"Blessed are the readers, for this tale of God's long insomnia will keep them happily awake. The muses could never have predicted that the messy, uncontrollable adventures of an oblivious divinity would make such an extraordinary story."—Umberto Eco, Espresso
"The Life of God is, in truth, the synthesis of a charming writer's…expression of his boundless hopes for, and poignant disappointments in, his own human kind."—Jack Miles, New York Times Book Review
"'God's only excuse is that he does not exist,' wrote Stendhal, but now Franco Ferrucci has provided the Supreme Being with another sort of alibi."—James Morrow, Washington Post Book World
"This exceedingly amusing novel…is a continuous provocation and delight; there isn't a dull page in it."—Kirkus Reviews
An excerpt from|
The Life of God
(as Told by Himself)
For long stretches at a time I forget that I am God. But then, memory isn't my strong suit. It comes and goes with a will of its own.
The last time it came back to me I was sunk in one of those late-winter depressions. Then one night I switched on the television set, and a firestorm of events burst before my eyes. I saw a volcano spewing lava, a skiing race in the Alps, a film on Paris as it was forty years ago, hunting in Ecuador, an office in Ottawa, open-heart surgery telecast live, a documentary about submarine landscapes of the North Sea. Life caught me again in a hypnotic net. As the camera circled around a flower on a seabed, I suddenly remembered that I had created all this. From that moment, I began feeling as I always do when I remember that I am God. I felt like a child again, eager for springtime, ready for open skies.
I admit, right from the start, that it was foolish to create winter. I couldn't help it, though. It banged at my door and demanded to be let into the world. It was stirring inside me, insisting on being recognized. I've always been a bit of an oddball, full of contradictions, and for all my love of the light I still have my dark side.
Winter wasn't my only half-baked idea. I can't really warm to the heavy, damp days of in-between seasons either. How pigheaded the rain seems, coming down as though everything were about to turn into water, or as though gray clouds and wet asphalt were all there is to the world. I am not talking about thunderstorms, which nobody likes except me and a few other dramatically inclined souls, poets and lovers especially. I am inside the thunder as well as the lightning. I am inside all blasts of passion, for it is there that I rejuvenate myself.
The thought of childhood warms the cockles of my soul. When you are young, the sensation of life knows no limits, and the mere fact of existing is enough to feel happy. Even now that I am an aged divinity, I feel the same way in early mornings, in the infancy of my day. I lie in bed, my body stirs slowly and eagerly beneath the sheets. I blend laziness and energy. My feet point toward the northern hemisphere, beyond Canada, beyond the Pole. The right arm spans California and the islands of the Pacific. The left reaches out toward Europe and meets with the other in the Far East. Shoulders and head are stretched toward the bottom of Earth, toward the warmest of the warm seas. I am God just before breakfast, face buried in my pillow, as if resting on a cloud.
Judging from the firmament above, my early inclination for physical and mathematical games must have surpassed all others. I dream of my infant self roaming through space with measuring tapes, compasses, rulers, toys, all mixed together. The peculiar assemblage visible above still shows it. Take a walk outside and look at the disposition of the night sky: it is the room of a child at play. I left things all over, a clutter all around.
Some of my greatest heroes are the scientists of the sky. I admire them not just because of the order they impose on the heavens but because they are untroubled by the sidereal chill. I see them as a dynasty of polar explorers with furs and sleds, never afraid of catching the flu. Every time I think of them, I remember something I had forgotten. Galileo made me see myself as a child again, drawing on a sheet of paper as big as the sky, completely engrossed. Einstein took me back to the designing of the human mind, mapped out like a chart of the cosmos, and the complicated hither and thither in its corridors and rooms, with windows opening onto nothingness or onto the gardens of galaxies; and that feeling of always being late, with clocks keeping a different time in every room, and me growing older and younger with every passing instant.
In the beginning I was contained in something that could not properly be called space. I opened my eyes in a vacuum and could see it was bare: I was shut up inside it like air inside air. I became aware of myself when I realized I was wrapped up in nothingness. You cannot imagine anything more bleak. Emptiness all around! That was the origin of my universe: the impulse to go out and look for company.
In my impatience I was overcome by an urge to break out that strikes me now as comical, given the situation. I started crawling thoughtlessly in every direction, sensing that in a void one way was as good as another, answering to a need that pushed me beyond what I was able to understand, since in nothingness I could understand nothing.
In art I'm depicted as an old man with a white beard who gets it into his head at some point to create the world. In point of fact, I was merely an infant, heartbroken in my isolation, and with my first movements I was trying to find my way home. Of my very earliest years, I retain not a single memory. To judge by what I saw when I was old enough to look about me, they must have been pretty dull. The moment of creation has been described in a thousand different ways, in a string of fantastic hypotheses—absurd stories of incest, fathers devouring their children, gods fighting against Titans. The truth is that the world began when it dawned on me that I was all alone and I tried to do something about it.
Everything that came later was a consequence of that moment: of the great shudder that scattered the form within me throughout time and space, a closed fist that finally opens, a seed that explodes and shoots out leaves in every direction; until one of them manages to think and to create other thinking leaves, and among them one miraculous leaf succeeds in thinking of its seed, picturing it even, with all the effort that it takes up there at the top of the tree, so far away from the plant's origins, exposed to the winds and the trials of alternate heat and cold, and yet able to conceive the initial germ and its expansion. This thinking seed would be humankind, but at the time it was light-years away.
