Novel, "Ego-prose" series, Polirom, 2006, 187 pages
Copyright: represented by Residenz (Austria)
Translation rights sold to: Jacqueline Chambon, Actes Sud (France), Druötvo Apokalipsa (Slovenia), Residenz (Austria, world wide rights), Manni Editori (Italy), Czarne (Poland), Icaria (Spain), Paradox (Bulgaria)
All the occurrences in the novel take place in a street at the outskirts of a Romanian provincial town. The majority of the street’s inhabitants are working class. Once the “heroes” of the former political regime, they are now the “ballast” of the new order. Now, they are pensioners or unemployed – the pensioners of a bankrupt socio‑economic and political system, in fact. Cast by history to the margins of the world, their main pass‑times become drinking and chatting. As the characters become absorbed in conversation, reality imperceptibly dematerialises and we enter a construct of group mentality, tributary to the totalitarian epoch. The world no longer consists of objects, but of distorted recollections, nostalgia, phantasms, frustration, clichés, stereotypes, projects, and eccentric fantasies. The poles of this world, constructed as a place of collective refuge by the inhabitants of the street, are the ghost of Ceauşescu, who is master of the past, and the West, which represents a strange and uncertain world. One episode of an exuberant humour is that in which one of the characters meets Ceauşescu in person : the discussion and events that occur during this visit are as hilarious as they are spectacular. This is a novel written with verve and elegance, a novel that is both current and bursting with humour. The reader is left with no respite in which to become bored, for events come in waves, while the colourful dialogue only serves to heighten the atmosphere. This is a book that provokes much laughter, but beyond the laughter, there looms great disquietude.
I got off the train giddy from all the jolting and went straight to the Central Committee. So I knock on the door… and I’ve barely finished knocking when this huge monster of an officer comes out, with his cap pushed back, he must have been hot, poor blighter, and he lays into me :
“Oi, what do you want, Moldavian ?”
I can’t say how he knew I was Moldavian, since I hadn’t so much as uttered a single word, but I’d got off on the wrong foot. That made my blood freeze even more than the scar on his cheek, which was enough to give you a fright in itself – the lumbering hulk didn’t even need a pistol. At first, I thought he must be one of those folk that read your mind, because he’d kenned me from the very start. But then I realised that, even if he could read minds, he still couldn’t have known I was Moldavian, because I wasn’t thinking about me being Moldavian at the time and thoughts, in general, don’t have a Moldavian accent.
“I should like to speak to comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu, Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party, President of the Socialist Republic of Romania,” says I briskly and stiffly, like on the first page of those school textbooks, because I was defecating myself with fear, if I can put it like that.
“Really, now, Moldavian ? I think you got the first prize at school, didn’t you ? Out with it !”
“Really, sir ! I didn’t get the first prize at school, sir !” I reply, like in the army, short and quick, intimidated by the uniform.
“But haven’t you heard of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces ? Get down !”
“Yes I’ve heard, sir !” I shout up in the air, because I’d thrown myself to the ground on the order to get down. I’m telling you, mate, he laid into me with the army drill just like in the Party rulebook, so hard that he knocked all the baccy I’d smoked in the train out of me. That must have been the signal. After he’d worked me up into a sweat, he pulled up a chair and invited me to sit down, he gave me a glass of tap water, a decent bloke in his way, and opened himself a can of beer. I thought it was a grenade at first – I’d never seen anything like it in my life.
“And just what business have you got with uncle Nicu ?” he says trying to lure me. I says nowt. I’m not daft, am I ? Well, if I’d answered it would have been as if I was in agreement with calling him “uncle Nicu”, and if I was in agreement, it would have been like I’d said it myself ; and that’s just what he was waiting for.
“Alright, I see you don’t want to say, it must be secret,” says he slyly.
“Wait here, I’ll go and see if he’s home.”
He takes two steps, turns round and asks me : “Who should I say is asking after him ?” I froze to the spot ! Who was I after all ? What the hell should I tell him ?
“A man of labour !” says I proudly, but dead with fright. “A lathe operator,” I added ; I thought it sounded more impressive, like a kind of function.
“Damned Moldavian lathe operator you”, grumbled the huge monster impressively. I think he regretted having laid into me with the drill. He went into his booth and whispered with some one on the telephone.
When he comes out, he says to me : “You’re in luck, they’re just getting ready to go off to Zimbabwe, but he’ll receive you, he can’t refuse a lathe operator. Follow me.
” He pulls a rag out of his pocket and blindfolds me. And I’m telling you, mate, he takes me right and left I don’t know how many times, so that if he’d left me there on my own after that I’d have starved to death before I found the exit. When he takes off the blindfold, we’re in an office full of doctors in white coats, with stethoscopes around their necks, drinking coffee. They put their coffee down, and one of them makes me stick out my tongue, another takes a blood sample, another pokes one of those pocket torches in my eyes, another one listens to me through his stethoscope, and another, begging your pardon, searches up my bottom. Under the white coats, you could glimpse their epaulettes and medals, I think they must have been really big generals. I’ve never gone through a medical examination like that since then and I don’t think I ever will until the day of my autopsy. He blindfolds me with the rag again and makes me dizzy leading me down all them corridors ; everywhere there was a smell of coffee and schnitzels. After we’d gone up in two different lifts, he takes off the blindfold and says to me : “That’s the door, you go in by yourself, he doesn’t like to know he’s being guarded. Say that you’ve come in off the street and mind what you do after that. Ask after Lena, otherwise he’ll get cross. Ah, I was about to forget, tell him that he’s the most beloved son of the people, he likes that best of all.” And then that huge monster gave a smile enough to give me the shivers, with that scar on his face that made him look like he was laughing with two gobs. One of the lads though, in his own way. I knock on the door, but I’ve barely finished knocking when I hear : “Enter !” I take my cap in my hands, as the saying goes, because I didn’t have a cap, I grip the door handle and turn it. My heart was beating like a titmouse’s. He was sitting at his desk casting a die : “If it comes up three, I’ll go to Zimbabwe, if not, I’ll say I’m ill. Six ! That’s it, I’m ill ! If it comes up three, then I’m ill with high blood pressure, if not, then I’ve got a catarrh. Three ! I guessed it, I’m ill with high blood pressure !” There wasn’t so much as peep out of me – well, so as not to bother him at his work. “What do you say, Moldavian, what’ll come up ?” he takes me by surprise. Me, I’m dumbstruck ! “Hurry up, I haven’t got shitloads of time !” “Four ! Comrade Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party, President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and most beloved son of the people,” I blurt out. His face flushed like a rose. “Let’s see now ! Four ! You Moldavian bugger – you’ve got some luck ! You get a Dacia on me.” My tongue was itching to ask him what would have happened if I hadn’t guessed, but I didn’t dare. “But not a new Dacia, one that’s a year old. Bobu lost it at cards.” “Thank you, Comrade Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party, President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and most beloved son of the people !” “Leave out the fancy stuff, as long as it’s between ourselves you can call me Nicu, like everybody else.” Me, I couldn’t believe it. One of the lads, I’m telling you, pity they shot him like a dog. Lena was horrid though. I was standing there and thinking to myself whether I should tell him about our Litza or not, because if I had a Dacia now that problem with being late would be cleared up, when in comes this lady all dressed up in traditional costume, carrying a tray of bread and salt – and she was such a looker that your eyes would have popped out on their stalks. But that philanderer doesn’t let me feast my eyes not even a wee bit, he chases her out quickly : “Come on, get lost, can’t you see we’ve got work to do ?” As jealous as could be, you could see it on his face. “Excuse me, I thought that it was the delegation from China !” chirps the bonny lass melodiously, like that folk singer Irina Loghin. “The‑the‑they’re next door.” He’d got annoyed and was stuttering. “Hmm, let us return to the order of the day, comrade, what urgency brings you to me ?” “Well… I’m a man of labour…” “And you’ve come in off the street to see how I am.” “Yes, eggzactly, and to see how Comrade Elena is, your life’s partner, the internationally renowned scientist and loving mother.” “She’s not so well, she’s just sent word that she has a catarrh… and as for me I’m suffering from high blood pressure, but what can you do, duty is duty, the cause of the people never takes sick leave.” “That’s about right. You can say that again.” “What, are you deaf ?” “No, but that’s what they say where I come from.” “Aha !” I looked at him, sitting in his armchair like a schoolmaster and picking at the dots on the die with his fingernail. “What the hell, this black peels off ! I’d no idea.” I kept a respectful silence and let him get on with his business. “That’s why that dodger Postelnicu always wins !” The room was large, with a colour telly from the period and Paşcani curtains. “But tell me, Moldavian, I’ve heard that people are grumbling. Have you got milk for the children ?” I was up to my neck now ! How the hell could I tell him that you had to get up at three o’clock in the morning for a bottle of milk ? That you had to queue up for so long that you used to start growing mould ? “I regretfully have to announce that I don’t have any children, comrade General Secretary of the Commun…” “Whoa there ! That’s no good, Moldavian, not to have any children. What kind of lathe operator are you if you don’t have any children ? Aren’t you even a little bit ashamed ? Didn’t I say at I don’t what plenary meeting that you all have to make children, so that at least then you’d be doing something ?” “Forgive me, comrade Secretary General…” “Go home and make children, otherwise I’ll take the Dacia back. As easily as I gave it to you, just as easily I’ll take it back. You don’t mess with me,” says he. I bowed my head like a naughty schoolboy. What the hell could I say ? “Or maybe you’ve got a problem with your little piston ?” At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I got the gist quickly enough. “No, comrade Secretary General…” “Look, if you have any problems with your little piston, just you tell me ! I’ll take you to a doctor, he’s a Thai, he boils all kinds of weeds from over there and makes you drink this potion, it has a horrible taste, a bit like whiskey, but after that you’ll swear that you’re a jackhammer, nothing short ! You’ll break concrete !” “No, not me… Comrade Secretary General…” “Look, don’t be ashamed ! You come, you tell me, and it’ll get sorted. What the hell ! You’ve got to put your back into the demographic problem.” That’s what he said, I swear. I liked the Bullet‑Riddled‑One for that bit, a real committee lad. Lena was horrid though, I’m telling you. She didn’t even come into the room the whole time I was there, and he had guests as well, didn’t he ? But as for the demographic question, that really was no joke. You should have seen how it got his hackles up…
But let me get back to my visit. He picks at the die a bit more and then he looks to the left, he looks to the right, and he fetches from the cupboard some wine and soda and a box of cigars, I thought it was a box of chocolates at first. But you could see from his face that he was scared in case Lena caught him with the booze and gave him a tongue‑lashing. I can’t complain though, it was a good wine ; the old codger had taste. “Take a cigar,” he urges me, “Fidel Castro sent them to me for the 23 August workers’ holiday.” If only my wife could have seen me, you’d have thought I was Kojak, she really used to like that serial. “Here, Moldavian, have you heard of a certain Goma ?” asks The‑One‑They‑Shot. Me, so as not to look really stupid, I says : “I’ve heard the name, comrade Secretary…” I was thinking that he must be some Party bigwig or something. “Well then, tell me, tell me everything. Where did you hear about him ?” What could I say ? I couldn’t get the words out. I didn’t have a clue who he was and I still don’t know, but I remembered the name, because it wasn’t a common one. “There was this bloke at our lathe shop…” I ventured. “No, man, this one I’m asking you about is a rotter.” “Well, the one at our place isn’t much better,” says I, playing along with him. “But have you heard of Iliescu ?” “Haven’t heard of him, comrade secretary General…” “Better for you ! That one, he’s another rotter, but more dangerous than the other one.” Look, I swear, that’s what he really said. Because during the revolution, when I saw him on the telly, I remembered this discussion eggzactly. “Look here, listen to me, if I die and you fall into the hands of that gypsy Iliescu, your happiness is at an end !” “How could you die, comrade Secretary General… How could it be possible ?” “It’s possible, Moldavian, because for me everything is possible !” “A‑ha,” says I, like an idiot. “That one, he’ll flay your hides, like the KGB. You’ll live to mourn my name !” I’m telling you, mate, I can almost hear him now. He could smell something was up. “If he takes after that Gorbachev and bungs you in period of transition, like he keeps pestering me, not even the Americans will get you out of it. He keeps going on at him about the tunnel of transition, with the light at the end of it, that he’s waiting for us Romanians. Ballocks ! If we enter the tunnel, they’ll pull us out in pieces, like spare parts. Mark my words !” Look, everything the Unjustly‑Bullet‑Riddled one told me, it all came true ; it was as if he was reading it from somewhere. After the Revolution, I heard eggzactly his words from Iliescu and from the others, it was as if they’d been eavesdropping as we were talking. After a while the Bullet‑Riddled‑One looks at his watch and says : “I ought to get a move on. I’m late for the card game.” “Sorry to have bothered you, comrade Secretary…” “Hang on, where are you off to, all empty‑handed ?” He rummages under the desk and pulls out two parcels, all nicely wrapped up with ribbon. “Look here, this one’s for the girl, for Alina, she’s got a pair of Guban sandals and two bananas, and this one’s for Marius, he’s got two tennis rackets and a Chinese chocolate bar.” I froze to the spot. He knew everything, mate ! It was just what me bairns wanted. And here’s me, telling him that I didn’t have any bairns… Now there was a real Committee lad for you !
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth