Memento Mori continued
He invited me in, and we talked in his dining room as he served dark tea with lemon. In the couple of downstairs rooms I had seen there was little of noticeable value. It appeared to be the home of an elderly bachelor that had made a comfortable living and was enjoying a secluded retirement. I maintained the deception over tea, asking questions about his life and his collection, explaining that my paper was interested in profiling local people that may have been neglected by the usual stories of minor political misdemeanour and charity fun runs. He was very forthcoming with biographical details of his early years, his move to Britain and his interest in antiquities. Whilst this background discussion was a necessary part of my disguise I was keen to get to see the collection as soon as I could. He detected my eagerness and offered to show me to the display rooms.
We climbed the stairs, he with surprising agility, to another realm. He must have made his living space entirely on the ground floor for upstairs was decorated as an opulent boudoir; at every window hung thick velvet curtains, tied with silk cords. The walls were a deep maroon, and the mahogany display cases that lined every wall seemed to melt into them. It was not a gloomy space, as you know by now. Instead the surroundings were designed to retreat from the objects they framed. This succeeded very well, as each case was lit with rows of gentle bulbs that picked out each piece delicately.
We passed through each room in silence. I searched the cabinets, revelling in the quality of each collection, and privately estimating the value of each. He watched me closely and I attempted not to give away my own knowledge; I was, after all, meant to be a local hack. I asked questions calculated to show my ignorance. He answered them patiently.
In the third room, which had been knocked into the fourth to make a long gallery I found the Oriental collection. Fine prints hung on available spaces between cabinets and at the end of the room three full suits of samurai armour were displayed beside an entire wall given over to the helmets and face-masks I had come here to inspect. I calmly proceeded towards them, again feigning ignorance. But just as I entered the furthest space of this double room I saw a large, lighter coloured, wooden case, bolted to the wall. Within there was the largest collection of inro, netsuke and ojime I have ever seen. And I have seen many.
Scanning the case I saw familiar examples from the great carvers and a number of works that would have been a real pleasure to have handled and discussed with him. I was conscious though not to give the game away. But I had not expected to encounter that same octopus piece that had been so magically unearthed, and rashly sold, in my youth. There it was, on the middle shelf, along with a collection of common themes, such as the fisherman, ratcatcher and a selection of ivory erotica. I gasped, astonished to discover it here. Certainly, to any observer, I had betrayed myself as rather more than a journalist after an interesting character story.
"Yes, it is rather beautiful isn't it," Mr Umbroldi said over my shoulder, startling me further. "'Takotsubo ya / Hakanaki yume wo / Natsu no tsuki' or 'In an octopus trap / Dreaming useless dreams / The summer moon!' "
I had never known what the words on the octopus netsuke had meant, although I had learnt the text by heart, as though the sense of it might be revealed by subconscious processes. I must be grateful to Umbroldi for that translation, at least; and for the joy of seeing the thing again.
I tried to regain my previous control.
"I was rather surprised by the explicit pieces here," I said, already realising how feeble an explanation this was.
"I did not think journalism a profession that tolerated much prudishness," Umbroldi said, leading me back out into the hallway and towards the extended area of the house. "I had another here, quite some time ago now, a Mr Joseph Tress. He was interested in the Japanese artefacts too. I must confess I found him rather vulgar. Of course, those of us who collect-obsessively you might say-are prone to be possessive and covetous of other's collections. But with him it was almost hateful. He certainly had some tales to tell though, and showed me many of my own failings. It was a joy to listen to him."
He chuckled and I felt, for the first time during our meeting, that I no longer had the upper hand.
"I have seen many phases to my collecting over the years. Indeed the different parts of my collection mark all the different people I have been," he continued. "Initially I was fascinated by the studioli and cabinets of curiosity: those gathered by Vincent, Cospi, the Corrteris, Besler, Settala, the mighty Rudolf and others. Then, I had very specific interests, or more precisely periods of interest; antique books, wooden toys, Oriental art, automata, icons, Meissen porcelains, the list is long. But I returned, in a fashion to my original passion, or close to it.
I had amassed many fossils, coral sculptures, stuffed animals, anatomical deformities and other natural exhibits. And what is it that binds all of these together my good fellow: existence. These things were all trophies of past lives, in one form of another. As I reassembled the collection, plundering my previously carefully constructed cabinets and display cases, I found a new direction to my work: the artistry of death. The more I looked through what had been amassed under the guise of other phases of the collection, the more of the work I found concerned with death; an illustrated first edition of Ars Moriendi, the crossed bones of St Nicholas, some fine specimens of carved Whitby jet, including a ring with a lock of Sir Richard Fairbrace's hair. And what was to be the finest part of this new curation of my existing artefacts? It was my own history."
We had come to a doorway, and I stood there listening to him as though he were some venerable grandmaster instructing an initiate. In so many ways this was the truth.
"I come from an ancient Italian family," he told me. "My move to Britain was made many years ago in the tumult of the century as my country struggled to etch its mark in history; a tiresome arrogance. I brought with me a case containing family relics: the index finger of every male heir in twelve generations. Each had been carefully removed, prepared to bone and etched with the name and the date of each death. I had kept this heirloom separate to my collection, thinking it too personal. With the realisation of the new direction the collection had taken it seemed the perfect centrepiece.
But over the years it became clear how little even these bones represented, mere marks of life: bland souvenirs. I wanted more. Something more in the spirit of the great marvels of de Vaucanson and Théroude. I wanted beautiful artefacts that could give us back all the lost moments; things that could recall every detail of existence. I wanted true 'phenomenon machines' not the dull comforts of historical anecdote."
It is here that he was overcome with fanaticism. His eyes flared with a passion far beyond the ordinary collector's. These 'phenomenon machines', as he called them repeatedly, would furnish us with an intimate, and potentially infinite, record of life. He joked that one could spend an entire lifetime listening to one of them and never exhaust its supply of stories, hinting that he had already begun work on such marvels. He did not seem like an engineer or designer and so I was sceptical of such promises, but intrigued. Still desperate to cover my carelessness with the netsuke I enquired whether I might be able to see one of these prototypes. Thus I sprung the trap.
Leading me through the door and along another hallway, to the newer part of the house, he revealed a room in partial disarray with cases in various stages of display preparation. By the window on the far side of the room-where no doubt you now stand-there was a tall cupboard of dark black wood. It was not antique, I guessed, but its proportions (tall, thin and shallow) made it fitting for the task that was to be revealed to me.
With not a little theatricality he opened the case and there was arrayed-each on a thin black cushion-rows of human skulls. There were probably thirty in total, each bearing a trace of gold upon their forehead: a name, and a date. He took one out and offered it to me. I took it-as no doubt you have done-appalled and enthralled by the impropriety of this act; ridiculous, given my motives for being in his home. And then the thing began to unravel its past, its words arising around and within me at once. He left me there as it poured out its tale. I may have listened to it for hours, I do not recall. I merely remember the marvel, and terror, of standing there like some naive Hamlet, skull in hand, awaiting his return.
And return he did, with the air of a distant relative bearing sad tidings.
"Isn't it the saddest thing that all of life, which can only ever be our experience, is lost at the moment of death?" he said, his worn face folded around the rapture of his eyes. "Every beautiful landscape, every heartbreaking moment and every instant of elation dissolves into time. For me it is not enough to imagine what Neanderthal man thought as he witnessed lightning for the first time. I want a record of this world, a whispering testimony of life and all of its journeys. I believe it is what God created man for: a listening device that he might understand the vastness of his own creation. Time will only be completed-it is an ancient belief, I'm sure you know-when all of the distant elements of that gargantuan mechanism are reunited with that great universal archivist. I do not want that. So little by little I am stealing that back from him. And you, my little shard of godliness, will be another eternal jewel in my store of truth."
And so, my mortal glory faded.
Thus you find yourself here too, with my skull cradled to your ear. Perhaps you thought it an ingenious device, with a hidden reel of tape, or some other broadcast trickery. No, I speak inside your mind: your audience enacts me.
I do not know what has brought you here-useless dreams of summer moons? Maybe you are, as I was once, a trickster and a fool. You may be simply, and more unfortunately, an interested collector, a historian, an academic. I believe all the endings are the same. For now you too, having patiently followed this confession of mine, will find yourself subject to that cruel fate delivered by this strange collector of curiosities.
Hark, I hear him approach.'
'Memento Mori' was first published in 2010 in D.P. Watt's collection An Emporium of Automata, Ex Occidente Press: Bucharest, pp.184-193.