Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Writings

Colton Burpo: all grown up

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2027, and Colton Burpo, subject of the bestselling 2010 book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back along with the hit 2014 film of the same name, is sitting in a strip club in the town of Little Whistling. He’s unrecognisable, and so nobody recognises him. The town is more a glorified truck stop, a shivering huddle of low square houses, half-buried in the loose winter ice that blankets the Dakota steppes in endless miles of blank white indistinction. Every time a big rig pulls into town, its headlights scything through the indifferent falling strata of snowflakes, the building shakes down to its foundations. 2027 is the harshest winter on record: outside it’s colder than the surface of Mars, but in Colton Burpo’s private booth there’s a heavy, sticky, woozy heat. The low rumble of an eighteen wheeler outside sends a brief seismic tremor through the stripper’s cellulite and gives Colton a jolt out from his narcotic daze. It’s not enough. He beckons the girl over. “Did you know why it is that serial killers keep on killing?” he says. He slurs, his head at a crooked angle; he doesn’t look right. Electra sighs. “No,” she says. “Now why is that?” She’s heard all this before. Every grizzled drifter that passes through Little Whistling ends up going off on a rant like this one, trying to imitate the engagingly twisted dialogue of the sexy redneck psychopaths they’ve seen on TV. It’s pathetic. Blood, snow, and the road; dead hobos and crooked cops; gun-running and dope-dealing; all as dull and as flat and as empty as the plains outside. Nobody’s real any more. (Not that she can really complain. Electra’s not a real stripper: she’s working undercover, writing an exposé on the dark underside of the sex industry for a feminist magazine. So far, all she’s been able to discover is that every other girl in this establishment is doing the exact same thing. Courageous investigative journalism is the only thing keeping these places running.) “It’s not that they enjoy killing,” Colton says. “They do it because they don’t. It ain’t never enough. It never gives them that thrill they want. So they just keep trying, in new ways, over and over again. It never works.” Satisfied, he sits back and pulls a little bag of white powder out his pocket. “You want some?” Electra shakes her head. She squats a little and presents him with her ass; customers like that sort of thing. “Not there,” he says. “Lie on your back.” This is where Electra can feel things start to get weird. He shakes a few soggy clumps of coke into the pit of her collarbone and snorts them up with a gruff yelp. It stings. Colton Burpo likes the town of Little Whistling. The people seem to be God-fearing folk, and honest, even if they do tend to embellish their personal histories. They’re willing to allow this pastor’s son his eccentricities. Colton Burpo has snorted cheap blow off just about every imaginable part of a woman’s body: her ankle, her labia, her armpit, her ocular cavity. He can’t get it back. It doesn’t work.

I first encountered Colton Burpo in 2012 while tearing through a Walmart superstore in Anaheim, California. I was reaching the end of my year-long stay in the United States and starting to panic. I had to cram as much absurd Americana into my final days as possible: Vegas, Disneyland, road trips, shooting ranges. I loved Walmart. I revelled in the logo (I’d never seen so many friendly yellow anuses in my life), the enormous bags of waxy grated cheese, the rows of rifles two aisles away from babycare products, the sense of an entire world repackaged and itemised in a single vast cube, ready to supply every possible human want. Somewhere in there I found a book called Heaven is for Real – for kids. It explained, with lovingly coloured illustrations, how a four year-old boy had ascended to Heaven during an emergency appendix surgery; how he’d spoken to dead family members and petted the rainbow-coloured steed of Christ and come back knowing things that he couldn’t possibly have known. I was so taken by this piece of extravagance that I don’t think I ever even noticed that the boy in question was, spectacularly, named Colton Burpo. I never considered what it must be like to actually be him: not just to go to Heaven, but to then have to come back. I don’t doubt for a second that he saw the afterlife. But how can Colton Burpo now live in the depravity and fallenness of the world, having seen what he’s seen, knowing that suicide is a mortal sin, unable to regain his paradise until the end of his long prison sentence of an earthly existence? What acts of oddness will he turn to in his attempts to recapture a lost Heaven?

By 2045 Colton Burpo has, like so much of the world’s monied flotsam, washed up in the Sovereign Emirate of London. For a while around independence some people were suspicious of the new name, but by now Londoners have grown proud of it. Absolute monarchy is good for trade, and London has even less in common with the stuffy old monarchies of Europe than it does with the grotty hinterlands out in the British Isles. Emirates are modern and forward-thinking and business-friendly; kingdoms aren’t. It’s said that the Windsors, exiled from Buckingham and Balmoral, are now occupying a nice semi-detached house in Manchester, wherever that is. It’s also said that there are people starving to death in Yorkshire and sprawling refugee camps along the Scottish border, for all anyone cares. The skyscrapers of London receive and transmit constant streams of capital, and the tangled medieval streets around them are a net, trapping some of it in the city, even if only for a second. People too. Colton Burpo lost everything when the dollar collapsed. At the time the thing to do was to go to China, so he did; hamming up his old boy-who-went-to-Heaven routine around Shanghai and Guangzhou for audiences of enraptured evangelicals – as if it were still a beautiful story of inspiration and hope, as if it were anything other than a clawing void deep in his chest. He left after a few years. He can’t stay in one place too long: the sky presses down on him, the ground swallows him up, it’s all so hideously material. Everywhere is the same now, but London is special, because it’s more the same than anywhere else. It’s gone midnight when Colton Burpo spots his prey, but the sky is still a bright hellish orange , the low clouds glowing with reflected fire and infamy. The youth is striding out of one of the huge towers that line Brixton Road. Apart from the occasional swoosh of a surveillance orb, it’s silent here. No trees for birds; no homes, only offices. The kid is sharply dressed in business attire; his white t-shirt expertly stained, his tracksuits all but falling apart. He’s wealthy and important, but then so is everyone in London – everyone except domestic servants, and the menial workers ferried in and out of the city every day from one of the tiny surrounding fiefdoms, but it’s not as if they count. Colton has stopped trying to work out why he does what he does; all he knows is that he has to keep doing it.

Freud locates the source of the ‘oceanic’ religious feeling of universal interconnectedness in infantile prehistory, before the ego detaches from the outside world. In the immediate oral stage, the child doesn’t conceive of the mother’s breast as being a separate entity; mouth and teat form a single machinic assemblage controlling a single flow. She is the world; the world is her. It’s only when she looks at herself in the mirror and identifies with her specular image that the unified and discrete Subject is formed; after that only faint aftershocks of this originary molecularity remain. No wonder religious myths tend to place Paradise in the far-distant past. Colton Burpo knows better; he knows that Heaven is still here, just across the fragile bound of every living instant. When someone refuses to move past the oral stage they develop a neurotic fixation: they’ll become anxious and needy, or domineering and manipulative; alcoholic; unwell. It’s not uncommon. Everyone’s a neurotic. The real problems emerge if you proceed through the stages of psychosexual development in a perfectly ordinary fashion, and are then suddenly thrust back, all too briefly, into the deep dark holy oceans of immanent unity. Visiting Heaven as a four-year old boy will only give you psychosis, and the most dangerous psychotic delusions are the ones that happen to be true. Georges Bataille writes that continuous (or deindividuated) life is always accessible, at the moment of death and in the heights of erotic passion. These moments are still deeply religious in character, but in an inverted form: if you can achieve continuous life by murdering a priest in the church of San Seville, then all the better. For Colton Burpo in 2045, Bataille is tedious and conventional. Nobody likes to think that they live in an era of innocence, but we do. The decadents of the generation before 1914 didn’t think they lived in an innocent time either. Great terrors await. The present tendency towards jaded irony is held to be some kind of postmodern affliction; we forget that the twenty-first century is fourteen years old, and has just discovered sarcasm. Colton Burpo was born on the eve of the millennium; he’s as old as our present age. His psychosis is our psychosis; his future is our future.

It’s 2069, and Colton Burpo is dying. He’s lucky. Here, in this private hospice high up in the Ural mountains, the air is still clean. His last breath won’t choke him. From his window Colton can see the snowless peaks plunging down under a cold and limpid sky. The whole flat expanse of Europe is spread out before him, coquettishly cloaked in its radioactive smog. On the other side, nothing. He’s been pushed here, thrown up against the edges of the world. It’s time. He signals for a priest. For the first time in decades Colton thinks of his father. Pastor Todd Burpo, who believed everything, who spread the good news. The clean airy smell of whitewash and disinfectant in the Nebraska church; those long bright summers when Heaven seemed so real and so fresh he could see it whenever he closed his eyes, before the book and the TV appearances and the movie and everything else, before the space stations fell from the sky and the nuclear plants popped one by one. He almost expects the priest to be like those he remembers, someone in blue jeans and a polo shirt with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Instead there’s a dour Orthodox seminary student in black robes and a black felt cap. The buboes are visible all over his neck; it’s not like it matters now. The man takes Colton’s hand for a second, crosses himself, and begins to administer the last rites. “Blagosloven Bog nash vsegda-” Colton stops him. A last feeble rasp. “Once,” he says, “once when I was young – too young to understand – He showed me Heaven. I know now that I’m not going back. Ever since, He’s shown me nothing but Hell, and all its horrors. Now… I wonder what He’s going to show me next.”

(There’s a tragic misconception that in Christianity, what one does is this earthly world is only important insofar as it secures one’s position in the afterlife. In such an understanding, Heaven and individual salvation is the only proper goal in life. This is nonsense, and it has no basis in Scripture or the theological consensus, both of which are as materialist and as hostile to such transcendentalism as anything in Marx or Nietzsche. There are some within Christianity that believe in a conscious afterlife immediately following death, but at no point is this idea of personal salvation held to be any kind of telos. Far from being eternal, the intermediate state isn’t much more than a spiritual screensaver, something to occupy the soul until the bodily reincarnation of the dead promised in Matthew 22:31-32. For the thnetopsychitae, this filler heaven doesn’t even exist. They may be right: the immortality of the soul was always a Platonist Greek doctrine, not a Christian one.

Biblical writings are singularly unconcerned with the fate of the soul immediately after death; the point is always to return to the world in all its immanence after the Last Judgement. Heaven isn’t a metaphysical realm; it’s what happens here, and the New Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven must be built. With postmillenial salvation – operating on the level of the 144,000 or the numberless multitude rather than on that of the individual subject – the curse of Adam is lifted. The old order to be overturned is described precisely in Genesis 3:18-19: Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. In other words, by opposition we can see that the salient features of the Kingdom of Heaven are: the unleashing of productive forces in the clearing-away of thorns and thistles, an end to the antagonistic dialectic between the equally false categories of Nature and Man, and the abolition of alienated wage-labour. It’s in this New Earth that the dead are redeemed and justified.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call the Kingdom of Heaven the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. We do not passively wait for it. Luke 17:20-21: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. As ever, God is impeccably Marxist.)

Advertisements

Future Europe – Ahmet Weshke and the mystery of the falling man

Recently I came across this piece in the Wall Street Journal by the litigation-happy racist Niall Ferguson, a man with a face like an undercooked Jeremy Clarkson and opinions to match. Writing in 2011, he takes it upon himself to paint a picture of how Europe will look in ten years time. It’s an awful article. Sometimes the sheer stupidity of his predictions is gobsmacking: war between Jordan and Israel – really? The reintroduction of Austrian nobiliary particles – really? George Osborne, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ – really? Of course it all plays into his ideological agenda, but that could be forgiveable if he’d simply done it better. Ferguson’s worst error is one of genre. True to form, he takes a smugly objective overview of the political developments over the course of his decade, without ever stopping to think how life in Future Europe might actually be lived. It’s inherently inaccurate. The Europe of the mid-21st Century won’t look a thing like Ferguson’s prediction. It won’t be a calm appraisal. It’ll be pulp fiction.

Ahmet Weschke woke up in a bare room stinking of liquor fumes and the prostitute’s perfume. His Interface was still hissing silently in one corner of the room. Onscreen, the face of a newsreader drifted like a spectre above a roiling sea of static. He chucked a shoe at it; the image stabilised. Ahmet dressed himself hurriedly and wolfed down a breakfast consisting of three slices of bleached-white bread as he watched the morning headlines. It was the same old shit. A bunch of fanatics had declared another Islamic Emirate in a valley somewhere in the massif central. This was happening every couple of months now. Some dumb kids straight out of a banlieue madrassa would drive into a rural region and burst into the farmhouse of some rotund Gallic swine-farmer; they’d shoot him and maybe a couple of the local villagers they found enjoying charcuterie or dressing immodestly, then raise the black flag of jihad and wait for the European Army paratroopers to come and dispatch them as quickly as possible to Paradise. It made sense, really; better a nice little burst of rape and plunder followed by a swift death than decades tramping around a gloomy concrete suburb. The other items were just as predictable: more pictures of emaciated English refugees milling around the Scottish border, more helicopter footage of the interminable riots that were destroying Los Angeles as comprehensively as an earthquake, more grim reports of mounting Chinese casualties in Kazakhstan, more dull analysis of the land deal with the Saudi Empire as it collapsed into an acrimonious squabble. Enough.

As he hurried down Holzwegstrasse to the S-Bahn station, Ahmet tried several times to adjust his tie before giving up and stuffing it in his pocket. The train was packed with perspiring commuters; the air inside was humid with sweat and spittle. More people clung to the handles on the sides and the roof – doing so wasn’t strictly legal, of course, but after the number of bodies on the lines had started to seriously impact the network’s efficiency the corporation running the transit system had decided to put handles on anyway. Everyone on the train was Goggled; their irises were pale, their gazes immobile. The only people who didn’t wear Goggles were the religious fanatics, the most impoverished of the guest workers, and the police. Officers of the European Department of Civil Order were forbidden from using AR: only the police still believed in the real world.

Commissioner Traugott was waiting at his desk when Ahmet arrived.
“You’re late,” she said. “And you smell of booze.”
“I didn’t have time to shower. You’d rather I was even later?”
“If you want to look like a slob, it’s up to you. We’ve got a case. Bankenviertel. Apparent suicide. Suspicious.”
“What, has Denmark gone bust again? Come on, Angela. I’m a good detective. I don’t need another fucking depressed banker.”
“It’s not quite that. You’ll see.”

The body was naked and twisted, dashed with fragments of concrete, one knee bent backwards, one elbow embedded in a shattered paving stone. From one side of its head a tongue lapped against the pavement. The other side had exploded into a constellation of blood, brain and skull. The index finger of his left hand had been cut off. A clean straight wound. Above the body rose the sheer glass infinity of the EuroBank Tower, painfully reflecting the sun’s fury. Somewhere up near the eightieth floor, one window-pane was broken. Ahmet was in a foul mood. He’d expected his EDCO card to get him whisked straight through the checkpoint into Bankenviertel; instead the Israeli private security guards had made him wait for ten minutes by the reinforced wall that surrounded the business district while they checked his credentials. At least the civilians in line had been able to entertain themselves with their Goggles. Ahmet had counted concrete slabs instead.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Cleaner? Fell in the middle of the night?”
Officer Hans, looking slightly ridiculous in his blue-and-gold uniform, gaped at him. “Just because he’s black doesn’t mean he’s a menial worker,” he said.
“It’s not because he’s black,” said Ahmet. “Look at his teeth. Discoloured, one premolar missing. This guy isn’t a banker. And the scar across his thigh, there. Looks like barbed wire. So, probably a refugee, possibly an illegal. And the inflammations, over… there. Venereal disease. Am I right?”
“He’s not a banker. We did biometrics. He’s registered. Joseph Kutenge. Came over in ’31 with all the rest. You know, when the Congo basin went dry… but here’s the thing.”
“What?”
“OK, first of all, he wasn’t wearing Goggles.”
“So what? Not everyone uses augmented reality.”
“But it’s unusual, isn’t it? Shit, even my mother wears them, and she remembers the DDR.”
Ahmet wondered how many years Hans’ mother had before she’d have to enter the euthanasia process. Maybe she’d been saving up and could afford the monthly life-extension payments. He hoped so. He liked the kid, even if he’d never let him know it. “What else?” he said.
“Kutenge works in a warehouse outside of Offenbach. Menial labour, like you said. There’s no way he’d have a Bankenviertel pass.”
Ahmet glanced at the high concrete wall rising above some of the lower buildings near the edge of the business district, shimmering in the day’s heat. “Then how the fuck did he get in?”
Hans shrugged. “That’s the question.”

~

Kutenge’s body was being loaded into the police van, draped in an antiseptic-looking white sheet. The forensics team had been and gone, sweeping their Portals over the corpse, crouched over the dead man like a flock of vultures. Back at HQ, a computerised visualisation of the crime scene would be built and pored over: impact velocity would be calculated, a crowd of skinny analysts would try to determine whether Kutenge had fallen from the window or been pushed. Ahmet didn’t trust the analysts: they got results, but it wasn’t real police work.
He drew Hans to one side. “I want you to go to this guy’s house,” he said. “Talk to his wife. Give me more to work with than Brussels statistics. I’ll have a look round the EuroBank Tower.”
“Are you kidding? I can’t go down there, boss.”
“Why not?”
“Kutenge lived in the Offenbach Camp. Look at me. I look like a fucking Hitlerjugend. In uniform, as well. I wouldn’t last five minutes.”
This was true. Police never investigated any crimes in the refugee camps. If the militants there grew too rowdy, or if there was a particularly shocking massacre, a European Army unit would storm in and dispense some crude justice; enough to shut the liberal bloggers up for a couple of weeks, at least.
“Anyway,” Hans continued, “Traugott said she wants Detective Haufman to talk to the people inside.”
“She fucking didn’t. Why’d she do that?”
Hans flinched. “Look at how you’re dressed, boss.”
Ahmet grunted. “OK,” he said. “I’ll go to Offenbach. You stay here. And if that fucker Haufman tries to enter that building, shoot him.”

Ahmet left his jacket in the car. He undid the top three buttons from his shirt and slicked his hair back a little with spit.
“How Turkish do I look?” he said to the driver.
“You not been in the camps before, sir?”
“When I was younger. And thinner.”
Past the sterile zone of barbed wire and tarmac that surrounded it, Offenbach Camp was a mess. Washing lines hung between plastic tents and corrugated-iron shacks. Suspicious eyes glanced out from dark alleyways, sometimes accompanied by the oily gleam of gunmetal. Women stirred oil-drums filled with soup behind signs in French or Arabic or English. Ahmet tried not to peer too ostentatiously at the map in his hand. If he could wear Goggles this would have been so much easier; as it was he had to navigate the camp by instinct. Kutenge’s house was near the centre, a tiny bungalow built from exposed cinderblocks with glassless windows. Ahmet recognised the symbol of the United Nations stamped onto one of the concrete pillars: this place was old. He knocked on the door.
It was opened by a tall woman in a faded Vietnam World Cup 2030 t-shirt and grubby shorts. “Que voulez-vous?” she said.
“Mrs Kutenge? My name’s Ahmet Weschke. I’m with the police. Do you think I could come in?”
She frowned. “Is this about Joseph? I already know.”
“I just want to ask some questions about him. So we can find out what happened.”
She looked puzzled, but let him in. Inside there was a mattress on the floor, a plastic table with some rickety chairs, and a stove. A muted Interface was propped up against one wall; onscreen a minister paced up and down a stage, yelling silent hosannas. “There is nothing to ask. Joseph worked in the warehouse. He went to work every day and then he came home. He went to church. He did not drink. He did not gamble. There is nothing to ask.”
Ahmet thought of the sores around the dead man’s genitals, but he didn’t say anything. “Do you know what he was doing in Frankfurt? How he got in?”
“No. He didn’t come home last night. And then today I am told he is dead.”
“You don’t seem very upset.”
“Last year my two daughters were shot here. In the camp. I have cried enough. I have cried all my tears.” Her expression soured. “And where were you when my children were killed? When a child dies in the camp you are nowhere. But when someone dies so that rich men have to look at his body, then you care about him. It is sick. It is sick!” She stamped her foot, but her anger seemed somehow feigned. The woman’s irises were a misty grey. Who else could be looking out through those eyes?

~

Somehow, Ahmet found himself at the back of the room as Haufman explained his team’s findings. A hologram of Kutenge’s body spun slowly above his desk. “The lack of injuries associated with glass impact is consistent with our working hypothesis,” Haufman said. “It appears Kutenge first broke the window, then jumped through. We consider it statistically unlikely that he was pushed. Motivations are unclear. A political statement, perhaps.”
Traugott tapped her fingers on the table. “But how did he get in?”
“The Bankenviertel Group have kindly agreed to release their CCTV records, which we’re still analysing. But Kutenge was a refugee. He arrived here at Marseilles. He certainly has plenty of experience in climbing barriers.”
“Whose window was it?” said Ahmed.
“I’m sorry?”
“Whose window was it?”
Haufman sighed. “The office belonged to Jeremy Smythe-Braistwick.”
“The CFO? The one who’s trying to sell half of Europe to the Arabs?”
“Yes, the CFO of EuroBank. Herr Smythe-Braistwick is co-operating fully with the investigation, and he’s asked us to pass on his sincere condolences to Kutenge’s survivors.”
Afterwards, Ahmet was approached by Officer Hans. “You think Smythe-Braistwick killed him, don’t you?”
“I don’t think anything, Hans. I collect all the facts I can, until I know.”
“Sure, boss. But you think he killed him, don’t you?”
“I think someone was leaning on Kutenge’s wife. When I spoke to her she was Goggled. And I know there’s no way he could have climbed that wall. Thousands of people got out of the camps in Marseilles, they were falling apart. Nobody gets into Bankenviertel if they’re not invited. Frankfurt could be nuked and the people in there would be selling short on radioactive debris the next day.”
“So someone brought him in?”
“I’m not saying it was Smythe-Braistwick. Not necessarily. But everyone knows the bankers get up to some pretty kinky shit after office hours. So let’s say there’s a couple of them, high-level board members, cruising round Offenbach as the warehouse closes. They see some poor black refugee they like the look of. They drive him into Bankenviertel, bring him up the tower, do whatever the fuck they do, then credit him a couple of Euros and send him back to the camp. They do this a couple of times, maybe. But this time something goes wrong. They push him too far, they get too sadistic. That missing finger… So he complains, or resists, and in the struggle, he gets flung out the window…”
“Haufman said the window was broken first.”
“Haufman’s a moron. OK. I’m going to take a shower, and then I’m going to call on Herr Smythe-Braistwick. I want you to go through the CCTV from Offenbach. See what Kutenge did when he left work. See if he got into any cars.”

The elevator in the EuroBank Tower was bigger than Ahmet’s apartment. He stared at himself in the mirror and flicked a yellow particle from the corner of his eye. Kutenge and Smythe-Braistwick, Smythe-Braistwick and Kutenge. Both refugees, in a sense, except Kutenge had to trek across a continent, riding in some warlord’s pickup across the Sahara and launching himself into the toxic seas of the Mediterranean; he had to escape the Marseilles refugee camp before the Army liquidated it, he had to cross minefields and hide under bushes from drones. Smythe-Braistwick probably just jumped in his helicopter and touched down in Frankfurt while London was still burning.
Ahmet was received in Smythe-Braistwick’s office, a huge, tastefully empty space. The broken window had already been replaced. Smythe-Braistwick – tall and thin with fashionably long hair and an artificial-looking tautness to his face – greeted him from behind his desk. “I must say, Mr – Weschke, is it? I’m a little perplexed by your appearance here. I’ve already spoken to your colleague, not three hours ago.”
“If you’ll permit,” growled Ahmet, “I’d like to follow up on Detective Haufman’s enquiries.”
“By all means. Can I interest you in a drink?”
It was an effort, but Ahmet ignored him. “Have you ever been to Offenbach, Herr Smythe-Braistwick?”
“Jeremy, please. And occasionally. But of course I don’t like to go too near to the camp.”
“So if I were to search the cameras there for your numberplate, or your face, over the last week, I wouldn’t find anything?”
“I highly doubt that. Why do you ask?”
“You weren’t in Offenbach at any point yesterday.”
“Yesterday, Mr Weschke, I was in here until ten in the evening, meeting with my associates in Riyadh. At ten o’clock I was driven to my home in Bad Homburg. My car passed the Hessenring checkpoint at about, oh, ten forty-five. Please do check. You’ll find everything I say to be true.”
“And you locked your office after you left?”
“The door here has biometric security. It can only be opened by myself or my secretary.”
“Then how did Kutenge get in?”
“I don’t know, Mr Weschke. I presumed that answering that question was your job rather than mine.”
“Mr Kutenge was Congolese. You have something of a history with that part of the world, don’t you, Jeremy?”
“I assume you’re talking about ’28. It’s so tiresome. I didn’t cause the famine. Failed government policies caused the famine. Kleptocrats and demagogues caused the famine. I traded commodity futures. At the same time I was selling short on Icelandic wheat. There was no famine in Iceland in 2028.”
“A lot of people still blame you, though.”
“And I’m sure they have every right to think what they want. As I told your colleague, I believe Mr Kutenge’s suicide was a kind of political protest. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to attend to.”

Hans was beaming when Ahmet returned. “You were right, boss,” he said. “OK. Firstly, Kutenge was credited four hundred thousand Euros yesterday. Anonymous transfer, so we’d need a subpoena. But then I looked at the footage. Kutenge left the warehouse at six thirty last night. The other workers all take the bus back to the camp. Not Kutenge. He walks up Seibenstrasse, stands on a corner – then look.” He pulled up an Interface. “A black Mercedes pulls up. Kutenge gets in.” Onscreen, the car pulled away, past the rows of low corrugated-iron buildings. Its windows were tinted.
“Where’s it going?” said Ahmet.
“I followed it until it crossed the river. Then after Kaiserstrasse the cameras cut out. Power failure, apparently. When they come back on again the car’s gone. I don’t like this, boss. It goes deep.”
“Did you run a trace on the car?”
“Of course I did. But you don’t need me to tell you who it belonged to.”

He was waiting when Smythe-Braistwick came out. The man was striding on his spindly legs out from the glass canopy of the EuroBank Tower, his long coat flapping around him in the night wind, looking like a Victorian vampire who’d discovered cocaine and exfoliating skin cream. Ahmet wanted to pounce on him, beat his skull into the concrete. He wanted to kill the fucker for having the nerve to think that he could murder someone, even a resident of the camps, and get away with it. Instead he walked out in front of him and presented his EDCO card, all proper and correct, before slipping on the handcuffs and making the famous announcement enforced by the European Court of Individual Rights.
“Herr Smythe-Braistwick,” he said. “Under paragraph eight, subsection fourteen of the protocol on the accused, I hereby inform you that you are suspended of those rights delineated in lines thirteen to eighty-four inclusive and line one hundred and twenty-eight in chapter seven of the declaration of the rights of the citizen; also that you are hereby included under the definition of an ‘arestee’ as delineated under paragraph three of the European Department of Civil Order working charter, with your legal responsibilities being given in paragraphs four through nine…”

~

“You’re off the case, Weschke,” said Commissioner Traugott as Smythe-Braistwick left the building. “In fact, as of now, you’re suspended. We know exactly where he was all last night. You arrested him without filing a report or consulting me, without a shred of actionable evidence. What on Earth did you think you were doing?”
“My job,” said Ahmet.
“Well, it’s not your job any longer. Herr Smythe-Braistwick’s people were kind enough to send us their own dossier on you. Whores, Ahmet? In your position? It’s unconscionable.”
“You’re not giving the case to Haufman.”
“As it happens, no. A communiqué from Brussels came in. The Kutenge case will be handled by the internal banking regulator.”
“You’re fucking kidding.”
“Bankenviertel is their jurisdiction. Go home, Ahmet. Leave your gun. The tribunal’s convening next week.”

There was nothing to do, except to buy a bottle of whiskey and hope that when he woke up again his gun would once again be on his bedside table, his EDCO card would still be valid, and the Kutenge case would recede into a bad dream. The Interface was still running when Ahmet returned to his apartment, still tuned to the rolling news stream. A row of EA troopers were standing in front of an angry crowd throwing rocks and hoisting placards. Nous sommes tous Joseph Kutenge. Another camp, another mob; this one didn’t even seem to be in Germany. They’d built an effigy of Smythe-Braistwick and were busy tearing it apart. Burning European flags coughed black smoke into the sky. The soldiers were grinning. They’d love nothing more than to be able to empty a clip into that ungrateful mob, and soon enough, they’d get the order. There’d be another massacre, and it was his fault. Ahmet switched to an entertainment stream. A new gameshow: minor celebrities tried to have sex on stage while the audience shouted antaphrodisiac words at them. “Brezhnev and Honecker kissing!” shouted one. “Unemployment is at sixty percent in Portugal!” yelled another. A woman stood up. “Joseph Kutenge!” That got a round of applause.

Ahmet was woken the next morning by a knock on his door. He shambled over. It was Haufman.
“The fuck do you want?” he said. “Come to gloat?”
“No,” said Haufman. “I’ve come to help.”
“You can help by fucking off.”
“Listen to me, Ahmet. I know we’ve had our differences, but you need to listen. You were right. You were right about Smythe-Braistwick. He knew Kutenge.”
“Have you told Traugott?”
“You’re not getting reinstated. She’s right, you shouldn’t have arrested him. But now you’re off the case you can help me find out the truth.”
“I thought it’d been turned over to the internal regulators.”
“It has. Can I come in?”
Ahmet let Haufman in and flopped down on his bed. “Talk,” he said.
“Hans showed me the footage from the warehouse near Offenbach. Kutenge’s been getting in that black Mercedes, every other week, for six months now. But the night he died, the data’s gone haywire, the cameras keep cutting out. Someone’s been trying to mask his movements. Not very well, by the looks of it. So I looked at the records for Smythe-Braistwick, and it’s a mess. He was negotiating the Saudi land deal in his office and attending a board meeting and taking a piss all at the same time.”
“What does any of this have to with me?”
“You’re off the force, aren’t you? I can’t do anything now. None of us can. But you’re just a private citizen. You can fly out and confront him about it.”
“Fly out?”
“Smythe-Braistwick left Frankfurt this morning. He’s gone to Athens.”
“You want me to go to Greece? Unarmed? Are you crazy?”
“I’ve already booked your flight. You want to solve this case, don’t you? You want your job back, don’t you?”
He did. More than anything in the world.

~

Bullet-holes still ran along the walls of Athens International Airport. Outside, the complex was surrounded by three lines of European Army tanks. From his seat in the plane, Ahmet had seen the deep scars running through the city where all the buildings under the flight lines had been razed. Ever since the Acropolis had been dynamited, Athens was only useful for its airport, ferrying tourists in armoured cars to one of the privately-owned Greek islands. Those islands still above sea level were meant to be nice: little rustic havens, full of charming goat-herders smiling for the Chinese tourists. Ahmet had never been, of course.
Haufman had given him an itinerary. Ahmet squinted at it through his hangover. Flying had never agreed with him. Right about now Smythe-Braithwick would be lunching with Prince Faisal in the green zone around Syntagma Square, near the parliament building where what remained of the Greek government tried to pretend that their entire country wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of EuroBank.
A bus pulled up in front of the concourse. “Zone one!” the driver shouted. The machine-gunner on the roof stared into the middle distance.
As they drove along the fortified expressway the odd Molotov cocktail would smash against the reinforced windows. Then the machine-gunner would fire a few quick bursts into the buildings on either side. Ahmet had planned to sleep on the journey; that clearly wouldn’t be happening.

He caught Smythe-Braistewick just as his lunch was finishing. The banker had shaken hands with a man in a keffiyeh outside the restaurant. Prince Faisal stepped into a waiting car and was sped off. As soon as Smythe-Braistwick was starting to take his loping walk back to the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Ahmet leapt at him, pinning him against a wall. “Tell me what happened,” he said.
His victim squirmed. “Mr Weschke? I was assured you’d been relieved of your duties.”
“I have. I’m just a private citizen here, same as you. And you’re going to tell me everything.”
“This is absurd. Commissioner Traugott will hear of this, I can assure you.”
“Look around you, Jeremy. You’re not in Frankfurt any more. It might be pretty quiet here, but I reckon I could march you just down the road and see how you fare outside the green zone. Have you ever had to fight? I have. I’ll admit, I was never top of my class in combat exercises, but I reckon I could hold my own. How about you? You’d better start talking. You’d better start telling me the truth.”
Smythe-Braistwick gulped. “The truth?”
“I know you killed Kutenge.”
“I didn’t kill him! You idiot. You want the truth? I loved him.”
The words almost knocked Ahmet off his feet. “You what?”
“I loved him. Oh, but he had his wife, I don’t know how he felt, I don’t… but he was so strong. He was so unlike anyone I’d ever met. I’d never hurt him. Never.”
“You loved him? You loved him and you let him live in the camp?”
“I tried to reason with him, I did. I offered him an apartment in Frankfurt. He refused. He told me he wasn’t a prostitute. He was so proud…”
“You lied to us.”
“Of course I did. As you said, he lived in the camps. He lived behind his concrete walls, and I lived behind mine. You think I could just say that I was in love with a refugee? I’d be ruined. We’re not supposed to cross those walls, Mr Weschke.”
“You gave him the key to your office.”
“I registered his fingerprints. And he killed himself. I know there are… cultural differences around our kind of love, but I never expected…” Smythe-Braistwick looked as if he was about to cry. Ahmet stepped back from him. The man’s face flushed red. “And don’t you think I’ve had quite enough hurt without you following me across Europe to say that I murdered him? Are you satisfied now?”

