A novel about departures, losses and emptiness, written with tenderness and sprinkled with surprises. A book with a circular structure, which encloses within it a thousand line fairy tale poem. Far from her hometown, her family and those who still love her, Miranda Dortloft is writing a rhyming fairy tale. The dense prose that surrounds this game of the imagination, a cocoon of doubts and confessions, reveals Miranda’s real life : her childhood during the communist period, in a motley family where contrast rules ; a love affair ; and the empty present, ravaged by depression. Veronica D. Niculescu’s first novel takes the reader through a labyrinth of distorting mirrors, where reality and fiction, a princess and a modern day woman wander hand in hand.
Today three things happened on the way. First there was the old woman at the newspaper stand, who with her left hand took a newspaper and with her right hand placed a pouch of money in the vendor’s palm. From inside the pouch, next to the wad of paper and plastic, the vendor removed a bobbin of white thread—this he gave back to the woman. There was a snigger. Then, when I boarded the metro train, a boy who was just taking a bite from a biscuit froze in the act biting until I sat down opposite him, after which he started chewing. And after I got off the train, as I was going up the escalator, gazing overhead, waiting to see the sky, a huge shop sign loomed on the left, blotting out what should have been the sky. “Pull & Bear,” I read and, involuntarily, I thought of a wolf : one of those unfinished thoughts, a mere quiver.
When I stopped at the traffic light, in front of me I noticed a man of about thirty or thirty five, with a rucksack on his back and a cup of coffee in his hand. I crossed the road behind him, and with me still behind him we both veered off the zebra crossing in the same direction, and I suspected that he was going to the same place as I was, perhaps because of the chunky shape of his rucksack, perhaps because of the cup of coffee, perhaps because of his determined stride—he knew the way. Soon another person joined us. He was going in the same direction too, but definitely not to the same place. It was a tramp, shuffling along. He was walking behind me, along the embankment, with the Dimbovita River on the right, the bicycle lane on the left, his gait slow and heavy. I listened and thought to myself that his shoes must be one or two sizes too big. He must have found them in a dustbin or somebody had given him them as an act of charity or maybe he just wore shoes that were much too big. I thought of the wolf again, although I could have thought of Dad instead ; he wears a size forty six, or even a forty seven. I tried to quicken my pace, but the tramp kept up with me. I slowed down, and he still kept as close to me.
I walked like that for a while, between the two of them. All I could do was think of the wolf : that wolf with an “o” like an exhalation in the middle, an unpronounced letter, just exhaled air. I think I must have got used to the shuffling behind me, because I gave a start when I realised that I couldn’t hear it any more. I cast one brief glance behind me, and then, straight away, I took another, longer look, frightened by now : behind me, there was nobody at all anywhere in the street. It’s the same with the wolf : it appears and disappears when you’re least expecting it. I matched my pace with that of the man in front.
He really was going to the same place as I was. Or rather, I was going to the same place as he was, because I was coming there for the first time, with vague hopes, to try to write a story, or at least to get one started. Actually, I’d been there two or three times before, but not to stay any length of time, just to see some exhibitions of drawings, and I think that that was when I told myself it would be a good out of the way place in which to write : large spaces, with lots of tables along the walls on each floor, and in the darker, sheltered areas, there were oases illumined by conscientious lamps where you least expected, and it was very, very quiet. The man veered off the pavement and climbed a flight of makeshift wooden steps, probably a remnant from when the place was still under construction : planks with traces of red paint. Taking a shortcut, he crossed a grassy strip, continued over the fresh asphalt, and reached the main entrance, where he vanished among the people standing outside the library. There were a surprising number of them. What were they doing there in the middle of summer ? They were probably from the courts across the road, where an even larger crowd was standing. Had they crossed over to this side to take shelter from the sun ?
I entered the library. Nobody asked me to show a reader’s card. I ascended to the mezzanine. I walked around the mezzanine, looking for a secluded spot. There were plenty. I chose a table with a view of the entrance, so that I could see a little bit of greenery and the road by which I had come. I took out my small laptop, a desk diary, a pencil, and then, through the glass parapet, I spotted the coffee vending machine on the ground floor. I hesitated for a couple of moments. I gathered my things back together and went downstairs, this time taking an escalator, which I hadn’t noticed before. I read the yellow post it note announcing with too many exclamation marks that the machine was out of water. I crossed the exhibition room in search of another machine, found one, tried without success to find the slot for one leu banknotes, even though I looked very carefully, mentally ticking off every orifice and button, calmly, from top to bottom and then bottom to top, after which I went back and read the note on the first machine, the barren one, and then, involuntarily, I noticed the slot for one leu banknotes, and so I returned to the second machine, which had a slot in exactly the same place, really low down, I inserted two banknotes, pressed the necessary buttons, scalded my thumb when I tried to wrest the cup from the plastic claws, employed a paper napkin to hold the far too hot coffee, and went back up the escalator. In the meantime, two talkative, identically dressed lads had sat down at my table ; they were wearing jeans, skin tight white t shirts, and had crew cuts. And so I sat down at another table, behind a stout pillar.
Now I am alone at a large, square wooden table with four chairs. I am sitting on one chair, my bag on another. The lads left as soon as I sat down, they walked past me, whispering, I saw them through the window crossing the street on their way back to the courts, where they will probably be testifying about some brawl or other in a village bar, when one of their pals punched somebody else, who fell and hit his head on a rock in the road, with some girl screaming all the while.
The mezzanine is circular—“circular” only in a manner of speaking, it’s square, the tables are along the side, the centre is empty, and so through the glass parapet I can look down at the ground floor, at the white outlines of the figures in a sculpture exhibition. A plaster man sits on a bench surrounded by animals, they have gathered around him and look as if they are waiting for something, a cow, a sheep, a goose, a cat, a dog, what looks like a lion, and a flamingo, a small flock with craning necks. The man is undressed and holds one arm in a horizontal position, maybe he is talking to them, maybe he is telling them that they will all be going away somewhere soon, maybe by boat, maybe on foot, or maybe, on the contrary, they will be staying here, come what may, in this library with coffee vending machines and refugees from the courts—the animals sit on their bottoms and listen to him.
I’m cold, the air conditioning chirrs too loudly and I haven’t got the slightest idea whether I’ll be able to write here. I’ve never written in a strange place, with other people around.
I keep looking out of the window : tiny, colourful people sit on the steps of the courts, waiting on the steps for sentences or postponements, a blue bicycle passes, cars pass in both directions, and between the asphalted lanes, undisturbed by any of all this, roses are in bloom. Tall bushes of blood red and pink roses—a pink which, if it were a matter of anything else, for example healthy skin on a happy morning, the skin of somebody happy on a sunny morning, an ordinary morning as seen by somebody tranquil, I might, with a certain degree of ecstasy, call rosy.
The story I want to write will only exist if I sit down to write it.
This ought to make me want to write it.
A girl has now sat down in front of me. She hesitated a little, she even looked on the other side the pillar, and I hoped she would go there, but instead she decided to come here. On the table she plonked the New Civil Code and Eight Common Laws and then a thick file of photocopied pages, copiously highlighted in orange marker. That was exactly when I was looking out of the window and noticed a passing blue bicycle. And so my day ends here. In the presence of laws, literature curls up in a ball and falls silent.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“What I am going to say will become (if it is not already) a commonplace regarding the author’s name : a translator of Nabokov (and one passionate about what she does), she has not remained unaffected by her obsession. This is not a statement intended to fill up the space of a book review, but something demonstrable, because, as happens in the case of true literature, her prose does not allow you the relaxation of innocent reading. Her texts are laden with elements that ensure the cohesiveness of the material, like a skeleton snugly wrapped with the visible flesh of the word.”
“Veronica D. Niculescu writes prose of seductive, calophile analysis. Or to put it better, she packages the traumas of female identity in calophile phrasing. This is something much harder to do than merely recording traumas directly. She seemingly wagers on the effects of the undertone, her voice never reaches the neo expressionist stridency that is the fashion nowadays, she does not seem connected in any way to the tradition of junky or trendy prose.”
“Veronica D. Niculescu writes prose of very fine quality, and what she has to say comes from a deeper level, rather than from improvisation and banal observation.”