Jul/Aug 2020  •   Fiction

The Double Falsehood

by Steven Brooks

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel

@PetraVrba is "a fraud a phony a fink"—Mr. Howard, my colleague at the middle school, said it just like that, as if all three words combined to form a single pejorative utterance. By then @PetraVrba had already been posting to Twitter for quite some time what she claims are her translated lines of a Spanish-language version of a lost play by Shakespeare, which she and everybody who follows her refers to simply as "the Cardenio," a play Shakespeare adapted from Don Quixote, or at least a part of it. Each day @PetraVrba tweets just a single line, so the play comes to us piece by piece. But despite that, or because of it, her tweets get thousands of likes and retweets. #FoundShakespare is among Twitter's top five trending topics every weekend, as people catch up on and discuss the week's worth of lines. Even with this popularity, @PetraVrba has chosen to remain anonymous—she hasn't included a single piece of identifying information on her Twitter bio, not even a profile picture. The only bit of writing on her page not related to the Cardenio is an unattributed quote pinned to the top of her feed: "All men who repeat one line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare." The line is Borges', but it's inevitable that many people visiting her page think the idea is @PetraVrba's, or they will recognize the quote, notice its want of attribution, and think she's trying to pass it off as her own. (This wasn't an unfamiliar idea to me: my senior year in high school I turned in a story of Borges' for my final assignment in a creative writing elective, changing nothing but the characters' names so that my sham wouldn't be immediately obvious—I got a C.)

I told Mr. Howard there was a connection between this loose attribution and another Cardenio enthusiast. Lost Cardenia is a YouTuber who posts videos, always within a minute of @PetraVrba's daily tweets, in which she reads, or rather performs, the line that @PetraVrba posted. Lost Cardenia performs all characters: Cardenio, Luscinda, Quixote, Sancho, and even Cervantes, and she does it all with the air of a professional actor—which she may well be. She, too, does not provide her real name or any other biographical information on her YouTube channel, although we at least do get to see her appearance. She films these videos wherever she happens to be the moment @PetraVrba tweets. For instance, in one she's standing near a Kroger's organic kale, reciting Cardenio's melancholic lines; in other she's just emerged from the shower, her hair wrapped in a towel, and speaking of her sorrowful countenance; or, in the video she posted just the day before my meeting with Mr. Howard, she is standing in what looks to me to be a university library, in front of a section of Portuguese poetry, the authors' names visible on the book bindings beyond her shoulder: Fernando Pessoa, of course; but also Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis. I suggested to Mr. Howard that this was in fact a clue demonstrating Lost Cardenia and @PetraVrba were likely one and the same person—how else to explain the proximity fuse of Last Cardenia's videos relative to @PetraVrba's tweets? how else to explain Lost Cardenia's standing in front of books of poetry by authors who existed only as imagined heteronyms of a single poet, Pessoa? how else to explain either's disguising themselves behind assumed avatars? how else to interpret such assumed avatars but as a means to add a layer their shared identity? Add to that the Borges quote's obvious overlap with Lost Cardenia's videos: Lost Cardenia repeats lines of @PetraVrba's, and so doesn't that suggest she is @PetraVrba? So @PetraVrba was less a fraud a phony a fink, I thought, than she was a postmodern theatre geek, exploiting new media in clever ways.

