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Books Don’t Burn

So this is it. The end of a day of sitting on this bench next to Lake Geneva, thinking about stuff and remembering. And just now, I was thinking about sleep. I don't know about you, but this is how I go to sleep... I lay there, imagining places I've been in my life. If I'm lucky, my dreams pick up and I'm carried back in time.

I forgot to say this at the beginning of these blogs.

Which is strange, as it's the entire point.

I think we're capable of time travel, and I think we do it all the time.I think we're capable of time travel, and I think we do it all the time. Not in the manner of the WAYBAC machine from Rocky and Bullwinkle, or Doctor Who's TARDIS. Memory is the vehicle of travel into the past.

I know, it sounds nuts.

But it's only really nuts if you confine the idea of time travel to the literary construct first developed by H. G. Wells. Not in The Time Machine (still one of my favorite stories of all time, as it were), but earlier, by the same writer. In 1888, the Royal College of Sciences published a story by Wells titled, The Chronic Argonauts. It was set in Wales, in a town called Llyddwdd (no, the spelling is correct, and just try saying "Llyddwdd" 10 times real fast after a glass or two). It's the tale of a strange and mysterious inventor named Doctor Moses Nebogiphel (ditto on the spelling and drinking game aspect). It was the first literary use of a machine built by a man to transport his physical form through time.

Thing is, today, we have real machines that make time travel into the past fact. Those machines are called Deep Space Telescopes. Take the Hubble Space Telescope, now reaching the end of its lifespan (you cannot do better on a rainy day than cruising through the NASA website and viewing the archive of Hubble's pictures). The pictures Hubble gathered and continues to gather from deep space aren't pictures of things as they are, they are pictures of things that happened tens of billions of years ago. We are, in fact, looking back in time, watching the expansion of the universe not long after its creation. And the deeper we see into space, the closer we come to the very moment of creation, because space and time are the same bloody thing.

We live in the here and now: me on this bench on the shore of Lake Geneva; you wherever you are. And in that same moment, we co-exist in a cosmic flash of creation that may be no longer than a blink in the eye of the One we imagine to be the creator.

NASA will launch the JWTS Deep Space Telescope in 2014 and park it about one million miles off the coast of planet Earth. It's like Hubble, if Hubble were a superhero sort of telescope. NASA will point the JWTS toward the deepest, darkest corner of space and turn it on. Will we see the moment of creation as it happens? Will we see the eye of the One? Will we know, finally, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything? (as described in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Maybe, maybe not. But if we do, I suspect it'll make as much sense as the answer the late, great Mister Adams revealed in his book... "42." In other words, what's the use of having the bloody answer, if you don't know what the bloody question is in the first place?

Anyway, last night, I'm falling asleep remembering Moscow.

I lived there from '90 to '94. I had a flat across from Patriarch's Pond in the center of Moscow. It was the very same pond that sets the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita (if you've never read it, forget the rest of this blog and go buy it. Your life will never be the same, I promise). Patriarch's Pond is the place where the Devil first appears in Stalinist Moscow and promptly sets in motion a series of events wherein one Russian gentleman named Berlioz slips on a patch of ice and loses his head under the wheels of a passing tram (weirdly, it's a howlingly funny scene. And, I know, "howlingly" isn't a word, but you get the idea), and it's only the beginning of the havoc to be unleashed on Moscow at the Devil's hand, in between scenes of the trial, passion, and death of Jesus Christ. (There's a lot of that in Russian literature; it never sticks with one plot-line when you can cram two into the same book).

Comrade Bulgakov died in 1940, but when he was alive he lived at Ulitsa Bolshaya Sadovaya No. 10, apartment No. 50. It's a Molotov cocktail's throw from my flat. I went there quite often because not only did Bulgakov live there... but in the story the Devil (in the form of Monsieur Woland) takes up residence with his two assistants in Bulgakov's flat.

I first heard about it from a Russian girlfriend.

And no, I'm not going to tell you her name.

She was a stunt double in Russian films and did things like jump off bridges into the Moscow River or fall out of speeding cars on the Ring Road. She was raven-haired, blue-eyed, vodka-swilling, and barking mad. Everything you want in a Russian girlfriend.She was raven-haired, blue-eyed, vodka-swilling, and barking mad. Everything you want in a Russian girlfriend. She spoke no English when I met her; I spoke no Russian. We met on a plane from Saint Petersburg, and it was one of those things where the eyes rule all. We landed in Moscow, went straight to my flat, and spent a breathless weekend (most of it anyway) in bed having a three-way with a pocket-sized Russian/English-English/Russian dictionary. She quoted entire passages of Master and Margarita from memory, whilst smoking dope and lounging in the tub. She acted out scenes of Margarita's entrance at the Devil's Spring Ball of the Full Moon whilst cooking the most delicious and sensual Borscht soup. She was from Saint Petersburg, and there was one memory of the weekend that still burns. I was looking for bread to serve with dinner. I had some in the bread box, a bit of which was stale. I tossed it in the bin. She saw me do it and began to wail. I mean, as if someone had died.

"Kleb! Kelb!" [Bread! Bread!]

She took it from the bin, dusted it off, and broke it into pieces and dropped it in the soup as if she was a high priestess performing an holy act of transubstantiation. I thought about it. She was the child of a child of the thousand day Nazi siege of Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad). Millions of men, women, and children staved to death. I've never thrown stale bread away since. More than the priests and nuns of my 12 year imprisonment in Catholic schools, my Russian girlfriend taught me the smallest crumb of bread is a holy sacrament of God.

These days, I keep scraps of bread in a bag, and once a week I walk down to the lake and toss it to the ducks and the swans. And I always say, "This is from an old friend."

Monday morning, this divine woman (I'm sure she was an angel come to slap me around) left for Rostov, where she was going to be turned into a human torch and then fall out of a burning building.

I took a walk to Bulgakov's apartment.

It was in a typical pre-war apartment complex: four buildings, five or six floors each, built around a common courtyard. I found building No. 10 and stepped inside. The stairwell, from floor to ceiling, was inscribed with lines from the Master and Maragarita, including the most famous of lines... "Books don't burn." And there were fabulous, wild-eyed drawings of the characters: the Master and his truest love Margarita, the unfortunate Mister Berlioz (sans head), Woland the Devil and his two assistants, Behemoth and Koroliev (all three of whom I used as models for the bad guys in The Watchers, except my bad guys don't have a sense of humor), and Jesus of Nazareth, Pontius Pilate, and the fretful Madame Pilate. And five floors up, at the top of the stairs, was apartment No. 50.

The door was painted fire-engine red, and there were fresh flowers placed into the door handle. Every time I went to visit Bulgakov's flat, there were fresh flowers at the door.

All these things were part of my dream last night. And the point of me telling you about my dream is, it proves the physical make-up of the human brain is like a deep space telescope. It is a machine of time travelthe point of me telling you about my dream is, it proves the physical make-up of the human brain is like a deep space telescope. It is a machine of time travel. We are, by nature of our consciousness, Chronic Argonauts all.

(I'll give you a second to pick yourself up from the floor.)

The human mind, consciously and unconsciously, peers into the part of the brain where memories are stored as if memories were bits of cosmic dust traveling through space and time. I didn't just see these things in my dream... I was there again, because I've never left... in the same way we exist in the here and now, and billions of years ago at the same time.

And like the stuff of the universe, my memories are on a one-way trek. Cosmic dust may warp and wiggle and appear to defy the laws of quantum mechanics at times... but for the most part it travels in one direction, away from where it came. I can consider those moments and wonder that, somehow, my journey has led me to this bench on the edge of Lake Geneva... where just now I'm signing copies of a book called The Watchers.

I want to hold onto this moment as long as I can.

But that's not the way it works.

In the blink of the eye of the One, this moment, too, will be gone.

It'll be a memory, one more piece of cosmic dust racing through time and space.

Thanks, for sharing this part of the ride...

÷ ÷ ÷

Jon Steele worked as an award-winning cameraman for Independent Television News of London for 22 years. In 2002, he published the now cult classic of war reportage War Junkie. In 2003, he became disillusioned with television news, put his camera on the ground and quit. The Watchers is Steele's first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Watchers Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. The Master and Margarita
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. The Time Machine/The Invisible Man... New Mass Market $5.95
  4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
    Used Mass Market $5.50

Jon Steele is the author of The Watchers

2 Responses to "Books Don’t Burn"

    Barbara June 1st, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I'm totally smitten by Jon Steele's writing style, as he wends and winds his way through the cosmic dust of his neocortex.

    Judy June 5th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    The Watchers is "spiritual noir", poetry, action, intrigue and naughty bits all rolled into one fantastic summer read. (Hey Jon- I'm with you on Time Travel)
    Day 70 from Poetry of Days;

    Now we are together.
    You are reading what I have written at 4 am.
    In the poem, you may be seeing there is, and is not separation,
    Of course there is the time and space in which we come together like this:

    You stir honey into tea
    While I sit here being me.
    You trek a mountain road,
    Or cozy up in bed
    To nurse a cold,
    Yet here I am with you.

    Look around.
    What else do you see when you are here with me?
    Old friends
    In new places,
    Familiar names,
    With unfamiliar faces?

    Notice how the written line traces back to where I am,
    Sitting here
    With pen in hand?

    Across time and space
    I have written the smile upon your face!


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