(Outside, the moon is a howling dog, writhing in pain. The night is at its darkest, imposing large swaths of the unknown onto the small village. Someone violently rattles the latch of the old door and more dogs respond. I don’t know what to do or whether to stop.
The old man’s belabored breathing makes it seem as though the walls are closing in, and gloom spreads over the surroundings. I attempt to distract myself by looking around me. On the walls of the bedroom, between the closet and the photo of Mecca, the old chipped paint forms continents, dried-up and perforated seas. Dried-up wadis seen from above. “Noun! By the pen and what they write,” says the Holy Book in my head. But it doesn’t help. The old man has no more body, only a piece of clothing. He will die because he has no more pages to read in the book of his life.)
Writing is the only effective ruse against death.
People have tried prayer, medicine, magic, reciting verses on a loop, inactivity, but I think I’m the only one to have found the solution: writing. But that means always writing, nonstop, with hardly any time to eat or relieve myself, to chew fully or scratch my aunt’s back while very loosely translating the dialogue of foreign films that rekindle the memories of lives she’s never lived. Poor woman, she deserves a book of her own that would let her live to be a hundred.
Strictly speaking, I should never again look up from the page, but stay here, hunched and hard at work, focused on my profound motivations like a martyr, scribbling like an epileptic and moaning about the unruliness of words and their tendency to multiply. A question of life and death, of many deaths, to tell the truth, and of all of life. All, young and old, bound to the speed of my writing, to the screeching of my calligraphy on the page, and to that vital precision I refine by touching on just the right word, the nuance that will save them from the abyss, or the synonym that can postpone the end of the world. A form of madness. The many notebooks I must cover in ink. Blank pages, 120 or more, preferably unlined, with a cover, rigid as rock but nimble and with an oily, warm texture so as not to irritate the side of my palm.
(A small cough. Positive sign. The light returns to the room and the body of the dying man appears less gray. A stream of shimmering saliva trickles from his mouth, disfigured by dentures, and rests on his chin.)
I bought so many notebooks, calculating how many to buy based on the number of people I knew or had heard about who were already dying from disease, old age, or an accident: two a day, sometimes ten or more; one time, I bought seventy-eight notebooks at once, after attending a neighbor’s opulent wedding (sitting alone on the ground with a horrible plate of meat that I left untouched, indifferent to the wailing music, my body noiseless, ignored by everyone except the groom who wore a ridiculous suit and came by to quickly shake my hand) and staring unabashedly at the many people I had become responsible for, the secret guardian of their longevity. For I was the rower and they the passengers, O my Lord!
The nearest “bookstore”—what they call, where I’m from, those places that sell cigarettes, envelopes, stamps, notebooks, and newspapers—knew me and never questioned my purchases: in the village of Aboukir (center of the world, situated between my navel and my heart, a few miles from the sea, which is a word that doesn’t need conjugations to be infinite), they called me the butcher’s son, “the one who never stopped reading,” and they knew I’d been scrawling in notebooks like someone possessed since I was a child. My father’s wealth had to have a consequence and it was me, with my long, hunched body, my eyes like lakes and my ridiculous voice, as though destiny were mocking my father’s fortune. The kindest in the village sent me old books found in warehouses, the worn yellowed pages dating back to the time of the colonizers, torn-up magazines, user’s manuals for machines that no longer exist or perhaps never did, and, most importantly, those enthralling novels with no author and no beginning because both had been ripped out (bindings maimed, stories skewed with incoherence, orphans I always collect). This chaos was the cornerstone of my universe, and the rest was recorded in notebooks. I was silent and brilliant in school, in the early years. I had neat, meticulous handwriting that served as the veins under the skin of appearance. It certainly helped to circulate a kind of blood.
(Now, I’m at the heart of the ritual. Completely absorbed and devoted to the struggle. I believe in it deeply. Without it, what is my life worth in this place and what are these lives around me? The universe is either a mockery or an enigma. What time is it? Voices. A hand set down a cup of coffee. And water. The face of a drowned person coming back to the surface. The mouth fascinates me. The collapse of the chin, as if death accentuated gravity. The old man is nothing more than a head, skinny shoulders over the sheet that hides him. The rest of his body is nothing more than a blanket with tiger stripes subjected to outrageous contortions—“Everything okay?” I don’t respond. The day will soon arrive because the lights curve like sheets of paper in the fire.)
The truth is that they hoped to do me a favor by anticipating my needs, especially when the rumor of my gift spread, covertly. Some, of course, mocked me discreetly and pitied my family for the implausible defect in our tribe’s tree; I was a knot in the wood. In truth, they didn’t know whether to ignore me or celebrate me. I wrote in a foreign language that healed the dying and preserved the prestige of the former colonizers. Doctors used it for their prescriptions, but so did the men in power, the new masters of the country, and the immortal films. Could it be sacred, descended from on high? No one had an answer, they shook their heads as if faced with an old marble idol or as when they passed near the French cemetery, to the east. The village was not big and its conversations were rarely secret.
I liked that label, “the one who was reading” or “the one who read.” A definitive formula, getting at the essential, which is to say the Holy Book or Knowledge. They said it with gravity, contrition, they respected the power. In our country, reading was conflated with domination, not the deciphering of the world, it meant at once knowledge, law, and possession. The first word of the Holy Book is “Read!”—but no one asks about the last word, the devil’s exhausted voice whispered to me. One day I had to decipher that enigma: the last word of God, the one he had chosen to initiate his spectacular indifference. The exegeses never mentioned it. We were always hung up on the Last Judgment, not on the final word. I also wondered why the injunction was made to the reader, and not to the writer. Why the first word of the angel wasn’t “Write!” It was a mystery: What is there to read when the book has not yet been written? Are we meant to read a book that’s already before our eyes? Which one? I’m getting sidetracked.
