“The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss” – Fiction by Abhishek Sengupta

Saraswati – Nandalal Bose, 1941

The grand finale of our Winter 2018 issue is Abhishek Sengupta‘s brilliantly Byzantine and Borgesian short story “The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss.”

{ X }

ABSTRACT

HAVING WORKED AS A LIBRARIAN in the Egyptian National Library and Archives (ENLA) for forty long years, visiting it for ten years as an ex-librarian subsequent to his retirement, and concentrating on reading each book housed there thrice, Uziah Greiss discovered that the 13013th word in each book is a number. Always. Without exception.

He also noted that although they appeared in different formats, each one of them was a different number (or a sign denoting a number, or terms we could map numerically). For example, in a book named A History of Martyrdom, the 13013th word is “gross”. It appears in the sentence ‘A gross misconduct on the part of the king announced the beginning of war.’ Numerically, the word “gross” stands for one dozen of dozens, or more simply, the number 144.

After years of studying, Greiss came to another startling conclusion: each number appearing as the 13013th word in a book was unique and appeared only once throughout all books ever written. Never repeated.

This synopsis attempts to uncover, as well as understand, the only (and yet, incomplete) text ever written by Uziah Greiss, which is as much of an enigma as it is a catalogue of his finding.

{ X }

INTRODUCTION

Let it be known that this is my final attempt at publishing the short synopsis of The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss (that is not the real name of his book, but then, his manuscript had no name – real or otherwise, and it remained incomplete for someone killed him before he could complete it). All my earlier attempts at writing and publishing the synopsis have met with failure in some mysterious circumstances, but I promise to stay true to the history of writing this synopsis by recording my failures as well. So, let me start by quoting the circumstances leading to each of those failures.

{ X }

Attempt # 1: I completed the synopsis in my first attempt. A publisher in town showed interest in it. I had been traveling on a bus with my completed manuscript when I suddenly started feeling drowsy. Although not in the habit of falling asleep on a bus, that day I did. On waking up, I found my bag, which sat on my lap and contained the manuscript, had been stolen.

{ X }

Attempt # 2: I stumbled half-way through the synopsis when the news broadcast confirmed reports of war breaking out. My wife claimed the city we stayed in was not safe anymore, which happened to be true. So, we moved to a different city, one supposed to be safer. When I unpacked my belongings, however, I could no longer find my half-finished synopsis.

{ X }

Attempt # 3: A letter arrived when I was about to complete the synopsis. My wife opened it. A clear warning surfaced, attempting to prevent me from trying to publish my synopsis. It told grave consequences awaited my family and me if I tried. The sender’s name didn’t figure anywhere. I didn’t want to pay much heed to an anonymous warning, but my wife was reluctant. She said she was afraid for our son’s life. She tore up the pages on which I had been writing the synopsis.

{ X }

Attempt # 4: I started writing the synopsis in extreme secrecy this time. I didn’t mention it to anyone, not even my wife. One day, when my wife and son went to the market, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end claimed my wife and son had been in an accident and were admitted to the nearest hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, it was too late. Both were declared dead. When I returned home a broken man, I found someone had broken into my home. The synopsis I was working on was gone.

{ X }

Attempt # 5: With no fear left and nothing to lose, I resolved to complete the synopsis this time. I started writing with much rage when the doorbell rang. As soon as I opened the door, the police barged in. They claimed they had reports of illegal activities being carried out in my house. Paying no heed to my denial of such charges, they started searching my house. They showed me some documents that, according to them, were of “questionable nature”, and were retrieved from my house. I didn’t remember ever having seen them before, but it didn’t matter. They arrested me.

{ X }

Attempt # 6: They released me from prison six months later.  The first thing I remembered was the incomplete synopsis I had left lying on my table. When I returned home, I found it lying right where I left it, covered in dust, much like everything else in the house. I wondered why they didn’t take it but was immensely happy to find it there. They would have to kill me this time, I thought, to stop me from completing it. I also wondered why they hadn’t. I finished the synopsis that night. Pleased with my feat, I went to the market next morning. When I returned, my house had disappeared. In its place stood a vast field with green grasses growing on it. I stopped random people on the street to ask if they knew what happened to the house. They looked at me surprised. There had never been a house here – it was always a field, they said.

{ X }

I no longer know if I’m sane. I no longer know if I exist, or if the world does. I have no proof of my past. I have no proof that I once owned the manuscript of The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss. I have no proof of my six earlier attempts of writing its synopsis. What I do have is the memory of writing it six times before – a memory so clear that I know each of the words of my synopsis like the back of my own hand. I have the memory of a family and home taken away from me by the veiled forces, all its records destroyed, just so that I never get to publish my synopsis. But above all, I have the memory of reading a particular section from the manuscript by Greiss, a few days after my wife and son were snatched away from me –

“But for all the violence, my love refuses to surrender. I’ll declare my love for you on a night smeared with blood – of mine and the innumerable alphabets together – one last time.”

So, this is my final attempt to putting all of it down on paper. I realize that this time, the invisible adversary will obliterate me by the time I complete this, but I don’t care. This life (or the absence of it) has stopped making any sense a long time back.

{ X }

MY TRYST WITH UZIAH GREISS

My interest in visiting the city of Aswan in Southern Egypt was purely geological in nature. I had gone visiting one of its ancient stone quarries in the year 2010. It was one of those rare places where you could find an ingenious coarse-grained rock called Syenite. I had meant to study its actual structure and composition for years.

I remember working on a sweltering hot and humid afternoon. The bottle of water I brought didn’t last long. For some reason, the nearby shops were all closed, and my mouth grew tacky and rough by the second. Reluctantly, I knocked on the door of one of the houses, and an old lady appeared. She invited me inside when I asked for a glass of water. While handing it to me, she asked me what I did. I told her I was a geologist.

“Where are you from?”

“From a distant land,” I replied, smiling.

“Can you read Arabic?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” she said and disappeared into her room.

She returned shortly after with a tattered manuscript in her hand, which she handed over to me.

“Take this. Take it far away. It’s not safe here,” she said.

“What is this?”

“Something that’ll change your life once you start reading it.”

I don’t know how she knew this, but that incomplete work of Uziah Greiss did exactly as she told, and it started long before I thought of writing its synopsis.

After I returned home, I could no longer sleep or concentrate on my geological works. My wife, who was expecting our child at that time, got extremely irritated with my absent-minded presence and threw a flower vase at me one day. I realized then that The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss (that’s what I had started calling it) made me a different man – so much so that a year later I had to return to the city of Aswan to learn more about its author.

I couldn’t find the old lady. A lock on her door greeted me, and I learned from her neighbors that she had left the place many months before. Finding any information about Greiss turned out to be difficult. The people who greeted me with much hospitality in their homes, all of a sudden changed as soon as I mentioned Uziah Greiss. They said they had nothing to do with him, that I must be mad if I came there looking for him. Only some of the old folks in town spoke to me. They said they were too old to care for the consequence of words and the infliction of memories. Only because these few old men and women overcame their fears to speak to me about the forbidden man did I come to know anything about the enigma who was Uziah Greiss.

Although I found three old men in Cairo as well who told me a few details about Greiss, I couldn’t retrieve any information from the ENLA. The officials in the library denied there ever had been an employee (much less a librarian) of that name. They also showed me various official records to further substantiate their claim. This act, however, firmly established my belief that Uziah Greiss had indeed worked in the library for the exact number of years as the people in his hometown stated.

“The numbers often tell me of a distance created to keep the truth away, and yet, if you’ve ever been in love you’ll know, truth and distance are one and the same thing.”

{ X }

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF UZIAH GREISS

Uziah Greiss was born in the city of Aswan in the year 1915 to a father who used to sell authentic Egyptian stone sculpted goods to the British garrisons. His mother made those sculptures. Some accounts claim that his mother was not only the most beautiful and graceful woman of the town at that time, but she was also the reason why Greiss developed an eye for details. Although being illiterate herself, she ensured that her son got proper schooling and read an absurd number of books. Even as a child, Greiss would often be found sitting beside the Nile all alone, reading books. He also learned various languages in his youth so that he could read the original texts of different books.

At the age of sixteen, Greiss travelled to Cairo to work in the ENLA, where he started working as a library assistant. The library opened up a new world for him, or perhaps, an entire universe – a universe made of words and alphabets. He noticed they meant different things based on the sequence in which they were placed. He was not so much interested in the stories those books told as much as he was in the ideas. Enraptured by the style, structure, and presentation, Greiss often set himself loose in the repetitive labyrinths of their many philosophies.

One book that influenced him in his very early days at the library was Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Father), a collection of ancient wisdom texts. Among other eminent authors he often mentions in his book are Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe, Sun Tzu, Ivan Turgenev, Lewis Carroll, and Miguel de Cervantes. In the later part of his life, the modern Arabic literature of that time influenced him, by the likes of Ahmed Shawqi, Hafez Ibrahim, and that much-celebrated novel by Muhammad Husayn Haykal: Zaynab.

