Friday 21 October 2011

The Rats In The Walls

You’ve not come down here,” the colonel said. He keyed in a code into a panel set in the wall, and the armoured door swung open. “You have never been here, if anyone were to ask you. This place does not even exist. I hope that is clear.”

The astrophysicist was small, grey-haired and more than slightly overweight. He glanced at the officer from the corner of his eye. “Nobody’s actually told me anything. So I have no idea why you thought fit to order me here.”

“You’ll find out.” The colonel waited for the armoured door to swing shut behind them. The corridor was stark white and brilliantly lit, without a scrap of shadow. “Before we go any further, let me inform you, officially, that you’re now under military jurisdiction. Anything and everything you see or do here is classified, and any violation attracts punishment.”

“Oh?” The astrophysicist raised one eyebrow, a skill of which he was secretly rather proud. “What are you going to do? Rap me on the knuckles? Stop my magazine subscriptions?”

The colonel didn’t even blink. “Oh no. You breathe a word of this, and we are going to shoot you.”

The astrophysicist didn’t have anything to say to that. He followed the officer down the corridor until they reached another door. The colonel opened it and stood aside. “There you are,” he said.”Go in.”

“Aren’t you coming?” Suddenly, the tall colonel in his green uniform seemed to be an old friend, an anchor to the world outside.

“No. The general’s waiting for you. He’ll brief you himself.” The colonel inclined his head, smiled slightly, and closed the door behind the astrophysicist.

It was quite an ordinary office room. The carpet was green, and on the wall behind the desk there was a flag with a golden emblem which he didn’t recognise, but apart from that it was an ordinary office, with a computer monitor on the large desk and filing cabinets along the walls. There were no windows, of course, but then it was all far underground.

“Welcome, professor.” The astrophysicist was startled by the voice. He turned quickly, and found the speaker standing near the door with a file in his hand. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“No, it’s all right.” The astrophysicist studied the general. He seemed surprisingly old, with a deeply lined face and unmilitary-looking grey hair. His eyes were bloodshot and tired. “Could you explain what this is about?”

“Yes. Sit down, please.” The general motioned towards the chairs set before his desk. He casually slapped down the file in his hand on the desktop, turned so that the scientist had no difficulty reading his own name on the beige cover. “You’ve been told, of course, that this has to stay completely secret?”

“I have.” The astrophysicist eyed the file as though it was a possibly dangerous animal. “What is so important about this?”

The general said nothing for a moment. His fingers clicked away at the keyboard of his computer, placed on a recessed shelf below the scientist’s view. A picture appeared on the computer monitor. “You know what this is, of course?”

The astrophysicist glanced at the screen. The bat-like shape on it was midnight black, its edges jagged and irregular. “It’s the hyperspatial craft,” he said. “It’s been all over the news recently. What about it?”

“Yes, it’s the hyperspatial craft, as the media dubbed it. For our purposes we call it the X Craft. You know its significance, of course.”

“I’m not privy to the details,” the astrophysicist said, “but from what I gather it’s meant to create and exploit a wormhole, so that it achieves virtually instantaneous transport across space. We’re told that it holds out our only hope for reaching the stars.”

“That’s right.” The general seemed agitated. He stood up and began pacing behind his desk, his hands making odd spasmodic movements. “The media do indulge in a lot of hyperbole, but they’re probably telling the truth when they claim it’s the most significant revolution in transport after the wheel.” He turned to the astrophysicist suddenly. “You know about the successful test, of course.”

“Yes.” The astrophysicist nodded. “That’s what the media’s talking about, that this was the first ever test, and it went off splendidly. And after a couple more trials, apparently they’ll try it with an astronaut inside.”

The general cocked his head slightly on one side, like an aged but still attentive bloodhound. “That’s right,” he repeated. “That’s what the media say. But what the media don’t know is that this wasn’t the first trial of the X Craft. It was the fifth.”

“The fifth?” The astrophysicist frowned. “Does that mean – there was someone aboard?”

“Oh yes.” The general smiled bitterly. “There was someone aboard. That’s why you’re here.”


The X Craft, you realise,” said the general, “isn’t just a transport. It’s a military weapon.”

They were going down the same white corridor, the lanky officer walking so quickly that the tubby little scientist had to trot to keep up. The floor, covered now with black rubber matting, sloped gently downwards, and the air was cool and dry.

“It is?” The astrophysicist shook his head. “I didn’t know that.”

The general glanced at him with some contempt. “If it had no military application, do you think it would’ve got any funding? Who has the money to spare for space travel, and experimental space travel at that?”

“But how can you use it as a weapon?”

“You scientists...” The general sounded exasperated. “The X Craft promises instantaneous transport across space, doesn’t it? It exploits, as you said, wormholes between spatial points. Now, isn’t that a perfect way of bypassing enemy defences? Once we have a functioning X Craft fleet, not a single nation or coalition will ever be able to stand up to us. They’ll be naked to our attacks. It’s the ultimate stealth weapon, and worth any amount of effort.”

“That’s...a monstrous misuse of science,” the astrophysicist said. “Monstrous.”

The general laughed aloud. “That’s kind of rich, really. The military is the only reason science programmes still get funded, or didn’t you know?” He stopped laughing abruptly. “Of course, the whole thing’s jeopardised now, and I don’t mean the media getting wind of the trial somehow, so we had to announce it.”

“You didn’t want to announce it?”

“Of course not. What use is a secret programme if it’s known to the world?”

“But the trial was a success, wasn’t it? Or is that not true?”

“Oh,” said the general, “the trial was a success, as far as that went. The X Craft created a wormhole, slipped through, and reappeared twenty kilometres away. The damned trial was a success, as far as the machine goes.  It’s what happened on board that’s the problem.”

 “What happened on board?” the astrophysicist asked.

“You’ll see in a moment,” the general said. They descended a twisting flight of stairs, and emerged on to a second corridor, lined with identical doors. Several of the doors had armed guards stationed outside, who stiffened to attention at the sight of the general and slapped the butts of their rifles in salute.

“Here we are.” The general stopped in front of one of the doors, ignoring the pair of muscular sentries with their black uniforms and Kevlar body armour. With his hand on the doorknob, he turned to the astrophysicist.

“You are not going to believe this,” he said.


She was a volunteer, of course,” the general said. “And she was an experienced astronaut. Of course, it goes without saying that she wasn’t part of the space programme the public knows about.”

“You have a secret military space programme?” The astrophysicist was talking without really thinking, his mind still trying to understand the thing lying on the other side of the transparent wall.

“Well, of course,” the general replied, “space travel’s always been primarily a military controlled programme. Just about all the early astronauts were military people, starting with Gagarin, as I’m sure you know. The difference is that these programmes are directly concerned with the nation’s security, and are beyond top secret. You don’t know more about it than you must. There’s not a single person who knows it all, not even I.”

“And...this test was part of it?”

“That’s what I’ve been building up to telling you, isn’t it?” The general coughed. “The first four tests went off more or less as expected. We had a couple of minor equipment failures, but not much more than that.”

“So you sent her on the fifth.”

“We had to try a crewed flight eventually. She volunteered.” He paused a moment. “We prefer women in this programme because they’re smaller, so they require less air, food and water, and they’re biologically tougher. Almost all our astronauts are women.”

“What’s her name?” The astrophysicist was still staring with fascination at the thing beyond the transparent panel. “Or can’t you tell me that?”

“The names of everyone involved in this programme are classified.” The general tapped the nameplate on his chest. “This isn’t my real name, for example. We’ll refer to her by her code name; Vixen Ten.”

“So you put her in the hyper...the X Craft. She was launched from orbit as described, I take it?”

“Almost exactly as described. The X Craft generated the wormhole, and vanished. A fraction of a second later it reappeared twenty kilometres away, roughly where we expected. But we couldn’t establish radio contact. And when we recovered the vehicle and opened it up, we didn’t find Vixen Ten. Instead...”

“You found that,” the astrophysicist completed.

“We found that,” the general acknowledged.

The thing on the other side of the glass twisted and writhed. It was hard to define its shape clearly. It was rather like mist or cloud, coiling upon itself slowly but visibly. In colour it was mostly orange, red and yellow, but here and there were sparkles of green, blue and brilliant white.

“It was brought down here in the same unit in which it was found,” the general said, leaning his forehead against the glass. “We’ve tried to find out what it is, whether it’s alive or not, what its substance is, all of that. We’ve done our best.”

“And?” The astrophysicist looked as though he already knew the answer, and was not anxious to hear it confirmed.

The general swallowed, visibly. “No part of it can be separated from the rest for analysis. We tried to cut away a piece with a remote-controlled knife. The substance of it seemed to pass right through the material of the blade, without leaving a mark. We can move the whole of it, along with the unit, but that’s it.”

“Any sign of life?”

“It’s not eating or excreting anything. We can’t try it with physical stimuli because of the same reason that we can’t cut into it – its substance goes right through any needle or probe. We can’t communicate with it in any way – we’ve tried visual, auditory, radio, you name it, we’ve tried it, without any response. The only thing about it...”

“ the radiation,” the astrophysicist remarked. “You’re detecting X rays and radio, aren’t you? Some background gamma radiation as well? It will all be very faint, though.”

The general stared at him. “How do you know that? Who’s been leaking information? That’s what I want to know.”

“Nobody’s been leaking information,” the astrophysicist said. “It’s obvious from what you’ve told me. I’m surprised none of your own scientists reached that conclusion. Perhaps they’re too close to the problem to step back far enough for an overview.”

“What conclusion?” the general demanded. “What are you talking about?”

“Your wormhole.” The astrophysicist sighed. “Your military programmes always need immediate results, don’t they? You can’t afford to have the scientific parameters properly explored, the problems detected, and solutions, if there are any, found. You wanted a wormhole created, you created one, and that’s all you cared about.”

“What has that to do with anything?”

The astrophysicist shook his head slightly. “We don’t really know a thing about wormholes,” he said. “We don’t know what creates them, or how they work. We just know that they exist, for infinitesimally small instances of time, and that anything that goes through them materialises some distance away. Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t even understand the physics behind it.”

“So what?”

“Because of the implications,” the astrophysicist explained patiently. “Did you send anything alive on the earlier test flights? Seeds? Cockroaches? Rats? Anything?”

The general frowned. “We sent a monkey on the third flight. Its life support failed somehow, though it shouldn’t have. I told you we had minor equipment failures. It died. We sent mice on the fourth flight. They came through...well, five of them came through. Three...disappeared.”

The astrophysicist snorted. “Just disappeared? And you didn’t have a problem with that?”

“The five that remained were fine, all right? And we can’t keep a programme costing trillions hanging for three miserable missing mice. What do they have to do with anything, anyway?”

“If you had only taken some time to think about what had happened to them,” the astrophysicist told him, “you might have stepped back and then you wouldn’t have this...problem.”

“With that?” The general pointed at the writhing orange cloud. “What is that thing, anyway?”

The astrophysicist looked at him. “You have an entire Universe in there.”


No wonder you couldn’t cut into the cloud,” the astrophysicist said. They were back in the general’s office, but they weren’t alone. The colonel was there too, and he and the general were both looking faintly green. “Each particle of it must be a galaxy, held together by gravity. Can you imagine the density of the entire mass compared to your blades and probes? They must have pushed aside the molecules of the metal and simply passed through.”

