This is a light, even delicate story about a device that unstoppably projects the screams of the 20th Century into the present—and the present is a prim academic research center at a small college, the sort of place where the study of horror neatly fits into two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon, with an hour or so for lunch.
Lore Segal, her own remarkable life aside, is a kind of anthropologist and even comedian of trauma, though to read her accounts of what people are like in the long wake of history is to be forced to imagine them as figures in Commedia del’Arte prints—enacting recognizable scripts in an almost mechanical way. Ilka Weisz (neé Weissnix), Segal’s heroine and alter ego over several of her works, teaches a class of multi-lingual, multi-trauma students who are themselves a kind of motley of the awful 20th Century (and it’s interesting to think about Segal’s work alongside Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain).
Wondering what makes the lightness is probably the thing that brings me back to this story again and again: Segal is such a superficially nice writer that it’s easy to glide past the things she talks about that almost no other writer bothers with: in another book, Ilka listens “tenderly” to a man urinating in the next room.
In this story, the director of the center, Leslie Shakespeare, has to ask the ushers to remove the son who can’t or won’t shut up about his parent’s political murder outside La Paz:
Ahmed? Is Ahmed in the hall? Ahmed, would you be good enough to remove the unquiet gentleman as gently as necessary force will allow. Take him to my office please, and I will meet with him after the symposium.
First published included in The New Yorker, 1 May 1989. Collected in Shakespeare’s Kitchen, The New Press, 2007. You can listen to Jennifer Egan read it here