The Geographer’s Tales

Ştefan Agopian | March 01, 2009
Translated by: Florin Bican


The Geographer’s Tales

Back then stripped bare of night (as if for evermore), the days would drag on lengthily, all dust-suffused and glum. From way out somewhere, He, boundlessly watching from amidst His angel hosts, was slowing our pace as He did rest. And our saliva made as if to run dry, akin to fuzzy lint, and all our words would fade. We settled in our progress as if in snaking silence whilst the reclining sun shed blood on the plain. We solemnly desired, bearing our arms, to be.

Akin to some indefatigable war machine, the Armenian rolled his steps towards the greenish water, towards that fetid swamp. Through the dust-suffused air, Ioan followed him closely, specter-like. Prying them apart, the flimsy light squeezed between the two.

“We shall break our journey here, hey, to say our prayers,” quoth the Armenian.

“I’ll be saying the alphabet,” Ioan replied with an apathetic gaze, “for, as you will ascertain from mystical literature, the alphabet comprises the sum of all prayers alongside communication with angels.”

“Aye,” said the Armenian removing his dust-covered armor, “that’s exactly how Philander von Sittenwald used to go about it, while a Swabian or Batavian – I cannot recall at the moment,” he went on as he gazed at the pile of iron he’d just taken off, “Nicolaus Grudius by name—the very same who would conclude his letters with the pleasant formula ‘Fare thee well, most noble lord, and do expect a favorable answer not long from now’—this Grudius used to say that man should do well not to succumb to the sorrow that comes with unknowing.”

And having thus spoken, the Armenian revealed himself in his nakedness to Ioan, and Ioan, the somber geographer, did likewise. Two colossal piles of iron lay at their feet, defeated by their pallid mangy bodies.

“Galenus,” Ioan said, “recommends bathing in sulphur after being defeated in war.”

“And not only that,” added a puny antiquarian popping into sight, decked in Jewish attire.

He was carrying a bundle of books under his arm, which he unstrapped and displayed before them.

“Won’t you buy, Gentlemen?” he said, withdrawing one step.

In the following order, ten books lay spread in a fan on the ground: Catalogus plantarus sicularum, Kircher’s Mundus Subteraneus, Descartes: Les Passions de l’âme d’Indagine: Chiromance et Physiognomie, issued in Rouen, an untitled work by Pseudo-Aristotle, Encelius: De re Metalica, Hieroglyphica, mock translation from the Egyptian, Pellegrini: Del concetto poetico (falling apart, badly), Olahus: Processus Universalis, as well as Comenius, represented by a work entitled Pampaedia.

“These books,” Ioan said as he looked at them, “remind me of better times when I used to read them.”

“Won’t you buy, Gentlemen?” reiterated Herzog, the antiquarian. “Thus, Your Lordships will have, time and again, those days untouched by war.”

The sun glowed crooked and red and morose and like unto a coral globe towards the edge of their gaze and disquieted them beyond words.

“That’s what the Antiterrestrial globe might look like,” Ioan said while watching that sun, disheartened by its scarlet-veil light, to his eyes a crumpled royal mantle.

Like unto emperors they both appeared and sad and stripped bare and relentless. Gravely they made for the sheen of water, stepped into its greenish web.

“It’s so warm it’s like broth, hey,” the Armenian said as he stepped in, feeling his foot sink into the dawn-like mire, relishing that particular tickling and the tickling of water on his exhausted body.

And soon enough only their heads were seen above the water, as if resting on a porphyry charger, eternal in mute expectation. 

Herzog the antiquarian came to the edge of the water and read to them from the volume Pampaedia, more precisely from the chapter “Pandidaskalia,” at the passage that said “But what is in actual fact a pansopher? It’s one who has a good knowledge of the Pampaedia.”  And further on: “For a pansopher to be in truth what he ought to be, he is to establish a threefold purpose of his didactics: universality, simplicity, spontaneity”. He was reading with gusto and intonation, cheering them up with unspeakable joy, for both of them happened to be thinking along those lines at that particular moment.

Next they talked about the pool of Bethesda, by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, where an angel would trouble the water from time to time and that troubling of the water caused those who hurried to step in to be made whole. And also about the impotent man who’d had an infirmity thirty and eight years and was made whole by Jesus.

