My name is Zigmārs Zīmulis. I’m a literary festival expert who defected to this country under the auspices of espionage. For many years, I was a Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic bureaucrat in the office of the Latvian State Committee for Cinematography, Music, Publishing, Printing, Book Trade, Culture and Art. My task was to disseminate Russian values through Latvian society via Communist propaganda under the auspices of literary festivals and book fairs. There were a lot of auspices back then. The Soviet Union was swimming in auspices.
Beginning in the 1960s, Latvia had been singled out by Soviet authorities as a prime location for new industrial factories. They faced a minor obstacle: not enough Latvians existed to staff them. So the Soviets did the most Soviet thing and bused in Russians to fill the new factories. The influx of Russians meant a decrease in the proportion of ethnic Latvians living in Latvia, severely undermining Latvian identity. In order to quell anger about this influx, every propaganda wing of the republic was devoted to promoting Russian values — to make them seem as familiar as Uncle Vladimir. In between the proliferation of patriotic Soviet music and the intimidation of suspicious authors, I was tasked with putting together festivals with Soviet-approved writers in order to distract Latvians from the existential ennui of living in a country that would in two decades be reduced to half-assed jokes about potatoes — as well as the tedium of living under the puppet regime of a Communist dictatorship. That was also sort of depressing.
If only you, Frank, had lived in Soviet Latvia like I once did. You would’ve been at the bottom of the River Daugava faster than you could say, “Frank is an egotistical shitbird.”
How did we first meet?
You and I were introduced randomly one night in a Toronto park under a sky filled with distant galaxies blotted out by the sickly orange glow of light pollution. I should have taken it as a sign — a big, glaring neon sign that said, “Stay the fuck away from this asshole.”
You sat on a poorly lit park bench plastic-forking your way through a Styrofoam boat of stir-fried egg noodles. Our mutual friend Olden Polynice introduced us, and my opinion of Olden instantly nosedived. I offered a handshake and then rescinded as you clumsily tried to put your greasy Chinese food aside. Polynice said he’d worked with you before in some mysterious capacity (drug dealing?) and that you were the perfect candidate to join us on the committee. You smiled in some self-assured way, as if you contained a secret that would change the world. “Frank Clutterbuck,” you said, still seated, as if you were the only one who mattered. Polynice quickly filled you in on my story, my Latvian-ness. “A lucky Latvian!” you said. “Wait until you get a taste of our potatoes! Wait until you get a taste of McCain tater tots!”
I hate you so much, Frank.
You wrapped your boat of Chinese food into a plastic bag, rested it on the park bench beside you and stood up, finally shaking my hand with the grace and tact of a temperamental robot. I looked into your eyes and noticed not a stare of ambition but instead an awkward blinking, because your contact lenses were annoying you and probably needed to be taken out.
Overcoming the trauma of that experience has led me here to this trendy Starbucks to write this letter to you. This venti café mocha peppered with cinnamon spurs my memory of how much I hate you.
One day in the 1980s, as Moscow became increasingly desperate about its dwindling empire, the Russian version of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Latvian State Committee for Cinematography, Music, Publishing, Printing, Book Trade, Culture and Art came up with a new task for me. Two men in military uniforms stormed into my cubicle with their army hats stuffed under their arms, a posture I imagine they practised on filthy counter-revolutionaries in their spare time. I immediately recognized their epaulettes, the piss-yellow stars that denote rank in the Soviet military. “Hello, gentlemen,” I greeted. “Did you take the time away from interrogating filthy anti-Communists just to come and see me?” They knocked over my state-sanctioned drinking bird, which had faithfully been counting down the seconds to the inevitable death that would release me from this corporeal prison. They said, “We’re sending you to Canada. For espionage purposes.”
“You came all the way from Moscow to tell me that?” I said.
They told me to shut up in Russian.
In all seriousness, they wanted me to spy? A weird sensation came over me. I’m not sure after all these years I can put it into words. I can only describe the feeling as the opposite of crushing insignificance.
Not until I arrived did I realize what a lie it all was. I deplaned in Toronto expecting a secret rendezvous with agents in dapper raincoats, but instead I was handed a ticket to a literary festival and told to corral an author into a bookmobile van. My two Soviet contacts in the city had acquired the van, believing that writers couldn’t resist bookmobiles. “You’re not here to spy,” one of them said, pushing me out of the bookmobile. He was wearing a tweed cap and a leather jacket.
I looked over to the other one. He was wearing a leather cap with a tweed jacket. “You’re here to kidnap,” he said. His voice sounded like a bucket of rusty nails in a clothes dryer.
“I thought the Soviets didn’t do that sort of thing,” I said.
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“We don’t want to kill them. We just want to pressure them into stopping their . . . anti-revolutionary ways.”
“Who?” I asked.
They wanted me to kidnap Margaret Atwood.
Due to my work in the Latvian State Committee for Cinematography, Music, Publishing, Printing, Book Trade, Culture and Art, I had read The Handmaid’s Tale — for research purposes. I ruminated for many months on the oppressive, dictatorial conditions of the patriarchal society in Atwood’s book and thought to myself, That mysterious government van that takes women away isn’t so different from the mysterious government vans in Latvia. As soon as they said her name, I knew this was my chance to defect.
I put together a plan. I acquired a cardboard cutout of Alice Munro and taped a mop head to the top. I stuck on pillows and wrapped the entire thing in a blanket, attaching a copy of The Journals of Susanna Moodie for good measure. My contacts were surprised when I arrived with what looked like Atwood wrapped in a duvet. I told them that plans had gone awry but I’d nonetheless gotten the job done, and they should really try and save themselves from the authorities and book it. They did, and I disappeared into the big city.
We asked you, Frank Clutterbuck, to rope in sponsorship dollars, keep tabs on authors who would attend the festival, exchange business cards in return for cheques, spin illiteracy as a greater threat than cancer. Either you did none of this or you placed yourself at the centre of attention, failing to produce the team effort this festival required. You were replaceable and afraid that others knew it. You wiggled your way in front of every camera yet on the sidelines constantly said, “This festival will never work.” And when it did, you took credit for anything you could. You were like a dog peeing on other dogs while they peed on fire hydrants.
You, Frank Clutterbuck, were a fuck.
With Soviet agents surely looking for me, I sought to disguise myself as an unassuming middleman — but what sort of unassuming middleman could I pass myself off as? My long history working for the Latvian State Committee for Cinematography, Music, and so forth meant I was perfect for arts administration. I decided to work my way into what I thought was a lucrative industry, as it had been in the Soviet states. Of course, back in Latvia, being the propaganda wing of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic meant we at the Latvian State Committee for blah blah blah were high up on the government’s list of funding priorities. In Canada, I quickly realized, the lack of arts being put towards ideological education and indoctrination meant that funding was lacking. The fierce competition for the same small pools of money also didn’t help, turning each organization into competing wolves chomping at each other’s throats.
I met folks like Olden Polynice and got paid minimum wage to photocopy posters made from Microsoft clip art. I worked my way up, applying the skills I’d developed in Latvia. Soon I was being called to sit on many Ontario literary festival committees to help them bring in audiences, which often involved using my propaganda skills to let the public know how excited they really were for literary festivals. I was flying high. I had escaped Soviet detection long enough to see the Soviet Union collapse. I was free. I felt good about the arts in Canada.
And then I met you, Frank Clutterbuck.
I sat at the café table across from you. We on the committee opened our notebooks while you clumsily opened a packet of mayonnaise, a bit of the white egg-cum peppering my notepad. You didn’t even have a sandwich before you. You were just getting prepared. I ignored it and began the meeting, suggesting we proliferate Twitter hashtags for our events. But you, Frank Clutterbuck, with not a pen ready, suddenly huffed, and while looking over your shoulder for a waiter, declared aloud that we couldn’t afford to buy any frivolous novelties like Twitter hashtags. “I mean, do we even know how much these hashtags are going to cost?” you said.
I suppose a festival devoted to the written word can sometimes get wrapped up in visions of the grandiose, the platter of hors d’oeuvres you as a committee member will get to share with the likes of Atwood or Munro, with Thomas King or Terry Fallis, with Joseph Boyden or Sean Michaels, with Miriam Toews or Kathleen Winter, with George Elliott Clarke or Jian Ghomeshi — well, maybe not him so much. But you do imagine you’ll get an opportunity to pass on that manuscript, to have the guards unfurl the key and open the gate to the literary landscape. Us organizers of the literary festival variety are so often writers, after all. You were no different, Frank Clutterbuck, but you were a special breed.
The final straw came quickly enough. I squeezed myself between a platter of vegetables sticks and the wineglass held waist-high by Heather O’Neill. I couldn’t believe we’d snagged her presence. Nino Ricci was in the corner asking where he could get a slice of pizza. As I was about to congratulate O’Neill on the GG nomination, opening up a friendship I’m sure would have lasted long, you swooped in, pretending to only want a celery stick from the vegetable platter — but it was all a ruse. You were there to pretend to be surprised that O’Neill was the one blocking your way to the healthiest bit of food I had ever seen you lunge for. I could see the false-flag operation you had set up. A roll of clipped pages was tucked beneath your arm with the same posture as that of the Soviet soldiers that sent me to Canada, pretending as they did that all they wanted me to do was spy on Ottawa. There are so many pretenders, aren’t there, Frank?
O’Neill was losing tolerance for your forced approach to human relations. As soon as Ricci mentioned a pizza place down the street, she shot her arm up. Without getting to introduce myself, O’Neill slipped away, leaving you, Frank Clutterbuck, to finish that celery stick. You didn’t, though. You tossed it back on the platter.
I resigned from the committee later that day.
I hope you get smacked in the head with a rake, Frank.