The Mountain
Book Sample


I

It all seems so far away, the quiet room in the capital where I wrote of an early evening, staring down onto the Street of Roses in the sluggish nightfall, the waters of the Yar already black in the distance, crawling blindly towards the deep black bay. And the rushing, teeming streets white as day. The noise of the riverside cafes drifting across the water. The two of us walking arm in arm across the Bridge of the September Rising for a midnight drink at The Siren with Vera or Lander or the Isaacs. Always someone there to get drunk with, always someone ready to read their poems for a couple of rums. I often drank there with Hurt and Jacobi, a long time ago, long before I met you. Almost another lifetime.

The South seems so far away, Sarah. Itís like another country here, another century. It was quite eerie driving through the Northern countryside on the convoy. Thereís nothing; great stretches of uncultivated land, abandoned fields, ancient farm machinery rusted and overgrown by the roadside, the towns depopulated and ghostly. And the further you travel from the border the worse the desolation becomes. The model farms of the North are just a fiction, Sarah. Itís a forgotten world here - backward, poor, unbelievably isolated. The very existence of the Outer Northern towns is more or less totally reliant upon the regular arrivals of the truck convoys. They bring in everything from foodstuffs and fuel to alcohol and tobacco. They also ferry the mail backwards and forwards between the towns and the border. But because of the vagaries of the convoys and the chaos of the Modernization many of the towns - like Sumer - simply havenít survived, theyíve died, and now theyíre slowly vanishing back into the wilderness.

Itís almost unimaginable to a Southerner, but the Years of Revolt literally left the North untouched. Even the vast upheavals of the Reaction were unfelt beyond the border. The only evidence of those tragic times is a handful of crumbling Resettlement Stations. The effects of the Modernization on the towns of the Outer North were haphazard and belated, and in fact were still being felt here fifteen years after the policyís repudiation in the South. A terrible irony.

The cultural impoverishment of the North is appalling. The Southern coastal provinces at the turn of the century must have been no less backward. Outer Northern colloquial speech is still permeated by survivals of old sayings and traces of forgotten popular speech. It sounds very strange to my Southern ears, although not entirely unattractive. Illiteracy apparently is still widespread. Books are a great rarity, even on the border where they fetch huge prices on the black market.

Perhaps in a way the Outer Northern towns were fortunate in their isolation. At least they were spared the sufferings of the border regions. The border was like a nightmare, Sarah. I never imagined it being so bad. Yes, in the capital weíre told of intermittent Ďdisturbancesí, of occasional Ďunrestí among certain Ďelementsí, but the situation - the true situation - is one of wholesale misery. Wholesale misery and hunger. Refugees stream into the border in their tens of thousands from all parts of the North. Theyíre herded into camps, huge sprawling makeshift slums. Not even the New Cities of the South boast anything like them. And the streets are ruled by gangs of so-called Civil Guards.

I canít begin to describe it, Sarah, the disgust and anger I feel in my heart. We live out our ordered and estimable little lives in the capital, completely ignorant of the suffering on the border, stonily indifferent to the beggar starving on our doorstep. Itís a malaise in us, Sarah, a canker eating us away. And all those cherished assumptions of our cultural superiority, the Great Tradition of Southern letters - it all seems somehow questionable now, just a sort of smugness, a sort of blindness. I feel as if somethingís snapped inside me. Iíve been reading over my work this last week - all my poems and translations - reading them with fresh eyes. You know how happy I was with the poems before I left; how I felt Iíd finally brought to completion an important body of work after all these years. But when I read them, all I felt was dissatisfaction. Iím afraid theyíre not the masterpieces Iíd hoped they were. Yes, a few still move me, genuinely move me, but the rest left me quite indifferent. They didnít move me, Sarah. They didnít inspire me in the least. Itís an awful thing not to be inspired by your own words, the most hollow and desolate feeling. Itís not even that theyíre such bad poems - God knows, respectable reputations have been made on worse - itís just that they donít move me, theyíre soulless. Utterly soulless. Thatís the long and the short of it. Any other fault I could accept and try to rectify - but how can you breathe life into a dead poem? Better to let it rot in a drawer. Ten yearsí thankless labour - for nothing. Donít be upset, Sarah. Iím not talking to you as my wife now but as another artist, an artist I respect and admire, someone whoís always struggled to face her own creations honestly and without delusion. I know how much faith you have in my work, and how much you want my work to reward me and give me happiness. But sooner or later every artist has to weigh up their work in some ultimate balance, some final scale of value - you know that as well as I do. Perhaps Iím being too hasty. Perhaps I just need more time to think about things, to let things settle. Anyway, Sarah, whatever the other shortages here thereís no shortage of time. As I very soon discovered, time passes slowly here in the wilderness, slowly and silently. And the world is a very long way away.

I arrived in Sumer three weeks ago today - the convoyís last stop before it returned to the border. The thousand mile journey from the border was uncomfortable and exhausting. I passed it all in a sort of halfsleep, never really sleeping. I stared at the Departmentís maps with numb disbelief as we passed through the Northern countryside, crawling imperceptibly from dot to dot, the distances between towns imperceptibly growing. The North is so vast that the landscape doesnít appear to change at all. It simply blurs into one immense shimmering plain. You hardly even notice the gradual vanishing of the trees, the thinning of the grasslands.

The remoteness and isolation of Sumer beggars description, even by the standards of the North. The town - a handful of boarded-up stores, bars, houses - huddles on the side of the southbound road. The road continues north - precisely how far is uncertain - until it peters out somewhere on the margins of the Great Icelands. A road to nowhere. As far as the eye can see, endless arid plains, tundra. Emptiness. Not a tree or a bush or a boulder to measure the horizon. Thereís no perspective. It dulls the mind after a while. You stare into the distance, stare out along the maddeningly straight line of road that refuses to disappear, and your eyes begin to ache, everything dissolves into a watery blur. The mid-autumn winds sweep up from the Northern interior, sweep silently across the flatness. A dead wind. The grass hardly stirs. Only a constant chilly breath against the skin.

So this is the place, Sarah, where the writer, Jacob Bruner, was sent fifty years before me; the place that seems to have gained such a mysterious notoriety amongst the towns of the Outer North. Of course in the days of its Ďgreatnessí the town of Sumer boasted a population of over three hundred. Its present population however is no more - or less - than four. Four hardy citizens. Unfortunately Jacob Bruner isnít one of them. Apparently as recently as six years ago there were still seventy people living here; ten years before that, nearly two hundred. Now thereís four. There must be dozens of towns like Sumer dotted across the North, invisible casualties of the Modernization, where a few beleaguered inhabitants have stayed on, captives of chance or fear or infirmity.

The whole business is ludicrous. Utterly farcical. Of course it was no accident Anders sent me on this assignment. Iím certain he realized from the start what was going on. Or at least he had a very strong suspicion that the situation here wasnít all it appeared to be. That arsehole Born had a hand in it too. Theyíve both been waiting for this opportunity for a long time - and Dort finally presented it to them on a silver platter. No doubt Bornís already sitting behind my desk. Sending me to the wilderness to investigate a man whoís been dead for over thirty years - I have to admit it was a singularly effective way of bringing to a halt my career in the Department. Yes, Brunerís been dead and buried for thirty years, Sarah, that much is now certain. Jacob Brunerís increasingly arbitrary instructions to the mayors of the ten Outer Northern towns were being sent out by a man named Hartman, Gabriel Hartman. Itís all just a hoax. But perhaps the most absurd part of the whole affair is that the hoax has been so successful. For five years now the mayors have lived in trepidation - if not terror - of the fictitious Jacob Bruner, Investigating Commissioner of the Central Committee of the South. It really has all the ingredients of a provincial farce by Golo. The credulous, incompetent, provincial seigneurs in their comfortably forgotten little corner of the world suddenly finding themselves under threat of investigation by the distant authorities and desperately trying to save their skins. And yet to be fair, Hartmanís forged instructions and documents are surprisingly clever, if not in their execution then certainly in their psychology.

At least the general report on the administrations of the Outer Northern towns presents no problems. Itís nearly thirty years since old Kreller was sent to the Far North. His assignment was also an admonition if I remember correctly. Anyway, I shouldnít have too much trouble concocting an interim report on the parlous state of the towns to keep Anders happy.

