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Vartan Arachelian


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Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2015, 256 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

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In the 1980s, the last decade of communism, Valeriu Timisana is a journalist who, having become sick of his profession, wishes to make a change and begin a career as a writer. Taking up a challenge laid down by an old master of inter bellum journalism, by the name of Pillat, Timisana travels to his native Constanta to research a novel. Brimming with history and the picturesque, Constanta seems a town full of possibilities. The aspiring writer tries to reconnect with old acquaintances, he traces the thread of local history back to the time of Ovid’s exile, and finds potential characters : two shepherds who sell their shoddy wares on the sea front, a backgammon champion, a head waiter, and an illusionist. But despite all this, it doesn’t quite come out right... At the End of the Night is a successful novel about an unsuccessful attempt to write a novel, a tale full of humour and subtle irony.



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Excerpt from

 

Ovid and current morality

 

A chronicler of Constanta from the beginning of this century discovered in the poet born in Sulmona so many moral failings that we think the “little Parisians” are justified in laying claim to him so fervently, statue and all, for their neighbourhood, thereby sheltering him from the prudishness of the compilers of tourist prospectuses. The following is a fragment, a fracture, as a celebrated French thinker of Romanian origin would say, from the chapter that Ioan Adam dedicates to the great poet exiled to the Pontus Euxinus : “In his poetry Virgil sang of pure and powerful love, whereas Ovid was the glorifier of brutal love. Ovid’s muse, Corina, does not subjugate men through her candour and choice love, but through inflammation of the senses and depravation (…) The life of ease and in particular the life of high class women, that depraved luxury, with its fantastical coiffures and expensive cloths, with its libertine parties, where love affairs were casually kindled, with its horse races and theatre, were portrayed by Ovid with great veracity, in clear and faithful portraits. The vice of lubricity in Ovid’s love poetry is the vice of that century of sin and agitation, when the daughters of the emperors outdid the public courtesans in decadence. Ovid, who lived in that setting of perdition, immersed himself in that corrupt life, enveloping himself in its voluptuousness and venom, and passing down to us in his works the memory and poison of those times.”


Ovid – means of use


How our townsfolk came to develop a passion for Ovid is quite hard to say. But it will not be so hard to understand for anyone who has the patience to listen to his own mind. In the beginning there was the “little Parisians’” eternal proclivity for melodrama, the compassion they experience even today towards a man down on his luck. And what is a decadent epoch if not a collective put up for public auction ? The poet and his epoch were, as may also be seen from the quotation I have given, up for auction. In addition to this fact pertaining to collective psychology, there is also a fact pertaining to individual psychology, but which the normal man experiences, even though various impediments cause him not to acknowledge the temptation of the forbidden fruit, a seduction hard to resist at a tender age, a temptation that decreases in old age, when our moral being becomes triumphant, even though guilty reading matter and videos can still produce retro thrills... When they began to be interested in Ovid, they did not even know that his works were primarily aimed at them. Ars Amatoria/Ars Amandi is an “art of loving” aimed at poor young men, potential poets, who need to make heightened exertions in order to get into women’s good books ; the rich man does not need to learn the precepts of amour, as he has enough money in his pocket to be witty ; only he who has cash flow and pays in advance can enjoy a discount even in amour. “Pauperibus vates ego sum, quia pauper amavi,” said Ovid, making a big thing of his social background, precisely in order to elevate, by way of contrast, the collectives to which, ostensibly, he owed his success, despite his lack of solvency : “I am the poet of the paupers, because I loved as a pauper.” But not only him, we would say, if we didn’t realise that it’s not a question of loving platonically, the way all the paupers in the world have loved ever since the invention of cinema, but rather a question of taking your desire all the way, so as not to end up a Freudian patient. In other words, putting your sword in its scabbard. Given that in that same textbook versified in ancient metre – a metre, and no joke, one foot = 0.3048 m – Ovid makes a mockery of Homer, putting forward the hypothesis that if he had presented himself to the courtesans of Rome, accompanied by the Nine Muses themselves, but empty handed, then even Homer himself would have been booted out of the door. All that remains is for us to understand, like the “little Parisians” whose minds are phosphorescent due to a superabundance of fish in their diet, “the poor man’s food,” is that on the one hand, Ovid’s muse was superior to Homer’s nine, when it came to the spell of his love poetry, and on the other hand, the gods endowed Ovid with another compensatory superiority, given that the courtesans took note of it, despite his penury. Like Ovid, the “humble Parisians” were also the gods’ chosen ones. The proof ? Their houses full of children and their parallel lives, which, however, didn’t always remain parallel, unlike in Euclidian geometry, but also short circuited, when the swords ended up in other scabbards once too often, giving rise to scandals on the street, real commedia dell’arte performances, which looked forward to neorealist cinema. The philistinism and prudishness of the town’s worthies were reasons for the poet’s penchant for the “little Parisians”, but this argument is worthless in any paternity trial, and so a great deal of time had to elapse before... If the truth can walk around with a cracked head for a while, if the truth has bumps on its bonce most of the time, that doesn’t mean that one fine day it still won’t triumph and escape unscathed. Time is good for everything : it both conceals and deciphers secrets. Which is to say, the baring of a secret takes the path opposite to its encryption. First of all, it was a question of locating the ancient city of Tomis, as incredible as it may seem to you. “What,” you will say, “there was a time when they didn’t know where the city was ?”


