Farewell to Prinkipo
So! Distinct and incontestable French visas have been affixed to our passports. In two days we depart from Turkey. When I arrived here with my wife and son – four and a half years ago – the light of "prosperity" was shining brightly in America. Today, those times seem prehistoric, almost legendary.
Prinkipo is an island of peace and forgetfulness. The life of the world reaches here after long delays and hushed down. But the crisis found its way here too. From year to year fewer people come from Stambul, and those who do come have less and less money. Of what use is the superabundance of fish when there is no demand for it?
Prinkipo is a fine place to work with a pen, particularly during autumn and winter when the island becomes completely deserted and woodcocks appear in the park. Not only are there no theaters here, but no movies. Automobiles are forbidden. Are there many such places in the world? In our house we have no telephone. The braying of the donkey acts soothingly upon the nerves. One cannot forget for a minute that Prinkipo is an island, for the sea is under the window, and there is no hiding from the sea at any point on the island. Ten meters away from the stone fence we catch fish, at fifty meters – lobsters. For weeks at a time the sea is as calm as a lake.
But we are in close connection with the world outside, for we get mail. That is the climax of the day. The post brings fresh newspapers, new books, letters from friends, and letters from foes. This pile of printed and written paper holds much that is unexpected, especially from America. I find it difficult to believe that so many people exist in this world who are urgently concerned with the salvation of my soul. In the course of these years I have received such a quantity of religious literature as would suffice for the salvation not of a single person, but of a brigade of confirmed sinners. All the pertinent places in the devout books are considerately scored on the margins. However, no fewer people are interested in my soul's perdition, and they express their corresponding wishes with a laudable frankness, even though anonymously. Graphologists demand that I forward my handwriting to have my character analyzed. Astrologists request to be told the day and hour of my birth to draw my horoscope. Autograph collectors wheedle for my signature to add to those of two American presidents, three heavyweight champions, Albert Einstein, Colonel Lindbergh, and of course Charlie Chaplin. Such letters arrive almost exclusively from America. Gradually I have learned to guess from the envelope whether the request will be for a cane toward the home museum, or whether a desire will be expressed to recruit me as a Methodist preacher, or a prophecy forthcoming of eternal tortures on one of the vacant spits in hell. As the crisis sharpened, the proportion of these letters swung decidedly in favor of the infernal regions.
The post brings much that is unexpected. A few days ago it brought the French visa. The skeptics – and there were such in our house too – were put to shame. We are leaving Prinkipo. Our house is already almost empty; wooden boxes stand below, and young hands are busy hammering nails. In our old and neglected villa, the floors this spring were decorated with paint of a composition so mysterious that tables, chairs, and even feet, stick lightly to the floor even now, four months later. It is strange, but it seems to me that during these years my feet have grown a little into the soil of Prinkipo as well.
I have had few ties, really, with the island itself, the circumference of which can be covered on foot in two hours. But for that reason I made more ties with the waters that wash it. During these fifty-three months, with the help of my invaluable tutor, I have become very intimate with the sea of Marmara His name is Charolambos, and his universe is described by a radius of approximately four kilometers around Prinkipo. But Charolambos knows his universe. To an undiscerning eye the sea seems identical throughout its whole extent Yet the bottom of the sea enfolds an immeasurable variety of physical organisms, minerals, flora and fauna. Charolambos, alas, is illiterate, but he reads with artistry the beautiful book of the sea of Marmara His father and grandfather and great-grandfather, and the grandfather of his great-grandfather, were fishermen. His father still fishes even now. The old man's specialty is lobsters. In summer he catches them not with nets as other fishermen do – as his son and I do – but he hunts them. It is the most enthralling spectacle. The old man discerns the lobster's hiding place under a rock through the water at a depth of five or eight meters and more. With a very long pole tipped with iron he pushes the rock over and the exposed lobster flees. The old man gives an order to the oarsman, pursues the lobster, and with a second long pole to which is attached a small reticular bag upon a square frame, he overhauls the lobster, covers it, and pulls it out When the sea is disturbed by a ripple, the old man sprinkles oil upon the water with his fingers and peers through the fatty mirror. In a good day he catches thirty, forty, and more lobsters. But everyone has become impoverished during these years, and the demand for lobsters is as low as for Ford's automobiles.
Fishing with nets, being professional, is considered unworthy of a free artist. A superficial and false attitude! Fishing with a net is a high art. One must know the time and place for each kind of fish. One must know how to spread the net in a semicircle, sometimes a circle, even in a spiral, depending upon the configuration of the bottom and a dozen other conditions. One must lower the net noiselessly into the water, unrolling it rapidly from a moving boat. And finally – as the last act – the fish must be driven into the net. Today this is done as it was done ten thousand and more years ago, by means of stones cast from the boat. By this barrage the fish are first driven into the circle and then into the net itself. A different quantity of stone is required for this at different times of the year and under different conditions of sea. From time to time the supply must be replenished on the shore. But in the boat there are two permanent stones on long strings. One must know how to throw them with force and immediately retrieve them from the water. The stone should fall close to the net. But woe to the fisher if it plunks into the net itself and becomes entangled! Then Charolambos chastises one with an annihilating look – and justly. Out of politeness and a sense of social discipline, Charolambos admits that I am generally not bad at casting stones. But I need only compare my work with his, and pride departs immediately. Charolambos sees the net after it is already invisible to me, and he knows where it is when it is no longer visible to him either. He feels it not only in front of him, but behind his back. His extremities are always in contact with that net through some mysterious fluids. Pulling the net up is stiff work, and Charolambos wears a wide woolen scarf tightly wound around his belly, even during the hot July days. One must row without either overpassing or lagging behind the curve of the net, and that is my job. I was not quick at learning to note the almost imperceptible motions of the hand by means of which the master directs his assistant.
Often after casting fifteen kilos of stone into the water, Charolambos pulls out the net with a lonely little fish the size of my thumb. Sometimes the entire net lives and quivers with captured fish. How explain this difference? "Deniz," replies Charolambos, shrugging his shoulders. Deniz means "sea," and this word resounds like "destiny."
Charolambos and I converse in a new language which has grown up slowly out of Turkish, Greek, Russian, and French words – all violently distorted and seldom used according to their honest connotation. We construct phrases after the manner of two- or three-year-old children. However, I firmly call out in Turkish the names of the more common operations. Chance observers have concluded from this that I command the Turkish language freely, and the papers have even announced that I translate American authors into Turkish – a slight exaggeration!
Sometimes it happens that no sooner have we got the nets lowered than we hear a sudden splash and a snort behind our backs. "Dolphin!" yells Charolambos in alarm. Danger! The dolphin bides his time until the fishermen drive the fish into the net with stones, and then he tears them out one by one, along with big chunks of the net itself by way of seasoning. "Shoot, M'sieu!" yells Charolambos. And I shoot from a revolver. A young dolphin will be scared by this and flee. But the old pirates cherish a complete contempt for that automatic popgun. Merely out of politeness they swim a little way off after the shot, and give a snort and bide their time. More than once were we compelled to pull up our empty net in a hurry and change the fishing ground.
The dolphin is not the only enemy. The little black gardener from the north shore is very expert at cleaning out other people's nets if they are left overnight without surveillance. Toward evening, he pulls out in his skiff as if to fish, but in reality to find a point of vantage whence he can well observe all those who are bringing out their nets for the night There are people who steal nets (Charolambos and I have lost not a few during these years), but this is risky and bothersome. The net must be altered lest it be recognized; it must be tended, patched, and painted from time to time with pitch. The little gardener leaves all these wearisome cares to the owners of the nets; he contents himself with the fish and the lobsters. Charolambos and he cross glances in passing, sharper than a knife. We resort to subterfuge; pulling away some distance, we go through the pantomime of casting a net, and then, rounding the little island full of rabbits, we secretly lower our net into the water. In about one case out of three we succeed in fooling the enemy.
The chief fish here are barbonnel and rouget. The chief fisher of rouget is the old man Kochu. He knows his fish, and sometimes it seems as though the fish know him. When rouget abounds, Kochu deals a quick strategic blow to his possible rivals. Going out earlier than anybody else, he works the watery field not from one end to the other, but after the fashion of a chessboard, as a knight jumps, or in some even-more-fancy figure. No one knows except Kochu where the net has already passed and where it has not Having blocked off in this manner a large section of the sea, Kochu then fills in at leisure the unutilized squares. A great art! Kochu has succeeded in learning the sea because Kochu is old. But even Kochu's father worked until last year with another old fellow, a former barber. In a decrepit skiff they laid nets for lobsters, and they themselves, corroded to the bones with sea salt, resembled two aged lobsters. Both of them are now resting in the Prinkipo cemetery, which holds more people than the little village.
However, it should not be inferred that we restricted ourselves to nets. No, we used all the methods of fishing that promised booty. With hook and line we caught big fish weighing up to ten kilos. While I would be pulling up some invisible monster, now following me obediently and now frantically balking, Charolambos would watch me with unmoving eyes, eyes without a shadow of respect left in them. Not without reason did he fear that I would lose the precious prey. At every awkward move of mine, he would growl savagely and menacingly. And when the fish finally became visible in the water, so beautiful in its transparency, Charolambos would whisper in admonition, "Buyuk, M'sieu" (a big one). To which I would reply panting, "Buyuk, Charolambos." At the boat side we catch up the prey in a small net. And now the beautiful monster, played over by all the colors of the rainbow, shakes the boat with its last blows of resistance and despair. In our joy, we eat an orange apiece, and in a language comprehensible to no one but us, and which we ourselves only half understand, share the sensations of the adventure.
This morning the fishing was poor. The season is over, the fish have gone to deep water. Toward the end of August they will return, but then Charolambos will be fishing without me. He is now downstairs nailing up cases of books, of the utility of which he is obviously not entirely convinced. Through the open window can be seen the small steamer which brings the functionaries from Stambul to their summer homes. Empty shelves yawn in the library. Only in the upper corner over the arch of the window does the old life go on as usual. Swallows have built a nest there, and directly above the British "blue books" have hatched a brood which has no interest in French visas.
For better or worse, the chapter called "Prinkipo" is ended.