The Chronicle And Song Of The Ages

excerptThat afternoon we took a train to Constanta where, the same evening, we planned to embark on a Romanian ship bound to Constantinople. We arrived in Constanta late at night, so we didn't get to see any of the city or port. All I remember is the very agitated sea. Having crawled into the belly of the ship, into a big hall with wooden benches, we thought only of finding ourselves a place to sleep. But there was no way of getting even a wink! I felt cold. So did the others. Someone invited us to go up on deck, and pick some covers. We climbed a few stairs, sneaked through labyrinthine corridors and then through a sort of horn lined with a spiral case, leading to the deck. The Black Sea did not disown its name, an unfathomable darkness stretching over the roaring billows. The gale was so strong it could blow you away. Far in the distance, we distinguished the pale lights of the city. By now we were out at sea. I snatched a blanket from a pile and, carrying the treasure in my arms, I stole again into the belly of the ship. But the spread did not help me warm up into sleep. I tossed and turned all night long. Whenever the ship swayed, I felt weak in my stomach and my head, impending signs of seasickness. In the morning, I got up on deck hoping the fresh air would placate my insides. White, noisy birds revealing glimpses of maritime desolation towed along the ship. At times, they would flutter behind, plummeting into the froth trail left by the ship. Gradually, the horizon cleared and, far away, we caught sight of yellowish, arid shores. We were approaching the straits. A sweet mawkishness culled from the verses of Alecsandri or Bolintineanu came to life in us. Asiatic banks gathered contour in the shade of ancient fortifications and numberless canon mouths. We sailed into the corridor between continents, into calmer waters and a more peaceful weather. As far as you could see were moored plenty of ships, sails, vedettes, and boats. We disembarked in Constantinople before noon, with only a few hours to visit the capital of the Ottoman Empire. But by now we had got the knack of taking in as many sights in as little time as possible. A fetid smell assaulted our nostrils and bodies in the streets of Constantinople, especially in the vicinity of the port. Only a historical corpse could have smelt so terribly. All around us, a sundry throng was teeming in the grips of a paradoxically stagnant furor. From time to time, we tried to flee the turbulent crowd and the deafening noise of the moment, retracing our steps. We hurried to meet the sixth century: the Hagia Sophia. I thought I was sufficiently prepared for the shuddering charm, beauty, and grandeur of this cathedral in which the Byzantine genius expressed itself in a sacred archetype for the entire eastern world. After a sleepless night my senses felt all bolted and sealed up. The solar heat plumbing down to my head, the rush into the streets, and then the Ottoman capital's atmosphere of an unfurling fair had turned me almost impervious to new impressions. When I walked into Hagia Sophia, I did not imagine that after more than twenty years I would still write enthusiastically about what I had seen then. I got out of the mosque leaving the sacred shoes that I had to pull over my own footwear. And on going out, I came alive. For the streets with odalisques lured all the teenagers of the caravan much more powerfully than any mosque. We honed our gaze to discern the faces of eastern pallor through the transparency of veils. Our imagination lit up amidst the community rumor. We were moving on the pavements of The Thousand and One Nights.A Poseidon evening was awaiting us on the Aegean Sea. Was it the god's birthday that he should welcome us with such a stormy feast? Did he want to give his dolphins a chance to sport, hoping over his three-pronged spear? Or had he just remembered an old feud, and tried jealously to thwart our journey to Athens? These were not misplaced thoughts for, I was telling myself, one could never say what rubbed the wrong way these gods in whose realms of water, stone and azure we were treading.The two days spent in Athens left in me memories of white marble. Not only the Acropolis with its temples, pillars, friezes, caryatids and gods but also those white villas and museums strewn throughout the modern city, which is so keen on sharing the substance of Antiquity, the light of its light. Having, for some months, learnt Greek in high school incited me almost to irritation to decipher inscriptions. This quirk could have appeared passable in the face of ancient ruins but, unfortunately, it also kept me transfixed before the signs of shops. How paradoxical the mythological names of these modern olive dealers seemed to me! Fact is, the Greek capitals, which I did not decode so easily, made me feel my Greek teacher, Paul Budiu, like a ubiquitous presence. I have promised to delineate his portrait in a special chapter. Teacher Paul Budiu told me upon departure that I could not return to school without a report on everything I saw in the citadel he cherished more than anything in the world. In other words, I had to jot down most of the things I laid eyes on, and anecdotes, and details about the cave where Socrates was believed to have been imprisoned, and where the wise man, prone to mad sagacity, finally drank a hemlock cup with the same nonchalance with which his successors would quaff a brandy. For Socrates was the Silenian divinity of teacher Paul Budiu who himself had come to life according to a similar pattern, though a trifle out at the heels. I searched my mind for any allusion to present him with something from my voyage. I found none. Had there been, I would have gladly brought my gift-happy teacher an owl from the city of goddess Athena as the picturesque part of the settlement would have undoubtedly interested him more than the Parthenon.We rounded the peninsula on a Norddeutscher Lloyd ship that followed the evening star, and in some forty hours, we reached Catania, in