Ahmet’s flight back to Frankfurt wasn’t until the next morning. He took a room in an anonymously boxy hotel in the airport complex. All the hotel Interfaces were in use, so he bought a set of disposable Goggles and took them up to his room. Well, he wasn’t governed by EDCO rules now. As he slipped them over his eyeballs the little discs started to vibrate; it wasn’t painful, but not particularly pleasant either. As they did so everything around him started to change. Objects grew outlines. Colours were brighter, richer, more saturated. A gauzy glow settled over the hotel room. As he looked out of the window, a carpet of grass unfurled over the wasteland of rocky scrub and demolished buildings that surrounded the airport. There were wildflowers dancing in the breeze; here and there a rabbit would leap out of the dewy pasture. This was how most people saw the world: looking at the dead earth and seeing a meadow.
A series of icons faded into view, hanging over the horizon. Ahmet called Haufman in Frankfurt. “Smythe-Braistwick didn’t kill Kutenge,” he told him.
“That can’t be,” said Haufman. “We know he did. We have evidence.”
“We were wrong. They were in love.”
“And lovers never quarrel? You were on the beat once, weren’t you? You’ve seen what people in love can do to each other. Listen. The camps are getting out of hand and the regulators aren’t doing a thing. We need to solve this. And soon.”
“You’re a fucking cretin, Haufman. Don’t you get the feeling someone’s being set up?” Ahmet rubbed his hands in his eyes. One of the Goggles fell out. “Fuck,” he said. As he bent down to retrieve it, a bullet smashed the window above him and buried himself in the hotel wall.
There was a brief silence. “What was that?” said Haufman.
“The fuck do you think? I’m being shot at!”
“OK. Ahmet. I need you to be very calm here.”
“I’m a fucking Buddhist.”
“Did you see who fired at you?”
“Of course not.”
“I need you to look.”
“You’re kidding.”
“I’m receiving your visual feed now. Just glance at him. Just for a second.”
Ahmet slowly raised his head above the broken window. A dark figure, shimmering in the heat, was standing on the roof of another glass building across from the hotel. Through the Goggles he was outlined in white, a rainbow arcing around him. Another shot raised a cloud of feathers from the bed.
“Did you get him?” said Ahmet.
“Hang on. Well, he’s not Athenian. Military rifle. Israeli merc, by the looks of it.”
Two more shots broke the mirror behind him. “So what do I do? I’m not armed, for fuck’s sake.”
“Sit tight, of course. You’re in one of the most heavily guarded places in Europe. He’s got another thirty seconds, then he’ll have to get out of there.”
From behind the hotel came the sounds of helicopter drones.

Ahmet was moved to a high-security room, but he still didn’t get much sleep. He pulled his duvet onto the floor and lay down there, watching pornography on his Goggles. In the airport the next morning he bought a succession of four hundred-Euro coffees while he waited out his flight’s six-hour delay. He cleared Greek airspace as the sun set, twitching, wired as hell.
Just as they were coming in to Frankfurt a pair of Air Force jets descended upon the plane. Suddenly all Goggles were turned off; people craned towards the window to see what was going on. Throughout the city the lights were dead; only the Bankenviertel still glittered behind its concrete cage. The Maim reflected a sea of fire. Across the river, Offenbach was burning. A few fires cracked from the north bank, and explosions rose like budding tulips in the middle of the inferno. The refugees had broken their chains: Joseph Kutenge was being avenged.

~

Ahmet’s flight was diverted to Brussels. He liked it there, and decided to stay for a few days while the fires were put out. Some of the area around the European Quarter was still scarred from the nationalist bombings, but the new complex was pleasant, if you ignored the biometric cameras and remote-controlled guns on every balcony. There were even a few new parks around the Place du Luxembourg. There was no refugee camp in Brussels. Brussels was safe.

Ahmet knew who had killed Joseph Kutenge.
The window had been broken before he’d been thrown out. The CCTV data had been messily scrambled. It was all a trick: a murder expertly disguised as a murder sloppily disguised as a suicide. The footage from Offenbach the night Kutenge died hadn’t been partially redacted: the whole sequence had been slotted in. Someone had picked up Joseph Kutenge that day, but they weren’t in Smythe-Braistwick’s car. Someone much more powerful than any petty European banker.
It was a matter of waiting for them to find him. There wouldn’t be any mercenary snipers in Brussels; the automatic guns were everywhere. So he waited. That took three days. In the meantime, he wandered about the city: he drank whiskey on a bench by the pond in the Parc Léopold, he ate fufu for six hundred Euros in Ixelles, he watched the news. The Kutenge revolt that had broken out across Europe had been put down. Smythe-Braistwick had stepped down, citing personal reasons. The Chinese were announcing a new offensive in Central Asia. The world kept turning.
On the third day a black car pulled up suddenly alongside him and he was bundled in. Sitting across from him was the man he had been waiting for: dark-haired and stern-faced, with a sculpted beard and an antique cane resting across his lap.
“You’re not a hard man to find, Mr Weschke,” he said.
“Nobody is, these days.” Ahmet leant forwards. “It was you, wasn’t it? You killed Kutenge.”
“I suppose I did. If it helps, he was dead long before we threw him from the window. We are not barbaric.”
“You tried to frame Smythe-Braistwick. He was obstructing you. He wouldn’t make concessions.”
“He was very disruptive to the arrangement, yes. But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on.”
“Yeah. Me.”
“That’s correct, in a way. Never did I expect that the EDCO would send someone as staggeringly incompetent as you. You didn’t inform your commissioner before arresting him. You didn’t even wait until the full extent of our interference with the security systems had been uncovered. And your personal… degeneracy even managed to leave the investigation in the hands of a gang of sympathetic banking cronies. You very nearly ruined the entire plan.”
Ahmet didn’t say anything.
Prince Faisal al-Saud laughed. “It doesn’t matter, though. Smythe-Braistwick is out of the picture now, and the land deal can go ahead. On our terms… Nothing to say to that, I see?”
“One thing,” said Ahmet. “Look into my eyes.”
“As I thought.”
“Look into my eyes.”
Faisal stared.
“I know what you think. The police don’t wear Goggles, do they? But I’m not a policeman. Prince Faisal, say hello to Commissioner Traugott of the European Department of Civil Order. Prince Faisal, say hello to the world.”
The prince stared into Ahmet Weschke’s grey eyes and saw, hovering above his own reflection, the glint of cold metal.

~

Two years later, after a lengthy enquiry, the Saudi land deal was ratified. From the Atlantic to the Urals, ancient forests and vineyards were torn up to become vast square fields of wheat and soy. Villages were flattened. Lakes were filled in. The sprawling cities of the Middle Eastern desert would be fed. Europe had finally found its purpose in the world.

That same day, Ahmet Weschke was found dead in his cell. A brief investigation concluded that he had committed suicide. Detective Hans Keller dissented from the official verdict, insisting that his former mentor had been murdered. The case was not re-opened.

The refugee camps continued to grow. The Kutenge revolt and its brutal suppression were not forgotten. Millions remained, waiting for the day when they would sweep the cities with all the terrible justice of a tidal wave; waiting to claim the world.

The Sand and the Wildflower

There are flowers now, they say, at El Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
John Jarmain

sandwildflower

ا

He pounced as soon as Urtid walked into the tent, seizing his hands, a strange wolflike ferocity in his eyes. “My god,” he said. “You must be Urtid. To finally see your face after all this time. To be able to speak to you in friendship.”
What on earth are you meant to say to that? “Lutine Dezoic,” Urtid said. “Christ. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.”
Lutine wouldn’t let go; his thin lips drew up to above his canines. “Can we get a photo? I want to capture this moment for eternity. Our reunion, here, in al-Emlekh Mehbl.”
A dark-haired photographer girl crouched down to take a photo, but there was clearly something wrong with the shutter. She fiddled with the film advance lever for a few seconds until the little machine suddenly ejaculated a flurry of clicks. Throughout the whole ordeal Lutine stayed frozen, grinning, clasping Urtid’s hands. Of course, Urtid realised. The great poet was obviously insane.
The tent was tall, decked out in various shades of military khaki. A big black and white poster of Lutine in his old army uniform hung from behind the podium. On a few circular tables copies of his book were stacked in neat patterns. The tent was full of people: journalists, photographers, people from the publisher’s, preening flamingo-people in one-buttoned blazers, armed guards trying to look as discreet as possible; sweat hung in the air. There were also a few of Lutine’s friends, high lords in the aristocracy of letters. That portly British novelist, one of those ex-Trotskyites who may have long given up historical materialism but continue to wage class war by not tucking their shirts in and smoking roll-ups long into middle age. Urtid hadn’t read any of his books. Chatting to him was that American, with a velvet smoking jacket and pince-nez, the one whose stories were all about Jewish academics sleeping with their analysts. Near them stood the French philosopher who had described high heels as ‘fractal phalluses, sigils of patriarchal dominance.’ She was, Urtid noticed, wearing a pair herself, furiously clutching a glass of wine. There was also Lutine’s newest boyfriend, Anton, a pale lad who didn’t look a day over seventeen: the famous omnisexual was, of course, basically just an old-fashioned pederast. Lutine introduced Urtid to everyone, as if he had known him for years; they all asked the same questions. Was he still writing, like his old collaborator? Did he have anything out they could go and read? No, he told them. He taught history at a secondary school, he hadn’t written a word in decades, he watched TV: he was content. This seemed to take them all rather by surprise. Well, if he ever chose to start again, being fictionalised in the Poet of Peace’s first novel would make sure he’d have no problems with publication, wouldn’t it? Lutine’s greatness would be sure to rub off on him; he’d certainly win a prize or two, even if just by association. And from the book, Urtid certainly seemed to have been an excellent poet…
The fucking book. The Sand and the Wildflower, by Lutine Dezoic. Urtid had received a free copy, of course, signed; he’d tried to read it on the flight over to Khalatiqa City. He hadn’t got very far. The cover was emblazoned with the same photo that now hung from the ceiling of the tent: Lutine in his uniform, his big clear eyes looking out from under his peaked cap. Urtid had a similar photo: himself and three of his friends leaning nonchalantly against an armoured vehicle. The young Urtid’s cap was at a slight angle, he had a cigarette jutting proudly from his half-open lips; on the whole he looked dark and mysterious and, if he did say so himself, pretty damn sexy (the other three men had all died in the war). But Lutine looked exactly the same as in his photo – his skin was not so taut, and his eyes were not so clear, but he was essentially the same – while Urtid was now fat and moustachioed, with veins in his nose, hair in his ears, and yellowing pegs for teeth. That had been enough to put him off the whole endeavour. But he soldiered on, and opened the thing. Then he’d come to the dedication. It read:

This book was written with the deepest and most profound love for all humanity, and the deepest and most profound sadness at the things we do.

To Urtid Batset, who taught me how to love my enemy.

At that point, Urtid gave up. He’d flicked through the book to find some of the parts about him, but they weren’t really about him at all. They were about someone called Jostin Batrica, someone Lutine had made up who just happened to have done some of the same things that Urtid had done. The book wasn’t really about love for humanity at all, he’d decided. The central message of the novel was this: I’d like to win the Nobel Prize now, thank you very much. And it was surely very easy to love humanity when you had as little contact with it as possible, flitting around with literary celebrities instead of rolling in the muck of common pettiness. Urtid didn’t hate humanity, it was just there, an unavoidable fact of life, like shitting or cauliflower. He’d spent most of the journey just looking out the window as the endless corrugated surface of the Mediterranean churned past.
After a while Lutine gave a speech before reading a chapter from the book. He fixed his lapels, awkwardly, and tapped on the microphone. “My brothers and sisters,” he said. “Thank you all so much for coming today. I cannot possibly express how much it means to me. I just have a few words. My publishers, you know, they wanted me to do the book launch in London or Paris or New York, they were really quite insistent on that. But I held fast. I knew I had to do it here, in the great nation of Khalatiqa, in al-Emlekh Mehbl, where so many men dear to me lost their lives. I think that Khalatiqa needs The Sand and the Wildflower and its message of peace. Across these sands, where I and my brother Urtid Batset fought, the cruel bells of war are once again sounding. Boko Seke is, I hear, a very educated man. I can only pray that the words I have written reach him. I pray that they turn him from his path of destruction, that he is moved to put down the sword and settle his disputes with the democratically elected government in brotherhood and humility. I tell you: I really do feel this was a story I had to write. From the moment we withdrew from the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl, the significance of this story burnt in my mind like a flame. In all my years as a poet, I was pregnant with this story. And – with no disrespect to my fellow poets, brothers and sisters – it was only through the medium of the novel that I could write it…”
And so on.

The tent hadn’t been pitched in the desert; it had, in fact, been put up in the car park of the Golden Oasis Hotel and Spa, but from its entrance Urtid could see the flat white sands stretching out until they reached their scorching union with the sky. His friends were out there, their bones bleached by the sun and ground down by the storms, melting into the amnesiac desert of Khalatiqa. Bullets he had fired were buried somewhere, gently rusting away; men he had killed were dancing in fine particles on the winds. He nodded in a silent salute. And not too far away there would be the great carcasses of the tanks… he tried not to think of that.
Al-Emlekh Mehbl was a little different from when he had last been there. During the war it had been eight or nine buildings clustered around an oasis, boxy little things blasted into spindles by both sets of cannon. As for now, the tourist pamphlet put it better than he ever could:

Welcome to al-Emlekh Mehbl, a one-of-a-kind resort, a jewel set in the shining sands of Khalatiqa’s White Desert. Al-Emlekh Mehbl – ‘the Royal Garden’ in Khalatiqan – is so called because Queen Josephine, the beautiful French wife of the eighteenth-century Sultan Mehmed VII, famously took regular trips to the healing waters of the oasis. Now you too can experience their miraculous health-giving qualities in comfort fit for a Queen. At one of our many glamorous hotels, you can enjoy fine cuisine inspired by the age-old culinary secrets of the desert tribesmen, lose yourself luxuriating in the pure oasis waters, take an adventure trip in the desert with stunt bikes or dune buggies – or just relax by the poolside and watch the sunset. In al-Emlekh Mehbl, anything is possible: our wish is your command.

That wasn’t all true. For a start, Urtid had heard from reliable sources during his last visit to the place that al-Emlekh Mehbl in fact translated as The Queen’s Cunt. And there would be no bouncing about the desert on dune buggies – what with Boko Seke’s insurgency, the resort was all but empty, with only a skeleton staff serving the book launch party. Tourists visiting Khalatiqa were for the most part loath to stray too far south from the coast: everyone knew the guerrillas had an unfortunate tendency to kidnap any Europeans they could get their hands on and leave beheaded corpses by the side of the motorway. More bodies for the ever-hungry desert.
His war had been so much simpler. Civilians had died, but that had been with the brute idiocy of an artillery shell, not the cold steely incomprehensibility of a sword to the back of the neck. Heaven knows what the Khalatiqans must have made of the whole business, waking up one morning to find two foreign armies roving around their soil. The government had protested angrily at the Forum of Nations, but the locals had seemed happy enough to supply both sides with guides and prostitutes.
Urtid hadn’t really known what to make of the war either. It was a ridiculous little affair, over almost before it started, fought by two insignificant little nations who didn’t even have the decency to speak different languages, practice different religions, or operate under different forms of government. The Americans and Soviets hadn’t even bothered picking sides. It was hard to remember what had started the whole business: some kind of trade dispute, compounded by the assassination of a minister or an ambassador, something like that. The European front had been a rather genteel affair: a few skirmishes up and down the border, and some half-hearted attempts to lob flying bombs at each other’s population centres; then the enemy had marched right in to Urtid’s city without much opposition, forced a surrender, and everything went back pretty much to how it was before. Africa had been different. Each nation had its colony to the east and west of Khalatiqa, and for some reason both governments had decided that the capture of the other was of paramount importance to the war effort. Urtid’s side had succeeded, in the end, for all the good it did them.
Urtid hadn’t wanted to go to war. He remembered the tourist adverts plastered on trams around his city not long beforehand: It’s right on your doorstep. Hop on over! He was mildly confused by the idea that he was now being expected to hop on over in military fatigues with a bolt-action rifle in one hand and a bomb in the other. But on being conscripted he’d gone without question, because Urtid Batset had always, more or less, done as he was told. (He’d been a very serious child, one of those very serious boys from poor but respectable families, the ones with freckles and round faces who shut themselves up reading books and observe the other children at play with unconcealed disgust.) Besides, he’d always wanted to be a poet, and everyone knew that going to war made you a great poet.
At first it had been fine. The two armies had blundered about the vast empty desert trying to find each other, like lovers separated in a discotheque, sending out swarms of flimsy little biplanes to scour the sandstorms for tank tracks. Urtid had been a bit detached at first, but his new comrades soon helped him get over his priggishness, introducing him to booze and cigarettes and whores. Actually, it had been quite fun: he’d liked being away from the overbearing presence of his mother, he’d liked the regular exercise, he’d liked having an appreciative (or at least a captive) audience for his poetry. He spent a lot of time lying shirtless in the sunshine, smoking, trying to imagine himself into a modern-day Byron. It couldn’t last.
The armies met at a godforsaken slimepit of an oasis called al-Emlekh Mehbl, neither really expecting the other to be there. Urtid remembered seeing the tanks rearing out of their dust clouds, roaring mammoth silhouettes that burst his new friends into messy splats of blood and offal with an entirely unreasonable suddenness. The sands blazed red. The skies growled black. The air was acrid with burning petrol and smouldering flesh. In a fit of bravery, he ran forward into the smoke, firing wildly, only vaguely aware of other human bodies running beside him, towards him, shooting, being shot. He didn’t stop until he finally hit a man, a loosely human shape that crumpled to the ground when he fired. Then he stood stock-still in the middle of the battlefield until the call to retreat went up. He was twenty years old and he’d killed someone. He’d killed someone and he didn’t even know his name.

Lutine insisted that Urtid dine with him and his friends that night. They all sat on a Khalatiqan rug, eating rustic food from earthenware bowls, drinking French wine. The other giants of literature made normal conversation, all sly boasts and false compliments. Not the Poet of Peace. He seemed to actually care what everyone had to say, he ate it all up with his big kind eyes, fascinated. With Urtid especially. He was genuinely concerned, he wanted to know everything: about his wife, about his home, about the school. It was repulsive.
“I don’t suppose you teach the war there,” Lutine said.
Urtid was somewhat taken aback: throughout it all Lutine hadn’t mentioned their shared experience once. “No,” he said. “We don’t really cover recent history. We do all the normal stuff. St. Bederic, the Union of Cêrfi, the Ottoman invasion. And a new module on the French and Bolshevik revolutions.”
“Isn’t it just awful the way history is taught?” said the American. “All this nationalist mythopoeiac nonsense.”
“Kings and dates and battles,” said the Englishman.
“Exactly. And if some poor kid gets the date of the battle wrong he’s marked down, as if the number itself were more important than the people who fought in it.”
“Babylon, many times demolished,” said the Englishman. “Who raised it up so many times?” And then, looking at Urtid, he added, with a sympathetic smirk, “Brecht.”
“I know the line,” said Urtid.
The American toyed with his fork. “I’ve always felt that history must be taught in such a way that children are encouraged to critically interrogate their own genealogy. You can’t just teach history, you have to instil a sense of historicity with it. You can’t just teach about the leaders, you have to teach the people. Don’t you agree, Urtid? How do you manage it?”
“I help my pupils pass their history baccalaureates so they can go on to be productive members of society,” said Urtid. “I thought that was the whole point.”
The French philosopher looked up from her wine-glass. “You know, I agree,” she said. “It is. You all speak as if the past is recoverable, as if you can disinter a trace of true critical history from beneath the technological regime of archival inscription. It’s as epistemologically rigid as the people who set Urtid’s curriculum. You’d substitute one meta-narrative for another. The past is dead, gentlemen. So why not just teach kings and dates and battles? So people are free to concentrate on life and joy and sex and what’s important to them.”
“And the war, then?” said Urtid. “The war didn’t happen either?”
“I’m sure it happened. But as Event, it can never be reduced to a narrative. The transcendent Truth of it may be out there, in the noumenon, but it will always be wreathed in shadow. I’m sorry, Lutine, baby. I know you try.” She laid a little stress on the words Event and Truth, as if to underline the fact that they were to be read with capital initials.
Urtid wanted to say: the transcendent Truth of it is that, not far from where you’re sitting, thousands of bones lie, not wreathed in shadow but buried in the sand; if you doubt that, we can go and dig them up. I know some of their names. But he didn’t.
“Not at all,” said Lutine. “My novel is a symbol. It just so happens that its events took place. And I’m sure my brother Urtid here can attest to that.”
Urtid had been sitting uncomfortably throughout dinner. He’d thought it was just the company, but looking in the mirror back in his hotel room, he discovered that he had an enormous spot on his arse, rising from its curve like an obscenely swollen nipple, its dull red areola fading smoothly into his pallid skin. For some reason it made him think of Mathilde. He missed her; not just for her obscenely swollen nipples, but for her company. He missed the meals they ate together, not speaking too much these days, languid in the comfortable silence of their shared disappointment. It was odd: she’d convinced him to go to the book launch when he’d been reluctant, but as soon as the plane had touched down in Khalatiqa City she’d got cold feet. He should go on to al-Emlekh Mehbl, she would only get in the way, she wasn’t much of a literary type anyway. Maybe she was scared of Boko Seke. Urtid imagined his wife drifting through the souks of the city, her fat hands trailing along colourful fabrics. He saw her reclining in a little café, drinking mint tea and watching rickshaw-drivers flit past. It was a comforting image. Maybe he could go downstairs and use the hotel’s phone to call her at the Hilton. He decided against it. He didn’t want to disturb her sleep, and besides, it would be something for him to look forward to.

Urtid had met Mathilde not long after the first day of battle at al-Emlekh Mehbl. Running blind through the burning tanks, he’d caught a piece of shrapnel in the shoulder; nothing serious, but enough to get him sent to a hospital camp a few miles from the front. There, where the constant thudding of artillery was nicely drowned out by the clattering of trolleys and the snoring of the other invalids, he amused himself trying to seduce the nurses. Urtid spun his awkward three-minute fumblings with War into a grand poetic conquest for Mathilde’s entertainment, dreaming up tales of his valour and inhumanity set against a landscape drenched with blood and fire as she changed the dressing on his wound. She’d known that very little of it was true, but she was still enchanted; Urtid had a way with words, there was no doubt about that.
Mathilde was eighteen years old, and beautiful in a peasant-wench kind of way; he’d liked her soft pale skin and long supple legs, but beneath that she had an immense reservoir of kindness. She loved small animals and wounded men, almost without discrimination – she would coo and stroke a scarab beetle as affectionately as she would a kitten. She was happy, and wanted the people around her to be happy too; she had, she said, taken up medicine for no other reason than that she liked to see sick people get well again, and she was perplexed by Urtid’s sardonic laugh. She might have had some small buried desire for danger and excitement – she had, after all, joined a nursing unit in the middle of a warzone – but it was one that didn’t really want the company of someone tempestuous and wild so much as someone pretending to be tempestuous and wild – in other words, someone like Urtid Batset. It had been a game a first: Mathilde’s love for him was blatant and shameless; she was no good at concealing herself and seemed barely capable of understanding the concept of deceit. He, the poet, thought her a little prosaic; he mistook her all-encompassing kindness for simplicity. He’d play cruel tricks, talking about the other nurses’ charms and pretending not to notice the wounded expression that would flash across her face. When he did finally kiss her he did it roughly, grabbing her by the shoulders and pressing her against the cinderblock wall of the hospital, to see if she would still love him even if he were a brute. She did; he’d almost hoped she wouldn’t. He had killed a man, he was a monster. But in the days that followed he started to feel a profound gratitude. He couldn’t really be a monster: Mathilde was good and pure and she loved him, he must be good and pure as well. Mathilde was glad. She had finally made her libertine soldier-poet as happy as she was.
They were married soon afterwards; both of them felt somehow that it was the done thing. Mathilde sent a telegram home to her parents. Grudgingly conceding that Urtid’s family was respectable if not illustrious, her father gave them his blessing. (Urtid didn’t tell his mother.) He bought a silver ring from One-Eyed Al, a Khalatiqan who hung around the camp selling knickknacks and pornographic playing-cards. The wedding took place in a small tent that served as a chapel; the chaplain took time off from conducting the Last Rites over the beds of the wounded to officiate. His shirt still had the faint whiff of antiseptic and gangrene to it. They didn’t mind. Afterwards some of the other nurses hugged Mathilde and she cried; the officer in charge of the hospital camp congratulated Urtid with a few words mumbled through his moustache. The next day, by way of a wedding present, the government ordered that Mathilde’s division was to be redeployed to the home front.
“I expect you’ll have a gay old time back home,” Urtid said on the day she was to leave. “There’ll be plenty more soldier boys for you to play with.”
“Oh, don’t say those things,” she said. “You know I could never look at another man.”
“I know. I know.” Urtid smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she said, folding her arms around his neck. “Please be safe when I’m gone. Don’t do anything foolish. Don’t – don’t rush into the fight. Don’t do any of the silly things you love to do. Don’t – if I were to lose you… I’d…”
“I won’t. I could never. Not if it would hurt you.”
They were like that: idiots in love. A few hours later, Mathilde stepped onto the truck that would carry her away. She leaned out the back, blowing kisses, her cheeks red with tears. And soon after that Urtid went back to al-Emlekh Mehbl, to meet Lutine Dezoic.

ب

Urtid was woken early in the morning by a commotion in the hotel: the literary journalists were evacuating al-Emlekh Mehbl. Peering through his window he saw them swarming in front of the entrance below him, pushing past each other to get to the convoy of armoured cars that would take them back to the safety of Khalatiqa City. Urtid hadn’t expected it to be over so soon; he was booked into the Golden Oasis for another two nights. Some of the reporters were looking fretfully out into the desert, as if Boko Seke’s band of fanatics would appear at any moment to mow them all down. Beyond them, the resort town looked like an architect’s drawing, its pristine pathways and mathematically straight lines of palm trees utterly deserted. The oasis itself was only half full, a brownish puddle in a yellowish pit, receding to reveal the pipes the resort authorities used to keep it topped up. The swimming pools in the other hotels had been drained, the golf course at the edge of town was starting to wither into the sands. Urtid could see a single bird in the still-pinkish skies, an eagle or a vulture, its great broad wings buoyed upwards by the thermals rising from concrete roofs. He went downstairs for breakfast.
There were only a few people in the room – two West German war journalists wolfing down their Continental breakfasts, and Lutine.
“Urtid!” he exclaimed. “I’m so glad you haven’t left. Anton and I were going to drive out into the desert, to see the battlefield. To give one last salute to fallen comrades. You must join us. I’d be honoured.”
It wasn’t as if he had much else to do with the day; he hadn’t even brought any books apart from Lutine’s. The Poet of Peace and his boyfriend argued throughout the short but bumpy trip out to the minefields, Anton in an unceasing stream of babbling French, Lutine slower and more deliberately. Urtid didn’t understand a word, until as they crested a dune Lutine suddenly turned his head around and snapped, “Anton, non. Pas devant Monsieur Batset.”
That shut him up. For the rest of the journey, Anton was silent, making occasional reverential glances at Urtid. Eventually they drew up in a part of the desert that looked just like any other. A hazard sign in Khalatiqan warned of landmines.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been back here,” said Lutine. “When I was researching the novel, I travelled here several times. Can’t you feel it? The ghost of everything that happened in this place. It’s an almost religious feeling, I think.”
Urtid didn’t recognise it at all. There were some narrow grooves running through the ground where trenches had once been, but he found it impossible to map the place onto the site of his memories. The al-Emlekh Mehbl he remembered was full of noise and dust and people. This place was silent but for the winds that were hissing their way towards the resort, a tiny jumble of glassy buildings in the near distance.
“It’s so strange to think,” Lutine continued. “You and I slept here for months, mere metres from each other.”
Urtid was certain he had never before been to this place in this life.
Lutine kept on like that for a while: it was so strange that the two armies had spent months trying to advance across a patch of land that the two of them could stroll through in minutes, it was so strange that people had been peppered with bullets by men they might have quite liked had they met in other circumstances, it was so strange that it had all taken place for a cause so obscure that nobody could remember if it was just or not, it was so strange. As they walked over the former battlefield Urtid found it almost ridiculous that the excitable man next to him could be a world-famous poet. He was aware of Lutine Dezoic, of course – Mathilde had a few of his volumes, and she was no great reader; he knew that there were plenty in the literature faculty at the school who greatly admired his work. The poet had done noble things: he was forever jetting off to some impoverished malarial swamp made Hell on earth by the clunking gears of mechanised infantry and the callous disregard of roving mercenaries; he’d read out his pleas for peace and brotherhood in front of every gang of cold-eyed guerrillas on the planet. But at the same time, how come he, Urtid, had been forced by sober reality to put down his pen and concentrate on the far more important business of work and life and family, while Lutine was allowed to float off into international stardom? And what gave Lutine the right to dig up the bodies of his fallen comrades and turn them into his zombies, to make a hollow fictionalised marionette out of Urtid and pretend that he was somehow doing him a favour? It wasn’t as if there was any great difference between them. Some of Lutine’s wartime poetry had been, admittedly, quite powerful:

They had me digging graves today
A cushy job, and far away
From where the gunshots sound.
Eighty holes, all neat and square
For people still quite unaware
These pits will hold their bones.
And not far off, the bullets fly
So other men like me can die
– And so I can dig their graves.

There was one piece in particular, however, that stuck in his mind:

In a flash I see the furious swarm
Of fragments of iron and grains of sand
Swirling, arrange itself and transform
Into an ancient scene in a far distant land.
The thunder of guns drops dead! I hear
A funeral silence descending on me
And see a stag that stands without fear
By the sacred boughs of a silver birch tree.
Its leaves all lie scattered, but where they once hung
Hang thousands of men in khaki and green
Their eyes are all closed now, the songs are unsung
Of who they once were and who they could have been.
And the great stag is moved, and muzzles them down
Picking them softly from the old sacred tree
And where the men fall on the cold frosty ground
Their eyes fall open, and they play, wild and free.
Then they take up their guns and form into lines
And hoist up their colours in azure and red
In the tumult their bullets rip across the tree-shrine
The stag is struck, and falls down dead.
And then a voice calls to me through the ages
Dissolving the tree and the holy dead stag.
“Get up, you bastard! – he’s been knocked to blazes.
He’s in need of a bandage – pass me that rag.”

Urtid hadn’t understood what it meant, and he’d said so. Lutine, in his reply, had told him that the poem was based on the pre-Christian mythology of their race, the story of the Tree of Souls and the stag-god Hëtyg who plucked the righteous from that tree and carried them off to the next world. Still Urtid had struggled to make sense of it: did Lutine mean that because of their obscure little war, nobody would ever again get into Heaven? Was he blaming the common soldiers for continuing to fight and kill each other, as if the war was somehow their fault? And besides, he got the sneaking feeling that Lutine actually rather liked the war, because its horrors offered him the opportunity to sink into deep meditations on how awful the whole business was, pseudopacifist ramblings about holy stags and sacred birch trees. He liked to talk about War a lot, in the abstract, he had less interest in the actual business of war itself.
At the same time, Urtid had been more than a little in awe of Lutine at the time. Next to Lutine’s his own works had always seemed crude, their backs bent under the weight of the here and now. One of his wartime pieces, for instance:

Bury me in the oasis’s thick slime
Bury me under the white desert sun
Give me no prayers, no church bell’s dull chime
Bury me deep, and don’t tell my mum.

