Flavour of the weekFriday, February 10, 2017
A matter of great embarrassment
For The Herald
My first two columns for the Herald ran in 1962. I’ll save you the maths: that’s a staggering (to me, at least) 55 years ago. The very first was travel-related, about a cop in Misiones, and I’d like to remember the occasion with another travel episode — just the thing for the holidays.
This very delicate story unfolded in Khiva. I’ve written before about that Arabian Nights-like town — a jewel set in northernmost Uzbekistan — but I didn’t mention this incident. It’s touchy because, albeit unintentionally, it involved an ugly potential aggression against literature.
I had brought two rolls of toilet paper with me from the West, for I did foresee supply problems. I still had one roll in a bag I had stored at the railway’s left-luggage office in Tashkent. But I was noticing that, given normal usage, the amount I had taken for a side trip to northern Uzbekistan wouldn’t be sufficient.
There was no alternative: I would have to buy some cheap publication whose pages could be torn out. I had first seen this put into practice by the stricken driver of a truck on which I had hitched a ride in backwoods South America. He frequently stopped, grabbed a roll of toilet-paper tossing around the messy floor of the cabin, and ran to the bushes near the road.
On that cabin floor there also was an old comic. Because of boredom during all his pit stops, I started to read it. (However, reading comics wasn’t the aggression against literature to which I made mention. It was — may Virgil forgive me — something far worse).
Soon the trucker had expended the last of the roll. “Gimme that magazine,” he grunted. Desperately he tore off two or three sheets and dashed off.
He came back calmer, and we started off again. “Give it to me. Give it to me!” he squealed after a while. The event was repeated time and again. To make things worse, the man wasn’t methodical — he excised any pages, from anywhere in the magazine. I didn’t get to read a single complete comic strip.
In the cities in the interior of Uzbekistan I didn’t see any newspapers or magazines on sale. The only thing I did see were a few books in some shops, although in so limited an assortment it could make one weep.
How could I do to a book what the trucker had done to the comic? Nevertheless, some kind of step had to be taken, and it wasn’t prudent to leave it to the last moment. To ask that the ink didn’t smudge was an unthinkable refinement. I simply went for the book with the thinnest pages I could find.
It was a paperback volume of verse, in Uzbek written in adapted Cyrillic script. I tried to decipher what it was about. From the explanation, in Russian, that was given to me by the salesman, I murkily gathered that what I held in my hands was the work of one the greatest Uzbek poets.
What a dilemma, O Muses! I later read that Lord Chesterfield had written, approvingly, that an acquaintance used cheap editions of the Latin poets to preface sanitary practice with good reading. I’ve seen another such episode in a film much more recently. For me, the very idea is anathema. But necessity is the mother of literary iconoclasm. I bought the slender volume.
Still, in Khiva I kept on devoting a good share of time to cruising shops in the tiny modern suburbs, outside the old city walls. There was no paper anywhere. My own store of the prized commodity was on the point of extinction.
Then, on my third and last day there, a miracle. At a shop I had already visited the day before, to no avail, there appeared on the counter (an intervention of the muses?) three rolls of toilet paper. It was tough: to tear it, both hands were needed. It was rough: it might well be used for sanding wood.
But the Uzbek poet had been saved. His verses now occupy a spot, a very respectable one, on my shelves, and if I ever learn Uzbek, they’ll be the first thing I’ll read.