when i think about the tone of ishan's narrative, i'm reminded of "the forest of the gods" by balys sruoga, an autobiographical account of the author's stay at stuthof concentration camp during wwii and an excellent example of detachment, grim irony and sarcasm (bordering on the grotesque) as a psychological defense mechanism. at first, one's mind starts to paint a two-dimensional, cartoonish, distorted picture which is hilarious and triggers uncontrollable hysterical laughter, but as one reads on, one gradually comes to realize that, on an emotional level, sruoga'a experience was nothing like this - indeed, it was more horrifying than one could imagine. the more dots one connects, the more one's hair stands on end. i think, had sruoga faced the horror in dead earnest at the time, he might not have survived.
this excerpt got me acquainted me with the book (i forget in which grade - "the forest of the gods" is considered a classic and is included in the school curriculum for lithuanian language and literature). a while later i read it in full and forgot about it afterward until the final year of graduate school, when we had professional practice in computer linguistics and had to use text-aligning software to match each sentence in the (atrocious) english translation with the lithuanian original. the program refused to work most of the time and i ended up aligning the sentences manually, re-reading the book as i did so and falling in love all over again in the process.
the man in charge of the official mail was an SS feldfebel named platz, whom the prisoners had nicknamed "the bald penguin".
platz was an old man, over sixty and totally batshit. he had a sagging occiput and there were spectacles sitting on the vast continent of his nose owing to his short-sightedness. he was medium height, a little hunched over, with a face like a crumpled zipper bag.
never had there been a more fastidious creature in all of pre-war eastern prussia.
if he summoned you, you had to be there at the precise hour and minute, in the literal sense of the words. come in a minute earlier and he would show you his watch and order you to get out because you were early. come in a minute later and he would show you his watch and order you to get out because you were late. yes, such was the degree of punctuality you were supposed to demonstrate.
in other words, it didn't matter when you arrived because you never were on time. no-one knew what principles that watch of his functioned on. and it wasn't just the prisoners, either - he was the exact same with the SS soldiers.
he was the camp's chief censor, and, judging from the past, the most suitable candidate for the job: before the war began, he used to scrape horse manure off the railroad tracks in gdansk with an iron rod.
he would set a limit on the number of lines a letter could contain. if there were several lines too many, the son of a bitch just trimmed the bottom. he had sufficient time to count the lines, but none left to read them. the length of a line, on the other hand, was of no consequence - for all he cared, each could be five or twenty-five centimeters, as long as the number was correct. only one side of the sheet could be used, but whether you wrote as few as ten lines or managed to squeeze in fifty was up to you to decide. if anything in the letter was not to his liking, he tossed it in the bin and you were forced to start over.
i argued and pleaded with him all the time, while he, for his part, ratted me out to meyer on a regular basis. he was never certain as to what i had in mind when i wrote my letters. he must have assumed that i was thinking something other than what i was writing about.
in one of my letters i wrote: the devil alone knows how much longer i'm going to be locked up in here. he tore the letter into shreds and told me:
"you can't refer to the devil in a letter."
i wrote another letter and replaced "the devil"with "the gods", but that one also ended up in the bin. as it turned out, you couldn’t refer to the gods either. he then called me and began to lecture me on proper letter-writing, telling me what could be mentioned: i have received your package and letter in perfect order, thank you so much, please send me some more, i'm healthy and happy and feel awesome, hugs and kisses to all.
"sir sharfuhrer", said i, "such a letter wouldn't even be worth writing. why not just print it out on a dull gray thing [toilet paper] and be done?"
"get out!" he shouted at me, so i did.
one of my letters was confiscated because i had written: "i'm sick to death of being cooped up behind rusty wire".
"how dare you write that you're cooped up behind rusty wire? is this the only thing you've noticed here at the camp? don't you see the young birch trees over there?"
again he told me to get out and i went out.
i rewrote the letter. this time i wrote: "the electrified barbed wire of our fence is shining, sparkling like silver sprinkled with fine sugar. behind the fence i can see three young birch trees, two tree-stumps and one toadstool."
"again, you scoundrel! what is this bullshit? i'll tell meyer!"
that time he had already complained to meyer, but meyer hadn't been able to do anything.
"i told you, you must write that you are healthy..."
"what if i'm sick? really, what am i supposed to do then? sir sharfuhrer, would you be so kind as to feel my side?.." [at the camp sruoga developed severe pleurisy]
"get out!" he shouted at me, so i went out and composed a new letter: "in compliance with the current legal acts and regulations, i am healthy..."
of course, the penguin tossed my letter into the wastebin and threw me out.
he could shred my letter because it was too long, or because it was too short – in fact, a single sentence. that was no letter, said he; that was an act of outright mockery of the authorities. he would shred my letters because they were too sad or too amusing. others had a much easier time writing theirs, but i found it awfully hard to get a hang of the tone that rang right with the penguin. i could tell that he invariably felt like vomiting at the sight of me.