Maja Lundgren’s Pompeji is a colourful and engaging book filled with linguistic puns, rhythmic phrases, poetry, vibrant descriptions, and Latin words that at the same time sound like Swedish slang. These elements together make the novel a rich and interesting literary experience for the reader, but at the same time, have made the translation of the prose a slightly more complex enterprise. As a translator therefore, I have taken the liberty of being freer with the text in places, in an effort to keep her lilting and multi-faceted lyrical voice intact.
Lundgren’s brightly rendered novel has been translated into six languages thus far, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
The book won the Svenska Dagbladets Litteraturpris and the En bok för allas litterära humorpris in 2001, and was nominated for Augustpriset that same year. In 2002, Maja Lundgren was nominated for France’s Prix Jean Monnet de la Littérature Européenne, and in 2005, she was one of six finalists nominated for Italy’s Premio Bancarella.
An excerpt from Maja Lundgren’s forthcoming book, Myggor och tigrar (Gnats and Tigers) was printed in a recent issue of the magazine Bang.
The extract below comprises pages 8-24 of the book.
Stepping Stone II
Welcome to a small country town in the south of Italy. Welcome to cruel little Pompeii. With a spirit that cannot be denied or totally defined, there are things here that are as wide as they are long – music and will-o’-the-wisp.
O wanton one
O wondrous volcano
Beneath Mount Vesuvius, now slumbering, lies good old Pompeii – or Colonia Veneria Cornelia Pompeianorum, which is Pompeii’s lovely and lurid name in its full-blown entirety. A turbulent trading town (exports: a fish sauce called garum, pumice, wool, cloth, and Vesuvinum, which Pliny the Elder swears will give you a headache) with roughly 10,000 inhabitants. An expanding little town that has had to put up with an occasional tremor on a regular basis ever since the great earthquake hit sixteen years ago.
Pompeii’s top banker, L. Caecilius Jucundus, had an altar with a bas-relief erected in his home capturing the calamitous moment, the moment when everything came tumbling down.
Moss-green Vesuvius – fair, verdant Vesuvius – is dimly etched against the sky, wrapped in feathers of fog and fluff, like a sleepy giant stretched out across the horizon.
O wanton one
O wondrous volcano
Golden pleasure yachts sail today upon the calm Mediterranean, whilst white seagulls glide through a clear, clean, wind-swept sky. Through Porta di Marina, the most heavily trafficked of Pompeii’s seven gates, come rolling wagons laden with goods, which have arrived by ship from Alexandria, Puteoli, Cuma, and Syria.
A ship from Alexandria brings amphorae filled with Nile water for the temple of Isis, and a new tiger for the amphitheater. (The old one escaped a couple of years back when a great tumult broke out in the gallery). And grain. First come the colorful amphorae adorned with small green crocodiles; then the sacks of grain; and finally it’s time for the tiger.
Pompeiians have come down to the port in great numbers to take a look at the new tiger. Their clamor is deafening. In Pompeii’s annals, this is described as a great event. The new tiger is intended to bring to the amphitheater the entertaining wild-beast shows that are so immensely popular in Pompeii and throughout the Roman Empire. The new tiger has come to entertain the blood-thirsty Pompeiians.
Everyone is pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the animal. Insults are exchanged – in a way that isn’t exactly unusual in Pompeii.
“Shit on you, fututrix.”
“Not as often as you, fututor.”
Hooked to a wire rope, the tiger in the cage is slowly lowered onto the quay. It swings back and forth, for like all caged tigers, this one too paces to and fro, growling full of dread. When the cage finally touches the quay, the crowd cheers. A cart drives up, the cage is lifted once more into the air, where it hangs motionless for a few seconds, before it is carefully – take it slow! wait! turn it! to the left, to the left, no higher, wait! no now! – lowered onto the cart.
The tiger roars. Out of its heavy body, a hot and sticky stream cuts ferociously through the air, as little children dance around the cage, sticking in their small hands between the bars, but only for half a second when the tiger isn’t looking.
“Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him...”
