The monotonous life of Nistor Polobok, a corrupt official working in Chisinau City Hall, takes a dangerous turn after a crack appears in the tarmac next to his majestic villa. Unobtrusive at first, the crack grows wider and wider, finally becoming a huge crater that swallows everything in its path. A sin on the official’s part is supposed to be to blame, a sin that only a “queen of hearts” can absolve. More and more legends spring up around the crater, which inexorably swallows houses and neighbourhoods: a pensioner dies immediately after the first appearance of the crack; another pensioner, who has been trying for years to obtain Romanian citizenship, is swallowed by the ravenous pit on the eve of his permanent departure for Romania; Chisinau’s corrupt mayor ends up in hospital in a serious condition after people left homeless by the crater attack City Hall; and a librarian living in fear of a cataclysm allows himself to be taken in by a conman politician, the founder of the Anti-Pit Party. The Queen of Hearts is a disturbing novel that explores the underbelly of a corrupt system, revealing the ugly hidden face of the political scene.
Sergeant Jora Kureki was summoned to the Telecentru Sector Police Station to be entrusted with a new mission: he was to patrol the danger zone around the huge pit day and night. Captain Putinelu, with his permanently puffy face, affectionately put his arm around Kureki’s shoulders, trying to mollify his disgruntlement.
“It’s an order from the top, Jora . . . we haven’t got any choice . . . you’ll stroll around that damned pit, you’ll warn people out walking late not to get too close to the edge, you’ll shoo away drunkards, so that they won’t tumble into the chasm. You’ll even be able to take quick naps on a bench. It’s summer, it’s warm, it’s pleasant to be out at night, Jora!”
Captain Putinelu gave an understated smile and studied Kureki closely with his eyes.
“Yes . . . but, why do I have to go and walk around in the middle of the night, boss?” grumbled Jora Kureki. “I’m busy with the case of the dustbin that went missing from the yard of the Prosecutor’s Office —”
“I told you the order came from the top, Jora. And in that order, it says quite clearly that the policeman assigned to patrol the danger zone is sergeant Kureki. Or maybe you’d like me to forget about the whole thing and find a replacement for you?”
Captain Putinelu cast his dissatisfied subaltern a reproving look.
“Yes, but . . . how many nights am I going to have to hang around the pit?”
“I’ve got no idea, Jora! As long as it takes. In other words, for as long as there’s a pit.”
“But it’s a bit big, boss . . . who knows how long it’ll be there. What are we supposed to do? Walk around the pit like lunatics for months or even years?”
“You’ve started to talk out of turn, lately, Jora. Do what you’re told and be thankful that you’ll be getting overtime! Now, get out of here, because I don’t have time to listen to your moaning,” said the captain with the permanently puffy face, raising his voice.
Not only did the mention of overtime quell Jora Kureki’s annoyance, but also it soothed his heart. In the end, those nocturnal rambles wouldn’t be any great inconvenience. And besides, bringing home more money, he would have an easier time keeping his wife Sveta quiet: she was a cook at a private nursery school, and lately she had been constantly quarrelsome. This was why Jora Kureki accepted the challenge. A piece of cake! And so, one Sunday evening, sergeant Jora Kureki and his colleagues Grişa Vîntu and Lyona Ursu set out on their new mission. They started their patrol at eleven p.m. and finished at seven a.m., after which they would rest during the day. They divided the perimeter of the pit into three random sections and got to work. Jora Kureki took the section between a moribund park, with derelict benches and litter bins, and an abandoned food shop, which the owner had evacuated in great haste. He carefully felt his revolver, checked that his radio was working properly, wished his colleagues the best of luck, and began his long walk under the starry sky. He chased away two crazy teenagers who, in search of thrills, wanted to climb down into the pit. He warned a few passers-by that the sheer edge of the pit could subside at any moment and advised them to keep clear of the danger zone. After midnight, the city became almost deserted; all the people had vanished. Jora Kureki stood for a time at the edge of the pit, his eyes fastened on the immense hollow in the earth. How the hell had that terrifying pit opened up in the middle of the capital? Finally, the foetid stench rising from the chasm made him move away. He walked past a dark, crooked housing block, whose tenants had been evacuated not long before. Pale light glimmered in a few windows, where stubborn pensioners had refused to be evacuated. Jora Kureki decided to go to the park, from which the pit had taken a huge bite, and to look for a bench on which he might at least have a short doze. It took him a while to find a bench that had only been half destroyed. He was able only to sit on it, but not to lie down. For a few minutes he gazed at the full moon, and then, listening to the song of the crickets, a sticky state of sleepiness stole over him.
