The call came unannounced, uninvited, unrequested; in the digital age of information there is always a news before the news, an expectation before the realization, a notice of the notice before one may be contacted, evicted, or sued. None of this happened – there was no warning label or cautionary advice, no mail from no manager and no rumours about the manuscript before we fell into this story – like you are about to. It was a day in the office like any other until the phone rang. Personal calls and other types of direct communication are avoided and even shunned at in the publishing bussiness; editors from all around the world have become accustomed to the fretful back-and-forth of emails and stressful waiting before any physical contact with the writer is required, and even this circumstance has become increasingly rare. It will come as no surprise to the reader, then, that we were actually surprised when a man called our office requesting a personal meeting with us without any previous appointment or notification. We proceeded, of course, according to the editorial protocol; prior to any exchange of personal information, emails, dates or meeting places we asked this man what type of book he wanted to publish. What was the nature of the book? Was it a novel? Was it a book of poetry? An anthology of short stories? A collection of essays? A philosophical treaty? To all these questions, the man on the phone answered indistinctively “no”; but when we inquired him to tell us what the book was about, or of, he seemed unable or unwelcome to disclose that information, and pushed for a personal meeting instead. Fate intervened, and what would normally end in a flat-out refusal turned into a negotiation for the date of the meeting. We were curious, as curious as cats. It had never happened before. Who was this author who neglected the editorial hierarchy of bussiness and insistently requested to see us and talk to us personally? And even more importantly, who was this man that dared calling a publishing house and ask to be printed without any idea of what he had written? We tried to avoid the séance, as basic editorial protocol goes, and instead told him to send us a copy, with the usual ‘we’ll call you back’ indifferent politeness; but the man on the phone said he had no copies. Respectfully, with our patience wearing thin but our curiosity peaking, we asked him to make a copy of the book and to send it to us in digital format via email. “Ustedes no entienden”, he said, “es un manuscrito. No hay copias.” There was no way around it: we had to meet. We suspected that our boss would not approve of an unscheduled meeting with an unknown, unpublished, uncooperative author, so that we decided to circumvent our boss’ authority and arranged a meeting with him in the late hours of a July’s Wednesday, when our boss was sure to be out golfing.
At this point we were not risking much, even if we thought we were. The thought of publishing the man on the phone had not entered our minds; what our will was bent on was on seeing the manuscript. Was it a ruse from the author to meet us? It seemed unlikely; his voice had seemed polluted with the frequencies of nervousness or of a badly concealed fear, as if he had a gun to his head and was asking for ransom. Following what secret did he refuse to tell us what was the book about? And how could the book be about nothing, not a prose work, nor poems or stories or essays or else? What was it? Our curiosity pushed us into the story, until we found out the extent of the risk we were toying with, and the mystery of it all. Curiosity killed the cat, people say; but they don’t say whether or not what it found was worth it. But how could they? The cat is dead and can’t speak; there is no way for people to know. If only the cat could writeÖ
On the appointed Wednesday afternoon the man from the phone came to meet us, drenched in rain, holding his coat in his hands. The image was hilarious ñ why hadn’t he put it on? He looked as if he had gone swimming in his working garments, which, by the way, didn’t fit a writer at all; not since Joyce has an author worn a tie. He looked like the typical Buenos Aires bussinessman, aside from the water that was dripping from his skalp onto our office floor. Gently, with great care, he produced a book from the insides of his coat. The cordial introductions passed, we crowded over the book like the body of a dead man. The analogy is not lyrical, but literal – the manuscript was less of a book than an assortment of collected and disparse notes sown together with a thin red thread, as if some kind of stiff blood were keeping it’s limbs entwined. It was only a week later, when we could read the manuscript with our paced attention’s detainment, that we realized our mistake, our editorial misconception. It is the stiff spines of published books that are dead, wrapped in rigor mortis; this book was alive, as alive as any of us, and was limber and fleshy and it’s pages read like leaves upon grass falling all nourished by a vein-like snake that kept the words from walking out each page. But we were not there yet, we were in front of a man whose whole image spelled oxymoron for us; a seemingly fake writer with an obviously real book. Trained by years of editing, suspending our doubts and leaving our curiosity intact for a moment, we decided to separate ourselves into two groups; while some of us interviewed the supposed author of the manuscript, the others busied themselves with turning it’s pages.
The first meeting with the man from the phone lasted for about half an hour, or probably less. We found two things, separately. First, we found that the man that came to our office had no knowledge of literature at all. He was unfamiliar with the most famous writers and couldn’t for the life of him pin-point the essence, the theme or the style of what he was claiming to have written. Second, we discovered also that he had lied to us when he said that the book was neither a novel, nor a collection of short stories, nor poetic exercises, nor a work of philosophy or an essay anthology: it was all of these at the same time. Almost every page of the manuscript was crowded with each of them: there was an evident prose-like body of work that read like a novel, there were little poems written in the corners of almost every page, the margins were full with seemingly nonsensical annotations, and there were large chunks of text that variously took the forms of essays, philosophical inquiries or short stories. We were all immediately impressed – with a fair amount of literary knowledge as individuals, and with a considerable one as a collective, we had never heard or read about any other literary work such as the one we had in front of us. Some writers have ventured in all styles, some even have their collected works printed in pastiche-like anthologies that alternate between each format, but this manuscript was different. It wasn’t an editorial pastiche of collected works: it was an holistic collection of vignettes that drew its inspiration from all styles, all formats, all ways of the word, whilst keeping a coherent progression. It wasn’t a mixture of texts written in different times at different places – it was something new, something made from everything that said nothing, but with a built-in fluid narrative that made it evident that every piece of text was created at the same time in each page it was written on. Even the quality of its literature seemed to evolve as one read it; the beggining being timid, and untidy, and rush, and nervous, and the end having the gentle desperation of all great literary endeavors – passing through everything in between. Our first impression was that it was a book about writing, an exercise notebook from an extremely atypical poet. Soon we abandoned this idea, because the writing was of such a personal nature that we arrived at the only conclusion we will draw from this book: it is a diary, a most amazing diary, a diary without actions, a diary without dates, without events, without names, telling in a comprehensive way the inner struggle of a man’s downfall. Other realizations quickly followed: the manuscript was littered with unattributed quotes, and, more importantly perhaps, it was a polylingual work that was variously written in the more widely spoken european tongues, including remarks or even whole passages of dead languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Old English and Sanskrit. It was insane: almost as if the author didn’t want to be published. This realization estranged us even more from considering the man from the phone, the man with which we were speaking to then, as the real author of the book. We had asked him to let us keep the manuscript for a couple of days at least, to read it fully, but this seemed to unnerve him. He did not allow us to read it any further, and took it from under our gaze once we had understood, at least, the very basics of what a publishing nightmare this manuscript would be to edit and print. He told us that we had read “enough” (we still cannot get enough), mumbled something about the impossibility of lending his book to anyone, and started to gather himself to leave. In the whole time we’ve been working as editors for publishing houses, none of us had ever had a writer storm out from the office when we had displayed such an unwavering interest in his work. The whole scene appeared to us under the light of doubt, as if we were under the spell of a wakeful dream, as if this, too, were part of the story. Before he stormed out, we said that we’d consider paying him for it. Would you edit it? Would you translate it? Would you format it?, he asked. It seemed obvious to us that he had gone to other publishers before; he had the look that any struggling unpublished writer has after being rejected from almost anywhere. We were working for a relatively big publisher, but certainly not an important one, and it was not likely that we were the first choice for such a work. He was already discouraged, and we were the ones to inject enthusiasm to it all; his questions made it clear that the other publishers had asked him to pay for the incredible amount of editorial work needed before anyone was able to publish it. It is not really the work of the publisher to translate any book, let alone type it, but before he could start talking about monetary demands we said that we had to speak with our superiors and would get back to him in a week. He refused to give us his cellphone number, and instead insisted on calling us in seven days.
After some peaceful deliberation among us, we strolled the next day into our boss’s office to tell him about this manuscript, carefully avoiding mentioning the last day’s meeting. He asked us to pitch the book to him, as we would with any other literary work fresh to work on, but of course, we couldn’t. There was nothing to say about it except saying that there was nothing to say about it. It was the only appropriate presentation in line with the book’s ideal, but naturally, not good enough for a publishing house owner who carefully weighed money versus spending whenever he had to decide which or what work to print and sell. When he asked about the author, we told him we couldn’t find him yet. Promotion tours were already out of the question. When he finally weeded out from us that it was actually a polylingual multifaceted collection of vignettes that added up to what seemed to be a dateless diary from an unknown poet he immediately refused to discuss it any further, told us expressively to renounce any left-over curiosity about the book and forbade us to work on it on office hours. Now, if we, working inside a publishing agency, couldn’t even make our boss take a look at the book, then it was obviously unpublishable. There was no way around it, and we were better off leaving it alone – but we couldn’t. We had already been stung by the sting of curiosity and our doubts were slowly coalescing into a wordless wonder that we couldn’t leave unresolved, or unpursuited. Ignoring our boss’s warning we decided to get to the bottom of it, to see it through, since we had many theories hammering our minds by then, some in curious, some in torturing ways. One of us fantasized with the idea that the man from the phone had stolen the manuscript from a secluded poet, and the idea quickly evolved to thinking he might have killed him, too. In retrospect, these doubts were ludicrous but reasonable, since the manner in which the manuscript had came to us was already mysterious, and eerie, and uncomfortably uncanny. We all felt it, the falling into the story; a silent reminiscence of our adolescent impetu to consider everything like the detective stories we used to swallow whole in our youth stoked the fire of our own curiosity. A man who kills a writer and steals his work, impersonating him till the end? We thought that was already a bestseller on it’s own account, and us, with our fantasy, the unlikely detectives. We had wavered to meet the man from the phone again, and investigate whether he was or not an usurper, or a murderer, but we couldn’t bring him back to our building again. That put us in a sort of a pickle then, because the man from the phone would call us at work, and we would have to set a date and a meeting place compatible with office hours. He was immediately suspicious about it, stressing us to receive him where we had seen him last. Convincing him of an excuse or two, we finally decided to meet him in a café on the outskirts of the city center, and have him bring the book. Almost all of us were there, that fateful monday morning. He brought the book, ordered a coffee, smoked some cigarettes and waited for us to talk, but none of us would, not so soon – we were already enraptured by the compelling reading of the manuscript. We skimmed through it, reading quickly, part by part, piece by piece, poem by poem, between all of us. We had decided to read the entire manuscript collectively, in one sitting if we could, because we did not trust (and luckily didn’t) this imposter’s reliability. This, of course, sounds nonsensical for any reader – any reader who has not read this work. It was possible for us to divide the workload and read each of us only parts from it, since the book is fragmented and weaves various stylistic formats into one storyline.
After five hours or so – that felt like an ephemeral summer breeze for us and an unendurable winter for him – we had read the entire manuscript, or at least what he gave us from it. We read in silence, but after finishing it we couldn’t stop talking. Who was this man who could so fluently and so privately write to himself in all tongues? None of us had ever seen such a coherent confusion. It wasn’t the work of a madman, of a deranged hypergraphic psychotic; it was the work of a genius, even if he proved to be a madman or a deranged hypergraphic psychotic. One thing, which had so far only been hinted at, became clear: the manuscript was the diary of a man who had forgotten who he was, or was forgetting it, at least. Lightblubs flashed across the room hovering over our heads; could it be that this man, the stressed out bussinessman we had now in front of us, had forgotten that he had written the book himself, and that, through some miracle of amnesia, was now selling us a book whom its contents he ignored? We loved this hypothesis, profoundly – for a second. Within a few question’s time we would unravel the truth about his man, and would untie the first knot in the mystery. From our brief interrogation we found out that this man had no memory problems at all, could recall most of his childhood friends, and had a wife and two children; circumstances deeply incompatible with the lifestyle of the man who had written these notes. Due, perhaps, to our over-excited doubts, we had failed to ask