My "little contribution to the @PetraVrba problem," as Mr. Howard termed it, had already been peddled by any number of people, especially bottom-of-the-barrel high school students who'd been assigned something or other about the Cardenio, dithered indifferently until the night before it was due, and then, in their scurried quasi-research, chanced upon Lost Cardenia's YouTube channel and arrived at the same thoughtless conclusion I had. But anyway, Mr. Howard said: Lost Cardenia being @PetraVrba or not didn't have anything to do with why she was a fraud a phony a fink. She was a fraud a phony a fink because she'd stolen the discovery of the Cardenio from someone else. This someone else was none other, in fact, than Mr. Howard's friend—he specified it was his "close friend," a friend he was "on the best of terms with," a "once-in-a-generation friend" whom he'd "known all his life," they'd "practically grown up together." This close friend had gone to Nogales, on the Arizona side of the Mexico-US border, and discovered at a swap meet an "old, dusty manuscript." (The cliché irked me. What did Javier Cercas say about cliché in that book of his, the one about the man falsely claiming he was a Holocaust survivor? that he would rather be slapped in the mouth than caught uttering a cliché?) At first look, Mr. Howard's close friend took this "old, dusty manuscript" to be absent of value, but decided to bring it back to Tucson as a souvenir. But while out to lunch getting a Sonoran hot dog, this friend "idly, listlessly" opened the leather-bound book jacket and discovered "in no time at all" that what he'd bought at the swap meet was a Spanish-language translation of Shakespeare's "long-lost" play, The History of Cardenio—the manuscript's title page read "La Historia de Cardenio—por William Shakespeare." Mr. Howard's close friend knew immediately what a monumental text he had on his hands. But rather than reveal his discovery to anybody else—besides Mr. Howard, of course—he decided he would translate the play back into English and, once complete, begin posting extracts from it online to generate interest among the academic community. From there, it wouldn't be long till he'd be offered tenure-track professorships at prestigious universities, committee appointments, and prominent speaking slots at international Shakespeare conferences in Salamanca and London and Durban and Lisbon and elsewhere, and his work would be cited by innumerable graduate students and professors alike.

I stopped him there. I'd already heard @PetraVrba's interview with the Times Literary Supplement's podcast, which she'd given via telephone. (Listening to it even now, I think I can hear similarities between her inflection and Lost Cardenia's.) I pulled out my phone and played for Mr. Howard my downloaded copy of the podcast episode. In it, the host, Stig Abell, asks @PetraVrba how it came to be that such a prized manuscript could have been found in an obscure town along the Mexico-US border. @PetraVrba's answer is erudite, if, I admit, speculative and rehearsed: it made sense, she argues, for the Cardenio to be found in Agua Prieta, Mexico—note: not Nogales, Arizona—because it was possible, perhaps even likely, that a Spanish-language version of the play could have been carried over to Mexico with Spanish explorers. Specifically, @PetraVrba wonders if—she puts it like this: she "likes to imagine"—Juan Bautista de Anza's intrepid group, who were known to be moving in that area of northern Mexico in the mid-18th century on their way to San Francisco, carrying the play with them as they camped out along the banks of the Santa Cruz River during cold Sonoran Desert nights, establishing for themselves a corollary for the refuge the Sierra Morena provides Cervantes' Cardenio. @PetraVrba further likes to imagine the group carrying with them at least one, but probably dozens of works of literature, mostly plays to be performed as entertainments, with the explorers at various times both players and audience. And among these works must have been La Historia de Cardenio. Thus, although an English-language copy remains elusive, the Spanish-language edition demonstrates that the play itself is not in fact lost, nor has it ever truly been. @PetraVrba concludes the interview with the contention that the discovery will revolutionize contemporary Shakespeare scholarship, and that she is already in discussion with one prestigious university press about putting together an edited volume once she's tweeted the play's final line.

So, I suggested, maybe it was Mr. Howard's close friend—and by extension Mr. Howard, who was, after all, merely a long-term substitute only at my school until the position could be filled by an accredited English teacher—and not me, who'd gotten it all wrong. The question, as far as I could tell, came down to an instance, not of layered identity, as was the case with @PetraVrba and Lost Cardenia, but of borrowed identity, which was the most interesting thing. There were two claims to the Cardenio from seeming opposites: it was discovered by either a man or a woman who was either a close friend or an anonymous stranger who'd found the play in either the United States or Mexico and who was either reluctant or eager to share their work before it was finished. Of course, it was no mystery at all. One of these two people—it was obvious who—had borrowed their story from the other, counting on the fact that his friends in Arizona hadn't listened to a relatively niche, London-based podcast such as the TLS's, whereas he himself surely had heard @PetraVrba's interview and decided to pass off her story as his own, unattributed. Why he thought Mr. Howard so gullible, I couldn't say, but evidently he did, and it was possible they weren't as close as he'd thought.

Mr. Howard would not be so easily dismissed. He took from his book bag a stapled set of papers which he claimed was a printout of a Wikipedia entry written about four months before @PetraVrba posted her first line of the Cardenio and therefore written well before @PetraVrba's appearance on that podcast. Appearing near the bottom of the fifth page (after entries about Lewis Theobold's and Charles Hamilton's own long-contested and largely dismissed supposed discoveries of the Cardenio—posts which are still up on Wikipedia's site and which you can read for yourself) was information regarding Mr. Howard's close friend's discovery, appearing under a subcategory titled "The Cardenio's discovery in Nogales, Arizona," under which appeared the following:

In early October 2017, just as the weather was getting cooler and the monsoon was drying up, a recent graduate from the University of Arizona discovered a Spanish-language translation of a play thought to be lost since its initial writing sometime between 1612-1616—this play was none other than Shakespeare's The History of Cardenio, based on a substory from the first part of Miguel de Cervantes's world-famous novel, Don Quixote. This student discovered the play at a swap meet in Nogales, Arizona. How it arrived there is as yet uncertain, but the former double-major in English Literature & Creative Writing thinks it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the play could have been carried over to Mexico with Spanish explorers. Specifically, the former student likes to imagine Juan Bautista de Anza's intrepid group, who were known to be moving in that area of northern Mexico in the mid-18th century on their way to San Francisco, carrying the play with them as they camped out along the banks of the Santa Cruz River during cold Sonoran Desert nights, establishing for themselves a fitting corollary for the refuge the Sierra Morena provides Cervantes' Cardenio. Furthermore, this former student suspects the group carried with them dozens of works of literature. And among these works must have been La Historia de Cardenio. Thus, although an English-language copy remains absent, the Spanish-language edition demonstrates that the play itself was not, in fact, lost, nor had it ever truly been. This former student believes this discovery will revolutionize contemporary Shakespeare scholarship and they will release more details once the translation work is done.

To supplement his idea that this exposed @PetraVrba as a fraud a phony a fink, Mr. Howard pulled out a second sheet of paper, a printed email dated from just a day after the printout of the Wikipedia post. In the email, Mr. Howard's close friend assumed a new identity, that of a woman named Petra Vrba who "just so happened" to be in the University of Arizona library while Mr. Howard's close friend was at work translating the Cardenio, and who was keen to share Mr. Howard's close friend's translation work with Shakespeare scholars, not only at the University of Arizona, but also Harvard, Columbia, Washington, Emory, and schools around the world, too: UNAM, Cambridge, La Plata, Seville. Mr. Howard's close friend included elaborate autobiographical information for his character: Petra Vrba was an MFA student at Arizona; her thesis was a collection of short stories, stories which she said detailed the "absurdity of life, our absurd efforts at maintaining connections and meanings, however tenuous." Her writing, she said, was not unlike Jorge Luis Borges', if she "dared risk an inequitable comparison." But now she found herself "wanting to escape comparison altogether"; entering her MFA she wrote "like" Borges and she'd found that this "inequitable comparison" had preempted any assessment of her writing—instead of a classmate reading a story of hers and seeing what it offered based on its own merit, or lack thereof, the classmate would read it under Petra Vrba's preestablished posture to make it "like" Borges. What Petra Vrba came to realize was that she was insinuating into her writing workshops a false equivalence between herself and other, more capable writers, a false equivalence which she'd hoped would tip the scales in her favor and net her positive feedback from her peers and professors. All the while, she discovered that so consumed had she become with others' opinions, she was unable any longer to write like herself. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd sat down to write and produced something on her mind without the tincture of worrying about what others would say or think about it. In fact she didn't know if she was truly a writer. Or if she could be a writer. Or if she enjoyed writing fiction anymore at all. Or even if she truly was Petra Vrba anymore. Her writing, and along with it her very identity, was just a mash-up of other writers' styles and techniques and devices and so on—she even took others' phrases and sentences without attributing them; she wasn't even aware she was doing it until some classmate or professor pointed to the various instances as supposedly "winking" or "sly" allusions. And therefore she felt nothing she produced was her own, and therefore her creative output was not her own, and therefore she was also not her own.

This identifying information was included in the letter, Mr. Howard said, to verify, by way of an elaborate fiction, Petra Vrba as a credible individual and as someone who took literature and literary matters very seriously. The upshot of her letter was to attract scholars to Mr. Howard's close friend's work without it seeming like he was relying upon pretentious self-promotion. Petra Vrba was the perfect vehicle because she was external to him, because she could promote him at a remove. In the letter, she wrote that she saw Mr. Howard's close friend's work with the Cardenio as an opportunity to reclaim herself. By supporting another person's literary efforts, she could disregard her own and be more fully herself, and maybe then she would be free to start writing again. Petra Vrba proffered herself to Mr. Howard's close friend as a willing, capable assistant who respected his mission and valued his discovery. He, however, rebuffed her. He cared not at all for the attention the Cardenio could bring him; his only concern was the work. So Petra Vrba took it upon herself to write on his behalf a Wikipedia entry—the one transcribed above—and send this email out to university professors across the world to alert their attention to what was going on by a lone individual on the 5th floor of the University of Arizona library. But by the time the email arrived, she had deduced that the link to the Wikipedia entry was no good, for her post had been removed on the grounds that the entry's veracity was unverifiable and would remain so until a well-regarded member of the academic community reached out to them. Petra Vrba would not give up. She posted the entry to Wikipedia again, this time early in the morning, before San Francisco's dawntime, when she thought Wikipedia employees might be asleep and the entry would elude their attention. It didn't. She tried at midnight, she tried during possible lunchtime hours. Nothing worked. Petra Vba's Wikipedia page-editing privileges were suspended indefinitely, her efforts were in vain. The only thing Mr. Howard's close friend could do was remain translating.

In the meantime: @PetraVrba. And all my theories about her—her layered identity with Lost Cardenia, her providing Shakespeare in a manner highly accessible to middle schoolers—the theories that I and so many other "careless thinkers" insisted upon didn't amount to anything, because neither of them had actually discovered the Cardenio. It didn't matter to Mr. Howard if @PetraVrba or Lost Cardenia or the two of them together were the fraud phony fink, he cared only for his close friend's so far disregarded efforts, and he felt it was his task to find people like me—people who'd so gullibly and simple-mindedly been taken in by @PetraVrba—and set us right. He said all this as he put away his evidence and pushed in his chair, case proved and ready to get to his seventh period class. As he walked to the door, I told him that what his story made me think of was this time when I was in middle school—at Latona Middle School, which has long since been demolished, rebuilt, and renamed; no trace of it or my presence on its campus remains—and I had this classmate named Neil who wanted to convince everyone else at the school that he was going to become a famous rapper. And Neil had built up this idea for weeks: during all of his classes he sat at his desk scribbling fervidly in a Mead notebook, and at the end of class he announced to no one in particular that he was "just jotting rhymes"; he arrived a few minutes late to first period everyday, interrupting Ms. Pratt's health class to say "sorry; was in my basement studio laying down a track." But whenever we asked him to go ahead and do a little rap for us, he demurred, always saying he needed a beat. When somebody started beatboxing, Neil turned and left, pretending he didn't hear it. So to prove he was a rapper, he'd spent all his time one weekend in his bedroom, setting up his boombox to play one of Coolio's songs. Sitting nearby, he held a tape recorder, with which he recorded both the song and his own voice, rapping in time to Coolio's, using Coolio's own words. He practiced dozens of times to make sure it was just right. His goal was to make his voice and Coolio's voice sound as one. His voice would be present, of course; he wanted anybody listening to his recording to be able to tell it was Neil, but he hoped his voice would somehow be inflected enough by Coolio's, and Coolio's by his, that the vocal palimpsest would make him sound like he was as good as Coolio, that he was on the road to becoming a rapper. When he brought this recording to school, it was obvious to us what he was trying to do—what he was trying to get us to think, the attention he was so desperate to get from us, the praise, the friendships—that we could barely look at him, it was too embarrassing. Neil's voice was there only as a whisper, a ghost—Coolio had done all the work, and he deservedly had a record deal and music videos on MTV and the whole thing, whereas Neil had nothing, no talent at all. He was riding on the coattails of someone who'd put in the time and effort to earn the attention of others, rather than merely needing attention from them in order to feel good about himself. And Neil knew it. That was what made it so pathetic. We could see in his face as he watched us listen to his recording that he knew we knew he needed our praise. He knew he had no talent. He knew how ridiculous he was being, even if only subconsciously, even if he would realize it only in hindsight. As we listened, we all felt on his behalf the embarrassment and shame he apparently couldn't feel, or that he didn't know he should feel. And that pretendence, that "inequitable comparison" he was trying to establish, was what made it so impossible for us to give him what he was looking for. We wouldn't give in and praise him. But nor could we be so cruel as to call him out explicitly. So we said "Cool." So we said "Alright, man. Nice." And then we walked away, all of us, to our various classes, leaving him behind. And he never brought it up again. He knew what we felt. After that we saw him in the hallways, downcast, lonely, avoiding eye contact. We never again saw his Mead notebook, and he stopped talking about his basement studio, and he stopped talking to us, stopped trying to win our attention and friendship by pretending to be something he wasn't. Neil was just the kind of kid, I told Mr. Howard, who grows up insecure and lonely and who becomes a bottom-of-the-barrel long-term substitute teacher who tries to take the credit for what others have achieved so he can impress others.

