How I Learned to Read (from Tache de Catifea / The Velvet Man)

Ştefan Agopian | March 01, 2009
Translated by: Ileana Orlich


The bearded man was the owner of an apothecary shop where he worked with two apprentices.  Nobody paid me any mind, so I spent all day in what was supposed to be the shop.  I say this because it was a large, dark room full of odors—a mix of smells from everywhere.  The room hadn’t been cleaned in ages and in corners there were piles of garbage and cobwebs blackened by time.  And shining mysteriously on the shelves stood large porcelain jars with blue inscriptions and even human skulls that grinned whenever I looked their way, which I avoided as much as I could.

Old Isaac Herţog could have been a good apothecary if he’d had less imagination. But his taste for rare recipes, his reckless search for ancient ones, his absentmindedness, and his extravagant behavior had gradually brought him to ruin.  He prepared old Egyptian recipes in which lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, cat, snake and mountain sheep fats were the most banal ingredients.

He didn’t have those fats and was unhappy.  Cheating him, naturally, all kinds of people would sell him all sorts of excrement and urine, and I can remember that when he bought bat stool old Herţog rejoiced for a week.  He had an extraordinary gift for inventing new recipes.  Here is one he had me learn by heart and which was supposed to cure syphilis: Cuckoo egg yolk, saliva from a freshly killed calf, dry wax of cherry tree wood, oak acorns, oxidated stibium filings.  Combine ingredients and mix with black oil fat.  After two weeks, blend with yellow sulfur of bismuth. Apply the paste thus obtained to syphilitic ulcerations.

I’m saying that Herţog had me learn this by heart because a month after my moving in he realized that somebody should be in charge of my education, and he solemnly took this thankless task upon himself.  The first thing I learned was this recipe.

I understood nothing and just repeated after him like a parrot.  I was probably very frightened, for it never occurred to me to refuse to learn.  Whenever I didn’t know what kind of yolk he was supposed to use, he hit me across the knuckles with a little rod, and then would patiently resume from the beginning.  After some time I knew the recipe perfectly by heart, and whenever I got the opportunity—at dinner, or when there were customers in the shop—I  would recite it, trying to speak with a thicker voice to imitate the apothacary’s because this made him very happy so that when I finished, he would give me a caramel of red sugar.  I couldn’t pretend I was proud of myself, but my mother’s absence frightened me so much I didn’t have the courage to disobey my master’s orders, and, after all, even a child has the right to make his life easier if he has a chance.  Just as today’s children learn poems by Alecsandri without understanding a bit of what they are saying, once upon a time I used to learn fantastic recipes and afterward received a reward. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but this didn’t bother me.  Old man Herţog was happy to listen to me several times a day, and I think he had a store full of caramels, so many did I get to taste.  He used me as an example for the other two apprentices, who were lazy and took very little interest in what was going on around them.  Humbled, the apprentices looked up to me, but never missed an opportunity to beat me whenever they had a chance.  For a while, they had tried in all kinds of ways to tempt me not to keep reciting that unfortunate recipe, but they did not succeed.  They must have been stupid.  With a mere handful of caramel, they could have bought me, body and soul.  I didn’t side with them because it never occurred to them to flaunt before me piles of candies, which I’m sure I couldn’t have resisted.  Instead, I strongly rejected their devious proposals.  One of the apprentices had even been stupid enough to offer me a frog in exchange for my silence.  He was holding the frog by one leg, and its useless struggling frightened me terribly.  I started to cry and, disgusted, he calmed me down with a punch.  He failed to understand how anyone resembling a human could possibly refuse a frog.

They couldn’t make me side with them.  I was probably four at the time and, a month later, I was able to tell five recipes with a certain intonation that considerably strengthened the effect, so that I think that I contributed to the ruin of the old man because I recited them so often.  After a while, my teacher realized that there was something odd in my diligence, and the rewards became less and less frequent.  This made me keep silent for a week and even occasionally think of the frog.  The change was so sudden that naïve old Herţog thought I was ill and wouldn’t relent until I hadngulped down about three pints of yellow fever syrup.  Before each meal, he turned up with the flask and had me drink.  The syrup was made of dark red wine and a plant named Erytrhae pulchella in Latin. At first I didn’t want to drink, but once I did, I got so drunk I got hooked. While drunk, I said whatever they asked me to.  At the same time, I began to tell on the two apprentices, who decided to punish me.  They found nothing better than to have me swallow a spoonful of sulfurous paste.  Like any drunkard, I gulped it down greedily and, much to their terror, I even asked for more.  I had begun to like  the yellow fever syrup so much so much that I asked for it and drank as much of it as I could, much to the joy of the old man.  On seeing that the paste didn’t do me any harm, the next day the apprentices had me eat up another kind of ointment, used to prevent baldness.  I swallowed it and, again, it did me no harm, much to their amazement and dread.  For quite a while, I ate greedily from a lot of jars, until my hair began to fall out.  Upon seeing this, the old man hurried to heal me.  But he didn’t give up on the yellow fever syrup until one day the lady of the house, a wise woman, stared at me intently for a while and then said, loudly:

“This child seems to be drunk.”

