Authors: Peter Carey
Peter Carey was born in 1943 in Australia and lives in New York. He is the author of the highly acclaimed selection of short stories,
The Fat Man in History,
(shortlisted for the 1985 Booker Prize),
Oscar and Lucinda
(winner of the 1988 Booker Prize),
The Tax Inspector, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith
and a book for children,
The Big Bazoohley. Oscar and Lucinda
has been made into a film by Gillian Armstrong starring Ralph Fiennes.
by the same author
THE FAT MAN IN HISTORY
OSCAR AND LUCINDA
THE TAX INSPECTOR
THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH
THE BIG BAZOOHLEY
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION, 1999
Copyright © 1995 by Peter Carey
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber Limited, London, in 1995.
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-36764-8
PR9619.3C37C64 1997 823 C96-932179-1
Four of these stories have not been previously collected: ‘Joe’ (first printed in
Australian New Writing
), ‘Concerning the Greek Tyrant’ (
The Tabloid Story Pocket Book
, Wild & Woolley), ‘A Million Dollars’ Worth of Amphetamines’ (
) and ‘A Letter to Our Son’ (
). The remaining stories were first published in
The Fat Man in History
(University of Queensland Press, Australia, 1974) and
(University of Queensland Press, Australia, 1979). A number of stories from both these collections were included in the British edition of
The Fat Man in History
(Faber and Faber, 1980).
Perhaps a few words about the role of the Cartographers in our present society are warranted.
To begin with one must understand the nature of the yearly census, a manifestation of our desire to know, always, exactly where we stand. The census, originally a count of the population, has gradually extended until it has become a total inventory of the contents of the nation, a mammoth task which is continuing all the time — no sooner has one census been announced than work on another begins.
The results of the census play an important part in our national life and have, for many years, been the pivot point for the yearly “Festival of the Corn” (an ancient festival, related to the wealth of the earth).
We have a passion for lists. And nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the Festival of the Corn which takes place in midsummer, the weather always being fine and warm. On the night of the festival, the householders move their goods and possessions, all furniture, electrical goods, clothing, rugs, kitchen utensils, bathrobes, slippers, cushions, lawn mowers, curtains, doorstops, heirlooms, cameras, and anything else that can be moved into the street so that the census officials may the more easily check the inventory of each household.
The Festival of the Corn is, however, much more than a clerical affair. And, the day over and the night come, the householders invite each other to view their possessions which they refer to, on this night, as gifts. It is like nothing more than a wedding feast — there is much cooking, all sorts of traditional dishes, fine wines, strong liquors, music is played loudly in quiet neighbourhoods, strangers copulate with strangers, men dance together, and maidens in yellow robes distribute small barley-sugar corncobs to young and old alike.
And in all this the role of the Cartographers is perhaps the most
important, for our people crave, more than anything else, to know the extent of the nation, to know, exactly, the shape of the coastline, to hear what land may have been lost to the sea, to know what has been reclaimed and what is still in doubt. If the Cartographers’ report is good the Festival of the Corn will be a good festival. If the report is bad, one can always sense, for all the dancing and drinking, a feeling of nervousness and apprehension in the revellers, a certain desperation. In the year of a bad Cartographers’ report there will always be fights and, occasionally, some property will be stolen as citizens attempt to compensate themselves for their sense of loss.
Because of the importance of their job the Cartographers have become an elite — well paid, admired, envied, and having no small opinion of themselves. It is said by some that they are overproud, immoral, vain and footloose, and it is perhaps the last charge (by necessity true) that brings about the others. For the Cartographers spend their years travelling up and down the coast, along the great rivers, traversing great mountains and vast deserts. They travel in small parties of three, four, sometimes five, making their own time, working as they please, because eventually it is their own responsibility to see that their team’s task is completed in time.
My father, a Cartographer himself, often told me stories about himself or his colleagues and the adventures they had in the wilderness.