“But how could it have happened?” the general whispered.

“I told you, we don’t understand wormholes. All we do know is that while transfer through them is almost instantaneous, it isn’t actually so. There’s a measurable gap. How long did your X craft take to reappear? How long was the time lag?”

The general and the colonel looked at each other, and the general nodded.

“Just under one second,” said the younger officer. “Zero point nine five seconds, approximately.”

“There you are, then,” said the astrophysicist. “For that period of time, your X Craft was somewhere else. It wasn’t in our Universe.”

“So where was it?” the colonel asked.

“I told you, we can’t know. There’s absolutely no way of telling. It was just...elsewhere.”

“I don’t understand,” the colonel said.

“I’ll try and explain. Think of a room, like this one, with rats burrowing in the walls. Now, in order to go from that wall to this, the rats have to scurry along the burrows, inside the wall and round the corner. Of course, if there are no burrows from that wall to this, they’ll have to dig one, and they can’t get from one wall to another faster than they can dig. You get me so far?”

“Yes. And?”

“Now, if one of these rats decided one day that burrowing through walls was simply too much trouble, and tried to go directly from that wall to this, it would have to come out of a mouse hole and run across the floor, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” the colonel said reluctantly.

“But these rats have never tried this before. Our pioneer rat, who’s eager to visit his lady friend, has no idea of what’s in this room. It could get eaten by a cat, or stepped on by the general here, or trapped under a wastebasket, or lose its way and run out of the door...anything might happen to it. And its lady friend, who’s waiting for it inside the wall, wouldn’t – couldn’t – know what had happened to it.” The astrophysicist paused. “If she opened a hole on her side, and the cat pushed its paw into the opening, would she – who had never seen a cat before – have any idea what it might be? And would her seeing the paw explain what had happened to her missing friend?
“We are the rats in the walls,” the astrophysicist continued. “And we don’t know what’s there on the floor. Even if we manage to cross it safely once, twice, thirty times, we don’t know what’s out there, and we have no way of predicting what might or might not happen the thirty-first time. That just might be the time the cat has come into the room.

“And so there’s no way of telling what the universe you captured might mean to us, or what dangers we might have let ourselves in for. There’s no way of telling what happened to your X Craft while it was crossing the floor – or to your Vixen Ten.”

“Vixen Ten.” The general buried his face in his hands. His body seemed almost to crumple, as though overcome with grief. “Oh my god.”

“Of course,” the astrophysicist said, “from your point of view, it’s not yet a disaster. You can still use it for your military, I suppose. Only, it’s going to be a mechanised mission, without any crew to bring it back. And even then all your infallible equipment will fail, sooner rather than later. You understand?”

“It’s you who don’t understand,” the general

The astrophysicist studied him curiously. “I thought she was a volunteer who was aware of the risks? It’s not as though she was an uninvolved onlooker, was she? I mean, with all the other dangers your universe there has brought upon us, why are you so exercised over a single volunteer? You were perfectly ready to shoot me, so it isn’t as though you value life overmuch, is it?”

The general looked up at him, his eyes swimming with tears.

“Vixen Ten is my daughter,” he said.


You understand,” said the astrophysicist, “I can take no responsibility for this. I can’t predict what’s going to happen – and I certainly can’t guarantee you’ll get your daughter back.”

He stood beside the general at the back of the huge control room. Before them, at least fifty men and women in uniform sat at computers, watching data scroll on their monitors. Directly across the room, on a set of large screens, satellite cameras showed the bat-like black shape of the X Craft, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean. The space-suited figures of a few attendant astronauts could be seen, making last-minute adjustments.

“You didn’t prohibit it though,” the general reminded him. “In fact, you strongly urged us to go ahead.”

“I did,” the astrophysicist acknowledged. “I did, not because of your daughter – I’m sorry, but I couldn’t really care less about her – but because the universe you’ve captured is incredibly dangerous. Our own universe is a closed bubble of spacetime, as you’re aware...” He glanced quickly at the general, gauging if he really was aware. “Now, we have two separate and distinct universes occupying the same space. Can you imagine the energy levels building? I’m only surprised we haven’t had a rupture of spacetime yet.”

“So you’re doing this only to get rid of the universe you say we captured?” the general asked. He was grey-faced, and seemed to have aged a decade in the last week. “And even then...”

“Even then,” the astrophysicist completed, “I can’t say that we will get rid of it. I just think it’s essential that we try.”

A screen cut to a camera inside the X Craft, focusing on the writhing cloud, still in its unit.

“It seems to be growing,” the general remarked.

“You noticed it too?” The astrophysicist was silent for a bit. On the other screens, the attendant astronauts moved away on backpack motors. The X Craft was on its own.

“It must be gaining energy,” the astrophysicist said at last. “Either sucking it in from our universe, or channelling it from somewhere. Either way, we have to get rid of it...send it home.”

The tall officer and the short scientist watched the action on the screens. The men and women at their stations clicked diligently away at their computers, and the X Craft turned itself around slowly as it was remotely oriented towards the point where the wormhole would be forrned.

“We’re trying to replicate the conditions of the original test as exactly as possible,” the general said, “in accordance with your instructions. Of course, we can’t do a perfect match, because there was no reason to record the exact spatial co-ordinates and orientation, but we’re doing the best we can.”

The astrophysicist nodded, watching the screens with keen interest. He had never seen a wormhole before, and though he knew enough not to expect a Hollywood-style special effects spectacular, he felt the excitement rush through his veins. “It can’t be helped,” he murmured, imagining the machines at work, twisting at the fabric of space and time. “How long till the hole’s generated?”

“Now,” said the general.

There was no drama, no flash of light. The X Craft simply disappeared.

“It’s in the hole,” the general said.

