Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2008, 208 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
In the North of Romania, in the region known as Moldavia, lies the town of Botoşani, famous as the birthplace of many of Romania’s most illustrious cultural figures, including national poet Mihai Eminescu, composer George Enesco, historian Nicolae Iorga, philosopher Lucien Goldmann, and avant-garde writer Isidore Isou, inventor of “lettrism.” The town is equally notorious for Romania’s highest levels of poverty, alcoholism, infant mortality, domestic violence, and general hopelessness. Dan Sociu, the hero of the novel, is a natural product of his environment. A virgin poet who, at the age of twenty-seven, has never ventured beyond Botoşani, he lives with his mother and for years on end has spent every day in the same way : reading, drinking, watching television, masturbating, and following his mother’s every gesture, mutely petitioning her for the vaguest hint of affection. Sometimes he does all these at once. He earns meagre pocket money by inventing tales for True Stories magazine, whose readership consists mainly of single, suburban women, for whom the most exciting event of the year is the annual pilgrimage to the monasteries of northern Moldavia.
One night our hero meets two people who will once and for all fling him out of his daily routine : Derrin, an American anti-terrorist agent working for the CIA, dispatched to Romania to survey terrain intended for a military base near the River Prut ; and Miss H, a twenty-six-year-old Romanian journalist with whom Derrin has madly and recklessly fallen in love. To occupy his mistress while he ventures to far-flung dusty corners of the world on one or another dubious mission, the American agent buys a modest television station and local newspaper, of which he puts her in charge. And to help the femme fatale run these enterprises, they recruit our hero as her assistant, an event that transforms his life into a story stranger and more thrilling than anything he has ever seen on television. Naturally, Miss H becomes the object of Dan’s starved affections at very first sight.
Conceived in the form of a letter to French writer Pascal Bruckner, Urbancholia is a comic and bitter story about an innocent belatedly coming of age in country whose citizens love neither themselves nor each other, let alone their children.
I. I was a giddy damsel in her arms
PASCAL, FOR ME ETERNITY BEGAN one winter night in 2005, in Jassy, half-way between the Black Out Club and the open-all-hours shop where I used to go to buy condoms.
The same open-all-hours shop she was just leaving, with a box of Durex Classic in one pocket and a packet of Orbit chewing gum in the other. I’d opted for Classics, too. To be honest, it felt outrageous for me to be buying them at all, because I couldn’t imagine ever having the balls to orchestrate any situation that would require their use, and I already knew that the next day I would give them away, as I usually did, to a friend of mine... In short, a box of Classics was already going too far, never mind the other kinds, the scented, the flavoured, the glow-in-the dark, the bells and whistles, the ribbed-for-her-pleasure, all of which would have made me feel like a total pervert. I could just see her listening to my loathsome propositions, patiently and politely at first, but then exploding with “HOW COULD YOU EVEN DREAM THAT I WOULD EVER FUCK YOU ? ? ? ? THAT I WOULD EVER LET YOU STICK THAT IN ME ? ? ? ? AND I’LL BET YOU WERE PERVERTED AND PRESUMPTUOUS ENOUGH TO BUY A PACKET OF CONDOMS, PROBABLY THE FLAVOURED KIND TOO ! ! !”
It never occurred to me to buy chewing gum. My imagination and courage could never have borne me quite so close to her as to imagine that I would even kiss her.
She let the shop door slam ! behind her, took two paces forward and slipped her arms under the folds of my brown overcoat. A series of thirty, maybe forty fingers tipped with long, sweet nails dug into my spine, while a dozen more slipped below the belt of my jeans.
I was a giddy damsel in her arms. She was kissing me. She was squeezing my buttocks. She was tweaking my nipples. She was stroking my crotch. She was biting my earlobes. I’d never felt so delicious and passive. I was moist all over ; hot chocolate was running through my veins. I would have liked to fall backwards into the snow pulling her on top of me.
A long, suffocating kiss. The camera pans. Cue the music.
And as abruptly as she had sunk her teeth in, she pulled back and said :
“Hold on, my love... let’s not leave Bruckner all alone.”
A hunter’s way of saying “let’s not allow the quarry to escape,” since there was not so much as an inch of solitude around you, but rather at least twenty hot eastern babes glued to you as though to some kind of rock star, chanting in unison “Oh, me love Bitter Moon ! Me think very cool movie !” As far as they were concerned, you were a Parisian celebrity, whose words and images had taken Hollywood by storm ; much more importantly, you were one of the Initiates, who stored in his little finger all the secrets of Fucking.
You, Pascal, wrote Bitter Moon, the novel that floored us in the 1990s. We were schoolkids in a country where the schools didn’t have the decency to teach us anything about obscenity. In a Christian-Orthodox misogynistic culture that intimidates me with its stony laws, you lifted a stone from my heart by putting into words what I’d barely had the courage to acknowledge in thought : WE WANT WITH ALL OUR MIGHT FOR OUR LOVES TO MAKE NO SENSE, TO BE AWKWARD AND INADEQUATE !
I’d never seen so many beautiful women in such ecstasy as a result of the presence of a single man : “Instruct us, great instructor, you who speak the language of Krause’s crepuscules, instruct our little pussies !”
I might die or lose my mind trying, but that’s going to be my life, too ! I told myself.
Viviana was dancing in the middle of the floor, for the benefit of all, but her eyes were on me. At the centre of my brain there was a little she-gnome, conceived purely by my own enchanted imagination, around which was slowly forming an envelope of love, of falling-in-love-ness, and this she-gnome was dancing to the rhythm of Viviana’s swaying. I was like a little boy watching the movements of his mother, suffocated by veneration.
My love, she had said, I remembered suddenly.
There was a bottle of beer in my hand. I unclenched my fingers and let it drop. Sliced by the strobe light, the bottle seemed to freeze in mid-air between my hand and the floor, then vanished into blackness and shattered into a thousand silver petals, from which splashed a liquid that must have resembled the sperm of pearl-seekers – my love, she had said – I felt like a rock star.
A few days earlier she had called me and said, “Hello, Dan. This is Viviana. We met at Club A. Two months ago, I don’t know whether you remember...”
II. In fact, I knew very well what he did ;
among other things, he interrogated and tortured prisoners, as part of a training programme
for interrogators and torturers
In the summer of 2005, stripes were in fashion, but I had no idea whatsoever. I couldn’t look at or take interest in any woman other than my boss, who wore dresses made of a fabric that was iris-blue, a colour that would not be “in” until 2008, as she herself told me. And Roman sandals, that lovely footwear which climbs up the leg, twining around the calves, clasping them tightly, lovingly, thongs which every night I traced – or dreamed of tracing – with my tongue, after which, on my knees, I would unwind the straps from her tired and dusty feet.
My boss, Miss H, as I used to call her, as though she were my teacher at school, had long, thin, silvery legs, and with them she danced all over my nerves, in the morning, under the table, during editors’ meetings. We were heatedly discussing the latest decision by the City Council ; she was caressing my ankles with the big toe of her right foot. The budget for road repairs ; she was craning slightly, bending over the cups of hot coffee, letting the strap of her dress slip off her shoulder, as though by accident. The notaries’ new fees ; she was pulling her chair closer, in order to see the figures in the books, evidently.
She would get bored, and, out of boredom, she would play with me. Journalism bored her, but she had nothing better to do while waiting for her boyfriend to get back from Washington. She’d met him six months earlier, in the lobby of a hotel. Derrin was fifty, an anti-terrorism official working for the CIA, and officially he had come to Romania to inspect the lay of the land for the future NATO bases by the River Prut.
He was a specialist in unconventional weapons, an office colleague of Condoleezza Rice, a friend, in some murky way I didn’t understand at first, of Iliescu, Băsescu, Geoană, Talpeş and other top Romanian politicians. Notwithstanding all of the above, he barely managed to spout some pathetic gibberish to the drunk redhead, who was just leaving a party, and whose swagger and finger-width skirt led him to mistake her for one of the establishment’s prostitutes. But my lovely boss had the eyes of a child and the gaze of an oriental beggar, and these were enough to make this sad middle-aged James Bond, sent on a mission somewhere across hell’s half acre, thousands of miles from a neurotic wife and two grown up daughters (who hadn’t talked to him for a number of years, not since they had found out, as college students, that their father was, among other things, an assassin of Palestinians, or, to be fair, an assassin of Palestinian assassins), fall in love with the adorable Romanian. In half an hour they were in his room, and he spent the following half hour buried between her legs, sucking and lapping her lips as if they were a couple of canned apricot wedges, access to which I was categorically denied when I threw myself on them, famished, a few months later. She had protested – I don’t like foreplay ! I can’t stand soggy lips on my skin, sweaty palms on my breasts, and I especially can’t stand tongues in my twat ! That’s the signature move of a player trying to sedate me so that he can control me ! – but she’d allowed the American to perform his number, only so that she could explain to him later where she stood and what she expected from him. She was the boss.
And so poor old, amorous Derrin had no choice but to buy for her a set of strap-ons and a modest television station for her to run. The dildos served, of course, to violate him, and, it was understood, only when and where she felt like it, while she conceded to none of his pleas to touch, kiss or caress her, not even for a second – just for a second, angel, please, just let me stroke your hair – and the television station, as I’ve already said, was meant to keep her occupied during the months he was away, sent away to one dusty, nasty country or other, where he was supposed to show one group of deranged fools how to fight another group of deranged fools.
One of my duties at the station was to write Romanian subtitles for Derrin’s fifteen-minute field reports, and so, in fact, I knew very well what he did. Among other things, he interrogated and tortured prisoners, in a training program for interrogators and torturers.
Every day my email inbox would be full of short films about explosive eggs discovered on the shelves of supermarkets in Haifa, automatic weapon traps, from which Israeli civilians were required by law immediately to remove the charge when they found them “abandoned” on street, and in the background could always be heard Derrin’s sexy Don La Fontaine voice, recounting his adventures in the international media’s erogenous zones, using bombastic half-phrases, as though he were narrating the trailer to some action film. From time to time, among other evidence of the infinite ingenuity and guile of terrorists, as he himself would say, some photograph would slip through as an attachment, generally of very poor resolution, taken using his camera phone, named something along the lines of thisisforyouangel.jpg or warraface.jpg, revealing two or three individuals, undressed, with shaved heads, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, wearing metal muzzles and leashes, at the ends of which, holding the wires taut with his meaty, powerful hands, was our smiling patron.
The photographs, evidence and, at the same time, avowals of love and submission, were intended to fill the eyes of Miss H with joy, but at the same time, Derrin was making me a witness to their games as well.
I know what you want to ask me, Pascal :
Was he begging and forcing your blessing ?
Had he guessed that you were stroking it nightly to the same fantasy : you are lying supine on the floor, Miss H, standing above you, is squeezing, as if in a vice, your temples between her ankles. Miss H is lowering herself on you, her bones and joints gently popping. Miss H is lowering her bearded pussy onto your face, and it is so hot that it melts the mysterious adhesive that is holding your lips tightly together, and your emboldened lips are violently protesting, “Mmmm ! Mmmm !” – and her pussy is fucking your mouth again and again and again, suffocating you ?
Did he feel threatened or titillated by your daily presence in the company of his little angel ?
Otherwise how do you explain such carelessness from someone who’d been working for twenty-five years as, among other things, a specialist in Tactical Intelligence and Strategic Intelligence for the US Marine Corps, and whose life and memory were a hotchpotch of secrets, one more dangerous than the next ?
Or did he simply trust you ?
I’ll clarify each question, one by one, as far as I know how and am capable of clarifying them.
Trust me he did, if you can call it that. And why not ? I never would have grassed on him, because I agreed with all of his methods and doings and was proud to know him. And my Boss, even more so.
All of which didn’t stop us from eventually pissing all over his sentiments.
Translated by Oana Sanziana Marian
“Prior to this text, I did not exist. I am nothing but a product of the febrile imagination of Dan Sociu, who conceived of me, one drunken evening, in a bar in Jassy. Were he to stop drinking and writing, I would vanish. And were I to vanish, he too would evaporate."
“Dan Sociu’s writing is ‘hip,’ so to speak, in the same way that Dave Eggers’ is, not only because they share a certain hard-bitten irony, but because, as writers, they understand something profound about story-telling, namely that it is both useless and transcendent, tonic and ridiculous. Sociu is a captivating story teller : you can’t wait to hear what he says next, and because his characters are fresh, he can afford to let them have a past, the exact one we were reading so eagerly about only a few minutes (18 years ?) ago, which makes his perspective the natural sequel to all those Kundera novels we were sorry to see end.”
“The style of this all too talented author oscillates somewhere between the ethylic/damned melancholy of Erofeev and the just as alcoholic but sexy/blasé ease of Bukowski.”
“I might say that Urbancholia, Dan Sociu’s new book, is a novel for our times. Quite a short book, very interesting, very well-written, captivating, dealing with fashionable and ‘obligatory’ themes, a book that doesn’t waste your time, but makes you feel good, like when you watch an important, quality match…”