Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2018
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Prita Barsacu was born and raised in a village on the plain by the Olt River, near a hydroelectric plant, which often claims its tribute of human lives, transforming them into electricity. The boy travels through the world of childhood against the current, candid and inquisitive, with a precocious passion for the natural sciences, resembling nobody else, but required to resemble everybody else. His meteoric path through life is an adventure of discovery, bringing him knowledge of human nature, but also, above all, the world of animals, to which he feels the same closeness as the first naturalists, employing the innocent rigour of the amateur taxonomist. Iulian Bocai’s “bildungsnovella” is a kaleidoscope of early childhood in a world of material want, cruelty and violence, and its strength resides in its irony and equally its depth of understanding, which prevents the story from becoming another social fable, instead turning it into an attempt to salvage from oblivion an anonymous, beautiful and untamed world.
Prita Barsacu was thirteen when he almost died, dragged over the gunwale of the boat by the net he was trying to haul from the water before sunrise. He almost left behind his dad, his two brothers, and his mam, Lenuta, who had gone mad and whom they kept in the yard, although from time to time she managed to draw the top bolt of the gate and run along the cobbled lane, without saying anything, but grinning at people with the two molars, three front teeth and one canine still remaining in her mouth. They didn’t have a penny, but that was understandable, since nobody had a penny, which meant there was nobody they could have stolen or borrowed from. All along Knifemakers Street lived only paupers and at the end of the street, on one side, there was nothing but an open field, on which some three hundred field mice lived out their days, along with some dozen constantly starving polecats and their families, an unknown number of mute ringdoves, a few snakes, which Prita had been unable to count, because Stanca, his assistant in animal counting, was afraid of snakes and ran home whenever she saw one, and, so they estimated, around thirty-four thousand five hundred and seventy-six worms, almost as many earwigs and a quantity of insects smaller than earwigs and flies, which they didn’t know by name, but which they had decided to measure in biotonnes. Seven biotonnes of insects. Beyond the field were the tents of the Gypsies, Stanca’s relatives, who didn’t know how to count, but who had dogs trained to catch polecats and bring them back to their tents, to the open fire itself, where they would be chopped, flayed, scrubbed with salty water and put in the pot.
Beyond Knifemakers Street, in the valley, flowed the river where Prita Barsacu had almost given up the ghost for a kilo of crucian carp, striped perch and a few tadpoles. On the night in question, they had started the turbines and the water was pulling harder than otherwise. When his mam was still of sound mind, not a week passed but she told some story about all the lads and lasses swallowed up by the water, about how all that they found of them would be buttons, false nails, rubber soles or some faded scrap of clothing, because the turbines would grind them bones and all, turning their biographies into electricity. Or else they would be found with bloated faces and eaten away by the crayfish in the sluice gates, caught on some crossbeam, or bobbing slowly on the waves that sloshed against the concrete walls. Drowning, she would say, quoting her mother, Filoana, is a pauper’s fate.
You will therefore see that Prita had every reason not only to fear, but to be terrified when, realising that he could no longer hold the net with both hands and reckoning in his mind that he was unable to regain his balance, he saw his face in the mirror of the water, alongside the murky, elongated reflection of the moon. Through some irony or other of memory, what then crossed his mind was the tale of the Chinese poet who Eusebiu Camilar said had drowned when drunk, having leaned over the edge of his raft to cup in his palm the image of the night sky’s largest star reflected in the water. And plop, bloated with booze, the Chinaman had sunk to the bottom, the way Prita was about to, dying an infinitely less poetic death. He had no way of knowing whether he had broken into a sweat in his panic, since the water rushed at him from every side, followed shortly thereafter by another flood, a mental one, when into his head there had begun to pour all the faces of those who, so he had heard, had given up the ghost in the waters of the river over the years. Two years before, two sisters had slipped on the mossy flagstones of the dyke, one trying to save the other, and they did not come back to the surface. They found them two days later, purple, their soles and shins deeply scored by the shellfish that cling to the bank and with freshwater maggots in the gashes. A lad as old as his brother had died because he had jumped into the cold water on a hot spring day. Another had got a cramp in his leg while swimming and had not been able to return to the bank. And now Prita had been pulled in by the raptor fish. All along the bank, from the next village to the hydroelectric plant, there were some twelve makeshift crosses, made of metal, wood, fence pales; there was a stone one, too, but it bore no name. Underwater and half-drowning in fear, Prita remembered them all and recalled the stories of drowning with the calm lucidity lent to you by the certainty that something irreversible was about to happen to you.
