Saturday, July 29, 2006

When Riva Djinn Received an Arts Grant

In Rome there is a museum called The Institute for the Pathology of the Book. Subterranean tunnels contain mounds of blackened paper and parchment, proof that war brings literary holocaust. During World War Two, millions of books in over 250 libraries in Europe were destroyed. Apparently, books do not survive gunfire, bombings, blazes, floods, military incursions, or hungry insects.

One hot day in July our heroine, Riva Djinn, snapped her fingers and secured herself a generous arts’ grant from the Dead Letters and Languages Society. Riva decided to use the funds for a translation project that would involve a visit to the Pathology of the Book Museum in Rome.

When she arrived, Riva met a hunchbacked tour guide who informed her: “Most visitors, and there have been too few, turn white as ghosts when they see the Grim Reaper of literature, science, history, poetry, and civilization.” The hunchback scratched at the festering wound on his inner right thigh. “And no one, I mean no one, can long endure the moans and groans released from dead books.”

Riva pouted her rouged lips and simply said, “May I be left alone here for a while.” The hunchback, who feared nothing, almost turned white himself. He said, “You must be mad, but suit yourself! My ears aren’t what they used to be, so I can only promise that I will not hear you scream.” He climbed the stairs, alone and wheezing, then he slammed the door.

In the dark, Riva sighed then wept over the dead books. Riva, being only five inches tall, could comfortably curl herself up inside the center of one book whose pages had been hollowed out by fanged and foamy-tongued beetles. Nature and war will be cruel, but Riva noticed that words clung here and there. Maybe a story could form around all the words the insects hadn't eaten.

To help her think, Riva sang a song. She sang a tune the Bedouins used to repeat to her. Riva sang of the copper moon over the desert as the books repeated their repulsive dry heaving.

At last, Riva fell asleep, curled up in this book whose pages had been eaten away; the books parchment and broken spine coughed up dusty despair that settled in Riva's long, dark, worm-like braid.

When Riva awoke, she went straight to work. She squinted over the dove-shaped letters; she strained to piece the old words together again; she become intimately involved with this one volume, a cycle of mawlawi drum poems. What did these words mean? Could she ever deduce all that was missing?

Riva hunkered over this translation project for nine lonely years. Finally, she had interpreted a master work by a Bedouin poet, a whirling dervish who had hidden an uncommon love for a sacred whore in the desert of North Africa. Would this volume find readers? Was this the kind of poetry that Book Sellers were regarding as too passé?

Riva didn’t care. She’d spent nearly a decade of her life kissing the trembling feathers of doves. She had wrung gentle words from her dark eye lashes.

This was the least she could do to prove herself to her father, who had lived an accomplished life as an esteemed scholar. Now Riva had something to recite to him on his deathbed, and she could whisper these verses to him in Arabic, French, Russian, Sanskrit, and English. Surely, her father would be pleased.

“Just think!” She grinned at her friend, the hunchback, who had been bringing her fresh pots of Moroccan mint tea for the past nine years, as it was Riva had never once surfaced from that museum's underground tunnel, “If every man, woman, and child in the world came down here to visit and stayed through one night to read and translate, we could restore all these volumes, rebuild entire libraries! Tell me, don’t you think that would be more interesting than mooning over the boob tube?”

The hunchback shrugged then nodded then itched his groin.

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