What can a man do once he has reached the age at which life seems to enter its final phase ? Should he resign himself, like a prisoner on death row, waiting in the antechamber to the next world ? No. At the age of seventy three, Mihnea Pascal, a former librarian, a widower now almost wild with loneliness, thinks obsessively about the life he has lived and the life still left to him, the same as he thought obsessively about suicide in the years of his youth, as an unhappy virgin. Having reached a venerable age, he manages to overcome his fear of death, which lurks around the corner, and transforms himself from an upstanding pensioner into Pascal the Madman, the “neighbourhood loony,” a controversial figure who, among many other things, visits young ladies and has them visit him. In his behaviour and actions he ignores social norms and defies eternity itself. He does not wish to depart for the next world without a fight, nor does he wish to miss out on any little pleasure : when he does die, he will do so on his own terms. Those Who Die and Those Who Will Die is a moving novel about the rejection of old age, about how life is worth living, especially when society and its rules force you to think constantly about death.
I like to utter the word cock and I don’t think we should be intimidated by it.
Obviously, like most people, I was afraid of it all my life and I don’t remember ever having said it, not even to myself, but I’ve been cured of that now, in my old age. I’m immune. I vaccinated myself, with the antibiotic I myself invented, and I survived. I’m still alive.
It’s not certain whether I’ll even be capable of finishing this page, but for the time being, I’m alive. My fear of death is dead.
We can call the cock a penis, but that’s tantamount to our turning it into an anatomical accessory of limited use. The almost medical banality of the term is offensive.
A man preserves his sex no matter how old he might be.
Even if you’re an old man, you’re still a man.
The cock is a lonely creature. It lives in men’s underwear and comes out only when it has to pee or have sex. Apart from that, it remains tucked away, like a mole. Rarely does it see the light of day, rarely does it take the sun, rarely does it have companions, colleagues or friends, except during nudism or puberty, when the palm of each and every one of us was its shelter and delight in equal measure.
Old age is terrifying for everyone, but for a man it is all the more so, because before you die, a part of your body has already begun to die, a part that will have long since been used for nothing but urination.
In his glory years, when he was young, handsome and famous, André Malraux told Julien Green that impotence frightened him more than death, because it meant that a part of you died before you did, and Julien Green, shocked by it, recorded the conversation in his diary.
What could have made André Malraux think about impotence when he was so young ?
Many times, I have told myself that perhaps it was because of a failure with some woman or the eruption of an accumulation of failures in love.
I myself experienced the same thing as a young man and I know what it means to think that you are either infirm or sick.
I haven’t come up with any other explanation.
I know that a man in his seventies is almost forbidden to employ the word cock, but more depressing is the fact that the object in itself, its function and its main purpose are past their sell by date.
What is worse : not to have an arm or not to be allowed to say arm ?
Nobody has ever written an explicit book about the andropause.
Nobody has ever written an explicit book about the dolorous, definitive and irrevocable voice of impotence, which villainously, perfidiously, secretly attacks every living man.
Yes, I know, there are also exceptions : Tolstoy, Confucius, Titian, Picasso, and all the rest.
But the other list of examples is as vast as the universe and contains names just as famous.
The list contains every name, excepting those men who quite simply could not tolerate the thought of it, the physical condition, and committed suicide, going to meet death, without waiting docilely, exposed, trembling and terrified for death to come to them.
Old people who commit suicide are more tragic than young people, for reasons that are so numerous and obvious that I’m embarrassed even to mention any of them.
They call me the loony. They call me the pervert. They call me a lecherous worm and all kinds of other things.
I’ve become the shame of the neighbourhood, the building buffoon, a blemish on the cheek of the teaching staff. I won’t even mention the librarian’s profession, because the librarians are probably turning in their graves, like simmering hotdogs. And that’s just the dead ones.
The living ones, who heard of my exploits and did not faint in horror, crucified me, drowned me in spittle and tirades oozing intellectual indignation.
That’s something, isn’t it ? To be the star of the car park, when the car park is full of muscular yobs with slicked back hair, whereas you can barely put one foot in front of the other . . .
It smacks of prowess, no matter how much you might turn up your nose.
Apart from anything else, it’s inappropriate for an old crock to chase skirts rather than preparing for his own funeral, to read magazines banned to minors, to watch XXX films, and to receives home visits, at least once a week, from various unknown young ladies, some of them almost as young as his grandchildren.
What’s more, he’s taken up exercise. At his age, he’s jogging, doing yoga and karate. He wears a defiant hat, à la Humphrey Bogart, he swears, he often bluntly speaks his mind, and he’s grown an Impressionist painter’s beard.
Terribly scandalous, isn’t it ?
According to you, old men should just die.
They should docilely vote in elections, mind their own business, keep their mouths shut, breathe when they’re told to. They shouldn’t step out of line, make plans, make a fuss.
But I’m full of frustrations and unconfessed desire, the same as thousands and millions of others, but unlike them, I have the courage to say so and to act.
These frustrations have crippled me all my life, but I nurtured them inside me like parasitic microbes, since I was all too corseted by conventions, propriety, cowardice and stupidity to spit them out, because they’ve eaten away at me inside long enough.
I don’t want to take those microbes to the grave with me.
I want my coffin to be clean and I want to be reconciled with myself.
I first slept with a woman at the age of twenty five and a half.
How many of you can imagine such a thing ? How many of you know what such a thing means ?
I defy anybody to say : yes, I know, because you haven’t got the imagination to imagine what it’s like, and I’m not talking about monks here, I’m not talking about willing abstinence, I’m not talking about asceticism or anything like that.
There are thousands and thousands of nights of loneliness, of impotent revolt, of desperation, of torture, of despair, of hatred.
There are thousands and thousands of empty mornings, thousands and thousands of devastating evenings, thousands and thousands of tortured nights, thousands and thousands of hours wasted.
Who is ever capable of making up for that wasted time ? Who can give it back to me ?
Half of my youth elapsed in helplessness, devoid of meaning or joy, as barren as a desert, and as dull as a blank sheet of paper.
I first slept with a woman at the age of twenty five and a half and I immediately married that woman, frightened at the thought that I would never have another.
Nor did I ever have another.
Angela was the only woman in my life until she died, and then for long after her death.
Thanks to her I had children and a healthy married life.
If she hadn’t come along, like a miracle, I would have surely died before I reached the age of thirty, because I thought of suicide, the same as a gourmand thinks voluptuously of what he is going to eat the next day.
I was ravenous and obsessed with the idea of suicide. It was in my mind night and day. I lived only to commit suicide and all of a sudden Angela came along.
It was she who saved my life.
Out of respect and gratitude for what she did, although she never knew the truth, I did not allow myself to have any affairs and I kept strictly within the bounds of matrimony, even though many times I detested myself for my cowardice and hated always being balanced, honest and upright.
Angela gave birth to me as a man when I was twenty five and a half and you are never allowed to cheat on your mother with another mother, no matter how hard it might be, you never have the right to deny her who gave you life for the second time and gave you the opportunity to go on living.
But Angela, God bless her, is dead.
She gave me three children, the pride of being a father, and the joy of having grandchildren.
Spiritually, I am fulfilled.
But the frustrations remained. They even became worse after her death, because the loneliness of an old widower is more torturous and devoid of hope than that of a young man.
The memories of what you were are behind you, and in front of you is nothing but death.
You are in the middle, between nothing and finality, between smoke and eternity, between the impalpable and the highly concrete, and you somehow have to survive from one day to the next, from one season to the next, without losing your mind completely, without howling in terror, and above all, without having any support.
Everybody is bored of you and can hardly wait for you to die.
Obviously, they don’t say so to your face and are indignant if you mention it, but you sense their impatience from the shortness of their visits, from the negligent way they listen to you, from their superior tone, from the fact that they forget to call you and when they do call you they are in a hurry, brusque, formal, you realise it, because it’s not for nothing that you’ve lived so long, you know it’s only natural, but even so it saddens you and you feel abandoned.
You’re a relic caught in sand that is already history.
You’re no longer of any particular interest to anybody. You’re no longer of any use.
Your age has buried you in the mud of decrepitude and there is nobody to lend you a helping hand.
Day after day you sink deeper and it’s harder and harder for you. The mud drags you to the bottom and with fear you realise that in the end it will cover the top of your head.
Your every effort to escape is pointless.
The mire is wide, cold, heavy, empty. Soon night will have fallen. The jackals are already howling in the desert. Fat vultures have gathered around you to wait. Their sinister croaks send shivers down your spine. Your feet no longer rest on anything firm.
You are weak, ill, old and alone. With every passing second you sink deeper and deeper into the warm mud, which in the end will suck you to the bottom. Nobody will even know you ever existed. Some will perhaps remember you, but that will be of no use to you.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The book is not about the andropause, but about how to elude old age. How to stay alert and how to learn to live without prejudices, without anxieties, how to be happy among so many people who want only to be normal. Mihnea Pascal, the main character of the novel, a venerable pensioner, finds himself face to face with his own thoughts after his wife dies, face to face with the life still remaining to him, face to face with a kind of freedom that frightens him. Even if he does not succeed in ridding himself of his wife’s memory, which binds him to the past, the pensioner abruptly decides to rebuild his life. A journey into the introspective world of a man who realises that life ends only when you depart for the next world. Other than that, every age in life has its own beauty and challenges.
“Cornel George Popa is one of the few Romanian prose writers who write well about anything at all. He does not tell and retell his own life story endlessly, but tells us the story of our lives, understanding our lives better than we understand them ourselves.”