Monday, 28 July 2008

The Voynich Manuscript for real people...

Note: this article has now moved to the-voynich-manuscript-for-real-people on Cipher Mysteries

It's a typical writer's puzzle: when something you read (or write) really sucks, but an even half-satisfactory alternative is nowhere to be found. That's basically how I feel about almost everything that's been written about the VMs: even though it's an amazing mystery, that also somehow highlights all the dangerous sides of knowledge, accounts always amble off in the same kind of leadenly pedestrian way. For example, I spent ages tweaking and polishing the first sentence of "The Curse":
"In 1912, when the ancient Jesuit Villa Mondragone near Rome was running short of funds, its managers decided to sell off some of its rare books."

Just like the (abysmal) VMs Wikipedia entry, the sterile factuality and precision here can't be faulted: but it's aiming for the head, not the heart. But mysteries have a certain kind of tactile, claustrophobic presence to them: they surround you, taunt you, tighten your chest as you sense an approaching breakthrough. You think you're hunting the target, when in fact all the clues are hunting you - the reader is the target.

In short, even though everything surrounding the Voynich Manuscript is a mystery, why do people persist in writing about it as if they are writing a description for a car auction - its size, shape, page-count, first historical mention, list of owners, number of pictures, valves, bhp, lalala? Capturing the raw factuality of a mystery in this way achieves little or nothing.

When I went to the Beinecke, I tried to read the texture of its pages with my fingers (to tell the hair side from the grain side): I smelt its cover and pages (just in case I could pick up any hint or note of the animal from which the vellum was made): I looked at its surface under a magnifying glass: I looked at special features through narrow-band optical filters, which I tilted to try to adjust the wavelength. I tried to stretch my range of perceptions of it to the point where something unusual might just pop out.

But most of all, I tried to imagine myself into the position of someone physically writing it: how the act of writing and state of mind mixed together, what was going on, what they were thinking of, how it all worked. And that was yet harder still.

At supper this evening, I told my son that the biggest mystery in the world is what other people are thinking: and really, that is perhaps at the heart of why the Voynich Manuscript is the biggest mystery ever - because we still cannot reconstruct what its author was thinking. It is this absence of rapport that opens up the possibility for mad, bad, and bizarre theories: because we can project onto the manuscript whatever feelings and thoughts we like.

Yet when authors write fiction, this empathy is typically where they start: working out how to create characters with whom the readers will be able to sustain some kind of reading relationship over the course of 200+ pages. Take that basic connection away, and you can end up with a writer's folly, an artificial construction to which the narrative or flow is awkwardly pegged.

So how would I start the book, if I were writing it right now? Perhaps with Averlino at his point of death - the moment when his strange book was finally set free.
"What master of Destiny was he, when the Fates had carried him back to this holy place he despised so: and what kind of master of Nature, when he could see his death fast approaching and yet could do nothing?"

You may not like it: but is that just because you've become too used to reading Wikipedia?

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