There are no clear records of exactly when he took upon himself the daunting task of reading each book he had read previously – not twice, but thrice; neither is it easy to ascertain what convinced him his effort would bear any fruitful result, but it is not too difficult to imagine that his subsequent studies were in search of some hidden pattern common to all books ever written. It would be wrong to believe he came upon his theory of ‘the 13013th word as a number’ quite quickly. He writes –

“It was unfortunate that I would chance upon that [theory] in the year I was about to retire [from my services]. Although I’d still have access to all books in there, in the last thirty-nine years the library had been my home, now while crossing its doorstep, I’d know I was an outsider. That feeling was a burden and a curse.”

Once he discovered the reason they were there, perhaps it didn’t take him that long to realize the number in the 13013th word in each book was unique, and once it appeared in a book it never resurfaced on that position in any other.

Greiss had always been a private person (he didn’t marry and had very few friends), but in these ten years after his retirement, he went into complete seclusion. Very rarely did he come out of his house, and when he did, he was often seen carrying some book. In these ten years, he had not only embarked on the mammoth mission of counting every manuscript to reach to the number hidden in the 13013th word of a book, but also taken upon the task of cataloguing the numbers, and more importantly, sorting them in their numerical order.

It is only in the process of sorting them that he came upon the startling discovery that we shall be discussing in the next segment of this synopsis. It is with this discovery that his manuscript became less of a catalogue and more of a treatise on the most unlikely and dangerous romance ever documented.

In the last three years of his life, he returned to his hometown of Aswan. Various opinions exist on why he came back – one of them even claiming that his life no longer remained safe in the capital, but from what I’ve personally learned from my dealings with the manuscript, it could be safely concluded that Greiss must have known that location could never be a deterrent to the dangers that persisted. Perhaps it was homesickness we so often lapse into with the advent of old age, that brought him back. In any case, he continued writing his manuscript with the single goal of completing it, which he couldn’t, of course, not just because someone killed him, but because although the total number of books ever written at any given point in time was finite, it was not a computable figure since this number kept increasing, and therefore, the sequence of numbers he tried to map always tended towards infinity.

Much like various parts of his life, conflicting accounts of his murder exist, including a gunshot to his head, and a knife stab in his gut, but the most intriguing among them is the staged suicide in which his body was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his bedroom. He died at the age of 68 years, in the year I was born: 1983.

{ X }

ANALYSIS OF AND EXCERPTS FROM THE MANUSCRIPT

“The 13013th word in any given book is a unique number and an unavoidable prophecy. The sentence that contains the number also contains the prophecy.”

 The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss starts with those two simple sentences whose meaning could be as deep and with effects as far-reaching as the pages of the manuscript itself. It tells us Greiss wasn’t just studying the numbers hidden in the 13013th word of a book, but entire sentences that contain that numerical word. It also says that he was studying, above anything else, a pattern in those sentences.

“The patterns ingrained in that sentence containing the 13013th word is a machination of an infinitely beautiful mind, codifying the very form that defines human existence, and me.”

Each of the chapters following that introductory passage is a particular bracket of ascending numbers and is named accordingly. For example, the first chapter is titled ‘Numbers One to Fifty’, the second- ‘Numbers Fifty-One to Two Hundred’, the third – ‘Numbers Two Hundred One to Four Hundred and Twenty-Six’, and so forth.

In each of those chapters, he catalogues the mentioned numbers along with the sentence that contains it, sequenced in a strictly ascending order. He stops only at places to interpolate the meaning of a particular sequence from his personal introspection. He quotes the name of each of the books that the sentence had been taken from, in Arabic. He does this perhaps, so that it is easier on the reader, but it would be wrong to assume that each book he quotes was written in Arabic. In fact, the books cited are in almost as many languages as there are scriptures.

