The Library of Bebelplatz

When I came to, I was sitting at a table in the centre of a white room. The walls of the room were lined with shelves. The shelves were all empty. I was dazed and disoriented, and I ached all over. I shut my eyes and tried to compose myself. When I opened my eyes again, I was still in the room.

A section of the wall to my left swung open and a tall woman entered the room. I tried to get up, but my body felt unbearably heavy. The woman sat down opposite me at the table. She looked directly at me; her face calm but sombre. Suddenly, I was very frightened.

‘Do you know where you are?’ she asked me.

‘I’ve no idea!’ I said.

‘Do you know why you’re here?’ she asked.

‘Of course I don’t!’ I cried desperately. ‘What’s going on?’

‘What’s the last thing you remember?’ she asked.

‘I was crossing the road,’ I said. ‘Someone called out my name. I turned round to see who it was. Then I was here. What’s happening to me?’

‘You were hit by a delivery van,’ said the woman. ‘You died on the way to hospital.’

I was dumbstruck. The woman watched me patiently.

‘So I’m dead am I?’ I said eventually.

‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘You’re dead.’

‘How can I be anywhere if I’m dead?’ I asked. ‘Am I in hell?’

‘No,’ said the woman patiently. ‘You’re not in hell.’

‘This isn’t exactly my idea of heaven,’ I said.

‘No,’ said the woman. ‘You’re not in heaven either.’

‘Where am I then?’ I asked. ‘Limbo? This is preposterous. How can I be dead if I’m sitting here talking to you. Who are you anyway?’

‘You’re not in limbo,’ said the woman. ‘That’s for people who didn’t know any better.’

‘Better than what?’ I asked. ‘I’ve led a pretty mundane life. Who have I harmed? What have I done wrong?’

‘Your life was hardly mundane,’ said the woman. ‘And it certainly wasn’t blameless. You know that.’

‘Of course my life isn’t blameless,’ I said. ‘Nobody’s is. But I don’t believe in an afterlife and I’m not sure that I would behave any differently if I did.’

Of course I would have behaved differently.

‘Where were you going to when you were knocked down?’ asked the woman.

‘I was on my way to the final session of the Literary Festival,’ I said. ‘My new novel’s been shortlisted for a major prize and they’re going to announce the winner. I think I stand a good chance of winning.’

‘What did you do when you weren’t writing?’ asked the woman.

‘I select and edit manuscripts for a publisher,’ I said.

‘What did you do with the manuscripts you rejected?’ asked the woman.

‘I sent them back to the authors,’ I said.

‘After you copied them,’ said the woman gently.

I was taken aback. Nobody else knew that: not my agent nor my wife, though I’m sure both were suspicious. I wrote all my books myself, but every book I’d authored after my first had been based on someone else’s ideas. I didn’t steal their texts and I was always careful to acknowledge my sources and influences. But I invariably borrowed from the manuscripts I’d read: plots; characters; threads; perhaps the occasional turn of phrase.

‘Do you know who called out your name?’ asked the woman.

‘The voice sounded familiar,’ I said. ‘But I couldn’t place it. That’s why I looked round.’

Of course I knew whose voice it was.

The woman looked at me searchingly.

‘You heard the writer whose work you used in your last novel,’ she said. ‘He was very angry when he read the book and threatened to expose you. You were on your way to meet him, to try to placate him.’

If I was dead, how had I been judged? If I wasn’t in hell or heaven, was I in some antechamber to oblivion? Deep down inside, long buried away, I believed that stealing other people’s ideas was unpardonable.

Then I remembered the family who lived over the road when I was young. The children couldn’t come out to play on Sunday mornings until they’d finished saying prayers for the souls in purgatory.

‘Am I in purgatory?’ I asked.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ said the woman.

In my friends’ cosmography, purgatory was unendurable torment but penance brought relief.

‘What do I have to do to get out of here?’ I asked, feeling slightly more hopeful.

‘You must suffer until you are contrite,’ said the woman.

‘How am I to suffer?’ I asked hesitantly.

‘Look above you,’ said the woman.

I looked up. The library was roofed with a thick glass sheet which let in a diffuse yellow light.

‘Where am I?’ I asked again.

‘We’re in the Library of Bebelplatz,’ said the woman.

‘You mean the Library of Babel?’ I said.

‘No,’ said the woman. ‘The Library of Bebelplatz. In Berlin. The square above us used to be called the Opernplatz. On May the 10th, in 1933, Nazi students burnt 20,000 books here. This library is their monument.’

A typewriter and a ream of paper appeared on the table.

‘Look around you,’ said the woman. ‘What do you see?’

‘Empty shelves,’ I replied.

‘You must fill them with books,’ said the woman.

‘Where am I going to find so many books?’ I asked.

‘You must write them,’ said the woman.

‘But if you know so much about me, you know that I can’t write without ideas!’ I shouted. ‘What am I to do for ideas?’

‘You must find them within yourself,’ said the woman. ‘You could once.’

She got up from her chair and left the library, shutting the wall behind her.

I sat at the table, transfixed with doubt.

Was I really dead? Was this a hoax? Had I gone mad? Was this a dream? Had someone drugged me and brought me here? Who was the woman? Why would anyone do this to me? Had I been hit by a delivery van? Who would want to do this to me? How did the woman know so much about me? Had I died on the way to hospital? Would someone do this to stop me winning the prize? Did I have to stay here until I filled the shelves? Was I really dead?

The wall section swung open and a man in green overalls came into the room.

‘Help me! Help me!’ I cried at him.

The man turned on the lights, walked right through me and began to wipe down the shelves with an orange duster.

I screamed in terror, drowning in waves of demented despair.

Absorbed in his task, the man methodically worked his way round the room, whistling a popular tune. When he had finished, he turned the lights off and left, shutting the wall behind him.

I was trapped in a solipsistic nightmare. My brain raced incessantly, round and round, round and round. Nothing happened to mark the passage of time. There was no change in the yellow light beyond the ceiling. I didn’t feel tired or hungry or sleepy. I couldn’t even tell if I was still breathing or if my heart was still beating. My entire body felt bruised, inside and out, as if it had been squeezed inchoate from an immense tube of protoplasm and was struggling to form itself.

Slowly, slowly, my thoughts began to focus. If was really dead

… If I really had to stay in the library… If I really had to fill the shelves…

The woman said that the library commemorated the burning of 20,000 books. It took me around a year to write a 150,000 word novel. Maybe I could write four books a year if I did nothing else, so writing 20,000 would take 5,000 years. 5,000 years

I wondered how many books would actually fill the empty shelves. I knew I had around 5,000 books at home as I’d had to count them for the insurance assessment. They took up far more space than the library shelves. Maybe lots of the burnt books had been quite small. Anyway, if I could fill the shelves with 10,000 books instead of 20,000, maybe that would only take 2,500 years. Only 2,500 years

The woman had said that I had to fill the shelves with books, but she hadn’t specified how long they had to be. If I used double spacing and only wrote on one side of each page then maybe that would only take 600 years or so, which was only around twelve times as long as I’d lived before I found my self in the library

The woman had said that my suffering would end when I was contrite. I knew that contrition required the acknowledgement of sin. Perhaps I should start by writing a frank and detailed autobiography.

My body still ached all over but the ache had begun to mute. Very slowly, I bent forward, took a sheet of paper out of the ream and fed it into the typewriter. Then I carefully typed my name. Nothing appeared on the sheet. I folded back the metal flanges on either side of the platen. The typewriter ribbon was blank.

I pushed the typewriter away from me and sat back in the chair, utterly lost.

The wall section swung open and the man came back into the room. He was wearing in a crisp blue suit, with a red and white spotted handkerchief in his left breast pocket and a yellow carnation in his right lapel buttonhole. The man stood in the doorway and surveyed the shelves.

‘It’d take a long time to fill that lot,’ he said.

I looked at him, disbelievingly.

‘I’m talking to you,’ he said, staring back at me. ‘There’s no one else here.’

‘You’re not real,’ I said.

‘What is ‘real’?’ asked the man. ‘You’re real enough, that’s for sure. And now you’re talking to me. Does it really matter if I’m a figment of your imagination?’

‘Of course it matters!’ I said.

‘Make me go away then,’ said the man.

I shut my eyes and tried to sink back into my numerical reverie. When I opened them again, the man was still standing in the doorway.

‘Well, that didn’t seem to work,’ said the man.

‘What do you want with me?’ I asked him, anxiously.

‘You don’t have to stay here, you know,’ he said.

The man snapped his fingers. The shelves filled with leather bound books. Each book had my name embossed in gold leaf on the spine.

‘Let’s go,’ said the man, snapping his fingers again.

We were sitting cross-legged on a sandy beach looking out across a broad bay. The arms of the bay stretched gently away from us on either side. The turquoise sea was completely still, opalescent in the first rays of the vermilion sun rising on the far horizon.

‘Where are we?’ I asked, terrified and relieved.

‘Does it matter?’ said the man.

‘How long can I stay here?’ I asked.

‘How long do you want to stay?’ said the man.

‘Can I stay forever,’ I asked.

