The Book on Fire – Chapter 1


CALL ME BALTHAZAR. Call me silverfish, sweet dreams, the end of the rainbow. Call me dust devil, night owl, will-o-the-wisp. Call me the man in the moon. But call me Balthazar, and place a book in my hands. And what book is that, the book I reach for? Ah, that is why you are reading, of course; that is why I am here, in my thin-soled shoes and soiled leather jacket, a knife in my belt and a coin in my pocket, a wink and a grin at the ready, to lead you toward that book. And to lead myself toward that book, because this is a journey we will take together. You can almost see it, the book of our desires, its green morocco binding tooled in gold, the five raised bands on its spine, the uncut pages like sealed lips waiting to be slit with a dagger, the dagger you use to peel your oranges, slay your enemies. (Because this book is also fruit, is also demon.) Or perhaps it’s a soiled paperback lacking a cover, half the pages dyed in blood and wine, every corner creased, the margins filthy with fingerprints, shopping lists, scraps of verse…

. . .

If you approach Alexandria from the sea, the library is hidden and what grabs your gaze as you near landfall is the lighthouse, steeple of fire, stuck like a spear into the glitter of the bay. So arresting is the beacon that as the boat bucks and you clutch the gunnels you fail to notice the crowded waterfront, the broken ring of the corniche, the bright speckling of other boats around the wharf, until you’re almost through the arms of the breakwater. But then you look down and Alexandria is before you, all minarets and a multitude of windows like spaces in a loosely woven fabric, like coarse dusty cotton folded and twisted and crumpled, the colors ink watered to barest cinnamon, faded rose, jaundiced lavender, the lemon of light through glass. Over the city, like a sprinkling of spices, hangs the dust. If you’re lucky you arrive at twilight and the calls to prayer chord and jar and doves scatter, curling up till they break free of earth’s shadow and batter the vanishing sun to shreds.

As your boat slips with a flutter and a groan alongside the other hulls and masts, the first scents surface after the day of brine. Cardamom and wet cunt, randy goat and roasted garlic, putrid fish heads, steaming horseshit, frying aubergine, ylang-ylang. All this with the sweat of the dockers and the seaweed reek of the pilings. A brown hand reaches to haul you onto the boards; suddenly stable after the hours in a salt cradle, you lurch to keep your balance. Stevedores bellow in a dozen languages, shrugging burdens onto dunnage. Jarveys in spats and scarlet jackets approach, and touts from seedy hotels murmur prices in your ear, while porters squabble over your traveling cases.

. . .

My books stashed in the Pension Scheherazade, I set out that very night to explore the city, entranced and baffled by the graffiti in six scripts and the mishmash of mashrabiyya, minaret, Coptic cross, Gothic arch. Architecture of stone, but also of light: shadows cast by wrought iron, sieved moonlight across marble, shadows thrown on interior walls by unseen inhabitants.

I love encountering a new city, but that first night in Alexandria I was curiously nervy. Though the citizens I passed paid me no heed, I could not shake the notion that eyes watched from every shadowed alcove. I kept flicking round, trying to catch the flag of shadow that always seemed to have just tucked itself behind a pediment or palm leaf. And in the gnash of passing trams or the mutter of waterpipes, I thought I heard a voice whispering my name, whispering the titles of my favorite books.

As I walked I asked merchants and shoeblacks and coconut vendors where I might find the library, but all either smiled and turned away or murmured an enigmatic couplet, till I learned that there was a conspiracy against directing foreigners to the secret center of their city. So I wandered for an hour or two through the tangled streets until, near midnight, I came out from an alleyway and beheld a fragment of another world.
I will not forget that first sighting of the library. After the bells and hurly-burly, the reeks and perfumes, I emerged into the quiet stirring of leaves, the scents of juniper and thyme. Behind iron bars great palms stood, spaced far apart, and long-tailed birds of a species unknown to me beat silently between them. Along the inner perimeter of the fence, like their own shadows, like denser dusk, the librarians paced in their gray gowns: barehanded, shaven-headed, the open book tattooed on their wrists. And beyond the trees and the gray-garbed women the library stood, huge and lovely, with the colossal grace and fissured skin of an elephant. Its original shape was lost, the stone clawed and nibbled by millennia of weather—the infinitesimal lick of raindrops, the scouring of sandstorms—so it resembled a natural outcropping.

I clutched the bars of the fence, which are the bars of a prison. We are the prisoners: the citizens of Alexandria, the bibliophiles of the world. I stared beyond the passive glances of the librarians to the stone carapace, trying to conjure from dimples and swellings some eroded sculpture—sphinx haunch, archangel clavicle—but all was cloud-reading. The library was windowless. There were no portals carven with winged bulls, no gilded gates attended by liveried guards. The sole entrance was a door set deep in the stone, slightly smaller than the height of a man. The roof of the structure was punctured by narrow skylights that angled pale spines among the minarets, and that must have sprinkled the interior with suns in the day. Librarians walked along the roof as well, restlessly, hands at their sides or clasped behind their backs. From a distance they seemed all alike, sisters of some ascetic tribe.

. . .

As I strolled back through the city, my mind so aroused by the notion of the riches within the library that I viewed the streets through a crimson scrim like the aftermath of pornography, I heard from a doorway a voice like sandpaper on iron:

“Sst. What’s your desire?”

I peered into the archway. “Who are you?”

She stepped from the shadow with a sound like crushed glass, but did not come more fully into focus, because she wore a blue niqab, veil fringed with silver bells. Indigo gloves up her arms. Only her eyes showed, but even they were rimmed in a domino of slathered kohl. “Call me Zeinab.”

“And you want to know what I desire?”

“This is the city of desires. Requited, unrequited. All for a price, of course.”

Ordinarily, I don’t pick up girls off the street, but, as often in a new city, I craved companionship. And something about the voice, the veil, the bells, gave me pause. To hear that voice again, to make certain it was quite as harsh as it had seemed, I asked: “And what would you cost?”

She named a book.

Reader, this was no ordinary hardcover, nor even a scarce first edition such as might enhance your shelves. No, the title she mentioned was among my most precious possessions, freshly sequestered in my seedy pension. It was inconceivable that she could have known of its existence. Perhaps in shelving it I’d rubbed it the right way between finger and thumb, and this was the veiled djinn I’d summoned.

“Never,” I said, and started to walk away. She was beside me—blue rustle, silver shiver—and then, as we neared the sea, disappeared. I turned full circle, gaze craning into every shadowed aperture, but she was gone. I laughed, but my laughter was laced with dread, as if someone had reached out from darkness and touched my eye.

. . .

Step with me beneath the painted signs awry on the graffitoed wall, up six spiral flights to the Pension Scheherazade. Past rooms occupied by transients, the rucksacked riffraff who stay a night or a week, festooning the furniture with threadbare laundry before marching off again under their burdens, having notched up another city. Past rooms hired by nervous husbands who spend an afternoon half hour with a fat whore. I sometimes see them leaving, melancholy, slack-shouldered, like men who’ve lost at cards.

It is not my custom to allow strangers within my defenses; the only people allowed to breach my boundaries are Abdallah the errand-boy, who brings my coffee, and the occasional one-night wench. But, though we have been acquainted only a few minutes, you are no stranger. I do not know you but you are bound to me, closer than a mother or a bride. Our ribs are braided, our tongues twisted to a single cord, your systole is my diastole. You are welcome behind my oiled lock and supple hinges.

This is the robber’s lair, the thief’s den. Perhaps you wished for cases of knives and drying blood in the washbasin, a bullet hole in the mirror, but I keep a tidy residence. The room contains a desk, a bed, and a wardrobe.

Just inside the balcony doors, on an unvarnished wooden table, are jars of pencils and kneaded erasers and razor blades, Japanese rice paper, bone folders, wooden rulers—the tools I use to refurbish the books I steal, to lift library marks and owners’ names, to reset the leather and rebind if need be. I’m not above tampering with my goods, adding false publication pages to transform them into first editions, binding in substitute signatures to lend them the veracity they need to attract point-maniacs and tinkle a few more guineas into my pocket.

But where are the books? you ask. Ah, step this way, over to the wardrobe. The wardrobe? you say. And what’s so special about this wardrobe? Let’s stand back a moment and examine it. Plain cedar, varnish clinging in chitinous scabs to the grain. Paneled doors with chipped handles screwed on askew. Open them. Sharp-edged cotton—blue shirts, tan trousers—a few mothballs, and shadows. No matter how bright the afternoon, or how wide I fling the curtains, shadows pool in the recesses of the wardrobe like ink spilled in the corners. Come with me, that’s right, step up into the wardrobe, sidle past the clacking hangers, loving the caress of cotton, and, if you’re lucky, through the shadowy back. Are you still with me? Welcome then, doubly welcome, charmed one, whom the gods and djinns have blessed.

