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polirom

Florin Irimia


Excerpt from

Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2012, 216 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: Aylak Adam (Turkey)

Book presentation

Mircea Batrinu, a failed writer living in an apocalyptic Bucharest that has been destroyed by the Great Earthquake and is now inhabited by monstrous creatures, is the protagonist of this strange, sombre novel, whose fantasticality is aimed primarily at potentiating the real historical events that are described. Mircea’s meeting with Edi Florian, a Jewish private detective from the inter war period, who by an unexpected concatenation of circumstances is appointed chairman of the council of ministers, provides the starting point for the plot and also takes the novel into the realm of real historical events. A novel begun by a man killed in the January 1941 pogrom in Bucharest is continued by his wife, Olguta, who witnesses the Jassy pogrom in the summer of the same year, and is completed by a nameless narrator who years later will have to defend his text before another People’s Tribunal… A Darkened Window may be regarded as a warning, as a cry of despair, as a sombre vision of the past, the present and the future.



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Excerpt from

You asked me what the title meant. If the past is a house and you’re trying to look inside through the window, then the window of our past is very dark. And when I say dark I’m obviously referring to both senses of the word: grim and disastrous, but also obscure, hidden from the light. To this day people don’t know, or rather they don’t want to know, what went on in that period. Despite the fact that the documents exist and a few books have even been written about it. But the people who write them are branded traitors and falsifiers of history. There is an enormous interest in the truth remaining where it is now, which is to say, in the dark…


Why? So much time has passed…
On the one hand, it’s because the admission of a crime has to go hand in hand with an apology. And for some, to apologise to the “Yids” is the most debasing possible humiliation. Fine, I understand that nobody likes to admit to having done wrong. You can see how long it took Germany, Europe’s number one anti Semite, to make a national policy out of recognising and admitting responsibility for the Holocaust. But in Romania there’s something else. I don’t mean to upset anybody, but there’s something wrong with this nation. It is a nation that has never admitted responsibility for the wrongs it has committed and has always laid the blame on others; it is a nation that is eternally wronged, but never wrongs anybody else. A nation of the spotlessly blameless. It’s the same when it comes to communism. “Us? What did we do? The Russians are to blame. The Ribbentrop Molotov Pact. The Yalta Conference.” Everybody is squeaky clean; repentance and atonement have no place in the Romanian consciousness.

 


You survived a number of pogroms. The first was the one in Kishinev…

That one I survived in my mother’s womb, as it were. I was born in January 1906, and by then my family had already moved to Bucharest. The pogrom was the reason my family left Kishinev. They believed that in the capital people would be more emancipated, that there would be a larger, stronger community, and that those sorts of thing wouldn’t happen.

 