Without an Ovid, there’s no Tomis


Some located it in Hungary, others closer this way, in Timisoara, and in the days of Miron Costin, they thought it was in Akkerman, where there was even a lake, Vidovo, which was known as “Ovid’s Lake.” A legend from those parts says : “From Rome there came a special man, who was as innocent as a child and as good as a father.” (That’s our man, exclaimed the “little Parisians” in unison when they heard the tale for the first time.) That man was always sighing and sometimes he talked to himself, but when he told a story, it was as if honey flowed from his mouth. While the legend may have survived, the story about Lake Vidovo proved to be fake : it’s called that because it was there that the sheep were washed before being exported to Constantinople... But were they the only cities where they tried to situate Tomis ? The townsfolk of Caransebes were able to show the house where the poet is supposed to have lived, and the two wheeled wooden carriage in which Ovid drove around. Exactly like Iosif Constantin Dragan in Lugoj, in the sponsored film made by national television a few years ago... The assiduous pupils of the Transylvanian School even found a Roman etymology for Caransebes : cara mihi redes. Even if the “humble Parisians” did not yet know Latin, they dismissed the hypothesis as whimsy : cara isn’t a Latin word, said they, it’s oriental, kara, and means black...
Finally, after they reached the conclusion that the city of Tomis lies where it has always lain, which is to say, in Constanta, since the city could hardly be like the Flying Dutchman, they went further, from the macro level lower... But, alas, what great pains the sciences took in order that this truth not crack its head !

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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Critics about

 “Vartan Arachelian depicts a protagonist captive to dual memory, peeled away to encompass the meaning of a whole truth. He invests his protagonist with the condition of author, narrator, actor, director, reader, among others, all of them adrift in a present ravaged by appearances. From their interplay arise scenes from the past, with Freudian undercurrents, erotic enigmas and anecdotes laid up in the city at the edge of the world : Tomis. At the end of the night. The game and farce of the end — both poem like and parabolic — enclose the narratives in the cosmic spectacle of roaming through history. The curtain of the thousand and one nights finally falls on the ‘Romanian California’ only if we recognise that we belong to a place insofar as we have emptied it of mysteries. A novel about the final interpretation : a history that playacts.” 

(Marius MIHET)

“The author’s style seems to me to have two sources. The character’s return to his home town is like a picaresque expedition to a place altered by time and haunted by the shadows of those he has known and new, strange, colourful characters, whose logic is not immediately or easily decipherable. The second source is the novels of Ilf and Petrov – the absurd combined with ideology in a world seeking a direction after the social tempest of the revolution, all described in comic tones. Whereas in Ilf and Petrov there was still a degree of optimism, since the authors may well have believed in the rightness of the socialist way, in Arachelian’s prose from the end of the 1980s, after forty years of social engineering, there is no longer any room for anything but cynicism.”

(Dan ROMASCANU)

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