A Procedural Problem
translated from the Swedish by Daniel Barnum
“Should I add it to the minutes?” asked Mari, at a loss of what to do next. She put her pen down on the table in front of her and looked at Nils, the meeting’s chair. He sat in silence, awkward as the others.
“No, no,” he muttered, inaudibly.
But old Astor raised his left hand from his knee and laid it on the table beside Mari’s pen.
“Go ahead and write it in the record,” he said. “It’s just as well to leave it in.”
As usual, not many people had shown up for the meeting. Regular business included their call to order, nailing down the General Assembly, and making appointments to city council. The few who were there now were silent: what could anyone say?
Though they sat all together around the wide table, it suddenly seemed impossible for them to see each other. Only Astor looked around at everyone, then at Nils, then nodded at Mari. Barely, if at all.
“I’ve already made my decision,” he said at last.
“Yeah, I mean, no one’s forcing anyone to be on the council list.” said Nils, annoyed, as if the meeting had gone off the rails and it was his fault.
“It’s not just that,” said Astor, softly, almost deliberately.
Nils was pissed: “Man, you’re talking just to talk. You’re telling me, you don’t give a shit about politics because of some goddamn ice age five thousand years off?”
Astor turned his hand on the table, looked down at it, and turned it over again.
“Yep. That’s how it goes now,” he said.
Mari wrote in the minutes: Astor Larsson of Tynnedalen, contractor, carpenter, denounces all missions/assignments due to the…
She looked up. He wasn’t stepping down because of the party’s pursued policies, which no one had mentioned up to this point. Rather, it was simply because....
“Should I really include the bit about the ice age?” she asked.
No one looked at her. Nils snarled with anger and shuffled the papers on the table in front of him.
“Write,” he said, pausing, “write that nowadays this party is a circus. Write that the whole district will be powder and gravel in five thousand years, resting under ice two miles thick, and because of that, Astor--” and Astor nodded while staring steadily at Nils-- “well, since that’s the case, from now on, we’re not going to bother with childcare. The party’s turning a blind eye to the elderly as well. The new Arts & Crafts Center can take a flying leap. And fuck if we care about whoever wins the election, since not a single citizen will get to enjoy it whether it goes well or straight to hell.”
At first, it looked as if Mari wanted to ask him to speak more slowly so that she could get it all down. In a low voice, she said only that he should calm down, nothing more. She sat still and looked down at her papers.
Astor finally raised his eyebrows, as was his custom, and looked at Nils, whom they had all chosen as the meeting’s chair. “Why this anger?” he said, finally.
“Nevermind,” Nils replied. “Well—we’ve got nobody who can do anything.” Then he added: “who can do as much as you can, I mean.”
“No, no,” said Astor. Though it was true. Since Georg had died, everyone at their meetings was young, inexperienced. He took a deep breath, looked at his hand lying still before him, then said:
“It sounds terrible, Nils, I know. And when you put it like that, yeah, obviously it’s important how the election turns out. But this is something between me and… well, yes, between me. So to speak. It’s just that I read this book....”
He went silent. No one had anything to say in response. He went on.
“It feels so strange to find out about the ice age. It’s coming, it’s impossible to stop it. I thought that was the worst, to know already that there’s nothing to do about it now, that it’s definitely coming. We’ve built up a great organization here by blood, sweat, and tears. You know what I mean, or your parents would, at least. It’s good now. Living here, that is. I’m saying, now we can really live in this district. I’ve said it before, but during the war, with the transit ban, that whole shitshow—we struggled, yes. But... for nothing. None of it matters. One day, the ice will crumble us into the moss, and when it melts after twenty or thirty thousand years, there won’t be a single trace of any of us. All gone: the work, all our work, the drudgery, not even the language we speak will exist. I can’t help but think about how strange that is. Yes….” He looked up, but continued: “All these years, I went along thinking I was doing the right thing, doing my part. Doing even more than my part, maybe. But now—if I may say so—none of it matters.
Nils had nodded along the whole time. When Astor stopped talking, he said:
“Okay. I agree with you. Comrades, let’s call an end to the party.”
Someone snickered. The coffee-pot hummed through the silence.
“If that is what you mean, Astor?”
“No,” he shot back, but his tone was uncertain. “Clearly you all should keep working.”
“Oh, thank God,” said Nils, sighing. “I’ve prepared arguments against every conceivable objection to the party’s platforms ahead of time. And I know I’m right, for the most part. But I’ll be damned if I could have seen this coming.”
Mari thought to speak up about the minutes again, but Nils went on, faking laughter:
“Looks like we’ve got a procedural problem. Comrades, shall we bring the ice age to a vote?”
“Look, I hear how stupid it sounds,” said Astor, again speaking low and deliberately. He thought through what he should say. Now Nils will tell me I told them all work is meaningless, he thought.
“I think we can let this topic go now,” he said. “So, just jot down that Astor resigns from the General Assembly, and that I am no longer a member of the board of the workers’ union. Or, if you want, you can write that Astor will no longer play any part.”
Gunnar sent round the coffee.
While they filled up their cups, Nils flipped through his papers.
They drank the hot coffee.
The silence filled with small talk. Soon, they returned to the agenda.
By the time they were two bullet points further along, everyone in the room would wonder in secret if anything had actually happened.
Stewe Claeson is the author of eighteen books: story collections, novels, poetry, and travelogues. Over a career spanning fifty years, his work has been nominated for the Augustpriset and won the Selma Lagerlöfs Prize, among others. He is the official Swedish-language translator of many major American poets, including Mark Doty, Joy Harjo, Louis Simpson, and Louise Glück. A former director of folkhögskola, Claeson lives with his wife, Ingela, outside of Gothenburg.
Daniel Barnum lives and writes in Columbus, Ohio, where they serve as the associate managing editor of The Journal. A former fellow at the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, they are a 2019 Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee. Their poems, essays, and translations appear in or are forthcoming from Pleiades, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cutthroat, West Branch, The Offing and elsewhere. Their first chapbook, Names for Animals (Robin Becker Prize Series; Seven Kitchens Press), is due in February, 2020.