the short story project


Diego Vecchio | from:Spanish

The Tobacco Man

Translated by : Kit Maude

Introduction by Our Editors

“All it takes is for one insignificant event to bring down an empire – or an author at the height of his fame.” In an ironic, farcical tone, Diego Vecchio tells us about an author whose career rose and fell on the tip of a tobacco leaf. Joshua Lynn wrote a series of successful science fiction stories in which his protagonist, Doctor Curtis, travels in a time machine to a future that is in fact the past modified by a tiny change that bears vast implications. Joshua Lynn’s whirlwind success gives rise to a vibrant social life, and in order to maintain his image (as befitting the period), he starts smoking thirty cigarettes a day. In his next few novels, and corresponding with his public persona, tobacco plays an important role in shaping the alternative past to which his protagonist, Doctor Curtis, travels. Joshua Lynn’s success only increases, but something goes wrong—a small, minute detail, whose repercussions might be disastrous.    


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A court in Edmonton, in the Province of Alberta, Canada, has found the Southern Tobacco Company guilty of the charges presented against it by Joshua Lynn and has ordered the company to pay compensation of two million dollars. The sentence sets a unique precedent in the penal history of literature, giving hope to thousands of writers who smoke. Joshua Lynn accused the Southern Tobacco Company of having caused grievous damage not just to his respiratory system but also, and most importantly, to his artistic well-being.

The evidence?

Joshua Lynn was one of the most celebrated writers of his generation thanks to a story entitled “Eve” published in the legendary Astounding Mysteries Magazine when he was a nineteen-year-old history student at the University of Edmonton.

Joshua Lynn wrote the story all in one go during a night of insomnia. The next morning, instead of throwing it away, he took his girlfriend’s advice and sent it to his favourite science fiction magazine. The editorial board didn’t hesitate to include it in their next issue.

It was an old idea but very well handled and featured a twist that made it entirely new: Doctor Curtis has invented a time machine that he uses to go into the past rather than the future, a past modified by the subtraction, division, multiplication or addition of significant events. Joshua Lynn believed that time was a spiral and history just repetition: repetition with minimal variations that made a huge difference.

On his first journey, Timothy Curtis travels to the year 2061. Rather than witnessing something like an alien invasion, he finds Adam fast asleep in the Garden of Eden, just like the first time. But it’s not the first time. The universe has gone through an intergalactic war and God has had no choice but to start all over again.

Just as though nothing had happened, on the first day he makes the distinction between light and shadow; on the second he separates Heaven and earth; on the third he covers the earth in plants; and so on until the sixth day when, once the mist has cleared and all the colours of the spectrum are absolutely pure – not in an artistic sense but because the light shows things exactly as they are – God creates man in his own image. And woman, too.

However, instead of taking a rib from Adam, God takes a fingernail. This tiny detail radically changes the course of events. In this second version of the history of humanity, Eve isn’t a flesh-and-blood creature susceptible to temptation but a semi-transparent being made of keratin whose insides can be clearly seen and who grows a few millimetres a day.

The problem of the first man and first woman is not now original sin but a purely physical one: the problem of shape. Eve must not be allowed to lose her outline. Armed only with a few crude tools, Adam spends day and night filing her down. The first man is no longer a warrior, hunter or farmer but a manicurist. As one might imagine, the task is exceedingly unpleasant. A millimetre too much and Eve will start growing the wrong way, transforming into anything: a guinea-fowl, a baobab tree or a tank engine in pyjamas. To resolve this difficulty, Timothy Curtis teaches Adam about the benefits of scissors and nail-clippers. Christianity becomes historically unnecessary.

The magazine received a flood of letters from readers. “It’s the most original and entertaining story of recent times,” wrote Burt F. from Athabasca. “Simply unforgettable,” said Samantha K. from Yorkton. “Even the grumpy God of the Old Testament would have laughed hard enough to shake up the whole universe,” said Reverend O. from Labrador City.

There was no doubt about it, a new talent had been born. Thanks to Joshua Lynn, Astounding Mysteries Magazine sold out its entire five-thousand-copy print-run. The editorial board decided to hire Joshua Lynn as a staff writer, paying him a fortune. Leaving his home town of Edmonton and his girlfriend behind, he moved to Toronto. He had become a celebrity overnight.

Resounding success had its obligations, such as an elegant lifestyle. And that elegant lifestyle came with its own obligations, such as the need to smoke. Tobacco allowed him to strike a pose. In those days, thankfully long gone, it was obligatory for a writer to be seen with a cigarette, cigar or pipe clasped between their lips, dangling from the side of the mouth.

Unaware of the danger to which he was exposing himself, Joshua Lynn took up smoking. First ten, then twenty and soon thirty cigarettes a day, cigarettes made with delicious, amber-hued Virginia tobacco. And, as one might imagine, this affected his prose. When the editorial board commissioned a second story, Joshua Lynn set about writing a novel that would appear in twenty weekly instalments featuring the same character, Doctor Curtis. Created in the image of his author, Curtis was a smoker and went through an average of five pipes an episode. Nicotine is powerfully addictive. Sometimes it can be very hard to stop smoking.

In that first novel, Timothy Curtis travels to the year 4443, to Ancient Egypt, on the day that Akhenaten comes to the throne. As he refills his pipe, Timothy Curtis carelessly spills some strands of Dutch tobacco by the side of the Nile. A few days later, a stinking, disgusting plant entirely unfamiliar to the Egyptians begins to grow: Nicotiana tabacum. Some time later, following Timothy Curtis’s example, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti begin to smoke long-strand, unpressed tobacco.

Instead of casting out the gods of Ancient Egypt and promoting the heresy of Amun the Sun God, Akhenaten encourages his people to smoke cigarettes. This new vice leads to a veritable political, economic, social, theological and artistic revolution. Rather than working on pyramids that would amaze Herodotus, Napoleon and Hegel, the Egyptians start to build tobacco factories. The tombs of the pharaohs are full not of treasure but cigars. Isn’t a cigar just a tobacco mummy?

Once again, the magazine received a flood of letters. “The portrait of Nefertiti with a cigarette between her lips is ten times more beautiful than that in the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin,” said Ralph R. from Prince Albert. “Extraordinary. I still have goosebumps,” wrote Chloe K. from Vancouver. “Just amazing,” said Andrew V. from Winisk.

A publisher expressed interest in bringing out Akhenaten, but Joshua Lynn preferred the pulp format. In addition to establishing a more intimate connection with his readers, it allowed him to earn fifteen times more. Thanks to the adventures of Timothy Curtis, the magazine sold over ten thousand copies an issue, an incredible figure for the time. Joshua Lynn received 30 per cent of the proceeds. If he’d gone through a publisher he would have received a measly 10 per cent.

Handsome, celebrated and a smoker, Joshua Lynn was now rich, too, and he married a beautiful millionaire, another elegant smoker, who inhaled twenty cigarettes a day through a platinum holder.

Secure in his social, romantic and professional success, Joshua Lynn set about writing his second novel, returning to the now classic plot. Timothy Curtis travels to Imperial Rome in the year 6298, bringing with him a few guns to help the Roman Empire repel the Barbarian invasions. His objective is to prevent the fall of the Western Empire and the centuries of interminable darkness that would follow.

But when he gets to Rome he finds a city enveloped in a dense fog, even though it’s the middle of summer. This isn’t the result of unusual meteorological conditions but a fundamental change in the habits of humanity after the slight modification of the timeline in Ancient Egypt. Following the example of the Egyptians, all the civilizations of the Mediterranean have taken up smoking. Practical in this as in everything else, the Romans are taking full advantage of tobacco. Instead of a weak, divided empire governed by Romulus Augustulus, the last and most pathetic of the emperors, a people made savage by the circus and licentious habits and an ill-disciplined, poorly paid army, Timothy Curtis is pleased to find, as he walks through the city’s streets, that the Colosseum has been restored and turned into a gigantic ash tray full of cigarette butts. Thanks to tobacco, Rome was able to withstand the barbarian invasions in a far more relaxed manner, enjoying each moment to the full.

Once more, the congratulatory letters flooded in to the offices of Astounding Mysteries Magazine. But among those hundreds of letters came another, sent by Cliff Clayton, a doctor from Prince George in British Columbia. The editors decided to publish it in order to start a controversy that they hoped would increase sales, but they didn’t consider the consequences. All it takes is for one insignificant event to bring down an empire – or an author at the height of his fame.

Doctor Clayton was writing to cancel his subscription. He was upset that his favourite magazine was publishing such garbage and giving poisonous substances all that free advertising. In fact, what really bothered Doctor Clayton was that Joshua Lynn had committed an unforgivable scientific and historical error. If humanity had started to smoke in the ancient world it would almost certainly have died out before the Middle Ages. According to recent epidemiological studies, smokers are a hundred times more likely to suffer from bronchitis, pneumonia, heart failure, high blood pressure, ulcers, impotence and miscarriages than non-smokers. And that’s not the worst of it. It has been demonstrated that tobacco consumption greatly increases the risk of cancer of the lungs, oesophagus, larynx and uvula, as well as the stomach, duodenum and bladder. Exposed to all these risks, no ancient civilization, as advanced as its medical knowledge might be thanks to embalming, would have lasted longer than two centuries.