‘Oh no,’ said the man. ‘Not forever.’

‘What happens when my time here runs out?’ I asked.

‘A minor detail,’ said the man. ‘Take it or leave it. There’s no hurry. I’ve got all day.’

I felt a deep dread welling within me.

‘Am I really here?’ I asked.

‘What does ‘really’ mean?’ said the man.

‘Where is my body’, I asked.

‘Where do you feel your body to be?’ asked the man.

‘I feel like I’m here,’ I said, ‘but where is the me that’s doing the feeling?’

‘That’s an excellent question,’ said the man. ‘Isn’t feeling like you’re here good enough?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It isn’t.’

‘I don’t see why not,’ said the man. ‘Before you came to the library, you were quite happy behaving as if you really were in the place where you felt you were. What’s so different now?’

‘I am,’ I said.

‘Have it your own way,’ said the man.

He snapped his fingers and we were back in the library. The shelves were still full of books.

The man reached into his jacket pocket and placed a mobile telephone on the table next to the typewriter.

‘Call me if you change your mind,’ he said. ‘My number’s in the address book.’

The man left the room. As he shut the wall behind him, the shelves emptied

I picked up the mobile phone. The display showed a fully charged battery and a strong signal. I tried to phone my wife but I got the number unobtainable tone. I redialled, including the country code, but the number was still rejected. I tried every number I could remember but none of them worked.

I checked the address book. It held one unidentified number. I called the number and eventually got through to a recorded voice asking me to try again later. I called the number over and over again but the voice never changed.

Finally, I decided to try to send a text message. When I selected the text option, the display began to flash:

YOU HAVE 297,741,056 MESSAGES.

As I stared incredulously at the display, the number began to get bigger: 297,741,057; 297,741,058; 297,741,059; 297,741,060

I selected the first message. It was written in a language I couldn’t identify but, surprisingly, could nonetheless understand. It was a short prayer, from someone I’d never heard of, to a god I didn’t recognise, asking for intervention to save a friend dying needlessly from a curable condition. I tried to select the next message but the only option was to reply to the first.

I don’t believe in god or gods. Even if I did, I’m certainly not a god. Yet here was a message asking for help. If I didn’t respond, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would.

I started to enter a stoical reply. It was a laborious process, full of mistakes: I despised text messaging even more than email, so I’d never learnt to use a mobile’s keypad effectively. As I finally pressed the send button, the typewriter began to print the message and my response, side by side onto the sheet of paper. I checked the mobile’s display. The message count had stopped increasing.

I read the second message. It was another prayer, in another unknown, yet again intelligible language, to another unknown deity, pleading for help for someone jailed for stealing food for their family. I jabbed at the keys in a slow expression of solidarity. Once again, when I pressed the send button, the message and my response were typed onto the paper. When I checked the display, the message count had decreased by one.

I replied to another fifteen or so messages. When the page was full, I took it out of the typewriter and tried to lay it on the shelf nearest to me but it kept wafting back to the table. Eventually, I turned the page over and fed it back into the typewriter. When I’d filled the other side of the page, I took it out again. This time, when I laid it down, it floated up to the far corner of the library, and stood upright at the start of the furthest shelf. I put another sheet of paper into the typewriter and read the next message.

As the typewriter ate through the endless ream of paper, and the message count slowly declined, I began to see repeated patterns of destitution and suffering, always tinged with a poignant yearning for something better. Nonetheless, I felt that each message deserved an individual reply. Besides, I suspected that the library would accept nothing less. I had no way of knowing if my answers ever went any further than the pages that steadily filled the shelves. 160 letters proved a sobering discipline; the seeds of my own poignant hope.

When I’d replied to the last message, and squeezed the last sheet into the last space on the shelves, the wall swung open and a shaft of soft light lit up the library. Without looking back, I walked up the marble staircase onto the sandy beach.

I was overwhelmed with relief to have left the heart-rending torrent of text messages and the numbing claustrophobia of the library. I couldn’t undo what I’d done before, and I’d no idea what lay ahead of me, but I’d found a concern and a persistence inside myself that I thought I’d lost long, long ago.

The woman and the man were sitting in striped deck chairs under an umbrella, sipping rainbow coloured cocktails through curly straws. As I approached them, the man got up.

‘You took your time,’ he said, handing me his drink. ‘I’ll be off then.’

‘See you later,’ said the woman.

‘I doubt it,’ said the man, and walked away up into the dunes.

‘You better sit down,’ said the woman, proffering me a large manila envelope. ‘There’s a new arrival. You’ll be talking to them first. Here are their details.’

Copyright Greg Michaelson 2005


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