I cannot say how long I wandered aimlessly through the dark night of time. I was haunted by incandescent emotions that little by little cooled and became cold rocks in space. I walked for miles and miles, stumbling in the dark, trembling with loneliness; then I finally stood still in the vast blackness and let out a cry. I saw that cry rise like an arrow, reaching the center of the heavens and exploding into fragments that became stars. Where my cry had fallen stood a solitary, burning ball. I looked around, but there wasn't much to see. What the light revealed was, in fact, the vast monotony of my universe. I was so disappointed that I wanted to put out the light and go back to the dark.
It was then that I realized, for the first time, that I could not undo what I had done. Once I created something, I could not destroy it. The sun was up there forever, or until its own natural death. I could not play around with the created world, and make and unmake as I pleased. "I am not a candle or a castle of sand," the sun might have said; "next time think twice before you create something." I am only glad, however, that I could not unmake the sun, since it was to become my great friend. Even now, when it enters my room through the windows, I feel that I never made anything grander or nobler.
In that first light, I could see bodies flying off every which way. I was struck by their irremediable blindness. They couldn't see the radiance issuing from me and exploding at other points of the celestial city. Whenever I create something, it goes on reproducing, like a host of mirrors reflecting whatever I do, or a series of messengers rushing off to plant the seeds of my inventions. In fact, it is me all the time, with my inborn talent—which even I find mysterious—for multiplication. The fragments of myself, once launched, evolve on their own, taking themselves to the most unlikely places, like that cry that bounced off a thousand mirrors and created innumerable shards of light.
So the world is the shattering of an original point that, in my recollection, remains nebulous and indistinct. It is dispersed into a myriad of elements and partial units—molecules, cells, leaves of grass, animals that produce other animals through a part of themselves. It is a universe that appears fixed and yet continually breaking apart. At first sight, you might have called it an excessively nervous universe. But then, who was there to pass such a judgment, other than me? Sometimes I did have the feeling that my world had emerged from some big explosion that was still in progress, as if we had been spun off from another universe, run perhaps by another God whom I would never meet and who was wrestling with his own problems. I never indulged this possibility for long, since I couldn't abide the notion of a Being higher than myself.
Even then, however, I wanted to know what the point of origin was. I compared the fragments to one another, hoping to get back to a root that already seemed as distant as it is now. But how varied those fragments of reality were! Everything existed next to its opposite: light and dark, summer and winter, permanence and change, lightness and heaviness. And all those intermediate states, and those temperamental modalities of the weather! From the first moment of creation, I've never known what to wear.
My shards of light had created a gigantic spatial metropolis in which I began to look for a place to live. I established my foundations around the star that burned where I had first hurled my cry. It represented the only memory that I had of myself, and I wanted to continue from there, with my sun and with my planets in sight. It was my galaxy and, within it, my solar system—my neighborhood inside the exploding city.
For ages humankind thought the sun circled the earth, and not the other way around. To me, on the other hand, it was immediately clear; but then, I had a different vantage point, and the whole display, seen from below, could well lead one to the opposite conclusion. I thought of the sun as my home's furnace and generator, the point the tangled lines radiate out from—skeins of electric wires strung out like strings stretching through space—and multicolored coils, because I had come up with a spectrum of colors I really had no use for and stored in the room of the burning house I used as my laboratory. The sun went to work all on its own, as usually happens with my attempts at creation. All I have to do is light a fire, and it blazes up of its own accord; before I knew it, the sun was uninhabitable. Even I couldn't go near it, because of all the solar winds and explosions.
The sun was fine to admire from a distance, and my favorite observatory was the planet later known as Mercury. I made it my window on the sun. From there I watched the spectacles of the sky, with that ball of fire that took up half the horizon in a state of continual agitation. What I saw was a ballet of lights, with swift steps, acrobatic leaps, phantasmagoric costumes, swords flashing in the dancers' hands. Mercury was my scenic overlook, my box seat. To it I owe my perpetual tan, but also the eye ailment that obliges me to wear dark glasses in summer. But it's been years since I quit visiting Mercury, the balcony of my childhood dreams.
I took up residence on Venus. I wanted to cast off the state of solar lethargy into which I had lapsed, and dwell in regions more northern and temperate. Venus was hung with cloudy drapes, curtains that even today keep her hidden from prying telescopes, leading stargazers to imagine who knows what nudities within. In fact, there was no one there but me, opening rifts between the drapes in order to peer outside, like a boy peeping down the alleys of his own block.
I felt as though I were in some bizarre house where the rooms revolved around the central heating system. I discovered that on Venus the sun rose and set in opposite directions to those on Mercury. From this observation I concluded that while Mercury and Venus were both moving around the sun, Venus, unique among all her brothers and sisters, turned in the opposite direction. It figured. Shy Venus, wrapped in her clouds and thunderclaps, like a young girl in the secrecy of her bedroom.
Often the sun seemed to rise and set at a greater distance than before, and I would hear a confused noise that summoned me outside. I would look about, but I could see nothing. What was it and where did it come from? I was surrounded by a desert of silent stones. It was worse than Sunday on Wall Street.
I had to find a better place to live, and I began traveling through the neighborhood that had fallen to my lot, struggling with the rudiments of mathematics, calculating east and west and north and south. You can still see the vehicles I used to get around on: the comets carried me from place to place within the galaxy and then back again to the solar system. I moved through the stellar metropolis, from skyscrapers to shacks, from houses radiant with light to somber desolate mansions. Some stars seemed to have decided to give up the ghost. They curled up as if they had swallowed poison, and then they disappeared, leaving a black hole in the void. The more aggressive ones blew their brains out, exploding with a dazzle that lingered on the horizon.
