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Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Towards an Eastern Landfall
Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection....
These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn, seen from the deck of the ship which is to carry me down through the islands to Cyprus; a Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole color-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world. Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colors, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice paper. Fragments of history touched with the colors of wine, tar, ochre, blood, fire-opal and ripening grain. The whole at the same time being rinsed softly back at the edges into a dawn sky as softly as circumspectly blue as a pigeon's egg.
Mentally I held it all, softly as an abstract painting, cradling it in my thoughts—the whole encampment of cathedrals and palaces, against the sharply-focused face of Stendhal as he sits forever upon a stiff-backed chair at Florian's sipping wine: or on that of a Corvo, flirting like some huge fruit-bat down these light-bewitched alleys....
The pigeons swarm the belfries. I can hear their wings across the water like the beating of fans in a great summer ballroom, The vaporetto on the Grand Canal beats too, softly as a human pulse, faltering and renewing itself after every hesitation which marks a landing-stage. The glass palaces of the Doges are being pounded in a crystal mortar, strained through a prism. Venice will never be far from me in Cyprus—for the lion of Saint Mark still rides the humid airs of Famagusta, of Kyrenia.
It is an appropriate point of departure for the traveler to the eastern Levant....
But heavens, it was cold. Down on the grey flagged quay I had noticed a coffee-stall which sold glasses of warm milk and croissants. It was immediately opposite the gang-plank, so that I was in no danger of losing my ship. A small dark man with a birdy eye served me wordlessly, yawning in my face, so that in sympathy I was forced to yawn too. I gave him the last of my liras.
There were no seats, but I made myself comfortable on an upended barrel and, breaking my bread into the hot milk, fell into a sleepy contemplation of Venice from this unfamiliar angle of vision across the outer harbor.
A tug sighed and spouted a milky jet upon the nearest cloud. The cabin-steward joined me for a glass of milk; he was an agreeable man, rotund and sleek, with a costly set of dimples round his smile—like expensive cuff-links in a well-laundered shirt. "Beautiful," he agreed, looking at Venice, "beautiful": but it was a reluctant admission, for he was from Bologna, and it was hard to let the side down by admiring a foreign city. He plunged into a pipe full of scented shag. "You are going to Cyprus?" he said at last, politely, but with the faintest hint of commiseration.
"Yes. To Cyprus."
It seemed immodest to add that I was intending to live in Cyprus, to buy a house if possible.... After five years of Serbia I had begun to doubt whether, in wanting to live in the Mediterranean at all, I was not guilty of some fearful aberration; indeed the whole of this adventure had begun to smell of improbability. I was glad that I was touching wood.
"It is not much of a place," he said.
"So I believe."
"Arid and without water. The people drink to excess."
This sounded rather better. I have always been prepared, where water was scarce, to wash in wine if necessary. "How is the wine?" I asked.
"Heavy and sweet." This was not so good. A Bolognese is always worth listening to on the subject of wine. No matter. (I should buy a small peasant house and settle in the island for four or five years.) The most arid and waterless of islands would be a rest after the heartless dusty Serbian plains.
"But why not Athens?" he said softly, echoing my own thoughts.
"Ah! Then you are going to live in Cyprus for some time?"
My secret was out. His manner changed, and his picture of Cyprus changed with it, for politeness does not permit an Italian to decry another's plans, or run down his native country. Cyprus was to become mine by adoption—therefore he must try to see it through my eyes. At once it became fertile, full of goddesses and mineral springs; ancient castles and monasteries; fruit and grain and verdant grasslands; priests and gypsies and brigands.... He gave it a swift Sicilian travel-poster varnish, beaming at me approvingly as he did so. "And the girls?" I said at last.
But here he stuck; politeness battled with male pride for a long moment. He would have to tell the truth lest later on, in the field, so to speak, I might convict him—a Bolognese, above all!—of having no standards of female beauty. "Very ugly," he said at last, in genuine regret. "Very ugly indeed." This was disheartening. We sat there in silence for a while until the steamer towering above us gave a loud lisp of steam, while beaded bubbles of condensing steam trickled down the siren.
It was time to say good-bye to Europe.
