The following is excerpted from the opening of Muharem Bazdulj’s Transit Comet Eclipse, three subtly linked novellas that take the reader across several centuries of Yugoslav history. Translated from the Bosnian by Nataša Milas and forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.
On the sixth of June, 1762, sometime in the afternoon, Daniel Danon was approached by a rather odd fellow at the Karnobat fair. There were various sorts of people at the famous Karnobat fairs and Daniel, a mirror merchant from Istanbul, had seen numerous wonders in his day. Still, the foreigner managed to surprise him. He was about fifty years old. His hair was thick, black, and coarse; his eyes deeply set; his nose aquiline and rather large; his lips thin and dark, as if they were hiding a restrained sensibility; his look intelligent and distrustful. The foreigner was tall, self-confident, almost arrogant. He was looking at Daniel’s mirrors, observing them, circling around them. The foreigner didn’t seem to mind the noise at the fair; he didn’t even notice it. He finally lifted his eyes, looked at Daniel’s face and spoke. It was barely noticeable but a smile played on the corner of Daniel’s lips. He understood the foreigner. Daniel moved through the Balkans, from Belgrade to Izmir, from Travnik to Thessalonica, he was exposed to Slavic words and he himself used them. True, the foreigner’s speech seemed a little different, it sounded archaic, but they understood each other nevertheless. The foreigner asked Daniel where he had acquired his mirrors, he mentioned the names of craftsmen and towns, he spoke about mercury and lead. Daniel’s responses were brief and cautious. He gestured more than he spoke. What could he even say to this foreigner who clearly knew more about mirrors than he did. This type of man doesn’t hang mirrors on the wall; he needs them for different purposes. Soon the foreigner stopped talking about mirrors and instead asked Daniel about the town of Karnobat itself. What devil was this foreigner, as if he knew that Daniel’s mother was from Karnobat and that he actually knew a thing or two about the town. The foreigner inquired about the number of Turkish and Christian houses, he wanted to know whether there were any Jews in town, when they had moved there, who their rabbi was, and whether they were schooled. Daniel responded briefly, with uncertainty. The foreigner nodded. He further inquired from Daniel about the fair, about the sheep, and the distance to Markely Fortress. Thank you, said the foreigner at the end. He turned his back on Daniel and left. Daniel’s eyes followed him. The foreigner walked away sure-footedly. He made no more stops; not by the merchants selling soap and candlesticks, nor by the butcher’s—though the aroma of onion sausage was tempting—and not even by the tables with wool and clothing. It was hot. Daniel wiped the sweat off his forehead and thought how by the look of things this foreigner didn’t even mind the heat. Daniel’s eyes followed him until the last trace of the foreigner’s cloak was out of sight. What a peculiar priest, Daniel muttered quietly.
The foreigner was actually a Jesuit. His name was Ruđer Bošković. He was traveling through Karnobat on his way from Istanbul to Petrograd. He traveled in a company that was even stranger than he. It was because of Bošković that they had stopped in Karnobat. He was interested in the town, in the fair, he was interested in everything. While he was making his way back to his fellow travelers, he was trying to remember everything of importance that he had heard and seen. To remember, at least before writing it down. They had been traveling for fourteen days. Bošković had already written about Kanara (a Christian village, about fifty houses), Fakia (a Christian village, eighty-eight houses), Karabunar (a town with six hundred houses, Turkish and Christian), and Harmanli (a Tatar village). In Karnobat, there were Jews as well. As his impressions settled his step quickened. I’ve seen what I needed to see here, now it’s time to continue the journey. The crowded fair remained behind. He approached the resort where Ambassador Porter and his retinue waited for him.
