Novel, Prose series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2015, 192 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The mysterious Empire of Old Maids awaits its queen. Will Rafira Sic manage to pass all the tests and reach the pinnacle of the hierarchy ? Disturbing glosses in the margins of the idea of loneliness, surprising interpretations, initiatory experiences, limit situations, illusory plans, and vain hopes give shape to the image of a category completely ignored, forgotten and scorned by society. Behind the oxymoronic expression, the maliciously applied label, lies hidden the real “old maid,” and here she is allowed to speak, despite the fantasies and illusions she nurtures. She is no longer the minor, often malevolent, character of the classic novel ; here she takes the role of prima donna. A raw realist novel with an aura of humour or a fantastic novel with hints of parable, ironically subtitled a “sentimental novel,” Liliana Corobca’s new book is an inquisition into today’s world, beneath a tranquil veil of innocence. A world that is increasingly aggressive and lacking in empathy.
There are countless ways of winning yourself a man. Mariana liked Sergiu and kept turning up in his room, cooking for him, letting her hair ripple, strategically unfastening the top two buttons of her dressing gown (the usual attire in our student halls of residence), on the off chance that a glimpse of breast might arouse him. It would be because she needed a deeper basin : we haven’t bought one yet, or : would you happen to have a long handled broom ? And I saw a big frying pan—is that yours or did you borrow it ? I only need it for half an hour. We’ve got a brand new iron : if you need it, I’ll lend you it. Mariana suspected that our neighbour had a girlfriend. She kept a close watch on him and one day, just as Serge, dressed to the nines, was going out of the front door of the hall of residence, Mariana filled a plastic bag with water, to which she had added some chopped dill, and from the window she dropped it on top of his head. The poor lad had to walk ten paces beside the wall of the building. You had to be very skilled to hit a moving target like that. But after a few rehearsals, Mariana had become an expert.
The method was in widespread use as a token of revenge or to prevent somebody reaching their destination. One of the few lads who possessed a suit refused to lend it to anybody, and so his friends lay in wait for him, with plastic bags and basins, to give him a soaking : that would teach him not to be so selfish ! Underhand enemies poured dishwater, but that happened only rarely ; it was more complicated. Soakings were common in the first few months of the university year, when the newly arrived students had not yet learned to avoid the dangerous ten metre stretch. Looking up above, seldom did you see the perpetrator’s face. Once, one lad glimpsed his trusty roommate, went back upstairs and beat him black and blue. It is said that he was joined by some female victims, who had been soaked on various occasions and now had an opportunity to slake their thirst for revenge. It was a real spectacle, according to the girls. The room was narrow and only a few of them were able to get inside. They were meticulously pulling his hair, while the others yelled at him indignantly in the doorway. One of them ripped his shirt : You ruined my dress, you piece of dirt ! You couldn’t just pour water on me like everybody else : you had to pour dishwater with dill and cooking oil ! It was true, water dried, but in their cruelty, the enemies went so far as to ruin your clothes, irreparably. The country was in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis, people didn’t receive their wages for months on end, and for some it was very hard to cope. The poor, envious girls who barely had enough money for a loaf of bread couldn’t bear to see the nice, fashionable clothes of their roommates and friends, and so they had to be destroyed. The lad caught in the act started screaming : You’re killing me ! I didn’t do anything ! I was just shaking the crumbs out of a bag with some pies my parents sent me. Here’s the bag : look, there’s not a drop of water in it. Help ! The girls departed in triumph : If it wasn’t you, then it was some other jerk, but somebody needs to be punished to teach the others a lesson ! What savages those girls were !
Mariana was waiting for Serge to come back to his room so that she could console him. God forbid she burst out laughing ! To reach his room, the lad had to pass our room. Our door was open and we expressed our regret as credibly as possible, with Mariana really going over the top :
“What animal did that to you ? What vile beast ?” And she caressed his arm and shoulder fondly, looking deep into his eyes.
Subdued, Sergiu listened to her condolences, blinking his luxuriant, feminine eyelashes.
“If I catch her, I’ll knock her block off ! The lad can’t go on a date, he can’t meet a girl without some bitch spoiling it for him ! I know what it’s like ; it’s happened to me too.”
“I wasn’t going on a date. I was going to play basketball. I’m in the university team. I didn’t need to put on a good shirt ; I could have worn my t shirt. Usually, I put my t shirt in my bag, because I get sweaty, and so as not to come back wet and catch a cold . . . Will this grass come out ?”
“It’s quite hard to get it out. Give me the shirt and I’ll wash it,” volunteered Mariana.
“I wonder who did it to me.”
“Someone on the first or second floor. Any higher up than that and it would have been difficult to hit you.”
We were on the fourth floor and so we couldn’t be suspects. Serge accepted this argument and we nodded our heads convincingly. Mariana had been studying his movements, his comings and goings ; she had soaked him once before, when she wasn’t sure where he was off to. Then Serge invited her to the cinema. Then he kissed her. That’s how he discovered that Mariana had some decayed teeth, which made her breath smell, even if she chewed gum. She didn’t have the money to go to the dentist’s. While waiting for more amenable neighbours, Mariana wisely decided to devote herself to study. To us, Mariana’s decision was tantamount to a desire to do three PhDs simultaneously, after graduating with a magna cum laude Bachelor’s Degree. Boys were a great rarity in our halls of residence.
The frail Ovid, nicknamed Wee Potato, was Sergiu’s roommate. His nickname came from his habit of scrounging potatoes from the girls. “Girls, have you got a spare potato, just one, it doesn’t matter how small, just a wee potato ? It’s for some broth.” “You know how to make broth ?” we would say in amazement. “Yes, I do,” he would reply modestly. If he had asked for two or three potatoes, the girls would have been niggardly and probably wouldn’t have given him any, but just one potato, for some broth... One potato from one girl, another potato from another girl, and in the end Ovid would collect a big pan full of potatoes, which he fried in the kitchen, dizzying us with their appetising aroma.
“As prim as a young girl” and “as delicate as a flower” were expressions that described him appropriately. He always addressed us with politeness and courtesy. When he saw a delicate looking girl on the stairs or in the hall, he would recite to her from Nichita Stanescu, with great expression in his voice and his gaze : “Tell me, if I caught you one day and kissed the sole of your foot, wouldn’t you limp a little after that lest you crush my kiss ?” And when one of them gravely replied : “I’d crawl on all fours and I wouldn’t wash for a week,” he would hurry away, probably disappointed at such an unpoetic reply. Many of us were from the countryside, we’d never seen a poet in the flesh, and it was hard for us to rise to the level of his high expectations. To such a poet, one would have to reply : “I would not wash my foot till my dying day, and like a butterfly, like a swallow, I would soar into the upper air !” At first, I thought the poem was his. He did write a poem about Elena’s soft belly (had he examined this Elena for poetic purposes ?) and her fluffy triangle. All the girls knew that poem. Obviously he didn’t recite it to all of them. He would replace Elena with the name of whatever girl he had fallen for and adapt the poem to the situation. That was until some prudish, nasty girl slapped him : She wasn’t going to have all and sundry talking about her triangle. Every trade has its risks...
A poet to his very core, Ovid had an especial weakness for frail, slender, petite girls. Unfortunately, he didn’t like a girl in the same group as him, Galina, who was tall, burly, bellicose, with dyed red hair, which she permed, making it as coarse as a broom. It came to Galina’s notice that he had said she was too fat or that she was not entirely graceful, it was not known which of the two. What is known for sure is that she was very angry about it, she cornered him one day in the hall, lifted him in the air and slammed him against a wall : “I’ll show you the meaning of grace, you worm !” After that unfortunate incident, whenever he saw her, if he was unable to avoid her, Ovid would greet her with a very humble “Good day, madam,” and there were wagging tongues that claimed he had dedicated a number of conciliatory poems to her.
It was said that in his first year he was unbelievably innocent. Once, he lost at cards and as a forfeit, his ironic friends told him to go into the girls’ room and ask for “a glass of menstruation” (they didn’t say blood, because maybe the poor lad would have suspected something then).
He knocked on the door, apologised for the intrusion, and said : “Could you please give me a glass of menstruation ?”
One of the girls replied very calmly : “We haven’t got any right now, but when we do, we’ll give you some.”
The lad politely thanked them and went back to his friends : “They haven’t got any, but when they do, they’ll give me some.”
The story did the rounds and is perhaps still doing the rounds even today. The girls themselves told the story. Then Ovid vanished, leaving a poetic void in the midst of hundreds of lonely female students...
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Liliana Corobca’s novel is seemingly a tale of the oddities of female loneliness and the deeply confused alterity of virginity. This time too she has succeeded in writing a literary text whose style is difficult to classify. If we are to believe her succinct confession on the cover of the book, it is a poetic fictionalisation of a phase in the writer’s own life. In other words, once the foreordained man has been found, another life begins, and the life left behind is lucky enough to be turned into a novel by a talented young writer. Whichever way you look at it, it is a good book.”
(Adrian G. ROMILA)
“I would like to mention once again Liliana Corobca’s polished style, her obvious talent, and the fact that she chooses topical and original subjects. I can hardly wait for Liliana Corobca’s next novel, first of all to see what it will be about, but also to see how she will develop literarily.”
“Liliana Corobca has spoken about her Empire of Old Maids as being an enchanted skin, which she shed after it was published. She identified with it for a long time, but the time had come to part with it. To change her skin. To moult. This is how I interpreted it, as a moulting, particularly given that although the opening pages introduce you to a series of portraits and amusing, ironical situations, with a storytelling rhythm, the novel surprisingly turns into something else, something completely different.”