Fiction : piracy, underground, poetry, modernity, Benjamin
Monday, April 09, 2007 07:00 GMT
This story was written for BBC Radio 4’s "Second Generation" short story series, broadcast in January 2005.
I once heard of a place where all the words necessary for social intercourse were furnished by a cheery wordsmith. He could be found in an old workshop that was as welcoming as it was run-down, and he could turn you out a word in fifteen quick minutes! – or just the space of a cup of hot tea, and a conversation about the new and the old, who was born and who died. The word came in seasoned wood: aromatic and irregular, carved just how you asked for it, and wrapped in newspaper tied with string. The price was always reasonable, and, since his business was thriving, he wouldn’t hesitate to throw in a couple of extra words for free.
The wordsmith, as was generally acknowledged in the town, was a master of his craft. Even when you encountered a new thing in life, something strange and apparently irreconcilable, you hardly had to begin explaining it to him and his eyes seemed to understand. He would scan the battered shoe boxes on the shelves for something appropriate, and a bit of hurried rifling and a few refinements on the lathe were enough to give you just what you needed.
The wordsmith wasn’t averse to self-praise. “Look at this town,” he might say if you lingered long enough in his shop. “We have the rich and the poor and the downright strange. We have our killings and our stealings and our political strife as they have in the best of places. But no one can say our people don’t talk. In the taverns they rant all night about the ways of the world, from the youngest to the oldest; our eminent lawyers and landowners sit down on park benches for arguments with young political firebrands. Nowhere do lovers have so many ways to declare their love; nowhere can mothers explain so eloquently to their children the mysteries of life and death. Nowhere, in short, do people have such a plethora of words. And it’s all my doing!”
Of course, the wordsmith’s work varied in quality with the time of the day and the pressure to finish things quickly; and occasionally there were small mistakes. But in the broad scheme of things it didn’t really matter. Sometimes people returned their words with a few complaints, or for some minor modifications, or just for some extra flourishes of their own design. In one way or another, people got the words they wanted.
That was the situation on the day the tempest came.
It was one of those mythical, terrible storms that change things for ever. It blew down from the past and the future, turning the day sky to night and sending people to shelter in caves and chasms and trenches in the ground. It howled through the streets of the town, pelting the buildings with a terrifying barrage of glass and dust and steel and concrete that nothing could withstand. During the thirteen days of its raging, the town was completely destroyed.
On the bright morning of the fourteenth day, the townsfolk limped back apprehensively to see what had become of their houses and streets. Needless to say, they were horrified when they found only rubble. There were shrieks of despair, and outpourings of rage, and grown women and men staring mute and hollow-eyed at the places where once there had been restaurants and pretty gardens and street corners for conversation.
Life has to go on. They began to retrieve things from the wreckage, and to build again. It was a draining experience, not least because some of the old certainties of the community seemed to have departed. Several of the town’s most beloved residents had been killed in the tumult, and there was a large influx of strangers from surrounding villages that had also been destroyed. Moreover, the ageing wordsmith had been badly injured and his workshop was gone: the supply of words dried up and there were not enough to adress all the urgent new things that people were thinking and feeling.
The rebuilding of the town seemed to take a very long time. In fact, it never ended. People began to see that buildings were being destroyed as fast as they were built: they were constantly improved, moved, or adapted for other purposes. Judging by the enormous scale of these enterprises, some of the town’s citizens were clearly more wealthy than anyone had hitherto suspected. Shaken by the improbable power of the unexpected – which no one had bothered to consider while life had appeared so predictable – those who could afford it now adopted the architecture of impregnability.
One building in particular aroused concern – and even resentment – for it was thick and large and occupied the entire site of the former town square. People came to stare as the new building grew almost by the minute: a big black cube with hardly a window in all its surfaces. And then it opened for business, and its purpose became apparent. It was a new word production plant, made according to a state-of-the-art design that was apparently the norm in many big cities.
Opinion was divided about the words that began to emerge from this factory. They were made of steel, and much more durable than the old ones. There were no imperfections. They had more precise meanings. They split reality up into parts which seemed necessary and obvious, and they named them according to logical systems. When you used them you felt a new power: there was no vagueness about them, no sentimentality, no superstition. You didn’t have to explain your own soul in order to help people understand, for the words seemed to bypass the speaker; they were pure, impersonal and clear.
