A short story inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, Buenos Aires, classical mythology, and the wonder of books. Originally written in August 2014.
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
–2 Timothy 4:3
All my knowledge of physical books comes from my grandfather’s memories. [i] He used to walk to the old theater on Calle Santa Fe. He would grab a café con leche from the stage bar, find a seat in one of the boxes, and surround himself with a stack of books. He told me once that it was the most beautiful bookstore in the world.
That bookstore has been gone now for seventy years. I have actually never been in a bookstore before. Like I said, all my knowledge of physical books comes from my grandfather. In his old age, my grandfather lost his ability to speak Spanish, but his native Greek would come back in the middle of the night. My grandmother, who knew a word or two of Greek, would jot down all his ramblings in a journal in an effort to understand him better. After they both passed away, all that remained were thirty-seven loose pages of mad scribbles.
I took it upon myself to translate all those fragments, to put those pages in order, and to record the history of one man’s morbid invention.
In those days, Buenos Aires had a bookstore on every street, and Esteban Palantzoglou knew nearly all of them. Palantzoglou was on the perpetual quest to find the most fitting book to read after a hefty dinner. He would visit approximately twenty-six bookstores on a daily basis. Often, he would begin his search in a quaint, old bookstore near the obelisk, and from there he would venture on block by block through Recoleta and Palermo. On odd-numbered days, he would visit either cobblestone streets in the south or high-rise apartments in the north of the city. The fifth of every month, he would make a special trip to the old port and look through cardboard books. On days that were multiples of three, he would visit a public library or two. All the bookstores in the city knew him as El Griego, but he was also known as El Insatisfecho. Palantzoglou was never satisfied with the selection of any store. After coming across a book simply called Fictions, he decided that the search was futile, that all stories created by humans were pointless. Thus, he sought a new sort of story written by a different kind of author.
For forty-nine days, he locked himself in his room, writing tirelessly in a language not of humans but of machines. A language made up of two characters opened the doors to creating an infinite book, a perfect book. On the seventh day of the seventh week, he finished his work and saw that it was good. He titled his work Mûthos. The plotline was rather simple, almost rudimentary. The book only needed the reader’s name, the answer to three personal questions, and in ninety-five seconds, it would rewrite itself entirely. The book had a way of making human desires literal through storytelling. He published the book, but it failed to spark any interest.
It was not until Palantzoglou added the possibility of wrongful desires that the book gained popularity. The general public considered theft, murder, and suicide pleasanter themes. Everyone became obsessed with the book. Those who had not read it were considered unsophisticated and ignorant. The few who chose not to purchase it were seen as prudish and feeble-minded. Eventually, most households owned a minimum of two copies of Mûthos, and it was thought of as a peaceful mid-afternoon activity to do before sunset.
No one noticed a vital detail, a detail of utmost importance. An eight year old boy’s story vividly described the pure joy of eating an ice-cream cone. Five-hundred-sixty-two words on the sweet delight of rich dulce de leche wrapped around a “thousand leaves” of chocolate[ii] was enough to make the boy run to the corner of Arenales and Azcuénaga to get his own. The episode itself was not as important as what it signified: the stories written in the book could become real through human action. At first, the physical side effects of the stories were ignored by the public. No one cared much about the remorseful man who transformed a family heirloom into Jocasta’s golden pins. No one talked about the boy whose wax wings melted in the sun. No real attention was given to these rumors until the well-known Leonarda Fedra developed an eating disorder after reading her ideal passionate love story; her mind was so filled with visions of Hipólito that her stomach forgot to growl. The public promptly dismissed this as another case of celebrity histrionics.
The power of the system was rooted in the perfection of the stories. The stories were flawless in that they perfectly related the deepest desires of the reader. The reader had no choice but become engrossed in this perfection until they lost the notion of what was fictional and what was real. People read with the same intensity as Pasiphaë lusted after a bull. They were enthralled by the vivid imagery of those horns; they were fascinated with the description of white hair grazing against their own. Those images eventually manifested themselves into physical contraptions or elaborate ploys. A woman who lived in Palermo Viejo suspected that her husband was spending more time at her neighbor’s house than was proper. In an effort to distract herself, she resorted to Mûthos. Instead of stories, the book was a collection of recipes titled Savory, Youth-full Dinners. She called in some of the neighborhood children to help, and then, she smiled to herself as she prepared a Thyestean style feast for her neighbor and her husband. In another case, a chemist bought a special leather jacket for a friend from a store called Medias del Sol[iii]. He wrapped up the present and attached a note that said, “To wear on a rainy day.” The man did not mention on the note that he had embellished the coat with pure sodium. Unsurprisingly, the newspapers began to have more interesting headlines.
Ανάγνωση. Άνδρες και τέρατα. Όλα ανάμεσά μας. Όλα είναι πραγματικό. Όλα από αυτό ψευδής. Όλοι είναι μαζί μας.
End of Translation
Eventually the popularity of Mûthos died out. People said it was much too predictable; they claimed that they themselves could write those stories. Even so, a part of me wonders if it is truly gone for good or if it has always existed. I wonder if when Agamemnon was off at war, Clytemnestra was perusing through ancient scrolls and from there gleaned what she must do. Perhaps Medea became Medea through the literary knowledge that there was a narrative she was fated to live out. I speculate that if I search long enough, I will find both women walking around Buenos Aires, wholeheartedly believing to be in fact Argentinian. Most of all, I ponder the possibility that I too am simply living out a narrative written long before my time, that in some other draft I was actually the one mumbling in Greek in the middle of the night.
 If I understand this correctly, some sort of river-company bought all of the world’s books and replaced them with invisible libraries one could carry around in a pants pocket.
 From the ancient Greek μῦθος
 A book, but not in the physical sense.
 My grandfather seemed to say something about a letter here. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s handwriting was illegible in this section of the journal. Since this seems to be a minor detail, I have left it out of this translation.
 A friend who rumor has it fancied the chemist’s wife.
 This is where my translation ends. These last few fragments were impossible to translate. They were either the ramblings of a mad man or Euripides’ most eloquent lines.
[i] Note on Translation. This story was originally translated from Spanish into English. The Spanish was quite peculiar. It did not quite capture the Italianess of a Buen día or carry the cadence of a Porteño accent. Instead, I suspect that the author is not in fact Argentinian but from a Mexican border town. The words were in Spanish, but the syntax was strangely in English, almost as if it had been conceived in this second language. With that being said, I have sought to create the most exact, literal translation of the text.
[ii] Literally Milhojas in Spanish. The combination of dulce de leche and chocolate is not considered particularly sweet in Argentina. A typical Porteño may add an additional spoonful of chocolate fudge.
[iii] Even though Medias del Sol primarily sells hosiery, because of Argentina’s robust cattle industry, every privately-owned business in particular parts of the city is required to sell leather articles of clothing by law.