25th Book Fair(y) in Istria THE CITY IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
December 5–15, 2019

Aljoša Pužar

City and flying: On birds and boxes 


Do you remember Emperor's nightingale? Oh, how disappointed was the Emperor of China upon reading in some books that from his entire porcelain palace, and its entire dreamy and magical garden that stretches so far, how from all that the best thing is some lowly nightingale. And it is very clear why both Emperor and Andersen's genius needed to ask for the little kitchen maid's help in their search for the nightingale. It is not, furthermore, so strange to us, that the mechanical nightingale of the Japanese emperor mesmerised the Chinese court and city, and, finally, it is not really entirely unexpected for the book dreamers and denizens of the tales, that it was exactly the smart and living real nightingale, already forgotten by all, that returned to life the dying Emperor. Still, the nightingale warns in the end of the story: "Don't reveal to anyone that you have a small bird that tells you of things. It is better to keep it secret." And he was right: not the ladies-in-waiting that used to, trying to sound like him, gargle through conversations with throats full of water, not the master of music that celebrated the repetitive waltz of the mechanical nightingale, nor anyone else (except maybe for the little kitchen maid and her sick mother) would be able to understand the power of the natural bird, the one that they already rejected once. Only the questions of life and death can still recall birds back to the porcelain chambers – tired cities are too late in recalling their lost birds. 

Really, City and its order for the long time now presents the process of the expulsion of the nightingale, fascination at the mechanisms of formal music, belated awareness of the essential matters of life. Culture. Some cities came to be from the enforced vicinities, some from the imposed distances. Between vicinity and distance there are visible and invisible town walls, semi-permeable membranes, exchange of people and parcels, electricity and vegetables, by the osmotic pressure of history, drop by drop, and sometimes also as a tearing-up, the breakage of the wall: first siege and starvation, then the burden of the new vicinities. 

Books are for the longest of times now primarily the matter of city and its mental traces. They are its memory of lost birds. It is same with those books that in December of every year occupy Pula. Like a quick silver in the stone palace. Like the electrical current bringing voices from far away. Like the echo of the flock. The Book fair is gathering birds' voices, and the town is echoing with them until strangled by the loud and splashy mechanics of the sales and of the winter Solstice.   

The cowardly humanist utopians always saw the city in some concentric sense, symmetrically, stitched neatly together, taxonomically. Those (mis)fortunate ones, on the other hand, that lived their utopias, and burned for them, saw it diagonally, in the split across, in the shortcuts. The world called them "eccentric". And while the Law pushed sex, sheep, chicken and infidel to the dangerous and impoverished edges of its order, like it does to this very day, from this eccentric zones the best things came to be, birds gathered in a refuge: in the forest, in the madness and silliness, in first cigarettes and first sex, in the darkness behind the school.      

The Japanese mechanical nightingale, says Andersen, was delivered and kept in a box. In English translations sometimes one can find it as "casket". That nightingale's box/casket was certainly in the bigger box of the chest, that one in the box of the room, that one in the box of the palace, and palace-town box in the boxy Universe of the boxy God. The intelligence of the Japanese mechanical nightingale from the Chinese box propels these days the boxes of the City: the European platform for intelligent cities offers in 2019 something that they call "the city in the box" – software that makes cities "smart", without recalling, not even for the moment, the lost intelligence of the bird. Cynicism of the European Theory is at times even more ruthless: according to it, the bird never existed to begin with. Its voice was always mechanical, its feathers invented by the Great History of Feathers. 

Reinier De Graaf wrote about box as the biggest achievement and the biggest trauma of architecture. Each urban and civic bravery wanted to make a step beyond it, to break it up, every cowardice wanted to enclose it above the heads. Everything that strived to clouds and rains grew from it; all that was frightened was buried in it. Old people and domestic cats love boxes. Homeless desire boxes. Box is the measure that measures life; in it one sends cakes to armies and to student dorms. Box is the warmth of the herd and cat toilet in one. So many times it was promised for the scene-box to open to the sky and to the sun, but it always comes back somehow – theatrical magic is still playing with boxes. Not all of them we hate, we are used to think (like that dumb Pandora) that in the midst of all troubles there might still be some hidden core that promises and delivers. 

When Italo Calvino collected and edited Italian fairy tales, he felt as if he is opening the magical box. It felt, sometimes, he wrote in his introduction from 1956, as if the lost logic of the fairy tale world was released from the magical box to govern the Earth again. Yet, Calvino translated the magic into literary Italian, then. With language-box and the idea of nation-box he framed and stitched the edges of the magical. Sixteen years later, in one of the most important books about the idea of the City, in his "Invisible cities", he was already more precise in his ethical mise-en-scène: Marco Polo describes some bridge, stone by stone. Kublai Kan immediately askes which stone is the main one. Marco replies that every stone is important, but the ruler is protesting: why the hell is he bothering him with boring stones, when he is interested in the arch of the bridge! Marco is adamant, though: without stones, there is no arch.  

When travellers and ethnologists asked the peasants from around Pula about the Roman monument of arena, two things always went hand in hand: miracles and labour. Even the miraculous fairies that in legends built the arena in Pula needed to bring the stones from the mountain Učka. In some stories they even needed to put on some aprons, to work within the limits of working hours leaving the building without a roof, in a hurry.  City is labour, every one of its monuments is a miracle and the petrifaction of sweat in one. But the rulers of the world are lazy, reluctant to listen about miracles and about the labour. Kublai Kan stops the Marco's tales and decides: "I will describe the cities now, and you will then tell me if they exist, and if they are exactly as I imagined them." The ruler is seeing himself and the world from the place of its imaginary perfection, imagines its own centrality in some molecular sense, as a crystalline matter, as a precious stone of even edges. He can't understand the eccentric points and diagonal vectors, Marco's crumbles of mental Venice(s). He is not disgusted by the repetition of the mechanical music from the box, of snow captured in the glass ball. He thinks of the world as a game of chess, coded. Marco, in Deleuzian gesture, defends the non-coded, the moved.  

Meanwhile, citizen of the Calvino's imaginary Ersilia, among the cubes and crystals of the city, between boxes of buildings and streets, diligently and blindly stretch the strings of yarn, standing for every relation, every small and big encounter. And when those strings become the impenetrable thick netting, the petrifaction of life, the chaotic anti-crystal, they need to move themselves to the edge, move out, and open the new page. Behind their back they leave the "still valid" Ersilia, looking back at it with embarrassment while knitting the yarn around the new one. Ah, that delightful and frightening chaos, for which some theoreticians of contemporary cities claim that it replaced feudal symmetry, while it clearly didn't, not at all, merely covering it with thick and non-transparent fabric! Always the citizens of old Ersilia naively hope that the new one ought to be more complex and more ordered, for strings of yarn more neat and dense, for their colours more honest. It is not clear what keeps their faith alive, if not the fabrications about the crystalline structure of the Kan's diamond.

Like diligent and little wacky Ersilians, the wacky book crowd stretches the strings, makes a mess of them and move out to entangle them again. Twenty five years have passed since the first knitting and entanglement of the Book fair in Pula: boxes are full of old and new strings. Complete ones, and broken, aged and young. They stretch from Pula around the world and back, across the tamed island of the olives, across the magical fairy construction, back to the knitting of the words and thoughts. The Fair was always Ersilia's Ersilia, measure of human truths and fabrications, sounds and written lines. And it always dreamt of being a strong bridge, and succeeded in being a miracle, even if, at times, without the roof above its head. It was and it remains the monument to the miracles and to the labour, to the fairy sweat. This is only the first quarter, 25 out of 100, and the walls of the box are high and tiring, ceilings are heavy. Still, the strings of silk can pull them, tense them, split them, drag them, and release them, they transfer the sounds. On the fair(y) strings migratory birds are taking rest, coming back to life, collecting their strength for the continuation of flights. It is not always clear if they sing the fortune or the misfortune of the cities, but one thing is sure: they still know how to dream. Calvino said that there is no point in dividing cities in fortunate and misfortunate, but rather in those that throughout the years and transformations shape our desires, and those that erase our desires or are erased by them. Smart birds are advising us to stay a tiny bit on the secretive side, in our wisdoms and our desires; they warn us about the broken clockwork of the mechanical nightingales from the box, suggesting routes and altitudes. Birds on the Pula fook fair strings sing and will sing about the knitting of the good City, the one we remember, the one we sense, the one we hope for. They sing about the dreams of flight beyond all boxes.