Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2013, 232 pages
In this autobiographically inspired novel Adina Dabija describes a feverish quest for personal identity, over the course of a journey that begins in a village in Transylvania and ends in the frozen north of Canada. The central character, a young woman, discovers the world through poetry, philosophy, love and adventure, but each stage is quickly left behind, because she is constantly searching for something else, something hard to define, a goal that becomes increasingly difficult to identify as the journey proceeds. At one point, finding herself caught up in a strange love triangle that brings her no satisfaction, and which involves a businessman from Quebec and his wife, the protagonist takes adventure to its very limit, deciding to set out in search of an Eskimo shaman, who seems to hold the key to her fulfilment in life. Shaman is a novel about courage and the ineffable, about reinvention and optimism, a novel full of poetry and candour.
A city girl, top of my class at maths, who had come seventh on the admissions list to the best mathematics and physics lyceum in Galati, I harboured an overweening scorn for those old biddies who were in the revolting habit of going to church on Sunday morning. When I passed them, on the way to my favourite spot in the graveyard on the hill, as they were coming back from church, we would exchange glances full of suspicion and mutual disapproval. To them, I was nothing but an unfortunate case, a silly city girl who had been brought up in ignorance. To me, their religious faith exuded the unmistakable reek of pee, incense and un brushed teeth.
I begged my father, who was a member of the church committee, to ask the village priest to receive me on a visit. The priest, I thought, would be a lofty soul eager to assist those plunged in the darkness of ignorance and would smooth my path to Shambhala, which I had to reach without delay, if my life were not to be utterly wasted.
On the appointed day I woke up early in the morning, left the house with my heart thudding in my chest, and made my way to the large, handsome house of the priest, which was surrounded by geraniums and roses. I would have liked to talk to him the way you might talk to an older brother, to ask him to guide me and counsel me, but he was already robed in his cassock and as soon as he laid eyes on me he began to play his priestly rôle, quickly lighting some incense, murmuring prayers, and officiating a ritual known only to him, while all that remained for me to do was to kneel meekly with my head covered by his stole and listen to the unintelligible performance that dragged on for an eternity a few palms’ widths above me, without daring to utter a word, not even to explain what I was there for in fact.
When, still under the priest’s stole, my turn to speak came at last, I was questioned about the sins that burdened my soul. I replied without hesitation that I thought my whole life in the city was a sin, because it gave me a heavy heart. “Have you lied?” probed the priest, ready to grasp the devil by the horns. “I have lied from time to time,” I admitted. “Have you stolen?” “Have you fornicated?” “Have you coveted your neighbour’s goods?” he went on, bombarding me with suspicious questions, all of which cast me in a bad light. In how many specific ways a person can sin! And there is a precise term for each of those ways, as if sins were independent, distinguishable entities that can be fixed on a pin. I told him about that diffuse feeling of ignorance combined with a vague feeling of guilt at living a life alien to me, which had been laid in front of me without my having any say in the matter, a life I did not know how to alter and which left me with the sensation that I would die of sadness one Sunday afternoon. But this revelation did not satisfy the priest. He was looking for something specific, a precise word; he was not content with diffuse feelings. He suggested that living with a millstone around your neck, the same as everybody else did, was self evidently part of human nature, and that to make such a fuss about it was nothing short of pride and ignorance. “Silence, worm. And pray!” But when I told him that for the last few days, since I came back home for the holidays, I had felt as light as a feather, because I had discovered the existence of Shambhala, which had filled me with joy, and when I asked him nicely to be so kind as to guide me, as best he knew, so that I could find my way there, either using a map, if Shambhala was a real, physical place on earth, or by other means, if Shambhala was a kind of trance like state – given that the information I had gleaned on the nature of Shambhala was contradictory – he lifted his stole and said that my head was full of rubbish. He asked me whether such reading was in my school syllabus. It was not. Then he advised me to have done with such nonsense, because it was nothing but an instrument of the devil, designed to tempt people and lead them astray from the path to the eternal kingdom of God, using the promise of false places on earth, whereas true bliss could only exist after death, through the gift of eternal life and oneness with the Holy Spirit. I blushed until my ears turned red and told him that thenceforth I would strive with all my might to follow only the path of God, but that he should be so kind as to point out to me what exactly I should do in order to avoid going astray against my will, out of ignorance. He told me in a grave voice that I should go to church every Sunday, read the Holy Scriptures, and obey the Ten Commandments. He wrote on a piece of paper the numbers of some chapters in the Bible, which I had to read without delay, and then, after censing me up and down and making the sign of the cross over me countless times, he rose and went out. I left the priest’s house in a daze, as if I had been cudgelled over the head, and with my tail between my legs, as if I had been summoned to the headmistress’s office and been given a severe dressing down, as if I had been informed that it would be easier for an ox drawn cart to pass through the eye of a needle than for me to pass my end of year exams.
I had never had the slightest inkling that from the very moment I came into the world I had been burdened by the sins and the stigma of a long line of people born before me. I had gone there with an open heart, ready to be given love and a warm helping hand, and I had ended up being given a vigorous soaping and scrubbing.
Thus disguised, I followed my father, brushing past the raspberry bush by the gate at the top, which led up the hill to church, and received a smarting benediction from the nettles. On the way we met Veta, my cousin, and her daughters, who were left open mouthed with amazement when they saw me, none other than me – pshaw, pshaw, the devil himself! – on my way to church (I had gained this reputation because I had been seen kissing a boy at the village discotheque). A few minutes after the service began, Veta drew me aside and asked in amazement why I had not been making the sign of the cross. “When you see us making the cross, do the same, because everybody is looking at you!” she chided me, glancing to each side from under lowered eyebrows. I promised that I would, although I could not quite see the point of compulsively repeating the gesture, which I had already performed once, at the beginning. After all, God had seen me the first time and he could see what was in my soul, couldn’t He? What else mattered other than that? Veta looked at me reprovingly and asked me merely to abide by the appropriate custom without asking questions. Then came a lengthy gymnastic exercise, which involved stooping as far as the floor and standing up straight again, and which was triggered rhythmically, at moments beknown only to father, Veta and the other worshippers. Corroborated by the mutterings and moanings of a bewitched choir of old biddies, as well as the words mumbled by the priest, who kept going back and forth between the altar and the nave, my experience of ecclesiastical ritual left me even more puzzled than I had been thitherto. I could not understand any of it and nor did I feel any of the enthusiasm I had experienced when reading The Shirt of Christ, in which I had found out about the trials and the faith of the primitive Christians.
For the rest of the holidays I refused to accompany my father to church, and he left me in peace. He did not like to involve himself in my education, leaving such things up to “my parents from the city,” and limiting himself to a few tart remarks from time to time. It took a few days for me to recover. I came to the conclusion that I could make do with the chill morning air, full of the rimy perfume of the grapes that hung down the white walls of the house, with the pears whose aroma wafted from the boughs that shaded the patio, and with the light that lit up the garden flowers in dozens of colours. What was for sure was that I was never going to reach the kingdom of God, because I was already there.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth