Ninth Letter is proud to feature excerpts from the first three chapters of the novel Going up not North (Para Cima e não para Norte) by the Portuguese writer Patrícia Portela. The novel is a loopy love letter to the transformative pleasures (and dangers) of reading, a snarky modern version of Plato's Cave.
In Going up not North, we learn of hidden (from us) voracious readers, the dots known as flatlanders. They live to read, and slide across the pages of the books in our libraries, entranced by the stories they find there.
The narrator of the novel learns, through his chance encounter with a smudged fingerprint on a page, that the stories he has been reading are actually connected to a wider world beyond the mere two dimensions he lives in. "Everything that was written was true!" he mistakenly exclaims, and what follows is a quasi-anthropological quest to understand how the two worlds, two-and three-dimensional, affect each other. Portela is always witty and ingenious in these pages, combining humor with philosophical inquiry as her hapless narrator tries his best to "read between the lines."
First there was silence.
The first time I spoke I was put in prison.
This book is dedicated to...Well...that is a good question isn't it? Maybe to everyone who helped to nearly kill me and then resurrect me. A little changed, but at least alive. Yes, all those readers who made me possible. Not only to philosophers who read, holding their heads in their hands, while developing complicated theories about the world, not only to those old Greeks with their parchments unrolling into their laps, but also people who prefer to read with the book on their knees, people who prefer to lie down, on the bed, on the sofa, people who read on the balcony so that they can peep at pretty boys going down the lane, people that cannot resist and read the final page of the book first, people that can not start the day till they read every single sentence of the newspaper including the obituaries, lovers who read to one another, students reading before an exam, a teacher to a student, a mother to a child. To all the people who read in buses, in prisons (and I have been there!), or in large queues while waiting for their social security number to come up, whoever reads to learn, whoever reads to forget, to pass time, to endure, to resist, to discover, or to move on...whoever yeah whoever... I... a humble native from Flatland, dedicate to you, inhabitants of space in general, and to you, solid readers in particular, in front of this book at this very moment, ...... whatever you're thinking, I count on you to turn each one of these pages, wishing that just as I was introduced, through reading, into the mysteries of three dimensions, having been given only two, that you shall slowly begin to understand the bi-dimensional world and discover the insights of flatlanders, and that in this way we can change the course of History through laws of fiction.
differences between a spatial man and dots or flatman.
Flatpeople cannot be in space, but boy, can we read books. We can slide over the outline of the letters and follow the labyrinths of lines that make up each word and sentence, and in this way follow the stories written in any book made of flat pages. It sounds difficult, but in fact, for a flatlander it's natural and considered one of the most exciting sports--it is a bit like swimming and diving after throwing yourself into endless corridors of playground slides, while competing as a gymnast at the Olympics on every apparatus at the same time, simultaneously doing your taxes, cooking a 3 course meal for the entire family while making love to your wife and preparing a brilliant financial analysis for a company that is about to go bankrupt.
It is also a dangerous sport and the reason I ended up in prison.
Life used to be simple: I lived in a very ordinary house like this one, On a street like this, in a suburb of a city like this, in a little country like this... Everything was made out of simple lines going north, south, east, west or in any of the 360 degrees that encompassed our world. Everyday I got up direction south, got dressed diagonally southeast, while complaining to my wife, still southwest in bed, that I had no ironed shirts, I ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth northwest, northeast, northwest, northeast, remembering I should make an appointment with my dentist for a check up and went out, always heading north ... My life had a clear direction. At the end of the day and on the weekends, me and my family used to walk through groups of letters like g-a-r-d-e-n, s-e-a-s-h-o-r-e or p-a-r-k and that would be it. We could even visit exciting foreign emotions like SCHADENFREUDE...SAUDADE...TRISTESSE...PATHOS..WABI SABI... Life was simple and abundant in Flatland. There were no such things as solids, volumes, textures, or problems such as time or space. To know the distance between the line of a house, for example, and the line of a tree, we would calculate the amount of blurriness surrounding those lines--the blurrier the further away! This was one of the basic principles of distance in Flatland that prevented people and things bumping into each other all the time. Very practical and no one ever bothered to ask themselves why. But while we are dealing with practical matters, I guess some of you are trying to imagine what I look like! Since you have one more dimension than me, you cannot see me, the same way I cannot see you, since I have one dimension less than you. Or should I say the reverse, since I have one dimension less than you, you cannot see me and I cannot see you since you have one more dimension than me... But it is very simple: You are reading a book right now, right? Imagine I am here beside the letter X, oh there is no X, well what is a good word with a X... You are reading a book right now, right? Imagine I am here inside the axis of the two lines that make the letter X...I know some of you can see 4 unfinished triangles around, but that's not me... a little bit below that you can see the shape of a triangle. Now, imagine you could lower your eyes to the level of the page or imagine the book would tilt until you have the page at the level of your eyes, got it? This way you come very close to our flat condition and how we look at things... so if you could look at me from the top like you see now you would see a triangle but the closer you get to the same level as the paper you would see me only as a straight line... but the difference is that I am very very very very small ... so you have to imagine this line is shorter, so short that for your eyes I am just a piece of information that looks like...well, not much really, on my own...but get a lot of us together...
