Nicolae Breban

Excerpt from

Critics about

Short stories, "Fiction LTD" collection, 2008, 560 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Book presentation

Orpheus in the Underworld brings together five novellas. This is a genre that has given Romanian literature great artists, and this collection will return the novella to critical discussion and readers’ attention. In each individual novella, Nicolae Breban tackles the most varied of subjects, seeking in each a meaning and kernel of relevance to the reader. The author “plays” seriously, moving in each novella from pure realism to challenging metaphor. The differences in approach are great : for example, one of the novellas, “The Malicious Adolescent,” is inspired by the author’s screenplay for the film of the same name ; “Boz” is an elegy to the greatest drama Romania experienced under communism – the spoliation and humiliation of the Romanian peasantry ; and the novella that lends its title to the collection as a whole, “Orpheus in the Underworld,” is an attempt to describe the psychology of a child in contact with an exotic giant. However, the unity of the book lies in the unmistakable style of an author who is already regarded as one of the most prestigious Romanian writers of the twentieth century.


Excerpt from

18 September

I played with Fintzi today. She annoyed me because she kept saying, “I’m hungry,” but I think she’s nice because she’s considerate – she never contradicts me. I mean to say, when I’m right she agrees with me, unlike that stubborn ram-headed Pavlică who won’t agree, not for the world. Him and his ram’s head ! That’s what I called him, because he looks like a sheep. But if he’s a sheep – even he said that’s the way it is ! – why wouldn’t he look like a ram, who is the father of the sheep or the boss of the sheep ? Or the master of the sheep, of course, when the little ewe has no other master. Something which Pavlică, who, although he’s clever, is stupid, won’t admit. “What do you mean a sheep without a master ? Where’s the sense in that ?”


Fintzi says that he’s in the right too, because he’s very convincing. A convincing person means he’s a person you believe, says Fintzi. It’s logical, isn’t it ? (I like this expression, or rather this word, “logical,” which Daddy explained to me in two sentences, because I kept pestering him. “But until you write what you understand,” Daddy told me and tapped his finger on my brow, meaning it was something serious, “you won’t understand what you know !” In short, what I know now is that if something is logical it means it’s true. But… what is the truth, that’s another question ! Maybe it’s also… logic ; I’ll ask, but later. Grown-ups have other things to do apart from…) And I put it in brackets, and it was also Daddy who told me, but another time, that he doesn’t like thinking which has brackets. I’m going to try to put in as few brackets as possible, so that, when I’m accomplished, I won’t put any more in at all. But… there’s no rush !

21 September

It rained this afternoon, when I went out into the yard of our block, then it was sunny and then, as an oddity, it rained once again. As though it had forgotten that it had rained once already, the sky was not making any savings. When I say “our block,” I’m not thinking of the block where we live – live with honour, as shepherd Toni says ! – but of the block where we play, which, by the grace of God, has been abandoned. It’s the “castle,” that’s what we call it when we speak in code, and upstairs we call it the “brick.” I don’t know why we call it that. I suggested “bungalow,” but no one knew what that really meant, as though you always have to know what words mean. What’s important, in my opinion, is for the other person to know.
For the first time I have made my very own redoubt, a corner where I can organise and defend myself against all comers. Why should I always sit, always hang around in Iantzi’s redoubt – he doesn’t even have the decency to call it that, a redoubt I mean, as we agreed, he calls it “the beast” instead ! What’s the point of calling a corner or a parapet of planks and cement covered in old clothes and newspapers “the beast” ? It’s stupid, obviously. And then I was his slave, even though he called me his friend. But I didn’t object, I can be a slave, but that Iantzi has far too many friends. He even made friends with Tusi, who’s a very capricious girl. And she wipes her nose with her fingers, which is out of date. And then… it’s logical : what place is there for girls in a redoubt or a beast or whatever you want to call it ? Who are you supposed to defend yourself from then ? Tusi is a capricious girl because, even though I respectfully invited her, she didn’t want to come into my redoubt. She didn’t even want to cast a glance at it, in case Iantzi saw her. Or else… she didn’t have the time ! I don’t know where she learned that expression, which doesn’t suit her one bit. It doesn’t suit us either. We go down to the castle precisely so that we can gain time. And as long as we stick together, our gang I mean – we have time. Our time, you understand. Which is different to time in the gang of that stuck-up Vlad. Ha, Vlad from Vladivostok ! That’s what I said to him… he clouted me, but… the saying remained in the air. Like a sparrow. I’ve noticed that a sparrow can also stay up in the air, regardless of what you do, I mean regardless of whether you’re there or not. There’s no connexion.
After it rained, strangely, it rained once more. One day I’m going to make a theory connected to the seasons. I’m obsessed with the rain especially, although I don’t know how it is when it rains : it’s not only because of the clouds, but also because of the woods, as they say. I saw an uncoloured illustration, but, strangely, I was all the more convinced. Black and white, as they say.
For the moment I’m alone in my redoubt and I’m bored. I’m not bored enough to imitate someone, although I’ve seen that only certain distinguished people get bored. Shepherd Toni, who’s an idiot, laughs heartily at distinguished people, but sometimes I think, without wanting to, that he too is quite simply distinguished. I’ve noticed that I get bored, but I’ve noticed then that I’m happy. I’m happy whatever happens, for the simple fact or reason that this is how I am. But, in time, I’m also going to find another, more valid reason : it’s called a cause. I told Vlad that he was distinguished, and he didn’t react, a sign that he agreed. He didn’t ask me what it meant, because he’s the boss, he knows everything. He will make enquiries in “high places,” that’s his expression, and, if he understands, he’ll clout me. If not, it means that I’ve stumped him.

22 September

I wasn’t allowed to go out today, I’ve got a fever apparently. I sat by the window and looked, but I didn’t see anything. I mean to say that I didn’t see “there,” my eyes don’t reach that far, all I can see is stuff made for grown-ups. By them and for them. I’m not interested in that.
Then I went back in and laid down an entire battle plan : entrances, exits in case of attack or merely fire, supply holes, and a place to sleep. I planned for two people, in case Tusi comes back. Or in case that finicky Fintzi realises that it’s me who’s the true commandant. My fate is written in the stars and no snot-nosed kid like Vlad or Iantzi can… I also included building materials for an airport. A modest one for starters, then we’ll see. Especially if for Christmas I get that telescope shepherd Toni promised me, then we’ll see even better. I’ve noticed something – I can very well sit here, far away, and yet still be there. My body doesn’t hinder me, although logically it does hinder me, but my will is stronger. This is how the will is born, I’ll have to jot that down in my Notebook. The small one, not the public one, because only I have access to it. I was alone, but it was temporary. A pity it didn’t rain, I would have been better off alone. But I had sweets, especially those ones with the horseman which I like, I mean the ones which impress me. As mother says, “You don’t impress me !” Which is to say, “come on, move along. Move along, move along, move along…”

31 September

Today I was allowed to go out, but the others weren’t allowed. Or else… they didn’t come. I was alone, alone again. Strange – I can be alone up there, but I can also be alone down here. In the castle or even in the redoubt. I’ve noticed that people talk a lot about loneliness, it’s a word I like because it has a lot of syllables. Not just anyone can pronounce it and you can immediately see what saint’s day it has. My saint’s day is St Elijah, who rides across the heavens on a barrel which gives off flames. A barrel of petrol, as it were. When you’re alone – this is another thing I’ve noticed – it’s harder to defend yourself. You don’t know where the enemies will jump out at you. It’s also tiring. The next time, I’m going to bring “the nourishment of reading,” this is an expression I learnt recently. I don’t know what it means exactly, but I’m going to use it. It refers to books, to the reading that comes from books, because reading and books are similar, they are part of the same family. That’s nothing, let’s say “the nourishment of reading,” and I’ll always think of books, even if it’s wrong. I asked shepherd Toni one evening, after he’d had a hearty meal, and he laughed in my face. He said I was trying to ironise him. I nodded although I didn’t understand what he meant. You don’t have to understand everything, especially if you understand without knowing what you understand. Silence is good in such cases. It’s a good friend. And, above all, if you’re silent no one can call you to account. Last year Mammy clouted me on the nape of the neck when I shouldn’t have kept silent. Sometimes you have to speak up, otherwise you keep silent and everything depends on you. It has nothing to do with grown-ups. It’s all to do with your schedule. Daddy told me that I had to have a schedule of my own. I didn’t understand very well, but if I keep silent and he keeps talking, maybe I’ll understand. And if I don’t understand it’s no loss, as Ilushka who brings the potatoes says. They have to understand, for them it’s important. We, the others, have to be able to manipulate, I mean, to play even when we’re not allowed, when it’s banned. I like banned, even though it doesn’t have many syllables. There’s something about this word that gives me great pleasure, an “immense pleasure.” Mammy says : “Your whims give me immense pleasure !” Then… she yawns. That means she feels alone, although we’re beside her. Or else it means she’s cold. When you’re cold you always feel alone, regardless of whether you’re inside or outside. It’s important always to be outside. I mean free, even if you don’t need to be outside. Need is an unpleasant word and I’ll use it rarely. And instead of writing it, I’ll speak it, but when there’s no one beside me. And if I want to play a trick on it, well then, I’ll not even speak it. I’ll just think it, in passing. Or, if I get to be a master, I’ll not even think it, I’ll erase it from my head swiftly, the very moment it blinks. That’s how I’ll quite simply kill it. I adore being able to kill someone. Why does Mammy always say, “You’re killing me with your whims !” ? That is… shouldn’t we have any more whims at all ? It’s very hard. I’m going to think about that. Oh, I have lots of things to think about, and I don’t like that. I prefer to get ready for battle.