I didn’t know what being drunk meant, so I didn’t mind. Then again, as if for herself, she said:

“He’s drunk. I’m sure he is.”

But since I was in her care and as she even received money for my keep, she let herself be enticed by the idea of drunkenness.  And seeing how often I drank from that syrup, overcoming her nausea, she took a sip too, imitating me.  She liked it as much as I did and got so drunk that she lay unconscious for a day, much to the fright of those around her.  Her daughters, who happened to be visiting at the time, left in a hurry, scared that their sweet mother had taken to the bottle, but not before scolding the old man, the only one who could be guilty of such a deed.  When she woke from her drunkenness, the old woman retold her adventure and, in the end, she called me as well, and everybody in the house goggled at me, regarding me as a miracle, or a monster—which  I never found out. The head of the family considered me for a while, grumbling. Then he brought the flask containing the liquor and asked me:

“Do you want some?”

“I do,” I replied.

He offered me the flask. They were all staring at me now.  The two apprentices, who were also present, even began to laugh.  But I didn’t mind and, before their very eyes, I took a sip from the wonderful red wine, in which, by chance, they had also put some yellow fever remedy.  When I gagged like a madman, they weren’t surprised, as they were expecting it. Only the apprentices laughed.  But when they got splashed with the content of my mouth, which, not to brag, was very large for my age, and their faces were covered in a thin liquid with a loathsome taste, their expression changed to wonder.  Then they tried to beat me up, but the old man wouldn’t let them…

This episode didn’t cure me right away, and for a while I kept walking about dizzily, like any drunk deprived of his daily food.  Then all was forgotten, and my body again  accustomed itself to living without alcohol.

From the very moment when he discovered that I had become a drunkard, old man Herţog decided to take my education most seriously.  He said that I was old enough to start learning to read and write.  We began the lessons the very next day and, after the event with that bitter liquid, or whatever it might have been, but in the absence of a textbook, the old man resorted to a beautifully bound manuscript titled Poem in Praise of Medicine.  As I already had some experience with learning, I was diligent enough in my endeavor, and after some time, I was able to say like a parrot – but this time in Greek – the definition of the word medicine.  I would close my eyes and say: Medicine is the art of staying in good health and, possibly, of healing the disease that occurred in the body.  For a while this worked and, paying attention to what I was told, I managed to learn by heart quite satisfactorily, until, after I had managed to “read” the subdivisions of medicine too, the old man noticed that I had a strange way of reading.  Minding nothing, I continued undisturbed and, after closing the book, I went on reading fluently; then I translated.  He only had to point out where I should begin and I could read, provided that I’d gone through the text before.  After six months I was able to “read” about three hundred lines, up to where it said: There are also corrosive and destructive medicines, iron blades, the air that tears up when it dilates, as well as fire that acts upon the skin.  

One day, exasperated by my way of reading, old Herţog almost tore the manuscript to pieces.  He controlled himself in time, but he started beating me.  He kept on that way until I discovered that he was beating me because I closed my eyes when I read. It was harder for me to keep them open, but I took pains to please him.  Henceforth he stopped beating me, and the learning went on undisturbed until I finished the poem, knowing it by heart and translating it perfectly.  In a year I had learned 1326 lines, and arriving at, Hereby is the whole description of home remedies / I shall stop my discourse here; I am done, the words I am done filled me with great joy at the thought that I, too, was done with learning, which proved not to be the case at all. The Poem in Praise of Medicine was followed by another, thicker manuscript, The Canon of Medical Science, which, to my delight, also had tiny pictures. 

Willy-nilly, in time, I had come to learn something and, much to my horror, I discovered that, if I paid attention, here and there I could spot in the manuscript words that I recognized.  In this way, I began reading, but as I knew very little Greek, there was a strange confusion in my head.  I didn’t understand why certain words, when I spelled them, suddenly revealed so many things, which made me very happy, while others, however hard I tried, remained a secret to me.  Yet, an unforeseen event proved useful to me.  One of the apprentices, who, for unclear reasons, had grown fond of me, presented me with a book written in Romanian, titled The Life, Exploits and Deeds of Marvelous Tilu Buhoglinda, Whose Comical Adventures Should Provide a Wonderful Amusement in Days of Respite.  With his help, it didn’t take me long to begin to spell and to understand everything I read.


About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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