THE LITTLE MOLE
It took two weeks to organise a meeting with the Shenzhen book printing factory that lists Penguin and Disney as most esteemed clients. In a car, my accomplice, Li Min instructed me to not complicate her life and to reveal as little of myself as possible.
Li Min was meant to be my host. She was going to put me up in an apartment; instead she brought me to a hotel of which she knew the management. She apologized profusely as she tried to assure me this was the apartment. The room was charming. I asked her who else she knew. She said she knew everybody. I asked if she could get me into places, places I couldn’t get into on my own. She said that she could get me anywhere, but that I’d have to follow her instructions. She proposed a budget. It was reasonable.
How she did what she did after that I do not know. She checked in with me daily only to tell me not to worry and enjoy sightseeing in Shenzhen. I waited. The day I decided to give up, Li Min turned up with a schedule for a week ahead. We were expected at the book printing factory first thing the following morning.
We were collected at the gates and taken through the maze of corridors into the conference room with bottomless leather armchairs. Sinking into one of these, Mr. Wang got to the heart of the matter. “How many copies would you like to print?” He asked.
“Three thousand?” Li Min rushed to answer in English.
Unimpressed, he brushed off the figure as if a wasp was buzzing in front of him but allowed the meeting to continue. I asked about the automated processes, binding, cutting, paper weight, the history of the factory, how many people worked there, and who were the clients.
The printing facilities, much like others working for established Western clients, are guarded against inquiry that could result in any form of publicity, but Li Min became a wizard of translation and we were escorted deeper into the factory.
Mr. Wang indicated when it was expected of me to take photographs. I wasn’t allowed to take the camera into a room identified as the factory museum. In it, each display was stacked with a mashup of young adult fiction, romance novels, adventures stories, cook books, language and computer training manuals, political biographies, and self-help books, most of them in English, written almost as fast as they were printed, some well past shelf life. I asked Mr. Wang if he had read any of them. He said it wasn’t his job. That made two of us, I didn’t say. I asked if there was a limit to what they would print. Anarchist cookbook? The Charenton Journals? “Five thousand copies minimum” he said.
“Are there ever printing errors?” I asked, I’m not sure why. Mr. Wang, who understood that without a translation, was alarmed by the question. Li Min missed it and didn’t know how to help. “I did not mean that in a bad way” I continued. “I meant, the printing errors could reveal a trajectory of this factory.” The proposition confused Mr. Wang and he asked Li Min to check if he understood me correctly. After a brief exchange, we arrived at an explanation about the value of mistakes within the automata. At first Mr. Wang protested, saying the mistakes were just useless, unreadable books, but as Li Min took over the conversation, laughing occasionally, he caught up with her enthusiasm and became faintly curious. I asked if he had a misprint that we could see. He thought about it and invited us to follow him.
He walked quickly now and we could barely keep up. Li Min was whispering, worried there might be trouble. We rushed past the roaring printers, two women holding hands on the taburetes, resting... The ink stockpile, the packing hall, the tracks with barrels of ink and ones with stacks of books about to depart, an empty hall guarded by a security officer, until we were back to where we started. “Wait here!” Mr. Wang told us, and left, shutting the door behind him. I slipped into the quicksand of an armchair. Li Min listed the reasons she thought would get us imminently detained.
A few minutes later, Mr. Wang came back with another representative and handed me a stack of unbound pages from The Story of the Little Mole (Who Knew It Was None of His Business). It is a short detective story of sorts, popular with kids across the planet. The pictured face of the culprit, the butcher’s dog, was disfigured and tilted to the right. This, I learned later, hoping to find a comparable error in an edition then sold in Switzerland, was a printer mistake that occurs very rarely. Once a decade or so. Mr. Wang took a notepad from his pocket and asked me to explain it again but slowly.
I tried. I said the machines were designed to make copies and that when they didn’t, they were behaving unpredictably. That in this context a mistake was producing something original, impossible to be copied and so worth more. I speculated about how three thousand different errors, each forming an original work, could become a rare collection of items unique to this particular factory, these computers, and the people who for the most part operated like factory computers at a particular time. Li Min interpreted. Mr. Wang jotted things down. “And who would buy this collection?” He asked after consulting with the representative. I didn’t know immediately. Indeed, who would? I promised to think about it. “Very well,” he said. “Thank you for visiting.” He got up to escort us out. I asked if I could buy this copy of The Story of the Little Mole. “No, we have to destroy it. It’s the policy,” he said. I clung to it. He pulled it out of my hand as he walked us out. He was late for another meeting.