Apart from the photograph which he had never seen, the book was printed in Arabic, a language he had failed to master at Oxford. Oddly enough, a fortnight prior, he'd had a dream in which he composed an anti-colonial op-ed in French, mistitled Maracas à Caracas. To his horror the text(1) appeared on the front page of Al-Chourouk Al-Yaou- mi in Regalia. He was unable to read it, of course, and scrambled in vain to find a translator. It never dawned on him to employ his own invention, the Translatron, a hand-shaped device which when placed on a page scanned the text into memory banks implanted in the fingertips. It would then produce an audible translation in a robotic voice modeled after its inventor's. The machine was capable of deciphering every language except two: Greek and Mandinka.
Free now of any somnambulistic constraints, Snowdrop fetched the Translatron from his desk, placed it at random in the curious book, and a few seconds later a tinny voice rang out and echoed off the flyleaf.
"Regarding my arrival in Cagier Typo, I checked into the Hotel Icy Portage-a bitter irony in this oppressive oven. The hotel was long past its prime. The once gold sofas in the lobby had faded to a pale urine; the patterned rugs lay tattered and stained; and cordless drapes hung like moth-eaten shrouds in a story by Poe. My room was on the third floor, which was odd. (The building had only two stories.) The most prominent feature was a senile ceiling fan stirring the dust motes. Had there been room service, I'd have ordered up another room. After stashing my manuscript under the bed, I decided to go out for a stroll in my shorts. If one ignored the cape (which I never remove), I resembled an average American tourist, a boorish bargain-hunter.
In a cobbled courtyard a few blocks away, I spotted a wooden sign with some letters missing: Gyp Erotica. It reigned over an outdoor cafe where half a dozen male patrons sat slumped, hunched over monstrous-sized coffee mugs. Some appeared asleep, yet all were partaking in tobacco or hashish, while a thick cumulus of smoke gathered overhead, undulating in a sultry snake-dance. It might well have been a collective hallucination which-if one stared long enough-would take the shape of the goddess Ma Zebu Om Qi.
Camels stood like cardboard cutouts, tethered in deep shadow at the end of the alley. I found a vacant seat and sat, squeezing my eyes shut to wring out the sweat which dripped onto the table and instantly dissolved. A voice in my head kept taunting, goading me to make a wish. That was simple enough, for the only thing I craved at the moment was a blast of AC.
"Albert Cossery, at your service. Voilà."
Astonishingly enough, the writer materialized before my eyes. He looked about sixty and greatly resembled Antonin Artaud during his electroshock period. When Cossery smiled, as he did now, vacantly, it seemed as unnatural as a nervous tic. He was rolling a cigarette in an emphatically mechanical manner. Although his fingers had bulbous, tobacco-stained calluses, they performed their task dexterously. When he finally ignited the freshly packed fag, he blew a chain of smoke rings which halted in the air like an anchored armada.
"Forgive me, Cossery, you startled me. Naturally I'm honored by your presence and a devotee of your work. In fact, I read The Lazy Ones twice while at Oxford. It inspired me to smoke opium, drop out, and become a hippie. I grew my hair so long, friends called me 'Werewolf.'"
"Reminds me of the old gypsy woman," mused Cossery, who proceeded to do an eerie impersonation of Maria Ouspenskaya: "Even a man who's pure in heart and says his prayers by night…becomes a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the moon is full and bright." Them, breaking character, he glanced up at the empty sky. "You'll be full tonight, Luna, my love." Turning back, he said, "What brings you to Cagier Typo, Professor?"
"I'm actually en route to Cane Moor," I told him. He took out a felt-tip pen and began scrawling graffiti on the table. Of course, to Western eyes, Arabic is graffiti. "Cain Moor. Never heard of it," said Cossery dully. I could see he was constructing an elaborate acrostic. "A after c," I said pointedly. Cane Moor. No i. An e at the end. Cane with an a."
"And what makes you think there was an i and not an a?"
"From your pronunciation: cay-in. I clearly said Cane. Unless, of course, you're deaf."
"Ridiculous. That's not how I pronounced it. I said it the same way you said it- Cane, as in walking stick or cane sugar."
"I know what I heard and I heard what I know. I heard an i."
"Crap! Ask the reader. Ask the narrator-he knows everything, he's psychic."
"Ah get lost, Cossery, there's no narrator within a hundred miles of here. I'm running this novella."
"And how do you explain your arrival here? And please don't claim amnesia."
"First person, naturally. You think I washed in with the surf?"
"Return to page eight and you'll see it refers to you as 'he.' I believe that's third person, which means somebody else is pulling your strings. After all, you're just a third-rate character in a second-rate cliffhanger."
"I'm in total control of my destiny and I'll prove it. See this dagger? This'll put an end to that spell you cast over the European literati."
Cossery sneered. "You call that a dagger? That's a noun, you imbecile. Go ahead, stab me with all six letters and see where it gets you. You may think you're Perec, but I knew Georges Perec. Georges Perec was a friend of mine. And you're no Georges Perec."
Angered beyond definition, I jumped to my lower extremities of the vertebrate legs that are in direct contact with the ground in standing or walking, and plunged a fighting knife with a sharp point designed or capable of being used as a thrusting or stabbing weapon into the novelist's chest. (HINT: Its distinctive shape and historic usage have made it iconic and symbolic.) Cossery pitched backwards and lay dead on the ground, a look of disdain frozen in his eyes. Looking around, I saw that the cafe's patrons had conveniently split, leaving behind half-smoked cigarettes, overturned hookahs, and shattered mugs. The camels, however, remained unfazed by the melodrama.
And when it finally sank in, I began jogging back toward the hotel. I paused at a newsstand to catch my breath and erase a word, and spied the banner headlines in The Daily Typo: Crime de Passion! Le romancier obscur a assassiné dans le sang froid. Une triste saga.
'Feet don't fail me now,' I prayed, running at full speed under the blistering sun. I had to get out of Cagier Typo before the authorities turned my novel into a death sentence. And all because of a little homicidal mischief.
Reaching the hotel lobby drenched in sweat, I saw Farooq in his red fez at the front desk. He motioned to me with a raised finger.
"I say, Professor, your wife has arrived and I-"
"-Come again? My knife -err, wife? That's absurd, I have no wife; I'm ascetic."
"Ah, you're pulling my leg, Professor. Candy Snowdrop, sir... why she even showed me your wedding album. I took her up to your room a few minutes a-"
"Aargghh- you fool, you let a thief into my room! Call the cops-no, forget that... just cordon off the area!"
Frantic, I ran to the stairs and ascended two at a time, determined to ban the imposter in the dub. She was obviously after the manuscript, and had to be stopped before she absconded with the leitmotif. A woman claiming to be my wife was an especially pathetic ruse since I had never experienced the acetylene touch of a female. The closest I came to tactile interaction was when-as a young lad living on Cape Verde-I developed an obsession with a souvenir vendor named Anna Omqif, who sold carved volcanic figurines to tourists from Britain. I followed her furtively all over the island, traipsing through the dunes, crouching in the beach plums to watch her swim naked. I counted her footprints in the sand, scrawled love poems with lines such as: O' turn this passion into potion, let the love-beg blossom in her preternatural loin-light. But after years of stalking, when I finally got up the nerve to ask her out, she abruptly gave me the brush-off.
Room 313. Its door was suspiciously ajar. I tiptoed over and cocked an ear. Not a sound. Only a siren in the distance. "Ready or not, here comes hubby..." I kicked open the door!"
In the middle of the page the Translatron fell silent. The professor grabbed it, shook it violently, and then placed it back on the page. He pressed, nudged, flicked, and squeezed it, but the device refused all stimuli.
'Christ almighty, just when things were becoming ironic.'
Absent an explanation for the failure of his invention, he feared he might never learn how his life turned out. He simply had to know whatdunit, whodunit, howdunit, wheredunit, whendunit, whydunit. Who was the imposter? Was she waiting to ambush him? Does he get arrested and charged with murder? If so, is he convicted? Does he escape to Cane Moor? And most important of all, why had someone stolen his identity and used him as both author and protagonist? How did the author know so many intimate details of his life, such as his secret obsession with Anna Omqif? What in Ra's name was the meaning of all this arcana?
As these questions swirled about in the professor's brain, Llewelyn entered the library carrying a jumbo pack of Duracell batteries. AA.
"Figured you could use a few of these, Professor. They were on sale at Walmart-fifty percent off."
"Right on the money, Llewelyn! And just in the nick of time, too. I must be getting senile, I completely forgot the Translatron is battery-powered. I thought I'd designed it to run on lunar and solar."
"I also stopped by Chico's and picked us up some grub. Your favorite-veal scaloppini."
"Capital, my little fellow! Although I'm afraid I'm going to be late tonight. Have to finish listening to A Passage to Cane Moor-a very peculiar epic."
"Anything you say, boss," said Llewelyn on his way out. He paused in the doorway. "Oh Professor, I don't know if you heard the news, but there's a werewolf loose on the island and, well, tonight's a full moon. So don't forget to lock up. I'll be in my room watching Freaks if you need me. Ta-ta!"
'A werewolf on Condo Oar? Now that's one for the errata.'
Fetching four batteries, Snowdrop inserted them into the Translatron, and positioned it at the approximate point in the story where we left off.
"...Racing into the room, I was greeted by a window with its mouth agape. I looked out at the street, but nothing was stirring, not even a scarab. I crouched and peered under the bed and-sure enough-my case was gone! And I couldn't report it stolen, either.
It was a conundrum, like that old Egyptian saying: you can lead Horus to water, but you can't make him drink. Speaking of which, I craved an ice cold Pepsi.
"Cocktail, Professor? I'm known for my gin and tonic."
At the door stood Farooq holding two glasses glittering with ice. Ah-ha!
(1) Fascistes français ont commencé à coloniser l'Algérie en 1830. Un grand nombre de colons français ont pris d'assaut sans y être invité en Algérie et a agi comme des idiots. Les personnes d'origine française née en Algérie, ont été appelés «pieds- noirs». Une source indique que c'est parce que les troupes françaises stationnées en Algérie intensifié dans la merde