Views of an Imaginary City 33: View of Orepi Tower

Orepi Tower is perhaps Sensuka’s most iconic building. Even those foreigners who know next to nothing about the city may recognize it as “that barber’s pole tower.” The tower was built under the empress Nanéh as a monument to her deceased predecessor, Bulodi I, the founder of Sensuka. This very narrow cylindrical structure is over 90 metres tall and decorated with two bands of marble, one white and one red, which wrap themselves in a spiral all the way up to the slightly overhanging cupola at its summit. The bas-relief sculptures that ascend along the white marble band depict the many exploits of the Eunuch Emperor through his rise to power and reign. Those on the red marble depict all of the native terrestrial animal species found throughout the empire, chasing after one another in a descending order from the tiger at the summit to the gnat at the base, in a kind of didactic illustration of the food chain.

From the time of its construction, however, the citizens of Sensuka have always suspected that Orepi Tower serves more than just a commemorative purpose. The tower is integrated into the corner of a government building at the northern end of the Orepi peninsula, near where the Juminta River empties into Sensuka Bay. It therefore stands on the least elevated ground of the city centre, and Sensuka’s three main hills, Labeosti, Labetachi, and Peleosti, rise at a more or less equal distance from it to the West, North, and East respectively. Given this fact, it is easy to see how a person positioned behind the narrow windows in the tower’s crowning cupola, particularly if equipped with a powerful telescope, would have an unrivalled view over the goings-on in the entire amphitheatre-like valley within which the great majority of the capital is built. Soon after the tower’s completion, word spread that the structure was manned by a watchman—or a rotating guard of watchmen—whose task it was to survey the city at all hours of the day (and even at night, taking advantage of any illuminated windows).

Although the odds of being looked at by this watchman at any given moment seemed extremely low, one could not rule it out entirely. In the beginning, and for a period of a few years, citizens became extremely self-aware of their behaviour at any time that they found themselves within sight of the tower. Cart drivers would scrupulously wait their turn at intersections, children would refrain from pilfering fruit from market stalls, rival gangs would go around to the other side of buildings to beat each other up, and lovers would draw their curtains—or perhaps leave them open, if the idea excited them.

A few skeptics pointed out that, even from so high up, the view down onto the streets would be obstructed in most places by the rooftops of the buildings. At the same time, the tower’s height is such as to place the watchman at too steep an angle to look through the windows of any nearby buildings.  As for the views through the window of the buildings on the three hills, even with the aid of a telescope, they would be too far off to make out in any detail. Furthermore, these same skeptics objected, even if the watchman were to espy something untoward taking place, it would take him so long just to make his way down the spiral staircase to communicate this information that, in most cases, it would be impossible for the authorities to then respond to the incident in time.

To counter the last of these points, it was conjectured that the sentinel’s orders were to rapidly mark the nature and location of any undesirable or suspicious activity on a pre-prepared form, which would then be placed in a cannister and dropped down a chute leading to the administrative building below. From there, mounted guards could be rapidly dispatched to deal with the situation. With regards to the obstructed view, proponents of the watchman theory pointed out that, wherever one goes in central Sensuka, it seems as though one is always catching a glimpse of the Orepi Tower from street level. This logically means that at those moments we are also in its line of sight. And as to telescopes, are they not used to pick out details on the surface of the moon?

After a time, Sensukans became so used to the idea that they were being watched that they rarely gave the matter another thought. Nowadays, it is such a given of city life that it does not even occur to anyone to object to it. On one occasion, indeed, the citizens could be said to have declared their insistence on the watchman’s presence. Upon his ascension to the throne, the Emperor Ojori I thought he would ingratiate himself with the populace by dispelling what he referred to as “the watchman myth.” In one of his inaugural speeches, he offered to open up the tower’s cupola to public visits by individuals or small groups. The proposal was met with widespread consternation, however, and soon retracted. Though Sensukans could accept the idea of being spied upon by an anonymous professional, the prospect of their neighbours or colleagues—or family members!—being given access to such a view into their private lives was cause for great alarm.

In the end, it may also be that Sensukans find a strange comfort in the idea that there is some unknown figure watching over their lives. When one looks up towards the Orepi Tower—perhaps, like the woman in this print, while having a solitary evening smoke upon one’s balcony—the tower sometimes gives the impression that it is looking back. This can serve as a reminder that one is never completely alone, never completely insignificant. One exists in the eyes of the state. One is a person of interest, even. A file was opened on one long ago, and one has not been forgotten. 

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