One of my favourite novels as a boy was Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. Subtitled ‘The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922’, it purported to be an account of an Arab traveller in the fog-haunted North. This slim paperback is crammed with Vikings, dangerous sea voyages, battles and monsters.

I completely accepted the author’s assurance that the work, which was a beguiling mixture of the original narrative buttressed with notes from learned scholars and pedantic scriveners, was merely an annotated version of a translation by Professor Per Fraus-Dolus, first published in the Proceedings of the National Museum of Oslo 1959-60.

Jaideep Unudurti

As a boy already given to bookish pursuits, Crichton’s piecing together of scraps of texts and manuscripts to reach this narrative was an equal adventure, a literary excavation that was no less thrilling than the tale assembled in parallel.

The bibliography cited the Necronomicon by one Abdul Hazred, a title that I’d already encountered as a now lost book of sinister repute. I had no doubts of its existence. If it was footnoted, it must be true. I even dreamt of finding this singular tome in some crumbling library. It was only after I had left the innocence of that pre-Internet age that I learnt that Ibn Fadlan was a triumph of Crichton’s imagination, not scholarship. And that this fabled grimoire did not exist, at least not in our dimension. Far from being the outpourings of a 12th century Yemeni, it sprung from the mind of a 20th century American, H.P. Lovecraft.

It didn’t matter by then. I had suddenly caught a glimpse of a hidden world of words. There were books within books. Truth was fractal. I wanted to build an invisible library, of books that only exist in other books, in the insubstantial shelves of the author’s imagination.

* * *

The most popular book of this peculiar genre is probably Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which has sold over 20 million copies. Set in Barcelona just after the Second World War, it features a boy on a decade-long search for the mysterious author Julian Carax. Zafon conjures The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, “a labyrinth of passage-ways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry”. Bizarre titles such as “The Three-Cornered Hat: A History of the Civil Guard in Alexandrine Verse, by the exceedingly young graduate Fulgencio Capon” are sprinkled throughout.

Still, I personally found that the novel uses books and bookstores as a backdrop; they are not central to the drama. No such charge may be laid against another Spanish author, Arturo Perez-Reverte, whose The Club Dumas features characters in search of a memoir penned by Satan. Naturally published in 1666, this is the De Umbrarum regni novem portis (The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows) whose origin one character explains as “legend has it that Lucifer, after being defeated and thrown out of Heaven, drew up the magic formula to be used by his followers: the authoritative handbook”. Perez-Reverte’s work is a paean to the physicality of the book, with characters raving about dented chisels, fanfare binding, and golden means. In a nice touch, characters sometimes refer to “Julio Ollero’s Dictionary of Rare and Improbable Books”, which itself is improbable.

* * *

Second to these improbabities are maps of impossible lands. Lev Grossman’s Codex combines both, being the search for a medieval romance called A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians. Grossman tantalises us with his description of the surviving fragments of this book, which is a quest for the Grail. Just as the mystery is about to be elucidated, the last page is entirely covered with black ink. A converging strand involves the protagonist playing a computer game, which renders this imagined cartography. This attempt to marry a techno-thriller with an antiquarian book-hunt reads oddly today — the book was written in 2004, its “cyber” references of CD-ROMs and LAN parties sounding even more dated than the Dark Ages. The language of the books has endured better, “an incunable”, exults a character, “a book made in the first fifty years of printing”.

Cimmeria, which in classical myth was a land of perpetual twilight, also features in probably the most celebrated novel of novels, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which is about the adventures that befall a reader trying to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. The involutions performed in this masterpiece are also echoed in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The novel posits an alternate reality where the Axis have won the Second World War and the U.S. is occupied by the victorious Germans and Japanese. A cult science fiction novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by one Hawthorne Abendsen, in turn posits an alternate reality where the Axis have lost. This mere act of the imagination is enough to threaten the government, which bans the book.

* * *

The patron saint to such endeavours is Jorge Luis Borges. He declared in 1941, “it is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them”. Borges took on the most coveted post in literary-dom, the reviewer of imaginary novels. His greatest feat was a review, drizzled with quotes and digressions, of The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, “by the Bombay attorney Mir Bahadur Ali”. He could very well be writing about himself when he said that the author “is incapable of resisting that basest of art’s temptations, the temptation to be a genius”.

* * *

All these titles carry out a conversation with the seed inside them. A totally different approach is taken by Orhan Pamuk in his Yeni Hayat, in which the book is never explained and neither are its contents explicated. Pamuk achieves a hallucinatory brilliance, as the protagonist says, “As I read my point of view was transformed by the book, and the book was transformed by my point of view. My dazzled eyes could no longer distinguish the world that existed within the book from the book that existed within the world.”

All writers were readers once. Inserting a fictional book is a temptation, a double act of creation, an attempt to recapture the magic when they first encountered the thrill of the printed page.

(Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance writer.)

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