Click here to read reviewer Deborah Straw's take on Travels in the Scriptorium.
Paul Auster is the author as illusionist. Even with the smoke dissipated and the mirrors revealed, the audience of readers may note that little has been de-mystified. Illusion is all. It’s a fictional construct that might have pleased Winston Churchill, who coined the description, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He was speaking of the then-Soviet Union, but the quote may serve as a point of orientation for first-time readers of Auster.
The character Auster has constructed to Churchill’s formula is an elderly, infirm prisoner of the state – some frighteningly dismembered then re-constituted America: “This is the garrison at Ultima: the westernmost tip of the Confederation, the place that stands at the edge of the known world . . . overlooking the unmapped expanses of the Alien Territories.”
Though he occupies what is more hospital room than cell and is attended by outwardly kindly women who feed and otherwise care for him, fear is his always present attendant. As is a weighty sense of guilt. But guilt for doing what? And will clues to answering all such questions be found in a supposedly fictional manuscript that lies, along with piles of photographs (some faces teasingly familiar to him) on a desk in the sparsely furnished room?
An Auster mode that applies in Travels In The Scriptorium is being miserly in use of a writer’s basic resources. He is sparing of words (here a mere 145 pages), is wont to recycle characters from previous plots and to make creative re-use of names, even his own and that of his wife, Siri (the latter spelled back-wards when bestowed on a character in a previous book). Recycling family names shows up here in a passing reference to a character’s sons, Paul and Benjamin – Auster’s first and middle names.
The name game surfaces, too, in the imprisoned character’s monicker, Mr. Blank, who is not really a blank. He remains sentient, though diminished in both mind and body by what appears to have been earlier maltreatment and by disorienting mind-games that continue, such as the affixing of labels throughout the room – WALL, LAMP, SHADE – as one might do for an aphasia patient. But Mr. Blank is not aphasic, and he notes when the labels have been toyed with to mis-identify the room’s features.
That labeling people may be used to assault our sense of individuality and self-worth is underlined here. Of Auster’s prisoner, we note the chilling,“We will therefore drop the epithet old man and henceforth refer to the person in the room as Mr. Blank. For the time being, no first name will be necessary.”
That may strike a chord with readers who recall a late-sixties TV series called The Prisoner, in which a British spy who has resigned - with, presumably, an agile mind harboring dangerous secrets - is spirited away to a fantastical site called “The Village.” Assigned a new identity - “Number Six” - he has few shields to protect against the manipulations of his captors. One he does possess is determination not to cede his personhood. Thus, he stubbornly, repeatedly insists to his wardens, “I am not a number, I am a free man.”
By Auster’s prisoner in this book and by bygone TV’s entrapped “Number Six,” we are warned that among the most devious and degrading of tyrannies is to be stripped of one’s most basic identity.