the very question that would swiftly set in motion the destruction of this man’s lie: he couldn’t speak English. Nor French. Nor German nor Latin nor Greek nor Sanskrit. Nor any other language besides Spanish. We may have been guilible enough to wonder whether this man could have written the manuscript and forgotten what he had written, but we were impervious to believing that anyone could write so masterfully in a language he ignored. Thus his lie collapsed, and we had a glimpse, not of truth, but of widening wonder. Perhaps, we thought, this man had stolen the manuscript from someone who could not remember having written it, who could not remember having it stolen. The perfect crime, we thought – the crime we are commiting now. To steal the written memory of a man lost in oblivion. We confronted him, softly but surely, with our facts, and later, perhaps a bit more threateningly, with our hypothesies. We knew that he had not written the book. We believed that no one would publish it. And we told him that we intended to go to the legal authorities surveying copyright matters if he persisted on saying the book was of his authorship. It was a bold move – perhaps the boldest in any our our carreers – but we were already all in; we were meeting at lunch hour with a man whom our boss expressively told us not to meet, were wasting office hours (in our trance, we had forgotten to go back to the office and would have to invent later a rather meticulous lie about eating raw fish), and were mortally wounded by our curiosity and the invisible danger that seemed to surround this, as any, mystery. If he had taken our threat the wrong way, he could have sued our publisher and get us all fired, but he could only take it the wrong way if he had really been the manuscript’s author. Caught, at last, by the curse of his imposture, he confessed immediately; he wasn’t the book’s author, he knew nothing about literature, he was just a real estate agent with shady connections and a gambler’s need for money.
It was then that he told us his side of the story; how he had been hired to falsify some legal papers concerning a de-regulated top floor apartment in the city center; how he had quickly sold all the furniture there; how the windows were boarded and how the walls were written on; how the place gave him the chills and how he came to find the manuscript between some empty bottles waiting for him to steal it, waiting like a ring of doom on top of a ruined mahogany desk.
We were at a stalemate in our negotiations; if we made public his theft he would make public our mutiny, and if we stole the book from him (a decision that crossed our minds) we would be in the same position he was in. So he offered to sell us the book in private. He seemed to have been sitting on the manuscript for some time, but he needed the money now, mumbling something about debts and debt collectors. We thought about it, we debated over it, and in the end we decided to buy the manuscript from him – for a miserable amount. Miserable, what this man sold this masterpiece for; miserable, the amount of money we could muster to pay for it; miserable our misery from buying it. But he would not give us the manuscript – he would only give us a scanned copy of it. We were free to read it, to make copies from the copy, and even to copyright it under our name, since he hadn’t done so already, being unable to translate it, type it accurately or format it in the same way it had been written in – but he would not give us the manuscript. “Esperá un momento”, we said, “nos estás vendiendo el libro, pero no el manuscrito; nos estás vendiendo el libro, pero no sus derechos de autor; nos estás vendiendo el libro, pero nosotros tenemos que pagar su publicación. ¿Qué nos estás vendiendo, entonces?” His answer was redundant, obvious, and shattering: “Les estoy vendiendo la posibilidad de que se lo den al mundo”, he said. We held the moment for a moment in our gaze. “Miren, si no lo quieren, lo voy a poner abajo de la pata corta de la mesa del comedor y comer derecho por una vez en mi vida”, he added for impact. “I am selling you the possibility to give this book to the world”, his voice echoed in our minds. Yes, it was enough for us. It is still.
After this the man from the phone dissapeared. We had, and still have, no reason to pursue him. First, he gave us all he had, and second, whilst he was intrumental in bringing this story into the light, he didn’t know the author, and apart from giving us the phone number of the owner of the building that lead us to the very interesting conversation with the building’s doorkeeper that we have added as an epilogue, he didn’t know anything about the story, and we doubt that he had read the book at all. Perhaps, he, too, used a fake name, perhaps that’s why we can’t get a hold of him anymore. We believe the manuscript is an invaluable possession, and as such, should be displayed in a public museum. Even though now all seems lost, still hope springs eternal and that time may yet come to be. We would waste our time looking for this man, even if he still has the manuscript, because we cannot prove that he stole it; instead, we have decided to look for its real author, and have what is rightfully his returned to him after its long voyage from our hands to yours.