The more I traveled, the more certain I became about where my real home was, and in the end I returned to settle down within its borders. The solar system was a veritable castle, with inner quarters enormously distant from one another, and endless corridors, and it took a comet rather than an asteroid to travel from one room to another. Each one was as large as a big piazza. First I visited two of the rooms farthest from the sun, Saturn and Uranus, but their iciness discouraged me. The rings that surround them are the sign of my quick passing so long ago: a hasty streak and nothing more. I didn't even bother to touch down once I realized how cold it was below.
Since then I've never been back; I've made do with the reports of astronomers. I'll never forget how I laughed when I read Galileo's remark "Saturn has ears," because he wasn't able to distinguish clearly the rings my trail had left round the freezing planet. To say nothing of when a couple of centuries ago an Englishman discovered Uranus completely by accident, and spent the rest of his life swearing he'd discovered it on purpose. He was less humble than I, who, being as far as I know a product of chance, am fully aware that everything I make or don't make is a matter of chance as well. The discoveries of Neptune and Pluto were a surprise. I'd never gotten that far; I didn't know that there were rooms in my castle so remote that not even a breath of warmth could reach them. I'm like a member of some decayed aristocracy: there are parts of my mansion I don't have a clue about.
My most ambitious project was transforming Jupiter into a huge airy living room. To get a better look, I contrived a system of flying rocks circling around it, and, very impressed with its colors, I glided down, only to encounter the biggest surprise of my life: I couldn't land. There I was, lost on a horizon traversed by electrical discharges, which created currents like those of an ocean in a storm. Tossed this way and that like a straw or a feather, I almost went crazy in the violence of that atmosphere, on the far side of which I could make out a rising plain, liquid and menacing. It was an overheated room full of drafts, and I decided to move out.
At that point I turned my attention to Mars; it looked calmer than Jupiter, though it certainly was a lot smaller. On board its two moons, I was trying to figure out in detail where I was going to be able to fit everything in, revealing incidentally one of my constant anxieties—the fear of not having enough space. It's the same fear that makes me uncomfortable in an elevator or a narrow corridor or a room without windows. Wouldn't agoraphobia have suited my divinity better than claustrophobia? This is an unanswered question in my theological system. In the end I left Mars behind too; I flew to the moon on a comet and took my first spin around Earth. The trip took almost a month, but when it was over I was happy, as if I'd finally found what I was looking for.
It was the finest room of them all: from above I could make out the shapes of its continents surrounded by some unknown element that gave off a shimmering glare as it reflected the sunlight. The whole enormous sphere rotated on its axis, majestic and captivating to my eyes, as if inviting me to come closer. I began my descent and glided gently, stepping lightly down the smooth steps whose names I still repeat nostalgically to myself: magnetosphere, exosphere, thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere, troposphere, and finally air, the air of my home.
Whenever I move someplace new, the first thing I do is look around and decide where I will put my plants. Once I was lucky enough to find a hothouse, but I was too distracted by events to take proper care of it. When I first set eyes on Earth, the place looked rather bare to me and in need of carpets to cover the soil and rocks.
Now that my vantage point had come down from the astral to the terrestrial level, what seemed a room in a castle became an entire house, as in a set of nested Chinese boxes. Earth proved to be already a labyrinth of seas, rivers, volcanoes, and deserts. There were windows facing the warm sun and others that were distant and locked in ice. I roamed about in the guise of cloud and wind, I descended in the form of rain. I immersed myself in whatever I did. I was and I was not my world. I was the impulse that lived in it; and the world, inhabited by my soul, went its own way. I wandered alone, my head full of unformulated thoughts, and since no one was there to whom I could talk, I infused into the vegetation with which I covered the earth the accounts of my peregrinations. Every leaf was a star, every flower was a sun. The force of gravity was visible in the branches, the trunk, the complexity of the roots. Every tree was a galaxy, each sunflower spoke for them all.
The plants blossomed as I looked on. I multiplied them in an effort to get them to communicate with one another. A tree that rises in majestic loneliness contains the secret of wisdom: to be sufficient unto oneself, with roots stretching inside the earth. This was my original persuasion, at any rate. But why were there so many plants? Why so many different blossoms growing on trees and in meadows, among escarpments and beside the water, like thoughts dropped from another cosmos or pearls scattered from a tiara? Was I equivocating? Willow wisdom, magnolia wisdom, pine wisdom, oak wisdom, ananas wisdom, laurel wisdom—how many wisdoms was I able to conceive of?
I spread the plants beneath the open sky and doused them often, my body diffusing into rain. I was everywhere: in the sky, in the rivers and over the seas, even upon the deserts with pathetic, scattered drops. My drizzles and torrents were endlessly energetic. Once sucked back up into the air, they made their way again to the rivers, moved out to the sea, rose up again to the clouds. The constant motion was exhilarating, but I dreaded crashing onto the sand and rocks. I was haunted, too, by the thought that I might become lost in the cycle of precipitation and evaporation. It seemed that I knew that a significant part of me was condemned to an obscure underground exile, never to return to the skies. And so my fears, like all my other feelings, took on reality and became animated. Dispersed raindrops changed into insects, the embodiments of my anxiety.
Those insects, upon my soul! Their very conception was infamous. They took advantage of my frame of mind, all those inhabitants of fissures, interstices, filamentous channels, dark niches beneath the stairs! Each of them was born out of one of my bad moods, and each of them reminds me of it. When I read some time ago that, besides being the most ancient living creatures in the world, insects are also its probable future lords, I was overcome. Is their power really that great? And yet they are pervasive, a neurosis that scourges the earth in every corner of its soil. Whenever I see a cockroach I cringe. Lice and bedbugs, where did they come from? Did I really have all of these insects in my mind?
