New Internationalist Issue 269
A history of
A man writes to his son. Jamal Mahjoub on the search for memory lost.
You may remember that it took me 30 years to write this story. Thirty long years, I might add, during which time it was one of the few things in the world which I could rely upon. It was a tangible constant, unlike other things I might mention, such as wives, families and children; a series of unfortunate events, none of which had any direct bearing on this story. The only thing with which this matter could be compared is that fascination which we call love, for it was such an obsession.
One might consider 30 years to be a little long to write something as simple as a story. It is a long time; a lifetime in your case. Why did I do it? What kept me at it ? The long sleepless nights, the frustrations, the crumpled sheets of paper, not to mention the eternal domestic conflicts incurred by such a hopeless pursuit? The stories became my life, it is as simple as that and my life became the stories. Everything else fell outside the limits of that ring of light. And who could not say that he did not regret having been blind?
You ask me, so I will tell you: the world fell apart long before you were born. The image which had been so preserved for, well for as long as anyone could remember, was suddenly shattered. Before the world as we know it now came into being, there was another world; very similar in many ways, but on the whole quite different. Of course it looked much the same as it does now; a blue ball bobbing along in that inky black ocean of space. They even sent some poor fools out there to take a photograph, just to prove the fact; which goes to show just how primitive they were in those days. It is still the same floating ball, perhaps not quite as blue, a little more grey maybe, like everything else.
A lonely, heart-broken place was the world into which you squeezed; plagued by suffering and war of every description. Time began to accelerate and as it did so, so it seemed that the dream to whose task humans had set themselves began to metamorphose, to change shape. It stretched and it bent, this way and that, like a star folding in on itself, like a box, or one of those black holes which sucks in all of its own light. The world suffered a series of catastrophes, some of them freaks of nature, but the majority of them were human-made. People began to question the role of humans in the scheme of things and there was a resurgence of shallow religious soul-searching.
By this time of course I was completely dedicated to what was to become this story - or stories, for in truth it was like a finely woven tapestry - although I was not aware of it at the time. I embarked on a series of projects, each one completely absorbing in its own right, and each one but a tiny step along the way, although it was not until later that I was able to see this.
We had entered the age of the Information Revolution, as it was called. It was no different from any of those other infamous events that dot the charts of history. Yes, people cheered and waved their banners; metaphorically speaking of course, slogans bounced around the globe like decapitated heads in sixteenth-century Paris.
Things happened very quickly. The world was divided, no longer by borderlines that ran along the earth, but by invisible strata that filled the air like clouds which you could not quite grasp. The transglobal and the local became interchangeable. Everyone was either on the move, or thinking about it. There was no longer any difference between what happened right in front of you and what happened on the other side of the world. A similar thing happened to reality - people could no longer tell the difference between inter-space and the real world; which of them after all was real? Philosophy could not help us and neither could religion.
I see that I am already in danger of becoming side-tracked. Of course everything was relative. Those parts of the world which were excluded from this new exchange simply vanished. That is to say nothing was ever heard from them. No-one knew whether people still lived there anymore and thus they ceased to exist. Of course one aspect of this revolution was the dissolution of countries as such. They had been crumbling for a long time and with the instability and general decay of the less wealthy regions of the world, it seemed wiser to form new conglomerate blocs. Like everything of course, this never worked out the way it was planned, but was rather an absurd parody. No sooner were they formed and secure than they began to eat away at themselves from within.
No matter; the world had grown much smaller, and it was to continue to do so. The poor and the rich lived side by side, if not on top of one another. New feudal states were formed around individuals, corporations and mercantile banks. They formed their own subcultures within the main cultural sphere. Where wealth resided they constructed the equivalent of kingdoms; huge shining towers of glass and steel. These contained everything necessary for the existence of the inhabitants. Because of the difficulties of travel, people stayed at home, where it was safe and comfortable and they really had no need of anything. It was this isolation which brought about the Information Revolution itself, which had actually happened some decades before, only no-one had actually noticed. The second time around it was no longer radical, but it was far more powerful, because it was necessary.
They constructed a series of invisible nets which they threw around the world. They tore down the stars and threw up hundreds of gleaming alloy orbs to hold the threads together. People spoke to one another across thousands of miles of empty space. They could not open a window, but they could make babies with someone on the other side of the world without leaving their room. This net grew of course, something like a giant tuber or beanshoot maybe, growing thicker and stronger as it circled the planet. And inside this was concealed all the radiance and brilliance of humankind; the achievements of centuries.
In the old days they used to fight over land, but land had by now been deemed worthless. A series of hypothetical lands appeared and were subsequently the focus of heated frenzy. For a time, all that counted was knowledge about these lands; worlds within worlds and since no-one dared to go out and find these places, no-one could really prove whether they existed or not. Information was being shovelled back and forth like iron ore or stone. It clogged up the mind the way lead fumes used to, like coal dust in the lungs.
It was out of this that our group was formed. We were radical in those days, our motto was 'Communication, not information!'. We got together to adopt a country. This was the way of things then. Since the collapse of the UN in a scandal whereby countries had been sold off to a chain of mafia-like charity organizations there was nothing to stop anyone wishing to involve themselves this way. This was not really so bad. Private investment had been what governments had been doing anyway. It cleared the air. Outside the places where wealth resided the world had also splintered into tribes and camps of the most primitive and bizarre form. There were countries devoted to the worship of whales; different forms of superstition; political ideologies; sexual orientations of every kind; automobiles; cosmologies; cutlery; in fact anything one could think of. Somewhere inside all this confusion there was humanity and it was this to which we were determined to devote ourselves.
By now some of the problems I was up against might be clear: no matter how fast I worked, it seemed to be slipping out of my hands at every turn. We decided to withdraw, to return to a timescale measured by the rise and fall of the sun. It sounds simple-minded, and perhaps it was, but it was all we could do.
Then came the Last Great Plague, a virus that raged through the electronic archives eating up everything it could find. An epidemic of such proportions that nothing could withstand it. Everything was lost; the entire sum total of human existence was gone forever. Books had long since been recycled into toilet paper and what have you. Writers and intellectuals had been siphoned out to make way for technologists whose knowledge was worthless without the archives to activate them. We were left with nothing.
The great cities of past civilization were closed to us. The language which they used was a hybrid form so that although we knew the foundation upon which it was based, we could not decipher the layers of slang and new words. We were alone, and from this came the stories.
The future was no longer somewhere in the far off distance, but here and now. Where the stories came from, nobody really knew, but they began to grow, building upon one another naturally and of their own accord. They were our story, collectively, alone. They helped to pass the long starlit evenings; stars for which we only had the ancient names. Each story was a guide, a pointer toward something that we called ourselves. The history of the world was to begin again.
I have no idea where you are or whether you will ever find this, or even whether you will be able to decipher this message; but know that I have not given up, that I am still working, and one of these days this work will be done and there will no longer be any need to wince at the word memory: for we will have regained our ability to remember.
Jamal Mahjoub is a Sudanese-British writer living in Denmark. He has published two novels: Navigation of a Rainmaker and Wings of Dust, both published in the Heinemann African Writers' series. In 1993 he won the Guardian-Heinemann competition, for the short story The Cartographer's Angel. ©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7