The Art of Autobiography in the City of Beforla




The People
The Land







Daily Life


Beforla was-- and still is-- a Minidun speaking city in the Amota region, currently lying within the state of Sacamota.   Beforla is one of Bergonia's oldest cities, continuously settled for at least 2,600 years, but it has never enjoyed preeminence nor attained great size.  The 1990 census showed a population of 179,000.  The meticulous records surviving to us for comparison record a population of 48,688 in the year 1207.   Beforla, like all other Bergonian cities, towns and villages, suffered horrible depopulation throughout the 1500s and early 1600s.  Beforla's population likely shrunk to a nadir of two or three thousand before commencing any recovery.  A colonial census informs us that by 1680 it had increased to 11,052, many of whom were Portuguese.


During the Tan Era the priests & priestesses of the Miradi Red Flag Order in Beforla accumulated a great many books.  Learned men traveled to their temple in Beforla from all over Amota and asked permission to study the books.  Finally, in the 1230's the tieri (ruler) and the governing council volunteered to build a library to house the fine collection. 

The new structure was magnificent, built of white marble with beautiful frescoes around all the entrances.  At first, the people visited the new marble library building just to stroll up and down the broad hallways and galleries lined with bookshelves and admire what their leaders had built.  They liked to sit on the verandas and glow with collective pride, even though many of them couldn't read.  Even the commonest men and women appreciated that books contained knowledge, and that knowledge conferred power.  The people developed a special love for their books.  The least educated among them looked upon the stacks of books with reverence, as if they were talismans imbued with invisible power.  In time, many of the people, women as well as men, took it upon themselves to learn how to read, and families everywhere sent their children the schools run by the priests. 

With time Beforla contained the most literate population in the entire Bergonian world.  People took it upon themselves to learn the art of writing as well.  At first they did this out of pride, both civic and individual.  Then they put the new talent to various practical applications.  But they developed a strange custom. 

It seemed that sometime around 1255 a lonely old man became depressed over the fact that he had no family to carry on any memory of him.  He said to himself, "Because I have no children, not even nephews or nieces, to remember me, I had better create some memory of my life that will last beyond my death."  So he recorded his life on paper.  He was a simple man who had led a simple life, and he wrote out his story in simple language, but at great length.

When he finished, he thought, "What can I do with this?  I must have been crazy to have written this, since no one will ever read this, and no one would have any interest in holding onto this after I die." 

But he thought of the library and he went there as fast as his arthritic legs allowed, clutching his bundle of paper.  He explained his plight to the librarian he met there and asked permission to leave his autobiography among the books.  "I have no family who will remember me or tell of me to any grandchildren.  You librarians here can be my nieces and nephews." 

The librarian took the measure of the sadness in the old man's eyes and assented to the strange request.   "Yes, I’ll take this and place it among the books.  In a year from now I'll take it down and read it and think of you.  I'll put your story back among the books and I'm sure that in years to come some curious readers will find it and read it and recall you."   

The old man smiled.  "It is but a little thing, but it will give some significance to this insignificant life."  He went on his way, and met death in his own allotted time.  But he evaded anonymity, and achieved a degree of immortality that evades the vast majority of people-- 750 years later we know his name was Canistin Itlor.   (with traditional Berg names, the surname comes first, personal name last, as with Chinese.) 


The librarian thought how poignant the old fellow's plight had been, and he pondered the loneliness in his own life.  "I have two children, but they may die before me.  In fact, one of them stays sick and weak, while the other seems destined for a dissolute life of philandering and drink.   I may some day find myself in the same shape as that old guy.  I think I’ll write out my own story and leave my own thoughts to future readers."  He retired to his room and began to write. 

He later told others about the old man and what he himself had done.   Many with whom he spoke thought to themselves how the loneliness of life and the finality of death had them corralled, even though most had loving families amidst the bustle of the city.  One man would think, "No matter how happy I am today, no matter how much love blesses my life, I’ll die alone, and I'll become a vague memory to my grandchildren.  They’ll grow old themselves and tell a few sentences about me to great-grandchildren.  When they get old they will know me by just a few stories and a name.  Then the stories will become confused and told less and less, and another generation I’ll be but a name mentioned once or twice a year at a family gathering, and then forgotten for good.  In a century my final trace will have blown away." 

Many people cast their eyes toward the great library, the grandest building in the region, and thought how the curious and the wise all gathered there and read the books.  So, following the librarian’s lead, some of them imitated the old man and put pen to paper, writing their autobiographies and taking them to the library.  


By 1300, many of the citizens of Beforla were writing autobiographies and placing them in the library.  But also by then, many citizens were visiting the library to read the autobiographies that others had placed there years, decades, earlier.  Many of them had decided, "When I go to the trouble of writing my autobiography to enliven and prolong the memory of my life, I do so with the hope that someone some day will go to the trouble to read it and ponder my words, however plain they are.  Maybe I had better go read some of the autobiographies that others wrote with the same hope I have now."  So, in order to give a little life back to those already lost to death, they read their stories. 