There were other stories, however, that always remained in my mind and, as a child, caused me considerable anxiety. These were the stories of the nether regions and I doubt if they were known outside a very small circle of Cartographers and government officials. As a child in a house frequented by Cartographers, I often heard these tales which invariably made me cling closely to my mother’s skirts.
It appears that for some time certain regions of the country had become less and less real and these regions were regarded fearfully even by the Cartographers, who prided themselves on their courage. The regions in question were invariably uninhabited, unused for agriculture or industry. There were certain sections of the Halverson Ranges, vast stretches of the Greater Desert, and long pieces of coastline which had begun to slowly disappear like the image on an improperly fixed photograph.
It was because of these nebulous areas that the Fischerscope was introduced. The Fischerscope is not unlike radar in its principle and
is able to detect the presence of any object, no matter how dematerialized or insubstantial. In this way the Cartographers were still able to map the questionable pairs of the nether regions. To have returned with blanks on the maps would have created such public anxiety that no one dared think what it might do to the stability of our society. I now have reason to believe that certain areas of the country disappeared so completely that even the Fischerscope could not detect them and the Cartographers, acting under political pressure, used old maps to fake in the missing sections. If my theory is grounded in fact, and I am sure it is, it would explain my father’s cynicism about the Festival of the Corn.
My father was in his fifties but he had kept himself in good shape. His skin was brown and his muscles still firm. He was a tall man with a thick head of grey hair, a slightly less grey moustache and a long aquiline nose. Sitting on a horse he looked as proud and cruel as Genghis Khan. Lying on the beach clad only in bathers and sunglasses he still managed to retain his authoritative air.
Beside him I always felt as if I had betrayed him. I was slightly built, more like my mother.
It was the day before the festival and we lay on the beach, my father, my mother, my girlfriend and I. As was usual in these circumstances my father addressed all his remarks to Karen. He never considered the members of his own family worth talking to. I always had the uncomfortable feeling that he was flirting with my girlfriends and I never knew what to do about it.
People were lying in groups up and down the beach. Near us a family of five were playing with a large beach ball.
“Look at those fools,” my father said to Karen.
“Why are they fools?” Karen asked.
“They’re fools,” said my father. “They were born fools and they’ll die fools. Tomorrow they’ll dance in the streets and drink too much.”
“So,” said Karen triumphantly, in the manner of one who has become privy to secret information. “It will be a good Cartographers’ report?”
My father roared with laughter.
Karen looked hurt and pouted. “Am I a fool?”
“No,” my father said, “you’re really quite splendid.”
The festival, as it turned out, was the greatest disaster in living memory.
The Cartographers’ report was excellent, the weather was fine, but somewhere something had gone wrong.
The news was confusing. The television said that, in spite of the good report, various items had been stolen very early in the night. Later there was a news flash to say that a large house had completely disappeared in Howie Street.
Later still we looked out the window to see a huge band of people carrying lighted torches. There was a lot of shouting. The same image, exactly, was on the television and a reporter was explaining that bands of vigilantes were out looking for thieves.
My father stood at the window, a martini in his hand, and watched the vigilantes set alight a house opposite.
My mother wanted to know what we should do.
“Come and watch the fools,” my father said, “they’re incredible.”
The next day the I.C.I. building disappeared in front of a crowd of two thousand people. It took two hours. The crowd stood silently as the great steel and glass structure slowly faded before them.
The staff who were evacuated looked pale and shaken. The caretaker who was amongst the last to leave looked almost translucent. In the days that followed he made some name for himself as a mystic, claiming that he had been able to see other worlds, layer upon layer, through the fabric of the here and now.
The anger of our people when confronted with acts of theft has always been legendary and was certainly highlighted by the incidents which occurred on the night of the festival.
But the fury exhibited on this famous night could not compare with the intensity of emotion displayed by those who witnessed the earliest scenes of dematerialization.
The silent crowd who watched the I.C.I. building erupted into hysteria when they realized that it had finally gone and wasn’t likely to come back.