The Insanity Game - Märten Kross
New rewritten edition 2023
The Insanity Game: an excerpt from the novel, II
A day after Peeter rescued me from getting my teeth knocked in, I was suddenly woken up before the others, at five-thirty in the morning, and ordered by two nurses and a soldier to come along with them. I asked them where I was being taken, but all they said was, "You'll see." I felt apprehension growing inside of me, because in spite of the fact that I had not been told what they were planning to do to me exactly and where I was being taken, I intuited the very worst.
It is an unpleasant feeling when your nerves are so strained that you tend to need to pee repetitively. Even though you do not actually have to go, you need to take a trip to the toilet because your bladder is tensing up from anxiety. Your abdomen presses together so tightly that it makes you slightly nauseous. And when you have gone to the bathroom (which I was nevertheless graciously allowed to do before going along with them), you want to go again five minutes later. Because you have to pee again. And the feeling does not pass until the unknowing that has strained your nerves is either over, or it disappears when you are standing eye-to-eye with your fear. For then, it is no longer an unknown.
We walked along a long, shadowy, familiar hallway towards the surgical department; outside, it was still dark and the hospital was as quiet as the grave. About halfway down the hallway, through a windowed set of doors and just past a bust of Lenin, we turned to the right and entered through a door decorated with a copper-sheet sign that read "Neurological Testing". I attempted to ask one more time what would be done to me there, but no one wished to tell me anything; one of the nurses merely repeated: "It's nothing—ordinary tests; you'll see for yourself in a minute."
We entered a waiting room and I was asked to position myself near the next door until I was called. The soldier was left to guard me, and we had to wait standing. I paced nervously back and forth in two-meter stretches. The unknowing would not seem to let me stand still. The soldier guarding me stood unmoving next to the door and dourly observed my fidgeting. Fifteen minutes later, the door opened and a burly nurse over the age of fifty with a masculine attitude and fish-eyes announced: "Hyendrik Hyaas, vy sleduzhi." When I reluctantly entered the office, a thin, petite boy exited in turn. It was impossible to read from his expression anything that might hint at what had been done to him there. Maybe just that he seemed somehow fatigued. The office was occupied by yet another nurse with an identically powerful, corpulent frame and graying hair bound in a bun behind her neck, just as the one who had called me in. They were so similar that they could have been sisters. Like the Press Sisters, only in white smocks.
It seemed that they would have no problem restraining patients if necessary, as in terms of build, they appeared to be either former female weightlifters or at least shot-putters. Also present in the office was a lean man of about fifty wearing glasses and a white coat, showing beneath which was a military uniform. Apparently, he was the doctor.
The testing room was quite large—a rectangular space of about forty square meters. Against the right-hand wall was a small booth with a tiny window and a door. The booth, just like the rest of the room, was paneled in plywood, and against the rear wall of the room were assorted machines and a couple of stainless-steel carts holding a number of medical tools. I was asked to remove my shirt, after which my head and chest were rubbed with some kind of a yellowish gel-like slime. Then, the nurses began affixing various sensors to me. I breathed easier—the doctor had apparently kept her promise and, as far as I could tell, they would not start sticking a large needle into my spine today. When all of the sensors were attached, I was told that I was to enter the booth next to the wall, and would then be asked a number of questions. My confidence faltered anew, however—what if those machines here were so damned fine-tuned that they would tell them everything they wanted to hear about me, and would say that there isabsolutely nothing wrong with me?
It was dim in the booth, the walls of which were padded and covered with brown oilcloth. In the middle of the tiny space was a tall stool, on which I was told to take a seat. Sticking out of the walls were several bunches of tangled wires, to which the sensors on my body were now connected. A number of the sensors that had been placed around my head were probably supposed to monitor brain activity, while the rest around my chest and wrists were meant to register what my heart was doing. One of the goals of the test was apparently to determine whether or not my pulse rises when the questions are posed; something like with a lie-detector test.
When I sat on the stool, the tiny window in the front wall of the booth was directly in my field of vision, and I could see out of it now. Sitting on the other side of the window was one of the nurses, who was watching to make sure I sat nicely in place. I was told that I must sit still where I was and look out the window. When instructed, I was to close my eyes. When instructed to open my eyes, then I must open my eyes.
I sat in the booth for maybe ten minutes, maybe fifteen, but no one said anything. Through the window, I could see the lean man in the coat turning knobs on the wall and explaining something. Then, they began asking me questions through a small speaker mounted in the wall. I hadn't the slightest clue what way I should act for the machine to react to my responses the right way. First and foremost, I had to look straight out of the window and answer the question concisely; to say the first word that came to mind in connection with what had been asked. The nurse on the other side of the window was sitting in front of a microphone, reading off the questions from a sheet of paper, and observing me simultaneously. The other nurse was sitting at a table a short distance away, taking notes.
"Do you have a wife?"
"Is she pretty?"
"Yes, very pretty."
"Is your wife insane, also?"
"Have you undergone any traumas?"
"Are you sure that there were four of them, exactly?"
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Are you easily irritated?"
"Do you feel dizzy sometimes?"
"Are you a Young Communist?"
"Do you believe that you are insane?"
And so on and so forth—who knows for how long, exactly? Are you sure you are not insane? How can your wife live together with an insane person at all? Have you taken any medications? Do you wet the bed at night? What kinds of medications have you taken? Do you have any children? Are you sure that you do not wet the bed at night? How do you know you don't wet the bed? Do you faint on occasion, too? Are you homosexual? Do you become angry often?
I tried to answer all of the questions simply and concisely. I answered which pills I have been prescribed; I lied about which ones I have taken. I sat there in the booth with my eyes closed, answering those asinine questions, and the only thought that came to mind was that I started to imagine something spinning in my head at the same time. At first, it was something like a disc-shaped object that extended from about my nose to the back of my neck inside of my head, and was spinning vertically at an incredible speed, right between my eyes. And then, I imagined how that imaginary disc started—while still spinning—to change its tilt; leaning to the left and then to the right, and back again. Then, I tried to further imagine lamps blinking rapidly around my head. Behind my neck, then in front of my eyes, then somewhere a little farther away—like a tiny fireworks display. I hoped (probably extremely naively) that that kind of mental activity would somehow reflect in the contraption's readings.
I was questioned for altogether about half an hour, or maybe even an hour, since my sense of time became extremely hazy in the dim booth. Then, I was ordered to exit the booth and get dressed. I wiped myself clean of the green slime with a towel that was handed to me, and put on my pajama shirt. I looked at the two green monitors in the wall. Both were displaying pictures of a brain, which the doctor was studying while making careful notes. Lying on the table was a roll of paper covered in zigzagging lines that had been drawn from monitoring my heart activity. That whole mechanism with its buttons, green monitors on the plywood-covered wall, and plethora of all kinds of black, red, and green knobs looked like a machine from an old American film, in which Martians are planning to take over Earth.
Perhaps that is the very reason why those monitors reminded me of the computer with an 086 processor that my parents had purchased a few years earlier from Finland—acquired as contraband, of course, since computers were not allowed at that time. A Finnish friend of my parents had somehow transported it to them from Helsinki, and customs simply did not notice the crime. Otherwise, the computer—as a strategically dangerous apparatus—would have been confiscated. It was possible to type green-lettered text onto the computer's black screen, and play the Pac-Man game, in which round, angular-mouthed characters had to eat one another. The device already had a hard drive, too; although it contained twenty megabytes of space. You could not do much else with the device, or at least I did not know how to.
I was ordered to return to the ward without any greater explanation of what my test results were. The soldier was no longer made to accompany me. I walked alone along the dark hallway to the seventh ward and attended breakfast together with the others. Despite the fact that it was morning and already starting to dawn outside, I felt terribly fatigued.