I have come to the conclusion that inside me was an immense world that emerged without warning and spread freely. I was operating wholesale, with a great vastness of vision, as if outlining a book and passing it on to unknown ghostwriters and editors for refinement. At this stage the details did not interest me: I had no patience for manipulating the structures of cells or the spirals of DNA. Perhaps there were thousands of minuscule and diligent artisans weaving the intricacies of living bodies, my simplest thought enough to put them to work.
I had no experience of life before I created the tree, except for an obsessive memory of being alone among the stars. Perhaps this explains my need for roots. Each plant, separate though it is from the others, belongs to the earth: the palm and the elm, the fir and the birch, the betula and the sassafras, all plunge fingers into the soil more grasping than those of a drowning man. I clung to the earth through the plants, but at the same time I was the wind that battered them, leaving them stunned before so much ferocity. A tree at the mercy of the wind nicely illustrates my twofold nature: my need to feel at once secure and unconfined.
Creation was a superabundance of hypotheses. The world was my notebook, filled with jottings and corrections. Or call it, if you prefer, a theater of perpetual improvisation. I would have a notion of a tree—and bang, there it was, roots and branches and leaves and trunk and bark, rooted in the earth, with arms flung wide in the open air. And then what? "There must be something else," I would say to myself as I stood upright, myself temporarily a tree. I would wait awhile for someone or something to come along, and then I would make another tree to keep the first one company. My longing for family led me to group plants together, so that chestnuts and alders sprang up far from the monkey puzzle trees, and farther yet from the banana trees.
Since I was interrogating myself about my own nature, one family was not enough. Am I thorny and wild, or meek and hospitable? Do I prefer the sea and burning sand, or a coat of snow over my foliage, up in the mountain woods? Am I tender or rugged, am I fruitful or sterile? With each question another plant was born. All this led to some disappointing results. For despite my multiplying of plants and plant families, each remained locked in an implacable solitude. After spreading out in the air and digging deep into the earth, each plant would pretty much stop there. The effort continued through entire seasons, and new hope would return with each returning spring. Only some flowerless plants considered springtime a disappointment and withdrew into an impenetrable lack of promise. When touched, they stung and closed in upon themselves. But the rest kept throwing themselves stubbornly into every blossoming, determined that this spring they would be alone no more.
The illusory hope born again each springtime would become positively grandiose during the summer. All those trees so perfect in themselves were now more eager than ever to become something else. The whole earth was ripe with expectation. Everything grew still, as if before an earthquake. But the meridian ardor passed almost as soon as it arrived. In autumn I would register my disappointment with an additional ring inside the trunk of every tree. I had done everything I could to live on vegetation alone, and had not succeeded.
I came to the conclusion that my solitude was not only bad but probably irreparable. I developed a surprising antagonism toward the trees, a feeling like an invasion of voracious termites or an ice storm. I would shake the plants from crown to root, inflicting—somehow—pain on myself. But eventually I began to imagine another remedy for my loneliness, in the only way I knew how at that time, by filling the universal notebook with additional drawings and giving them life.
The process that ensued was a maze of circumvolutions and sudden turns, and in the end I could barely remember what I wanted at first. It all began with a new inkling of my nomadic spirit. Comets and planets were traveling on high, the infinitesimal world below was crowded with cells and invisible beings halfway between the vegetals and something not yet imagined. At the center of this restless circle stretched a terrain of rocks, self-propelled waters, trees enchained by their roots. After so much time spent inside rushing rivers, the ocean's currents, and the winds that swept the continents, I hit upon the wish for a solid entity that could finally move around on its own and accompany me on a good walk. Was this too much to ask for?
My initial idea was to set the plants in motion. Even today I can see the signs of this aborted experiment in the superfluous appendages I gave to so many of them. Take it from me: the plants will not be budged.
Nevertheless, that attempt contained the idea that led me to the creation of animals. It had already occurred to me that my constant shuttling from one condition to another, from season to season and realm to realm, was a manifestation of my complex nature. In certain climates I would know only summer and long days, in others I would bury myself deep within icebergs. In a single day I would go from morning to noon, from afternoon to twilight, repeating the succession of childhood, youth, maturity, and old age. Everything mirrored my mutable character. I wanted both to be awake and to go to sleep—this latter inclination explains the existence of winter, and night, and cold, and the death of plants and the drying-up of rivers.
Reflecting on this profusion of diversities, I realized that life could be maintained only by a merging of opposites. It took me a while to get to this point, and it was my first great philosophical thought. I expressed it through a monumental glaciation that left the earth chalky with snow, rigid and pensive for an entire geological era. The universe had learned that life and death were two sides of the same coin, and that the first was inconceivable without the other. During a nostalgic boreal sunset, I added an important clause to this truth, namely that death is also the reservoir of life. Almost by magic the glaciers began to thaw and a new era was born in a lavishment of flowers. A reasoning God definitely affects the climate.
At last my incongruences seemed justified. From that blazing insight was born the idea of a duplicate being that, in order to reproduce itself, had to enter another, which would in turn split into itself and its offspring: day and night and winter and summer would be repeated in the noon of love and the spring of fecundation.
Enthusiastic about this notion, I spread it everywhere: through the woods over which I flew, in the water into which I dove; and the world was thronged with cartilaginous plants, swimming and wriggling in pursuit of themselves so that they might multiply. A great libidinal agitation began to transform the very face of Earth.