Whereupon Ioan was reminded of a certain event he’d been involved in, and commenced to relate it:

            1.   The tale of Cantemir’s Cacodaemon


In the year 1800, being in possession of a certain sum of

money, I decided to embark upon a journey, and that not to the end of acquiring knowledge of ought I was as yet unconversant with, but because I happened to be convalescing from a bout of illness, my mind and body being exhausted. I purchased a Bible, wrapped up my meager possessions in a bundle and, one bright warm morning, I hit the road. As it happened, it was the onset of a beautiful autumn, so I had the most convenient weather for my journey.

          I chose no particular route, nor even today could I say with any certainty through what particular gate I exited Bucharest, which only goes to show how very little I cared for such matters. I was simply rejoicing to be on my way, having left no care behind, nor anticipating any care waiting for me wherever I was going. Having journeyed awhile, I picked a thickish stick that, employed as a staff, proved an invaluable companion to me, and that for quite a while.

          My first day on the road unfolded in the golden stillness and light of that autumn. I had a chunk of bread and, as the road was fringed with wild plum trees, I didn’t have to stop in order to take nourishment. Never would I have thought bread and plums could make such lavish fare. Towards evening I made my bed in a haystack, and in the twilight of that day I opened my Bible and read these words: “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.”

          And great peace descended upon me alongside the darkness of that night. And above me, over the plain, the multitude of stars revealed itself to me oh so gentle and charged with a meaning both mysterious and blessed. After a while, I fell asleep. I know not how long I’d been sleeping, nor what time it might have been when I awoke with a shiver. A crescent moon akin to a fat maggot was soaring in the sky of that night. I was cold and athirst. I sat up and looked about. It was a night like unto a bone picked clean wherein I had abided out of kilter. And again and again, everything turned verisimilar and woeful and frigid and boundless, and nothing was there to urge me on. Somewhere, lonely trees, the plum trees, shed their fruit – they thus desired. As he sat by the fire, Cantemir’s cacodaemon hailed me:

“Come here, hey, to get warm and palaver awhile.”

An old cacodaemon he was and a sullen. He’d wrapped his tail around his body and was staring into the fire. He watched me not as he resumed his speech:

“We ain’t much to write home about.”  

It was then that I finally woke up in truth, and like unto a tooth all rotten and yet painless, was I inconsequential and mortal to that night. I descended from the haystack where I had bivouacked and walked to the fireside. The cacodaemon, who had leapt from the pages of Cantemir’s bestiary had a wineskin of red of which we partook in silence, passing it between us. I gave my neighbor the once over furtively from the corner of my eye. His face was like a shriveled prune though different in color, a mix of saffron yellow with ochre and a pinch of laundry blue. He watched me all the while with one eye, casting his other in the opposite direction, straight towards the constellation of Cassiopeia, which, incurious, had ascended to the firmament. His garb was seedy and green. Cacodaemons have always been partial to green—no idea why—his fingernails were on the long side and rather dirty and on his fingers did he sport many a tin and copper ring. He had taken off his footwear, common riding boots, and I admired his hoofs at length. As I have already said, he was wearing his tail wrapped around his body. I’d warmed myself, and I was growing incurious and withdrawn. He didn’t seem all that talkative, either. It was he who broke the silence, though:

“Got some tobacco by any chance?”

I produced my pouch and offered it to him. He took it and I don’t know what he did with it, but that was the last I saw of it. I couldn’t muster the courage to claim it back, so for a while I pretended I’d never had any pouch whatsoever, though truth to tell, I was thinking of little else. I coughed in frustration and took another swig from the wineskin. The fire had grown low as I said:


The cacodaemon feigned not to hear me, so I had to repeat myself, staring him in the eyes, though it exhausted my ocular muscles unspeakably. I therefore spread my eyes as far as I could and said:

“This here wine’s not bad.”  I was fixed on him constantly, however, and I spoke calmly nonetheless.

He laughed revealing the stumps of his teeth. Revealing its huge molars in disdain, a jackass coming from somewhere laughed too.