31 September, evening

Today they beat me. I didn’t want to write that earlier, but I’m doing it now – see, I’m writing it now. I don’t know who. One of the “Grown-ups.” I don’t even know who hit me, I had my back turned. Although it’s not polite to stand with your back turned, I know. Even so, I was standing with my back turned to teach them a lesson. To teach the Grown-ups a lesson. They can’t just hit me like that, without any explanation. I need lots of explanations and, if I get explanations, maybe I won’t even write any more. But as it is – I’m writing about them to teach them a lesson. You can’t hit me like I was an animal ! And, moreover, shepherd Toni, who was invited to dinner, was laughing. “It’ll do him good,” he was saying, while leisurely picking his teeth. “Especially when he’s grown up !” How do they all know – when I say they I’m referring, for the time being, only to him, big-bellied and stupid as he is ! – that I’m going to be “grown up” ? Maybe I’m grown up already and… not many know it. Daddy knows it, I’m sure of that, but he doesn’t hit me. He doesn’t even shove me when I keep silent, when I ought to speak but keep silent. I can keep silent in lots of different ways and they know it, they’ve caught on. This is called “the art of silence” and I’m going to write it at the top of the page next to “the nourishment of reading.” I’ve not yet decided which of the two I’m going to choose, to write them on a flag, because, it’s obvious, as I’ve heard them say – it’s obvious that I’m in need of a flag too. That’s one thing, ha, ha, of which that stupid Iantzi or that foppish Vlad from Vladivostok haven’t heard. And even if they have heard, well, they won’t get one. A redoubt or even a beast without a flag – how stupid. You can have as many finicky girls as you like, but without a flag you’re gobbled. Gobbled and buried… and then some. I even know what material I’m going to use to make it. A piece of red cloth that Mammy took from Granny before she died. Lucky she took it. And so… I’m going to make myself a nice little flag. There will be a silence with a flag. And, rain or shine, it will speak for itself. I’m going to inscribe a slogan on it. That seems obvious to me. Where else if not there on the blank space of the flag. I heard that expression, “the blank space on the flag,” but I think it’s about colour. Red, in my opinion, is not as blank as… blue, let’s say, but it’s much more blank than white. White isn’t blank at all, it’s full of all the things it’s missing. A whole host of things are missing in the blank spaces or the ones they say are blank. They don’t fool me. “You don’t lead me on !” says Mrs Ildico the teacher, as though we wanted to lead her up the garden path. Or lead her by the nose. Or lead her a dance. Ha, I like that a lot, to “lead someone a dance,” that is, to cause him trouble. To lead him away. To where he has his job. Woe to them who are left without a job. It’s to the devil with them, as I heard Leopold shout, the one who runs the dustbins. This is really what he said : “I run the dustbins, I’m their priest ! The company boss, what would you all do without me ? ! And another thing, I lay stuff up, economise. I choose what I like… is that alright ? !”
It’s a long word, granted, but… I don’t like it. I’m not interested in it, I let it slide, fall back into the mouth it came out of. I don’t write it and I don’t even whisper it in my mind, I mean I don’t think it, as the others say. It doesn’t wash with me. When I say “the others,” I’m thinking of “the Grown-ups,” but not about “these ones.” “These ones” are not equal with “the others.” I have to make sense of them. I have to live in a world in which nothing is possible without sense. And sense means that you write. Whatever is not written makes no sense, which is to say it doesn’t exist. Full stop. You can whisper in your mind as much as you like, the passageways are free. But… sense, not that. You won’t obtain that. And I, in spite of everything, am going to find some sense. From myself first of all. It will be me at the beginning and, with patience, it will be me at the end. Me, but… who am I ? I’m going to ask, I going to find out prudently, I’ll be careful where I set foot. I will tread with the utmost heed. (Why isn’t “utmost heed” written in a single word ? It would be nicer, but I don’t dare, far from me the power, to do it. It may me that I get my knuckles rapped by those who are in the upper air. Auntie Adela said it, seriously, a while ago, that they’re in the upper air ! Maybe they are. Full stop.)

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth


Critics about

“A powerful, disquieting style, a style that captivates you, a style that takes you where it will. The reader of Nicolae Breban’s books is never in charge of the situation, but is led, is forcibly borne in the direction the writer wishes. And strangely, the reader feels a kind of masochism, he feels pleasure in allowing himself to be dominated by the writer in this way. Because he is not just any kind of writer, but truly a great writer.”


“The author creates living characters as polemical reactions to modes that were previously legitimated, be it by the classics of the novel, be it by his own text, but this mode of creation becomes at the same time a procedure, a convention.”


"The writer possessed by his literary obsessions, pursued by his characters, by the conflicts and the situations he has imagined. In fact, we might say that he has had no other life than literature."


“The long sentences, many lived intensely, but calmly, throb with a nostalgia that is not nostalgia, a smile that is not a smile.”

(Marius MIHEŢ)


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