In the subsequent issue the magazine lost half its readers. As this loss caused serious financial difficulties, the editorial director decided to let Joshua Lynn go. In his place they hired a talented young writer who wrote science fiction without the aid of stimulants or addictive substances. Joshua Lynn’s wife quit smoking and filed for divorce.

But Joshua Lynn didn’t give up. He tried to recover his lost audience with a new novel. And he also tried to sooth the cough that bothered him day and night with menthol pastilles. Cigarettes contain irritants that destroy the bronchial cilia whose function is to remove dust from the air one breathes. Without bronchial cilia the lungs get covered in dust and tar, like a chimney. A person who smokes a packet of cigarettes a day inhales about 840 cubic centimetres of tar a year. To stop the coughing all they have to do is quit smoking. But he didn’t. Sometimes the simplest thing is the hardest to do. Nicotine is powerfully addictive. It can be very hard to stop smoking. Don’t hesitate to seek the help and advice of a specialist.

Joshua Lynn returned tobacco to its rightful place, the mesas of Central America, and had Timothy Curtis travel to the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs in 7355. His objective is to stop Columbus discovering America. If he doesn’t reach America, tobacco won’t be discovered, and without the discovery of tobacco in the Early Modern period the deadly habit wouldn’t spread.

Timothy Curtis sets sail in one of the three caravels as the helmsman. Once the vessels have travelled some distance from the Canary Islands and are in the middle of the Atlantic, Timothy Curtis abruptly changes course, turning 90 degrees to starboard. Instead of arriving at a tropical island, Columbus’s expedition runs aground on an Arctic island that they dub Greenland. Instead of smoking Indians, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de la Torre encounter geysers. Deeply disappointed by the inhospitable appearance of the land they have just discovered, Columbus’s crew asks him to go back. The admiral tries to convince his men to keep going, promising them that soon they will discover fertile islands with crystalline rivers and tall, lush trees weighed down with delicious, restorative fruit and nightingales singing beautifully as they hop from branch to branch along with many other wonders to see and hear. But, as the speech is given in the middle of a snowstorm, it isn’t the most convincing. Columbus has no choice but to agree to head back to Europe empty handed. The failure eats away at him. Deeply depressed, the admiral commits suicide. His body is thrown overboard into the Atlantic and devoured by sharks.

Joshua Lynn sent the manuscript to several different magazines, but none of them wanted to publish a story like that. They said, “Worthy intentions are worthless if not accompanied by worthy actions.” Instead of writing more, he ought to have stopped smoking.

Refusing to give up, he sent the manuscript to publishers instead. Although they admitted that the novel displayed his undoubted talent, they told him that it was unpublishable. Every line and page seemed to reek of the poorly concealed aroma of tobacco. Readers couldn’t help but hear the puffins drowning in a sea of tar. One of the characters must have been smoking in secret.

His career was over, definitely over. Having achieved the height of his fame with his first story at the tender age of nineteen, before he was forty he’d been burned down to a butt of skin and bone. Joshua Lynn had no choice but to set his sights on the tobacco company that had been administering him his doses of poison for all those years.

At the urging of his lawyer, he tried to quit smoking once and for all using a nicotine patch that had shown good results in 65 per cent of cases. But the patch didn’t work as well as expected. Nicotine is powerfully addictive. It can be very hard to stop smoking. Don’t hesitate to seek the help and advice of a specialist.

Drink plenty of liquid, especially water. Drink tea and fruit juices. Limit the consumption of coffee and alcohol, which can increase your desire to smoke. Avoid sugar and high calorie food. A lot of smokers fear that they will put on weight after they quit smoking. This might happen. But bear in mind that obesity is far less carcinogenic than nicotine addiction.

To avoid putting on weight, exercise regularly. Walk, run, water the garden. Keep your hands busy with embroidery, letter-writing, crosswords or by washing the car. Keep morphological or psychological substitutes for cigarettes – such as carrots, celery sticks, sunflower seeds, raisins or sugarless chewing gum – close by.

Don’t be discouraged if you relapse.


3 thoughts on “The Tobacco Man

  1. K K AGARWAL says:

    A very purposeful story.

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