Volume 25, Number 2

At the Border

When your high-speed train jolts to a stop, your realize it’s run headlong into the bygone Cold War’s Great Divide, the now-updated, trade-resistant, electrified Iron Curtain.

You’d hoped to zip with the speed of thought from Sovereign State X to Workers’ Republic Y, without having to part a veritable Red Sea of bureaucratic hogwash, or to chug like the Little Engine That Could through a Khyber Impasse. Actually, you can’t draw the line between the two realms as clearly as professional mapmakers do; the soil colors aren’t as distinct as pictured in junior-high geography—just subtle shades of pink and maroon on one side, rather sickly green on the other. You look for some common ground between them, but find none.
And avian instinct can’t be wrong. Hawks flying toward the border veer to avoid a wall of polluted air. On the other side sleek, unruffled doves desist from pecking worms precisely where the dirt changes color. Invisible but audible at irregular intervals, there’s also the language barrier. Guards and customs officials on both sides of the line exchange mutually untranslatable obscenities and threats. In Sovereign State X an organization of lyric poets had authored a second Cultural Revolution and, after becoming the nation’s supremely acknowledged legislators, decreed that every treaty, law, penal code and regulation be composed in postmodern, Ashbery-style verse. All corresponding documents in Workers’ Republic Y were written in and by committee, and feature the prose of Mandarin dialectical materialists, economists, and statisticians. Even with her third degree in analytic Lacanian linguistics, the translator-interpreter on board can’t readily deconstruct the Wall you’re up against.

But what the hell. As a world traveler, you’ve learned to expect delays. And as an amateur semiotician yourself, you’ve noticed a few hopeful signs. For one, since the opposing border guards can’t understand fuck you, asshole or eat shit in each other’s tongue, and since their body language—fist-shaking, finger-slinging, mooning—becomes physically exhausting, they’ve settled back into relatively passive coexistence Soon they’ll probably not give a damn whether or when your train gets through. Besides, most betray symptoms of hunger and, regardless of party line, start letting a few unlettered peasants slip in from both sides, their baskets laden with blood sausage, turnip-green slaw, goose eggs, French fries, corn dogs, fortune cookies, Twinkies, Kentucky fried chicken, and other indigenous foods.

From the observation car you watch how people deal, not only with the guards, but also with each other—no common currency, their media of exchange being not ideas but things they can sink their teeth into. You see them haggling in sign language, back and forth across their boundary, wary of electrifying touch and, most heretical, the shock of recognition.

—John N. Miller