A Useless Object
by Jessica Sequeira
Today, as usual, the postman came by to deliver review copies. They always come in packets, so many he often has to come by twice in an afternoon. His face is now as familiar to me as the image of our leader, but that does not imply a relationship of respect. I think he must resent the extra work; he’s always shooting me suspicious glances. What he doesn’t know is that I don’t even want the books. So many arrive that it’s impossible to keep track of them all; the nation is threatened by sinister forces and says nothing, yet it goes on writing.
Last year I hired a secretary to help choose those worth attention. She had pale skin and very dark eyes; her name was Ana. In my head I secretly referred to her as Anna Snitkina, the beloved stenographer of Dostoevsky. Referred, past tense. She was a beautiful girl, but slovenly with the sorting; though I put up with it for a long time (her charms outweighed other considerations) the fact that her choices were based on wrapping rather than contents was something I could ultimately no longer ignore. Yesterday afternoon, we drank tea together, then I fired her. She left in tears; the house is now terribly quiet.
It felt good to make a firm decision after months of vacillating, but this morning I woke up doubting myself. I went to sift through the stacks of books delivered and picked up the top one at random. This is how I came across History of a Useless Object. It almost certainly would never have grabbed Ana’s attention, as it was wrapped in plain brown paper with no adornments and had a cover featuring simple capitalized letters on a solid blue background. According to the back, I could expect to follow an object as it journeyed to different countries over the course of its history.
Usually I only review fiction, as that is what most interests readers most. Note that I always think of the reader first, the fruit of writing criticism for a people’s newspaper so many years! Yet something about this text drew me in. It had mass potential; it could be big. I took the book back to my table, its surface made of the same mass-produced wood as the chair, uncomfortable but nothing to complain about—our leader provides everything we need. There I delivered myself over to the pages.
The object in question was a glass globe, one meter in diameter, created for no purpose whatsoever. Its earliest recorded history comes from the travel diaries of a Middle Eastern merchant crossing the desert in 1428 A.D. on the way to Europe. He mentions the origins of the sphere in Africa, when sometime in the 13th century an outsider tribesman created the object, which arrived in the desert as part of the spoils of the Maghreb-Magawa war. The story is apocryphal, and difficult to believe, as it would both far precede the invention of glass and anticipate the Kantian definition of art as beauty which serves no purpose; it’s more likely that the merchant, Muhammad al-Farji, created the story as a way of passing the time on camelback during the long stretches of the desert crossing.
In addition, a footnote to the text—which seems to me the key point of the book—signals that from the start the supposedly useless object was made to serve a purpose, as a truly useless object, like a truly good man, cannot exist.
Al-Farji registered that the globe was used by Mutakhar al-Rasheed, another merchant with whom he was traveling, to carry water. This was an imposition rather than a choice; the more accurate word would be punishment. Al-Rasheed was known to have a taste for liquor, but was a skilled navigator. Al-Farji, who led the exhibition, didn’t want to leave him behind, but also needed to ensure he wouldn’t spend his days in the howling, poetry-writing, semi-barbarian state the secret consumption of liquor produced. (No one knew where al-Rasheed obtained his spirits, or how he was able to store enough to achieve his states of intoxication; some whispered that these states were dissembled.) For the transportation of water, the only liquid permitted to the men, al-Rasheed was thus given the glass sphere, as the usual camel skin vessels could too easily be made to hide spirits. Al-Farji acquired the sphere from a local trader in exchange for nine pounds of cardamom and nine of salt.
The expedition reached Venice, where al-Rasheed disappeared. “The globe’s whereabouts during this time are unknown,” writes the author of the book; the object would not resurface until 1883, when it was catalogued as part of an antique inventory in London. It was picked up by an English lord, Sir William Mackintosh, who records his excitement over the “glittering bauble”. In the same diary, Lord Mackintosh reports contracting an unnamed Indian as his private helper and servant; this Indian would serve him for thirty years. When the lord died, his heirs fought over the rights to his property, and the Indian returned to his native country with the sphere and a few other useless items left to him in the legacy.
In the village where he was born in the south of India decades before, he had a house built with what he had earned, which he called the Green Mansion. He was treated by those in the vicinity as a Brahmin and moneyed man, though he hadn’t been either of these things when he ran away as a boy. In his notes, written in rudimentary Konkani, the Indian admitted to never having understood his eccentric master; he did not treasure the sphere left to him or see any purpose to it. Indeed, he’d forgotten about it entirely until a boy paid to help with household maintenance noticed it during the unpacking.
Rumors spread through the village like wildfire—this man, who had been gone so long, was not just a Brahmin but a god. The glass sphere became the center of a cult. The Indian ignored the rumors at first, but his notes revealed that eventually he embraced his new status. Compared to London the village was dull; the beautiful woman he made his wife didn’t speak, and was equally dull; he needed a way to entertain himself. He began to spend his days thinking up elaborate rituals and parades, in which he was carried about in a palanquin. What happened next isn’t clear, but as part of the rebellion against foreign goods and influences, he appears to have become a target. Fire was set to his mansion, but not before the globe, the notes, and other objects were looted.
The glass sphere eventually made it to a local market, where a French anthropologist picked it up during his Oriental travels. It was used as part of a series of experiments on financial violence, first in the French countryside, and subsequently in the province of Buenos Aires. A nearly invisible opening in the transparent globe was made; it was stuffed with cash and handed to participants; the reactions of poor provincials attempting the impossible task of gaining access to the money were registered. The younger ones threw it on the floor or against the wall, hoping it would break; the older ones traced a finger down the side, searching for a hidden seam; the cynical of all ages did nothing, but stared at the researchers with hate in their eyes.
Word of the experiment soon got around, and the provincials held a meeting one rainy night in a tavern to discuss what to do. The entire project was an offense at every level, from the anthropological to the socioeconomic. Though at first they thought of protesting, at last it was decided the sphere should be used to their benefit. They joined leagues with a known narcotrafficker in the capital, famous for his obesity and habit of sucking olive pits; one of the anthropologists was bribed; the sphere was used to transport across provinces the cash it was convenient the bank never registered. The provincials received their cut from the transactions, which had the blessing of funding from the government, relieved foreign researchers were interested in a theme besides dictatorship. This went on for months without a hitch, but eventually one of the provincials spilled to the police; the game was up. Nothing happened to the narco, but the provincial was found dead in a field of alfalfa, and the object could clearly no longer be used. At this point, through the narco’s connections, the sphere made it up to Mexico City…
I was taking notes as I read, but at this point I dropped my pen. With astonishment I began to read of myself, a literary critic in the D.F.; my desk was described, my lamp, the way I am sitting with head bent over my papers. The box was delivered to my house on a certain date—I checked the calendar, it is today. Here I stopped reading, suddenly frightened. How could someone know all these details, which are occurring this very minute? I need time to think through the consequences. If I keep going I might know the future; but do I want to? Instead of reading on immediately, I began to take these notes. The detail in which it has all been recorded makes me ask who could have authored such a text. It must have been someone privy to the globe’s every movement, but who could that possibly be?
About a third of the book still remains; the history of the object will not end with me. Perhaps it will go to California, where it will be employed by a technological enterprise, then into space in a capsule, the emissary to alien civilizations. It might be used as the external part of a temporal telescope, which can see all segments of time and trace the movements of all objects. Is it possible this manuscript has reached me from the future? It seems improbable, yet how else could the author have known all these details—especially since the globe was never anything special, and was always a useless object? And at what point did not just the object, but a text (equally useless) about the sphere begin to circulate?
All this is only speculation; I haven’t read beyond the present. I’m afraid to know; I’ve closed the book. Perhaps I will open it again, but I need to get my ideas clear first. In my city I am a literary critic of some reputation, yet I am under no illusion that I’m known beyond its borders. I have no traffic with narcos or Orientals; the question of who wrote the book, and how they know about me, intrigues and terrifies. I almost wish Ana were here so I could talk to her about this, seek her solace… how I regret letting her go! But maybe even she was involved? Is it mere chance the book was at the top of the pile? Perhaps she anticipated her dismissal so I could think I stumbled upon the book myself. It’s possible that nothing is coincidence, that everything has been anticipated.
A knock comes at the door, a heavy pounding—once, twice, three times. I am going to go and answer… perhaps, as the text promises, the box with the glass sphere has arrived. If that’s the case, my fingers will tremble as I pick it up; how strange it will be to have it in my hands at last, after having lived with its image over the last few hours. On the other hand, what if it isn’t the sphere? What if it’s somebody sent here to find me? No, better not risk it! I’ve long had a bag prepared for just this contingency; I’ll leave by the side window now. And I’ll leave these notes here just in case, so that Ana will understand if she returns.
The preceding pages were discovered in the apartment of J.A. Sanchez, a literary critic at one of the city’s popular newspapers. His left-wing views have long been known to us; we have been following them via telephone recordings and hidden cameras for some time. The coup took place the day he was scheduled to deliver a review; he reportedly fled, leaving behind these working papers, discovered by the military forces. Two copies were made for analysis, one sent to a university in the Northeast of the United States and the other to this office in Washington.
Neither the globe mentioned nor History of a Useless Object has been traced. A search has begun, but we cannot rule out the possibility that Sanchez has one or both of these items on his person. Nor can we rule out the possibility that his text is pure fiction; staff psychologists report that his behavior indicates an author uninterested in continuing to serve as a mere hired pen for the government, one predisposed to wild theories and paranoid imaginative escapades.
What is clear is that Sanchez’s text about History of a Useless Object now possesses a history of its own, existing separately from both the book that inspired it and the original sphere (whose existence, as I mentioned, is questionable). His criticism has become an object in itself, which in turn will inspire another text—this one. These histories of histories could proliferate indefinitely. I, a mediocre bureaucrat with no record of excitement in my own life, will now be joining a long historical chain, in which even the most useless objects and people play a part. My superiors will likely not approve, and the notes I send them will be suitably anodyne. But the text I am writing now will continue to circulate, with a secret life of its own…
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.