GREETINGS FROM PRAGUE
That autumn I reread a few classics from the last century, those voluminous books that everybody mentions, but whose pages nobody turns nowadays, although many people still invoke the illustrious authors when the occasion arises: Xenopol, Pîrvan, Iorga. Nobody has the time to go to the text in this day and age of cellular telephones. Since October I had been visiting her every day in her room, where a gigantic yucca plant towered majestically, dominating a third of the habitat: bookshelves that rose as far as the ceiling (the Swedish textbook open on the floor utilised the technique of learning by means of treading on the text); the short stories of H. G. Wells at the end of the bed, a dog-eared pocket edition from the turn of the century that had been dug up in the second-hand bookshop on Bălcescu Boulevard (she knew it by heart); her pink pillow clashing with the blue sheet (I knew them so well) . . . I liked her room, which was never untidy enough for her to mislay more than her bottle of perfume among the clutter. The old building, from the beginning of the last century, had rising damp and rattled from every joint whenever a truck passed along Mendeleyev Street, and if you had looked at the building from the sidewalk opposite, you would have seen the plaster angel on the façade flapping its wing. When I approached that building, with its air of being a paradise for woodworm, with its dustbins accumulating garbage in the street outside, at the very heart of Bucharest, I would feel a kind of ineffable sadness. If she had not lived there, I would never have set foot in that street. Coming from the direction of Amzei Square, I used to cross the street by the Aeroflot bureau and from there I would look down the street towards Romană Square. A moment later I remembered where I was going, I left behind the shades I saw constantly and I could hardly wait to see her. We embraced before we said a word and from her signs I found out whether her landlady was at home or whether we were alone. Her landlady was elderly and had the hearing of a bat and the curiosity of a feline. We had learned to hear through the wall, to bury our moans interspersed with lost poems in the pillow, to wipe away future wrinkles with kisses, to slip through the huge leaves of the yucca plant as if through the clouds in the sky, to read each other’s thoughts from our eyes and to lose ourselves in the reading of them. We told each other everything, that is, all kinds of stories, and many were the things I had to say: I used to rummage through libraries day after day and it was my whole life. I am not a storyteller, I am not a good student, but I can hear the shades, I can hear and see the shades with precision, I read and am able to recompose the reality of centuries ago with the precision of a metronome. I did not have the slightest idea what I was going to do later on, although she used to ask me persistently; she wanted to see her future at all costs. She would say that she wanted to know, that she wanted to know in advance whether we would live together for ever, and I would tell her that it was going to be the same as now, then she would ask who was going to pay the rent once our parents left us to fend for ourselves. In fact, I needed money, I needed lots of money, and I had no idea where it was going to come from, and money was precisely what the subject I was studying—history, which for me was a mixture of forensics and literary art—did not produce. In 2002, my degree examinations awaited me and I did not know what I was going to do after that. It was then that I told her about my intention to look for hidden treasure, because there were so many troves hidden away in our homeland’s mountains, and she laughed and told me that she wanted to be a translator of English, Swedish, Dutch and Danish, that life was hard and the world was hard and that I was a beautiful madman who needed to be far away from the people on this planet or from the planet itself, that she would protect me and that she would manage to take care of me, because I deserved it, if only because I knew how to tell stories beautifully. The strangest of the revelatory stories I told her was the life of Tycho Brahe, born on 14 December 1546 in Knudstrup, Denmark, and departed from this world on 24 October 1601, in Prague, as a result of a dinner involving complicated etiquette and baleful medical consequences. Born into a family close to the then King of Denmark, Tycho had had a twin brother who died not long after he was born. At the age of twelve, he began his studies at the University of Copenhagen, reading law, but he soon became very interested in astronomy, his first revelation being the solar eclipse of 21 August 1560, a phenomenon predicted by the scientists of the day as a result of complicated calculations. The fact that such cosmic events could be predicted, that they moved to the rhythm of predictable calculations, fascinated him so much that he straight away set about studying Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphaera, Apianus’ Cosmographia seu Descriptio Totius Orbis, and the work that inspired his entire geometric vision, Regiomontanus’ De Triangulis Omnimodus. He continued his studies at the University of Leipzig in 1562, where he had been going to read classical languages and ancient history, but instead studied the books of astronomy and a marvellous map of the constellations by Dürer that he had brought with him. From August 1563 he began to make methodical records of his astronomic observations and he later used the data to capture the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, something he was to refer to later with annoying polemical success in his books. The great shortcoming of Ptolemy and Copernicus had been that they were unable to predict this conjunction with any degree of accuracy (Ptolemy had been out by a month!). When I reached this point in the story, she rose from her pink pillow, wide-eyed: it was the Denmark she had read about and heard plenty about in lectures, but which she had not had time to imagine in such detail, that is, a time when mankind had not solved the problem of household waste, but had a vision of the perfect order of the cosmos. I remember her surprise when I told her the story of Tycho Brahe’s visits to the universities of Wittenberg and Rostock, and the quarrel he had had in Rostock with a Danish rival, who cut off his nose in a duel, and so when he returned home the next spring, at the age of twenty, he presented himself before his parents with a nose made of a mixture of gold and silver, crafted for him by an alchemist from Freiburg. Of course, it was not a pleasant story, involving as it does facial mutilation. When she grew bored of such episodes, I would skip over them, as well as over the politics of the Danish court, which lent its revenues, dignitaries and royal support to astronomical research. The discovery he made at the Uraniaborg observatory was indeed exceptional: a comet that he minutely observed eleven years after the loss of his nose, demonstrating that the celestial body in question was not closer to earth than the Moon, thereby contradicting, in his celebrated Mundi Aetheri Recentioribus Phaenomenis, the Aristotelian model of the cosmos. Ironically, it was also then that he realised that the obliqueness of the ellipse had decreased since the time of Ptolemy, but he committed regrettable errors in calculation, undoubtedly caused by the corrupt data that the infallible Alexandrian had handed down to him. The world is full of errors, what else did you expect? A long saraband of errors, from the calculations of ancient times to the policies of the Emperor Rudolf. Because of a host of misunderstandings at court, caused by his intractable personality, Tycho Brahe and his family left Denmark in 1599 and travelled to Prague, where his assistant was to be Johannes Kepler and his protector none other than the Emperor Rudolf himself. The model of the universe on which he was working (and by the way, why shouldn’t it be true? I’ll trace it for you on your body) set the Earth at the centre of the cosmos, and around the Earth revolved the Sun, and around the Sun the other planets. He took countless measurements to back up this theory, now considered to be erroneous, which he published in the Tabulae Rudolphinae. He died eleven days after being invited to an official dinner at the palace of Peter Vok Ursinus Rozmberk, as a result of his abiding by the etiquette of those days, which forbade you from rising from the table before the host. To be precise, he suffered a urinary blockage after drinking one cup too many and making an effort to hold himself in for hours; by the time he arrived back home, he was no longer able to urinate at all, after which there followed hours of sharp pain, hour after hour, until he finally managed to pass a few drops at dawn. It was to be the last time, because he then lapsed into a delirium of insomnia and confusion, beyond which his nerves no longer sensed anything and his memory no longer meant anything; a long, uninterrupted febrile agony. Later, much later, Kepler records that he said: “Lord, may I not have lived in vain,” or something of the sort, whereupon he died with the words on his lips. This utterance must have referred to his calculation of parallax and the coherence of his model, rather than his involvement in various political and administrative matters of the day. Do you like my story? I know: you feel like throwing the library out of the window. Rest your head on our pink pillow and let’s forget about Mendeleyev Street, where they dump the garbage in the road and the pestilential stench poisons the summer sky, and the plaster angels fruitlessly flap their wings, fastened to this earth, whence they are wholly unable to rise. Now the story takes us to Prague once more, where, in the winter of 1601, an oriental prince arrived to ask the assistance of Emperor Rudolf II. Firstly, he arrived in Vienna, on 2 January 1601, and went to the residence of Archduke Matthias, who granted him an audience two weeks later. It was there that the news of the execution of captain Baba Novac, burnt at the stake in Cluj, caught up with him. Prince Mihai reached Prague on 23 February 1601, and was granted an audience with the emperor on 14 March. He departed on 3 April, travelling to Vienna, where he intended to collect a large sum of money to reorganise his army, and on the evening before his departure from Prague, chronicler Casovius recorded that he heard him say: “Lord, may I not have lived in vain,” an utterance all the stranger given that it was not at all clear whether he was heading towards death or coronation. In fact, he thought constantly about one of the two things. Death was to arrive first, on the dawn of 19 August of that year. Believe me, it seems that the two met each other, Tycho Brahe and Prince Mihai, at a dinner at one of Prague’s noble houses, and it is strange that the meeting has hitherto not been demonstrated in any detail. I can almost picture that dinner, at which they are seated next to each other, the morose astronomer with the gilded nose and the oriental prince seeking his lost army in Prague.
After she heard this story, told with such accuracy as to dates and places, she rose from bed and I looked at her naked waist, her smooth shoulders, arched exactly as they should be, her small, flawless breasts, and it seemed to me as if she were clothed in the story I had just told her. She asked: “And what if Tycho Brahe did meet Mihai the Brave?” “Well,” I said, “in fact it is a case of how far back into the past I can see.” I showed her my right palm: “I can see into the past, not the future.”
Then, a few moments later, during which time she stood naked in the middle of the room, she asked: “I mean, did the two of them really meet?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, “but before I find out I need to solve a problem.” I covered my eyes with my hands and said: “In Tycho Brahe’s model of the universe, is Sirius a fixed star?”
“That’s stupid,” she said, and it was then that I understood that she would not be with me for the rest of my life, that for an instant it had depended on the relative position of a star, whose calculation had been broken off in the autumn of 1601.
That evening I left, heading to my new room, where I had moved in September, in an obscure courtyard, more a ruin than reality, a courtyard that faced north and led onto Victory Avenue. My landlord was a retired army officer, who lived alone in a three-room flat. I walked with my head bowed, as if I were advancing through the mist towards certain defeat. For a time, as I crossed Amzei Square, I forgot my own name and what century I was living in. Then I remembered my degree examination in the summer of 2002.
As soon as I entered my room, I saw him by the window, wearing his black cloak with gold trimming, purchased from Leipzig. He turned towards me and in old German, with a Nordic accent, he said to me once more the words I had heard every evening: “There is a good view of the sky from your window.”
My window looked north. In the distance were visible the housing blocks of Victory Square, beyond the two old poplars in the park in front of the Academy. I saw his profile, the missing nose, the prominent, outthrust chin, the serious mien, the fixed gaze of eyes that needed glasses.
“Sometimes there is too much light for you to look at the sky,” I said, pointing to this city.
“You have to know how to look,” he answered, “and the truth is that the time has come for you to learn the theory of the cones, as well as Eustarchius’ marvellous account of the lunules, which you might apply to the problem I suggested you work on.”
“It isn’t a planar problem,” I replied. “A theory of cones is irrelevant here.” He made a sign with his hand; he was annoyed and took up once more his notion of the previous evening: “This calculation, equivalent to the question of whether Sirius is a fixed star or not, is a very difficult problem; it is one of the conjectures for which I would give anything to know the answer.”
Without revealing to him how much I yearned to know the answer to that biographical question, I asked him: “But all the same, please tell me: do you remember that oriental prince you met in your last spring in Prague?”
He turned his back and took from his voluminous cloak a rolled-up book. He prepared to unroll it. “I remember nothing of that spring, nothing apart from a calculation about ellipses made by Johannes Kepler.” He ran his hand through his hair, he traced in the air a closed curve, and then he made a point, at the centre, between the foci: “The only place through which God passes, the only reality.”
BOGDAN SUCEAVĂ is a Romanian writer who works as a professor of mathematics at California State University, Fullerton. He is a graduate of University of Bucharest and Michigan State University. Author of five novels and two collections of short stories, two of his novels are available in English translation: Coming from an Off-Key Time, Northwestern University Press, 2011; Miruna, a Tale, Twisted Spoon Press, 2014, both in Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation.
About the Translator:
ALISTAIR IAN BLYTH was born in Sunderland, England, in 1970. He is a graduate of the universities of Cambridge and Durham. He has lived in Romania since 1999. He translates fiction, poetry, drama, and philosophy by writers from Romania and the Republic of Moldova.
Read more work by Bogdan Suceavă:
Interview at The Quarterly Conversation
Interview at Cal State Fullerton
Podcast and reading of Coming from an Off-Key Time
Read more translations by Alistair Ian Blyth:
A fragment from a novel by Stelian Tănase
A fragment from The Night Someone Died for You by Bogdan Suceavă
Interview with Filip Florian and Alistair Ian Blyth in Three Percent