Petra Hůlová's dystopian novel The Movement, translated from Czech by Alex Zucker, is available now from World Editions. The novel follows the narrator, a prison guard at a reeducation camp for men, as she navigates a world in which a feminist organization called the Movement has gained increasing power and popularity, entirely upending gender relations. In the excerpt below, the narrator remembers the early days of the Movement and her own arrival at the Institute, where she now works.
I had a suitcase, that’s it. My mother’s old suitcase with wheels, the one she used to take with her jetting around the Old World for work, till the doctor made her stop flying, because of her varicose veins.
It was late July, gruelingly hot, record-breaking temperatures. I forgot my bottle of water on the bus I took from where we lived to the town nearest the Institute. In our town, all we had was a recruitment office.
The woman there told me the Institute used to be a meatpacking plant and its current purpose was ongoing “small-scale” work. It had a capacity of such and such, its own brain trust, and, thanks to the generosity of its (all-female) donors, it could concentrate on its mission without having to compromise.
I already knew all that, of course, but the deciding factor for me was the availability of housing for out-of-town employees.
My mother was delighted when I gave her the news.
“Live your dream,” she said. “And never back down from it,” she added as I grabbed hold of that awful suitcase and walked out the door. It was a quote from a Movement campaign that no one remembers anymore, and even at the time my mother and I had found it a bit silly. Because you have to define what it means to not back down. Otherwise you risk sounding like some Nazi feminist offshoot slash self-appointed dictatorship of spoiled princesses, and nothing could have been further from the truth when it came to the Movement.
The clients’ bedrooms are dark. Lights-out is at ten thirty, a policy the clients voted for themselves and submitted for approval, which the board rarely withholds. There’s only one recent case I can think of, a seemingly mundane request to have mirrors installed at the Institute, to which the board replied as follows: “We mirror one another within ourselves. Not only women in men and vice versa, but also men within their own sex.”
The request for mirrors was denied. The reason the board gave, in typical Old World fashion, was that it would overturn the fundamental idea of “Looking into the world and at it” in favor of “Looking at oneself with the intention of altering one’s exterior to advertise oneself to others as an object for visual consumption, turning human beings into objects whose exterior is elevated at the expense of what lies within.”
I remember the board’s decision seemed a bit overzealous to me at the time, but I now understand and fully approve. The most unyielding walls of the Old World fortress are the walls within our minds. Although the Movement has been triumphant in most of its battles on the battlegrounds of the world (in our latitudes at least), the battles we fight with our own ways of thinking are waged behind the scenes, only after the curtain has come down.
The group of clients requesting mirrors tried to counter with the feeble objection “We don’t want to walk around the Institute with toothpaste on our faces,” a weak lob the board returned with a smash, saying they could ask their roommates whether or not they had toothpaste on their face. And when one of the clients responded with the backhanded return “I don’t have any friends here,” the board put the point away with a brisk “Then ask the guards.” Thinking back on it, I have to laugh, since in all my years here no one has ever asked if they have toothpaste on their face, and I always enjoy telling the story to novices at the Institute, as proof that it isn’t only the clients who grow spiritually here, but also the staff, since at the time I had serious doubts about the wisdom of the board’s decision.
“I couldn’t figure out why all the cars heading toward the Institute were driven by women.”
If I had known that back then, on my grueling journey with that awful rattling suitcase, I could have spared myself a few lessons early in my employment, which I had imagined would be more like the work of a prison guard in Old World films, looking into cells through peepholes and that sort of thing.
Though, to be honest, that was so many years ago now, I have only a vague recollection of what I imagined my work would be like, and my strong memories are all of how thirsty I was on the trip. The road leading to the Institute from the last stop on the city bus line was the kind that has a sign warning ROAD CLOSED WHEN ICY, but no gate blocking it off. That’s how it was with everything in the Old World. Lies piled on lies piled on top of other lies, and ordinary human stupidity was just one more reason why the unethical environment for the upbringing of girls lasted as long as it did.
As we approached the Institute, I saw spots before my eyes and almost took the imposing building, divided into several wings and ringed with a thick wall, for a mirage. With all the cars coming and going and the road being practically dirt, I was covered in dust. It surprised me to see such brisk traffic, but the reason would have been obvious if I had stopped to think. How else were clients going to get to the Institute? The stop where I got off the bus was the end of the line, and not everyone could afford a taxi, which in any case was an option only for clients who lived in the next town over, and most of ours came from somewhere else. From places where there was no Institute. Either that or they had chosen ours because of its reputation, short waiting period (admission here, unlike at the smaller facilities, was almost always immediate), and outstanding results (the length of a stay was typically no longer than eighteen months). The Movement never bought into the idea of catchment areas. The freedom to decide one’s place of treatment for oneself is one of the Movement’s ethical maxims, and sometimes, too, the wives decide, based on a friend’s recommendation or a visit in person (public days are the first and second Wednesday of every month). In fact, a woman who comes in advance to inspect the facility for herself is the best guarantee of a man’s successful ongoing recovery at home.
Obviously, I knew none of this at the time. I attributed all the traffic to some bizarre detour, though I couldn’t figure out why all the cars heading toward the Institute were driven by women, with the men in the back seat, most either asleep or in a daze. If anyone at the time had told me it was because the men were on pills, I probably would have been shocked. Even though it was generally known to be tough going with men before they entered the Institute. Especially if no one from their inner circle of friends had undergone treatment yet, they tended to have unfounded fears of retaliation. Manhood Watch was constantly trying to mislead men, claiming the only healthy choice was not to get any treatment at all, which was why we sent out patrol vans to pick up men and bring them to the Institute. The vans were the first thing I noticed, too, before the sheer size of the meatpacking plant took my breath away.
There are always patrol vans parked out in front of the plant, though the lot reserved for them is nowhere near as full now as it was when I started out, which makes sense, since the job of the patrols is to pick up men who are trying to avoid treatment and that number is steadily dropping. Voluntary admissions now exceed involuntary (what does victory look like if not this?), and the truth is many men look forward to coming to the Institute, thinking it will give them a chance to relax. We’re happy to let them believe that, though we’re careful not to advertise our spa services. The main thing is not to lie, and our attorneys see to the rest. After all, what greater relief could there be than ridding your mind of stupidity—so when you get right down to it, a stay at the Institute actually is relaxing.
Most of the questions we get on open-door days have to do with our treatment procedures. I had the same questions running through my mind as I knocked on the reception desk window. In shifting gears from ideals to realization, things had broken down so many times before in human history that Manhood Watch would have been crazy not to use this fact against us, citing over and over the historic collapse of Communism, and every other -ism that they claimed lured people in with nice ideas, only to end in terror, chaos, a lower standard of living, and, ultimately, the corruption of the ideal itself, which, shorn of credibility, simply died away. The Movement viewed this scaremongering as a sign of success, since the acceptance of our beliefs as a “nice idea” was a monumental improvement over the days when we were labeled extremist, following the explosion in the Interior Ministry’s basement—an act that catapulted the Movement, until that point seen as nothing more than a misfit collection of “unfucked women,” into the public eye and gave Old World discourse the slap in the face that is now the subject of doctoral dissertations. Predictions of a debacle if our ideals were put into practice were clearly the tactic of a rear guard in retreat. The Movement was too strong to ignore. You can label a third of the population misfits but it’s bound to backfire politically, and when a country erupts in protest, civil war is just one step away. Nobody wanted that.
From The Movement, © 2019 by Petra Hůlová. Translation © 2021 by Alex Zucker. Available now from World Editions. All rights reserved.
“Guardians of the Public Good” by Petra Hůlová, translated by Alex Zucker
An Interview with Petra Hůlová