Sunday, October 3, 2010

Carbonized by Tom McCarthy

Alexandria, 1922

They're jolted slightly as their tram glides through a junction where the tracks from two lines intersect...

“Alexandria was on the Nile as well as the sea,” Petrou's telling him. “But the Canopic mouth silted up sometime in the twelfth century, defeating the main purpose for which Alexander built the city in the first place.”

“How?” asks Serge, holding the hand rail.

“He wanted it to be the great hub of the world, connecting everywhere to everywhere else. More than that: it would be Greece's grand self-realization, its ascent, beyond itself, into a universal condition. Uber-Greece: a kind of simulation better than the real thing ever was. His version would assimilate all other cultures, all their gods and figureheads and what have you else, and conjoin these beneath the canopy of a transcendent, modern Hellenism in which reason, science and knowledge would all flourish. Alexander was a coordinator too.”

“So why didn't it work?” Serge asks.

“He died,” shrugs Petrou, “without ever seeing it finished. His fellow Macedonians, the Ptolemies, took over, and started marrying their sisters in the old Egyptian manner. Then the Mouseion and its famous library burned down. Octavian saw the place as no more than a grainhouse, for storage and shipment back to Rome. The later Roman emperors just passed through on their way to visit the antiquities of Upper Egypt, and neither the Arabs nor Turks saw much of value here. Nowadays we Europeans treat it as a trading colony on the shore of an alien continent. Oh: there's the Ptolemaic dyke. We get off here. If you look closely, you can see the route it took...”

Petrou knows everything about the city. He seems to have absorbed it almost chemically: blotted it up, the subsequent reaction dictating his elemental constitution. It strikes Serge that if you cut a graft off him, a cross-section, and mounted it on a slide-tray beneath a microscope, then what you'd see would be a cellular combination of every Greek-speaking Jewish draper whose yarmulke's made from Alexandrian cotton, each partially French-descended native clerk proudly twiddling his Second Empire moustache as he describes the tract he's writing in his leisure hours about the horticultural benefits of Napoleon's Egyptian reign, the Austro-Hungarian confectioners whose Viennese profiteroles bear the distinctive taste of local sugar, the Maltese photographers, Levantine booksellers and Portuguese tobacconists they visit every afternoon – a combination, too, of the cells of the Persians, Romans and ersatz-Greeks who people his daily talk: all of them, right back to the sister-wedding Ptolemies.

One day, their habitual round of morning meetings canceled due to strikes by native civil servants, they begin their peregrinations early, stopping in on an Albanian shoe-maker whose shop, it turns out, has been vandalized the night before.

“A running battle, Morganou,” he half-wails as he crouches on his floor, sweeping up broken glass. “Up and down the street, hour after hour.”

“Who was fighting?” Petrou asks.

“Young people: Arabs, Greeks, Italians. Malteese as well, you can be certain.” Standing up, he brushes his head against one of the strips of fly-paper hanging from the ceiling, then tears a double-page from the Egyptian Gazette lying on his counter. As he lowers himself again to sweep the glass fragments into the paper, Serge runs his eye over the pages now exposed. Their columns, like the flypaper, form long, narrow bands. One lists the ships at quay in Port Said. Their export manifestos descend the adjacent column. On the far side, the sports. Between these long strips, in a thicker column, the Revenue Commerciale, in French. Along the central crease runs ads, all for insurance.

“They sell protections against riots now,” the cobbler moans, his own eye following Seges as he straightens. “ I should have bought this last week.”

“You'd do well to but it this week,” Petrou tells him. “I fear more trouble's to come.”

“I'll buy, I'll buy – but the price doubles now, I tell you, Morganou. And next week, double again! And if”, he adds, his eyes rolling heavens-ward in deterrent supplication, “independence should come, an emperor's ransom would not guarantee my shop!”

Later the that same day, they visit the Cleopatra Stationary Store... “She was Alexandrian as well,” Petrou says as they catch a Circular tram outside.


“Cleopatra. Came to the throne at seventeen. Her brother, Ptolemy Thirteen, also her husband, was just ten – and there were two more siblings, eight and five. The whole court was a nursery.”

“Didn't she wrap herself up in a tapestry or something?” Serge asks.

“In a carpet, yes. For Caesar. Her real love was Antony, though: that's the one that got immortalized. She poisoned herself after his death, with an asp.” Turning to face him, he pokes his pronged hand against Serge's chest and starts reciting:

Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?

