And it’s odd that it’s two years since I last read any of his stuff having been so devoted. But really it’s just ‘cos I’d pretty much read everything, and was saving his latest one. (There’s a new book out in August, and also some more films, too; see Paul Auster news.)
Travels in the Scriptorium has the same eerie feel as The Music of Chance and In The Country of Last Things. There’s the same sort of man caught up in a world of strange rules which hint at terrible violence. There’s the same doubt about whether these rules and repurcussions are real or just in his mind. There’s the same eerie sense that he may be imprisoning himself. It is a mystery story where, to the protagonist, everything is mysterious.
In this case, we don’t even know the guy’s name – he’s just referred to as Mr Blank. He spends the whole of the book in one room, but for trips to the toilet. And his main concern – without ever daring to find out – is whether they’ve locked him in.
“He can't remember how long he has been here or the nature of the circumstances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he can't escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice."
Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium, p. 2.
Blank is an old man with a past he can’t quite remember. That might be due to the coloured pills they feed him, or maybe they’re limiting his decline. As the book continues we learn Blank once had great authority, sending people out on gruelling missions. Though this seems to have done them terrible harm, none of them holds it against him. Or do they?
Anna, the pretty nurse who he’s known for at least 20 years, is said to be the only one of his visitors we can trust – but how do we know that for sure? The other visitors – another nurse, a policeman and a lawyer – all offer tantalising glimpses of Blank’s life, without ever explaining who or what he is. And always events are being watched by hidden cameras and a microphone.
Our job as readers is to piece together the tantalising hints. There are, as always in Auster, stories within stories that inform our thinking. In this case, Blank has a manuscript to read, an allohistory of a different Amercian civil war, where people are sent on missions that are not what they seem. The implication seems to be that this is Blank’s own story – he wrote or inspired or informed it. A clue to his identity is the name of the given author, John Trause; another of the anagrams of or playings on Auster’s own name who crop up as writers in his stories.
In counterpoint to the unfixable and unknowable there are arresting, vivid moments. Mr Blank breaks his fingernails as he tries to peel off a label, and there’s a lot of detail about his pissing and erections. This intimacy helps us to share Blank’s own sense of dislocation; we are trapped inside his muddle as he is.
It reminded me quite a bit of the feel of Lost Highway or of a few things by David Cronenberg. You know things aren’t right, that rules are being transgressed, but there’s a dream-like lack of certainty about what.
… for …
… the …
… ending …
… coming …
The ending, I think, suggests that Blank is the author, his missions the stories he’s written and his characters now in charge. There’s a sense of the inmates taking over the asylum, of roles somehow being reversed. It’s a clever-clever po-mo conclusion, and not long ago me and D. were discussing how we’d both written plays about a guy realising he’s in a play ‘cos we’re both so original. But I’m not sure that’s what the book is doing, and it’s the uncertainty that lifts my slight disappointment and keeps me pondering on.
There’s also something chilling about the nature of his confinement; all he and we’ve discovered in this single brief day will be forgotten by tomorrow. I fear how my own characters might set upon their creator. Especially the one I killed so many times.