The novel rewrites an old Romanian fairy tale by one of Romanian literature’s most important storytellers, Ion Creanga. But the modern approach taken by writer George Balaita lends the story a different meaning, introducing fantastical characters, adding colour and depth to the devils with whom Stan, the protagonist comes into contact, and adding a contemporary satirical note to the peasant world Creanga created. A cohabitation, with multiple meanings, between people and devils, between people who acquire devilish characteristics and devils who you sense are capable of humane acts – this is how George Balaita sums up his novel. It is a book that contains a lot of humour, and also a moral. It is a spectacle, which sets out to reinterpret one of the greatest writers in Romanian literature.
A firmament of large, fleshy stars. It is past midnight, but long before sunrise. The cosmic machinery feels colossal, terrifying in its illusion of perfection, even though now it is tamed.
It is an autumn sky, above a mountainous region, barely discernable from above. The disk of the full moon floods the eyes with raw, cold light.
Mountain ridges. Forested slopes. A lake shaped like a palm leaf. A river winding through green hills, fringed in places with wide, glowing banks of shingle.
Dark, scattered houses. Long barns, storerooms. The spire of a church, the shadow of a small graveyard on a hill.
A round pen made of wooden boards. Next to the hayrick, two tethered horses sleep on their feet. A rosehip bush. A wild apple tree. The stunted apples look like precious stones in the moonlight. The illusion is augmented by the coldly glinting satin of the hoarfrost. Its patina and the silvery shadows are magical. It is late autumn, but a dry, cold, limpid autumn.
A field of unpicked maize. The light breeze is an unseen presence. The maize rustles metallically. A rabbit huddles at the edge of the field. It raises its muzzle. The uneasy, pricked up ears. It is the first living creature to have moved in our story, which begins in the light of a full moon.
A wisp of cloud crosses the moon. The village is not big, but compact, with small, solid houses made of wooden beams and stone. The yards are not big. Outbuildings to suit each farmstead. Here and there, tall gates, worked with chisel and saw. Medium fences, narrow, winding lanes. Shingled roofs between enormous thatched caps. Stan’s house. A shingled roof, a broad porch, without a veranda. The posts are not rotten, but slender. A fence of rather crooked pales on the lane, but apart from that, a wattle fence capped with thorns. An ordinary gate, between two massive posts, carved using a hatchet.
Small windows, nestling beneath a roof almost huge. The moonlight in the windowpanes. The dog silently lifts its head from its forepaws. The icy gleam of the window, whose four small panes form a cross, thaws to red and yellow. The caprices of the bright moonlight on the glass are no longer clear. The fire grows in the hearth within.
In his long johns. Stan moves around the room. He is in no hurry. But nor does he idle. Movements he has been making his whole life. No movement wasted. He kindles the rush light from the fire in the hearth. The light from the stove, the rush light, the ray of moonlight coming through the window blend their light in a variable triangle. Now the objects in the room take shape. The massive stove. On top of which slept the man, beneath sheepskins and woollen rugs. The beamed ceiling. Tall chests along the walls, covered with embroidered cloths. A narrow bed. Woollen rugs one on top of another and atop them a single pillow embroidered with yellow and purple flowers. The room looks big in comparison with how small it looks from the outside. (The impression of vastness comes from the proportions, which have been conceived with instinctive artistry, the same as the structure as a whole, notes the Scribe in one of his first record slips about the Mount Egg region.)
The man is bony. He looks massive thanks to the size of his bones, rather than his flesh. He places the rush light on the high table with its four white wooden legs. A loud sneeze. He says to himself : God bless you, Stan ! On the table there is an old book and a ceramic lamp, which stands on a wooden leg and has a glass mantle as big bellied as a cantaloupe. This lamp is lit seldom, not necessarily on feast days ; if you asked him, the master would not know what to answer. Alongside, propped against the wall, there is a three legged round table, beneath which there is a very low three legged wooden stool. This is the table and the chair where the master of the house eats his lunch and dinner. Next to the table there is a chair with a narrow seat and a tall back, made of white wood, polished by time so that it gleams like old bone.
Hanging from the beams by hemp ropes, a wooden clothes drying pole. A sleeveless jerkin embroidered with flowers and a pair of homespun trousers, thick hemp. A spinning reel, spindles and bobbins in one corner. On the wall, an ancient pendulum clock, with weights cast from tin in the form of corncobs, hanging at unequal lengths. The steep sloped roof of the cuckoo’s box and the cuckoo halfway out of his nest. The little door hanging on one hinge. On the wall against which stands the hob, a plate rack. A few pots, brass, wood and burnt clay. Rather dirty, not having been washed properly. A narrow cupboard, as high as the ceiling. Again, the proportions are very simple.
The squat, massive door, the handle and lock made by a Gypsy smith. Hanging on a nail in the door, coiled like a snake, a very long leather whip, its strands intricately woven, with a short handle.
