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surveillance

<i>What is Democracy?</i>. Directed by Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films, 2018. 108 minutes.

How Free Is Too Free?

After a fallow period of about fifteen years, in 2014 I returned to driving. Having let my license expire out of pure indolence, I embarked on a process that ended with a road test in deepest Brooklyn. I had no car and no plans to buy one, but within a couple years I was doing more driving than anyone I knew. A needy dog five pounds too big to fly and a sick parent five hundred miles away sent me again and again to the closest rental depot, where I would be handed keys to a compact car of limited but occasionally stark variation. For the same price, I might settle into a vehicle loaded with sixty-seven computers and a heated steering wheel, or a shitbox with no USB port and a tire set to blow on a major Ontario highway. I would study the rental agent’s face as she clacked in the relevant data, looking for some sign of my fate.

Photograph by Elizabeth Felicella

Omnipresence

Tiffany—“like Tiffany & Co.”—has lived here her whole life. Her hair is woven into a neat French twist. “Cops come and sit in here,” she says, waving her hand at the shadows on the small plaza around us. A white plastic bag rustles in a spring tree. Tufts of white flowers cover the branches like a sweater, against the chill of early evening. We raise our voices over the noise of a generator, one of a score of rumbling machines across the city that has flooded housing projects with chemical light, noise, and the guise of safety for five years.

Tiffany needs to fix dinner; her kids are hungry. Her forty-first birthday is coming up. Tomorrow she’s going to a pole-dancing class with friends. “You look good,” I say. She tosses a hello to a passing neighbor who’s pushing an overflowing grocery cart. Her gold hoop earrings sparkle.

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter. Metropolitan, 2016. 256p. HC, $28.

The Head of the Hunter

In February of this year, I received an e-mail with a strange symbol in the address line, a broken red padlock next to the sender’s name indicating that the message was not encrypted—specifically, that the message, as well as my reply, had been sent without a basic protection known as “Transport Layer Security.” The range and confidential nature of some of the e-mails that came and went this way was troubling: one from an editor about a potential assignment, another from a close family friend and local politician, yet another from my credit card company to notify me about a potential fraudulent charge. I became nervous: How long had some of my messages been unsecured? Who was watching? These questions seem to become only more pertinent as the shadow of the internet lengthens into every detail of our daily correspondence.

This fear of some nefarious, eavesdropping intelligence has deep roots in twentieth-century fiction, much of it European, from the speculative approaches of 1984 and The Trial to novels such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Darkness at Noon, which confront this menace through the immediacy of realism. Romanian Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s recently translated novel, The Fox Was Ever the Hunter—originally published in 1992 in her native German and now translated into English by Philip Boehm—is among the best additions to this anxious canon following the Cold War. Müller was hounded for years by her country’s intelligence apparatus: an experience wrought with desperation, fear, and paranoia that she brings to the fore in Fox. For Müller, growing up in a repressive dictatorial regime, the concerns of surveillance were not simply questions of hypothetical snooping, but instead held the highest stakes imaginable, those of life and death.

Under Nicolae Ceau̧sescu, who held power from 1965 to 1989, the Romanian government operated one of the largest and most repressive secret polices in the world, the Securitate. The Securitate led brutal crackdowns on dissidents using a broad network of informants that made organization nearly impossible, while anyone found in opposition would be tortured or killed. Forced entry and bugging of homes and offices was commonplace, leading to the widespread paranoia seen in Müller’s novel