A MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORD
On October 14, 1873, the Belgian Consulate in Tokyo closes its doors permanently. At one p.m. local time, a man is observed walking from the building, which was built in a style joining in an unlikely though not altogether impossible marriage the white limestone government monstrosities of Brussels and the fad for grey stucco punctuated by timbers which had struck Tokyo around the time of its construction. An umbrella under his arm, the man locks the door and walks down the path to the street, pulling the wooden gate with its narrow slats open and then shut behind him. Locking this, too, he walks away, his umbrella now open against a few large drops. What does he look like? At this distance, it is difficult to tell. Japanese or Western, with dark hair trimmed neatly and a long coat of some sort of brushed cloth, the rain which has begun to fall so heavily now obscures his face and body as he recedes down the street.
The record demonstrates that silk mills and woollen mills had begun to ship cloth to Japan, fuelling a demand for Western-style clothes. At the same time, ships returning carried burlap sacks of discarded kimono; carvings made of dark wood; pictures printed from wood blocks using a water-based ink; cheap objects made for export; furniture, fuelling a reciprocal demand for an appearance of travel to the Far East that would soon take on the refined-sounding name of japonisme. The hulls of the ships crusted with barnacles. The journey time on foot from the silk dealers to the storage containers in the hull of the ship exactly two hours and twenty-two minutes. The journey by ship considerably longer.
The cloth of the man's overcoat could have been woven in Lyon, Lille, any of the small towns in Flanders, or in northern Italy. And rain is not uncommon at this time of year, although the storms of 1873 were particularly heavy, and remarked on for beginning, without exception, in the late afternoon.
Dear bystander, dear ragpicker, check your watch: it is 1873, the tenth month of the Gregorian calendar (in use in Japan beginning this year, Meiji 6, the year of the Rooster), it is four a.m. Universal Time, 88 years before the first human space flight. A flickering light in the distance could be the first zoetrope. A man's dark shape running across a background of almost-white sand.
But don't get lost in the facts. Keep your focus on where the story ought to be: Watch the man walk away through the rain, which could be lines of shadow on a café's front windows or the thin marks made by an etching needle in copper. At the corner, as he turns, you can almost see his face.
Despite repeated checkings and cross-checkings, while your attention has been on the man leaving the now-closed Belgian Consulate, more pressing events have begun to occur. At the Café Deux Canards on rue Mansart in the 9th Arrondissement, three bodies of indeterminate gender wearing long coats and with scarves covering all but their eyes smash the plate glass windows from which the café's regulars (M. Boucherit; M. Thierry; M. Roseau; M. de Clochon; and a thin, grey man who has never identified himself nor participated in any gregarity the Deux Canards offers—and it offers plenty, as photographic records attest—and therefore whose name is unknown and whose being is unimportant) watch life unfold outside from over their small, densely flavoured cups of coffee. The gas lamps flare orange. The glass on the street repeats this and a puddle of something sticky near the door repeats this.
Above everything, a dog named Laika looks down from the sky of the future. The night is clear. In the deep silence of space, the dog watches the darkness. Her body will disintegrate when the spacecraft reenters the atmosphere. For now, her heart is beating at 102 pulses/minute.
A pair of pigeons wake up in the dark and flap weightily.
Meanwhile, in Okayama Prefecture, the mother of Kiguchi Kohei spends the last of sixteen hours in labor and drenches at least 2.4 kilograms of both clean and previously used rags, exhausting the family's supply of textiles and causing both the midwife and the neighbour women who arrived to assist and gossip to lean forward with their own garments at hand just as, finally, the boy (who will die, bugling and using his gun as a crutch, on the fields of the first Sino-Japanese war) slides out and lands in the ceramic basin used as a washbowl. Over the plateau the sun dissipates the mist which collects all morning. An animal no one can see makes a noise in the distance.
A young man in a salon in Yokohama gets his moustache cut in the Western style. Basil Chamberlin, professor of linguistics, steps out of the faculty dining hall at the Naval Academy and, after checking to be sure no one can see him, dabs at his wrists, forehead, and just below the first button of his trousers with an impeccable handkerchief. A pair of brothers plot a vendetta in full awareness of the recent ban on katachi-uchi. Johannes de Rijke surveys the Yodo River with the anticipation one only feels when faced by a job for which one was certainly born, and his engineer's thumbs tremble. In his future, the one he doesn't even dream about, he builds the Tokyo sewer system and regulates the flow of the Yangtze River. Ships continue to move up waterways, bearing the fruit of sheep raised on hills and silkworms raised on mulberry leaves. Thirteen percent of the men in Tokyo have their hair cut short. That young man exits the salon twirling the pointed ends of his handlebar with something that looks like pride and shyness all at once.
