The Librarian of Hell
by Constantin Severin
English version by Constantin Severin
Motto: “Double is the birth of mortal things, double their death…’’ (Empedocles of Agrigento)
No story can be told without the risk of crushing the real in an island of words, petrified in the stomach of the cosmos. An island skinned alive of memory, disappeared under the cover of waters invaded by excremental matter, chimeras and a twilight light, an island that passes, with its immense dowry of the invisible, from one woman’s body to another, is born of them and gives birth to them in aeternum. An island floating between imagination and mystery, without a place-pure memory, gaze, nothingness.
When he thought he had identified the myth he needed to find himself, the existence of Mario Milič, through whose mind the above thoughts passed, was shaken by a terrible event. It had just been discovered in the archives of the Dominican Monastery in Dubrovnik that an ancestor of him was from the island of Ada Kaleh, which he had recently read in the newspapers that it had sunk to build a hydroelectric power plant, as the heads of the two neighboring states involved in this project decided, Tito and Ceaușescu. As I write, the island of Ada Kaleh disappears under the waters of the Danube. I write and see the words taken by the whirlpools, sprinkled with rose petals and swallow’s nests. I can hear my face broken into thousands of tuning forks, vibrating in the place that has become nothingness. I smell my hands, in which old events, shadows of frightened rabbits and hookah aromas have taken refuge. I taste the memories of my childhood, detached from the ghostly fabric of the foamy alleys, taken by the waves. I felt my wounds, caused by the intersection of muddy words with the hot ashes of the screams of the islanders, overwhelmed with pain and melancholy ie ie ie … The sky itself has a wound the size and shape of the island, which is reflected in every detail in the sky of letters and dusty memory. Any sunken island can be found in the music of the universe.
Editor at the local radio station, Mario is a withdrawn and shy man, 45 years old, tall and slender, with black eyes and an oval face, perhaps a little too elongated, as in
portraits of El Greco. He had already become accustomed to being considered a disoriented intellectual, bewildered, dizzy by the obstacles of social life, he himself reproached himself for going the wrong way, he had become too intellectualized, his feelings were more concepts, not felt experiences, that probably needed a shock to reconnect his heart to his mind. Especially since, after years of feverish readings, he began to be more and more convinced that the whole life is one thing, which has infinite faces, e pluribus unum, and such an inner dismemberment obscured his creativity.
The one who had found his family tree in the Dominican monks’ warehouses was his good friend and clergyman, the priest Milan Lapad, from the Velike Gospe Catholic Cathedral in the old fortress town. Just a few days later, on the morning of February 22, 1972, his office phone rang for a long time, Milan invited him to his house after 7 pm, as if his voice had changed a little, an almost imperceptible tremor changes his familiar tone. His office reminds by style and selection of things, from paintings to writing tools, of the famous camerino in Renaissance Venice, the office is located in front of a walnut shelf with two huge shelves, full of rare objects, the above is a celestial globe, astronomical instruments, an old book, and below is a sundial, a terrestrial globe, a square and a compass, a lute, and two other books, one by Cornelius Agrippa, open to his favorite quote, any science is included in music, and another by Johan Walter, closed, calfskin, cherry. But there was no mirror in the whole house, since he was a child he panicked when he saw his face in the mirror, as if he felt himself sinking into another universe, began to tremble and become very pale, his skin began to look like an old palimpsest . That’s why he couldn’t even shave himself, he had shaved his beard when he went to the barber shop, from time to time, to fix or cut his hair, and he used to put a black armband over his eyes.
-I will have the destiny of Caravaggio, from his last years of life. I called you to reverse the roles a little, now you will be my clergyman.
Milan’s face resonates perfectly with the interior of his home, a light of the end of the world fills them both, the veins in his temple vibrate, the eyes of extinguished embers seem to flow into another reality. Both were fascinated, for several years, by the work and life of the Italian painter Caravaggio, by the expressiveness and drama of his canvases. It was only recently beginning to be recognized, at its true value, after about 300 years of silence. Milan had moved on, asking his superiors to second him for a few months in Rome, Naples, and Messina, where he rummaged through libraries and talked with art experts to try to unravel some of Caravaggio’s biographical mysteries, especially in last years, between 1608-1610, after fleeing Malta, when he felt permanently hunted by paid killers.
– I don’t understand, do you feel followed?
– Not only do I feel followed, last night the first confrontation already took place. I was in front of the Sponza Palace, when I noticed that I was being followed by two individuals dressed in black, with hats pulled close to the eyebrows, luckily I realized immediately that I was only about 50 meters from the house of another friend, Sabo Kalić and, as I was pressing the doorknob of his solid wood door with one breath, one of the two threw a knife, which crashed, noisily, a few inches from my left ear.
Mario freezes Cornelius Agrippa’s book in his left hand as he carries a glass of cold water in his other hand. The fatigue accumulated last night, when his one-year-old daughter, Dragica, had cried almost continuously due to indigestion, was now getting worse. His eyelids trembled slightly, the last traces of color dripping from his face, the confused gaze shattered into emptiness.
– But what did you do, Milan?