From the sky, large leaves of yellow tobacco started falling straight on the fire’s glowing embers, and they burned for a while with bluish flames. Their flavor wafted throughout the county. Sweetish and acrid, it enveloped us. The stars started setting at some point, and a chilly breeze descended upon our shoulders; we’d gone numb. We had another go at that wineskin and started feeling chatty. I said:

“At this exact hour Ulysses is killing the suitors, those effeminate greedy princes.”

He chuckled to himself and took out a pocket watch endowed with one hand and no glass, put it to his ear and listened for a while. There came no sound. He shook it. Yet again there came no sound. Disgusted, he threw the watch into the fire, saying:


And the watch changed into a ticking black stain pointing with a long black hand to the figure three. He picked it out of the fire and pocketed it happily.

“Must’ve got frozen,” he said. “At this exact hour, indeed, he’s killing those effeminate greedy suitors,” he said as he reclined on his side.

The cacodemon took a gold toothpick out of somewhere and started picking at his stumps. Flapping their wings heavily, two settles arrived. Rising to his feet, the cacodaemon invited me to sit in one of them, I sat. Then he did. Like unto two kings did we sit, ruling over the plain.

 “That’s the time, more or less,” he said, “when the suitors get killed.” 

A breeze stirred over us as we sat in the two gilded thrones and conflicting thoughts started oppressing us.

            2. The tale of the suitors told by the cacodaemon

 “Suitors are inimical beasts,” said the cacodaemon, who was shining his gold toothpick in the moonlight as he sat erect in his settle. “Marshmallow-eyed and serpentine in their fluid movements,” he added, “cloying creatures that they are. There’s hardly a Turkish bath you can go to without running into them. They play dice on the stairs going down into the water, blocking your passage. ‘Do you mind,’ you excuse yourself, as befits a man of the world, yet they don’t care a fig. They just carry on, the perfumed lot. So you reach out your foot, scrape your big-toe nail against the back of some fellow lavishly rubbed with them accursed fragrant oils, with the idea of getting the fellow’s attention somehow. The slightly soiled water ripples invitingly. You go on scraping a while, but it’s like rasping a thickly plastered church wall.

One fine day—it had just struck one hour after twelve—I was craving some sorbet and ice water, almost insane with desire as I roamed the slums with that languid thought in my head and a swarm of children in tow.

‘That’s the devil hisself, some slum-dweller observed, having scrutinized me more attentively, but it was so swelteringly hot, he didn’t react to his own words. Nor did I.

            I was togged out in Western garb, which was to my advantage somewhat as I could fan myself thus with my top hat, yet not sufficiently. It was as muggy as in a bazaar. You know that type of sticky heat. The light oozed all over the world like unto nougat, smearing it through and through. I don’t know what came over me, but I sneezed, and my sneeze caused a gap in that heat and in that gap a sleek and wintry Greek burst forth. He set to luring me without further delay, naturally with what I most desired, some sorbet and a Turkish bath.

Two thorny locust trees tore at my garments. I snapped a thorn off and goaded my Greek, who duly obliged by increasing his pace. The journey was taking forever as we walked past shriveled trees and reddish churches and fetid puddles languishing in a profusion of duckweed and frog foot. Who knows where we were headed or from whence we came? Wafting over the city with a boom, the meridian cannon announced the western hour. Before we knew it, it was the fourth hour of the afternoon and the sun settled slightly oblique above us, revealed to us thus the correct time. We had left the wilderness and the rolling plain behind. Fat oily proprietors tried to coax us into coffee houses. Enticing flavors wrapped themselves all around us together with mindless spirits. Forcing us to yield, enormous yearnings unfolded their wings above us. I went on following the Greek down narrow, dusty lanes.

“We’re nearly there,” he declared and let a gleam of triumph shine in his eyes while imparting the information.

The steam from the Turkish bath hit us full tilt. I peered into it and saw the sign, in red and green, hanging slightly askew. “Turkish Bath” it said. On one side it bore the painted image of a fatso sweating profusely and casting our way a yellow blissful look. I went as close as I could and with my fingernail scraped inquisitively at that yellow gaze. The fatso opened his mouth and said:

“You are welcome!” His mouth, as he uttered those words, gave way to an eye watching us saccharinely.

“Let’s go in,” the Greek urged, and a cool sweat rolled down through my body.

From way up somewhere, the sun suddenly shrunk like unto a dead babe’s head. From the wall, the fatso laughed as if craving gravy, and with a watering mouth the fatso let out another:

   “You are welcome!”

With a wry glint, the sign bowed our way and, red and green, the letters merged in my mind, regrouping: “Turkish Bath” I read. The fatso Trimalchion nodded his head as if to say yea, and a sluggish door swung open in our direction. Treading on malachite slabs we entered a cool and eternal penumbra. A thin wraith of fragrant smoke descended upon us, and sitting cross-legged opposite the contraption and puffing at it languidly, a man with a hookah volunteered:

“I am the owner.”

Glad to hear he was the owner, I replied:

“I’m glad.”

The sound of lapping water wafted towards us from far away. My Greek had disappeared, who knows where. Caring for little else I said:

“I’d like a bath.”     

Gangly and tall, the owner watched me, rose to his feet and in a voice of no consequence remarked:

“Suit yourself.” Two bulky fellows came at the clapping of his hands. Grabbing me under the armpits they hauled me off till we reached the water where they gave me a shove, and I plumped into the pool as if into a trough of swill. Saying, “read it to while your time away,” one threw me a badly tattered book.

Spread open, the book was floating upon the water, and having reached for it, I did read: “And the remnant of the sodomites, which remained in the days of his father Asa, he took out of the land.” And further down, “For he served Baal, and worshipped him, and provoked to anger the LORD God of Israel, according to all that his father had done.” My soul being comforted by these words, then did the book sink to the bottom and thus become invisible. Overjoyed with what I had read, I waded to and fro through water by turns warm and cold, and when I came to a place where it was warmer, I reclined up the steps, trying to doze for a spell. When I awoke, I could hear noises galore yet unclear, and a pleasant obscurity was spreading over all of us together with the lapping sound of water reminding me of all that had happened and the place where we were. A bleached out fatso floundered in my vicinity. He lay next to me in the end and seeing my tail, which he watched intently, he succumbed to moronic glee. At length he said:

“Can I touch it?”

And bent on grabbing my tale, he went so far as to stretch forth a zucchini-like hand. Greenish, mindless, like unto white spots, bright bodies were splashing all around, giggling insanely. My fatso heaved a sigh like when you bolt too large a chunk of your favorite dish and said:

“Easy, there, hey, it’s not the end of the world, you know.

I stood up and waved my tail under his nose, but it became apparent he was much taken with the display, for he changed from white to red and bleat like a slaughtered beast. Noisily, the surrounding romp had grown more boisterous by degrees. Only then in one leap I vaulted above them all. The roof parted before me and I found myself soon in the midst of the dust-covered road. Rolling from me in torrents, the water accumulated round my feet, higher and higher, its stench more repulsive at each moment, till it grew to a far-reaching swamp that began to engulf me drowsily.   
             3. The Pansophers’ Quarrel

A morning like unto alcohol wrapped itself around us towards the end. Pale and erect sat we in our settles, and ruthless too. The chill of night and its dimness gathered in the sockets of our eyes: free from all yearnings unfulfilled were we then in the plain. Thoughts – frigid and unnatural birds – stopped circling us in whirlwinds of confusion. A pale blue sky overran us, the sky of another world and of another life and of another set of events.

The city fell into place, reddish to the eye. We were walking down narrow streets, scrawny dogs watching us viciously as we ignored them, and whilst walking we carried the world further on. Like unto breasts, frenzied towers were welcoming us from the sky. The associated tower clocks began suddenly striking an eternal hour:

“The hour is come,” the Cacodaemon said. “Let us away.”

I followed him and we were not long in reaching a square or rather a circle with abundance of fountains teeming with dragons and chimeras. Multicolored flags were fluttering from a giant building not unlike a city hall. We walked round a fountain in order to reach that building. No one was there to receive us, yet the cacodaemon appeared unruffled by the fact.

