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llegir ens fa més grans Biblioteques Públiques de Catalunya Sant Jordi 2009. Llegir per Sant Jordi, llegir tot l'any.
llegir ens fa més grans Biblioteques Públiques de Catalunya Sant Jordi 2009. Llegir per Sant Jordi, llegir tot l'any.

A Unique Item

author: Manuel Baixauli
Illustrations: Leonard Beard

a book and glasses over a table

There is no more mystery. A small book with hard covers, black, smelling of dust and damp, with the title Dialogues, hardly visible, engraved on the jacket. Rough in appearance, rougher still if one looks inside: black pages, without margins, hand-written in ink. Not all. One - only one - in ochre, aged, on which there is - so to speak - the introduction, a text written in pen, in insect lettering, barely legible, tightly packed in, also without margins, in which is explained how the book is to be read, how to use it.

a former modernist factory which had produced chemical products, restored, in magnificent condition.

Dialogues came to my attention soon after the transfer, when we finally left the old library – that poky little room overflowing with volumes – and moved into this new space, a former modernist factory which had produced chemical products, restored, in magnificent condition. What a change! In the one we could hardly move, cold in winter and hot in summer, and when we put on the heater or switched on the air conditioning the fuse blew. Here the temperature is always the same, I work in shirtsleeves, neither cold nor hot. The building is large, comfortable, well lit, a perfect library. It has everything. There is, for example, an audio-visual section, cinema and music, which we did not have there. Films by Tarkovski, Ozu, Bergman, Bresson, Kiarostami, Oliveira, etc. And music, any amount; made up of Bach, Monteverdi, Mozart, Bruckner… At last we were in a first class facility. At the entrance is a group of sofas and arm chairs where one can read books, newspapers or magazines to ones taste more commodiously than at home; yielding seats, comfortable, in which more than a few have drifted off to sleep.

I found it in one of the last boxes brought in from the old library...

Dialogues. I found it in one of the last boxes brought in from the old library, an anonymous donation. It wasn’t the only closed box we had there. As nothing more would fit on either the shelves or on the tables it remained unopened in anticipation of the transfer. Neither the name of the donor or of the author appears on the book. Who wrote it? I often asked myself. The donor himself? Who was this donor?

I was classifying and distributing the volumes when I came upon this black thing. A unique item, not printed, hand made. I spent little time on it: there was little to see, little to read. Just a curiosity. But then, while indexing the rest of the books from the box, Tadeu came, greeted me, remained looking at the classified books and noticed Dialogues. Tadue: close to forty, single, unemployed, unable to work with who knows what infirmity, probably living alone or with the parents, seeming to have all the time in the world at his disposal, because he comes to us every day at the new library. He began to read the introduction, ... Tadeu reads everything, everything, above all classics, and has an inclination towards darker authors. A bad case of literature-itis. He claims he speaks and reads many languages, always requesting original versions, which we frequently don’t keep. What would Tadeu do without books? Ugly, weak, squinting, odd, introverted, cautious, bottle top glasses. We often discussed books and mutually recommended them to one another. The last one he suggested to me: The Songs of Suffering. Tadeu picked up the black book, read the title and opened it dumbfounded. Each black page he turned increased his fascination. He looked at me, perplexed. I explained its provenance to him. He began to read the introduction, but did not finish it. “ I’ll take it with me” “No, you can’t” I said “It is only for reference, not loan. It’s unique” “I understand” he said, disappointed. “I’ll go over it here” and went to an empty table, with Dialogues in his hands.

I went back to work and wouldn’t normally have watched Tadeu as I knew that the book only had one legible page, that the rest were dark, plain, identical, but did so as Tadeu spent two hours looking at the book and because – as I realised later - Tadeu didn’t stop talking.

Mad, I thought. He must have a scew loose. In fact he’s intelligent but he looks crazy, always with his gabardine raincoat, hands in pockets, and that squinting expression, strange. Without a doubt: the malaise that stops him working is glaringly obvious.

At closing time he came to return the book. Unease in his eyes.

He sat down at the same empty table at a distance ...