He didn't come to any English faculty meetings after that, and we saw each other only in the hallways, when we were both in the hurry unique to teachers where we feel like we're always where we're asked to be, but never where we need to be. Nearly two months passed like that. A few times I thought of stopping him and saying I was sorry—I knew I'd been too harsh with him. I wanted to say I was just stressed out, that something about school admin was bugging me. But I never did. On his final day at the school, he came into my room to tell me he wouldn't be back, that he was moving to another school in the district in need of a "bottom-of-the-barrel" long term sub. I winced. But he said there were no hard feelings. In fact he was delighted to have met me. He explained, however—diffidently, with a mild stammer—that I'd gotten the allusion wrong. He wasn't using his story to impress others or to try to take attention away from @PetraVrba, he wasn't riding anybody's coattails, he wasn't, in other words, some kid pretending he was a rapper. But he had indeed lied to me. He had made up that a close friend of his had discovered the Cardenio when actually it was him, Mr. Howard himself, who'd made the discovery, although he knew now I'd find that harder to believe than if he'd just said it from the beginning. Even so, he felt like he couldn't leave the school without telling me the truth. Another way my allegory had missed the mark, he said, was it didn't bother him that @PetraVrba was passing off his discovery of the Cardenio as her own. Even less on his mind was the attention she was getting for it. Rather, he was more upset by her theft of his own Petra Vrba. His Petra Vrba was a point of invention, and a particularly prideful one, one he felt was inseparable from his discovery of the Cardenio—he said he liked to imagine that in the future, wherever there appeared references to the Cardenio, there would appear also a reference to his Petra Vrba. Instead, now there would be references to @PetraVrba, who could not be the real Petra Vrba precisely because Mr. Howard himself was the real Petra Vrba, however fictional she might appear to an outside observer. Petra Vrba had somehow become, for Mr. Howard, more significant than his own role in the play's discovery—she had an elaborate backstory, a distinct voice, a mode of being: everything, in other words, that he felt he didn't have on his own. She was a fiction, yes. But she was his fiction. And he'd always wanted to be a novelist, ever since he was a kid. When the other kids were outside pretending to be Michael Jordan or astronauts or firefighters, or Coolio, Mr. Howard stayed inside writing elaborate little stories. One of his first, he told me, was about a kid named Arthur Frank who discovered a band of coatimundis carving into a mesquite tree near his backyard excerpts of Jaime Sabines' poetry. But nobody, not even Arthur Frank's parents, would believe that Arthur Frank himself hadn't made the carvings. His parents and teachers and friends all thought Arthur Frank was trying to get more attention by saying the writing had been done by coatimundis. And nobody, not even Mr. Howard's parents, appreciated the story. His teacher gave him a C, mostly on the grounds that it was too inflected with Jaime Sabines' writing to truly belong to Mr. Howard. Mr. Howard told me there was an irony there he thought I could appreciate. And so it went for Mr. Howard, who continued making up little stories about little things that seemed, for some reason or another, to annoy people. I imagined Mr. Howard when he was eight, hand-delivering another story to his mom while she was preoccupied by something else—for my mom it would've been Judge Judy or TV Land reruns of The Munsters—who rolled her eyes as she took it, telling him she'd read it when she had the chance, whenever that would be, and calling him, as everyone has always called him ever since he was a child, Mr. Howard. And even though he knew he shouldn't have made up Petra Vrba, even though he knew, in hindsight, that he should have just shared his discovery with someone at a university, adding a fictional component was an impulse. Besides, that email to those university professors was the best thing he'd ever written and he wasn't ready to let it go, even if it meant people like me thought he was a fraud a phony a fink. Without Petra Vrba, he believed the Cardenio—his Cardenio—would've gone nowhere.

