New work – 20th March, 2006

Chernovitz [group trip east] - Part One

New work–20th March, 2006

New work

"Bukovina is everything and nothing. A place of many colors, many nationalities. Barren and fleeing, emptied of content. When you look at it, you see something, but there’s nothing there. Zero, point of origin. The center of the periphery. Central Europe’s unknown center. On the most remote point of the world stands a city."

To travel direct to
New York, Canada, South Africa,
La Plata and East Asia,
visit the travel agency in Bukovina.
Chernovitz, Herrengasse 16.
(Illustrierter Führer durch die Bukovina, 1907, Mandelbaum Verlag, Wien)

1. Starting Again

How wide the world is when we regard it from its smallest point.  And how small, when we stand on the most famous point on the map. But where are such points?  Where is the center of the world, and where does the world’s most remote city fall?

I will tell you.

The center of the world lies in the direction of Bukovina, about midway; south of Galicia, east of Máramaros, and northwest of Moldavia rests a point beside the Tisza River. A straight road leads us there. If we approach through the Sub-Carpathian valleys and gorges, then it’s not far from the Aknaszlatina salt mines. We proceed by a road direct from Beregszász to Chernovitz. It’s doable by train in 17 hours, and in five to six by car or bus.  We decide against the train, because it zigzags along just as history has zigzagged across the landscape, dividing the world into fortunate and unfortunate societies. Where the tracks run back and forth across the Romanian and Ukrainian sides, border guards stop us repeatedly, and during floods, railcars don’t move, and even buses and cars stand still. In divided Máramarossziget, at least seeing it through the window, today it seems there are no fortunate societies.

Between 1873 and 1913 the Military Geographical Institute of Vienna completed the first land surveys of the Habsburg Monarchy. During that time they charted out the altitudinal reference network. Here, beside the Upper Tisza, facing Mt. Barnabás, we find the center of Europe, but by other accounts the data was referring to the center of Central Europe. It’s true that even basic mathematical calculations don’t prove the existence of any center here; still, at the turn of the century, an obelisk was swiftly erected, bearing the following inscription: Permanent point of reference determined by a remarkably precise Austro-Hungarian Monarchy surveying level and in accordance with Europe’s degrees of longitude and latitude. 

Of course, I wasn’t telling the truth; the road isn’t straight, but twisted.  Whoever sets off from the center of the world will be astonished by how beautiful that world is. On the hilltops of the Apsas (Alsóapsa, Középapsa, Felsoapsa, Kisapsa) stand wooden churches, lined inside with soft carpeting, and as the traveler moves past them, she immediately comes to the small cemeteries beside the churches, then moves forward among rickety shacks, sees bridges reconstructed over the Tisza, and swerves between bunkers of the former Árpád line. The center of the world falls just between Mt. Barnabás and Terebesfejérpatak. If we go farther, leaving Rahó behind, then Korösmezo, we come to the Black Springs, the source of the Tisza. Here the Tisza and the Tisza Valley end. Behind the 2000 meter high Mt. Csornahora, the Bukovina hills begin, the land of the Huculs and the Hasids, and the Szucsava and Szeret Rivers, and between them the once ploughed fields, then weeds, then crops. In five of its villages once lived the Székelys of Bukovina.

But let’s turn back to the mountains! The Hasids of the Cseremos forests were on to something. Once somebody said they were the true pessimists of the countryside, because whenever they predicted a catastrophe, they were proven right. We don’t hurry easily down the mountains, because something unseen stands in our way, though it must be there in the forest. When we look towards Csornahora, we see the Pop Iván mountains to the east. It is overwhelming to look up at the mystical mountain of those intuitive people. Mt. Pop Iván stands 2028 meters high, and god-fearing Greeks, Romans, Jews and Ruthenians were all once in its black ravines. In past centuries logging rafts departed for Kuty from here, and the Danube, and lumber was floated down as far as Szeged. Everyone who lives here knows what the mountains are saying; but for the time being, it remains a secret to us.

There are precisely eighty-seven bends in the mountain road. Once a Hasid counted them. The road is fairly bumpy. If the bumps were to strike up and set off from Cseremos, the whole world would come to an end. We look up at the mountains with fear. An important man named Frank once lived here, who traveled far and wide, explains the Cseremos innkeeper in the notes of one of my books, but he said there’s no finer way to travel than touring this region by raft. Dus klärt er... We wouldn’t have thought people actually lived here, right? And it is stranger still that Jews lived here. Funt, the host, spent the whole night explaining to the travelers what a forest-dwelling Jew is. 