The next day Tadeu returned to the library and, almost without looking at me, as if not wanting to, requested Dialogues. He sat down at the same empty table at a distance from me and began – it was impossible not to notice - to talk to himself again. And alone he continued muttering to that unusual item on the following days. I didn’t dare to ask him about it, as the way he looked made me uncomfortable, he seemed as inexpressive and disagreeable as ever. Moreover he had that brilliance, that delirium in his evasive eyes. Each time I became more convinced that he was unbalanced, that in those days he was experiencing a crisis. Insanity often has its seasons. He seemed disturbed and it provoked pity in me.

... the old woman returned the book with tearful eyes, infinitely grateful.

After a few days Tadeu ceased to be the sole user of Dialogues. An old woman, never seen before, very much a local, came to the library, dressed in black with a shawl, who had little - actually none - of the look of a reader. In fact, she could see pretty badly, hardly able to distinguish the letters. Did she know how to read? I don’t know. She was in some way related to Tadeu (mother?, aunt?, neighbour?) as having come in together he accompanied her until they reached the shelf where I put Dialogues. He gave it to her and lead her to his usual table, the quietist, explained something to her and left her alone. Alone? In a minute the old lady began to speak. Not like Tadeu, who was restrained, but gesticulating with a loud voice, which provoked whispering and laughter from the children nearby. Two hours later, the old woman returned the book with tearful eyes, infinitely grateful.

... I started to impose order and make waiting lists.

She didn’t come as often as Tadeu, but she did return. And how she returned! Each time she gave me cakes or biscuits that she baked herself. Soon Tadeu and the old lady did not come alone - more people came. All new to the library, all looking for the same book and crouched round the same table to talk undisturbed. While one read dialogues there were always others waiting for their turn. Some brought food, some turned it into a social event to alleviate the waiting, while others noisily snored their way through the afternoons. There were discussions, disputes, shouting … No, I’m not exaggerating. A hubbub. It was clear from their ignorance of the rules of normal behaviour that the majority of these people had never set foot in a library before. I’d really been dropped in it. Fed up with little gifts, of dishonest insinuations and accusations of impartiality I started to impose order and make waiting lists. I was obliged to fix appointments and to rigorously apply a queuing system, with the proviso sine qua non that they waited in the street.

Dialogues became the most requested book in the library, over and above the best sellers. I covered it in transparent plastic; it was becoming worn out, the pages in danger of falling out.

At that moment I saw my father before me as I saw him countless times...

These events couldn’t just be the product of madness, it was something more. I needed to find out. One night, alone before closing time, I picked up the book and took it to Tadeus’ table. I opened it, patiently deciphering the introduction. It explained how the black pages were to be read if one wanted to talk to someone absent. Absent, missing, dead! It alarmed me, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it, to know what I was dealing with. I thought of my dead parents. It had to be only one of them. I’d try with my father. If it goes well, I thought, I’ll speak with my mother next, and then with departed friends, colleagues and neighbours. I closely followed the instructions in the introduction. At that moment I saw my father before me as I saw him countless times, if, perhaps a little more relaxed than before. We talked pleasantly for a long time of many, many things.

I made a list of the dead who I’d like to see again.

I now understood the behaviour of Tadeu and the others. I don’t know whom they were talking, but I can imagine. Empty rooms, which we all have inside us. At home, after dinner, I made a list of the dead who I’d like to see again.

The open main reading room was not an appropriate place for the users of Dialogues; apart from feeling uncomfortable there, we disturbed the rest of the assistants in the library. I fitted out a small room that we had provisionally intended as a storeroom, converting it into the Conversation Room. The lingering stink of smoke was unacceptable. I emptied it of rubbish and papers, and put in two chairs and a table. A shutter let in light from the street and ventilated the room. Each day eight or nine people used it. A serious business. Rules for its use were made. There was no other option – people looked after themselves first with no thought for others. One hour maximum per session, for example. A lot can be said in one hour if good use is made of it. One has to be efficient and rules and a system have to be followed if time is not to be lost on unimportant details. No one could be allowed to spend the whole morning or afternoon in the room while others anxiously waited their turn. No. It needed order. Also there was the question of hygiene. Eating and drinking was prohibited. They left everything inside, and I was the one who was supposed to clean it. And smoking was prohibited. I had to be tough on this point. They called me everything under the sun. The lingering stink of smoke was unacceptable.