Moments of rage were not alien to me, and they still return, though with less violence and at greater intervals. In order to soothe my soul I would walk along the rivers, along the beaches, around the mountain lakes. Nothing much emerged from the surface, though I knew that underneath swarmed a manifold existence. Occasionally I would plunge in, just to look around, but I was unable to hold my breath long enough to study it properly. Aquatic life thus remained a mystery to me as I nourished my reveries on the seashore. I did not begin to explore it in earnest until the first time I tried to kill myself.
A serious crisis had overcome me that sad autumn, among the yellowed plants and the hopeless flowers. After another summer waiting for an interesting new life form to appear, I had become convinced again that nothing was going to change and that the coming and going of seasons was all that I would ever see. It was at that point that I wanted to die. I climbed to the summit of a rock that rose sheer above the sea and allowed myself to topple over the edge, certain that I would not survive.
What a tremendous fall! To this day I suffer from vertigo at the memory of it. A howl came out of me as I plummeted into that space of blue. I was already regretting my act and wanted to turn back, but it was impossible. I had wanted to die, and this was itself an act of creation: I was creating my own end. I crossed the liquid threshold and plunged into a vortex of forgetfulness.
I can't tell you much of those watery inceptions, since I remained oblivious for some time. Consciousness returned in steps now minimal, now gigantic. As if awakening after a fainting spell, I became aware of blurry motions that had no apparent direction, amid shadows that appeared and disappeared, through a light that was not light. At last my eyes could see—and there, present, overwhelming, and immediately swallowed by the dark, was a swordfish. Every so often I live again that reawakening at the bottom of the sea to which despair had driven me. Life undoubtedly had cared for me and prevented my death—a token of filial gratitude on its part—but that exile was hard punishment!
I said that I regained consciousness, but I did not know who I was or what I was doing down there. I had a confused recollection of how it all happened, a glimmer of illumination within me. I could see thousands of things milling around the bottom, and for a time I thought I was no more than a pair of eyes wandering about. Now I can explain what occurred to me, but at the time I only intuited it, in a subterranean and decisively aquatic manner. I was there so that I could be reborn. I was drifting in the sea, disembodied and clueless. The silence was deafening.
The world of fish was inhabited by angels of ozone. As I swam among them, I gradually learned how to breathe in a completely new way and to orient myself according to this space so different from the avenues of land and sky. But I felt held back, as if imprisoned in a dream or confined to an island by some tyrannical power. I became obsessed with an idea that would not leave me alone. The idea was this: I wanted to see how I was constructed. Perhaps because I had eyes in the front of a body that apparently stretched out behind me, it was impossible to take even a single glance backward. I was running after myself without ever catching up.
I remember still the soft warmth of the water I encountered toward the end of my migrations, the flavor of algae and the sensation of the eggs as they fell from me, the schools of fish as they moved among gorges of light and shadowy rocks, the inexhaustible variety of all the fish I pursued, looking for one that might resemble me. I must have been a solitary fish, because I never found myself in any of the groups that I admired from a distance. And so I continued my wanderings through the labyrinths of the ocean.
Ah, the deep, deep waters, the huge plants swaying in the mute wind of the currents! The flash of the lamprey and of the bass fleeing the shark's pursuit; the cod disappearing into the maw of the hammerhead, and the sudden shadow above me, like a heavy sky, during the regal passage of a blue or sperm whale; the spiny dogfish in the lethal net of the torpedo fish; the diminutive seahorses suspended like statuettes in midwater; the chimaera gaping astonished at the dolphin's bounds; and the incredible lobster that couldn't laugh at itself lest it choke, like a boy hiding inside a suit of armor in some museum. Everywhere was circus and theater, which was agreeable to someone as curious as myself. But inside this uninterrupted spectacle everybody seemed driven by the urge to eat another and by the fear of being eaten. Devouring, depositing egg after egg, migrating, getting gulped down by a lantern fish or a barracuda in the most romantic of coral reefs: that was what marine life finally amounted to.
I witnessed numerous attempts at escape. Underwater life, in both rivers and oceans, survived in the hope of emerging, because everyone preserved a confused memory of having fallen there, as had happened to me. Some part of every fish yearned to return and see what it had left behind. They had no inkling of the source of this impulse, because they were also very stupid. They exhausted themselves with wandering until a cold rigidity crippled them. The unlucky ones found themselves in ponds, with everything at a standstill. Nowadays, and this is even worse, they may end up in an aquarium, and who knows how they explain an aquarium to themselves.
I liked to swim close to the mobile roof full of arabesques and floods of light and watch the flying fish jump to the other side, then come back without ever revealing what they had seen. Common fish, unable to pierce the magic mantle, looked on them as wizards or as astronauts who had decided not to talk after a journey into space, never revealing whether they had seen God.
Finally I found a possible route of escape. There was a long strip of beach that the ocean waves covered during the day and left bare at night. At the time I didn't know anything about the power of the full moon, which from its distance controlled the tides of my oceans. This seemed to me a suitable passage for my reemergence. Right there I would be able to breach the wall of water.
But it wasn't so simple, since I had not developed the instruments for my undertaking. The first time I stuck my snout out of the water, I was dumbfounded by the violence of what greeted me there. An arid and burning air scorched my stomach and drove me back half-dead into the water.
I needed to proceed methodically. Each day I would take a small leap and remain panting on the sand, careful that only a small mouthful of air entered my throat before the wave returned and carried me back. The situation kept improving, and little by little, in the dark of my secret interior, right there above my stomach, I felt something taking shape, ever stronger and more assured, something that pulsated and enlarged when it came into contact with air—a lung!