The pansophers’ convention was well under way as we got there. One was hollering something into a megaphone from the dais while elderly gentlemen were directing their hearing aids in accordance with the speaker’s antics. Cantemir’s cacodaemon dragged me along, and we sat at the table for the panel where four sour-looking cacodaemons were in charge of the proceedings. I screwed my face in the sourest possible frown and commenced to listen.  The speaker kept bellowing into his megaphone things my mind could not unravel. Still, since all appeared to be listening to him, I assayed to do likewise, though unsuccessfully for quite a while. I was more fascinated with the way the audience went on shifting their hearing aids. After a spell, as if through a mist, I began to understand. The topic was the type of beans the Greeks call  and which Pythagoras refrained from eating. And his hatred, Pythagoras’, that is, for cooks, hunters, draft oxen and rams.

Part of the pansophers had left their hearing aids aside and burst into applause while the others watched gloomily. When the applause subsided, an ancient pansophers dribbling at the corners of his mouth requested the floor and the presiding cacodaemons granted his request. He walked up to the dais, produced from somewhere a set of porcelain dentures and methodically fitted it into his mouth. Having fitted it in, he drank some water from a carafe and commenced to speak as follows:

“Pythagoras was first Aithalides, son of Hermes. Next he was Euphorbos. Then he was Hermotimos, then Pyrrhos, a fisherman of Delos, and only at the very end, after being all these, was he Pythagoras.” 

Whereupon he choked and was unable to speak for a long time because of his coughing, yet he was coughing so exquisitely that the audience unanimously believed him to be proceeding with his speech and they nodded in approval. When he was done coughing they applauded, though it was the other half of the pansophers that did so this time. Still, he was not finished, as I had thought, for he went on:

“Let us now see what Iamblichos has to say on this issue.” 

And he set out to recount the feast made by Pyrrhos, the fisherman of Delos, as he married his second daughter to one Brontius, secret counselor to the tyrant Polycrates, at a time when the harvest of kyamos beans had been plentiful.

Winter was suddenly upon us. While the ancient pansopher was lecturing, the windows burst open mirthfully and a flurry of snow fell upon us. The ensuing blizzard filled our sight. I watched. Massive snowdrifts were piling up in the square while an eternal light went on sifting from the sky again and again. Unconcerned, the pansopher was saying:

“But what is in actual fact the type of beans the Greeks call by the name kyamos?” 

He clapped his hands and two servants carried in a huge steaming bowl and a dipper and laid them before him. Thereupon he commenced to eat, oblivious of everything else. Between two mouthfuls, he said:

“It’s simply divine.”

The pansophers of his faction blissfully applauded. Greedily, the man on the dais emptied the bowl without further delay, gave a satisfied belch in conclusion and said:

“That’s exactly how Pythagoras would go about it.” 

One of the pansophers let go of his hearing aid and, coming to the dais, introduced himself as a medical doctor. Producing a tube, he applied it to the belly of the one who had been eating of the kyamos beans and stood there for a while, listening to what was going on in the fellow’s stomach. Then he took his pulse, inspected his tongue, which the orator obediently put out as far as it went, and finally declared him fit as a fiddle. The audience burst into loud cheers while the vanquished pansophers left the hall downcast.
             4. The Pansophers’ Banquet

The pansophers’ banquet started around eight in the evening and was held at the City Hall. Someone had turned off the blizzard and the fountain-filled square was now illuminated by thousands of torches. The fountain chimeras had started a graceful dance, sending off snow in each and every direction as in a display of fireworks and singing an encomium in honor of the triumphant pansophers. Hundreds of multicolored carriages brought the pansophers from wherever they had chosen to be prior to the commencement of the feast and dropped them outside the City Hall by the marble stairs, which two liveried servants were constantly sweeping clean of the snow stirred by the wheels of the carriages. Aglow with curiosity, a multitude of law-abiding citizens were thronging the square, and because of their hot breath, the snow began thawing at length, forming small, silvery puddles. The guests kept arriving, and when the cacodaemons that had presided over the convention made their appearance, the multitude recognized them and started shouting “Hurrah” and applauding. They waved their tails in acknowledgement as the personnel in charge of order made room for them to pass, resorting the while to short gnarled clubs. A semi-official artist quickly started an ink sketch in which one could easily recognize the City Hall and the four cacodaemons waving their tails. He was subsequently decorated with the Silver Order of the Pansopher and dubbed Knight of the City. The chimeras sang a brief encomium in his honor. Then he was left to his own devices. 


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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