When the cart, pulled by two oxen, slowly begins its ascent toward Porta di Marina – followed closely by laughing, skipping children and barking dogs, and, at a proper distance, by venerable citizens in sedan chairs carried by slaves, an old, ragged tiger sits, well hidden in the thicket, amongst heady narcissus-scented cypress trees, watching. It is the tiger that managed to escape. He has come to take a look at his successor.
“Umph! What a wretched creature. Just look how dusty his black is. And how pissy his yellow. That little pussy will be easy prey for the light-footed gladiators.”
Pompeii is a brutal town, a town where no tenderness can survive. All of you who enter now with me through Porta di Marina can abandon all hope, lay it on the top shelf, for no faith, nor hope, nor love has a dog’s chance in this sordid, godforsaken hole.
O wanton one
O wondrous volcano
You threat on the horizon
Stepping Stone III
Some seventeen years earlier, at the end of February AD 61, or whenever the hell it was, under the consulate of C. Paetus and P. Turpilianus, the Apostle Paul had dropped anchor in Puteoli. For two years he had been imprisoned in Caesarea, and was now, accompanied by Luke, on his way to Rome to lodge an appeal at Nero’s court. Luke was working on The Acts of the Apostles, and had just enough paper with him to write up the last few chapters, Chapters 25, 26, 27, and 28. He had already worked out most of it in his head, and he sat down to work on all four every now and again.
Paul and Luke had begun their voyage aboard the Edremit, but she succumbed to peril and was wrecked in a severe storm (there were plenty of signs that year too), which forced them to anchor in Malta, where they then continued aboard a ship bound for Syracuse in Sicily. There they stayed for two or three days before setting sail for Puteoli.
Back then, Puteoli was Italy’s largest seaport. It wasn’t Naples, and it wasn’t Pompeii, it was Puteoli, and Puteoli, known as the “window to the world,” attracted people from all over. Hence, many languages were to be heard, gods worshipped, and a plethora of wares and culinary specialties could be found. Indeed, sooner or later, everything found its way to Puteoli – ideas, philosophies, fashions, art forms, manners, and customs. In this way, Puteoli was comparable to Pompeii – although, if truth be told, it was more Pompeii than Pompeii itself.
And what’s something called that’s more Pompeii than Pompeii? Simply put, Puteoli.
Literally speaking, of course. I don’t mean this metaphorically. Metaphorically speaking, something that’s more Pompeii than Pompeii would be something else entirely. It would be something even more awesome than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, so to speak. I mean, of teenagers, you can say that they “hang” more than those Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or that someone’s derrière does, or, for that matter, that the pyramids are only a euphemism for a particular phenomenon. Take the Colossus of Rhodes, for instance. Arguably, this colossus, too, might merely just be a euphemism for a monumental clod.
Cults of many kinds flourished in Puteoli. The marketplace was consecrated to the Egyptian gods; the Phoenicians worshipped Atargatis; the Arabs worshipped Dusares. In Puteoli, even Baal, Mitra, Jupiter Dolichenus, and Cybele had cult followings. When Paul landed in Puteoli, it was on a ship laden with grain and Christianity, and since a Christian congregation already existed he was able to impose himself upon them for a week before continuing on his journey to lodge his appeal in Rome.
Before his departure, however, he came across three women who were on their way to Pompeii. They all shared the same fate, having been bought by one and the same man, who was taking them back to his hometown, where they were to devote their lives to whoring. These three girls were in their first, second, and third weeks of pregnancy, respectively.
Now when it came to women, Paul had always been a bit leery, but since one of them was Jewish they had become acquainted. And that’s how it came about that she founded a Christian congregation in Pompeii. But then she died in childbirth.
Before breathing her very last breath, she pressed her cross into the midwife’s hand, and begged her to make sure that her babe was baptized.
Stepping Stone IV
There once was a man named Vitruvius. He was a man of ideals, and the author of many books on architecture and art, wherein he described how things ought to be. Or rather, what things should look like. In Pompeii, nobody seemed to get anything quite right.
