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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Drama · #2270218
A man tells lies for the government – but also to himself.
Of course I was happy to become a propagandist – eager, in fact. The literary critics had rejected my artistic aspirations with disdain. The Yesteryear Gazette reviewed my first novel as “a definite evil – a maudlin fortissimo of mediocrity, unerring in its absence of wit, insight, or subtlety.” ALN scorned “stories unencumbered by nuance, accompanied by an author likewise unburdened by sophisticated thought.” And The Community Annals derided “a celebration of crude, unrefined instincts, with monochrome sentimentality so alien from genuine human emotion, that one must wonder if its creator has ever experienced the real rush of life.”

Oh, I did not intentionally memorize these remarks. My mother cut out newspaper clippings of the rebukes and hung them on the walls of her living room. That way, any visitor to my childhood home could be reminded of my abject failure. “Such a shame. He would not listen to us,” she would sigh and tilt her head to invite condolences for my literary pretensions.

Worst yet was the quote from Michael Habernathy: “he grasps for passion with one hand and orthodoxy with the other, but, missing both, the final work suggests an author who does not quite understand himself.” I had counted Habernathy as a true colleague. I remembered that Sunday afternoon we had met to discuss our budding ambitions as authors, dining in the café along the Rue du Desiderata, overlooking the golden blush of the river below. It had seemed then that our writing careers were in lockstep – on the same page, to use too apt an expression. Certainly, our conversation suggested that we shared many interests – both as storytellers and in our personal hobbies. And, other than some slight, forgettable awkwardness as we parted ways due to a trifling miscommunication, I left our lunch flushed with the pleasure of having found a like-minded ally.

But even Habernathery saw my novels as pitiful in the end. So when the War came, with its midday marches, its austerity measures, and its national bonds, I enlisted my pen in service of the Bureau of Information for the production of patriotic materials.

My first report documented a concert by the Dockside Youth’s Orchestra for our departing troops at Port de Beau Temps. It was a moving affair – truehearted children performing before brave heroes. The highlight was a violin solo by a talented refugee girl, blind in one eye from enemy shelling. After the concert, I interviewed her and recorded a remarkable story of a soldier risking shifting enemy lines to carry her to safety. More remarkable still, when I met with outgoing enlisted men, I discovered that the younger brother of that very same soldier had been in the concert audience that night, making his way to join his sibling in the fight!

Now, in banal truth, there was no prodigious violinist. And I believe the actual concert may have been canceled due to heavy rain – I was not there. But on the pages of my report, that violin struck each note with precision that no living juvenile could match. My superiors praised me for the effort, and all who read it felt their spirits soar.

Looking back, perhaps I share some responsibility for the misunderstandings during my lunch with Michael Habernathy on the Rue du Desiderata. I remember that we were sitting very close – so that it was easier to hear each other; it made me wonder why men did not sit so close regularly. I was much younger then and a regular at the gym. He was wearing a beret – silly now but fashionable at the time – and a tight sweater. He simply asked if we could set a time to meet again, but I felt more unspoken behind those words. And in that instant, the waiter’s ear seemed more focused on our conversation, and the eyes of so many passersby were floating over us, and idle chatter filling the café hinted of insinuation. My throat caught, and, uncertain, rather than answer his question, I made a hasty excuse to depart.

But that is unimportant. Where was I?

Right, my publications during the War. The unspoken secret behind successful propaganda is that people wholeheartedly yearn for it. It does not matter if the audience can tell that they are deceived on some level, fed simplicities; what matters is that they desire for the propaganda to be true. That they prefer it over reality with such fervor that their minds can substitute it with ease. Propaganda is the ultimate form of popular narrative – a play untroubled by the vacancy of a fourth wall, a radio serial with new material aired non-stop, an opera where each ritornello lingers as an echo in the ear for the months to come. The propagandists’ tools are jargon, acronyms, and mythology. And using those, they craft a new language for the nation faster than any linguistic scholar or philological expert could conceive – and any found unwilling to speak exclusively in this new language will face swift excommunication from the public discourse.

You are important. You are winning. You are always right. Who would not want to live in such a world? A child would swell with pride upon hearing his national anthem faster than he would upon receipt of his mother’s praise. An alcoholic would swallow state-sponsored idioms just as readily as hard liquor. Any upstanding husband would rather make love to a nationalist folio than to his wife, for there is no diminishment of ardor for his motherland, or to his mistress, for there is no shameful reminder that she is not his wife. In fact, I imagine the last examples as downright repugnant in comparison.

My star rose, and I soon became a ranking member of the Bureau. We were the only media in wide circulation. The Yesteryear Gazette received national censure for articles sympathetic to the enemy cause. ALN sought to avoid politics by minimizing its wartime coverage in favor of the pure, abstract arts, and, as a result, its readership soon plummeted until publication became financially infeasible. The entire staff of The Community Annals resigned in collective protest of the Benevolent Speech Act. And zealous officers of the law dragged Michael Habernathey from his home to await trial for degenerate acts. Perhaps the public could turn a blind eye to the nighttime habits of its intelligentsia in idle climes, but such foppishness could not be overlooked during the War. The masculine norms of the nation had to be maintained.

One by one, competing periodicals suffocated beneath waves of caveats, sources, and ambiguities. Whereas us propagandists could glide over those waters on a radiant ship, exclamations clad in capital letters heaving the oars, brutish deformities of foreign foes plastered over leaks in the hull, and angel-faced youths strung over the masts to catch the wind soaring overhead. We divided the mess of life into clear right and wrong, day and night, male and female. What sickened mind would object to that?

So, naturally, when the government suggested I should continue my propaganda efforts after the close of the War, I accepted. There were always new enemies lurking, so we had to stay vigilant. And something had to be done to counterbalance the stories of the returning veterans, tales of defeats, horrors, and cities turned to vast charnel houses.

And so what if years later I found myself watching the funeral of Michael Habernathy from outside the graveyard, uninvited, in the fog, my hands white as they gripped the iron posts? I must have attended only out of idle curiosity, and any display of grief came from seeing an author who I had once respected reduced to a non-entity, forgotten after many years silent in a drafty cell.

And if I ever did feel any regret, I could just remind myself of the great purpose I had served. I could simply recall an image from one of our propaganda posters. A upright soldier, bare-chested, broad-shouldered, muscles rippling in the sunlight, standing alongside a toned, patriotic farmer, their arms around each other’s backs in solidarity; two ideal masculine forms in the countryside, their keen eyes admiring the beauty of their nation, the object of their mutual devotion, as the golden blush of a river flows below. I just think about that. That’s all I think about.
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