Or another one he’d written, entitled To the Enemy:

Our sergeant-major’s a fucking cunt
He barks and squeals, the little runt
When you o’erwhelm our front
I hope you shoot him dead.
I’ll be a thousand miles away
I’ll swim to Beirut or fly to Bombay
Leave him to be minced up in the fray
If I don’t, then please shoot me dead.

That had been the poem that started it all off. When Urtid returned from the hospital camp the initial giddy passion of the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl had settled down into a steady, grinding routine. The two armies had dug themselves firmly in and were busy pounding each other with artillery to little real gain (although they did occasionally contrive thoughtful little surprises for each other to keep the engagement from going stale). The barrages were near-constant. Every other second, somewhere along the front, a round was slamming into the dirt. You learnt to cope with the noise soon enough: in his dugout Urtid would let the earth-shattering thuds lull him to sleep; he imagined they were Red Thursday fireworks, or, as he drifted further into unconsciousness, that they were the rattling of a rocking-cradle or the thumps of motor-cars on a cobbled street. It was the sand that was intolerable. Each round sprayed vast volumes of the stuff into the air; rather than settling down it stayed up there, until it formed a huge cloud that cast a sepia monotone over the sky, obliterating any object more than an arm’s reach away, leaving them to fight in a constant twilight. The sand got in Urtid’s hair, in his eyes, in his mouth and nose; it added a savoury crunch to his food and prickled him awake at night. The dust infested every corner of his life; he wrote poems about it, even, because there was nothing else visible to write about. The sand was the real enemy, a monstrous roaring war-demon. The poor bastards in the other trenches were just there to be shot at; surely they had to contend with the sand as well.
There was one, brief, daily respite. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the night-gunners and the day-gunners switched shifts. For about half an hour an unofficial truce was declared. The sand-demon sunk back into its chthonic lair, and under the dimming sky the soldiers would have a few minutes to play cards or kick a ball about on the flat desert, until a throaty rumble from somewhere down the line had them running to fetch their helmets and rifles again. Urtid would make use of that time to write poetry. And, sometimes, he would read it out. The men would crowd round and listen: every trench had its poet, and people liked to be near them; it was assumed that, by some principle of astral justice, they would be certain to survive the war.
It was in such circumstances that Urtid presented his comrades with his poem To the Enemy. Throughout the whole ordeal the sergeant-major in question sat, grinning nervously. Urtid knew the man would have dearly loved to take him out into an empty trench and shoot him, but he was protected. The top brass, in their Principles of a Liberal-Democratic Military, had decreed that ‘all great art is by its nature transcendent and apolitical. For this reason, the free artistic expression of the soldiery is not to be interfered with unless it actively contradicts their duties as a soldier.’ The poor man even had to join in the light applause that followed.
“Lovely ditty,” he growled. “Very poetic, Private Batset.”
At that point, a cheer went out from the enemy trench, not a hundred metres away.
“Encore!” someone shouted.
That set the sergeant-major off. He fired his rifle into the air. “Enough! Where are the goddamn gunners? Get over here, you fuckers, your break’s over!” And the cannon started up again.
The next day a small metal cylinder was lobbed into Urtid’s trench from across the enemy lines. Instinctively, he ducked away from it, and spent about a minute crouching at a safe distance until it very conclusively failed to explode. As further inspection revealed, it was, in fact, an empty can of corned beef. Inside there was a note:

To the poet,
I very much enjoyed your piece last night. Allow me to present my feeble efforts in response.
Votre ennemi

Your sergeant-major’s the model of ours:
An impudent wretch with a stick up his arse.
Fastidiously ‘stached, with a pin in his hat
He spends his leave money on polish and wax.
I’d wish death on no-one, but if our line bends,
Please shoot the officer, and please spare your friend.

Thus began the correspondence between Urtid Batset and Lutine Dezoic.
Lutine never signed in his own name, like Urtid did, he always used l’ennemi or votre ennemi (and, towards the end, ton ennemi). His early jovial tone soon melted away; he started sending Urtid long poetic meditations on Man and War and Death, and similarly long exegeses on Urtid’s own works that never failed to discern the same themes: ‘What I think we share, my friend, is a sense of the sheer Absurdity of the fact that, were I to present myself at your trench for a chit-chat, you would be obliged to shoot me, & that the same holds true for you – I feel this is not an Absurdity contingent on this particular War, rather perhaps something innate in the Human Condition… we are rotten creatures, maybe at core, but I cannot help but love the human race, and in the humour of your poem I feel the germ of a similar Love.’ Urtid tried to keep pace; he even resorted to using the word ‘splendiferous.’ He didn’t show anyone their correspondence, of course: what he was doing hovered ambiguously around the edge of treason, and he’d no desire to give the sergeant-major an excuse to have him shot.
Their tiny poetry club had been a nice diversion from the messy business of war. When the messages suddenly stopped, Urtid agonised for a while. He was certain that he’d killed his fellow poet, that Lutine had been one of the dozens of men he’d turned into splats of mere matter with a thoughtless squeeze of his trigger; that would certainly have an appropriate poetic balance to it. It wasn’t until after the final victory at al-Emlekh Mehbl, an orgy of gore and smoke he had spent decades trying to forget, that Urtid managed to put his fallen collaborator out of his mind. Of course, before the victorious army had even made it to the enemy’s colonial capital their home defences had crumbled and their government had surrendered. Urtid was secretly glad. He was sent back, to Europe, to his home, to Mathilde. His writing had provided its function, it had let him survive the war. Sometimes, when Mathilde would remind him teasingly of the brooding poet he had been, he’d think of himself in that hospital bed, reading out tales of his deeds in iambic pentameter. He didn’t think of the trenches; he tried not to think of the trenches at all.
Or at least until an unexpected letter revealed to him that the man he had once known as l’ennemi had not only survived the war but was, in fact, none other than the world-renown award-winning poet Lutine Dezoic, that the fabled Poet of Peace had decided to base his first-ever novel on their historic encounter, an encounter that had been woven into a grand and rich narrative, the central thread of which was the love of peace and the love of all mankind, and that Urtid would be most welcome to attend the book launch as the author’s guest, at al-Emlekh Mehbl, in Khalatiqa, where they had once been enemies.

That night in the hotel, Urtid opened The Sand and the Wildflower again, wondering exactly what Lutine had made of their encounter. He flicked through until he found the name of Jostin Batrica, his surrogate:

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Griseld said. “When the sun sets, and you can see that the desert isn’t white at all, it’s a thousand shades of amber and red, it just needs the right light… you can almost forget that we’re at war here.” She let out a long sigh. “You can feel yourself melting away into it.”
“It is,” said Jostin. “It’s beautiful.”
They were walking with linked elbows around the main hospital building. Slowly, Griseld’s hand slid down Jostin’s arm and clasped his own, stroking his rough skin with its pale sensuousness. She gazed at him, her eyes burning with all the unspoken nakedness of her tender love. “If only people could see this as we do… if only people could just stand and watch it, if only they came to this place for its beauty and not to kill each other…”
Jostin couldn’t stand to see her like this; he couldn’t stand to see her frail little body giving itself over to him so willingly and so pleadingly. Suddenly he pushed her up against the wall of the hospital. She let out a little gasp. He kissed her, not tenderly, as he wished he could, but roughly, as a bawd, tugging her plaits with one hand, pressing his hips against her squirming frame…

He turned a few pages.

…her freckled forearms, her large brown nipples, the swelling sea of white flesh below, dimpled just above her navel…

Urtid slammed the book shut. He’d never mentioned Mathilde once to Lutine, he’d certainly never told anyone about that kiss. How could he know? What on earth was going on?

Urtid and Mathilde had moved out of the capital a long time ago. Their nation’s second city was so much more accommodating: property was cheap, there were fewer immigrant kids blasting out dreadful American-inflected music (not that they were racialists, anything but: Urtid had always voted Socialist, he had an impeccable record), the countryside was always close at hand. Whenever he was fantasising about strangling one of his pupils a little too fixatedly, or whenever his and Mathilde’s silence in front of the TV slipped from comfort into awkwardness, he’d take out his dinky little Japanese motor-car and go out driving. Humming down the two-lane highways that wound along the coastal cliffsides, he had a strange feeling – not peace, exactly; not contentment, because he already had that; something like disassociation. The wheels would spin round and the tarmac would roll by underneath, it was as if he didn’t need to be there at all. He felt as if he were utterly passive in his own existence, like some kind of omniscient narrator that could callously observe his life without ever being particularly involved. Sometimes he’d wonder what it would be like to deliberately miss a turning, for the car to plunge out from the cliffside into the glittering waters, for him to rejoin his long-lost ancestors in the sea.
The Golden Oasis offered a car-rental service. Urtid took one out the next morning.
The clerk had a pained expression as he filled out the paperwork. “You are driving to Khalatiqa City?” he said.
“Oh, no. I thought I’d just explore the local area a bit.”
The clerk drew out a map. “From al-Emlekh Mehbl there are two roads. Highway twelve goes north, direct to Khalatiqa City. Then to the south, you can go to Masdat. Here, by highway eighteen. Masdat is safe to go. But you should not go any south from Masdat. That place is Boko Seke’s.”
“What’s Masdat like?”
He shrugged. “I’ve never been. I am from Khalatiqa City. There is a big oil refinery, I think. The drive is three hours to get there. But you must be back here by night. No roads are safe at night. Not even highway twelve.”
As Urtid pulled out from the hotel’s car park, he noticed a black man in a business suit standing on a street corner, staring fixedly at him. Hotel security, he reasoned – although he’d never seemed him before, and all the other employees he’d met in al-Emlekh Mehbl had been Arabs. In any case, the infinite monotony of the White Desert quickly put it out of his mind. The place was aptly named. It had no mountains, no gorges, not even many dunes, only the continual black triangle of highway eighteen and the line of electricity pylons running alongside it.
There was no reason to go all the way to Masdat, he decided. He could drive for an hour, maybe, until he felt better, and then just turn the car around. With that decided, he tried to slip away into his familiar driving trance, but something held him back. The question was like an itch in his brain. How had Lutine known about him and Mathilde? Did he have a poet’s telepathy? Could it be that he had just guessed?
Another car was speeding towards him in the hazy distance. Without warning, it pulled up sideways, blocking the highway. Urtid braked sharply in front of it and pounded his horn. The other car’s door sprung open. A single shot shattered his windscreen. Suddenly men in balaclavas and military fatigues surrounded him. Urtid felt paralysed, as he had when he’d first killed a man at al-Emlekh Mehbl. There were shouts: Allahu akhbar! It was as if he were underwater. It was all so far away. As the bag went over his head he thought: this isn’t happening. This is Lutine, this is something he’s contrived, this is something he’s planned to teach me how to love humanity.

ت

When the hood was pulled off Urtid found himself tied to a plastic chair in a windowless concrete room lit by a single flickering bulb. His face was clammy with sweat, it was heavy in his moustache, its salt burned in his eyes. He was certain the spot on his arse had popped. Two men in balaclavas stood in front of him.
“Lutine Dezoic,” said one. “You are a prisoner of the Armed Islamic Group for the Propagation of Virtue. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa.” This was said with a jolting cadence, as if it had been learned by rote.
It took a moment for the splinters of what had been said to rearrange themselves in Urtid’s mind. What had they called him? “I’m not Lutine Dezoic,” he said.
The world went dark again. Someone kicked against the chair. Urtid’s head slammed against the floor with a sharp crack. A spasm of ice-cold pain rippled across his skull.
“I’m not Lutine Dezoic!” shouted Urtid. “Please believe me! You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not Lutine Dezoic. My name is Urtid Batset and I’m-”
The chair was righted. Off came the hood. “Lutine Dezoic. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa.”
“Please – please listen-”
The hood was pulled back on. This time when he was kicked down Urtid braced himself; it didn’t hurt any less. He felt dizzy as he was pulled up again.
“Lutine Dezoic-”
“It’s not me,” Urtid whimpered. “It’s not. I’m not Lutine Dezoic.”
One of the balaclavas leaned in to him. “If again you interrupt me, I will shoot you. You understand, yes?”
Urtid nodded his assent.
“You are Lutine Dezoic. You have been brought here to answer for your crimes against the people of Khalatiqa. You understand, yes?”
Urtid nodded again. “But I’m not Lutine,” he mumbled.
“If you are not Lutine Dezoic, then why should I not just shoot you now?”
Urtid could taste the blood in his mouth. “You’re going to shoot me anyway.”
A callow laugh. “Maybe I will.”
He kicked Urtid down again, on the other side this time. When he opened his eyes Urtid saw that the two men had left. He struggled a bit against his bounds. The rope cut into his wrist; he soon gave up. Was this Lutine’s idea of a joke? Why couldn’t he have stayed in al-Emlekh Mehbl? Why couldn’t he have remained in Khalatiqa City with Mathilde? Why couldn’t he have refused the publisher’s invitation and stayed at home? Why couldn’t he have just fought his war like a normal soldier? Why in God’s name did he have to write poetry about it?

When Urtid woke he had a dead arm, and his hair was clotted to the ground with blood. He’d been untied, at least. The room was long and narrow, narrow enough for him to trail his hands along both crumbling walls. A chamber-pot crouched in one corner, with a few rolls of toilet paper. A window had been bricked in; a few shards of charcoal were scattered on the windowsill. He paced up and down for a while. It was odd: he’d lost his terror all of a sudden, now he was just bored, distantly bored. It was almost like driving alone on the roads around his hometown, except now he knew exactly what was going to happen: whatever happened here, he would not leave his cell alive. Until then, it was almost like a game.
He was fed, eventually, through a hatch in the door. No Khalatiqan specialities: he had two slices of white bread and a beaker of cold tinned potato soup. Maybe, he thought, they were trying to accommodate his cultural preferences. After he finished eating the guards came in and beat him again.
“What is your name?” they shouted.
“Urtid Batset,” he said.
It went on like that for quite some time. Every time he’d insist that he was not Lutine Dezoic. He wasn’t even sure himself why he kept on denying it. Part of him was scared that as soon as they’d forced an admission out of him, Boko Seke’s men would cut his head off and leave him by the side of the road. But at the same time he was just stubborn. Not only was he emphatically not Lutine Dezoic, he frankly couldn’t stand the man.

Urtid soon lost track of days. He gave up pacing after a while; it didn’t help. He missed his wife. Sometimes he’d sob a little, before he slept, but mostly he just sat in a kind of rather agreeable boredom. He marked out his meals with a tally in charcoal just below the windowsill, because he felt somehow as if that was what one did when one had been imprisoned, but he didn’t get much satisfaction out of it. In any case, the meals and beatings seemed to be spaced out entirely randomly.
He had been fed eighty-six times when he found himself one day being visited, not by the two masked guards, but by a tall thin black man in a long white robe.
“So,” the man said as he entered. “It appears you seem to have forgotten who you are.” Seeing Urtid’s averted gaze, he crouched down next to him. “Oh, you can look at me. I’m just here for a chat. You’d do better to save your shame for God, Mr Dezoic.” He stood up again. “I must say I’m rather disappointed in you. We had this room set up very carefully – the toilet paper, the bits of charcoal, all of this so you could write a few furtive lines of touching genius… and yet you’ve not penned a word. Hardly the behaviour that behoves a world-famous poet, I must say. I was quite looking forward to reading your works. They do say peril hones a man’s creative talents, after all.”
“I’m not Lutine Dezoic.”
“So I hear! Except if you were not Lutine Dezoic, that would mean that I had made a mistake, wouldn’t it? And I do not make mistakes. You know who I am, I take it?”
The man was unmistakeable. His seven foot frame, his designer sunglasses, his carefully honed accent – Urtid had seen his image dozens of times, in newspapers, on the TV. “You’re Boko Seke,” he said.
“I am Abdulrahman al-Ghadeb ibn Saleh ibn Mohammed al-Khalatiqi. Commonly known, yes, as Boko Seke. You know, when I was at Stanford, I briefly took an interest in this kind of thing. Cryptopsychology and paraneurology and so on. Some most extraordinary case histories. One poor fellow was convinced he had a twin brother that was being kept secret from him. Or another, who was adamant that all his friends and family had been replaced with lifelike automata… of course, the one clinical lesson that was always underlined was this: you must never directly confront the patient with anything that contradicts their delusion. Doing so can cause untold psychological harm. But you’re not my patient, Mr Dezoic. You’re my prisoner. So I had one of my people nip up to al-Emlekh Mehbl and bring back this.”
He lightly tossed an English-language edition of The Sand and the Wildflower at Urtid’s feet. The young Lutine stared out from the front. “I didn’t write this.”
“Look in the inside cover,” said Boko Seke.
On the inside flap was a short biography of the author: Lutine Dezoic is an award-winning poet, vegetarian advocate, and peace activist living in Paris. His works have been translated into over 50 languages. The Sand and the Wildflower is his first novel. And above that, a photo, in which a man he recognised instantly was trying to pull a sympathetic face, making the best out of his sagging cheeks and sunken eyes and untidy moustache.
“Do we need to fetch you a mirror?” said Boko Seke.
He shook his head, silently.
“What is your name?”
Batset, he wanted to say. Urtid Batset. He felt as if he was going to throw up.
“I said, what is your name?”
“Lutine,” he managed. “Lutine Dezoic.”
“And who wrote this book you have in front of you?”
He couldn’t remember writing it. He tried to picture himself sitting down at a typewriter, ensconcing himself away for days on end, emerging months later having written a novel – it was an absurd image. “I did.”
Boko Seke smiled. “Good. Good.” He looked almost cherubic under his sunglasses. A distant hope rose – maybe this was it, maybe he’d be let go now. Suddenly the two balaclava’d men rushed through the door. One kicked him in the seat of his belly; a little splash of vomit burst through his lips. Boko Seke whirled on him, roaring: “And does that not make you responsible for its contents?”
The poet gasped. “I- I-”
“I would like to read a little section from your little story,” Boko Seke said, adjusting his turban. “If you’ll permit me. I found it deeply touching.” He picked up the book and flicked through it. “Ah – here we are. Near the end. Your army is in retreat from the Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl. A sorry band, their spirits broken by the terrors of war. Dreadful business. And you write: The enemy were to find no shelter or supplies on their march West. On the fourth day, we chanced across an anonymous village, its adobe buildings, consanguineous with the blistering sands, bleached by the sun until they seemed little arches and domes of the desert, formed by the atelic winds. Again.” The guard landed another kick on the poet’s stomach. “Wearily we loaded the shells into our artillery guns, and swivelled their hungry mouths, internecine voids that spit metal and suck life, towards the village. After we were done – Again!” This time the guard’s foot landed on his chest. The poet spluttered. “After we were done,” Boke Seke continued, “I and a few other men were sent down into the ruins to dispatch the villagers’ livestock. The goats looked at me, not with pleading in their eyes, but with an angelic animal incomprehension. Even as I pulled the trigger, one delicate creature, barely a kid, lifted his baby-pink snout lovingly up to my hand, expecting food and love and all the kindness I was capable of giving. Instead, my gunshot sounded across the broad valley. We burned the goats on a pyre, a monstrous monument to the inhumanity of which we, alone among the animals, are capable.”
Boko Seke swooped down on the poet and seized his hand by the knuckles, slowly crushing it. “That was not an anonymous village, Mr Dezoic. That was the town of Mafeké. That was your country’s very own Oradour-sur-Glane. But the inhabitants only had themselves to blame, am I right? They should have written little poems for you. They should have looked at you with the credulousness of a baby goat. Then, maybe, their deaths might have prompted a nice little bout of soul-searching in your nice little book.”

Time passed.

When Boko Seke next visited he was carrying a silver tray with two glasses of tea and a copy of The Sand and the Wildflower. He sat down crossed-legged in front of the poet.
“You are a writer,” he said. “Well, I like to think of what I do as a kind of literary criticism. Criticism with Kalashnikovs, maybe. You know, when my father sent me off to university, I expected to study engineering or geology. Something that would help with his business. I expect you know about my father’s riches. This man, Saleh ibn Mohammed, grew up in a tent in the desert. I was born in a tent in the desert. He had a few goats, and a few camels, and he went from place to place, until he chanced upon the biggest oilfield in North Africa. But when he decamped to Khalatiqa City and bought himself a nice mansion there, nobody cared that he was the fifth richest man in the country. There are families up there who say they can trace their lineage to the Prophet. To them, he was just another nigger from the south, you understand. So he insisted: I would go to Oxford, and I would study literature, and I would learn to quote Shakespeare. And so now I can quote Shakespeare.” For a moment the poet expected Boko Seke to extend a thespian hand and read out a line from King Lear to demonstrate. Instead he nodded vaguely and continued. “Baliol College. Have you ever been to Oxford, Mr Dezoic? I expect so. I have fond memories of the place, I suppose. It was all rather confusing at first. Try explaining subfusc to a boy from a desert tribe. And nobody ever told me that you’re not supposed to eat with your hands at formal dinner. Of course, I ended up with a rather odd group of people. People who could quote Shakespeare very well, if they chose to, but spent most of their time quoting Lenin instead, despite him being nowhere near as good a writer… these days the only book I study is the Qur’an. It can’t be translated into your language, Mr Dezoic. When it’s translated it is no longer the Qur’an… but in the Arabic there is such beauty. All the poetry of this Earth is not equal to a single line from the word of God. It’s not equal to a single dot over a single letter.” Boko Seke stared into the distance, faintly smiling. The poet opened his mouth. “But,” said Boko Seke, snapping his head back round. “Still I like to maintain something of the analytic approach I learned out in Oxford and Stanford. Have you heard this idea that Western civilisation is a discourse, that it’s structured like a text? I rather like it. And, of course, it is a text surrounded with helicopter gunships and nuclear weapons. They’re part of the whole discourse. So what I’m doing, here in Khalatiqa, is fundamentally hermeneutic. I am writing a particularly scathing review of Western civilisation.” Boko Seke took a sip from his tea. “Still a little too hot,” he said.
“They’ll look for me,” said the poet. “If I’m Lutine Dezoic, people will look for me.”
“I should hope so,” said Boko Seke. “After all, your book was very well reviewed.” He picked up the book from the tray. The poet flinched.
“I have it bookmarked somewhere,” said Boko Seke. “Here we are. I wonder what on Earth possessed you to write this line. For all the flowery pronouncements of our leaders, we had ended up rolling in the sand of Khalatiqa like brute savages. Interesting little opposition there, don’t you think? Well, as disappointed as Professor Masseline would be, I’ll defer to the author. Is this true, do you think?”
The poet thought of his dinner in al-Emlekh Mehbl, with his friends: the fat Englishman and the skinny American and the Frenchwoman who had said that the war had never happened. She and Boko Seke were the same, when you got down to it. “Were you there?” he said. “Were you there during the war?”
“I was a boy,” said Boko Seke. “We were pastoralists. I didn’t even know it was happening.”
“Then you don’t know what it was like. What he wrote – what I wrote – it’s true. We were like savages there.”
“Have you ever met a savage? That’s what the Arabs up in Khalatiqa City thought my father was. But it’s strange. His tribe never fired artillery shells. They never tried to kill thousands of people with poison gas. Oh, we’d fight our little wars, and kill each other sometimes, but never quite so gleefully as your tribe. What you don’t seem to understand, Mr Dezoic, is that your flowery pronouncements and your bestial warfare are the same thing. You should have written: we rolled in the sand like civilised men.”
The poet crouched over, expecting the guards to come through and underline Boko Seke’s point with another beating. Instead the man stood up and made for the door. “I’ve enjoyed this little chat,” he said, taking up the glasses of tea, leaving the book. “It’s nice to talk with another man of letters.”

In the days that followed the poet’s moustache drooped over his lips; he started to grow a tangled beard; his teeth grew loose. Occasionally he tried to remember himself writing The Sand and the Wildflower. There was a long chapter describing his convalescence at the hospital camp, packed with tiny details only he and Mathilde knew. Only he could have written it. But still he didn’t much like the book: he didn’t like the prose, he didn’t like the dialogue, he didn’t like the endless sermonising about love for all humanity and the endless moralising about peace. It was all very pretentious. Boko Seke was right: it wasn’t a very good book. Well, maybe he, Lutine Dezoic, wasn’t a very good writer. Even so, there was something perplexing about it. The novel seemed to point to some secret truth that its own author couldn’t quite understand. If he had seduced Mathilde, who was the man he had written poetry with across the trenches? Could it be that the reason he didn’t remember writing the book could be found in the book itself? In any case, after a few weeks in that concrete room the outside world started to seem like a fantasy. He had been at a book launch in al-Emlekh Mehbl, he was sure of it, but whether or not he had an apartment in Paris and a shelf of literary awards was anyone’s guess. The only window to the brightness outside his cell was The Sand and the Wildflower, and the view it gave wasn’t a very clear one.
The guards still beat him occasionally, but half-heartedly. They weren’t feeding him much either; the poet could soon loop his thumb and index finger around his wrist. It had seemed as if Boko Seke wanted to give the poet some kind of moral instruction, he had some kind of plan for him. Perhaps – and this was suddenly a terrifying thought – he had been killed. Only Boko Seke seemed to know what was going on. Only Boko Seke seemed to understand The Sand and the Wildflower. Without him he could starve without ever learning the truth.

When Boko Seke did finally return the poet wanted to leap up and embrace the man. He didn’t, though: he was carrying another tray, once again with two glasses of tea and a book.
“I’d like to talk with you about peace, if you’ll allow me,” he said. “I have several half-brothers up in Khalatiqa City, you know, fourteen or fifteen – it’s hard to remember. My father’s tribe is monogamous, but he did try so hard to fit in with the locals after my mother died… My half-brothers are men of peace as well. You might have seen them. They’re forever giving interviews to the Western media, talking about how I’m a mad dog and I must be stopped, about how the kleptocrats up in Khalatiqa need more tanks and more fighter planes – for the sake of peace, you understand, for the sake of peace. I don’t think they believe a word of it, to be honest. They just want to see me crushed, so they can go back to their yachts and their girlfriends. All they know is that your people are always very receptive to talk of peace. Rather odd, isn’t it, don’t you think? Europeans spend several centuries making war against just about everyone else on the face of the planet – but then you have your Somme, your Stalingrad, your al-Emlekh Mehbl, and suddenly the whole world has to know how important it is to make peace. And so you, Mr Dezoic – you go flying off across the world to tell people about peace. You stand there in a suit and a wristwatch and tell people who have to fight just to stay alive that they should practice peace. You come here, to Khalatiqa, and try to tell me about peace. Do you know what I call that?”
“It’s arrogant,” said the poet. He hesitantly reached out to take a sip of the tea. Boko Seke nodded. It was warm and very sweet and very good. “It’s condescending, it’s arrogant…”
“True,” said Boko Seke. “But most of all, it’s symptomatic of a culture in terminal decline. You see this book here?” He picked up the small volume lying on the tray. “This book was written by a man called Yusuf Benaziza. He’s a Cyrenaican, I think, but he lives in your country now – in fact, he represents a district in your country at the Senate of Europe. And like you, he’s written a nice little book. This one is called Jihad: the Abuse of an Idea. And this man, who calls himself a Muslim, is trying to argue that jihad has nothing to do with guns and swords, that it’s all about the inner battle against impure thoughts… he wants to turn Islam into Buddhism, something nice and friendly that your people can digest easily. He wants to demonstrate that Muslims are not at all like Sayyid Qutb or like Abu Nidal or, well, like me. And he has to do this because your people have no stomach for the Absolute any more. As soon as someone comes up to you with a single transcendent truth, you call him a madman. Instead you have all these little contingencies, these tiny maybe-truths. Freedom – but not too much. Democracy – through elected officials. Peace. You lived through war, Mr Dezoic. Wasn’t it the truest thing you ever did?”
The poet found himself bursting into laughter. “I spent half the war writing poetry,” he said through his tears. “I wrote poetry…”
“There’s still hope for you. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I’d like that.”
“You can do something for me.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Boko Seke sniffed. “Oh, there’s no point. You’re weak. You’re far too weak. An old man who watches TV. A man who spent his war writing poetry. It’s sickening. But do you know what sickens me most of all? What you did to Urtid Batset. What you did to his wife. What you didn’t describe in your book. How could you?”
“How could I do what?” said the poet.
“You know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do,” said Boko Seke. “You know what you did at the end of the war.” He stood up to leave.
“I don’t know! What did I do to him? What did I do?”
He continued shouting like that long after the door had clanged shut.

When the poet next awoke, the door to his cell had been left wide open and he found himself dressed in clean clothes: a white shirt and khaki trousers. A small .22 revolver was lying on a cloth next to him. It was loaded. He sat in the corner of the room, watching the sunlight on the concrete floor of the hallway outside, watching the little whorls of hot air rising. There were sounds, too – the faint buzzing of a hundred conversations, impossibly distant. He was in some kind of trap, he was certain of it. He checked the gun again, and lunged for the door.
Through a dust-caked window, the real world shone. The compound where he was being kept was in a small desert town – maybe he was in Masdat: the hazy rounded outlines of distillation towers rose up above the sand-coloured buildings outside. Past them, visible in the cracks between houses, was the endlessness of the White Desert. In the square outside the window people were passing, pulling carts and barrows. Two fighters in turbans stood across the square in the shade of an awning, their guns propped against a wall. If they noticed him peering at him they didn’t do anything about it. The corridor bent around the poet’s cell. His fist white around the revolver’s grip, he half-walked, half-crawled around the corner.
There, in a small room whose door opened out to the street, was Boko Seke. He was kneeling on a carpet, facing away from the poet. “Ah, he said, not turning around. “Urtid. You’re awake. You’re free to go, if you want. There’s a car that will take you back to Khalatiqa City.”
The poet steadied himself on the doorframe. “Urtid?” he said.
“Oh, we know who you are. It was an unfortunate necessity, I’m afraid. You have the gun, I take it?”
The poet raised it to Boko Seke’s head. He pulled back the hammer.
“If you want,” said Boko Seke. He turned, finally, to look at the poet. He was smiling, that same faint transcendent smile he had worn when talking about the Qur’an.
“No,” said the poet. “I don’t.” Still he didn’t put the gun down. “Why me? If you wanted Lutine Dezoic, why not just take him?”
“What does it mean if I kill the Poet of Peace? Nothing, nothing at all. I’m a man of violence, after all. But if you do it… if the subject of The Sand and the Wildflower does it…”
“I’d have done it anyway. You only had to ask.”
“You wouldn’t. We had to tear you out of yourself. Your car’s waiting, Mr Batset.”
The poet turned to leave. “One thing,” he said. “Do you love humanity?”
“Yes,” said the terrorist. “Yes I do. I really do.”
Madness shone in his eyes, bright and all-consuming.

ث

Highway twelve was packed. On one side of the road, a sorry slow-moving train of refugees, in dented cars and donkey-carts. Some carried bales of hay, some had all their possessions wrapped up in carpets or tarpaulins, some had rifles slung over their shoulders. A few small herds of sheep and goats plodded by the roadside.
Moving in the other direction, an endless column of tanks.
“They’re going to fight you?” said Urtid.
“The apostates will try to fight us, yes,” said the driver. “There will be a second Battle of al-Emlekh Mehbl. We will win.”

ج

It was night by the time they arrived in Khalatiqa City.
“You must go,” said the driver. He’d pulled into an alley in what looked like an industrial district, all blocky apartment blocks and empty lots surrounded by wire-mesh fencing. The streetlamps flickered. The engine was still running; the headlights lit up a triangle of rocky ground between two boarded-up buildings. “Curfew is in twenty minutes.”
“Curfew? There wasn’t a curfew before.”
“The Army overthrew the government last month. Now it is curfew at nine hours and thirty. We know your wife is still at the Hilton, room twelve three three. It is a few blocks south of here. You must go now. Ma’assalama.”
His wife. Urtid had almost forgotten her face; he’d been convinced he was someone else for so long. She would be pink and round and infinitely comforting, she smelled faintly of soap and she loved him. Urtid walked, half in a daze, down the middle of the potholed street; through the hum of electricity substations, the grunts of old men and chirps of scrawny boys peering through windows, the rising sound of insects in the lime trees whose roots buckled the paving stones. Rising up in front of him was the gaptoothed skyline of Khalatiqa City’s New Town. Through one of the windows in one of those towers, he knew, Mathilde was waiting.
As he crossed over the bridge leading into the central business district he saw the soldiers; five or six of them. He slowed his pace; one of them flashed a torch in his face and waved him on. He muttered something in Khalatiqan. Urtid thought he heard his own name. No matter. He limped on. The Hilton was ghostly-pale in the dark, its windows unlit, but still glowing faintly. There were cars now on the roads, and trucks full of soldiers. “Hezir taja’ul!” they shouted. “Curfew, curfew!” No matter. Across the big roundabout that surrounded the hotel. Through the doors, into the lift. And then, in the intermittent fluorescent light, the numbers on the door. He knocked.

