Saturday, 13 August 2005

boats and islands

Back of library building; top = the upstairs I am talking about. pigeons - vermin of the air - nest and poo up there. Not sure what that ladder is for.

At work we have an upstairs, attic-style section to the library. This is off-limits to everyone but staff, and special researchers. (And this volunteer.) It houses rare books and journals, mainly relating to PNG.

It’s a wonderful place. You climb a flight of slightly-too-small steps to reach a tiny landing and, on your right, the first door. Unlocking this one (it is always kept locked), you enter a long rectangular room, with a high a-frame ceiling. The area is divided by big bookshelves into three bays; the last one, the largest, has a long narrow table for scholars to scribble their notes on, but all of the bays have a low bench up against the far wall for the same purpose. The two long walls that make the room are not really walls at all, but porous places: louvered windows line them, taking the place of something more solid. The louvres are always open (despite the fragility of some of the old books). You look out on the campus and the greeny-blue mountains not too far away. It is a light and airy space, usually warm, and somewhat dusty.

It is beautiful when the afternoon light creeps slantwise, along the wooden floor. But I like it best when it’s been hot (well, as hot as Goroka gets), when thick clouds have stormed the sky and in a fury begin to pelt those fat raindrops down on the earth. When all you can hear is the roar of the rain, up here it feels like you’re in a boat, safe and dry. A boat with books.

At the far end of this room is another door, also kept locked. There are more anthropology journals and bibliographies; long benches line two of the walls, and here is a little multimedia centre where we convert aging videos to digital formats, and where I sometimes muck around trying to teach myself how to edit movies, dreaming that I am actually an independent filmmaker just polishing my latest feature on some important and risky project, getting ready to file it with the office in London where staff I email but never see will distribute it to worldwide acclaim whilst I am back in the field chasing up the next important and risky project…

Lately, however, this door’s been open, and someone else has been working at that desk. Not making films, but translating some Dutch manuscripts. He seems almost fictional to me: he’s a Brother, originally from Australia; gaunt, fiercely intelligent, and a bit lost in the world. He is interested in ancient civilizations, has an incredible memory, and knows about a thousand different languages – but his pronunciation is terrible: all his learning is from books. He is abrupt and uncomfortable with people, at times harsh; he reaches out to others with an almost desperate need, and yet repels any consequent personal response. He has given me some of his own writing to read; it is crammed with information, yet there is no easy flow to how he writes: it almost bristles. And in amongst it, unexpectedly, are painfully acute personal revelations, bitterness and a great sense of loss. Secretly, I find him like a bit of a warning, a sad one. So much knowledge, but so ill-equipped for living.
(last night was another movie night - war of the worlds: shockingly bad. didn't even watch the second half; still shaking head that it could be so terrible. and mr and mrs smith, which was more entertaining. is it true she's having his baby? good gossip anyway)

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