The Banks of the Vistula

How could she win an argument against somebody with an early training in propaganda? She had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion.
"...seemed to incline toward me..."

IT was dusk; the campus had turned to velvet. I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the Book of Psalms. It was late on a Friday afternoon, when the air is fertile, about to split and reveal its warm fruit -- that gold nucleus of time, the weekend. Inside, up the stairs, the door to Stasselova's office was open, and the professor lifted his head. "Oh," he said. "Yes." He coughed, deep in his lungs, and motioned me in. He had requested this visit earlier in the day, following class. His course was titled Speaking in Tongues: Introductory Linguistics. Stasselova was about sixty-five and a big man, his torso an almost perfect square. Behind his balding head the blond architecture of St. Gustav College rose into the cobalt sky. It looked like a rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose.
I was in my third week of college. I loved every moment of it, every footfall. The students resembled the students I'd known in high school, Scandinavian midwesterners like myself, whose fathers were all pastors or some declension thereof -- but the professors thrilled me. Most had come from the East Coast, and seemed fragile and miserable in the Midwest. Occasionally during class you could see hope for us rising in them, and then they would look like great birds flying over an uncertain landscape, asking mysterious questions, trying to lead us somewhere we could not yet go.

I wanted to be noticed by them, to distinguish myself from the ordinary mass of students, and to this end I had plagiarized my first paper for Stasselova's class. This was why, I presumed, he had called me to his office.

The paper, titled "The Common Harvest," was on the desk between us. I had found it in the Kierkegaard Library. It was a chapter in an old green-cloth book that was so small I could palm it. The book had been written in 1945, by a man named Delores Tretsky, and it hadn't been signed out since 1956. I began to leaf through it, and then crouched down to read. I read for a full hour; I thought it beautiful. I had not once in all my life stopped for even a moment to consider grammar, to wonder how it rose out of history like a wing unfurling.

I had intended to write my own paper, to synthesize, as Stasselova had suggested, my own ideas with the author's, but I simply had nothing to contribute. It seemed even rude to combine this work with my own pale, unemotional ideas. So I lifted a chapter, only occasionally dimming some passages that were too fine, too blinding.

"This is an extraordinary paper," he said. He was holding his coffee cup over it, and I saw that coffee had already spilled on the page to form a small, murky pond.

"Thank you," I said.

"It seems quite sophisticated. You must not have come here straight out of high school."

"I did," I said.

"Oh. Well, good for you."


"You seem fully immersed in a study of oppression. Any reason for this?"

"Well, I do live in the world."

"Yes, that's right. And you say here -- a shocking line -- that a language must sometimes be repressed, and replaced, for the larger good. You believe this?"


"You think that the Eastern-bloc countries should be forced to speak, as you say here, the mother tongue?"

Some parts of the paper I had just copied down verbatim, without really understanding, and now I was stuck with them. Now they were my opinions. "Yes," I said.

"You know I am from that region."

"Is that right?"

"From Poland."

"Whereabouts in Poland?" I asked conversationally.

"Iwas born on the edge of it, in the dark forest land along its northeastern border, before the Soviet Union took it over completely, burning our towns. As children we were forced to speak Russian, even in our homes, even when we said good-night to our mothers as we fell asleep."

This was turning into a little piece of bad luck.

"When did you write this?" he asked.

"Last week."

"It reads like it was written fifty years ago. It reads like Soviet propaganda."

"Oh," I said. "I didn't mean it that way."

"Did somebody help you?"

"Actually, yes. Certainly that's all right?"

"Of course, if done properly. Who was it that helped you, a book or a person?"

"My roommate helped me," I said.

"Your roommate. What is her name?"


"Solveig what?"

"Solveig Juliusson."

"Is she a linguistics scholar?"

"No, just very bright."

"Maybe I can talk to Solveig myself?"

"Unfortunately, you can't."

"Why not?"

"It's complicated."

"In what way?"

"Well, she's stopped eating. She's very thin. Her parents were worried, so they took her home."

"Where does she live?"

"I don't know."

We both sat silent. Luckily, I had experience lying in my adolescence, and knew it was possible to win even though both parties were aware of the lie. The exercise was not a search for truth but rather a test of exterior reserve.

"I'm sure she'll be returning soon," I said. "I'll have her call you."

Stasselova smiled. "Tell her to eat up," he said, his sarcasm curled inside his concern.

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