Pico Iyer Journeys

A Modern Fairy-Tale

Once upon a time there was an implication. He didn’t get picked very often when the other kids were choosing teams, and he tended to live in the shadows. But he always had a sense of pride, deep down, because he knew that people would call on him in their most important moments: in bed beside someone they loved, or whispering to what they believed in on their knees. Life wasn’t black or white, he knew; implication was a friend of all the colors.

As he grew up, implication found himself running with a not very fast crowd. Irony, irreverence, adoration, poetry: they all got together, though they came from different worlds, in unlit places away from the main streets. The smoke was heavy in these places, and the heat was palpable. Passersby would hear a snatch of music as they went, and then there’d be a silence. It was like a different universe from the marching bands that liked to parade down the avenues; it said that what we couldn’t see, or say, had as much a part in life as what we could.

And then one day implication woke up and heard he was on a blacklist. He hurried outside and saw a poster on a wall. “Wanted Dead or Alive,” it said, and there was a picture of him in the shape of a question-mark. There was no room for him in the new dispensation.

He couldn’t believe this was happening, and he went to look for his friends. But they were all gone, too. Cacophony, simplicity and outright confrontation had taken over. Implication had always been the warrior’s enemy, and the lover’s friend; but now mano a mano was more in favor than tete-a-tete.

Implication didn’t know where he could go, what he should do. For as long as he could remember, he’d had a job to perform, a role. People looked to him when they were joking, when they were flirting, when they wanted to spare someone’s feelings (when they wanted to hurt someone’s feelings). They followed the principles he carried with him; that power is measured by what you keep at home, that silence makes a deeper impact than shouting. Implication had been made an honorary citizen of the Land of Trust.

But now there’d been a coup d’etat, and stony-faced policemen, all marching up and down in step and wearing the same uniforms, were carrying placards scarred with exclamation points. Implication opened the daily newspaper, and saw that the whole front page was taken up with a single screaming headline (the other pages were given over to photographs); he turned on the TV, and heard men in suits shouting at one another as if trying to convince themselves of their own authority. At the radio station, it was the same. “Sorry, chum,” said a security guard, showing him the door. “We’re taking a commercial break for the next few years.”

Everywhere he went, it was the same. “We don’t have time.” “We’ve got to run.” In the past, he’d always been able to call upon his colleague the telephone. People loved to leave things hanging on the telephone, to hint and giggle and let sentences trail. But now the telephone too had a screen, and people were transmitting furious messages to one another every second consisting of squashed words and images and acronyms. “We’ve got to get there yesterday,” the data roared. “No time to linger.”

Implication walked around the streets and realized he was an outcast now, a true foreigner. When he knocked on the door of his favorite magazine, he was told his services were no longer required. When he went into a residential suburb, he saw people watching the small screen and taking their cues from it. When he went into the post-office–the place he’d always felt at home–he saw a listing of the  “Ten Most Wanted.” Subtlety was there, and ambiguity, diplomacy and mischief. His face was next to the sentence that said, “These are the ones we need to lock up forever.”

Implication walked along the shadows of the boulevard–the shadows where life had really taken place–and thought back to the friends he’d known. His great companion Henry James was strange, he knew; he could hardly order dinner or declare his love, he was so attached to implication. That woman in Bath had used him as a manservant to deliver her round-about love-letters. Over in Japan they’d almost made a cult of him, saying so little that the poems they called him in for were almost blank pages.

But all these people had had friends, and had brought happiness to others; none of them was a threat to anyone who could see clearly. They all had something to say because–this was the point–they all had something not to say, too. A life that was all fluorescent lights was no real life at all.

Implication saw the casualties by the side of the road as he walked out of town: caresses were gone now, and limericks, and whispers, and threats. It was almost as if humans were becoming just machines made from computers, 0s and 1s. Or kids again, in the playground: “Love it or leave it.” You’re with us or against us.”

In the past he’d been employed by the Department of Education; implication was how people began to learn understanding. But now a sentence was running by, no time for him, and seconds later the sentence had crashed into another, and they were both lying lifeless on the road. Implication cried out, but no one heard him. Data were rushing past at top volume, and so many people were shouting, no one could hear anyone else. This was a time of war, they were saying, and there are no shades (they said) in war.

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