“Sulina, where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the sea.”
I’m pretty sure I’m treading safe waters in saying that none of you have ever heard about Jean Bart and his incredibly obscure novel, Europolis.
Since I moved to Italy, I’ve had a strong desire to keep in touch with my motherland’s literature, partly because I wanted to maintain proficiency with the language, partly because the style differs from anything else I’ve ever read. You can have an idea of English literature and its well furnished manors, Russian literature with tragedy and loss, German, Spanish, French. But Romanian literature is something altogether different, and unfortunately translations don’t give it justice. It’s not that you can’t understand it, you simply miss the taste of the raw, versatile expressions of one of the most interesting melting-pot languages in Europe.
The plot is a story of redemption, greed, seduction, envy and finally death. In a city consumed by the idea of business, money and getting rich overnight, news about the return of a long gone adventurer sends everyone into hysterics. They think he’s coming back wealthy and willing to invest, which is why he is received with every honor. Unfortunately, the story is a sad and definitely not thrilling one: the man had been jailed for all those years, and the beautiful woman he’s brought along is his daughter. I can almost hear the shocked gasps when everyone saw that she was a mulatto. Poor and with no support, for them death is the only way out. A teary, cruel story painted on the canvas of Sulina.
So why are we talking about this? Because I went on a three-day trip to Romania at the beginning of May last year, on a few hours notice. Undoubtedly one of the most incredible experiences of my life (so far, at least) and a sudden plunge into my ancestors’ origins and lands, deep into the heart of the Danube delta. Of course, a visit to the city that lies “where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the Black Sea” was mandatory.
So let me tell you a bit about Sulina, one of the most cosmopolite towns in the world during the 1920s. Home to the European Commission of the Danube, it was a true crossway of languages, origins, commerce and traffic at the beginning of the century, a golden time that is frozen forever in the pages of Europolis, published in 1933. Jean Bart, although very French-sounding, was actually a Romanian author whose real name was Eugeniu Botez. So while visiting Sulina, I went searching for its book, the book that talks about the town and its glorious past, well buried under the tired skin of a town that has lost both its shine and its glamour. We left our boat docked under the cool sun in a freezing breeze, curious faces of children staring at us.
The whole town seemed to float in eternity. We visited the museum, and the old lighthouse. I climbed steep, dangerous steps to reach the top, where I couldn’t understand whether it was the strong winds or the amazing view that took my breath away. You could see Sulina stretching back, close to the water, hugging the last breath of the Danube as it flowed into the sea. You could feel the centuries of history lying under your feet, so powerful and awe-inspiring it almost hurt. It was like seeing myself as a tiny part of a gigantic puzzle I knew I belonged in, and my blood rushing in my veins matched the rushing waters of the river.
Maybe the most amazing part of it was visiting the maritime cemetery. I had been informed there were people of all sorts buried there: princesses, pirates, ship captains, Ladies and Lords. Unlike other cemeteries, which are mostly orthodox, this one is divided into sections, to accomodate the dead of all faiths and religions. With grass barely giving way to soft sand, while clouds gathered above our heads, we read tombstones and unwillingly let our eyes water. One above all, the tomb of a young, brave sailor who challenged the waters to save a young lady Margaret. Right next to it, the tomb of lady Margaret.
We left the cemetery, silent and cold, while it started to rain. That evening, after drinking wine and eating fresh fish, I lied on my bed, reading Europolis. It had nothing to do with the old, tired town I’d seen in the afternoon. It was the image of past glory, and it felt like rummaging in the pictures of an old duchess, feeling more and more amazed in seeing how splendor can fall into oblivion.
I have no idea whether you will read Europolis. It is probably one of the least known books in Europe: a small pearl I enjoyed putting on my necklace.