The Book of Drafts (Part 5)

Heman Chong

2019

Anna wakes up. It is 10pm and she has slept most of the evening. She walks to the living room and pours herself a glass of water. The room is dark and the only light comes from her MacBook. It displays her favourite screensaver, the Starfield. This is, of course, running on an emulator, since the original code is obsolete.

          She sits and watches it for a few minutes, then tens of minutes. The air is still, heavy, humid. Crickets and frogs and small birds chirp and croak. She smells rain approaching. She feels the need to work.

 

          A month ago, she said yes to a small assignment for Dane Mitchell, a friend of hers who is working on an ambitious project for an important exhibition. Anna has never really understood much about the art world, although she has many friends who are artists and curators.

          She has been recruited as one of many researchers (hunter-gatherers) to assist Dane with the impossible task of compiling a list of things that are destroyed or defunct or extinct or lost or vanished. A list that is a part of a larger list. She said yes to Dane partly because she wants the money, but the truth is, she secretly welcomes any incoming foreign distraction (the weirder the task, the better). Anything to keep her from writing her own stories.

          On a small notepad she writes: ‘Things disappear all the time, for all kinds of reasons. A bag left on a bus, picked up by a passenger, who hands it to the driver who returns it to the terminus: a tale of kindness and honour. A wallet, an open bag and a dozing woman on a bus. Everything is lost. The amount of stories surfacing from these missing things can fill an entire library. It is endless.’

          She starts a list in Google Docs: ‘List of missing and/or destroyed manuscripts’. She types, and stops, and for a while stares at the flickering black vertical line on the screen, feeling a certain anxiety. How much of her life has been haunted by this line, this quiet, demeaning signal.

 

          She writes: ‘Dane’s list will be made up of things that are lost but remembered. I am thinking that the huge bulk of things that have gone missing are things that are unaccountable; moments which are beautiful and true, lost to the failings of memory. We live in a world where it is now possible to retain a huge lot of these memories, and yet, things go missing; secrets, translation, malice and neglect.’

 

          ‘I’m not here to write,’ she says aloud, and opens a new tab in Chrome and begins to google: ‘Lost manuscript’. Her eyes run down a list of search results, mostly lists compiled by fans rehashed from other lists. The state of the Internet. Shit shoved from one pile to another.

          She writes: ‘A manuscript is not the same thing as a book. A manuscript is something that has never been published. A lot of them exist as handwritten pages of something primordial, unedited. Manuscripts go missing for all sorts of reasons.’

One by one, she cuts, pastes into Google Docs:

          Prospectus

          Pilgrim on the Hill

          The Mystery of Bonita

          1066 and all that in the Back of a Taxi

          Laying an Egg

          Double Exposure

          The Burned Book

          Among the Prophets

          The Magic Box

          The Gospel of Eve

          Conversation at Midnight

          Last Journal by Sylvia Plath

She pauses, picks up her iPhone, and sends Dane a message over WhatsApp.

Anna Oo                 What will you do with the crossovers between lists? Will you make the server read them twice?

Dane Mitchell          Yes, an utterance can occur twice. For example, the list of closed cinemas and closed theatres might have crossovers for some would have been used as both. I think it’s ok for one entity to be on two lists. It might be seen as tautological in one sense, but perhaps it’s also a poetic moment in which the circular nature of language is encountered: a word is used to define another word is used to define another word is used to define another word is used to define another word ad infinitum.

Anna Oo                  Can you share the list of burned books with me? What happens if there are overlaps with the lost or destroyed manuscripts?

 

Dane Mitchell          I can send you the link to the list of burned books. The definition of ‘manuscript’ is certainly broader than ‘burned books’, or even ‘book’, so crossovers might also be ok, as they mean different things. If you’d like to edit the list to produce one, that could be an option, however, we could discuss what sets these two lists apart, so that they may both exist too.

 

Anna Oo                 Ok. Thanks Dane.

Dane Mitchell          Don’t work too much. It’s late over there. Get some rest.

———

Anna and her husband Terence are watching, Shirkers, a documentary by Sandi Tan. They are at The Projector, an art house cinema in Singapore.

          ‘When I was 18, a long time ago now, I had the idea that you found freedom by building worlds inside your head,’ says Sandi. ‘That you had to go backwards in order to go forwards.’

          You can tell everything about a film from the first lines.

          Shirkers is the story of the making of a film by Sandi and her two friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, back in 1992, a long time ago now. In the film, a teenage assassin named S travels across a country, whose name also begins with an S, a very small country that can be traversed in a car, in 38 minutes. A very short road movie.

          But Shirkers never grew into a full film.

          A fourth character, the director of the original Shirkers and their mentor, Georges Cardona, apparently stole all the footage of the film and disappeared. (Can you imagine how traumatising this is?)

          Twenty years later, his widow contacted Sandi and told her that Georges was dead and that she had all 70 cans of film and was willing to ship them to Sandi. The cans of Shirkers got shipped back to Sandi, slowly. Sandi discovered the soundtrack was missing. Her lost film, once lost now found, sans voix. These cans of film just sat, stacked, in her living room for six years before Sandi managed to muster enough energy to make this beautiful, fragile documentary.

