In the Bucharest of the nineteen nineties you could see a man who resembled none other. At ten o’clock every morning he would come out of an apartment block on Sipotul Fintinilor Street, which overlooked Cismigiu Park. He walked with a limp and had a slender, almost feminine frame. Despite his infirmity, he walked quickly, spryly ; he crossed the little garden of the building, where there was a plinth atop which sat a bust of the poet F. : the statue to him had been erected during his lifetime. F. had lived in the building for forty years and died in the nineteen eighties. Descended from a family of Albanians, F. was not only a famous poet, but also a man careful of his own wealth and reputation. He used to say that you should not have too much faith in the collective memory (nor in your heirs). Consequently in the minuscule garden separated from the public park by a wire fence, he himself had erected the bust that he intended to immortalise his memory, a remarkable work of art in itself, by Militza Petrascu.
The limping man who went out to buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk on Brezoianu Street was none other than Puiu Ozias. Before I say who Puiu Ozias was, however, I shall mention that he lived in the former apartment of F. Lifelong friends, the two had moved in together after they both became widowers. At the time when my story starts, F. had been dead for twenty years, having passed away in nineteen eighty something. As for Puiu, even as a young man he had said that he would live to the age of a hundred and twenty. His life, he would add, would only really begin when he reached his nineties. Only then would he have one or two children.
“Hello, Mr Puiu,” said the man selling lottery tickets at a makeshift stall on the street corner. “Hello, Mr Puiu,” said almost everybody he met on the street, whether or not they were from the neighbourhood. Only people from the country, on their way to the nearby ministry to make requests or complaints, looked at him in amazement. The others knew who Puiu was.
In fact, I ought to say : they knew that he was Mr Puiu rather than who was Mr Puiu. His exceptionality was precisely this : he had reached the age of a hundred. Absolutely all his acquaintances and relatives were dead, except for a daughter who had been living in Florida for a long time : she was blind and deaf and gave no sign of life apart from the fact that every month she sent her father a hundred dollars from her modest pension.
It was known that he had been somebody (hence his reputation), but nobody remembered what exactly. His fame was due to the fact that in Bucharest you could not see any other man so old ; the few there were eked out their last moments in old people’s homes and were not part of the living cityscape.
And so Puiu’s biography was forgotten—all that counted was the fact that he had once been something, or even somebody. His perseverance in being was the main reason for the interest he aroused.
When he returned from making his purchases, Puiu climbed into the old elevator with its wire grille, which set in motion with a series of terrifying jerks. On the fourth floor he emerged from the cold metal cage, which smelled of tobacco, and opened a two leaf oak door, to which was affixed a gilded bronze plaque with the inscription :
Academician Basil F.
Eufrosina Logoduli F.
The second name was that of the poet’s wife, who had died many years before her husband : she had been a famous soprano at the Opera, and also an aristocrat, but she had been forced to abandon her international career in order to avoid frustrations on her husband’s part. In return, he had turned her into a figure of worship. He dedicated long poems to her, in which he portrayed her as a reincarnation of Melpomene. Neither F., after Eufrosina died, nor Puiu Ozias, after he became the sole tenant of the apartment, had thought to change the bronze plaque on the door.
The elderly tenant carefully closed the front door. He now found himself in a vast room, furnished luxuriously, albeit too abundantly. A Biedermeyer and a Louis XVI salon dominated one corner of the room, giving an impression of excess and a lack of harmony. The floor was covered with a wealth of oriental carpets, which, however, were wearing thin. A Bechstein grand piano, spread with a silver black Indian embroidered cloth, was a reminder of the opera singer. On the walls were paintings by Romanian masters of the early twentieth century. The largest was a Darascu, depicting a Turkish cemetery, a replica of the painting in the Zambaccian Museum. Next to it was a large Venetian scene by Petrascu, whose dominant colour was red, and next to that a smaller painting of a forest in springtime, by Andreescu, and then flowers by Tonitza... The portrait of the great opera singer, in the role of Norma, with antique drapery, was by Eustatiu Stoenescu. On consoles stood a female nude by Jalea and one of Paciurea’s chimaeras. Thick dust overlaid these objects.
The window doors of the long balcony overlooked the park. One’s gaze floated above the crowns of the trees, taking flight across the pale Baragan sky, only to be halted by the overwhelming outline of the House of the People. A tower of steel and glass had also recently been erected, in which were reflected the clouds of that early autumn.
Ozias did not look out over the landscape. After placing on a chair his purchases and his raincoat—thin not by design, but because the passing years had worn away the material until it was as sheer as a lady’s stocking—he headed straight for the bathroom. Here, he made an inspection. In front of the gilt framed mirror (a design to be found only in bathrooms that have remained from the olden days) he studied himself at length. His face looked like an unripe fruit that had, however, begun to decay. A host of lines and wrinkles crisscrossed it, like the meridians of a celestial body distorted by the gravitational pull of passing comets. His skin was as white as chalk, but like the pale traces of colour on the stone of ancient temples, it could be observed that his face had once been ruddy. Minuscule, almost golden blotches punctuated the distorted meridians here and there : erstwhile freckles, now defunct.
Baldness had defined him since his youth. He could not abide this imperfection and had always coloured his scalp with an eyeliner pencil. He claimed that this created such a perfect illusion of hair that his barber would ask him, without a trace of irony : “Will you be having a hair rub, sir ?”
He had always been tic ridden : he puckered his lips, raised his eyebrows, scrunched up his eyelids... When he told a joke—jokes and mordant irony were his trademarks—the tics became more pronounced ; it was as if they accompanied what he said like a musical instrument accompanying a singing voice. For example he would subtly joke and his eyelids would scrunch up, which might mean : “I am waiting to see whether you have detected the allusion.” This would be followed by a slantwise smile, which meant : “I am being mordant with you, but not malicious.” It was unknown whether his numerous facial movements were deliberate or not. Perhaps they had once been deliberate and had remained there on his face, a lingering trace of past liveliness.
For more than forty years he had been in the habit of looking at his face in the mirror for around an hour. Sixty years before, he had been trying to detect the ravages of age, in the hope of finding cosmetic means of retarding them. Now, he sometimes looked younger. Extreme old age—like fatal diseases in their final phase—paradoxically produce a kind of rejuvenation : a naivety of the gaze, a clearness of the eyes before they mist forever ; the wrinkles relax in resignation, like the oval of the lips.
In that long moment of self contemplation in front of the mirror he sometimes succumbed to the thought that he had become a kind of monster : his face might be likened to a planet convulsed by earthquakes ; it was a microcosm reproducing the macrocosm, so much so that when looking at it, you could not be sure whether you were witnessing a geographical or an anatomical demonstration. He looked at his face, upon which the folds, furrows, torrents and eruptions were becoming more and more pronounced, the bones were protruding, full of unusual excrescences—and like many solitary men, to break the often unbearable silence, he talked to himself.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth