Familiar Games

Photo by Sam Sherratt

I lived for six years in Amsterdam. Arriving there several weeks before starting my new job, I walked around the city and hung out in the park and the coffeeshops. The first three conversations I had with strangers all went the same way. They’d ask me what I thought of the place so far, and I’d say great, really chilled, I liked it; and then they’d give me the dark warning. It would go something like this:

‘Well, just be careful. You know, Amsterdam is a place where you can get anything you want. And I mean, anything you want. So – be careful.’

One girl, with junkie’s skin, said to me, ‘It can be a very cold place, you know.’

And that’s true. Physically, it’s true – this is Northern Europe, after all, despite the balconies on every apartment and the flocks of parakeets in Vondel Park. Winters can drag on. It’s windy, prone to downpours and storms which bring down trees and tram-cables. But everything’s always working by morning – does any city have such legions of workers?

If you’re living below sea-level on a sandy swamp, it pays, I suppose, to make sure you’re not caught short-handed.

But the girl was talking about a deeper coldness – something in the Dutch character, perhaps. And for sure, they don’t like freeloaders. It’s ‘pump or drown’. Do what you want otherwise, but take your turn at the pump. And there’s a historical coldness, a deep numbness left over from what happened here seventy or so years ago. Everyone knows about Ann Frank, of course. But the coldest place in the city has to be Nieuwmarkt, which was turned into a holding-pen for the mass deportations to concentration camps in Germany and Poland during the occupation. 

Growing up in England, ‘the war’ seemed like a distant myth. Here, you’re a little closer to it. 

What is the particular horror of the historical construct we call Nazism? What are the connotations which make that word the definition of evil?

It’s an easy list to begin, but a hard one to end. Race supremacy, eugenics and genocide. The ‘war machine’. The concentration camps; the stacks of emaciated dead; the barely animated skeletons of the survivors; the industrialisation of death; the horrors of human slavery. The serial numbers tattooed on people’s arms. People used as things – kill the defective, work the rest to death. That’s what they deserve: they are cattle; beasts of burden; dumb animals.

And the most hideous thing of all, perhaps, that seems to lie curled up like some horrible parasite in the bowels of the monster, the thing that seals our recognition of the Nazi entity as the ultimate evil: the activities of Nazi scientists in the camps, such as Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ of Auschwitz. Human experimentation. Pressure chambers and freeze-tanks. Torture and vivisection. Trauma-based mind-control. Technology and psychology repurposed to the creation of hell on earth. 

Add all of this together and you get something like the connotations of the word ‘Nazi’. A powerful epithet – a word as powerful in our age as ‘Satan’ was in others.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my Dutch students about the story of Ann Frank. I had an idea – not original, but I can’t remember where I came across it – that her diary could serve as an illustration of the Theatre of the Absurd. The typical situation of an absurdist play such as Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows us characters trapped in a world where the horizon of significance has gone haywire – nothing makes sense any more: it’s the same world, but somehow gutted of meaning, structure or consistency. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned into a world of inscrutable intrigues, halfway through a story they have no chance of understanding (the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare). These are minor characters who suddenly find themselves centre-stage, with no memory or past beyond the little the playwright gave them for their limited roles. They literally do not know who they are, and get confused about which name belongs to whom. They are adrift on a bare stage in a world in which the laws of physics and probability can no longer be relied upon for consistency. They are powerless in ways that had not been imagined, in a world which is nightmarish because nonsensical. In these plays the characters are directionless, forced to wait endlessly on events or more powerful characters, and they fill the time with familiar games, rituals and rivalries, formulas to distract themselves from the suspense – and the contradictions – of their intolerable situation.

This, to my mind, obliquely sums up the position of Ann Frank and her family in their secret room, filling their days with routines while the world outside goes hideously mad. But Madeleine, my student, found this a hard connection to make, though she struggled to articulate why. Was it the equation between the Franks and the fictitious clowns in these stage-plays? Did this undermine the essential nobility or heroism which imbued Madeleine’s conception of Ann’s family? Or was it the word absurd, when she wanted the word tragic? I can’t say for sure, and I don’t think she really knew. I felt that she was simply not, as an Amsterdamer, able to take the step back from events necessary to compare their pattern to an essentially comedic theatrical genre. There was something about it which seemed sacrilegious to her.

As a child, my favourite toy was GI Joe, only in England he was called Action Man. I had four of them. They had implausible super-hero bodies, scars on their cheeks, and no genitals. No raping for them, just killing. One wore the German SS uniform, and had, of course, blonde hair and blue eyes. The hair was painted on. Please, these weren’t dolls, they were ‘action figures’. I never tucked them up in bed, only invented new ways for them to kill each other.

