Mysterious bands of men on horseback travel the roads of Greece. The country folk watch them with suspicion from their plots of land, or the doors to their huts. They know from experience that only those who represent danger travel: soldiers, mercenaries, and slave traders. They frown and grumble until the men disappear over the horizon. Country folk do not look kindly upon armed strangers.
The horsemen ride on, paying the villagers no heed. For months, they have climbed mountains, traversed ravines, crossed valleys, forded rivers, and sailed from island to island. Their muscles have hardened and their endurance increased since they were sent on this peculiar mission. To achieve their task, they must venture into violent realms in a world that is almost continually at war. These are hunters in search of a special kind of prey. Prey that is silent, cunning, and vanishes without a trace.
If these menacing envoys were to sit down in a tavern in some port or other to drink wine, eat seared octopus, talk, and make merry with strangers (something they never do, out of caution), they could tell great tales of their travels. They have entered lands racked with plague. They have crossed regions scorched by fire. They have seen the warm ashes of destruction and the brutality of rebels and mercenaries at war. Since maps of extensive territories do not yet exist, they have strayed and wandered directionless for days on end, beneath the fury of sun and storms. They've been forced to drink foul waters that have caused them horrendous diarrhea. Whenever it rains, their carts and mules get stuck in the morass; they have pulled amid cries and curses until they collapsed to their knees, their faces pressed to the earth. When night falls on them, far from shelter, only their capes shield them from scorpions. They have known the maddening torment of lice and the constant threat of the bandits roaming the roads. Often as they ride through vast, desolate terrain, they shudder to imagine these outlaws lying in wait, holding their breath, lurking at a bend in the road, ready to fall upon them, murder them in cold blood, plunder their bags, and leave their warm corpses among the bushes.
* * *
It makes sense for them to be wary. The king of Egypt has entrusted great sums of money to them before sending them to carry out his orders across the sea. In those times, only a few decades after the death of Alexander, it was highly dangerous, almost suicidal, to travel with a large fortune. And though thieves' daggers, contagious diseases, and shipwrecks threaten to cause such an expensive mission to fail, the pharaoh insists on sending his agents out from the country of the Nile, crossing borders and traversing great distances in all directions. The king thirsts after his prey with impatient desire, while his secret hunters scour the Earth, facing unknown perils.
The country folk who spied from their doorways, or the mercenaries and bandits, would have widened their eyes and dropped their jaws in amazement had they known what the foreign horsemen pursued.
Books. They were searching for books.
It was the best kept secret of the Egyptian court. The Lord of the Two Lands, one of the most powerful men of his time, would sacrifice lives (the lives of others, of course—that's always the way with kings) to obtain all the books in the world for his Great Library in Alexandria. He was chasing the dream of an absolute, perfect library, a collection that would gather together every single work by every single author since the beginning of time.
* * *
I am always afraid to write the first lines, to enter inside a new book. When I have explored all the libraries, when my notebooks are bursting with fevered jottings, when I can no longer think of any reasonable excuses, or even nonsensical ones to keep waiting, I still put it off a few days, during which I understand what cowardice really means. I simply don't feel like I can. Everything should be there—tone, sense of humor, poetry, rhythm, promises. I should be able to glimpse the still unwritten chapters, struggling to be born, where the seeds of the first chosen words have been sown. But how is it done? Right now, I feel heavy with doubts. With every book, I go back to the beginning, and my heart races as if it were the very first time. To write is to try to find out what we would write if we wrote, says Marguerite Duras, moving from the infinitive to the conditional and then to the subjunctive as if she could feel the ground splitting beneath her feet.
It isn't so different, in the end, from any of the things we start doing without knowing how to do them: speaking another language, driving, being a mother. Living.
After all the agonies of doubt, after exhausting every possible delay and excuse, one hot July afternoon, I face the void of the blank page. I've decided to open with the image of some enigmatic hunters stalking their prey. I identify with them. I appreciate their patience, their stoicism, the time they have taken, their steadiness, the adrenaline of the search. For years I have worked as an academic, consulting sources, keeping records, trying to get to know the historical material. But when it comes down to it, I'm so amazed by the true and recorded history I discover that it seeps into my dreams and acquires, without my volition, the shape of a story. I'm tempted to step into the skin of those who traveled the roads of an ancient, violent, tumultuous Europe in pursuit of books. What if I start by telling the story of their journey? It might work, but how can I keep the skeleton of facts distinct beneath the muscle and blood of imagination?