Walking barefoot, his soles slapping against the floor, Stan goes out onto the porch with the cauldron. He fills it with water from the wooden pail placed on a rickety little bench. In the corners at the bottom of the porch, two large heaps, one of walnuts, the other of beans or lentils. Stan goes back inside.
The cauldron sizzles softly on the hob. Stan, half dressed, holds a shirt up and looks at it. It’s frayed and slightly torn at the shoulder. He looks at the cupboard on the wall. He goes over to it. He changes his mind. He puts on the shirt.
With a wooden spoon Stan deftly takes some mashed cheese from a wooden cask, puts it in an enamelled dish. He takes a few idle steps around the room. In the cauldron the water is simmering around the maize flour. Stan parts the water with the wooden stirring stick. It is not yet time to stir. He gets up. In pensive amazement, in dismay, he looks at the silent clock.
Suddenly, stridently, the prolonged crow of the cockerel in the moonlit darkness. A brief pause. Other cocks reply, shrill trumpets.
Stan is on his feet in the porch of the house. Behind him the open door creaks on ungreased hinges. He is dressed : peasant shoes strapped to his feet, homespun trousers, a short smock, a broad leather belt over his red woollen girdle. He shivers with cold, he rubs his hands, his teeth chatter (the conversation of a solitary man with the weather outside), but he likes it. He grins, white teeth in the light of the full moon. The dog uncurls and goes to its master. From the bottom of the yard, growling joyfully, another two smaller dogs bound up to him.
From beneath the beam of the roof above the porch, Stan takes a large chunk of cold maize porridge. He breaks it in three. He tosses the pieces to the dogs. The large hound and the two smaller dogs catch them in mid air and swallow them without chewing.
Stan washes himself. He scoops water from the trough with a clay mug. After rinsing his mouth, he fills his mouth with water. He crouches down. Rolling up his sleeves, he lets the water trickle from his mouth into his cupped hands, he splashes his face, rubs his forehead, his eyes. He rinses. He throws his head back. He squats like that for a few moments, lashed by the cold air. He dries his hands by wiping them under his armpits. A washcloth hangs unused on a wooden peg hammered into the post of the porch.
Stan stirs the maize porridge. Before he pours it out of the cauldron he adds some cheese. He pours the maize porridge onto a wooden board. The fire slowly goes out. Outside a sound can be heard in the distance. Stan goes to the window.
Far, far in the distance day is breaking. The light of the moon has not yet faded. But the stars can no longer be seen. There are whitish streaks of mist along the road, beyond the fence. An evanescent form slowly solidifies on the road. A horse’s head. Floating. The rest of the animal is invisible. Behind it, undulating against the folds of the curtain of mist, a tattered, decorated wagon tarpaulin. The only sound is the clinking of the bridle rings. The mist breaks. A wagon with a tarpaulin. All kinds of indefinite objects hanging from the sides. The horse moves at a walk, the sound of its hooves muffled by the thick dust. The wheels leave deep tracks, quickly filled in as the dust slumps back. On the box, a figure wrapped in a cloak, as if in a shroud.
At the window : Stan. He recognises the wagon. It is the puppeteer. He knows him. He often meets him as he goes about his carting business. The wagon vanishes into the mist, down the road. Evanescence.
The cat emerges from the nook between the wall and the stove. It stretches. Arches its back. Stan fetches a pan of milk. He pours it into a dish. He breaks off a chunk of hot maize porridge, puts it in the dish. The cat waits impatiently, tensely, its neck and lithe back stretched towards the man. Stan places the dish beneath its muzzle. The cat starts slurping greedily. Stan goes to the door. He does not go outside. He stands on the spot for a moment. He turns slowly towards the animal, which is absorbed in its own hunger. The man watches tensely, almost with a smouldering hatred. For an instant. He comes to his senses, but his smile dissolves before it can spread across his face. He turns impatiently to the door, he gives a sour smile, he snatches a sheepskin coat from the clothes pole. He puts it over his shoulders. He goes outside, almost furiously. Before he crosses the threshold, he casts one last look at the huge whip.
Behind him, in the moonlight, the fire barely smoulders, the rush light smokes, the clothes pole sways back and forth, rocked by an invisible hand.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Preserving the ingredients of folk fantasy, also to be found in Creanga (devils, witches, magical objects), in The Bargain George Balaita augments the sensation of lifelikeness through authentic, meticulous descriptions. The Bargain is an original retelling, with Creanga’s fairy story being merely the wax on which prose writer George Balaita imprints the seal of his own inimitable ideas and style. But unlike his novels, this excellent story can also be savoured by a wider public.”
“The writer glimpses the free electrons in the work of his predecessor, combining some and removing others. Entire passages, allusions and keywords from the work of Creanga can be found processed in invented sequences. Without a doubt, we are talking about aesthetic mastery here.”