He was bringing home to Sveta a heap of banknotes, banknotes of every variety. He didn’t know where he had got them, but he was eager to give her a happy surprise. But instead of being happy, his wife looked at him suspiciously, dug her hands in the heap of money, crumpling and tearing the banknotes and, with her eyes bulging out of her head, screamed, “They’re forged, you liar! Forged!”
In the dead of night, Jora Kureki leapt up like a scalded cat. The park was deep in peaceful slumber, but then . . . a dull groan made him prick up his ears. What the hell! A minute later, he heard another groan, louder, more sensual. He fingered his revolver and tiptoed to the place whence the strange sounds emanated. Squatting down, he peeped from behind a dense bush and his eyes almost popped out of his head. A man in his fifties, with his trousers pulled down, was fucking a young woman with bulging buttocks doggystyle; she had her arms around a tree and was moaning louder and louder. The man was penetrating her deeply, with the kind of wild abandon that Jora Kureki had only ever seen in porno films. The svelte young woman’s tits were flapping back and forth like the udders of a stampeding cow. Normally, sergeant Cureki ought to have put an immediate stop to this public display of indecency, but . . . he had lost his voice, he remained squatting, staring at the couple in the throes of passion. The light of the full moon allowed him a good view of that unbelievable erotic display. Two things struck Jora Kureki, deeply troubling him: the passion of the young woman, who was by now howling with pleasure, and the unwonted sexual position. His Sveta had not moaned for years and years, or maybe she had never moaned, and she engaged in sex mechanically, always with a bored look on her face. What was more, never in their twelve years of marriage had Jora Kureki done it to Sveta doggystyle. Never! All of a sudden, he realised how monotonous and insipid was their everyday life. With a passion, the man carried on fucking the eager young woman, tugging her hair, slapping her buttocks. The woman was now screaming at the top of her lungs, and Jora Kureki could not shake off his astonishment.
After a while, the edge of the pit subsided, swallowing in a flash a portion of the park, ingurgitating trees, bushes, vandalised benches. In an instant, the man tumbled backwards into the insidious pit, which had swiftly crept up on the protagonists of that passionate sex scene. Violently torn from sexual seventh heaven, the young woman was left clinging to a tree trunk at the new edge of the pit, her legs hanging down into the void. So great was Jora Kureki’s perplexity that it left him paralysed. After a time, which may have lasted a minute or an hour — the sergeant had lost all notion of time — the girl, stark naked, her hair dishevelled, managed to pull herself over the edge of the chasm. She gathered up her clothes, which the pit had spared. Her svelte outline then melted into the night. Finally, Jora Kureki came to his senses and called Grisha and Lyona over the radio.
The next day, members of the emergency services arrived and, braving the bafflingly pestilential stench, were lowered down into the pit on ropes to look for the fallen man. In vain. They did not find him. Either alive or dead. The man had vanished. Or had the whole sex scene been a hallucination? Captain Putinelu, with his permanently puffy face, looked Jora Kureki up and down.
“Did you have a bit too much to drink, Jora? A drunk man can meet even Stephen the Great in a park at night.”
“No, I wasn’t drunk, boss. I swear everything was like I told you,” sighed Jora Kureki bitterly.