The basilica isn’t in keeping with Vitruvius’ ideals. It’s longer than it’s wide, and this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It’s also way too... It simply doesn’t have the right proportions. Pompeii’s basilica just isn’t quite right.
Many of the bricks that make up the basilica have the following inscription:
It’s believed that this Ni. Pupie was an Oscan brick maker, but I can’t help but ask:
Hey you, is this true?
On one of the walls of the basilica, someone has scrawled: Someone at whose table I do not dine, is a barbarian to me.
Pompeii is a town of toil, of downright hard labor. When a little mule is born, for instance, it isn’t in keeping with Vitruvius’ ideals. Of course, a little mule is only rarely ever in keeping with its own ideals. That’s how small those mules can be.
The Forum. The Forum isn’t in keeping with Vitruvius’ ideals. According to this Vitruvius fellow, an ideal forum has to have the proportions of two to three. Pompeii’s Forum doesn’t. It’s much longer than it’s wide. Vitruvius can go tear out his hair, it won’t change a thing.
Nearly everything in Pompeii is slightly broken. If you go to the Forum early in the morning when all the Pompeiians are snoring away inside their bright, colorful little rooms (all of them? No, some of them are snoring away in unpainted rooms...) you’ll find it entirely empty. Not a soul in sight. At four-thirty in the morning, you can look out over the Forum and see many, many pedestals. No statues, you ask? No, there are no statues, because during the earthquake, they all came tumbling down.
It was no big deal for the colliding continental plates to get those statues rolling. Women, men, horses, emperors, gods. No great shakes for the continental plates! Some statues lost their heads, others their noses, or an arm or a kneecap. Some were crushed to bits, some just cracked. Now, they’re in for repair. All of them.
The statues of the emperor Nero, Augustus and of Nero’s mom, Agrippina, who having swum ashore after Nero had tried to have her drowned off a boat, was knifed to death, since the thing in the boat hadn’t done the trick.
The equestrian statues of various prominent, high-ranking men. The statue of the emperor Caligula. And Claudius.
During the day, when the Forum is a throng of citizens out shopping, watching street entertainers, begging, making speeches, or walking around in circles, and pacing back and forth, then circling, circling, circling as patrons are apt to do when discussing business, some small worry, or some odd event; or when they are griping about their slaves, dishing dirt about their enemies, or simply flaunting themselves and giving their togas an airing – and when the matrons are out gloating about their husbands’ and childrens’ achievements, showing off their new jewels, chatting about Gavia Severas’ latest beauty cream, or some small worry or maybe just some odd event; or when they are griping about the slaves and dishing dirt about their rivals, then it’s easy to ignore the fact that the pedestals are missing their statues. But when the marketplace is empty, you can’t help but notice. That’s when the smooth marble slabs turn toward the high heavens and look like landing pads awaiting statues of emperors, as well as real and fabled gods. That’s when the Forum looks desolate. For they all tottered and came tumbling down:
Yes, they all came tumbling down.
The Temple of Jupiter at the Forum has also been damaged. Some of its columns have collapsed, and its roof has caved in. Ever since the earthquake, the worship of Jupiter has been in rapid decline, and the Pompeiians aren’t sure if maybe the earthquake wasn’t his way of punishing them. They can’t seem to make up their minds about this, but believe that their lack of communication with more reliable gods might have directly led to the calamity, which gives them cause for worry. They don’t feel that they can really rely on Jupiter to watch over them anymore, and then there’s the fact that he just isn’t a family man, he’s dreadfully severe, excessively brutal, unjust, impulsive. Maybe he has simply stopped giving a toss about his children in Pompeii? The Pompeiians aren’t sure what to think. Is he ruthless, or just forgetful? Stern, or too self-absorbed? They’ve decided, at any rate, to employ a somewhat smaller Temple of Jupiter further away, in Pompeii’s theater district, dedicated to Jupiter Meilichios – a special little Jupiter, a kind of mini-Jupiter. They worship this Jupiter just a little bit, to be on the safe side, but as for the temple consecrated to him in the Forum, which was more or less smashed to smithereens, then left that way, it’s been completely abandoned.
