Today the chief engineers have been down to our part of the mine. They descended in the rickety lift of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Memorial Shaft, and stood in a huddle, puffing on their pipes and blowing smoke at the canaries. Whether this was vindictive or in the interests of scientific research was not clear. There were seven of them, like Snow White’s seven mining dwarves, and they were similarly mononymous. The chief engineers were known as Wretched, Spiteful, Incontinent, Peevish, Lippy, Rancorous, and Preening.
One might assume these names to reflect their personalities, but that was not the case. If we consult their academic reports from the Valentine Ackland Memorial College of Mining, Boring, & Pitcraft, we learn that Wretched was judged to be preening and rancorous, Spiteful to be lippy and peevish, Incontinent to be spiteful and wretched, Peevish to be rancorous and incontinent, Lippy to be preening and spiteful, Rancorous to be peevish and lippy, and Preening to be illegible. Not one of them was a dwarf, or even a gnome.
They stood puffing in silence for a while, until one of them spoke.
“It strikes me that this mine is rather Kafkaesque,” said Lippy.
“Oh? In what sense?” the other six said, or rather sang, in harmony, to the tune of Land Of Ladies by the Brothers Johnson.
“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the management of the mine is Kafkaesque,” said Lippy, “In that it is a labyrinthine, senseless, and oppressive bureaucracy. Consider that there are seven of us chief engineers, yet only three miners.”
He was referring to me and my two colleagues, who had taken a break from toil in order to meet with the chief engineers. Lippy called us miners, but we prefer to think of ourselves as troglodytes. None of us had been up to the surface since the dying days of the Nixon administration.
We had been transfixed by the Watergate hearings. Shortly before going down the mine we compiled a Who’s Who of the scandal, in which the three of us drew sharp, pointed pen-portraits of the significant players, including Nixon himself and Ronald Ziegler and Ken Clawson and H R Haldeman and Donald Segretti and Dwight Lee Chapin and John Dean and John & Martha Mitchell and Bruce Kehrli and Gordon C Strachan and Herbert Warren Kalmbach and Chuck Colson and Gerry & The Pacemakers and Robert C Mardian and Jeb Magruder and Maurice Stans and G Gordon Liddy (not Lippy) and Hugh Sloan and James McCord and John Erlichman and David Young and Egil Krogh and E Howard Hunt and Richard Kleindienst and Richard Helms and Patrick Gray and Vernon Walters. We thought it judicious to omit our own names, and, to be on the safe side, volunteered for duty in the salt mine until the whole sorry business had blown over.
Now, faced with seven chief engineers, we would have to dissemble.
“Well, O weird hunched albino men of the pit,” said Lippy, addressing us directly for the first time, “We have come down into the Stygian gloom to find out how much salt you’ve mined. I must say the production figures are disappointing.”
“I can assure you we have been tireless in our search for salt down here,” I lied, “And in fact we think we spotted a tad just before you and your fellow chief engineers arrived.”
“Excellent,” said Lippy, “Then perhaps we should leave you free to mine it.”
“There is nothing we would enjoy more,” I lied again, “But before we do so, would it not be wise for the seven of you to check that what we found actually is salt, and not some other mineral with properties closely resembling but not identical to salt?”
Lippy went back into a huddle with Wretched and Spiteful and Incontinent and Peevish and Rancorous and Preening to discuss this.
I was lying because we had not actually been looking for salt at all, nor had we found any, not even a tad. Instead, we had been opening up a cavern, and creating a huge underground aviary in which we were breeding an entirely new type of hyperintelligent subterranean canary. This represented a great advance on what we had been up to in the Watergate building on that night in June 1972. But we could not – yet – reveal our doings to Lippy and his fellows.
They finished talking, and Lippy turned to me.
“Very well,” he said, “Where are we to find this tad of what may be salt?”
I pointed at the entrance to an excessively long, dark, winding, horrible tunnel.
“Go down there,” I said, “And mind your step. It is long and dark and winding and horrible.”
And so, ten minutes ago, the naive, if not outright idiotic, chief engineers went pootling off down a tunnel so long and dark and winding and horrible that it is likely to drive them insane. They will find no salt, and they may be attacked by a few stray hyperintelligent subterranean canaries, but we don’t care. Besides, our shift will soon come to an end; we shall not be here to see them coming back.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.