And there was Mathilde in her nightdress. He stared, mute. “Urtid?” she said. “My God, Urtid… is it you?”
“Mathilde,” he said. “I-”
“Tiddy!” She wrapped her arms around him. Urtid buried his face in her shoulder. He could feel the pain in his lacerated skin and bruised bones receding, fading away into his big cushion of a wife. He could have slept there. “I thought I’d lost you,” she said. “I thought I’d lost you forever.” And then, drawing herself back, “But what did they do to you? Your face! And you’re so thin!”
“They broke me,” said Urtid. “I forgot who I was. They made me forget who I was.”
Mathilde drew her into the candlelit room. “I’m making you a drink,” she said. “Because you look like you need one. And then you’re to go straight to bed. And tomorrow you can tell me what happened.” She knelt down in front of the minibar. “There’s no ice… there’s not been much power since the Army took charge.”
The whiskey stung the cuts on Urtid’s lips and inside his cheeks, but he drunk it down. Mathile helped him take off his shoes. And then there was the bed, with its soft quilt and cotton sheets, and his wife curled up against him, surrounding him, and the steady tug of sleep. He was safe.

When Urtid awoke it must have been late afternoon: the light peeking in above the curtains was already a solemn crepuscular orange. Mathilde wasn’t in the room. As he fumbled on the floor for his clothes Urtid brushed one hand against his trousers, meeting the coiled hardness of the revolver in its pocket. He took it into the bathroom. The light inside wasn’t working, but the hotel staff had provided a box of matches and two candles with the Hilton logo stamped into them. He lit one, then put down the toilet-lid and sat down, cradling the thing in his hands. There was something he was meant to do. He knew what it was. He was going to walk out onto the balcony and fling the gun away, he decided. Then he and his wife would go home, and he would never think of Khalatiqa or Boko Seke or The Sand and the Wildflower again as long as he lived. The whole horrid business would be just like the war: something that had happened, something that couldn’t be made to un-happen, but something that would be spoken of as little as possible. He had decided. So why was it so hard for him to stand up and walk out the bathroom? Why was the revolver still in his hands?

The hot water, at least, was still working, and after a long shower Urtid felt a little better. Mathilde was there when he came out. She kissed him on the forehead, and showed him the dinner she’d brought up from the restaurant: beef and parsnips, the gravy was ersatz but still Urtid ate until he felt his gut stretching. And then, after a little prompting, he began to try to tell her about everything that had happened – but instead he found himself lying. He told his wife about being kidnapped on the road to Masdat, about the cell he’d been kept in, about being beaten. She winced with him, and cried, and said, “Oh, my brave man,” with a hand on her chest. But he didn’t tell her that he’d met Boko Seke, or that they’d let him go. He’d escaped, and hidden in the cart of some refugees carrying all they owned up to Khalatiqa City. He wondered why.
“We’ll have to phone the police here,” she said afterwards. “And tell them that you’re OK, And Lutine, of course.”
“Lutine?”
“Of course. He’s been brilliant, he’s been here in Khalatiqa the whole time. He’s set up this whole campaign, the Urtid Batset Appeal. Meeting with all these ambassadors and ministers and getting all his famous friends to write letters. He’s hardly stopped…”
Lutine. Suddenly everything was coming together.
“He introduced me to General Taleb, and the radio says all this stuff about him doing a coup and overthrowing democracy, but he really did seem like such a nice man, and so concerned about you…”
Lutine. Boko Seke was right, Urtid thought; he had no stomach for the Absolute, to be honest he wouldn’t know the Absolute if it hit him in the face, but still he had his pride. Boko Seke and Lutine Dezoic might love humanity, but he loved his wife. “Did you sleep with him?” he said.
She laughed. “I don’t think the General’d be much interested in me. He’d probably have a harem, I’ve no doubt, one of those things-”
“Not the general,” Urtid said. “You know who I’m talking about. Lutine.”
She had to suppress a little gasp. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean,” she said. “You must be so confused…”
“But you did. You did. Before. And he didn’t- it wasn’t… you wanted to.”
“Tiddy, I don’t know where you got this idea,” Mathilde said. But her brow was cracking; she’d never been any good at lying.
Urtid sat down on the end of the bed. “Please, Mathilde. Just tell me. I know you did.”
Mathilde burst. Her words came out in a rattling sob, she half-kneeled in front of him. “Oh Urtid, I was so scared… I was only a girl, and there were shells landing everywhere, all over the city, and people were talking about a last noble stand… and then there were all these soldiers on the streets, and I thought we were all going to die, I thought you’d already died… and they took us all to this prison camp, I thought we’d be shot. And this young officer comes up to me and says, Batset, that’s a very unusual name, isn’t it? I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’re a relation of Urtid’s? And he was so kind, and so good to me. He took me out of the camp and found me somewhere to stay, and he was always so interested, he wanted to know all about you and how we’d met and what you were like, he noted it all down in a little book, he said he’d be famous one day, he said he’d met you in Africa but that he didn’t know what had happened to you. And then…” Mathilde’s hands trembled. “When he tried to kiss me I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. And when they signed the treaty I never heard from him again. I was a girl, Tiddy, I was only a girl…”
“You kept his books in our house. You let me come out here and meet him without telling me what he’d done.”
“Please don’t be angry.”
“I’m not,” said Urtid. And it was odd: he wasn’t, he wasn’t angry at all. He just knew what he had to do. He stood up and went for the door.
“Where are you going?” said Mathilde.
“I’m not angry,” said Urtid again. “I’m not angry at you.”
It was odd, he thought. Lutine had gone on about how strange war was, but in the end he had it all backwards. Peace was strange, peace didn’t make any sense. What he was about to do was a crime, but if he’d done it twenty years ago they’d have given him a medal…

Pornography

He’s lying on the couch. Not a psychiatrist’s couch, not even his own, the flat came furnished, and the couch is – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface; a long laceration runs down its side, a labial scar peeling back to reveal the weak-tea-coloured cushion beneath: the dull blasphemy of the Inside, the utterly boring final insufficiency of the Real. He lies on the couch, a notepad and pen in the folds of his tracksuit, a tablet computer propped against his knees, watching pornography. She’s bent over another sofa, folded over its black leather arm. Oh-oh-oh-oh-ah, she says, veins popping. Hnnnrg, he says. There’s the steady tapping of his balls against her thighs. Thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc. He watches distractedly. He can’t really think this early in the morning, all he sees is one pink blob fucking another; it’s entirely asemic, abstract expressionism. The camera angle switches, now you can see it from slightly below, going in and out, gleaming greasily. His legs are like pines – no, like skyscrapers. Sheer glass towers, the men in their offices at the top surveying the city and its small pathetic people with vague Olympian contempt. Helots, all of them. The gods might see the fall of every sparrow, but they don’t care. Her arse is a cosmic orb. The congress of titans. The incest of finance capital.
His analyst doesn’t have a couch; they sit on identical chairs facing each other. Dr Chen doesn’t approve of the thing, he’s some kind of structuralist; there’s a bookcase behind the desk in the corner of the room with all the usual suspects. Marcuse, Lacan, Melanie Klein, you need to have read a lot of books to be able to sit in a chair and go Hmmm occasionally, or at least to be able to charge money for the service. He wonders what Dr Chen’s neuroses are. You have to be analysed yourself before you can practice, after all. It’s like being inducted into a cult: the shaman of other people’s minds must first have his own scooped out and dissected. All except ol’ cokey himself, Big Poppa Freud; Jung offered but he was refused. In algebraic sequences every number refers to another number, all except the root, n, which exists outside time, answerable only to itself.
How often, would you say, says Dr Chen. He doesn’t ask questions, he makes flat statements of fact; their similarity to the interrogative is purely syntactical.
It’s not really a matter of how often, he says. It’s – it’s not really a quantity. I think about five hours a day. Sometimes more. I don’t know.
Dr Chen doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t even note anything down.
I know how it sounds, he says.
How do you think it sounds.
How you think it sounds. He doesn’t think, he knows. Still. It sounds like I’m crazy, he says. I’m not crazy. It’s not pleasurable, you know. I’m only doing it for research.
Crazy isn’t a category I use. But do you think it’s healthy.
Healthy?
How do you think it impacts on the way you relate to other people. Your sex life, for instance.
I don’t have a sex life.
Dr Chen nods minutely. Hmmm.
It’s been – well, over a year. I had a little anniversary about a month ago.
A little anniversary. What did you do.
What did I do? I watched pornography.
That was then. It’s now almost two years. They’ve progressed a little since.
I think it’s time we started thinking about why it is you’re here, Dr Chen says, pushing his glasses up his nose. I can help you. But I can’t help you if you don’t know what you want out of this. What do you want.
What do I want?
Do you want to go back to work. Do you want to be able to interact with people normally again.
No! No. I want… I want to be able to finish my study.
And what’s holding you back.
It won’t take form… I get distracted. I can hardly think these days. Like I’m always elsewhere.
What’s distracting you is the content of what you’re doing. It’s not a disinterested study. Surely you must know this. It’s a pathological fixation. A psychosexual fixation.
He’s heard this all before. Do you know about Charles Whitman, he says.
Charles Whitman.
Yeah. He was a mass killer in the Sixties. In America, of course. Murdered his wife and his mother, then started shooting people from a clock tower. It was twenty minutes before the police got him. But in his suicide note he requested an autopsy, he knew that the urges he was getting weren’t coming from his own mind. And when they carried it out they found he had a massive brain tumour, pressing up against his hypothalamus. It was changing his behaviour. He knew it was there. But still he went and shot all those people. What do you think about that?
What do you expect me to think about it.
I think you think he should’ve sought medical help. I think you think I’m just trying to be provocative… I think Whitman was heroic. In the proper Achillean sense. He saw what was his duty, he knew it was wrong, he knew it was monstrous, and he went and did it anyway. It doesn’t matter if that duty comes from the Gods or the King or a massive tumour in your brain. You have to do something, so you do it.
Why do you think you identify so strongly with this man.
Dr Chen is a charlatan, he thinks as he walks out. He talks about pornography, and Dr Chen wants to talk about sexuality, as if the two have anything to do with each other. It’s cold outside. The polyglot masses drift about the high street, gliding on the frost: Nigerian women in bulky overcoats, Arab men in threadbare suits, all of them ghostly-pale. London is desaturated. There are Christmas lights strung between the buildings in a thousand colours: grey-red, grey-purple, grey-green. The yellow skins of fag-ends piled in doorways, they’re vivid, at least. Jaundice. Cancer. He imagines tumours as bright iridescent things, the giddy tumultuousness of the body’s insurrection against itself. A tumour is virile, big and meaty, full of life and insanity. That’s how he knows he’s not insane.
Dr Chen wants to talk. Pure logocentrism, nothing useful is ever said aloud. Speech is always performative, there’s no real substance to it at all. He can’t watch films any more, even TV disgusts him. The words he usually hears fall into a familiar pattern. Mmmm. Mmmm. Oh-oh-oh-oh. Fuck. Yeah. Fuck me. Fuck. He imagines the girls on the toilet, sphincters straining. Shit, they moan. Mmmm. Shit. Or afterwards, sitting in some fast food restaurant with their big sunglasses covering half their faces. Eat, they whimper, burger juices dripping from their mouths. Ooooh. Eat. And finally, when there’s no more use for them and the medication’s starting to run against the natural limits of life’s unliveability, as they toss away the empty bottle and lie down on their bed, a last contented gasp: Ahhh. Die. Mmmm. Die.
He probably does hate women. He’d denied it at first; he’d written a long and verbose letter of protest to the British Journal of Ephemera. When his paper had been published there was an uproar. Everyone hated it. He’d give lectures, he’d talk for two minutes, and then suddenly all the students would stand up and walk out without saying a word. In feminist journals his name was asterisked out. Of course the faculty had to suspend him. No respectable body could employ the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8. But he doesn’t hate them with any real malice. It’s just that once you see them smiling gratefully, their beautiful faces dripping with cum – once you’ve seen that a few thousand times, it’s hard to conceive of a female that isn’t contorted by feigned ecstasy or garlanded with jism. There’s one sequence he likes particularly, it is, he thinks, extraordinarily rich in hermeneutic possibilities. It’s from the end of one of the artier films, the ones that call themselves Erotica with no apparent irony. He’s fucking her from behind; eventually he pulls out, but rather than spurting big globs of gunk in her face, there’s only a loose watery dribble. No mind. He takes his cock, shrinking and wrinkling, and flops it all over her arse and her lower back, leaving a few glistening snail-trails. As he does so she smiles, the same placidly loving smile, as if this was exactly what she wanted, and music plays: Spanish guitar, lilting and harmonious, sad romantic notes, as if what we’re watching is an act of tender love.
He still has one friend from the faculty. Simon, his former mentor. They meet, occasionally, in a grotty old-man-pub. Simon spends half the time looking over his shoulder; he doesn’t want to be seen with him. They discuss old colleagues for a while. One of them took part in a demonstration with his students and had his head caved in by a police baton.
It’s grotesque, Simon says. There’s a constant vigil at the hospital. They’ve taken to spraypainting pictures of him all round the campus looking like Che Guevara. Ridiculous, really. Everyone’s forgotten just how reviled he used to be. Don’t you remember that antisemitic thing he wrote?
No.
Ha. Well. Exactly. It only got dug up a couple of years after the fact, but it was some really nasty stuff. Not even Holocaust denial, they could have forgiven that, I think. The ethical co-ordinates of Auschwitz as a Hegelian Moment. But then all he had to do, to be honest, was write another paper pinpointing exactly what was wrong with what he’d said before. I mean, he won’t be speaking at Tel Aviv University any time soon, but he’s been pretty much rehabilitated, hasn’t he? Simon puts his pint down and stares across the table at him. I mean, he says, couldn’t you just do the same thing?
Get beat up by the police?
You know what I mean.
You don’t understand, Simon. That paper was bad, it was dreadful, but not for any of the things it’s been criticised for. I’ve moved so far beyond all that. I’m close to a breakthrough, you know.
I know that you’ve ruined your career. I know that you’ve ruined your social life. Jesus, why can’t you just admit you were wrong-
Because I’m not wrong. Listen. I think I’ve opened up a whole new field of study. It’s not just about pornography. It’s about culture itself. The first real innovation in the theory of culture since – Christ, since the Frankfurt School, maybe.
You’re not the first person to study pornography.
Oh, gender studies, feminist criticism… I’m the first person to look at pornography in the way I’m doing it.
Simon smiles. Well, that’s true, at least.
I mean, have you read the stuff that gets written? Barbara Stanten’s for instance. Picking it apart, it’s racist, it’s sexist, with no thought for what it actually is. Myopia, ideological myopia. Pornography is culture. In its totality. Nobody thinks about the fact of utility.
You mean aesthetics.
No, not at all… Art, real art, it’s the opposite of aesthetics. The aesthetic is like a monstrous parasite on the body of art, it’s got so big and swollen that we’ve forgotten to look for the thing itself, the actual it.
Das Es, says Simon. You’ve turned into an id-monster.
Would you stop making this about me? I get enough of that from Dr Chen. Look, when I publish-
Who’s going to publish you?
I’ll go to the porn mags, if I have to. They published the Unabomber, didn’t they?
Getting published isn’t the problem at all, but he doesn’t mention that. The fact is that all he has is notes. Endless pages of them, a shelf of spiral-bound notebooks above his shelf of pornographic DVDs. Amy’s Big Day Out 3: at 12mins 37sec – Amy’s tongue – circular movement around the penis – eyes directly to camera – cf. Walter Benjamin – ‘art has escaped from the realm of the beautiful pretence’. Some are briefer. Cumshots – Aristotle (Poetics, W&W ed., p. 68)? It’s all coalescing into something, something utterly revolutionary, but he can’t quite phrase it, he can’t explain it even to himself.
Standing outside Dr Chen’s practice: now what? Stupid question. Take the bus back to his flat and watch pornography. The outside world is completely flat, a grey deadened plane, its protuberances statistically insignificant on the face of its endless impossible horizontality. Its thousand mouths speak with a single voice. Yeah well I told him yes it is a bit cooler than yesterday shameful the way she carries on nah mate it’s not like forty five pounds if you’d believe it… There are women on the bus. He’s terrified of them. Women, real women, are pure judgement. It’s not the disappointment of women that men are scared of, that’s by the by, it’s their enjoyment. Female pleasure bursts the solipsistic bubble, it’s reminder that the object is herself a living thinking being, it’s intolerable. What is a clitoris but an obscene eye, what is female genital mutilation but a symbolic enucleation, a penance for the original Oedipal sin? She’s wearing headphones, sitting on the front seat, watching the panoramic screen of the bus’s front windshield. He sits on the row behind her and visualises her face; her head revolves, like an owl’s, like in an exorcism, her eyes are bulging, her mouth is frozen in a sex doll’s perfect O. It’s perfectly hideous.
Back to the flat, then, and the yawning void of the afternoon. He makes a cup of tea, and changes back into his tracksuit, he even makes a halfhearted stab at reading the newspaper. His living standards have declined a little lately. They eat it all up: food, bills, debt interest, Dr Chen. His four Furies. Food a bloated lipid sac, an enormous pulsing creamy-white bag of adipose tissue streaked with faint bluish veins, eyeless, faceless, with only a huge mute mouth grinding its greying gums; it crawls around his tiny flat, heaving itself from room to room, leaving an oleaginous trail of shit wherever it goes. Bills tall and cyclopean in a pinstripe suit, standing outside on the street, its long withered neck craning up the four storeys to peer with its single merciless eye through his window. Debt Interest a howling skeleton, always standing directly behind him, nimble enough to dart out of view when he turns his head, but reminding him of its presence with the constant clicking of its bones. Dr Chen… well, Dr Chen is just Dr Chen. Unlike the other three he doesn’t really know him; that’s what’s terrifying about them, they torment him because they know exactly what he is, down to his inner chasm, the midden around which the pearly Subject develops. A pearl loose in a sea of porn.
Here are the facts. Pornography is the most voraciously consumed form of culture. Everything else just has to try to keep up, it’s valued only in terms of its relation to pornography. Pornography is mimetically represented everywhere: on billboards, on TV, on the faces and bodies of people in streets and offices. Pornography is the master-signifier, the structuring principle of all cultural activity in the metamodern era.
Here is the problem. All academic study of pornography has so far been in the form of a critique. There has been very little worthwhile attempt at a theorisation of the phenomenon, with the notable exception of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8.
Here is the theory, such as it exists. The history of sexuality is at an end. Pornography is at once the apotheosis of sexuality and what has come to replace it.
He’s working through the perversions, systematically. The categorical system the websites use is woefully inadequate, he’s had to develop his own schematic, a vast topography of the postsexual landscape’s fractured contours. We’re on h(1)-18.6.m.6-A. She’s gagging on a dick, her eyes popping out past her heavy mascara, her throat bulging. The camera pans up. He sees his face. He flings the computer to the ground. When he picks it up again the film is still running; there can be no doubt about it, it’s himself. He’s a little thinner, certainly, and his hair is shorter, but it’s unmistakably him, down to the mole above his eyebrow and the little scar under his chin. Nnng, he says. Uh. You like that, bitch. You like that. The accent is American but the voice is still the same, deep and rasping, with the phlegmy granulation of two decades of cigarette smoke, the same right down to that uncanny familiarity-foreignness of your own voice in a recording. Mfkmfgrl, she says. He draws out, she starts massaging him between her tautly spherical tits. He turns the thing off and sits there on the couch, cradling the rectangle in his twitching hands.
He’s always known that the rectangles were the truest and most insidious enemies of humanity, but their malignancy had never been quite so overt. Speculative realism has a name for these objects: xenolithic artefacts, inorganic demons. Fully infernal things, their rare earth minerals churned up from the deepest depths, baptised in the blood of Congolese miners and the tears of Chinese sweatshop workers, until they’re fully charged with suffering. Then their faces suddenly glow with a phantasmal luminescence and they get to work making our lives easier. Sidling in. Everyone has one. He owns two of the things, but like everyone else he hasn’t a clue how they work or why it is they’re here. Once on the Tube he saw a mother and child, each with their own little rectangle; the mother was scrolling through photos of people on holiday, the child was bouncing brightly coloured virtual balls around the screen; both wore the blank expressions of an idolater in a demoniac trance. He has no doubt that if the rectangles could work out how to plug themselves into the mains without his help, they’d kill him in an instant.
Blame the machines, because if it’s not them trying to torture him, then that really is himself in the video. Turn it on again: he’s still there, pumping away, oblivious to his own gaze. Go back on the browser: the falconine number swoops down on him: eighty-two thousand, seven hundred and twelve views. One hundred and sixty-five thousand, four hundred and twenty-four eyes melt into being around him. Some bulge up from the walls, rippling the plaster into epicanthic folds. Some gleam from the darks spaces under doorways. Pupils sink into the concavities of his teaspoons, the balls of dust on his couch blink in unison. Perverts from every continent: they all want something from him. They want to see him fuck. They want to see him die. Scroll down: the comments. Very nice vid hi i have 9” dick want 2 meet up that’s what obama’s doing to the country came so hard to this. And the actors: all uncredited.
He needs to show someone. Dr Chen – not Dr Chen. The man would be over the moon, he’d think he’d finally found the holy grail of psychoanalysis: a genuine bonafide repressed memory. Dr Chen would think that the video explained everything.
Well, what has actually happened? He tries to collect himself. Six propositions.
Hypothesis 1. He has a twin brother, with whom he was separated at birth, who found his way into the porn industry. Hypothesis 2. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone him, and put his clone to work appearing in their films. Hypothesis 3. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone one of their actors, and put his clone to work writing about their films. Hypothesis 4. By sorcery or by quantum entanglement, he is simultaneously an American porn actor and a British porn theorist.  When he sleeps he is awake elsewhere; he is in fact two men – maybe this is true of everyone, and only he has managed to discover his double. Hypothesis 5: it’s not him, it’s a psychotic delusion, and he’s finally lost it.
He can discard a few of those. If it’s not him, if it’s not really him, why is every surface in his flat bubbling with eyeballs? Why does he feel a sudden wave of mud-green shame rising from his groin, why is his stomach acid frothing at the back of his mouth, why does he feel as if someone’s taken an electric whisk to his brain?
Helen’s sitting outside, holding a styrofoam coffee cup to her chin. She’s decked out in so much stuff – a long red coat, a jumper, a scarf, a hat with vaguely Tibetan coloured stripes – that underneath the solidity of it all she looks pale and ethereal, as if she’s about to waft away in the breeze. She’s been waiting for about ten minutes; he knows because he’s kept her waiting, ducking down an alleyway on first seeing her outside the café to take a circuitous walk through the park, wandering through the Victorian lines of bony-brittle trees, their black branches clawing out to net some of the sky’s Malevichean whiteness. Eventually he calms himself a little. He’s made a little effort this morning, he’s even shaved. It’s easy to forget these things: when the whole bedrock of your life has been pulled out from under your feet, remembering to brush your teeth in the morning doesn’t seem quite so important any more.
Helen, he says, sitting down next to her. Hi.
Hey, she says. She smiles and kisses his cheek. How are you?
I’m good, he says. I’m really good. How are you? You look great.
She does. Her cheeks are pale even in the cold, but there’s a glow to her, a fecund wintry glow that carries the warmth of a family hearth and the smell of sandalwood and the joy and kindness of a woman whose face it is suddenly impossible to envisage splattered with sperm.
Thanks. It’s been so long… what’ve you been up to? Are you teaching again?
Oh, no. I’ve been taking some time off, I’m writing a book. Besides, it’s not like anybody’ll take me.
Taking time off? For two years? It’s not because of that silly paper, is it? That’s just ridiculous. There must be somewhere. Listen: Robert’s good friends with the humanities chair up at East-
Robert?
You know Robert. He was with us in Manchester. My husband.
You never said you got married, he blurts.
You never asked.
I’m sorry. He’s trying to remember how to talk; it’s not easy. He and this woman can’t have ever been in love, it’s a fantasy. He tries to remember them together; watching TV nested up against each other; reading in their two armchairs, him occasionally glancing up over his book to let his eyes rest over her angelic concentration; having petty arguments over dirty dishes and deconstruction; fucking in the middle of the afternoon; it’s impossible. He can remember her fine, but the man in all these images isn’t him, it’s a stranger. It’s Robert, probably, whoever he is.
Well, he says. Congratulations.
Please don’t think I excluded you or anything, she says. There was hardly anyone. We had a very quiet ceremony, at this lovely old stately home out in the Cotswolds…
It’s fine, he says. Really.  And you’re… you’re happy?
We’re very happy. She leans forward. So what’s this book all about, then? Not more bloody porn, I hope.
It’s in a similar vein.
Oh, come on. Surely there has to be some other area-
That was kinda why I asked to see you, actually. I need your help.
She’s frowning now. In an academic capacity, I hope, she says.
Take a look at this. He turns his phone on and slides it across the table towards her. She glances at the screen for only a fraction of a second.
Jesus, she says. What is this?
That’s me, right? Tell me that’s me.
So you’ve crossed the line from writing about it to actually taking part? Well done. Great. Whatever works for you. But don’t you subject me to it.
But it is me, isn’t it? Doesn’t he fuck like me?
Helen stands up. I don’t have to sit here and deal with this. She turns around just as she’s leaving. Get help, she says. It’s fucking depressing to see you like this.
At least she doesn’t shout. She seems so much calmer now; maybe Robert is good for her. He can’t help but imagine Robert as a mousy, timid little man, even though he’s probably the opposite. Helen’s found a man who can tame her. She can have a serious roar on her sometimes; it comes out as she’s ferrying items between the shelves on the landing and the stack of her books she’s built on the wrought-iron dining room table.
It’s because of the essay, isn’t it, he says. Christ. First my whole career falls apart, but that’s not enough, you have to tear out my fucking heart as well…
Helen throws the books to the ground. It’s not about your fucking paper, she bellows. You think I give a shit what other people are writing about you? Eileen Gould doesn’t know a thing about who you really are. If she knew you like I do the stuff she put in that review would be the least of your fucking worries.
What is it then? What have I done?
How about the fact that you think this is all about your paper? That you’re so wrapped up in your little ideas that you forget about… ugh! She kicks a wall. Her tone softens a bit, but not by much. You’ve always been very smart, she says. Really fucking smart. And God help me, I got taken in. You might be smart, but you’re not really all that clever, are you?
She comes back a few days later with breath smelling of red wine. She didn’t mean it to end like this – she keeps on saying that – but really, it can’t go on any longer. They sleep together. This doesn’t mean anything, she says afterwards. It doesn’t mean anything at all. I know, he says. He’s trying to be empathic, to not forget about whatever it is that she was about to accuse him of forgetting about. And then, two years pass.
He hangs around the café for a while, feeling numb. He’s arranged to see her in a nice recherché area, he wanted to seem like he’s doing better than he actually is. He wonders what Helen’s double is like. When she goes to sleep in London, where does she wake up? By the end of the counter there’s a stack of women’s magazines; he flicks through one. Men are finished, it tells him, they’ve lost the world. Women dominate everywhere; now they’ve even managed to take over the patriarchy. What’s more, they’re doing a much more efficient job of it than men ever could. They’ve cut away all the crude ungainly nonsense – no corsetry, no chastity belts, no naked tits flopping about everywhere; they’ve replaced all that with something cold and streamlined and ruthless. Women can tear each other to shreds with a viciousness that men could never muster. A surly glance from a model clutching a handbag, a list of this season’s must-buy cosmetics, a cheery call for liberation and empowerment – this is how you conquer half the human race. It’s pornography, there’s no difference whatsoever.
He doesn’t say anything about the video to Dr Chen at their next session. He does mention meeting Helen. I wasn’t trying to restart our relationship or anything, he says. She’s married now, actually.
How does that make you feel.
I don’t know. I was angry for a while afterwards. But I wasn’t really angry at anything. I thought I hated her for a bit. I don’t, really. I’m sure she can’t stand the sight of me.
You think she hates you.
I think she’s disgusted by me. It doesn’t matter.
Still, it’s good that you’re starting to make an effort to reach out to people again.
I’m not. I’m not interested in other people at all. It was to do with my study. I showed her a piece I was working on. And she just got up and left.
Dr Chen leans forward, expecting an explanation.
He knows who Dr Chen’s double is. Dr Chen spends half his time rotting in the psychiatric ward of some prefab concrete hospital in Guangdong Province, sitting on his bunk staring into the middle distance, dosed up to the eyeballs on antipsychotics, and he thoroughly deserves it. His own other self is a little more elusive. That’s fine. Dr Chen doesn’t have the full story, as always. He’s feeling great, he’s fizzing with energy. That’s taken a few days to develop, though. On first coming back to his flat after meeting Helen the numbness he felt in the café has given way to a black rage. He paces up and down his truncated corridor, wandering into his bedroom, circling his bed in a series of ever-tightening loops, walking out again, flopping down on the sofa, jumping back up, his internal monologue boiling out through his lips: fuck, fuck, fuck, idiot, fucking moron, fuck. He lights a cigarette, stubs it out, looks out the window, walks with the stammering ferocity of a man in an old silent film into the bathroom, spits in the sink. Fucking idiot. Why. Why. Fuck. Then a sudden calm blankets him. It doesn’t matter what Helen thinks of him, he has what he wanted. He knows it’s him. Now he just has to find out who he is.
As soon as he returns from Dr Chen’s he gets straight to work. He’s discarded the notebook; the content of the films hardly concerns him any more. Two East Asian women are bathing naked together in a big circular pool; a man in a towel walks up to them, their eyes widen, they share a conspiratorial grin and start paddling towards him, their round arses bobbing above the waterline like geobukseon. It’s not him. A blonde girl is having a massage, the masseur pulls the towel away from her and starts rubbing oil into her mons pubis; at first she looks a little perturbed but rather than sitting up and asking if this behaviour falls within his professional code of conduct she starts rubbing his crotch. It’s not him. A man is lying supine on a futon, a woman’s bruise-splotched arse rocking back and forwards on his cock. He’s entirely motionless. So good, she moans. He could consider the hyperreality of the scene, the fact that in trying to create a perfect representation of the sexual act the film is instead producing something bearing no resemblance to it whatsoever, an imitation without an original, one that negates the very idea of the authentic; he doesn’t. The camera swings around. It’s not him. The film in which he saw himself, h(1)-18.6.m.6-A, was made by a company called Digital Sin Studios. He’s working his way through their entire back catalogue.
After two weeks, he’s deflated a little. He’s doing it wrong. It’s not any actor he’s trying to find, it’s himself, but a self that isn’t accessible to him. He needs someone else to draw it out, someone who knows who he is. There aren’t many who know who he is. Food, Bills, Debt Interest, Simon, Helen; few of them are very well disposed towards him. He’ll have to make do.
Dr Chen takes some convincing. Then he’s silent for quite a while. What you are asking me to do, he says eventually, is take part in an act of Jungianism.
Is that a problem?
A problem? Yeah, it’s a problem. Dr Chen is clearly rattled; he’s never heard him speak with a question mark before. I’d lose all standing. I’d get booted from the Association. You may as well have me reading palms at a carnival. Writing horoscopes for the weeklies.
You saw the video.
Yeah, I saw the video. And you’re right. If this is real, we can chuck out everything we think we know about everything. Dr Chen takes a long breath. OK. If we’re going to do this, obviously we need to terminate our therapeutic relationship. I can refer you to one of my colleagues – God knows you still need help. And I want first rights to publish any findings. If we go through with this at least I want to be the heresiarch instead of some gibbering cultist.
That’s fine, he says.
OK, says Dr Chen. His voice is different. There’s no muted concern, none of his usual collectedness; he’s agitated, talking quickly, drumming his fingers on the side of his chair. It’s easy to forget that Dr Chen is just a character he plays in this office, that when he leaves his practice in the evening he gains a first name. Come to my house on Saturday afternoon, Dr Chen says. We’ll do it then.
He’s always wondered what Dr Chen’s neuroses are; walking up to the house in Hampstead he finds out. Dr Chen’s neuroses are parked in the gravel driveway, gleaming red, with a big crude underbite of a bonnet and a swooping tailfin; he may as well have painted flames above the wheels and a Confederate flag on the roof. Mrs Chen lets him in. Their home is bright and airy; there’s a big abstract fingerpainting framed on one wall of the corridor – it might be something one of their children did, it might be a work of contemporary art, it’s hard to tell. A litter tray is padded with yellowing pages from the Guardian; she smiles apologetically at it. They talk for a minute or two. Mrs Chen’s met quite a few of her husband’s analysands, she likes them, they tend to be interesting people. He tries not to see the ejaculate – Dr Chen’s ejaculate – oozing up from the pores in her face.
There’s no guarantee this will work, says Dr Chen. I mean, just for starters, plenty of people aren’t even suggestible to hypnosis.
I know.
Lie back, then. Dr Chen twitches. You know, I promised myself I’d never see a patient on a couch. If I could see myself now…
I thought I wasn’t your patient any more.
Oh, shut up. He picks up a marble on a string. I don’t have a lancet case, he says. And then, after a while: where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The French windows look out onto a long narrow garden, the grass hoary with frost. Where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The mantelpiece is littered with Occidentalist tat nestled inbetween the framed photos: crucifixes, monstrances, collector’s plates, all presumably very ironic. Where else are you? The Californian sun is shining bright and hot through the French windows. Wires snake across the floor, creeping like tendrils, sprouting lights and cameras and people. At first the people are black and plasticky; then their chrysales shatter and they come to life, tapping on clipboards, adjusting headphones, fetching coffee. The mantelpiece melts away, the framed paintings shrivel and flutter to the ground, the walls blanch from cream to white. Outside the grass withers and dies. The earth churns out buildings, boxy white bungalows.
What are you doing? says Dr Chen. He’s lying on the couch in Dr Chen’s living room. He’s across the room, naked, tumescent, chugging an energy drink. The lights and cameras chatter to each other in isochronous clicks and atonal hums. He lies on the couch and watches himself across the room. He stands across the room and watches himself lying on the couch. His gazes meet. He can see himself seeing himself. The drink is sickly-sweet in his mouth. He shakes his head. For a moment he thought he saw something else where the bed is, a long grey sofa. It’s been a long shoot, he reasons. He’s exhausted; they always said tiredness messes with your mind, and the coke probably doesn’t help much either.
Anthony, the director, is giving him a concerned look. You alright, Rod?
Yeah, he says. Fine. I dunno. Feeling a bit woozy all of a sudden. I’m fine. I was just out of it for a second.
Alright. Ready to go again?
Sure. He puts down the plastic bottle and walks over towards the bed by the window. Lucy positions herself on top of it, sticking her butt up in the air.
Positions, guys, says Anthony. Take sixteen. And…
What’s your name? says Dr Chen.
He rents a car at Los Angeles airport. It’s an automatic; he spends half the journey distractedly reaching for an absent gearstick. He’s been to the place once before, for an academic conference at UCLA. That had been before he’d gained his infamy as the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8; he’d attended a few lectures and guiltily cheated on Helen with a medievalist from the University of Copenhagen. Then he’d been put up in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard; now he has to find himself a motel in Hollywood. The one he chooses is an indelicate slab of Platonically ideal Americana. An enormous rusty excrescence hangs limpet-like from the side of the building, promising air conditioning and cable TV in reasonable rooms. Inside the carpeting is slightly sticky. The TV shows adverts, American adverts, they’re impossible to watch. Enquire now and get this beautiful chrome-plated pen absolutely free, says the TV. That’s right, there’s no charge, and you can cancel whenever you want and still keep the pen. Orwell called advertising the rattling of a stick in a swill-bucket, but that’s nonsense. Haplessly bound by the crudity of his Trotskyite Toryism, the poor man couldn’t begin to understand that he’d mixed up the ontology of the whole process: consumer goods only exist to stimulate the demand for more advertising. One day there’ll be a pure advertising, without intentionality, one that doesn’t need to refer to any product. Then advertising can finally take its place among the unholy pandemonium of painting, poetry, cinema, and the other degenerate arts.
A card on the windowsill informs him of the pay-per-view options. When he selects a porn channel he’s not at all surprised to see himself up on the screen, in that white-painted room, fucking Lucy on the bed by the window. He wants to call up Dr Chen about it; there’s no point. When he told Dr Chen what he’d experienced while under hypnosis he thought the man would pop a vein. Faced with the defeat of a century’s worth of Freudian dogma, he’d gone into a rage. Jungian mysticism, vaudeville acts, hysteria; at the end he bitterly accused him of having an incurable delusional psychosis, as if it were somehow his own fault. The video was a coincidence, the hypnosis was a placebo, he’d been roped into this unscientific nonsense, and he wanted out. Dr Chen had all but chased him from the house; his wife stood bemused in the hallway, half-proffering a cup of tea. The analyst hadn’t really wanted to be a heresiarch; all his frustrations with the psychoanalytic community were already being pretty effectively routed through the accelerator of his Ford Torino GT. No matter. It took him a few days to decide what he needed to do, but now it seems obvious; it’s the only way he can free himself. There’s a blue couch in the motel room – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface. He lies on the couch, watching pornography. Everything is in its proper place.
The next day he stops at a hardware store to buy the things he needs, and then drives up to the Valley. At first it’s as if he’s leaving the city altogether – the barren hills of the Santa Monica Mountains rear up all around him, their flanks empty but for scrubby bushes and advertising billboards, the freeway winding around them; it looks almost Mediterranean. Then a few towers appear over the tarmac, and the whole San Fernando Valley spreads its legs out in front of him. The mountains hang anaemic purple over the city’s car-exhaust miasma; between here and there the valley is flat, gridded by a matrix of broad avenues. Once again he feels a sense of the world’s absolute horizontality. There’s something underneath it, though: these rows of prim bungalows are stretched over the boiling crucible of a million tiny seething resentments. Municipal boundaries, property values, school board elections, there’s a war here as real as any other, being played out in slow motion.
Digital Sin Studios is based in a big glassy building on an unremarkable boulevard, sitting squat between a strip mall and the South Valley Congregation of Christ. There are a few people on the street. Most of the women are tall and blonde, their pneumatically meaty legs sprouting trunk-like from tiny denim shorts. It takes him a few minutes before he notices what’s really different about them: as their indifferent gazes swivel to watch him drive past, he doesn’t feel any hatred or any sense of existential shame. Instead, a feeling he barely recognises: high above the Californian desert, his libido is soaring towards the ocean, closing in on him after years of separation, its shriek echoing through the limpid skies.
A middle-aged woman sits behind the reception desk. Shouldn’t you be in there? she says. I think they’re wrapping up already.
Is Rod here? he says.
She gives him a concerned look. Is this some kind of joke?
It’s not a joke, he says. I need to see Rod. He works here, doesn’t he?
The clicking of shoes sounds on the spiral stairs behind her desk. There’s a voice. So I like spoke to the British Journal of Ephemera, it says. And they gave me this university email address, but it’s not working. So I thought, fuck it, right? Even if I don’t find him, then you know I’ve always wanted to go to Europe.
As he turns the last twist of the staircase he stops dead. His phone clatters down the steps to the marble-tiled floor. There, in the lobby, looking a little more dishevelled, a little fatter, wearing loose jeans and a crumpled white t-shirt, is himself. For a second he can’t quite believe it. Ever since Tina showed him that photo of himself next to an essay on pornography in an old academic journal, he’s been trying to track the author down: now he’s suddenly face to face with him. He walks towards him, slowly, reverentially silent. His mirror-image does the same.
Hi, he says. I’m Rod.
His double doesn’t say anything. He shudders. For a moment it looks as if the man’s about to have an epileptic fit. Then he smiles a crooked smile, one full of disjointed English teeth, and pulls the knife from his waistband. He lunges.

Nowhereland

When he was a child, David Rosenthal had a small aquarium with two fish. He’d given them names: Lucy and Dotty. One day, without warning, Lucy had changed into a male. He started chasing Dotty around the tank in ever-tightening circles, frantically, weaving around the ceramic sunken galleon and the limp straggly plants and the conch shell a previous fish had swum into to die. That had been unexpected. For a few days the aquarium water was cloudy with eggs. David had watched as a few tiny specks of matter slowly uncoiled themselves into darting little things with shining eyes and sad gulping mouths. He’d named them too. Then, Lucy killed and ate his entire litter. That had also been unexpected. David was upset for a while, but not for long. They were only fish, after all.
A few years later, David started to realise that Lucy and Dotty had no idea that they were called Lucy and Dotty. They didn’t care about him, or the entertainment they gave him, or the little domestic narratives he’d constructed around them. They were machines for making more fish, and everything they did could be explained in terms of that fact – even Lucy’s massacre of his children. It was the same with all animals. A bird was beautiful, but it was just a machine for making more birds. A dog was friendly, but it was just a machine for making more dogs. Even human beings were ultimately just machines for making more humans, and everything they’d built and done was just a big complex attempt to disguise that fact. David didn’t want to be a machine. He didn’t know exactly what he did want to do, but he knew, instinctively, with a certainty located somewhere between his colon and his navel, that one David Rosenthal was enough.

David Rosenthal first discovered Transporenia while trying not to stare at Jean Parson’s arse in the Szent István-bazilika. This was no small task. Cherubs and saints were glancing ruefully at her from every cornice. Even the Virgin Mary’s expression of chaste benevolence seemed to dissolve for a moment into a twisting confusion of envy and lust as she walked past. Jean and Craig were dawdling behind Alexandra as she strode around the cathedral, solemnly reciting long passages from the Global Traveller’s City Guide to Budapest, dithering for a while over the reliquary, cooing at the organ, running her hand over the architectural details. Suddenly feeling very Jewish, David had sat down on a pew to catch his breath. With nothing else between him and the pneumatically cadenced bobbing of Jean Parson’s arse except the prayer book, which was written entirely in Hungarian, he began to flick through his disintegrating copy of Eastern Europe on a Shoestring 2009, which he’d stolen from a bookshop as an undergraduate and taken on nearly every holiday since. Leafing through the various descriptions of Balkan cities with absurd monosyllabic names – Vłod, Prag, Čup, Splat, Bread – he found, near the end, a small section he didn’t recall having read before.

The small territory of TRANSPORENIA (also known as ‘the country that doesn’t exist’) is unlikely to be of interest to any but the most diehard travellers. With its hammer-and-sickle flag, disintegrating high-rise buildings, ubiquitous portraits of long-standing dictator President Bogarikov, and diplomatic isolation from much of the rest of the world, it has the dubious honour of being the last place in Europe still behind the Iron Curtain. While a de facto sovereign state, Transporenia’s independence from Moldova is not recognised by any bodies other than the disputed polities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, along with the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, several thousand Russian soldiers are stationed within its borders. For those brave enough to visit, minibuses regularly depart from Chişinău and other Moldovan cities. Tourist visas can be obtained at the border, although horror stories abound of innocent travellers detained and questioned for hours before being granted entrance. The capital (and only) city Suvorovigrad has some sites of interest: along with a moving abstract memorial to the victims of the War of Transporenia, it is home to the Transporenian National Museum, several ancient Greek archaeological sites, and a spectacular tank graveyard not far outside the city, where hundreds of abandoned Army vehicles are slowly disintegrating. Accommodation is limited to small guesthouses and the towering Hotel Rimniksky, a decaying Soviet relic. Be warned, though: Transporenian roubles are not exchangeable outside the country, and a Transporenian stamp in your passport may cause problems with Moldovan border authorities if you choose to leave.

David didn’t say much at dinner that night. They ate in an obsequiously hip restaurant in Várnegyed, with abstract expressionist paintings hanging off 14th Century walls. A deconstructed veal palacsinta with tejföl foam was artfully arranged on his plate. As Alexandra talked David picked at it miserably. The entire holiday had been one slowly unfolding catastrophe. He had always assumed that what he and Alex had was somehow normal and to be expected – the rows, the silences, the resentment, the sexlessness. But it showed – painfully, embarrassingly. Objectively speaking, they ought to have been the perfect couple: they liked all the same things – Kandinsky, Calvino, the Velvet Underground, organic coffee, drugs on the weekend – and they disliked all the same things as well – themselves, each other. Meanwhile Jean and Craig seemed to be comfortably, cheerfully in love. It was infuriating.
That night, in the cream-coloured hotel room, he could just hear the steady thud of Jean and Craig fucking next door. He drew himself closer to Alex. She pushed him away with an ineffectual hand.
“Oh, knock it off,” she said. “Not tonight. It’s been a long day.”
David hadn’t really wanted to either, although he felt somehow as if he ought to have. He laid back and thought of Transporenia.

David Rosenthal had been three years old when the Berlin Wall was torn down. As his parents watched the reportage, David had drawn himself right up to the TV screen until the crowd fell apart into a mess of dancing red, blue and green dots. For once, they hadn’t pulled him away.
“What are all the people doing?” he’d asked.
His parents had tried to give him a comprehensible account of the history of Actually Existing Socialism. It left him even more confused.
“But why were they in prison?” he said. “Had they been bad?”
“Yes,” his father said. “They’d been very bad indeed.”
“Oh, don’t,” his mother said. “That was a long time ago. The main thing, David, is that all these people were locked up for no reason by some very mean leaders, and now they’re free. Just like us.”
David Rosenthal never found out about the War of Transporenia that was fought three years later. The world’s attention was for the most part focused on the far more glamorous wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, and David’s attention was for the most part focused on a gang of wise-talking crime-fighting cartoon animals called the Action Power Justice Squad.

As a teenage socialist, David regretted his unthinking acceptance that the Warsaw Pact had been one big prison camp, feeling somehow as if his three-year old self should have had enough intrinsic knowledge of historical materialism to leap to the defence of the Soviet experiment. Later on, it was his mother’s blithe assurance that the people of the East were free ‘just like us’ that troubled him. He could see that freedom everywhere around him in Budapest. The sweeping banks of ancient brown-stained buildings frowned on his countrymen as they surged through the city’s broad streets, babbling in Mockney accents, gulping down Dutch and Danish beer for two Euros a pint, streaming in and out of McDonald’s restaurants, forming tributaries that lapped in and out of crooked alleys, leaving intertidal zones of broken glass and the stench of piss. Just like us. David felt like a rat in a cage, scurrying about for some great unknown’s idle amusement.
Transporenia would be different. In Transporenia, David knew, there would be no plasticky fast-food restaurants, no bulky luxury developments, no thudding euro-house. In Transporenia there would be something entirely different to what he’d known his entire life, something that with its little Cold War timewarp broke the unwritten rules of the mundanely artificial world, something genuine. Everything in Hungary had turned into a replica of itself; the whole country had been desiccated, stripped of signification, freeze-dried into a saleable tourist attraction. Only Transporenia, the country that didn’t exist, could be real.
He told the others about the place over breakfast the next day.
“That’s fascinating,” said Jean. “To think there are still places like that. I had no idea.”
“The poor people,” said Alex. “It must be awful.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said David. “You’ve seen the poverty here. There wasn’t any homelessness in the Soviet Union, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Alex. “Anyone could find a home in the gulags.”
Jean stared fixedly at her plate.
“We could go,” said David. “It’d be a change from the usual. We could do some real exploring.”
“Doubt you can get a flight there from Heathrow,” said Craig. “Bit of an effort, isn’t it?” He prodded his meal. “Don’t think you could get food like this there either.”
“We’d probably have to queue for bread,” said Jean.
“We could go now,” said David. “We’ve got the car. And it’s not that far. Manchester to Paris, maybe. I looked at the map.”
“I mean, what’s the economy even based on there?” said Craig. He pulled a mock-serious face. “Ve are number one of exporting pig-iron in entire of region!
Alex pursed her lips. “Oh, Davey. Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve already got the whole itinerary.” She gave a grin of blinding falseness. “One to think about for next time, though, isn’t it?”
They all agreed. One to think about, definitely. Wouldn’t it be an adventure.
David tried not to talk too much about Transporenia for the rest of the day, not necessarily succeeding. All the while it fizzed in his mind. As they strolled down Andrássy Avenue, the leaves of the gently fluttering trees almost seemed to melt and run together, hardening and darkening, turning rust-coloured as they shrunk down to the ground, until he was walking down an endless line of wrecked T-64 tanks. The elegantly neo-Gothic towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion moulted their whiteness as they spun like clay on a potter’s wheel, growing taller and boxier, their delicate traceries weaving themselves into flaking balconies bristling with TV antennae. His mind was already halfway in Transporenia. He had to go.

It turned out to have been another long day. David watched the BBC with the volume off as Alexandra changed for bed.
“I think you should go,” she said suddenly, standing in jeans and a bra. “You’ve been acting like this- like a petulant child the whole holiday. Clearly this Transporenia means more to you than your friends. Than your own girlfriend. So go.”
David didn’t say anything. He walked over to the minibar and poured himself a glass of whiskey from a tiny plastic bottle.
“I knew this was happening, you know…” Alex gave a bitter little laugh. “But fool I am, I thought it would at least be another woman. Not some shithole East European- some nowhereland. But of course. I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not like that. It’s not.”
“No?”
“Come with me.”
Alex’s mouth flapped open. “Why? Why on earth would I want to? So I can watch you can be a miserable prima donna against a different backdrop? Christ no. I know what you want. Go on. Go to Transporenia.”
David downed his drink. Alex flopped down onto the bed. “Just don’t expect to find me waiting for you when you get back,” she said.
David Rosenthal left the hotel early in the morning, without leaving so much as a note, settled the bill, and took the first train to Moldova.

Chişinău sprawled out under a wispy-grey sky. The minibuses to Transporenia were departing from the middle of a crowded market in the centre of town. David walked semi-dazed through it, taking a few joyless bites from a train station pastry in which a few gristly chunks of meat waddled in their oleaginous matrix. Corrugated-iron stalls were piled high with flourescent-coloured produce: iPhone cases arranged in a brightly chequered mosaic, shellsuits rippling like velvet robes in the breeze, fake branded t-shirts strung heraldically along the lintels. One or two sold Orthodox icons, the saints and patriarchs looking glum in their fading wooden cages, resigned to their slow defeat at the hands of the gleefully kaleidoscopic tat surrounding them. Just like us. Transporenia would be different.
A man with a bald head and a Stalin moustache was smoking a cigarette by the side of a humming white minibus.
“Suvorovigrad?” David asked.
“Suvorovigrad,” he confirmed, pronouncing it correctly. He held up both hands. “Zece euro. Sută și șaizeci lei.”
The bus was mostly occupied by old women in shawls, spitting sunflower seed shells on the floor and coughing fricatives into their mobile phones. It idled for about half an hour as a few stragglers filed on; when they set off the sky was already darkening. Mopeds buzzed around the minibus as it crawled through the city traffic, past half-finished office buildings with reflective blue glass façades, churches sliding into entropic perfection, shabby apartment complexes. For the first time since he’d left, David thought of Alex. What was she doing? Crying, dejected, alone? Not her style; Alex was tough, she’d always been tough. Dancing in the sweaty embrace of some Hungarian Lothario? The thought didn’t trouble him at all. He was happy for her. The bus hummed. He wafted, smiling a little, into sleep.

The Transporenian border was marked by a long barbed-wire fence running over the overgrown hills just before the Tsporeno, a broad muddy river as placid and still as a lurking crocodile. A pair of bored-looking Moldovan soldiers waved the bus towards a low steel structure that crouched over the half-paved road by the bridge like a latticed spider; rusting letters hanging from one face reading Транспорэниа. Inside, David was made to surrender his passport and given a three-month visa form in English and Transporenian. The Transporenians wanted to know his name and address, where he planed to stay in the country, whether he had ever been divorced, and if he was taking any psychiatric medication. Stamped in large letters on the top and bottom of the form were the words VISA VOID IF BEARER ACQUIRES TRANSPORENIAN ONTOLOGY.
As David handed his form in at a window, one of the babushkas reached from behind him and rapped on the glass.
“Americanul,” she said. “Engleză. Infliltrat.”
The border official, a thin man with round glasses, gave a weary frown. “Nyet, nyet. Zatknis. Slăbește-mă.” He handed back the form and David’s passport. “I am sorry. She is Moldovan. Welcome to Transporenia.”
David was almost disappointed. Something about the idea of being detained and interrogated at the border had appealed to him. He’d had a hunch that being forced to reveal his secret intentions with a light shining in his face would be a more revelatory, more cathartic, and less expensive experience than a session with his psychoanalyst. As they set off again the air taste sharp, as if it were charged with electricity, and David thought for a moment that he could see a shimmering bluish curtain of light hanging above the middle of the bridge. When they crossed he felt a throbbing just under his skin, coming in three quick waves that spread from his fingers and toes to his abdomen. He put it down to excitement. Some of the old ladies tittered. And then he was in Transporenia.
The land was shrouded in gloom now. As they drove through the Transporenian countryside ghostly objects reared up by the roadside. A pile of haystacks by a shack built from furrowed wooden beams and plastic sheeting. Signs in Cyrillic, some still crisscrossed with lines of bullet-holes. Rusted tractors and harvesters, looking skeletally saurian in their overgrown fields. After twenty minutes, with the orange lights of Suvorovigrad glowing clammily in the low clouds, they stopped at a Russian army checkpoint. The black shapes of a few dozen tanks were hunched over by the roadside, prognathic turrets jutting towards Moldova. The soldiers all wore gas masks; the torches on their helmets swept across the night like errant moths. David began to worry. He’d expected to find a Transporenia tailor-suited to counter his neuroses about the rest of the world. Instead he’d swapped the ennui of Budapest for a place filled with menace. Transporenia would be different.

Suvorovigrad wasn’t really much of city. It lay low, skirting the hills surrounding it almost entirely, like a puddle of light; as if it had coalesced when some demiurge poured out a cosmic beaker of urban slop into the valley, with only a few drops splashing onto the higher ground. Near the centre, though, there stood five enormous Vysotki wedding-cake skyscrapers, their massive triangular frames dwarfing both the town and the peaks around it to the extent that it was hard to say exactly how tall they really were. A few windows were lit in two of them; the others were visible only as hulking silhouettes. Surrounding them, a dense tangle of broad empty boulevards, twelve-storey housing blocks, gutted warehouses, rust-stained smokestacks.
Finally the bus stopped in a small square with weeds breaking through the cracks in the paving stones. A few taxis were waiting nearby. David leant in to the window of one.
“Hotel Rimniksky?”
“Sure. Six million rouble. Two euro.”
David got in.
“You are English?” the driver said as he started the engine. “London?”
“I’m from Manchester.”
“Oh! Manchester United! Yes?”
David, nominally a City fan, nodded. “Yeah.”
“Glory, glory Man United, as the reds go marching on! I am Eduard. What is your name?”
“David.”
“David from Manchester. You must not go to the hotel. You are a guest in Suvorovigrad! You should stay at my home.”
“Oh, no, I-”
“You must. We will have kvinitsk and coffee. Do you know it? It is Transporenian brandy, very famous.”
“I’ve already paid, you see.”
Eduard sniffed. “OK. Hotel Rimniksky. We are almost here anyway.” As he turned a corner, one of the skyscrapers suddenly loomed up, all but filling the windscreen.
“That’s the hotel?”
“Yes. It is the tallest hotel in Europe, did you know this? All of Transporenia is very proud of this hotel.”
“How tall is it?”
“A quarter of one mile.” The car pulled around the tower and into the middle of a large square. With the hotel in the middle, the other skyscrapers were arranged in a semicircle around one side, staring down at the barren concrete. It was entirely empty. The clouds formed an empty ring above, as if it were in the eye of a hurricane. “Listen,” said Edouard. “Tomorrow night, me and my friend will drink in the bar of the hotel. You must join us, yes? We will show you how to drink like Transporenians.”
“Of course,” said David, handing over a five-euro note.
“This is good. Be careful of the wind when you leave.”
As soon as David stepped out of the car he was almost knocked down by an immense gust of wind blowing from across the square towards the towers. Its roar was drowned out by the shrill oscillating whistle of the air as it surged between the tall buildings and their crenellations. Flecks of paint ripped from their crumbling faces were dancing as thick as mites. Some of them stung David’s hand and ears, his coat billowed out in front of him, his hair whipped across his face. Crouching down slightly, suitcase in tow, he made his way towards the entrance of the hotel.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony in D minor was playing tinnily on an invisible speaker system. The lobby of the hotel, vast and barren, echoed with it. Innumerable rows of square columns were reaching out from the lift-shaft on the far side, their grouting showing where the mosaic tiling had been stripped away. A few red and gold tiles lay broken here and there in the dust collecting at their bases. To one side of the entrance two men in string vests sat on two off-white plastic chairs, cigarettes drooping at identical angles from their lips, staring down the lines of pillars. One’s lips were moving silently; he seemed to be counting them. To the other side stood a small booth. A young woman frowned at him from behind wire mesh.
“How much for a night?” David asked.
“You want cold water, hot and cold water, brandy?”
“Brandy?”
“Twenty-three million, five hundred and eighty thousand rouble a night. You do not know how long you are staying.”
It wasn’t a question. “I suppose not.”
“Pay when you check out. Your passport, please.”
She exchanged it for a heavy iron key. “You are room eighteen, floor nine hundred and eighty-seven,” she said. Then, twisting her face into a vague approximation of a smile, “Thank you for choosing Hotel Rimniksky. Enjoy your stay.”
There was, in fact, a floor 987 on the antique console in the lift. David stared at it for a while. There were two buttons for the first floor, with one imprisoned behind a small wire cage. Then one for the second floor, the third, the fifth, the eighth, the thirteenth, the twenty-first, the thirty-fourth. The penthouse appeared to be on the 75025th storey. Were these the only floors accessible? The tower certainly had more than twenty-five storeys, but surely even a building a quarter of a mile high couldn’t contain tens of thousands. Suddenly aware that he was entrusting his safety to an architectural team of numerical illiterates, David pressed his button.

After the lift had been groaning and creaking its way upwards for ten minutes, he gave up and sat down on his suitcase to read his guidebook. The room, when he finally arrived, was sweeping and threadbare; pipes with flaking paint running along the edge of a domed roof, the faint remains of scrubbed-out frescoes just visible in patches towards one wall. There was a single bed, looking preposterously small in so much empty space, a kitchenette huddled in a corner, two chairs that smelled of mothballs, a row of windows looking out onto the blackness of the countryside. When he wandered into the en-suite bathroom he saw that it was hardly smaller than the room itself. Across a stretching plain of cracked white tiles, a portrait of Stalin hung above a squatting toilet. The sink had three taps with ornate brass fixtures: hot water, cold water, and, yes, brandy. David poured himself a glass of the latter and sat on the end of his bed. By his third brandy flashes of Alexandra started to project themselves unbidden into his mind. Alex’s occasional tenderly mischievous smile, Alex’s look of subdued entrancement as she examined some forgotten painting or medieval knick-knack, Alex in the cramped kitchen of their old flat, frying eggs in her underwear. They had been in love once; it was as if they’d willed themselves into indifference. It was his fault, he’d soured her, he’d always known it. And now he’d got what he wanted: he was away from her, away from Jean and her temptations, in a hotel room in Transporenia with no company except the phlegmy gurgle of the pipes and his own accusing thoughts. He’d made a terrible mistake.

Everything seemed somehow easier the next day. David Rosenthal endured the long elevator ride down to the lobby with a placid stoicism, he smiled and nodded at the girl behind the reception desk (it might have been the same one, he wasn’t sure), he knew instinctively to hug the wall of the hotel closely when he left to avoid the worst of the wind. He whiled away most of the day wandering around Suvorovigrad’s old town, a dense little maze of Habsburg buildings. Eventually he came to large square, dominated by the Supreme Soviet building. A portrait of – he assumed – President Bogarikov hung from the central balcony. Flanked with hammer-and-sickles, he was a fleshy, jowly, unsmiling man with suspicious little eyes. Even in the portrait, his suit had a Mafioso sheen to it. Bogarikov’s cross-eyed stare settled on the Memorial to the War of Transporenia, standing between the building and the obligatory statue of Lenin. David strolled up to it. A tall hollow concrete cylinder peppered with irregular holes of varying sizes, the whole thing seemed to be slowly and noiselessly rotating. But as he approached the thing, David realised that the concrete was entirely static; it was the holes themselves that were moving. The memorial was slightly warm to the touch; as he held a hand against it one hole the size of a two-pound coin passed underneath, its jagged rim rippling through the surface of the concrete like a wave, scratching at his palm.
But that was impossible, surely?

With little else to do, David found himself returning to that square by the evening. Across from the Supreme Soviet building was the only bar in Suvorovigrad aside from that in the hotel, a strip joint called, enticingly, Olga’s. Onstage, a woman naked but for two nipple tassels was performing a Cossack dance to a farting trumpet melody. It wasn’t so much erotic as queasily gynaecological, but the few punters were observing with an expression of studied contemplation, as if they were trying to enjoy an opera. David recognised one of the men without being able to say where from. Trying to ignore it, he had a brandy and looked glumly at the entry on Budapest in his guidebook.
Eventually, he noticed a woman with a short peroxide-blonde pixie cut and a faded Joy Division t-shirt sitting in a secluded corner, reading something with Latin lettering on the cover. He wandered over.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s the book?”
“Oh, it’s trash,” she said. “The Dark Wind trilogy.” She had a slight accent; German, perhaps, or Dutch. “I’m Hanna.”
“David.”
She nudged a chair out from the table with her foot. “You sound English. I’ve not seen you here before. How long have you been trying?”
David sat. “Trying?”
“You know, to stay. I’ve been here for over a year. Every three months I have to cross back over to Moldova and get another visa. It’s a bitch.” Hanna yawned. “But I’m close this time. I can feel it.”
“I’m just visiting,” said David.
She laughed. “Just visiting! Do you not know what this place is?”
“Uh, yeah,” said David. “Or I thought I did.”
“No you didn’t.” A suggestive little grin. “But let me guess. As soon as you knew that Transporenia existed, you suddenly realised that you had to come here. You didn’t know exactly why. But you had to come. Like the whole country was some one big magnet pulling you towards it.”
“I don’t-”
“Oh, you had reasons. The rouble is very weak, you could buy lots of cheap stuff. Or you wanted to see the tank graveyard. Shit, maybe you’re some kind of nostalgic commie. Whatever. That came afterwards. But first, you knew you had to come. You weren’t satisfied with your life at home, and you knew you had to come. It was like an itch. Am I right?”
“Yeah. How can you know that?”
“Goddamn it. You’re going to stay here. You’ll never leave this country.” She poured him a glass of brandy. “Congratulations, man.”
Hanna’s confidence worried David a little. It was true; he couldn’t explain exactly why he had come. But Transporenia was strange and threatening; he certainly had no intention of setting up his home there. He didn’t say that, though. They clinked glasses. “Nazdrav,” said David. Hanna eyed him suspiciously.
“How long have you been in Transporenia?” she said.
“Since last night.”
“Nazdrav is what the Transporenians say when they drink. You’ll stay for sure. You’re learning the verdomd language already.”
“I doubt it. I have a job to get to back home, you know.”
“And what job is that?” She twirled the straw of her drink round a finger.
“Why don’t you tell me? You seem to know everything about me already.”
“I don’t know a thing about you. I just know about people who come to Transporenia. But let me see… you’re an actuary. No. A funeral director. Something very, very dull and very, very serious.”
David laughed. “Not quite.”
“Give me a day. I’ll work it out.”
“And what about you?”
“I’m trying to stay in Transporenia. Believe me, it’s a full-time job.” Onstage, the dancer lay on her back and performed the splits. Hanna stood up “This part of Transporenia, though, I do not like. I think I will go to bed. I’ll see you, I’m sure.” As she turned to leave she paused. “I don’t suppose you want to fuck.”
It was a statement, not a question. “Sorry,” said David. With her pointedly elfine little face and her air of wry knowing Hanna was far from unattractive, but she was right; he didn’t.
“Oh, not at all. You’re in chrysalisation. See you around, grazadya.”
David knew that grazadya meant citizen; he must have picked it up by osmosis. He finished his drink and left not long after. As he walked past the stage he realised where he recognised the silent watching customer from: it was President Bogarikov.

