By Marie Lebert, 21 December 2016.
“Moon” is a collection of six timeless short stories, which are related, in one way or another, to the book. Here is the third short story, translated from French by Jane Golding.
As he walked through the door of this new library, Nicolas was astonished to see all the readers busily knitting with multicoloured wool.
They had evidently brought some oddments of wool from home. Some of them had even unpicked old sweaters, old dresses or old knitted hats. As the country was sadly lacking in knitting needles, the readers had taken the rods from the card index files, you know, the rods that slide in the holes in the index cards to keep them together in a drawer and stop all the cards crashing to the ground if you make a false move.
All the heating in the town had been cut off. Only the library was still heated, not much, a few degrees above freezing. It was the middle of winter and there were no clothes left in the shops, so the readers had decided to start knitting, for the following reason – knitting warms up the body more than reading. Try it, and you’ll see.
The readers’ association had therefore decided to gather together the rods from the hundred and eight drawers, which made fifty-four pairs of needles. By a miraculous stroke of luck, the library had exactly fifty-four seats, which meant that the knitters did not have to sit on the carpet or on the Moroccan mat, because it is much more pleasant to knit sitting up than in the lotus position, especially when you are knitting for several hours.
The readers’ association had divided the several hundred readers into groups of fifty-four. The local haberdasher had worked out that the classic rod corresponded to a needle size somewhere between five and six, much heavier than a normal knitting needle, unfortunately, but they didn’t have any choice, as nothing else was available.
Some reader-knitters complained. They had to be reminded that a rod could not possibly have all the same qualities as a knitting needle, as a rod was not intended to be used for knitting. It had been completely misappropriated from its main use, which was to hold index cards together in a card index file.
So the haberdasher had advised them to bring quite thick wool, the kind that is used for knitting with size five or six needles. As it was a time of shortages, she wasn’t too exacting. She had already made allowances and enlarged the required dimensions, and had eventually authorised wool that is used for size four to seven needles. You couldn’t be too petty in these difficult times. The haberdasher had given no advice on colours, for the same reason; this was a time of shortages.
There was a morning team, a mid-day team, an afternoon team and an evening team. At first, it was proposed that the readers should change every hour, but this idea caused a general outcry. How could they warm themselves up like that, in such a short space of time? They would need to knit for at least three hours, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it.
The timetable had therefore been divided up in the following way: the morning team from eight o’clock to eleven o’clock, the mid-day team from eleven o’clock to two o’clock, the afternoon team from two o’clock to five o’clock and the evening team from five o’clock to eight o’clock.
From eight in the evening until eight in the morning, that is to say the night and a little bit more, the librarians would store up heat for the following day. But how? Professionals of the printed page, close your eyes and skip a few paragraphs so you don’t have a fit. Here is the reply in all its cruelty: by gradually burning the books, magazines, brochures, posters and anything resembling paper that came to hand.
The librarians had begun with the shelves nearest the stove, that is to say the reserve collection, the so-called precious works, which, as they were imprisoned in a separate room, were never read by anyone. The reserve room was quickly emptied. They continued with the ultra-full storerooms; librarians have a horror of throwing anything away, it’s well known. That enabled them to last a few more days. Then they set about the lending library, and soon made a big hole in that.
The readers had already been told to return all their books immediately. They could keep records, CDs, CD-ROMs, cassettes and videos for a while longer; those couldn’t be burned, but books, for pity’s sake, had to be returned. Even if the books were very overdue, the readers wouldn’t be fined, that was a promise. The winter was harsh, and several tons of books were still needed to keep going until the first ray of spring sunshine, the green ray that everyone was waiting for even more eagerly than in previous years.
Readers had immediately been asked to bring in their own books. In a word, everything was being done to encourage huge amounts of donations, no matter what they were. For once, the librarians didn’t sigh when they saw cardboard boxes of old books arriving, donated by readers who had had the bad idea of giving them to the library, just so they wouldn’t have to take them to the tip.
Donations were arriving regularly. As it turned out, the readers had more of a sense of civic duty than they were given credit for. The readers’ association had even set up a scheme to help with transport. It was a long time since cars had been used, as there was no petrol. However, there was a good stock of trolleys; metal supermarket trolleys and even canvas shopping trolleys.
It’s true that transporting twenty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was no trifling matter, even if you were spurred on by the idea that this impressive amount of paper would contribute to the following day’s warmth.
Anyone who donated a series of at least twenty volumes was immediately promoted to “Benefactor of the Library,” which pleased most of the donors, as human beings like to collect titles. Unfortunately, they didn’t receive a card, because of the lack of paper, but according to the readers’ association it would only be a matter of time. When the crisis was over, all the benefactors would receive a personalised card.
Other readers helped the donors to transport dictionaries and encyclopedias in ten or twenty volumes, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
There were numerous volunteers and their motivation was two-fold. One: to keep warm. There is nothing like physical exercise; it’s even better than knitting. Two: to make themselves useful. When times are hard you have to stick together.
On the stairs, each reader was carrying one volume. “Why only one volume?” Burly chaps asked. As the readers hadn’t had a proper meal for days, they were not very strong, poor things.
The volumes were taken downstairs and grouped together in trolleys, ten volumes for supermarket trolleys and a maximum of five volumes for shopping trolleys, but only if the shopping trolleys were in good condition, which was not always the case, in view of the number of books they had already carted around since the beginning of the crisis.
Nicolas looked pensively at all the readers doing their knitting. Everyone was managing quite well, even the men, who, in principle, were not keen on knitting, with a few exceptions.
It seems it hadn’t been easy at first. The haberdasher and a few ladies from the knitting club had shown them how get going. As there were only a few of them and the pupils’ level was very low, they soon had to find a new approach. It would have taken almost one teacher per pupil to do it properly, so first of all they had to train some teachers.
They decided that the first thing to do was to give the librarians intensive classes. By fair means or foul, the librarians managed to get started and soon felt completely comfortable with this new activity, something that everyone found perfectly normal; after all, they were in their own premises and were using their own card index rods. Moreover, apart from stoking the stove at night, they had nothing to do any more as they were no longer lending books or answering people’s questions on various topics.
At first, librarians who became too irritated when they found their pupils rather inept were instructed to run round the block three times rather than poke the knitters’ eyes out.
Finally, after a lot of blood, sweat and tears and having tested their teachers’ patience to the limit, the readers got started and, although some of their talent was questionable, everyone showed willing. The teachers had explained that the basic rule was to knit something useful. It was important to be motivated.
So one woman was knitting herself a rainbow-coloured dress, because of the wool she had found. She would make a mini-dress or even a dress that came down to the ankles. Someone else was making a scarf. It was easy, and a scarf was always a useful accessory, especially in this weather. A third person was making a coat for his doggy because he didn’t need anything for himself. A fourth was knitting slippers for her boyfriend because her boyfriend had cold feet in bed, especially since the crisis. A fifth person was knitting baby clothes. If it hadn’t been for the crisis, he would never have knitted baby clothes, and definitely not for his neighbours’ babies. Before the crisis, he had been a complete egotist who disliked screaming brats.
In the end, the haberdasher, the knitting ladies and the librarians were quite satisfied with their pupils. Not in the beginning, of course; nearly all the teachers complained about their pupils, sometimes forgetting that a good pupil is one who has a good teacher. When they first started, the teachers and the pupils all had horrible headaches at the end of the day from dropped stitches, twisted stitches or even mislaid rods.
The teachers had noticed that, at first, the particularly rebellious pupils used to hide their rods in weird places, between the carpet and the skirting board or down the sides of chairs. Their reasoning was as follows: no more rod, no more knitting.
After consulting amongst themselves, the teachers were adamant. Anyone who lost their rod must continue with their finger. In fact, it is very difficult to knit with your finger, and all things considered, it’s better to use an index file rod. Suddenly, the rods stopped disappearing. They were even arranged tidily in full view whenever a reader went out for a few minutes to go to the toilets or just chat to another reader.
Every three hours, the changing of the teams took place in a very official fashion. The old team would sadly pull their rods out of their knitting and pass them to the new team, who would laboriously pick up the stitches of their own knitting with them, sighing heartrendingly, with good reason, because it is never much fun to pick up stitches, as the knitting ladies knew so well.
Everyone went back home with their own knitting and oddments of wool. This avoided awful situations of taking someone else’s knitting by mistake or having balls of wool pinched. In any case, for those whose knitting was well advanced, it meant that they could make use of it during the evening or at night: they could wrap the scarf round their neck, even if it was a bit short; the boyfriend could wear the slippers in bed, even if the toe or the heels were missing, and the skirt – which was still a mini-skirt but could become a maxi-skirt – could be worn to go dancing. As it was very cold, people did a lot of dancing.
They no longer danced to the sound of disc jockeys, juke boxes, sound systems, laser discs or MP3 players, because electricity was in short supply. No, it was the local musicians, who threw themselves into it wholeheartedly. Things had never worked so well. In any case, music is like knitting; it was better to make music and do knitting to warm yourself up than sit moaning about the cold.
Moreover, the great advantage of music, compared to knitting, is that it warms the soul as well as the body; at least, it does for music lovers, who are much more numerous than you might think. Some musicians even played in the library while people were knitting, which warmed everyone’s hearts.
In fact, the parish priest had suggested that someone should read during the hours of knitting, or more precisely that a librarian should read out loud. The priest in question had even suggested reading the Bible, which is understandable, as it is his bedside reading. The imam proposed something similar, advising reading the Koran. The rabbi made a similar approach and offered to lend a copy of the Torah.
These suggestions provoked a general outcry; not the reading of the Bible, the Koran or the Torah, since, more often than not, the readers of this library respected other people’s beliefs, but after all, the Christians could listen to the Bible during the Sunday service; the Muslims could listen to the Koran during the Friday service and the Jews could listen to the Torah during the Saturday service. And anyway, it was a sign of the times that most readers preferred music to reading.
After a democratic vote, although music won the day, it proved impossible to agree on the type of music. The readers had very varied tastes, preferring classical, jazz, blues, rock, hard rock, bebop, rap, rai, folk, or country and western, etc., etc.
