Despite not having spent time with him in the more common and social sense of the expression, the few among us to have briefly crossed his path have all described a reserved man, though with a measuredly eccentric appearance. Each can recall, to give just one example, the beige raincoat lined with sheepskin, of which he never relieved himself, so to speak, and donned no matter the season. Contrary to the unfounded hypothesizing of a handful of journalists whose methods could at best be deemed improper, I believe—without feeling any need to go into the details or to defend the claim—that no one ever learned with certainty his name or his nationality. Only his initials, scribbled clumsily at the bottom of the flyleaves of seventy-two carefully preserved notebooks, offer us, by way of consolation, a slight hint: “A.Z.”
Between 1976 and 1988, it wasn’t rare to catch sight of his stray, itinerant figure, by all appearances bemused, among the winding rows and shelves of Paris’s Latin Quarter bookshops. A meticulous examination of lending records at the Sainte-Genevieve Library reveals that in September 1985 he consulted, and most certainly borrowed, the 1923 and 1924 issues of Trimestral Bulletin of the Society of Music Composers, as well as several volumes of the imposing French Encyclopedia of Ophthalmology.
During the first days of summer in 1986, he was allegedly spotted, some twenty hours by plane from the corner of Rue des Écoles and Boulevard Saint-Michel, among the southern stands of Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium, at a soccer match during which Hugo Gatti, the Boca Juniors goalkeeper who’d been nicknamed “El Loco” due to his extravagant appearance and excesses both on and off the field, stood out thanks to his sui generis idiosyncrasies. In his autobiography, which has yet to be published in a French translation, Gatti mentions that one evening during a match in Uruguay, he noticed a strange individual in the locker room, rigged out in a beige raincoat “very likely lined with camel’s skin.”
According to other sources, between 1992 and 1997 he traveled on at least three separate occasions to Alamance and New Hanover counties in North Carolina. The owner of Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books claims in the culture section of the Winston-Salem Journal that A.Z. spent a long time perusing New York Subway Ventilation, a 1915 pamphlet in octavo format containing various diagrams that highlight, as is suggested by the title, the merits of the New York subway’s ventilation system. He even claims to have spoken with him on this same occasion among the aisles of his establishment, noting that his English was “absolutely perfect, without any clearly identifiable accent.” This absence should not be taken lightly, as, oddly enough, A.Z. addresses accents in one of the rare aphorisms discovered in his files: “What is an accent but the quintessence of betrayal? We should drag these odious accents before the courts and have them locked away for high treason and fraternizing with the enemy!”
Like a savvy collector seeking out some rare item, A.Z. spent his days and weeks plundering libraries, yard sales, and new and used bookshops. He didn’t, however, own a single book. Instead, he contented himself with furtively flipping through them and taking occasional notes in his small, black, French-ruled spiral notebook, which he’d store as surreptitiously as possible inside his coat, feigning to either look for his glasses case or a pack of cigarettes. Let’s linger a moment on the senseless project that had him traveling across the oceans to discretely scribble and store away inside the lining of his coat the treasures thus pilfered. A.Z. was diligently collecting passages discovered between parentheses that he found sufficiently beautiful, mysterious, or strange to earn admittance into a very exclusive club that comprised an ever-growing anthology. It was rumored to be amounting to several thousand specimens. A.Z. was a parenthesis hunter!
Like a strange and tenacious impulse that invariably mutates with each change of year or continent, the passion the parenthesis hunter dedicated to books seemed truly to have no limit. His ambition was by all appearances to amass a collection, an anthology, of the precious spoils he’d taken from an extensive range of sources, including any and every genre of literature, philosophical and theological essays, tracts on astronomy, collections of poetry, letters, handbooks on zoology and horticulture, and even travelogues. Moreover, it was to be supplemented by a small tract, with a title as ambitious as it was improbable, which he planned to include as an annex to his curious compilation: Elementary Structures of the Parenthesis. We’ll see further on what precisely this entailed.
Book thieves as well as purloiners of ancient maps and medieval spell books, whose superficially absurd tactics often belie a mastery of their skill, are both well-known and feared by booksellers and librarians. A list of the various methods and stratagems used to outwit an employee’s vigilance would be endless, and while vendors have certainly come up with more or less effective techniques to stem this scourge, the fact remains that to this day none has managed to catch even a single parenthesis hunter in the act.
Throughout the years, A.Z. had managed to unite what could properly be described as a circle of admirers. This small court was composed of five or six disciples, who aspired to perfection in the domain in which he’d, so to speak, decreed the fundamentals and succeeded in crowning himself as sole and absolute monarch. He took pride in a certain form of professionalism and paid very close attention to the tiniest of details, from choosing the “place of intervention” to the moment of execution. Consequently, he would set out an itinerary the night before, taking particular note of the weather forecasts, which he obsessively sought out in the evening papers. The correlation between meteorological conditions and visits to bookshops is a secret to no one. Accordingly, he avoided taking action on rainy or particularly cold days, when, as everyone knows, the scarcity of customers, sometimes reduced to nothing, renders anonymity and the optimal conditions for blending into the crowd impossible. He also favored, in so far as his schedule would allow, the beginning of the month, less stressful for many booksellers than the end when, with everyone desperate for their next paycheck, thefts become more frequent.
At the start of the next day, his method called for a precise and down-to-the-minute plan, which one’s tempted to even call martial. Once the target had been chosen, the thing to be avoided above anything else was a premature entrance. Haste and parenthesis-hunting make for a bad combination. In the case of a bookstore, a customer who rushes in as it’s opening will never fail to attract the staff’s attention, who tend to be irascible before they’ve finished their matutinal routine and had the few visits they receive from talkative retirees during their morning-time stroll through the neighborhood. The ideal moment can of course vary depending on geographical conditions and the demographics of the customer-base, but it’s quite often at the end of the morning. Everything taken into account, A.Z.’s greatest talent may have been his ability to carry out these expeditions under the very eyes of honest store owners who considered themselves well-schooled in the identification of thieves. For better or for worse, this demonstrated the parenthesis hunter’s inexhaustible creativity and array of tactics.
The parenthesis hunter was a conscientiously prepared recluse, not unlike a fox who patiently stalks his prey. But he was also, by nature, no less impulsive. Indeed, he had to be able to act in a totally relaxed manner, freed from concerns about his immediate environment: talkative employees, noisy customers, etc. Furthermore, to win a bookseller’s trust, it was necessary, still according to A.Z.’s instructions, to wear suitable attire: impeccably ironed shirt and pants, freshly polished shoes, and a carefully trimmed beard. Another aspect not to be neglected was the psychological and temperamental handling of the event: the goal being to look as relaxed as possible, which for him was no small matter: “There’s no question that the man was born worried,” I’ve heard countless times over the years in regard to the parenthesis hunter.
With the layout studied and the technical requirements duly met, he could move on to the next step, namely, to use his terminology, the “leafing” or “exploration”: never more than thirty seconds per book, the necessary and even sufficient amount of time—according to his estimations—to find, isolate, and extract a parenthesis worthy of his attention. That is, in other words, of appearing beside its illustrious predecessors in the pages of his compilation. What came next unfolded with the formality of a banking form, both because of its step-by-step character and its almost total absence of artistic consideration, the one possible exception being his choice of pen. He surely owned a Vacumatic model Parker fountain pen from the thirties, though he most often used a ballpoint pen or a pencil. This final step consisted of jotting down the note, fast, very fast, and as legibly as possible, without ever drawing the attention of the customers or the employees.
