Altaplana, world of Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters

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François Schuiten et Benoît Peeters

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Fragments of an Obscure Man

Organization and Notes by João Ramalho Santos and João Miguel Lameiras\ Translated from Portuguese to French by Júlio Henriques

Diary of Ishmael Tolentino

Mylos, 756

I write these lines with difficulty, holding the pen the innkeeper lent me with more will than fingers. My body is a burning pain. I feel the painful contraction of muscles I never knew I had. In the mirror I am the living image of defeat. I am very tired… What is the point of writing anymore?

Finally night has fallen on Mylos. At the very moment my body shows again that it wants to obey me. I am tired of this bed, this inhospitable room. Of this damned, damned, damned, damned City.

Is it worth going back to the beginning? Ten years of travel! Twenty notebooks and sketches! Too much material, the testimony of the World! A task that no one had imagined to complete! Except me, Ishmael! The one who would finish Robick's work, visiting Cities he never mentioned, looking at others with a more open eye for details and people. Not an urbanist's eye, focused on the “big systems”, but rather a traveller's eye, looking for the new. More than buildings and bridges, the search for the true essence of each city.

I LOST everything!

The fine covers of Pâhry's notebooks replaced by this coarse block of Mylos. Paper that crumbles to powder at the slightest touch of sweat. But this is all I have. That and a few days before I go to see the factory and finally try to leave for Galatograd.

Am I going to spend my time recreating ten years of wanderings and notes? Laughable task! I have long since forgotten most of the faces, the moments lived, the places. That's what the notebooks were for, sacrificed a few days ago in any of the fires that are still blazing all over Mylos today.

What I have to recover is little more than a skeleton, a rough draft of the journey so far. Decisive milestones, unimportant details. Later, in these endless journeys, perhaps on the final return to Pâhry, I will try to reconstruct my scattered memory, to fill in the gaps. Perhaps chance and the Company will lead me in the meantime to the Cities I have already visited, where even last week I would never have wanted to return. Perhaps not. But I will still be able to recreate some images without finding myself trapped in the tyranny of facts I barely remember. I don't like doing it. But I have no other solution. It is too late, too much is at stake. If I don't try to rise from the ruins, what will be left of these ten years?

Pâhry, 745

Studies completed. Interview with the Company, under the advice of Professor Chatwin. They are looking for a traveller, someone who will roam the Continent, visit all the Cities, write detailed reports. The aim seems to be to gather information so that Pâhry's domination of the Continent can be extended, this time without the army. At each stage, instructions will be sent. I am enjoying this task immensely. Travelling, writing. Not being limited to one place. I am tired of Pâhry, where everything seems wrong! But I have not been able to make the Company more precise in its intentions. So who is at the head of this project? What are its real intentions?

I hesitate, but the scandal with Edith speeds up my decision. I have no other choice.

Alaxis, 745

The City is exploding in all directions. The Company wants an exhaustive catalogue on this City of Pleasure, to create leisure centres on other parts of the Continent. Cosmopolis. Cabarets.

I'm afraid my report is too enthusiastic…

Green Lake, 746

The destroyed organ of Frobelius. The hunt for sponges. A time out.

Xhystos, 746

Why didn't I come here right after Alaxis?

Imposing city, but of ancient glories. Its people still speak of the empire lost so long ago. Epic journeys across the Continent, wars against Urbicande.

Robick may have learned something from Horta.

Order to continue to Yliaster. Afterwards, counter-order. Surely there is a logic to these continual changes.

Ruins of Urbicande, 747

The fastest and simplest report. There is no reason to fear the revival of the power of Urbicande, the earthquake has meticulously accomplished its function. The southern and northern banks of the river, which were once separated, now lie united by ruins.

I pray that Robick did not limit his dreams to this City.

Samarobrive, 747

With the loss of influence of Xhystos and Urbicande, the Company believes that Samarobrive is a good choice, a city that will move forward in the region. Its port is impressive, but it seems almost always deserted.

I send plans, suggestions for future settlement.

Port-des-Singes, 747

The magnificent Mount Analogue within binocular range.

In my memory, nothing but a long journey, first attempt by boat (too calm weather), then by balloon. Then months of waiting, learning a dialect that is of no use to me. Until the orders arrived to go to Alta Plana. What does all this mean?

Blossfeldstad, 749

Almost a year immersed in the Alta Plana archives, looking for information about a certain Isidore Louis, only to be suddenly sent to Blossfeldstad in a hurry, before I had even discovered anything! But it was worth it. Beautiful City! The Company is right to be concerned… Report on the conversion of Brentano, on the enormous will of these people to change the face of their City.

First request to return to Pâhry, even if temporarily. Refused, as will be all the following requests. Danger lurks. They say.


Københaven, 749

No matter how hard I try, I can't remember anything. North? Cold? What on earth was I doing in Københaven?

Gavi, 750

A city lying down! Stretched out towards the sea. A completely different style. I don't know if I like it.

Calvani, 752

The pain of passing so close to Pâhry and not even being able to have a look at the Expo Universelle. I was still forbidden to return. Still an outcast.

The magnificent, mild climate. Gigantic greenhouses. Iron and glass everywhere in the city. All shades of green penetrating through the smallest of gaps. More than promoting the cultivation of plants, Calvani seems almost to be sitting on them.

The Company wants to know the plan of the greenhouses. Information also on the reconstruction underway after the violent storm that destroyed the greenhouses earlier this year. The City is regenerating, only the fine glass dust on the floor bears witness to the explosion a few months ago.

Dates. The travel instructions arrived in Gavi even before the storm… Walking through the reconstructed greenhouses, the first suspicions. Would I be a witness to provoked events? But how could the Company control the elements?

Elias Square. Jacobs Establishments. Excellent wine!

Fierce irritation of the respiratory system forces a hasty departure. Allergies. Calvani's legacy?

Brüsel, 753

Surprise. The city has recovered from the floods and the plant invasion. But it will never be able to darken Pâhry. It disturbs me that I am often sent to places after calamities. Could the Company be involved? A ridiculous idea, but one that will never leave me from now on…

Porrentruy, 754

My only memory: waiting, waiting, waiting.

On the border of the Sodrovo-Voldache Republic, 754-755

Between Muhka (small muddy town), Porrentruy again, and then the forest of Megara. Magnificence. The massive rigour of the trees. Silence, unbearable silence. Solitude. The Cities reassure, even when we do not belong to them. Months to negotiate access to Galatograd. In vain. Politics and nature hold the border impenetrable.

The Company finally contacts me. Negotiate passage to Mylos. Research the industrial soul of the continent. Radical changes in prospect. Big moves. Obtain information.

Have all the stages of the journey been recorded? Have I missed a city? And is the order correct? I'll deal with that later. The essential structure is up, the skeleton of my diary is reborn. In the coming months I will rebuild the rest, as best I can. No doubt only the purified ideas will survive, those that have impressed me the most. Who knows, maybe this disaster has a positive side. What a pathetic rationalisation! Nothing more than that!

Let's forget the past! I want the present! For a bit of reality. And these events, I remember them very well…

Mylos, 756

And again the industrial capital of the Continent… Beautiful city of all… This is where I have been for ages… The chimneys of the factories as a signal full of undertones. Here reigns the Single Industrial Combine. Where production and exploitation are synonymous, and where there is little room for competition. The Company wanted an estimate of the real characteristics of Mylos. After years of negotiations an exhibition, said to be grandiose, will start to be set up soon. Other than that, the City is stingy with its secrets. Let them call Ishmael Tolentino…

Unfortunately this time, the daring traveller did not live up to expectations. A few places were successfully mapped, a job that any apprentice could have done. But the Gwendoline district remained inaccessible, with its strange machines with secret functions, operated only by nubile young men. And then I was dragged to the Seven Days Festival…

Of course, I already knew that in those days miserable workers exchanged their position with that of their superiors, and got drunk in the over-power of a power they would never have. I simply thought that, being a foreigner, I would not be the target of any prosecution. Big mistake! Naivety of someone who has been here for six months. Never expect the rational from an irrational event! For the fiftieth time, some poor wretch has confiscated everything from me, including the notebooks I used to keep. Why didn't I keep the files already filled in at the hostel? Why did I do this? Empty questions for the moment. While I was forced to work in a nearby factory, fellow workers warned me that I could file a complaint, but that all my belongings must have already gone up in smoke. What's the use of protesting? I wouldn't be able to recognise my poor torturer among the indistinct faces. Nor would I be able to recognise the factory where I have been sweating my heart out for the past few days, lost as it is in the dull, grey labyrinth of Mylos, the most cursed of all cities.

There is talk of Mary von Rathen taking over the Combine, there are rumours of reforms, despite the opposition. I wish this enigmatic young woman, whom no one seems to really know, good luck. She needs it…

I am going to see the Company representative today. Fortunately I kept the files at the inn and I will be able to send a summary report to Pâhry. Then I'll try to find a way to reach Galatograd. The Company wants to break the isolation of the Sobrovno-Voldache Republic. Personally, I'm quite curious to finally appreciate the famous dome. The reputation of this region as being ferocious and backward scares me a lot less now. After ten years, after the memorable nights in Mylos, nothing can affect me anymore.

Tomorrow I will buy another notebook.

Poor Ishmael, far from your beloved Pâhry, writing reports knowing that no one will read them, for a Company whose true activity you will never be able to unravel, you have even been deprived of the possibility of pouring out your heart on the white sheet of paper…

But you must overcome your despondency, since everything has finally been cleared up with the Company's representative. Now that I have my privileges back, I have to think about tomorrow. And tomorrow is an important day, the day of the presentation of the model of our new industrial unit established in Mylos, a solemn day that I cannot wither.

Diary of Ishmael Tolentino

Somewhere, in an uncertain time.

In life, there is a time for everything. I have always believed this.

So today, here and now, I have never had so much reason in my life to be panicked. I'm amazed that I can formulate thoughts, even if it's hard to do so. The absurdity of the situation keeps me dizzy, but aware. The disciplined need to write makes me focus all my attention on these loose sheets.

I line up (poorly) sentences on a stone bench, under some trees, at the edge of a square. It is cold, a heavy winter sky. It's not raining, but you can feel the threat of a storm in the air. I am not in the Cities, in a known City. I am certainly not in the summer of Mylos…

Around this square there are only ridiculous, low, insignificant buildings. Only a thick garden attracts attention, on the opposite side to where I am standing.

The few passers-by have brown skin and dark hair. There are a few Somonites (what are they doing here, so far from the Desert?). But nobody speaks a dialect I could understand. Only the employee of a nearby establishment made a sincere effort to communicate with me. Only to find out together that I could not afford to occupy a chair in his tavern (?). What a strange habit! Moreover, when I suggested to him to exchange the second edition of the Mystery of Urbicande for a meal, he looked at me strangely and turned his back on me, and yet, in any City, that would have been considered a very good exchange… Instead, I took refuge on this naked bench, free (I hope!), watching people dressed in a strange and unkempt way. Some of them, even more unkempt and staring, are sitting on adjacent benches, as if they were waiting for something or someone. Watching vehicles go by that look familiar, but never quite so. Few people cross the square, there seems to be a certain sleepiness in these parts. But there is no lack of curiosity, given the glances that are directed at me. The individual on the bench next to me, who was bolder, addressed me, muttering a few incomprehensible words while he let me see something he had in his hand. But when I spoke to him in a normal tone of voice, he fled, frightened! How strange these people are… That's also why I take refuge in writing. Order in the midst of incomprehensible chaos.

Where am I? I don't know. But I would give anything to return to the misery of Mylos. I was there less than an hour ago, admiring the splendid model of the Company's future facilities in the industrial district. The work of a disciple of Letterier, no less! A remarkable work! One could feel the essence of Mylos living in the small machines, whose function was always obscure, as it should be in this City. With undisguised pride, I could already see them at their full size.

I remember slipping. Clumsy as always! I remember fearing that the meticulousness of the model had somehow been “scratched” by my lack of balance. But what came my way was a dirty, blackened floor, the floor of an old factory. Or was it? As I stood up, I saw, in the midst of almost complete darkness, strange portraits of Mylos. Hanging in the air, strangely illuminated. I was not in the temporary offices of the Company. But rather in an oppressive atmosphere that I was unable to identify. I heard voices. I did not hear what they were saying. But I didn't look for the bodies they belonged to either. I had the terrible and instinctive feeling that I did not belong here. That I was a stranger. Stumbling on the uneven floor, trying not to attract voices, I made my way to the only sure source of light. A doorway framed by a tenuous glow. Outside I was certain of what I felt. I was not in Mylos. The small building from which I had emerged reminded me a little of the City, but that was the only thing similar, the rest was inescapably different. Worse even. I wasn't even in a recognisable City.

After wandering around the streets for a while, dazed and aimless, the square where I am now seemed to me the central point of this tiny, obviously obscure locality (City?). Here at least there were people moving around. I headed in that direction, with little hope. To lose my illusions in the various incommunicabilities. It is true that I did not try very hard to make contact with these strange individuals. I took refuge on this bench, on the sheets of Mylos that by chance I had absentmindedly put away in my pocket. I write to exorcise this nightmare. It doesn't work.

A string of hope! As I cross the square, I see someone who seems as out of place as I am in this square bathed in grey light. I could have met this person in the streets of Brüsel, or even Pâhry. I don't know him, but I feel like I could kiss him! He is walking with hurried steps precisely towards the place where I come from, the place where the building of Mylos-which-is-not-Mylos is located. I will follow him. If my weak legs allow me to.

Damn the habit of taking notes, of writing away from the world! Couldn't you have done it later, Ishmael? The Man did not stop at the portrait building (that was my secret hope). He followed the adjacent street, uphill, and my present weakness, which I only now realised, allowed me no heroism. Now, after walking up the street for what seemed like an eternity, I am sitting on the steps of a monumental staircase, between buildings of a more acceptable size. Behind me is a tower that would attract attention anywhere. It is obvious that this City (I can call it that) has many faces. Strangely, despite the silence, all the free space between the buildings seems to be occupied by a sea of stopped cars, blocking streets and pavements. I hadn't seen so many stopped cars since I flew over the universal interchange. A shop? A cemetery? The size of these buildings didn't fit in with any of these functions. Was it just chaos that no one would try to organise? The evil of Brüsel? There are few passers-by, even fewer than in the square. But if I see someone worthy of attention, I promise to approach him first, and only later […].

NOTE FROM THE ORGANISERS : The loose pages no longer contain any information. We presume that, from that moment on, “Ishmael Tolentino” used his copy of the Minutes of the Colloquium as a notebook, taking advantage of the margins and the sheets for annotations. There are some comments which are clearly the result of reading (or hearing) the papers, and should be considered as such (see the “Notes du Voyageur” at the end of all the texts presented at the Colloquium). Other comments are scattered more randomly, and we have tried to put them together in an order that seemed logical to us.

Journal of Ishmael Tolentino Somewhere, in an uncertain Time

Events follow one another in an avalanche. Every time I think of organising my ideas in a consistent way, new facts stun me. And, as a passenger of chance, I simply let myself be carried away by what happens. I feel, once again, that panic would be an adequate response… Paradoxically, I do not give in. I won't give in to them. To whom, for that matter? To the Company that sends me to every corner of the Continent? Could this be another “loyalty test”, another mission that is never fully defined? It doesn't matter at the moment.

At least I'm writing on a more decent paper now! At the entrance, I was given this book with some irresistible sheets of white paper, which I use to continue my report in a more dignified way. The Mylos sheets, folded up in shame, just lurk in their corners. I was also given another notebook, this one pathetic and without identity. With a bloated letterhead of some minor Company. Including an equally ridiculous writing instrument which broke on closer inspection. The innkeeper's pen, which only yesterday looked so crude, is now a godsend to me. I'll have to save the ink. And I'll have to be careful with the pates, the paper doesn't absorb the ink well. At least now I can rest better, in the midst of a multitude of people, in an amphitheatre that reminds me of my student days, so long ago. When I didn't feel obliged to write down all the details of the world, when I was just living it. I feel good, sure of myself. The situation seems formal to me. At the table (of the presidency?) dignitaries (?) have gathered, in obviously solemn clothes. There are still a lot of strange, unkempt people, like those I saw in the square. They are dressed as if they had been called in an emergency, in the middle of their family worries, without having time to make themselves presentable. But there are more who seem to be inhabitants of the Cities, wearing curious black togas. What I don't understand is the function of the black capes, overloaded with coloured badges. I didn't have time to make any contact, I just joined the multitude and sat down. While some nice young girls offered me all this material. And immediately the beautiful white sheets called to me! I still prefer to write. Getting to know people is the antechamber to disillusionment.

But let's do away with anarchy! A little order, Ishmael! Where is your method, refined by years of travel? Fainted in the mist of Mylos?

I arrived in this amphitheatre, cautiously following three individuals whose clothing reminded me of the wardens of Mylos. I acted cautiously, but familiarity is something that calms us. How the feeling of being part of a group lulls us. I lost sight of the three overseers (?), but they disappeared into a larger group, in which I no longer feel so much of an outsider. I arrived here with them. Full of doubts, that's for sure. But with some hope.

Like the one I have thanks to the book on which I note my thoughts while the hubbub shows that the session, whatever it is, is far from starting.

The Book is written in the language of the Cities. I don't recognise the dialect, but it doesn't matter. It's enough to ease some of the dull anxiety that has plagued me since I stumbled into Mylos and stumbled upon this strange and obscure City. I have not read the various texts that make up this volume, which I understand are an integral part of what is going to happen in this place. But the few comments heard here and there and the magnificent (if somewhat exaggerated) illustrations leave no doubt. This is indeed a conference on the Cities. Which, no doubt, the Company wanted me to attend. This is normal, given my experience in this field. I don't know how they got me here. But at the moment, there is no room for doubt: the Company's intentions have been clear since the work began. It is necessary to remain calm. First of all because I feel I am being watched. Perhaps this is the final test. Or am I a clandestine envoy at a secret meeting? Once again this oppressive feeling of being a mere pawn in the unfathomable games of the Company. But what do they want from me?

There are other things that bother me a lot. Where are the instructions that I never used to miss? Which city is it, specifically? Coimbra? Although this fascinating tower reminds me of something, how come I've never heard of it before? And why don't its inhabitants speak a common language? Am I in a remote corner of the Continent? On a lost island? It is likely. But if a meeting of the Cities is really being planned here, none of them would tolerate such an event taking place in a rival territory. Only on neutral ground. Is that it?

There are even more bizarre names and titles. Two unpronounceable names for the organisers. I have no idea who they are. Members of one of the secret societies that abound on the Continent? And this book is apparently called The Visible Cities. Why is that? Could this city where I am be an invisible, occult city? And then, on the other hand, there is a lot of talk about “Obscure Cities”. Which ones? Pâhry, Brüsel, Blossfeldstad, Calvani, Mylos? Only for fun or for sarcasm. Both in bad taste. And finally, F. Schuiten and B. Peeters… Who are they? What do they do? Why do they deserve such attention? Throughout the book they are referred to much more often than the “organisers”.

Things I intend to clarify. When, I don't know…

As I write, I begin to hear unexpected noises. First the silence necessary for such occasions, then solemn and emphatic voices. Even before I look up, I know what I'm going to find. The tone always present in a ceremony.

I fell asleep a little during some of the speeches, those that seemed to go on for an indefinable time. Partly in the language of the Cities, partly in a language impossible to understand. But the official tone does not shed any light on the matter. Curiously, I now notice that this obscure language reminds me of the old lullabies that my mother, broken by the perpetual cleaning work, still had time to offer me with a kiss…

Remarks on the text by João Miguel Lameiras and João Ramalho Santos

I am beginning to understand something… Perhaps… The references to the Cities are correct, it is obvious that the speakers (organisers?) know them, although I doubt that they have visited them in detail (it is also quite remarkable that they did not embarrass each other during their reading, I have always been suspicious of group work). But there are countless words that are, for me, only vague images, or absolute emptiness. Like, for example, “bande dessinée” (“BD”, “bédé”?) which seems to have something to do with the mysterious illustrations filling this volume. If I understand correctly, they are small allegorical tales about the world and things. But, impossible to know more. It's also impossible to understand why the title “Obscure Cities” is used so much. This is something that really irritates me.

My seatmate, an elderly man dressed all in black, started a conversation with me, but the way he speaks, almost without opening his mouth, makes it difficult to understand. As far as I understood, this congress has no meaning for him, the be-de (?) died in 1957. 1957?… Now I don't understand anything at all. More than a thousand years are missing! Is 1957 still a long way off, or does this city follow a different calendar? It's all very strange, it must be a nightmare caused by yesterday's excessive consumption of wine from the Calvani estate…

In any case, there was a moment when I had a premonition, a sudden and irresistible flash of insight. I remember having read in L'Echo des Cités the report of a strange adventure of Michel Ardan and Benedikt Loderer on the Marahuaca plateau. I don't know the details (a story about strange spheres?), but I remember that they both disappeared, then reappeared later, in a completely different place. At the time, there was talk of “gates” between distant corners of the Continent, gates that would allow instantaneous travel of thousands of fathoms. If it were only Ardan who had been drawn into this affair, as Stanislas Sinclair has pointed out, there would be reason to be suspicious. His gift for exaggerating reality through his “photographic images” is well known… But what about Loderer's incorruptible testimony? Have I travelled to an unknown and distant world? That would explain everything…

Anyway, even those who are dressed like me seem to accept all this with the greatest calm. I must have been mistaken. They must not be from any known City. Besides, sometimes I feel curious and threatening glances on my neck… Signals of some kind of paranoia? This too is possible.

Remarks on the text by the architect Eduardo de Siza

Incredible! In spite of his extremely pedantic air, this lecturer understood very well where I came from, a place that apparently is called Edifício das Caldeiras, the Building of the Boilers… The projected images coincide exactly with the place I passed through! And the huge portraits must have helped to make the passage easier. But does this man realise that what he presents in the form of academic hypotheses is the pure truth! I am not in any of the cities of the Continent, but in a parallel universe. Perhaps this is where the mysterious Spitfire in which Harry Rhodes and Cynthia Sirk arrived in Pâhry left from…

And the symbols that adorn this Regaleira Palace are exactly those I saw in the Company's magnificent atrium! A crazy idea comes to my mind… Could it be that the Company has been organised by someone on this side to be able to control the activity of the different Dark Cities, as they call them? I shudder to think of it…

But the best thing to do is not to draw too much attention and try to find out more about this strange world in which typical buildings of the different cities are side by side, without any unity or logic…

Remarks on the text by Professor Bernardo Simões Serra

Despite the captivating tone and enthusiasm of his lecture, this man mixes everything up! All these writers and artists they talk about must have been in the Obscure Cities. In any case, Jules Verne, whom I happened to meet in Pâhry, was content to put into his novels what he had seen in our cities. And with much less fantasy than those Schuiten and Peeters who, as far as I can see, limit themselves to passing on stories that are already known…

The story he told about Wappendorf is downright ridiculous! The Professor does exist and I even had the privilege of asking him for his autograph at the presentation of his Encyclopaedia of Present and Future Transport. It is clear that this poor man was tricked by the famous Schuiten and Peeters! It remains to be seen for what purpose…

This speaker also spoke about someone called Kafka. Is he referring to this individual who made the front page of the Echo des Cités a few years ago? Joseph Kafka, a bureaucrat from Mylos who, after being imprisoned for reasons that were never really explained, began to transform himself into an insect, by a process almost as strange as that of Joseph Abraham, in Pâhry.

And there you have it! Once again lost to this eternal vice of taking notes! Damn you, Ishmael, for your distraction! I was looking forward to the coffee break with some impatience. And, as it turned out, here I am, alone in this lecture hall. Everyone has vanished, attracted by a distant metallic call. And a lady (cleaning lady?) is giving me aggressive looks. I am undoubtedly intruding in her kingdom…

If I have understood correctly, I have missed a lunch… Silly, silly, silly, silly me.

A fundamental discovery made me forget my hunger! I am writing these notes sitting on a comfortable sofa in the hallway, while I wait for the resumption of the “work” of this strange Colloquium. I have finally been able to discover the “comics” that people talk about so much. A small table, which I had not seen so much as I wanted to enter the room, was the only prominent structure in this empty hallway. There I found books, some in the language of these places (?), others in the language of the Cities. The first belonged to a very well-dressed woman (Josée?) (surely engaged, calm down Ishmael, we don't want to repeat the scandal that took us away from Pâhry!). The second belonged to a slender individual, also very well dressed, with a fragile appearance, a thin moustache and a hooked nose. They were both talking. Had they too missed lunch? Had they just arrived? I don't know. It doesn't really matter. Their dialogue was so intense that it allowed me to leaf through the books I could understand. And this, despite some very worried glances from the man. What an incredible sense of ownership! I almost obeyed an impulse to flee with his precious volumes, but I feared the terrible consequences this might have on the health of my occasional benefactor. I tried to put on an innocent expression, but I felt that the cure would be worse than the disease…

But, the Books. At first I had no doubts. Beautiful objects! Too rare in the Cities, once again called “dark”… It seems that this is the title that gathers this kind of books. And these drawings mixed with words create an amazing effect that I would enjoy analysing! It is a real portable and palpable fixorama. A theatre on paper. A succession of small squares aligned in a compact manner, the beauty of which is only disturbed by the white circles, filled with an overly wordy text. In the end, this strange language might be the best way to publish my own travel impressions. Still, I am disappointed by the nature of the topics covered. The books on Samaris and Urbicande have a reduced real-world basis. The legend of Samaris is well known, but the idea of a predatory city has been sidelined by the Ardan and Sinclair expeditions. Franz Bauer was plagued by a strange illness, the Xhystos Disease, nothing more, as Professor Momy Elkain proved. As for the Hallucination of Urbicande, Professor de Brok has already written definitive words on this subject. The book did nothing to avoid mystification.

Of the illustrations in a volume entitled The Archivist, however, I can say only one thing: they were exaggerated in the highest degree. The Couchie Hotel in Mylos appeared to be twice its size, the Green Lake organ perhaps three times its size. Besides, all the representations of Mylos came out of a working man's nightmare and not from any reality I know. Excess, nothing but excess! The cities are always grandiose, even in their degradation, whereas in the books they looked like grandiose caricatures. With just enough truth to make them credible to the distracted or ignorant.

From then on, I began to change my attitude towards these books. Despite the thematic material, few of them revealed anything true. Could it be an attempt at mystification? None of the speakers mentioned this possibility. Could it be out of ignorance? The aims of these Schuiten/Peeters are not clear. It is obvious that they know the Cities. Not enough? Too much? Why the untruths, the vague reports, the mystifications? Why the obvious misrepresentations, too systematic to be mere coincidences? In fact, the adjective “obscure” corresponds to the fictions I have analysed… If this is the only representation of the Cities available in this remote corner, the world is in trouble! Would the Company like me to catalogue this strange state of affairs in a supplementary report that I will never hear from again?

Unfortunately I have made a mistake. A mistake I swore I would always avoid. I allowed myself to be distracted, distracted. The man with the drooping moustache was talking about Wappendorf's book, the Encyclopaedia of Future Transport. I couldn't help saying that this was an interesting work. Surprisingly, he responded in what could pass for a tolerable simulacrum of our language. He wanted a copy very badly, his anxious look and his hooked nose were more than eloquent. I told him I had a copy, signed by the author, and on which I had made some notes that he might find interesting. He asked me if I had really written on the pages of the book, as if it were the most incredible thing. I told him that transport is something I have always been interested in and that at that time I had even had the impudence (ah, youth!) to try to introduce changes in Wappendorf's drawings. A few, to tell the truth… I have never seen anyone fade so quickly! He snatched the book I was flipping through (a collection of Echoes of the City, again with exaggerations of size that I don't remember seeing in the originals), picked up the other books and disappeared in the direction of the amphitheatre. The woman gave me a reproving but engaging look (look out, Ishmael!…) and followed him. And she took her books with her, which, by the way, wouldn't have done me much good. Damn my lack of tact! Witnessing is much safer than intervening. My travels have taught me that, more than anything else. There was still a book on Brüsel, and I would have liked to know what the authors had to say about this lost opportunity to be a City. They probably didn't know its essence… There was another book, about the Tower, about which you can say everything… Everything and nothing… I was not interested. But even more surprisingly, it was something that seemed to me to be a Guide… A pocket encyclopaedia on the Cities? Would they dare to do such a thing?

The other participants come back, suddenly arriving from who knows where, exactly as they had left. On their satisfied faces I see my own hunger reflected, the fatigue. I can't think about it. I return to my place.

Remarks on the text by Mr. Cássio Mendes

I realise now that the programme has not been completed. It should be a woman speaking. It's really badly organised! It should probably be that elegant brunette who is having a heated discussion with one of the organisers. How beautiful she is when she is angry! It would be a shame if she couldn't speak… Despite his affable manner and melodious voice, this speaker is the one I have understood least so far… Christo… isn't he the one who wanted to wrap the Three Powers Palace in Brüsel with miles and miles of his 'plastic silk'? I didn't know that he had so many followers, that he had founded a religion… And at the same time why does he quote the great master Fernando Pessoa? Could it be that the Heterogeneity Shop is located here? What could be its relationship with the said Christo? First of all, I have never felt less a part of my world because I followed Master Pessoa, when others prefer the Mechanist Shop of Master álvaro de Campos (like Wappendorf and Dersenval), or the Bucolic Shop of Master Alberto Caeiro, or the Shop of Permanent Scepticism of Master Ricardo Reis. Our diversity makes us a whole, as my godfather used to say at the Boutique of Heterogeneity… What right does this gentleman have to take away my beliefs? On the other hand, it seems useless to me to repeat that Professor de Brok has proved, despite all the prestige of Robick, that the whole story of Urbicande was only a collective delusion. Is there not, as the pedantic speaker (Siza) suggested, a conspiracy to keep the Cities quiet? I am beginning to have fewer doubts…

Remarks on the text by Mr Miguel Abreu Bom

A speaker worthy of respect. Once again I ignore most of his references, but his text will be of great help to me when I want to rewrite my impressions of the Cities, when I go through them again. It reminds me of something I had probably taken the cowardly precaution of forgetting. Fixed on my objective, obsessed with my mission, I ended up acquiring a repetitive rhythm. A routine from which I seldom left, merely ratifying, in each city I passed, what I had been told about it, already thinking of the next one. But one must always see further than what one sees, further than what one wants to be seen. A passing, soft, neutral look is not enough. It's not enough at all.

It's almost painful to see him (too) trapped in the fanciful allegories of those Misters Schuiten and Peeters. Such a spirit would be useful in every corner of the Continent. But the fault does not lie with the speakers of this lost place whose only fault is ignorance. I must not turn my anger and anguish against them. I will not say the same of those two jokers who are smiling at this whole ocean of equivocation, the result of the simplistic mystifications by which they have ridiculed that to which they claim to pay tribute. When I get to know your faces, gentlemen, I am not sure I will be able to stick to my usual role of witness.

Remarks on the text by Professor Joana Pereira Gonçalves

If a speaker's appearance determines his audience, this little old lady, looking like a rock, would have deserved all my respect and attention. That is what happened, for the first few moments. Then her imposing figure dissolved into the confused jumble of what she had to say (?). I eventually ignore her voice, and suddenly realise, with a kind of horror, that I have spent my time in inconsequential research and even in anarchic calculations of my expenses in Mylos! I am awakened by the enthusiastic applause of my seatmate. Have I fallen asleep again? A few stern looks make me think so. I realise (finally?) how tired I am… But everyone gets up.

This time the coffee break was a coffee break! Why on earth don't these people do what they themselves had planned? Weird habits, coffee break too short. The coffee too strong, the biscuits (?) indescribable. And we almost had to fight for them! But I have never eaten anything so tasty! A manifestation of the hunger I had been cheating on throughout this adventure, since the failed lunch. Which reminded me of other necessities to be satisfied. Fortunately, in this respect, we all look alike; it is enough to follow a group with the right facial expression. I return relieved, despite the sanitary facilities, which look like something out of a Wappendorf nightmare, with water gushing aggressively without any apparent control. The little man with the sad moustache gave me a wary look. I notice that my presence is beginning to be noticed. I will have to be careful. It is obvious that nothing links me to these people.

Remarks on the text of Mrs Eva Diana Callebaut

Who is this fabulous creature, bathed in a strange light that blinds and confuses me? I tremble uncontrollably, awake, alert, panicked. I sweat. I can hardly write. Her voice reminds me of Madame Claude's house, where my father had taken me. Her presence reminds me of my late mother… If Mary von Rathen is like that, I'm not surprised that she was chosen to command the Mylos Combine. She is extraordinary! I want to touch her, talk to her, ask her advice… I didn't understand anything she said…

Remarks on the text by Mr Jeremias Zontag

I don't understand the laughter and hissing, he was the only person who spoke about concrete things and had the courage to denounce what was happening. This man is absolutely right! We are faced with a monstrous conspiracy in which those damned Schuiten and Peeters are involved and in which the Company must not be innocent either. And those clowns who try to cover up the truth with their whistles and thick laughter… I just want to hit them! But calm down, Ishmael, they are not the real culprits, and if the programme is respected, the hour of truth will soon come!

The crucial moment has arrived… I finally got to know the people most responsible for this fiasco. What should I do? Take them to task after they have spoken? It is not useful, given the ridicule to which the previous speaker was reduced. Given that they “imagined” the Cities, they might as well think they are my creators… Perhaps they would ask me to perform tricks, like a circus animal, to the great delight of the public! Like they do with Robick, and with God knows who… No, it's really not worth it… Logic does not reign here, it is useless to confront it. This is the strange limbo of Ardan and Loderer. If the Company sent me here to follow this encounter, I believe I have already learned what is necessary and sufficient. What would be rational now would be to leave…

But these individuals have abused the Cities which they insist on calling obscure! They have achieved success and fortune in this lost corner of the universe, thanks to their twisted reports about something they only know the surface of, fragments of. They even had the nerve to prepare a “Guide”! One-eyed men in a land of the blind! They are the great cataloguers of the Cities here, a title I have fought for far more, with less reward. Is it right for me to go away without unmasking them, even if at the moment it seems very unlikely? Is it right to leave them to their triumph? To leave the poor ignorant to their own ignorance? I remember now, out of place, that redheaded girl from Alaxis (Lara? Lira? Laura? Leda?) who criticised my impressions of the City of Pleasure. According to her, incomplete, folkloric, impressions of an inattentive passing tourist. Now I know what she felt, multiplied by all the Cities. All mine, none of them obscure! Something must be done! A man will never be a man if he does not act when fate holds out his hand, no matter what his chances of success. No one lives to be a witness, I feel it now, and I wish I had known it before. I regret so many things that I don't know where to start. I don't even know […]

Final comments from the organisers*.

Apart from a few messy scribbles, these are the last notes from the minutes of the 'traveller' 'Ishmael Tolentino'. From this point on, it is impossible to trace even an approximate chronology of events. Scattered information tells us that 'Ishmaël Tolentino' listened for a few moments to the conference-fiction of Schuiten and Peeters, his eyes in the dark, his hands lividly resting on his copy of the minutes. It is quite possible, thanks to the darkness requested by the authors for the projection of the slides, that “Ishmaël Tolentino”, from the moment the lights went out, slowly walked towards the table. He may as well have done so in one sudden movement. What is certain is that, about ten minutes after the start of the conference-fiction, there was a sound of footsteps towards the table, protests of pain and astonishment from some of the participants (jostled or crushed?) and, above all, agitated cries: “enough lies”, “stop hurting me”, “charlatans”, “opportunists”. Opinions vary as to the exact content of the sudden outbursts, later attributed to the “Traveller”, and some people said that much greener expressions than those quoted here were uttered. Soon the commotion spread to the whole amphitheatre, not to mention the accidental fall of the slide projector which marked the abrupt end of the Colloquium for good. The unexpected reappearance of the “Traveller” in the amphitheatre was a major event.

The unexpected reappearance of the light (thanks to Luís Louro!), apart from revealing some embarrassing situations outside the Colloquium that the darkness made favourable, brought to light a chaotic atmosphere. The amphitheatre was littered with involuntary mingles of famous and anonymous people, not to mention a few passers-by attracted by the commotion, which showed that the actions of “Ismael Tolentiono” had set off a chain reaction of jostling and misunderstandings. Only the “Traveller” remained unperturbed, still shouting (albeit tiredly) and waving his copy of the minutes like a club, gesturing vaguely at Schuiten and Peeters, with more commotion than damage. The authors later admitted that they were so surprised by the hallucinated attitude of the individual in question that they didn't even think of making a response.

It was only after a few moments (seconds, minutes, hours?) that “Ishmael Tolentino” realised that his ranting was the only movement in the room, that all eyes, silent and questioning, were on him. What followed is also rather vague, but the “Traveller” decided to flee as quickly as possible, at the very moment when the overwhelming majority of the participants had, in turn, decided to apprehend him. This strange collective decision, which can only be explained by a group's instinctive reaction to a perceived stranger, ended in a rather cartoonish pursuit of “Ishmael Tolentino”, first towards Marquis de Pombal Square and then down Father António Vieira Street. At the end of this street, the fugitive entered, without any hesitation, the Edifício das Caldeiras and disappeared there. Some say that he fled through a side exit of the building, but all the exits were blocked at that time. Or that he mixed with the visitors to the exhibition (perhaps even changing his clothes), thus deceiving the improvised vigilance at the door. But the assumption that is at the origin of our presence here today is even more bizarre… And, in addition to the numerous eyewitness accounts, its credibility is enhanced by an unexpected presence.

In fact, television images, taken by a team covering the Coimbra Photography Meetings, seem to show the “passage” of an individual (“Ishmael Tolentino”?) through a photo that was on display in the Edifício das Caldeiras. Despite the speed of the event, which makes it impossible to analyse the images further, a shadow can be clearly seen jumping towards one of the frames and colliding with an image. And yet, not only did the frame not move (as it should have, given the force of the impact), but it also appeared to move only imperceptibly. Following this movement, the shadow disappeared completely, without appearing on the “other side” of the photo. Or maybe it did…

Incredible or not, it is interesting to note that the exhibition in the Bâtiment des Chaudières was by Marie-Françoise Plissart, a regular collaborator of Schuiten and Peeters (author, among others, of the photos used in L'enfant penchée). And that the photo in question was a montage intended to represent the “Obscure City” of Mylos. The copy of the minutes of the meeting is available on the website. The copy of the minutes that belonged to this strange character was found by Olímpio Ferreira at the entrance to the Edifício das Caldeiras; it is from this document that we have collected the notes gathered here. Those who have followed us so far will make their own interpretation of this case. What is certain is that their scepticism will be, at the very least, as deep as ours… P.S. : With regard to the strange behaviour of “Ishmael Tolentino” during the Colloquium, we are grateful for the detailed accounts of two always attentive people in the audience, Carlos Bandeiras Pinheiro and Leonardo de Sá, as well as the observations of Geraldes Lino and Maria José Pereira, who spoke with him in the hallway, and of António Dias de Deus, who attended the congress seated at his side. We are also grateful for the efforts of José Carlos Fernandes to draw a portrait of this individual, a sketch of which is reproduced here.**