The following days passed tranquilly and the sole thing distressing me was that the doctor still had not said anything to me yet. What were the results of the tests done with that contraption? Was "everything fine", as she had told my mother on the phone, or was it not? I tried to read in my room, but still could not keep my mind focused. After a couple of pages, my thoughts went roaming somewhere else; the letters and words no longer had any content or meaning. I put the book down a couple of times and gave it another shot a little later, but the very same thing kept repeating.
One day, I asked for permission to go to the hospital shop, even though I did not actually need anything from it. I wanted time to move faster and clarity concerning what would become of me to arrive. In such a situation, it is the unknowing that is the most unpleasant thing, slicing your nerves thinner and thinner. I did not know what to expect—whether I would be sent back home, or onward to the depths of the Great Homeland to practice marching drills.
I sauntered across the snowy hospital grounds in my bathrobe and slippers towards the gate, where the shop was located in a tiny one-story building. The store sold ice cream, two kinds of cookies, Sayaanid soda, black tea, and TU-143 cigarettes—that was the entire selection. When I came out of the store, I could hear everyday life going on in the distance, beyond the gate—people were coming home from work, going somewhere, children were explaining something to their parents, cars were driving. Yet I was in the separate little walled-off world, where an entirely different life went on and different kinds of rules and laws were in effect. I strolled back to the ward carrying a package of cookies in my hand and a bottle of soda in my bathrobe pocket.
Something was going on in the ward when I arrived. I was allowed in and told that no one was being let out, as some officer's watch had been stolen, and the thief was most likely in the ward. We were assembled in the auditorium at the end of the ward's hallway. Piles of old mattresses lined the walls of the space. The officer on duty announced:
"Now, you're all going to sit here together for as long as it takes for one of you to confess who stole it."
And so, we sat there. We sat upon the piles of mattresses for quite a number of hours and conversed quietly. The officer on duty sat on a chair in the middle of the auditorium and waited. Everyone was peering around vigilantly and endeavoring to guess who the thief could be until one of the Russian's nerves finally gave way. The short red-headed guy walked to the middle of the room, took the watch out of his pocket for everyone to see, handed it to the officer, and confessed in a soft voice:
"I took it. . ." The redhead began to sob at the same time. The thief was taken away, and the others were allowed to go have dinner. The show was over, and the officer got his watch back. If the redhead had taken the care to steal the watch of some ordinary serviceman, then it probably would not have been made into such a big deal. Someone somewhere would have been angry, and that is where the story would have ended. But the thief blundered by simply picking the wrong watch.
The next morning, Dr. Galante entered my room. The light scent of lavender arrived together with her. Half of the patients in the room propped themselves up on their beds upon seeing her, and stared. As did I on my exercise bench.
"Haas, we've done a review of your patient history now. You have a committee appointment at twelve o'clock today," she announced. "Stop by my office afterwards. I suppose you'll be shown where you need to go."
I did not even have time to get up from the exercise bench, not to mention inquire as to what kind of a conclusion they had reached with their tests, before the doctor was already rushing away. Did she speed off quickly on purpose because she did not want to tell me the truth to my face and left that job for the “troika” to do, or was she truly just in a hurry?
At eleven-thirty, an officer and a soldier entered my room and ordered me to follow them. We exited the hospital building and walked across the snowy courtyard, along a small pathway that led directly to a tinier detached one-story building between the hospital mental institution and the prison. The sky was cloudy and dark gray as usual; the weather was just as oppressive as the feeling in my gut. I watched the white snowflakes falling onto my bathrobe until we entered the building.
I was ordered to sit on a metal-legged chair covered in brown oilcloth, set beside a door that opened into an office at the end of a tiny windowless hallway, and told to wait until the committee convened. The soldier brought to accompany me stood on guard next to the hallway exit. This time, I did not actually have to wait all that long, as at twelve o’clock, the door to the office indeed opened and some major appeared, calling out:
“Hyendrik Hyaas, enter.”
I walked into the room at not quite too quick of a pace. To at least some extent, I strove to think through how I should carry myself before the “troika”. I tried to recall what Jüri had told me on Toome Hill. I felt that the best way to go about it would be to try and act somewhat startled (which I already was anyway), and just a little bit ill at ease. They almost certainly had to know that I was capable of reacting more unpredictably from time to time; at least I hoped that the incident in the mess hall had been reported in my file.
In reality, I had no problem in putting on a startled and unsettled act, because at that moment, the “troika”—being the special committee that would decide my fate—was just like a tribunal or a court, which could do to me whatever it pleased at the given time, and entirely according to its own whim. It could send me to the Far North, the Far East, Kazakhstan, the Kuril Islands, or who the hell knows where to do who the hell knows what; but, of course, the “troika” could also decide to send me home. In any case, it was having a strong-enough effect on me to cause unease.
In the center of the room was a light-colored plywood chair, across from which was a large dark desk set beneath the windows. Three men were sitting at the desk with their backs towards the windows. On the left was PolkovnikAndropov, leafing through documents with his glasses perched on the end of his nose. In the middle was a tiny grey-haired sack-shaped polkovnik, who was much shorter than the other two and appeared the be the ranking officer in the room. This could be intuited from both his calm posture and his central position at the desk. The doctor had told me about the “troika” itself, but had not said who would be a part of it. Maybe he was the head of the hospital or the chief doctor; who knows. Sitting on the right was the major who had ordered me to come in. Out of the three “troika” members, he was the youngest—an intelligent-looking man of about forty.
I was asked to take a seat. The soldier who had accompanied me stood guard next to the door, as if waiting to whisk me away right after the committee had made its decision—whether to the prison next door, as was fitting for a faker, or to join a labor crew in Murmansk, as Praporshchik Nikitin had vowed. I was already aware of Andropov’s opinion on my medical history, and I supposed that he as the head of the hospital psychiatry ward would assert himself now.
“Major Baranov, please begin. Major Baranov is the hospital’s head psychiatrist,” the gray-haired polkovnik sitting in the middle announced.
The major apparently wasn’t merely at the desk out of obligation or in order to take notes and write up the minutes of the committee’s work. He stood and began pacing calmly back and forth between me and the desk with slow steps, his hands held behind his back.
“Since the head of the Neurology Department, Polkovnik Kuzmin, is sick, I will be substituting for him in today’s committee,” he informed me.
I observed the Major walking back and forth, and noticed at the same time that Andropov was the one taking notes at the desk. This was not a good sign, of course. Who the hell really knew how he would try to nab me. Baranov continued:
“You know very well why you were sent for additional testing. To determine whether or not the Tallinn doctors’ diagnosis is correct. Lately, very many fakers have been popping up among those called up for conscription, and especially among Estonians. Our job is to determine if you are fit for serving your Soviet homeland in the military, or if you are not.”
At first, he did not even bring up the results of my testing and at what conclusion the doctor had arrived. A moment later, the grey rotary telephone sitting on the desk rang, and the nameless “troika” chairman (who was visibly bored) answered.
“Slushayu,” he shouted into the receiver in a buzzing, nasally voice.
“Horosho… ladno… horosho… ya sam tozhe pridu…”
He stood and said to Andropov:
“Baranov, ty sam zdes’ reshi, chto s estoncam dyelat’,” and they were gone. Baranov nodded: “Fine.”
 “Hendrik Haas, you're next.” (Russian)
 The Press Sisters were Soviet Olympic track athletes. They both ended their careers abruptly when gender verification was introduced at the Olympic Games, causing much speculation in the press.
 A former senior rank in the Russian military above starshina and below starshiy praporshchik.
 “I’m listening.” (Russian)
 “Fine... OK... fine... I’ll come personally, too.” (Russian)
 “Baranov, you decide what to do with the Estonian on your own.” (Russian)
Translated by Adam Cullen