“And then one day, “said the Novelist, “I woke up and found myself gripped by an overwhelming fear of I knew not what.”
“Yeah?” I murmured, engrossed in the frantic, haphazard movements of the ant around which I had marked an imaginary boundary with my finger.
“Are you even listening to what I am saying?”
I sighed. It had been over an hour since the man had approached my table and asked if he could join me. His eyes were red and he looked so troubled and in need of some company that I had not the heart to refuse. And so he’d occupied the chair opposite mine, introduced himself as the writer of a dozen novels, out of which I’d heard the name of one or two and hadn’t read any, and begun to narrate a story which he said was the most bizarre and insisted was that of his own life. Through the next forty minutes, he recounted, in excruciating detail, his most trivial memories of growing up and writing. Twenty minutes into it, I was convinced that there wasn’t really a story at all. Whatever it was, however, wasn’t done yet and the only reason I hadn’t walked out on him yet was the beer mug in front of me and his offer to pay for it and as many others as I liked. I squashed the ant with my left thumb and looked up at him.
“You woke up gripped by a strange fear. Yeah, I am listening.”
He looked pleased.
“Yes, a very strange fear. In fact, I am not even sure if it actually was fear. More like anxiety, probably. Only, it wasn’t vague and less immediate as anxieties usually are. My heart beat violently and I could feel drops of perspiration emerge from behind each ear and trace their paths through my cheeks. When you are a writer, you tend to remember that sort of detail, I suppose.”
He paused as the waiter refilled our mugs. My eyes wandered to the other tables. On an adjacent table, another man, affluent of appearance, sat alone. His glass of whiskey looked untouched; the ashtray on his table was choked with cigarette butts. Perhaps sensing my gaze, he turned towards me and I realized how incredibly feeble the lights were, for I couldn’t make out his features. He fumbled inside his coat and found another cigarette. He struck a match, holding it between his thumb and middle finger, and it illuminated briefly, a wistful smile and the stump where his index finger had been. The Novelist was speaking again.
“At first I didn’t know what to do. I paced my apartment purposelessly. Everything looked in order. The girl I had spent the night with was gone; it was past noon. I went downstairs and read a newspaper at the café on the other side of the street. I spoke to two women on the next table. I don’t remember the conversation but it was genial. But when I returned to the apartment, that oppressing feat still remained. Anyway, I sat down to work on my novel, thinking it would take my mind off whatever it was that bothered me. I found the words come surprisingly easy to me, as I started to write. In no time, I had three paragraphs penned. I was thrilled. I made myself a coffee and returned to the table. As I glanced through what I’d written that morning, I had this odd feeling of having read it before. I re-read it a few times. Yes, definitely, I’d read it before. In fact, it occurred to me that I had actually written something like this before and unintentionally, I was repeating myself.”
I noted that the man at the other table had now turned towards us and was intently listening to the Novelist speak.
“So,” the Novelist continued, “I pulled out one of my earlier novels from the shelf – the one in which I thought I would find the paragraphs in question. I flipped through the pages and eventually found it.”
His voice had turned into an agitated hoarse whisper and his eyes shone. I surmised we were finally getting somewhere with the story.
“And guess what I found! Those same sentences, word for word, not a single punctuation out of place! The exact same thing! I couldn’t believe my eyes! ‘How is it possible’, I said to myself, ‘How can it be exactly the same!’ I read some of the earlier paragraphs from the book. And it began to dawn upon me. I went back to my unfinished manuscript. Sure enough! Those paragraphs were all there too! I was rewriting a book I’d already written! Word for word!”
The Novelist began to sob. I glanced at the man at the other table. I still couldn’t see his face in the darkness but I had a feeling he was smiling. Frankly, I wanted to burst into laughter too, so outrageous was the story.
“But…that has to be, I don’t know, how can that be true?” I asked.
“But it is! It is!” he wailed, “And it doesn’t end there. You know what I found after that? I opened one book after the other. And they were all the same! All the same! All those books I’d written, all of them, with their different covers and different names, they were all the same!”
At that moment, I couldn’t control it any longer and burst into laughter.
“Come on man! Surely, you don’t expect me to believe this!”
He looked at me with wide disbelieving eyes.
“Shut up, you dumb fuck!” he exploded, “Do you have any idea what it feels like? What it feels like to discover that everything you’ve written is the same thing? You laugh at me in my face, you moron! I went to every bookstore in the city that day! Every fucking bookstore! And I read every last damned copy of my books available in the city! And they were all the same!”
He became silent, breathing in and out in great gasps. I continued to stare at him, unable to find anything appropriate to say.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe it,” he said after a while, “so I brought these with me.”
He brought out a bunch of books from his bag, which I hadn’t noticed thus far, and placed them on the table. I instinctively noticed that they weren’t the same size. There were some that were far thicker than the rest. I picked one up. It was one of his. I opened it to the first chapter and read two paragraphs. Then I picked another.
It was true. They were all exactly the same book.
I found the Novelist staring straight at me. I realized, with a shock, that my own eyes had welled up.
“I am sorry,” was all I could manage. He remained silent.
“So what did you do after that? You abandoned the unfinished manuscript? Changed it?”
“No,” he said, his voice calm now, “I can’t.”
“Yes. Can’t. Each time I begin to write – a fresh chapter, another paragraph, anything at all, I find I cannot write anything other than what I have already written. I just cannot. I am doomed to writing the same story till I die. So I’ve stopped writing.”
“Well,” said someone and I looked up to find the man at the other table standing next to us. He was smoking another cigarette. “that is a most interesting story. I wish I could write it. But as you will soon see, I too cannot. Perhaps the young gentleman here will.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. He drew his chair from the other table and sat down at ours.
“You see, I am in the middle of, let me see, a somewhat similar situation.”
“What rubbish!” said the Novelist, “similar situation?”
“Yes, well, not exactly the same, mind you. Similar.”
“I am a novelist too, you see. But I only published one novel.”
“And that makes you similar how?”
“Let me finish,” the man said impatiently, “I said I only published only one novel. On the other hand, I have written close to fifty.”
The Novelist and I looked at each other, the exasperation clear on our faces.
“I wrote the first one,” he continued, “and at the end of it I realized how complete it was! How truly perfect! I couldn’t ever hope to write anything like it again. And why would I want to? So after it was published, I decided to not attempt anything else ever again. I wrote the same story again. Oh, the utter exhilaration of reliving one’s finest achievement! Every punctuation, every word! Mesmerizing! I didn’t waste a minute before starting to write it, a third time. And thus it has been, for more years than I care to remember now. So you see, our stories aren’t very different.”
We pondered this until the bar closed that night.