Typically, A.Z. was diligent about marking the date of his discoveries, thus allowing us to retrace a posteriori his subtractions in their chronological order. Unless it’s evidence of a genuine desire to isolate his gems from their original context, there’s little doubt it was his concern for discretion rather than simple forgetfulness that explains a mysterious aspect of his project. The carefully chosen and collected parentheses are never referenced, making it nearly impossible to identify their authors. This protocol, as inveterate as it is enigmatic, has led some, in part embittered and frustrated by their inability to solve this interminable treasure hunt, to claim that a number of these nuggets were in fact the work of the parenthesis hunter himself, and that, like a disenchanted and indecisive painter who refuses to recognize the paternity of a canvas until the final brush stroke, a pathological modesty prevented him from signing his name. The master’s signature, as we know, is commonly seen as a work of art’s birth certificate. No matter. The parenthesis hunter, fully cognizant of the masterwork he was piecing together with each completed notebook, didn’t waste a moment thinking about such, in his eyes, superfluous considerations. He was charging head down toward his destiny. And, as he repeated as often the occasion allowed, “uninterested in guiding you through life, my dear friend, destiny waits for no one.”
In the end, one comes to the curious conclusion that the only thing stranger than the parenthesis hunter—a master in the art of concealment thanks to his innumerable acts of virtuosity—and his project is the desire to try and make sense of its insanity: bearing this in mind, a team of scholars from the philology department at the University of Lausanne set out to identify the authors of the parenthetical passages compiled by A.Z., never taking into account the possibility of distorted or wholly invented notations. The results of their research—still a work-in-progress—will be the subject of an interdisciplinary symposium to be held in two years’ time at the University of Oklahoma.
The minutes dating from a meeting on November 2, 2012, of the commission charged with establishing the inventory of the “A.Z. Collection”—a project headed by Professor Stefano Levi Montalcini, who was then acting as interim secretary general of said commission—meticulously lays out the contents of his personal files, classified below:
Box #1: Drafts, manuscripts, and work notes. Contains various notebooks, files, and diaries that feature poems, aphorisms, and unfinished texts, including a typed manuscript of Elementary Structures of the Parenthesis, in which one finds, for example, this colorful proposal, remarkable in equal measure for its incisive style and the originality of its hypothesis: “Does the parenthesis’s architecture not consist, in the end, of molding the forms of a human shadow? Does its presence not remind us, each and every time, that its sole and unique mission is to sculpt the contours of a face to which one would be wholly incapable of putting a name?” Finally, one finds the preparatory notes for a memo enumerating the various techniques of parenthesis hunting, adorned with several maps and sketches of bookstores in Paris, Buenos Aires, and Livorno, as well as corresponding climographs.
Box #2: Press clippings and documentation. Contains a large variety of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals that bear witness to the parenthesis hunter’s incredible eclecticism. The first issues of La Nouvelle Revue Française lie right beside a complete and perfectly preserved collection of Miroir du cyclisme. One also finds scientific reviews like the Annals of the Central Metrological Office of France, an article from the Quarterly Journal of the Meteorological Society of London on the shape of clouds, as well as several pages visibly torn from the International Atlas of States of the Sky and a January 1971 issue of Undzer Frain, a Yiddish newspaper published in Montevideo.
Box #3: The “A.Z.” Collection. The famous notebooks of parentheses, of which we count exactly three thousand ninety-six of the latter, dating from 1957 to 2012, divided into seventy-two of the former. Only on very rare occasions does A.Z. record where the deductions were committed. Here one finds parentheses of every length and style jumbled together, and divided into three sub-categories. To begin with, there is the family of parentheses that, once extracted from their original context, are like a moribund tiger abducted from its native jungle and locked away in a decrepit zoo: in a word, unintelligible. These make up the majority of the entries. Next, we encounter a type of parenthesis whose primary purpose seems, on the other hand, to be viewed as a perfectly autonomous entity. Finally, a third category, rarer but no less important, contains the parentheses that speak of parentheses—egocentric parentheses, one might call them.
The seventy-second notebook, only just begun, ends abruptly with an undated sample, thus encapsulating the fundamentally ephemeral existence of the parenthesis hunter:
(like a great wind distance must flagellate its course)