Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2012, 200 pages
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Everything changes for Mia and Teo that spring morning when they first meet in the lobby of the Ministry of Agriculture. Love comes into their lives, so powerfully that it makes them leave everything else behind. It rids Teo of the suffering caused by separation from his ex-wife and children, whom he loses in the divorce. It helps Mia to regain her self-confidence, to forget that she is nothing but a humble functionary in a dusty ministry. Realising that she has never loved any man the way she loves Teo, she leaves her husband. At her insistence, he agrees to a divorce, resigns from the legal practice where he works, and retires to the countryside, where he takes up beekeeping. Confronted with so many obstacles and a painful past, Mia and Teo imagine that their love has something heroic about it. They decide to join their destinies together, hoping to find tranquillity thereby.
Visiting his children one day, Teo finds his ex-wife in tears. Devastated she tells him that her lover has left her. His regrets at having listened to her plaints all night long dissolve in the dawn light, when Lily makes an unexpected proposal: that he should come back to her and the children. Only a few months have passed since he met Mia, but it has been long enough for Teo to understand that her love will never cure his longing for his children. Teo’s decision to go back to Lily and her own discovery that she is pregnant plunge Mia into the blackest depression. One morning, on her way to the ministry, she is overwhelmed by her memories and realises that she has never stopped loving Vlad even for one moment. But how could she even begin to suspect that Vlad, in order to atone for his past mistakes, has decided to marry a woman he met at Sunday morning mass in the village where he has gone to get away from it all? Nevertheless, she manages to win him back quite easily. It is enough for her to convince him that their love is more important than his charitable urges. Reconciled that she has found the man alongside whom she wishes to grow old, Mia finally agrees to grant Teo a divorce. She is not overly saddened by the abortion she undergoes, and nor does she bother her head about who the father may have been. Countless things happen, but the characters keep going round and round in a circle, always ending up back where they started. Two couples whose members seem inseparable, but who succumb to the temptation of the new; two couples whose destinies intersect and who move within a society as devoid of will and certainty as they are. A story about the frailty of human feelings and the paltriness of romantic love.
He was going to work hard and take care of the children. When they were older, he was going to take them far away, on a long journey. He kept choosing different destinations. Sometimes he would choose a little town in Greece, with narrow streets, white houses, and colourful flowers at the windows. Then he would decide that they would go to Tuscany and walk among the hills, vineyards, and olive groves. Sometimes he would dream of taking them to Paris or Prague. At other times, he would think that a village in the mountains was the most appropriate destination. The dry leaves would rustle underfoot and the past would scatter like mist. Better still, they would tour the whole of Europe by car. They would stop off in towns en route and saunter all day long, eating takeaway pancakes and kebabs, entering museums they chanced to see on the way, window-shopping, and having parrots pick out slips of paper telling their fortunes. Mitzi would pester him to buy him new sandals with Velcro straps, and Jana would pester him to buy her a sun hat with a bunch of violets. They would stay at expensive hotels at first, where the chambermaids would leave chocolate bonbons wrapped in foil on the pillows, and later they would stop at out-of-town hostels or pitch a tent at a campsite next to some old hippies, who would wake them up at night with their coughing. But they were going to spend every night under a different sky.
He would be gripped by nostalgia when he saw his colleagues laughing together. With a pang in his heart, he used to wonder whether the day would ever come when all his thoughts would cease to spring from the same painful root. He clung to the future; the present threw him out of kilter like a patient agonising in an adjacent room. The plan he had made for himself helped him to survive. Yes, he was going to work hard and take care of the children. And he was going to be good, courageous, and worthy, or better, more courageous, and worthier. But his noble intentions yielded to the insipid everyday, and so in the end he resigned himself, as thitherto, to giving money to beggars and gainsaying his boss from the time to time. What also seemed absurd to him was the promise he had made not to tell Jana or Mihai about anything of the things that happened, not even that their mother had been the one who left him for another man. The children, and here he remembered his quarrel with Lily, ought to find out the truth, to know how hard he fought to stop her leaving him.
All the suffering that loomed up before him had made him forget about women, and so his memory’s stubborn insistence on Mia irked him. He thought it had more to do with the ridiculous scene in the lift. The young women with sinewy arms, laden with thermos flasks and plastic cups, who had rushed to greet the two men and who wafted around themselves an aroma of musk. Amid peals of laughter, they were remembering a conversation about the Vatican and washing machines. Then the lean man who had euphorically waved his folder and shouted that he was off to check the central-heating system. “She’s got a head full of crazy ideas, but if you give her a little shake, she straightaway becomes prim and proper,” Teo told himself, trying to rid himself of thoughts of Mia, except that this inoffensive description did nothing to drive her from his mind.
He gets up from his desk and goes over to the window. He does the same thing almost every evening: at a given moment he gets up from his desk and stands in front of the window, content to gaze once more at the chestnut trees, the newspaper stand, the bagel shop, the cobbler’s workshop, and the ten-storey blocks with pharmacies on the ground floor. He has looked out over this scene so many times: he has gazed at it trying to quell his fear, he has seen it after the rain, when its colours come back to life, he has examined it at night, trying to retrace each outline, but it has never looked to him the way it does now: a street in a strange city, through which he might walk for the first time.
The bagel shop was the only thing that had not been there already. It had opened a few months after he moved in. It had taken the place of a second-hand clothes shop that was always promising “new collections,” and before that there had been a flower shop, with chrysanthemums of every colour in the window. There is a scent of linden trees and wet asphalt. A black cat carefully avoids a puddle and then arches its back contentedly. The driver of a car shouts at an old man crossing the road lugging a shopping bag and because he does not quicken his steps, he sprays him with the windscreen sprinkler. A man and a woman are fighting over a pushchair in which a small child snugly wrapped in a headscarf is wailing. “Get your paws off!” the woman shouts, slapping the man across the hand as he tries to grab the pushchair. The boy on roller-skates passed like a streak of lightning, but it was enough to remind him: the black clothes, the rock music, the language that strove to sound tough, and so much bombast that you couldn’t help but feel superior. He smiles; that was what he used to be like or thought he was like. A young couple are embracing and kissing; her hands are clinging to his neck and stroking the mole on his nape. A few steps farther on they stop and kiss once more, this time more listlessly.
From beneath the vine trellis of the block opposite appears the lad with the sprained leg. A white poodle trots alongside him, adjusting its pace to its master’s, as loyal as any poodle. Let it get a little darker and then the girl in the wheelchair will appear. He will smile and, throwing his head back and taking a deep, contented breath, he will whisper something about her mother and father, who take it in turns to walk her. And she will have a different headscarf from the one she had yesterday; she always changes her headscarf.
Sometimes the fear grew little by little. At other times, it burst forth violently. Teo would have liked to go into the children’s room, to watch them sleeping, to make sure they were all right. He would have calmed his breathing in time with theirs, he would have heard them snoring gently, murmuring words unintelligible to Zaza or Berth, the man with the matchsticks, and the tranquillity would have seeped deeper and deeper inside him.
The chestnut trees, the newspaper stand, the bagel shop, the cobbler’s workshop, the ten-storey blocks with pharmacies on the ground floor. His eyes travel over them once more, but this time he is not afraid. He wonders whether he should write to Mia. He ponders it, despite having become even more furious at Remus, his ex-wife’s lover, on his way home: that man who touches his teeth, proudly stating that he is “quite a hypochondriac”, had had the temerity to speak about Daisy, their dog that died one spring. Mitzi had dreamed of her playing with her small rubber ball. Teo had missed the opportunity. He hadn’t heard it with his own ears when Mitzi said that Daisy was no longer beneath the tree where they buried her, wrapped up snugly in Jana’s green sweater. He hadn’t been able to reinforce Mitzi’s conviction that just like in his dream Daisy was playing with a rubber ball somewhere even now. But instead, that strange man, who bathes and soaps himself in his children’s tub, was with Mitzi when he described his dream and he had the audacity to tell him that nobody could know what Daisy was doing now. Absorbed in his imaginary dialogue with Remus, he doesn’t realise that he is expressing his disgust aloud, until a young girl with ribbons in her hair turns her head to stare at him. He quickens his pace, embarrassed.
He was the strange man that Lily had taken up with; she had driven him away, she had taken up with that strange man, and they had disported themselves between his sheets, while Jana and Mitzi were cutting out paper reindeer and gnomes. In vain had Teo tried to help her; Lily could not remember anything. Not even that Mitzi and Jana had grown inside her; not even that one day they had chosen together the wall where they were going to hang the painting she had bought years ago: the outline of a house rising behind a garden that shone with many colours. To Teo it looked more like a pyramid, but Lily insisted that it was a house. “I was afraid that I was never going to hang it on the wall. I couldn’t bear so much beauty,” she said, and she may also have burst into tears.
But Teo has put such thoughts behind him. If he writes to her, maybe Mia will reply, and then he will write to her again. And if she replies once, maybe she will do so again, and this second e-mail from her will make him even happier than the first, because then he will have reasons to believe that she is writing out of more than politeness.
Mia has been overwhelmed by misgivings since shortly after she parted from Teo in front of the director’s office. She is afraid lest she has opened her soul only because she knew that the man standing in front of her was the author of the IT programme being implemented in the ministry and because he insisted on her telling him the title of that film she liked. She is also tormented by the thought that maybe Teo is now under the impression that it is one of her favourite films, which it isn’t. Realising that she cares about what he thinks of her, she becomes even more annoyed with herself. Then her regrets fade away and she has to admit: it has been a long time since she last felt as alive as she did during their talk by the green wall.
But her moods are changeable: after moments of exaltation comes remorse. Nevertheless, she often lets slip a contented, almost superior smile, and a number of times she catches herself speaking with unwonted self-assurance, as if she had just got back from a congress in Brussels. She knows she is going to forget Teo; she has forgotten other men who have made her feel the way she felt with him, by the green wall. And she also knows that she will forget him even if she spends almost all her time at the ministry looking at the two photographs she found on the Internet, in which she strives to find once more the man by the green wall that shone in the sun.
In one, Teo looks like he is taking advantage of the fact that he is having his photograph taken in order to have a breather. In the other, he is sitting at a desk covered with blue baize, full of papers and microphones. His mouth is half open and he is gesticulating with one hand. This is the photograph that Mia looks at the most, trying to get used to Teo’s teeth: small and tightly packed, they bear a striking resemblance to the teeth of a Pekinese. The photograph is accompanied by a kind of curriculum vitae, which gives her the opportunity to find out his date of birth, the fact that he is a graduate in informatics, and that he went on to take an MA and courses abroad. Besides the programme that has made him famous at the ministry, he has also contributed to a number of books.
Mia knows that one day she will give up looking at the two photographs. It will come about of itself, without pain or effort, just as the mood that came over her by the green wall will also relinquish her. All she has to do is to look after the routine that comprises her life, and this is something Mia does with pleasure.
She wakes up in a house where tranquillity never smothers life. This leads her to believe that Vlad and she are a radiant couple. Then he drives her to the ministry. On one side is the man she loves, on the other the city. She leans her head back and looks at the blocks, the trees, the telephone booths, the people, and the sky rushing in the opposite direction, the same as her life, without her making any great demands of it, has been rushing by ever since she met Vlad.
She was not expecting it, but she has become attached to the ministry. She knows its hidden nooks; she knows the different sound of her footfalls along one corridor or another and how the light slants through the windows. From time to time she goes up to the flat roof on the sixth floor and strolls among the dandelions and forget-me-nots that have poked through the bitumen. The ministry resembles an old man who has not left the house for years. He avoids mingling with young people, but is not sad on his own in the house. He listens to melodies from his youth, mumbles old-fashioned expressions, and caresses the faces in photographs.
From her office Mia can see an old ivy-clad building. If she had a mind, she could tot up the number of times she has seen the leaves change colour; how many times the green has turned to yellow, the yellow to orange, and the orange to red before vanishing altogether for a time. Ten, eleven, twelve: how many years had passed? She does not care to know. “What persists throughout change is change itself.” She looks at the ivy and recalls the saying to mind, one of the few she has remembered since school, but she never has time to find out who said it.
She sips her hot coffee, looking out of the window at the ivy. Her office is like a fluffy pillow, which invites you to snooze a little longer after you wake up. But it is the other office, no. 405, where her ministry really lies. After she finishes her coffee, her conscience at ease after having shown her face to the boss for long enough and joyful at starting a new day, so comforting in its amazing similarity to every other day, it is there that she goes. From time to time, some obstacle arises to prevent her from leaving, but this happens only rarely and then she suffers like a woman prevented from seeing the man she loves. Also from time to time, she remembers that she is paid for her work at the ministry. But she easily rids herself of this thought. Even if she got it into her head to do more work, she would not be able to find it. And so, taking with her a document or file, mumbling something and bathing her colleagues in a warm glance, she goes out.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Corina Sabau writes in a mature, measured, convincing way, proving that she is more than just one of Romanian prose’s promising writers.”
“Freshness, rigour, joy in writing, pleasure in storytelling, a stubborn refusal to resort to commonplaces…”
“Corina Sabau is a prose writer who has mastered her means and who, crucially, possesses a profound intuition of existence and human motivations.”
“Corina Sabau writes the way she sees, she writes the way she hears… Her style is not style, it cuts into the living flesh, everything is straightforward, without anaesthetics, without technical trickery, achieving the risky business of undressing in public, without music or light organs, what I would call ‘life as life.’”