The Canary Islands, Under The Sign Of The Unreal

The summon sounded imperative, I had positive interests, thank goodness – I was to receive by the hands of professor Cioranescu the second volume of his memoirs - this, as he had no intention of coming to the country this year – moreover, my curiosity was not inconsiderable. Therefore, I embarked on a night flight from Roissy, and in the morning, nine o'clock, and approximately 2000 kilometers away, I would, on his imperious advice, land on the airport Reina Sofia, in the southern part of the island of Tenerife. No customs, no passport control, no officials of any kind. It was April and the season hadn't started as yet, so I exited the large airport, mostly empty, as I would have had the railway at Focsani. It is true, nevertheless, that nobody was expecting me. And, as I knew nothing about buses, lines, timetables, I aristocratically boarded the first taxi and perkily ordered: Tenerife, Méndez Nuñez. Half an hour later we had – on the left side – left behind the abrupt rocks of the volcano Teide, with its peak indeed engulfed in clouds, and a small fishing port – on the right-hand side. We continued driving on a capital highway, along the seashore: nearly an hour later and 70 kilometers further, we victoriously reached Tenerife: but, in the tiny block at number 80, third floor, nobody answered my persistent ringing. After several minutes of perplexed anxiety, an elderly lady emerged from the elevator: the professor's next-door neighbor, she told me in an undertone of reproach: "But Don Alejandro is not in, he is at Bajamar…"As the evening settled in, everything came to be in good order: I had spoken to the professor on the telephone, the housekeeper had explained the way, I had taken another cab which this time would drive me across the island from East to West. Then I would find myself in Don Alejandro's cottage, which bore a name he confessed being very proud of: Oro azul, azure gold. I remained one full week in the Canary Islands, as the guest of professor Cioranescu who, at his age of 87, was an impeccable host and cicerone, in a town where he had started his Spanish existence, four decades ago. May I say that today, this seems to be the most strange and beautiful adventure of its kind, in my life. From the beginning, my stay there was governed by the outmost improbable. I had shortly arrived in Paris, had not received any pay yet and had to borrow money to buy the ticket. It was a fairly hectic period and I should not have been missing for one full week. Moreover, I had just replied to the inviting professor I would not be able to come, and had also written home to the same effect. Within two days, I would lounge on a rock and paddle my feet in the azure waters of the Atlantic. Oro azul was a cottage erected on the mountain slope, one or two hundred meters away from the beach, composed of two completely separate apartments joined exclusively by an external staircase, in the tiny garden shaded by a species of giant rubber tree. Mornings would unfold completely independently: I used to get up, make for the water – in an undisturbed peacefulness, if the weather was fine (which it usually was) – for a short walk, come back, have some fruit and work in the library, happy to have at my disposal an impressive collection of Romanian magazines and publications of the diaspora, but also an enormous quantity of compared literature books – every apartment had its own library. I would read until two, approximately, when the professor would call for me from upstairs or look by. Together we then ate in his living room, almost invariably a meal prepared with oysters or sea fruits I always sought to avoid as much as I could, to the amusement of Doña Dominga, the professor's housekeeper. Afterwards, I would resume my work or go for a stroll. Twice, I had been to town – Tenerife, with its huge port and the marketplace enlivened by particular smells or colors. Or to Laguna, the old city placed at a high altitude and practically joined with Tenerife, where one could find the building which housed the French Department at its beginnings – ancient Canarian style, with inner stairs and balconies. There also was the main building of the university, massive, white, like a colonial palace at the fringes of the capital. Still, the highlight of the visit remained the pilgrimage to the street which bears his name, Calle Alejandro Cioranescu, not far from the great esplanade which runs along the key and from the square which is still named after Franco. It is a new street, with houses finished on one flank; thus, we took a snapshot at the street corner, for remembrance, because it was the only occasion for me to have my picture taken under a street sign together with the one who gave it its name. In the evenings, with a conscience clear on account of the work done or the wanderings-about, we would jointly go for a walk through Bajamar, a tourist village conquered by German visitors of whom a great deal had even bought houses there, some letting them for a one-year period. All the firms and ads in the stores, on the streets or in the shop windows were written in Spanish and German. More, even the saleswoman in a small store with beach articles, where I entered to buy postcards, was a not so young German who was cleverly combining her stay with an occupation yielding small profits. Our walk through the village, along the highway which followed the West coast, would usually end up in a small restaurant; there, one would descend three or four stone steps and enter a not very large hall, tapestried with old playbills and photographs, with an owner-barman, hospitable and not so insistent. It was a place for intimate friends, regulars, who were called by their first names, whose tastes were known and insignificant manias observed; it was a place where islandish wine and specialties were served, where, as in any other Spanish restaurant, there was a lot of talking done but in a well-balanced manner, without high pitched tones or unexpected gestures. Back home, I would then linger half an hour or one hour with don Alejandro for discussions which generally instantly transubstantiated into memories, in case they did not start as such. Years spent as a cultural attaché with our embassy in Paris until 1946, when he was removed along with the old boys, his connections with certain French academics, how he transported the manuscript of his first volumes from The Bibliography of French Literature in a cart, to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; his old friendship with N. Steinhardt, secondary school classmate, from which he kept lots of letters; his experience as a temporary director of the National Theatre, and many others. Everything was linked to his research of literature or with his own, the translations, the plays and notably the novels with which he was rather pleased (he told me that his last one, Daniel Who?, was being translated into Spanish). He did not despise a good joke and did not display one ounce of conceit or affectation, which made his confessions strangely impersonal, as if "told by a strange tongue." Every evening would then end in the same promise: "tomorrow I'll give you the manuscript to have a look at, before you leave." Of an unreal essence was not only my existence in this improbable place, the long conversations with professor Cioranescu on happenings fifty or sixty years ago, but: the entire scenery in which this period, like an interlude, was placed, was unreal, as well – from the incredibly azure waters of the Atlantic to the trees which shaded our walks, trees with even-surfaced bark as in sycamore maples, but from the branches of which grew roundish cactus leaves, or to the vividly-colored, overhanging flowers on the scraggy side of the road. As unreal lingered on in my memory the evening prior to the departure when, after the indoor meal and the customary exchange of words, I came to ask the professor for… the manuscript on which he had been working day in, day out. "Ah, dear," he answered, pleased at the prank he had played on me, "I abandoned my memories for quite some time now. I am writing another novel, now."1999

by Mircea Anghelescu