– I read a book, that’s what I did, the same book that Caravaggio browsed, during the period when he painted in Malta, in 1608, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and the portrait of the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, who invited him to the island. In the first hours after the terrible meeting, I did not understand at all what was happening, but gradually things began to connect in my mind, although so troubled. Don’t look at me so surprised, I’m not talking nonsense, I’ll explain everything to you. One month ago, I borrowed a book and a manuscript from the Dominican Monastery, from a donation of 25 rare books and manuscripts made three years ago by an Italian refugee from the island of Ada Kaleh, who later left for Australia, as far as the librarian knew. The Italian has been a friend for many years with the abbot of the monastery, Father Dominko, who had not even been able to consult them until then. When I got home I started reading the manuscript, it was the diary of a lesser known poet, Emilia Lanier, born Bassano, from a family of court musicians in Venice, who later emigrated to London, where she also worked on the staging of plays of Shakespeare. I thought I caught God by the leg when, after about 50 pages of reading, I learned that Emilia (a hot-eyed, olive-skinned brunette who had become a famous courtesan in London, the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the owner of the theater Lord Chamberlan’s Men, a man 50 years older than her…) has been both Shakespeare’s and Caravaggio’s girlfriend for a short time, just a few weeks, in Naples in 1609. She came in the city of the canzonetta to solve problems related to a legacy, and the British playwright had asked the “Black Lady” from his sonnets to hand over a letter to the great artist, whom he greatly admired. I flipped through the pages of the love story between Emilia and Caravaggio, most struck by the confession he made to her after a night spent together: while sketching in the office of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Alof de Wignacourt, who was posing in armor and with his favorite straw beside him, he was captivated by an incunabula tied with suede, which he later stole for a few days, just to read. He had also been admitted to the Order for a short time, he was happy and optimistic, thinking he had a good chance that, from now on, the Pope would prescribe the files in which he had been involved in Rome, but he was surprised by Alof while trying to put the book in its place, and from that moment the ordeal began … After confessing that he had read that old book, an incunabula in Latin, the Grand Master ordered his arrest, sent under escort in the tower of the condemned from the fortress, in the highest cell, then in the official version an incident with the knight of Montmorency was staged, and he was prepared to be hanged. However, he soon managed to escape in one night, with a rope, helped by some Italians from the guard corps, paid royally by the shipowner Gennaro Ruocco, from Naples, who had a house in Valletta. From him he learned that he had read a forbidden book, an incunabula passed down for nearly two hundred years from one Grand Master to another, and whoever else had seized it had to pay with his life. It was one of the Order’s best-kept secrets. After reading the strange story in amazement, I felt like a finite man, because I immediately realized that I had had the great misfortune to choose even the cursed book from the deposits of the Dominican Monastery. However, I still had a glimmer of hope, I thought that Father Dominko, whom I knew was also part of the Order of Malta, would not soon find out that I had read that incunabula, which he had neglected until then, for reasons beyond my control. I was wrong, when I returned it to the librarian, excited and with a face dominated by an ominous jerk, he told me that the abbot had already asked for the list of books borrowed in recent weeks.
– I can’t imagine you can pay with your life to read a book, maybe you’re wrong. And why do you refrain from telling me the title and the author?
– I do not want you to become a target, I can only tell you that I am convinced that that incunabula offers you the art of entering, in certain privileged moments, in a state of grace in which you practically identify with God. This means, among other things, that you have access to all knowledge, but when you recover from that state above all, which does not last more than a few hours, you do not remember anything of what you experienced, with the whole being. I didn’t even have time to delve into these mysteries, there are probably initiates who know what to do so as not to lose that memory of paradise.
– Is it complicated to get into such a state?
– You must strictly observe a certain ritual, it all starts with a meditation in a secluded place, where you first cleanse your heart and soul of all worldly thoughts. Sit facing east, imagine that the soul separates from the body, gradually feel you begin to leave the physical world, and your mind unites with that of God, but this becomes possible only after you have correctly pronounced the Glorious Name, consisting of four letters. Through the permutations of the five sacred vowels, A, E, I, O, U and the consonants Y, H and V, the Name of God, which must be uttered during this initiation, becomes a true table, with 150 variants. All must be pronounced, in a well-established order, making certain movements of the head, and between each pair of letters you breathe deeply, twice, everything is done in a perfect synchronization of thought, sound and gesture.
The old clock with the pendulum, embedded in a tall box made of rosewood, on which is written Tempus Fugit, in Gothic characters, strikes 8 pm, Mario and Milan stand motionless, staring blankly, the seagulls intertwining their trajectories in front of the window with yellow curtains. Milan opens a drawer, from which he pulls out a “Magnum” revolver, on his pipe the last rays of dusk are suddenly reflected.
– I bought it from an Albanian dealer with 300 marks. I also signed a note, which clearly states that it was my desire to shoot me.
– What if you’re wrong, Milan? This story seems too hallucinatory to me to be true, maybe it’s mostly just a fabrication of your mind. Secondly, you know me well, I couldn’t pull the trigger, you were wrong in choosing me, you just know that I can barely cope with my own fantasies and weaknesses, sometimes I float like a shadow over the rush of life.
– I am not mistaken, unfortunately, when I entered those states, of which I told you, I understood very well that I will have to pay with my life for that curiosity which offered me moments comparable to those of the gods and more I also know you’re going to pull the trigger tonight. I am not Caravaggio, a famous swordsman, I cannot fight a few rags at once, and the tension of this permanent harassment would be greater than the thought of death, with which I have already become accustomed, and I am not at all afraid of what will follow. Now I know that death is just a transition to another universe.
– I’m still not convinced, apart from the deceptive words, do you have any proof that you experienced that communion with God?
– I have only one material proof, which I wanted to give you. You know my passion for alchemy, in those privileged moments I tried to read interesting books published in the future and, among other things, I was fascinated by the poem ” The Alchemical City”, which will be published by a Romanian writer, only in 2003. I copied it in its entirety, here are the pages, but I forgot to mention the author’s name then.
– But it is written in an unknown language, probably Romanian, how can you say that it impressed you, if you didn’t know the language?
– As your mind unites with God’s, you understand all languages. Then you realize that truth is an art inaccessible to the common man.