To my non existent son
Since today is the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination—don’t ask me for further details, the whys and wherefores—I have decided to keep my promise from this summer and tell you some things about your mother, who is just as non existent as you.
I was young, romantic and mad for her. She was a realist, but tormented me with absolutes : “You gag me because you’re afraid of the truth... your truths are greasy and vague... you confound films with real life and I can’t stand it... You mix them up because it’s more convenient for you that way, you and your bourgeois comforts, you’re nothing but a bourgeois who wants to live a quiet life like in books and films... The life of the sentence, the life of the adverb, a life like in the films at the cinema, you don’t know any other life, words, that’s all you know, you’ll die of your love of words, you’ll bury yourself in them...” etc.
To her, everything I did was proof that I didn’t love her. I followed her to the ends of the earth, constantly imploring her and mimicking her : “Lord, how much you talk !” She didn’t care—she wanted to know why I had phoned her only twice the evening before ; I phoned from public call boxes every one hundred metres, but I had friends that weren’t to her liking ; I ditched my friends, I ran to see her—where had I been last night, when she called me on the phone ? I waited for her evening phone call, she didn’t phone—why had I forgotten that she told me at lunchtime she was going to the seamstress for a fitting ? She had been to the seamstress—why wasn’t I interested in her new dress ? Her dress was wonderful—but why couldn’t I say that I liked her other dresses ?
I knew her wardrobe by heart—could I remember what she was wearing when we ate together for the first time in the restaurant car of the Bucharest Timisoara train ?
I couldn’t remember what she had been wearing, but I did remember what we ate (from the breaded cheese to the oranges)—why did I have to be ironical ?
I wasn’t ironical, I was emotional, all my friends yelled at me for being too emotional about her, for being lovelorn and blind. “Do what you like,” she declared, “I’m going to go and read a book... What, aren’t you interested in what I’m reading ? Have you ever discussed any book with me ? Do you think I haven’t outgrown Ion Creanga’s fairy stories ?” (I whispered to her : “One never outgrows Ion Creanga, my dear, how many can match him ?”) And she went on, in a whirlwind : “So what if I only finished école normale ? At least my normal didn’t give me your abnormalities, it didn’t give me your pals’ snobbery, I can tell the difference between what’s on a piece of canvas and what’s in a bowl of broth, I couldn’t care less if you can’t split theoretical hairs with me, we’re not going to play My Fair Lady together, I’m not a lady and I don’t know whether you know, with all your culture, that Eugene Ionesco left the theatre laughing his head off, the same as I did, when he saw that nonsense that bowled you over...”
I was walking along happily, listening to her, I looked at her for a long moment, I wanted to tell her that she looked like Audrey Hepburn, especially her nose—“What are you looking at me like that for ? Am I so comical ?” “No, you’re not comical, my miracle, my sister”—I aspired to Dostoevsky, as least in love—“you have the most beautiful eyes in the world.” At that point she lost her temper. “There you go again ! You think every woman has beautiful eyes.”
That was what she was like. I accepted her—she would pounce : why did I accept her ? Why didn’t I disagree with her ? Why didn’t I ironise her ? What did I imagine, that she couldn’t take my ironies ? Let me be quite clear : I am not capable of putting up with her ironies !
I put up with them and wondered what was so outrageous about my thinking all women had beautiful eyes. It’s a question of optimism, of taking pleasure in life, of being happy to be alive. Calinescu himself... (Oh, what a Calinescian I was ! Although with Calinescu the last thing you end up being is a Dostoevskian.) The result : why was I so devoid of critical spirit ? Why was I so bookish ? Why was I so jolly all the time ? Why did I have to make up puns ? Why didn’t I look after her ?
I looked after her, I turned the collars of her topcoat and her overcoat up, so that she wouldn’t catch cold, I gave her my summer raincoat—she would start again : why did I sing in the rain ? Why did I make fun of her nose ? (I told her the truth : her face would make a death mask filled with a life of cruelty, to which she replied, not at all angrily : “Yes, but compared with yours...”) And finally, she would come to the decisive question : why couldn’t I tell when she was hungry ? I was hungry too—yes, but did I know what she wanted to eat ? “I’ll swear you don’t know !” “If I knew, would you be persuaded that I love you, that I can’t keep my eyes off you ?” Like hell...
That evening, my entire being reared grandly on its hind legs, I had the analytical powers of a Maigret and from our trains, trams, telephones, cake shops, rains, umbrellas, parks, and films, in a moment of essential madness I deduced the truth—I went into the first sweet shop and I bought her some orange zest lozenges.
She fell against my chest in a swoon.
