Imagine living somewhere where everything is free – except the words.
I’ll be quiet for a while and let you think about it.
Any ideas? 🙂
The scenario set out above is exactly the premise of a short story in a book I read recently – thank you very much for recommending it, Santiago – and at first I wasn’t going to write about it because the book hasn’t been translated into English. But it occurred to me that the idea of a world where you have to pay for words was worth exploring with you.
The title of the short story is Cuaderno de bitácora (Ship’s Log) and it’s the first story in a collection of quirky short stories titled Los que duermen (Those Who Sleep) by Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena.
The set-up is simple: it’s 1564 and a Spanish ship has been blown off course into unchartered waters. The ship’s log then narrates how they reached an unknown land where everything was for free except the words. As soon as you accept this somewhat unusual premise, the rest of the story unfolds logically: to own an object you have to own the word that names it… some words are more valuable than others… and the emperor, who is the only one who owns all the words of the language, cannot be removed from his exalted position because not even the richest noble in the land can afford to buy the word emperor. In fact, nobody is rich enough to even know what the emperor’s name is.
Let’s just sit back (do have a glass of red) and consider for a moment. If you were selling words, what price would you put on happiness? It’s not something tangible: if you were poor and struggled to make ends meet, would you buy the word for happiness? Or daisies? Or love?… If you were selling words, what would you set a higher price on: gold or bread? And if you’re buying words, is the word help useful or is it a complete waste of money? Would anybody want to own words like death and torture? How rich would you have to be to write (or read) a book?!… And what happens to people who can’t even articulate what they feel and think? In fact, if we think with words, how simple the thoughts of those who can only afford a hundred words would have to be: if you ever learned a foreign language you know how little you can express with a hundred words. How can a child learn mathematics if his father can’t afford the words add, subtract, circle, square?
The biroches (this being the name of the people in the story) consider themselves a very ‘democratic’ society because everybody is allowed to have a say in everything: all the state decisions are discussed by the entire population – well, by those who have sufficient vocabulary to discuss anything, that is. So what happens to a society where nothing ever changes because the only people who are capable of changing anything have a vested interest in things continuing as they are?
It takes the Spaniards a little time to grasp what’s going on in this strange society but once they understand, they react in an entirely reasonable manner: they start selling words in exchange for gold. Soon the unnamed emperor is in the belief that he owns the entire world (well, at least as known to the Spanish sailors) because they sold him the names of all the countries – their own included. In due course, the Spanish sail away with the fabulous wealth they acquired and everybody lives happily ever after. Or do they?
We never find out anything more about the emperor and his strange land but a chilling little epilogue is added to the ship’s log later on in the book: on the way home the ship carrying unbelievable riches, the ship carrying the price of an entire world in gold and precious stones, gets becalmed in the middle of the ocean…
What price for a glass of water?