I always knew there was something special about this place. I knew it even in the first hours of my stay in what looked like any other provincial town in this part of the world: it had its streets, its squares, its banks, its shops and its places of worship. Its children went to school and its adults went to work, or whiled away their time in parks and cafés. Most of its citizens appeared to be reasonably well off, while those few who could have been called rich and those few who could have been called poor tried not to be too conspicuously so.
The special feature of the town was its restfulness. It was hardly any quieter or sleepier than a town of its size and location should be, but its life had an ease and a serenity that were almost preternatural. The polite and civil intercourse between people that one could observe was just about the same as elsewhere; but here, one got the impression that the politeness and civility were not only genuine, but that they were, so to speak, the whole truth. In other words, one sensed no disturbing overtones, no undercurrents, no shadows.
Their absence made the town a paradox: a one-sided coin, an ocean without depth, an iceberg wholly above water. All lay on the surface of a pleasant, placid, peaceful community without a hint of anything untoward that might come to trouble the waters and disturb the peace. What you saw was what there was, and what there was was what you got. Unbelievable? I did not believe it either, and so I looked for the cracks that simply had to be there. When I could find none, no matter how hard I stared, I eventually tried to make them appear.
I was rude, I was harsh, I was brazen, I was curt. I came as close to being violent as a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist can come. I did my damndest to inconvenience, to provoke, to rile, to offend. All I got in return was forbearance and forgiveness. I spread myself out over two seats on a crowded bus, and the pregnant woman standing in front of me gave me a benign smile. I spent ten minutes digging in my pockets for coins at the supermarket checkout, and the ten people in the queue behind me did not even look at me while waiting.
I felt like I was on a film set. Wasn’t there a film where the main character finds out that the world he has been taking for real is really a TV show? I was prepared for a voice to boom out ‘Game over’, whereupon this bonsai utopia would morph into the ordinary mess of contrasts and contradictions, yin and yang, Laurel and Hardy, good, bad, and ugly, that made up the world to which I was accustomed. Else, I was growing desperate for some other explanation of the picture provided by my sense data, since it was a picture that did not make sense to me.
In my desperation, I began to spend quite a lot of time and money in pubs of the sort where one may hope to meet impressionable young ladies, and then find them vastly outnumbered by talkative older men. In this town, though, young ladies were in abundance everywhere, and they were amazingly easy to talk to. But it soon dawned on me that here was a Midas curse. Whatever female I tried to befriend would invariably exude so much goodwill and enthusiasm that it was impossible to judge which—if any—of those I met, had any genuine interest in me. It was only a little less disconcerting that I could not gauge the motivation of the older men who in turn tried to befriend me, with uniform eagerness and sincerity.
It was one of these men who, after he’d had one too many and still not yet quite enough, offered an explanation for his town’s particular character. The explanation seemed pretty far-fetched, and I am still undecided on whether it can be credited. Can something that is plainly incredible be explained by something equally incredible? Or is having seen the incredible with one’s own eyes a solid reason to believe the incredible that one has not seen?
Either way, here is the essence of what the old man told me. In the recent past, his town had been torn apart by religious strife. There were half a dozen different creeds, and within each of those creeds, about half a dozen denominations or sects that vied with each other. Altogether thirty-odd groups, each of which claimed to know the only road to salvation. Some groups then fell under the spell of firebrands whose extremism spread like a wildfire, until the only point of agreement was that any form of moderation had to be condemned as heresy.
Hostility and suspicion ruled. Even within each group, nobody trusted each other’s zeal and commitment. The most fervent profession of faith was soon labelled as lukewarm by some who professed their faith even more fervently; the greatest sacrifice was promptly called hypocritical by someone who made an even greater sacrifice. No devotion was complete enough not to be derided by an even more thorough devotee. It was a competition that nobody could win: a race in which every new leader was quickly overtaken by somebody who emerged from his slipstream.
The person who saved the town from self-destruction was an incomer, a mathematician who worked on probabilities. He sent a letter to the top authority in each religious community, declaring that he wanted to join the one that would furnish him, in no more than a thousand words, the most convincing reason to do so. Having received and read thirty-four statements, he gave his reply in an open letter to the local newspaper.
He was now, the mathematician said, acquainted with 34 mutually exclusive pathways to eternal bliss. Having considered the arguments for each one of those, he found them all just about equally strong. If he had to choose one at random, he stood only a 3% chance of success. By the same token, he must assume that 97% of the other choices entailed eternal damnation. He would therefore rather hedge his bets than pick an option that was in all likelihood going to be wrong.
While he did not expect anyone else to follow his logic, the mathematician said, he nevertheless strongly recommended a general compromise or truce. If each of the thirty-four groups stopped thinking and speaking of the members of the thirty-three others as doomed, accursed or lost, they would be more likely to treat them with the respect due to any fellow human being, without abandoning any of their own beliefs. This would surely not decrease anyone’s chances of salvation in the afterlife, but greatly increase the chances of harmonious coexistence in this one. All it needed was a shift of focus in the here and now.
By and large, the old man said, the mathematician’s suggestion gained support as a means of averting the imminent catastrophe. It was decided to implement it for a trial period of three years, and then to see whether it had produced the desired effect. Now the trial period was almost up: within less than a week, the town council would meet to review the situation and to vote on an extension of the experiment. The vote, said the old man, was generally expected to be close, but more than that he could not tell me.
Neither, gentle reader, can I tell you about the outcome. I left the town shortly before the decision was supposed to be taken, and I have not been back since. I might have had my doubts about the old man’s tale, but I thought it best not to gamble, even if a 1 in 2 chance was a lot better than 1 in 34.
Perhaps the town is still a restful place; perhaps it is once again the exact opposite. And perhaps there is some comfort in the thought that I have returned to normality, from a place that was perhaps too good to be true.