We find ourselves in a room with a kilim on the floor and a portly armchair in a corner, a little table beside it bearing a candle in a brass holder. And beside the armchair a single shelf of books. But where is this room? you stammer. The wardrobe backs onto the wall of the adjacent room, does it not? And do you carry the wardrobe with you? What do you do in other cities? How…?

Hush, best not to pry too hard there, you don’t want to wake yourself up. Gently, gently, that’s right: slumber, my sweet. Now then, hearken to my lullaby. No, I do not haul wardrobes around. There are wardrobes in every city in the world that will suit my purposes. How does the magic work? That is not a function of the wardrobe, my friend. Of course, the magic does not work for everyone. Some, genuine though their desire may be, knock their foreheads on the back panel, fingertips bristling with splinters. Others may enter the wardrobe only until they reach a certain age, and then the shadows are nailed fast. For some, the wardrobe seems to open and shut on a whim—one day allowing them passage, the next as solid as a coffin.

Anyway, my sleeper, you’re inside. Softly now, as we approach the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. Slip the sandals from your feet. Bare and bow your head. Close your eyes a moment and ponder your peccadilloes, for this is sacred ground.

The shelf is not overly long, as you see, shorter than might be expected for the collection of one who has spent decades foundering in pretty typefaces. After half a lifetime in dusty hallways, crouching in shadowed libraries, churning through pages by candlelight, this is what I have surfaced with: a single shelfload more precious, more lasting than a diamond elephant, rarer than the mkoli mbemba. These are my books, these are my books. I never travel without my books. Step forward, reach out your hand, touch one . . .

The cover of a book is a portal you open at your peril, peering into the gloom between ornate jambs. What moonlit ripple in those shadows, what damsels? What nightingales, suzerains, and belly dancers await you? What infidels, hierophants, lepidopterists, prestidigititators, what incubuses, changelings, charlatans, waifs, pixies, pederasts, gourmands, cherubim? Here are the rainbow zebras and indigo octopi, the cherry glowworms and tartan chameleons of the inner eyelid, those demon figments we read when we dream. Here are the cities, the seas. The nights, our own breathing, ten thousand kisses. Here are baskets of suns to be broken like bread and nets full of seahorses and here like strung gemstones the screams of the tortured and moans of the tattooed, the dove-coos of mothers and the caterwauling of a gypsy girl’s orgasm.

Do you love to read? I’m not referring to plots and characters, however compelling. Nor to fancy words, turns of phrase. I’m talking about nestling in a pool of candlelight and cradling a book like a baby in your lap and nudging the corner upward with your thumb, the whorls snagging the grain of the paper, and hearing the soft sizzle as the page turns. Do you love to read?

. . .

Spend a day with me.

I wake into the pale afternoon and call for a coffee, which Abdallah brings in a jiffy, smoking in its long-handled copper kanaka. He tips the thick liquid into a black-and-gold demitasse and I go onto the balcony and watch the glitter on the sea. I light a cigarette, the air so still that I can watch the smoke a long time as it gently swerves and burgeons into the sky, elegant as Diwani script. It’s important to wake up slowly, to keep your dreams about you as long as possible. After a while, I go inside and pull on a pair of tea-colored trousers and a cotton shirt with shell buttons and my thief’s shoes. On a wicker chair outside the Trianon, I sip a macchiato and smoke another cigarette and nibble the corners of a croissant and watch the passersby.

Then back to my rooms, where I work at refurbishing my loot; binding, resetting, mending rips, scappling away library stamps. Those I’ve finished with I parcel up in cotton and brown paper and address to my co-conspirators across the globe, who will sell them at exorbitant prices. You may have bought one of my tampered volumes, or coveted it at any rate, gazing through iron grills and bulletproof glass to where it stood, paper grail.

At dusk I walk along the corniche, slowly, because the enormous cobbles are uneven. Lovers sit at intervals along the embankment. The girls are crying, the boys looking away or trying to explain. Peasant girls sell ragged roses pilfered from municipal gardens. Sometimes I buy a flower and carry it a while, then hand it to a child. If I’m sad, I pull a volume of poetry from my pocket and sit above the shattering waves and read those worn words. When you’re sad you must not run, because sadness, despite its doleful eyes, has a mouthful of rusty teeth and a hankering for blood. Instead, walk toward the beast and curl within its paws and let its rough tongue lull you. It is good to be lonely at dusk, as the day falls away in a tinsel mosaic. Then, turning your back on the sunset, you watch longed-for nightrise.