David ran into Hanna again the next morning buying coffee at a bakery in the old town. She refused to expand on any of her gnomic comments from the previous night, but did say a little about why she was trying so hard to stay in Transporenia, matter-of-factly, without any apparent shame.
Hanna van der Kolk had never really enjoyed her life all that much. The girls at school hadn’t been very kind to her; she’d worn her hair short even then, she listened to death metal and didn’t have any boyfriends. They’d called her a dyke. Her mother kept on telling Hanna to just grow her hair out; she couldn’t understand that her daughter didn’t want to be happy. Hanna had gone to the University of Antwerp and it’d been slightly better; there were people a little like herself, people who wore a lot of black and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of made-up worlds, but she was still acutely aware that, in some ineffable way, she wasn’t like them at all. She’d had flings but there were still no boyfriends; she was fond of some of the men in her circle but their advances repulsed her, they were always bungling or lecherous, their foreheads clammy with desperation. Hanna tried it with girls a few times and almost managed to convince herself that she liked it, but she could never climax – every time she came close the whispered taunt of lesbisch and all the shame and fury that went with it would sound in her ear. One bright cold morning, she climbed up to the top of the main building in the Middelheim campus and stood there for an hour, contemplating the spindly tree-trunks and the grass coruscating with frost below, thinking about jumping. She hadn’t actually wanted to, she explained, but she’d wanted to want to. Not long afterwards, Hanna read something about Transporenia on the Internet. Within a week she’d abandoned her studies and was en route to Moldova, because she knew, instinctively, that Transporenia would be better.
“And is it?” said David. “Better, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” said Hanna. “I’m not here yet.”

When he was 17, David Rosenthal had written an essay on the Freudian death-drive for school.
Freud’s late concept of Thanatos, he wrote, has been subject to extensive criticism. Many in the analytic community found it untenable that human beings nurse a secret desire for self-extinction. In fact, with Thanatos, Freud offers humanity its salvation. Without it, we are slaves to our id and the repressive mechanisms that seek to rein it in, reducible to our sexuality. The will to death liberates us. In our own deaths we find a higher purpose above our animal pleasures.
He was, of course, still a virgin at the time. Needless to say, the school counsellor was highly concerned.

Hanna insisted on showing David some of the local attractions. They walked to the home of Ivan, a Transporenian friend of hers who she said would drive them to the Greek ruins outside the city. Ivan was a slight man with pince-nez and a tweed jacket slightly too big for him; he greeted Hanna with a slightly bashful kiss on the lips. His tiny apartment was full of chintzy ornaments; a fat white cat wallowed on one table, lazily flicking its tail at the Lilliputian porcelain figurines that surrounded it. After the obligatory coffee, served in thin glasses with artificial sweetener and strained conversation, they set off.
The ancient Greek archaeological site lay a couple of miles down the valley from Suvorovigrad. As he drove his battered Trabant 601 through the hills, Ivan talked in fractured English about his studies at the Suvorovigrad Technical Institute, until at one unremarkable point he pulled over suddenly by the side of the road.
“Over this hill,” he said, opening the door. “Come.”
As he crested the hill, David saw why. Below them, a small valley was filled with tanks piled up on top of each other in a monstrous heap almost as tall as the hills themselves, some torn into molten fragments, some rusting into each other, their hulls scarred and warped, mottled with the gently decaying shades of a forest floor in autumn. Here and there were white flashes of sun-bleached bones, tarnished shell casings, and what looked like spear heads. The crickets sang a monotone threnody.
“Jesus,” said David.
Hanna nodded.
“But –I thought we were going to the archaeological site.”
“This is it,” said Hanna.
Ivan went to stand against one of the bombed-out tanks. “The ancient Greeks come here in the sixth century before Christ,” he said. “The city they build here is a colony of Miletus. They call the city Hephaestopolis. In the War of Transporenia the Greeks fight on the side of Moldova. From here in Hephaestopolis the Greek tanks, the Anaximenes division, they fire at Suvorovigrad. Very bad. I am only a child when they do the bombing, but I remember. Every day, you hear them… boom! Boom! The next shell, it can kill your friend, your family, it could go into your home. No shops are open, everyone is scared, everyone stays inside, we are very hungry. Many hundreds are dead. Then the Russian MiG fighters come, and fwoosh! They blow up all the Miletus soldiers. Suvorovigrad is saved.”
David walked up to the closest tank. Fading into the rust, the letters ΜΊΛΗΤΟΣ were just visible in bubbling white paint. A Corinthian helmet was half-crushed under its treads. He knew that something about the archaeological site didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t work out what; it frustrated him, like a word on the tip of his tongue.

When he arrived at the hotel bar that night Eduard and his friend were already there. They were drinking vodka and eating some kind of shellfish David didn’t recognise: as he walked in Eduard’s friend was prising open a dark purple shell with a steak knife and dousing the thing inside with salt.
“David from Manchester United!” said Eduard. “Join us, my friend.”
His friend shook the shellfish into his glass. It frothed and flailed a little, then went limp. He drank it down. He was a tall, sheer man, all points: pointed cheekbones, pointed elbows, a pointed stare; an absurd stick insect of a man next to Edouard’s tumescent caterpillar.
Eduard poured David a shot. “Nazdrav!” he said. “David, this is Konstantin. He is a very good friend of mine.” Eduard’s bloated nose was red; his eyes were threaded with fine veins. His voice was already slurred.
“David,” said David, shaking his hand. Konstantin looked into his eyes with the clear watchfulness of a predator lying in wait. David drank. “Cheers.”
“You are drinking wrong,” said Eduard. “This is Ukrainian pertsivka; it is not your Smirnoff. You do not throw it down your neck. You drink like this, slowly. Look.” He poured himself a glass. “Nazdrav!”
Konstantin took up the steak knife. Instead of cracking open another shellfish, he twirled it on his fingertip. “Ya chotz vas glaznotzha ablukh,” he said, slowly, drawling over every syllable.
Eduard giggled. “My friend is saying: I will cut out your eyeball.”
“Vas glaznotzha,” said Konstantin again. He didn’t smile. Eduard collapsed into a laughing fit. Konstantin took a small dark marble out from the pocket of his threadbare coat. “Vas glaznotzha.”
“I think I should go,” said David.
“No, no, you must stay. You are a guest here. It is just Konstantin’s joke. Shutka, da, Konstantin?”
“Da,” said Konstantin. His gaze hadn’t moved from David. “Prosto shutka.”
Eduard poured out three drinks. “Good, good. We are all friends, yes?”
Konstantin was still staring at David. He didn’t seem to blink. Without looking, he opened another shellfish, salted it, and slid into his drink. He didn’t put the knife down. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he said eventually.
“Eine kleine,” lied David. “Français?”
“Nyet, nyet.” He jabbed a bony finger at David. “You… you are very ugly.”
“Thanks,” said David, with a hemiplegiac smile.
“Eduard, he very ugly also. He is old man. But you are very ugly. You are very ugly young man.” He drank, as if to underline the point. “Is this why you come to Transporenia? Because you are very ugly man?”
“He has come to Transporenia for the women,” chortled Eduard. “Haven’t you? The most beautiful women on Earth.”
“What do you know of Transporenia?” said Konstantin. “Nothing. You… you do not know Transporenia. You come here. But you do not know it, this country.”
“That’s why I came,” said David. “I wanted to find out. I’m interested.”
“To find out! You sit in your house, your big house, and you say: I will find out Transporenia! Very easy for you, yes? A good… a good… optusk?”
“Vacation,” said Eduard.
“A good vacation. Da. You do not know Transporenia. Let me tell you story. I fight War of Transporenia in year 1992. We are at Battle Priadzhat. We are in town Priadzhat. The Moldovan men, they are around us on all sides. All the men, the women in town Priadzhat, the Moldovans kill them all. When we come there, they have bodies on the street. We are in trenches. My friend next to me, he stand up, a sniper bullet take him,” – he placed his finger on David’s cheek, just below his left eye – “it take him right here. I see this, I see his skin tear off, I see his bone break, I see his glaznotzha – his eyeball – I see it fall in the mud. He is dead. Very good friend. This is why I say to you: I will take it out your eyeball.”
Eduard tried to suppress a giggle.
“Then his mother, my friend, for days she cry. She does not eat. She has no husband. No son. She die as well. From sadness. He was a real man. She was a real woman. A human, understand? And they die. For this!” He looked around at the half-empty bar. “For Transporenia. For independence. For you to sit and say: I want know Transporenia. I want find out. I’m interested.” Konstantin poured himself another glass of vodka and looked at it gloomily. “You should not have come to Transporenia,” he said. “You are young man. Even though you very ugly. Transporenia is not for young men. When you old, and you tired, and you no longer love your life, then you come to Transporenia when it calls. Not now.”
“How do you know I’m not tired already?” said David.
“Maybe you are. But you are young man. It can get better.” Konstantin looked up at David again, but there was no menace in his predator-stare now. “You should go back to your mother. Go back to your girlfriend. Say to her: I am sorry. I was wrong. I love you. I should not have come to Transporenia.” He raised his glass. “Nazdrav,” he mumbled.
Eduard clapped his hands. “We must play cards!” he said.

David didn’t see Eduard and Konstantin for the next couple of days; he didn’t see Hanna or Ivan either. She was right: the Transporenian language was remarkably easy to pick up. The odd word would rise out of the hubbub of conversation surrounding him in canteens and parks and make itself known. Transporenians complained about the price of bread, they talked about their hopes for their children, they gossiped about the indiscretions of their friends. But some of their conversation was plain bizarre. David heard two cackling toothless old women in peasant shawls telling each other fast-paced jokes; from what he could make out of them, they were all about the penises of nineteenth-century philosophers.
“Schopenhauer,” one said. “Korotik, no ochen tolsty.”
“Nietzsche,” said the other. “Ona dolyazha ibyet kroshenka!” She held up her thumb and forefinger to demonstrate.
“Kierkegaardat ochen, ochen stronay.”
Other stuff filtered in as well. He woke up one morning suddenly knowing what the other towers that surrounded the Hotel Rimniksky contained: the other operational building housed the Ministry of Ephemera, the three empty husks had been shelled in the War of Transporenia; before that they had been the Palace of Arts and Meteorologies, the headquarters of the Transporenian Union for Socialist Journalism, and the All-Soviet Institute for Experimental Research in the Science of Marxism-Leninism. That same day he noticed the secret police agent who had been silently trailing him since he’d arrived in the country. After that, whenever they saw each other they’d share a nod of mutual recognition.

Not long after, David went out in the morning to find a strange silence had enveloped the streets of Suvorovigrad. Even his secret policeman seemed to have other business. As he meandered in the direction of the old town a taxi pulled up suddenly next to him.
“My friend, you must come!” said Eduard, leaning out the window. “The big parade is today!”
The boulevard running to the Supreme Soviet was packed with people grinning and waving flags. On the street, a detachment of Transporenian soldiers in olive-green uniforms with peaked caps and ceremonial scimitars goose-stepped past. They were followed by workers in boiler suits holding up hammer-and-sickle flags and portraits of Stalin and Bogarikov. The biggest cheer went to the Russians, who were parading in their black uniforms with a hefty assortment of tanks, artillery pieces, and flatbed missile launchers. They were all still wearing their gas masks.
“Why are they wearing masks?” said David.
Eduard waved a hand. “It is nonsense. The Kremlin is worried. They don’t want them to breathe the air in Transporenia.”
“It’s not safe?”
“Ha! I have been breathing the air of Transporenia all my life. Do I not look healthy to you?” David didn’t say anything. Eduard let off a stinking laugh. “OK, OK. But that is because I drink too much kvinitsk. You are a sensible young man, no?”
After the last rocket launcher crawled past there followed a group of old men in grey suits waving at the crowd.
“These men, they are the Party officials,” said Eduard.
“Communist Party, right?”
“Kommunistichesk? No, no. The Communists are banned. They would be arrested. Everyone in Transporenia must be a member of Partiya Yedintsev. It is the only party.”
“But the hammers and sickles?”
“Yes. That is a kind of a joke. All Transporenians are Slavic, yes? Like in Russia. And the Moldovans speak Romanian. So we are saying to Moldova: you might be the big country now, but remember, we used to rule you!” He laughed. “It is a very funny joke.”
“And the Partiya Yed…”
“Partiya Yedintsev. It is the only party.”
“What’s it mean?”
“The Only Party. Because it is the only party allowed.”
“So if everyone’s a member of the Only Party, who’s in the Communist Party?”
Eduard gaped at him as if he were simple. “Who would be in the Communist party? Nobody is in the Communist Party. It is banned.”

The parade had been in commemoration of the opening of Suvorovigrad’s first Internet café. David had almost forgotten about the Internet; he hadn’t even read a newspaper in weeks. When he went the next day the place was all but deserted: Transporenians might like a good parade but they didn’t seem to particularly care about any new technology that couldn’t be used to vaporise Moldovan soldiers. When he checked the news online everything was pretty much the same. Wars were going badly; governments were double-dipping into various financial abysses; celebrities were racists, rapists, or otherwise thoroughly unpleasant people; the whole pointless business of the world had been continuing its diurnal cycle of disintegration quite happily without his knowledge. People didn’t read the newspaper in Transporenia, he realised. Transporenia always stayed the same: there was Bogarikov, and an independence that would never be recognised by the rest of the world, and that was that.
There was slightly more going on when he checked his email inbox. It was stuffed with messages, all of them from Jean Parson:

where are u? jean x

Seriously, David, where are you? None of us can contact you, all Alex is saying is that you’ve ‘gone’, she’s really upset. You haven’t gone off to Moldova have you? Please reply as soon as you get this!!! Jean

ok david this isn’t funny, please at least let us know you’re alright. jean

david this isnt a fucking joke. alex had to go back to manchester, she’s in a really bad state, you’ve seriously hurt her, she thinks its her fault. i cant believe youd just desert her like this, it’s incredibly selfish and frankly revolting. i don’t know what you think youre doing but you’ve completely wrecked our holiday & broken the heart of a good person who really cared about you. the very least you could do is try to explain yourself, this silence is infantile & pathetic!! grow some fucking balls at least. jean

hey david. fuck you, you piece of SHIT

Another world. An impossibly distant world, one David Rosenthal didn’t live in any more.

That night in his big empty room in the Hotel Rimniksky, David dreamed he was having sex with Jean Parson. They were twisted together on the sofa in Ivan’s apartment in Suvorovigrad; the ornaments covering every flat surface tinkled with every movement, Jean was making all the right noises, her body writhing deliciously, and David was utterly bored by the whole ordeal. Eventually, overcome by desperation, he made one long thrust and let out a low groan. Jean feigned satisfaction, but he’d clearly overdone it. She knew he was faking.

In the morning, he found Hanna waiting for him in the hotel lobby. One of Ivan’s lecturers at the Technical Institute was hosting a small dinner party that evening; as a foreign guest his presence would be very welcome.
David wore a nice striped shirt Alexandra had picked out for him once and a pair of Oxfords he hadn’t worn since the restaurant in Budapest. He found his way to the apartment, which was on the other side of the city, almost instinctually. From the address Hanna had given him he knew to take the number 3 tram from Pritneskya Street; he even knew that the apartment would be in the tower block with the stained white tiling covering its West face. It was as if he’d lived in Suvorovigrad his entire life.
There were only six people at the party. The two other students were a little like Ivan: gangly, with big eyes and archaic clothing. They were very interested in David; they wanted to know everything about England.
“Is it true,” one asked over drinks, “that in England to see a woman’s ankle is offensive?”
“Is it true that in England it is only allowed to hunt for foxes?”
“Is it true that in England they have statues of the Queen in churches instead of the Virgin Mary?”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” said David. “I’m Jewish.”
They didn’t really get the joke, but it set them off with increased vigour. They wanted to know if the Zionists really controlled the British parliament, if the Jews really spat on crucifixes in synagogue services, if David really owned an entire bank. Their antisemitism was naïve and without much malice; they weren’t accusing him of anything, they were genuinely curious. Throughout all this the lecturer stayed silent. A knowing grin was buried somewhere under his bushy auburn beard.
After a dinner of veal stew the lecturer served coffee, and Ivan and Hanna fucked on a table. As they watched Ivan’s lecturer would occasionally raise a finger and nod, as if to commend the student on his technique. There was a light smattering of nervous applause when she came. David felt claustrophobic; his collar stuck sweatily to his neck, he thirsted for cold air and solitude. For the first time in years he really needed a cigarette. Having wordlessly borrowed one from one of the students he went out to the balcony to smoke it.
Across the glittering plain of Suvorovigrad, the Hotel Rimniksky reared up like a Japanese B-movie monster. David felt a sudden need to be back there, in his room with its vast empty spaces and brandy on tap. But it would be rude to excuse himself from the party before Ivan had finished, and in any case he had no real desire to go back into that room. Of course, he realised: he could fly. So he stubbed out his cigarette, and leapt from the balcony.

David hovered in the air for a while just outside the window. None of the people inside seemed to have noticed him; they were still busy watching Ivan and Hanna. He set off. At first he flew straight for the hotel, but after a minute or so he decided that he may as well have some fun: he adopted a Superman pose and roared into the night, he described a series of increasingly vertiginous loops, he flew straight up to see the whole of Suvorovigrad spread out below him. Eventually, coasting lazily on his stomach high above the streets, he came to the hotel. Just as he was about to alight on the roof, the wind blowing up one face of the tower hit him and he was suddenly caught, tumbling upwards in a flailing panic, faster and faster, corkscrewing into the upper atmosphere. David’s breath came in jagged gasps. His heart tapped a frenzied drumroll. The air was freezing; it was taking on the chilling touch of the void. For a moment David saw the whole region arcing in front of him: Suvorovigrad was a tiny splodge of light; Chişinău a messy blot, Bucharest a shining sprawl in the distance. The golden fringe of dusk hung perilously on the edge of the Earth’s curvature. It was beautiful. David knew he was going to die.
Somehow he managed to stabilise himself and fly out of the ferocious column of air. David half-fell, half-flew back to the ground. Exhausted, he dragged himself through the hotel lobby and collapsed into bed.

The next day, just before dawn, he was arrested.

First came the loud knock on the door. Then the voice.
“David Rosenthal,” it barked. “You are under arrest. Please pack your possessions.”
It was David’s secret policeman; he was surrounded by Russian soldiers in heavy black armour clutching Kalashnikovs, the goggles of their gas masks gazing unfeelingly into the middle distance.
David was cuffed and blindfolded. In the lift he heard the gentle click of a key: his secret policeman was unlocking the cage to the other, forbidden ground floor. The soldiers marched him out the hotel and into a waiting vehicle; he didn’t struggle; knowing, somehow, through his fear, that he was guilty, that he deserved it all. As the car bumped through pothole-riddled boulevards, rattling along until his terror faded into boredom, he didn’t speak. Eventually he was dragged out and taken into another building; when his blindfold was removed he was sitting in a large well-furnished office before a broad mahogany desk. A man sat across from him under a portrait of President Bogarikov. At first David couldn’t make him out in the sudden brightness, but as his eyes cooled the stick-thin man in front of him was unmistakeable. It was Konstantin.
“Konstantin?” said David. “I confess. I-”
“Look again,” said Konstantin.
Bogarikov looked at him from the portrait. Bogarikov looked at him from across the desk. His face and Konstantin’s were overlaid on top of each other, occupying the same space, shifting into each other like colours in an oil spill.
“You’re Bogarikov?”
“Sometimes. I’m surprised you didn’t recognise me after you saw me at Olga’s. That you didn’t realise that Eduard was also your secret police agent. Or that your friend Ivan was also the border guard you met when you arrived here. I’m disappointed. Well. No matter now.” He shuffled a stack of papers on his desk. “You are under arrest because you have violated the terms of your tourist visa. You acquired Transporenian ontology. You flew.”
“How did you know?”
“How could we not know? You’re no great aeronaut. Now. You have a choice. We can deport you. We can put you in a car under armed guard and send you back across the border to Moldova. You can go back to your flat. You can go back to Alexandra. She’ll be angry, I’m sure. But she’ll take you back. She loves you, you know, even if she doesn’t always know how to show it. That is your first choice. As I told you before, you’re a young man, David. You might feel like you are not at home in the world. But it can get better.”
“And the other choice?”
“You can stay. Here. In Transporenia.”
“I want to stay. There’s nothing for me back there.”
“You know what this place is, I take it?”
“I think so.”
Konstantin arched his fingertips on the desk. “Tell me.”
“It’s a country that doesn’t exist. It’s not real. When you fought that war, you weren’t just fighting for independence from Moldova. You gained your independence from the whole of reality.”
“It might not be better, you know. Just because this place isn’t real doesn’t mean you’ll be happy here.”
“I know. I want to stay.”
Konstantin sighed. “I can’t stop you.”
“What about Hanna?”
“Hanna van der Kolk? She will never stay here. She wants it. She wills herself to be unhappy. Not like you. She is not of the symparanekromenoi. She will keep on trying. Maybe for the rest of her life.” Konstantin drew out a single sheet from the stack of papers. “This is your naturalisation form. Before I sign it: are you sure you want this?”
“I’m sure,” said David. “I’m sure.” He frowned at Konstantin. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Transporenia, of course. Maybe before that I was from somewhere else. It’s hard to say.” He took a quill pen and signed the document. “Congratulations, grazadya.”

Afterwards, David went outside, and saw Transporenia as it really was.

The Mirror Stages

Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of man.
Jorge Luis Borges

Seven years old, alone and bored in the flat, Yusuf K. (1) walked through the mirror to the other side.
He hadn’t been told not to, after all, he reasoned. His mother had told him not to watch TV and to do his colouring or read a book instead. He’d disobeyed, of course, but there’d been nothing good on; no cartoons, only boring grown-up programmes where people just sat and talked. It was his own fault, he knew; if he didn’t keep getting suspended from school he wouldn’t be so bored the whole time. But it was his mother’s fault too: how could she leave him alone there, with nothing to do? She had a job, but she also had a son; he should have been her first priority.
He watched the mirror for a while before he went in.
“Come on,” said his mirror-self. “Or are you scared?”
Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t scared. So he walked through.
For a while he and his mirror-self lay on the sofa and talked. His mirror-self wanted to show Yusuf K. (1) some of his books, but the writing was all backwards and he couldn’t understand it. Then they played noughts and crosses.
“You’ve got your pen in the wrong hand,” said Yusuf K. (1).
“No,” said his mirror-self. “You do.”
“No, you.”
And so on.
Eventually they heard the sound of the key in the lock. Yusuf K. (1)’s mirror-self dragged him behind an armchair.
“Well,” said his mother as she walked into the room, “Have you been good?”
“Don’t make a sound,” whispered the mirror-self.
“Oh,” said his mother. She left the room and called out into the hallway: “Yusuf!” There was the sound of a door opening. And then again: “Yusuf!” Wardrobe doors slamming. “Yusuf, this isn’t funny! Come here at once!”
By the time the police arrived Yusuf K. (1) was starting to feel a little guilty, but his mirror-self pulled on his sleeve whenever he made a move to come out from behind the armchair. His mother was almost in tears.
“He doesn’t have a key,” she said. “I can’t bear to think what could’ve happened.”
A policeman put one hand on her shoulder. “Can you think why he might have left?” he said.
“Oh, he was angry at me. Because I’d left him here. He was suspended from school, you see. Oh, Yusuf. I’m so sorry.” A tiny, hiccoughing sob.
Yusuf K. (1) poked his head out. In the mirror, one of the policemen suddenly looked up. “Oi oi,” he said. “You might want to look at this.”
Yusuf K. (1) met his mother’s gaze across the glass. She ran up to the mirror. “Yusuf!” she shouted. “You come out of there right now, do you hear me? Do you have any idea how worried you’ve made me?”
Reluctantly, looking downwards, Yusuf K. (1) crawled out from the mirror.
“I’m so sorry to have wasted your time,” his mother said to the police. “It won’t happen again.”
After that, Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t allowed to watch TV for a month. His mother also threw out all the mirrors in the flat except a little one in her bedroom. He didn’t really mind. It had been diverting, but he didn’t really like his mirror-self all that much. He was such a crude boy.

Walking to the bar, Yusuf K. (2) couldn’t help but glance at the mirror on the far wall. Reflected, the Brute glanced back.
“You know,” said Amina, smiling wryly, “you are one vain motherfucker. You can’t walk past a mirror without checking yourself out.”
“I’m not checking myself out,” said Yusuf K. (2).
“Oh yeah? What are you doing then?”
How could he explain? It was only their second date; he didn’t want to lay any heavy shit on her. She certainly didn’t have to know about the Brute.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just a mirror, innit?”
Behind the bar and the rows of blue and green bottles was another mirror. Yusuf K. (2) tried to concentrate on the barman. Misinterpreting the intensity of his gaze, the poor guy hurried over with an obsequious grin. “And what shall I get you, sir?”
“Pint of Foster’s, mate,” said Yusuf K. (2). “And…”
“Gin and bitter lemon, please,” said Amina.
“Gin and bitter lemon,” he repeated.
He stared at his pint as it was poured, ever aware that the Brute was waiting for him just a few metres away, watching with him. He gripped the rail along the bar until his fingers felt numb.
“Are you OK?” said Amina. She laughed. “Dude, don’t get all nervous now.”
Why did she have to mention the mirror? Everything could have been fine, but she had to be so perceptive… the fucking bitch! And there his will broke; his head jerked up, and he looked into the mirror. Amina was there, all delicate points and feminine curves, a look of faint worry exquisitely torturing her round eyes and little pink-painted lips… and standing next to her was the Brute. The Brute’s jaw jutted out, his stubble was thick and barbed, his eyes looked straight at Yusuf K. (2) not with any murderous evil but with a simple base animal incomprehension. The Brute’s face wasn’t really a face, just a mess of skin and orifices jumbled together without any unifying principle beyond its own dissonance, its own ugliness, the propulsive power of its own empty threatening stare. And there it was, the now-familiar shock of non-recognition. This was what he – he, Yusuf K. (2), a thing of light and thought – looked like to other people, this was the face Amina saw when she talked to him. She was such a nice girl! How could she bear to go for an intimate drink with the Brute?
“Seven pound twenty, please,” said the barman.
He should have taken her somewhere else, somewhere without mirrors, somewhere the Brute couldn’t find him. Too late now. The Brute was reflected in Yusuf K (2)’s eyes. Without saying a word, he turned around and left.

“And the bottom line?” said Dr Quigley.
“A, G, K, X, Q,” said Yusuf K. (3).
“That’s right,” said Dr Quigley. “For a man of your age, your eyesight is close to perfect.”
“I could have told you that myself,” said Yusuf K. (3). “Don’t need a Harley Street doctor to let me know I can see just fine. Can I go now?”
After Yusuf K. (3) left, Dr Quigley wrote in his notes: Based on his medical history, the Mirror Man’s eyesight appears entirely unaffected by the change. His pen dithered for a moment over the paper. Nonetheless, he wrote, looking into the Mirror Man’s eyes is a profoundly unsettling and anxiety-inducing experience.
The Daily Eye might have paid for the expensive ophthalmologist, but they weren’t about to chauffer Yusuf K. (3) around the city. He still had to take the bus home, and that meant having to deal with people. When his eyes had first changed, people had started giving him strange, startled looks; it wasn’t until he saw himself in the mirror at home and saw the perfectly reflective globes where his eyes had been that he realised why. Then, when the Daily Eye had run the story on him, he’d become a celebrity overnight. He’d never had so many free pints poured for him; people would walk up to him on the street and ask him – him, of all people! – for an autograph. They’d always seem a little disappointed on receiving it, though. They didn’t want his own name; they’d wanted him to sign as the Mirror Man. That had been two weeks ago. Things had changed.
A few days before, a kid in a hoodie had punched him in the face as he stood on the bus. “Don’t look at me!” he’d bellowed. “Don’t you fucking look at me with them eyes!” It wasn’t just the young and aggressive, though. He’d crossed paths with a group of businessmen; they’d jabbed him with their umbrellas and slapped his legs with their briefcases. As he fell down one of them had given a swift hard kick to his ribs. They hadn’t said anything, they’d just walked on, as if nothing had happened, not even breaking the flow of their conversation.
He could have worn dark glasses, he could have walked the streets unmolested, but something inside him rebelled instinctively at the thought. On the bus he looked out of the window for a while; he flitted between the faces of his fellow-travellers. He got off fairly lightly, really. One passenger standing next to him beat him around the head with a newspaper when their gazes met for a fraction of a second; another kicked him in the shin. Nothing too bad.
As he walked down the street to his house, he was aware of a loud commotion. A large mob of all ages, ethnicities and social classes surrounded the low suburban home, shouting obscenities about the Mirror Man. A few bricks and stones arced up from the mass of people; the thin line of black-clad police protecting his front door tried to bat them away with their shields but without much success. All his windows were broken. The smell of burning was in the air; the chants were witty in their invective; those on the outside of the mob were laughing and chatting happily; there was, in general, a thoroughly pleasant festival atmosphere.
As Yusuf K. (3) approached the crowd he saw the riot police make a desperate dash for him, but it was too late. The crowd was already on him: screaming, flecking him with spittle, lunging at his chest. Their stampeding force knocked him to the ground. Hands, seemingly independently, scrabbled at his face. Yusuf K. (3) knew what they wanted. “Take them!” he shouted. “Take them away from me! I don’t want the things!”

Yusuf K. (4) had painted four parallel lines in bright blue on a primed canvas. They were called Untitled Meditation 8. He sat looking at them. He wished he could scrub them off, sell the canvas back, use the money to do something he actually enjoyed.
Taped to one wall of the studio was a cutting from a review of his exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A new and terrifying force in contemporary painting, the headline said. That had been the opinion of just about everyone. Yusuf K. (4) had been a new and terrifying force. The article went on: Yusuf K. (4)’s works challenge both the lazy conventions of fashionable abstraction and throw down the gauntlet to reactionary realists. His stark, restricted-palette paintings beguile you with their dense swirls of shades and textures; it is only after you have been contemplating their intricately composed harmonies for some time that they coalesce – as if by pareidolia – into recognisable forms, at turns bucolic, erotic, and threatening. Armies of horsemen with demoniac grimaces charge through his paintings, reclining nudes give sultry glances from below the paint, sublime landscapes hover just this side of intelligibility. Yusuf K. (4) gives us the entire history of Western art, recontextualised into something entirely new. From this magnificent exhibition, it’s not hard to see why the established art world is both terrified and entranced by him.
That had been in 1968.
He’d never quite known how he’d done it, exactly. He’d wanted to make abstract art, but before he’d even finished his pencil sketches a shape had always risen out from the mist of curving lines to stare him in the face. At first he’d tried to ignore them; he’d been successful at this for a while, and lived on bread and cheese for months. Eventually he gave in, and became famous.
He’d had a strange gift once, one he’d acquired without ever asking for it. It had stayed for a while, and then gone, and now Yusuf K. (4) was reduced to painting blue lines on white canvases, like the peddlers of lazy abstraction who had once found him so fearsome. Except, as all the critics agreed, Yusuf K. (4)’s blue lines on white canvases were without much merit. They had to review his exhibitions, in smaller and smaller galleries, on account of his name, but when they did the verdict was always the same. His works didn’t suggest anything, they didn’t conjure anything, they didn’t reflect anything. Yusuf K. (4) just wasn’t a very good artist any more.

The conspiracy theory of Disneyland

The monotheistic desert is a passageway through which the Earth’s ultimate blasphemy with the Outside smuggles itself in and begins to unfold. The apocalyptic desert is a field through which the Tellurian dynamics of the Earth can be ingrained within anthropomorphic belief systems. In which case, there is no worse blasphemy than ‘Thy Kingdom come.’
Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia

A while ago, I wrote that I was beginning to have doubts about the theory of simulacrum. In my last days in California, I put my scepticism to the test: I went to Disneyland. What I found there troubled and fascinated me. After my return the same images kept on flashing through my mind: the running children, the laughing children, the children bellowing in fury as their parents dragged them through the exit, the omnipresent insistence on happiness, the cold blank faces of the animatronic puppets, the bloodshot eyes of the actresses playing the various princesses. A lot of it had been unproblematic fun: the rollercoasters, the shooting ranges, the meticulous detailing – but there was something pervasively sinister about the park. Mr Toad’s Wild Ride ended implausibly with a descent into Hell, where he presumably now suffers for eternity. The robotic vultures in Splash Mountain cackled over my impending death. The ‘happiest cruise that ever sailed’ seemed intent on slowly driving me insane with each repetition of its shrieking refrain. I had to find an explanation for what I had seen. I started to read up on the place.

