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The Zacharias Ascaris Affair

It all began five years ago, going on six. Ballast Publishing, a fledgling British publishing house, had just launched the first (and last) novel of its catalog, The Zacharias Ascaris Affair. No one, absolutely no one, could have foreseen the upheaval that this book would set in motion.

Admittedly, the adventures of the young Zacharias Ascaris, though narrated with an undeniable flair for suspense, were in no way extraordinary. A group of adolescents, a few twists, a love story, a touch of the supernatural—it was a proven but far from original formula, and ordinarily the featureless book should have faded and been swept away after a few months by the tidal flux of the literary industry.

What happened next is well established: Over 250 million copies of Zacharias Ascaris were sold the first year, followed the next year by additional sales of some 800 million copies in 67 languages.

Its explosive success made Zacharias Ascaris the very first work of fiction to surpass the one billion mark, propelling it into highly exclusive company, midway between Quotations from Chairman Mao and the Holy Bible.

The author, a certain Jane P. Menard, was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  Thirty-something, blond, attractive, she appeared in public only at specific strategic events. She kept up a sporadic, insipid blog in which she declared her affection for small mammals and sunsets, and stressed the importance for novelists to “be able to efface themselves behind their creations.”

At the time, I was doing my PhD at the Université de Montréal and like most of my colleagues I would not have dared read Zacharias Ascaris unless I was inside a closet behind locked doors. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the media frenzy surrounding the phenomenon and devoted many hours to documenting it down to the last detail, feverishly collecting hundreds of bookmarks, photocopies, and press clippings. All of which are of course illegible now. Fortunately, however, I have an excellent memory.

I can clearly recall when, toward the end of the second year, just as sales began to peak, a few hundred Amazon clients complained of a bizarre technical issue: all their e-books had been contaminated or replaced by another text.

Most of the readers quickly identified the parasitical text. It was Jane P. Menard’s celebrated novel.

Never before had this sort of file corruption been observed. Amazon apologized, put the blame on a server anchored off Hong Kong, and replaced all the infected titles free of charge. But such incidents proliferated, ultimately affecting a large number of distributors, and it soon became obvious that the sale of e-books would have to be suspended for an indefinite length of time.

The apostles of paper were jubilant. This reversal served their cause better than any argument, and traditional bookstores enjoyed an upsurge in popularity.

No one suspected that paper books were about to suffer the same fate.

The very first case was reported in a public library in Mainz, Arizona. In the space of a few days, a copy of Twilight was completely transformed into a copy of Zacharias Ascaris. This was the beginning of a wave of metamorphoses that swept over the bookstores and libraries of the globe, although it would have been more correct to assume that the metamorphosis had been underway for a while in remote stacks and warehouses, and that there had simply been a time lag before anyone noticed.

I distinctly remember my first contact with one such copy. I was reading a William Gibson novel and when I turned the page I suddenly found myself in the middle of a chapter of Zacharias Ascaris.

I was so stupefied that I read on for several lines before understanding what was happening. I inspected the book carefully. The typography was unchanged and no matter how I angled the page I could not detect the slightest trace of the original text. I returned to the page I had finished reading a minute earlier: it had been transformed in the meantime.

After that incident I stopped visiting libraries and bookstores. Others, of a more optimistic bent, persisted for several weeks before the truth sank in.

For a short while, rumors of a plot went around. Ballast Publishing was accused of conducting a dubious publicity campaign—an absurd conjecture, given that each new copy of Zacharias Ascaris only contributed to slowing down sales.

Infrequent at first, the alterations soon became widespread.  Everyone had seen “a Copy”—the capital C crept into the least snippet of conversation. On closer examination, a peculiar detail came to light: the beginning of the text hardly ever coincided with the beginning of the book. As of the very first page, for instance, readers might find themselves at the midpoint of chapter 34—the mysterious passage where Zacharias beats the Cyclops at ping-pong—and if the story ended in the middle of the book, it immediately began again, without a break, like a song played in a loop.

Now all books formed just one book, and the Gutenberg Galaxy behaved like a vast Möbius Strip.

Up to that point only books in English had been “Zacharified,” and—in accordance with a disturbing logic—it was the text of the original English edition of Zacharias Ascaris that appeared. Then German copies showed up in the German corpus. Portuguese, French, Esperanto, Italian, and Japanese followed, as well as many other languages. There were even reports of copies in rare, obscure tongues into which Jane P. Menard’s text had not yet been translated, including a few dead languages.

During this period a very interesting piece of news emerged. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal had discovered that Ballast Publishing was a phantom company.

The employees and managers knew nothing about the owners, and the company per se nested at the heart of a veritable legal matryoshka. Ballast publishing belonged to INTBAL Holding B.V., which in turn was owned by the Fondation Stichting INTBAL, registered in Leiden, Netherlands. As for the rights to the text, they were held by Intballast Rights B.V., which belonged respectively to Inter Ballast Holding S.A. (registered in Luxembourg) and Inter Ballast Holding (registered in the Dutch Antilles). Finally, this last company was managed by a trust based in Curaçao, which upon further investigation turned out to be little more than a front.

Even financial experts were mystified.

Pressed to reveal what these various entities concealed, the legal authorities confessed to being totally at sea: the owners and beneficiaries could not be located, and the profits were piling up in a bank account in Zurich whose sole purpose was to cover the administration fees. Not a single franc had been withdrawn.

This was not a bank account, but an oceanic abyss.

With Ballast Publishing henceforth considered intangible, the real issue became the origin of the text itself. Hounded into a corner, the famous and elusive Jane P. Menard owned up to being a simple New Zealand actress, recently graduated from the Auckland Conservatory and hired by a shadowy publicity agency owned by the equally shadowy INTBAL Holding B.V.

So who was the author of the book?

Two Oxford Sinologists suggested that the text had not been written in English but was in fact a translation. According to them, the first version of Zacharias Ascaris had probably been drafted in Mandarin, presumably in one of those writing factories that had recently appeared in Guangdong, and subsequently translated into English by a Korean—certain syntactic subtleties were a dead giveaway.

For the first time in ages literature was making headlines. It monopolized the TV news reports, flooded the airwaves, clogged cyberspace.

Rabbis in Jerusalem were shown tearfully displaying what remained of ancient Torahs.

The Library of Congress was shown deserted, the floors strewn with trash.

Improvised bonfires were seen in the squares of Paris, containers overflowing with books in Germany, colossal shredders in India, pulping the abominable material day and night.

This did not last very long. The attacks in Dubai soon pushed the subject into the background. Besides, there was still no explanation, and journalists were loath to cite supernatural causes. People in the streets resorted to a pseudo-voodoo hodgepodge that borrowed freely from scientific vocabulary. Never had there been so much talk of nanotechnology, Faraday’s cage, quantum mechanics and string theory.  Now everyone was familiar with Schrödinger’s cat, which served to describe the state of a book that no one would be reading: neither intact nor Zacharified, but both intact and Zacharified simultaneously.

Booklovers began to fear for their collections. Or what was left of them. Heavily fortified strongboxes were now as vulnerable as a shoebox. They latched on to the last certitude: Since no one had ever witnessed (or filmed) a page in the process of being Zacharified, it was inferred that the human gaze, or even a mechanical substitute, could ward off the Phenomenon.

So the establishment of watch militias was proposed, but the project quickly proved unfeasible. Because to preserve a book it would have been necessary to watch each page permanently. For a few months an impressive array of cameras stood guard over the Book of Mormon at the University of Utah. But a common power outage aborted the operation, which to my knowledge was not imitated anywhere else. 

A number of readers resolved to learn their favorite texts by heart, and the soaring value of a good memory promptly became apparent. Unfortunately, the blinding speed of the Phenomenon made it impossible to make any significant progress. A few students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to memorize fifty or so short stories by Ray Bradbury before his works were engulfed.

The choice of Ray Bradbury may have seemed questionable, but the situation was deteriorating at such a rate that any author, any book seemed appropriate. Indeed, the Phenomenon had begun to overtake technical handbooks, books of Law, encyclopaedias, Web sites, instructions printed on medicine bottles, wrappers and labels, road signs, passports, dashboards . . .

New cases of Zacharification were constantly popping up. You could be reading the ingredients on a chocolate bar and realize even before taking the last bite that the list of glucoses, lactoses, and assorted soy lecithins had been transmogrified into a paragraph of Zacharias Ascaris.

Wherever there were a few words, the Phenomenon struck.

This new phase rekindled media interest, but the interest was short-lived because no sooner was it written or published than the slightest piece of journalism was Zacharified.

While computer specialists looked for ways to outstrip the Phenomenon, the computers stopped working. The upper layers of their operating systems, comprised of numbers and text, were now as exposed as any chocolate bar.

In the absence of computers, all electronic means of communication abruptly collapsed, and at daybreak on a rainy November 1st humanity sank into a great prehistoric silence.

Radios, TVs, computers, telephones, GPSs: dead.

Even the electricity wavered.

It lasted for ten days and ten nights.

At this point they dug out the antique transmitters that had preceded computerized hardware and had been gathering dust in the depths of warehouses here and there.

Installing them proved to be laborious, since, naturally, the instruction manuals, technical diagrams, and even the inscriptions on the instruments themselves had been transformed. In different places, eighty-year-old technicians, the last guardians of knowledge, were enlisted and acclaimed like Greek demigods.

After a few weeks, the old analog radio stations began broadcasting again, one after the other, as shaky as candles. Their impact remained regional, yet they ensured that a minimum of information was being disseminated. In the evening, people gathered around old receivers retrieved from attics and cellars and listened to the latest news.

Thus it was learned that Zacharias Ascaris had meanwhile continued to plunge like an out-of-control nuclear reactor, devouring deep strata of books conserved under lock and key in airtight rooms inside century-old libraries.

A number of suicides were reported when the last Gutenberg Bibles went under.

Just when we thought we had hit bottom, the small handwritten newspapers that had been circulating for a while were also transformed. The human hand, the final bunker of written culture, went down as well.

The contagion spread to the last vaults. The letters of Isaac Newton, the Constitution of the United States of America, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the manuscripts of Balzac, Tolstoy, Basho, the billions of characters formed by thousands of medieval scribes—all of them from now on reproduced the fateful, familiar sentences of Zacharias Ascaris.

The Codex Leicester, penned by Leonardo da Vinci, was withdrawn from its safe and examined in a mirror held in the curator’s trembling hand. What he found were long excerpts of Zacharias Ascaris in elegant script written in reverse.

The least grocery list, the least memo scribbled in pen was Zacharified as soon as one looked away.

There you have it.

Some five years have passed since the very first copy of Zacharias Ascaris was displayed in the window of a London bookstore.

Books can still be seen in various places, but no one reads them anymore. They have become worthless, except as fuel, insulation, or cat litter. Only tatters remain of what we were, what we wrote.

With my own eyes I have seen a few relics: a grocery list in Spanish, a TWA advertisement torn out of an old issue of National Geographic, a Toronto subway ticket. It is claimed that one last book has eluded Zacharification: a highway code printed in Croatia. But does anyone still care about such scraps of paper? They are mere curiosities, artefacts that our children will be unable to understand.

The storm seems to have blown over, but that is only a surface impression. Some specialists have concluded that the world’s handwritten archives will have been entirely Zacharified in the short run. Already there are accounts to the effect that texts engraved in stone or metal may also have been affected.

No need to be a futurologist to predict that before long the Egyptian stelae of the British Museum will also be Zacharified. The Rosetta Stone will engender three versions of Zacharias Ascaris: hieroglyphic, Egyptian demotic, and Ancient Greek. And the same will be true of every written document, down to the oldest, down to the Sumerian clay tablets.

What will happen when the totality of humankind’s written material has become completely Zacharified? The optimists claim that we will enter into a new era of oral literature, a time of freedom and serenity. Good for them.

As for me, I believe instead that the Ascaris will pursue its course and assault new languages, new media. The spoken word—that immaterial, intangible vibration—will offer no hold for the parasite, and so the only thing left will no doubt be the long protein helixes that make up our genetic code.

Translation of "Le scandale de Zacharias Ascaris." Copyright Nicolas Dickner. Translation copyright 2011 by Lazer Lederhendler. All rights reserved.