This is a talk I gave at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 3 June 2007. I was talking about literary mysteries with Mark Ragg, whose terrific The Dickinson Papers isn’t really done justice by that description—it’s a literary mystery in part, but also much more.
Around the turn of the last century, a group of Jesuits bought a run-down old villa in the Alban Hills outside Rome. To pay for its restoration, they sold some of the manuscripts in its library to an American antiquarian, Wilfrid Voynich. Along with the usual gospels and prayer books, Voynich ended up with a mysterious old book, written in an alphabet he’d never seen and covered with bizarre illustrations. Between the pages he found a letter in Latin addressed to Athanasius Kircher, one of the great polymaths of the 1600s. The letter said that the manuscript might have been written by Roger Bacon, the thirteenth-century friar, early scientist and perhaps alchemist—but that no-one had been able to translate it.
There was no other evidence of where the manuscript came from or what it meant. Voynich was convinced that it had been written by Roger Bacon and was an extremely important document in the history of science. He sent copies to experts in various fields, and they sent on further copies. People became obsessed with the manuscript and spent most of the twentieth century trying to solve it. Many of them thought they had solved it: they were sure it was a kind of Greek shorthand, or a highly abbreviated Latin, or a Ukrainian dialect written without vowels, or a visual distortion of Hebrew. It might have been an extinct language, or an invented one. The most recent claim is that the entire manuscript is a hoax, its language generated randomly from a few patterns. But nobody really wants to believe that.
The Voynich manuscript is a real-life literary mystery, and it’s the one that most directly inspired my book. I loved the idea of all these people thinking they’d cracked the manuscript, using methods so ambiguous that they could have produced any message at all. And I loved thinking about why, out of all these possible conclusions, people might choose a particular one. It seemed an excellent metaphor for the way we read all kinds of things: not just writing but the world around us and especially the people around us.
In Cicero’s On Divination, a man dreams of sacred tablets hidden in the rocks of Palestrina, and wakes to find the tablets where he dreamt them. They’re marked with an ancient alphabet that he can’t read; he doesn’t know what they are or what they mean. But he builds a temple to the goddess of fortune, and keeps the tablets there. People come to ask a question, and pick a tablet at random—they can’t read the alphabet either, but they interpret what’s written there as best they can. The tablets are like ink blots, the people are writing their fate—they only think they’re reading it. Just like the people who later interpret the Voynich manuscript, which is found two thousand years later and ten miles away—and like we read horoscopes or the I Ching and a lot else.
For as long as there’s been writing, there’s been writing about writing: where it came from, and what it can do. Sumerian tablets dated to about 1800 BC tell the story of Enmerkar, the king of Uruk, who has a message for his enemy, the Lord of Aratta, that’s too complicated for his messenger to repeat. So Enmerkar thinks for a moment and then invents writing, and sends his messenger off with clay tablets. But of course the Lord of Aratta has never seen writing before, and to him the letters of cuneiform are “just nails”. The unreadable message sends him into a fury—and then it’s not clear what happens, because we only have fragments. But it’s an early recognition of the problems of reading things.
The world is still full of ancient alphabets and languages we’ve forgotten how to read. We’ve figured out some of them—like cuneiform, like the Mayan scripts and Egyptian hieroglyphs—but only after centuries of trying. We had the wrong idea about hieroglyphs for well over a thousand years, and without the Rosetta Stone we might never have known. And there are many kinds of writing, like Cretan Linear A, the Indus script, or the Rongorongo of Easter Island, that we still haven’t worked out, and we may never: there’s not enough of it, or there’s no way into it.
All of these stories, all these failures and misinterpretations seem to be summarised in the Voynich manuscript. It’s like the Book of Sand in the Borges story: the book without beginning or end that can never be read in the same way twice. And all of these stories made their way in various forms into my book. It’s about a mysterious old manuscript that turns up the crypt of a stone church in Sydney and all the things it might be: a secret code, a lost language, maybe a perfect language, and maybe something even more ancient and fundamental. It’s also about the way we interpret each other, how hard it is to really know another person, and how easy it is to get it wrong. But all of these ideas are explored through the lens of this weird old manuscript.
I think we’re intrigued by these mysteries because we’ve all been there. Talking comes to us naturally, but we have to learn reading, and it’s hard. I remember just not getting it, and even kind of suspecting it was a put-on, a grownups’ conspiracy—until I finally got the hang of it. But then I remember starting a new school halfway through the year where Greek was the language everyone learned. It almost drove me to tears—because everybody else was reading this new alphabet and I couldn’t see how they were doing it. Then when you go to a country with another kind of writing it’s very disorienting, worse than if it’s just a different language. We all know how the Lord of Aratta felt.
