The Stranger of Ada Kaleh (excerpts)
by Constantin Severin
Motto: “There is a double birth of the mortal, and a double passing-away” (Empedocles of Agrigentum)
English version by Roxana Costinescu
At the Scientific Library of Dubrovnik, Nini is again alone in the reading room, and he keeps on studying, with the pencil in hand, a book of Boscovich, published in London, in 1961, by Lancelot Law White. On the last page of his reading diary, he had marked in the morning, during the classes of Inter-University Centre, a mere sentence said by Zdravko Mršić, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Croatia, We have land, people and democracy, we must invent the owners. And you, Nini, have a topic, the characters and the narrative technique, you just need to invent your state of grace – the patron of writing and reader.
He could not understand what supernatural powers prevented him from talking to sister Clarisse. Why won’t you admit, Nini, that sometimes, during your night-time dreams, you thought of her as your girlfriend? You are too hungry for human and para-human passions, you want too much to experience every possible state, from the infernal to the paradisiacal. Because you wish it so, your life is a constant communion with demons and angels. He kept remembering how natural his recent date and conversation with another nun was, when he was all alone in the compartment of the train that would take him from Bucharest to Dubrovnik. Although he felt as a sinner, he had been expecting for a long time to meet a gifted nun that would open her soul to him. A nun touched by the wing of gift, he would tell himself, is a musician of love. Burning love. Working love. Changing love. Purifying love. Crucifying love. She gradually discovers the freedom of listening by a rhythmic commitment, by tightening the rules, by solitude and the cult of passion. She gives her body every day to an inner troubling experience. Her soul becomes a mysterious canvas of inner crosses and time opens to the celestial swirls of the essential world. In that universe of aerial images, should a thought make its way, Nini, a falling mountain would appear.
Vesna Čučić entered the reading room, accompanied by a man in his mid-sixties, massive but swift, with a crepuscular face, large green eyes, a straight and strong nose, thick and long grey hair, his chin and moustache white, black and red. I hope this is a pleasant surprise, Mr. Orhan Hamdja is an expert in the secret history of the Balkans.”
– I’ve known it for some time that you would come to visit us; I am glad to meet you in person.
– Interesting, I only found out a couple of months ago that I would come to Dubrovnik, after reading the names of the winners of the Soros grant at the Inter-University Centre in the newspaper.
– The book you are to write has always existed, in a parallel universe, and it will not leave you one moment to wander about like your new Scottish friend or the numerous gigolos in Dubrovnik (You’ve been caught, Nini, admit that you’ve put yourself in their shoes enough times!), it is a book that will seize your destiny in a clip, and it was it, not Vesna, that made us meet today.
– I do not even know what book you are talking about, truth be told I do have some sort of diary, rather fragmented, of my journey here, but I do not think I will ever publish it. So far, I have only published poetry books, and I am currently working on another, The Alchemical City, which has nothing to do with what is happening to me here.
– Everything is connected to everything. I am talking about your novel The Stranger of Ada Kaleh. Sometimes books choose both their characters and their authors, many years before they are even written. He who studies the writings of Boscovich, both the published ones, and especially the secret ones, which are preserved in manuscripts in Dubrovnik, at the Royal Society of London or at the Vatican Library, manages to gradually seize the realities existing in parallel universes. I have known for quite some time your name and how you look, and the name of the book on which you will start working 20 years from now…
– Are you a science-fiction author? If, against all reason, I admitted that you had access to those parallel universes, which were indeed thought by Boscovich to interconnect with our universe, it is only common sense to believe that the images you see are amazingly infinite and diverse and I do not understand how you could have got to me, an anonymous fish in that endless ocean.
– It was not difficult to get to you, we share something in common. The island Ada Kaleh. We are both preoccupied with its tragically ended story.
A cold shiver runs down your spine, Nini, through your entire skinny body, splitting your body in two, you can no longer feel your right side, and the hearted one seems on fire, the word Ada Kaleh is a hatchet fallen on the multitude of thoughts, grown as the rings of a huge oak tree, that would place the person in front of you in the category of those lovers of imagination and cheap games, concepts and emotions. This is getting heavy, Nini, the sipahi before you can read your most intimate thoughts. For a few moments, you have a memory flash of Corina, when you were a student, you hold onto her image every time the earth slips beneath your feet. Last night I dreamt that a dog bit me. I woke up, but tears would not let me fall asleep. Do you know that you see things more clearly at night? Then, whispering, I repeated the few words I am so afraid of: “I’m in love.” They say lovers are happy. I’m in love and I’m crying. All around me there is only light, sun and flowers and I am crying. I cry because everything is ugly without you. A little girl used to beg for the love of a mean boy. She is determined to get it at any cost. Will she make it? The only thing she has left is hope. Do you know who the little girl is? A big fat liar saying the truth.
– Ada Kaleh is indeed one of my major obsessions. A childhood myth. I am amazed and glad at the same time that we can talk about this, have you visited it by any chance?
– I used to have a good friend there, Giovanni Esposito, originally from Napoli, we used to meet every once in a while in Dubrovnik or Ada Kaleh, and lend each other early editions of rare books and manuscripts. After the island was submerged, he moved to Australia. I know you are studying Roger Boscovich, maybe you would be interested in the fact that during his travel around Moldavia, in 1762, the famous Croat thinker met in Galaţi, also for exchanging early editions… Giovanni Esposito, my magician and alchemist friend. If you don’t believe me, I will show you some unpublished pages of Boscovich’s from his travel diary, which he copied at the Franciscan Monastery, and where he writes about his meeting with Giovanni. I also photocopied at the Royal Society Library of London 30 letters sent by him to Boscovich between 1752 and 1770. Sir Anthony Epstein, the Chairman of the society, helped me find them. Giovanni’s words, told one night at my place over a Turkish coffee, I live the end of the world every day, otherwise I could not survive or discover something essential, have become my motto. Please come by my place tomorrow evening, we shall continue our discussion.
The apartment of Orhan Hamdja is on the ground floor of a 16th century building, in the North-Eastern side of the Medieval city, on the small alley Zlatarska, close to the Dominican Monastery (a true bastion, of quadrilateral shape, red roof tiles with partial sides, interior court with palm trees, a high tower, made up of three parts) and the old harbour. The place you are about to set foot in, Nini, is also a three-level tower, a Borgesian universe (consisting of books, early editions and rare manuscripts, but also of Turkish weapons, brass, silver trays, decorated with Oriental motives, prayer rugs, hookah, Turkish trousers, belts, old coffee toasters, kettles, various rare editions of Koran, portable stoves with brazier, with two interior red-coloured wooden stairs, one leading to the upper floor and the other to the basement, it is as if you were in an ocean of pages, through which the light unveiled into surreal peacock tails, engraved with characters from all essential languages, where you identify the old prohibited tomes, which you did not even dream of touching, Codex Lugubrum, Arte d’amare, Cronica del paradiso, Religione cristiana liberata dalle ombre, Abusos introducidos en la disciplina de la iglesia y potestad de los principes en su corrección, Historia politica del pontificado romano, Compendio de la historia de la inquisicion extractado de los mejores autores, Encyclopédie progressive, ou collection de traités sur l’histoire, l’état actuel et les progrès des connaissances humaines avec un manuel encyclopédique, Turris Babel, Istruzioni secrete della compagnia di Gesù, con importanti aggiunte, Compendium Diabolicum, Vida escandalosa dos papas, Il codice della fortuna, Dio, l’uomo e le lettere, pensieri d’un esule italiano, Horae apocalypticae; le profezie di Daniele e l’apocalisse di S Giovanni apostolo, Vie voluptueuse des capucins et des nonnes, Cabala Speculum, Zur Geschichte des vaticanischen Concils, Rome souterraine. The library is also an oasis of smells, of dominant olfactory sensations, especially a mixture of dry hay, onto which there a touch of vinegar and vanilla is added. No trace of mould or dust, of rottenness or mice. On the contrary, everything seems a true encyclopaedia of pleasant tastes, soft, smooth and bright, which create a touching sensation in the perceptive nostrils, a stunning mixture, in which you can feel the perfume of the dry grass, of pumpkin pies, baked pears, church candles, grapes crushed in autumn, mountain fir trees resins, embraced couple, white horses galloping, lilac, violas, lavender, new-borns, grandparents’ house in the countryside. An island of extremely lively aromas, of pure, self-sufficient and complete, almost impossible to grasp in words.
