Vlady, a former dissident who loses his job when he refuses to renounce
his socialist beliefs in the new, unified Germany, wants to tell his
alienated son, Karl, what his family's long and passionate involvement
with Communism really meant. It is the story of Ludwik, the Polish
secret agent who recruited Philby, and of Gertrude, Vlady's mother,
whose desire for Ludwik is matched only by her devotion to the Communist
As the plot unfolds through the political upheavals of the twentieth
century, Vlady describes the hopes aroused by the Bolshevik revolution
and discovers the almost unbearable truth about their betrayal.
Written with deep political insight and sensitivity, Tariq Ali's Fear of
Mirrors relates the extraordinary history of Central Europe from the
perspective of those on the other side of the Cold War.
A writer and filmmaker, he has written over a dozen books
on world history and politics, five novels, and scripts for both stage
and screen. Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was the first in a planned
quartet of historical novels depicting the confrontation between Islamic
and Christian civilizations. The second, The Book of Saladin, was the
fictional memoirs of the Liberator of Jerusalem and has been translated
into several other languages. The third The Stone Woman, the latest in
the series, is set in and around fin-de-siecle Istanbul and follows the
soul-searching confrontation with modernity of the noble Ottoman family
of Iskander Pasha.
We live in a dreary void and this century is almost over. I have
experienced both its passion and its chill. I have watched the sun set
across the frozen tundra. I try not to begrudge my fate, but often
without success. I know what you’re thinking, Karl. You’re thinking that
I deserve the punishment history has inflicted on me.
You believe that the epoch that is now over, an epoch of genocidal
utopias, subordinated the individual to bricks and steel, to gigantic
hydro-electric projects, to crazed collectivization schemas and worse.
Social architecture used to dwarf the moral stature of human beings and
to crush their collective spirit. You’re not far wrong, but that isn’t
the whole story.
At your age my parents talked endlessly of the roads that led to
paradise. They were building a very special socialist highway, which
would become the bridge to constructing heaven on earth. They refused to
be humiliated in silence. They refused to accept the permanent
insignificance of the poor. How lucky they were, my son. To dream such
dreams, to dedicate their lives to fulfilling them. How crazy they seem
now, not just to you or the world you represent, but to the billions who
need to make a better world, but are now too frightened to dream.
Hope, unlike fear, can never be a passive emotion. It demands movement.
It requires people who are active. Till now people have always dreamed
of the possibility of a better life. Suddenly they have stopped. I know
it’s only a semi-colon, not a full-stop, but it is too late to convince
poor old Gerhard. He is gone forever.
These are times when, for people like me, it sometimes requires a
colossal effort simply to carry on living. It was the same during the
thirties. My mother once told me of how, a year before Stalin’s men
killed him, my father had told her: ‘In times like these it’s much
easier to die than to live.’ For the first time I have understood what
he meant. Life itself seems evil. The worst torture is to witness
silently my own degeneration. I really had intended to start on a more
cheerful note. Sorry.
Your mother and I, she in Dresden and me in Berlin, moved towards each
other, seeking, shelter from the suffocation that affected the majority
of citizens of the German Democratic Republic. We yearned for anarchy
because the centre of our bureaucratic world was based on order. Gerhard
and all our other friends felt exactly the same. We loved our late-night
meetings where we talked about the future full of hope and kept
ourselves warm by the steam from the black coffee and the tiny glasses
of slivowitz. Even in the darkest times there was always merriment.
Songs. Poetry. Gerhard was a brilliant mimic and our gatherings always
ended with him doing his Politburo turn.
We were desperate for liberation, so desperate that, for a time, we were
blinded by the flashes emanating from the Western videosphere, which
succeeded in disguising the drabness of the landscape that now confronts
The old order possessed, if nothing else, at least one virtue. Its very
existence provoked us to think, to rebel, to bring the Wall down. If we
lost our lives in the process, death struck us down like lightning. It
was mercifully brief. The new uniformity is a slow killer; it encourages
passivity. But enough pessimism for the moment.
This is the story of my parents, Karl. It is for you and the children
that you will, I hope, father one day. Throughout your childhood you
were fed daily with tales of heroism, most of which were true, but they
were repetitive. And for that reason, perhaps, you will hate what you
are about to read. Just like the poor used to hate potatoes.
Ever since you became a cultivated and capable young man, your mother
and I have found it impossible to draw you out, to make you talk with
us, to hear your complaints, your fears, your fantasies. Now I know why
you couldn’t say anything to us. In your eyes we had failed, and to the
young failure is a terrible crime. Whatever your verdict on us, I would
like you to read this till the end. At my age the passage of time
appears as a waterfall, and so please treat this request as the last
favour your old fart of a father is asking of you.
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