Fiction

The Multiple Function – C. J. Anderson-Wu

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The First Lady ordered the president’s office staff to engage a group of Russian experts to come secretly as soon as possible in reaction to the news that the local funeral home had reported that they could only preserve a dead body for a week at most. If long-term preservation of the corpse was a necessity, they suggested freezing the body or soaking it in a chemical solution.

“No. Mr. President must appear to be sleeping beside me.”

Considering that Vladimir Lenin’s body had been preserved for over half a century, the First Lady decided to consult the people who had taken care of Lenin’s preservation.

In the conference room, the First Lady learned, with the assistance of interpreters, that the solution of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and a pH balancer mixed with a little bit of red dye had been injected into the veins at the back of the former Communist leader’s neck right after his death to stop the decomposition.  Under his suit there were two layers of rubber that made sure his body was always bathed in the special embalming fluid. Every two years they redid the embalming, a process which included bathing the body in several different solutions in turn, such as glycerol, potassium acetate, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium acetate.

The consultation and its prescription were costly, but the First Lady felt she had no other choice. The entire project took several months at the hands of five experts with several local people assisting them. During this time the First Lady held several meetings with the prime minister, who was the son of the president. In one meeting they talked about the replacement of the minister of interior.

“Is Mr. Yuanda a good choice?” The prime minister inquired carefully.

“He is, but Yuanda is obviously too fat for this position.”

The prime minister was bewildered. A man’s weight would affect his job?

“People expect to see a hard working public servant. Mr. Yuanda looks too well taken care of.” The First Lady explained.

The prime minister agreed on this point and asked, “Is Mr. Kaimi suitable, then?” Kaimi was barely more than a skeleton.

“Mr. Kaimi is a respectable man, but . . . didn’t he have an affair with his secretary?”

It was Kaimi who had competed against the prime minister for the chair of the National Security Council.  He knew at that time that the only way to defeat Kaimi was to trap him with a sexual scandal. Sexual affairs do not destroy a man’s political career, they just slow him down, and the prime minister knew that his government still needed Kaimi. He paid a young woman in Kaimi’s office to seduce him; whether she had succeeded or not was of little concern, but they certainly would have been able to build up enough evidence for their purpose. Fortunately, Kaimi withdrew from the competition, so that fabricated materials were never used.

“Uh, it was just rumor . . .” Saying so, it dawned on the prime minister that the First Lady, who was also his stepmother, had a candidate in mind. He waited for her to speak up.

“Are you familiar with Mr. Laobuo?”

“Yes, yes. We worked together in the Hometown Beautification Program.”  The so-called “beautification” consisted of bulldozing slums and getting rid of beggars. Thereby the land could be yielded to developers to put up decent apartments, and government officials would share the under-the-table-bonus – in this government every project served multiple purposes. The prime minister then understood who was in the mind of the First Lady. There was gossip circulating that Laobuo’s wife was her lesbian lover. But how it could be? After all, she “slept” beside the president every night, didn’t she? The president was no longer able to verify it though. The prime minister couldn’t help but squint as he focused his eyes on the rigid, waxy body of his father in the bedroom behind her.

“The new minister of the interior must be able to deal with the increasingly ferocious agitators nowadays,” said the First Lady. The prime minister was clear that she was talking about those people demanding a direct presidential election process. They criticized that the representative system was subject to manipulation, which was, of course, quite true. The president had been in power for twenty-six years, re-elected by the National Assembly every six years according to the “Temporary Provision for the Period of National Mobilization.” Small turmoils were inevitable, but they were put to rest quickly, thanks to the nation’s dense network of secret service agents and the tens of thousands of informants throughout the country.

“Mr. Laobuo is a perfect candidate.” The prime minister consented, “What should be done with Mr. Pukiki?” Pukiki, the current Minister of interior, probably knew his position was in danger since the president stopped appearing in public events. Of course, to the public, the president still worked hard in private with his cabinet; he had no time for public appearances according to the Central News Agency, a state owned institution.

