The hero of this mystery novel, eunuch Mardian, is actually an extra of Shakespeare’s famous play “Anthony and Cleopatra”. Mardian tells a story of his life which he lived in the shadow of that great love.
Yellow cab: Shakespeare gave Mardian an episode role while you gave him the principle one. How did this character “buy you”?
Obradović: When Cleopatra asked him: “Hast thou affections?”, he answered: “Yes, gracious madam”. This made me think who eunuch could love if not the woman beside whose throne he spent days on end. That was an intriguing idea: Mardian, castrated slave, will fight for the favours of a fatal Queen with the mightiest man of those bloody times, the triumvir of Rome Mark Anthony”.
(An excerpt from the interview of Yellow Cab with the author entitled ”A historic exercise in daring-do”).
“On the one hand, this book is the best love novel in more recent Serbian literature. On the other hand, it is a brilliantly written novel about Rome and Egypt in the heyday of Cleopatra. In a third aspect, the book depicts several generations of Roman military leaders from Julius Caesar to Mark Anthony to Octavian August with whom Cleopatra had military, diplomatic, political or love affair. This love and historical story, full of twists and turns and climax situations is told to us by Mardian, an eunuch from wealthy family who after having been enslaved came close to his beloved Cleopatra. His story is essentially a story of historical events and love escapades but as the novel comes closer to its end it becomes an exciting thriller in which old hatreds become the cause of crime and revenge. By being a whirlpool of love, passion, crime and hatred, the book Mardian is finally dead is truly a novel to be read and immensely enjoyed”. (Gojko Božović).
“Besides his great knowledge, Obradović skillfully and intelligently plays with history and myth. He belongs to those intellectual writers who are capable of walking into history and making a funny mass there. Some big thing that history gave some importance is to him an accidental, silly game played by the funny small Mardian. That is that special intelligent humour that this writer has a talent for (Mića Vujičić, “Danas”).
Mardian is finally dead, Chapter VI
The beginning of their love story was marked by one miscalculated interest and one inexorable infatuation. The first referred to Cleopatra, the second to Anthony.
Why did Cleopatra bring him to Egypt? Did she seriously believe that by seducing one of Rome’s three leaders she would ensure a peaceful future for her country? That was a difficult thing to achieve. Not just because Anthony was already married to Fulvia, but also, after four centuries of being a republic, Rome found it hard to accept a master. To choose the brave and older Anthony over the beardless Octavian, six years younger than Cleopatra, and still more the mighty Lepidus, only seemed a wise option on the surface. As one who had fought with Caesar, Anthony was spurred by no other political idea than to go on ruling the Empire where his role model and predecessor had left off. The people loved Caesar, but the Senate had always hated a dictator. Despite being divided and weakened by the power struggle through long years of civil war and virtually annihilated by the proscriptions that had endured since the tyranny of Sulla, the senatorial class was now getting an injection of raw strength from the equestrians and once again aspired to supreme power. Given this situation, I feel that Cleopatra’s bold decision to separate one of the triumvirates from his state duties, to entrap him in her Alexandrian embrace and attempt to rule with him over part of the Empire not only led to the swift collapse of the Triumvirate and a final battle for the title of the ‘new Caesar”, but also to Rome turning against her and her elected love. Anthony was no longer so strong now, locked in the arms of the “Serpent of the Nile”. And they certainly never forgot her in the city on the Tiber.
Who truly knows how far Cleopatra followed the interests of her state and the advice of her viziers, and how far she followed the dictates of her rebellious spirit and her destiny. Never before had a woman possessed such power as to conquer the hearts of the greatest heroes of her time one by one, so it is not clear what could possibly stop Cleopatra in fulfilling her personal ambitions without her in any way ceasing to be Cleopatra.
Unlike the queen, who, enticed him into her dangerous embrace to satisfy her grandiose vanity, without any genuine love for him, but mistakenly convinced herself that this was Egypt embracing Rome – Anthony genuinely fell in love with her. While waiting for her in Tarsus, Anthony was still prepared to put her on fair and honest trial, though – it cannot be denied – he secretly hoped that she would show her innocence to be stronger than proof of her guilt. His army still spun fantastic tales of the beauty of Caesar’s mistress. Cleopatra was then twenty-nine years old and at the height of those bodily attractions that men still find irresistible.
And I heard many stories from Anthony’s drunken generals of that cat-meets-mouse encounter in Tarsus. At each recounting, they would add something new and magnify this wondrous picture of womanhood, whom, deceived by their own unreliable senses, they almost pronounced a goddess. A hundred years later, I brought this story to the writer Plutarch of Heroneja who was to record it, with some minor additions, and thus render it immortal. So everything is known, or so it is thought. Instead of stepping out that morning before a grave-faced Anthony, so said the generals, Cleopatra slowly sailed down the river Cydnus in a barge that gave the impression in the water’s reflection of a throne burned on the river. The barge had a golden poop and sails of scarlet drenched in Cleopatra’s strange invisible perfume and this scent wafted through the wharfs and streets of the city. Silver oars cut through the waves adding their own rhythm to the floating melody of flute, oboe, harp and viola coming from the belly of the ship. By all accounts, Cleopatra lay in her pavilion beneath a canopy of gold tissue, dressed and arranged as Venus, while pretty dimpled boys, as handsome as smiling Cupids, cooled her with divers-coloured fans. Her fairest gentlewomen and slaves, apparelled like nymphs, Nereids and Graces, acted as crew. Upon hearing of this marvellous sight, all the people of Tarsus left whatever they were doing and streamed out onto the riverbank, leaving Anthony to sit quite alone on his throne. The whisper spread from mouth to mouth that the goddess Venus had come to sport with Bacchus for the good of all Asia.
Having barbered at least ten times, Anthony accepted her invitation to attend a feast before she was brought before the court. That night on the barge, Anthony and his awesomely imposing retinue were to feast with their eyes. The generals described how Anthony started off with frowning reproaches and ended up surrendering the Roman Empire’s eastern territories with a smile. Thus, thanks to its queen who knew how to win the heart of conquerors, Egypt gained more in that one night than what had taken Rome years to win and subjugate, so I leave you to imagine the degree of Cleopatra’s power. By contrast, the lovesick Anthony had no other wish but to forget, at least for a brief time, that he was a Roman triumvirate, Caesar’s avenger, and Fulvia’s husband and sail to the beautiful city of Alexandria with the fascinating queen of Asia. His wish came true.
Cleopatra kissed Anthony to show that she was still Cleopatra while Anthony grabbed her in a passionate embrace, hoping, at least as long as the embrace lasted, to forget that he was Anthony.
However, honourable gentlemen, do not place your entire trust in lovelorn Anthony, the exaggerations of his drunken generals, Plutarch of Heroneja, or any of those many wise men who call themselves historians. True, Cleopatra did have the knack of shining in our eyes and blinding us like the glow from a lighthouse, but at the same time, I enjoyed the dubious privilege as a eunuch of seeing her rise from her bed, unsteadily with gummed-up eyes like a camel. Yes, she was beautiful, in her own way, but it is also true that her nose could have been a little shorter and her hips a little wider, and that the tips of her breasts could have pointed towards the sun and clouds, instead of counting off at every step the pairs of marble slabs on the floor of her palace, her bosoms being so loose and sagging. Oh, how she could magnetise the intoxicated Romans with that heavy perfume that the most skilled chemists put together in her laboratories, mixing oils of balsam, myrrh, cardamom, cinnamon, lotus flowers, saffron, marjoram, and crocus roots. Every evening, a slave girl would use glowing coals to conjure up a cloud of this perfume around Cleopatra’s throne. And it seemed that these attractive smells on and around her, not to mention the gastronomic delicacies from her rich table made her most basic physical needs, whose range and frequency I will not detail here, assume majestic proportions. Everything about her exuded a sense of life and drew one into that world of pure femininity with the passionate balance that was so specific to her.
Only her character was out of balance – unpredictable and dangerous. The first time they led me to her table, she threatened to feed me to the lions if I deceived her as to my skill as a singer. This threat was uttered so seriously and so waspishly that I felt my heart sink into my shoes as I sang of colourful and immortal Isis and realised with horror that my tender air was having no effect on Anthony and the Romans. Fortunately, my talented voice, after castration like that of a child, was not prone to the changes boys normally undergo in puberty, but, like my body, remained sexless, high and soft. My song pleased the Macedonian section of the audience and unlike the drunken Romans, they greeted its end with murmurs of appreciation. Consequently, the temperamental Cleopatra, did not throw me to the lions, but directed me towards the leader of the court orchestra with the strict injunction that I hasten to learn odes to love and wine as soon as possible instead of upsetting her guests with songs about the gods and spoiling the feast. I left the stage to the sound of Roman laughter.
I did not back down. Was I to sing onstage while those two idiots, Alexas and Diomedes, enjoyed the royal banquet? The next day I appeared before a surprised Apollodorus, commander of the queen’s bodyguard. I asked to be received by the queen, saying that, as a loyal and humble slave, I bore important tidings. The gods were merciful and this time I found the queen in a good mood, sitting in the garden where once we had played hide-and-seek together. Clearly forgetting how she had threatened me so cruelly the night before, she listened with attention and curiosity to my report on the state of affairs in the temple of Isis during Plotinus’ coup and ordered Apollodorus to write down the names of the priestesses whose treachery I had revealed. Feeling myself to be on safer ground, I recounted how, the night before, I had heard the Romans, Demetrius and Phylon, who had remained a little more sober than their compatriots, criticising their master’s infatuation. Phylon even went so far as to call Anthony “the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool”.1 It somehow happened at that precise moment that the boy cooling the queen with a large Chinese fan fell asleep. When she noticed that the slave was dozing instead of keeping her cool, Cleopatra threw herself upon him in a fit of fury, as if he had been the one to utter Phylon’s words, and dealt him a few swift, woman’s blows on his hapless head until her fit of temper had passed. Then, commanding Apollodorus to keep the boy in the stable in future, she handed the long fan to me and said that my loyalty had earned me a place near her royal self. Shocked by the beating the boy had received, I quickly grabbed hold of the fan and waved it furiously above the angry royal head. She gazed at me in surprise, straight in the eye, as if trying to call something to mind. I gave her a smile.
“What is your name, slave?”, she asked.
“I am called Mardian”, I answered humbly, continuing to swing the large Chinese fan from which a slant-eyed empress, surrounded by nobles and mandarins, smiled down on me amid a landscape containing a lake, a wooded grove and nightingales on the fence of a white pavilion.
Translated by Sheila Sofrenovic
1 Shakespeare, “Anthony and Cleopatra”, Act 1, scene 1, lines 12-13.