Anyway... I was talking about reading! It is an amazing sport, specially because it is always varied and you can get all sorts of different emotions besides getting technically very good at it... For example: if you are in good shape, you can sport-read whole paragraphs in one go...but it's tricky ...I once saw my cousin fall all the way from the top of a page of Brothers Karamazov and not stopping until he was impaled on letter A half way down page 37 of Kafka's Metamorphosis, without even noticing he had changed authors, let alone thematic content. But watch me:
That was a paragraph where Hermes Trismegistus explains the whole idea of decomposition of a body in search of gold, page 37 of the Opus Magnum... ...and the next second I can be sliding in a totally different landscape such as this:
That was part of the "Electrical Theory" by Giordano Bruno, which I am very deeply into these days, and one of the reasons why he was burned alive by the Inquisition. It is fun to slide through the boudoir of Camille, or 200 pages of Tolstoy's battles while my son is caught in a tornado with Dorothy as her house is lifted out of Kansas and transported to Oz. (...) The meeting point at the end of the sport was always in an Ian Fleming novel, one of our favorite stories to slide through. We would always end the day there with a competition: STORY BOARDING To see who could hold on as long as possible, sliding non-stop until the end of the page, arrive there first and hope for the page to be turned. (...)
One day, lazily sliding for a bit of relaxation, I accidentally discovered a strange letter like this:
I thought it was such an amazing letter with so many lines that no doubt it had to have a lot of meanings. I took what you would call a "lot of time" in your world, to memorize this amazing letter and started investigating it.
At dinner, I discussed and shared my ideas with my family. My wife thought it was just another of my weird hobbies and my son kept telling me it was a landscape letter, not meant to be de-codified. Still, I persisted with my investigation and still today I wish I had never paid that much attention to it. Maybe I'd be happier though more ignorant today.
But at the time I could not know what kind of tragedy I was getting into. On another day, it was a Sunday, I was a bit bored, sliding at random, and I ended up in a police report...I discovered this:
Report nr xf 234533176 ref 11/65/04 (image) Date of birth: 16.05.1962
Color of eyes: blue/gray
Color of hair: blonde
Observations: Accused of escaping custody...
I could not believe what my bodyline was sliding through! This "strange letter" was a fingerprint! Well, I know what a fingerprint is, I just had not slid through one before. But, the issue here is, that for me to be able to find a fingerprint in Flatland, there has to have been a contact between this suspect and my world. But a fingerprint requires a finger, and a finger requires a hand, a hand needs to be linked to arms, and arms don't just float around without bodies. And they should all have a head on top and legs below and they usually come with feet attached. A real person. Just like James Bond so...this meant that somewhere, James Bond complete with martinis, beds, blonde girls, submarine cars with sophisticated gadgets, laser watches, creepy guys with bad teeth, midgets with razor hats and so forth... all really existed! Every single thing that I had ever come across while sportively reading actually existed already somewhere else and everything that was written was true! Everything was true! You cannot imagine how devastated, how flabbergasted I was ... even if you think you can imagine, you can't, because arms and legs and chests and fingers, and toenails and pretty blonde girls and dry martinis must be pretty normal in your life, you pretty much start from that when you are born... But imagine a guy, well... actually a dot, a simple dot like me, that suddenly realizes the house he has cared for is nothing but a design for a 3D one in your world, a map is a detailed guide to one of your real cities, the clothes I wear are only patterns to make better ones in beautiful fabrics I have read about but never imagined really existed! My life was fake ...and every single sentence I have read in my life was actually an enregistration of what is really happening in another dimension. My life was fake and James Bond was out there living the real one. I almost collapsed. First I was speechless, then seriously ill, I could not even read that would give me nausea... but then I decided it was my mission, to make Flatland a better place. It was time for a change. I formulated my concept of the third dimension and called a press conference to tell all my flatmates about what I had discovered. I presented it to a very surprised audience, imagining I would be celebrated for my discoveries instead I was dragged away by Flat-police-Landers who accused me of taking reading sports too seriously and disturbing the peace and tranquility of Flatland.
I was sent to prison, convicted of violating the basic principles of citizenship and Geometry of Flatland. No visitors, no contact with the outside world. Only allowed to sport-read twice a day, under the strict supervision of a flat therapist to keep my bodyline in reasonable shape, and ensure my return to normal flat thinking. This is when I learned how to read "between the lines" and pretend I was only sport-reading when I was actually doing secret research to save my reputation and prove there was another dimension out there by developing a 3d model in a 2d world. I can give you a pretty good example of how reading between the lines it works.
"THERE'S NO POLICE LIKE HOLMES"
"THERE'S NO POLICE LIKE HOLMES"
"THERE'S NO P LACE LIKE HO ME "
Wizard of Oz
"THERE' S NO PLACE LIKE HOME"
"WE CAN NEVER GO HOME AGAIN"
You see? All communication between the readers of an image and the makers of an image takes place on a 2 dimensional surface. Communication is nearly always carried on a 2D level. And that was what had bothered me for so long: Why had the Spacelander come to Flatland in the first place and left his fingerprints in my world? What were you doing here? Spacelanders go to Flatland in order to transform and perfect information that can be used in their 3D world. But what if Flatlanders wanted to have space in Flatland too, that would require a Dimensional Expansion never dreamed of before, wouldn't it? I thought and thought and thought about these two worlds and realized that if the written world had been invented by Spacelanders, then everything that happens in 3D world must go through 2D world first. This means that letters are codes to produce space. Somewhere in all the reports, books, articles and other bi-dimensional documentation, the transformation processes are described in detail--I just had to do it backwards - it was just a matter of finding the right formula. I decided to be very practical and dedicate my research to finding out more about the mysterious fingerprint beings and find what qualities they have that I don't have. I started comparing everything I read to everything I have. This way, I would arrive, by an empirical process of comparison and elimination, to a list of empirical elements that would only exist in Spaceland and this way find the empirical components I needed to create an empirical 3D model in Flatland. (Lists of what flat people have and don't have)
Basically we are the same but you have more... But what more? I studied this list over and over to find which of the mores would make the important difference between us and you. And suddenly I realized it was movement... of course! I can only go north, south, east west, northeast and so on, but you can go up and down! And to be able to do that you need to have volume...only things who have volume can jump up...and fall down! Volume and movement, volume and movement... My 360 degree life style was shattered.
I started immediately trying to create volume by launching things above myself, but that is not an easy task to accomplish in Flatland. Things don't fly and things don't fall in my world. I needed volume! But where could I keep volume in Flatland? I needed a box to keep my volume in!
And a box is just a cube! So I tried making a cube by dislocating a square so many times that I could tie the different layers together and gradually compress them until I could create a cube. Then I searched in a dictionary for a similar image to see if it had all the same qualities as in Spaceland and that is when I read: Cube in perspective ... Perspective...perspective...
Perspective - / p¶'spektrv / n 1(a) [U \art of drawing solid objects on a flat surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth and position in relation to each other; (b) representation of a three dimensional space in a two dimensional reality.
Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary
This was becoming a nightmare! You had already invented cubes like the one that took me so long to build! You not only use me to reason about information, but you also want to make me look like you without allowing me to be you!
For you, I am just a representation of your reality! OK! I only wanted to make a simple model of the 3D world in Flatland, but now the game was something else...I wanted to talk to you, I wanted to make some things clear...I wanted to become 3D... if everything in my world is a representation of yours then the key to access your construction is hidden in my landscape. I bet you never thought of that? Well, it was clear I had to get out of prison ...there was not much more I could do there... I started planning my escape, not only out of prison, but out of Flatland completely... just as I was about to finish, I was unexpectedly released on parole.... My reading between the lines had looked like good behavior. I had been a model prisoner.
--Translated from the Portuguese by Anton Skrzypiciel in collaboration with the author.
Patrícia Portela (1974) is a writer and performance maker living between Belgium and Portugal. She has studied set and costume design in Lisbon and in Utrecht, The Netherlands, film in Ebeltoft, Denmark, and Philosophy in Leuven, Belgium. Between 1994 and 2002 she worked mainly as a costume designer and décor artist for some of the most prominent independent companies and filmmakers in Portugal, winning the Prize Revelation of the year in 1994 for her multiple work in performance and cinema. Since 2003 she works in her own performances and installations in collaboration with international artists and tours regularly in Europe and around the world. She has won several awards and has achieved national and international recognition and has been considered one of the most outstanding and daring artists and writers of her generation. Widely anthologized, she is the author of the novels Para Cima e Não Para Norte (2008) and Banquete (2012). In 2013 she has been invited to participate in the prestigious International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa City and to be the IWP's inaugural Outreach Fellow with a focus on cultivating public outreach events and reflections based on her expertise and multi-genre/media talents. She has lectured regularly since 2008 at Forum Dança, in Lisbon, as well in other art institutions and universities.