Marin Malaicu-Hondrari

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Critics about

Novel, Ego.Prose series, Polirom, 2015, 200 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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I sit stretched out in a chaise longue, drinking a whiskey, and a heap of cigarette butts piles up to my left as the light fades. For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to smoke with my left hand on even days and my right hand on odd days. “That’s quite some feat,” said Lady Slim when I told her. Then, I thought that smokers ought to be like secret agents, they ought constantly to specialise, to blow up the system, but I didn’t tell her that, instead I asked her what she did when she felt really ill. “I think of a man I’ve slept with,” answered Lady Slim. “Doesn’t that make you feel even worse ?” I asked. “No, because there haven’t been all that many,” she said. I would have liked to tell her that if I thought of the women I’ve slept with, I’d have to think of her too, but I didn’t say it, because she was in Bucharest and I was here, in the Camarillas, and you just can’t say things like that over the telephone, at a distance of thousands of kilometres.

For years and years, Lady Slim had been the woman I forgot and remembered most often. Sometimes, I wouldn’t think of her for weeks on end, I would completely forget about her, and when I say completely, it means that she wouldn’t so much as pop up in a dream, but then all of a sudden I would start thinking about her intensely, and I would pick up the phone and call her or send her a text message. She always answered, or almost always.

I was sitting stretched out on a chaise longue, drinking a whiskey, and a heap of cigarette butts piled up to my left as the light faded over the low hills nearby. It was from over there, following paths known only to them, that my customers emerged after darkness fell. Night after night I saw them approach, between the abandoned houses, enveloped in mist, my keen eye picked out their shifting forms against the darkness, they advanced ghost like past the ruined walls, waiting for me to come out to meet them and sell them the cigarettes their lips craved. I felt sorry for them, they didn’t look at all like the ones who came to the Camarillas from the European Union, the ones who disembarked from private planes, bought the packets of cigarettes they craved, boarded their planes again and went home to their European Union countries, where they would puff away more or less in secret. No, in the first place my customers weren’t rich, they were simple folk, workers driven by the vice of smoking, who crossed the border clandestinely, bought my clandestine cigarettes clandestinely, so that they could envelop their clandestine lives in smoke. Some of them didn’t even have enough money for a whole carton ; they bought just a few packets and came back for more two or three days later. They bought the cheapest cigarettes : Libertad, Pepe, filterless Camarillas, Amigo, but no matter how cheap they were, they still made me rich. I made almost a Euro on every packet I sold and I could have earned more, but I hadn’t come to the Camarillas to get rich.

The first time I talked to the priest from the next village, he was amazed that I had come to live in that wasteland. “People don’t like the places by the border,” he said. “Here, as far as the eye can see, there are only deserted villages, abandoned houses, land left fallow.” I told him that it did indeed look like a place where even God would feel uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t say that, young man. For more than sixty years, I’ve entered my little church every day and in all those years I’ve always found a few souls to serve Him. And if there are no people, I can say mass for other living creatures. I’ve preached to spiders, lizards, a goat grazing the grass sprouting between the steps of the church.” The priest was a short man, nothing but skin and bone, with keen, fiery eyes, which contrasted with his soft, gentle speech and his broad brow, which was like a white sea of tranquillity. Despite his age, his gait was nimble and assured, and he declined whenever I offered him a lift in my Toyota pick up. He had asked for my help only twice since I arrived in the Camarillas. The first time was when he came to ask me for a cigarette to give a man on his deathbed, who was unable to move, but wanted to smoke a last cigarette. And the second time was when I brought up the subject of the fallow land all around, the desolate fields that stretched for hundreds of hectares, full of briars and thistles, overrun with blackberry and raspberry thickets, edged with bushes. “I’ve done everything in my power. But nobody wants that land. And it’s understandable, in a way. Maybe you, who are a friend of the president’s, will take mercy on those villages and do something for them before they die completely,” said the priest. Who knows what he imagined when he said I was a friend of the president’s. In the end, he was a simple country priest, who had seen the presidential helicopter landing near the trailer that served as my house and a tobacconist’s shop. He had seen the president climb out of the helicopter and go inside my trailer. He had seen me leaving in the presidential helicopter on occasion, and sometimes in the presidential limousine.

I was sitting stretched out in a chaise longue, drinking a whiskey, and a heap of cigarette butts piled up to my left as the darkness hid the stony hills, with their arid earth, with their scattered shrubs and bushes, like tufts of hair on the back of a huge, sick, deformed animal. The olive trees had given up raising their crooked trunks, their unkempt fo­liage, and had become one with the darkness. In La Pedrera a small light had been lit in the house of the only person remaining in that village which perched on one of the hills. He has a few goats and a day does not go by without his berating them. And at night, when my customers pass, the goats become agitated and bleat, they make a hoarse moan, which I can’t get used to no matter how I try, and which gives me gooseflesh. The goat herder does not smoke, but sometimes he comes down the hill in the evening and we listen to the radio together, because he likes the news, and from time to time he marvels, saying : “How about that !” When he has had enough of the news, he goes back to his house, he crosses the slope, he enters the cobbled lane, he passes the abandoned, crumbling houses, and he never goes to bed until he has told the goats what is happening in the world. I turn off the radio and listen to the desert behind me : a harsh roar of fine sand that reaches me from the other side of the border, a roar that the President has called the ill omened roar of the European Union.

Ricardo Rivas Ponti was the youngest president ever to be elected in the history of the Camarillas. He had been educated in the United States and married a Romanian woman there. He came from an old family of liberal politicians. When I met him, he was in his second term of office. As soon as I entered his office, he looked at me in an affable sort of way and before one of his men could close the door behind me, he said : “I think you know why I called you here.” “I have an inkling,” I said. “It’s about Ada,” said the president. “I haven’t heard from her for more than three weeks and I’m starting to get worried. I know you were seen together before she left the Camarillas. I also know that she has gone to Romania to visit her mother. Apart from that, nothing.” I was standing, I felt awkward, not because the man in front of me was the president of the Camarillas, but because he was Ada’s father. “You know more than I do,” I said. And then I added, “Mr President.” “So, you haven’t heard from her since she left.” “You know very well I haven’t,” I said, attempting to smile so as not to give him the impression that I was defying him. Ada had warned me that my telephone, e mail, Facebook account, and bank accounts would be kept under surveillance, and that I was being watched. “I thought maybe we had missed something,” said the president.
Later, when I met him for the second time, he told me that he was not necessarily worried about his daughter’s fate or about the fact that her prolonged absence might damage his public image. Rather, he missed her. And that was why he had turned to me : as a father who missed his daughter, and that’s what made me like him. I told him that I missed her too and that I was waiting impatiently for her to get in touch. “But you know what Ada is like,” I added.

After that, every time we met, I felt like a kind of Sche­herazade ; as long as I told him stories about Ada, I was safe.
We were in Intre Vai when Ada told me I ought to go to the Camarillas, to move to the Camarillas and live there. “What would I do in the Camarillas ? I don’t even know where to find them on the map. Why would I live in the Camarillas ?” I asked her. “This is why,” she said, waving the Constitution of the Camarillas in front of my eyes. I opened it and read Article 1, Point 2 : “The Camarillas are a secular, smokers’ state.” Nothing more to add. Even so, I couldn’t help but exclaim : “That’s my kind of constitution !”

Later, I was to find out that it was Ricardo Rivas Ponti who had added to the Constitution of the Camarillas the point about it being a secular, smokers’ state, and that his entire governmental programme was based on tobacco. On tobacco and petrol. If the petrol had always been exploited efficiently, the same thing could not be said about the tobacco. When the European Union became a hell for smokers and the tobacco industry, Ricardo Rivas Ponti realised that the time was ripe to make the Camarillas a heaven for smokers and the tobacco industry. His wife, Maria, Ada’s mother, came up with the slogan that would win the presidential elections for him : “Let us smoke our petrol !”.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth


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