The Maritime Cemetery Of Sulina

I enter Sulina as one would enter a myth; that is to say, I have that feeling of chimerical quality, of life heightened into memory.The ship sets anchor, therefore I find myself at Sulina, the gateway to the Delta, watching the white countenance of the town, the neatly aligned blocks on the shore; and I feel that the present town blandly supplants ought lost forever: a cosmopolis, a utopia that I partook in. (I also find myself after the Thracology Congress, with its fair share of air mongers, but also with its rigorous and thoughtful historians, such as Hadrian Daicoviciu. After Histria, they departed to Bucharest, but I went to all lengths to be here. I also find myself after readings from Jean Bart.) Sulina on the shore seems to me a merely pale urban copy of an aquatic Babylon of ere. Just as, if in our days, a city called Troy were erected on Troy's ancient ruins, with the modern tools of town planning, peopled by Trojans – one would say it was an unreal city, one would say it was a mystification, an enormous forgery. I am getting off the vessel that has brought us from Tulcea; I am leaving the port behind, finding myself in the company of various, next to rustic, travelers. On the main street, with four-storied apartment buildings, I can see the hotel where I am supposed to stay, and a handful of large, new houses, splattered with repeated falls of rain, unevenly whitewashed. I am under the constant sensation that this town, epitomatic for the 70's, is the bland copy of past-time Sulina. A copy that has been overdue. And I am content with conjuring up the past. As if fossils spoke more volumes than the living species contained within. The fossil of Sulina says more than the lineup of carbon-copied buildings, inhabited by carbon-copied human beings, looking alive… asking me: "Where do you come from?"Still, what is alive is the Danube alone, that in this place changes its name into Sea… and the Earth (with ponds, islets, pelicans), that changes its name into Delta…I am searching for the marine cemetery. When uttering 'marine cemetery', the learned audience will think of Paul Valéry, who patented this phrase with its entire encapsulated philosophical flux. Jean Bart, a perfect contemporary to Valéry, employs the wording 'marine cemetery' , made believable by the Sulina of those times.In the graveyard, I am looking for the tomb of Evantia, the sweet creature of the novel Europolis (1933), conjured up by the author from a real character. There was an Evantia in real life who had chanced herself in this port, a suave, exotic, tender being, brutally transplanted into Scythia Minor, as if in exile. Jean Bart (by his parents, my co-villager from Burdujeni of Suceava) stepped in and molded the life of a prototypal Evantia to make her a receptacle of existential meaning. In the novel, Evantia dies at a young age.In reality, Evantia has survived all non-fictional characters in the novel; and, first and foremost, she has survived her author. At Sulina, she had an anonymous, likeable old age, absorbed by the daily plight.It is odd that there was no one to handle the Evantia myth and turn it into a cultural asset. Romanians do not know how. Even Dracula's myth has been administered by foreigners, who quickly took it on lease. Evantia, in the 60's, was a hunchback, wrinkled woman, a toothless old being with no aura, no vestals and no retirement allowance. My friend, the critic Al. Protopopescu, dubbed Proto, when setting out for Sulina to look for her, found her in the ideal place – to his mind: a small inn. And, instead of making an interview with her, as any Oriana Fallaci would have done, Proto told her emphatically that the encounter delighted him and asked for permission to offer her a flask of mastic drink, to celebrate. For Evantia only touched mastika, while Proto would drink high spirits, vodka. Then he inebriated himself, gently, slowly. And, it seems, he continued his consistent bout all through his three-day stay. When I, for reasons of documenting, meant to reenact the discussion between Proto and what were the biological remains of Evantia (an actor still ignored in our heritage), all I could find was 'crumbles'. But a crumble (a word that in Greek is even called epitome), is more expressive then the entirety, as it has a holographic quality to it. I deemed Proto still lucky to have met Evantia alive; and that would be the only one attesting to the fact that she had existed. (When he brought his deed to my attention, alas, she was not alive anymore!) He did not underestimate the encounter, aware that he was at the gateway of a legend. But he was in the habit of celebrating everything in bacchic style, be it legendary or not. He treated Madam Evantia with utmost respect, which intimidated the poor woman. Because Proto, even in his drunken state, from under a table, would still be a gentleman with the ladies. Because only with men would he sport a blind aggressiveness for, as he was small and intellectual, he used to receive horridly fierce punches, and it seems that from something of this kind he even met his death, in 1994.Therefore, Proto recounted to me what he could remember from Evantia's stories. She spoke of Jean Bart with great reverence, evoking his figure in a lingering fear as well. She would still say that 'the writer had played superbly with her life'. She liked that he had utterly idealized her and placed her on the throne of tragedy forever. Proto had told her: "With Bart's book under your belt, you can forward a petition to the Patriarchy, for canonization! And maybe Master Justinian the Patriarch will grant you an allowance as well, as all nominees to sainthood are fit to receive."Evantia retorts: "But I don't understand why Jean Bart buried me. For, look 'ere, I have outlived the lot of them."To which Proto says:"It was your purity that Jean Bart buried then. For telluric safekeeping, as it were. That you don't wear it off by flaunting it. For in women, purity degrades rapidly unless you give them a timely burial, whereas in men, it doesn't, for they have none… whatsoever."They felt well together.And Proto would not fail to ask for mastika refills, for Evantia. Coming back to literary history, Proto asked Evantia how she had lost her virginity. In the novel she is a victim of the barter-sacrifice that Deliu, a lecherous knave, forces her to accept. She hoped to save her father's life by yielding to the cynical villain who had promised to save the old man; and the erotic scene of her deflowering takes place the very night when her father is executed… The real-life Evantia was deeply moved by her fate in the novel, that she had no hesitation to demythify. The story of her defloration was totally different, it was savage, cruel, horrible, traumatizing: she had been the victim of a terrible gang rape. That is why she had an enormous respect for Jean Bart who had handled the details of her tragedy so that the beastly aggression of men that she had been a victim of (in fact any defloration is felt by women as an aggression and is the premise of a castration complex) to become sacrifice instead of trauma. Evantia was not the daughter of Nicola Marulis; but she had come to Sulina on the same ship as the "American". Evantia, the "chocolate doll, the Dark Mermaid", was a daughter of the Mediterranean and she had got on board of that ship in a Mediterranean port, together with her boyfriend, an Italian poet who had also died in Sulina and had been buried in the maritime graveyard, too. Jean Bart, a seaport commissioner in Sulina, then captain of the seaport of Sulina recorded the information on these characters and placed them in the most convenient relations in his novel, giving them the status of symbols. In fact legends are not born in the imagination of one author or another; it is the authors that find them in creatures that cover a field of compensatory illusions at a given moment. Illusions extend the horizon of a community dramatically. Where there is no illusion, reality stagnate, it bogs. The primacy of reality fatally induces narrow-mindedness, torpor, identity crises. As soon as illusion appears, the horizon instantly becomes unbounded. When in the 1920s illusions poured on Sulina, the people felt a mystic of tomorrow burgeoning in them. For a while they were transferred to Utopia, they became important, they went beyond their biological limits. Illusion creates forms, maya is the mother of the real. Illusion connects matter (what is transient) to soul (what is permanent). Illusion, however, is only a ladder, it is not truth itself. Those that have no illusions are belittled to the scale of vegetables; those that nourish illusions soar and tragically fall. Illusion is a ladder indeed; you climb up it and if you reach your destination you push the ladder back. And you stay there on the other level of reality where you got. Those who couldn't understand this felt that they had been deceived. And thus Sulina sadly ended its epic age and fell down into prosaic reality to finally sink into the mires of history and the socialist five-year plans that followed. Nowadays, the maritime graveyard is the chronicle of this growth and decay. Being a multiethnic and ecumenical cemetery, it is divided into various sections, according to the denominations the deceased belonged to. Evantia is entombed in the Catholic section. Entombed both in the proper and figurative sense. In this text I unearthed a fragment of the myth. I will circulate it or I will put it on a fact-sheet, at least. I am going to leave Sulina and take the last notes at the gates of the Delta. Notes on the transformation of the world and the impossible everlasting. In 1905, Iorga was lamenting the crushing of the Romanian ethnic element by the political and trade invasion of the Tartar and Greek Orient; it was something we could not change as it was part of the ebb and tide of history. In 1925, Jean Bart nostalgically and humorously noticed the fast decline of urban Sulina. And he prophesized its disappearance from the map, its involution to an insignificant fishermen's village. In 1975, when I visited Sulina, I found a museum-town, that is a place formed of shadows and relics; and the people had become themselves museum exhibits out of a protection inhibition, in other words they had no illusions any more. It was only in the port that I had the feeling I was fully steeped in reality, in life raised to the power of the Delta.

by Vasile Andru (b. 1942)