– Many of them have been brought here from Ada Kaleh by my friend Giovanni Esposito, over many years, before its submersion. They were part of a huge secret library built by the Austrian general Friedrich Ambros, Count of Veterani, inside the tunnel that connects the island to the Serbian shore, but the books weren’t brought until later on, after 1716, at the order of Eugene of Savoy, who also reinforced the forts, connected to underground roads, a food store room, ammunition store rooms. Almost all of them were still works prohibited before the Inquisition, subsequently by Vatican as well, so numerous that they could not be hidden in the imperial library in Wien. An impressive collection of rare alchemy books was taken there, which came from the emperor’s library and from that of my good old friend, who was responsible for taking care of keeping this treasure. And of course that he took with him the alchemic laboratory, a place of communion with the absolute in the underground of the island-palimpsest. At the beginning of the ‘60s I also entered the underground Babel Library, which has had only one librarian for almost three hundred years, Giovanni, through a hatch hidden in the mosque, the book shelves were organized as hexagons, so that everything looked like a giant “honeycomb” of books and alchemic vessels, an alternative universe, where I felt as if I was floating inside a god’s mind. I don’t know why, during my first night there, near a scriptorium, I dreamt Dali, dressed in transparent and subtle clocks, taking photos of him and the fly standing on the double moustache, as though he detached the skin of Danube, under which lied my childhood dog…
– I begin to understand better why I feel a strange attraction to Ada Kaleh, why my ego sometimes strikes a chord with its childhood image. Perhaps the ego is also a submerged exotic island, with the Babel Library included. The Lilliputian island with perfume of mimosa and lilac, donkeys loaded with oranges, roses that would serve for making delicious jam, best quality tobacco leaves, anemones, orchids, lavender, olives that would serve as food for the gods, stone or clay houses, in which you could sometimes see a women with hair black as pitch working on a miniature loom, has insensibly become my lucky charm. I understand why the frequency of my thinking strikes a chord with that of the island, why I could feel its body so accurately, the aura of that place, a space where the seven skins of time are lost, why the island would gradually become the island-mirror, which shaped me by its own face, guided me when I was lost, dizzy, stunned and at times would even live inside me entirely. I feel the island-mandala changing the sensations and feelings as I speak, its inner architecture making my soul melancholic. It is some sort of strange attractor that causes turbulences of thought and sensitivity with every moment of thinking about it. On the island Ada Kaleh there is no time, only duration. Duration is the inner look, musical communion. It is time merged with the spirit, with the Babel Library. It now seems that, for most of us, time cannot merge with the spirit, which is why we live in a zombie world, with people lacking consciousness of and communion with the sacred. I can now easily understand this hard to describe metaphysical longing, a longing after a place I was not born in. Unfortunately, the island of my childhood has two overlapping faces, one serene and dauntingly beautiful, full of light and peace, with paradisiacal scents, and another one, scary, pinned by a dark suffering. Probably these emotions are more intense among intellectuals that were born and lived in Ada Kaleh, such as my friends, Omer Kadry, Constantin Juan or Mustafa Uzeir. Some of them, such as the latter, believe that the island will re-emerge one day, by a miracle, from the Danube waters, and life will reborn, and its inhabitants, scattered all over the world, will fulfil the ancient oath of finding peace there. Look in my notebook, at his words, which I have copied from his book “Ada Kaleh or the Lost Paradise”: I, Uzeir Mustafa, son of Fenzi and Fatima, born on June 15th, 1936 on this island and brought-up here, consider that it is my duty to leave my words behind, so that the truth is known about this island, since its beginnings and until present time, praying to Allah, our All Mighty Lord, together with the survivors, to perform that miracle, so that the island Ada-Kaleh reborn again like the Phoenix bird, from its own ashes, returning forever more beautiful, so that we can find our peace within it…
– You are so fortunate, such metaphysical connection with Ada Kaleh is the best access method to the unknown powers of the soul. Bear in mind that the vision of Mustafa Uzeir does not lack body, thought means creation and, attached to strong emotions similar to the ones described above, it could shed light on the island. But I think this would be possible only if there were 800-1.000 persons captivated by this dream.
– Maybe after my novel is published… How could that library remain unknown to anyone, since the stranger of Ada Kaleh is somehow forced to emerge every once in a while? I now realize that in May 1962 when I went with my parents to the island, it is possible that they drank coffee with him on a porch. I even remember my mom receiving an unusual gift from him, an A4 notebook with cherry leather covers, which she never showed to me. I could not hear what they were talking about, I was playing with some Turkish children. Giovanni was no more than 40 years old, his pale hair was contrasted with his dark, curly hair, covered by a blue cap, and his green eyes, covered by bushy eyebrows, had an emerald glow.
– He would only go to the island two-three times a year, when he mingled among the numerous tourists, he did not communicate with local people, he would get out through the Serbian hatch to get supplies or travel to other places. During the last years he had obtained a proficient sealing system from Vienna to protect his precious library, after the island would be submerged.
Orhan offers Nini a sand coffee in a china cup bearing a drawing of the mosque from the former island, surrounded by the words Muslim Society, and lights up for himself a brass hookah, with black, carefully treated tobacco. A pleasant and fresh tobacco smoke, with notes of well-ripen apricots and cantaloupe gradually replaced the complex scents of the library, as if an unseen fairy touched the keys of an olfactory piano.
– I like mixing tobacco with bee honey and dried fruits, it is a new recipe. I usually smoke alone, that is when I almost feel the time breathing. That is how I reach the heart of silence, from where universes can be seen differently. O, happy silence, as it is always in silence that we listen and learn everything there is to learn and the word of wisdom appeared from the fountain of silence, Dimitrie Cantemir would say in “The Hieroglyphic History”, a book I have admired since I was a boy. Your vision about the fusion of time and spirit is interesting, I think you are right, but form should not be overlooked in this equation. Perhaps the mystery of the spirit itself lies in the still soundless symphony between form and time.