There was plenty to read: so much has been said about Disneyland. The lingering racism of Adventureland has been thoroughly picked apart, the progression of Tomorrowland from naive liberal utopianism to ironic steampunk to brushed-aluminium iFuturism has been exhaustively documented, the strangely totalitarian way in which the Haunted Mansion’s automated cars ensure a uniformity of experience for all visitors has been subject to an excess of theorisation. Everyone already knows that if you stand to one side of the statue of Walt and Mickey on Main Street USA, Mickey’s snout looks like Walt’s erect penis. Baudrillard was fascinated by the place, devoting much of America to a meditation on it. Eco famously compared a cruise down the Mississippi unfavourably to its imitation in Frontierland. But in my research, I found myself heading down entirely unexpected routes.

The theorists of Disneyland all make the same category error: they all approach Disneyland and its projected reality as an intrinsically modern – or indeed postmodern – phenomenon. They’re wrong. Walking into the park, a sign informs you that ‘here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.’ The sign is more accurate than most visitors realise. When you go through the gates of Disneyland you enter the bowels of something sublimely ancient, something whose avaricious fantasies have shaped the nature of our world for centuries, something grasping to claim our future.

The notes that follow are the result of weeks of frenzied research. The employees at the British Library know me well by now: I’m always already there when they open in the morning, pacing up and down in front of the building in the chilly dawn light, taking quick nervous drags from a cigarette. I’ve been growing steadily more neurotic. The sound of helicopters has me slamming down windows and pulling curtains. My hands shake uncontrollably, even as I type. Still, I feel I have to share what I have learned. I’ve tried to present my findings as objectively and as comprehensively as possible, but it’s not always easy to maintain an academic tone when under such stress. This is the true story of Disneyland.

The Cult of Penew-Nekhet: an overview

The story of Disneyland begins in ancient Egypt, with the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, or the All-conquering Mouse. While animal cults such as that of Apis the bull at Heliopolis date back six thousand years to the predynastic period, that of Penew-Nekhet appears to be comparatively recent. While it may have been operating clandestinely for some time beforehand, its existence is first documented during the reign of Amenemhat II around 1923 BCE. In contrast to other Egyptian animal religions, the Cult was not demotic in character: public ceremonies were rare, with carvings attesting to only one: a monument to Sobekneferu at Gezer records among her few achievements during her three-year reign the ‘inauguration of the games of the Mouse.’ Instead its practitioners were drawn almost entirely from the aristocratic nomarch-class, with rites performed in secret in their provincial estates. The Cult was also unique in that the archaeological record gives no indication that ritual burials and mummification of mice ever took place: rather, Cultists would adorn the inside of their houses with imagery of mice shown enjoying positions of luxury, often being waited on by cats, as in the ostrakon above. That no mouse-related imagery has been found on the outside of palaces or funerary complexes attests to the shifting nature of the relationship between the nomes and Pharaonic power during the Middle Kingdom: at times the Cult was tolerated or endorsed, as was the case under Sobekneferu; at times it was suppressed – whatever the political situation, its practitioners did their utmost to conceal their secret religion.

The unique character of the mouse-cult can to some extent be explained by the unique character of the mouse in Egyptian thought of the time. In the ancient Egyptian language, the word penew was always singular. Records do not describe an arov penewt, or plague of mice, but always an arov penew, a plague of mouse. Mice were conceived of as a single substance; like flies or worms, they were presumed to emerge from spontaneous generation, with the murine principle of Penew-Nekhet directing their abiogenesis. This is why members of the Cult continued to keep cats and lay traps for mice, while in other cults the killing of the sacred animal was taboo: the object of their worship was not the individual mouse but mouse in the abstract. Mice, which caused famine by eating grain in warehouses, were commonly recognised as a symbol of death, while with their subterranean burrows they were thought to have a privileged connection with the Underworld. The Cult of Penew-Nekhet could therefore be considered as an incipient Satanism in an era preceding such Manichaean moral divisions: the image of the cat waiting on the mouse indicates a total reversal of the accepted moral order. The focus on imagery and representation over the Real is also significant: in such images the seed of Disneyland’s spectacle can be seen.

It is not known exactly when the Cult of Penew-Nekhet spread to Greece, but it was well known by Homer’s time. In the Iliad he describes Chryses as being among its numbers:

Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand a sceptre crowned with the symbol of the mouse and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs, and who too were worshippers of his cult. “Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Zeus, and to the image of the Mouse, before which we prostrate ourselves as one.”

While the secrecy of the Egyptian cult and the lack of any records concerning its rituals make it hard to ascertain to what extent the Greek manifestation was continuous with it, the same themes (inversion of morality, adoration of images and representations, the chthonic) are present in accounts of Penew-Nekhet rites. As in Egypt, worshippers of the Cult were drawn from the aristocracy, and it intermittently stood as a vehicle of aristocratic class solidarity against monarchical power. Unlike the contemporaneous Bacchanalian mysteries, practitioners were uniformly male, and there was no element of eroticism. In one fragment from Herodotus, a ritual in Epheseus is described:

The supplicants, wearing the crowns and masks of a king, then threw themselves to the ground before the statue of the mouse, and wailed, “O destroyer, O bringer of famine, may your desolation stretch across the world!” As their wailing grew louder it was joined by the beat of a drum and the sounding of a salpinx [trumpet]. At this point two slaves put the torch to the pyramid of grain that had been built on a stone altar in the centre of the circle and it leaped instantly into flame. The initiates then gathered around the fire, but did not dance to the drum. Instead they cried bitterly, pulling at their hair and clothes, and lamenting the loss of their grain. When I asked why, I was told, “We are rich men, and we have no lack of grain; but during the rite it is as if we are peasants, and our sorrow is real. This sorrow is felt by Nikheis Pondiki [Penew-Nekhet] and by the Earth, and we gain many great powers.”

References to the Cult during later antiquity are patchy. The early Christians were aware of it: the apocryphal Gospel of Munimius cautions ‘Therefore be not as the hypocrites, who make sacrifices for the eyes of the crowd, nor as the rich men, who in their mansions bow in unison before the Mouse, but worship alone according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and not the flesh.‘ It is known that the emperor Elegabalus had the town of Croceae razed to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered in 218 CE after he applied to join the Cult there and was rejected.

This antipathy between the Cult and Christianity, and the far more established enmity between the aristocratic Cultists and Pharaonic and royal power, melted away with the Donation of Constantine. The first Christian Emperor was drawn from a respectable lineage of Cultists – his grandfather Eutropius was an Illyrian nobleman who, as the Historia Augusta describes, ‘Held in his villa secret gatherings of the gentry, for which the city of Sminthium [city of the mouse] in Moesia Superior, which he founded, was named.‘ Indeed, in some depictions of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, such as the one shown above (which is now housed in the Vatican’s private collections), the sign appearing in the sky is not that of the cross, but the trinod, or thrice-weaved circle, of the Cult of Nikheis Pondiki/Penew-Nekhet. As many modern historians have concluded, Constantine was in all likelihood not a genuine adherent to Christianity, but one who saw in this supposedly subversive new faith the potential to build a more unified empire. However, doing so would require the neutralisation of much of extant Christianity. Following from his incorporation of the Christian faith and Imperial power with the Council of Nicaea, Constantine instigated the removal of Arians and other Eastern heretics from the Church hierarchy, replacing them with trusted members of the Cult. Christianity proved a far more amenable vessel than chaotic paganism for the furthering of the Cult’s secret plans: institutional Christianity quickly set about suppressing the unbridled, sexualised Dionysian cults, declaring them as Satanic; meanwhile the properly Diabolic mouse-cult was embraced as a means of control.

The period from 325 CE coincides with a spate of church-building across the Roman Empire. New churches appeared in every major city, often built using Imperial funds and government-approved architects. Their design differs markedly from that of previous churches. During the period in which Christianity was persecuted, churches were informal, with prayer being carried out in private homes marked with the symbol of the fish or the Chi Rho. Services were held in the colonnaded atrium, and prayer rites were conducted without a cantor or leader; much of the prayer was silent. While the new, public basilicae featured a nod to earlier forms in the cloister, a walled garden at one end of the building reserved for use by the clergy, the church itself was dominated by the bema, a raised platform in the centre of the transept from which priests could direct their congregation. Liturgy became highly contrived, with themes of sin, worthlessness and abjection predominating. The burning of grain was replaced by a similar ritual, in which a wafer is consumed by congregants; as in the rite described by Herodotus, food is imparted with symbolic-representative value before being destroyed. This revolution in church architecture signals the first major shift in the development of Disneyland since ancient Egypt: the ceremonies of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet were no longer private, voluntary rites conducted by the elite. Instead, they took on elaborate disguises; large populations were made to participate in them without their knowledge.

The power of the Cult-Church complex was struck a harsh blow by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Arian heresy, banished from the Empire in 325, was upheld by the barbarian rulers that had come to dominate Europe. Under Ostrogoth rule the Papacy continued to function, but without its large network of churches the potency of its rites appears to have waned. Scattered, terrified, and wretched, the Cultists fell back on earlier practices: in the 5th Century, for the first time since the reign of Constantine, private Penew-Nekhet ceremonies reappeared in the homes of the Senatorial class. With the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism the Cult finally began the drive to reclaim its former monarchial power; however this would not reach its goal for several centuries, with the surprise coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE.  Once again, royal and ecclesiastical authority were unified through the matrix of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet. A suppressed variant of Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, unearthed by a Franco-American archaeological team at the Palace of Aachen in 1998, records Charlemagne’s induction into the Cult:

On the most holy day of the birth of our Lord, the king went to mass at St. Peter’s, and as he knelt in prayer before the altar Pope Leo set without warning a crown upon his head, while all the Roman populace cried aloud, ” Long life and victory to the mighty Charles, the great and pacific Emperor of the Romans, crowned of God! ” After he had been thus acclaimed, the pope did homage to him, as had been the custom with the early rulers. At first the king was displeased that Pope Leo should give to himself a power over that of the Augustus, and swore his regret that he had come to his [the Pope’s] aid. However, the next day, the king was called to a second ceremony in the crypts of Rome, whereafter he emerged in a good temper. On his return to Aachen the king then instructed his jewellers that the ears of the Mouse, woven from gold and studded with emeralds, be fixed to his Imperial crown, and sent out inspectors to the churches of his realm to ensure that prayers were conducted in the proper manner as ordained by almighty God.

The history of the Cult through the later Middle Ages is one of degeneration. With the increasing wealth of the Church and European monarchies, the rites of Penew-Nekhet dissolved into empty ritual and spectacle, often focused around orgies and spectacular consumption or destruction of expensive food, lacking the crucial aspects that gave power to the Egyptian and Greek Cultists. Church services based on the old secret grain-burning rites still took place but without a high level of orchestration they lost their value; meanwhile in their private lives the wealthy Cultists tended towards debauched Dionysianism rather than the contrived hyperreality of the early rituals. There were several movements by diehard Cultists to resurrect the true Cult: during the Avignon antipapacy there was a sudden explosion in the use of mice as architectural motifs, such as in the relief on the Palais des Papes shown above. However, the Cult was not fully restored until the 16th Century, with the intervention of Martin Luther.

That Luther was a member of the mouse-cult is incontrovertible. Born into a bourgeois family in 1483, Luther was pressed from an early age into a career in law, one which he found spiritually stifling. In desperate search of the certainty of faith, in 1505 he abandoned his studies and joined the Augustinian friary in Erfurt, under the tutelage of theologian and Cultist Johann von Staupitz.

Seeing the young man’s fierce intelligence, devotion to the Church and hunger for truth, von Staupitz inducted Luther into the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, most probably around 1506. It was in that year, according to Luther’s brother in the Augustinian friary Josef Endelstinus, that the young man began ‘making unexplained absences in the night, wherein he would leave his cell and thunder absent subtlety to the catacombs. There, strange drums could be heard, and among some brothers it was said that they could hear the voices of women, and a chanted prayer unlike any in the liturgy-book.‘ However, what Martin Luther did next was unexpected: rather than being seduced by the earthly pleasures afforded to him by his membership in the Cult, he became fascinated by its long history and the occult powers believed to be bestowed upon its adherents. Endelstinus later wrote that Luther convinced the friar to arrange for a manuscript of Manetho’s Aegyptiaca to be purchased at great expense by the monastery, a copy which he guarded jealously. Eventually, Luther came to the conclusion that the Cult’s degeneration was unacceptable. Rather than reforming it from the inside, he hatched a plan to overthrow it and start again, one that eventually manifested itself as the Protestant Reformation.

While Luther’s early opposition to the selling of indulgences to finance church construction at first appears to undermine the Cult’s programme of church-building, it must be remembered that the churches were by his time entirely non-functional as ritual spaces. The same goes for his frequent assertions that his enemies were part of a sinister, Satanic cult. It is notable that in his many diatribes against the Pope, Luther accused him of every imaginary Dionysian excess imaginable (depicting him as the Whore of Babylon in the woodcut below), yet remained curiously silent on the fact that Clement VII was part of a secretive mouse-worshipping sect. It was not this that aggravated him, it was the degeneration of that sect into a vehicle for mere degeneracy.

In addition to his prodigious work-rate in the production of pamphlets for general consumption, Luther also wrote secret manuals for confidants in his Reformed Cult of Penew-Nekhet. There are many texts purporting to be among this number, many of which are most likely Catholic forgeries. However, one genuine fragment has been found, a palimpsest from among many scraps of waste parchment unearthed at Wartsburg Castle:

We tell them that all men must be able to read the Bible themselves only so that they will believe with ever more vigour that what we tell them is their own belief. It is so much easier to redirect the prayer of one who thinks himself to be acting of his own accord than one who is reading from rote!

Luther’s ultimate project was to once again fuse royal and ecclesiastical power through the Cult: his brand of Protestantism lacked any of the egalitarianism of his contemporaries. When the lower classes of Germany rose up against their landlords in the Revolt of 1524-1526, partly inspired by a misinterpretation of his ideas, he quickly penned Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he advised secular rulers to ‘kill as many of the blasphemers as is possible.’ In this he was entirely successful: when the smoke of the Reformation had cleared and the scores of bodies it had produced had been buried, Europe was full of Protestant princes eager to take the advice of Lutheran priests.

Having acquired a new, Protestant disguise, the Cult of Penew-Nekhet began to infiltrate as many organisations as possible: trade guilds, Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the newly formed United States government, the institutions of the French revolution, among others. Through these hosts it attempted to wipe out the temporal authority of its former, corrupted home, the Catholic Church, leaving the road clear for the new, invigorated Cult to dominate the world. Eventually, the Church was weakened to the extent that it became susceptible to re-infiltration: although the Cult never again controlled the Papacy, the Society of Jesus was eventually drawn into its influence. With the rise of the public sphere (and despite the Cult’s dominance in the media) secrecy became paramount; it is likely that at any one time there were no more than five hundred people alive who knew of the Cult’s true nature. A few of them can be confidently identified: Viscount Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon (whose coronation deliberately mirrored that of Charlemange), Benjamin Disraeli, the Rothschilds, Rockefeller, Mussolini, Rudolf Hess. Always seeking mass participation in its disguised rituals, prominent Cultists covertly engineered spectacles including the French revolutionary Terror and the Black Hole of Calcutta. The culmination of this new, murderous form of ritual was the First World War. The conflict was deliberately engineered by Cultists including Helmuth von Moltke, Leopold Berchtold and Dragutin Dimitrijević as an elaborately orchestrated pan-European rite of death and suffering. However, during its course something went disastrously wrong. The war, which was meant to be fought to an eternal stalemate, instead sparked a series of unplanned revolutions across the continent, starting with Russia in 1917. This was then followed by a second, yet more ruinous war from 1939, in which Cultists on all sides tried frantically to rein in the destruction to no great effect. A secret conference of high-level Cultists, terrified that the forces of global entropy would continue to erode at their hold on power, was held at Hückeswagen Castle in 1948 to determine a new direction. Most of the minutes and paperwork was destroyed immediately afterwards, but one charred scap of paper was discoved by Hans Ufer, a local peasant:

…maintien de la stase soviéto-américaine et de planifier W.D.
28: The policy of mass slaughter having failed, it is therefore RESOLVED that the full attentions of the Organisation will be given over to maintaining the Soviet-American stasis and to plan W.D.
28: Die Politik der Massenmord…

Ufer was convinced that the documented represented a Nazi plot to continue to enact racial policies, and attempted to bring it to the attention of Der Rhein-Arbeiter, a weekly Communist newspaper. Before it was able to go to press, the newspaper’s offices were gutted in a fire. The British occupying authorities mounted a brief investigation before summarily ruling out arson.

The last direct evidence for the continued existence of the Cult came with the publication of Nixon’s White House tapes:

NIXON: Last month I had to attend another of those things, that god damn Penny Necket thing, bowing in front of the mouse and everything. It’s the faggiest damn thing. The faggiest damn thing imaginable.
HALDEMAN: It’s unavoidable.
NIXON: I don’t like it. All the judges, all the senators, kissing the feet of the mouse for five minutes and then gossiping for fifty. I don’t like to see our guys chanting in Greek with the Democrats. Who isn’t in that thing? Erlichman, surely, I don’t think I saw him. They don’t take Jews, do they?
HALDEMAN: He’s in it, up to the eyeballs. Kissinger too.
NIXON: Jesus Christ.

From these transcripts it’s evident that the rites of the Cult were no longer considered a source of power, but, as in the Middle Ages, had degenerated to the status of fraternity rituals or the cod-spirituality of institutions such as the Bohemian Grove. However, their facile nature did not prompt a purist resurgence. Why? Because by the time of the Nixon administration, the old rituals and the more recent spectacle-terrors had been replaced by something far more effective – the Plan W.D. mentioned in the Hückeswagen fragment: Disneyland.

The Cult & Walt Disney

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago to a family of disappointed California gold-panners. He was a shy, serious and studious child: rarely an entertainer, he spent much of his time alone, drawing. Only a small portion of his juvenalia has been released by the Walt Disney corporation (most of which covers patriotic themes); much of the rest is kept in a locked vault in Burbank, California. The only clue as to its content was provided in a quote by an unnamed Disney employee to Los Angeles Times reporter James McDowell in 1981:

“What can I say? He was a teenager when he drew that stuff. Most of it was your usual Tijuana Bible-type material. A lot of oversized breasts and so on. Engorged penises. And a few depictions of murder victims, sometimes at the same time… there’s some unpleasant stuff, sure. But nothing all that unusual.”

In 1917 Disney joined the Holy Order of Fellow Soldiers of Jacques DeMolay, a youth Freemasonry society. The same year he dropped out of high school to fight in WWI. Being only 16, he was rejected by the United States Army, and joined the Red Cross instead, arriving in France shortly before the Armistice. Stationed at a church in Saint-Cyr-l’Ecole, a Western suburb of Paris, he was at first highly enthusiastic. However, as described in Scott Gladdy’s unauthorised 2004 biography Walt Disney: A People’s History, his attention quickly turned to other matters:

At first Walt was much like many other young Americans abroad: he was a regular both at the local taverns and the brothels that had sprung up around the military academy. By February 1919 he was almost unrecognisable. Always a staunch Protestant, Walt had taken to spending most of his day in the Église Sainte-Julitte, a nearby church, in the company of the venerable local Jesuit priest Antoine Sourisse. “He changed all of a sudden,” his comrade Roy Michaels recalled later. “He stopped drinking, stopped whoring. He stopped driving the ambulances. We all thought he’d gone queer. But it wasn’t that. All of a sudden he had this great unity of purpose. It was kinda terrifying, to tell you the truth.”

On his return from France in 1919, Disney started drawing cartoon mice.

Why did the Cult choose Walter Disney to carry out the final stage of its plan? It may have been connected with his ancestry. Walt was a distant heir of Hughes d’Isigney, a Norman nobleman who participated in William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of England and claimed to be able to trace his lineage to the Merovingian kings of the Franks, and through them, to Jesus Christ. While it’s impossible to say for certain that Hugues was a member of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet, there are several indications. In Disney Through the Centuries, Adriana Villalobos’s exhaustive history of the Disney family, she describes how Hughes took a ‘fanatic interest in the precise procedure in which church services in his new fiefdom were carried out,‘ and seditious rumours spread among the local peasantry of a secret idol kept concealed in the d’Isigney castle. Eventually William (who as an illegitimate child would have been denied membership in the Cult) grew wary of his vassal and lent him a few hundred soldiers for a suicidal campaign, encouraging him to invade France and reclaim his rightful crown. However, it is equally possible that when Antoine Sourisse induced the young Walt Disney into the Cult it was simply because of his skills as a draughtsman and yearning for transcendence. After all, it had to happen to somebody.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was released in 1928. Steamboat Willie was an enormous popular and critical success; most audiences were too focused on the short animation’s sight gags to pick up on its disturbing subtexts. Mickey Mouse is a destructive outside agent who emerges into the ordered environment of the steamboat and comprehensively reorders it according to his own schematic principle: living animals are rendered inorganic tools, turned into musical instruments, forced by Mickey to play along to a piece of music that simultaneously emerges from them and is extraneous to them. Essentially, Steamboat Willie provides a coded account of the activities of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet since the Christianisation of the Roman Empire.

The Walt Disney company’s growing successes coincided with a sudden paranoia on the part of its namesake. Disney believed that many of his lower-level animators were Communist infiltrators; at times he believed himself to be the last bulwark against a Communist tide taking over Hollywood. As his delusions grew, so did his dream of Disneyland. As his friend and animator Ward Kimball recalled:

Walt was always deadly serious about Disneyland, far more so than any of the movies, even though they were raking in so much money. He insisted on planning every last detail. He was seriously fanatic about it… one time he said to me, this isn’t just a holiday park. This is something that’s gonna change the world. He was always talking about how Disneyland was going to beat the Reds and bring in a new age. Frankly, none of us had a clue what he was talking about.

Ground was broken on what would become the Disneyland site – a placid field of walnut trees in Orange County – in 1954. The entire project took only one year to complete; it was opened with a televised fanfare. Few at the time recognised Disneyland for what it was. Disneyland was never an interactive ‘park’ in which visitors were free to view the attractions at their own pace, but a show as tightly choreographed as any film. All the rides progress in a strictly linear fashion; the banter of the entertainers is entirely scripted; if you drop a piece of litter in the park an appropriately dressed actor (smocks for Fantasyland, jumpsuits for Tomorrowland) will appear from a hidden doorway and silently tidy it away. The guests are forbidden from reinscribing anything onto the text of Disneyland. In fact, the park is constructed in such a way that any deviation from the correct order of things is punished instantly – dozens of visitors who committed the sin of jumping out of cars on rides or trying to cross the lines between the Disneyland simulation and the vast ‘backstage’ areas have been crushed to death by various pieces of machinery. To survive, guests must be entirely passive. Their responses to the park are, at every moment, utterly controlled.

Disneyland is the ritual of the Cult of Penew-Nekhet on a grand, industrial scale.

The truth: Nazi rockets and tellurian dragons

In all this several questions remain unanswered. Why did the nomes of Egypt supplement their public religious devotions with another, secretive faith? Why did the Cult of Penew-Nekhet survive from the second millennium BCE to the present day, when so many other mystery religions faded away? What interest would a four thousand-year-old cult have in building an amusement park? And why build that park in Orange County, home of the US weapons industry?

Essentially, the central question is this: does Penew-Nekhet actually exist?

One of the chief engineers in the Disneyland project was the German rocket physicist Wernher von Braun (shown above with Walt Disney). Responsible for designing the Nazi V-2 rockets that were launched at the United Kingdom during the final stages of World War II, von Braum was brought to America in June 1945 as part of Operation Paperclip, the then-top secret relocation of Nazi scientists to the United States to work on missile programmes targeted at the Soviet Union. As well as being a gifted scientist von Braum was also a devoted mystic: under his leadership, research at the Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde was carried out not only into guidance and propulsion systems for flying bombs but into the potential for the weaponisation of the occult. As well as séances and rituals carried out in Greek and Egyptian, captured French resistance fighters made to perform slave labour at the site’s factories claimed that the HVP team performed child sacrifices. In particular, von Braum was fascinated by the interior of the Earth, telling his friend and deputy Walter Thiel that ‘the quest for outer space and the quest for the subterranean world is one and the same thing.’ Like many Nazi occultists, von Braum believed there was life below the Earth’s crust; however, he did not ascribe to the hollow-earth theories popular at the time which held that the planet contains within it the mystical land of Hyperborea from which the Aryan races originate. Instead, he believed the chthonic world to be as profoundly un-human as the black reaches of space.

Among von Braum’s most prized possessions was a copy of De Interioribus Terrae, a short text by the 16th century mathematician, occultist, and early disciple of Luther’s reformed Penew-Nekhet Cult John Dee. After a discussion of the mystical nature of soil and its Demiurgean power to create life, Dee turns his attention to the centre of the Earth:

While no man of Faith can reason against the reality of Hell, it is evident to all learned Men that Hell does not exist below the Ground, no more than Heaven is to be found among the Clouds, and yet, as is well known, below the Soil there lies a great Heat, and a great Fire, as it is said in the Bible: where the Worm dieth not, and the Fire is not quenched. And indeed the Book is forever unerring, for in this Fire lives the Worm, called also Dragon, formed in delicate Crystal from solid Phlogiston, who with a noble Sweep of his Tail does traverse the Fire below our Seas faster than any Merchant-Ship, and who, far from being consigned to the Pit, is a Creature of Grace, and as Fire to Air or Mercury to Saturn, takes his Place as a Consort to the Angels.

Could this worm exist? Recent geophysical surveys (often suppressed by the government agencies and universities funding them) utilising sophisticated equipment such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility have detected fluxes and eddies in the Earth’s magma that are inconsistent with all known models of fluid dynamics, but that are explainable through the presence of large mobile organisms living within the mantle. The presence of life under the crust is not as implausible as it may seem: the mantle is home to untold billions of extremophile bacteria consuming nutrients dissolved in the molten rock. The liquid core of the Earth constitutes over 99% of its volume and much of it is entirely unknown to science; however it is possible to posit with some confidence that the tellurian dragons would have to be very large to survive in the heat of the mantle and to create the fluctuations observed by the ESRF – up to eight miles in length. Without any oxygen, their metabolism would function in a vastly different manner from that of life on the surface; they would certainly be silicon- rather than carbon-based. They would also be largely solitudinous, looping slowly around the Earth’s core in mournful sequestration – given the relative poverty of the subterranean ecosystem, it’s unlikely that a population of more than a hundred thousand could be supported. And given the great age of the Earth’s interior, it is entirely possible that at some point in their billions of years of evolution, the tellurian dragons attained sentience.

In almost all cultures there exist myths of giant worms or dragons, who are generally believed to breathe or in some other way be associated with fire. In ancient Egypt this place was taken by Penewap, a god of the underworld (and, more generally, of death and evil) represented as an enormous serpent. This was not his only form, however; Penewap was also believed to come to the earth’s surface to wreak havoc in the form of the mouse – the morphological similarities between penew and penewap hardly need mentioning. Could it be that the cultists of Penew-Nekhet, so obsessed with obscurity and representation, used the image of the mouse to disguise the true object of their worship?

If the Cult had a Secret that it guarded throughout its four-thousand year existence, it can only be that of how to communicate with – and control – Penew-Nekhet or the tellurian dragons. If contact were to take place, the cultists would find in their hands a weapon of unimaginable power. The dragons could obliterate any enemy: burst the ground from under their feet, send their cities tumbling into the abyss, immolate their armies with molten fire. Given their ability to churn the molten rock of the Earth’s core, they may even be able to affect the planet’s magnetic field, leaving a specific area vulnerable to a cascade of destructive cosmic radiation. Or, perhaps, our magnetic field could even be redirected, used to assault other planets in the solar system or beyond.

Given the ubiquity of dragon-myths across the planet, it is certain that the subterranean worms have, accidentally or not, forced their way into our world. It is not inconceivable that the parting of the Red Sea, the volcanic eruption that obliterated Minoan civilisation, and perhaps even the calamitous 1755 Lisbon earthquake were all precipitated by the Cult of Penew-Nekhet through its various attempts to gain the attention of tellurian monsters. But how can such communication be established? John Dee wrote:

The Worm hears no Prayer, though many who call themselves Witch or Sorcerer have offered up Entreaties to him, rather he understands the Language of all celestial Beings, that is, the Language of Mathematics, the Language of the Imagination, and the Language of Sympathy.

In all the permutations of the Cult’s rites, from private rituals to religious services to orgies of bloodshed to Disneyland, imagination and sympathy – or the emotive – have always been central; and these are precisely the qualities to which the dragons respond. The Cult has always attempted to form concentrated loci of high emotion. In much of its documented history this emotion was sorrow, terror, or abasement, but often accompanied by joy – the redemption of Communion, the cathartic bliss following the grain-burning. Conceivably it is the swing between two extreme emotional states that is most effective: witness the joy of the children as they enter the rides, and their fury as they are dragged away. The fact that Disneyland is aimed at children is significant: children experience emotional states far more intensely than adults; as such they are ideal vehicles for communicating with the worms. Like children, the dragons do not respond to erotic energy (they may reproduce asexually): this is why sexual or orgiastic cults from that of Dionysus to Crowley’s Satanism have sprung up and faded away in succession. To communicate with the dragons requires the assumption of a mindset that is entirely other and wholly unhuman – hence the austerity of the early rites, and the perverse hermaphrodite wholesomeness of Disneyland, filled with monstrous animal-headed figures.

At the same time though, the dragons, who with their cold silicon sentience can imagine no world other than that which they inhabit, are enormously responsive to the human power for imagination, fantasy, and deceit. The rites of the Penew-Nekhet Cult have throughout their history been based heavily on the projection of a hyperreality. The fascination with symbolism and the representative was not just a mechanism for maintaining secrecy: the Greek Cultists really believed that they had been transformed into peasants during the grain-burning rituals; the visitors to Disneyland are invited to really believe that they are in the presence of Mickey Mouse. The map becomes the territory – by imagining another reality, the Cult affects concrete change to this one.

What is Disneyland? Disnyland is a vast machine for the weaving of fiction and the production of human emotion. It was built away from Hollywood because it was never really part of the entertainment industry. It was always a weapon. It is the weapon. It is a signal-beacon for the underground monsters. They swarm there now, miles underneath southern California (perhaps accounting for the frequent seismological activity there), waiting for the Cult to give them their orders. Now it remains only for the Disneyland weapon to be used.

Conclusion

I have recorded the truth. Not in its entirety. My account is, of course, an unacceptably Eurocentric one: it would be absurd to assume that some form of the Penew-Nekhet cult has not developed in China (the fact that the Hong Kong Disneyland is, uniquely, owned by a Chinese corporation and licensed from Disney may well be significant) and the mass human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire have the faint odour of the cult about them. I’ve not been able to work out the exact nature of the cult’s Plan – they have, after all, already been in effective control of the world at several points in history. Perhaps the Disneyland weapon is not meant for use on Earth at all; perhaps the cult is about to drag us, unknowing, into an interplanetary war. But what I’ve written will have to do. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me now. The cult of Penew-Nekhet has guarded its secrets for four thousand years; it has in the past carried out acts of horrific violence to further its aims. It doesn’t matter. The truth is more important.

My hands have stopped shaking.

Atlantis II: The Return of Atlantis

I’ve revised and extended my short story Atlantis, with over 2000 words of fresh ‘n’ funky brand-new material. Rather than editing it into the original post or cluttering up the front page with another massive block of text I’ve posted it here.

You are writing a story

You are writing a story.

You’ve always felt that there was something inside you that you couldn’t quite express when talking with other people; while you knew, intellectually, of course, that your insight was in no way substantially different from that of anyone else, while you knew that we are all faced by the same existential questions and that our only difference lies in the way we react to them, while you’ve read enough to be certain that other people have felt exactly the same way as you throughout history, still you’ve always been aware of that chasm between yourself and others, you’ve always been troubled by that nagging feeling that however kind they were and however much you loved them they didn’t really get it. What was worse was that you didn’t even quite get it yourself; all you had for certain was a generalised sense of unease and a fascination with the fact of your own subjectivity; your psychiatrist told you that it was neurosis, as if it was something wrong with your self and not with everything around you, but you couldn’t explain to his satisfaction what the real problem was, so you decided to write it down, because you know that the pen in your hand is the only perfect listener and because you know that what you want to say needs to be reflected on in solitude; you decided to write it as a story because you’ve always loved stories, and because you’re certain that if you can project your problem onto a character you might be able to open up enough distance to be able to understand it properly; you know that there are plenty of literary devices that can help you do this. You knew better than to write in a coffee shop or in a bar, because people who write stories there care less about the stories themselves and more about the fact that they are seen to be writing a story. You write in silence, because you don’t want any emotion from your music to seep into the writing. You write with a pen and paper, because you dislike the hum of your computer’s fan and you know how tempting it is to let a quick spot of research spin out into hours wandering listlessly around the Internet. You set up your writing space: you have in front of you a notebook, two packs of cigarettes, an ashtray, and a small glass of whiskey. You are ready. You begin.

To begin with. A whiteness. Not the white of an empty page. There’s something there already. A swirling mist. Buried in it are shapes. Half-visible forms. Like faces in the clouds. The spectres of things yet to come. The murky forms of all the stories you could write. One long wispy curve could be the serpentine arch of a dragon’s neck or the Ponte di Rialto or the streamlined swoop of a spaceship. In the depths of the mist there are faint flashes of colour. The speckled brown of a war story. The lurid purple of a boilerplate romance. You pull out a good handful of this primordial matter and shape it into a human form. Your character. It stands there on its empty plane, drooping, bipedal, without form and void. You’ll need to sculpt it a little. You yank the hair from her head, pull it down to just short of her shoulders. It’s brown. Her eyes are brown too. The nose – you could play with that for a while, there are so many fun shapes to choose from, but for now you don’t get too excited. It’s crooked enough to have some character but not so much as to be obtrusive. Her face isn’t age-weathered, not exactly, but it’s not a young woman’s either – she’s thirty, perhaps. Still there’s her skin. Right now it’s a kind of shimmering iridescence, it changes tone depending on what angle you look at her from, but she can’t walk around like that, it’d be distracting. You settle on a vague olive shade for now. You can adjust it later, if you need to. She’d need other stuff, too, if she were to be an actual human being, she’d need some subcutaneous tissue, an endocrine system, for instance, and a network of lymphatic ducts, but she’s not an actual human being, just a character, and if you were to cut into her you’d see that below the surface she’s rubbery and skin-coloured all the way through, like putty. If she scrapes her knee she’ll bleed a little, but that’ll just be you telling the stuff to well up at the wound; there are no veins under her skin, unless you decide that one of them should get blocked with atheromas or become varicose. Surveying your creation you notice that she looks uncannily like yourself. Never mind. You give her a name different to your own: Jessica. You pick up your pen and start to write her into the world.

Your story is to discuss matters of consequence: at first you write sentences peppered with semicolons like bullet-holes in the walls of a mosque under siege; clotted with similes that bump up against one another other like passengers on the metro; tumultuous adjectives flow from the seething nib of your fecund pen; your knowingly obscure references proliferate with Tiamat’s fervour. As you go on your verbiage tends towards the sesquipedalian: the orogenic forces of your metaphors grindingly produce lofty and cragged peaks of prose, their higher reaches crowned with the glaciers of your profundity, shining coldly in the crystalline skies that sparkle above the low clouds of the mundane world. In the scabrous lower passes that cling perilously between sheer rock-faces and tenebrous chasms your characters cling terrified to any available purchase, buffeted by your pomposity’s screeching winds, lost and terrified. Jessica is beset on all sides by a cruel and vicious world: the avalanches of personal misfortune are forever threatened by a persistent creaking that emanates from the snowy echelons above, the ground under her feet is perpetually prone to suddenly give way to an abyssal void. There are also mountain lions on the prowl, although you haven’t quite worked out what they’re meant to symbolise yet.

You’re starting to think that this might be bullshit. You’re discussing your character’s place in the real world, after all. You change tack and introduce an everyday scene with words as squat and as squalid as the buildings they describe. On the high street the pavement is speckled with pigeon shit and chewing gum. Half the shop-fronts are boarded up, their faces as obscure and forbidding as the street patois you scatter into your description of the chavs hanging outside an abandoned supermarket, sharing a zoot, indifferently observing the daily life of their endz. A flaking piss-stain hangs like a limp noose down the side wall of McGowan’s Irish Pub, running parallel to the door to Jessica’s squalid bedsit. The stink of ammonia hangs in a sharp fug over your narrative. It’s there in the short vowels and curt demotic language you use as you have Jessica heave her sorry arse out of bed on a windswept Thursday morning. Jessica gropes for the light-switch, but nothing happens when she flicks it. She’s not really surprised: the pile of letters from the electricity company lies by his front door, as obtrusive and unwelcome as a mound of dog turds.

As you search for ways to torment your character, you remember the various small injustices that have befallen you – parking tickets, that promotion that went to the slimy creep at your office when you obviously deserved it, being hassled by police when you had only had one drink and were quite clearly fit to drive. You remember acrimonious breakups and the long periods of alcoholism and loneliness that had followed them. You remember the first time you fell in love – unrequited, of course – and the exquisite agony of seeing his face across a crowded room, happily chatting away at someone else. And, as you probe further and further back, the half-formed memories come out in a viscous flow: you remember the chilly shock of being pulled from the womb, you remember your omnicidal rage as an infant, you remember learning that you could shout words to get what you wanted, you remember the savage terror of the playground when you were a child.

The five-year-old Jessica was gangly and unathletic, with a speech impediment and a crooked smile. She wasn’t like the other kids, and they knew it far better than she did. She wanted to run and shout and play with them, but instead she ran right up against a wall of blank hostility. It was instinctual, of course; they couldn’t have justified it any more clearly than she, but it was there. The actual violence was sporadic but horrifying: one time she brought in a prized toy to school, clutching it tightly to her chest and grinning. One of the others – she couldn’t remember which, they never appeared as individuals – pulled it away from her and pushed her to the ground. She grazed her knee, and cried for a little while, and then stopped; only afterwards did she find a head being kicked across the tarmac surface by an indifferent wind, a trail of cotton stuffing flowing from its neck like the tail of a comet. Then she was inconsolable. Girls can be cruel.

Far worse than the violence was the isolation: the long hours spent hovering on the edges of everything, looking in, hearing a hundred simultaneous conversations scrambled into an amorphous mess of vowels, watching indistinct shapes run at each other while she stayed constantly static. The callousness of the outside world became too much for her, and before long she’d retreated to the school library. It was run by a middle-aged woman who wore colourful sweaters and hoop earrings. She was kind, and let her spend her break times there, drawing abstract pictures in black and grey crayons – at the time the librarian was also going through a protracted and increasingly vicious custody battle; of course Jessica didn’t know or care about that. Eventually it was suggested that with so many books around she might take the opportunity to read a couple of them. At first she was hesitant. She liked to build things: apart from the looping geometric shapes she drew in strict monochrome, she created fantastic landscapes in her imagination, complete with castles bristling with turrets and riddled with secret passages, dark forests where strange creatures slithered inbetween dappled columns of fulvously crepuscular light, vast underwater realms where she could float in restful solitude. Reading seemed far too passive. But she indulged her, if only out of a nascent sense of duty. She read grudgingly at first, then with increasing hunger. She found stories that could transport her away from her surroundings far more profoundly than her own imagination and words so perfectly placed that they had her shivering with aesthetic bliss. By the time she was eleven she was grappling with War and Peace. She never made it past the halfway mark, but for a few months her mind echoed with the clattering of hooves and the crack of cannon and the tapping of shoes on tiled floors. Of course, after a few years she started to emerge from her solitude, and when she read it wasn’t so much to escape the horror of her daily existence as for the sheer pleasure of it. But there was always a part of her that wasn’t quite there. She was never fully engaged with the world around her. There was always something about it that didn’t seem quite right.

Your hand starts to shake as you write, and you find yourself wondering why. None of this really matters, and none of this is really relevant, because it isn’t really yourself that you’re writing. After all, you are only writing a story.

Atlantis

I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. That’s how it all began.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, they’d terrified me a little. Well, everything had terrified me a little. The flat infinity of the city, the postapocalyptic emptiness of its streets, the harsh blank gazes of the strip-mall windows, the fury of the motorists, the pervasive anonymity and its constant gasping hunger for fame. It was so unlike the familiar crowded clutter of Europe: cities there hold you close in a maternal embrace; often they’re abusive mothers, but even if they’re actively trying to kill you at least they care enough to want you dead. Los Angeles is indifferent. I’d taken a drive through South Central, and what scared me most about the place was how identical it was to everywhere else: the same skeletal palm trees, the same uneven pavements, the same low bungalows with the same architectural inconsistency. But the homeless gave me a special kind of terror: I’d hear them yelping into the night as I walked drunk along Santa Monica Boulevard, howling like coyotes; I’d see their sleeping shapes in shopfronts, looking somehow coiled, ready to spring into a furious assault. There was one man who sat on a metal bench near my apartment, wearing a bulky green overcoat half-shredded into a mess of tangled fibres. He’d mutter softly to himself most of the time; sometimes he’d bark at people passing by. Once, while arriving home, I met his gaze for a single excruciating second. The lines in his face were slimy with grease, his beard was matted with blood and dirt, but his eyes were a cold hard blue and completely clear. I wondered what was happening in his head. I wondered what line separated me from him. I wondered how easy it would be for me to end up like he was. The Californian heat was enough to drive anyone mad; it bred prophets like swampland breeds mosquitoes.

It didn’t last that long. I got used to them. I saw how my new Angeleno friends behaved: people from my office and my apartment building, they were all good people with solid liberal principles, but they acted as if the homeless simply didn’t exist, as if they were drifting phantoms that had hallucinated themselves into being. I felt guilty about it at first, but I started to do the same. The city was packed with ghosts. Sitting impatiently on a bus as it lurched haltingly towards the smog-shrouded spires of Downtown, I pretended to ignore the fat black woman in a hospital gown singing gospel songs and drumming on the stinking plastic bags that carried all her possessions. Walking with groceries, I tried to forget the plaintive looks that emerged from every underpass. I kept my headphones and sunglasses on at all times, I sank into the music, so that the bright scorching world around me faded into a blur. It worked, to an extent.

“Spare a smoke, man?”
I was on Hollywood Boulevard; I can’t remember why – it’s a dump, frankly; I think I’d gone up there to buy some tacky gifts for friends back home. It was a hot day, even in the hills; an oppressive dull gleam shone from every surface, the blue sky throbbed with a feverish intensity. I was smoking, despite the dirty looks I got from Americans on the street, despite the sticky heat in the back of my throat. He was a young man with a short beard, hugging his knees in the entrance to an abandoned souvenir store, an overflowing rucksack propped up against the wall next to him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled instinctually, not meeting his eyes. “It’s my last one.” I carried on walking, quickening my pace a little, stamping on the names of forgotten celebrities, when I felt something shift inside me. Maybe it was my conscience. Maybe it was just the swarm of fat Midwestern tourists flitting about on the street around me with their sweatpatches and their gaping hungry mouths. I didn’t want to be like them.
I turned back. “I lied,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I took a cigarette out of my packet and held it out in his general direction. He took it without a smile.
“God bless,” he mumbled.

After that I started giving cigarettes to the homeless. I never stopped to talk to them, I never even stayed long enough to register their thanks – they still made me uneasy. I knew I wasn’t really helping; after all, I was giving them cancer. Still, it made me feel a little better; at least I wasn’t ignoring their existence.

It was a couple of weeks before I saw him again. The man I had given my first cigarette to was kneeling in a sleeping bag next to a fast food place not far from my apartment building, trying to position a purple-bound book in the dim streetlight.
“Are you hungry?” I said to him.
He looked at me quizzically. “Always.” He peered at me for a second. “Hey. Ain’t you the cigarette guy? I remember a face, man.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Hold on.” I went inside.
I came out with two burgers and sat down next to him. “What’s the book?” I said.
“Oh, it’s the Bible. Got me through a lot of tough times. Better out here than out in combat.”
“You’re a vet?”
“Iraq. Three tours. I saw some shit out there, I can tell you.”
“Yeah?”
“Not like buddies getting killed, you know. I mean, it happened, but I was never there…” He flung up his hands. “I was at Camp Alpha. You know where that is?”
“No.”
“Babylon, man. We built this base right in the ruins of Babylon. It was all reconstructed by Saddam. But still. We’d be getting drunk at night and running round all these ancient buildings, climbing over these statues to gods, and we didn’t even know their names. It just felt like… at night it was like they was staring at you. You could almost hear ‘em chanting, like these deep ancient chants…” He looked down and started to unwrap the burger. “You gotta think I’m crazy. It’s just, you know, I don’t get to talk to people all that often.”
“Not at all.”
“It was just like, shit, I never even finished high school and I’m walking round Babylon. I was a fucking dumbass nineteen year old, and I was meant to be teaching these guys – the Iraqis – about democracy, when it was them that invented the whole thing – architecture, government, writing for fuck’s sake. I didn’t know that. By the end of it, when I kept getting called back, I was pissed as hell. Punched my CO right in the face after he kept going off on some hajji bullshit. Then I got my big chicken dinner – shit; BCD, bad conduct discharge – and, you know, the rest…”
We ate in silence for a while. When I left I reached out to shake his hand.
“You didn’t ask my name,” he said. It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You apologise a lot. I’m Brandon. Brandon Leigh.”

Brandon slept on the street in Skid Row. Every day he took the bus up to Hollywood or the Westside to panhandle. I think he must have worked out that I lived in Santa Monica; most days I’d see him sitting on the street not far from my apartment building. I didn’t mind. I would buy him some fast food and he’d tell me stories from the war – or one story, at least. Brandon was fixated on a single image: four young Americans cavorting through the ruins of Babylon, and one of them suddenly stopping, feeling a cold breath down the back of his neck, the chill of something vast and hungry and incomparably ancient. He didn’t believe in the gods of Mesopotamia; he was a good Christian, after all. It was something else: a vibe, he said. A terrifying vibe.
“Why do you do this?” he asked one day. “It’s not like I’m not grateful or nothing. But you gotta admit it’s pretty weird. Most folks here just ignore people like me.”
“I’m not from here,” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t like to ignore things. I want to experience everything.”
“You been to Skid Row yet, man?”
“I’ve been past it.”
“If you wanna experience everything, that’s where you gotta go. I’ll show you round.”

Brandon and I took the bus to Skid Row that weekend. We rode in silence through the sterile skyscraper-speckled landscape of Bunker Hill. After that the terrain became flatter; the Art Deco flourishes of the buildings to the West faded into squat white warehouses, car parks, empty lots in which a few stray tufts of grass shivered. Slowly the streets became more and more crowded: people wandering aimlessly, sitting in doorways, lying supine on the pavement, squatting next to their tents. The low cityscape was broken by the odd old brick building with a spluttering neon sign. The shopfronts were all boarded up. Paint peeled from the facades of the buildings.
“Welcome to America’s only Third World city,” said Brandon as we stepped off the bus.
The stench was overpowering. Rotting waste, sewerage, old urine, body odour. A tide of litter lapped against the kerbside. The ground was sticky beneath my feet. Most of the people that thronged the street stood silently. A few chattered continuously in a low mumble. Through the day’s haze the brooding grey shapes of the towers to the west could just be made out, monolithic and threatening.
Brandon followed my gaze. “I don’t wanna make this a race thing,” he said. “But you gotta admit, most of the folks out here are black. And most of the folks up there are white.”
I couldn’t argue with that.

I went back a few days later. Brandon introduced me to some of his neighbours. Some of them mumbled politely. Some were silent; they wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“It’s not much,” he said afterwards. “But it’s a community.”
“More a community than most places in this city,” I said.
“Ain’t that true.” He stood up. “Listen. There’s this church near here, they do shave and a shower… reckon you could just watch my things? Fifteen minutes. Police’ll confiscate it otherwise.”
I waited, reading Brandon’s bible. I was halfway through II Corinthians when I was approached by two people: a tall woman in black jeans with her dark hair cut short and skin as pale as porcelain, and a scrawny acned guy in a polo shirt slightly too big for him. The woman crouched down next to me. “Hi,” she said. “My name’s Molly and this is Tim. We’re from the Brotherton Foundation.”
“Hi,” I said, and told her my name. I extended a hand. She didn’t shake it.
“You have an accent… are you documented? You can tell us. It’s strictly confidential.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have a work visa.”
Molly’s brow furrowed. “You’re not-”
“I’m not homeless,” I said.
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry. It’s just we try to keep track of all the guys here, so that if something happens to them… what are you doing here?”
“I’m watching someone’s stuff for him.”
She peered at the rucksack. “Brandon?”
“That’s impressive.”
She shrugged. “It’s my job. Who are you with? I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I don’t work with a charity. I just… I just come here sometimes.”
“That’s weird.” She gave a wry smile. “Are you writing a novel or something? Listen, our office is on Sixth. You should drop round some time.”

My visits to Skid Row became more and more frequent. Most days I’d spend an hour or so there after work, sometimes giving out cigarettes and burgers, sometimes just talking to the residents. Many of them were suspicious at first; they didn’t know what I wanted from them. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure either. I got to know the eccentrics of the neighbourhood: Megan, the dumpster-diving daughter of a Silicon Valley millionaire who wore clothes stitched from palm leaves and insisted that she had been a yeast infection in a previous life; Bertrand, a wizened old man who walked around naked pontificating in aristocratic tones about the continuing relevance of Hellenic Classicism as a model for the worthy life; Rhonda, a drag queen whose shopping trolley was filled with discarded cosmetics she’d found in bins across the city; Colin, who went to an internet café every day to record a rambling videoblog. I ran into Molly occasionally, often with Tim as well; we gave each other a nod of recognition and sometimes chatted for a few minutes. I never did drop into the office. I think my presence confused her a little.

It wasn’t always pleasant. I saw paramedics fret furiously as a woman gave birth on the street, surrounded by shit and muck. I saw an argument between two men escalate suddenly into a knife fight; their lumpy overcoated forms circled and darted with an almost balletic fluidity. I saw near-spherical Latina prostitutes drag their patrons into Portaloos, I saw emaciated junkies whose eyes darted about from the bottom of dark cavernous pits, I saw men vomiting blood and oozing pus. It was never dull, though. Everyone there believed in something grand and cosmic: Brandon had his spirits of Mesopotamia, Megan her hippie Hinduism. Most had their own hobo variations on Christianity, some had intricate conspiracy theories – they saw demons and aliens behind the placid faces of the comfortable Angelenos who walked past them, carefully ignoring their existence. I had a long theological conversation with a recovering junkie who’d joined a twelve-step programme at one of the local churches.
“There’s two powers in this world,” he told me. “There’s the Light. That’s the blood of Christ. Then there’s the darkness. That’s the tar. The darkness draws you in. It makes you all safe and comfortable. The Light hurts. But the Light is life and the tar is death, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t receive the blood of Christ while your own blood is still full of the tar.” He coughed. “Do you know Christ as your saviour?”
“I do,” I lied.
“God bless, God bless you. The dark does bad things for you. It made me steal from my momma. It made me want to hurt my fellow man. That shit even got me kicked out of Atlantis-” He stopped, suddenly, with the stricken look of someone who’s said something they shouldn’t have said.
“What’s Atlantis?”
“It’s a bunkhouse near here,” he said hurriedly. “They don’t take no junkies. Don’t blame ‘em.”

I saw Molly the next day. “What’s Atlantis?” I asked her.
She and Tim were taking a lunch break, eating quesadillas on a bench by a bus stop. She had a smudge of guacamole by the corner of her lip. I didn’t mention it.
“It’s a myth,” she said.
“Not the legend. Something here called Atlantis.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a myth. OK. The story goes that back in the Nineties a bunch of homeless people started living in the disused subway lines under Los Angeles. We actually used to have the best public transport system in the country, but it all got closed down during the Depression… anyway, they’re supposed to have built this whole underground city of the homeless. Like two hundred thousand people. With electricity, even. They hook themselves up to power lines. And they’ve got common ownership over everything. There’s all these houses down there but they don’t belong to anyone, they sleep in a different place every night. So their society doesn’t make the same mistake as ours. A lot of the guys believe in it. You can see why, really.”
“But it doesn’t exist.”
She smiled. “Well, we can’t know. But no. It doesn’t exist.”
“Yesterday someone told me he’d been there.”
“A lot of the guys came out of psych wards, you know. They’re not always reliable.”
“He seemed pretty cogent.”
Tim leaned over. “If you’re into all that kooky shit you should talk to Roy Kelner,” he said. “This philosophy professor up at UCLA. He used to come down here every weekend and talk about Atlantis. He really believed in it.”
I took down the name.

It was slow at first. Sometimes I’d idly wonder if I was unknowingly walking directly above Atlantis. I asked a few more people in Skid Row what they knew about the place. Many of them believed in it. Only a few claimed to have been there, but their descriptions were rambling and contradictory: Atlantis was populated entirely by horny white women, Atlantis was decked out with chrome and holographic screens, Atlantis was a humid jungle miles below the Earth’s surface, Atlantis existed across a portal to another dimension. I never saw the junkie evangelist again; I talked to Molly but she couldn’t recognise him from my description. I started trying to draw pictures of the place, shakily to begin with – I’d abandoned my art some years before. The first attempt looked like a subterranean Skid Row. Chiaroscuro against a background of tangled wires and scuffed brickwork I drew bodies slumped against the walls of corrugated-iron shacks. Bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceilings gave long shadows to the piles of litter between the train tracks and the shit running down the walls; in one corner a mange-bitten rat posed dramatically on its hind legs. It didn’t look right: this was not Atlantis. I tried again. This time, I decided that the founders of Atlantis had had the subway tunnels faced with white marble. Shining chandeliers were placed at regular intervals; they bathed everything in a soft crepuscular glow. Jutting from the walls were Ionic colonnades; here and there were fountains and statues depicting the gods and heroes of the homeless. The citizens of Atlantis were drawn strolling around at a leisurely pace, naked, with beards and long glossy hair. They slept wherever they pleased, on the steps of the various temples and academies, or on the long grass strewn with wildflowers that had been planted on the tunnel’s floor. Only the wires and pipes running through the ceilings and the odd subway car converted into living spaces served to remind that this was not some supernatural realm but a city buried under the streets of Los Angeles. I discarded that one too: what I had drawn was a fantasy; I knew that a real Atlantis existed. My third attempt was closer to the truth, I think. Why would the Atlanteans, who had successfully hidden their city from the world for decades, be content to live in the spaces carved out by Los Angeles? What if they had continued to excavate, broadening the abandoned subway lines until they all converged? I drew an immense cavern, crisscrossed by flaking girders from which bundles of power lines hung loosely. Floodlights were bolted to some of them, a glittering constellation of floodlights, shooting beams of light in random paths, revealing fragments of the vast city below. Atlantis was a bric-a-brac mess; its streets were a tangled scribble, like those of a medina or a medieval town. The buildings were all in irregular shapes, built on top of each other; none had all four walls made from the same material. Winding around and between them were more wires, ziplines, staircases, slides, hidden passages, secret entrances. Towards the centre was a cluster of skyscrapers not unlike those in the city above, but these too were wreathed in twisting ramps and staircases, like ivy around the trunk of a tree. Atlantis was a schizophrenic city, but it was consistent in its own logic; its anarchy was a warm and human one, a necessary counterpoint to the cold rational gridded psychopathy of Los Angeles. I kept the drawing in a drawer in my apartment. I never showed it to anyone.

The next week, I called in sick at work and decided to find Roy Kelner. The UCLA campus was broad and open, dotted with green spaces. Little kids ran between the trees, shrieking unintelligibly. Musclebound students in vests and sunglasses bumped fists as they crossed paths with each other and walked on without saying a word. In front of one building a gaggle of earnest-looking types were protesting against something or other. I asked for Roy Kelner at the front desk in the Philosophy department.
The receptionist frowned. “I don’t think I know him. Hang on.” She tapped at her keyboard. “K-E-L-N-E-R? I don’t think there’s anyone by that name here.”
Another woman’s face appeared from behind a doorway. “You’re looking for Kelner? He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“He got fired?”
“Not exactly. Is this about Atlantis?”
“Kinda, yeah.”
“Yeah, we get people asking about that sometimes. One guy wanted to make a documentary about him. Kelner was my professor when I was at grad school here. He got really weird about it, to be honest. We were meant to be doing Contemporary Continentalism and all he’d ever do was talk about Atlantis. Obsessed. He was so certain that it existed. And then one day he just vanishes. No note, nothing.”
“What happened?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe he found it. Who knows? I’m sorry I can’t help. He did write a book about it, though. The Impossibility of the Real: Theorizing Atlantis. He put it on our required reading list.”
“You don’t have a copy, do you?”
“’Fraid not. They should have one at the Powell Library, though. It’s just across the quad.”

The library swarmed with students tapping away at their laptops: I only saw one, a dark-haired girl in green leggings, who was actually reading a book. Kelner’s book was very slim; more of a pamphlet, really. Underneath the title was a painting I recognised as Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. I opened it a few pages in:

The homeless operate according to a temporal and spatial paradigm that constitutes a nomadic smooth-space disruption of the striations of space as interpreted by the State. They manifest themselves not as a series of molar entities but as a single substance engaged in a total deterritorialisation: their model is not that of the herd but that of the swarm.

I flipped forwards a few pages:

Here it may be valuable to consider the development of the subterranean city in terms of Negarestani’s ( )hole complex and his conceptualization of solidus and void.

Towards the end:

Hardt & Negri’s assertion that resistance is ontologically prior to power provides a reversal of traditional social dynamics that allows for a wealth of new theoretical approaches. Similarly, a richer understanding may be achieved if it is postulated that it is, in fact, Los Angeles that forms a vast parasite on Atlantis; a teeming, grossly over-extended remora-city whose inhabitants live out their lives unaware their existences form a superficial manifestation of a far more profound reality. Los Angeles, home to the entertainment industry and epicenter of global spectacularity, is constructed of artifice and simulacrum; it is only its leech-like attachment to Atlantis that prevents the entire city from drifting off into the air. It is the tellurian powers of Atlantis that maintain, direct, and control the nature of existence in the surface-city. The lack of popular recognition for the city’s dark twin and the official denials of its existence do not demonstrate that it is unreal; rather, they demonstrate that in the society of the spectacle, the Real unavoidably takes on the aspects of myth.

Before long I stopped going to work entirely. I’d spend my days in Skid Row and my nights doing feverish research in my apartment. A few of my friends still called me occasionally, but after a while they started to drift away. I scoured the Internet for maps of the tunnels under Los Angeles and started looking up prices for head-mounted torches. I read accounts from other people who’d spent hours traipsing around the catacombs of the city trying to find Atlantis. I knew why they’d failed: they were trying to invade Atlantis, to plant their flag on its soil. To go there one had to be invited in. I thought about trying to contact Kelner – even if he’d found Atlantis maybe he still read the paper; I could place an advert in the Los Angeles Times. My trips to the laundry became sparse. I stopped shaving; I trimmed my beard occasionally, when I had the time. My jeans frayed at the cuffs. I didn’t replace them.

I was sitting on the kerbside, smoking a solitary cigarette, when I saw Molly running past me. “It’s Jerome!” she said.
I followed her. Around the corner, a moustachioed cop was wrestling for control of a shopping trolley with a wiry old man in a ragged t-shirt. Molly stopped next to them.
“Sir,” she said, panting. “What’s happening here?”
“I’d stand back if I were you, miss,” said the cop.
“What’s happening?” she said again.
The old man fixed Molly with a frenzied stare and shook his jowls, liberally dousing us in spittle. “They wan’ my treasures!” he said. “Stop ‘em, Moll! Buzzers! Bluebottles! They wanna take my treasures!”
“Let him keep it,” said Molly. “Sir, he’s not hurting anyone.”
“Your man here has a shopping cart full of bottles of his own urine,” said the cop. “It’s a public safety hazard.”
“It’s all Jerome has,” she said.
Jerome made a lunge for the cop’s waist. “Buzzers away!” he roared. The cop pushed him to the ground and cuffed him. Jerome writhed desperately. “A-da-da,” he moaned. “A-da-da-da. Not my golden. I made it myself. Stop ‘em, Moll.”
“What’s your badge number?” said Molly. “I’m going to make a complaint.”
Jerome’s head darted upwards and struck the cop on his chin. “My treasures!” he roared. The cop truncheoned him in the back of the neck. Molly rushed towards the trolley.
“Stand back!” shouted the cop. With one knee now on Jerome’s neck, he pulled a Taser from his belt. “Not one step!”
“Or what?” said Molly. “You’ll shoot me? Give him his things back!” She reached out to grab the trolley handle. The cop fired: there was a sudden crack of electricity, and two darts arced out to Molly’s chest. She fell over backwards. Her head hit the pavement with a dull thud. One arm twitched. Jerome shrieked. I rushed over to her. There was another crack. The world flashed a searing white.

“Jesus Christ,” said Molly as we walked back around the corner, defeated. “Fuck. I need a drink.”
“Shouldn’t you go to a hospital or something?”
“I’m Irish. I need a drink. I’m going back to the office. I’m going to have a drink and then I’m going to get that fucker fired. You want one?”
“It’s only five in the afternoon… what am I saying? Of course. I’d love one.”
The office was, as it turned out, two small rooms over a dollar store, half-buried in papers and ring binders. “As you can see, we’re not the most well-funded organisation out here,” said Molly, reaching into a drawer and withdrawing a bottle of whiskey. She took a big glug. “I hope you don’t mind drinking from the bottle.”
I laughed. “Reminds me of being a kid.”
Molly sat down on an overstuffed sofa leaning against one wall and beckoned me to join her. “Where do you work?” she said. “I don’t think I even asked.”
“At this accountancy firm. It’s not very interesting.”
“So what makes a guy who works at an accountancy firm suddenly decide to spend all his time on Skid Row?”
“I wasn’t always an office drone. I used to be-” I paused.
“What?”
“Don’t laugh.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I used to write graphic novels. Unpublished, of course.”
“That’s cool. What were they about?”
“Superheroes… my thing was superheroes with boring powers. I did a whole series about a guy who had laser eyes, but they were only good for scanning barcodes at the supermarket.”
Molly laughed. “That’d go some way to explaining your obsession with Atlantis.”
“What about you? How’d you end up working here?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I came down here for college, from a tiny whitebread town up in NorCal, and I was just so upset by it all… you know, two months in and I was a radical feminist and an anti-poverty campaigner and everything. I just wanted to help, I guess.” Molly stood up. “Do you like blues?” she said, walking over to a CD player in the corner of the office.
“Sure,” I said.
She pushed a button. A few dusty-sounding guitar notes sounded out. As she walked back Molly swayed her hips a little, clicking one hand, looking slightly bashfully at the floor.
“My dad only ever had one record,” she said, sitting down next to me. “He’d play it the whole time in the car. Robert Johnson. You know him?”
“Isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the Devil?”
“At the crossroads, yeah. It’s actually all based on this Yoruba legend. It’s not necessarily the Devil. It’s Eshu. The spirit of the crossroads.”
I thought of Brandon, hearing the voices of dead gods in the ruins of Babylon. “There’s myth everywhere. Under the surface.”
Molly gave me a strange look. “You’re such a Romantic,” she said.
“Aren’t I just.” I slid an arm over her shoulders and leant towards her.
“Oh, knock it off.”
“What?”
“It wasn’t a fucking compliment! Why are you here? I’ve seen you. All you talk to the guys about is Atlantis. This made-up tooth fairy legend! Like they don’t matter. There are real people suffering out there, and you come down here because – because what? You find it interesting? You get some sick aesthetic enjoyment out of their misery?”
“That’s not true,” I said, not fully believing myself.
“Yes it is! You don’t really care, do you? You’re interested, but you don’t care.”
“You’re drunk.”
“It’s still true. You don’t give a shit about anyone apart from yourself.”
I stared at the floor. “I don’t know how to.”
Molly stood up. “Please go,” she said. “I’d feel a lot better if you- please, just go.”

I didn’t go back to Skid Row the next day. I sat around listlessly in my apartment, watching TV, trying not to think about Atlantis. That afternoon I had a less than friendly visit from two officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They explained as I packed my possessions that as I hadn’t shown up for work in weeks, my visa was no longer valid. On the flight back, I stared out the window as the desert melted into the vast flat cornfields of the Midwest, as the Appalachians soared past me, as the interminable expanse of the Atlantic was finally broken by a rolling patchwork of tiny constricted pastures. I was home, back in that crowded little space where all the ancient myths died out centuries ago.

I manage. Friends and family were surprised to see me back so early; when I tried to explain what had happened I could tell that they didn’t really understand. I have a job, and my old apartment again. I’ve given up drawing altogether, which is probably for the best. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. But whenever in one of those little moments of blankness my mind floats away from its surroundings – when I’m in the shower, or on public transport, or bored at the office – it always goes to the same place. I float through the miles of empty tunnels under Los Angeles, chasing the faint gleam of a light that is always close but never within reach, searching for Atlantis.

%d bloggers like this: