Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2015, 536 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
When Doina Jela decides to write a “liberation diary,” Rafael makes his appearance amid the chaos and confusion of the publishing house where she works. He is an old acquaintance of hers, and gives her a mysterious manuscript with a view to publishing it. As she reads it, in order to write a reader’s report, the pages of her diary become interwoven with Relu Rafaelu’s manuscript, and what had originally been both a personal and a work obligation now becomes a challenge, as she discovers not only that the characters are real but also that she knows them. Vlad Cernescu, Letitia, Ioana, Valeria and Rafael are brought together when they are assigned as teachers to a lyceum in a village on the bank of the Danube, not long before the Revolution. Their stories intersect, unsuspected connections come to light, and personal histories extend into the present, blending with the wider history of the last quarter of a century, and centring on the Villa Margareta, a place of fierce passions, but also bitter disappointments. In Doina Jela’s novel, fiction and reality merge to form a moving and disturbing story.
I had dozed off on the heap of old clothes, where I had been sitting as if in a comfortable armchair for almost half an hour.
I had almost forgotten that Ancuta was there, who after theatrically declaiming the passage from the memoirs had fallen silent as if by magic and was now curiously leafing through all kinds of notebooks, books and newspaper clippings.
“What if he is right ?” I said.
I had gone to the doorway of the Villa Margareta and standing on the threshold, leaning against the doorframe, like a door hanging solidly on its hinges, with my right shoulder outside and my left shoulder inside, looking now inside, now outside, I remembered my feeling that I would never leave that place and its interior comfort and it seemed to me that I might remain there, between the subconscious of poet Vlad Cernescu, now exposed to view, and the barren expanse of the ponds, exactly like a door that has no reason to want to be lifted off its hinges. Exactly like back then. Except that back then what was unreal was departure, with the attendant fear, exorcised in adolescent pieces of prose, which Relu Rafaelu recited to me so nicely, whereas now I was unreal, all of me, with my three children who almost were not mine any more, and twenty three years older than when I nonetheless did tear myself away.
Anca came up to me.
“What are you thinking ?”
And I told her, just so that we could both be lifted from our hinges, so that we could automatically, indifferently, close the rotting door to that hut, like farmers leaving the farm for a few hours, and so that we could head to the car parked between the dunes, a story from when I was fourteen. One of them, the most marketable. The most commercial one. The story of my first love. When we went to do agricultural work experience, which was usual in those days, when we went potato picking, accompanied by our Romanian teacher, whose name I forget. Beforehand we would come here, to the Villa Margareta, running so that we wouldn’t be late, so that I could make myself look nice for him. Back then there was a cream for eczema and burns, whose name I haven’t forgotten, Cutaden, which was white and made you white. I put it on my face and I felt beautiful and in love all day long, under the teacher’s eyes, who talked only to me. In the evening, when I got home and saw myself in the mirror, black with dust, like a devil, so that all you could see were my eyes, I wept bitterly. And I decided once and for all not to try to look different than I was ever again, regardless of what advantages changing my appearance might bring. But I didn’t tell her that, in any event my story, which I hoped would be comical, didn’t amuse her at all and a feeling of slight embarrassment floated between us. Anca quickly returned to the present, she sat down in the passenger seat, put on her seatbelt, and after the car pulled away, turning into the gravelly lane, she asked me, almost curtly :
“When did you see him last ?”
I don’t care for her tone. It’s like an interrogation. I’m a lady of sixty, with a house and children (as Mother says when she wants to defend me against my sister in law’s accusations of abandoning her), who has taken a year’s sabbatical and wants to devote herself to her own projects as much as possible. Who might think it is enough to allow herself to be temporarily roped into the projects of the general’s niece, the general who twenty odd years ago was a “comrade.”
“I saw him for the last time on the night between the 21st and the 22nd of December 1989, when, I don’t know whether you know, we both went to Bucharest, straight from school. Quite simply, we lost each other there. Then, in June 1990, when the miners came, as you probably know, I left for good. But in the meantime, you found out that he... he disappeared during the Revolution.”
I glance at her, quickly, so as not to lose sight in the dark of the faded white line in the middle of the road. She doesn’t seem to know anything.
“No, I don’t know,” she confirms. “I was ten years old during the Revolution.”
“But you’ve grown up in the meantime, haven’t you ? We weren’t alive when Churchill and Stalin struck their bargain, which you read about just now. But you can read about those things in books, can’t you ?”
And although it’s gentle, it’s my own pedantic tone that I don’t like now.
“So, I haven’t seen him since then, but I have discovered a few things. Probably that friend you’re in touch with, a foreigner, I think, who lives around here, married to a Romanian, he’s a bit strange, I don’t know how he found out my chat room ID, Vlad told him we know each other, since you could never accuse your father of being discreet,” I say reproachfully. “And that friend of his – I think he’s some kind of maths genius – sent me cryptic poetic messages from time to time, from which I can deduce one thing and another.”
Finally, Ancuta is amused.
“You deduced from his poems what Dad was doing ?”
“Yes, it wasn’t hard, look, you can deduce for yourself, if somebody writes something like this : Canteens of broth hanging from clamps / in unstable equilibrium / would be crushed, like the bodies of suicides on the pavement / if the wind dislodged them / I wanted to take him to a regatta / an impossible knot had appeared in the road / a traffic jam / car horns, finally I reached his domicile / I parked the car on the right, / with the windows open / amid a thousand words and two dreams / I glimpsed him / it was in an absurd theatre, / ashtrays full of cigarette butts / chests of draws with the stains of last night’s vodka / in the end I took cover among the flock and withdrew.”
Anca titters like a mouse, looking at me in vague disbelief.
“That’s easy : he was still living in Grandpa’s bedsit.”
“That was in November 2010, I think, after I had seen him on television in any case, but how that friend found me I don’t know and I don’t even know what his name was any more.”
“Why did he tell you like that, rather than straight out ?” says Anca, choking with laughter.
“I’ve no idea. Maybe he detested life’s prosaicness. And anyway, it didn’t bother me, it was easy to deduce that he still smoked, still drank, was surrounded by friends, and that the friend had gone away upset. He was always surrounded by people who somehow shared in his glory thanks to their knowing him. I didn’t know any others ; they didn’t get in touch with me. And he really was a decent chap ; Nita says he even brought him food. Then there was the other chap who published his book. One of his admirers, the most fervent. His wife, in fact. But that was long before, immediately after the Revolution, I think. Straight away they sent him the package with his fifteen copies, to Valeria’s address, your grandfather’s house, in Bucharest, but Vlad didn’t reply to them. That probably came as proof to them that he had died in the Revolution. Or else the fact that he didn’t reply offended them and they stopped taking any interest in him...
Because from his silence it could be understood that their efforts, Ioana and Sandu’s, were of no importance to him. And they maybe thought that their efforts, their publishing his book, were more meritorious than his efforts in writing those poems. In the end, the congress was held on the 14th of November, the communist regimes in the surrounding countries were toppling like skittles, in December the students from Bucharest were hanging pears from poplar trees to hasten the end (that’s what Ceausescu had said : communism will fall when the poplars grow pears), and the three of them, while other people were packing their bags and taking refuge with relatives, were running back and forth between the printing press and the Council of Culture to get permission to print the book. Except that there wasn’t anybody at the Council of Culture.
Luckily, Sandu, as inventive as ever, forged the signatures of the first secretaries and deputy secretaries, who were nowhere to be found, he forged the rubber stamps, and he showed the fake authorisations at the printing press, so that the book could come out. It got bogged down after that, for a few months, but those signatures worked all the way, in the end, out of inertia. All those sacrifices entitled them, so they believed, to a little recognition and consideration. And they also entitled them to be upset when Vlad didn’t reply. When, two or three months later, they met Nita in the University underpass—Nita had taken Tudorita to the Coltea Hospital nearby—Nita told them about Vlad’s ‘death.’ That’s all I know, after putting together what everybody said.”
Anca remained silent, as if processing the data she had received. Or perhaps because she had nothing to say.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Villa Margareta is proof that Doina Jela is a novelist of vast breadth, who dares to tell a story, set against the backdrop of the events experienced by Romanians since 1989, about the need to be authentic and accept ourselves as we are, a story of fear and courage, idealism and compromises, guilt and Dostoevskian atonement. The descriptions of the Dobrudja landscape are highly successful, the villages and natural setting of the seaside and delta, as well as the central points of the space in which the interlocking stories unfold, such as the Villa Margareta, a disused border guard’s hut, which becomes symbolic as a space of truth, a refuge and hideaway, in which the traps laid by the narrative finally snap shut.”
“The documentary value of the confessions, the agglomeration of concrete data, and the recording of events that provide material for a fresco of society are not mere memoirs, but true samples of authenticity, potentiating the aesthetic effect. At the same time, the insertion of the true to life, such as passages from a Securitate file, letters, a manuscript, photographs, a page from a dictionary, and e mails, create an indissoluble link between the fictional and non fictional substance of the book, postulating its postmodern nature, alongside fragments, flashbacks, interruptions, and repetitions of the same scene from different perspectives.”
“Doina Jela’s novel is a novel of the generation born in the 1950s, who spent the first decades of their lives under communism, who experience a brief thaw when they were students, and who were on the verge of middle age when the 1989 Revolution came, a threshold where change is still possible, when destiny does not yet seem to have finished its work. The novel closes with that moment, experienced as something unique, when freedom offers the unhoped for opportunity to take the moment in your hands and make of it what had not thitherto been possible. Obviously, depending on the events that have made each separate character survive or die, and depending on their past, which has shaped or distorted them, which has or has not given them a chance.”