Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Love of Books

It was, I remember, late in December, many years ago, at the time of day when evening is coming on but it is still not dark enough for the lights to be lit, that my husband Roni and I were wandering – as we often did in those early years of our marriage, before the children came – through the alleyways of old Jerusalem.  At length we came to a short passageway which opened out into a tiny court.  We looked about us.  To left and right the crumbling frontages of two houses, vaguely oriental in appearance, eyed each other blankly through grimy uncurtained windows.  Then, in one corner, I thought I could detect an unexpected sight.
"Over there," I said, "isn't that a bookshop?"
"Ruth my love," said Roni, "you could smell out a bookshop at a thousand paces blindfolded!  I'll bet you’re right."
"And you, Roni my darling, could be trusted to take a bet on whether tomorrow will be Wednesday.  Come on, let's go over and see."
We emerged from the passageway, and the sounds of the old city faded behind us.  As we made our way towards the far corner, the feeling of remoteness from everyday life was intensified.  I was gripped by the strange sensation that time itself had somehow been suspended. 
At length we stood before the tiny shop front. A faded façade proclaimed “Labac – Antiquarian Books".  I tried the door.  For a moment it stuck, but then it gave beneath my pressure.
Both walls were lined from top to bottom with books, but the shop was so high that the shelves faded into the shadows.  The effect of books extending into infinity was even stronger as I peered into the interior, a narrowing cone of booklined darkness.
I looked about. 
"Where do you think the owner is?"
"I am over here, madame."
A stooped figure emerged from the shadows.  White‑haired, with a small goatee beard, and with half‑moon spectacles perched on the end of his nose, the man seemed to personify the spirit of scholarship.
“Come in," he said.  “And you, sir.”
I closed the door. 
"Thank you, Mr...?”
"Monsieur Labac,” said the old man.  "I prefer 'Monsieur'.  My family spent many hundreds of years in France before I made my way to Israel.  I am too old now to want to change the customs of a lifetime."
He peered at me.
“Forgive an old man's eccentricities, but I like to know who I am dealing with.  Anonymity I hate, above all things."
"I am Ruth Illyon,” I said.  "This is my husband, Roni.”
"Enchanté," said the old man.  "And now, what can I do for you?"
"My wife is bewitched by books," said Roni.  "She finds it almost impossible to pass by a bookshop.  Philosophers – that's her special delight."
            The old man turned to me.                
"My dear, your husband tells me two things about you.  He tells me that you love books for themselves, and he tells me that you love what books contain.  Believe me,  Mrs Illyon, the two do not always go together."
The old man's eyes rested on me, and it seemed as if somewhere deep in my mind a key turned and a door opened. 
"I know what you mean," I said, and suddenly I did.  “For some people it is enough to hold an old book in their hands, to caress the leather covers, to experience the sensual pleasure of running their fingers over the ancient paper.  The words inscribed on those pages are of minor significance.  For others, the content is all.  The mystery, the excitement, the magic, is that the mind of one individual, long since dead, can through the medium of the printed page communicate over the centuries with one's own.  Thoughts, ideas, have been captured and transferred across hundreds of' years, from one mind to another.”
"But for you, my dear," said Monsieur Labac, "the two mysteries merge and become one.  Am I right?"
"I must admit it."
"And you, Mr Illyon, do you share your wife's obsession?"
Roni grinned. 
"Afraid not, Monsieur Labac.  I have my own.  I like the occasional gamble."
"These two books, Monsieur Labac,” I said.  "They seem very ancient."
"One is, and one is not.  As you see, both are entitled The Book of the Cabal.  The original ...  this ...  well, this is priceless.  In one of the big auction houses in London or New York it could fetch millions.  But see – a very clever publisher about a hundred years ago actually reproduced the effect of this ancient volume and some of the material.  Here…”
It was skilfully done.  The effect of the original had been cunningly recreated, down to the faded ink, the ragged edges to the pages, even the worn binding.
"What is the book?”  I asked.
"The original is connected with one of the most closely guarded aspects of ancient Jewish philosophy.  You know of the Caballah, Mrs Illyon?"
"Not very much, " I admitted.
The old man's delicate hands rested on one of the tomes. 
"Locked into the five sacred books of the Torah is the mystery of the universe.  Over the centuries a few gifted and privileged scholars have given their lives to wrestling with the texts.  This volume – and the clever reproduction of it – records part of that long journey of' discovery."
"The reproduction," I said.  “"It's so beautiful.  Dare I ask how much it costs?”
Roni groaned.
"Mrs Illyon,” said the old man, "believe me when I tell you that this is one book that I would not on any account sell to someone I thought unworthy of it.  You I think worthy.  I will sell it to you for ...  fifty dollars."
"Then of course I will take it," I said.  "You will accept a cheque?"
“But of course."
"Lend me your pen, Roni.”
"Tell me, Monsieur Labac,” said Roni, as he handed it over, "does Caballah tackle human existence?"
"A few caballists have bent their minds to the question of where the division lies between predicting and pre‑ordaining events – that is, between discerning what is written on the page of the future, and actually inscribing a word or two on that page."
"But surely," I protested, "there's all the difference in the world."
"Not so, madame.  One of the fundamental principles of humanity's contract with the Almighty is free will.   However powerful a caballist may be in bending future events to his desires, each individual involved will preserve to the last instant his own freedom of decision – a freedom he can exercise to frustrate the desired end.  The page of the future is infinitely variable."
He stopped suddenly. 
"There, I've spoken too much already.  And it's getting late."
And indeed, close as we stood to him, I had to strain through the gloom to see him as he hastily wrapped up my book in brown paper, which he tied with string.
He escorted us down the shop and we walked past him into the tiny square.
"Goodbye," said the old man. 
He had not ventured over the threshold so that now, dark as it had become, he seemed, in a strange way, to be one with the shadows.
We left the courtyard by the short alley‑way through which we had entered, and almost immediately we saw ahead a small coffee shop, its front piled high with Arab sweetmeats, their honey coating glistening under the bare electric bulbs.  I was determined to examine my latest acquisition under the lights, so we went in and ordered Turkish coffee and cakes.  While waiting, I unwrapped my parcel.  The book it contained was not in my hands for more than thirty seconds before I realised that old Monsieur Labac had made a terrible mistake.
I look up at Roni, aghast. 
“He's given us the wrong volume.  This isn't the reproduction ‑ it's the original.  He must have got confused.  It was so dark in that shop.  We must go back."
"Ruth, my darling," said Roni, "an old Latin saying has governed the relations between buyers and sellers for thousands of years: caveat emptor – buyer beware.  It holds true for sellers, too.  Just think what that book could buy us – all the things we want."
“Nonsense," I said, "it couldn't buy us a family.  And do you think I'm going to steal a book worth millions from that wonderful old man, simply because he made a mistake?  Especially after the way he treated me."
"You're right, of course," said Roni.  “Come on, we’ll go back.  It's only round the corner."
When we re­-emerged into the courtyard, the tiny shop in the far corner was silent and dark.  I rapped on the glass and called out “Monsieur Labac!  Monsieur Labac!”.
A tiny flicker of light glimmered far away in the recesses of the shop, like a remote star in the endless void of space.  It advanced towards us, and at length I saw Monsieur Labac approaching, an oil lamp in his hand. 
"Mrs Illyon?   Is that you?"
"Yes, Monsieur Labac," I called.  "We had to come back."
The old man unlocked the door and pulled it open.
"It's the book you sold us," I said.  "Take it.  Look."
I thrust the volume into his hands.  He put down the oil lamp and took it. 
I don't know what reaction I had expected – horror, distress, amazement, relief.  To me it seemed that his over‑riding emotion was an immense satisfaction.  He hugged the book to him.
“Mrs Illyon.  The original Book of the Cabal.  You returned it to me, although I told you it was so valuable."
"It was the only thing to do."
“Ah, there you are mistaken," he said.  "There are always choices, always the chance to frustrate those who would foretell the shape of future events.  Others might have decided differently – you and your husband chose to exercise your free will in this way." 
He took up the oil lamp and moved slowly off down the shop to the counter, where the other volume still lay.  We followed, and eventually stood close together in the gloom, the lamp casting a soft glow on our faces.
“Mrs Illyon,” he said, as he began wrapping the volume, “you remember what I was saying to you earlier?  I might have predicted that you would return here with this infinitely precious volume; I could have tried to ordain it; but I could never have guaranteed it.”
"I understand that," I said.
            "Which is why I am diffident about what I have to say to you now, my dear Mrs Illyon.  If it teaches us anything, the Cabal teaches that existence is not purposeless; on the contrary, each life is full of purpose – often frustrated, of course, because of that free will about which we have spoken.  So when I say I foretell certain events, I do so because I can distinguish, however obliquely, certain purposes…  And so I say to you, my dear Mrs Illyon, that one day you and your husband will travel abroad and become the recipient of a great fortune.  This, dear Mrs Illyon, it is intended that you will use to found a library, here in this holy city of Jerusalem.  It will start as a modest collection, but it will become a great institution. This is the purpose, you are the chosen instrument.  Because of it your name will be remembered for hundreds of years after you, and your husband, and I, have passed away from the earth.  Listen, my dear Mrs Illyon, and remember ...”
We left the shop, Roni and I, shaken as much by the intensity of the old man's vision as by his strange words.  A week or so later, walking again through the old city, I tried to find the short alleyway and the tiny court, but never again did I set eyes upon that little courtyard with the bookshop in one corner.
So why has old Monsieur Labac been so much in my mind these last few days? The reason is quickly told. 
For several years after our little adventure, Roni and I were too tied up with starting our small family and getting established in business to take a holiday abroad.  Later, the truth is that we were scared – scared in case the old man's prophecy was not fulfilled, and scared in case it was.  So we put off going, time and again. 
Eventually, the illness of a very dear member of our family forced us to put all reservations to one side and fly quickly to the States. Fortunately our relative made a reasonable recovery, but while we were there Roni succumbed to the temptations of the Mega Millions lottery. In the week we arrived the rollover for the following draw exceeded one billion dollars.  We bought our ticket on Monday; on Tuesday we flew back to Israel.  Think of us – picture our state of mind this weekend – as we sit glued to the computer screen, awaiting the result of the draw.
Monsieur Labac, where are you?  Who are you?   It was only yesterday, as I was idly writing your name again and again on a scrap of paper, that I realised just what your name spells – backwards.

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