And reading’s kind of a mystery even when you can do it. Again, unlike speaking and listening, we’re not really built for it. We can’t keep our eyes on the words, we lurch all over the place between saccades and fixations. It’s not clear exactly how we get the meaning out of the words: do we still hear them in our mind’s ear, like when we were first learning, or do we recognise the visual form directly? Do we take in whole words, or chunks of words—and in what order? Do we all read in similar ways, or in totally different ways? And if it’s so complicated, how does it feel so seamless so much of the time?
And so every book is in some sense a literary mystery. Because it’s made of writing, this weird and powerful thing, and we don’t just read it—we interpret it. We can’t ask the author what it’s supposed to mean; the book is the book, and we have to come to our own conclusions. If it’s a good book, there are hints and misdirections and things that aren’t spelled out, and we bring our imagination and our experience to bear on it. And in a very real way, we solve the book.
So I think that literary mysteries—in the narrow sense—are an amplification of what’s going on every time someone reads a book. When you read a literary mystery, you’re also reading a metaphor for reading. And I think people like that, because people who read are smart and enjoy things that work on different levels. And also because literary mysteries are full of readers, who are easy to identify with, and really a lot more interesting than writers.
And the best ones are almost perfect, they’re these beautiful and self-contained treasures. I always think first of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, about a book that we think existed but has been lost, and Foucault’s Pendulum, about a book made up by made-up people; and then AS Byatt’s Possession, about digging through old documents to find out who people really were and who you really are. And then there’s most of Borges: The Book of Sand and also The Library of Babel, the library of all possible books. And there’s Calvino’s wonderful If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which has more fun with reading and readers than just about anything. Those are some of my favourites, but there are heaps more. I heard there was one out recently about some kind of—I think it was a kind of code? But I can’t remember, I don’t think it was very popular. And of course there’s The Dickinson Papers, and A Little Rain on Thursday.
Mark and I have set our books in Sydney, which presents certain challenges. The literary mystery naturally thrives in a setting full of literary history, with centuries of forgotten documents and letters, and the ghosts of old books hanging in the air. We don’t have that here yet. And since writing on paper is becoming less important, maybe we never will. I wrote a couple of paragraphs about this in an earlier draft of my book, though I later took it out:
The land had only known two hundred years’ worth of writing, and it seemed a thin covering. No hidden caves of gevil and papyrus, no libraries buried in mud or ash. Over the whole continent, its billion acres, the thickness of a page. There had been settlement or conquest, Jack thought, but no land-nÃ¡m.
Land-nÃ¡m is an Icelandic word that literally means “land-taking”. But it also has the deeper sense of assimilating the land into your stories and legends, which you need to truly inhabit it and possess it. It’s one of those untranslatable words that cultures are so proud of, and it’s a useful idea, I think.
Then there’s a story that both William Bradley and Watkin Tench tell in their First Fleet journals, about how a naturalist on La Perouse’s expedition died and was buried in what’s now Frenchman’s Bay, with an inscription written in Latin and nailed to a tree. Later, the British officers go down there and see that the “natives”—who are probably the Gameygal people—have defaced and torn down the inscription, so it has to be redone, this time engraved in copper. It’s only a minor incident, but both men write about it and it’s stuck with me.
There were any number of reasons for the Gameygal to pull down the sign. Of course they knew that the French, by nailing their words to a tree, were making a kind of claim over the land, and they weren’t having any of that. But I like to imagine they were also objecting to the writing itself, its hopeless inadequacy in such a huge and ancient place. They were saying something like: nice try.
We know that the country is thick with stories that have been told and retold for thousands of years. Stories that map to the land in a way that is almost like engraving, and interpret the land as if it were an enormous book. But that’s reducing it to European metaphors, and there’s not much point in that. You could write a book that finds literary mysteries in the old songs and stories, like Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines kind of does. But you’d have to know what you were doing, and I certainly don’t.
In last year’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney imagines what would have happened if there was evidence that the First Nations of Canada had their own culture of writing. It’s an ingenious kind of literary mystery that examines our prejudices against civilisations without writing. But I didn’t think of it, and now it’s been done.
So for my book I decided I’d have to do what we so often do, and import some mystery from overseas. The old manuscript is discovered in Sydney but it probably came from somewhere else—like a lot of our literary tradition comes from somewhere else, as do most of us. Mark does something similar in his book: the papers of an American poet are stolen, and the thief taunts investigators with ingenious references to overseas writers. I think both books say something about our place in the world, especially in the world of writing. Though of course they’re both really about love.