Armin Kõomägi – Logisticians Anonymous
I deal only in the necessary: I move only the necessary parts of the body, I exercise only the necessary muscles, I think only necessary thoughts. At the right time, in the right place, in the right amount. Always. But one thing troubles me. I don't understand my own feelings.
Writing down the details of one's life – in a memoir, say – is such a waste of ink, paper, and time. A similar level of detail could be found regarding one's life when perusing the economic incomings and outgoings of a calendar year, coupled with detailed records of the food eaten, the steps taken, the number and duration of sexual interactions, and the efficiencies created. In short, or so reasons the narrator of Armin Kõomägi's Logisticians Anonymous, there are always data points to be found, and these data points can be extrapolated to create a life, and one's duty lies in recording, studying and utilising them to their best and most useful purpose.
There is a sense, though it's never made explicit, that the narrator has been forced to write this short story in order to come to terms with his affliction. The title, “Logisticians Anonymous”, only becomes relevant near the end of the story, when we learn that the narrator, whose life has been compartmentalised and analysed for any waste or inefficiency to the point where he doesn't have a life any more, has been forced to attend “LA”. Thus this short story, which is assuredly not the best use of one's time when attempting to determine the weak points of life. Or, at least, not when one is a logistician and proud of it.
...I'll never forget the lecturer in basic logistics. The way he took the shortest route from the door to his desk; the very rational movements with which he organized his class materials on its left-hand corner, whence it would later be convenient to lift them up to the lectern; the skilled gesture with which he opened the two buttons of his jacket, whereupon it landed most dynamically on the back of his chair without even crumpling...
Note the choice of words: “shortest route”; “rational movements”; “organized”; “convenient”; “skilled gesture”; dynamically”: these are the words of the robotic factory, of Taylorism taken to its most mechanical and dehumanising extreme. A movement derives value from its efficiency of function and value in outcome, and nothing else. The narrator is charged following this lecture and lecturer. His life changes, dramatically, and he has come now to consider it a problem – but largely because he has been told it is. Not necessarily because he thinks it is so.
Our narrator is the sort of man who weighs himself before and after eating a kiwi fruit in order to determine the biological functioning of his body to the nearest gram, and who is proud of “...my son, who always gives a two-second warning before he shits his pants.” His dying grandfather, a hero in his eyes, squeezes his hand with pleasure and pride when the narrator suggests that, in light of the fact that the old man has had his lower legs amputated, the family could save more money by buying a smaller coffin. This is a man, who, during his career as a “business optomiser”, has more than once fired himself in the efforts of best streamlining businesses.
The culmination of the logician's methodical and ordered life comes, when, shortly after marrying an “irrational” woman, the following occurs:
I was sitting there, I had to piss and I was thirsty. I waited for a commercial, got up, grabbed a less than half-full beer glass from the table with my left hand, and went to the toilet. The kitchen was a meter or so from the bathroom. On the way to I opened my fly with my right hand and pulled my member out. Since the door was open, I saw that the seat had been lifted. This gave me a noticeable time advantage while I got my external urinary sphincter relaxed, a couple of steps before standing in front of the bowl. So it was. I should add that all this time I was drinking the beer glass empty along the way. Naturally my calculations were precisely correct. The cascade of urine that burst from my member during the final step reached its target at just the right time, without the least careless splash on the sides of the bowl. When I left the toilet contentedly, I met my wife standing at the kitchen door. Her mouth was agape and her eyes were bleary. I went past her to award myself a new beer from the refrigerator. My wife stood frozen, her back to me. I poured the beer skillfully into the glass, such that the depth of the head would be no more than two and a half centimetres.
His wife, needless to say, leaves him the next day. The narrator, needless to say, considers the job of marriage to be, on balance, well done, particularly in light of the fact that he now has a son, with whom the regulation Sunday visits allows for perfect fine tuning of schedules.
Kõomägi's story, as should be noted from the extended quote above, is a farce. The tone is clearly comedic, though the narrator himself is serious when extolling the virtues of his system. Kõomägi narrates Logisticians Anonymous with a sense of the irrational and exuberant being held constantly and forcefully at bay, as though at any moment the narrator might break out in song if only to aid in containing the building feelings within – but it never happens. Instead, the release comes through increased efficiency, endless restructuring, ongoing streamlining. Where there is waste, cut. Where there is confusion, avoid. Where there is redundancy, remove.
The final third of the story revolves around the narrator's visit to a Logistician Anonymous meeting. Here, Kõomägi provides snapshots of other LA members: Martin, who calculated which square feet were most utilised by his family in their house, then redesigned a living area four times smaller and much, much cheaper; Arved, who uses world markets and consumer price indices to extrapolate family finances into 2014 with “98.5 percent accuracy”, and who extrapolates his family member's body measurements and weights at three-year intervals; and Ott Kott, who studied his taxi routes and virtually dismantled his car in order to sell off the “inefficient” and “unnecessary” pieces to save his company money. These men, like the narrator, are hilarious in their extremes.
Logistics – that is the greatest thing. It is what makes people human. Separates us from the animals. We're able to compile all rational knowledge, calculate, measure, and then draw the right conclusions. We don't tolerate waste. We recycle life – we who are each the result of a single, efficient pregnancy.
Curiously, Kõomägi's LA members – the narrator included – are not interested necessarily in becoming rich, or using the efficiencies of their lives in order to line their own pockets. Ott Kott, for instance, deposits all of the money he saves while working into his employer's bank account, and the efficiencies of the other men are used to strengthen the state rather than corporations or individuals. Kõomägi seems to be suggesting that the efficient life lived to its extreme can be of benefit to the larger institutions of society, but not necessarily to the individual (though these men have convinced themselves otherwise). Obviously, these men are extremes, but the point stands: how many people these days have access to their company intranet outside the office in order to work more effectively during the 9 – 5 working hours, but instead find themselves always checking their emails, now slaves to the office in their own time? Have the efficiences of modern technology helped, or hurt, our sense of life being demarcated into “work” and “leisure”?
Michelle Perrot, writing in the late 1970s, decried the “quiet violence” of the computer. In theory, these devices save us time, and are capable of doing dramatic, complicated and menial tasks over and over without complaining. So many office jobs have been subsumed by the computer, but have office workers seen a benefit? People work more now than they did before, and are expected to remain “constantly online and engaged”. The quest for efficiency and convenience have instead culminated in an inability to be properly disengaged from work, from others, and from the detritus of contemporary society. How relaxed does one feel when the computer is off, the mobile (cell) phone is off, the television is off, the skies are gray and a cup of tea steams invitingly beside your favourite book? And yet, it doesn't happen. Efficiency clouds lives, and days and weeks and months go by without that relaxing feeling ever occurring.
Kõomägi's story takes the concept to its extreme, but this is, of course, where satire works best. The narrator and his LA friends are monsters, really, though they don't know it and others wouldn't easily see it. They are the culmination of lives focused intently on cutting costs and eliminating inefficiencies while forgetting, along the way, that these savings and cuts and reductions and innovations must lead to something. You can't live life in order purely to increase your bank account or remove redundancy. There must be something bigger – a lover, a friend, a work of art, a book, your children, Picasso, Dmitri Shostakovich's 11th Symphony, Roberto Bolaño's 2666 - something. Something bigger than you and bigger than me. Kõomägi's characters are end points, desirable end points from the perspective of the State and corporations, but from a human's perspective? Never. They are an anathema to everything that is good.
Logisticians Anonymous by Armin Kõomägi is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Belgium (Flemish): de Martelaere, Patricia - My Hand is Exhausted
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Spanish (Galician): Fernández Paz, Agustín - This Strange Lucidity
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Hungarian: Bán, Zsófia - When There Were Only Animals
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Czech: Kratochvil, Jiří - I, Loshaď
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review