I walk across to Midan Saad Zaghloul. Children play in the empty fountain. The moon, old gold coin, floats free of the minarets and tarnishes to silver, alabaster, at last fragile as a sand-dollar. Swallows crosshatch the sky into darkness.

. . .

Imagine a sleeping city, a city of mussed sheets and creased quilts, of pillows embraced and mattresses stained by inadvertent filth. Imagine all the dreams seeping up like iridescent mist. And then imagine a silent tribe, clad in ultramarine, skipping across rooftops, through side streets. In their hands are lock picks, matchsticks, daggers, blood.

Some say sleepers lose their souls, that when we shut our eyes and curl to a pillow our inner animals sneak forth from nostril or ear hole to dance on rooftops and make love to strangers. If so, thieves are dreamers reversed. We’re demons on the loose, abroad in night cities, while our souls slumber, invisible, under the sheets. You will be my companion tonight, as we seek books.

Two a.m. A great villa in Moharram Bey. Locked houses are unread books: lift the hinged lid and you’re within, sidestepping somnambulists and late-night urinators, eavesdropping on sleep talkers, stroking cats.

As you ease into the shadows, use your ears, your nose. Listen for snores and sighs, the moans of lovemaking. Often, as soon as I enter a house, still blinded by streetlights and the moon, I’ll know if it contains books, and even how lucky I might be, because my nostrils are tuned to that odor of rust and saddlebags native to old bindings and ancient ink. That scent—nothing to match it. Feel the talons at your groin, the sudden blossoming of your heart. You can almost smell the words entering your brain like motes, gusting and prancing as if they’ve entered a sunbeam. Wait, wait. Though you know from which room or hall the odor comes, first you must step through the house, scouting the terrain. Walk catlike, on padded soles, movements liquid, eyes wide. Touch nothing. You’re an ultramarine sirocco, wafted in from the sea, leaving no traces, only rearranging objects a little. Here are the parents, raucous as garroted pigs on rutted sheets, here a child adrift on a raft of dreams. Do not linger. Even the sleeping can feel the weight of eyes.

When you’ve marked exits and danger zones, move to where your nose has told you the bookshelves are, in some hallway or, in the largest houses, in a room of their own, a room paneled in dusty spines, tooled gold, baroque colophons. You work swiftly, tickling oil into hinges with a dove feather, drawing curtains, bunching silk scarves beneath doors. You light your candle and come at last to the shelves. You can’t resist running a finger along the banded leather, tipping down a plump volume, hearing the seashore sigh and gravel crackle as it opens. You read a line, a page. Careful now. This is where a book thief’s work is more dangerous than that of other thieves: too easily we lose ourselves in our loot. Many a night I’ve buried myself in some Russian romance or Arabic ode and only realized as I raised my eyes that a bird’s vibrato was not that of a St. Petersburg lark or Yemeni falcon but a hoopoe in the Alexandrian dawn, that I’d been submerged too long and must make haste that I not meet a maid brewing coffee or the bread-delivery boy on his bicycle.

Off to steal I stride along sidewalks swinging my satchel, like a blue-suited businessman walking home from some late-night meeting, but returning from work, if my swag bulges, I exit the house from the top story and step out onto the rooftops of Alexandria, haloed by moths, bat shriek bouncing from my skin, saluting the muezzins seated in their towers, who watch the east for the first bead of dawn. Sometimes, sidestepping dead gulls and sleeping asps, dreaming poets and fallen kites, I encounter another thief returning likewise from an early morning escapade and we greet in the pre-dawn chill and chat about our hauls, as any two colleagues might exchange pleasantries on a street corner, but this is four a.m. and we are far above the skein of dark streets and the firelit scallop of the bay.

Then back to the Pension Scheherazade. I swing onto my balcony from the crenelated eaves. Inside, I lay out my loot, read a few pages in each book, note torn endpapers, slipped bindings, slack stitching that will have to be mended. I take a bath, soaking away the thrill in jasmine foam. As the first call to prayer shimmers into the darkness, dragging a swelling cacophony in its wake, I don cotton pajamas and carry a glass of wine to the balcony, waiting for the sea’s slow rupture, the blister of flame. And then to bed.