Sunday, 21 February 2016

Less is More (2001)

The work of Jorge Luis Borges has been a profound influence on my taste in literature and indeed on my thinking in many other areas too. He is, in my view, the most important writer of the 20th Century, one who changed the focus of what fiction could be about and opened up the landscape of the imagination to deeper and more startling feats of cerebral exploration than had hitherto been possible. Enormously inventive and unpredictable, yet logically rigorous, his work is enormously influential; but very few writers have been successful in attempting to emulate his approach. Of my own 'Borgesian' stories this is one I am especially pleased with. It was published in my collection, STORIES FROM A LOST ANTHOLOGY.

Private empires are a luxury of the past, but Belperron was determined that he should have one too. Every night since moving into his isolated house beyond GualeguaychĂș, he dreamed of his previous lives. He had been a hero in every incarnation, fighting in battles from the dawn of recorded history to a time just before his birth. It was clear he was destined for greatness. But he wished to surpass these earlier exploits. He imagined a domain with his name stretching from the Pampas to the Serra do Mar. To achieve this he needed to rely on his own myriad initiatives and innumerable muscles. He planned to summon his other selves into the present. They would serve him, for he was them, the next step in their mystical evolution. He had read enough on the subject to know that the law of karma is logical and progressive. They had led marvellous lives and so he had been reborn as the finest of all. His present incarnation must be the highest self he had ever attained.
His house was large and lonely with many rooms. He planned his campaign in a chair on the patio. An army made up of all the heroes he had ever been would march right across Uruguay to Rio Grande do Sul, seizing every town on the way and establishing garrisons there. Once he reached the sea he would turn back. He would fix his capital in Artigas or QuaraĂ­ at the centre of his kingdom. It would be interesting to inspect his troops in chronological order. Any man who died in battle would have a memorial in the grateful bones of his successor. The situation would be strange. And yet Belperron believed the philosophical difficulties might take care of themselves. He was a man of action and preferred dangers to doubts. He owned a long knife with a wavy blade which he liked to toss in the air and catch by the handle. This was just a method of killing time before he could employ his talent for aggression in real combat. When he cut his hand, he never bandaged the wound.
He knew a man in Montevideo who was a dealer in rare books. He wrote a letter to this friend, reminding him of a favour owed, a trivial matter concerned with a false passport. Herr Otto Linde had contacts in India who in turn knew of obscure manuscripts in temples in Bali. Within a year, Belperron had the secret in his possession. He opened the parcel with his long blade and held the parchment in his scarred hands. He had already taught himself the tongue of the Majapahit scholars. Because he did not want unexpected visitors, he locked every window and door in his house. Even out here, an occasional rider might pass and decide to beg a cup of yerba mate or spoonful of dulce de leche. Belperron washed his face before conducting the difficult ritual. He was quick to learn secrets and mysteries. His sharp mind and talent for business were rewards for so many generations of heroic life, the product of centuries of good karma, accumulated through past deeds.
But the riches he had already won, and those he had spent buying this vast house, were nothing compared with what awaited him. Thoughts of his empire swam in the candlelight before him, washed on the tides of flickering orange as he spoke the ancient words over the flames. The spell was done. His cleverness and determination had pulled all his other incarnations from their own ages into his present. He had focussed the broad waveband of his cosmic soul to a point no larger or longer than his house. There was a sound of inverse thunder. The hundred empty rooms were now full. The displaced air rushed through the keyholes and chinks in the walls. The candles extinguished themselves. Belperron stood, but he did not need to move to understand his fatal mistake. It was all around. It pressed tightly against him from every direction. He cursed Herr Otto Linde and all books and empires, but there was too little free air to carry his words. Soft bodies absorbed the sounds, even as they made their own noises. And most were not men.
The spell which lurked in the crumbling manuscripts was less specific than he had assumed. Once chanted correctly, it summoned to one place and time all the incarnations of the operator. Not merely those of the past but also every future self. Possibly it was a sin to conduct the ritual. More likely Belperron's crime was his ambition, his desire to create a private empire. The brutality of this scheme was so great, its evil so deep, that it negated all his previous good karma. It returned his soul to the bottom of the evolutionary mound. His next incarnation, the one destined after his death, was far below the merely human. And all the subsequent incarnations were gradual improvements on this lowest being, a slow return to the long climb back to fish, reptile, dog, ape, barbarian. Recorded history is not so very old. All the past heroes he had ever been were with him in the house, but so were all the base creatures he would become. There were only several hundred of the former, but millions, even billions, of the latter.
The future of Belperron was longer than his past. But only for his soul, not his current body. During the hour which followed the successful implementation of the spell, the past heroes who formed his invincible army were devoured, stung, bitten, strangled or crushed to a second death by the enormous variety of beasts also present. There was no escape. The exits were locked. A rider who passed the house saw it shake on its foundations and assumed he was witnessing a tremor. He did not pause. The shadow of a crocodile passed across an upper window. The wicks were out and smoking, so this hideous profile must have been cast by a more surprising source of light, a knot of fireflies or glow-worms. Much later, when looters came to raid the house, they found only a jumble of rotting carcasses in peculiar combinations. The stench of millennia chased them out. Belperron himself had died of the plague. A single germ had entered his bloodstream and multiplied. It was an almost infinitely debased version of himself.