Epic by Martin Burke

In his rooms in the Cloisterstraat he felt immune from the world. There he created not a feeble world of weak dreams but a startling world of the imagination. The name of the street was suggestive to him of the life that he wanted to lead which was the life he led. He was an anchorite within the fortress of the city. A piercing mind and eyes that saw, but did not participate in, the workings of the city. Not that he was disdainful of it. On the contrary, he loved it, but it was love best expressed by silence and distance rather than by participation. To love was to take a step backwards, to remain the silent observer, to set up a counter-gravity to the gravity of streets, shops, offices, government buildings, and people beyond his windows and walls. Yet to observe was to participate, but to do so on his own terms and conditions, not on any that might be imposed on him by expectation and custom.

It was a satisfying life.

By day he worked in the Insurance claims office and did so with the necessary diligence, but without passion. Passion was reserved for those evenings and days alone when he could devote himself to his thoughts.

His thoughts were many, and no matter their variety held to a single premise -- that of being the manifestation of his imagination in private but startling ways.

The rooms were as non-descript yet as pleasing as any in the street or as any in the city yet within them he had created a world of such vastness and scope that he doubted if there was any who would understand or be capable of appreciating just what his achievement had been.

His rooms were no less than a miniature geography of everything he had read, written and thought.

The book shelves he referred to as Mt Athos. The right-hand corner (as he faced the windows) was to him the site where the epic of Gilgamesh took place, while alongside it, on the desk containing three photographs neatly arranged, was the winnowing-ground of Beowulf. The left hand corner was Greece, the central stove (which he used for heating and cooking) was the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, while the three plants (he loved that number) was to him the bower of the Celtic scribes. The bedroom was the southern Americas, while the hallways containing a coat-rack and two of his paintings, was the new land of America. There was also a storage room into which he poured every idea and name that he could as yet give no definite place within the geography of his apartment.

The three steps leading to the bedroom he also referred to as Mount Sinai. While the window of his bedroom looked out on the upsweep of Mount Tashkent.

Not that he despised them. He didn’t. He recognised their necessity and worth, but the concerns of wives, husbands, children, and heating bills were not his concern. His concern was to have brought the world of time and space into these three rooms (his favourite number, which was why he bought this apartment in the first place) and to live there a life unrestricted by time and space.

He moved effortlessly through the centuries of his rooms. Times zones were entered and left without any dislocation occurring in his mind. The space of the Americas and the tight-knit bower of the Celts were not in conflict nor competition. Balance had been carefully erected and maintained. He was content.

All of this was further confirmed when he read the story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by J.L. Borges –for these were his own initials and he recognised in the author and the character created (or revealed) a brother soul in whom he could confide and with whom he could have companionship.

And yet he lived alone. The absence of a living companion had saddened him in the past but he had long since reconciled himself to the fact that books and the imagination were his life- mate rather than a living soul. This was not something which he reluctantly lived with or struggled with. It was a fact, a fact that in its way added to the completeness of his life in a way that perhaps no living companion would have been able to understand and live up to.

And so it was a life neatly proportioned (he would never have used the word ‘divided’) between the necessities of work and the larger necessities of his rooms.

The one did not impinged on the other. There was no conflict of interests.

Yet even as he filled on the forms of a car accident, and went through the procedure with the claimant, he was thinking of P. M., and what such a happy coincidence of initials might mean. And what it might give rise to. And how this happy fact might alter ever so slightly but in a positive way the balance of his house.

The step from thinking of it as a coincidence to something akin to prophecy was a small one, but on a Thursday afternoon, sixteen days after reading the story, it was one that he took and it was that which changed his life forever.

His first thought was to rewrite Beowulf (one of his favourite poems) but he had before him several ‘translations’ of this work including the exquisite translation of Seamus Heaney and he realised that it had already been done by the best of hands and so it would not be possible to thereafter claim the work as his own. No, it could not be Beowulf, it would have to be something else. Not that it could be the Quixote. That had already been done by P. M., and he was seeking fidelity to the concept which Borges had outlined not merely some copy of every word and thought.

He would have to choose some other masterpiece for what would be his own masterpiece. He would have to select a book that bore no precedence but with which he could identify as far as the final full stop.

The choice when he made it was so simple and natural that he wondered why it was that he should even have to think about it.

He would rewrite the epic of Gilgamesh according to the rules set out by P. M., which was, he began to think, a distant but real precedent and manifestation of himself in another life but a life to which he had full authority to access. Nor would it be difficult to make the definitive version of the story. For while there were various ‘versions’ of the tale in circulation, none of them possessed the accuracy of the original and none has a truly individual voice animating them. They were dream translations, they were fantasy versions, faithful only to the vagaries of various writers none of which had truly laid down before the work the service of their minds as he was prepared to do.

This was not an exact copy of the method of P.M., but it was the essence of him and the essence is what he was aiming for and intent on delivering.

He moved his desk and placed it before the window facing the street. He wanted life to pour in and life to pour out and what better junction for such an intention than a window.

He read the story again. And then read various translations. With the story firmly fixed in his mind he slowly set to work.

There are stories
Dante -Beowulf - Irish tales
This is something different

Yes, it was different, and how superior his opening to the tepid introductions which various other authors had sought to begin the work with. His opening was by far the better and situated the story firmly at the origins of creation. The origins of creation! Was not that what he was doing? Drawing the story back to its source, restoring its pristine beauty and force? Clearly he possessed innate access to the cauldron the story had been formed in and clearly his was the only version which possessed, or would possess, for he had only begun, authority. Yes, he was courting the origins of the tale as no other had done before him. It was as if the story did not exist in the world but only existed in his mind and pen and only as he wrote it out was the story revealed to the world.

This preceded those others

Is the first story of the world

In the world before the world

You don't believe me?

Then listen and judge

The beginning?

What is the beginning? It begins with words in mist

In fire, in stone

In the memory of a people entering history as myth

There! Which writer had every composed so fine a set of opening lines as these were? No one had and no one thereafter ever would.
The story was his and his alone to write and then be given to a world which did not as yet possess it. He was giving the world the gift of its origins as an act of necessity –for if he did not do it then who would? He felt an enormous responsibility –but instead of weighing him down with an extra weight responsibility added a new depth of buoyancy to his life and to his work. The duty of passion was one to which he fully gave himself and did so in such a diligent manner that the tasks ceased to be a tasked and revealed itself as an act of joy.

He continued his work at the insurance office of course, but it was a pass-time, a time of recuperation and relaxation from the exacting work he had set himself. Colleagues notices that he seemed a happier man in his work and while never noted as the most social of men was thought to possess a new degree of happiness they suspected a woman was the root of. And so, evening after evening, weak-ends and free days, he worked slowly but with surety at the epic. And so there came the moment when he was finely able to write

So stand where he stands at the journeys end

Outside his own city where all began

Where carved in stone is the story you have followed

To this beginning

There are stories

Beginnings before the beginnings

Ends that do not end their implications
And I have told you this one

This will endure, this will endure

This will never end

His satisfaction was total. He felt none of the emptiness which writers were supposed to feel when a work had been emptied onto the page. Instead he possessed an overwhelming elation as if truth itself had guided him to this moment. There, he had given the world what the world did not possess, and could not possess if he had not written it. No, the gift had been his alone to give, it was written and now it would be given in the only possible way that would ensure that the true story of Gilgamesh could find its way into the world.
He walked to the printing office two blocks away, commissioned the printing of one hundred copies of his manuscript, and returned home to the rooms which were now, more than ever, the site of revelation.
When the printer delivered the books three weeks later (as can be imagined, this occurrence of the number three again delighted and confirmed him) he set about the next part of his plan. Which was simple: he would register the work with the national library of Belgium and would send the books to the major libraries in the country and in the universities. Fortunately the costs in doing this were not a problem for him. He earned a good salary, he was thrifty with his expenditure, he had savings a plenty. And to what better purpose could they be put, indeed, why had he been saving at all if not in some hidden foreknowledge that such a moment would arrive when he would be called upon to render a service that would add to the totality of the civilized world?

With each copy that he sent out he enclosed a letter outlining that while the libraries might think to possess a copy of Gilgamesh they in fact possessed nothing short of a bogus version and here was here presenting them with the only authentic record of the facts. And they were facts. Not superstitions, not imaginings, but fact. And he had access to the source of such fact. Therefore the libraries should remove all other copies from their shelves and place his work there as the only authentic and accurate version of the tale. The libraries need not go so far as to destroy the other works (such a thought was repugnant to him) but the paper could be recycled into instruction manuals or school texts for younger children –and so in this manner achieve a purpose which they could fulfil instead of attempting a purpose they were not capable of delivering.

And then came the thought that should have been there from the beginning –he would write to Professor Borges, enclosing a copy and explaining in detail the process which had led to the work, a process in which the professor had played no insignificant part.
This letter was a pleasure to write. He felt he was writing not just to an equal but to the one mind capable of appreciating the uncontrollable urge which lay at the root of his mission. Yes, dear professor, it is a mission, a necessary one, a delightful one, which I know you will understand in its fullness.

He address the letter to Borges via his south American publisher and felt that the work was now complete in a satisfactory way and so he
could devote himself to other tasks.

Days went by. He received no response to his work from the Libraries apart from a few perfunctory notes of acknowledgement that the work had been placed among the other books and entered in the catalogues. This was disappointing. He had not merely given a book to a library he had given The book to them. For them to treat it as an addition rather than as the only solid version of the story was intolerable. He waited, a few more replies came in the post but again they said the same thing. No invitations were issued to come and speak on the subject. No requests were issued by the press for interviews. Not one journal made reference to the fact in their issues. It was as if the world had swallowed his life’s work in an act of callousness that, for him , bordered on the barbaric.

It was two months later that he received a reply from the South American publishers to tell him that the writer J. L. Borges had in fact died some years previously. The epic of Gilgamesh was of course well known to him and one that he enjoyed. They were happy to see that he had followed the masters footsteps and could think of no more befitting tribute that that the work should be presented to the National Library of Argentina as part of the Borges collection.

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