“Yes, right . . . if that was the way it was, then to hell with the fucker. Since there’s no body, there’s no problem. Let whoever misses him look for him. The slapper he was fucking from behind, for example.”
Captain Putinelu gave a hearty laugh. He then ordered them to be more vigilant and to carry on patrolling the danger zone.
Over the next few days, Jora Kureki thought a lot about the man and the woman who had disturbed him so greatly. Who can that man so expert in sexual positions have been? And why hadn’t they been able to find him at the bottom of the chasm? Where had he vanished to? There was something spooky about it, something supernatural. And who was that appetising, passionate young woman, who, after an unforgettable bout of sex, had left without even trying to save her lover, who had fallen into the pit? And what about the age difference between them, which was huge! Why had she been willing to have sex with a man much older than she was? Jora Kureki was completely baffled by it. How the hell can you understand something like that? For a few nights in a row, Kureki lay in wait next to the tree, which now leaned over the edge of the pit, its roots exposed, hoping that the girl with bulging buttocks would return to the scene of her misadventure. But she did not come back. Nor did the press report the disappearance of any Chişinau man in his fifties. It was supernatural!
One morning, arriving home with deep bags under his eyes, he did not go to bed as usual, but planted himself in front of Sveta, who was getting ready to go to the nursery school.
“Who’ve you dolled yourself up for like that?”
“I’m going to work!”
“Since when do you need to wear lipstick to make porridge and soup?”
“I have to look decent at the nursery, you chucklehead! What if one of the parents or an inspector sees me . . .”
Sveta stared at him in bewilderment.
“All right . . . let’s say I can understand that. But there’s something else, and I can’t understand it for the life of me: Why do we have sex only once every six months? What’s the problem?”
Jora Kureki riveted her with his gaze.
“What? Have you gone out of your mind? What kind of sex are you talking about? Isn’t what you get enough?”
“No, it’s not enough! We hardly ever have sex! Or have you forgotten that you have a man in the house?”
“You want it more often? Are you a man? Then do something for your family, you dolt! Make more money, so that we don’t have to live in this stinking tenement, so that I don’t have to break my back at the nursery the rest of my life, so that I’ll have free time, so that I’ll feel rested and relaxed . . . You want sex, Jora? You can’t even talk nicely to me! You’re a . . . a . . . a lout! And to top it all you want sex! Get out of my sight! I have to get to the nursery!”
For a long time after his wife left, Jora Cureki sat on the edge of the rickety bed, staring into space. He then tried to go to asleep, but could not. The whole day, he tossed and turned, thinking about the monotony of his life. He closed his eyes and could see the man and the young woman in the park vividly. The man penetrated the enchanting woman deeply, and the girl bit her lips until they bled, she howled with pleasure . . .
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Our whole life is a theatre of the absurd, while we are puppets impaled on the spears of dark humour. This would be the introduction demanded by the latest novel by Bessarabian author Iulian Ciocan. A wonderful satire, written with vigilant care and rigour, but imbued with the everyday realism of the Republic of Moldavia, The Queen of Hearts wins you over from its very first pages. You can’t put it down! You read it while you’re drinking your morning coffee and it accompanies you on your way to work (in my case, a forty-minute journey, but which the novel makes delightful).”
“Iulian Ciocan uses the pit that threatens to engulf not only Nistor Polobok’s palace, but also the entire city to highlight how a city devouring itself through corruption and immorality needs to have an hour of reckoning. Attentive to his characters, which he brings to life above all through their names and physical appearance, Iulian Ciocan peoples a squalid world that unwittingly teeters on the brink of a chasm. He employs Nistor Polobok as an apostle in whom nobody believes because of his corrupt past. An apostle who, although he repents, finds no listeners. The Queen of Hearts alludes to Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, not only in its title, but also in the development of its main character. The passionate reader will take pleasure in this short, but also brisk, amusing, but also bitter novel, in which he will find a rich literary background.”