In the year 1078, a Benedictine monk named Anselm of Canterbury completed a proof for the existence of God that would leave a certain brand of thinkers stumped over the next millennium. The argument basically hinges on the assumption that for something to be perfect, it must also exist, since existence is supposedly an obvious attribute of perfection. While this line of thinking apparently convinced folks who desperately wanted Anselm to be correct, as well as a few others who believed that everything in life can be boiled down to a handful of simple grammatical rules, it doesn’t work for me. For one, some of the most perfect books I’ve come across in my reading don’t exist at all.
In fact, non-existent books tend to have a consistent advantage over real ones. After all, no matter how magnificent a book is in concept, the inevitable element of human imperfection comes into play the moment someone sits down to write it. So move aside, Saint Anselm, because here is a list of three of the most perfect and strange books mentioned in other books but never written.
I’m currently reading this wonderfully strange little novel of Moya’s, and since the imbedded story of the civil registrar inspired this list, it’s only right that it gets the seat of honor. Senselessness is about a heavy-drinking, sleazy, and deeply paranoid writer invited by the Catholic Church to edit a one thousand, one hundred page document detailing a series of massacres committed by the Guatemalan government against an unarmed native population.
Between anxious afternoons in local bars and tasteless seduction attempts, the writer falls into a horrified fascination with the transcribed testimonies of massacre victims. At one point, he imagines novelizing the “true” story of a civil registrar in Totonicapán who is tortured and killed for refusing to reveal the location of the city’s registrar of the deceased. The writer proposes to spend the novel explaining why the city official would sacrifice his life for such a minor document, and, as if that’s not interesting enough, to do so from the official’s perspective at the moment the interrogator’s machete splits the registrar’s skull. In the white flash of death, the registrar, according to the writer, “would start to tell his story, always with the fingerless palms of his hands pressing together the two halves of his head to keep his brains in place, for I am not a total stranger to magical realism.”
Sure, it may not have the scholarly charm of a nonexistent Borges tome, but Moya’s unwritten book, which I’ve tentatively named The Civil Registrar of Totonicapán, definitely set my gears groaning to life. I’m imagining something of Joycean complexity recapitulated from the moment of death, an entire history revealed in a spark, all the while narrated from a dark, featureless room in which the registrar sits in lotus position holding the split halves of his head together like a wounded god. There’s something oddly archetypal about this image, and it’s vagueness lends plenty of space for the imagination to wander. I would say that someone should write this book if it weren’t for the fact that you’ll find The Civil Registrar of Totonicapán perfect and strange enough if you allow your own tableau of literary possibilities to fill the blank spaces.
The undisputed crown of nonexistent books undoubtedly belongs to the legendary Argentinian writer, Jorges Luis Borges. His imaginative body of work frequently deals in fictional accounts of books, translations, and academic writing you certainly won’t find in that droll little place called “real life.” To pick a single work of nonexistent fiction from Borges to exemplify weirdness and suggestive perfection is nearly an arbitrary undertaking. A First Encyclopedia of Tlon has nevertheless stuck with me over the years, even among a slew of alternatives each as colorful as Borges’ bizarrely conceived translation of Don Quixote which challenges the boundaries of the concept of translation itself.
A First Encyclopedia of Tlon appears in the second part of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in Borges’ collection, Ficciones. Following the first part in which the narrator discovers an encyclopedia entry on Uqbar, an imaginary region ostensibly near Iraq, A First Encyclopedia of Tlon accidentally finds its way into the narrator’s possession during the second section, affording Borges an ideal platform to expand the concept of nonexistent locations by way of nonexistent books. In Tlon’s case, the imaginary locale isn’t a country, but a world.
While A First Encyclopedia of Tlon is merely a single edition of a larger, multi-volume work, it is enough to convince the narrator, as well as Borges’ fictional experts in various fields, that Tlon is an impressively consistent and comprehensive work of fancy. This isn’t the standard, sci-fi planetary doodle that you might employ if you run out of writing ideas and need an exercise to get the juices flowing (although this is, admittedly, one of my personal favorite methods). Tlon, in fact, has its own mathematics, cosmology, and language, which is more than hinted at in the present volume, and which inspires “experts” to conclude that the single encyclopedia couldn’t be the work of a single individual, but must result from the tireless efforts of a secret multidisciplinary team of brilliant intelligences.
While Borges largely explores the implications of extreme philosophical idealism with Tlon as a springboard (the details of which I’ll spare you, while encouraging those who find this idea interesting to read the story themselves), enough tantalizing hints are left behind to demonstrate just how strange a book this encyclopedia must be. Want to learn more about Tlon’s “invisible tigers” and “towers of blood”? Sorry. The explanations don’t exist. But if you embrace the magic of the silences left in this narrative, A First Encyclopedia of Tlon might be one of your most memorable reading experiences yet, even if it never really happened.
We’ll close part one of this list with a classic (don’t worry, there are plenty of incredible unwritten books yet to cover). While Latin American literature seems to have the clear upper hand when it comes to unwritten books (Moya is from El Salvador), Chambers’ contribution to nineteenth century North American fiction certainly holds its own in terms of sheer popularity. The King in Yellow was a profound influence on H. P. Lovecraft, and even appeared as a central theme in the first season of HBO’s True Detective in 2014. Without even mentioning the nameless multitude of horror writers Chambers’ work has inspired, I feel pretty confident with declaring The King in Yellow one of the most famous nonexistent books in cultural circulation today.
The King in Yellow is quite a different beast than our previously considered masterworks. For one, it’s posed as a central source of tension in Chambers’ horror stories rather than as an imaginative exercise. Secondly, Chambers’ stories include generous excerpts from the play, giving readers with a knack for detective work a much clearer outline of the actual “contents” than they would find in the books considered above. While this could’ve easily ruined the whole thing in a lesser writer’s hands, The King in Yellow avoids the pitfalls of actual writing (which is never as impressive as it wants to be) by relegating all excerpts to the first act of the play. The second half stays shrouded in mystery.
According to The King in Yellow lore, reading the second half of the play literally drives the reader insane. Readers need merely to glimpse the first few words of the second half to find themselves fatefully drawn in for the long haul, and they never emerge intact. Something about the “irresistible truths” found in this strange tale set in an imaginary city of Carcosa is simply more than human consciousness can handle.
At first flush, this one may seem a little gimmicky, and it sort of is. What imaginary books inspire us to do, however, is think. In this case, the hanging question is: exactly what kind of elements could a text employ to drive a reader to insanity? Of course, something more than “truth” must be at play. What does the grammar of insanity look like? What kind of style would be the most psychologically penetrative? There are no answers, of course, but these questions are certainly interesting to consider.
I hope you enjoyed this list! Let us know in the comments below if you have any favorite nonexistent books. Do you have suggestions for what we should cover in part two of this list? Let us know!
-Justin A. Burnett