Out of this a new custom began.  People went to the library and thumbed through the autobiographies and picked one they liked.  The priestly librarians would transcribe a copy for a fee.  They took the copy back home, studied it, reread it many times, and consigned it to memory. 

A person who memorized an autobiography reasoned, "Together, we'll cheat death out of its ultimate victory.  I'll take this man, this woman, and remember him, or her, in the details left in their autobiography, and I'll recall it every day.  And maybe some day some one will do the same for me."

At first people sought out the most interesting autobiographies, the ones written by soldiers, traveling traders, the rich and powerful, or perhaps the rare adventurer.   But the librarians who did the transcriptions complained openly to the people about all the other autobiographies that lay neglected.  They admonished the people who came for copies, "Look here, you yourself live a pretty insignificant life, do you not?  Who are you?   Just a stinking fisherman, a tired porter, a mother of brats, a server in a wine house, a grumbling servant to a rich matron.  Why don't you do for some average life what you want someone to do for you yourself some day?" 

So, most people began to ask for autobiographies of people like themselves. 

As the custom developed firmly, people began to appreciate the value that the autobiography they adopted might have for them.  So they sought to invest their own autobiography with as much value as they could for the person who might one day adopt it.   They explained the hardships of their own lives, and many explained how their own folly might have contributed to it.  "Read this tale of a hard life, and learn to avoid the mistakes upon which I built it," one carpenter wrote.  People explained their bad choices and the desires and impulses to which they succumbed.   Indeed, the stories included stories of poverty, indebtedness, unnecessary feuds, divorce, love affairs turned out badly, the bitterness of people betrayed by ones they trusted, the remorse of people who had hurt others, the boastings of people who had cured the mistakes of earlier years, and the gems of common wisdom.         

In time, the city had to build a large new wing to the library in order to house all the autobiographies. 

People who met in wine houses, on the temple steps, in courtyards, in apartment doorways and around meals all traded, not only their own stories, but those of their adopted autobiography.   If a person found a particularly touching story, or one well written in a manner that conveyed the tragic or the joyful, he or she would share it.  The Beforlans soon had little use for drama or any other form of fiction, since they had so many real stories.  Instead of plays, the Beforlans attended public readings of the best autobiographies. 

Each person then became, in a way, two persons.  Each person invested himself with the memory of someone now deceased, now surviving in the autobiography, thus giving that person a small sprinkling of immortality on earth by attention, recollection and retelling their life.  One might go to a copse of trees on the edge of town and recall how the person in his adopted autobiography had once proposed to his girlfriend there, gotten in a bloody fight there, rendezvoused with a seller of stolen property there, hid from his mother there, or gone to write his story there.   

It sometimes happened that two, or even more, people carried the autobiographies of people who had known, loved, bartered with, worked with, or hated each other.  Sometimes a son would adopt the biography of the son of the man whom his father had previously adopted.


The legend of Beforla spread throughout Bergonia, meeting mostly with derision, but often with wonder. 

Distracters from other cities said, "What a ridiculous amount of trouble they go to, all for the dumb notion of trying to get immortality for themselves and give immortality to their predecessors.  What a stupid view of life and the afterlife those Beforlans must have."  The comments continued in a conventional strain, "The afterlife lies in the Mansions of Heaven, coming only by God's grace, not by man’s actions. Nothing those Beforlans do will give the dead the slightest twitch of life they don't already have.  It makes no difference to the dead whatsoever."

The Beforlans ignored such criticisms.  With a shrug they said, "No sound reasoning motivates us to do this.  Neither reason nor religious faith has a thing to do with it.  We have many reasons for this tremendous amount of effort, and they all have to do with the heart and the gut, and none with the head.  You are likely right when you say that our library does nothing to assure an afterlife or give the dead any comfort in it. 

"But,” they continued with wry smiles, "suppose it.  Suppose that our notion-- merely an emanation from a habitual compulsion we enjoy -- is true.  If so, then we do our ancestors a great service.  Perhaps the dead do take life from the thoughts of the living.  Perhaps the dead need our recollections of them as spiritual food, and maybe they die without it. 

"And, if we are wrong, then we hardly do the dead any harm with the library of recollected lives.  Indeed, we honor them, and we certainly do ourselves a great favor."

The critics still scoffed, "Fools, at the very least, look at all the energy you waste.  You have become a nation of vain scribes who waste great talent in vain worship of yourselves.  You might as well sit in front of mirrors and then walk around and tell each other how beautiful you all look.  Look at Glen, with masted ships and lovely arts.  Look at the theaters at Mropal.  Look at the university at Mragatai.  See what all the other cities accomplish, while you fritter all your energies on this silly reading and writing and recollecting."

But others who had traveled to Beforla interjected, "Well, we have to differ with you.  A person who spends any time in Beforla finds that the people there suffer a little less crime and a little less thoughtlessness than the rest of us do in our own cities.  They cheat and rob each other a little less.  Wives scream at their husbands a little less and husbands growl at their wives a little less.  They enjoy an additional measure of patient happiness that eludes us all.   Perhaps that gazing into the mirror hasn't harmed them at all."

The distracters found themselves checked, and asked, "How can this be?"

The reply came without hesitation, "Since each one of those people have adopted an autobiography and have read many others besides, they constantly find themselves thinking about how they will describe their own lives in their own autobiography.   This practice has made each of them individually aware that a life worth recounting is a life worth living carefully.  Thus, they ask, 'When I complete my autobiography, will I have written of a life that merits admiration, disdain or indifference?'   They ask, 'Can I live a life worth my recording and worth someone else reading.'"

Most importantly, the Beforlans would ask, “Can I write an autobiography that will benefit someone who reads it years later?"  Thus, they discovered another motivation for living a fine life.  His or her life might serve as an exemplar for someone in the future.  Just as a Beforlan had already adopted a second identity, he now carried with him a third identity—that of the unknown person who would one day pluck their autobiography off the library shelf.  They lived their lives sometimes thinking, "How will I write about this in my autobiography, and what will the person who adopts it think of it?"

Nearly everyone in Bergonia recalls for themselves the old legend about Mara, how she asks each of the newly dead who arrive on her doorstep to tell her of his or her deeds.   Then she disposes of the unworthy souls by casting them into the cold dark Abyss where there is no life, and the others she sends to the appropriate Mansion of Heaven befitting the nature of their life.  The people of Beforla rehearse the story of their lives before they ever die.   When Mara judges a Beforlan, all she needs to do is visit the new wing of the city library.

Indeed the Beforlans dedicated the new wing to her.  Mara's statue guards the entrance, and the statue portrays her sitting on a rock reading a book.


As Ierecina, the Great Prophet, taught, all things in the universe change, and ultimately all things end.  Nothing stays the same.   The Spaniards invaded Amota in the 1500's.  Keeping with their Catholic arrogance and rigidity, they attempted to scourge all native literature.  The Beforlans fought bravely the first time the Spaniard conquistadors and their native allies came in 1515 or 1517-- the records offer conflicting dates--and repulsed them only after the older portion of the library caught fire.   The smoke thankfully destroyed only a few of the autobiographies.  Now alert to the destructive ambitions of the Spaniards, the Beforlans rushed to hide books and autobiographies in case the Spaniards returned with better luck.  Sure enough, in 1520 the Spaniards returned and conquered the city.   

The practice of reading the autobiographies suffered interruption, since the autobiographies were now hidden.   But people continued to write for the future.  Even those who converted to Catholicism saw no reason to abstain from writing autobiographies, finding the device a wonderful way to glorify their new God, and the Franciscan friars approved.  In time, once the friars came to understand the Beforlan practice, they encouraged the reading of good Christian autobiographies as a method of instruction. 

But the Spaniards brought with them more than Christianity.  Soon fever and pestilence swept across the land.  The population abruptly plummeted, and the living suffered the sight of bodies everywhere.  The living cried out, "No will survive this death.  Why write an autobiography?   No one will live to read it, and my world is filled with nothing but suffering and distress." 

But one man persisted in the old way.  He sat in his empty room and wrote of the things he did and the sad things he saw.  His few remaining friends, men who had not yet contacted any of the diseases, scoffed.  They asked, "Why bother?  No one save for Spaniards will live in the future."

The man looked at them with an even stare.  He answered,  "For two centuries we wrote for the wrong audience.  We wrote for our children's children, hoping to conquer death.  As we wrote we thought how the passage of time makes us forgettable.  We thought about the past generations, great masses of men and women who went before us and died leaving no individual traces.  The autobiographies offered us a way to leapfrog over our deaths and preserve something of our lives.  Now the Spaniards and their diseases have come to mock us.  If the tyranny of time is the problem, then we should have recognized that our words are meant for those outside of time."

"You mean the Gods," one of the distracters said.

"Yes.  If any of us seeks the attention of another in order to add value to our lives, then we should look to God and not other men and women."

"Then why do you write?"

The man shrugged.  "Why not?  Our power lies in our words, whether thought, spoken or carved into marble.  The Gods hear our words, no matter the form we give them.  A word in thought is like air, formless, without boundaries, virtually invisible.  A word spoken is like water, a liquid, rushing from the mouth like out of a spring, and then flowing away.   But a word written hardens into stone as the ink dries.  It becomes solid and lasts.   Thought comes relentlessly, speech comes carelessly, while writing requires deliberation and attention.  So, while the Gods hear them as I write them, not needing the paper or the ink to know of them, they are nevertheless better words for my having written them with deliberation and attention."

This man, Ancaro Halon, wrote his autobiography, one of the last ones written in Beforla.  It, unfortunately, did not survive to us.  But his words moved one of his friends to write an autobiography too, which did survive the centuries, and there the friend recorded this conversation.