Serge follows Petrou's gaze towards the beach. It's late afternoon; beyond the yacht club, on past the casino, the wets sand's turned the color of oxidized mercury. The scene itself has a detache air: it seems to bear the same relation to reality around it as a photograph – and perhaps somewhere else. The ladies promenading in white hats and dresses, the cravated men hauling their dinghies a few feet up the beach before heading towards the clubhouse, the pale children patting sandcastles: these seem to have been transposed here straight from Torquay, Cannes or Saint Tropez – as though, in the fading light, Europe, like Alexander's Greece, were simulating itself, trying with a dogged persistence to block out the growing knowledge that it can't take root here, that it won't work.


The Central Station has its own building, a much more modern one than that housing the other ministries. Antennae sprout from its roofs; soldiers guard the compound that surrounds it: Imperial Communications are indeed, as Ferguson had intimated, “protected”. Its rooms are full of people and equipment, its corridors of well-directed bustle. Macauley leads Serge past rows of desks at which men sit with headphones on, transcribing letter sequences while other men move up and down rows gathering transcriptions and depositing them in front of yet more men who mark them up on blackboards. In a corner two more men are working their way through a pile of newspapers – Gazettte, Wady et Nil, al-Ahram, al-Balagh, al-Jumhur, al Akbar – underscoring certain words, then tearing out the pages on which these have been highlighted and passing them to the gatherers, who convey them to the marker-uppers, who, in turn, copy them out to mingle with letters on the board.

“They use all kinds of channels,” Macauley says to Serge, obscurely.

“Who do?” Serge asks.

“Everyone!” Macauley answers. “We are at a crossroads here, the confluence of all the region's interest groups transmissions. We're listening to the Wafdists and the Turks; they're listening to Ulamaists and the Zionists; the French are listening to us, and we to them – but we share info on the Russians, who we both hate, although not as much as well all hate the Germans, who we listen to as well. Or is it the Spartacans? In any case, we listen to them all. Telegrams, radio messages, acrostics and keywords lurking within print: we try to pick up as much of it as we can. A thankless task, of course; who knows what tiny fraction of it all we can actually get?

“And that's what all these men are doing?” Serge asks.

“All these men and more: my decryptage department. Headed up by Egyptologists. Got the right minds: used to cracking New Kingdom texts or something. Rebus logic. It all goes above my head, to tell you the truth. This stuff,” he continues, leading Serge through a door into the next room, “I can understand a little better: a least it looks like something vaguely recognisable.”

He's pointing to the wall on which a huge map, as big as eight or so of the other room's blackboards, is painted: a map extending from Izmir down to Khartoum and from Tunis to Baghdad. Pins of various colors have been jabbed into this – some small and some with heads as large as ping-pong balls, some all alone and some in clusters. More pins are being added all the time, by men consulting photographs, hand-written notes and smaller maps.

“ImagInt,” Macaulry says. “Aerial, terrestrial, snapped, painted, scribbled on some scrap of fabric: it's all there. Even livestock movements, locust swarms, what have you. All adds up – or, at least, its supposed to. HumInt too, of course.”

“What's humming?” Serge asks.

“HumInt: Human Intelligence. Got agents everywhere: here; Suq Al-Shuyukh, where the sheiks all meet; Nasiriyah, from whence sedition seems to spread down the Euphrates to the Arab tribes; the Shia holy cities, hotbeds of intrigue and points, if my memory serves me right, of contact with Damascus, which, via them, can exercise more control in Persia...or is the other way around? Either way, we've got to keep an eye and ear out for what's brewing. We have men doing the Hajj, or wandering around with herdsmen, or hanging out in mosques, bazaars, communal wash houses, village meetings...”

“Folklore?” Serge asks, pointing to a table labeled with this word...

“Supposed to contain useful information,” Macauley responds. “Stories of curses going around, or asfrits haunting districts, may be telling us something...or not.” He sighs. “It's all pretty intangible: whispers and rumors drifting like some kind of vapor across swathes of desert...”

“Back in London,” Serge says, “ I was reading about some chap named Laurice, Lorents, Laudence...”