The screens shifted views. Again, below them was the Pacific Ocean, but from the cloud patterns, slightly shifted. “It should appear there,” the general said.

Nothing happened. The men and women looked up from their computers at the screens, worried frowns on their faces. A few of them looked back at the general questioningly.

The astrophysicist glanced at the general too. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know! The damn thing hasn’t exited the hole.”

The satellite cameras began to sweep across an arc, slowly, but all they showed was the sea and cloud, with a few glimpses of land. There was no sign of the X Craft.

“It’s gone,” one of the men at the computers said.

“I told you,” the astrophysicist murmured to the room at large, “we don’t know what happens inside the room. We’re just the rats in the walls.”

The general rounded on him. “Shut up. You’ve just lost us the X Craft, and ruined the whole damned programme. You just shut up and wait while I decide what to do about you.”

“Oh,” the astrophysicist told him cheerfully, “I don’t think you’ll be doing anything about me. I told you, didn’t I, that we can’t predict anything that might happen inside the wormhole or what its effects might be? Well, you people had to monkey around with what nobody understands, didn’t you? Now, look.”

The general glanced up at the screen at which he was pointing. Beyond the achingly lovely blue-white globe of the earth, space had been a featureless black void. It was a featureless black void no longer.

“It’s ripping apart,” the astrophysicist said, still pointing. In the time left to him, he wondered what would come after this, and wished he could have some way to know.

Like a rotten curtain falling apart at a touch, the fabric of spacetime came crumbling down.  

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

I Believe

I believe

That greed is not the natural condition
Of the human race
That corporations are not the natural rulers
Of our destinies;

I believe

That we are not chained forever
By  the shackles of god, money
Or money that is god;

That empathy and respect
Still have a place in this world
Higher than stock options and investment banks.

I believe

That the wheel will turn,
That Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Rosa Luxembourg and the rest
Brave men and women, who stood up in protest
Did not die in vain.

I believe

We shall overcome
Sooner than we think

Maybe not tomorrow
Maybe today.

 Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Thursday 20 October 2011

Fifty Years Later

I had been about to turn in for the night when there was a knock at the door.

I hesitated. Who would be knocking at this time of night? For that matter, who would even know that I was here, in this foreign city, in this hotel room at this time, and would moreover come up without announcement?

“Who is it?” I called. “What do you want?”

In response there was another knock on the door; a firm, clear knock, neither hesitant nor violent. Curiosity and caution struggled inside me. Curiosity won.

The man outside had his hand raised to knock again. He was tall – much taller than me – and though his white hair and moustache showed that he was at least as old as me, he looked much fitter. He looked down at me with penetrating grey eyes set strangely far apart. There was something extremely familiar about those eyes.

“May I come in?” he asked civilly enough, in English. Which meant nothing, because anyone can speak that language.

I stepped back, motioning him in. I was still wondering about those eyes. Where had I seen him before?

Closing the door behind him, he stepped towards me and peered into my face. “Well?” he demanded, in German, the last language I’d have expected to hear in this part of the world. “Don’t you know me yet?”

And then it hit me, with the shock of a physical blow.

The first time I had seen those eyes, they had been looking into mine from under a peaked cap lightly sprinkled with snow. It had been a freezing winter’s day, and we had all been lined up in the Appel yard of Altkirche concentration camp to welcome the new commander.

“Herr Hauptsturmf├╝hrer!” I gasped, automatically stiffening to attention, as though the decades in between had never happened.

He inclined his head slightly. It was another gesture I remembered from then. We’d all learnt to get to know the guards’ and officers’ individual habits because often that was the difference between life and death. Altkiche was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp, but that didn’t mean one couldn’t die at any moment and without warning. “You haven’t lost your memory, I see, three-three-nine.”

This mention of my old camp number dispelled the last doubts I might have had. It was indeed Kessler before me, Kessler whom we had all feared instinctively, feared his wide-set grey eyes and his slow thin-lipped smile.

“Let’s sit down,” I said inanely. I wondered desperately where he had come from after so many years, and why he had chosen to visit me. “Do you want a drink?”

He shook his head, still staring at me. “No, I don’t want a drink. I see you’ve prospered. You’re looking good. Come a long way from Altkirche, have you?”

I shrugged. “It’s been a long time. I’ve had good luck and bad.”

“And what do you consider my turning up like this, good luck – or bad?”

“I don’t know,” I told him honestly. “Why have you come?”

“Perhaps I wanted to see if anyone still remembered me,” he said. “More specifically, once I saw you in the street today, I couldn’t resist following you until I found where you were staying. And then I hesitated only a bit before I told myself that having come so far it would be stupid not to talk to you when I had the chance.”

“How did you know it was I?” I felt stupid as soon as I asked the question.

“From the limp, of course.” He and I both looked at my right foot. “You still have that most distinctive limp, you know?”

I remembered how I’d got the limp. We’d been clearing out an old, abandoned factory when I’d stepped on a spike. The sole of my shoe had been thin, and it had stabbed right through my foot. I could still feel the white-hot shaft of pain.

For some reason, Kessler had been there that day. I remember seeing him drive out in his open-topped car as we’d been marched out of camp for the day’s work, so he must have come back at some point. Maybe it had amused him to see us work.

I had fallen to the floor, clutching my foot, blood welling through my fingers, trying not to scream, not to draw attention to myself. But I hadn’t been able to stifle a groan.

The noise in the old factory, of a hundred prisoners working, had faded away to silence in my ears. In that silence I’d heard a click, and looked up to find myself staring into the barrel of a rifle. The Latvian guard’s eyes, under the rim of his steel helmet, weren’t even angry, just slightly bored and contemptuous. In another moment he’d pull the trigger.

Halt!” Kessler had appeared at the guard’s shoulder. “Don’t shoot him.”

The guard had looked at him, puzzled. “Why not, Herr Hauptsturmf├╝hrer? He is not able to walk.”

Kessler had stared at him until he looked away. “Because I say so,” he said, and then turned back to me. “You can get up?”

Gritting my teeth, I’d nodded.

Gut. Then go out and get into my car. And try not to bleed on the mats!”

He’d driven me back to camp himself, and even saw to it that my foot was dressed; all without a word. The next day he’d seemed to have forgotten all about it, and I’d been forced to go on Appel like everyone else, and then hobble to work. Soon enough the foot had got infected and swollen, and I’d often thought it would have been much better if the Latvian guard had been allowed to shoot me. But at last the foot healed, though I’d never been able to walk properly on it again.

“Why did you save me in the factory?” I’d been saving up that question for over fifty years. “Why didn’t you let the guard shoot me?”

Kessler shrugged. “It would have been a waste. I mean, just look at you now. Besides, it amused me.”

“It amused you?”

“Don’t you think it would? After all, to have the power of life and death – and to use it to grant life.”

“It was all a game to you, was it?” I asked bitterly, remembering what we had gone through during those years in Altkirche.

“Everything is a game,” he told me. “Don’t tell me you don’t know that. Life, death, the pursuit of money, love and sex, the thirst for power. It’s all a game, my friend. So why should it have been different for me?”

In the silence that followed, the ticking of the clock on the wall was very loud.

“Aren’t you afraid of the war crimes trials?” I asked. “You may have saved me that time, but you did more than your share of killing, Herr Hauptsturmf├╝hrer.”

Kessler shook his head slightly and gave the familiar thin-lipped smile. “I’ve been running for fifty years and more. We’re both old men, and we aren’t far from death, either of us. Tell me, does the prospect of dying frighten you as much now as it did when you were young?”

I thought for a moment of youth and hope, and how the world had beckoned anew, even to a man with a crippled foot.

“Yes,” he said, watching me. “When one is young, one values what one wants. A kiss, the touch of a woman’s hand, the sight of a falling leaf in autumn, the lick of a friendly dog. One dreads prison or death because one is terrified of losing all that. But when one’s old, death’s going to come sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

“So you’ll wait here if I call the police and hand you over?”

He watched me calmly with those grey eyes. “Are you going to hand me over?”

“I don’t know.” I moved irresolutely. “What about you? Where did you go after the war?” I flashed back to the last time I’d seen him. It had been another winter day, and we’d been marching west from Altkirche, which was being evacuated just in front of the advancing Russians. The guards, angry and nervous, had shot anyone who dawdled. Kessler, who’d been transferred from the camp months earlier, had driven past in his open car. Our eyes had met a moment, and then he was gone in a flurry of snow.

“Ah, that’s a longer story than I have time for right now. I had a hard time for some years, before I could work my way abroad. Then I set up my own business under a false name, and even managed to find a girl who was willing to marry me. Of course, she had no idea who I used to be, and still doesn’t.”

“She’s alive?”

“Did I imply otherwise? She’s at home now, waiting for me to return. Of course,” he added drily, “she’s not a girl any longer.”

“So you live somewhere nearby, do you?” I asked.

“No, I’m a visitor to this country – as you are. My plane leaves at dawn tomorrow.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “So, are you going to call the police and turn me in?”

I shook my head. “No, but you knew that already, didn’t you? Even before you knocked on the door?”

“I pride myself that after all these years I know my fellow man,” he said without apparently noticing the irony of the last three words. “All right then. I’d say auf wiedersehen, only I’m pretty certain we won’t be meeting again.”

“Wait!” I said, when he was at the door. “Why did you come here, really?”

He looked at me, his eyes full of a strange and terrible sadness. “I can never go home again,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hang on to a bit of the past.”

There was nothing more to be said. We could have been friends, he and I, if the situation had been different. That was the worst, ugliest part of it. We could have been friends.

Instead, a lifetime had gone by, and we were two old men in a foreign hotel room.

The door clicked shut behind him, and I went, belatedly, to bed.

I did not sleep. I was afraid of the dreams. 

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

The Name Of The Rose and My Name is Red

The scene: The Italian Alps.

The year: 1327.

The background: It’s the late medieval period. The Crusades are over, the Holy Land lost beyond recovery. There are no external enemies to fight. Christianity is now divided against itself, between Pope and Emperor, the secular and the ecclesiastical, heresy and logic, the old and the new.

The plot: Someone is killing the inmates of a remote Benedictine monastery in bizarre ways, and the monks take this as a sign of the Devil at work and of the approaching Apocalypse. Enter the narrator, a novice Benedictine called Adso of Melk, and his mentor, an English Franciscan monk by the name of William of Baskerville. They are there to attend a theological conference, but William, who has experience as an investigator, is charged by the Abbot to look into the murders, not just to find the truth but if necessary to cover it up for the “greater good” of the Church – for if it is the Devil at work, he is to be countered, but if it is a monk who is to blame, William should be careful that the ordinary people – the “sheep” – do not grow to distrust all their “shepherds”.

As more bodies turn up, William is confronted with the mystery of symbols and contexts, and how the past influences the present. When an inquisitor arrives to carry out his own hunt for heretics, Satanists and witches, William’s position becomes more difficult still, but he is still determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The scene: Istanbul, Turkey.

The year: 1591.

The background: The Turkish Empire is caught between two forces. On the east is the Persian Safavid Empire. On the west are the Venetians and the other “Franks” – the Europeans, who are well into the Renaissance and whose military prowess is far less important than their flowering of modern thought and culture. Turkey can no longer stay insulated from foreign ideas and ideals, and this arouses resistance – as always – from various quarters, and for different and often conflicting reasons.

The plot: One of the Sultan’s master miniaturists is murdered and his body thrown into a well. The man was one of a small and highly select group of painters and gilders entrusted by the Sultan with a secret commission: to create a book of illustrations in the “modern” European style instead of the traditional Afghan and Persian style rigidly adhered to by the miniaturists of the Muslim world of the time. The European style is thought to be bordering on the blasphemous by both the traditional miniaturists and the mullahs of the mosques, for different reasons, and the killing of the master gilder, Elegant Effendi, could be an attempt to stop the book from being created – or could it?

Enter Black, once an apprentice painter, who went into self-exile for twelve years after falling in love with his maternal uncle’s daughter. Now, the maternal uncle has called him back to Istanbul to help him complete the book, and Shekure, the cousin he was in love with, has a husband presumed dead in the wars and is living with her father with her two sons.

When the killer strikes again, Shekure tells Black he can have her if he finds the killer and takes care of her and her two children. And meanwhile, the Sultan’s officers suspect Black himself of being involved in the killings.

The first of these books is The Name Of The Rose, by the Italian academic and novelist Umberto Eco (please note that I am talking about the book, not about the film, which many more people are familiar with). The second is My Name Is Red, by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Written a couple of decades apart by different authors living in different countries, it’s still extremely usual to read of one compared to the other, specifically Red to Rose, as though the two were in competition.

I’ve read both these books, and I believe that though they can be read, and enjoyed, individually, they form two parts of a diptych; one compliments and buttresses the other. In this article I’ll try and discuss how.

The first piece of similarity is the fact that they are both putative detective stories, where the detection part doesn’t really matter in itself. To put it differently, neither is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery where everything hinges on the final revelation and the identity of the killer. In both these books, the identity of the murderer is almost incidental, and the detective story is only a hook on which to hang the rest of the novel.

Both these novels are historical novels, and historical novels in a dual sense. Not only are they set in the fairly remote past, but they are both all about history – how the past influences (their) present, and how it is essential to interpret the past in order to understand what is happening around the characters.

In both novels the real battle is essentially one of ideas – the new flooding in and being desperately resisted by the old. In The Name Of The Rose it is the flowering of logical thought that led to the Renaissance, which is so bitterly resisted by the entrenched Church which had so much at stake in keeping the masses poor, ignorant, and afraid. A relatively minor character in terms of the number of pages he occupies, the inquisitor Bernard Gui (a genuinely nasty piece of work who actually existed and was responsible for burning upwards of forty people at the stake) is the embodiment of this reaction. All Bernard wants is heretics to burn; he cares for nothing else, as though destroying free thought and other kinds of “heresy” can hold back the flood of modernity. He will bully and browbeat his suspects into admitting their guilt, twisting their words so that they can say nothing that does not incriminate them. And that is why he is a successful inquisitor.

In My Name Is Red, the conflict of ideas takes the form, not of faith versus heresy, but of schools of painting. Medieval Islamic art was extremely stylised. It invariably showed the world, not as it actually was, but as “Allah” might see it from the top of a minaret, without any attempt at perspective or realism. Realism, in fact, was specifically discouraged, because that introduced the “personal element” of the artist’s vision. Since only Allah was perfect, only what Allah might see could be perfect and the artist tried to depict what he thought Allah would perceive of any given scene. And so the painting style became not just stylised but repetitive, with miniaturists striving to paint exactly as the old master miniaturists of such cities as Herat had done. And, in fact, this is the key to the killer – for the only clue to his identity is the fact that he has painted a realistic horse, not an ideal one, and therefore has a personal “style”.

Meanwhile, the realism of European style painting, with portraits which actually depicted people as they looked, and the world as it looked to a human being, was working its way into the Turkish consciousness, and no less a person than the Sultan himself had decided that he wanted his portrait painted in this style. The reactionaries fell into two camps – one, the traditional miniaturists, personified by Master Osman, the head of the artist’s workshop, who would rather go blind than paint in the European style; and the other the mullahs, who were opposed to all painting as being forbidden by the Koran, and blamed all the ills of the Empire on society’s moving away from Islam.

As with Bernard Gui in the Italian Alps, Pamuk’s book has an ecclesiastical opponent of all things modern, though he never personally makes an appearance. He is a cleric from Erzurum, one Nusret Hoja, who has by the end of the book gathered together a little private army of his own and is determined to force his vision of Islamic rectitude on society, by destroying coffee houses and dervish lodges. He’s a very Mullah Omar kind of figure, whom it is lethally dangerous to mock, as a storyteller who makes repeated appearances throughout the book discovers.

Another similarity is that by modern standards the motives of the two killers is laughable. But the situations of these two books aren’t modern, and the killers aren’t modern people. To them, in the darkness of their little medieval minds, their own purposes were perfectly logical, important and legitimate, no matter how insignificant they would seem to us from the standpoint of the 21st century. One wonders how our motives will be regarded by our descendants six or seven hundred years from now. Not very flatteringly, one feels.

There are many differences between the books, of course, and it’s possible to allude to only a few here; but the similarities in themes and ideas are far more important than the differences.

Taken as a detective story, pure and simple, there’s no comparison: The Name Of The Rose stands head and shoulders above My Name Is Red. Its detective, William of Baskerville, is an open tribute to Sherlock Holmes even to his name (taken from The Hound Of The Baskervilles), with Adso of Melk as a serviceable Watson. In his very first appearance, he makes a very Holmesesque deduction about the whereabouts, name and even the appearance of a runaway horse he has never seen before. He is methodical, knowledgeable, and fact-oriented, rejecting the then-standard belief that the Devil was behind all the evil of the world. William prefers a much more immediate malefactor. William’s motive is the search for truth.