Another time, I shall tell you the story of how I left her.
To my non existent son
My dear inestimable one,
To answer your questions : I once charmed a woman by taking her to a rugby match ; we parted quickly, chastely and with dignity.
To get in with another, I read to her Gogol’s The Nose one whole night ; I was so inhibited by the memory of Raicu’s reading of the story from all that time ago that what I read to her put her fast asleep, with her head resting on a corner of the pillow, next to my shoulder ; to read The Nose until three in the morning, by yourself, aloud, in defiance of your girlfriend’s sleep, is a situation worthy of Diary of a Madman, which I accepted without complaint.
I once liked a girl without tragic limits and I fell on my knees before her, murmuring : “That dunderhead of a husband is going to Ploiesti tomorrow, I’ll be alone and bored, come round and we’ll have some fun, your adoring Mitza,” and the girl fled from the park, through the night, past the enormous statues by Paciurea, home to Damaroaia, and we never saw each other again—the word “dunderhead” frightened her, probably, a word as strange as a grotto barely illumined by the sun of a few vowels.
Another time, when I lived near the Fire Watchtower, in order to delight my tiger deer, I took a shopping bag and went to the Trajan Market to buy fruit and ice for the cooler, because the wild animal liked to wake up at three in the morning and ask me for an apple, after which she would drop off to sleep, slowly crunching the seeds. All until one day, when she brought a brand new refrigerator up to the mansard and I was no longer able to endure it, erupting in a roar. She slowly, slowly withdrew, holding her hand over her mouth.
Unabated, for the sake of a lady school inspector I stood in a queue all day long, to obtain two tickets to Carthage in Flames ; she found the film uneducational and long.
One winter evening, I was walking down Muzeul Zambaccian Street and a talented lady chess player asked me whether I had a tall stemmed lamp at home, like the one she had seen through the window of an Asian embassy ; I was overly spontaneous and said : “No”. I walked her to the stop of the 31R bus, she lived in Chitila, I changed tram twice, it was incomprehensible what dream a lamp engendered in her mind.
With your non existent mother, the crystallisation came about like this : in a blue nylon shopping bag I was taking a white baguette to an aunt in Filaret, along with a bottle of beer yeast, which she required in her war against staphylococcus. After briefly yelling : “What’s with that bottle ?” your non existent mother proposed that we buy a jar of cream, break the baguette in two, and straight away eat bread and cream ; we sat down on a park bench, in Ioanid Park, in the heart of the Capital, like two superior peasants passing through Bucharest on their way to Oarba de Mures, and we concisely confessed feelings that were, willy nilly, to prove lasting.
I have been thinking about you in the last few days : the father of the philosopher from next to the Cocor Department Store has arrived in Bucharest from the depths of Vaslui, he alighted at the Northern Station, and took a trolleybus in order to make a connection with a tram that he missed. He is a peasant with around ten children, only one of whom has ended up a philosopher : my friend, the specialist in the Enlightenment, who did not have time for his father and entrusted him to me for a few hours.
The old man contested him as soon as he saw me, because you can’t be a philosopher if you have only had one child, philosophy starts from five children upward, one of whom has to have died in the cradle, for some unknown reason, but, he said, that had been proven by Patterson, a philosopher who fathered twelve children in Madagascar and India, all with the same woman, Mrs Patterson, who went with him everywhere, she carried his papers and compass and books and collections of butterflies and tsetse flies, while he was working on a theory that would solve the problem of droughts and hanging gardens, a very good friend of Fleming’s, the inventor of penicillin, to whom Patterson said one fine day, and here the old man gripped my arm : “You take the problem of microbes, I will deal with the rains of the Universe, we will divide the world between us and be able to sleep peacefully.” After that, Patterson invented a new method of weaving Persian rugs, he is the most brilliant mind ever to have existed, he is invited to every country in the world, but he sits on a beach and writes a new book about transporting blocks of ice to desert regions ; I tried to interrupt him, saying that I had read in the newspaper that they are going to tow them with huge ropes and hawsers ; he got annoyed : “Nonsense, everything you read in the newspaper is nonsense and you won’t go very far... Patterson has proved that people like you, without children, but with too much news in your heads, can’t go very far” ; abruptly, in an invertebrate sort of way, I asked him in which book Patterson had said that and I followed him all around the Cocor Department Store, which he had entered to buy some lavender, and then to the station, all the way to the platform, asking him to give me at least a title ; on the steps of the train to Vaslui, he said : Cuore, the train set in motion, I shouted that that was by Edmondo de Amicis, because I cannot relinquish my disgusting fireman’s exactness.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth