Ioan Grosan

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Novel, "Ego Prose" serie, Polirom, 2007, 201 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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Excerpt from

Episode 1. Of how two worthy monks did fit into one habit

Around 1600 and something, had someone ventured to gaze over the rolling hills beyond Vaslui, he would have descried at a glance two silhouettes walking bent under the untiring blast of the icy Crimean wind. The first figure was tall and pockmarked, with a hooked nose, and jug lugs hidden beneath freshly shorn locks of hair. The second figure seemed shorter, but on closer examination he was revealed to be an extraordinarily tall young man, with bandy legs, freckles, flaxen hair and a furtive eye, who would have made any woman of easy virtue quiver. From their garb, you would have reckoned they were Benedictine monks, except that they were wearing berets on their heads. They walked briskly, now and then anxiously turning back their heads. When they reached Bear’s Dell, they stopped for a rest.
“Reverend Methodius,” spoke the young man shyly, but not without a brief smile at the corner of his mouth, “you must be weary after such a journey. Let us rest a while in the Lord.”
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away !” sighed the old man sitting down cross‑legged. “My son,” he continued, getting out something to eat, “let us render unto the body what is the body’s, for without the body the soul is equal to nought. Tuck in !”
Their repast was humble : two sorrel leaves, three prunes, a chunk of cold maize porridge, an onion, and a hastily snared rabbit. But as they were feasting, raising thanks in their minds to the Creator of All, a clatter of hooves grew louder in the valley and as quick as you could clap your hands Bear’s Dell was filled with yells.
“The Tartars !” the old monk had time to cry, hiding the young monk underneath his habit.
The Tartars surrounded them savagely lashing their horses with switches. One of higher rank shouted at the old man :
“Shtakryhm, hrykma !”
“Ma io no capisco !” stammered Methodius.

Episode 2. Of how the two monks became acquainted with Tartar customs

Hearing the old man’s words, the Tartar screwed up his eyes sideways :
“Lei parla italiano ?” he asked.
“Si, io parlo,” replied the frightened Methodius.
The swarthy but handsome face of the Tartar wrinkled in a smile :
“Bravo, signore,” he said in fluent Italian, “my dejected soul rejoices to encounter in these wastes a man of choice education of the spirit, and the sweet sound of words of noble stock, other than barbarous words, is pleasing to my ears.”
“How can it be ?” wondered Methodius. “You know Italian, sir ?”
“As you can see,” replied the Tartar. “My father, Khantartar, on seeing me inclined to book learning, sent me to school. I completed my studies in the Classics at Padua last year. Perhaps you are going to ask me what I am doing here. The Italian duchies are going through a horrendous economic crisis, a plague, and in spite of the fact that I have a Degree magna cum laude, I was unable to find a post with any duke. So, I have come back home to the old ways : I plunder the wastelands and find succour in dreams. If your way does not run too aslant to mine and if your heart is not too affrighted by the appearance of my men, then I beg you to be my guest along with your companion, who, if you keep him under your habit much longer, will assuredly suffocate. My camp is nearby.”
Indeed, the young monk could scarcely breathe. Ashamed and frightened, he emerged into the light.
“Be not afraid, my son,” Methodius spoke. “The Tartar gentleman is an honest man.” Then, turning toward the young khan :
“We shall come to you and we shall honour you, but no more, for thoughts other than hospitality impel us on our way. Pulvis et umbra sumus !”
“Amen !” replied the Tartar, spurring his horse.
After a good hour of unsaddled galloping, the horde and the two monks arrived at the Tartar camp. As they passed among the tents, the wonderment of the guests was not little when they saw what strange customs seemed to prevail there. In front of a purple tent, seven young Tartars were queuing, each with a book in his hand. An old Tartar took their books and gave them other new books. On the right, four Tartar women were weeding a bed of Dniester onions, and another two were weaving a carpet with beautiful traditional motifs. Next to a taller tent, the colour of a bustard egg, an almost naked Tartar was bending over a printing press. Finally, in the centre of the camp, posing for a bald icon painter with a thin beard, a superb young Tartar woman was reclining on one side. The light of the sun was mirrored in her deep green eyes as though in slowly moving water.
The heart of the young monk leapt.

Episode 3. Of how two young people conversed at the beginning of the seventeenth century

Seeing the gaze of the young monk stealing toward the Tartar woman, the khan bared his teeth, made of gold from the fall of Constantinople (1453), in a narrow, wise smile.
“Does she please you ?” he asked. “Let me introduce you. She is my sister.”
The Tartar woman slowly twisted round, like a snake, and two small, coy flames, like two pinheads, darted at the monk.
“My name is Huruzuma !” she said, with a slight Asiatic accent. “What is your name ?”
“Jovanutz !” replied the monk simply.
For a moment, their eyes met. “Do not tempt me so sorely, O Lord,” thought Jovanutz in fright.
“Do you come from afar ?” she asked him.
“From roundabout !” he replied evasively.
Somewhere a blackbird began to sing. A breeze was blowing and it smelled sweet enough to make you swoon.
“We shall now leave you for a moment,” said the khan. Then, turning toward Methodius : “Let us go, father. I want to show you my harem.”
They moved away. The youngsters were left alone.
“Sit down !” said the Tartar woman. “Relax. You must be tired. Have you been travelling long ?”
“Enormously long !” said Jovanutz timidly.
“But why do you travel around so much ?”
“Men are like coin. The best coin travels in every land.”
“Where is it you are coming from now ?”
Jovanutz cautiously raised his head, gazed carefully around him, and slowly said :
“Will you tell anyone ?”
“What ! Are you a child ?”
“From Rome !” he whispered. The blackbird suddenly fell silent.

Episode 4. On the way to the harem

Leaving the two youngsters to feed on each other’s gaze and to spin their yarn, the khan and Methodius sauntered leisurely towards the harem.
“Signore,” said Methodius in a lowered voice, “we are now sauntering leisurely towards the harem. I can understand you, for you are in your prime and you must have seven lives in that bronze breast of yours… But I… in a harem… if you will forgive me…”
“Amore, more, ore, re probantur amicitiae !” answered the Tartar smiling. “Or are you worried that you will lose your soul ?”
“Oh, the soul ! It’s not the soul I’m worried about,” said the monk dreamily. “Animi Volant, corpora manent, as the prophets said. It’s the body I’m worried about. The body – that unknown quantity.”
“You Danube folk certainly are strange !” the Tartar meditated.
“Thus was it written for us, that we should have the ease of the wind and the inconstancy of the waters. But we are not complaining. We endure. We exist. All of us. Here today, tomorrow in Focshani, what we have had and what we have lost.”
“We’ve arrived,” said the Tartar, indicating the door of the harem, on which a traditional Tartar coat of arms was traced : an ox head impaled on the tip of a spear.
Under the coat of arms, there was an old Asiatic dictum, written in scrawled letters : “Inter arma silent musae”.
“I’m not going in,” said the monk decisively.
“If you don’t go in, then I will,” said the Tartar menacingly.
“Then I’ll go in too,” said Methodius.
And so they went in. Inside there was darkness. A scent of pineapple struck them. Methodius was cautiously advancing when, in a corner, a door slowly opened, through which filtered a languorous ray of light. Methodius hesitated for a moment, bashfully approached the door, blinked his eyes and … what should he see ?

Episode 5. A Model Harem

Entering the door masked by the superb body of a young Tartar woman, masked by the massive body of a eunuch, Methodius stopped on the threshold, his eyes boggling : in a room plunged in pleasant semi‑darkness, whence purled the sweet sounds of a lyre, seven young Tartar women, all alike, were stooping around a strange machine. In one corner, resting on some pillows and puffing on an ivory pipe gracefully held by a eunuch, an old Tartar, completely shaven and tattooed on his chest with both the cross of Saint George and the crescent moon, sat deep in thought.
“What’s that ?” stammered Methodius, pointing at the machine.
“A printing press, mon cher !” the young khan explained.
“And what is it you are printing ?” said Methodius, pleasantly surprised.
“Psalters, homilies, lexicons, ‘The History of the Ottoman Empire’, the part about the rise of the empire.”
“Yes, but what about the girls ?”
“They do the proofreading.”
“And what about… him ?” he whispered, peeking from the corner of his eye at the tattooed Tartar.
“Him ? He won the ‘From hundreds of Tartars’ competition. Let me introduce you. His name is Myrzak.”
They went closer.
“I observe that, in spite of the worldly things around you, the mind is not affrighted beneath the burden of enticements,” Methodius gently spoke to Myrzak.
“A pleasant rumour cometh to mine ears,” said Myrzak without raising his head. “Wonder not, stranger, that the sweetness of temptation no longer tests me. For there is no pastime more useful than the reading of books.”
“You speak truly,” answered Methodius. “But methinks that you too were young once and you perhaps knew the flower of sin.”
At these words, Myrzak smiled bitterly and, by way of an answer, showed his left shoulder, on which were tattooed the words : YULISHKA, MOHACI, 1526.

Episode 6. Of what else two young people discussed at the beginning of the seventeenth century

While the khan and Methodius were visiting the harem, Jovanutz, the young monk, and Huruzuma, the foster sister of the Tartar, had remained alone.
“So you mean to say you’ve been to Rome !” said the Tartar girl, rolling her r’s, getting up sideways.
Jovanutz did not dare to gaze upon her directly. The puritanical education he had received in the house of his parents, serfs of the Neamtz region, an education according to which a woman should know her place, and not recline on her side, made him tend to avoid such perilous advances.
“And as I was saying,” continued Huruzuma, “you mean to say that you are coming back from Rome, no ? Why don’t you answer ?”
The young monk at last raised his eyes, preparing to answer politely but firmly, “Yes, I’m coming back from Rome”, but the Tartar girl did not let him begin, but rather went on :
“How happy you must be, master Jovanutz ! To travel so widely and to see so much ! Whereas I… always on the steppe. I look to the right : steppe. I look to the left : steppe. I look up above… what else is there to say !”
“Y‑yes !” said Jovanutz in his mind, nonetheless espying the curving point of Huruzuma’s boot as it playfully moved amid the lush grass that grew there by the Dniester illo tempore.
“I get terribly bored !” sighed the Tartar girl, looking around her. “It’s pointless knowing how to read and write. I don’t have anyone to exchange impressions with, to exchange views with, except my brother. Master Jovanutz, don’t get the wrong impression of me, but I’m only human. I would like to travel, to open my soul to someone… You know, master monk, I’ve never been to the seaside…”
Jovanutz stood with his head bowed, toying with a tassel on his habit. Huruzuma’s confessions perturbed him greatly.
“But apart from that,” Huruzuma went on gaily, all of a sudden, “it’s a not a bad life all in all. In the evening we make a campfire, throw on brushwood, joke, laugh, sing… Would you like me to sing you something ?”
And without waiting for permission, Huruzuma threw her head back and began to sing in a sonorous, high, pleasant voice :
“We exalt thee, glorious Baikal…”

Episode 7. Prattle not without significance

Having been enlightened as to the wholly noble purposes of the printing‑press‑harem, Methodius, whose autumnal body had seen many springs, felt the need to rest.
“I do not tire of praising the general zeal I see here,” he said to the Tartar. “My eyes are gladdened, my heart uplifted. But to tell you the truth, great khan, my unworthy legs are far removed from my mind and will not heed me. Would I err overly if, seeing that wonderful chair over there, I desired to sit and, behold, I did just that ?”
“Not at all,” replied the Tartar, bowing. “We ourselves treasure sitting down. Sedentariness, when it comes from within, presages rising, just as rising precedes the fall. Sit, reverend, be well, for soon you will rise up.”
“Ibi bene, ubi sum, as the prophets say !” Methodius sighed with pleasure.
“Tuzuma,” the young khan turned to a nearby eunuch, “please bring us a cup of kumas.”
Rustling lightly, the eunuch vanished and returned with two whitish chalices.
“You know, great khan,” said Methodius after tasting from the cup, “looking through your psalters, I observe that the poetic line is neither long nor short but just right. A marvellous thing : as many iambs, as many dactyls.”
“We are a young culture,” replied the Tartar, also taking a seat. “As you see, we have started from very little. What am I saying ? From nothing. Now judge for yourself : could I have allowed free verse ? Great poetry must have rhythm. Where there is no rhythm, there is no poetics, and can a poetry say anything without poetics ?”
“I understand,” said Methodius. “I understand and I am filled with wonder. May God grant you health !”
“Please…” said the Tartar, lowering his eyes embarrassed. “To your health !”
“Heaven be praised !” replied Methodius and drained his cup.

