I have come to loathe conventional beginnings of stories, but although I have grown tired of the beginnings, I cannot shake the need for stories as such, as there still are things to tell, even if you thought that we had run out of them of a long, long time ago. For some time I’ve had an idea in my head, an idea for one of those stories to tell, but as always, I did not know where to begin – as I quite often do, in fact. So let’s not begin at the beginning, but at the end.
There is this person, be it a woman or a man, it is of no consequence for how the narrative works, and contrary to many other conventional ways to start a story, we start with the death of our protagonist. You can think of any setting you like, a scarcely attended funeral in the middle of a torrential downpour, the scattering of the ashes in some sublime scenery if s/he had been burned beforehand or a scene in the morgue, where no one cares about the body lying lonely in one of those refrigerator-like things.
I, for my part, like to think of a small, but warmly frequented funeral at the beginning of a winter that you are usually waiting for without knowing when it will actually arrive. But then there is this morning when you leave your house and there is soft steam whirling out of your mouth, while the sun is shining brightly through clear but arid air that makes your skin tingle pleasantly and it finally is the time you have to start wearing gloves for the rest of the year. At this funeral there is a middle-sized group of people, each willing to say their goodbyes while the spade has a hard time – excuse me – getting through the newly-frozen soil with its scraping noises making the gravestones sing around it. All these people can be seen wallowing in their memories of the recently deceased, gently beginning their process of mourning in that particular bittersweet way you would imagine to fit the rest of the description.
You spend time with nearly all of the people attending and share their memories of friendship, (un-) requited affection, of competition, remorse, but also barely supressed hatred and jealousy. You really get to know the deceased, and from the reactions of the guests you get a faint idea of the sort of impact that person had on their lives. You even start getting the impression that you knew that person through all the stories you’re allowed to share in, that this person might actually have existed, that it does not matter that this is only fiction you are consuming right now, you start identifying with the characters and share their perceptions, you are totally involved.
And then I tell you that that person for whom everybody is feeling so much in that story has never actually lived at all in the first place, that it was I or someone else who wrote her or him into the narrated world and that despite him or her being a fake, a mere text, everybody believed in her/him as if s/he were actually there, actually real, so real, but no one knows, no one knows or even suspects that they’re mourning a fake corpse and could instead throw a book into the frozen grave or even shout into it so that their jumbled words would tumble head over heels down on that hoarfrost-covered earth at the bottom of it. Or it could stay entirely empty, as ‘text’ does not have, does not need a bodily, a material form; they could fill it with another ghost from another story they had heard at some point during their lives or not even bother to dig the grave at all. One of them could even shout at the gravedigger: “No, what are you doing? This is wrong, stop, we’re burying a lie, aren’t we? Aren’t we?” and wrench the spade out of his gloved hands which every morning itch to dig a new hole and then another and another and another one until his fingernails crack, because he loves it by God how he loves doing his work every single day no matter the weather or the number of wooden boxes waiting for their holes to welcome them like cradles, so softly they would keep them inside like a womb.
But they don’t know, they do not know, do you understand? And no one, not one of them ever will, not one of them will ever find out that for decades they interacted with a loosely-joined host of phantom letters without any body whatsoever, just a discursive object telling itself when it should not be able to speak at all.
What good is a fake if it can be mistaken for the real thing?