GOING FOR COFFEE WITH MARCELLO

They called him Marcello after the Italian movie star. His sculpture of a face attracted all sorts of humans, an ample supply of friends, male and female. Whether these friendships were genuine or not, he ultimately cared little. His’ was a disciplined beauty. Ugliness nauseated him. He couldn’t stand amateurish tailoring, unkempt hair, the sloth of disheveled clothes. He came out of the war feeling unclean, inside and out. Not morally unclean, literally unclean. His body a deteriorated organism, the brightness of his beauty dulled. No amount of scrubbing, he believed, could erase the sight of war or restore the years he’d lost. He had never strained for heroism, he had left the heroism to others. Mostly, he had spent the war dropping his weapon and running away. He had survived thanks to his common sense and his looks, which stunned even the enemy. Surrounded by the threat of instant death, the symmetry of his face acted like a palliative. Instead of a bullet to the head the enemy offered him cigarettes and water, made halting conversation.

Those who had known him before said, yes, war had changed his beauty, but it had rendered it more heart stopping still. That cold glaze had intensified, now he looked unattainable. After the war, Comrade Marcello selected his clothes with redoubled rigor, tended to his hair, his nails, his eyebrows, his skin, with the gravity he had applied to surviving. He trained, in secret, doing ballet exercises to achieve the elongated muscles that the narrow suits he preferred required. Single-breasted, on occasion double-breasted, cut from exquisite materials, linen for summer, a blend of cashmere and pashmina for winter, silk for special occasions. He accumulated hundreds of these bespoke suits, sown in Naples by a deaf tailor he had never met. Every year the tailor received Marcello’s updated measurements, and in more than a decade of delivering suits, the tailor had never expressed interest in the identity of this lucrative customer.

Comrade Marcello wore the suits in the privacy of his mansion, a dove blue behemoth of two floors and twenty rooms. He welcomed the women, sharp in his impeccable suits, revelling in their admiration. He knew the women didn’t pose a risk, their silence was a foregone conclusion. He liked to cruise the Capital in his government supplied motorcar, scouting the sidewalks for prey. A shapely leg, an intriguing back, an elegant neck. When a woman caught his fancy, he signaled his driver in the rear view mirror and his driver slowed the car. They came freely, the women, flattered and unsuspecting, and prior to beating them in the basement, he lectured them about femininity in his tastefully decorated living-room.

He told them he perfectly understood on an intellectual level their drive for emancipation, their desire to stand equal with men. But though he understood it, he couldn’t encourage it. He quoted the Romantic ballet as the ideal embodiment of woman, the soft, mysteriousness of the romantic ballerina who lived for man’s love and in its absence had exactly two choices, death or insanity. Women who grasped for power were doomed. They robbed themselves of the only quality that mattered, their femininity. They mistook their true nature, which was to yield, to flow like water. He talked about the travesty of women trying to exert willpower like men, instead of moulding their desires to the granite of male superiority. Such women disgusted him.

When he lectured them like that, some women got up and demanded to leave, exhibiting precisely the kind of willfulness he had condemned. He methodically humiliated them, made them crawl on all fours to the basement, where he continued his lecture with a spiked pole.  

Others yielded even as he spoke. If they were sitting up, they gradually reclined, showing more skin, more crossed leg, more cleavage. It was as if they melted right there on his velvet-upholstered sofa. These women he generally enjoyed and let go unharmed, unless they were dancers, then he was compelled to initiate short-lived affairs, to which they always consented. If they didn’t consent, their careers would stall and their prospects dim, but once they were his mistresses, many in fact fell in love with him, proving his point, that women were made for yielding, despite themselves.

Svetlana was such a woman, though she was not his lover yet. He was stringing her along, amused by her youthful infatuation, the way her eyes shone at the opulence he offered. Svetlana knew nothing about the basement, and little, perhaps hearsay, about the network of labor camps he ran, but he saw in her qualities that would serve his purpose well. She possessed a keen sense of hierarchy and an already impressive cynicism.

With Svetlana he was careful to delay touching her, groomed her instead for the task ahead. When that moment arrived, he leaned in for a kiss, tender at first, strategically more insistent, until she eagerly slung her arms around him, then he stopped.

“I need you to look after a very important person, dear Svetlana,” he said, lightly stroking her face as he spoke. He told her no one else was fit for the task. He told her, the Union demanded it of her. That if she loved the Union, she would not hesitate. He told her she should not worry about Grisha’s dismissal or Katza’s dancing, a short lived aberration. He would make sure she would not play second fiddle to anyone, that she would be uncontested on the stage of the Capital Ballet. And then he told her about the Chinese Head of Security, Li Bang Bang.


excerpt from Katza and the Gang of Four