By Edmundo Paz Soldán
Published by Hougton Mifflin
June 2007 PB; 0618872590; 304 pages
As soon as you turn your back on the uncertain sunrise and enter your office building, you cease to be Miguel Sáenz, the civil servant discernible behind the wrinkled gray suit, round, wire-rimmed glasses, and fearful gaze, and become Turing, decipherer of secrets, relentless pursuer of encoded messages, the pride of the Black Chamber.
You insert your electronic ID card into a slot. You are prompted for your password and type ruth1. The metal door opens and the world you unknowingly dreamed of as a child awaits you. Slowly, with measured steps, you enter a vaulted glass enclosure. Two policemen greet you formally. They see the color of your card — green, meaning Beyond Top Secret — without looking at it. It was all so much easier during Albert’s time, when there were only two colors, yellow (Secret) and green. Then that smug Ramírez-Graham arrived (you had once called him “Mr. Ramírez” and he had corrected you: “Ramírez-Graham, please”), and card colors soon began to multiply. In less than a year, red (Top Secret), white (Not at All Secret), blue (Ultra), and orange (Ultra Priority) cards appeared. The color of your card indicates which parts of the building you have access to. Ramírez-Graham has the only purple card in existence, Ultra High Priority. In theory, there is only one area in the seven-story building for which the purple card is required: the Archive of Archives, a small section in the heart of the archives. Such proliferation is laughable. But you are not laughing; you are still offended that some of your colleagues have Ultra and Ultra Priority cards and can go where you cannot.
“Always so early, Mr. Sáenz.”
“For as long as the old body holds out, captain.”
The policemen know who you are; they have heard the stories about you. They don’t understand what you do or how you do it, but still they respect you. Or perhaps they respect you because they don’t understand what you do or how you do it.
You walk next to the wall where the great emblem of the Black Chamber hangs. It is a resplendent aluminum disk encircling a man bent over a desk, trying to decipher a message, and a condor holding a ribbon in its claws that bears the motto “Logic and Intuition” in Morse code. True, both are needed to penetrate the crypt of secret codes, but they aren’t used in equal proportions. For you, at least, intuition is what lights the way, but the hard work is done by reason.
They don’t understand what you do or how you do it, but still they respect you. What you do? Is it correct still to speak in the present tense? Your glory days, you have to admit, begin to fade in the expanse of time. For example, December 6, 1974, when you detected a cell of leftists who used phrases from Che Guevara’s diary to encode messages; or September 17, 1976, when you were able to warn President Montenegro that an insurrection was brewing in the Cochabamba and Santa Cruz regiments; or December 25, 1981, when you deciphered messages from the Chilean government to its chargé d’affaires regarding water that was being diverted from a river along the border. There are many, many more, but since then your successes have been sporadic. Ramírez- Graham reassigned you, and although at first it seemed that your new job was a promotion, it actually distanced you from the action. As head of the Black Chamber’s general archives, you have become a cryptanalyst who no longer analyzes codes.
Your steps echo down the hallway. You rub your hands together, trying to warm them. The country’s return to democracy in the early 1980s didn’t end the work that was done in this building, but it did minimize it. At first messages between unionists were intercepted, and then later on between drug traffickers, careless people who spoke on easily traceable radio frequencies and didn’t even bother to code their messages. The 1990s brought sporadic work listening to opposition politicians on bugged telephones.
You were happy when Montenegro returned to power through democratic means; you thought that everything would change under his rule and your work would again become urgent. What a disappointment. There was no significant threat to national security as there had been during his dictatorship. You were forced to admit that times had changed. Even worse, during the last stretch of Montenegro’s administration, the vice president, a charismatic technocrat — pardon the contradiction — with wide eyes and dimpled cheeks, had decided to reorganize the Black Chamber and turn it into the focal point of the fight against cyberterrorism. “This will pose one of the key challenges to the twenty- first century,” he had said when he came to announce his initiative. “We must be prepared for what is to come.” Immediately thereafter the vice president introduced Ramírez-Graham, the new director of the Black Chamber: “One of our countrymen who has succeeded abroad, a man who has left a promising career in the north to come and serve his country.” A round of applause. He had annoyed you from the very start: the impeccable black suit, the well-polished loafers and neat haircut — he looked like some sleek businessman. Then he had opened his mouth and the bad impression only worsened. True, he might have had slightly darker skin than most, and somewhat Andean features, but he spoke Spanish with an American accent. It certainly didn’t help when you discovered that he wasn’t even born in Bolivia but was from Arlington, Virginia.
