned the company, asking them to send over a technician again. He came and sorted things out, laughing at my predicament; but he couldn't come up with an explanation. Afterwards, he sat down and showed me the basics again, how to work in Word, how to do word processing.

"Just think of it as a really first-rate typewriter," were his parting words.

And so I sat down and wrote my story. With the fear of God in me. Making a virtue of necessity.

When I finished, I took it triumphantly to one of those friends I was talking about. "Done!" I proclaimed. "On the computer, no less!" He sat down and started reading. At first he seemed pleased, he was smiling. But his expression soon changed:

"There you go again, same old same old . . . still marching to your own drummer!"

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