Clarence St. Claire is a programmer who cherishes an orderly life. His motto: ‘work is important; people, not so much’. His determination to be The Most Serious Person on the Planet is threatened when he becomes haunted by a mysterious manuscript from his past: 300 pages of possibly random bird tracks. Risking his career and self-possession, St. Claire dares to pursue the manuscript against the opposition of hackers, the NSA, the ghosts of famous writers and doubts of his own sanity.
Lost in a maze of bird-prints and their possible meanings, St. Claire determines to summon the late writer Jorge Louis Borges to help with the translation. He will dream Borges into existence, exactly as Borges wrote of doing. But this act stirs the opposition of a secret order of past writers, who may, possibly, have their own agenda. The duel between St. Claire’s reality and theirs leads to a final encounter in The Dark Library, before the dread conclave known as The Tribunal of Dreams.
‘Origins’ is a book about books, about magic realism and artificial intelligence, virtual reality and languages, and how sensible people wind up in strange situations by strangely sensible steps. It is built of the words books whisper to each other alone after the library has closed. It ends as it must: with the hero tossed into a pit by Edgar Alan Poe.
Kidding. I mean, that last does happen but the final ending is the hero finding the answer and getting the girl, as well as his sanity back. Mostly back.
From the book:
I sat on the bed in the dark, my back to the wall. I began a new web page. Time to tell the world the truth, I thought, and felt a surge of pride. This would upset the Secret Powers of the world. But hey they had cost me my $400 security deposit. It was payback time. I would tell the world. But tell what? I typed out the flat truth to see how it looked.
There is a secret society of dead writers who live in the wall spaces between realities, in the silence of empty rooms, in the Schrödinger-uncertainty of unopened books. They call themselves the Tribunal of Dreams. Often they appear as birds. They peek out of mirrors and walk the shadows of libraries. They are old and sly and are not retired. They have vast plans. They have me barricaded in my bedroom and they painted my windows black. They are listening at the door now. Send help.
I read it over several times. It expressed all the facts nicely, yet it lacked something. Specifically, it lacked the power to convince the world of anything except that I was insane.
An interesting book, for sure. Three hundred pages of bird tracks scribbled out in pen. Not something you see often nowadays.
Joking. Although it does contain bird tracks. And much more.
Raymond St. Elmo not only has a remarkable imagination but also the skills to translate that onto the page. His books tend to play with the narrative and blur the lines between reality and feverish dreams. They tell the story, celebrate the meaning of stories, and pay homage to literary heroes (JL Borges, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, EA Poe) while making readers laugh.
It’s easy to like the story’s protagonist Clarence St. Claire, a programmer who cherishes an orderly life and has a fondness for languages. Socially awkward, rather shy, he finds fulfillment in developing artificial intelligence. He’s doing well. He even keeps up the pretense of being serious. Not for long, though. A mysterious manuscript from his past returns to haunt him. Clarence needs to know if pages of bird prints contain hidden meaning or not. He goes as far as to dream JL Borges into existence to learn the truth. In consequence, he’ll have to face a secret order of past writers.
The Origin of Birds in The Footprints of Writing is a book about books, languages, magical and virtual reality. It’s in turns fantastic, nostalgic, funny, thoughtful, and bananas. Above all, though, it resonated with me. It has more serious moments, but overall I found the tone light and humorous. Much of what happens, especially in the middle of the book, is insane and Clarence’s adventures made me think of a grown-up version of Alice in Wonderland. St. Elmo plays with literary references and fates of his characters (say, deceased authors) were written by themselves in their famous literary works. Here, though, imaginary blends with the real.
After stepping through a Spirit Door, Clarence finds himself in the labyrinthine Dark Library and the narrative turns feverish. He meets dead writers, birds, hackers, discusses words and meanings. He even learns about the sexual life of books:
“Sure, you can pretend it is just how the books talk to each other,” he continued. “Umberto Eco described it as conversation going on across centuries. But no; it’s sex. One book argues with another from an earlier time, and their argument gives birth to a shelf of little lesser arguers. Or a book inspires a painting that creates a discussion that leads to a piece of music that leads to a play that inspires a book that argues with all its parents. Kids. God knows they are all quoting each other, stealing from each other, passing the DNA along. And when translation and transcribing go off-track you get mutation. Maybe even evolution.”
At some point, this part of the book tried to tie together a lot of dreams. Though it never got to the point where it got confusing, I did not feel invested in all aspects of the story. But that’s just a minor complaint.
Conclusion: I loved this book and found it hard to put down. I know it won’t appeal to everyone, but if you love books and languages, I urge you to give it a chance.
About the Reviewer
CONNECT WITH LUKASZ FROM FANTASY BOOK CRITIC