So, quite simply, when the musicians arrived at the door of the library, they were asked to play in chronological order. So the violinist followed the accordionist, who followed the pianist. The readers’ association had transported a piano to the library. What a chore, they remembered. Why were pianos so heavy? Singers followed musicians; some even sang and played at the same time.
Their talent varied widely. Some musicians attracted bursts of applause; others, high-pitched whistling; it depended. People refrained from using rotten tomatoes and apples. In a time of scarcity such as this, they preferred to eat them, stewed, preferably, as they are more digestible like that.
In general, there weren’t many disagreements between the reader-knitters and the musicians. The worst musicians, the ones who would really have put a damper on everyone’s spirits if it hadn’t been so cold, were ordered to stop after half an hour, but they presented themselves very quickly again the following day. The best ones didn’t come often enough; they also played at dance nights and had to sleep from time to time.
If any stubborn, untalented musicians went too far and wouldn’t stop their cacophony, despite unanimous pleas by the reader-knitters, the librarian on duty would take the last available copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and bash them on the head with it – not too hard, though, as he wanted to knock them out, not kill them.
But that didn’t discourage the untalented musicians; they still came back the following day. They were intractable; even when it was pointed out that they had no talent and ought to retrain in another field, they refused to believe it.
But why keep a copy of the Britannica to encourage the untalented musicians to shut up when the paper in the Britannica was much better than the other encyclopaedias for stoking the stove at night, asked a perceptive reader.
After a long professional discussion on this subject, the librarians finally decided that, all things considered, it was better to be bashed on the head with a volume of the Britannica than a volume of a completely obsolete, third-rate encyclopaedia. Bashing someone on the head with a volume of the Britannica was a mark of respect for one’s fellow human beings. The librarians didn’t want the musicians to feel hard done by and treated like a nobody.
After he had watched all the reader-knitters for a long time, Nicolas asked if he could sit down on the carpet for a while. He had noticed that all the seats were taken and that everyone was knitting. He didn’t want to disturb anyone, just warm himself up a bit and look at people, in a word, feel a bit of the human warmth around him; he needed it. The strange thing was that there was no music; nearly all the musicians were sick or tired.
An hour later, he noticed that a knitter had become tired and had stopped knitting. He asked the knitter if he could borrow his rods. The knitter looked towards the librarian on duty on the lending desk and Nicolas understood that first of all he must ask the librarian’s permission. He asked the librarian’s permission, and the librarian, seeing a look of agreement on the knitter’s face, agreed.
Nicolas took off his denim jacket and rolled up his sleeves, but he kept his felt hat on. He hardly ever took it off except in the shower, and so on. Then he took the rods and struck them against each other in various rhythms. The knitters looked at him and smiled. They even put down their rods so they could applaud at the end of the first piece. Some of them stopped knitting for a good while, and then picked up their work again because they had started to feel chilly.
After an hour of rhythmic drumming, Nicolas stood up and asked the librarian if he could borrow the last volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The librarian hesitated for a moment; he was afraid that this new musician might bash him on the head so he could sit on his chair, but he could see in Nicolas’ green eyes that he had no malicious intentions. He obviously just wanted to play music with whatever came to hand.
The librarian held out the volume to him. The muscles on his forearm were bulging under his blue roll-necked sweater and the weight of the volume made him stagger for a moment. Nicolas noted sadly that, evidently, the librarian hadn’t been eating properly, and must have been feeling very tired. Having to stoke up the boiler at night and run the knitting workshops during the day went way beyond his usual thirty-seven hour working week.
Nicolas took the volume, sat down cross-legged again, put the volume of the Britannica in front of him, then used the volume like a drum, with the rods as drumsticks.
At any other time but the crisis, the librarian would have flinched, because, inevitably, the white cover gradually became dented with little grey marks, because of the contact between the grey metal of the rods and the white leatherette of the book.
But, since the crisis, he had seen worse, and the fact of being required to burn nearly all the books in the library to achieve a temperature of four or five degrees above freezing, with great difficulty, had obliged him to reconsider a certain number of professional principles, and so he said nothing.
Nicolas was an exceptional musician. Using the Britannica and two index file rods, he managed to tap out a drum rhythm. The knitters amused themselves trying to knit in time to it. Slow, quick, slow, quick, the knitters were delighted. They had never thought of varying their rhythm for a bit of variety.
That evening, Nicolas was immediately appointed to keep up the morale of the knitters with his alternately languorous and frenzied rhythms until the end of the crisis.
One day, in the middle of the afternoon, the first green ray of spring sunshine finally appeared. They stopped burning books; in any case, there were none left, except the volume of the Britannica, which Nicolas used as a drum.
Nicolas announced that he was leaving. The librarians and the reader-knitters were appalled, but Nicolas wasn’t the type to stay in the same place for long. They wanted to give him the volume of the Britannica and the pair of rods, as a souvenir, but he declined politely; he didn’t like being burdened with things. He adjusted his felt hat and left for the coast.