Bookhaven | Robert Boucheron

Bookhaven is a town of readers. These book lovers love to curl up on a sofa with a fat novel on a rainy day, or lounge in a hammock with a slim volume of verse, or lie on a beach in the blazing sun with an in-depth analysis. They immerse themselves in the world of literature. They surrender to the spell of the printed word. They stop at nothing in pursuit of knowledge, and no subject is taboo.

Native-born citizens are proud to be called Bookworms. English is their first language, while French runs a close second. Bookworms are often bilingual, and the town is known to the francophone world as Havre du Livre. As in large cosmopolitan cities, you hear most any language in the street and see it in the shops, especially those that carry books, as most of them do. A drugstore has a twirling rack of paperbacks up front, a clothing boutique carries celebrity biographies and coffee table toppers, and a hardware store stocks books on construction, house plans, and interior design.

Bookstores and coffee shops, which are hard to tell apart, outnumber taverns, nightclubs, theaters, bowling lanes, rifle ranges, and miniature golf courses combined. The market for used and previously owned books, which they call “perused books,” is second to none. It appeals to tightwads, fixed incomes, shallow pockets, and poor dears unable to pay through the nose for new releases. Thank heaven for Bookhaven!

People read books on buses, on park benches, in cafes, and while standing in line, but that is only the half of it. They walk with an open book in hand, absorbed in the story. They read with concentration, and they make their way by peripheral vision. They read on bicycles with a book propped on the handlebars, as they weave through traffic and evade road hazards. They read while engaged in vigorous physical exercise, such as pumping iron or running five kilometers, and they read while standing perfectly still. They read tablets and telephone screens, prim literary journals and splashy periodicals, how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, philosophical tracts and inspirational pamphlets, abridged editions and corrected texts. They read large type, and they read the fine print.

Despite advice from clinical psychologists and ophthalmologists, people read in bed by the sickly glow of a table lamp, slumped in armchairs in poorly lit lobbies, and perched on stone bollards in the dead of night under the glare of a neon sign. A noted critic castigates constant reading as a pernicious habit, a threat to public health, a literal addiction, a metaphorical leech that fastens upon immobile readers and drains them of vitality. This same person, who is on the whole a disagreeable scold, says living vicariously as they do, so much in their heads, isolated from the world of affairs, Bookworms are extremely well informed for no particular reason. Regular folks say reading is the innocent pastime of young and old, a harmless pursuit, one that broadens the mind or allows it to escape the humdrum routine and the daily grind.

Escape is relevant. Located on a rocky island in the South Indian Ocean, more than three thousand kilometers from the dangling tips of Africa and India, much closer to Antarctica, Bookhaven is as remote as it gets. The town is a port of call for ships bound to and from that frozen continent, to take on fresh water and supplies. Like all subarctic settlements, it gives the impression of a scatter of shacks with corrugated sheet-metal roofs, few windows, bare yards, and large dogs. The upper town has a concourse for offices and shopping, residential lanes, and a windswept square surrounded by courts, the post office, a United Multiversalist chapel of ease, and the public library. The lower town is the old port, a cramped tangle of alleys, low dives, and seedy lodgings, where the air is sharp with the salty lyrics of sailor ballads, and walls are covered with learned graffiti.

Bookhaven has no gardens to speak of. Greenhouses and window boxes provide a spot of botany here and there, flowers and fresh herbs. The climate can support only moss, lichen, coarse sea grass, and an indigenous cabbage that warded off scurvy in crews on long voyages. A hardy breed of pony was introduced, and mice and rats escaped the holds of ships. Cats were persuaded to disembark and keep the rodents in check. The feral populations coexist today. Bookhaven is an outpost for scientific observations of the weather, astronomy, and oceanic currents, as well as icebergs, auroras, marine wildlife, and penguins.

The island, with associated islets and reefs, was discovered in 1772 by a Breton navigator who was not at all charmed by the cold, stony, treeless terrain. He claimed it for the King of France, and he marked it on his chart as les Îles Désolées, or the Sorry Islands. A sheltered anchorage spawned a way station for warships, as France pursued its imperial dream, also for fishing vessels and hunters of whales, walrus, and seals. The try pots, fish-drying racks, and empty casks metamorphosed into ramshackle huts and crude cabins. A jetty and wharf improved the harbor. In time more substantial dwellings, warehouses, and a chandler’s shop appeared.

From France, the Old Regime exiled to this outlandish place those deemed too sensitive for the Bastille. After 1789, the tribunals of the Revolution continued to send political prisoners who for delicate reasons could not be sent to the guillotine. These aristocratic exiles, educated at the best schools, established a tone of culture and refinement, a social milieu quite unlike that of the rough-and-ready port. Versatile and voluble, they went in for amateur theatricals, musical evenings, and salon discussions. Society was secular, even skeptical.

The exiles were desperate for news and books. An early town ordinance required every ship that entered the harbor to surrender all printed matter, to be picked over by a committee of residents who volunteered their talent. Books and journals they considered to be informative or amusing were confiscated. This material in French, English, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and Sinhalese became the nucleus of what is now the Bookhaven Collection, which includes rare titles from the 1600s and 1700s.

During this period, money was scarce, and books were so valuable and highly sought after, they were used as currency. A comedy of Moliere, for example, was traded for a pair of shoes, the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld could purchase a loaf of bread, and the Lettres of Madame de Sévigné were worth their weight in gold. This taste for the intellectual and the classic persists. Residents prefer literary fiction and thoughtful essays to potboilers, screeds, and mass-market trash. As a side note, the French spoken on the island today faithfully preserves the idiom and pronunciation of the eighteenth century, and is therefore pure and uncorrupted, while the French of Paris has declined, infected by foreign words and grammatical errors. The same linguistic phenomenon is observed in Quebec.

After the disasters of Napoleon and foreign policy blunders in the mid-1800s, France lost interest in her far-flung possession. A British frigate strayed into Bookhaven, the government condescended to take over the Sorry Islands, and English became the official language. An influx of black sheep, remittance men, and women of no importance flowed in, exiles from the rigid norms and hypocrisy of Victorian society. They brought with them an inferior cuisine based on mutton and pudding, a raffish sensibility, and the latest books from London.

Bookhaven today cultivates the image of an undiscovered paradise of print, an exotic travel destination for librarians and those who read, the vanguard of bibliotourism. Look up from the page to see an eerie landscape of eroded igneous rock, ancient lava flows that have weathered to weird shapes, with innumerable waterfalls, lakes, and coves. For those who like to hike, there are trails through unspoiled wilderness, a glacier of a few hundred square kilometers, and a brisk breeze.

The season of high summer is December, when the sun never sets but rides at midnight in the northern sky. A midwinter getaway to catch some rays, cast yourself headlong into print, and caulk gaps your personal library might be just the thing. June is abysmally dark and cold, when the sun never rises, a perfect time to stay indoors and tackle a long romantic novel or a multi-volume historical survey. The year oscillates between these extremes, and the average is ideal.

For lack of a runway long enough, there is no commercial airport. Travelers impatient with the monthly ferry from Madagascar must hitch a ride on a private jet, a military flight, or a scientific junket. But be advised. Once ensconced in Bookhaven, you may not want to leave.

In addition to all the bookstores, remainder bins, second-hand stalls, thrift shops, dealers, and flea market booths, Bookhaven offers a unique venue for writing retreats, publishing seminars, and manuscript consulting services. The early exiles wrote racy memoirs, vitriolic diatribes, and wistful fables. Today nearly everyone has a novel in progress, a fantasy trilogy, a sheaf of poems, or an exposé. In cafes and waiting rooms, they scribble in notebooks and type on small electronic devices. No one interrupts. They are too busy reading or writing themselves.

 


Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

 

Umple | Robert Boucheron

Over the centuries, Umple suffered more than its share. The documented history of the city is fraught with disaster: earthquake, famine, plague, and war. The tourist in the motorbus looks up from the guidebook surprised to see that anything still stands.

