Issue #59

Summer 2016

Prologue to an Imaginary Book

by Brian Biswas

I overheard the following monologue on June 8, 1980, in a smoky bar off Winter Street, N.W. Paris, France. The narrator was one Joseph Velario, a short man of moderate build, nearly bald, with black-rimmed glasses. He wore a stark white shirt and dark pants, leather shoes with black laces. He spoke hurriedly, almost frantically, as if he felt there was little time to tell his story. As I was later to discover, Joseph had been head librarian of the well-known Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon for twenty-five years. He was a man of inestimable reputation and was responsible for building the library’s holdings into an eclectic collection known throughout Europe; it included full runs of Blackwood's Edinburgh Review dating back to the 1840's and Penny Magazine from the 1830's, as well as extensive (and rare) science fiction criticism from the early twentieth century. Joseph was speaking to two women and a man whose backs were to me. I was able to note only their unusual clothing; it seemed stitched together from a fabric not native to these parts.

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....The manuscript [Joseph said] was found in a metal box amongst the ashes of the famous French sanatorium Pouponnière, after the fire which destroyed that facility on September 18, 1968. It came into my possession when a medical worker who had survived the fire brought it to the library six months later. At the time I was manager of the Acquisitions Department; it was a position I had held for several years, ever since obtaining my doctorate in Library Sciences from the University of Leeds. The man who presented me with the manuscript was a tall, thin fellow with wild red hair, sallow cheeks, and deep-blue eyes. He spoke with a strange lisp and a slight Eastern European accent. I assumed he was a foreigner, possibly from the Russian Caucasus. Unfortunately, I did not get the man's name and all attempts to contact him have been in vain. He claimed not to have perused the material and was handing it to me only because he knew of my interest in arcane works. How he knew it was rare when he had never looked at it I cannot fathom.

I soon discovered that It Happened One Night was a literary tour de force that twisted and turned through six-hundred-odd pages, leaving my body reeling and my mind on fire. It is nearly impossible to summarize. Indeed, it fairly cries out for a line-by-line analysis. Perhaps in the future I will be able to provide such a critique, but for now this synopsis -- such as it is -- will have to suffice.

The manuscript itself is a biography. It concerns the life of a peripatetic man. The man is given different names in different chapters so we do not really know what to call him. Let us call him Everyman.

Everyman is a master of disguise. He becomes at various times a doctor, an explorer, an investigator, a madman, a prisoner, a thief. To further complicate matters, events take place at various points in time from the mid-seventeenth century to the late twentieth. Indeed, the author seems intent on obfuscation. And yet as one reads, certain narrative threads come into focus, tantalizing the reader with deeper and often subtle meanings. Unfortunately, just as events start to make sense, the scene changes, time shifts, and the reader feels lost once again.

An enigmatic work, to say the least. Yet certain contextual clues have enabled me to divine the outlines of the truth.

Everyman was a physician in the early twentieth-century, as the first chapter makes clear. He was forty years old, married, no children. He lived in an old, two-story house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in London, England. One day he made a trip to treat a patient on the outskirts of the city. She was a woman twenty years younger than Everyman and she was very beautiful. Her name was Angela.

Everyman fell in love with Angela at first sight. He was consumed with thoughts of her both day and night. He could not eat, he could not sleep. It was as if a spell had been cast on him. He pursued her across the spans of time and space -- four continents and three hundred and fifty years of human history -- but she spurned him at every turn. Eventually Everyman's wife found out what was going on and left him in disgust.

It was only then that Everyman realized what a fool he had been. He pleaded with his wife to come back but she would have nothing to do with him. Everyman moped around for months and then booked passage on a transatlantic liner and was never heard from again.

This sounds all well and good. A ordinary, run-of-the-mill novel. Except that it wasn't.

On a second reading I realized the novel is actually a philosophical text in the tradition of the great twentieth-century French logical positivists. It is a carefully constructed work, consisting of five sections of the following lengths: five, five, four, four, and two chapters. For a total of twenty chapters. Five is the number that represents Mystery (the mystery of the novel itself); five (again) represents Unpredictability (the unpredictability of the narrator); four represents Magic (the magic of storytelling); four (again) represents Adventure (the narrator as world traveler); and two represents Tranquility (the narrator's foray into spirituality). The twenty chapters alternate between first and third person: first-person narration of events in Everyman's life and third person exegeses on the major themes of Everyman's life. It is a marvelous literary trope (some would say "trick"). And it is effective.

But it is the novel's final chapter which provides the key. In it we learn the truth behind events: Everyman had been thrown in prison for the commission of a heinous crime: the brutal murder of the fair Angela. Everyman’s wife, Sarah, learned of their affair when she happened upon a photograph of Angela that had been hidden inside the lining of Everyman’s wallet. She confronted Everyman and he admitted his guilt. He begged for forgiveness, but she would have none of it and threatened to divorce him. The next morning Angela was found stabbed to death in her apartment in Lambeth. Everyman -- sobbing, hysterical -- was at her side, a bloody knife in his hands.

Everyman was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. To pass the time, he wrote stories -- the very stories which form the core of It Happened One Night. Thus the novel loops back on itself, becomes self-referential, and filled with new meanings. Eventually, Everyman fled his confinement in a daring escape that resulted in the death of several of his captors. He returned to his home and broke down the front door with an ax. He intended to strangle his estranged wife, but as luck would have it, she was at the movies with a friend and he saw no alternative but to take his own life.

Yet even that is not the end!

After months of painstaking research I made a discovery: events in the novel, though they can be read in the aforementioned manner, are not literal. No, down to the last syllable they are an allegorical narration.

In eastern Russia there is a forest, the Lukunsky grove. It is the northernmost forest in the world. It is made up of Dahurian Larch trees, a deciduous coniferous tree that grows between thirty and ninety feet in height. Deep within the forest there is a clearing, perhaps a quarter-mile in diameter. The clearing is surrounded on all sides by Larch trees and thick underbrush that is clearly impenetrable. It is my belief that this is where It Happened One Night was originally discovered.

Now, how can one enter the clearing when conditions are such as I have described? Only if the entrance to the clearing is not really there, or more precisely, if it is everywhere and everywhere at once. To put it plainly, only if the clearing is a portal to a multi-dimensional space-time. And I am here to tell you that it is such a place. Since it is a place of infinite dimension, it must also be a place of infinite possibility. It follows that the clearing is a place subject to infinite interpretation as well.

This portal was the means by which Everyman traveled through both time and space. It is the only way he could have so traveled and is the only way events in the novel can be satisfactorily explained. I believe the key to entering the clearing is It Happened One Night itself, though I have yet to ascertain the means (note: the key is not to be found in the book; the key is the book).

Co-existence of our world with another in an n-degree typological space was a concept discussed by the noted futurist H. G. Wells and others in the early years of the twentieth century. Seen as science fiction then, the Lukunsky grove is the first physical manifestation of that theory (or, rather, the first I know of). It is an extension of time as well, making it a true portal through the ages. (I might add as an aside that its existence is a remarkable testament to the perspicacity of these early futurists, men too often mocked or simply ignored, and is a lesson to us all.)

I don't need to tell you the possibilities this opens up for our civilization! I mean to make its harnessing my life's work!

But what if I'm wrong, you say. Isn’t it possible these events took place only in Everyman's mind, and he roams the earth to this day, cursing mankind and blaming others for his plight? It is possible, but I believe it unlikely. The fact that Sarah Burns of Riverside Township has come forward and claimed Everyman as her deceased spouse and that the family of Angela Trainscot of Blackbuck Township has produced a document in Everyman's own hand seemingly bequeathing to her -- or her heirs -- his estate mitigates against any such hypothesis.

Everyman did not number the novel's chapters. He did, however, have the odd habit of repeating the final words of one chapter at the beginning of the next. This must have been the order intended. In any event, it is the order I followed. In assembling the manuscript for eventual display in our library's rare book room, I added only section divisions and a preface which now strikes me as superfluous but which I will let stand for historical reasons.

Amongst all the library's holdings I believe this manuscript is not only the rarest but also the most important. I am not sure of the effect it might have on our troubled times, and it is for that reason that I have yet to put it on display. Indeed, other than myself, you three are the only ones who know of its existence.

This, then, is how I see It Happened One Night. And though I feel certain I have solved a literary conundrum, I realize that in the end it is but one man's interpretation. Any discrepancies or redundancies in my analysis are simply the result of my own limitations.

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Until this point his listeners had been silent. What their reaction was to Joseph's narration I could only guess, for, as I said, their backs were to me. Now, however, they began questioning him about details in the manuscript. As luck would have it, a singer had just struck up a rousing tune and I could make out very little of what they said. It didn't matter. I had already dismissed his tale as nothing more than an elaborate joke. And anyway my attentions were taken at this point by a stunning brunette who had just sat down at a nearby table, and with whom, I am proud to say, I was able to engage in conversation with consummate success.

Author Bio

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Brian Biswas Brian Biswas lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His work has recently appeared in Perihelion and Frontier Tales. His short story, "A Betrayal," was published in Issue #11 of The Cafe Irreal; "The Room at the End of the World" appeared in Issue #14; "The Bridge" appeared in Issue #18; "In the Garden" in Issue #33; "The Last Photon" in Issue #37; and "It's Not What You Think It Is" in Issue #47.