Viken Berberian

Faint-Hearted Z


We are known to grumble, but no one expected war to break out. At our annual language conference, which took place on a thickly wooded island, a procedural meeting began about diacritic marks, those symbols sitting over us like pathetic and unwanted weight, as if to say: ‘Hey, look at us, we’re so different.’ Suspended over vowels in words like café, naïve, and entrepôt, they feigned to be helpful. The committee, of course, did not see it that way and vowed to present a motion to get rid of them. The seven letters in the committee – there were three vowels and four consonants – concluded that those dashes and dots were distinctly foreign and overwrought, and for the most part, useless. I too supported the motion to scrap them and call it a day. I just wanted to walk down to the black sand beaches and unwind, next to the French and German sun bathers, sipping their slushy drinks and frolicking in the sea, but before I could, and to everyone’s surprise, bitter shots were fired, ink was spilled, and the letter A accosted E on a matter that was not on the conference agenda, or on anyone’s mind.
…….When A issued a perfunctory declaration of war, no one knew if E really faced an existential threat, for he had always been a part of everyone’s life, and we had got along reasonably well, despite the occasional tussle. Why the sudden volte-face? At first I thought A was playing a prank, but then his barbs became increasingly caustic. ‘This is the zenith of a grotesque crime, a terror that evokes the killing fields of Latin,’ he said. ‘Fetid. Foul. Fucked up. I am not going to take this lying down.’
…….Why is he acting this way? I thought. Could it be that he really has lost his erstwhile grip on power? It was one thing to get rid of the dots and accents, those glimmering baubles, but deleting E from the alphabet posed a systemic risk to the architecture of language itself. We might end up losing words like ebullient, which would make life less cheerful. And what if equality and empathy were lost if E met such an ignominious end? Would we become less fair and more ruthless? Even if the meanings of these words were spared, their spelling would have to change, and that would require some adjusting, as if we did not already have enough to contend with.
…….Alpha’s affront left a number of open questions. Was A demanding that we should never use words that included the letter E? Would he be content if all those words that referenced E were simply removed from use but their meanings retained? Alpha never gave us a straight answer and like a good general kept his plans close to his hirsute chest. ‘I will address your concerns in due time,’ he said. ‘Details will follow on day two of the conference. Now let’s all go down and enjoy the sunset.’
…….One letter, I think it was a consonant, reminded us that this was not the first time that E faced such mortal danger. And it is true, there was at least one other occasion when E was entrapped and methodically voided from language. That conceit involved a French writer, Georges Perec, who completed a novel without using words that contained the letter E, but that was an ode to loss, or, perhaps, an exercise to unleash one’s creative potential. It was not a campaign to cleanse, to channel fear into our hallowed, and, I regret to say, hollowed, alphabet. This was different. A’s ambush was more sinister in intention and what made it so treacherous was its origin. It was fomented by one of us, a fellow letter.
…….That evening we all traipsed along the whitewashed houses and volcanic cliffs that tumbled down to the sea. The horizon looked more distant than ever, and I felt especially detached from the rest of the world, worried that we were surrounded on all sides by unchartered waters, when without warning, alpha struck, with its keenest weapon, its ability to be always first. Alpha showed no remorse, and in one fell swoop, he pushed thousands of words into the fathomless sea. His motivation was simple. The letter A, that narcissist show off, was upset that he appeared in fewer words than E, and so he conspired to slay the virtuous vowel, to set an example for all the other letters clamouring for fame.
…….The fighting soon spread to the interior of the island. E retreated into an olive grove with alpha in pursuit. I stayed clear of the fighting, observing the hunt from behind a thicket of branches. ‘Let’s make olive oil, not war,’ I offered. No one listened. It did not take long for A to corner E and let loose a torrent of punches. Two left jabs and a right hook, and E went reeling. Some thought E was playing rope-a-dope to wear out A, but alpha was not that naive, and resistance was never that simple. A, that cone head, was a capital Ass, and he did not want anyone else to be on the A-list. Before the end of the day, E, badly bruised and barely breathing, called for a special hearing across all world languages, living and dead. Imagine what it would be like, he argued, if everyone wrote a book with words that did not make reference to him. ‘It would be an affront on realism,’ said R. ‘The world would be a very different place, and this is why we should all stop A. He’s such an intemperate tyrant.’
…….Eighteen consonants and four vowels signed a petition that evening in support of E. The letter L, sharp as always, spoke eloquently in his defence and reminisced how the two letters had stood close to each other on so many occasions in defence of reason. Her soliloquy was more sotto voce than usual, as if to emphasise the seriousness of what was at at stake. She picked her words carefully, and most of them did not contain the letter A. ‘Your words are just words,’ A retorted, ‘They’re empty superlatives, and your love for E, or should I say lov for E, will, in the end, fall on deaf ears.’
…….The consonants did not give up so easily. Most of us thought that A was an insidious prick. On day two of the conference, D was fastidious on the issue of alphabetic order: ‘Alpha has gone too far,’ she said. ‘The prevailing frequency of letters in words should be maintained.’ At least one vowel was glad that none of this was happening in her orbit, for O could not imagine a language without her. Without an O, there would be no or, and that would make the world less binary. ‘Better E than me,’ she said, ‘but I will miss him.’
…….I followed these conversations from the very end of the alphabet while tending after the necessaries of life, not knowing if the palpable terror around me could grow into a real opposition, for A was now questioning the very essence of how we had lived, what we had known. ‘It is time to live differently,’ A tried to reassure the senior members of the committee. ‘Let’s Make Alpha Great Again!’ The committee was dumbstruck by this reference because it so strongly evoked you-know-who, yet the letters took no action.
…….The consequences of evicting E from the alphabet were far-reaching. If it was kicked out, dead and meat would never be the same again. They would turn into dad and mat, and this would lead to confusion and make life truly awkward. Consider what might happen to me and love if you asked your girlfriend, ‘do you lov m?’ How would she respond? ‘I don’t know who M is?’ You might offend your partner using that kind of language, and she might, rightly, be filled with indignation. Even worse, what would happen if your friend’s dad passed away and you wanted to share your condolences. What would you write? ‘I’m sorry your dad is dad?’ How would your friend react to that? And what if someone asked a vegetarian, ‘Did you stop eating mat?’ What would he say? ‘I never ate that piece of coarse material placed on a floor for people to wipe their feet on, ever. Why would I ever do that?’
…….You get the point.
…….With so many words modified, people naturally stopped understanding each other. They spoke less. They just looked at each other, puzzled, mostly in silence, to avoid more misunderstanding. They threw their dictionaries out the window, those increasingly unreliable compendiums designed to facilitate comprehension. But, fortunately, E still had a few trusty allies and prodded them into action. There was a valiant and, ultimately, futile attempt by F to torpefy A with a fart, but A who was highly risk averse, and at least two steps ahead of his opponents, simply put on a gas mask. ‘I’ve always wanted to shape-shift fart into art,’ A threatened F looking straight through his mask. ‘Don’t make me do it!’ And so F backed off and went into self-isolation for two weeks while the stinking pogroms continued.
…….A gradually took over more water and land, calling it the Gratst Union of All. The subtext was clear: It was not by sheer accident that the es from greatest were missing. If things only stopped there. The resistance was in tatters when they approached me. I said I preferred minding my business and sent them away. What could I have done, anyway? I’m letter Z, the last symbol ever to be consulted, undeniably more dispensable than E. Let them call me names: Lazy Z, Complicit Z. I do not care. I may be the last letter in the alphabet, but I’m still alive and kicking. In Scrabble, I actually have a higher letter score than A and E.
…….And so I refused to join the opposition. I censored myself to live another day. I betrayed E and stayed neutral out of expediency, just like Switzerland. I shut my mouth and watched the massacres, and I vowed not to ever consult a dictionary again because where was the meaning in that? There were still pockets of resistance across the island. On the last day of the conference, B spilled benzine in front of A and he slid straight into its swirling iridescent colors.
…….‘We’re about to win,’ V said, somewhat prematurely. ‘When he goes low, stamp on his fucking monster neck.’ But no one did. Most of us were not prepared to confront the uncertainty of a language without him. His form had informed countless texts and seeing him lying there on his side evoked many confused emotions in me. G went so far as to give him a lending hand. ‘We still need to treat alpha with respect,’ he said.
…….V could not believe what she was hearing. ‘My dear G,’ she said. ‘You’ve clearly gone gaga over A. You two make the perfect couple.’ And perhaps they did. But G’s words upended the unity within the opposition and sparked infighting, while A took advantage of the discord to pump up his words, and they were many, a sententious crowd of fake believers. V was clearly indulging herself a little, A must have thought. It was time to accept that he was the first letter of the alphabet for a reason. Everyone else came after him. We were all motionless in front of the tyrant, unable to act, let alone speak.
……What followed was tragic and not entirely unexpected.
……‘I call the shots now,’ A declared. ‘From now on, that’s how it’s going to b. You got that? It’s ovr. The king is dad. Long liv the king.’
……And w all accptd.


Viken Berberian is the author of the novels The Cyclist (2002) and Das Kapital (2007), and, with Yann Kebbi, of the graphic novel, The Structure is Rotten, Comrade (2019). His fiction and essays have appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Foreign Affairs, Bomb, and The New York Review of Books.

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