14 July 2020

The fragrance of burning manuscripts

The celebrated novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez is said to have had an unusual habit. During the course of a conversation with his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, the transcripts of which were published in 1982 as ‘The Fragrance of Guava,’ Márquez revealed that every morning his wife Mercedes would keep a sheaf of 50 papers by his typewriter. Here’s the idiosyncrasy — if he made any typing error or wasn’t satisfied with even a single word typed, Márquez would take the paper out of the typewriter and toss it into the wastepaper basket.

This book was published in 1982. I don’t know if Márquez switched to a computer which would have of course eliminated the need to waste paper in the interest of perfection, but the idea of a fresh slate stayed with me and surfaced at least on two occasions, both in anecdotes related to writing.

The first was related to me by a researcher at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI, now called ‘HARTI’ with the institution being named after Hector Kobbekaduwa) sometime in the early 1990s. Piyasiri Pelenda told me that the KGB had seized and burned the manuscript of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘The Master and Margarita.’

Wikipedia states that it was burned by Bulgakov himself in 1930 'since he could not see a future for himself as a writer in the Soviet Union.' It makes sense considering the historical context and the fact that the novel critiqued Soviet society and relevant literary politics. He would later re-write the entire book from memory and the book would be published in 1966, 26 years after his death.

Piyasiri told me of an introductory line that framed the novel and the history (in the Russian version he had read): ‘Good books don’t burn.’ That’s what I remembered. A destroyed manuscript of ‘The Master’ is a key element in the plot, interestingly. Sometimes we commit things to memory and sometimes there are words that will not be taken out of the memory-typewriter to be tossed into the wastepaper basket called ‘Stories meant to be lost forever.’

The second story was related to me by my father. It was about the Visuddhimagga, the celebrated treatise on the Abhidamma written in the 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, widely recognized as the most important philosopher and commentator of the Theravada school. The gist of what he told me I offer below.

‘It is said that the manuscript was lost several times. One theory is that the gods stole it. The other is that jealous elder bikkhus of the Mahavihara took it away and hid it. So he had to write it again and then again. Finally there was a version that didn’t get lost. Maybe it was that the elder bikkhus hid or destroyed each version for a reason. Buddhaghosa had to start from the beginning each time. That forced him to reflect even more. When the text was perfect and far superior to what were essentially drafts, he was allowed to keep it.’

It occurred to me then that’s essentially what thesis and dissertation committees do with texts submitted by graduate students who, perhaps unlike Bulgakov and Buddaghosa are handicapped by technology which allows texts to be saved.  

Saved texts inhibit the writer from considering new pathways. Saved texts persuade writers to take routes so familiar that they have become blind to salient elements of the journey. They do not hear a bird call which, if they had noted, they may have followed. They don’t see the rare flower and therefore do not stop to be enthralled by the wonderment of color, fragrance and texture. The shoes of ‘familiarity’ stop them from feeling the grass, sand, pebble, heat and contours of terrain beneath their feet.  

Sometimes it is good to get away from the particular writing device. Sometimes it is good to let manuscripts burn. Sometimes a fresh ‘piece of paper’ makes for more exquisite writing. It allows a reader to breathe the fragrance of guava which for whatever reason did not find its way into the original text.

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [July 13, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten 
 Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer