Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2014, 360 pages
Translation rights sold to: Colibri (Bulgaria), Amaltea (Poland)
Through the innocent eyes of Radita and her mother, the novel explores a phenomenon that has deeply affected post-communist Romania: temporary emigration. In order to get her family out of a financial mess, Letitia decides to work abroad for a few months. Via an acquaintance she arrives in Rome, where she works as a cleaner and looks after an elderly woman, Nona Bosse. By chance, she meets up with a girl she knew at high school, Laura, who is a veteran of insecure work placements, a strong, spontaneous and honest woman, who tells her the story of her life as an emigrant. At home, two little girls are left behind: Radita, in the care of her grandparents, and Malina, in the care of Letitia’s husband, Vali. In her first year at school and strongly attached to her mother, Radita suffers as only a child can as a result of the separation, with all her being and all her imagination. The envisaged few months keep getting longer and longer, plans for the future are constantly changed, and the secondary effects of Letitia’s departure prove to be unpredictable. This is a troubling novel, in which a variety of themes subtly combine: childhood, innocence, estrangement, clashes of worldview, conjugal relations, and the reshaping of identity. The construction of the narrative is full of suspense, the language is fresh, effervescent, and there are numerous moments of genuine humour.
She is trying not to show it, but she is a little afraid.
She has been in Italy for over a year and it seems to her that things have got more complicated rather than getting simpler, and the telephone call from Laura this morning has thrown her off kilter. She could not turn her down. They were at school together. Besides, she was the first person in Italy to make her laugh with all her heart, the first person to get her out of a bind. She would have liked to say no, but she did not know how; and she regretted it as soon as she hung up. No, she was not one for adventures; she knew it all too well. Sometimes she was amazed that she had even risked coming to Italy. It just happened, the way lots of things happen, seemingly out of the blue.
Without thinking, she had promised Laura that she would let her sleep at her place that evening. How stupid! Without the landlords knowing, obviously. Signor Renato and Signora Silvia or simply the Signor and Signora, as she calls them. They are very nice people, or rather they are polite, but one foreigner in the house is enough for them, as she knows full well. Or rather, one Romanian woman is enough for them. A few days after Loredana delivered her like a parcel, Signor Renato asked, as politely as could be (how else?) not to tell the neighbours she was from Romania, if any of them happened to ask. She did not allow herself to get annoyed; she was too timorous. In time, she realised that flying off the handle was a luxury; it wasn’t for just anybody. She would have liked to have the guts to ask him, as politely as could be, where she should say she was from: maybe from Africa? from Lapland? what prestigious regions did her face and grammatical mistakes suggest she might be from? But she could barely string two words together in Italian and to tell the truth she didn’t have that much aplomb. Or at least she should have asked his permission, in the event that nobody asked her anything, to say that she was Romanian...
Anyway, she had got over it, even if it had left a nasty taste!
Three days after you arrive in a foreign country to find work, without knowing the language, and never having travelled anywhere except on holiday to the seaside or the mountains, it is as if you were coming round after being anaesthetised. You look around you in bewilderment and you barely understand what is going on. As you learn to communicate more or less, the mist is lifted from your eyes. With her, it lasted a month. With a few exceptions, she had vague memories of that first month, when she stayed up every night to learn verb conjugations and how to say parsnip, socks and enema. In the second month you start to pluck up courage, and in the third you start to feel all right and to like it. If where you are working and your landlords are decent, that is. If not, life can be more than unpredictable, downright nasty; she had heard plenty of horror stories.
Laura had telephoned her at eleven, knowing that was a time of day when she wouldn’t be very busy, and she had spoken to her like in an emergency, talking fast, desperately, jumbling things up, in a choked voice, in the kind of way that forces you to reconstruct events and make suppositions afterwards. Which is what she did, after eleven o’clock, while trying to perform her duties; Nona’s lunch, in particular. She gleaned that Laura had had some kind of trouble with the old duffer she was taking care of, as she called him, that there had been a quarrel, even a small tussle, which sounded completely bizarre, given that as far as she knew, Laura’s old duffer was half paralysed, and she had taken her clothes and left, she was on the street, her John doesn’t have so much as a single posto letto, she’s been abbandonata for almost a week, but her old companions didn’t take her in, which is to say, it was already full there, and so she’s had to rely on her inspiration, temporarily, of course, things will sort themselves out, but she urgently needs a place to say, even if only for a night.
After she told her to come, albeit reluctantly, but she could hardly leave her friend in the lurch, since they had known each other since high school, they settled on the details. She explained to her how to find the gate and which was her window. At around half past ten, she should be in the vicinity and wait, because she couldn’t go out of the house. She should leave her clothes elsewhere; under no circumstances could she come in with them. When she was sure that everyone was asleep, she would give the signal by turning the light on and off twice, after which Laura should go to the gate. Like in the movies. She would come out and get her, lest she make things worse by ringing the doorbell or on the telephone at that hour. Lucky that they had rooms on the ground floor, Nona and she, since Nona was in a wheelchair. The Signor and Signora’s bedroom was upstairs, where there was also an office and a spare bedroom, since there wasn’t one downstairs. She would let her sleep in the same bed, she couldn’t risk letting her sleep in the spare bedroom, although she had the key to it; she would feel safer knowing she was there, close by. She didn’t feel right about doing it, but she couldn’t leave her without a roof over her head. As she spoke on the telephone, she realised that she was nervous and felt guilty. In the end, Laura said something to the effect that if she didn’t arrive by the hour they had agreed on, it meant that the Carabinieri had picked her up. That really gave her a turn. What had she done, the madwoman? Maybe she had killed the old duffer and now she was coming to hide out in her bed... The more she thought about it, the more frightened she got and it seemed to her that she had recklessly tangled herself up in a problem that didn’t concern her. If her landlords caught her with an extra Romanian and she was packed off home, then that would be the least of her worries.
“What are you thinking, Letitia, dear? Do you miss your children?” Nona asked her as she elegantly cut up the fish in her plate.
She smiled sadly and nodded her head non-committedly, she didn’t want to lie, but nor did she want to get into a discussion. Nona, despite her seventy-five years, quickly caught on to such messages. She loved conversation, but she also knew how to maintain a delicate silence, without making you feel awkward. It was as if Signora Silvia were not her daughter; she was of a politeness that was now obtuse, now domineering. She was convinced she was entitled to reproach you for anything at all, especially if she gilded the reproach with good manners, because that was something in any case covered by the monthly wage. Signor Renato was even stranger, preferring to convey his imperative demands to her via the Signora, even if Laura was present and could hear him. Only when he had no other choice did he address her directly, with the exaggerated politeness of a comic actor. In any case, they were punctual when it came to the money, they paid her well and they never talked to her in a nasty way, and, from what she had heard from the other Romanians she had met, that meant she had the best possible conditions.
If it hadn’t been for Nona and her tact, it would have been a lot harder for her; maybe she would even have gone back to Romania... She spent the greater part of the day with her, because the couple left the house at seven, a quarter past seven, in the morning and she came back around six, he later in the evening. Nona, the television and the telephone were her world of communication. With Nona she had improved her Italian. That was because Nona explained to her patiently and with finesse the things that she couldn’t find in the dictionary or which she didn’t have time to look up. At first, she had been slightly intimidated by the elegant old lady. She had felt that she would not be capable of catering to her whims, because she seemed to her a capricious creature, not outgoing, but embittered by her handicap. A dotty old bag who took delight in niggling her, who was dying of boredom and hated young, healthy people. It was hard for her to understand why the old woman carefully, coquettishly selected the clothes and accessories she was going to wear each day, carefully weighing them up, when most of the time she didn’t go out of the house. During the first few days she was could not understand why, at lunch, although only the two of them were eating, she had to set the table with all the trimmings, like in an expensive restaurant. She did not even know all the customs and little details; it was Nona who taught her them. When she wanted her hair washed, she went to the salon or called the hairdresser to her home. Little by little, she understood that it was her way of living and, perhaps, her way of fighting old age.
But the scene that brought them even closer together took place in the living room one morning.
Nona was reading in her wheelchair by the window, in a grey light from outside, and she was vacuuming. The television was on, as usual.
It was maybe February, or early March, at the latest. That is of no importance. Nona was reading Raymond Chandler. Nice! She was sick of the classics of Italian literature. “At my age, pleasure is more important than people’s opinions and the critics’ recommendations!” she said. In the morning she did the cleaning, scrubbed the bathroom and kitchen, dusted, and all the rest. Nona sometimes talked to her and sometimes she read. She might even doze off. She didn’t like the television, but she left it on for her, so that she could pick up more Italian. “It’s not until old age that you learn to be free,” she said. “Unless you seize up,” she added. When a song by Jacques Brel came on the television, Letitia turned off the vacuum cleaner so that she could listen to it. At the Pedagogical Lyceum, because there were lots of girls and they had an adorable young French teacher, Ne me quitte pas had been one of their favourite songs. Obviously, they knew it by heart. “Moi je t’offrirai/ Des perles de pluie/ Venues de pays/ Où il ne pleut pas.” In the twelfth form she met Vali. He was at university and had come to visit a friend in the holidays. “Ne me quitte pas/ Je t’inventerai/ Des mots insenses/ Que tu comprendras/ Je te parlerai/ De ces amants-là/ Qui ont vu deux fois/ Leur cœurs s’embraser.” She fell in love, obviously. It was winter and it was snowing with flakes as big as the bobbles on their hats. Hats like that were in fashion. “Laisse-moi devenir/ L’ombre de ton ombre/ L’ombre de ta main/ L’ombre de ton chien/ Mais, ne me quitte pas.” In March she said that she was going to apply for university; she wanted to study Literature. In the university town she bumped into Vali again, obviously. There followed two days of grace, which she recalled from time to time, to recharge her batteries, after which there were months full of events. In summer she was assigned to work as a schoolteacher, there had been a huge scandal with comrade Petru Cosoi, that is, her father, whom she didn’t want to remember. She got married to Vali and in December, just before the Revolution, she gave birth to Malina. The tiny tot croaked like a pond full of frogs! The old man agreed to the wedding only at the last moment and only because he was afraid he might lose his job as headmaster at the school. With the communists there was no joking when it came to family morals and the example that Party members had to set for the rest of society. An illegitimate child would have been a complete catastrophe! He permitted the wedding, but Vali could not forgive him. And so at the wedding she had quite a big tummy, it was a good job her dress had all those flounces...
“Le grand belge, Jacques Romain Georges Brel,” said Nona, lifting her nose from her Raymond Chandler.
“Alors, vous parlez français! Une belle surprise!”
“Oui, je me debrouille, madame!”
That evening at dinner, Nona put on a mysterious air and, holding a glass of red wine, said that she had a big surprise to announce. Signor and Signora applauded politely. Nona looked her straight in the eye and said: “My dears, our Letitia speaks very good French, let us drink a toast in her honour.” She was exaggerating, but that is what she said. The two looked at her in bewilderment, and then in admiration. They all clinked glasses, and her heart swelled as large as an elephant. “Could you say something to each other, so that we can admire you too?” asked Signor. There was a drop of disbelief in his voice, diluted in a barrel of good upbringing. Perhaps also a drop of dissatisfaction, as if he thought that thenceforward it would be appropriate to raise her wages. They talked volubly about Jacques Brel and his next-door neighbour at the cemetery, Gauguin.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Dan Lungu proves, yet again, if proof were needed, that he is a natural-born writer, to the very marrow of his bones, a writer who deserves the full attention of readers (Romanian or foreign). His storytelling strength is so great that it completely swallows you up, it pulls you down into the book’s pages, it overwhelms you and takes over your whole mind – it’s almost like a literary invasion. I don’t go in for absolute value judgements, but sometimes, when my enthusiasm overflows, I make them. And so here it is, The Little Girl Who Played at Being God is without a shadow of a doubt perhaps one of the best books of 2014 and one of the finest literary ‘pieces’ I have consumed in recent years.”
(Eli BADICA, Suplimentul de cultura)
“Dan Lungu has constructed some of the most believable and the strongest child characters in recent literature, whose inner monologues win you over thanks to their sensitivity and authentic innocence, monologues that have not a single false or unrealistic note.”
(Andreea RASUCEANU, Romania literara)
“It is a very powerful social novel, it is well researched and interesting for the issue in itself, for the fact that it reconstructs in a novel the phenomenon of Romanian emigration (with all its impact on the families left at home), of Romanians in search of work and earnings abroad at the beginnings of the 1990s.”
(Adina DINITOIU, Observator cultural)
“Is childhood, with its teachings about the difference between good and bad, a mere deviation from the banality of the bad that we are all inured to after a certain age, with which we ‘cohabit’? Does literature do nothing more than to punish the bad and reward the good? Is it still worth inventing stories and writing novels when we have investigative journalism and serious ‘life’ stories? Dan Lungu does not try to get to the bottom of this dilemma, which seems to me to underlie a good deal of his writing, and it is a good thing that he does not. Readers will come to this book, the author’s best to date, with their convictions and prejudices. What is important is that after they read it, their convictions and prejudices will not be the same.”
(Doris MIRONESCU, Suplimentul de cultura)