And it went on in this way for a month after Tadeu had discovered the power of Dialogues. He opened new, unanticipated, avenues. Totally convinced as I was that everyone was talking with family or friends, he came up to me, having finished his turn and said, “ It’s a revelation! Who would have thought that Joseph Conrad, who wrote in such good English, would speak so roughly? Or who would imagine that Poe had such a cracked voice and such a hopeless tic in his left eye”. ‘Conrad? Poe?” I said. “Yesterday I spoke with Conrad – he said -, and today with Poe. Imposing, but one soon gets used to it. They aren’t pretentious. They are more aware than us of their own insignificance. “Yesterday I spoke with Conrad – he said -, and today with Poe. In fact, direct contact with them has disappointed me. Don’t misunderstand me, I admire them and more than a little, I’ve read nearly all they have written. Hence the disillusionment. The idea I have of them I have from their books. And what are their books? The most exquisite part of them, the distilled fruit of their minds, the tip of the iceberg of their personalities. But in the rest of the iceberg, when confronted by them as individuals, we see or sense their unpremeditated or unreconstructed imperfections”.

I deplored the fact that I didn’t know enough English to keep up a proper conversation with Poe or Conrad, but I intended to take up with other authors who were linguistically more accessible. On that very day I had just finished reading Fictions by Borges, a book of remarkable short stories. Borges opened doors in my mind for me. I was fascinated by Funes who remembers all, a youth who can remember absolutely everything, who can reconstruct a day completely in every tiny detail but is unable to think in abstract terms or globally. When Tadeu spoke of Conrad and Poe I thought today, when I’m alone - Borges. And this I did. No problem. Following the same procedure as with parents and friends, I had Jorge Luís Borges before me in a moment, clothed in dark grey, holding his stick, eyes blank, unfocused, half closed and eyebrows raised.

I had Jorge Luís Borges before me in a moment,...

Borges persona didn’t disappoint me. Perhaps thanks to Tadeus' warning, perhaps because I had no overly elevated image of him - tolerant, its said, of a degree of authoritarianism -, perhaps because I expected him to be extremely cold or severe – in his work, poetry included, he is sparing with non-intellectual emotion -, the fact is I conversed with a sceptical man, shy, with a refined sense of humour, who knew how to listen and whose only conceit appeared to be his passion for books. A gentleman. We spoke little about him and his work, always turning to the books of others. Chesterton, Kafka, Kipling, Wells, London, Melville, Buzzati, A thousand and one nights, Wilde, Stevenson and many more, a series of recommendations and observations which drew out the conversation until it became late and I had to go. We said goodbye and I left the library running.

The next day, after a sleepless night with Borges words drifting in my head, when I was about to attend to the first user of Dialogues on the list, two things gave me a shock. Firstly: Dialogues was not in its place. ...the room was full of people and became aware of the overcrowded nature of the interior. I looked on the shelves and on my table - nothing. My intuition led me to the Conversation Room. Second and worst shock: I couldn’t open the door, as there was something inside the room resisting my efforts. Little by little, pushing with some force, I half opened it and put my foot in the jamb to counter that that was trying to close it. Through the gap I could see that the room was full of people and became aware of the overcrowded nature of the interior. It was impossible to know how many bodies were packed in there, only eight or nine were revealed by the pallid light filtering through the shutter. Upright, motionless, mute, they stared at me. On the table - Dialogues, open.

What did I say? I don’t remember. I locked the room with the key. That day there were no conversations. I told those on the waiting list to come back the next day in the order on the list. I got no thanks for that. What was I supposed to do about it! All morning I was uneasy, anxious, looking suspiciously at the door of the Conversation Room, unable to concentrate. At lunchtime, before closing the library I opened the door to the room wide without seeing anything inside and left.

In the afternoon, the room was empty. I picked up the book.

...that man dressed as a mechanic was, covered in grease,...