Episode 8. In which honest thanks is bestowed upon the reader and noteworthy new faces appear

Allow us, Reader, as thou with trusting care dost pore over these lines, to make pause. And do thou too draw thy breath, rest thy eyes and let them glide swiftly over the words, for we have not anything to say of that which commonly might retain thy attention. Have faith in us : we shall not lead thee from thy ways into temptation. We no longer tell our tale, but rather indulge in a little rhetoric. Sit thee down beside us and stretch thy limbs for a moment. As writing doth weary us, so reading doth thee. Ut pictura, lectura. Seek thou not ruthlessly for meanings and motives where they elude the chronicler himself, but lolling in the shade of ripening tales, set aside thy red pencil in the grass and gaze with gentle, sleepy eyes upon the fine phrase I have fashioned. Thus !
* * *
Let us now leave Methodius, the khan, Jovanutz and Huruzuma for a while, to enjoy the sweetness of camp life, and let us cast our gaze across the steppe. What do we descry ? Arise, Reader !

At a certain distance from the camp, three men on horseback were approaching slowly, at a walking pace. The horses could barely continue ; the riders could barely hold themselves in the saddle. The one in the middle, stouter, bearded, well dressed, with a marten‑skin cap on his head, was sighing and kept looking behind him. He had two companions : one tall, broad‑shouldered, with a grim countenance, the other quite young.
“Leave off these black thoughts, illustrious lord !” spoke the broad‑shouldered one. “The times do not stand beneath men, but men beneath the times. Yesterday you were, today you are no longer. Yesterday you resided, today you wander.”
“Alas, Spatharius Eagle !” lamented the fat one, tugging his beard, “If only I had managed to take my books !”

Episode 9. After the fall

“Do not take it amiss, great Lord, if I speak freely, but you used to sit far too much with your nose in those books !” spoke Eagle the Spatharius to the fat one with the marten‑fur cap. “You would be reading and we would be collecting the taxes. Was there any justice in that ? The Poles would come, and you would be reading. The Tartars would be laying waste, and you would be reading. The Cossacks would be ravaging, and you would be writing. It was lucky the Turks came and deposed you, because I for one had had enough.”
“I wanted to be enlightened,” lamented the one with the marten‑fur cap, barely managing to stay in the saddle. “I didn’t want to cut off heads, I wanted to enlighten them.”
“The sword cuts off the enlightened head,” said Eagle the Spatharius, gazing into the distance. “If you don’t cut it off, then others will. Let there be heads, for there are swords aplenty.”
“Alas, how you speak to me, Spatharius Eagle ! The day before yesterday, you would not have dared to raise your voice higher than where sits your head.”
“Different times, different voices, illustrious lord !” said the spatharius. “I would have raised my voice in vain if you did not lower your ear. The rabble were shouting outside but you heard them not. You would be muttering away in Latin.”
“Why were they shouting, spatharius ?” lamented the fat one. “I built them schools, I brought them a printing press, I gave them a theatre.”
“You gave them a theatre to look at from the outside, because not one of them would go in, they were afraid. Serfs in the theatre ! Whoever has seen the like ? Boyars, courtiers, you can get away with, but serfs ! You, illustrious lord, forgive me for saying it, dreamt you were on the Tiber, when it was the Bahlui that flowed but two steps away !”
“Alas, alas !” moaned the fat one. “Alas, alas ! Don’t remind me ! How shameful ! How they tumbled me into it, like a boulder !”
“That’s the Turks for you,” said the spatharius. “Lucky the water was shallow and you have large loins. But even so, if poor Broanteş and myself hadn’t been loyal to you, you would have departed into the world of the righteous. Am I or am I not right, Broanteş ?” added the spatharius, turning in the saddle toward the other travelling companion, who was listening carefully, plunged in thought.
“Uhuhuhhuh !” went Broanteş.
“You see, illustrious Lord ?” said the spatharius to the fat one. “What use is it having learnt poetic utterance if they’ve cut your tongue out ? Wouldn’t he have been better off if you’d left him at home to plough ?”

