Novel, Ego.Prose series, Polirom, 2016, 216 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Orphanages were one of the greatest horrors of the Romanian communist regime. Darkness, deprivation, humiliation, abuse and the abandonment of all hope are hard enough to bear for adults, but for children they defy all imagination. Nicolae Avram has managed to overcome them simply by describing such atrocities and violently, personally, he makes the reader feel in the deepest possible way what those children felt, who were so brutally robbed of their innocence in the orphanages. Imbued with dark lyricism, Mamé tells the shocking story of one tortured soul (and of so many others).
Ever since I was little I’ve liked to eat shit. I lurk around the corner of the house like a thief. My heart thuds in my throat. I wait for the squatting little man to stand up and go away. With infinite care I lay the shit in my cupped palm. I hide behind the huge burdock leaves, in a gulley full of garbage. The faeces are still warm. Steaming. Like a cup of tea.
Sometimes, the plum like jelly comes alive. Little tapeworms poke their heads out. Barely out of the eggs, they are tiny, playful, opalescent. The eggs crack between my teeth. Like sturgeon roe, slightly salty. Sometimes I’m treated to bunches of yellowish white tapeworms. Translucent ones. Which I suck like the noodles from a bowl of hot soup.
My jaws ache. I take my time chewing each tapeworm. Like reapers chewing their soft chunk of bacon rind. Other than that, it’s the tapeworm that eats me from within, making me thin, until I’m just skin and bones. A child’s skeleton that will roam the dusty road with a rusty pot on his head. A pot with a hole in it and no handles.
There are sunny days too. Afternoons as hot and sticky as egg white. I place a piece of bread in a bag and go out into the fields. I take my clothes off. Beneath the black sun I grease myself from head to foot.
It’s enough for me to stuff myself with whatever I find on the ground—soil, leaves, turds, straw, worms, pebbles—for me to feel in seventh heaven.
My belly distended, I lie for hours on my back in the tall grass. Like a seal on a sandbank. I look at the clouds as they come and go. Some slowly, some quickly, feeling the lash on their backs. Sometimes the clouds take on different shapes. And colours. Mostly I see horses : white, red, black and yellowish. The riders have narrow eyes and pointy heads.
After the riders scatter, the firmament becomes a deep sea. I espy dolphins, fish, pearls swelling in their shells, red mountains of coral, a host of silent white fishes, gorging on a greenish corpse as big as a ship floating adrift. Sometimes, the corpse looks like a column of flame that has collapsed into the water, and the water is transformed into a steam bath.
I walk hand in hand with a man. The seagulls screech above the waves. The man drags me into an abandoned boat and undoes his trousers.
When he leaves me, it is night. I swim in a sea of blood. Sometimes I realise that I am flailing in my own excrement.
I am in ecstasy. From me emerge cohorts of nematode worms. The nematode worms have wings and claws. I myself am a nematode worm with wings and claws. Together we catch the moon in our claws like a quail. We toss it in the sea. The sea turns into a cloud.
In my dream I hear the cracking of the cloud, which, as it ascends, turns into an orange mushroom.
All that remains under the cloud is grease and shards of glass.
The waters of the river flow past the grey walls of rock. Past the garbage carried on the water and by the carters. The people throw all kinds of rubbish into the water. From dead sheep with swelling bellies and cats and dogs crawling with maggots to aborted foetuses and children with purple lips and twisted necks. The garbage is my home. In the garbage I find food. Playthings. I find a place for myself. I avoid the other children. Ever since they caught me and beat me, I don’t want to see them any more. For a few days I lay on the riverbank with a broken head. It was lucky an old man took me in and tended to me. After I was on my feet again, he brought me back. He left me in the place where he found me. Before he left, he drew a map for me in the wet sand. When I went back to the river, I came across the map. The water has not managed to erase it. It is intact, carved into the rock. It looks like a sea spider. I take the rock with me. I try to decipher the message. When I get home, it rains. I don’t talk to anybody. I withdraw into myself like an elysia in its carapace and all I want to do is sleep.
I’m bored of swallow chicks and drowned kittens tied with wire to cart wheels. I’m afraid of dogs. Until I give them a chunk of maize porridge filled with ground glass. After a time, I see them hanging from their chains, tearing the flesh off their bellies. It’s as if they’ve got something under their skin, they whine, they drool, they roll around, the devil takes them.
One day, roaming here and there, I come across a stable. A chestnut stallion is trying to mount a white mare in heat. I grab the shears for cutting the hedge and in a trice I snip off his schlong. The stallion neighs like a squealing trolley, jumps on the mare, and as he hammers her with his stump, which is spraying blood, he devours her head.
