So, was that really all you wanted?


After I got home, I opened  The Book of Fire again, but I couldn’t seem to concentrate on the text. As the saying goes, old stories are like flat champagne, but I guess there’s an exception to prove every rule. My mind wandered back in time to a tiny room on the tenth floor of the Moscow University student hostel, on the Lenin Hills. A lamp with a green shade lit up the space  – it was the only attractive object in that bare, functional interior. On the desk, piled high with books and papers pushed to one side, lay an old manuscript. It was bound in brown leather and fastened with brass plates – four at the corners, and one in the middle. The two hundred year-old manuscript was part of the State Cultural and Historical Archive collection, which is where it should have been. It was called the Revelation of Fire.

That tiny room was mine, and I sat there at that desk, the manuscript before me – Bert Renes, a Slavonic scholar from Amsterdam, just arrived in Moscow to work on my dissertation. It was 1982, the old Soviet Union, with Brezhnev still in power, and as far as anyone knew, political control, censorship, locked archives, would endure forever in this country. This “Cenergite” manuscript had also been kept in special archives, first by the Church, then by the Soviets. It had been written by a member of a mysterious order of hermit-monks, living in a Zakharine hermitage near Ryazan, apparently known as Cenergites. During all that time, only a few people had managed to see it. Among them, moreover, no one who could be termed a specialist. I was the first.

That is, of course, if you don’t count the person from whom I obtained Revelation of Fire. She was an expert on manuscripts, but her interest in the Cenergite book was not a scholarly one. The woman who brought me the Revelation was afraid to speak, but while she wouldn’t reveal her reasons, I was able to make a guess at them.

The manuscript was at my disposal until the following morning. I had received it on condition that I wouldn’t make a copy, or even take any notes from it – it had been given to me strictly for reading purposes. The reading was progressing very slowly. 18th century cursive isn’t easy to decipher, if one has to deal with a highly idiosyncratic script. It couldn’t expect it to be otherwise, as the author himself was regarded as strange even by his fellows. His handwriting wasn’t simply cursive – it was barely legible. And the difficulty was compounded by endless variations in the form of most of the letters. I’d never encountered such slipshod writing in ancient Russian manuscripts.

Still, if only that had been the sole complication in my life. In the morning I would discover just how much I owed for the privilege of clapping eyes on this book of mysteries. And nothing good would come of it. The most likely scenario was that I would hand back the manuscript and never see it again.

Now, twelve years later, I was holding  this modern translation in my hands. I leafed through it from cover to cover, and glanced at the preface. There were seven chapters, corresponding to the number of “mysteries”. In the manuscript one mystery had led into the next, graphically proclaimed in large uncial letters. The mystery of uniqueness; the mystery of solitude; the mystery of multi-faceted fear; the mystery of multi-faceted love; the mystery of relationship; the mystery of humility the mystery of the Lord’s indifference. The massive handwritten words had stood out from the text almost as if they were portals, hynotizing the reader with their significance. It was strange to see them now all grouped together, enumerated, and equipped with a page reference. I closed The Book of Fire and put it away in my bookcase.

‘So, was that really all you wanted? To let me know the Cenergite story was over?’ I framed the question mentally to Nadya, my former ‘joint adventurer’.

Well, it had all worked out rather neatly: Nadya had learned of its beginning from me, after all. And that story had begun almost five hundred years ago.


From: Revelation of Fire