Here come the musicians Mysticus, Chloé, and Rufus. And a dwarf. Mysticus is singing and playing the cymbals; Rufus is dancing and beating his tambourine; Chloé is playing the flute and swinging her hips. Hopping along after her, the dwarf is making pelvic thrusts into the air in front of him.
Who will win this lottery and carry home the Pompeiians’ spirits? Who is rattling the dice to win their faith and fears? Who is playing cards with their souls in the jackpot? Many, I tell you, many.
The Lares, for instance. Long live the Lares.
Appeasing the Lares is a must.
The Penates, for instance. Long live the Penates.
Appeasing the Penates is a must.
The Penates watch over the family, home and hearth, whereas the Lares watch over the community and state. Without fail, an altar dedicated to the Penates is to be found in every household. Altars have also been erected for the benevolent public spirits, the Lares, and can be seen on nearly every street corner in Pompeii. The genies – Genius and Juno – watch over individuals. An offering is made to your own personal Genius or Juno on your birthday.
In Pompeii Isis and Venus, Dionysus and Apollo, Sebaot, Jesus and Bes the beast, Mercurius and Minerva are also worshipped. And many, many more.
Isis is popular because she successfully embodies mother, wife, and whore. Jesus is popular because he is neither a model father, a husband or a dirty bugger.
Beneath the public latrines, located in the Forum’s northeastern corner, are the subterranean vaults where Pompeii’s gold is stored. Beneath all of Pompeii there run sewers, which are gushing with water from the streets, houses and baths, they simply swarms with rats.
Pompeii’s rats got a good shaking when the earthquake hit. Several sections of the piping burst, and many rats met their death in Pompeii’s noisome underworld.
Because, as the pedestals of the Temple of Jupiter up above in the Forum shook, swayed, and split until the god’s roof caved in, the rat world down below and indeed all of Pompeii also shook, swayed, and split. And as Pompeiians visiting the public toilets in the Forum quickly hurried up with their business, and as the gold beneath them, in the vaults, rumbled and rolled, the pipes broke, and the earth heaved and split asunder beneath the many tiny rat paws.
Appeasing the Lares is a must, and the Pompeiians have been busy building a temple at the northeastern corner of the Forum dedicated just to them.
After the earthquake nearly all the upper crust families, the landowners of Pompeii, fled to their country estates. They’ve been renting out their town mansions to freed slaves, the “parvenus,” who have set up bakeries, fulleries, brothels, hotels, inns, shops, and workshops of all kinds in them.
Just below Forum Pompeianum there runs a large shopping street called the Street of Abundance. It runs all the way down to Porta Urbulana, the main and easternmost gate, which the Oscans once called Veru Urublanu. However, you can’t see all the way down to the gate from the Forum, because the Street of Abundance makes a sharp turn.
That’s right, a sharp turn. Not much is in keeping with Vitruvius’ ideals.
Speaking of which, not much is in keeping with Cicero’s either. According to Cicero, there were no honorable professions, aside from possibly those of architect and physician. Cicero advocated idleness, advocated that people should aspire to being idle property holders. And who could disagree with that? It would be grand to be an idler and a country estate owner. To have a castle with towers and pinnacles – though these didn’t exist in ancient times – where you could live with all your friends and do nothing but play in the park, scare the pants off each other at night, dance in the moonlight, etc.
But nowadays Pompeii is full of:
Physicians (in keeping with Cicero’s ideals).
Tailors (for instance, dressmakers, and jobbing tailors).
Architects (in keeping with Cicero’s ideals).
Masseurs and masseuses (who can be found in the baths giving rubdowns to naked individuals).
Barbers (who shave & cut men’s hair in the Forum, and at the gym and the Basilica).
Perfumers (the largest shop belongs to Gavia Severa, who sells perfumes and beauty creams in small glass bottles and jars to rich Pompeiian women).
Dancers (whose popularity among women, who find it exciting to see two men dancing Leda and the Swan, is virtually as unbounded as the disgust it arouses amongst men).
