In John Updike’s short story “Bech in Czech” (collected in Bech at Bay), Updike’s fictional alter ego is sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange program through the United States government in 1986, while the country is still Communist. Bech attends a party of dissident writers, one of whom had been imprisoned. Bech reflects:
Jail! One of the guests at the party had spent nearly ten years in prison. He was dapper, like the cafe habitues in George Grosz drawings, with a scarred, small face and shining black eyes. He spoke so softly Bech could hardly hear him, though he bent his ear close. The man’s hands twisted under Bech’s eyes, as if in the throes of torture. Bech noticed that the fingers had in fact bent, broken. How would he, the American author asked himself, stand up to having his fingernails pulled? He could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.
That paragraph, buried in the middle of the story, was the product of a deeply humane sensibility. I can’t think of another American man of letters who could have written it in the course of a story devoted to the ghosts of modern history.
The ghosts come to life in the Acton Institute documentary The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom. The documentary premiered this past April. As posted to YouTube, it has racked up nearly 3,000,000 views. Somehow word has gotten out, but I learned of it only from Cliff May’s column “Martyrs — and newsmen — for freedom.” This is an educational, powerful, enraging, humbling, and emotional documentary. If not a portent, it is a warning with many lessons. The least we can do is attend to it.