James Porter had been the English ambassador in Istanbul for more than fifteen years. I find Istanbul even more beautiful than London, he used to say to his friends. He decided, nevertheless, to return to his homeland. In King James’s Bible, he remarked once to Bošković, it is written that the good Lord gave us seventy years of life, or more precisely, as it is clearly noted, sixty years and ten. In the first ten years we are not aware that we are alive. I spent a quarter of the Lord’s remaining sixty years among the Turks. It’s time to go back, Porter said. Bošković listened to him carefully but he knew that his decision had nothing to do with the Bible, nostalgia, or metaphysics. Porter was going back to England because that is what his wife wanted. Porter would not stay in his homeland more than a few months, Bošković was convinced, Mistress Porter would find a way for them to be closer to her homeland. Beatrice Porter couldn’t even try to hide her love for her native Holland. Bošković had nothing against loving one’s homeland, even though it was easier for him to imagine love for a town or village than for a whole country, but this love of homeland had to have some limits. Love for one’s country shouldn’t justify a lie. My native Dubrovnik is very dear to me, but the truth is even dearer, Bošković would say. For Beatrice Porter lies were allowed when expressing one’s patriotism. Maybe not lies exactly but pure ignorance. Bošković could not keep quiet about it any longer. He had been grateful to Ambassador Porter for his invitation to travel with them, but gratitude for him wasn’t equal to subdued humility. Beatrice and Bošković quarreled. Even when their misunderstanding was smoothed over, Bošković realized that the ambassador’s wife did not particularly favor him.
The whole affair began very innocently. It was the thirty-first of May. They had traveled together for a week. Around their unusual caravan there was an atmosphere of harmony and mutual warmth. In the early afternoon they made a stop by a rather small clearing to take a rest. Beatrice remained with her children while Bošković and Porter talked about London. After ten minutes of conversation they suddenly fell silent, but they were not good enough friends to find the silence comfortable. Bošković gazed around the clearing. Only then did he seem to notice a multitude of very beautiful and luxuriously multicolored tulips. Nowhere are tulips as lovely as in Turkey, he said only to break the silence. At that moment Beatrice appeared. The most beautiful tulips are in my country, she said. Bošković shrugged. Everyone finds the flowers of their homeland beautiful, he thought. Tulips are Dutch flowers, she said, and turned toward her children. Not true, the Jesuit raised his voice, tulips are Eastern flowers. Beatrice stopped and stared at Bošković. Tulip is a Persian word and it comes from the word turban. Before it blossoms, the tulip, as you know, resembles a turban. Turks call it lala, and that’s what it is also called where I am from. The Turks value tulips, the ambassador carefully entered the conversation, they even call the period at the beginning of this century the “Epoch of Tulips.” All of Istanbul was mad about tulips. They would pay for their bulbs with gold. The woman interrupted him: that was in Holland! It had been like that in Holland as well, true, Bošković began again, but a century earlier. In your country at that time, Madame, people would pay even a thousand forints for one bulb. That, however, has nothing to do with the origin of the flower. The good Lord wanted tulips to blossom in the Orient. They only reached Europe, and your country, sometime in the sixteenth century. This happened thanks to one very interesting man—Augerus Gislenius Busbequius, the illegitimate son of a French nobleman. Busbequius was the ambassador in Istanbul, serving Ferdinand the First two centuries before your respected husband. He sent the first tulip bulbs to your homeland, but that is a long story. It’s time to get going, the ambassador used this moment to interrupt. We haven’t the time for long stories. It was a pleasure to listen to you, Porter said to Bošković. Yes it was, Beatrice added, it is agreeable to hear things that remind you of your homeland.