Because it’s hard to drag a dog or sheep corpse up to the top of the crag, I resort to something simpler. I enter the new mother’s house by the window, after I see her cross the road to go to the tavern, and I lift the nurseling child out of its cot and swiftly put it in my sack. It whines, but I shut it up with a kick.
From the top of the crag, you can see the whole world spread out below. The riches of the world glint among the trees. I catch my breath. After the infant comes round, I stuff it with phosphorus from matchsticks. Like stuffing a goose with corn. When its eyes roll up and it turns blue, I throw it down the ravine. Before it hits the rock, from its nappy there fly five turtle dove chicks, one after the other.
The old woman I visit from time to time lives alone, in a secluded house, built of stone and wooden beams, surrounded by fir trees. Sometimes a shepherd visits her. He leaves her a chunk of cheese and a sheep’s head. After she boils the head and removes the flesh, the old woman is in the habit of placing the skull in the window, next to the pot of geraniums.
People say she is a witch. Few are brave enough to cross her threshold. And then only so that she can read their fortunes in the beans or the cards. Hidden behind some chests, I listen and see everything that happens. She summons the dead. My heart shrinks to the size of a flea. I am afraid she might touch me with her wand and turn me into a frog, like she did to the priest who threatened to send her to prison.
In enter her house with a bundle of kindling. I light the fire and wait quietly until she notices me. The witch rises from the manure covered board. She is covered in boils and wounds. She peels the black rags from her skin and is left naked, a mass of wrinkles. I delouse her. I clean the vomit and scum from her body. Swarms of maggots wriggle through the fresh pus and putrid skin. I cannot tear my mouth away from her wounds. I swallow her bloody scum, I push her eyes back into her sockets. And I put back her arms, which have come out of their sockets, like a doll’s. She climbs into the trough of icy water. Within seconds the water boils, steam rises. I beat her back with a bunch of herbs. As I cleanse her she talks to me. And laughs. She tells of the horrors to come : famine, prison, fear, tyranny, lies, cold, solitude, plagues, darkness, madness, death.
When she rises from the trough, I take the red hot poker from the stove and strike her buttocks. The sagging skin tautens. I dress her in a satin gown, as red as ripe currants. She whacks me across the buttocks a few times, after which she feeds me bread and butter and honey and puts me to bed. I open my eyes and between the warm dugs I discover a woman like an icon, with blue eyes and long, flaxen hair. I close my eyes and she smells of mint and basil. I open my eyes and the room is full of silver and gold butterflies, and on the pillow rests a red Damascus rose. I close my eyes.
Leap forward, maggot !
The toe of the boot in the small of my back cuts me in two. I fall to my knees. A kick in my ribs leaves me breathless.
“The fire of hell, as sweet as the nectar of the gods,” flashes through my mind.
Get up, stinker ! Trash !
I try to stand up. A fierce punch in the stomach puts me back on my feet. I sway. I gape for air. In front of me, two metres away : the wailing wall. I see an arm come out of the wall. The living arm of a foetus, from a belly split open with a bayonet. I reach out to touch it. I can barely discern what is written on the note that I extract with trembling hand from a crack in the wall : “Make a hole in the wall with your head !” I look all around me. I look for a way out. On the ground, a little way away, by the wall, there is a glossy white birch pole. Like a dirty ray of sunlight slipping under a door.
I recognise it.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“‘Ever since I was little I’ve liked to eat shit’ is the very first sentence of the novel, and the most innocent—what follows will turn you inside out, not just because of the horrors that come one after the other in a hallucinatory kaleidoscope, but because of the power with which the author, himself a product of an orphanage, articulates them, the way he gives birth to them, in a language that is half slang, half poetry, a language of primordial cruelty. (…) And that terrible sentence, which sums up so well these notes not from the underground of the communist regime, but the underground of being itself : ‘As I open my eyes, I feel all the light around me becomes a torment.’ A novel of shadows, Mamé, at the end of which you will feel like crying out, like Goethe : ‘Light ! More light !’”
(Emilian GALAICU PAUN)
“One of the most powerful and impactful texts I have read for a long time. Mamé is a desperate text, written breathlessly. An extraordinary book, with multiple openings, multiple possibilities of interpretation. It is also a book about communism, with the potential for parabolic readings. The teacher as the image of the petty dictator—here is a memorable character. It is a prose poem about horror. But also about salvation. A special, atypical, courageous book (it takes great aesthetic courage to risk such a format).”
“Mamé is in fact an enormous and hallucinatory poem, an abnormal poem, to be more exact, in the sense that it infringes absolutely every imaginable norm : not only the norms of linguistic prudery, but also, above all, the norms held as ethical both in public and private. It is hard to find a taboo that the terrifying imagination of Nicolae Avram does not transgress in this account of the hellish experiences of the almost mythical orphans who were said to have been trained to become Nicolae Ceausescu’s most devoted and fanatical personal soldiers.”