Actors (to say nothing of the very popular Paris, whose fan club is run by Triaria, and whose fans call themselves the Paridians).
Shower attendants (who also can be found at the baths giving showers to naked individuals).
Grape pickers (hired laborers who, for the most part, live in Pagus Augustus Felix Suburbanus just outside of Pompeii).
Bakers (pastry cooks, for instance, but usually bread bakers).
Pea and lupin seed sellers.
Ship owners (Cornelius Tages, for instance).
Bankers (most successful: Caecilius Jucundus).
Wine vendors (a grotesque amount of wine is consumed in Pompeii, especially cheap Vesuvinum, which today is called Lacryma Christi and is much tastier than in ancient times. There are other kinds as well: Falernian, for one.)
Consecrated cake sellers (who can be found near the temples selling cakes intended as offerings for the gluttonous gods).
Whitewashers (who whitewash walls to remove old election slogans, so that)
Painters of street messages (can write new ones, while standing on ladders held steady by
Ladder holders [scalarii] (while)
Lantern carriers [lanternarii] light up the dark night. Painters of street messages always work at night when they are more or less the only ones out on the streets).
Gladiators (who are also extremely popular among the women. Free females, freed-women and female slaves alike often visit the gladiatorial barracks after the games).
Sack bearers (a hard day’s work beneath Mount Vesuvius).
Prostitutes (a hard day’s work beneath Mount Vesuvius. They rub and are rubbed by men in the buff. They beaver away, though definitely less than the matrons).
Waiters and waitresses.
Artists (perhaps too anachronistic a use of the term. Painter is much closer to the truth, since those who painted Pompeii’s walls enjoyed no special status, nor were they surrounded by the faintest aura of myth. They often worked anonymously).
For example, anonymous Mosaicists.
And many, many others, who are not in keeping with Cicero’s ideals.
Pompeii is a town of toil. Beneath Mount Vesuvius, Pompeiians work themselves to the bone. As an eyewitness reporter on location might say: “The calamity may have shocked the town, but as you can now hear behind me, the streets are ringing with the sound of tapping and hammering, for these ruthless, hotheaded, if somewhat sexually overheated Pompeiians are forever diligently repairing their houses, streets, and water pipes.”
My description might lead you to believe that I’m some sort of fascist who worships work. Granted, I do worship work, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fascist.
The people of Pompeii split their religion into at least two divisions. This type of thing is typical of the Roman Empire at large, but can be seen most clearly in Pompeii. There are those who venerate the trio Hercules, Bacchus, and Venus. And then others who venerate Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Not to mention all the other gods worshipped who aren’t a part of the official state religion.
The first trio stands for lust, fracas, and lechery. Or love, if you believe in that sort of thing. The second trio stands for law and order. Jupiter is the law, Juno, home and hearth, and Minerva, science and labor. In a way, all of this is rather Nazi. Hercules = great deeds. Bacchus = lust, Venus = passion. Jupiter = reason, Juno = peace and quiet, Minerva = diligence. Ugh. And to top it all off, you’ve got emperor worship galore.
In addition to all this, Pompeii has attracted many other religions, some of which are even more ecstatic. These include many from the East: the cult of Isis, the cult of Jesus, the cult of Orpheus, and the cult of Cybele to name a few. Rome has, of course, been trying to abolish these cults for a long time due to their excesses and abominations, which are, generally speaking, always to be found hidden beneath the cloak of religion. That’s why we find things like Christian cannibals. These particular religions transport hope into another world by proclaiming “something exists beyond Vesuvius,” therefore appealing to those who have nothing to hope for on this side of the mountain.
In general, however, Pompeiians are partial to hanky-panky and hocus pocus. They eat their peas and try to appease.
Pompeiians are often prone to superstition, feelings of guilt and fear, having, after all, surrendered themselves to “feeding on their sweet vices and the salty sweat of their labor.” In a way, they sense that something higher exists, and this then gives rise to a pressing need to erect altars. When they come across a cavern, for instance. Say, a cavern that has been hollowed out by dogged Mother Nature. By water, wind, and weather, a disorderly stew that all by itself has hollowed out a cavern. When they come across a cavern hollowed out in this fashion – we’re talking about a real, unfathomable cavern here, not some cunt, mind you – well then, when they catch a glimpse of such a cavern, their spirits get the goose bumps. And spirits with goose bumps invariably leads to temples, altars, rapture, and delight, a new way of life (= heightened awareness), etc.
Alright, I’ll admit that living in a state of heightened awareness is a rare thing in Pompeii, but as far as the rest is concerned …
The thing is that something symbolic can be read into everything. It doesn’t matter if you’ve accidentally spilled some salt, sneezed, stumbled, or heard a piece of wooden furniture creak. Everything is laden with meaning. This is because the ancients are one with the world. In the same way that we, moderns, in our warped imaginations, regard children, women, savages, rogues, drug addicts, and madmen as being one with our warped little modern world. Not alienated from it, strangers in it, strangers to it, but one with it. Just as one-year-olds are when they stretch out their jam-smeared hands toward EVERYTHING. Or like some old women – or maybe we should be generous and let the gents in on this? Fine, in the same way as any old person who has managed to get through life without making the air turn blue.
But back to the superstitions – the Romans distinguished between omens and signs. Omens are private, signs apply to society as a whole. Today superstition is for the most part a private affair. If a black cat crosses your path, it means bad luck for you, the individual who saw it, and not for society at large. But that’s not the way it was back then. In ancient times signs heralded the fate of everyone, not just any given individual. It was the same thing with taboos – serious repercussions could follow. It was like if you put your keys on the table and the Stock Market crashed.
Another thing that merits a little warning is the fact that this town is ludicrous. The things that go on here will be enough to make you blush. Downright unbearable stuff, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Here’s an example: a shepherd plays a rollicking little ditty on his rustic reed. Catch my drift? Maybe a Phrygian or an Ionic little ditty. A rollicking little ditty for the benevolent volcano.
The Pompeiians are a people who, at special moments, wax lyrical. They have been known to cry out “the sea reclaims its Apollo,” when all they meant was that the sun was going down. That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with here.
Sleazy, sly, sentimental, superstitious, stoned Pompeiians.
Speaking of which, the funny thing about Cicero’s cockamamie ideals is that they still apply today. Architects and physicians are still considered superior to shower attendants, waitresses, and onion sellers. I just don’t get it. It does explain, though, the reason why architects and physicians for the most part are more prone to becoming victims of hubris – and that more often than they actually ought to allow themselves to be.
At any rate, our ideals today differ only to a certain extent from those of ancient times. I, for instance, a sleazy, sly, super-stitious, more often than not stoned (though I’m determined to get this under control), sentimental hack writer, can’t help but follow hard on the heels of the ancients, which is indeed allowing everything that goes against decorum and good taste to invade this book. This is truly turning into a devilishly colorful bit of nonsense. Exactly the kind that stern old Vitruvius would have condemned.
O the sky... the sky is blue today. And on the horizon slumbers our cuddly mountain, Vesuvius.
Gray-brown-green without. Red-yellow-black within.
Its inner ruin is smoldering. Its outer tatters are slowly turning dazzlingly verdant.
Vine-clad with green & purple grapes.
One day to be turned into Vesuvinum.
Bacchus’ favorite mountain, Vesuvius (the god of the grape has written this himself in a poem penned after the eruption: O wanton one / O wondrous volcano / You have burned down my favorite mountain.).
That’s why I called Mount Vesuvius cuddly.
When you’ve been abandoned, or your life has fallen apart and you feel all torn up inside, then your inner ruins smolder. Sorrow makes them fall into a heap of embers and cinders; they burn but little. You can read things into them. You can read your very being in your entrails. Your future? That starts tomorrow.
Just imagine a wrathful pupa who has been shoved into a grape, only to discover that it is just as green inside as the pupa had expected.
To know with its entire pupa-being that the grape is green inside.
Or, to know what it’s like being inside a musical tiger’s paws.
Therefore – welcome to the turbulent little town of tohubohu and tail-tickling.