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Table of Contents
by RON SINGER
I have known Mr. Pretorius --Arthur Pretorius-- for almost a decade now, long enough to consider myself his Marlow, or his Nick Carraway. Not that he is in any sense a hero, or even a close friend, but, like Lord Jim, Mr. Kurtz, and (the possibly Great) Gatsby, Mr. Pretorius is a mystery, one of those people who, the longer you know them, the less you seem to understand. Instead of a narrative, therefore, the best means of conveying his unknowability may be a collage of linked tidbits. Since he has just e-mailed me with a cry for help, suppose I begin with that:
As requested, I made bail for Mr. Pretorius, using money from the Global Boat People Rescue Fund (GBPRF), one of the organizations I represent. As the e-mail implies, I’m probably the only living person he considers a friend. I know of at least one dead one, Claudia Rosales, whose obit in our Paper of Record earlier this year (POR, 2/15/16) made specific mention of him:
... Among Ms. Rosales’ known associates was Mr. Arnold [sic] Pretorius, whose photograph with the deceased comes from the archives of the National Security Authority (NSA).
[The grainy black-and-white photograph shows a small crowd in front of a government building, with red circles around the heads of Claudia and Mr. Pretorius. Since both are muffled against the cold, and since there is something that may be snow on the ground, this photograph may have been taken at the climate-change rally sponsored by the Green Brigades (GB) in February 2013.]
As his e-mail also implies, I had represented Mr. Pretorius during several previous arrests, including the one in 2013, when the charge was disseminating seditious material. Although our nation’s draconian national security laws precluded my presence at the interrogation, which took place over two days, the Penal Code (PC) did grant me access to the uncensored parts of the Interview Transcript (IT), which I was allowed to photocopy. Here are a few selections, with my comments in square brackets:
NSA: Are you familiar with the case of Oscar Pistorius, in South Africa?
Mr. P: Of course. Everyone is.
NSA: Where did you read about the case? Online? In the POR?
[This may have been a trick question, intended to tortuously lead the subject to admit that he had been trolling samizdat websites.]
Mr. P: Please! That story has been everywhere.
NSA: Our sources suggest that Mr. Pistorius is, in fact, a distant relation of yours. Do you feel sympathy for him, especially since he is a celebrated champion of the rights of the disabled?
Mr. P: Of course, I am sympathetic with the rights of the disabled.
[Implication: the “distant relation” part of the question did not merit a response.] ...
NSA: According to official documents, you arrived in this country from India in 1973, when you were ten years old.
Mr. P.: That is untrue.
[What must really have been going on was that the NSA was trolling, because they had either lost some of Mr. Pretorius’ data, or were confusing him with someone with the same, or a similar, name. Actually, there are two fairly well known activists in our country named “Pennathur” and “Pillarishetty.” Both of these people did, indeed, originate from India, which enjoys “Most Favored Nation Status” (MFNS), for the obvious reason that they supply us with skilled physicians and IT people, both in short supply, thanks to our antediluvian educational system.]
Since the follow-up questions and responses were all censored –the usual thick black marker strikethroughs-- I can’t tell whether the NSA ever managed to establish Mr. Pretorius’ real place and date of birth. After the long interrogation, as I mentioned, we were allowed to post bail, and the case never came to trial. In case you’re wondering whether I know where and when he was born, I never asked, and he never told me. But some of the things I do know about him are more interesting.
In December 2015, for instance, during a dinner at my place with some Movement friends, including Claudia, (R.I.P.), as the wine flowed, Mr. Pretorius suddenly produced a thick spiral notebook from his backpack and, flipping through the pages, announced: “Surprise, friends! Here’s a journal I’ve been keeping for the last six or seven years.”
“May we have a look?” asked one of the women – not Claudia.
Mr. Pretorius chuckled, and may have blushed. (Or was it the wine?) “Oh, I don’t think you would find it very interesting. It’s not even what most people would call a journal --no names, places, gossip-- just some eccentric ramblings.”
I joined the fray. “Arthur,” I said sternly, “as your attorney, I must beg to differ with you about the possible import of this document.” I spoke in my most stuffy, overbearing manner. “The next time you’re arrested, whether or not I’m able to extricate you from the clutches of the law may depend on my ability to produce a few of these ‘eccentric ramblings.’ “
As all of us were painfully aware, our nation’s sentencing procedures rely heavily on just such personal information. For a few seconds, I saw him weighing the matter. Then, he shrugged, and sliding the notebook across, said, ”Oh, all right, Charles, point taken. But only you, for only five minutes, and no pictures with your phone. We mustn’t allow you to be a boor and ruin this nice party.”
