Excerpt from The Greenhouse

By Andrei Babikov

Translated by Michael Gluck

Little is known about the nameless author of The Strange Book. One source claims that he was a Ligurian translator and scribe who moved to prosperous Florence in search of a better life. There he rented a garret with a window overlooking the San Salvi Bell Tower and entered the services of a wealthy notary. While still a young man he read Ovid and Boccaccio upon the picturesque banks of the Arno, composed neoteric Italian sonnets (abab abab cdc dcd) and awkward Latin eclogues dedicated to an unknown “R,” and indulged in dreams, carried off by his imagination to mythic Arcadia. Soon his master sent him on an entirely mundane assignment to Dalmatia, from which he did not wish to return and where, years later, he joined the Kotor wanderers. According to another, more reliable source, he was a tutor and “memers”—that is, a stutterer—sent into Adriatic exile at age thirty for his iconoclasm and irascibility.

What loss did he lament in the midnight hours, when a ship glides spectrally along the black mirror of the sea and the only sound is the crunch of the rigging on the foredeck?

In the beginning of The Strange Book, he relates that the main impetus to write had been known to him from an early age: “insatiable admiration for the manifold wonders of creation and overwhelming awe before the dizzying abyss of eternity,” and that only now, in the middle of his path, having survived ordeals and known the bitterness of loss, did he recognize that the former does not deny the possibility of the latter and vice versa, “but are all one and the same providential start, like the summer dawn over the sea or the cold flickering of stars in the night.” Elsewhere, he acknowledges that all his life he had striven to fulfill the only three possibilities given mankind: to shun evil, to seek the good, and “to labor in seclusion, for days on end, until senility pecks out our eyes.”

What more do we know about him? What loss did he lament in the midnight hours, when a ship glides spectrally along the black mirror of the sea and the only sound is the crunch of the rigging on the foredeck? Did he love? Did he leave any descendants? Nothing is known. Judging by his handwriting—and what a beautiful sample of the Northern Italian rotunda (which had only just arrived in southern Europe in the fifteenth century) it is—with its sweeping, rapid lettering absent of Gothic breaking (if one does not count the upright ends of the letters), he had, in fact, lived in Italy or at least studied at one of the universities there—most likely the Bolognese university, the best school of law and rhetoric at the time, before their turn to Greek and Latin literature (a good knowledge of which cannot be overlooked in The Strange Book). We also know that the archive of the exiles—a medium-sized oak chest studded with metal bands and tarred inside—was in his custody. In it were kept charters, lists, statutes, bills of sale, petitions, and other papers of the community, including the travel notes of the anonymous author himself. The poor fellow had to carry this trunk with him everywhere—so little did he trust the scrofulous orphan boy placed in his charge—and, at night, he would leave it by his headboard, and how he seethed and spat and spared no robust Latin mot, when, not finding the chest beside him, he discovered that the ship’s servants had been playing a game of dice on it! At night, if it wasn’t too rocky, dressed in a woolen monastic cloak with a cowl, sharp-nosed and pale in the cold lunar glow, he would light a marching lantern and, using it to grind his nib, describe the hardships and losses of the community and lament their own “simple-mindedness and vulgarity.”

Until that day when there was a fire in the old building of the Zapredel’sk city museum on the Capitan Embankment (following a visit by a Moscow delegation of student-assayers), this famous casket held pride of place in the center of the room opposite the entrance. More on this will crop up later.

As far as is known, the manuscript of The Strange Book has not survived. Legend has it that the author dictated the last pages to a scribe while on his deathbed. Uttering his final words (“… nulla rosa sine spinis et spes mea in Deo. Amen”), he ordered that his notes be copied and bound, his drafts and letters burned, beseeched the waters, read a prayer, after which he fell into a restless unconsciousness, and in the same night passed into eternal repose. The next morning someone spread a rumor around the community that this book had been written by a righteous man, that in it were traces of God’s revelation and that enlightenment and grace would come to anyone who touched it. There were so many who wished to tatter the manuscript that Nechet the Dalmatian thought it fitting to see that it was locked in a chest, but in his eagerness to hide it, the castellan of the castle managed to lose the key and, along with it, his mind when his youngest son was torn to pieces by wolves in the forest. From that point on, The Strange Book was forgotten for many years. Its fate turned out to be unhappy.

Written in Latin, it fell into the hands of ignorant Italian translators in the middle of the sixteenth century, when barely half the book remained, and was then further disfigured by lengthy inlays with Malipierian and Catholic circumlocutions from Annali Veneti. This translation was printed in Padua in 1585 under the title Chronicles of the Dalmatian Wanderers, though one could hardly call The Strange Book a chronicle: it is closer to Shakespeare than to Holinshed. To the last years of this century belongs the famous forgery of “Padre Domenico of Vicenza,” who, supposedly having found the complete and genuine manuscript in Vienna, published his own “translation” (Milan, 1598), which tells the story, as the hoaxer himself carefully specifies on the title page, “of the highly edifying and no less amusing and besides entirely verifiable journeys of the Dalmatian seafarers in the wild lands of the Scythians, with descriptions of the land and customs of the inhabitants along with tales of betrayal and greatness, love and separation, bloody battles and noisy feasts, with the pilgrims’ authentic testimonies of unheard-of miracles and extraordinary feats, and of the reunification of two lovers’ hearts, crowning this book worthy of the pen of Andrea da Barberino.”