So I bought the notebooks as I counted again, eyes closed, body calm under the gnarled vine of our courtyard, at the hour of the siesta, all the people I had met the day before in our village, which I mapped like an island. One by one, meticulously, like coins. Arranging them on the shelves in my head with numbers and letters and features and names and their tribe. Without letting myself get distracted by the clouds, or by the season’s gentle heat that was transforming the blood under my skin to sugar, or by the few planes that emphasized the silence of the sky. I liked this exercise, preceded by stretching, lengthening both my body and the entire firmament with my arms. Unfurling the wings of Poll, perched on his coconut trees. Because, at certain inspired hours, I imagined myself in the form of Poll the parrot, responsible for a sumptuous racket in the tropics, a bird with an exceptional, civilizing destiny on an unknown island. I had stolen this name from a book written in the eighteenth century that tells of a shipwreck, an encounter with a supposed cannibal, and the history of solitude.
(Memory of summers I spent in a delicious convalescence with my permanently mute grandfather. Rediscovering things, desires, after a series of horrific migraines. A quick glance to gauge the return of life in the pebble of his body. His face still vacant, mouth open, but I glimpsed a tear. He’s not crying. It’s the automatic response of the eye combating dryness. I’ve always loved the word “retina” because it looks like a melting pot, the site of all possible sunrises.)
But it was slightly painful to always have a number associated with a face. It was difficult for my memory, at the beginning. Sometimes the faces of familiar people flattened new ones or stole features from them, their hair, the shape of their eyes. Rendering the inventory dangerous and my gift a bit myopic. And when I tried to fix a face and immobilize it like a bird in my hands, it would deform maliciously. For nothing is more anonymous than a face we’ve stared at for too long. Even those of the people closest to us. But over the years, I’ve become agile: I’ve replayed the film in my head, scrutinized the details, recited the names to put an end to the scramble and firmly reorganize the genealogies, the filiations and kinships. Like the strict leader of a scattered tribe. Then I invented stories to perpetuate their lives, chosen from a long list of books I would have liked to read at one time or another in my adolescence. This was my method. The only one I had found to overcome the rarity of books in the village, and my boredom, and also to give solemnity to my notebooks. Why did I do it? Because if I forgot someone, they would die the next day. Simple as that.
I verified it countless times. It’s my mute malediction. The law of my life that no one knows. I’ll say (write) it: When I forget, death remembers. Confusedly, but abruptly. I can’t explain it, but I feel bound to the Reaper, its memory and my own are connected like two vases: when one empties, the other fills. Well, that’s not quite right. Rather: when my memory empties or wavers, death proves firm, recovers its sight like a raptor, it nosedives and depopulates the village before my eyes. A matter of equilibrium but also, perhaps, the enactment of a law I have not fully deciphered. Similarly, when I remember lucidly and use the right words, death is blinded once more and turns back around in the sky, grows distant.
Then it kills an animal in the village, attacks a tree to the bone, or gathers insects in the surrounding fields, to the east, to munch on while it waits to regain its sight. I love describing death thus disoriented. Confirming both my gift and its usefulness.
It’s not about magic in the ancient sense of the term, but the discovery of a law, a sort of revived correspondence. Writing was invented to stabilize memory, that’s the premise of my gift: we don’t want to forget because we don’t want to die or see others around us die. Writing came into the world so universally because it was a powerful way to counter death, and not just an accounting tool in Mesopotamia. Writing is the original rebellion, the real fire stolen and shrouded in ink to keep us from burning ourselves.
What happens when I sleep? Perhaps God keeps watch as a referee in this game. It’s death’s dead time, in a way. All I know is that I have to count the people I meet during the day or at night, buy notebooks according to their number, and then write before I sleep, or at dawn or even the next day, write their stories full of names and follies, or obsessively describe every place in the village—pebbles, rusty iron, roofs . . . Writing, simply, is in itself a method of healing those around me, a form of preservation. Another detail: between my forgetfulness and the last breath of someone near, I have a grace period of three days; I like to believe in it to maintain my discipline. I can delay writing about a person by three days, never more.
It’s been like this for years, and now I understand the rules of the game, I’ve established rituals and ruses and reached the formidable conclusion that my mastery of the language, this language I’ve fabricated, is not only an adventure but above all an ethical obligation. Nailing me down to the village, forbidding me to leave the territory. Does this make me sad? Of course not! There’s a form of martyrdom in my practice, to be sure, but also a sliver of silent satisfaction. Of all my family, I am the only one to have glimpsed the possibility of salvation through writing. The only one to have found the way to endure the absolute futility of places and the local history, the only possible restorer, the commissioner of our exhibition before the eyes of God or the sun. All my cousins, kin, and neighbors unknowingly run in circles, sink into despair as they grow older, and end up marrying young and bingeing until they’re sick. The only consolation in their fate is somnolence, or the paradise after death that they populate with their dreams by repeating the verses that describe it as verdant and licentious. I am the only one to have discovered a crack in the wall of our beliefs. I am proud of it, I have to say, vigilant about the vanity that threatens me, confident faced with the winds. Searching for the right words, writing until I force objects to become consistent and lives to have meaning, it’s a gentle magic, the culmination of my tenderness.
Excerpted from Zabor, or the Psalms by Kamel Daoud, recently published by Other Press.