I was also working on another indispensable tool. Now that I was no longer migrating from one ocean to another, I knew that moving in the old way wouldn't take me where I wanted to go. I would linger in shallow water and work on the fins I had on my sides, rubbing them against the pebbles on the shore. I spent my afternoons stretching them toward everything that passed near me, like an acrobat in training.
Moreover, I had found a confidant, the first friend I ever had. He would offer encouragement as I worked in my ceaseless, obstinate way. He was the strangest of all creatures, tormented in a later age by the mockery of boys, dragged ashore and pierced with sticks, the tender and taciturn jellyfish.
Trustful now of my beneficent lung, I waited for a moonlit night and jumped onto the beach, never to return. When I crossed the border, breathing immeasurable quantities of the air of freedom, I had already forgotten my wish to see what I looked like. There was no longer any need for it. I could postpone it until the invention of mirrors. The watery purgatory had come to an end.
Once out of my aquatic prison, I found myself scrambling about on shaky paws, my belly slithering in the muck, and I understood that my escape had succeeded only halfway. I had thought that once I freed myself, I would be restored as that fabulous being, hovering above the waters, about whom I had dreamed in my long exile. But matters were not that simple; it seemed I had first to pass through an amphibian stage.
Creation had begun to accelerate. My reaching landfall generated a great nervousness. My every thought was transmuted into a reptile, darting away into the grass. Some of these thoughts were innocuous, others were poisonous; one turned melancholically into a toad, another became a lazy turtle. These creatures seemed to cling stubbornly to the habits of old times, even in the way they decked themselves out: a monumental and vulgar elegance, with scales that recalled ancestors left behind under the water. I crept through their immense era, amid glaciations and heat waves that overlapped each other and flattened entire species and forests in their wake.
I managed finally to shake off my amphibian body and assume again the shifting shapes of a young, vigorous divinity. This was when I set about my first experiments in recording memory—efforts still rudimentary, but touching, if you think back on the spirit that animated them. I built entire scenes of natural memory by ingeniously depositing skeletons in sand and rocks. I scattered those traces in the hope of preserving something in the face of my certainty that everything was implacably passing and that the universe rotating around me would one day disappear before I could understand the first thing about it. The Alpine chain, among other mountains, helped me to this purpose. I set about turning it into a sort of library, crammed with manuscripts waiting for a geologist who would one day interpret the messages hidden in the folds of rock and earth.
I began decorating the stone manuscripts, and between one chapter and the next I slipped in my figures of reptiles and fish. Usually I deposited them at random, according to where the weather and my need to travel took me, but to one place I devoted particular care. It was a vast expanse of sea and coastline, in the middle of which was a bay where I spent an entire productive season. Here I settled to write the book on reptiles for the posterity of a species I was just beginning to imagine. I worked with exaltation and great commitment, there in my writing workshop upon the bay. My long working mornings and periodic sabbaticals took me all the way through Triassic and Jurassic times.
The reptiles were a curious mixture of superiority and inadequacy. At the bottom of their souls lay the concealed conviction that they were imperfect; at the same time a ruthless arrogance permeated their actions toward all other living creatures. Such was the result of their ancient stubborn dominance on the planet Earth, a dominance longer than that of the Chinese and Egyptian monarchies, more obstinate than a race of fakirs and rabbis. They had conquered everything. The fish-reptiles terrorized the seas and the amphibious reptiles controlled the borders between sea and land. On solid ground the warrior-reptiles roamed about with long necks and longer tails. Extremely conservative and not particularly bright, they were like old aristocrats in remote provincial towns, handing down to new generations both their idleness and a disquieting physical resemblance. It's impossible to imagine anything more enervating than the company of the ichthyosaurus and the mesosaurus. I found them limited and utterly humorless, and seemingly determined to live as long as possible. The Cretaceous period was the dark winter of my discontent.
The only way for me to find serenity was to go back to work. I carved magnificent mountains. I struggled to modify the light's nuances on the leaves of my beloved plants and on the sands along the fringes of the oceans. I achieved subtleties of contrast from one hour to the next of each sun-setting. I devised the markings of the caterpillars and created flowers by the thousands. I labored on the corollas and straightened tree trunks into living columns. I scattered water lilies over the ponds and chiseled elaborate butterfly wings. The snow that fell during winter days resembled the constellations, millions of years before the design of the snowdrop was penetrated by the gaze of the microscope. Every cell was the map of an imaginary country that I drew while dreaming of distant territories.
Later the flowers dried up, the snows melted, the butterflies died, but only to come back. In the springtime the entire universe seemed to breathe more deeply. It inhaled and said, "I am alive"; it exhaled and said, "There is beauty." Beauty was the expression of my thirst for understanding, just as a smile promises pleasure and the fragrance of a fruit anticipates the flavor. I wanted to understand my beginning and my purpose. But to whom could I say these things? I was still alone in the world. I was working for an animal that was unknown and yet to come; I pictured it as beautiful and intelligent, though curiously similar to a crocodile.
Solitude eventually got the better of me, and I began to fall into reptilian ways. When I realized what was happening, it was already too late, and I found myself imprisoned in their company. I was like some young avant-garde poet who returns from the capital after a period of untrammeled freedom. As he comes in contact again with the ancient world of his native town, there arises in him an urge for renovation. "I will create a new theater for these provincials," he tells himself; "I will organize concerts of serial and electronic music!" But soon he is attending Mass more and more frequently and has become an active member of the Parent-Teacher Association. In the meantime he grows balder and lazier, he doesn't like to leave the house anymore, and if he does go out with his wife and children he walks slowly, his head sunk between his shoulders. He has become a turtle. How many times, crossing villages on Sundays, have I seen myself during that reptilian time, when we breathed air in a group, stretched out on the rocks, looking at nothing.
I cursed my snake companions silently, withdrawing into my own shell. I turned mean, I became stingy. I fenced myself off, accumulated blades of grass in my cave, shut myself in for long naps. My mind became obfuscated.
One day I raised my eyes and saw the birds. I will never forget that moment, and I've kept it alive throughout the ages, in scattered paintings and writings, down to recent times. With the gaze of the reptiles, I stared at the birds as if they were lost poems. I could not believe that it was I who had made them, and I didn't understand why I had not noticed them until that moment. If the birds had looked down and seen those huge animals slithering and lumbering over the earth, they would have had the same thought I had: Who are they, and who created them? But entering a bird's head was not easy. Birds never stood still, and I knew that it would be a long time before I grasped their thoughts, if they had any.
In those long moments of astonishment, I anticipated all of humankind's attempts at flight, from Daedalus to the airplanes, from floating balloons to the missile ramps that look like falcons at rest. It is God's ancient aspiration to fly as an animal and not only as a wind. I have never been a bird, and in a way birds are still a mystery to me.
The reptiles, tormented by their own weariness, attempted to join the winged beings and produced enormous fowls that fell heavily back to earth. Filled with uneasy longing for their old, familiar scales, they dragged their huge paraphernalia behind them, like an evening gown much too long and heavy. They extended their bodies, lay on their backs, waved their legs, and thrashed their wings. Above them, elusive, the birds darted.
From the bosom of the old reptiles, which still kept their paws on the firm ground, finally arose a harsh condemnation of the restless and decadent sons who refused to be what they were and lost themselves in flighty dreams of transformation. The reaction took an authoritarian and violent form. To bring their prodigals back to earth, the truculent paladins of the old order rose up on their paws and began to terrorize the continents.
I had tolerated enough. I managed to slip out of my shell during one of those reptilian wars in which I was a constant deserter. For a while I rejoined the whole realm of nature. I remember my pleasure in inventing new amusements: to be an avalanche and roll down a mountain's slope like a growing white bowling ball; to shape the clouds into weightless tyrannosaurs and iguanas, and then dissolve them into rain.
I had to postpone a solution to the puzzle the birds were presenting to me. Was there another God at work, unknown to me, living in some other continent? That unpleasant thought resurfaces in me from time to time, but I always repress it.
Bored by the reptiles and mystified by the birds, I decided that it was time for a fresh idea, and soon I hit upon a radical new concept. It was this: I wanted life to meditate upon itself so as to better comprehend itself. There followed from this that my next living beings should bear their children inside themselves, and that their eggs should open in the warmth of the womb instead of being hatched outside. Life would be born inside these new beings, and they would be its repository and transmitter. This became the sustaining idea of an emerging third state, after those barbarian fishes and ancien-régime reptiles. Here came the differentiated and industrious mammals, agile in trafficking and exchanging, tireless hunters, skillful builders of homes, and good savers of their possessions. Here came the bourgeois of the animal kingdom.
Parturition was a philosophical insight. I was obscurely and confusedly in search of the soul, as I would be for a long time to come. I had wanted the soul and had found the placenta.
I remember how those animals ran to and fro with their sharp teeth and useless tails, which were there to remind them of their reptilian and aquatic predecessors. Because of the odd absentmindedness that has distinguished me from the beginning of time, I failed to see to it that there was enough food for my creatures. As a result, they were caught up in an unceasing search for nourishment. With the fall of night, the animals became stupefied, swollen with sleep and snoring heavily. I took advantage of their slumber and went to work in the female bellies, respecting a division of labor that had been in effect for quite a while. They were sleeping, and I would make embryos.
Inside those wombs of mammal mamas I placed another almost finished thought about the world. I said to myself, "Just imagine yourself, God that you are, inside the cosmos. Aren't you perhaps like a small blob of flesh that stirs and presses? You too don't know how you came to this world. You too have no idea who put you here. Only your mother can tell you, and if you have a mother, she isn't around." I could see a part of my story in every fetus that came into being.
I had chosen the females to carry the burden because they were the more generous and patient gender. Restless troublemakers, the males let off steam in the hunt, showed their claws to the enemy, and scattered their seed into the wombs of their female companions, who would quietly receive it and eventually present their grooms with a flawless work: an entire litter!
The new arrivals acquired an impudent self-assurance. There were no longer only rodents; you could see larger animals in every part of the earth. My house was getting quite crowded. I moved from bears to monkeys to elephants. Content that life was proceeding in such leaps, I concentrated on details whose worth I intended to assess much later. Why should I have been so obsessed with perfecting the stomach? And yet I did, and I even placed two stomachs inside some ruminants, wishing them bon appétit. And what a great toy the brain became for me! It was patched together, poorly proportioned, and cluttered with gadgets, but I positively fell in love with it. Working on the brain made me feel as if I were creating a minuscule Earth all anew and from scratch. The world itself was enclosed in that fleshy, gelatinous sphere. I tinkered with it for millennia in every mammal I could get hold of. I played with its nerves and spine as if absorbed in an interminable puzzle. Some of those games reached a standstill, unfinished. When I could go no further, I'd turn to some other brain. The abandoned animals remained as they were at that point, with a flashing little planet behind their eyes, always sensing in the furthest recesses of their minds: God was here.
The creatures roamed all over, dazzling nature with their prowess. Yet I kept thinking that none of them could match the beauty of the birds. I often dreamed of flying and striking up a friendship with the eagle and the stork. Then I would wake up and see the bull and the zebra close at hand. I would shake my head and tell myself, "That's just how life is." I was being unjust. I was blind to the beauty of the antelope, but when an owl flew by, it took my breath away. Of course an owl, seen up close, is not really such a marvel; now that I am older, it brings to mind nothing so much as a discarded Halloween mask.
My patronizing attitude toward the newcomers tested their mettle and pushed them to assert themselves. They were trying to please me. Even though they didn't know who I was and never talked to me, they understood that I was not fully satisfied with them. They wanted to be loved by me, and I could not understand that. It happens in the best of families. The mammals felt deprived, while the reptiles couldn't have cared less about my disdain.
I thought I was quite a progressive fellow, and yet my prejudices persisted. Whenever I saw an earthbound quadruped, right off I would compare it with birds. It is strong as an eagle, it is white as a dove, and so on. I was even fascinated by the birds' language, for which I experienced a feeling close to envy. They sang or spoke an idiom whose rhythms, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax no one knew. The only thing that was certain was that the birds flew. It was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they flew because they knew how to sing.
It was surprising that I should have such success giving language but not wings to the newly arrived inhabitants of Earth. I do not know how to explain it. But one thing I remember. When I tried to use the wings in order to bestow leadership on the world of mammals, the result was the bat—and I cannot remember a single kind word spent on behalf of this unfortunate offspring of mine. To this day its very name evokes vampires and nocturnal monsters, and even at that remotest time, the bat flew in darkness, as if it had been devised as a spy between two worlds. Other attempts of this kind soon aborted, with curious and somewhat circuslike results, such as lemurs and giraffes.
For a long period the bat industriously tried to deliver messages between the birds and the mammals. But it was useless, because the mammals obstinately refused to look up, and the spy had no one to talk to, much less report what the birds were saying to each other. When I finally listened to it, I could not get much out of its blabber, which sounded like some mountain dialect impenetrable to any visitors from the outside. From that time the fate of the bat was sealed. It drifted mournfully into seclusion and did not even go out anymore, except at night.
I did not know where to begin to master the song of birds. Until giving language to the mammals, I spoke through the winds, the currents of the seas and rivers. This natural orchestra intoned powerful but repetitive melodies. When I decided that mammals should rival the birds, I imagined an earthly orchestra that resembled the heavenly one. This gave rise to the idea of the horn, of the bassoon, and of the percussion instruments. The forest became a pit full of musicians. Voices were born that later would reign on the opera stage. Sopranos, contraltos, basses, baritones, and tenors invaded the bodies of the lords of the earth. When a herd crossed a plain I could hear from the distance single voices combine into a solemn chorus. It was all performed for me, and for me alone, and I was at once the audience and the composer. When humankind, their future masters, listened to them, they would remember me, and rightly so, since I had been the first to attend those ancient concerts.
The mammals ran, jumped, tumbled, and climbed, some even swam; but when it came to flying, nothing. Their voices merged into symphonies that furled effortlessly into the air, but they themselves never quite reached the clouds.
At the moment I am writing aboard an airplane and am suffused with the sensation of that distant childhood. I sip my whiskey; the whiskey permeates me. I flutter inwardly with imaginary, somewhat torpid wings. Next to me a bearded young man is intently drawing something on a sheet of paper—it looks like a geological map. His handwriting is parsimonious and accurate. My calligraphy, on the other hand, is replete with flighty disorder. I scribble freely in the Edenic language, up and down my piece of paper.
I think I always knew that I would need people like the bearded young man in my world. I did everything cavalierly, and the engineers, agronomists, and all sorts of other technicians had to come to rectify my extravagant detours with prudent pencils, with numbers and arrows. With my second drink I drop off to sleep while the jet enters a fluffy blanket of clouds.
In my slightly alcoholic doze, all the species extinguished during the millennia of my early adolescence come to visit me. They arrive at random, like guests coming to a party given for people you wouldn't have time to see unless you grouped them all together. The strangest encounters take place and fade away. The multituberculates prick up their large ears, on bodies too swollen for their pointed greyhound snouts, and listen to someone complaining that his double nature as bear and monkey is not leading him anywhere, as will happen to a dancer who gets fat or an actor who begins to stammer. Actually, quite a few actors and artists are present, and they all despair of success and blame the world for it. On the other side of the room is a large cat spearing saltines and miniature franks with his saber tooth. He is chatting with a carnivorous snake, who skips the broccoli and cauliflower, aiming directly at the meat casseroles. They will vanish together in the nocturnal elevator that accompanies extinct species to subways without return.
Near the window several proto-ungulates gripe about their new shoes and regret the times when they walked barefoot on beaches and meadows. The mammoth is so tall that he can read the titles of the books on shelves just below the ceiling. One of these books tells stories about fantastic animals, winged horses, serpents with a second head instead of a tail, long-faced eagles, mules with a horn in the middle of their head. But those fantastic animals all existed!—so did a dwarfish parahuman who looked sillier than a crab.
There are new arrivals: a family of doomed equine visitors. The real horse does not show up, because he is at a party of successful folk, hanging out with lions, tigers, turtledoves, and other winners. The horse-dogs, the horse-toads, the horse-goats listen to the tale about the hippogriff that mounts into the sky with its great wings. Two dinosaurs, husband and wife, are out in the garden, partly because of their dimensions, partly because of that ancient feeling of superiority they can't seem to shake. They are conversing with a Neanderthal man and a Cro-Magnon, the latter more stuck up than the first.
I awake with a start while the plane is flying over the Nevada desert. The young man at my side is asleep now, in the belly of our metallic bird. "Back to reality," I say to myself. "Let's get back to the story of my youth."