Silently accepting these stipulations, I opened the journal and skimmed its fifty-or-so pages, which were covered with small black cursive writing. Here and there, when something caught my interest, I stopped to read it.
Later, when guests from the dinner party, or anyone else in the Movement who had heard about the journal, would ask me to betray Mr. Pretorius’ confidences, I would silence them by saying that, if they ever found themselves under Enhanced Interrogation (EI) at one or another of the Black Sites (BS) our country maintains (to keep its skirts a bit less filthy), it would be better for them not to know these things. But now that the issue is probably moot, for reasons I will soon explain, let me try to quote a few bits from memory:
One entry (undated) describes an encounter with a new barista in the café where Mr. Pretorius took his morning coffee and sweet roll. When he presented his debit card to pay the bill, the young man, who obviously regarded himself as something of a wag, read the name, and said, “Wow, ‘Pretorius,’ just like the Roman guards! I better not mess with you.”
Possibly because Mr. Pretorius is slightly built, he took offense. “I’m surprised you’ve even heard of the Praetorian Guard, you idiot!” By then, the owner of the café, who knew Mr. Pretorius well, had heard the raised voices, and rushed from his office in the back.
“Oh, God, Mikhail,” he shouted, “don’t tell me you’ve insulted another customer! I warned you last time. You’re...” According to the journal, Mr. Pretorius intervened, saving the young man’s job by saying that they had only had “a small disagreement,” and that the culprit should be given one more chance. Tendering his effusive thanks, Mikhail jumped from behind the counter and held the door open for Mr. Pretorius, even making a small bow. The entry ended with the writer’s rather lurid fantasy about what a real Praetorian Guardsman might have done to the barista, who was described as a “presumptuous young fool with a blond page-boy haircut.”
I also remember a more pleasant entry, this one dated July 18th or 19th, 2015. On one of our frequent summer scorchers, he had gone to the beach with Claudia and a few others. His account of the excursion was circumstantial, but at the end, he uncharacteristically waxed effusive about another beach day, which he had spent with his parents several decades before, when he was five or six years old. “Ah,” he wrote (as I recall), “the golden days of summer! I always felt especially well-loved when my parents were both free for outings like that one.”
In a manner of speaking, I had my own opportunity to observe Mr. Pretorius at the beach. Let me explain. Claudia’s death was sudden, and its cause, suspicious. Although the official report stated that “she was fatally bludgeoned by an intruder,” the motive could just as well have been political as criminal. (The case is supposedly still open.)
Since I was Claudia’s legal representative, and since there were no known relatatives, a few weeks after the funeral, it fell to me to clear out her flat. Among her effects, I confess, I nefariously secreted one, before consigning the rest to the dustbin. It was a photograph from the day at the beach last summer. There she was, wearing dark glasses and a black one-piece bathing suit, standing beside Mr. Pretorius, who wore khaki pants, a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and an anomalously jaunty Panama hat. My thought was that the hat must have been borrowed for the photograph, since Mr. Pretorius’ normal summer headgear was a logo-less red baseball cap. Claudia’s face was wreathed in a happy smile, but his, as usual, wore an awkward little frown.
I’m not sure why I pocketed this photograph, probably just to remember Claudia, a sweet and strong member of the Movement. Now, of course, as I look at the photo, I recall not just her, but Mr. Pretorius, whose expression has triggered another memory, this one from about a year ago, at one of our interminable planning sessions.
A particularly irascible member, a big, redheaded fellow whose name I forget, was challenging a point Mr. Pretorius had just made: “But, surely, Pretorius, even you must see...”
He was cut short with a death stare. "Sorry, but if you're addressing me, it's Mister Pretorius."
A few of those present laughed, but those who knew him well did not. The question was repeated without any form of address, and the moment passed. I confess that this was when I began to think of him as “Mister Pretorius.” It still costs me an effort to think of him by any other name.
And now? Oh, my, how I do fear for my friend, who, once again, seems to have found himself on the wrong side of history. After not hearing anything for several weeks, on November 4th (last Friday), I finally got this e-mail:Sorry, Charles, to have been out of touch for so long, but it’s taken me a while to get settled in my new country. I hope my silence has not been cause for alarm.
As I’m sure you realize, this democratic nation is about to conduct one of its most cherished rituals, a presidential election. Like most people I have met here so far, I anticipate with excitement the continuation of a regime that, however imperfect, seems clearly committed to decency and to human rights, including those of immigrants, such as myself. –A.P.
Oh, Arthur! Poor, poor Arthur!