Among the usual visitors to the library I noticed some strange looking people. How ugly that man dressed as a mechanic was, covered in grease, sat on a table. And the child, two or three years old, playing with a cupboard door, repeatedly opening and closing it. And the old lady crocheting near the computers…and Borges. Borges anxiously touching books on the shelves, opening them with great dexterousness, bringing them to his nose and smelling them. I thought that with his mind he blindly saw much of what I missed. Borges felt his way along one of the few walls empty of shelving, and suddenly climbed up, horizontally, without falling, as if he had magnets on his feet. Speechless I watched as he reached the ceiling, and how he turned himself upside-down, feet up and head down, his tousled grey hair flowing from his cranium. This inverted Borges, this Segrob, advanced blindly, confidently, leaning on his stick, tap, tap, tap, tapping. I began to understand how big an error I committed in leaving Dialogues open all night in the room. Segrob collided with a ceiling lamp, and was on the point of hurtling down on a table at which three children, who would have had the fright of their lives, where studying. But Segrob firmly grasped the ceiling lamp, and, after rocking to and fro... But Segrob firmly grasped the ceiling lamp, and, after rocking to and fro - with the outcome in the balance - managed to recover his equilibrium, and advanced slowly, more carefully, and possibly a little painfully, until he reached the wall which he descended in a horizontal position until he reached the floor and became Jorge Luís Borges once more. And there, unhurriedly, he neatly arranged his hair with his hands and smoothed down his clothes. Every inch a gentleman.

This fatal error, this blunder, demanded a solution. I thought hard. Hard. Finally, despairing, it occurred to me to attempt to reverse the process. I opened Dialogues on the table in the Conversation Room, and also left the door open. I made sure that only they could enter.

Borges was the first. It wasn’t long before the others followed, including the two or three year old child. Some, quite a few, stayed outside. I’d like to know what became of them!

Tadeu exited like a man possessed with a trickle of blood coming from his nose and his glasses broken...

Shortly afterwards I looked in the room, only the book was there. I closed it and returned it to its shelf. Next day we resumed the appointments.

I thought about the power and the danger of Dialogues; I’d put it in the hands of too many people, and not always the most prudent. And I realized that the thirty odd current users could expand limitlessly.

The time I dedicated to the library – the work that they paid me for! – was minimal and inadequate. How could I stop this business? And, if I did stop it, how would the users of Dialogues react to me? What, for example, would the lady who talked to her dead child do?

I attempted to justify my actions he threw the book at my head, and a chair after it.

I burned in this fire of uncertainty until one afternoon Tadeu was in the Conversation Room and I heard shouting, cries, insults hurled - it seemed to me - in French. In French? I approached the door warily and went to knock, but at that moment Tadeu exited like a man possessed with a trickle of blood coming from his nose and his glasses broken in his hands. Tadeu slammed the door went to leave. “Wait! – I said – What happened?” He was torn between flight and answering my question. Now his eyes were really filled with anxiety! “Céline! – he said, trembling - Louis-Ferdinand Céline. “You’re a fucking shithead!”, he barked at me, “A parasite! it’s all bullshit!” And, when I attempted to justify my actions he threw the book at my head, and a chair after it.” Tadeu recovered a little of his composure while telling me this. We looked at one another quietly in silence for a second or two.

I slowly half opened the door and looked inside. No one.

I haven’t read much Céline. One book only, and it wasn’t the mythical Voyage in the depths of night, but Death on credit. Enough to know, however, who he was: an aggressive writer, hard, a one off; a man raging against humanity, scarred by the cruelty and absurdity of the Great War, of which he had had personal experience. A man rejected for his anti-semitism and for his collaboration with the nazis, who hated interviews and who was indifferent to the opinion of others. His work: wonderful as literature, an insult to the world.

The commotion in the Conversation Room was over. Tadeu did not want to return. I did, fearfully, after a few minutes. I slowly half opened the door and looked inside. No one. Table and chairs upended on the floor. Legs detached. Tadeu watched me, straining myopic eyes. “Come on” I said. He approached slowly, uncertain. We entered, I in front.

Patiently we put everything back in order. Except the book.

It wasn’t there. I haven’t seen it since.

 

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Exemplar Únic by Manuel Baixauli ; Leonard Beard ; Jordi Colomer ; Departament de Cultura i Mitjans de Comunicació
is licensed under a Creative Commons Reconeixement-No comercial-Sense obres derivades 2.5 Espanya License.

 

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