Porter did not like long stops on a journey. He was in a hurry. This trip is long and difficult enough on its own, he said, I will not prolong it with needless stops. Night is for rest, he said. To tell the truth, Porter made the trip more difficult for himself. The ambassador couldn’t stand traveling by sea. He suffered from chronic seasickness with very severe symptoms. In youth he used to hide this fact, thought of excuses and justifications, but he didn’t wish to do that any longer. He was at an age now when he no longer felt like lying about it. He couldn’t even imagine trying to stand all those humiliating dizzy spells and unbearable fits of nausea and vomiting. I’ll go by land, come what may, he decided. The war between England and Austria was an additional problem. The war was why Porter couldn’t travel on the usual, shorter route through Hungary and Vienna. He would have to travel, then, through Bulgaria, Moldova, and Poland, with his wife and children for that matter. A number of diplomats also accompanied them on the journey, along with the Greek nurse, Lily, and the servants. Porter knew that Bošković was traveling to Petrograd so he invited him to travel with them for part of the way. We have one big and one small carriage, as well as a carriage for luggage, you won’t be uncomfortable, said the ambassador. We’ll be honored to be in the company of such an erudite man. Bošković, naturally, agreed. The Jesuit spent seven months in Istanbul, which dragged on, he used to say, like seven years. He had traveled to Istanbul to observe the transit of Venus over the Sun. During his journey he made an unforeseen long stop in Italy and tried to observe the transit from Venice. It was cloudy. He couldn’t see anything and became quite alarmed. The next transit of Venus over the Sun would take place in eight years, and by then, who knows if he’d be alive. The irony lies in the fact that eight years is such a short interval for Venus and the Sun. After the eight-year interval, the transit after that one wouldn’t happen for at least a century. Bošković set out for Istanbul from Venice. On his journey he saw the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. He arrived in Istanbul in late autumn. As soon as they met, Porter told him that he watched the transit from Istanbul, where the visibility had been excellent. Bošković had met many ambassadors in his day but this Porter was a rare example of a pleasant one. At this point he would even have agreed to travel with unpleasant ambassadors. He had grown tired of Istanbul, he was in a hurry to get to Russia, but the roads were unsafe even for Muslims, let alone for Catholics. The diplomatic caravans were escorted, which made this situation almost ideal. He looked forward to a comfortable carriage. Within his first few days in Istanbul he sprained his ankle and he walked with difficulty after that for almost two months. His leg stopped aching at times, except when the weather would change. Bošković nevertheless feared that there was something really wrong with it. He didn’t have trouble walking but he feared the pain.
When he saw the horses and the carriages, the Jesuit slowed down his pace. I am getting close, he thought, now I can slow down. Soon enough he saw Porter, who was clearly becoming anxious. Porter noticed him as well. Hurry up, he called, it’s time, we’ve been waiting for a while. Bošković unwillingly sped up.
Have you seen something new, Beatrice asked acerbically, as if such a learned man could learn anything new. Man learns all his life, Bošković responded briefly. The coachman clucked to the horses and the creaking wheels slowly started moving.
The road was flat, the landscape monotonous, and Bošković dozed off. In the past few years it was easier for him to fall asleep in the afternoon than at night. He thought about his Dubrovnik childhood, deserted city streets during the scorching heat, and the siesta when only the children were awake. His mother, Pavica, liked to sleep after lunch, just after noon. She rarely slept longer than an hour but she used to say that this one hour of sleep was dearer to her than five hours at night. Mother must be asleep now too, Bošković thought. He stirred a bit. His thigh was throbbing. He couldn’t tell if this was the beginning of pain or just fear that there might be pain. He recognized the source of that fear. Bošković only remembered his father as an invalid and he thought about his father’s paralyzed lower limbs. Bošković had no pain in his legs. He felt as if he had no legs at all. Even pain is better than nothing, that sounded familiar, he had read it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where. His eyes were already closed. His thoughts and memories mixed almost imperceptibly with the fabric of shallow dreams, which aren’t even real dreams when you know you’re dreaming. The images of thirty minutes ago alternated with those from thirty years ago, the voices of the dead and those of his fellow travelers, the scent of the Adriatic Sea and the stink of London’s fog. Less and less reality lingered in Bošković’s senses, less and less consciousness. All structure was lost, the logic of dreams took over. The time and the place disappeared, the voices withered away. Only Porter’s whisper could be heard, only a few words, only: hush, Father Bošković is sleeping, before he completely fell asleep.
Copyright © 2007 by Muharem Bazdulj. Translation copyright © 2018 by Nataša Milas. Excerpt by agreement with Dalkey Archive Press.