Sicily. When I set foot on dry land, the seasickness that had ravaged me on the waters vanished like by magic. In Catania, we ambled numbly through the town until a castanets-accompanied tarantella welcomed us from a pub with open doors and windows. After the ordeal on the Mediterranean, I immediately felt a different man. In the Sicilian port, we stayed only one night though. In the morning, we took the train to Messina, along the seashore, delighting our eyes with the white frothy billows. In the distance, we caught a glimpse of the snow-topped Etna, of hills, plains, rocks, orange, fig and lemon trees, and medieval burgs here and there rising directly from the sea, everything canopied by the Italian azure. We cogitated about the life that must have once palpitated in Sicily, at the long-forgotten time of empress Constance, mother of Emperor Frederick II, or during the Renaissance.At Messina, we descended amidst a heap of ruins, two years after a devastating earthquake. They still had not taken out all the corpses from the shambles. We passed by hampers filled with bones and skulls. Not very many signs of new life in this havoc-ridden land! I remember some tall buildings with intact frontispieces behind which you could see the open sky instead of a ceiling. A native made busy playing the cicerone for us. Thus, he started explaining the strange evolution of earthquakes that at times toppled only ceilings, leaving walls untouched. A street down in the port seemed intact but at a closer look, the debacle became obvious, heart-rending, and obnoxious. The Opera House of Messina still featured the last bill of an event that had not taken place but that represented a possible comeback.The same day, in the afternoon, we crossed from Messina, to the Italian soil properly. We headed towards Naples. We traveled by train a whole night. It was not yet daylight when I woke up. I pulled aside the window curtain a little, and I glanced into the receding night, groping into the chiaroscuro. We were crossing a field, past splendid ruins of temples bespeaking a Greek influence. I was the only one to see them as the others were snoring in most grotesque positions, crumpled uncomfortably on the wooden benches. In turn, they woke up, yawning sonorously. From the way they did that you could detect something of the familiar atmosphere back home. I began casually to explain to my uncle that a quarter of an hour before we had passed by ruins of Greek temples. Uncle Iosif ruminated a little: "That must have been Paestum. A great pity we didn't see it too." And he looked into a guide and showed me some pictures. "Yes, that was it," I acquiesced.In Naples, we were masters of our selves for a few hours. The man who decided where to stop and what course our caravan should take had in mind a week in this town. The respite ended the very afternoon of that day. How welcome the relaxation had been! Everybody felt restored. We had to conserve all our strength for the great museum adventure. Museum impressions tend to converge chaotically so that of what I discovered in Naples I have clearly in front of my eyes only the image of an ethnological establishment with splendid African and Australian objects, shields, bows, arrows, masks, musical instruments. We dedicated the first, the second, the third, and the fourth day solely to museological joys so that eventually we became quite sated with the stale smell of the halls and of the painting collections. I felt a sort of seasickness invading my retinas. In the evening when we returned to the hotel, our old travel companion, lawyer Garoiu would always take out his pocket watch and decree: "Today we walked 35 kilometers!" "Today, it's 30." "Today it's 28." Personally, I held an ironical view over this manner of going through museums at light speed, yet I stuck to the schedule every day without demurring. At times, we felt so worn out with so many zigzagging ramblings that our foremost concern when we entered yet another museum was not to take in images of works of art but to detect a bench for repose. The aesthetic satisfaction we experienced in front of the paintings hanging on the walls was in direct proportion with the relaxation felt by our feet. To cap these tortures that had artistic delight mingle irremediably in our souls with a sense of exhaustion, we went to the opera a few evenings. We thought that was how it should be, and we accepted all nerve-wrecking numbness as a punishment for the fault of having been born mortal.And yet Naples got to us through its landscapes. Therefore we preferred outdoor trips to any visit to a culture institution. From the Neapolitan area, I treasured a yellow image of an extinguished volcano, Solfatara, on whose covered crater we walked. We were thrilled by the vaulted sonorities coming from under our soles and the hot sand erupting with every step like boiling water from tiny craters! A smell of brimstone enveloped us as if we were in a huge blue barrel with lit sulfur cakes awaiting the wine. On the other side of the gulf, the smoldering Vesuvius lent an unexplainable calm to the sight of communal solarism. I told myself: "Naples lies in the valley of two volcanoes, something I didn't know." And to be given further incentive we were told that someday the Solfatara could again erupt and the Vesuvius become silent. It seemed that the two volcanoes came alive alternatively like a pair of bellows set in action by the mythological mechanism of the forger-god.From Naples we tried to reach the bottom of the Vesuvius and cross the region of the lava. There were sparse houses on that burnt land, odd vineyards and orange gardens. An incidental gust of wind would fill our eyes with lava dust. The cries of an ass could be heard from the torrid tops since donkeys did all the climbing up and down like always. I recited to myself the verses of Goethe: Kennst du das land wo die Zitronen blüh'n? We took only a short turn to the soot slopes for our target was Pompeii. And a visit to this city had to be undertaken on a scorching day. Heat in April! The dead citadel appeared to us like an incandescent tray of slate, which right from the beginning seemed to obliterate the consciousness of the historical time elapsed since the catastrophe. The air melted on every surface. In the extreme silence that exuded from the walls, I imagined Roman shadows. They were very close to us, those shadows. I evoked the creatures living 2000 years ago whose footsteps resounded just like ours along these narrow, roughly and archaically paved lanes. The echo in the walls was that of our steps or theirs? Yesterday only our Roman fellow-beings walked here as the rut of wheels indicated. On a corner, a tall wall made us stop. It greeted us with electoral slogans, which we understood even with our spattering of Latin. We walked into houses and gardens. On a threshold, written in mosaic, stood a symbolical warning throwing immunity unto a Roman house: cave canem! Only the barking was missing. In exchange, the guardian serpent lied somewhere under a marble slab, biting its own tail, tied to a ring featuring time that must bend on itself. We imagined idyllic scenes that had taken place across the times, in these gardens, and in the rooms with black-and-red painted walls. I touched vessels and tools. I leaned over a table to smell the burnt bread.The local museum waited for us with its doors open.We entered. My eyes blinked in wonder in front of a dog cast in the volcanic ash that had buried the settlement. The animal had been caught by the deluging lava, and had died twitching and biting the dust. (The image stayed with me very long. Some thirty years later, I was to write a sonnet called The Dog of Pompeii in which the suggestion got symbolically sublimated into a vision of cosmic and personal apocalypse.)At five in the afternoon, we returned by train to Naples. In the evening, we had to go to the opera to a show with Tosca. To make the time spent on the train more useful, my cousin, Marioara recounted to us the libretto. I watched her delicate moves and vivid expression rather than the melodramatic anecdote of the play.At the Opera, we found seats in the upper circle where our caravan turned, for the irony of the retina, into a group of gallinaceous creatures. In the very odd descending prospective over the stage, everything seemed distorted and dapper to me like in the colored drawings of a child. I found it impossible to strain my eyes, and assess distances correctly so I dosed off. But being half-asleep on a backless bench was quite uncomfortable. Somewhere behind a long, unoccupied bench was beckoning to me. I withdrew to it, stretched down, and fell asleep. It was not a retreat into the customary sleep of my living being but a tumbling down into the slumber of the inert matter in me. I woke up in the thundering clapping at the finale. "What a splendid opera!" I said, rubbing my eyes. Arrived at the hotel, lawyer Garoiu (we shared a room) consulted his watch and noted placidly: "Today we walked 38 kilometers!"The following day I left behind the smoke plume of the Vesuvius, smiling in my mind at the deathless citadel. We put up in Rome for some ten days. In conformity with a minutely drawn plan we admired the splendors described in the Baedeker. Unlike all other foreigners coming in the seven-hill city, we, Romanians, for reasons known only to us, granted priority to the forum of Trajan in the order of discoveries awaiting us. Somebody had told us that not long ago near the column of the emperor of Iberian descent they found, resting in his sheepskin coat, Badea Cartan, the shepherd who had come on foot from the Land of Fagaras, taking incentive from his own millenary nostalgia not from any Baedeker.Next on the must-see list came the Roman Forum with its paraphernalia, from the ancient Etruscan relics to the remnants of a Caesarian temple. The Forum, which in our imagination stood replete with the grandeur and decadence of the times, of all triumphs and terrors of epochs, never stopped luring us on again and again. Not a single day passed without our crossing it at least once. One time, we felt the urge to reconstruct the assassination of Julius Caesar. Certain aspects that stemmed from detective stories, because we did not content ourselves with approximations but looked for details that could lead to the identification of the criminals, naturally rounded off the show that we put on. Yet, we rapidly regained the seriousness imposed by history and the neighborhood and indulged in what was vague, in indistinct grand designs.For several days on end, we visited the Vatican, in itself a universe enclosed in a small area. We lingered in the Sistine Chapel. A lot. We took our time there where each one became a case of conscience for one's self. We seemed to be seeking witnesses to our life before Christ above who was holding the last judgment! In turn, the remaining days we saw the sacred buildings of Rome, those of the late antiquity, with a low straight ceiling like a tombstone, and also the baroque churches with fictitious vaults lost in the ether.One afternoon, which left in my ear the murmur of poplars, was dedicated to the vicinity of Rome. The thermae of Caracalla that still preserved the memory of the gigantic sizes of yore gave us an inkling of what Romanian civilization must have meant at one moment. Via Appia, with its melancholy cypresses, communicated to us the feeling of great history. The bone-hard road seemed to ring with the bygone noise of cohorts heading to the outskirts of the world to defend order in the face of the onrushing chaos. We also descended underground into the catacombs, which had to reveal yet another mystery. Out of the soil comes everything that is good: this is the secret of the catacombs. The spirit would have remained too weak had it not undergone its own telluric stage. Walking in this suburbia of Rome one could not miss the small QuoVadisChurch. We wanted to see it as we had all read the novel by Sienkiewicz, who populated these legendary places with extremely vivid characters.1946

by Lucian Blaga (1895-1961)