You search the walls for a sign of salvation. Around you are only silent structures, muted by the vigilance of a supervisor who believed it prudent that employees of the Black Chamber not be distracted. Aside from the aluminum emblem at the entrance, there are no signs or notices, no noise that might distract you in the endless search for the text that resides behind all texts. But you can find messages even on immaculate walls. It’s simply a matter of looking for them. Your glasses are dirty — fingerprints, coffee stains — and the frame is twisted. There is a slight pain in your left eye caused by the lens bending at the wrong angle. For weeks you’ve been intending to make an appointment with the ophthalmologist.
Ramírez-Graham has been director of the Black Chamber for almost a year. He has fired a number of your colleagues and replaced them with young computer experts. Since you obviously don’t fit in with his plans for a generational change, why haven’t you been fi red? You put yourself in his shoes: you can’t be fired. After all, you are a living archive, a repository of information regarding the profession. When you go, a whole millennium of knowledge will go with you, an entire encyclopedia of codes. Your colleagues who haven’t yet turned thirty don’t come to ask you practical questions. Rather, they come to hear your stories: of Étienne Bazeries, the French cryptanalyst who in the nineteenth century spent three years trying to decipher Louis XIV’s code (so full of twists and turns that it took more than two centuries to decode it), or of Marian Rejewski, the Polish cryptanalyst who helped to defeat Enigma in World War II. There are so many stories, and you know them all. Your new colleagues use software to decipher codes and see you as a relic from times when the profession was not fully mechanized. The world has changed since Enigma, but being historically out of sync is nothing new in Río Fugitivo.
You pause in front of the Bletchley Room, where slim computers use complex mathematical processes to understand coded messages and fail more often than not. Years are needed to decode a single phrase. With the development of public key cryptography, and particularly with the appearance of the RSA asymmetric system in 1977, a message can now be coded using such high values that all of the computers in the world working to decipher it would take more than the age of the universe to find a solution.
The ultimate irony is that with computers at their service, cryptographers have won the battle against cryptanalysts, and people like you, who don’t depend on computers that much, can still be useful.
Your younger colleagues are adept at computer science and useless before the power of the computer itself. Their work is more modern than yours (at least according to the movies, obsessed as they are with showing young programmers in front of a computer monitor), but it’s still no use — they are just as out of date as you are. Deciphering codes in general has become a useless task. But someone has to do it: the Black Chamber has to maintain the pretense that it is still useful to the government, that power is not as vulnerable as it really is to the attacks of a conspiracy handled by means of secret codes.
The room is empty and silent. When you began work here, the computers were enormous, noisy, metallic cupboards sprouting cables. Machines have become smaller and quieter, increasingly aseptic (in the Babbage Room there is still an ancient Cray supercomputer, a donation from the U.S. government). At one time you felt you were less than those who worked tirelessly on algorithms in the Bletchley Room. You even tried to learn from them, to move from your old office to this one, which was more in keeping with the times. But you couldn’t — you didn’t last long. You liked mathematics, but not enough to dedicate the best hours of your life to it. For you, mathematics was about functionality, not passion. Luckily, most conspirators in Bolivia aren’t that good and don’t know how to do more than the basics on computers either.
You continue on your way, putting your hands into your coat pockets. A pencil, a pen, and a few coins. An image of your daughter, Flavia, comes to mind, and you are filled with tenderness. Before leaving, you went into her room to kiss her goodbye on the forehead. Duanne 2019, the heroine Flavia had created for some of her Web surfing, stared out at you from the screen saver on one of two monitors sitting on her desk, covered in photos of famous hackers (Kevin Mitnick, Ehud Tannenbaum). Or crackers, as she would insist. “You have to learn to differentiate them, Dad. Crackers abuse technology for illegal purposes.” “So why is your site called AllHacker and not AllCracker?” “Good question. It’s because only people in the know make the distinction. And if my site was called AllCracker, it wouldn’t get even one percent of the hits it gets now.” Hackers, crackers: it’s all the same to you. But shouldn’t you try to use the Spanish term and call them piratas informáticos? You prefer that term, even though it sounds strange. English had come first and become the norm. People sent attachments, not archivos adjuntos, e-mails, not correos electrónicos. In Spain they call the screen saver salvapantallas; in truth it sounds ridiculous. Still, you shouldn’t give up; it is worth going against the grain. The survival of Spanish as a language of the twenty-first century is at stake. Piratas informáticos, piratas informáticos . . .
Flavia was snoring lightly and you stood looking at her under the glow of the lamp on the bedside table. Her damp, tangled, chestnut-colored hair fell over her face with its full lips. Her nightshirt had twisted and her left breast was bared, the nipple pink and erect. Embarrassed, you covered her up. When had your mischievous, ponytailed little girl become a disturbing young woman of seventeen? When had you stopped paying attention? What had you been doing while she grew up? Computers had fascinated her ever since she was a child, and she had learned to program by the time she was thirteen. Her Web site provided information about the little-known hacker subculture. How many hours a day did she spend in front of her IBM clones? In most respects she had left adolescence behind. Luckily, she was not at all interested in the young men who had begun to flock to the house, attracted by her distant, languid beauty.
The Vigenère Room is empty. The hands of the clock on the wall read 6:25 a.m. Ramírez-Graham hadn’t been thorough enough and had left mechanical clocks in the building. Surely he would soon replace them with red numbers in quartz, analogue with digital. Such useless modernization. Seconds more or seconds less, precise or imprecise, time will continue to flow on and in the end have its way with us.
The building at this hour is still chilly. It doesn’t matter: you like to be the first to arrive at work. You learned that from Albert, your boss for over twenty-five years. Continuing on with the tradition is your homage to the man who did more for cryptanalysis in Río Fugitivo than anyone else. Albert is now confined to a medicinal-smelling room in a house on Avenida de las Acacias, delirious, his mind unable to respond. He is proof that it’s not good to overload the brain with work: short circuits are the order of the day. You like to walk down the empty hallways, to see the desks in the cubicles piled high with paper. In the still air your eyes rest on file folders and ghostly machines with the disdainful arrogance of a benevolent god, of someone who will do his work because some unknown First Cause has ordained it and it’s not wise to defy destiny.
You press the elevator button and enter that metallic universe where the strangest thoughts have always occurred to you. Will the elevator malfunction and plunge you to your death? You are heading to the basement, to the archives, to the ends of the earth, to a death chamber that only you inhabit. It is even colder down there. Suspended in the air by thick cables, you move without moving, in peace.
There is something special about this elevator. Its green walls, simple efficiency — a solid nucleus of stable movement. What would you do without it? What would people do without them? Otis, six passengers, 1000 pounds. You stare at the name. You spell it out: O-T-I-S. Backwards: S-I-T- O. It is a message striving to break free, and it is destined only for you. I-O-T- S. I’m Obliged To Say. Who’s obliged to say what?
The general archives are in the basement. You are the link between the present and the past. You hang your jacket on a broken coat rack. You take your glasses off, clean the lenses with a dirty handkerchief, and put them back on. You pop a piece of spearmint gum into your mouth, the first of many. Never chewed for more than two minutes, they are thrown out as soon as the first flavor is gone.
You feel the need to urinate. That sense of having to go immediately has been with you since adolescence. It’s one of the worst manifestations of your anxiety, the way in which your body compensates for your apparent immunity to emotions. All of your underwear is stained the color of burned grass. You suffer from it even more now that you work in the basement; the architect never thought to put a bathroom on this floor. Perhaps he assumed that whoever would work in the archives could take the elevator or stairs up to the bathrooms on the ground floor — a normal human being, someone who might go once or twice a day and not be bothered. But what about someone who is incontinent? How insensitive.
You open the bottom drawer of your desk and take out a plastic cup with a smiling Road Runner on it. You head to a corner of the room, your back to the archives. You lower your zipper and urinate into the cup: six, seven, eight amber drops. That’s why you don’t like to go to the bathroom; the result is usually incompatible with the sense of urgency. It’s better to accumulate drops in the cup and then casually pass by the bathroom to dispose of your fragrant treasure at lunchtime.
You put the cup back in the drawer.
The pile of papers on your desk seduces you; bringing order to chaos, partially winning the battle against it, and being ready for the next onslaught is a game that lasts for days and months and years. Cryptanalysts’ desks tend to be impeccable, with papers stacked on either side, pens and reference books lined up one next to the other, the computer monitor standing guard, the keyboard on the shelf hidden beneath the desk. It is the reflection of a pristine mind that does its work with great dedication to logic.
You turn on the computer and check your e-mail at both the public and the private address. You spit your gum out, put another piece in your mouth, and all of a sudden at your private address you find an e-mail consisting of a single line:
You notice the sequence FWJ XYFNSJI. Frequency analysis won’t take more than a few minutes. Each letter has its own personality, and even though it seems to be out of place, it is betrayed, whispers, speaks, shouts, tells its story, misses its place on earth — paper. Who could have sent you this message? From where? You don’t recognize the address. That’s strange — only about ten people know your private e-mail. Someone has managed to get past the Black Chamber’s firewalls and is teasing your heart with a crude message.
All messages from within the Black Chamber come encrypted to your private address and your computer deciphers them automatically. Perhaps something in the program failed. You hit a couple of keys to try to decode the message. No luck. It isn’t encrypted using the Black Chamber’s software, which confirms your suspicions: the message was sent by someone unknown.
It is a taunt. For now, you had better do what you do best: frequency analysis. The j has to be a vowel: a? e? o? Common sense tells you it’s an e. You soon know: it is a simple code ciphered by substitution, a variation that, according to Suetonius, was used by the emperor Julius Caesar. Each letter has been moved fi ve spaces to the right, so that the j is really an e, the g is a b, and so on. XYFNSJI spells stained.
Who’s the murderer? You? Why are your hands stained? Copyright © 2003 Edmundo Paz Sodán, English translation copyright © 2006 by Lisa Carter. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Set against the backdrop of the globalization crisis, Edmundo Paz Soldán's award-winning literary thriller is a modern chapter in the age-old fight between oppressed and opressor.
The town of Río Fugitivo is on the verge of a social revolution -- not a revolution of strikes and street riots but a war waged electronically, in which computer viruses are the weapons and hackers the revolutionaries.
In this war of information, the lives of a variety of characters become entangled: Kandisky, the mythic leader of a group of hackers fighting the government and transnational companies; Albert, the founder of the Black Chamber, a state security firm charged with deciphering the secret codes used in the information war; and Miguel Sáenz, the Black Chamber’s most famous codebreaker, who begins to suspect that his work is not as innocent as he once supposed. All converge to create an edgy, fast-paced story about personal responsibility and complicity in a world defined by the ever-increasing gulfs between the global and the local, government and society, the virtual and the real. (back to top)
Edmundo Paz Soldán is the author of six novels and two short story collections. He has won the National Book Award in Bolivia, the prestigious Juan Rulfo Award, and was a finalist for the Romulo Gállegos Award. One of the few McOndo writers who live in the United States, he is frequently called upon as the movement’s spokesperson by the American media. The Matter of Desire is his first work to be translated into English.
He is an assistant professor at Cornell University in New York City.