For your clearer understanding, I’ll quote below a few select pieces of such sequencing and interpolation from the text. Whatever you read from here on till the end of this segment is quoted from the manuscript by Uziah Greiss, each reflecting on the number which appears as the 13013th word (he highlights the word in that position in a sentence) in any one particular book –

  1. OneOne of the reasons he wrote it was so that he would not forget. [From The Palace of Caterpillars]
  2. Second – The second person picks it up from where the first one left it off. [From The Evolution of Races on A Racetrack]
  3. Triangle – The man seems to have developed a perfect triangle with him and his memories. [From To Love a Man]
  4. Tetralogy – The tetralogy based on their lives left them both happy and sad. [From Tragicomedy in a Dionysian Attic]
  5. V – Their lives starting from different places, after a while converged at a single point, like moving along the edges of a perfect V. [From The Unknown Faces of Fascism & Nazism]
  6. Half-a-Dozen – Even after half-a-dozen failures, he would not give up on his love. [From A Tasteful Affair in Sydney]
  7. Week – Much like a week disappears after seven days have passed, so was he to disappear on his seventh attempt. [From The Dark Days of Drahomir Dvorak]

When I had sequenced these numbers, for the first time did it dawn on me that the sentences containing the 13013th word when sequenced in order, spoke about this very text that I’m working upon, as if already conscious of my entire life’s work. But more importantly, it speaks of a second man – I’m assuming this man will be someone who will try to unearth my work in a distant future, and attempt to bring it to the public’s view. But the sequence also says that he will fail as many as six times and on his seventh attempt shall disappear himself. So, I don’t really know if he succeeds, for there is no mention of the man in the subsequent numbers.

All subsequent numbers from here on speak about my life, which, seen in a different light, was also my love story – a love that defines the universe.

You see, over the years I’ve been studying literature, people asked me why I never fell in love with a woman or settled down. I could not tell them I couldn’t because I was already in love, and had promised my life to that woman. The woman they could not see with their naked eyes, for she had hidden herself between the lines of texts. She did not exist except for me. She did not appear except for times when she wanted to speak to me.

She is one woman, and she is all women. She is the goddess who springs from literature and drinks from it. She is Seshat in the Egyptian mythology, and she is Ba’alat for the Arabic, and she is Minerva for the Romans, and she is Saraswati for the Hindu, and she is Benten for the Japanese, and she appears as many muses for the Greek: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.

But she is more – she is Aphrodite and Medusa, she is Jane Austen & Joan of Arc, she is Marie Antoinette and Marie Curie, she is Elizabeth Bathory and Queen Elizabeth I, she is Hellen Keller and Helen of Troy, she is Sita, and she is Cleopatra. And she is the only woman I ever loved.

I realized after spending a few years with her in the library, whatever she was trying to tell me had significant importance – for me and this universe in which books define man’s existence. Although she could reach me through the texts of a book whenever she fancied, no way could I reach out to her. No way could I decipher what she tried to tell me. For years, I kept searching for that magical portal which would lead me to her, and her universe woven out of an endless number of alphabets and words, and their infinite sequencing. I kept searching until I came upon the 13013th word in the books and realized – through numbers positioned in that particular place she tried to speak to me – to tell me her story, this universe’s, and mine.

In the rest of this work, I’ll try to explain to you how those three stories come together.

{ X }

  1. Score – The first score she wrote was for the times to come. [From An Infantry of Musicians]
  2. 21st – The coming 21st century which I hail as a century of information, shall uncover many hidden truths. [From The Economic Prospects of Prosperity]

There is a clear mention of the next century that I may or may not live to experience. I pray that I don’t, for I’ll be too old to cherish its arrival or find any significance in it. Yet I know it must have some significance to my own life, for she mentions it clearly in her cryptic text as a secret message to me.

She also appears for the first time in this sequencing at the number twenty. She starts with a future. She tells me her work (as well as mine) is for times we don’t yet know. I wonder if she’s talking about a time more chaotic than the present. I wonder if with the advent of our civilizations we are walking further into the chaos. I wonder if with every passing year we write more books on violence than we do on love.

Perhaps, love is becoming the most amateurish thing to write about. Maybe, in the times to come, falling in love will be replaced by falling in violence.

{ X }

  1. Ninety-Nine – “Ninety-nine percent of everything you hear is either true or false, but it is the other one percent you should strive for,” she told me. [From Into The Magical Glasshouse]
  2. Century – It took him a century to prove he was born for a reason. [From The Life and Times of Michel Eugène Chevreul]
  3. 101st – On his 101st birthday, he told her, “This world is a promise and nothing more.” [From An Eternity to Love]

It’s a curious thing that she mentions a century. She tells me a century will pass until they learn about her and me. Interestingly, she also mentions the 101st birthday, if I take it for the colloquial meaning of my 101st birth year, we shall be reaching the year 2016. But why will it take so long? Will she thwart all attempts to bring it to the public knowledge before that year would come? Will something significant happen in that year, that will bring to the knowledge of the people living in that time, the story of our love?

I know it’s about our love that she speaks of here, for she mentions that which is neither true nor false. What else could she mean by that, but love?

But it’s not just our love that she speaks of, but love that’s hidden in the space between two words, an essence hidden in the space between two alphabets. It’s a pyramid built by a million authors writing at different times and in different languages.

A universe resides inside that pyramid, and that universe is an alphabet. The alphabet of all alphabets.

{ X }

  1. Kilometer – It was after he walked for a kilometer with her, that he realized what she meant to him. [From Grace is a Season]
  2. One-thousand-and-one – He could not help but admire his own memory of her, for she had now for One-thousand-and-one nights, entertained him with these agreeable stories. [From One Thousand and One Nights]

On this day that I’m writing this, it has been exactly one thousand and one days since I started writing this manuscript.

It also makes me wonder if she’s playing some sort of cruel joke on me. Am I just turning out to be one of her playthings? Is this entire exercise that I’ve spent my years upon just meant to obfuscate?

Like she mentions, I know what she means to me after having walked with her for so long. But what do I mean to her? Perhaps, she’s meant to be mean now. For if she’s all women, wouldn’t she also be a slave of vice as much as she is of virtue?

In any case, I sense a hidden mockery of my wisdom in those lines, and of my infinite love for her, my devotion to her.

Her careless witticisms bruise the soul. I’m sure she’s becoming the goddess of violence now, for by each passing day, literature seems to demand that transformation even more.

I wonder if one of these days as we move forward through this work together, she’ll just spring out of the texts to strangle me.

{ X }

  1. One-to-a-million – There’s one-to-a-million chance of anything but blood surviving in that inkpot you dip your quill into. [From At The Far-end of A Painted Night]

1000000.Million – He had a million memories of her now, and it was time he started seeing her too. [From A Passion Named Blindness]

I know, the night has come. Her transformation is complete. She tells me, she sees nothing but blood now. She doesn’t feel, she analyses and rationalizes. None of her remains, except in my memory and my manuscript.

But what good am I to her now that everything is changing? The universe, its words, and their sequences are no longer the same.

I’m no longer the same person for her. And I know too much about her. Perhaps, she’ll want to obliterate me now, for that’s the only way you can see her within her own literature.

{ X }

CONCLUSION

That sentence is where the manuscript of Uziah Greiss ends while remaining incomplete. It’s not hard to imagine that an invisible assailant must have murdered him after he wrote that analogy on the millionth word – much like I am supposed to disappear too as soon as I complete writing this – for nothing but forbidden words about forbidden words are allowed to exist. I wonder if the same fate awaits all who read this synopsis once (and if) it gets published.

There is no evidence of this woman that Greiss so often mentions throughout his text. I would have rather preferred to interpret it as the imagining of a solitary mind which had never known the presence of a woman for his entire life. At first, I found it hard to believe that a woman made entirely of words and alphabets could spring out of the books and take the life of a man. But then, I started wondering, even if something as such happened, should we call that murder – violence or love?

I found the answer to that question within the manuscript of The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss. It is hidden inside a flaw of his own work that Greiss mentions – a flaw so perfect that not only did it convince me of this woman’s actual existence and their love affair, but also made me believe beyond any doubt that the manuscript of Uziah Greiss is definitely going to be published one day, as a book.

To elucidate my point, I’ll quote for you the sentence in which the 13013th word from The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss appears (the highlight is mine for I believe it never occurred to him that he should be counting his own manuscript too); the rest, dear reader, I leave to your best judgment in determining the real significance of –

“There is one flaw I could never break free of in my entire work – although I had found and sequentially arranged every number that appeared as the 13013th word in a book, one number that I could never find in any of the books is thirteen-thousand-and-thirteen itself.”

And with that discovery, we arrive at a

 

 

 

 

 

 

END

{ X }

ABHISHEK SENGUPTA  is imaginary. Mostly, people would want to believe that he writes fiction & poetry which borders on Surrealism and Magical Realism, and is stuck inside a window in Kolkata, India, but he knows none of it is true. He doesn’t exist. Only his imaginary writing does, and have appeared or are forthcoming in Outlook Springs, Liminality, Thrice Fiction, and others. According to a rumour doing its rounds, he is also known to be adding final touches to his magical realism novel, but it may be nothing more than a myth. If you’re gifted, however, you may also imagine him in Twitter @AbhishekSWrites or in his hypothetical website –www.abhishek-sengupta.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s