Raised from childhood by Hollywood and Mattel, we are fascinated by the human drama of war, whether hooked on its excitement, its technology, its cruelty, its sacrifice – and we don’t look much deeper into the topic. We tend to stop at the front line. We don’t ask what war is, or why it happens. We assume that wars ‘break out’, that they are accidental, random events, like hurricanes. When the wars involve ‘us’, and we only really hear or care about the ones that do, then they are Overcoming the Monster stories, good versus evil.

It takes a long time to begin to see that things might be otherwise, particularly in the case of the Second World War. For my parents’ generation, there was and is no question: this was the good war – no matter what might be said about other conflicts in history, this really was the archetypal struggle against evil. Death in this war was not waste. Hitler was a madman and a monster, and his madness and monstrousness somehow enslaved the entire German people, who, because of their susceptibility to this madness, have to accept some measure of collective guilt for what happened; and what happened could never happen here. 

No one notices the implicit racialism of this pseudo-explanation.

Occasionally, lip-service is paid to the idea that in theory it could happen here; that what happened to the Germans could happen anywhere. Whether those who acknowledge this really mean it is another question. It may be seen as theoretically possible at some unspecified point in the future — but they don’t mean that it could happen here almost overnight, as it did in Germany. In our normalcy bias, we cannot imagine such a transformation, any more than ordinary Germans could, during the Weimar republic. Oh, no – if it happened in the West, we would see it coming this time, and stop it before it got too late.

Before Amsterdam, I’d been as wrapped up in my own life as everyone else. I hadn’t fulfilled any of my ambitions; all I’d achieved was to stir up a few dramas around my insignificant existence. In fact I’d developed something of an addiction or fetish for story, which grew perhaps out of my literary obsessions. A horrible thing to say, when we’re talking about events which hurt people – but all through the protracted and painful process of separation and eventual divorce, I got through by consoling myself with the fact that at least something was happening at last. I think it was the only way I could reassure myself that I was still alive. Walking out of my marriage for the second time, I resolved to get out of the country and try to start again. Amsterdam was perfect — close enough to be visited by my kids, who were teenagers now and would like coming here. I still had some direction, some adventure and ambition in me, to carry me into a new millennium.

Then two airliners waltzed out of the sky and melted like blowtorch flames through the steel and concrete facades of two huge buildings, leaving cartoon cut-outs of themselves down to the wing-tips. In the fires that resulted, the steel frames of the buildings melted to glowing lava in less time than it takes to defrost a turkey, whereupon the buildings exploded and collapsed symmetrically into their own footprints at near free-fall speed, leaving hardly a rubble pile, as concrete was pulverised into huge pyroclastic clouds boiling through streets and high up into the sky.

Later that day a third steel-framed building spontaneously collapsed with a smooth, demure curtsey all the way to the ground. The crime scene was immediately dismantled by the authorities and the remaining steel shipped out of the country before it could be examined. The fires under the rubble, impervious to water, burned for months. The dust was full of tiny spherules of iron: by-products not of the mere melting of steel but of its evaporation. The planes – like the others flown into the Pentagon and into the ground at Shanksville Pennsylvania – were never found. They simply ceased to exist.

There was no criminal investigation into the biggest mass-murder in US history. The authorities immediately knew everything that had happened, and nothing remained to be found out, so any hearings into the event were resisted tooth and nail by the executive.

In response to the attack, a series of wars were launched by the US – or rather, a state of permanent war was declared along with a state of emergency, annually renewed. The US Constitution was demonised and its dismantling began. Hideous and extensive torture programmes were openly inaugurated. The US government suspended habeas corpus, appropriated the right to kill, torture or detain indefinitely any American citizen (any human being, in fact) without trial or even disclosure, anywhere on the planet. Concentration camps were built or renovated all over the United States under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Police forces were progressively militarised. Every department of the government armed itself to the teeth; billions of rounds of ammunition were bought up. Armed drones patrolled domestic airspace, linked in to huge surveillance systems.

Denial is a strong capability of the human mind, socially evolved for its survival value. For example, at the end of the war in Germany, most people denied knowing about the existence of death camps. But they must have known of the concentration camps within which the extermination programmes were hidden. German people must, surely, have been aware of the civilian labour programmes, the loss of legal protections such as habeas corpus, the right to a trial. They must have observed the incremental passage of enabling acts for a police state with growing concern. Why didn’t they resist before it was too late? we ask, with comfortable hindsight. Why didn’t people speak out?

Some did, of course. And what happened to them? The same as would have happened under Stalin or Mao — they were beaten up, tortured or killed by private armies of brown-shirted thugs, or arrested and taken to labour camps, where they were tattooed with IBM serial numbers and worked to death for I G Farben. Or they were mown down on the edge of pits they themselves had dug. Or they were tortured or experimented on, lost in a world beyond the protection of laws.