Tugs brayed as we passed the harbor bar. The mist thinned out and quivered on the hills beyond Venice. With such associations how could I forget Catherine Cornaro, the last Queen of Cyprus, who in twenty years of exile forgot perhaps her uneasy reign over the island, finding in the green arbors of Asolo, surrounded by devoted courtiers, a kindlier way of life? She died aged fifty-six in 1510, and her body was carried across the Grand Canal from the family palace. ("The night was a stormy one, with heavy wind and rain. On her coffin lay the crown of Cyprus—outwardly at least Venice insisted that her daughter was a Queen; but, inside, her body lay shrouded in the habit of Saint Francis, with cord and cowl and coarse brown cloak") It is hard in the early morning radiance of this sky and sea to imagine those flapping torches, the scattering waters flushed by lightning, the wind snatching at cloaks and vestments as the long boats set out with their marvelously clad dignitaries. Who remembers Catherine? Titian and Bellini painted her; Bembo wrote a philosophy of love to amuse her courtiers. In the only portrait I have seen the eyes are grave and beautiful, full of an impenitent life of their own; the eyes of a woman who has enjoyed much adulation, who has traveled much and loved much. The eyes of one who was not narrow enough, or self-seeking enough to trespass on the domain of politics without losing at the game. But the eyes of a true woman, not a phantom.
And then my thoughts turned to another sad relic—the flayed and stuffed skin of the great soldier Bragadino which lies moldering somewhere among the recesses of Giovanni e Paolo. His defense of Famagusta against the Turkish general Mustafa ranks among the great feats of military leadership in the whole of European history. When at last the pitifully small forces of the besieged were forced to parley they agreed to surrender on condition that they were given a safe passage to Crete. Mustafa broke his word, and no sooner was Bragadino in his power than he unleashed upon his person and that of his captains all the pent-up fury of the religious fanatic. Bragadino's nose and ears were cut off, and his body was flayed; then he was set in a slung seat with a crown at his feet and hoisted at the yard of a galley, "hung like a stork," for all to see. Finally he was dragged to the main square and tortured while "the drums beat." But "his saintly soul bore all with great firmness, patience and faith ... and when their steel reached his navel he gave back to his Savior, a truly happy and blessed spirit. His skin was taken, stuffed with straw, and carried round the city: then hung on the yard of a galliot and paraded along the coast of Syria with great rejoicings."
All this was recorded faithfully by Calepio, detail by detail—but it is difficult to read in cold blood. Venice is fading against the hills.
At dusk the mute grey destroyer which had been A playing hide-and-seek with us all afternoon heeled abruptly, disconcertingly about and vanished westward into the green ray. We turned from the rail with a sigh, aware that the light was sifting quietly away into the darkness, as casually as the plumes of smoke from the funnel of the ship which carried us. We had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time—those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.
It is now that the traveler seeks to renew, if only vicariously, his sense of connection with the land in letters to be written, documents to be sorted, baggage dispositions to be worked out. It is still warm on deck, and from the glow of light coming from the saloon I am able to return once more to the pages of Mrs. Lewis, who in 1893 made the same voyage as ourselves, and who, in A Lady's Impressions of Cyprus, has left us a spirited and observant record of life in the island when British suzerainty was only a few years old. She came within a few years of Rimbaud's visit—the last one. With his talent for tasting every extreme the French poet not only baked himself raw in the oven-like quarries of Larnaca, but succeeded in freezing himself almost insensible on the bony heights of Troodos, building the Governor's summer lodge, with a small team of mules and workmen. What did he think of Cyprus? He does not say. It was simply a place where a few decently paid jobs existed under the British. His two brief visits have left us a few whining references to the heat and the cold—that is all.
In the same span of time a young second-lieutenant conducted a forlorn battle with the War Office which was to result in the first accurate field-survey of the island. Those antler-like moustaches, those stern but shy eyes, were later to become an international symbol for a whole generation—Kitchener! Poet and soldier, their paths must actually have crossed on several occasions. But that is what islands are for; they are places where different destinies can meet and intersect in the full isolation of time. The poet with his grunting mule-team winding laboriously up through the foothills to the lodge he was building: Kitchener bivouacked with his two clerks and the jumble of theodolites, markers and tables, in some worn bell-tent among the olives. They have nothing in common save that they share the same nook in time.
Yet there is one fugitive similarity. The handwriting of both men is remarkable for the conscious control it reveals over a sensibility excited beyond the pitch of the normal. Kitchener's is stronger, less sensitive—but then he had already taken refuge in the Army, behind the double-locked doors of a corporate tradition, behind the moustaches, behind a vocation as exacting as that of the Church. From this he drew the strength which Rimbaud denied himself. The French poet was of a different order of bravery, for he was on the run from the Hound of Heaven....
In Cyprus I stumbled upon many more such echoes from forgotten moments of history with which to illuminate the present. Invaders like Haroun al Rashid, Alexander, Coeur de Lion: women like Catherine Cornaro and Helena Palaeologus ... the confluence of different destinies which touched and illumined the history of one small island in the eastern basin of the Levant, giving it significance and depth of focus.
