Saturday, Mar. 24, 2007 - 12:38 p.m.
Pablo Neruda looks up from the blank piece of paper in front of him and leans back into his rattan chair. From his second floor balcony, he stares out at the measureless black sea and taps his favourite green pen against the edge of the chair. His mind wanders to his last posting in Paris as a diplomat, where there was never blackness such as this. Black, amorphous, like the masses of slaves who carved Machu Picchu and its one hundred giant stone steps from the jungle. Suddenly, Neruda realizes that he has been tapping his pen in time to the periodic wash of the waves. There is only the title of the poem on the piece of paper. It reads: Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche (Tonight I can write the saddest lines). He forms the first line in his head and brings the tip of the pen to the paper, but then stops himself. He sighs softly and keeps the green tip of the pen in mid air. Then he gets up and puts the stack of papers on the floor, with the pen on top of them as a weight. The kerosene lamp above his head dims as the wind sweeps into Isla Negra from the sea. He hears the bells and the moan of wood from the fishing boats in the harbour. His wife is calling him. He gets up and enters the bedroom. Perhaps it is the wind, but the pen rolls off, and the topmost piece of paper containing the unfinished (or unstarted) poem is lifted up into the air, and carried out to sea. It is lifted past the cliff edge, and carried high into the black canvas sky. Neruda will begin 'Tonight I can write the saddest lines' on a new piece of paper, and it will lead to winning him both the Nobel Prize, and the occasion to read the poem in front of seventy thousand people at the National soccer stadium in Santiago, Chile. His lines will reverberate around that concrete amphitheatre, though few will grasp its meaning. But returning to that first piece of paper with the unwritten poem, there will be a single moment in mid-flight, as it arcs up into the night sky above that black expanse of the sea, when the piece of paper has an infinite number of possible destinations.
*** Cornell University, New York
Outside their laboratory, it is mid-autumn and the trees shed their leaves as a wind enters them, carrying away the colour of the trees from the landscape as well. There is a transient rain of leaves before the wind dies down. Each leaf that falls follows its own unique spiral path towards the ground, which no other leaf in the world shares (this is the same with raindrops). If one could trace out each single descent, the landscape would be filled with grey spiraled lines. This scene is transmitted through the three large windows along the wall of the laboratory, but it is not noticed by the two physics graduate students inside. One of them is standing on a short ladder beside four glass walls (arranged to form a square), preparing to drop a piece of paper from the open top. The other is bent over a video camera on a tripod, attempting to focus it on the path of the falling piece of paper. They have computers with MathLab humming in the background, other pieces of paper lying on lab benches, vandalized with the Universal gravitational constant, Bernoulli equations, and other mathematical apocrypha. From watching a stack of playing cards fall off his desk in 1853, the Scottish physicist Maxwell had wondered why flat things like leaves and paper never fell straight down. Two hundred and fifty years later in Cornell, New York, a pair of students are still trying catch the chaotic fall of paper. From their work here, the students will discover the invisible arrows along the edge of a falling object that guide its descent, but they will not be able to make the trajectory of the fall any more predictable.
*** Mutannabi Street, Baghdad
He lies on the ground staring at the blue afternoon sky, unable to move or hear anything. Approximately one million pieces of paper are in mid-air, shimmering with light as they fall back to earth, as if dropped from an invisible airplane. The man feels like he is in a dream, but it is perhaps more accurate to describe the scene as one where reality (as we perceive it) has been torn asunder, to reveal the underlying surreality that exists beneath everything. Here, it is a million pages of text falling slowly back to earth. Such a tear in the fabric of space-time occurs very rarely, and it is unclear why they are allowed to happen. The man lying on the ground is a writer whom the suicide bomber has never heard of. In fact, the suicide bomber has never read a book in his life, and there was only a black hole in his brain as drove his explosive-laden truck into the crowded Sunday book market on Mutannabi Street, near the old Jewish quarter in Baghdad.
The bomb detonated in the heart of twenty thousand second-hand books, instantly unbinding and mixing up a million pages of text in the air. Diagrams from Russian car repair manuals floated next to the labyrinthian pages of Jorge Luis Borge. Some pages were torn by the explosion in such a way that individual alphabets (English, Arabic, Cyrillic) descended next to each other, and were mixed into a fleeting, temporary langauge.
At the very moment when the curved edge of the explosive fireball touched him, the man had just started to read an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda's 'Tonight I can write the saddest lines'. He had gotten as far as the first line (which is the same as the title) when he was lifted three stories into the air and thrown down onto the dirt ground. That is to say, the last thing that entered the rapidly dying neurons in his brain was the line (read from right to left): الليلة استطيع ان اكتب حزن الخطوط . The man was nearly sixty, and had been a writer all his life. He had published his first book of Arabic verse, just as the last King of Iraq was being led out of his palace to be shot, and thereafter, he published political tracts under pseudonyms attacking the subsequent dictators.
Throughout his life, the man always came back to the narrow, book-strewn Mutannabi Street and its secret alleyways. The intellectuals, the poets, the writers, they all came here. They browsed the books arranged in rows on the dirty street itself, sat in the decrepit cafes smoking smuggled tobacco and spoke in hushed voices, as the clink of metal spoons against their shallow tea glasses mixed with the stifled roar of the hidden printing press in the back-room. The secret police came here often to arrest dissidents, after finding that they were not at home. But despite the rhetoric of rebellion and the copious plans to betray the state that were birthed here at Mutannabi Street, history will demonstrate that no writer (in Iraq or anywhere else) has ever executed a successful political uprising. The man himself had been in trouble with the state before - his conscience had prevented him from writing a paean about the current dictator in the newspaper, an order that had come down from above. For his troubles, the secret police broke down the door to his house on two occasions, the first time to arrest his Arabic typewriter, and two weeks later, to arrest the man himself.
The suicide bombing on Mutannabi Street may be construed as a symbolic attack on thought (a symbolic assault is the only way to attack thought). It is a line of thought that began in Spanish, in a poet's mind on a balcony during a night in Isla Negra, Chile, and which branched to England, the United States, France and Vietnam, with their respective translations. One of these lines then extended from Paris to Beirut, where an old Francophone book-seller with a pirated French copy began translating Neruda into Arabic. It was this translation that the man had picked up and opened, an almost random choice amongst the rows and rows of books on the street. If he had walked further down the literary canon, picked up an Arabic version of Joyce, he might still be alive. But the man does not regret as he continues to bleed to death. His eyes are open at the fluttering, shimmering pages wafting in the air - the shredded, destroyed pages of our immutable thought.