Pen Ultimate / Tat? Who's That?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Lessons from the fictional Kingdom of Lailonia.

The international book fair held this week in Jerusalem made me reassess myself as a writer of books. I have published some (titles withheld) and did so, humbly, for the credit. But anyone who has published something, which is an achievement in itself, and swears that he did it just "to write a book," nurtures a hope in his heart that his book will be a best seller.

As I've been writing about publishing for many years now and have a fair perspective of my appeal as a writer, I don't have any illusions about my "marketability." I therefore was not disillusioned when I was told - by well-wishers - that I am the kind of writer who writes "to the happy few." Those four words, in English, come after "The End" in Stendhal's book "The Charterhouse of Parma" (1839). The happy few - a possible reference to the Saint Crispin's day monologue from Shakespeare's "Henry V" - are presumably those who understand rarefied qualities and can do without the applause of the masses.

Even the most sober of writers fails to understand what there is to be so happy about. After a writer's first book achieves what is called in French success d'estime (which means in plain English "it does not sell"), and his third work has more copies returning to the publisher from the bookstores than were originally printed, even he (or, in this case, I) will get the idea that this is not the stuff that best-sellers are made of.

Usually I seek consolation in books, and so this time I turned to one written by this year's winner of the Jerusalem Prize, Prof. Leszek Kolakowski. "Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia for People Big and Small" (translated into English in 1989 by Kolakowski's daughter, Agnieszka) was published in the early 1960s and takes the form of a manuscript that reaches the narrator and his brother by mail from the fictional Kingdom of Lailonia, which the two of them are unable to find on maps and in atlases.

Best or greatest

The manuscript is a story entitled "The Famous One" and its hero is Tat, who "wanted very much to become famous." He comes to the conclusion that you can't be the best or greatest in everything at the same time, and realizes that he has no chance, for example, of being the tallest or the shortest man on earth, as he is of middling height. At first he tries to become the owner of the longest pair of pants in the world, but a 300-meter-long inseam proves to be a bit cumbersome when walking.

He tries to be the baldest man in the world, and to change his tie more often than other people (60), but this fails to bring him fame. He then comes up with the idea of being the youngest person among all those who are older, and the oldest of all those who are younger, but people cannot grasp this idea due to their stupidity - as Tat realizes. So he tries to be the dirtiest person (and enjoys short-lived fame), the best and quickest needle-threader, the greatest and fastest bed-maker, the best taker-out of corks from bottles, the fastest tearer-out of pages from new books and the most outstanding squeezer-out of toothpaste from a tube.

Tat's various talents do not bring him fame and he is irked by the injustice of it: how people get famous for being the best in one thing, like swimming the fastest or having the most money. He thinks that something in the world must be awry , and goes to seek advice from a neighbor. It takes him days to get there (because of his attempts to be the slowest walker in the world), and considerable time to explain his problem (he tries to be the world's greatest stutterer, and pronouncing his name alone takes him at least an hour).

The friend's advice is simple: to become famous you have to have lots and lots of money. "Of course, of course, of course," says Tat, who was the most frequent repeater of the words "of course." "But where am I to find lots and lots of money?"

The friend answers: "Everyone who is very famous can easily have lots and lots of money." Tat admits that this is true, of course. But how does one become famous? The friend loses his patience. "I've just told you. You have to have lots and lots of money."

Tat finds this to be sound advice, but not very practical. He considers dying at the youngest age in the world, but realizes that it is unlikely that he will succeed in this. So he orders the longest pencil in the world and stops eating strawberries, announcing that he is the eater of the fewest strawberries in the world.

As a last resort, it occurs to Tat that one might also become a very eminent personage by being the worst at something. So he becomes the world's worst cyclist and worst writer of poetry. At this point he is struck by an idea which, had he thought of it earlier, would have spared him much effort: He decides to become the least famous person in the world. To this end he chooses to leave the town in which he lives and to go off to a place where no one has heard of him.

Thus, "one day Tat disappeared completely. Of course, in disappearing he trusted that he would soon win fame as the least famous person in the world. When he disappeared his friends wondered for a few days what on earth could have happened to Tat. After wondering about it for a few days they forgot about him, and thus Tat achieved his goal: He becomes the least famous person in the world. Absolutely no one knows anything about him. We, too, know nothing about him, and that is why we are completely unable to write a story about Tat."

Trust a philosopher to point you in the right direction As there is no chance of getting my book on a best seller list, I have decided to stake my claim to fame on getting to the top of the worst seller list. I know that it is a tough and crowded market, but here, at least, I do have a chance.