Different invasions weathered and eroded it, piling monument upon monument. The contentions of monarchs and empires have stained it with blood, have wearied and refreshed its landscape repeatedly with mosques and cathedrals and fortresses. In the ebb and flow of histories and cultures it has time and time again been a flashpoint where Aryan and Semite, Christian and Moslem, met in a death-embrace. Saint Paul received a well-merited thrashing there at the hands of the Paphiots. Antony gave the island to Cleopatra as a gift. Aphrodite....
I picked Mrs. Lewis off an overturned bookstall in Trieste. There had been a riot after a bomb-throwing, and I was hurrying back to my hotel from the observation-ward of the hospital. The street with its wrecked fruit-stalls and booths and smashed shop-windows was perfect illustration of my state of mind. The boat was to sail at midnight. A Lady's Impressions of Cyprus stared up at me from a jumble of fruit and books, and a whole drift of smashed secondhand discs. There was no one about, though I could hear the grumble and crash of a crowd down towards the harbor. Military patrols kept roaring by. The gutters were running mournfully with wine which on the black tarmac looked like blood. The whole contents of a toy-shop had been blown into the street, giving it all a carnival air. I stopped guiltily, fearful of incurring the penalties of looting should the police return, and picked Mrs. Lewis up. Her faded green cover with its floral device promised me a Victorian travel-account which might introduce me in a most suitable manner to the Crown Colony of Cyprus. But something more than this. I felt she was a sort of omen.
A book picked up at such a time and in such a place could not turn out to be merely the vague ramblings of some dreadful nursery governess. I glanced at it and was reassured. A first-class ticket from London to Smyrna in 1893, she informed me, cost her exactly £17 2s. 3d. Without more ado, I slipped Mrs. Lewis into my pocket beside my passport and my own ticket from Trieste to Limassol, which had cost me £47. There she would stay until I had time to digest her.
A patrol roared out of a side-street and I thought it wiser to be off with my prize. Hurrying through the misty and deserted streets I felt absurdly reassured by the little book—as if I had put myself into the hands of a trustworthy guide. Nor was my confidence misplaced. Mrs. Lewis offered me a splendid picture of Cyprus with which to compare my own experience and impressions.
We berthed towards sunrise in a gloomy and featureless roadstead, before a town whose desolate silhouette suggested that of a tin-mining village in the Andes. An unlovely straggle of godowns and warehouses, patched and peeling, fronted the shallow and dirty littoral. Here and there along the flat alluvial coastline, with its unhealthy suggestion of salt-pans (I was not wrong: Limassol lies upon a shallow lake), here and there the eye picked out a villa of some style or consequence in a flowering garden. But even at this early hour the sunlight created a dense haze, while the humid air of the little port came out across the still sea to meet us.
We landed by bum-boat and were charged an inordinate fee for unnecessary porterage. In the gaunt customs-house things were not too bad—but in place of the tremendous roaring and gesticulating, of chaffering and swearing, which one had come to expect from the ports of the Levant, there reigned a heavy and stupefied silence. The officials went about their duties with the air of sleepwalkers. It was surprising to find them collected enough to answer questions. I asked in Greek and was answered in English. I asked again in Greek and was once again answered in English. It was a long moment before I recollected why. I was in the presence not, as I thought, of Turks who either knew no Greek, or would not condescend to speak it: no, I was in the presence of babus. To lapse into Greek with anyone who was not a peasant would involve a loss of face. It was rather sad. Just to make sure I asked for the names of the customs officials with whom I had been dealing; they looked faintly surprised, but politely gave me Greek names. I wished I knew enough Turkish to see whether any such inhibition reigned among the Turkish officials.
Outside the customs house a mob of expensive-looking taxis had collected, manned by young Cypriots who shouted at me amiably enough. But altogether the atmosphere lacked brio. A vague and spiritless lethargy reigned. I was beginning to think that successive occupations had extirpated any trace whatsoever of the Greek genius when I was relieved by the sight of a bus with both back wheels missing, lying on its side against a house. It was just like home. Three old ladies were dismembering the conductor; the driver was doing one of those laughing and shrugging acts which drive travelers out of their minds all over the Levant; the village idiot was pumping up a tire; the owners of the house against which the bus was leaning were hanging indignantly out of their drawing-room window and, with their heads inside the bus, were being rude to the point of nausea. Meanwhile, a trifle removed from the center of the hubbub, and seated perilously on the leaning roof of the machine, with contorted face, perched an individual in a cloth cap who appeared to be remorselessly sawing the bus in half, starting at the top. Was this perhaps some obscure revenge, or a genuine attempt to make a helpful contribution? I shall never know.
Excerpted from Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1957 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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