Monday, November 01, 2004

The Allegrezza Ficcione, Part 18

There was a wardobe full of clothes in the room he was shown to – jeans, shorts & a variety of shirts. In a tallboy near the bed he found socks & a drawer full of boxer shorts, all silk & decorated with Disney characters. He picked out a pair of jeans that looked like they would fit him, Pluto boxers, a white Lacoste polo shirt, laid them on the bed. Took off the clothes that he was wearing, stuck them in his bag & put on a dressing gown that was also in the cupboard.

The bathroom was two rooms down. As he walked there he could see people sitting around a large table in one corner of the courtyard. The man who had welcomed him was there at the head; on one side was the Indian & another man, on the other two oriental women. There was relaxed laughter; it was a company comfortable with itself.

He bathed, walked back to his room & dressed, adding a pair of single-barred sandals. Went downstairs.

His host called to him. "Umberto, come across, sit down here beside me. Let me introduce everybody. You've met my son-in-law, Anil. This is Iskander, who looks after the farm & all our mechanical needs. Iskander the Great I call him." Iskander smiled, tolerant of something he'd obviously heard many times before, but pleased by the recognition. "These are the lovely ladies Lee, Joo-eun & Dae, unrelated, but in a relationship that those that set the standards north of the 38th parallel disapproved of. They'd fled to China, hoping for a more understanding reception. What they found was a regime even less tolerant of female homosexuality. An agent of mine discovered them in a market in Tianjin, selling what they claimed were five hundred year-old poems. Faked of course, but such exquisite calligraphy & faultless in detail. I rescued them, just before the authorities took them into custody."

He waited until Allegrezza sat down & then continued, now talking to Allegrezza alone. "My daughter Betseba is in France on business for a few more weeks. My grandchildren, Anil & Betseba's children" – the latter description added seemingly as an afterthought – "are at university overseas, one boy lecturing in Asian literature in England, the other doing a fine arts degree in the States. The girl is doing her PhD in Australia. Started off doing business, but the university she was going to had a fauna park & she fell in love with the marsupials there & changed to biology. Now she's doing her doctoral thesis on immunological responses of the rufous hare-wallaby. My son & his family look after my interests in Termez, in the east. My wife, sadly, died almost ten years ago. & me, well, for the time being you can call me Tamur the Spry. We'll settle on a name later, when we talk more privately. Anyway, enough of these formalities. Let's eat."

As if this was the cue a couple came out from the house, each carrying a tray on which were several serving dishes. Tamur waited until the trays were on the table & then, indicating with his hands, performed a brief introduction. "Umberto Allegrezza. Akhmat. Suraiya." The men shook hands, the woman smiled shyly.

The dinner was plain but tasty, curried goat, rice & vegetables, with icecream & fruit for dessert. The conversation multilingual – Anil & Iskander spoke Pushtu between themselves, the Lees Korean, Tamur & Allegrezza Italian – but at those times when it involved more than two people it was sometimes in Arabic, sometimes Chinese, sometimes English, languages which they all appeared to have in common. A sentence would start in one language, & then, perhaps diverted by not knowing a particular word in that language, would change midstream to another.

Tamur took Allegrezza inside when they had finished eating. A room without windows, on one corner of the house. Simply furnished; a low table, sofa & a couple of cane chairs with brightly coloured cushions. A small bookcase, filled mainly with detective novels. White walls, on one of which hung, if the signature was to be believed, a genuine de Chirico, on another an exquisite carpet, hand-woven, of knotted silk. He poured two cups of thick coffee from a pot that was waiting for them, asked if Allegrezza wanted sugar.

"Umberto, you do not realise what a pleasure this is for me. Something I had not expected, at least not in these circumstances, not so soon. I've followed what you have been doing with delight. Your recreation of the Library of Alexandria was brilliant. Don't look so surprised. I've read your doctoral thesis. One of your markers correctly thought it would interest me & sent me a copy. You've cited me, twice, though you wouldn't be expected to know that. & then, when I got a phone call from Tehran asking about your ancestor, well, even if he hadn't been on Hassan's list I would have said that he was just so I could meet you. Yes, I am the custodian of the list. & more besides. Which I will show you if we come to an agreement. You’ve heard of Oxyrhynkhos?"

Allegrezza nodded. "You’re talking about the site in Egypt, where they've been unearthing papyri for the last century or so, plays & gospels & philosophical texts? A lot of stuff that was previously unknown. Of course I'm aware of it. It was a major reference point for my work."

Tamur held up his hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. It was a rhetorical question. Well what I have is greater than Oxyrhynkhos. & with no need to go digging. Literally, anyway. I have a collection that will do more than amaze you, a collection that has its beginnings in Alexandria. Not all of Caliph Omar's people thought as he did. Before he destroyed the Library they manged to rescue about a tenth of the manuscripts. & over the centuries that base has been built upon, from the East & from the West as well as more, what should I call them, home-grown manuscripts. I am offering you access to them, & you will see how remarkably prescient you were."

Allegrezza stared at him, stunned, speechless.

"Your guesses on what was there were remarkable. & I think that what has been added will excite you equally. But there are conditions that I insist on before I give you access. & they are extreme conditions. Ultimate conditions perhaps. I offer you four years unlimited time with them. When those four years are up you will forfeit your life."

Umberto continued staring, then finally found his voice. "What do you mean I forfeit my life? Do you mean I am to be killed at the end of it?" Tamur nodded. "& what if I don't take you up on your offer?"

"I don't think you will refuse. Once you think about it you will realise it is a price worth paying. I have left some further inducements in your room, photocopies of a couple of things, delicately photographed copies, not harsh xeroxes. Go up & look at them, think about what lies beyond them. I will be in the courtyard for another hour at least. Or we can talk in the morning."

Allegrezza almost ran to his room. What he had just heard was sending all sorts of conflicting thoughts through his mind. Exhilaration. Dread. The talk of a madman. An offer from the sanest man alive.

He paused in the doorway, took several deep breaths. There were three sheets of paper on the bed. He walked over to them, looked at them slowly.

The first was the foreword to Wu Ch'eng-en's "The Journey to the West", a slightly blurred block-print of the first edition; the second was in Arabic, an introduction to a translation by Abu Jafar Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarismi of a work by Ptolemy entitled "A reinterpretation & refutation of my earlier Syntaxis"; the third was in classical Greek & began "I, Diogenes, have not always lived in a barrel."

He looked at them again, picked them up one by one, re-read, re-translated them. His hands were shaking. He looked out the window, saw the reflection of himself & the documents in front of him. Didn't see them. He went back out the door. The courtyard was now in darkness, but in the corner where the dining table was he could see the glow from the end of a cigarette.

He walked down towards it.

Previous Part / Next Part

No comments: