Short Fiction ~ Murali Kamma
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition -4
When Ben called to give the news, Gary was so unsettled that he quickly shut his office door and, clearing his throat a little agitatedly, asked him to repeat it.
“You heard me right,” Ben said, his voice strangely drained of emotion, as if he hadn’t been surprised by the bombshell. “Arthur wrote The Unknown.”
Disbelief was followed by an unpleasant wave of envy that felt more like nausea, forcing Gary to slump on his chair as he absorbed the shock of this revelation. To think that Arthur, a prickly literary dabbler, had written the majestic novel everybody was talking about seemed too much, too disturbing. Notorious for his caustic comments about successful authors, Arthur made infrequent appearances at their local bookstore, which doubled as a salon for coffee-fueled gossip and competitive jousting. When a famous author came to give a reading, the wannabes turned up in full force and you couldn’t find a seat. Inevitably, the Q&A that followed would feature a self-promoter or two, not to mention a smart aleck like Arthur. It wasn’t a big town, so how had Arthur managed to keep his immense talent a secret? The Unknown was absorbing, dense, exhilarating—and even before Gary, an aspiring writer, heard that the 500-page novel had won the nation’s richest, most prestigious literary award, he hadn’t been able to put it down.
Gary had been dismissive of Arthur, but now the joke was on him. Had he tricked everybody? Maybe the pointless or provocative questions he’d asked at events were meant to prevent others from knowing that he was working on this magnum opus—month after month, year after year. When Arthur once joined a few local writers for a reading, his work hadn’t made an impression, giving Gary no hint of the novel he must have been grappling with secretly. Sure, The Unknown’s protagonist was named Arthur, but it never occurred to Gary that their Arthur could have written this masterpiece. It was a staggering achievement. How unknowable people could be, even after you’d known them—or thought you’d known them—for years!
“Listen to this,” Ben continued, his voice still uninflected. “I hope you’re sitting down. Arthur stole the book.”
Gary, feeling breathless, as if the air had been sucked out of the room, struggled to find his voice. “Plagiarized, you mean?” he managed to say, reeling from this new twist, but also feeling—guiltily—vindicated. Perhaps the world wasn’t topsy-turvy, after all.
“You could say that, although there’s more to it,” Ben said. “But I don’t have all the details—”
“What do you mean?”
Ben’s voice finally changed, the pitch rising in incredulity. “You see, the man who wrote The Unknown is indeed named Arthur, but we don’t know what happened to him. The man we call Arthur is not the author…and, well, we don’t even know his real name. We don’t know who this man is and how he got the manuscript. It seems to be a case of impersonation.”
A tense pause.
“What are you saying?” Gary said, his head spinning. “If our Arthur is not the real author, and he is not even Arthur, how did he get the manuscript…how was it published?”
“Are you asking if he got rid of somebody to get it?”
The words, uttered so matter-of-factly, sounded surreal. Gary felt like a boxer who was being punched, repeatedly, without getting a chance to recover.
“Have you read the novel?” Ben said, after getting no response.
“Most of it. It’s fantastic, a tour de force.”
“I agree. It’s a literary whodunit with an ingenious structure and a narrative rhythm that’s propulsive. Wait till you reach the end. It’s mind-blowing. But you’ve read enough already, and I’m sure you remember that Arthur, the main character, tells the narrator, who is the author, to make him live beyond the pages of the novel. He wants to live forever.”
“Of course. And the author says that the way he can do that is by disappearing. I thought it meant making himself invisible so that only Arthur is alive to the reader.”
“True,” Ben said. “But what if the author vanishes in real life as well, not just from the text? There will be no distractions, no book signings, no hoopla. The author won’t matter. Only Arthur matters, and he doesn’t die. Isn’t that the ideal solution?”
“Ben, who actually wrote the novel? Do you know?” Then Gary had a stunning thought. “Did you write the novel?” he said. No response. “Are you there, Ben?”
“Yes, I am here.” Ben chuckled. “I didn’t write it, Gary. Why would I hide it from you…or anybody else? Wish I could have written it! I’d be glad to bask in the glow of such an accomplishment. It’s a bestseller. Can you see me turning away from the riches, the fame?”
“Well, Ben, you seem to know a lot—”
“So would anybody who has read the entire novel. Whatever else I said was conjecture. It’s quite possible that we’ll never discover who wrote the novel. Which isn’t a bad thing, I guess, because then the novel will get all the attention, all the admiration. The author will be out of the picture. As for the prize money, I hope it will be used for a good literary cause.”
“In this town, perhaps, assuming that the author was—is—from here?”
“I have no idea what they’ll do,” Ben said. “But why don’t we start the Unknown Book Club? There’s no fee, and it’s open to anybody. We can discuss the novel, do readings—”
“Great idea…I’m in,” Gary said, making a mental note to finish the novel soon.
Murali Kamma’s debut book, Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World, was published this year by Wising Up Press. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Rosebud, South Asian Review, and Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts. After graduating from Loyola College in India, he continued his studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Now the managing editor of Khabar magazine, he has enjoyed interviewing Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, William Dalrymple, Chitra Divakaruni, Patrick French and Pico Iyer, among writers.