“That fucking twit,” Macauley retorts. “Bombards us all the time with useless information. Not just him; every two-bit traveler, 'adventurer', 'novelist' or general man of leisure too: they're just as bad...Sending us their 'reports', briefing their friends on Fleet street to extol their bravery and cunning to readers who aren't any wiser, then expecting knighthoods when they get home...Fantasists and frauds, the lot of them! The worst part of it is, they're actually useful.”

“How?” Serge asks.

“With the other parties all spying on us, if we appear to take something seriously, well, they take it seriously too. We call it 'feedback' – no, hang on a second...'bleedback': that's it. Lots of those sequences you saw being written across the blackboards in the other room get bled back too, mutated but still recognisable, in telegrams, transmissions, new acrostics...Make sure they're as confused as we are, eh? Plus, who knows? We might actually hit some nerve, activate something...”

“One of my men's working on mirages: trying to prove they're real...”

They're in his office now.

“So finally: the pylon at Abu Zabal is to be completed. It'll be switched on in May, they say. About eight years too late – eight years in which the nation that had radio before all the others has slipped hopelessly behind. The French alone have high-powered transmissions in Beirut, Bamako and Tannarive; America has five times more foreign stations that we have; even the Germans match us kilowatt for kilowatt world-wide. It's an embarrassment. And all because the Post Office Department and the Committee of Imperial Defense couldn't agree; or if they did they couldn't get the Admiralty on board, or the Treasury, the Board of Trade, the India Office, the Air Ministry or whatever other gaggles of failed politicians had to be in accord for the whole thing to progress. Do you know,” he asks Serge, “how many committees have been set up to address the Imperial Wireless question in the last eight years?”

Serge shrugs his shoulders.

“Six! The technology's not even the same now as when Marconi first proposed the whole chain idea: arc-transmissions giving over to the valve method; there's talk of a new beam-system that'll enable long-distance communication without intermediary stations, who knows what else? The man himself, meanwhile, seems to have lost his marbles. Last I heard he was heading to Bermuda, to find out if Mars is sending wireless messages to us,.”

“Marconi?” Serge asks.

Macauley nods

“But I thought,” Serge says, “that he wasn't involved in the whole chain thing anymore.”

“Oh, he's not.” Macauley reassures him. “The Cabinet felt he'd have a monopoly, which is precisely what they wanted for the Post Office. They forgot, though, to consult with their Australian and South African counterparts, who've thumbed their nose at Whitehall by developing their own high-powered transmitters with him – Marconi, that is. Now Whitehall's worried the Dominions will start distributing counter-productive content through the airwaves – which is why they're setting up, back home, a national Broadcasting Corporation, to pump a mix of propaganda, music and weather reports all around Britain and, eventually, to every corner of the Empire.”

“Strange timing, “ Serge says.

“What's that?”

“That we start broadcasting central content Empire-wide just as we lose our empire...”

“The irony is, as they say, striking,” Macauley concurs.

“They should play dirges,” Serge suggests

Macauley breathes out heavily, then tells him, in a voice that's laced with fondness: “I can see your father in you.”

“You know my father too?” Serge asks.

Macauley looks back at him bewilderedly. “Well, yes, of course,” he says. “After all, he's the one who sent -” He stops, as though catching himself, and looks away, then, shifting in his seat, continues: “The new chain will run in parallel – through Egypt at least.”

1 comment:

  1. There's no reason to resist it: Burnet and his like will never disinter what's buried there, will never elevate or train it; Serge hasn't made himself available for the team, never will. Besides, he doesn't buy the line, much peddled by the newspapers, that tens of thousands of men his age are wandering around with “shell shock”. He sees the symptoms around London all the time: the deadened, unfocused eyes and slow, automatic gait characteristic of the NYDNs he'd seen at the field hospital in Mirabel, of the pilots and observers for whom Walpond-Skinner had to write AAF-3436 forms – but these are general. Billie Lee displays them, and he spent the war years overseeing his family's business interests in Shanghai. Madame Z displays them, and she's been running salons for as long as anyone can remember. Commuters trudging to work each morning display them as well, as do the pleasure-seekers shuffling around the West End. They can't all have been at the front. The children outside Great Ormond Street display them. The dope fiends, especially, display them; the coke-sniffers too, when they're not temporarily fired up with charges that will run down in minutes, leaving them more empty than before. It's like the city of the living dead, only a few of whose denizens could proffer an excuse of having had shells constantly rattling their flesh and shaking their nerves. No, the shock's source was there already: deeper, older, more embedded...