But all the same, they did happen…

Yes. At the beginning of 1941 – an ill fated year for all the Jews of the East, not only in Romania – on 22 January to be precise, which was my birthday… It was my thirty fifth birthday and I was thinking about how I had not had any children and that from then on it would probably be too late. I didn’t think about it with sadness or regret; it was more of an observation. We were picked up on the street, my husband and I, and hauled to the police station. We had been to the theatre and then a restaurant, where Edi had taken me to celebrate my birthday, and we were on our way home when a gang of around a dozen individuals waylaid us. They didn’t even ask who we were. They just accosted us. “You lowdown curs, you stinking Yids, you want to bring communism to our country,” I heard one of them say, and then he punched Edi in the stomach. The accusation seemed almost hilarious to me. What did we have to do with communism? If we had straightaway denied that we were “Yids”, they would probably have let us go. Or maybe they would have demanded to see our identity papers, to check whether we were lying. In any event, it never occurred to us to deny it or put up any opposition. We were too scared, but also too surprised. We just couldn’t believe it. At the police station we saw that we weren’t the only ones. They had brought others in, too. We knew almost all of them, at least by sight. That lent us courage, albeit an illusory courage, a rather clumsy ruse on the part of our brains: the feeling that nothing can happen to you if you are surrounded by familiar faces. But even that didn’t last long. I don’t know where they recruited them, but for two days all the madmen in Bucharest, all the numbskulls and boneheads, all the psychopaths, the frustrated perverts, all the dregs and the scum, were in work. Every able bodied lout eager to do community service (apparently that’s what they told them, that it was a service to the community) was given a cudgel and a mission. They waited for darkness to fall and then went out hunting, in commandos of between ten and twenty men, some drunk, some sober, but all of them lusting for blood and brains. The competent ones, it was said, could kill five people a minute. They struck with precision, at the base of the skull. Sometimes they took blows themselves, but they didn’t care. In fact, they wanted to get hit, because every so often they needed an added impulse, extra motivation. Or maybe they just liked to feel pain. The thugs needed to get five strikes in per victim. They liked their brains rare, served warm. Some people faint at the sight of blood; other people get a thrill out of it. There were the Tanners: they beat their victims methodically, over the whole surface area of their bodies, leaving not one organ untouched. There were also a few who were more refined, who thought that mere cudgelling was for peasants and that the genuine art of sadism was to flay your victims alive. And because they were anything but selfish, they filmed themselves at their work and then invited their friends to watch. Those were called the Directors. And finally there were the Cocksters, who roamed the night not to cudgel, but to rape. Compared with their comrades, they were normal, that is, if you can call raping a woman while her husband is forced to watch normal. There wasn’t just one; there were many. They spat on me, they swore at me, and they didn’t let my husband look away or close his eyes. I don’t know which of us suffered the most, but his suffering was the shorter. They hit him with a cudgel. Out of the blue. On the side of his head. He collapsed immediately, but the man continued to hit him until all that was left of his head was a heap of brains and blood. “He looks more decent now,” I remember him saying. “The Yids want to smash Romania’s face in with the sledgehammer of Bolshevism. We have to smash their faces in first, otherwise they’ll disfigure the whole country.” I thought that then, at his signal, all the other Legionaries were going to grab a cudgel and stove each of our skulls in, until our heads became a mush of blood and brains, like the once distinguished face of my husband. But nothing of the kind happened. The other labourers merely agreed with him and contented themselves with reviling us, but no more skulls were smashed in, although by the time it was over, two others among us would be dead, a woman and a man. Then, on 23 January, they let us go. I went home, a husband and all the gold I had on me – my wedding band and pair of earrings – the poorer. The flat had not been looted, nothing was missing, and this apparent normality seemed harder to bear than anything else. In the space of just one day, my life had been radically altered and nobody was prepared to admit it. I had been widowed, I had been raped, and the nation demanded that I pretend nothing had happened. The community repeatedly demanded that the bodies of the victims be returned to their families for a decent burial, but very few were able to lay flowers on the graves of the slain. Most ended up in unmarked mass graves; they say others were incinerated at the Crematorium. I don’t know where they took Edi and I haven’t found out to this day. Maybe this is why I have written what I have, so that I can take him somewhere. I don’t know. So much time has passed since then. I would never have thought I would live this long or that I would be able to talk to someone about it. If I had known, I would have kept a diary, something by which I could check my memories now. There are probably things I have forgotten. I probably remember some things differently than they really happened. But other things I can remember in such vivid detail it is as if they happened yesterday. Depression descended almost immediately, although the suicidal urges took even me by surprise. One morning, I woke up as usual, which was at around six, and without stopping to think I went into the bathroom, took one of my husband’s razor blades and cut the veins of both wrists. And then I climbed into the bathtub and turned on the hot tap. A neighbour saved my life: after I was widowed, she came to look in on me every day, sometimes more than once a day. Maybe deep inside I was hoping she would save me. I don’t know. I was in hospital for about a week, I think, I can’t remember exactly, and after that somebody suggested that it would do me good to get away from Bucharest, at least for a while. They had begun recruiting for Palestine. That night they had rounded up a group that was about to leave that night, but I hadn’t been interested in emigrating even when Edi was alive, let alone afterward. But I did have a cousin in Jassy, a French teacher. She was a little older than me and had been a widow for about two years. We weren’t very close, but when she heard what I had been through, she said that I could come to stay with her whenever I liked, because she had two rooms, one of which she could offer me. Since I returned home alone that night, I had starting talking to Edi as if he were there beside me. But on the day when I tried to end my life, I hadn’t talked to him. And so I asked him: “Edi, what do you say, should I go to Jassy?” And the answer I heard in my mind was: “No, better you stay here.” But I didn’t listen to him and I went. Because I didn’t believe that he could really hear me. It was more like a game, a habit I had got into and which I could relinquish at any time. A few days ago I saw on the television a documentary about some young Americans who called themselves tornado chasers. Wherever there is a big tornado, they go there to film it. That was what I was like when I went to Jassy. Obviously, unlike them, I didn’t know a tornado was brewing there. And so I arrived in Jassy at the beginning of April. I had never been to the capital of Moldavia up until then. Compared with Bucharest, the city looked like a holiday resort to me. In the end it proved to be a holiday resort of death, but as I was saying, how was I to know?

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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