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Ohara Donovetsky


Excerpt from

Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2018, 288 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Book presentation

Ohara Donovetsky writes a contemporary fairy tale à clef. The key to the story opens a number of doors. The first door opens onto the everyday, where three women impart to each other their superstitions, dreams and experiences, as well as their fears and, above all, their friendship. The second opens onto the theme of unageing youth and deathless life, or, to be more exact, the need to camouflage death, desire, suffering by means of storytelling. The third opens onto a mythological picture, which is sooner concealed and denied than constructed or accepted. A surprising legacy, passed down by an eccentric woman, extends bridges across space and time and brings together disturbing histories.



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Excerpt from

Haia decided to wash her hair, but she realised it was a Tuesday. She knew very well that it was not good to wash your hair on a Tuesday. She gave a brief sigh and contented herself with merely cutting her fingernails, happy that she had cast a glance at the calendar and seen that it was Tuesday just in time. But even so, in general Haia liked Tuesdays a great deal. Tuesday came after Monday (a day she didn’t much like, nobody liked Mondays, as was well known, although maybe there were a few who did) and seemed good-natured than Monday. Like a polite, respectable lady with good habits. In comparison, Monday was like a capricious, faddish old maid with thin lips and a dry mouth. As she cut the nail of her index finger she thought about how in the fairy tales there was no Saint Monday (true, there was no Saint Tuesday either, the saints began with Wednesday: Saint Wednesday, Saint Thursday, she, too, dear to the eye, Saint Friday, oh, yes, Saint Friday was very sought-after, and not to mention Saint Sunday! Haia wasn’t very certain about Saint Saturday, but as she cut the nail of her right thumb, she promised to look into it. Her favourite was in any case Saint Wednesday, with capital letters. She helped lost wayfarers. She gave them golden apples, pears that turned into forests, all kinds of items to help them find their way. She would have liked to meet Saint Wednesday, heh, heh.


Somehow to fool Mondays, Haia usually chose not to do very much on a Monday, but merely to think about what she had to do the rest of the week. Tuesday was a good day to start writing an article or study, to set off on a journey, to do whatever she had to do. The week began better on a Tuesday, and to Haia, Mondays were more like a dress rehearsal. Quite surprisingly, Haia did not believe that Tuesdays had three unlucky hours.
The first thing she did every day when she woke up was to avoid looking out of the window straight away, if she wanted to remember what she had dreamed, that is; otherwise she would look out of the window straight away, as quickly as she could, if she had even the vaguest sensation that her dream had been exceptionally bad or else of no interest to her. Although her mother had passed away ten years ago, Haia did not want her image to float away completely. She wanted to preserve it, to know where it was, to see that it was all right, but above all, she wanted to use it to see what was on the other side. She had got it into her head that she had to do this. The thought did not frighten her, nor was she afraid of the world of the shades, she had the pleasant impression that two or more good angels sat on her shoulders, and what was more, she had the impression that sometimes she could even feel them there. In any case, she had a picture of them in her mind. There were three of them, sometimes even four or more. The first to have appeared was old, thin, tall and white, and then the second had arrived. He was robust, short, wore a grey robe, and had green eyes. As for the other angels, she knew only that they had high voices and women’s halos and floated around like a mist. Sometimes she found herself thinking that Becca too was a kind of guardian angel. A silent, almost mute angel.


Every morning when she woke up, Haia washed her face with cold water, in three short bursts (“once for waking, once for joy, once for rinsing”), as she had learned from her mother. This morning, she had done the same, but she felt something vaguely like a discomfort. In her head, she had Annie Lennox and I travel the world / And the seven seas . . . Brushing her teeth, she noticed that her thoughts had moved on to something else and were now singing smoke on the waaaater, a fire in the sky; her mind was going round and round in a circle to the beat of Deep Purple. Without knowing why, without anything hurting, she felt a numbness like the shadow of a migraine that had just passed or like a background noise that was quiet but constant and, consequently, irritating. She had the feeling she had forgotten something and it niggled her that she didn’t know what.
Haia thought a few times that it was highly likely that she had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that didn’t bother her very much as long as she could control it, at least so she thought. On the other hand, she thought it necessary to maintain a link with dreams and superstitions, because they contained information, which often proved to be interesting at the very least, if not highly useful. This business about superstitions had come naturally, it had taken root about ten years ago, it had tiptoed its way into Haia’s mind, just after her mother passed away. First of all, because she had wished to remember the ones she had learned from her and she had even seen it as a way of preserving a link. Later, she had read a lot about superstitions, especially about the Romanian and Balkan ones, and now it was not at all out of the question that they might even refine her taste for all kinds of practices and initiations, which would take her where she wanted to go. Even if she didn’t come from a true-born Romanian family (Lenca once told her: “All the more so when you don’t come frrom a trrue-borrn Rromanian family, I’ve noticed that in this culturral space, the best ethnic and linguistic obserrvations are the ones made by aliens”), Haia was interested in the beliefs held and practised in the space in which her family had lived. And so, first of all because she missed her mother, and then out of the consistency she applied to everything she did, Haia began to study all kinds of superstitions. Lenca said posttraumatic stress syndrome was to blame, and Haia agreed with her, but that didn’t stop her, quite the opposite, it made her continue to practise as many of them as possible, telling her friend in jest: “I’m regressively initiating myself into the mysteries, don’t you think it’s worth it, since I’ve begun already? Does it count if I say I’m aggressive-regressive?” The truth is that it was tempting, including for Haia’s friends, sometimes, to play that game, although her friends forgot the details or mixed them up, they didn’t have “an organ for mysteries,” as Haia told them.


