“Modernized Hell” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (Адский модерн), 1971
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: For being an “utter bastard”, a lawyer is sent to hell. Before frying for eternity, the lawyer must be contractually obligated to serve in hell, so the devil gives him the weighty tome of legalities that govern hell, which the lawyer peruses much to the the devil. Once completed and signed, hell sends the contract back because of a small legality, which again annoys the devil but amuses the lawyer in his own chicanery.
Analysis: I’m a big fan of bureaucracy on fiction: Franz Kafkas’s The Trial and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, to name few. I’m fascinated by the utter depth of paperwork involved in draconian departments of government, relic reptiles descended from dinosaurs in the age of mammals: ancient, slow-witted, and, most importantly, completely obsolete. Rule books, like the one in “Modernized Hell” offer glimpse into the depth of bureaucracy such as hell, the IRS, or Thai immigration, the latter of which much like the former two combined. In addition, it’s the dedication of the bureaucratic force to these strict rules that intrigue me. I guess I’m not one to strongly believe in something so intangible as “company policy” or “chapter 6, section 4, subsection 4, paragraph 12, line 4,” except when I use The Gregg Reference Manual, but that’s a professional pride.
Review: As is said, the devil is in the details. Who’s more devilish than a lawyer? So, this story is very fitting in terms of the common expression. It’s only four pages long but completes what it sets out to accomplish: beating the devil at his own game. The Soviet system must have been hellishly bureaucratic. Dmitri subtly pokes fun at the system in a few lines, which injects added mirth to an already humorous story. To cap it all off, there’s nothing better than reiterating policy to those who create policy. As one of my boss’s boss’s boss once said in a group email to me, “Don’t dictate policy to us” – at least I cared enough to read, understand, and abide by the policy, asshole.