Anyway: he'd come to my room to apologize, he said, for his "little falsehood." He hadn't intended to lie, or at least not to lie so egregiously. But when he'd discovered how devoted I was to the @PetraVrba problem, he couldn't think of any alternative than to layer his story within a fiction to make it more believable. He couldn't articulate why he thought that might work, but he hoped that as an English teacher I might be able to understand. I felt bad for him, the same way I'd felt bad for Neil all those years ago, the same way I still do feel bad for Neil. I offered that maybe it was all just bad luck. Maybe @PetraVrba, whoever she was, really had found the Cardenio in Agua Prieta. Maybe there were two copies, and they'd both happened to find them at the same time. Maybe her name really just did happen to be Petra Vrba. Maybe she was just cleverer at marketing than Mr. Howard was. Whatever the case, I said, Mr. Howard should be proud, not only for finding the Cardenio, but for writing that email—I told him it was very well written and that maybe someday, when he could leave his claim to the Cardenio behind, he could turn it into a story of its own right. He thanked me and asked if I might do him the honor of taking a selfie with him, as "just a little something" he could keep as a memento of his time at our school. As we took the photo, I told him I hoped we would stay in touch. He assured me we would, "one way or another." Then I never saw Mr. Howard again.

That's not quite true. I did see him again, dozens of times, always online, and I continue to do so. Every few weeks a picture appears on Twitter, always featuring two people standing together in, apparently, a classroom—one of the people is always Mr. Howard; the other person is always someone else. Each picture is attended by some emphatic words demonstrating how excited the person posting the picture is about having met @PetraVrba along with the hashtags "#FoundShakespeare" and "#TheRealPetraVrba." If you click "#TheRealPetraVrba," you will see countless of these pictures—each posted by a unique Twitter user: "Holly Rook," for instance, or "Griffey Powell." They're always the account's single post. These tweets receive a negligible amount of likes and retweets, sometimes just one, never more than three, most of the likes coming from semi-pornographic accounts. One of the pictures is posted to an account owned by someone sharing my name, "Steven Brooks." The picture features me, semi-smiling into the camera, my face and Mr. Howard's nearly pressed together—his right shoulder is directly behind mine, our collarbones appear to extend continuously from one into the other, and it's impossible to tell which of us is taking the picture. Above the picture "I've" written these words: "How exciting to finally meet @PetraVrba in person! My students love her work on the Cardenio! We can't wait for more! #FoundShakespeare #TheRealPetraVrba." In the bio it notes that "Steven Brooks" is an 8th-grade English Language Arts teacher living in Tucson, Arizona, a devotee of Shakespeare and Cervantes, and a former Coolio impersonator.