“He will be the chairman of the National Land Planning & Development Foundation.” The First Lady said. It meant that Pukiki would be able to pocket quite fat kick-backs from all kinds of public projects. Now he wished he were the one given the position; being the prime minister he was nothing but a courtier of Father and his wife. Had the First Lady known how lucrative the foundation was, she’d never have awarded the position to Pukiki, who was, in her eyes, an incompetent public speaker unable to guide public opinion, resulting in the spread of much unwanted information that led to troublesome activities. But who was able to control public opinion nowadays anyway? The influence from the West was greater and greater, uncensored publications were more and more accessible, and people absorbed different ideas easily. They no longer believed that social order and growth had to be sustained at the price of individual rights. Government achievements such as the full employment rate and the greatly improved infrastructure no longer entitled the rulers to conceal inconvenient truths.

Confining dissidents to prevent them from making trouble was increasingly difficult. In addition to a growing chorus of voices urging due legal process for every criminal charge, the government had to deal with “Human Rights Watchers” sent from the US or Europe. Perhaps it had been a mistake that the government had emphasized education so much. Farmers’ children who went to college turned into spoiled brats. The “social equality” they never ceased talking about forced the government to face people from all levels: women, workers from the bottom of the society, and the disabled. It was really burdensome to attend their gatherings, visit their workplaces, and shake their hands. Why couldn’t people be satisfied with what their leaders had done for them? Didn’t their leaders deserve credit for the highways, schools, libraries and hospitals they had built? The democracy those so-called intellectuals were demanding only made progress impossible. How could the nation operate if everyone had a say in such highly professional, complicated matters?

“The new minister of interior also should start drafting the laws for direct presidential elections.” The First Lady said. What? I am not going to succeed my father?! What a bitch. The prime minister couldn’t find the words to protest.

“Of course we will do our best to help you run a campaign.” The First Lady assured him.

That would be tough. People hated him; they hated him for being the president’s son and being the prime minister. And he doubted that Laubuo would help him. What could go wrong if they just announced the death of the president and made him the successor? Even if a few dissidents would be certain to protest, so what? The prime minister, feeling bitterly disappointed, was dismissed by the First Lady.

In the following days the three major newspapers covered the president’s instructions for enacting laws to enable direct presidential elections, sidelined with the update of the new minister of interior who was appointed to be in charge of this historical task. The prime minister wondered how much longer the First Lady could continue this scheme. After all, even though their own people did not dare to question the long absence of the President from public occasions, foreign media would become suspicious.

Not that they were all just power thirsty, they also wanted to be able to step down and move to an “advanced country” to enjoy good weather and comfortable living. Nevertheless after decades of governing this nation and its troubled multitudes, members belonging to the ruling class had formed a symbiotic unity that meant no one could be left alone. Everyone was relied upon the others and at the same time was extorted by the others. In order to bring the country forward, they all had to do a bit of dirty work. They had thought that once their national status improved and their development had reached the standards of the US or Japan, they’d stop. Unfortunately, the people had failed them. After almost half a century they were still far behind the US and Japan. Instead of working in step with the government guidelines for progress, the people cried out with all kinds of obscure demands that were irrelevant to the growth of their country.

One humid night in spring, the prime minister got a call from the First Lady, “Mr. President is sweating.”   They knew they had to take drastic measures quickly. The president’s office called Moscow, unfortunately the Lenin Mausoleum was undergoing its bi-annual maintenance, so no one was available for consultation at that point. The prime minister rushed to his father’s residence, and to his great regret, he saw the melting chunk of dead flesh with its rapidly deteriorating facial features. An abhorrent smell began to waft from the body. Neither of them knew what to do. Then all of a sudden, the earth quaked.

The next morning the headline of the major newspapers was, Great Leader Passed Away During the Earthquake. The story went that when the earthquake happened, the president’s chauffeur drove the car onto the bridge, and their car, along with another eleven vehicles, was smashed under the weight of the bridge. Eight people had been killed, including the great leader. That was a convenient plot, the prime minister thought, and the bridge had served multiple purposes as well, including its fall.

The bridge had been constructed 14 years ago, as part of a project called the Ten Grand Constructions financed by the US. At that time US was afraid that many smaller countries along the Pacific Rim would be absorbed by the Soviet Union, thus US paid for many of their infrastructure works. The US also pressed these countries to improve their human rights records, for example, secret arrests were intolerable. Of course the demands were ignored, US has no right to interfere their domestic affairs.