The Hartman business is more problematic. In a sense I can understand his motives for resurrecting this long dead Southerner and sending out the bogus instructions under his name. It was basically a matter of survival, a way of ensuring that the convoys kept arriving in Sumer even though it was virtually a ghost town. And the logistics were admirably simple - after all, our long time Southern exile merely had to announce to the mayors and the convoy his recent Ďrehabilitationí and appointment as Investigating Commissioner in the region - and of course insist that Sumer would remain his headquarters. That such a scheme could actually succeed is ample testament to the general climate of uncertainty and hysteria created by the final stages of the Modernization. By the end the Modernization was seen throughout the Far North as something akin to a civil war - and perhaps not entirely without justification. Hence the mass exoduses from the towns to the border and supposed safety. There was also the threat of the Civil Guards somehow stumbling across the town. An illusory threat, but Hartman wasnít to know this.

Iím at a loss what to do, Sarah. I canít report the true situation here. For a start Hartman has no idea of the illegality of what heís done, of the possible repercussions. Heís lived in this godforsaken place all his life and literally knows nothing of the outside world. He has an almost childlike vision of the South as a sort of fairytale kingdom of beauty and culture and learning.

Itís hard not to feel sympathy for him; also hard not to feel a certain grudging sympathy for his fictitious Investigating Commissioner. Like a mediaeval despot ĎBrunerí came to exercise almost unlimited power in the region. His instructions became increasingly bizarre and idiosyncratic, and yet were complied with to the letter. At one stage, for example, he ordered that all the books, municipal records, and even private diaries in the towns be collected and burned. The mayors dutifully reported the success of their conflagrations. Two springs ago he ordered - and received - from the mayors several dozen summer dresses, rose-patterned dresses. Then - in the ironically convoluted ĎSoutherní officialese which Hartman increasingly adopted - he ordered that the fattest man in Danz was to be immediately placed on a starvation diet until further notice. The mayorís reply is a masterpiece of obsequious bewilderment. Hartmanís exercise of power wasnít entirely ironic or mocking however. He managed to divest the towns of a sizeable store of jewellery and valuables during Brunerís brief Ďreigní.

Hartman was born with a large claret-coloured birthmark on the left side of his face and neck. It really is severely disfiguring, Sarah - disquieting almost - like a sinister mask. Itís obviously caused him a great deal of suffering. You can see the buried hurt in his eyes, the distrust. As I said, itís hard not to feel sorry for him. The disfigurement must have dominated his whole life, shaped his whole personality. Whether for better or worse who can say. Itís just one of those unanswerable riddles of nature I suppose.

The creation of the tyrannical and petulant Jacob Bruner is a fairly understandable compensation for a lifetime of unhappiness and ostracism. I must confess Hartman interests me a great deal - as a psychological type I mean. He really is a man of the wilderness, Sarah, a genuine naif; a Ďbarbarianí in the true sense of the word. Heís never seen a play, read a novel, has no notion of history whatsoever. He inhabits another earth, a sort of blighted Noble Savage. And yet for all his naivety he successfully managed to impersonate an imaginary Southerner for five whole years. Itís very strange. I suppose it sounds cruel and patronizing to talk about Hartman like this, but I donít mean it to be, Sarah. The anguish heís lived with is real, unimaginable to someone who hasnít experienced it. To be a prisoner of your own face; to be trapped behind this awful mask, every day, ineluctably  - it must be a terrible thing. Apparently he was more or less shunned by the townspeople who believed his birthmark was some vague Ďharbinger of misfortuneí. Certainly heís developed a deep-seated fear of the world. No doubt itís why Hartman chose to stay here, to literally Ďhide his faceí from the world. Yet paradoxically heís always harboured this hopeless dream of one day escaping to the South, of living in the fairytale capital of his dreams. Heís actually quite intelligent - hence his longing to escape 1 suppose. His father was the schoolmaster in Sumer for many years - an amateur mathematician and something of an outsider himself - and his mother left the town when he was four or five. Apart from that I know very little about him. I enjoy his company, even his reticence. We play chess sometimes of an evening. I invariably concede. His father taught him to play chess when he was a child from some old tournament volumes and manuals, so he has this incongruous familiarity with all the strategies of the Southern grand masters of the last century. He drinks more than he should. The Northern rotgut gives you bad dreams Iíve discovered, not to mention vicious hangovers. Still, itís a break from the monotony of the long nights. Iím sure Hartmanís curious about my life in the capital, and yet he hasnít asked me one question, not one. I think heís afraid all his dreams might shrivel up in the cold light of the truth. At the same time heís fascinated in an almost childlike way by my Southern accent and shyly tries to mimic it. Heís so trapped by the sense of his own provincialism and inferiority, by the ugliness - as he sees it - of his Northern accent.

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