In fact, “Padre Domenico” took a Paduan text as the basis for his forgery, to which he added three dozen fragments of his own work, providing them with irrelevant historical explanations and long excerpts from A Decade of History by Flavius Blondus. Despite the fact that the fraud was very soon discovered, and it was simultaneously revealed that the author of the translation was not any kind of padre, but a retired church archivist named Luigi, his concoction was still included in all reprints and translations of The Strange Book for nearly the next three hundred years (among them Granovskii’s abridged Russian translation, Petersburg, 1850), since it conveyed a certain connection between the disparate parts of the book.

That is to say: what are we to care about the tantrums of corrupt historians or the “sensational revelations” of provincial publicists?

Luckily, ten years ago a different translation, into Serbian, made in the beginning of the seventeenth century by Prince Arsenii, was found in a private room of the Trieste archive. Literal and poetic, moving and witty, profound and captivating, it at once changed the theretofore wary attitude to the book which reigned in the academic world into one of traceless immersion in a masterpiece. Made exceptionally carefully, albeit from a recension of a manuscript of a shorter length (apparently belonging to a later period when its nameless author had already passed on and his negligent helper, who used to run off to the stern to go fishing, had become the decrepit Dean of the Zapredel’sk Vivarium), it allowed us to fill in the gap in meaning in the Italian traduzione, and consolidation of the two existing translations—Italian and Serbian—has made it possible to restore the entire history of the founding of Zapredel’sk.

It would seem that, in the blinding light of this scholarly triumph, no place would remain for shadowy silhouettes in dark niches, and yet, in the academic circles of Eastern Europe and Northern Italy, there are still stubborn mules who, in spite of the facts, deny the authenticity of the Serbian transcriptions, considering them late forgeries (Of what? With what aim were they written?); some have been known to go so far as to deny the existence of Zapredel’sk itself.

Recently, one Fiumean professor was spoiled by the attention of a tabloid newspaper which enjoys some success among connoisseurs of skeptical raucity and those who take everything with a grain of salt when he published an article with the playful title “The Termination of Terms” reproaching the history of the “so-called princedom of Minor Cascade” on the reliable grounds that he says that his own name does not appear in the list of brilliant experts who have recognized its authenticity. In response, he was reasonably informed that envy is not the best asset for finding the truth, that the eructation of erudition often manifests itself in the oblivion of ethics, and that imaginary learning is worse than the imaginary in science and that, before one disputes the value of another’s discovery, one should first take the trouble to familiarize oneself with it. The furious professor then published an “open letter” (a genre questionable in all respects) to the editor of the scholarly review, where, in his indignant response he shamelessly stated that “at his disposal were around a dozen written testimonies of various origins, from which it irrefutably followed that there was no country of Cascade whatsoever, nor did The Strange Book ever exist in any form.” The request to present even part of such important “testimonies” was followed, as could have been anticipated, by scowling silence. Several months later, at a symposium of medievalists in Turin, a group of German historians asked the famous academic Greenberg, a scholar of colossal learning and spotless repute, for clarification. However, to general confusion, the eighty-year-old academic ingenuously answered that he had never heard of such a Strange Book, since for the last fifteen years he had devoted all of his time to working on the ten-volume History of the City of Altona. Needless to say, his answer, slightly modified, was then and there published as the “authoritative opinion of the leading light of historical studies, after which it is entirely impossible to speak of the authenticity of the Serbian manuscript in earnest.”

However, these journalistic squabbles, with their more than modest set of metaphors (to blacken, to besmirch, to cast into shadow), are too boring to write about further. That is to say: what are we to care about the tantrums of corrupt historians or the “sensational revelations” of provincial publicists? If, in the painting, the myopic “connoisseur” of art does not notice that, beyond the veiled velvet curtain, through the patterned window, lies a hazy, hilly country (with distant clouds, foggy islands, the soft glaze of dawn, a tiny fisherman in a red cloak with his fishing tackle) that does not mean that it is not there. The anonymous author of The Strange Book (strange as in “stranger,” the “book of strangers”) somewhere expresses in passing his admiration for the newly invented in Florence “rodoli de vero da osli per lezer” (“circular lenses for the eyes, in order to read”)—we fasten glasses on our noses and peer steadfastly into the landscape beyond the window.

Andrei Babikov lives in Moscow and has written short stories, a poetry collection, and the novel The Greenhouse (2012), currently being translated into English and from which this is an excerpt. Babikov translated, edited, and annotated Russian language editions of Vladimir Nabokov’s English language novels The Original of Laura, Look at the Harlequins! as well as Nabokov’s collected stories, the screenplay of Lolita and The Tragedy of Mr. Morn.

Michael Gluck is a Ph.D. student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University.