a short story
translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic
Mr. Plushal collected words. He'd been doing this since
the age of fifty-six, after reading his first anthology of love poems.
It had been a small paperback with a beautiful purple flower on the
cover, although the smell emanating from the book was wholly incompatible
with this image. The copy had the stale, musty odor that inevitably
permeates books after they spend a long time in a basement secondhand
Mr. Plushal might not have bought the anthology. Although he periodically
made the rounds of the bookstores, he rarely bought any books, and when
he did they were of a quite different sort. He had a small library in
his house consisting primarily of handbooks. On raising houseplants,
for example. He himself didn't have any plants, but he considered himself
very knowledgeable on the subject. Or on cats. He didn't have a cat
because he was allergic to their fur, but if anyone were to ask him,
he had plenty of useful advice to offer. There was also a handbook on
freezer maintenance and repair. True, he had no need for a freezer,
but useful knowledge is nothing to be sneezed at.
He had decided to buy the anthology because of the flower on the cover.
As a plant expert he knew that such a flower did not exist, but that
was the very reason it had appealed to him. He took the book to the
cashier in a somewhat uneasy state. It seemed somehow unfitting for
a man his age to show an interest in romantic verse. It was almost like
buying a pornographic magazine. Luckily the salesgirl didn't take note
of the title. All she did was look at the price and take the exact change
he handed her.
He knew a thing or two about love, of course. Not from personal experience
in this case, either, but was that necessary? Most likely people are
born with such awareness. How else could it be? Nonetheless, when he
set to reading the book, the unease from the store returned, despite
the fact that he was alone. He even blushed. He only found relief with
the thought that the anthology should be considered a handbook on love.
Then everything became easier and quite pleasant.
He was surprised to find that the words in the book charmed him even
more than the tender and exalted feelings. He suddenly became aware
of something that had escaped his notice. Beautiful words exist. They
weren't necessarily special or rare, rather ordinary words that were
to be found in other books too. But for some reason or other they had
never looked beautiful in the handbooks. Or rather, their beauty hadn't
caught his eye.
The more he read, the more he was filled with the fear of losing something.
When he turned a page, the words that stayed behind seemed to pale and
evaporate. New ones came to take their place, but this was insufficient
consolation. He had to save the earlier ones somehow. It made no sense
to allow them to disappear. He could have gone back to them, of course,
but then he would never finish reading the book. No, he had to find
a better solution. And then he had a flash of inspiration.
He bought a large lined notebook with a leather cover. Nothing less
magnificent would suffice as a repository for beautiful words. How could
he write them in an ordinary notebook? That would have been almost sacrilegious.
He returned to the beginning of the anthology, holding the open notebook
in front of him. Whenever he came across a beautiful word, he wrote
it down promptly with his fountain pen. It was not made of gold, in
actual fact, but it's hard to arrange everything to perfection.
His handwriting was neat. Not ornate but measured, even a little austere.
Beautiful in its own way. Just what was needed to write down beautiful
words, not overshadowing them yet consonant with them. He normally wrote
with large letters, but for this occasion he made the letters smaller.
Just in case. He didn't know how many beautiful words he would find.
The notebook was quite thick, but he had to proceed with care.
It was not until he had written down all the beautiful words in the
anthology that he mustered the courage to check the results. Would they
remain beautiful in his notebook or would their beauty be lost, as in
the handbooks? Holding the notebook a short distance away, he breathed
a sigh of relief as he took in the four densely filled pages. Not only
was their beauty intact, it seemed somehow enhanced. This was probably
due to the fact that only beautiful words were present, not those other
ones that were not exactly ugly, but did not stand out in any way. The
notebook was concentrated beauty.
After he had finished the anthology, he wondered what to do next. The
notebook was nowhere near to being filled, it had barely been touched.
Could he leave it like that? It would be as if he'd merely chipped off
a bit of beauty. No, he had to continue. There had to be many more beautiful
words. They all deserved to be in one place. But where should he look
What first crossed his mind, naturally, was another anthology of love
poems. He couldn't go wrong there. He'd seen for himself that beautiful
words find great expression in love poems. But if he kept buying just
this type of book he would soon become conspicuous. Two or three more
could pass unnoticed, but three hundred and thirty-five, the number
he'd seen in the Main Library catalogue, would certainly give rise to
derision. No, he would have to think of something else. And then he
had a second inspirational flash.
Who said beautiful words could only be found in anthologies of love
poems? They certainly had to be in other books too. Why not even in
handbooks? He was already expert enough to grasp a great truth. Beautiful
words are everywhere. The skill lay not in the choice of books but in
detecting the words. You had to have an eye for them. And he suspected
he already had one. There was a simple way to verify this. He grabbed
the first handbook within his reach and opened it. The same moment he
was blinded by a blaze of beautiful words, as though someone had highlighted
them with a bright marker.
He was barely able to resist the temptation to open his notebook and
start writing them down. What stopped him was his prudence, something
that made him rightfully proud. One couldn't be so impulsive. Where
would that lead one? Confusion would reign in an instant. He had to
be steadfast and systematic. After thoroughly considering the circumstances,
the solution presented itself at last, once again in the form of an
He struggled briefly with the thought of tearing up the first four
pages in the notebook so he could start over again. But he dropped the
idea. Such an important undertaking could not begin in a disfigured
notebook. He would have to buy a new one. That alone would be fitting.
He chose the largest one he could find. It had a feature that he found
particularly expedient: a gilded ribbon to mark the place where you
had stopped reading or writing.
The enormous dictionary had sixteen heavy tomes. When he opened the
first one, a bevy of sparkling, beautiful words met his eye. The magnitude
of what lay ahead did not frighten him, however. He was perfectly prepared
for it. Nor could he expect to find any shortcuts. Whatever time was
needed to write them all down would be taken, neither more nor less.
After all, what lay before him was joy and not suffering. Indeed, what
can be more joyful than writing down beauty?
When he finally brought his work to a close, Mr. Plushal was considerably
older than fifty-six. But this did nothing to lessen his feeling of
satisfaction and fulfillment. On the contrary. How many people that
old can say their lives have not been in vain, for they have collected
beauty? Only one thing was left for him to do. There was room for just
two more words at the bottom of the last page of the completely filled
notebook. For the first time since he'd started his collection, he softened
his handwriting a little. It was still austere, but also gentle, benevolent.
Just the way a signature should be. Entering the notebook, he slowly
pulled the back cover after him, as though lowering a heavy lid.
© Zoran Zivkovic 2005.
This story is published here for the first time. It is part of
Zoran's new story suite, Twelve Collections and the Teashop
(PS Publishing, May 2007) .
Order online using these links and infinity
plus will benefit:
Twelve Collections and the Teashop from
Amazon.com / from
Amazon.co.uk (limited edition hardback)
Twelve Collections and the Teashop from
Amazon.com / from
...more Zoran Zivkovic titles at Amazon.com
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