In comparison, Black of My Name Is Red is only a reluctant detective, whose real motive is only to marry and then to sleep with Shekure, and it is only because she orders him to find the killer that he takes the task on himself. This burden takes on added urgency when the Sultan’s officials give him three days to track down the killer, or he and the miniaturists involved in the making of the Sultan’s book will all be put to the torture. And his deductive skills are anything but logical; he depends on serendipity and the aid of Osman in his detective endeavours, and is constantly distracted by Shekure and his own rejection by her children, not to speak of the fear of the torturers.

Then there’s the question of writing style. The Name Of The Rose is linear; told by Adso of Melk, everything that happens is narrated by him directly or as a matter of his knowledge. He thinks as a fourteenth-century monk might think, without a trace of liberalism, except that which has rubbed off on him from William. His characters come across as props for his account; he scarcely even bothers to describe most of them (except William himself), because, to paraphrase him, “What’s the point now? They’re all long dead anyway.” His account has long digressions into history, ecclesiastical expostulation, and symbolism, where the human element is entirely removed. It reads, as it is meant to, as a treatise more than a novel for much of its length.

My Name Is Red is anything but linear. Each chapter is told in a different voice, not just those of the main characters but of dogs and such, even of such intangibles as corpses, the Devil, and the colour red. Over and over, the same ideas and episodes are re-examined from different viewpoints and perspectives, almost as in the film Rashomon. Unlike Rose, Red’s characters are infinitely better drawn, which is rather natural when one looks at the personal voice in which the book is presented. And again unlike Rose, which has a grand total of one female character, who is not even allowed the dignity of a name, Red’s best drawn characters are women: there is Shekure herself, desperate for security for herself and her children, unsure of Black’s love for her, and dreading the brother of her late husband while at the same time retaining affection for him. There is Hayriye, her scheming slave girl, who hates her so much that she sleeps with Shekure's father, Black's uncle, as an act of revenge. There is Esther, the Jewish clothes peddler and itinerant matchmaker, who acts as a double and triple agent as she carries around messages between Shekure, Black, and Shekure’s brother-in-law Hasan. There is even the mythical character Shirin, who appears over and over again in paintings throughout the book, to the extent where she is almost a character herself.

Since these two books are allegedly detective stories, it would be unfair to completely ignore the killers, who are also very different, though, as I’ve said, their motives are equally nonsensical to a modern mind. My Name Is Red’s killer is actually easily guessable (at least I correctly guessed his identity halfway through the book from the clues liberally provided); his crimes are committed in the heat of passion, and one soon realises that he’s not really a bad man. The Name Of The Rose’s murderer is of a completely different nature, a cold and calculating psychopath who uses his own wits, knowledge and logic in his battle with William of Baskerville. He is a far more impenetrable and frightening figure, and one tracks him down alongside William, discovering the clues as William does (another way this book is Sherlock Holmes-esque rather than the whodunit type).

Both books are often slow-going and are emphatically not for those with short attention spans. Red has dashes of black humour, but humour is (and this turns out to be thematically significant) utterly lacking in Rose. In the end, though, neither book’s message is anything to laugh about – and that message is the same.  

Personally, I preferred The Name Of The Rose, but that’s probably due to the fact that I read that book much earlier and because the constant shift of viewpoint in My Name Is Red isn’t suited to my tastes. But that’s only on a personal level – at the level of intellectual discussion, these two books strongly complement each other.

I suggest you read them both.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

The Aardvark's Burrow

Tell us a story, grandpa,” the children said.

Grandpa put down his pipe and glared theatrically. This made the children all giggle, because they all knew that he’d been waiting for them to ask. Telling the kids stories was the high point of Grandpa’s evening.

“Go away,” he said, formulaically. “Go away and leave me alone.”

The children took the cue and clustered closer. None of them were actually his grandchildren, but the whole village called him “grandpa” and every evening the kids would come crowding into his house for a story. Childless himself, he enjoyed children and enjoyed telling them stories, but there were rituals to complete before he could start.

“Story, grandpa,” the kids chorused. “Tell us a story now.”

Grandpa completed the ritual of glaring once more. He looked very much like a sleepy old tortoise, so it wasn’t that much of a glare, more a heavy lidded blink of his ancient eyes. Finally he picked up his pipe and poked at it with a fingernail.

“All right,” he said with badly-feigned reluctance, and began sucking on the pipe. “What sort of story do you want to squeeze out of your poor old grandfather tonight?”

There was a cacophony of noise as each child shouted what he or she wanted. Grandpa sat back, sucked at his pipe, and waited for the noise to abate.

“Since none of you can decide,” he said, as he always did, “I’ll choose a story for you. Listen, then, to the story of why the warthog and wild dog live in a burrow made by the aardvark, and listen well, for this is a tale you have not heard before.”    


Long ago (grandpa said) the Creator made the world, and then he made the sky, the sun and the moon and the seasons, and then he made the minor gods to watch over the world and the sun and moon and the seasons. But then he thought there was still something left to do, so he decided to create the plants and animals.

So he laboured mightily day and night, turning out all the animals from grasshoppers to giraffes, the vultures flying through the air and the fishes in the river. He gave each of them what they needed to survive. To the rhino he gave its tough skin and horns, to the impala its speed, to the lion its strength, and so on. At last he thought everything was done, and was about to go back into his hut to sleep. But he noticed that there was something missing, one final creature he needed to make. And so he created the aardvark.

Now, the aardvark he created was nothing like the one we know now. It walked on its hind legs and had hands and feet like a man’s, no tail, small ears and a short snout. The Creator made it, decided that he’d completed his work, and went to sleep.

Now the aardvark walked about the savannah and the forests, and saw all the other animals, and it seemed to him that he was the best of them all, because he walked on two legs and had hands, and because the Creator had made him last of all. And because he thought he was the best, this made him haughty, and he refused to greet the other animals as brother and sister.