They selected a contractor to design and construct the bridge. The mountains in the east contained rich cement ores, so several friends of the prime minister; as soon as he grabbed the political power, established a company to get hold of the mining rights, and the prime minister was given a substantial percentage of the shares in the company. Ever since the establishment of the cement company, all the public works, from design to construction, were encouraged to use as much concrete as possible. And because the cement company was almost a monopoly in the business, the price of cement remained high and the prime minister enjoyed a bulky bonus every year. Of course the cost of excessive concrete for the construction of the bridge had been compensated; the issuance of all kinds of licenses and permits had been waived.

In order to build the bridge, the largest span ever in the country that connected a harbor city in the north and a rising town in the south of a river, the slums on the two banks had been completely wiped out. So where had the poor people gone? Honestly speaking, the government did not care. Those were the uneducated, loathsome and jobless people who never paid taxes and never contributed to economic growth anyway.

The fall of the bridge made the prime minister suspect that in order to make up for the expense of using such large quantities of concrete, the contractor had most likely used as little steel reinforcement as possible.

Nevertheless, the prime minister thought, people killed by the fall of the bridge had been unlucky; but it was lucky that the bridge served multiple purposes, including its failure. Still, according to the Guideline for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, the prime minister was obliged to explain the causes of the fall, he ordered the contractor to present a technological report of the damage.

The memorial service for the president was held two weeks later, and the funeral procession was miles long. The grieved but dignified widow of the great leader, in black suit and veil, won adoration from the news media. “How come people hate me as the son of the ‘dictator,’ but loves her as his wife?” The prime minister was annoyed at the double standard.

Both the First Lady and the prime minister agreed to announce that the country was under a state of emergency and the direct presidential election had to be put off for a while. It was also natural under the circumstances that the prime minister would temporarily serve as the acting president.  But to his surprise, the prime minister was informed by the president’s office that, rather, the First Lady was going to be the official acting president during the emergency period. The prime minister rushed to the presidential residence and confronted his stepmother, who spoke not a word but handed him a pile of pictures. They were taken when he was with the woman he paid to seduce Kaimi. Although they had hung out together only to talk about their scheme, from the arrangement of the pictures, the dates, their outfits, their schedules of meeting and departures, as well as the lewd expressions on their faces, it could easily be made to look as if they had been dating each other frequently over a lengthy period of time. He has no idea how the First Lady got the photos and how did she see it. Was she the mastermind behind it, or was she made believe of the affair? After all, in this government, every project served multiple purposes.

By the time the prime minister left the presidential residence, he promised to endorse the First Lady as the acting president. It takes so many lies to operate this government, the prime minister thought to himself, and the power actually relied on the very strong willingness of everyone to believe the lies. The morality embraced by the public – a nation’s leader must be austere and faithful – was shaped by the regime over the past decades, and everyone in the ruling class was, at least in the mass media, selfless with great vision, virtuous close to a saint. Those who rejected to accept the alternative reality and those who criticized the gullibility of the public were either discredited, or badly oppressed.

Back at his office, the prime minister told himself he should be positive about what the First Lady had used against him. An affair, true or not, was not meant to destroy him completely. He laughed to himself bitterly.

The report of the broken bridge was on his desk. He opened it and saw a picture of the First Lady at the inauguration ceremony. He immediately understood it to be a hint from the contractor that the First Lady was also involved in the construction, so a real investigation wouldn’t do anyone good. The report attributed the failure of the structure mainly to the earthquake, naturally.

The prime minister sank into deep thought. Before completely giving up his hope to lead the nation, how could he have this project, a bridge which no longer existed, serve one more purpose.


C. J. Anderson-Wu has translated several significant literary works such as Darkness Visible by British writer William Golding, Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones by American writer Erica Jong, and Decayed Lust by Taiwanese writer Chung Wenyin, among others.Since 2006 her priority is to build up an international readership for Taiwanese literature. She founded Serenity International Publishing House
which publishes the English version of Taiwanese literary works. Titles of Serenity International include Sorceress Diguwan by Badai, Decayed Land by Chung Wenyin, and Undelivered- Anthology of Tainan Literature by 13 Tainan writers.


 

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