Located in the mountainous region of the Caucasus, amid a tangle of international borders and ethnic groups, Umple derives from the Greek omphalos or Latin umbilicus, meaning “navel,” as Gibbon explains in a footnote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The name suggests a relation to Delphi and its oracle stone, or an origin myth in which people emerged from the bowels of the earth.

Dr. Delahanty’s archaeological investigation reveals a past that stretches back to the Neolithic Age. Stone substructures in the crypt of the cathedral, tunnels and vaults formed by massive slabs, resemble dolmens in Brittany and megalithic tombs of the western British Isles. Were the vaults erected by a pan-continental prehistoric civilization? This theory is debatable. Until Dr. Delahanty publishes his work in a format open to scholarly review, we have only his notes and rough field sketches.

In the fifth century, the Byzantine monk Euphemius mentions a fort or walled village, a primitive outpost on the distant frontier, peopled by barbarians of doubtful loyalty, and certainly not orthodox. As Gibbon relates, chronicles in Greek of the eastern empire are a horrid series of sieges, cruelties, brutal slaughter, lightning raids, forced conversion, conflagration, oppressive taxation, and denial of basic human rights. The list of attackers and bloodthirsty hordes includes Gauls, Persians, Scythians, Huns, proto-Germanic and Slavic tribes, Vikings, Tartars, and Mongols. Moslem warriors mounted on horseback and armed with flashing swords joined the battered city to their vast world empire. More recently, the Russians gobbled it up, only to disgorge it when their empire collapsed.

This tumultuous history of conquest and cultural disarray has left its mark. The architecture of Umple is a palimpsest of erasure, insertion, overlay, whitewash, and ambiguity. Is the city Western Asian or Eastern European? Old buildings that withstood the ravages of time are solid stone with minimal hints of ornament and style. They look like blocks of masonry anywhere, gray and mute, with casement windows like bright little eyes, peaked tile roofs like indomitable hats, and chimneys like fingers that stubbornly point upward. A stone arcade surrounds the marketplace in the center, ponderously vaulted to shelter buyers and sellers from the weather, and formerly from arrows and flying rocks. The carved fountain is a restoration of the medieval one. The heroic statue of St. Durans is modern, based on a grainy heliograph.

Parts of the city wall survive, especially where later buildings engulfed them. They show a variety of building techniques from several centuries, with obvious signs of rebuilding, repair, and reused material. Of special interest are the stones taken from houses destroyed one way or another. The Round Tower undoubtedly enhanced the defensive circuit, and the Gate of Martyrs may be the one mentioned by Euphemius.

Armed with a guidebook and a pair of sturdy shoes, the tourist will have to search for these landmarks. The Umpali do not bother about the past. They dispense with bronze plaques and interpretive signs. Few historic artifacts or works of art remain from all the carnage. There is no museum as such. The city is a memorial, they say.

The Caucasus was once considered the source of white skin, freckles, and flaxen hair, but racial theories clash with facts on the ground. Did each invader leave a memento? Whatever their complexion, the Umpali are light-hearted and grounded, nimble on their feet, and quick to tell you what they think in a dozen languages. Not because you will spend money, but out of the goodness of their hearts, they welcome you with open arms. They shower you with kisses, and they escort you to lodging, dining, and shops that feature curious handicrafts. After all they have endured, they maintain a cheerful outlook. They have gone through the worst, and the best is yet to come. In this, they resemble the Hyperboreans:

Beyond the ice and the north wind,
Beyond death, they have won
The exit from the labyrinth
To everlasting sun.

Nominal adherents of several religions, they believe in themselves more than anything else. Each home has a shrine of family portraits, framed and assembled on a fireplace mantel or the lid of a piano. Among the ancestors and children are objects—a lock of hair, a gold watch, a clutch of baby teeth. A mother places a bit of food from the family meal in a saucer there. She may light a candle.

If you ask her about this, she is wary and evasive. These are her loved ones, living and dead. They do not consume the food. She blinks away a tear. She begs you to accept another cup of the fragrant tea grown only here, on the rugged mountain slopes.


Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

He can be found on Twitter at @rboucheron