We’re sitting on the bus exactly one hundred years later.  We don’t come across a single raft or raftsman. The Tisza ripples, running in black and yellow swirls. Not too friendly. The road is just as predictable; a bridge comes close to crumbling beneath us, a wall caves in, shacks collapse. But no. Nothing collapses. A thin thread, a word, or some other support always arises to hold the story together. The host calmly, with gesturing hands and nodding head, tells us more.  And whenever the bus takes a turn, I have to clutch him closer to make out what he’s saying. He’s telling an interesting story about a rafter from the forest who… But no.  No one is here to talk. I look out the bus window, and I see there’s nobody here to tell me stories. The innkeeper and his inn are nowhere in sight, only the crumbling walls of the Cseremos cliffs. There’s nothing here. No people. No talking. Absolutely nothing.

As we go, we see the wildlife receding into the mountain landscape. Lynxes, wild boar and wolves vanish from the road. We reach desolate countryside, but the desolation, more than anything, originates in the souls, it can’t be seen in the curves of the hills. The ravines are constant, whatever the weather, they endure. The landscape becomes a caricature of the soul, becoming more and more distorted as we progress. Anyone who’s here in spring can’t help but come up against the deluge. Again I remember the Jew who spoke of the deluge. On the road a few downed trees lie strewn about, here and there a shoveled ditch, loose asphalt, as though people were working on it.  As though they wanted to pave the road. But it’s clear that nobody’s here. People sit in their Volgas and Moskviches, ride behind us for a stretch, following in our wake, then by our side for a couple hundred meters; they peer through their windows and dash past.

The rain is pouring.

Then all at once the mountains vanish, as though they had never been, as though we’d touched down in another world. The rain subsides. We can see Chernovitz on the other side of the Prut River. Vienna of the Prut. You can laugh, but it’s true. The name doesn’t remind many people of light, radiance, or luxury but, to put it vividly, black milk. Black milk is what Paul Celan called birth mingled with death. When trying to render palpable the reality of Bukovina, his place of birth and origin, Celan presumably wasn’t thinking of the once radiant metropolis he was born into in 1921, but rather the destruction and elimination of life that followed. The province of Bukovina is not simply a birthplace. I think it would be a mistake to call it that. Bukovina is everything and nothing. A place of many colors, many nationalities. Barren and fleeing, emptied of content. When you look at it, you see something, but there’s nothing there. Zero, point of origin. The center of the periphery. Central Europe’s unknown center. Yes, I believe there’s something here you could call a beginning and an end, and it is with us steadily as we travel.
On the most remote point of the world stands a city.

We approach, we move closer, we’re extremely close, and we see how beautiful it is. We touch it, we enter, and see it for itself. But where’s the conclusion? That’s why you don’t have to travel there to know, but then again, you do. I believe everything can come of this bleak, superficial sight.  Whoever sees the city will know immediately that he’s in an uncharted place.

2. Mayfly

Even in the best of cases, the most intensive trips are as short as the lifespan of a mayfly. They pass by so quickly, it’s as if they had never even happened.  Oftentimes, from a remove, the ideal trip, which lasted for weeks and took years of preparation, seems shorter than it was. How is this possible?  We think we know the world because we have traveled, when in reality we know nothing but the uneasy sense of how many corners of the world are still unknown to us. Well, the world will remain unknown. The traveler can think what he wants, and in any case only a few impressions remain.  What are these impressions? They are the moments missing from the guidebooks.  Let’s call them the moments of being there.

So then, let’s set out!

I have about fifty  photos in front of me that I took in the Sub-Carpathians and Chernovitz. They lie spread out on the table. Was I really there where I took these pictures? I’m not so sure. Now that the trip has ended, I see more than what I saw behind the camera. There’s so much in the photos I didn’t notice with the naked eye. All sorts of things are in them. I needed a little time before realizing what I could have seen in reality and what I only imagined was there.  Most pictures are dark, the contours blurred, melting into one another. This is the unknown and until now barely explored or simply forgotten countryside revealing its surrealism in these photographs of the land. Perhaps these photos are the only way to prove the countryside exists.

I have a bunch of photos in front of me here, which only a few other people will see. (They didn’t come out too well.  A few are completely blurry, as though the lens had been wet.) For the most part what I captured are impressions. There are strong brown and gray tones, with a little green showing through here and there, and dashes of yellow and blue in the pictures of the Tisza. The pebbles are light, and the debris strewn about on the pebbles blue, green and gray.  In one photo you can see a black skull set on a tin cross. The skull’s sockets are white, just like the bones. Szucsava blue shows up in the photos taken inside churches, and these are perhaps the vivid colors of the Bukovina monasteries. Saint Stephen’s and the Virgin Mary’s garments are also blue on the wall decoration in the church of Korösmezo. Jesus’s eyes are usually sky blue. The red embroidery comes out clearly on the Easter vestments I photographed. The longer we stare at the photographs, the more layers we discover. If I wave back the mist, Chernovitz, the final destination of our trip, is truly radiant. At the end of the roll come pictures of the gravestone portraits. 

Only later do I realize that water appears in every picture, without exception, be it the bank of the Tisza, which constantly cuts across our way, or elsewhere, in the fields, anywhere, everywhere we go. The river becomes an obstacle, it doesn’t even look like a river, with all the dams built up around it. The dams are erected, and during floods they immediately collapse. The Tisza is our main escort. But it is uncontrollable, and in this sense it ruins every trip, and we had to struggle with it through to the end. Come spring, the river is by no means just a trickling stream, and the light reflecting off its water doesn’t just dazzle the eye. At this time in spring the river’s presumed innocence disappears, and it becomes a calculating and evil force of destruction.  Perhaps in summer it returns to its more attractive and pure self. But during the trip and in the pictures of it, we’re helpless against it.

The Tisza. Once it almost swept our bus away entirely. However we look at it, the river seems to have strayed onto the road and marshes in the spring torrents. Somewhere up in the Carpathians it leaves its sources, the Black and White Springs, and swells into an unwieldy adult. The many week long, incessant rainfall forces the river to leave its banks. In retrospect the Tisza was neither an infant, nor a beautiful, mature woman, but a destructive adolescent.

3. Water

There’s water wherever we go. We can see it through the rain. Everything is damp: the houses, the people’s coats, the grass beside the churches, the boards of the wooden bridges, the gardens and the narrow pastures. 
Torrential rainfall probably means spring to the locals. For nearly two weeks the water didn’t let up for a moment. After two days it was like taking a trip in an aquarium. (That same year, that summer, a couple of months later, sixty percent of Romania lay underwater, and the people were powerless in the face of it.  In the news footage the downpour washed away houses, villages and roads.) The pictures I took in Chernovitz got wet because, as I seem to recall, no, I remember perfectly well, it was raining when I developed them, and they got wet.

Writing and water have a lot in common. The struggle to record a trip is similar to the struggle of a river fisherman. Without the fisherman everything would flow along as usual, because he has no say in what the river does. But even so he does interrupt, because he scoops out what he needs for himself, no more than what is needed for the description. My travel companions are there in the pictures too, but I’ve forgotten them. Perhaps later they’ll turn up here.  I still don’t know, I have no idea how the trip will take shape.  

Chernovitz exists. I saw it, took pictures of it, and I show them to anyone who asks. I show them to anyone who doesn’t ask. Like a correspondent among soldiers: you didn’t know it existed, right, I ask, and I present the proof, like clues to a crime. As though I knew what was happening on the other side of the front. Though I know absolutely nothing; I just went somewhere and came back from somewhere.

To enter Chernovitz, first you have to climb the hill it rests on and then manage to scale the walls of the city. Coming from Hosszúmezo we cross the Prut River, pass the train station, then, as we come deeper and deeper into the crumbling walls of the city, the crumbling walls have been painted white, cobblestones appear on the street. Once we feel like we’ve flown a hundred years back in time, we’re definitely not just fantasizing. We’ve arrived.  Here we are, standing in the center of town.

Chernovitz shoulders a more weighted existence than other Bukovina cities like Szucsava, Szeret, Radóc, Kimpolung, or the old royal Máramaros towns of Visk, Huszt, Técso and Máramarossziget. It’s the center of the region, a true metropolis, complete with a theater, market, university, Episcopal See and countless weathered traces of history. If someone knows the city from written descriptions and memoirs, in reality it will seem much smaller. On the outskirts, Zadagóra is the capital of Hasidism, and possibly it’s more renowned than any other great European city.  If we wanted to read the city, it would require years.  But wandering and touring its entirety can be done in a day.

In short, it poured the whole time. Usually my mouth gets dry when I go to the remote corners of the world.  Fluids would certainly help, but we can only drink at the end of the trip. I often think how good it would be to turn back, go home, slip into bed and think about the trip under the sheets. Reaching Chernovitz is like running the distance, but no, as if a long-distance runner stopped just before the finish line, because the meaninglessness of running had suddenly dawned on him. Finish line? This trip had no finish line, no destination. All of our belongings were soaked through. The rain is pounding against the roof of my attic room. The sound of rain against wood accompanies the thunder of the computer keys. My eyes tear up, though I’m not usually moved by raindrops. I don’t understand what a city and a soul have to do with one another.   

(to be continued)

Translated by Rachel Miller


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