So the other animals were irritated, and got together for a meeting, in which they decided that they would have nothing to do with the aardvark. They would not help him in any way, or talk to him at all.

The aardvark was not concerned at this at first. He wandered around the savannah looking at this and that, and thinking how great he was compared to the mole rat and the fish eagle, because he could walk on two legs and because he had hands. But then time passed and he began to get hungry.

First he thought he would try to eat some of the grass, like the buffalo and the white rhino. But the grass was too hard for his teeth.

Then he thought he would try to reach the tender leaves at the top of the trees, but he did not have the long neck of a giraffe, and he could not climb the trees because of the thorns.

Then he thought he would dig for bulbs and tubers like the warthog, but his hands were useless for digging.

Finally he thought he should hunt his food down, but on two legs he was so slow that when he tried to chase a wildebeest down, it scarcely troubled to canter away.

So the aardvark was in a fix. He was extremely hungry, and growing concerned that he would starve to death.

So he swallowed his pride, went to the hyaena and begged her to give him some share of her kill. Butt he hyaena looked away, picked up the meat and trotted off to her cubs.

Then he went to the baboon troop and asked the leader to find him some morsel to eat. But the baboon leader pretended that he did not exist.

Then he went to the elephant and asked the matriarch of the clan to help him find some food. The great beast didn’t even deign to shake her ears at him in warning.

At last, the aardvark was so exhausted and weary that he trudged all the way back to the Creator’s hut and began knocking at the door. He kept knocking and knocking until the Creator finally rose from his slumber and opened, extremely cross.

“My Lord,” said the aardvark, “please give me some other form, because in this body I am going to die of lack of food.”

“What do you want to eat?” the Creator asked.

“How about meat?” the aardvark said. “I could do with a nice joint of flesh.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the Creator snapped. “The lion and the leopard, the hyaena and the wild dog, have all taken meat as their food.”

“Then how about grass?”

“What will the elephant and the buffalo, the rhino and the antelope eat? Do you wish to compete with them?”

“In that case...” the aardvark looked around frantically and saw a termite nest. “I want to eat those,” he said desperately, his stomach convulsing with hunger.

“All right,” the Creator said, and the aardvark fell on four legs and grew claws on his hands, sharp enough to dig into a termite mound or ant hill. His snout became heavy and elongated like a pig’s, his tongue grew long and sticky, and his front teeth vanished. Because his body was now so heavy at the front, he almost fell over, so the Creator gave him a thick tail for balance, and turned, yawning, to go back inside.

“But how should I defend myself from predators?” the aardvark asked plaintively. “If they catch me they shall kill me.”

So the Creator gave him thick, tough skin and a pair of long ears so he should be able to hear the predators coming, and went back to sleep.

So the aardvark stumbled off to dig into the termite mound and eat enough to kill his hunger pangs, but he was not happy. He could hardly bear to compare his current situation to how he had been earlier, and cried bitter tears to himself when he thought of how he had become deformed and reduced to eating tiny crawling insects. But there was nothing he could do but endure it, because the other animals still wouldn’t talk to him.

They laughed at him, though, and jeered at him for becoming so ugly and ridiculous. The poor aardvark could only cry to himself. He thought that this was his punishment, and finally decided that this was the way he would end up spending the rest of his life, friendless, alone, a figure of fun to everybody.

And then one day the land was invaded by the driver ants. They came in a living river, millions of them in a black stream sweeping across the savannah and eating any animal they could catch. Nothing that they caught escaped their terrible jaws. They struck terror into the hearts of the animals.

So they all went together to the Creator, to beg his help. But the Creator had finally fallen asleep again after the interruption from the aardvark, and could not be roused. And the animals were afraid that the driver ants would catch them all, and swarm over them and eat them to the bone.

Meanwhile the aardvark was sleeping in the shadow of a baobab, and some of the ants found him and bit at his nose and snout. But instead of retreating in agony, the aardvark automatically stuck out his tongue, scooped them up, and ate them all.

Then he came fully awake and began eating all those millions of driver ants. He ate the huge-headed blind soldiers, the scurrying workers, and the swollen queens with equal impartiality. They bit at him but could not penetrate his thick tough skin, and with his claws he dug them out from any crevice in which they tried to conceal themselves.

And so this is how the other animals found him when they came to see how far the ant tide had risen – slowly but surely, all by himself, turning the advance of the ant army into a rout. Finally the surviving drivers retreated, defeated.

And so the savannah was saved.

Then the animals came to the aardvark, and praised him, and wanted to be his friend. But the aardvark was unhappy, because he thought he did not deserve it, and he felt bitterly ashamed when he remembered his earlier behaviour.

The other animals would not hear of it, though. They insisted on singing his praises, and the aardvark was very embarrassed.

So he went away and dug himself a burrow, inside which he decided to hide from the other animals except during the night, when he would come out to feed. And that is the way he lives to this day.

But some of the other animals, like the wild dog and the warthog, continued to hero-worship the aardvark, and followed him around. Finally he moved away to a new burrow in order to get away from their admiration. But they decided to honour him by using his old burrow for their own home, and that is the way they live to this day.


Grandfather sucked on his pipe and looked contemplatively through the window. It was late in the evening and his audience had departed. From his window, with the light off, he could see far, all the way to the termite mounds dotting the plain.

Near one of the mounds, a shambling shadow moved, low to the ground, swinging a heavy tail. Grandpa sucked at his pipe and watched as the aardvark got to work on the rock-hard earth with its claws.

Grandpa smiled, watching, his supper forgotten. He looked at the aardvark and thought about tomorrow’s story.

He might tell the tale of the hyaena, he thought. The children would like that.

The bloated yellow moon shone on the savannah and rose into the sky.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011