The crash of glass in the Parisian morning startles a few cats.
From the outskirts of Lyon and from the ports silk streams in steady rays and planes, spindle to loom, loom to bolt, and the pébrine begins to kill silkworms silently in the first and second generation. In the station at Lyon, another man, also with an umbrella, steps through the smoke on the platform to board the 05h05 train to Paris.
By noon local time—that is to say, by the time the man of indistinct features has completely left view and indeed has arrived at whatever his destination might have been; by the time Madame Kohei's child has cried, been fed, been swaddled, and both mother and child have fallen into a sleep not only dreamless but, as she will one day recount to a friend, the colour of the inside of peach flowers; by the time the 05h05 train has reached Paris with easy room for one—should one be so inclined—to walk out of the station, past the monument to the recent dead, up the Boulevard de Clichy and into the shadow of the Montmartre hills, where, among the cafés and rooming-houses, the empty lots destined to become vineyards in the middle of the next century, one might choose a seat (red and white wicker woven in checks, perhaps—or perhaps that is only the next century imposing its own nostalgic memory on Paris) and a beverage (one of the strong coffees flavoured with cardamom, for which the café is known in local circles, say; or, given that it is nearly noon, a small glass of Picard) and sit a while; by the time, yes, in fact, that the percentage of young men in Tokyo with Western haircuts has increased by the addition of at least one young man—the plate glass in front of the Deux Canards has been swept up, and boards have been propped against the hole. The traffic on the street does not supersede its average, either in volume or in content; the day, likewise, has declined ostentation and decided, instead, on a perfectly unremarkable mixture of gloom, soot, and the apparition of the sun—a bright grey disk—through the clouds. The café staff are serving customers seated in front of the other window. The shine from the brass coffee roaster is rendered silver in the strange light. The cafés across the street and down the street and on neighbouring streets note a momentary uptick in their profits as Deux Canards regulars (those accustomed to sitting in front of the right-hand window) drift in, slightly puzzled looks on their faces. Inside the café, partially covered by an old cloth, the body is starting to draw flies.
What does a body on a café floor mean? If the world lacks a centre point.
Perhaps if we begin with the blade of the hand, unnaturally backwards, but even in that awkward attitude still delicate. Its skin catching the light. Its difference from the tiles under it.
Perhaps if we begin with the distinctly human shape of it.
No, nothing helps. The fact of time is a fact of layers, almost translucent shards of other things impinging on the body. See the edges of the body through a shibori-printed haze, the inside of a kimono, the diaphanous curls of steam as the engine departs. The body is lying on the floor but also in a train car. It is the pieces of hair on the barber's floor. Someone wrote once that he ransacked the streets of Paris not because he supposed it was possible to find the person he loved, but because giving up was too painful. Trying to find the body in its story is like looking for someone in a city you don't know. But still.
The man walks away from the platform. The city could be any city. The café waits somewhere. The hour is no particular hour. Now you, too. Walk through these streets, through the narrow doors between carriages, the fields of flax and the fields of rice, the city graveyards, the stations, the piled-up tenement buildings.
On a small landscape painting, the words "Bonne Nouvelle", "La Presence d'Esprit", "La Science du Mouvement" and "L'Art Magique".
In a plum orchard, on the ground, a piece of wood carved to resemble , the character for time.
It takes two hours and twenty-two minutes for the train to reach its destination. The ornate carvings of the station's ceiling, the way it was painted (at one time) to resemble a daytime sky, but with gold stars. All that's crumbling now. The homeless man sitting under his blankets gathers them around himself and notes the effect of steam on the frescoes. He records the shards that fall from the station's sky. Tallies incomings and outgoings in his metal cup.
Over the past hundred or so years, the number of diaries kept, the number of ledgers available, the density of the archives, the openness of public libraries, the permeation of the internet, the collections of letters exposed to air has only increased.
The city moving around you with its instruments and attributes. The trains flowing in and out and the rivers flowing in and out. It can be beautifully hypnotising, this city. In the window of a junk shop a pair of figures bowing to one another. Her ikat kimono and apron. Her hair bound up. Her raised shoes. His overcoat. His narrow trousers. The role of the image is to tell the story.
The custom of the archivists at the National Library is to leave together. Therefore it is possible to watch them as they come out of the building. At five p.m. local time they emerge from between the light and dark stripes in its construction. Between columns the bodies of the archivists move, among small, evenly planted trees.
On August 6, 1971, a lunar eclipse lasting one hour, forty minutes, and four seconds is observed. At precisely 20:42, the lights in the street outside the Deux Canards go on, despite the continuing twilight. At 20:43, a woman hanging laundry on the balcony of a sixth-floor apartment visible from the courtyard but not from the street pauses as she reaches for another clothespin, looks up, and sees the earth's shadow completely cover the moon. In the courtyard the small dog that lives with the café's owner runs in circles. The woman's face is indistinct; only the dark smudge of her hair shows when she looks down instead of up. A flock of pigeons lift from the roof of the building. The woman reaches up to hang a final shirt. The white flash of it in the odd blue light. When the shirt moves in the breeze, she's gone.
The inside of a typical apartment of the period: dark bookshelves, white wainscoting, disused fireplace holding a stone head, a mirror that reflects the window and the view of laundry. A heavy bureau with bottles of alcohol and an ashtray on it. A pair of severe chairs. If the woman comes into the apartment half the wish is to make her furniture speak for her. To make her vulnerable and open. Ceci n'est pas une bibliothèque, we want the bookcase to say.
Meanwhile three men prepare to reenter the earth's atmosphere. In the cemetery among the tall, thin markers someone sits by a grave. The tiles in the Deux Canards chatter as a truck passes and the owner reminds himself to replace the loose grout. The astronauts cannot see any of this. Their hands move over controls. Five weeks earlier three cosmonauts asphyxiated at an altitude of 168 kilometres. The astronauts memorise the names. Their space pens rumble over the unfamiliar letters. The earth reflects in the windows they can't see. The woman and her apartment building are invisible, the cemetery is invisible, the café, the National Archives which have just opened, the riots in Camden, the tower of the World Trade Centre, the line between Alto Adige and Südtirol remains invisible despite its confirmation in treaties between Austria and Italy. Invisible, cities. Invisible, deserts and mountains. Invisible, little bodies and little trade routes.
In Douar Krazza, Morocco, the mother of Mostafa Errebbah holds her five-day old son and stretches his legs one at a time, slowly, gently. Over and over she stretches the boy's tiny legs. Right leg. Left leg. Right leg. If asked, would she know why? But she does it, holding her sleeping newborn with the hand not busy slowly elongating and flexing the tendons and muscles which will power the boy's legs, then the man's legs. He will run long distances—five thousand, ten-thousand metres; half marathons. Marathons. He will become accustomed to the feeling in his lungs as he gets into the difficult second part of a long race. His shins will splint. He will wear out pair after pair of shoes. One morning on Route Mehdya, he will watch a pair of cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) lift out of the greenery and over the trees. When faced with the choice, he will take Italian citizenship and run a dissatisfying fifteenth in the 2001 World Half Marathon Championships.
But for now, just the woman gently stretching her baby's legs, absentminded. The astronauts seeing the earth from a distance they will never see again except in their dreams. The woman on the balcony hanging laundry.
Inside the apartment above the Deux Canards, the photograph of her grandfather in its mahogany frame. A few relics from his travels. Her typewriter, a large sheet of Rives drawing paper stuck to the wall with tacks at the top, the bottom curling back toward the wall. Thin marks someone has made on the paper, impossible to make out at this distance.
The descent of history out there, above the earth, in deep silence.
It is still October 14, 1873 in the archive, where men continuously walk out of the smoke and steam in a Paris rail station and find themselves in cafés where bodies without names lie on the floor and the clumps of hair from a barber shop in Yokohama drift in the atmosphere. The mother of the long-distance runner and the mother of the dead soldier are holding their babies. Unseen animals have their pictures drawn from oral descriptions and branches of zoology are formed on that basis.
The cabin overheats, and the dog dies alone in space.
On the shores of Florida beaches, rubble from spaceships blown apart decades ago still washes up. The body of the cosmonaut remembers the speed at which oxygen ignites in a pure atmosphere.
Day after day men walk out of train stations carrying umbrellas. In the tsunami the archive lost every record it had been keeping since the last year of the consular presence. Governments airlift citizens out even without papers.
The runner's legs are composed of three major bones plus a kneecap, tendons, ligaments, muscles. He moves across the screen. As though his mother's hands are moving him. The exact feeling of his legs is redacted from the set of information, but the record gives his best time for a marathon as just over two hours and twenty-two minutes.
A giant coincidence doesn't seem to be enough reason to keep us alive.
The body on the floor of the café is anyone's body, no one's body, unclaimed and anonymous, covered by the cloth. Now we can see, if we look closely, the lampas pattern typical of early damasks woven in Lyon. White on white, or pale grey on white. There is more to be known about the cloth than the body. That it was woven in silk, likely in Lyon, on the hill above the two rivers (called The Hill That Works), a hill full of the gently coloured mill buildings and tenements where the first workers' revolts came to life.
In the Deux Canards of 1873, the body on the floor. In the Deux Canards of 1971, the floor tiles loosening. The owner on his knees.
We want to know the unnamed man in his neat hat and overcoat, putting his umbrella up in the torrential rains of a Japanese October. Perhaps this is him, in the photograph of the man and woman bowing. Perhaps he brought it with him when he left Tokyo for Paris. Too late to witness the body on the floor, perhaps he took the rooms upstairs with no compunction. Perhaps he left them to his granddaughter. Perhaps she still hangs laundry from the balcony. Perhaps his likeness looks out at the roofs of the city he adopted.
Or perhaps the woman grew up in the country and moved to this city. Perhaps she came from the Somme or Wallonia. Perhaps she was Savoyarde or Franc-Comtoise. Perhaps she was just another body moving in the arched shadows of the great train stations of the 20th Century. Perhaps she rummaged in boxes of other people's things, assembling a life from what had been left behind after death, deportation. Perhaps the man on the train from Lyon knew her grandfather only in passing but her grandmother very well. Perhaps the women in her family served tea in the archives, then sat at its oak counters, then behind them, until at 35 years of age she became the city's first female Head of Archives.
You can think of the birds, cats, small dogs, unnamed and distant animals, documents, postcards, tickets, passing landscapes, railway lines, hills rising over rivers, roads, shipping lanes, train stations, government buildings, archives, even the archivists themselves as wallpaper, a kind of atmospheric decoration for the real story.
In the warm afternoon that has followed the rain-showers, the man with the umbrella returns to the Belgian Consulate in Tokyo. He rests his umbrella against the gatepost as he struggles to pull the nameplate from the wall. This is done without the suggestion of furtiveness, but if you want to, you can look in the prefecture's police records and find the theft report filed several days later. By that time, three steamships of the Mitsubishi Shokai Line have departed from Yokohama with destinations including Bombay, Vladivostok, and Formosa. From there, Siberian River Routes, a further steamer, or railways could take him almost anywhere.
An investigation takes place. Linen that could have been someone's trousseau soaks up blood. No one keeps a record of the two mothers, a hundred years apart. No one keeps a record of the movement of snapshots. The tiles in the floor come loose several times. The homeless man's tally-book is found on his person, but no ID card, no birth certificate.
The washing on the sixth floor balcony is dry. The moon is out. In the street below, a piece of paper which could be an old receipt or a train ticket, a letter or a list, hesitates and skids. Add it to the list, bystander. Add it to the list.
'A Matter of Public Record' began as my attempt to write genre fiction. I wanted to write a Belle-Epoque-ish Parisian murder mystery and sell it for lots of money. Obviously other things took over pretty quickly (the murder mystery having become just one strand). The story as it stands now began when I found a mention of the closing of the Belgian consulate in Tokyo, and grew as I thought about the way that archives preserve 'facts' but not flesh, so that working with archival material is to some extent telling a story about stories rather than about people. It all came together for me after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011; I was overcome by the images coming from there. Beyond the loss of life and the human trauma, I found myself thinking about what happens to archives—official ones and personal ones—when there is a natural disaster. Whole histories get mixed up together, and then lost. I was thinking about compression and copresence, and how, in an archive, everything is together in one time. All the facts.