But there are always those who reject new things out of hand; and so it was in this town. People talked with silly fondness of the old words: their smell, their familiarity, the way they felt in your hand. For such folk, the huge expansion in the store of words, which now poured out of the plant in astounding quantities, was no compensation for the fact that there now seemed to be fewer for talking about the less rational and seemly aspects of human experience. They pointed back to a time, not so long before, when twenty or thirty people could sit around a dead body talking for two days about how a life had been. But the reservoir of all those words seemed to have dried up, and now people seemed a little embarrassed when someone died. Sickness had the same effect; and failure. People these days became tongue-tied in the face of unconventional behaviour, or the old slouchful ways, or all the myriad unhappinesses that can strike a human being. They liked to talk about acceleration and solutions.
But such grumbling was redundant; for the old world had departed with the tempest, and would not return.
After a painful period of recuperation, the wordsmith’s experience and expertise secured him an enviable position in the town’s re-emerging economy. Executives from the word company invited him to join them as a quality inspector in the factory, a role which brought with it an office of his own and a pension that was very generous when you considered that he had only a couple more years of work left in him. The job required him to detect defects in the steel words that could sometimes be measured only in the hundredths of millimetres; and each day he sent piles of them, perfect to all human discernment, back to the furnaces for melting down. But he had always had an eye for detail; and he turned out to have an aptitude for this work. His employers set him additional problems: how to guarantee a constant supply of blank words from the notoriously unreliable steel plants in the region; how to ensure that all words were always stocked in sufficient, but not excessive, quantities. Above all, perhaps, he became concerned with security; for the company’s pre-eminent situation in the town’s economy had given rise to a number of jealous competitors who were spoiling the market with cheap imitation words of rubber and plastic. He installed formidable surveillance systems on the factory’s premises to prevent espionage, and instigated a number of raids on illicit production facilities.
Such measures were not sufficient to prevent a curious incident that was to dominate the town’s newspapers for several weeks. On a morning that was in all other respects entirely unexceptional, the townsfolk awoke to find their streets cobbled with words that had been hammered overnight into the tarmac. The words seemed to be arranged in giant strokes, as if there was some pattern to it; but it was not until the police flew over the site in a helicopter that anyone realized that all the wedges of steel added up to a vast diagram of a horse, drawn in detailed cutaway, with organs and skeleton all complete. The trunk of the animal had been laid out along the town’s main thoroughfare, with the front and hind legs pointing down two major roads, the head occupying a large supermarket car park, and the tail billowing light-heartedly across a cemetery and a children’s playground. The aerial photographs reproduced on the front page of all the next day’s newspapers showed a drawing that was, despite its vast scale, impeccable in its proportions and anatomical accuracy; and it seemed astonishing that an operation involving such complex draftsmanship, twenty tons of steel, and, presumably, a significant team of people, had been completed in a single night without, as seemed to be the case, a single witness.
From the point of view of the company, this exploit raised a number of alarming issues. Given the brazenness of the exploit, it was unnecessary to point out that this treatment of words contravened their “Proper Uses” as laid out in the User’s Agreement; the argument of the company’s lawyers that the strange diagram in some way flouted the town’s laws concerning public performance was equally beside the point. No: company executives were most troubled by the simple fact that the diagram seemed to incorporate the town’s entire 150,000-word vocabulary. The first principle of corporate strategy had been to ensure that no outsider would ever be able to reconstruct the complete set in this way.
The eight suspects – five men and three women – disappeared one night, only just ahead of the police raid on their apartments. They were never seen again, and left no explanation of what they had done – which left the town’s journalists free to indulge their most fanciful imaginings. Some surmised that they were representatives of an immigrant group whose name sounded rather similar to the word for “horse” in that language and which had at that time faced a number of violent attacks; others detected in the gesture some allusion to Classical literature; still others, inevitably, were convinced that the diagram was an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial beings. None of these explanations was entirely convincing, and the townsfolk continued to debate what the horse meant long after the city authorities had dug out all last traces of it.
The wordsmith was relieved of his duties soon after these events. The company’s statement said that it had uncovered a serious security breach for which he bore the majority of the blame. There were also rumours that the incident had thrown him into a state of psychological disturbance, which left him incompetent to fulfil his professional responsibilities.