When Prita was born, nobody knew about it; the whole street was in the woods behind the SMT, with shovels and pickaxes, digging ditches ready for the floods. Prita’s mother was at home, sleeping by the stove, large-bellied, laughing in her sleep, already gap-toothed, but still sound of mind. As for the two other sons she’d borne at a very young age, one worked in the bakery and the other lived at home and was trying to start a bed-making business, with periodic discouragement from his dad, Marian, who reckoned that on Knifemakers Street and in the main village there must be about three families a year who required a bed to give their children as a wedding present, beds which they ordered well in advance from the furniture factory in town, in order to do which they would wake up at the crack of dawn, put on their best clothes, espadrilles and headscarves and catch the six-in-the-morning bus, crowding gregariously with the dozens of workers on their way to the cannery, wagon works and knitting factory. Prita’s dad, a man of strong words, did not engage in such an explanatory excursus, but limited himself merely to remarking, with his proverbial talent for brevity: “Bollocks will you make beds.”
And then he would go about his business.
There would also be days when he was in a fouler mood, and then he might admonish his son at greater length. He would tell him that his brother Stancu did women’s work and stood up to his bollocks in flour to keep them all from dying of hunger, whereas he did nothing but sit with his hand up his arse and wait for it to rain in his mouth. He would say “beds” repeatedly, sometimes three or four times in a row: beds, beds, beds, beds. He would also often repeat, “when I told you,” and if he was temporarily suffering from that paupers’ disease which on Knifemakers Street was called “booziness,” then in the evening his curses would be augmented by a blind fury that resounded over the brown tile rooftops as far as the breezeblock hut of old man Vicu the village policeman. The old policeman, who usually spent the final hours of his stint on duty in the secretary’s room, with the windows open wide and wearing just his blue uniform shirt, would always say the same thing: “Barsacu’s at it again.”
At which the secretary would titter, spraying drops of sweat from her double chins.
Marian Barsacu did not require many reasons to be at it again. Indeed, he didn’t require any reason, but sometimes, when he drank only enough to grow melancholy, without becoming violent, and would offer a scrap of conversation about the serious things in life or a depressing line of folk poetry, he would stare wide-eyed, as if right then the whole oppressive scale of his wasted life had caught up with him, and for a few minutes, he would sincerely regret ever having been born. All this pain would later be poured into the horrible things he said to his younger son, who had the same name as he, things which, to tell the truth, Marian Jr. more often than not deserved. Because although Marian Jr. used to say he would make beds, he spent most of his days around the tents of the Gypsies beyond the field, talking to Alin Tziganu and his ma Rodica, the largest woman in the village, usually over cold coffee, made over a flame of fence pales, and sweeter than honey.
Marian had met Median, a son of Rodica’s, when he had first done time in Bals Prison, after cracking the skull of Ion ale Pistea, known as Ion the Boss-eyed back then, because the hapless man had one evening boasted in Ghitulan’s bar about how many tomatoes he had sold. Other people’s happiness always has something repulsive and unbearable about it, especially when it’s displayed so ostentatiously, and this was what landed Marian Jr. in gaol for the first time.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Joking aside, The Strange and Endearing Life of Prita Barsacu, Iulian Bocai’s debut (mini-)novel, is a sensational book (…) Bocai’s novel is a bildungsroman (or rather a “bildungsnovella”, as the title page specifies), although one of savage realism. Of course, it has an obvious meta- component, an implicit irony that comes from the combination of an ‘elevated’, television documentary-like narrative voice with lowly human subject matter: the early years of Prita Barsacu, the scion of a poor and scattered family, who lives in a village near a hydroelectric plant on the Olt River. What fills this life can be divined at least in part: physical and mental abuse at home and school, abject poverty, a toxic multilateral domestic setting, with an alcoholic father, a mentally ill mother, one criminal brother, one baker brother. N.B.: in the social context of the book, being a baker is worse than being a brute, inasmuch as baking is overly feminine, while brutality betokens masculinity.”
“I don’t know Iulian Bocai, who won the 2018 Polirom debut competition. I have described his book and read it with increasing curiosity, especially since his bildungsnovella gripped me from the very first page. From the short biographical note on the front inside flap of the book, I learn no more than that he was born in Oltenia in 1986, studied literature at Bucharest University, is working on a PhD thesis, and from time to time translates from English, French and German. (…) But in any case, with the tale of Prita Barsacu, Iulian Bocai has entered the world of the major Romanian novel from his very debut.”