Her friends knew very well that Haia had all kinds of quirks, but they sooner regarded them as comical or, in any case, innocuous. Mira and Lenca weren’t bothered at all that on Mondays Haia never paid bills or gave anybody money, that she never took out the garbage after sunset, that she never opened an umbrella indoors, that she never washed her hair on Tuesdays, that she never put her bag on the floor, nor a bottle if it wasn’t full. “Yes, because you don’t want to let money slip through your fingers, do you?” Lenca teased her. “For the most part, yes. But especially because I’m afraid to do otherwise,” answered Haia. But it wasn’t the thought of prosperity that obsessed Haia. Not that she wouldn’t have wanted it, but it wasn’t the most significant reason why she subjected herself. After all, she told herself that once you discover an interdiction, you don’t feel like disobeying it. It was as if you were deliberately to upset the balance of unseen things, which was fragile enough already. In time, she began increasingly to believe that the road to the unseen was not devoid of interest. It wasn’t very clear what Haia had in mind with this, and her friends didn’t ask her, because they knew that in any event Haia would answer when and what she liked and that ultimately, when she deemed it necessary, she would tell them by herself. Despite this strange link with what could not be seen with the naked eye, Haia did not seem to be in the grip of any morbid feeling, nor was she distracted. She didn’t have the agitated air of somebody suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, nor the listlessness of somebody dominated by dark thoughts and pessimistic fantasies, nor the exalted mien of somebody pierced by the frisson of successive revelations. If they existed, all of these were either very well camouflaged or very well dissimulated. To everybody else, Haia was a quite interesting young woman, whose eyes had a slight purple hue and who gave the impression of being from a different century. People had often told her that. She even had a sense of humour, she sometimes told jokes, dry ones, true, and so, the whole business about the superstitions was a layer that not many people got to see. It is uncertain whether anybody other than her best friends saw her completely archaic nature. Her friends saw it, but they did not wholly understand it or understand why Haia stubbornly insisted on living in a different century. That is why her friends sooner believed that Haia was using herself to conduct an experiment, that she was viewing herself from the outside, learning to turn her eyes inward. It was more plausible that way. They knew she had a contemplative way of looking at things, that she liked to see an image in its smallest details and to seek the connections between things. “You find them even when they’re not there,” Mira once told her. Sometimes, but only when she was asked, she would launch into ex cathedra explanations of a word, a dream, a legend. Her friends would remain silent, fearful lest she stop. “That’s what I think it must have been like at the meeting in Ancuta’s Inn,” said Lenca, half-joking, half-serious. But even so, it was inexplicable how a person as refined, as posh as Haia—her paternal great-grandfather, Solomon Bruner, had been a painter and Haia had told the story of how his paintings were shown at the first exhibition of the Impressionists in Paris, in April and May of 1874; she had grown up with paintings on the walls, with a nanny and a maid; for example, she had not known how to tie her own shoelaces for a long time: “Really? How can that be possible in this century?” Lenca had asked in amazement — could be so superstitious. At least that is how her friends teased her, even if she had tried to explain, not in great detail, true, that it wasn’t a case of being superstitious, but of using superstition. In other words, Haia was not interested in superstition in itself, but in accessing something else via superstition. Her friends had not dwelled on it, in the end they had grown used to it, each of them teased her a little and then let it lie. From time to time, Lenca made fun of her about it, but it in no way altered Haia’s stubborn determination to carry on.

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

 



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