OR THE PARADOXES OF THE SCIENCE OF BEAUTY
• Description of Pulidalatita.
• In which our heroes discover that aesthetics is in no way an exact science.
AFTER A WEEK by mail coach and three days by vicuna, we finally came into sight of the city of Pulidalatita.
Pulidalatita results from the union of two cities, Pulida and Latita, connected by a monumental, one-arched stone bridge. Pulida leans against the steep slopes of a hill; Latita spreads along the west bank of an unruffled river.
While the sun sets, lending a purple flush to the whitewashed facades of Pulida, cool shadows have already engulfed the domes and cupolas of Latita.
The two twin cities are equally attractive, the steep alleys of Pulida having no less charm than the narrow canals of Latita. The friendly rivalry between their universities is proverbial, and their economies intertwined, for they are governed by a single Great Council, scrupulous in striking a fraternal balance between them.
And yet, Pulida and Latita could not be more different since, from time immemorial, Pulida has been the city of the Beautiful, and Latita the city of the Ugly. At puberty, in each city, the young people of both sexes have to face a sovereign jury commissioned by the Council. This tribunal decides once and for all whether they are beautiful or ugly. The Beautiful then become for the rest of their lives official citizens of Pulida, and the Ugly citizens of Latita.
Nobody forces anyone to live in his city. The ugly can choose to live in Pulida, amongst the beautiful; the beautiful can settle down in Latita amongst the ugly. The reasons for such decisions are secret, personal and undiscussed. Similarly, the beautiful can marry the ugly, the ugly marry the beautiful, for it is common knowledge in both Pulida and Latita that love is blind, and that neither beauty nor ugliness can ever be passed down.
As a result, during the first few days, in complete ignorance of this custom, we crossed the bridge between the two cities several times without noticing the slightest difference between their inhabitants.
OR THE MOVEMENTS OF THE TONGUE
• Encounter with the Keepers of Stone.
• In which our two friends discover a hidden meaning to the arbitrariness of the sign.
A DAY LATER, we came to the marches of the Land of Ycxk. The great white cliff, dotted with loopholes, barred the horizon. A three-lipped mouth, the symbol of the kingdom, adorned a heavy granite door below the rock face. From that point, an interminable straight stairway, carved directly into the limestone, led up to the sierra.
Half-way up, we had to stop at a double-entrance door guarded by armed men and women. We answered the traditional question. For nobody can enter the land of Ycxk unless he offers a new, unfamiliar name to the Keepers of Stone. On this high, rugged plain, licked by the desert winds, the language therefore keeps evolving with each new visiting traveler. The year before, some explorers brought the words «sasouni» and «outika». Sasouni — as our guide explained — refers to «the color of the moon on the horizon on winter mornings», and outika is a verb which means «to keep one’s mouth shut because one would rather not speak than make a fool of oneself».
As for us, we brought into the tongue the word «orthography», whose sound really appealed to our hosts, because it resembled atagraffy, which in Utarian meant «having a hairy back.»
They laughed as they kept repeating «ortografy!», «ortografy!» so as to learn the word perfectly, but it proved to be completely useless, even incomprehensible, as the citizens of Ycxk could not write.
OR SUBTERRANEAN TERROR
• Subterranean travels.
• In which our heroes suspect that the chilvarous spirit no longer is what it used to be.
THIS LONG DAY of galloping has paid off. We are now being treated like royalty at the subterranean palace of Ordinia. Still, there is no doubt that we are under the closest surveillance. The vigilance of the valiant knights of Frsfwsx (which literally means “from outside” — any pronounciation would be approximate — ) never wavers.
The inhabitants of Ordinia have a pale, sickly complexion, for they have never seen the radiance of the sun or the azure of the sky. For centuries, they have lived hidden in subterranean caves. They know a thousand mushroom recipes; their carpets are made of spyden silk and their clothes of mole leather. Never until this day had they met any strangers. For the thirty Frsfwsx warriors of the Guild see to it that they are protected. At the surface, every single day, these men and women whose courage is flawless lead a terrible fight against abominable dragons, emerging from the fight occasionally wounded and burned, and always exhausted.
Many an Ordinian saga sings their victorious campaigns against demons, and the feats of generations of heroes are carved on the salpetre rock faces — all abominable tales which fuel the people’s sense of terror.
Outside, of course, there are neither monsters nor fights, but the privileges of the Frsfwsx knights are at the price of this tiny, tiny lie.
OR THE GAME OF ARTIFICE
• Astonishment on the part of our heroes and musing on the nature of nature.
• In which the narrator makes an irreparable mistake.
WE FINALLY REACHED Untara, feeling somewhat foolish, for we had been pacing up and down the main street for over two hours without even knowing it.
The reason is that in Untara, every house, like every handmade object — from cutlery to bedding — strives to imitate nature in its slightest details, thanks to an extraordinary reworking of matter and forms.
This is what makes the craftsmen of Untara such geniuses: one thinks that one is seeing a stone, and it is a lamp; one wants to step over a puddle, and it is a bathtub. I think I can honestly say that if, at any given moment, one is convinced of being faced with a manufactured piece, it is undoubtedly an entirely natural object. The natives themselves abide by this rule as they artfully blend into the landscape.
For that matter, we had to leave Untara almost immediately, soon after I inadvertently stepped on the burgomaster’s wife, convinced that she was a thistle.
OR THE CONFINES OF THE CITY
• Strolling along main street.
• In which our heroes wonder about an intriguing geometric paradox.
SUIBEOM IS LIKE any other city, with its innkeepers and blacksmiths, its beggars and wandering dogs, its street hawkers and nonchalant soldiers. And yet, Suibeon is like no other city, for it consists of only one street of indefinite length, meandering its way through the highrises. Sometimes, this endless roadway rushes into a tunnel carved into the buildings or springs onto a bridge, striding over a street down below which proves to be — one later realizes — nothing but its own continuation.
No intersection, no crossroads ever breaks the uniformity of this ribbon of grey cobblestones along which everyone hurries. We have tried to draw a map, but the city fiercely resists our surveyors’ logic. Twice, we walked past the same basilica, but that basilica, which was first on our left, later appeared on our right. Suibeom’s only street thus seems to have only one side, and were one to choose to turn around, one would undoubtedly follow the exact same itinerary.
Today, although we have left Suibeom, a question still intrigues us: how did we ever enter it in the first place ?