Ludo Schildermans

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As the recognised magazines for writers, Writers News and Writing Magazine are often invited to cooperate with other magazines in the running of short story competitions. This recently happened with the Good Book Guide, where Writers News suggested that a library theme and setting would make a suitable competition for a magazine which is very much about books.

The winning entry was from Ludo Schildermans of Antwerp, and his dark story was about the destruction of libraries under some future totalitarian regime. At least we assume the story is about a totalitarian regime; the idea of the burning of books has become a kind of fictional symbol for the suppression of ideas but there is a hint in the story that perhaps books had in any case fallen out of use until what we take to be the Bible was reprinted. So perhaps Ludo Schildermans’ story is not such a dark tale after all: it points to the timeless strength of the Bible, and also we are left with the thought that somewhere hidden in a cave are the seeds of a future generation of literature.

Cheating the Cyclops

                    by Ludo Schildermans

They finally came. Kathy and I watched them as they stepped out of their armoured black vehicles. They were all dressed in the same dark uniform, all twelve of them. We knew somehow it would happen one day. You try to believe these people will not bother about your little town.

Until they arrive.

Their leader wore a black patch. His orders were cold and simple. Burning of the books should take place in less than 24 hours.

‘All of them?’ Kathy had the courage to ask. She is my assistant. That ready tongue of hers will get her into trouble one day.

‘Orders are clear!’ the man in charge shouted at her. That one eye of his could set fire to the pile of books he expected us to build before tomorrow evening. What can I say? We stood there and watched them drive off. I could feel Kathy’s anger, so I avoided her eyes as I entered the building.

There were rumours of protest, of people demonstrating. Some librarians even put up a fight. A few days later we heard of their gruesome fate. A pyre of books is no place to die. Kathy tried to organise some kind of protest meeting in our small town. She knew people, she said. But am too old to fight. I told her. The fate of the libraries is sealed. The days of books are numbered. Anyone can see that. I am old enough to remember that strange and horrible film. Somehow I believe that movie must have been the beginning of it all. I can still see that villain kill the librarian by literally ‘feeding’ the good old man to death with literaturg. Page after page. Can you believe it? That cruel man started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. How many people nowadays can say they have read that masterpiece? Not even Kathy.

It was with pain in my heart that I entered the library. I tried to grasp the full meaning of this strange moment. I would never return here.

I started throwing books in the little trolley we use to put them back on the shelves. There is a beginning to everything. Kathy came in. She took hold of the sleeve of my jacket.

‘We should do something, goddamn it!’

‘I am doing something.’

‘No, I mean occupy this building. Barricade it.’

‘Be sensible, Kathy. We saw it coming. These last few years...’

‘People didn’t have any choice.’

‘Didn’t they really, Kathy?’

She stood there. Lost. I asked her to get some folks to help us. Our library may be a small one, but the two of us would never succeed in getting all the books out in time. And I had heard what would happen to us then. Kathy went reluctantly. Like in a trance I began rolling out trolley after trolley loaded with books.

Strangely enough all this burning started with that one big bestseller. For years they let us be. We were nostalgia. Reading was a dying business. Government propaganda had worked well. People got addicted to other media. I suspect it gave the government better control. Until that one book came around. It was a reprint, not even of decent quality. You should have seen that publication... Some small publisher must have thrown it on the market one day for his own pleasure. To get the feeling back of the old days, I suppose. There were only a few publications every year. But no fiction. This book had a strange mixture of facts and fiction. A few hundred years ago it was considered the book of books. People erected the most magnificent buildings to read the words aloud. They tried to live their lives accordingly. They even fought bloody wars over it. Can you imagine that? Over a book? I’ve tried to read it several times. And honestly, I still don’t understand the fuss when the reprint appeared. Bit of an awkward plot if you ask me. All these miracles... and that pompous style. Jesus Christ!

The government must have slept while that reprint turned out to be a massive success. Before they knew it everybody wanted to read that book. In less than a week you couldn’t find a copy anywhere. In no time libraries were overrun with new members and they all wanted that one title. We should have refused every ~. one of them. But we were taken by surprise. And so was the government. When they finally understood the consequences, the message had already spread like a fire. They must have panicked. How else can you explain that the only answer they came up with was to fight fire with fire.

When Kathy came back with a few townsmen, we started working in a chain. I don’t know how many books passed our hands. It seemed that stream would never come to a stop. Night fell, morning broke. When they returned the next day in their black vehicles, we had only just finished.

I prepared for this day. I started right after the National Library went up in flames. I had found this little cave up in the mountains. It’s like a labyrinth to get in there. The last few months I dragged hundreds of books to this hiding place like an animal before hibernation. That was not the most difficult part. It was the choices I had to make that nearly killed me.

I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Kathy. She suspects something though. With all these books missing from the shelves. I really would like to tell her. I’m not getting any younger. One day someone has to take care of my little collection.

They really are cruel people. Especially that man with the black patch. He made us look at the fire. It was horrible. It took me all my power of persuasion to keep Kathy calm. The fire didn’t warm me. I stood there like a mourner on an icy churchyard. What was there to do but weep?

The next day I set off. When I entered the cave I felt like Ulysses trying to cheat the Cyclops, that one-eyed monster. Probably you don’t understand what I’m talking about. I mean this is not the only beautiful and magnificent story that has died in that great fire. At least that is what they think.

There are hundreds of these stories. I will read them aloud in here. To my small but beautiful audience. Kathy immediately agreed to accompany me. Somehow I always knew she would.

Published in Writers News. Guide to writing competitions. 1998-1999 Edition. Pp. 46-48.

© 1998 Ludo Schildermans, Antwerp. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without the written consent of the author.

Bijgewerkt op 07/06/99 / / © Copyright 1995-99 by DTL bvba, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium
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