Those who survived National Socialism in Germany were not, one must assume, its most outspoken critics. Those who stayed out of the camps would by definition be those who didn’t like talking about, or even knowing about, concentration camps and things of that nature. As always, not knowing is a survival strategy — and those who survived the regime are, I suppose, statistically more likely to be the ones who had mastered the art of not knowing.

In a Mafia neighbourhood, there are things you train yourself not to notice. Blindness has survival value, when the sighted begin to disappear into the prisons.

Like Winston Smith, I play a little chess. Amsterdam is a real chess town; practically every café and coffeehouse has a set or two. My best friend and I would come out of school many evenings (we were teachers at the international school) and settle down in a warm coffeeshop for a couple of spliffs and a game or three of increasingly inspired but amnesiac chess.

There’s a place, Café Schaak, just off Leidseplein, where people play cards, backgammon or chess. That’s all that happens in there – drinks and games. Most days the clientele consists entirely of men, mostly Turkish. Sometimes I take my oft-times dinner companion, the beautiful Katarina Albertova, to Café Schaak, just to give everybody a treat.

Katarina learned chess from her grandfather, and she’s better than I am although she’s half my age. She’s a Russian Uzbek, with an Asiatic width to her cheekbones, which like her other bones are among the finest on the planet, in my humble opinion. When she plays chess, she sits completely motionless from the beginning of the game to the end, with her legs crossed, her back straight, thumb under her chin and her right index finger measuring the epic curve of her cheekbone. She moves her pieces always with her left hand – the right index finger stays where it is. Her body doesn’t move.

Me and Katarina, it’s going nowhere – it’s just a game. Absurd, really. She is saving herself for the man she marries, which is obviously not going to be me. She lived with her grandparents in Samarcand until she was twenty-two. She was twenty-three before she tried wine. I tell people that she was raised by fairies in the middle of a forest, and sometimes they seem, momentarily, to believe me.

When I say she is half my age, I mean that she is exactly half my age, and this is in fact the whole reason I know Katarina. In the couple of years approaching my fiftieth birthday, I was involved in a deep affair with a woman which violently hit the buffers a few months before my birthday. My girlfriend had talked about organising a huge party for my fiftieth — she had a talent for that kind of thing. But that Christmas, I was hurled onto the rocks by a horrible sequence of events: an accidental pregnancy, the death of the baby, and a vicious break-up. I was still in a bad, low place as my birthday approached, and I said to my friend Natalie that the only way I thought I could get through the evil day was if I had a date with a woman half my age. She told me about a waitress at a Belgian restaurant she and her husband frequented — she was Russian, had supermodel looks, and was exactly twenty-five years old.

I took her to a nice restaurant. She was exactly what was required. We meet every couple of weeks. She likes to go out, and I like the arm-candy. It’s a game, like chess, a way to pass the time. Adrift on a bare stage, where the laws of physics and probability can no longer be relied upon for consistency, we are powerless in ways that had not been imagined. We find ourselves awake in a world which is nightmarish because nonsensical. Directionless, we are forced to wait helplessly on events, filling our time with rituals and rivalries, formulas to distract ourselves from the suspense — and the contradictions — of our situation. Like Ann and her family in their secret room, we fill our days with familiar games, hanging on to our sanity while the world outside goes mad.

One thought on “Familiar Games

  1. Reblogged this on the lethal text and commented:

    Denial is a strong capability of the human mind, socially evolved for its survival value. For example, at the end of the war in Germany, most people denied knowing about the existence of death camps. But they must have known of the concentration camps within which the extermination programmes were hidden. German people must, surely, have been aware of the civilian labour programmes, the loss of legal protections such as habeas corpus, the right to a trial. They must have observed the incremental passage of enabling acts for a police state with growing concern. Why didn’t they resist before it was too late? we ask, with comfortable hindsight. Why didn’t people speak out?

    Some did, of course. And what happened to them? The same as would have happened under Stalin or Mao — they were beaten up, tortured or killed by private armies of brown-shirted thugs, or arrested and taken to labour camps, where they were tattooed with IBM serial numbers and worked to death for I G Farben. Or they were mown down on the edge of pits they themselves had dug. Or they were tortured or experimented on, lost in a world beyond the protection of laws.

    Those who survived National Socialism in Germany were not, one must assume, its most outspoken critics. Those who stayed out of the camps would by definition be those who didn’t like talking about, or even knowing about, concentration camps and things of that nature. As always, not knowing is a survival strategy — and those who survived the regime are, I suppose, statistically more likely to be the ones who had mastered the art of not knowing.

    In a Mafia neighbourhood, there are things you train yourself not to notice. Blindness has survival value, when the sighted begin to disappear into the prisons.

    Liked by 1 person

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