          Anna steps inside Shirkers, walking, standing, sitting, looking. You see a lot of footage from 1992. It is hard to recognise Singapore from this footage. An empty highway with a girl walking down its curves in a pink shirt carrying a boxy suitcase and a film camera. A woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform walking a very big dog past a coffee shop. Someone walking up a tiled yellow and beige staircase. There are so many colours in Shirkers. Telephone lines, a grey sky, wind, impending rain. A white Mercedes Benz E-Class 300E Sedan driving down a tunnel, filmed by another vehicle on its left, lit in green fluorescent tones, the footage played backwards. There’s a lot of footage played

backwards. Footage of the car in a carwash, played backwards, filmed from the backseat of the car. There’s also a lot of footage of the making of Shirkers, as if we are watching a feedback loop bouncing off parallel realities. This documentary is all about the making of something, the loss of what is being made, and what happens when it is found. There are so many colours in Shirkers. The colours of 1992, on film made in 1992, of people and

places in Singapore in 1992.

          ‘My impression of Georges, uh, first and foremost,’ Sophia says, ‘was his eyes, very metallic. It was almost ice, icy blue. He spoke in a very slow, calm, measured tone. And I just remember, even at that point, this kind of dissonance, you know, the eyes seemed so cold, but his demeanor seemed so warm. And he had this ability that when he spoke to you, you felt that you were his sole focus.’

          Anna sees Georges Cardona, sitting in his house at 33 Greenleaf Place in Holland Village, Singapore. Shirtless, cold beer in hand, glaring at the cans of raw, unprocessed film, simmering, angry, jealous. He is fuming and refusing to believe that this 18-year-old protégé. of his has the guts to write an entire film when he has produced absolutely nothing in his life. ‘I am an asshole,’ he mumbles, drunk, repeating himself, ‘I am a loser.’ Georges Cardona is running away. He is on a plane to Perth, all of Shirkers with him. ‘I am a loser. I am a loser. I am a loser.’

          ‘Don’t be hysterical, I’m only going to kill you.’ A line Sandi wrote that S spoke in the film, a line never to be heard again.

          ‘You’ve always been a very determined and quite ambitious person.’ Jasmine says to Sandi, on camera. ‘You just wanted it done at any cost, and you were willing to just burn things, just so that you could make your own film.’

          The documentary ends. Anna and Terence walk out of the elevator in Golden Mile Tower and are confronted by a heavy thunderstorm. They stand at the sheltered entrance watching a large group of people attempting to board a bus for somewhere in Malaysia. They hold hands. The rain is relentless. They are resigned to waiting it out. She thinks of Walter Benjamin, lugging his suitcase, as she watches the people load their luggage onto the bus, then rush nervously in the rain to enter it.

          Anna writes: ‘A story about loss, unfortunately, is really only complete with a thief. Imagine all the things stolen from women. Imagine all of it in a room. It would be an incredibly massive room. An ocean.’

———

Anna opens her eyes. She knows it is pointless to attempt to sleep. She looks at the clock. It is 4:37am. She opens her MacBook. On Google Maps, she drags the little yellow man and drops him right on the border, right next to the Monument al Exilio Republicano Español. He dangles for a second and the screen zooms and shows an image of a man in a pink shirt, next to a white Citroên taking a photo of the mountains. He is there again, in the next frame,

but disappears in the third. She walks where Walter Benjamin might have walked. All this while, on the lookout for a suitcase full of papers. ‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, reads the epitaph, in German and Catalan, on Walter Benjamin’s grave at Portbou. She closes her eyes.

          It is night. You are walking in the dark. The mountains are treacherous. Your suitcase is heavy with your thoughts. You have to get to Spain. There is no road. You are walking. You have to sense the path. You don’t think you’re going to make it. You are walking. You can’t abandon your thoughts. You can’t. Not now. Not after all that. You can’t have this taken from you. Not when you’re so close. You must continue. There isn’t much left inside you.

 

          Spain can’t be that far now. You have walked so much. You can’t. You are walking. For the next few hours you do not have to think about your past it is impossible not to immerse yourself in a dull numb pain you are walking your walk takes you round and round the mountains you feel trapped you consider all possibilities there is no exit there is no way out the moon is shining they can see you the moon is so bright today you are walking your

         

          feet are hurting so much everything is hurting so much the stars fill the sky you are walking you hear footsteps you drop to the ground someone is here someone who will kill you tears begin to stream from your eyes your tears hit the ground silently the ground soaks up your pain and your sorrow and your fear you are so scared you are going to die you are walking you are walking it is night you are walking the darkness envelopes you it is difficult to see you fumble you trip you look up you are exhausted you spend an hour looking at stars you walk more your

 

          mind is moving racing your heart is beating be still your beating heart you are walking you enter a dream a waking dream in that dream you are walking the road seems desolate discomforting unbelievable there is no one else in that dream no one else on the road you are walking you feel lonely a loneliness found on the edge of time and space you are walking you have to sense the path you don’t think you’re going to make it you are walking you can’t abandon your thoughts you can’t not now not after all that you can’t have this taken from you not when

 

          you’re so close you must continue there isn’t much left inside you you are sleepwalking you feel the intensity of the moonlight glaring over your eyes you resist resistance is uncommon you walk you walk away you are walking you are following a path an unknown path it winds rewinds skips slips you see the sea you are at a clearing secret police are watching they have been watching you walk the birds are watching you walk you are walking there is a beginning and there will be an end you are looking forward to the end you don’t want this to end everything

 

          is a result of your choice you have no choice you are walking

 

          you are lost.

Dane Mitchell ©  2020