Novel, Fiction Ltd. series, Polirom, 2013, 336 pages
Georgian Nicolau is a promising young man: top of his class at the Military Lyceum in Cimpina, admired by his fellow students and highly regarded by his teachers, he ardently desires to forge a career for himself as an officer. This would help him to break away from his past, from the Gypsy colony where he was born and from the squalid hut where his mother and siblings remain. Nobody knows his secret and nor could they even suspect, since Georgian has light skin and blue eyes, and what is more, he has invented a respectable Romanian past for himself. And his dream comes true. Georgian rises through the ranks, he sees action in the conquest of Odessa, and he even becomes a close associate of his idol, Marshal Antonescu. But the past he has striven so hard to conceal catches up with him when his mother and sister are deported to Trans Dniester, along with numerous other Gypsies, at the orders of the marshal. Georgian will have to make a decision, and his life will be altered along with the course of history.
As he neared the edge of the village, where the hovels began, Georgian realised that the hardest thing to bear would be the stench. It seeped into your clothes and there it remained. It took a long while either to get rid of it or to get used to it. Now that the stench of smoke, sourness and dried faeces hit him, he would gladly have turned back, had he had anywhere to go. It was obvious that it would seep into his clothes, and the other students at the lyceum would wonder what was wrong with him, where the smell was coming from, and then, after they pinpointed its source, they would start to wonder about where he really came from, the star pupil with Greek ancestors, the taciturn boy who had no memory of his childhood. His carefully crafted lie, his entire new identity, might come crashing down because of a wretched smell, because of the sour smoky reek of a lowly hovel. When he had lived there, he hadn’t registered the smell so strongly. In general, you can’t smell your own smells. You get used to them. They’re part of you. They don’t bother you. And at the village school, his hovel smell was no more revolting than the smells of the other children: smells of the stable, of sheep, of corncob fires, of food smothered in garlic and then belched out in class, of unwashed bodies. The teacher always began the day by flinging all the windows wide open. He used to tell the children that it was to oxygenate their brains, but Georgian now realised that the poor man had been battling the miasmas of a whole class. And now for him too battling the smell would be at the centre of this holiday. The battle with the smell of his former life. Maybe the fact that it was springtime would help. The warmer weather might encourage the Gypsies not to light their fires inside their huts, to take their cauldrons outside, so that the wind would carry away the claggy smoke that might impregnate his clothes and willy nilly remind him that he was nothing but a Gypsy boy fortunate enough to have a better brain than most. He would ask the priest to keep his wooden chest in the church and he would store his best clothes in it, the uniform he cherished so dearly. Even if he kept it in the vestry with the candles and the incense, it would be better to smell of wax and incense than of a hut fouled with motley odours. And perhaps if he smelled of incense when he returned to the Military Lyceum, it would drive away the sin of pride that had been lying in wait for him all his life.
“Jorjan’s back! Jorjan’s back!” The news, brought by a grubby urchin, hopping from one leg to the other, dressed in an over large cast off shirt, reached his family’s hut before him. Nuţa came out into the road barefoot, almost at a run. She stopped a metre in front of him, flung her arms wide open, burst into tears, and in one leap clasped him to her breast. Somewhat surprised, the first thing Georgian smelled was the scent of good soap his mother emanated. Her clothes still had the whole gamut of hovel smells, but his young mother’s face was washed, it shone, it smelled nice. “Can she have done it for me?”
Licu was his stepfather, a burly Gypsy, feared by all, a man violent by nature, who had stolen Nuţa along with all her three children and taken them back to his hut. He hadn’t stolen her from anybody; he had stolen her from her loneliness, because after Culai died, the father of Georgian and his sisters, Nuţa had been living alone. Apart from that, Licu stole horses.
“Lord, it’s like I never left!” Georgian said to himself that evening, as he laid out his bed by the wall. He was touched. He felt a kind of pity for his family, for his race, for all the Gypsies that lived in such squalor. It was a promiscuity that he now saw with different eyes, a promiscuity he was part of, but from which he wished to escape. “When you see that things can be different, that life is better on the other side of the road, Lord, they ought to see the light, to find a way, to get out of here, to settle in a brighter, healthier, cleaner world.” Then he realised that pity was a kind of trap. He mustn’t let himself be snared by it. Pity was a second hand feeling, but a first hand weakness. “Lord help me not to grow complacent here, help me to leave and never to come back,” he said to himself, as if reciting a prayer. He was annoyed at no longer being able to find the notebook in which he had copied out the poems he wrote during the long days he used to spend in the churchyard. He hadn’t taken the notebook with him when he went to Military Lyceum, lest some other student find it and laugh at him for being mawkish. He had left it in his chest of clothes. He kept asking who had taken it and in the end Nela told him that she had needed the pages for cornets, when she went to sell sunflower seeds in Ploieşti train station. So, his poems had ended up as crude wrappers, discarded by unknown hands after their contents had been guzzled. Let at least one of the sunflower seed munchers have read them! Maybe his poems had been good. He couldn’t remember any of them. But even if they weren’t any good, they had encapsulated something of his experiences. They had contained something of his inspiration, or what he thought was inspiration: that moment when the words seem to obey and the world seems to let itself be photographed, disseminating itself in the mysterious sound of the rhymes. His fragments of sensibility had been turned into cornets and people had poked their fingers inside them as they munched the sunflower seeds one by one. And perhaps, he imagined, those seeds had been lent a taste hard to capture in words!
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth