The lights are strangely dim as we all wander in, carelessly bouncing off each other like pinballs. I glance up at the lectern on the stage. A bullet-headed actor in a bartender's black leather waistcoat, lean-shanked as any wild-eyed Patagonian horseman, is staring at a hefty book and muttering inaudibly to himself. Music drifts down tinnily through the sound system. There is something of jaunty, late-19th-century Paris about it. Then two or three people wander up on to the stage, a shortish man and an even shorter one; the first, all windblown hair, in a hot black jacket, the second in an unfashionable lounge suit. This one has the look of Kingsley Amis about him. The slightly sour expression on his face suggests that he may be afflicted in some way - perhaps by the burden of all that is to come.
Martin Amis and Ian McEwan sit down in their seats and stare at each other. McEwan has plonked himself down like a comfortable sack of something or other; Amis perches on his chair as if he has a rod up his spine. A third man, in headphones that suit his looks, welcomes all those among us who are from Latin America: bienvenidos! Bienvenidos! Recovering his composure, he then invites us to listen to Jorge Luis Borges himself, speaking in 1983. We tune in to a prolonged series of crackly hisses, followed immediately by a shorter sequence of hissy crackles. Some frail, ectoplasmic voice is trying to get through to us. One word in 12 is audible. Mercifully, it is an English word: Shakespeare? Shit scared? We are grateful, none the less, to have touched the hem of his garment.
Then Martin Amis is invited to say a few words about the great, blind, Argentinian librarian. Amis stares down solemnly at his own hefty book - it is identical to the actor's (do they fornicate?) - and gives what seems to be a prepared speech on Borges' merits, referring to his notes for those particularly dazzling and unscripted apercus over which he was toiling earlier in the day. His delivery has not quite shrugged off that nasal American drawl of the bent cop in Night Train. "I wish to emphasise the accessibility of this great, bookish, arcane genius," he says. "This man who dealt in agonising absolutes, this man of riotous, exorbitant imagination." Then he makes a covert reference to Borges' difficulties with women, a difficulty which he shared with Franz Kafka (as that great scholar/librarian Alan Bennett recently discovered): "His basic unit of pleasure was ... the sentence."
Lights dim on Amis; lights rise on the gaucho at the lectern, who begins to read from a story called The Library of Babel.
It is all about a library that is as big as the world, and at least as paradoxical as the one to be found on the Euston Road.
Michael GloverReuse content