Episode 10. An emotional reunion

And as the three were making their escape over the steppe and talking (that is, only two of them were talking, since, as we have already mentioned, the third companion, due to one of those unfortunate events that have so often determined the fate of the Danubian rhapsodes, had had a goodly portion of his tongue cut off), they came to a grove. Suddenly, the mare of Eagle the Spatharius whinnied and reared up on her hind legs.
“Ho, Laika, ho ! There aren’t any Tartars !” Eagle quieted his mare, lightly patting her on the neck.
“Oh but there are !” came a shout from the grove and dozens of Tartars camouflaged in bushes surrounded our heroes, raising their bows.
“Don’t shoot, comrades !” Eagle swiftly cried. “We are honest folk !”
“Shut it !” one of the higher‑up bushes shouted at him. “Here, you speak when you’re spoken to ! What are you doing on our lands ?”
“We’re lost,” said Eagle the Spatharius. “Don’t go by the way we look, for our fate has been harsh. We are bigwigs, boyars. Take us to your leader.”
The bush rustled undecidedly :
“Listen, scarecrow, if you’re lying and if you’re not who you say you are, and if you bother the khan for nothing, your mare will weep for pity.”
“Be it as you say, honourable Tartar,” replied the spatharius.
When the Tartar cohort and their fresh prisoners entered the camp, the young khan, his sister Huruzuma and the two Moldavian monks were enjoying some kumas. The head bush came to a stop in front of the khan :
“Ham urai stahal kumas !” he announced.
“He has captured three wayfarers and has the right to a cup of kumas,” the khan interpreted for Methodius.
The latter raised his head to see the prisoners and froze.
“What do my eyes see ?” he cried, leaping from his chair. “Can it be true ? Is it you, illustrious Lord ?”
“Worthy Methodius ! You – here ?” exclaimed the one with the marten‑fur cap. “Mother of God preserve me ! It is I, your holiness ! Even I !”
“In such a plight !” said Methodius, amazed. “But for what deeds ?”
“How should I know ? Apparently in payment for the fact that I…” but here the fat one was unable to continue, for he burst out weeping.
“Nullius tantum flumen est ingenii, nullius dicendi aut scribendi tanta vis, tanta copia, quae non dicam exornare, sed enarrare, res tuas gestas possit, illustrious Lord !” said the Tartar, profoundly moved.
“Thank you very much !” replied the one with the marten‑fur cap, wiping his eyes.

Episode 11. The turbid waters become somewhat more limpid

On beholding such a strange reunion, every soul in the Tartar camp, young and old, with their dogs, with their piglets, gathered around the Moldavians, as curious as could be.
“As you say, reverend Methodius !” said Eagle the Spatharius, dismounting embarrassed, for the little Tartars, like children anywhere in the world, were romping next to him and poking him with their toy swords. “We thought you were in Rome, but here you are at the Gates of the Orient.”
“We have been to Rome, we were there,” Methodius hastened to say, shaking the spatharius’ hand and kissing it. “We were there, and we spoke with them.”
“And what did they say ?” asked the fat one hopefully, having remained mounted on his horse.
“Well, what could they say ? As if you yourself don’t know what they say,” said Eagle in Methodius’ stead. “That we’ll see, that we’ll do it, that it’ll be tonsured, that it’ll be shaved, shilly‑shally, come back later, long live Latinity, whatever, pleasantries. What would they need a Romanian school there for ?”
“You are not far from the truth, Eagle,” said Methodius. “Except that you see it from only one side. The truth, spatharius, is an old oak‑tree : the more you look at it from different sides, the more you realise that it has many hollows.”
“As you will, reverend !” replied Eagle.
Then, turning to the fat one :
“Your worship, if you unburdened that horse of your august weight, would it not be better not only for your rump but also for the soul of this worthy beast ?”
“I shall dismount, for thus was it written for me,” sighed the fat one, looking in fright at the little Tartars who were gesturing with their toy swords for him to come down.
“Illustrious khan,” said Eagle raising his head. “Allow me to introduce you to the Voievod Barzovius, formerly prince, banished the day before yesterday, for reasons which may escape you but not me. But let us leave that to one side. If you will, honour him, for as you see his body, such is his heart.”
“Welcome to the fair climes of Tartardom !” said the young khan, all smiles, advancing to greet them.
“Which is the voievod ?” whispered Huruzuma, who was standing some way off with Jovanutz, gripping him tightly by the hand.
Under his habit, Jovanutz quivered from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. He had never felt the like before.
“Look, that’s him !” he whispered, thrilled.

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth


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