Part 04, Chapters 51-60
Part 4, Chapter 51
„Man sollte stolz auf den Schmerz sein — jeder Schmerz ist eine Erinnerung unsres hohen Ranges.“
“We should be proud of our pain — every pain is a reminder of our true status.”
When the plane landed in Bukoba, David found himself observing the behavior of the Tanzanian immigration officials at the airport. They seemed sullen and hostile; there were no longer and of the welcoming smiles he saw everywhere the last time he was in the country. There were none of the friendly, elaborate, and utterly human greetings in Swahili. It seemed to him that some vague darkness had gripped the minds of these people and altered their behavior. Perhaps David’s African companion on the plane had been right. Perhaps everything in this dream world he’d been struggling to return to had, after all, completely changed. Perhaps it had always been nothing but a dream for him.
From the airport David took a taxi to Bukoba’s only hotel for “Europeans.” He went to his room and lay down for a while, but it was impossible for him to rest or sleep. The awareness and the sensation of being in Africa again, together with anxiety and a certain feeling of depression, kept him awake and restless. He still had no idea what he would do. He realized that he’d come to Bukoba probably because that was the last place he’d seen in Tanganyika four years before.
This time, before arriving, he’d had vague plans of trying to get to the refugee camp again, just to see what it was like there now, just to visit the mission nearby and talk to the priests there.
Then he’d take a train across the country and stop in Dodoma and look at all the places he’d been happy. The houses he’d lived in and visited would have other inhabitants now, but he could smell the air again, walk along the hot dusty streets one more time, perhaps even climb the mountain behind the town in the evening and watch the lights come on all through the little collection of houses and buildings far below. He could walk everywhere, he look at everything again, like a ghost drawn back to the only places in which he’d been alive.
In Bukoba this time, later in that afternoon, after he’d tried to rest, he got up, left his room, and went downstairs to the hotel’s small verandah, which had been converted into a kind of lounge. There was only one other person there, a white woman who looked at him when he ordered coffee.
“You sound like an American,” she said. Her American accent, after so many months in Canada, struck David as harsh and aggressive.
He replied quietly that he was from the States, and she told him she was in the Peace Corps. David explained he was visiting Tanganyika again, that he’d been there a few years earlier.
“Our local director was here then,” she said.
“Oh? What’s his name?”
“Jack McHale,” she answered.
At the sound of Jack’s name, David felt, suddenly, a kind of wild return of happiness, a blind, unreasoning expectation that strained toward he didn’t know what. He was aware that he’d suddenly smiled. “I know him,” David said a little too excitedly. “We were really good friends. I can’t believe it. Jack McHale is here in Bukoba?”
She studied his face for a moment. “Yes, he’s here with his wife. They’re going to have a baby in a few months.”
Incredible, he thought. So Jack was back in Tanganyika. For a little while he would be with a friend again, and he could forget the terrible fear and loneliness for a time. He asked the woman the way to Jack’s house.
When he walked up to the place, Jack’s wife came smiling out of the house. She had soft, dark hair, and large, intelligent eyes. When he introduced himself, her smile broadened, and she said she’d heard about him from Jack. She said Jack was away teaching baseball to a group of local boys, then she and David walked over to the playing field together. Jack and David saw one another almost at the same time. Jack smiled casually at him, walked over and shook his hand.
“You don’t seem very surprised,” David said.
Jack’s smile looked a little strained, or so it seemed to David. “Well, I don’t think I am, really. I always thought you’d come walking back into my life, just like this.”
They went back to the house, and David told them why he’d come back to Tanganyika.
“But why Bukoba?” asked Jack.
“Well, I thought I’d make a return journey, just to see the places I’d worked in before. I want to see the refugee camp at Rulenge again, if it’s still there. Then I’ll take the train across the country and stop off in Dodoma again.” He looked down at the floor. “I want to see those places again. I want to see what they’re like now. I can’t forget them.”
Jack’s expression changed. “I don’t think you can get back to the area of the refugee camp. That part of the border is being patrolled by the army. You wrote to me once that soldiers were coming in when you were there before, and the army has even more troops there now. It’s a dangerous place, and I don’t think you could get within a hundred miles of Rulenge, because there’s been so much trouble with the refugees making raids back into Burundi and starting firefights with the security forces there.”
David was still a little dazed; now there were even more changes to cope with. He couldn’t look Jack in the eyes. “But what do you think I should do?”
Jack and his wife exchanged glances. “If I were you, and I wanted to get a job in this country again, I’d get down to Dar as soon as possible, because there’s nothing for you here.”
The intense happiness of seeing Jack again had vanished now, almost as quickly as it had appeared, and in an instant he was sad and apprehensive about the future, the way he almost always was.
In that state of mind, of course, he now had the impression that Jack wasn’t particularly glad to see him after all; it seemed that now what Jack really wanted to do was just get rid of him. He had the feeling he was just a potential problem for him. He wasn’t a friend anymore.
As his mood spiraled downward, he started feeling that all he’d ever been for anyone was a potential problem — or a real problem. He was instantly certain that all his life people had just wanted to get rid of him, and that everywhere he went he was a misfit, an embarrassment to others. So very many times, in so many different places and situations, he’d thought to himself that without realizing it he must have presented so many awkward problems. In such situations, he always thought that the only decent thing he could do was to leave, go away, and stop bothering people. Things were again working out that way now too. It was all happening all over again, and there was apparently nothing he could do to change it.
“Where are you staying?” Jack asked him.
“At the hotel.”
“There’s a boat for Mwanza at 8:15 tomorrow morning. It connects with the train to Dar. We have a Peace Corps doctor here who could give you a lift down to the dock around 7:30.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll go in the morning.”
It was the last time he ever saw Jack.
Part 4, Chapter 52
To the world’s end I went, and found
Death in his carnival of glare;
But in my torment I was crowned,
And music dawned above despair.
As he began the long journey by train across Tanganyika the next day, the numbness David felt settling over him was heavier than ever. There seemed no point now in stopping off in Dodoma, so he proceeded directly to Dar es Salaam on the coast.
Hour after hour, first on the boat and then in the train, fear and anxiety seemed to strengthen their grip on his mind. He sat and looked out of the window on the train as the familiar East African landscape passed before his eyes. As he sat there and looked, though, he really saw nothing and thought about nothing. His mental processes all seemed paralyzed.
He was no longer running to anything or away from anything. He was simply living because he’d been in the habit of living. He was living without any reason, motive, or purpose. He’d just arrived in Tanganyika, and he was already starting to see that he wouldn’t be able to stay there. It was finally clear to him that it was not the country he’d left four years before.
When he finally did manage to really look at what was around him, he saw how much everything had deteriorated since Tanganyika had become independent: the buildings in the towns, the railway he was traveling on, and apparently the rest of the infrastructure as well. The weird thought entered his mind that the whole country appeared to be slipping back into the Stone Age. People everywhere looked sullen and unfriendly, and if he said anything to them in Swahili, they looked at me with suspicion. Practically the only whites who spoke Swahili now were either missionaries — and he was not dressed like a missionary — or those who had learned the language during the colonial period and had been part of that system.
He felt suddenly lost, but there was nothing he could do except to continue as he’d planned, even if there was no longer any real reason to continue. Perhaps he was still desperately holding onto the hope that he might find some small suggestion of beauty or happiness in Africa again. He tried to tell himself, yes, he might find at least that in Tanganyika.
So he pushed on, feeling as if he were in one of those dreams where everything happens in slow motion, or it was as if he were trapped underwater, about to be drowned.
He pushed against the depression enveloping him, because it was deep and painful and he knew it was threatening him with a kind of extinction if he didn’t struggle against it.
Even though he felt I was seeing nothing on the long train journey to Dar, he was in fact vaguely aware of the landscape rolling by outside the window — first green and cool, then dry and dusty, and then in the end, on the coast, lush and humid. He was somehow conscious of the sunlight there that seemed to illuminate everything except what was reflected in his own internal world and the way he saw things. From the perspective of his world, after so many years of longing to return, Africa looked dark and cold and dreary. He sat in the train compartment and remembered what it had all been like for him before, and he nearly felt sick with pain and loss.
If he felt that way, though, it was because he still had not learned that nothing that exists in time can be eternal and unchanging. There is nothing more certain in this world than change. There is nothing that can have the permanent light and splendor he’d found in Africa before.
In time and the world, there can be no undying gentle love of any person or any thing. Of course the mystics may have experienced something like that, but only in their encounters with the divine. Besides, even for them — or especially for them — the only way to the source of that love and to the indescribable happiness of it, the mystics have said, is what earlier generations called the royal way, the way of the cross, the way that leads through and beyond the cross.
David thought about none of that then, and wouldn’t have really understood it if he had thought about it. Possibly he never would understand it. He might vaguely have understood it once, but certainly he’d forgotten it by the time he returned to Africa. For that reason, he couldn’t see how all the difficulties and sadness of life could be, potentially — at least for those who can grasp what people like David never seem able to grasp — paradoxical sources of joy. The difficulties and sadness can, in theory at least, unite human beings with the real object of all their longing, which is, say those who believe in such things, God himself. And even more remarkable, they say, is the idea that the God who became a human being was certainly no stranger to suffering.
Because he did not believe these things, or had forgotten them, his thoughts kept turning on the apparent fact that all the ideals and intellectual ambitions he’d once had seemed to have disappeared forever. He thought that all he had now were loneliness and deep sadness, in a strange country, eight thousand miles from home.
Again, it is tempting to want to feel sorry for – or laugh at – that poor lost boy wandering in a darkened world of nameless guilt, unbreakable isolation, and near despair.
When he finally arrived in Dar es Salaam a few days after leaving Bukoba, he managed to find a clean, inexpensive hotel run by some Lutheran missionaries. Once he settled in there, he began the — for him — frightening process of going around to all the different American and international organizations he could think of in order to find work.
He heard that Grant Johnson, his predecessor at the refugee camp from four years before, was working in Dar now, and he gave him a call. He told Grant he was back in Tanganyika looking for something to do, and Grant said he would see if there were any openings again in a government office somewhere, either in Dar or the provinces. They arranged to meet at Dar es Salaam’s main hotel in a few days.
In the meantime, someone at the Peace Corps office said that the head of Catholic Relief Services in Dar was looking for an assistant, because the one he’d hired recently had suddenly gone back to the States with his family.
Right away, David telephoned and made an appointment to see him.
Part 4, Chapter 53
Socrates’ wife, Xantippe, visited him in prison and bewailed the jury’s condemnation.
“They are by their nature also condemned,” Socrates said.
Lynwood Thompson was a tall, imposing man, a lawyer from New York in his early thirties, with a hearty, outgoing disposition. He’d come to work at Catholic Relief Services with the kind of idealism that so many people in that decade seemed to feel, the same kind that David himself had felt. Thompson’s motivation seemed to resonate with David’s so much, in fact, that after a long discussion Thompson said he’d be willing to hire David, though he’d have to get the approval of the head office in Nairobi first. He told David it might take a week or two for them to act.
David felt a little reassured by this vague hope, but not enough to be completely free of his acute sense of pain and loss – for which he might be ridiculed but which was nevertheless very real for him. All the beliefs that had provided him with a coherent view of things, that had given him a sense of purpose and a reason for existing, were gone now, and he had nothing to replace them with.
It seemed to him that he’d been pulled down to some dull, low level of existence, where a new kind of oppressive weight was pushing down on him. At all other times in his life, he’d had to bear the weight of a complex belief system, but that weight had been relatively light and easy to bear, because it had been compensated for by a sense of peace, by his innocence, and by an often untroubled view of the world. This new weight, though, sometimes seemed tremendous, because it was a weight associated with despair and guilt and a new burden he’d always been scornful of in the past: an attachment to the world and to material things.
Because of all the dark and painful feelings circling through his mind, he could find very little happiness in Dar es Salaam now. There was no more sense of ecstasy such as there’d been when he was in Africa before, on that morning, when he’d seen the sun as it rose, burning, from the sea. There were no more long afternoons of warm human exchange with Africans and other “Europeans,” hours that left him feeling almost drunk with friendship. Now there was only the very silly routine of getting up, walking around the city all alone in his dull, depressed state of mind, buying a book to read and going to an ice cream bar, where he sat reading Graham Greene novels and indulging his voracious taste for the cold, sweet dessert.
He hated himself for being trapped in a narrow cycle of daily events, though he could hardly have expected anything else, even in his long dreamed-of Africa. In a famous image of hell, Teresa of Avila had a vision of being confined to a tiny, narrow cubicle where the sense of constraint was a greater punishment than almost anything else. This vision of hell is something David was experiencing, not in the next world but in this one. The reason, some might say, was that he’d abandoned all belief, and he could no longer even begin to imagine that there might be some larger dimension to his existence. Others would perhaps add that it’s almost impossible to understand what David was feeling without at least some experience of how confining life can be whenever a human being separates himself from what he knows is the right thing to do. Still others would point out that it’s possible, in a way, to imagine what David must have been feeling by remembering how free a human being can feel when he makes the sacrifices necessary to do what is right. David wasn’t exactly making that kind of sacrifice any longer.
As the days passed, he became more accustomed to his feelings of anxiety, and because he had the possibility of working with Catholic Relief Services, he didn’t try very hard to find a position anywhere else. He met once with Grant Johnson, though, since Grant had said he’d look into the question of whether or not David could work for the government of Tanganyika again. They met one evening on the terrace of what had once been the main hotel for Europeans in Dar. Even now, it still had the atmosphere of a colonial outpost, with its furnishings and decorations — and even many of its staff — reminiscent of the nineteen-forties and fifties.
Grant began the conversation by telling him straight out that there was no chance he could work for the government there again. As an explanation, he said there were no openings available. Then, as their conversation continued, they began to talk about more personal things. Grant told me his wife had left him and the children and gone back to London to be with her lover, and then for some reason the conversation turned to a discussion of Susan, the nurse David worked with in the refugee camp at Rulenge.
Grant talked about her working relationship with the woman doctor who’d been in the camp. This doctor had been a difficult woman, a person that none of them had gotten along with, a woman who, at the start of the very first conversation David had ever had with her, had demanded the name of his immediate superior. The brunt of the doctor’s unpleasantness, though, especially after David left the camp, had been borne by the good and gentle Susan, an American who’d been born in Holland and was now working as a nurse. She became practically the sole object of the doctor’s inexplicable anger and bitterness, anger and bitterness that this doctor seemed really to want to inflict on the rest of those she worked with, including David. Susan was a convenient substitute. Perhaps she was a substitute for everything in the whole world that the doctor was angry with. However, since this doctor had absolutely no way of hurting anyone except Susan, Susan had been her victim, because she’d been under the doctor’s direct control.
Grant said the doctor had made Susan’s life miserable, but the young woman had put up with everything and had reacted only with kindness and calm forbearance. In return for that, the doctor had written a scathing report about her, which the nurse knew nothing about. It was a report that would make it practically impossible for the young woman ever again to find work as a nurse, anywhere. It was a report that was so bad, in fact, that the only way she could undo its effects would be to become a doctor herself.
It was the first time in David’s young life that he’d ever heard about that sort of injustice, so he felt shocked and a little sickened by it. It didn’t occur to David until years later to wonder if perhaps Grant had also been referring to what the psychiatrist at Harvard had written about him. Certainly Grant could have had access to that information if he’d gotten in touch with anyone who’d known David at Harvard. The information was freely available to teachers and administrators who’d known David at Harvard, and it would have been in such contradiction to the kind of person Grant knew him to be, that Grant would have immediately wondered if there wasn’t something more behind it.
Later, in his characteristic way, he’d think that perhaps Grant had been trying to draw him out, so that he would talk about the things Bradley had written about him. The problem was that there was nothing to draw out, because David knew nothing then about what Bradley had said and written. He simply failed to make the connection between Bradley and the doctor in the refugee camp, because as far as David knew then, the two situations were utterly different. He knew nothing then about the difficulties he must have caused Bradley by “not responding to treatment,” as he put it. He had no idea what a damning report Bradley had written about him, one that he could have contradicted and proven wrong, as Grant may have been suggesting, only by becoming a doctor himself.
So, Grant and David simply concluded their conversation, and he went back to the hostel where he was staying.
Many years later, it was with a certain satisfaction that David had some news of Dr. Bradley that made him wonder if perhaps he himself was a vengeful person, though of course he could never really believe he was, probably no one can. He liked to think of himself as interested simply in justice — but whatever the truth may be, the news did not make him sad. Not very long after David’s conversation with Grant in Africa, Bradley’s relatively short tenure as head of the Harvard Health Services abruptly ended. It was nothing more than coincidence, certainly, but on the other hand David thought it was the kind of justice that doesn’t often happen in this world. Bradley was only fifty-two when he left his post at Harvard. He lived on to the age of eighty-four.
David would always very much doubt, however, that in all those years Bradley ever thought much about the ruinous impact his practice of psychiatry had had on the lives of others.
Part 4, Chapter 54
“Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy….In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.”
Quoted by Leon Edel, in Henry James: A Life
As David waited for word from the offices of Catholic Relief Services about a possible job, two things occurred that seemed to him remarkable, two things that were perhaps partly a result of the strain he was under, the tension he felt, and the lack of sleep. They may, however, have been valid experiences – real experiences – although Bradley back at Harvard would certainly not have viewed them that way. For him, they would have been just one more piece of evidence that David was insane, and, who knows, Bradley might have been right.
The first of these experiences was a meeting with another American about his own age who was staying at the same hostel he was. The other boy – young man – seemed to David to have an almost uncanny quality of mind, as they engaged in strange and rarefied conversations, speaking almost in a kind of code. The full meaning of these conversations was never really very clear to David, but it seemed to David that they were speaking of things that had extraordinary significance somehow, although he did not quite know what it was.
The words and sentences they used were a shorthand for expressing – so it seemed to David, anyway – ideas about life that neither of them had ever talked about before, ideas that to both of them had until then seemed inexpressible and indescribable.
The exhilaration of those conversations almost more than made up for the procession of dull, lonely, dreary days David had been living through. Perhaps, however, this dullness, this loneliness and dreariness were in some way the main cause of these conversations. In other words, it’s possible that David was unconsciously enhancing the reality around him – as he’d done over and over again at Harvard – in order to make it more bearable.
Whatever the reason, when the two of them spoke, all language became a kind of metaphor for a world of ideas David never entered before, even at Harvard. It was a brilliant, delicate world where shapes and images succeeded one another in a subtle, colorful dance. They seemed to have reached a level of ideas that most people never reach, and which they seemed to stumble on by accident.
David thought there might be people who live at such a level all their lives, or that probably there were. As far as David was concerned, though, it was something he’d never experienced before, and never experienced afterward. And perhaps it all may have been meaningless, ultimately. Later, he couldn’t even remember the precise details of what they talked about. Sometimes, though, he liked to think the experience was not really meaningless at all; perhaps it occurred so that others could know that there does exist that possibility for communication, and they might try to find it too, and realize it in a better way.
The second remarkable thing that occurred at that time took place a day or two after David’s American friend left for Zimbabwe. He was walking through the streets of Dar es Salaam late one night when all at once a kind of depression seemed to descend on him. It was more than depression, though, it was a sense of despair so overwhelming that it amounted to a kind of reverse mystical experience, where limitless regions of darkness, instead of light, appeared to open up before him. He seemed to see, in one breathtaking display, all of the terrifying evils he had ever thought were afflicting him but which had always seemed too terrible to be real: the apparent hostility of his mother and stepfather, the seemingly destructive behavior they exhibited toward him, and the continual, indirect urging — the seductive behavior really — on the part of teachers and others at Harvard who seemed to be telling him to act out whatever desires he had, whether or not he’d ever been taught they were evil.
Suddenly, in a single almost blinding moment, he understood that all of those evils he’d been trying to convince himself were too improbable to be real were in fact as inescapably real as the undeniable reality of his own existence. He hadn’t been imagining a single one of them.
Now again he had the feeling that some carefully constructed defense had broken down in his mind; some wall was gone that he’d built up to protect his view of the world; a structure had disappeared that he’d tried to maintain at great cost.
Whatever shock he may have felt, he also felt a sense of relief. He no longer had to continue making the effort to sustain those illusions. It had been so useless and so exhausting. There was another surprise as well, though. With a kind of dazzling revelation — he would always remember it quite clearly – just walking down a street one evening in Dar es Salaam, he understood that if all the evils he’d suspected in life were real, then the good things he’d always puzzled over had to be real as well: the persistent call of some vague loveliness — an Arctic landscape at sunrise, the stars in an African sky at night, the soft loveliness of bare trees swaying in the winter wind in Kentucky. All that strange beauty must be seen as real too: it did exist after all. He hadn’t been imagining it.
This revelation was not, unfortunately, enough to restore his beliefs and ideals, though. Perhaps the reason was that these beliefs and ideals were not in the realm of something he’d actually experienced. They were still only something he’d simply learned intellectually. On the other hand, the questions that haunted him about the reality of good and evil, questions he thought he’d just found the answer to, those questions were a part of his everyday perceptions of life and the world.
He went back to his room after this latest walk, went to sleep, and woke up the next morning feeling that he was able to continue life more or less the way he always had. If he’d changed in any way because of the experience of the day before, the change was so deep and so thoroughly incorporated into his consciousness that it was now part of him, with the result that he felt he hadn’t changed at all. The world around him seemed calmer and less incomprehensible, though, even if he still was afraid of the future and shadowed by a feeling of depression.
That same day he received a note from Lynwood Thompson at Catholic Relief Services saying that his application for work had been approved by the Nairobi office. He could start the following Monday.
Part 4, Chapter 55
“Calm, calm me more! nor let me die
Before I have begun to live.”
Lines Written in Kensington Gardens
During the next few days, David managed to remain in what was for him a somewhat better frame of mind, even though he still felt haunted by a sense of guilt and loss, and even though there were moments when he almost felt that part of his soul had been ripped away, the part that used to believe that God exists, that life continues beyond this world, and that there is something more than man that is the measure of all things.
He could no longer feel that Africa was the vibrant and glorious place it had once been for him. However, at least he had a job now, with Catholic Relief Services ironically enough – since he thought he no longer had any religious beliefs –and a small income, and his life no longer seemed so precarious.
Or at least, for a short time his life no longer seemed so precarious. For someone like David, whose life had had meaning only in the context of his religious beliefs, the disorder and chaos that a loss of those belief brought into his mind soon combined with feelings of guilt and meaningless, so that his new job slowly turned into a nightmare. He was gradually overcome with the impression that he fit in less and less with the office routine, and he felt a enormous gap in understanding open up between his boss and him. His boss responded to David’s apparent unhappiness, by sending him out into the field, ostensibly to investigate the reasons for the delay in shipments of food from Dar es Salaam to schools and missions around the country.
David now found himself in a kind of double bind. If he discovered delays and tried to correct them, his boss seemed to feel that those delays reflected negatively on the job he was doing. The more successful David was in confirming delayed shipments and the reasons for the delays, and the more successful he was in trying to correct them, the worse his boss looked. Very soon, everything David did seemed unavoidably to be an indirect criticism of his boss, and David didn’t know how to change that.
Gradually he found he had less and less to do, and fewer and fewer contacts with his boss, until the situation finally reached the point where David felt completely cut off from him. There was an almost total breakdown of communication between them, and David blamed himself for that. Much of the reason for the breakdown — probably the entire reason — was his tendency to withdraw into himself when the world became difficult or incomprehensible or didn’t meet his expectations, or when he couldn’t find any confirmation in reality for the ideas he had about himself and the world.
Years later he’d suppose his pride was ultimately the real problem. He was so proud that he couldn’t accept his faults, and he couldn’t allow anyone else to be aware of them — all those feelings of inadequacy, the vague sense of guilt, the stupidity, the selfishness, and everything else in his character that contradicted the illusory image of perfection that he supposed was the real David. He thought the only way to hide those faults was by withdrawing.
Someone less self-centered than David could have seen that Thompson was himself under severe stress at that time, but David, in spite of everything, was still so naive – and even childish – that he thought that anyone who was his superior at work and older than himself couldn’t really have any serious problems in life. Perhaps it would be even truer to say that it never occurred to David that someone like that could have any serious problems in life. David couldn’t see then how unhappy Thompson must have been in Africa, how out of place he must have felt. David couldn’t see that Thompson was in many ways the kind of good-natured, hearty, upper-middle-class American who, with the best will in the world, would never be able to understand the thoughts and feelings of people who came from a culture very different from his own. Thompson would certainly never be able to feel comfortable with them.
David couldn’t even comprehend that Thompson’s difficulties were compounded by the fact that many Africans in Dar es Salaam at that time had a very hostile attitude toward the English and the Americans. In fact, most educated Africans were obsessed with the idea that every white person they came into contact with was part of a European conspiracy to control their destiny through something they thought of as neo-colonialism and its monstrous policies.
People like Thompson — and of course people like David as well — weren’t at all comfortable in a situation where hostility seemed sometimes to be the force driving the behavior of Africans at every level of society. When a white person went into a store, for example, or a post office, or any government department, he or she was usually ignored by the person in charge. Africans pushed ahead of Europeans in line and the African clerk or official would serve the Africans while ignoring the white person.
Behavior like that was perhaps understandable, but it was nothing more than racial discrimination in reverse. Rationally of course David could sympathize with the Africans who were, after all, taking revenge for what they saw as years of racial bias and oppression. Still, he didn’t see why he should make himself their victim, or the target of their anger and their sense of injustice.
Gradually the hostility ground him down. And because he no longer had any belief in a God who could help him turn that hostility into a force for good somehow — in his own thinking and in the lives of those he came into contact with — he began to feel hostile in return.
In addition, because his reasons for being in Tanganyika were essentially selfish ones — he was, after all, really only looking for the happiness he’d known there before, wasn’t he? — this anger and hostility he felt made it seem more and more that there was no reason for him to remain in the country at all. In addition, the more miserable and unhappy he became, the more difficult it was for him to work effectively, and his work came to have less and less meaning — as always happens, in the end, to every human being who works for selfish purposes alone.
At the same time, in his own mind David became increasingly critical of the way Thompson was running the office. David never spoke about this, of course, but Thompson naturally became aware of how David felt; certainly he became aware of the fact that David was extremely unhappy. Thompson, though, knew only one way of coping with that kind of situation, and that was to continue sending David off on tours of schools and missions in remote areas of the country, to inspect local procedures for storing and distributing food. Despite the fact that these trips so often resulted in findings that seemed to reflect unfavorably on the way Thompson was managing the distribution of food, he must have felt a sense of relief at just getting David out of the office.
Part 4, Chapter 56
“…(E)veryone declared that (the Duchesse de Guermantes) was a highly intelligent woman, a witty conversationalist, living in a small circle of most interesting people: words which became accomplices of my dream. For when they spoke of an intelligent group, of witty talk, it was in no way intelligence as I knew it that I imagined, not even that of the greatest minds….No, by intelligence I understood an ineffable faculty gilded by the sun, impregnated with a sylvan coolness.”
Remembrance of Things Past
Such a situation could not go on indefinitely, and after David had been working for a couple of months, things finally came to a head. He returned one day from one of his trips to the southern part of the country, and as soon as he walked through the door, the secretary said Thompson wanted to see him.
When David went into Thompson’s office, the man seemed very uncomfortable — and David had to admit to himself that Thompson had every reason to be uncomfortable. David felt sorry for him in a way. After all, from Thompson’s point of view, the decision to hire David didn’t seem to have been a good one; David – to put it mildly – really hadn’t been of much help to him.
He was sitting behind his huge desk, the same way a man might sit behind some sort of barrier. David don’t know why exactly, but he had the impression that Thompson looked at him almost sheepishly at first, before asking him to sit down. Thompson shifted uneasily in his chair and then said, “How was your trip?”
“Pretty good,” David told him. “I visited the sisters’ school in Kalenge and the hospital at Itilo.” He was going to continue, but Thompson seemed to have already lost interest in what he was saying.
“Germaine Rose is in town,” Thompson stated in a surprisingly flat tone of voice, leaning back in his chair. “She’s one of the big guns in the Geneva office. Maybe you’ve heard people mention her.”
David had. Her name seemed to keep coming up again and again in conversations he’d had with people in Dar and upcountry. Anyone who had any dealings at all with Catholic Relief Services seemed to know about Germaine Rose. Everyone liked her, even though – or because – for a relief agency official, she was said to be an improbably glamorous woman. An American, middle-aged, educated in Europe, she’d traveled all over the world; there were rumors she’d sometimes worked as a freelance intelligence operative during the cold war, though it was never clear for who — the British? The Americans? Even the Vatican? There were all kinds of stories, but what was certain was that she’d been associated with Catholic Relief for several years.
She was the kind of unusual person — a person of more than ordinary accomplishment — David always looked forward to meeting.
“She’s in Dar for a few days, and she’s going to be at my place this evening,” Thompson was saying. “Joan and I were wondering if you’d like to come over for a drink after work and talk with her.”
It was perhaps characteristic of the conflicting desires and motives of his adolescent state that David answered, “Yes, well, I’d like to, but the thing is, I’ve arranged to meet somebody later.”
Thompson frowned and glanced down at his desk.
“But,” David added quickly, “I could come over for a while.” He stopped, and with his usual feelings of worthlessness, went on, “I mean, there’s probably nothing very important that she wants to talk to me about.”
Poor, lost boy. Poor, lost idiot — he was more than twenty, but his thoughts and emotions were still those of a teenager.
Perhaps because he was so much of an adolescent, though, he found Germaine to be an absolutely stunning person when he finally did meet her that evening at the Thompsons’ large, comfortable villa overlooking the Indian Ocean. Like many young and perhaps immature people, David was always more or less unconsciously looking for adults he could admire, men or women he could put up on pedestals, those who seemed to have extraordinary qualities that maybe he too might one day hope to possess. Germaine was the sort of person who fit nicely on any pedestal David might make for her.
He thought she was remarkably beautiful, with that mature beauty that wealthy, intelligent women of a certain age often acquire. Everything about her — her way of speaking and smiling, the expensive, tasteful clothes she wore — made her extraordinary. In her own way, she made him think of Proust’s descriptions of the Duchesse de Guermantes.
She smiled at him warmly, as if he were the one person in the world she had most wanted to see at that moment. As they talked about Africa, her whole appearance took an almost luminous quality for him. He felt he was responding somehow to a kind of power for good — or powerful goodness — that she had chosen to exercise over him. The feeling was so strong that he thought he would have done anything she told him to, happily and enthusiastically.
She invited him to have lunch with her the following day, and the prospect of meeting her again should have given him something to look forward to. Instead, the old feeling of purposelessness returned. The next morning he woke with an overwhelming feeling of depression, the cause of which he could not understand. Of course, the lowest member of practically any religious community in the world could have explained that to him. He’d torn the heart out of his existence when he stopped believing in anything transcendent, in the existence of God for example, as though the absence of such belief would give him a sense of freedom and a meaning for his life. It’s hardly surprising that David’s life now seemed to have no meaning at all.
A belief in the existence of God, and all that implied for the conduct of his life, had been a part of him for a very long time and had shaped his thinking and his actions without his being aware of it. His whole life had been grounded in this belief, his existence had been imbued with it. Nevertheless, he was not really conscious that in large part it sustained the very essence of his being.
When he gave up believing in God, though, he thought it was the rational and “modern” thing to do, but the ground was cut out from under him. He began to drift away into a world that every day seemed increasingly full of despair and meaninglessness.
Of course such a reaction is hardly surprising. If any human being has once believed in the existence of God with his whole heart, as David did, and once that belief has become an intimate part of his existence, as it was for David, then without a belief in God there’s nothing to hope for, nothing to provide real stability or meaning in a world where the only certain thing appears to be uncertainty and change and instability.
Some might say that it was almost better never to have believed in God at all.
Part 4, Chapter 57
“And then instead of going on to Arusha they turned left….Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
When David woke up on the morning after the party at the Thompsons’, the only motive he thought he had for living was simply the fact that living had become a kind of habit that couldn’t easily break. Even David understood, though, at least vaguely, that such habits are not a very good reason to continue doing anything. If life becomes nothing more than a habit, it ends up being a kind of dead thing, as his life was then. He felt he was only going through the motions of living.
Through that entire morning he was almost completely unable to work. The only thing he managed to do was write a report about the most recent inspection trip he’d made. In the middle of the morning, Germaine arrived and had a rather long conversation with Thompson before she and David went to lunch.
As they talked through Dar’s hot and humid midday, Germaine drew him out by making him feel as though everything he had to say was more important and more interesting for her at that moment than anything else in the world. She was particularly interested in what he had to say about Thompson.
Because adolescents can be so critical of everyone, finding fault everywhere, everything David said about Thompson was negative and potentially damaging. What he said would also, if Thompson ever heard about it, provide him with more than enough of a motive for revenge.
Naturally Thompson would hear about it, and the results for David would be practically fatal. During that lunch, though, David understood none of that, naive boy that he was, and so he rattled on. “Thompson’s out of place here,” David told Germaine. “He doesn’t speak the language or understand the people, and he’s not even trying to do those things. I was in Africa for only a year the first time I was here, but I think I learned a great deal.”
It was hardly very intelligent, but all David seemed able to do was to find fault with Thompson, his lifestyle, his work, the way he ran the office — everything. David showed no understanding of any personal difficulties Thompson might be facing. He had absolutely no idea of the fact that in saying these things, he must have appeared to Germaine to be quite a monster.
Perhaps it would be unfair to say that David was dense, but he certainly was so intellectually and socially clumsy that he didn’t understand that Germaine would tell Thompson everything David said about him, with the inevitable eventual consequences. These even worse than the immediate ones: talking about the difficulties Thompson was having reminded him of the chaos that existed in his own life, and the conversation with Germaine left him feeling disgusted with himself. He was reminded of the utter bleakness and purposelessness of his existence. His whole life seemed emptier and more futile than ever, and not only the conversation with Germaine, but also the memory of the events of the previous few days appeared to confirm that for him. There appeared to be some source of dark hopelessness within him that found expression in his mind no matter what he did.
He felt his sense of despair and deep sadness was almost unendurable now. He felt he’d risked everything — not only Harvard, but the months of back-breaking labor in Canada and almost all his money — and he’d lost. He thought he had nothing now. He’d left Harvard and given up what was for him the most exciting thing in life, the intellectual world he’d known there. He’d lost forever the opportunity to be with people who have lively, intelligent minds; he’d lost the world of books and absorbing conversation. He’d lost his whole future. He’d sacrificed everything in the hope that he’d be a good man, a complete man, or simply a man — even though he had no real idea what that meant. Instead of becoming a man, though, he’d descended into a world of such chaos and confusion and despair that he’d never have believed such a world could exist.
He was certain too that he would be inexorably dragged down deeper into an even more nightmarish world, one he would never be able to escape from. A few months earlier he had at least had the hope that when he returned to Tanganyika he might find something of the innocence and happiness he’d known there before. Now, though, it was clear that such a thing was impossible. The work at Catholic Relief had been going so badly that he found it as burdensome as he found everything else in life now. Not only was the work in the office dull, but the trips around Tanganyika were excruciatingly boring for him as well, in addition to the fact that he couldn’t get along with Thompson. And now a bottomless pit of black despair had opened up beneath his feet and was threatening to suck him down into it.
His mind continually circled back to the idea that he had nothing now. He didn’t have Harvard or the promise of some bright career. He didn’t have the happiness of a good conscience, partly because he didn’t believe in a conscience any longer. He didn’t have a sense of the goodness of life any more, because he had no belief in goodness, either. The collapse of his belief in God had brought about the collapse of the whole basis of a purpose for his life, the basis of happiness, the basis of goodness itself.
He had absolutely nothing to sustain him. He thought there was nothing to live for. He thought he wanted to die. He thought he wanted death now as much as he’d wanted Africa a few months earlier. David was probably only being melodramatic in his usual, unwitting way, but death seemed to present itself as an escape, death appeared to be a release from the bewildering events of his life, death was an end to the absurdity of it all.
If he’d really been presented with the prospect of dying, his thinking might have changed, despite all of the misery he believed he was experiencing. And as might be expected, because of some small, residual belief in an afterlife, though, perhaps, or because his cowardice was not quite complete, he couldn’t quite bring himself to the point of actually committing suicide. He thought he wanted to die, certainly, but he didn’t want it badly enough to actually bring it about. He did, though, think that at the very least he wanted to lose consciousness forever.
Sometimes, in a way that many would regard as extremely melodramatic, David thought of Milton’s lines, “For who would lose, though full of pain, . . . these thoughts that wander through eternity.” He decided that he wanted to lose “these thoughts,” for good. He wanted to lose his consciousness of life. He wanted an annihilation of awareness, for that was the only thing he really thought would end the absurdity and pain of his existence.
Part 4, Chapter 58
“I am bound, I am bound, for a distant shore,
By a lonely isle, by a far Azore,
There it is, there it is, the treasure I seek,
On the barren sands of a desolate creek.”
–Henry David Thoreau
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
He couldn’t continue in that state of mind for very long, though, without at least trying to do something. The only thing he could think of doing, however, was what he’d done so often in the past — escape to another place, another country. But which one? Where could he go now?
In the hopelessness of his current state of mind, there seemed to be two possibilities that might give him the chance of returning to the happiness of the past – for he still thought such a thing was possible. First, he could go to South Africa and perhaps there somehow find the Africa he’d once been happy in. How he thought he could do that, though, is in the final analysis inexplicable. South Africa was still locked into the apartheid regime. Perhaps even David understood the absurdity of such a plan, because he thought that if didn’t find in South Africa what he was looking for – and he surely wouldn’t – then he’d try something even more desperate and more outrageous. He’d join the mercenaries who were still fighting in the Congo then. He knew that by doing that, he might at least find the annihilation part of him was looking for.
The other thing he could try to do, he thought to himself, was to go to Israel. At that time, so many years ago, it was still possible to imagine that Israel was a kind of frontier country, the sort of country it was in the late nineteen-forties.
He thought to himself that if he went to Israel, he could perhaps find some of the meaning and purpose for his life that he’d hoped to find in Tanganyika. Perhaps he could work on some border kibbutz where existence was laborious and exhausting and he might be able to forget the pain that now seemed to fill his whole mind and his entire being.
The first plan, of course, going to South Africa, was far more self-destructive. He was aware of that. Even if he couldn’t join a group of white mercenaries, he knew that South Africa as it then existed was doomed politically. So what really was the point of even going there?
But, he thought to himself, what did it really matter? What did anything matter?
He was becoming the kind of person who pursues self-destruction as passionately as some people pursue success.
For him, still in Tanganyika, the crisis that he’d been expecting was not long in coming. One day, shortly after Germaine had left for Nairobi, Thompson sent him to check on a food shipment that had just arrived by freighter from the States. He was supposed to collect some specific information about the amounts and the type of foodstuffs that had been shipped. When he arrived at the docks, he was told the person who could give him most of the information he wanted wasn’t there, and he had to return to Thompson empty-handed.
When David walked into his office, Thompson was sitting behind his desk in an attitude of waiting, almost certainly with David’s criticism still fresh in his mind. Germaine must have told him everything.
“I managed to get some of the information,” David said quietly, “but not all of it.”
Thompson stared at him, and his face darkened. He seemed to be about to explode in slow motion. “You what?” he almost screamed, standing up and towering over David.
He had never seen Thompson so angry. He’d hardly ever seen anyone so angry. “I — I didn’t get all the information,” David stammered softly, looking at the floor.
Thompson became even more enraged. “I can’t hear you!” he bellowed. For one absurd moment David felt as though he were back in the Army. He heard the sergeant again, screaming the same words at his platoon.
“I said I couldn’t find out everything you wanted,” David murmured. He realized he was close to tears. It was even worse than the Army. At least in the Army he’d never wanted to cry.
“Well, you damn well better find it out,” Thompson roared.
“I don’t — I don’t think I can.” He continued to stare at the floor when he answered Thompson.
“What do you mean?” he sneered, “you ‘don’t think’ you can?”
“I just can’t,” David mumbled, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m through. I’m finished. I quit.”
He could feel Thompson just standing there, staring at him, but David couldn’t look at him.
“I’m not going to work here anymore,” he said simply, and he turned and left the office.
“What does it matter?” he asked himself. “What does anything matter?”
In later years, David would look back on that scene and be tempted to treat himself with the same scorn that Thompson treated him with then. He would be tempted to laugh at himself for wallowing in self-pity. The only difficulty with that, though, is that all the pain and confusion and sadness were quite real for David. The only thing that gave him any relief at all from the bewilderment and fear he was feeling about the future was the thought that he had already left so many places, so many jobs, and he’d survived. In his despair he told himself that surely one more wouldn’t matter very much.
It was the hottest part of the day now. He walked along narrow streets lined with palm trees to Barclay’s Bank, which to David still looked like one of the last outposts of the British Empire, and withdrew all his money. Then walked over to Thomas Cook’s and bought a ticket for Blantyre, in Malawi. He couldn’t book a flight to South Africa from Dar es Salaam, but he knew that in Blantyre he could by another ticket for Johannesburg. In those days, there were no direct flights between Tanganyika and South Africa.
He’d gotten used to packing up and leaving a place quickly. That was no problem for him anymore, and the next morning, when the plane lifted off from Dar, he felt a sense of tremendous relief, at least at first. He’d escaped the difficulties related to his job, and he’d also escaped other problems as well — like the exhausting reverse discrimination that seemed to exist everywhere in Tanganyika now. Although he felt guilty about looking forward to being in South Africa, among a bunch of racists, as he thought of them, he couldn’t help feeling that the weight of racial tension he’d felt in Tanganyika was dropping from him with every passing moment.
The despair of having found that racial tension in a place he loved was disappearing as well, at least for a time.
He was tired of being treated by Africans the way they’d been treated by Europeans, as though they didn’t exist. He was tired of being a scapegoat for what they’d suffered in the past. After all, he was one of those who’d believed in the justice of their cause, so why should they punish him? In only four years, things had changed out of all recognition in Tanganyika. He was no longer a friend in the eyes of most Africans. But what, he again asked himself with inordinate self-pity, and perhaps self-deception, what had he ever done to the Africans except try to help them? Why should they treat him so badly? Didn’t they know he was on their side? At least, he thought to himself, none of these questions would arise in South Africa.
At least in South Africa, he told himself, he wouldn’t be treated like a freak because he was white. Or even if he was treated that way, he thought illogically, it wouldn’t matter, because now he was determined to destroy himself, one way or another. He didn’t care anymore what he was. He didn’t care about all the old unanswered questions. He didn’t know anymore if he was intelligent or not. He did know he’d always been naive, even if not very innocent. Whatever the truth was, though, whatever he was, whatever he’d been, he was lost now, and he had no purpose except self-annihilation. The world was more bewildering than he’d ever thought it could be, far too confusing for someone like him to live in or survive in.
Years later he would look back on that time in his life, and he would have to make a conscious effort not to ridicule himself. He didn’t understand that he was responsible for his difficulties; he didn’t understand how he’d brought them about; and he certainly didn’t understand what he could do about it.
He just did not understand anything at all.
Part 4, Chapter 59
“A gray wall now, clawed and bloody.
Is there no way out of the mind?
Steps at my back spiral into a well.
There are no trees or birds in this world,
There is only sourness….
On a black wall, unidentifiable birds
Swivel their heads and cry.
There is no talk of immortality among these!
Cold blanks approach us :
They move in a hurry.”
One of the most emotionally wretched periods of David’s life began now. Or perhaps it would be better to say there began a period when there was no real life in him at all. He was dead, in a sense, and he thought he had nothing to look forward to but death. It was a period when he wanted to die as soon as he possibly could, a period of anxiety, fear, and depression of a kind so black that it is impossible – at least for me – to recreate it in any way that would be comprehensible — or bearable — to anyone else.
He flew first from Dar es Salaam to Blantyre and changed airlines for the trip to South Africa. The plane out of Blantyre stopped in what was then Salisbury before going on to Johannesburg. He hadn’t planned on spending any time there, but when he was in the transit lounge, he felt such relief at being in an even nominally European country — and he would have ashamed to say that — that he decided he should at least try to find something to do in the city. Surely, he thought, it must be possible to find some kind of job there, some way of supporting himself.
He was ashamed of feeling relieved and happy at the sight of white immigration officials at the airport. Feelings like that went against all his principles, all his ideas about racial equality. Perhaps, though, what he thought of as principles were really only weak intellectual constructs, since they had collapsed so quickly when Africans discriminated against him.
As far as Salisbury was concerned, he very quickly discovered – or came to the conclusion – that the city had nothing to offer him. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he very quickly discovered that he had nothing to offer the city, although he might not then have had enough insight to think in those terms. He was too depressed even to know what kind of work he wanted to do there. He certainly was not in a state of mind that could have made an impression on any prospective employer, since he felt so utterly worthless, so much of a complete failure. He saw himself as having no skills, nothing whatsoever to offer.
With such an attitude, it’s perhaps not surprising that all the Europeans he saw everywhere, on the street, in the offices and shops, looked small, narrow-minded, uncomfortable, stern, and dull. He may have seen these qualities in them because that was the kind of person he was becoming. When he looked at them, he couldn’t imagine that they ever said anything very interesting, because he no longer had anything interesting to say himself.
The weather added to the woes of his childish despair and self-pity. It was winter in Zimbabwe, something like a sunny, brisk, late November day in New England, but it felt much colder after the equatorial heat of Tanganyika. Perhaps more than anything else it was the weather that finally convinced him that there was nothing for him in Salisbury, and that of course illustrates how superficial his plans were.
There was probably nothing for him anywhere, he thought, and so he might as well continue along the path of self-destruction.
After a few days he boarded a plane for Johannesburg.
Part 4, Chapter 60
This happens to older travellers,
footsteps muted in foreign towns
where natives tread their stable streets
while strangers trace resemblances.
–Ingrid de Kok
In a Northern City, Suddenly
The weather in the Transvaal was even colder, of course, than in Rhodesia, but fortunately there was an almost unbroken succession of clear, sunny days. If the weather had been rainy or overcast, the weight of depression would have pressed down on his consciousness even more strongly, because Johannesburg wasn’t exactly the city of his dreams. In fact, it reminded him of nothing so much as the business and industrial area of a large American city like Cleveland or Chicago.
There was one difference, though. Johannesburg was many times colder and lonelier for him than any of those cities could ever be. He was alone in this behemoth of a city, eight thousand miles from home, and he was in despair. Some will perhaps say that he unconsciously enjoyed his despair, that he wallowed in it. Whether or not that’s true, the only things he was really conscious of then were blackness and pain.
However, because despair was fueling his desire for self-destruction, despair was paradoxically his reason for just going on from one moment to the next. As soon as he’d found a cheap room to stay in, he set out to find the office where he could try to put in motion his absurd – although of course it didn’t seem that way to him then – idea of joining the mercenaries who were then fighting in the Congo.
The only place he could think of starting his search was the Johannesburg Star, one of the city’s major English dailies. He telephoned and asked if someone there knew the address. The newspaper’s telephone operator transferred him to one office, which transferred his call to another. This seemed to go on for some time, until someone finally connected him to what he was told was the newspaper’s reference section.
A soft-voiced woman quietly gave him the address he wanted.
Or at least he thought it was the address he wanted. After getting out his map of Johannesburg and working his way through dingy streets to a run-down, partly boarded-up building, he found a large sign with a scrawled message saying that the office had been moved.
He was tired and hungry, but there was nowhere to rest or eat, and he didn’t want to go back to his grungy room, so he got out the map again and walked through more decrepit, decaying parts of the city until he found the address of the office he was looking for.
There were two grimy rooms, both of them small and cramped. In the outer room there was a large, dirty window opposite the door. To the left was an old sofa covered with ragged plastic, its chrome-plated arms and legs scratched and rusted. A man was asleep on it with a cap pulled down over his face. Other men, dressed in dirty, wrinkled clothes, were standing inside the door and talking. To the left of the door was an armchair that nicely matched the sofa, and a woman was sitting on it. She was wearing a short, wrinkled skirt, and on her legs she had nylon stockings that were full of runs. She was heavily made up, with hair that can only be described as violently red. She was talking to a man standing next to her chair.
There was a doorway that led into the second room and through it David could see another man sitting at a desk. Since none of the people in the outer room had paid any attention to him, he walked up to the man at the desk. A balding, greasy-looking individual, he was fat to the point of nearly disgusting David.
The room and everything in it were permeated with an atmosphere that perhaps only the word sleaze can describe, more sleaze than he’d ever seen before in his life. And even he couldn’t turn this sleaze into something exciting or adventurous in his mind. It was dull, leaden, boring, and cramped. The only thing that didn’t fit that description or those surroundings was David himself. He was, as always, showered, shaved, and neatly dressed. He must have looked outrageously innocent to all of the odd characters in the room, although of course he hardly felt at all innocent himself.
The man at the desk in this second room ignored him just as the other people had. The man went on making some notes on papers that lay in front of him. David glanced around the room. A filing cabinet and some wooden chairs were the only furniture. Spread out on one wall was an enormous and somewhat bizarre flag; it was divided into three diagonal sections: red, blue, and green. Thick yellow stripes divided the sections from one another, and in the middle of the flag there was an image of a hand holding a flaming torch.
David stared at the flag. The man at the desk went on scribbling on his papers. Finally, David turned to him and said, “I’d like to make an application.”
He looked up at David with a harassed, worried expression. “All right, take these papers. Fill them out.” He handed David some forms. “Make an appointment with the doctor; his name’s written on this sheet.” He held out another piece of paper. “You have a bank account in South Africa?” Before David could answer, he hurried on, “No? Then open one. When you’ve done all that, come back here.”
He turned back to the work he’d been doing.