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Stelian Tanase


Excerpt from

Novel, Fiction Ltd. series, Polirom, 2008, 245 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Book presentation

Maestro might be compared to a huge screen. One upon which unfolds a spectacle that is often grotesque, sad, ironic, clownish, and serious. The author gives his tale the subtitle “A Melodrama”. His approach is dramatic, somewhere between hyperrealism and the absurd, done in a brutal, often cynical style, without any illusions as regards his characters and the world about which he writes. Beyond the spotlights yawns the abyss, the trivial, fascinating and mystifying world of television, captured from the inside and viewed by the author as the litmus paper of the age. For those looking for the writer Stelian Tănase, Maestro brings the revelation of an extraordinary book.



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Excerpt from

Nervous? Already? You ain’t seen nothing yet. That was a mere trifle, just for starters. The melodrama is barely about to begin! I’m telling you, I tried to slit my throat with a shard of broken glass, like something out of Don’t Leave the Ladies On Their Own, episodes 4, 17, 33, 59, 81. I’m a professional suicide. I’ve got my own register at the Emergency Room, just like prostitutes have at the police station. I’ve eaten poisonous mushrooms. I’ve taken enough sleeping pills to fell an entire regiment. Well, be informed that I didn’t die. Or at least I don’t think I did – I’ve no idea. The discharge from the hospital says that they pumped my stomach out repeatedly. I was in for two days. Then they let me out under supervision, so that I wouldn’t repeat the gesture. Who it was kept watch over me I don’t know, really I don’t. I live alone. I tried again, because I was seized with an urge to die. I hadn’t slept a wink in three weeks, and I slashed my veins. I stepped into a full bathtub. The water turned red and my life ebbed from my body second by second. I passed out. I had visions of a depot full of trams, tall ashen grass, and dogs scrabbling in the garbage. Oh yes, my address is no paradise. That much is clear. An angel appeared at the little bathroom window. He stopped the haemorrhaging with a breath. He drained the water from the tub. He bandaged me with gauze from the nightstand. He stayed with me for one night, holding my hand. He visited me daily until I regained my strength. When I began to speak, he vanished. I didn’t see him again. He still appears to me in my sleep, but only partly, behind a wall, through a half-open door, his head poking down from the eaves. He never reveals himself whole, only parts of himself. And here I am, alive as damn well can be. I’m going to tell you Tina’s story.

 


We’ve known each other for ages. Forever, I’d say. Love at first sight. It’s as though we had been suckled by the same wet nurse. Since childhood. Same neighbourhood, same street corner. Tea dances, Komsomol, boys, homework, shabby high school. We finished university at the same time; she went off to the provinces. So much the better for her. Bucharest had been overrun with rats. You would see them on the pavements, crossing the boulevards in long files. She’s an awful scaredey-cat. She only had to see and rat and she would faint. We used to phone each other, to write. She was suffocating out there, she told me once: “Do something! I’m dying!” A stench of onions, yokels, boredom, dust, stupid men. She came back a year later. I woke up to find her in my garret one night. She was up the duff and needed a gynaecologist. To give her a curettage, to get her out of a fix. Highly risky. Abortions were illegal. Investigation, trial, prison. If they caught you, it got extremely nasty. You had to find someone willing to take the risk contra cost. It wasn’t free, as you can imagine. We were both dirt poor. Where were we supposed to get the money, when I barely scraped by from one payday to the next and Tina wasn’t earning anything? But we couldn’t find anyone, and her belly kept growing. She was already in her fourth month and there was nothing on the horizon. Informers lurking everywhere, earning their filthy lucre. Ready to snitch to the militia and ruin the doctor. To turn you in, when you spread your legs to have the foetus scooped out, the property of the whole nation. There was a price on abortionists’ heads. The newspapers published cases of the kind, for intimidation. A bloke turned up at the office. He said he was going to inspect all our twats. He’d seen how young, cute and horny we were. He had an inkling that something was up. He had to see whether we were carrying any precious burdens in our wombs after having it off with some drunk on payday, who had vodka money and was itching for a fuck. If he caught you fecundated, he guarded you like the holy relics of Saint Parascheva. He inspected you weekly, so that you wouldn’t diddle the beloved homeland out of a baby, chuck it down the garbage chute. He would arrange it so that he would catch you in flagrante, and flay both you and the gynaecologist all in one go. The denunciations would be coming in thick and fast. He barely had time to read them, there were so many. That’s what the person next to you is like, gallant and jolly, wise-cracking; informs on you at the drop of a hat. And why not? Does it say anything in the Ten Commandments about snitching on your neighbour? If you love your neighbour, then you have no choice but to turn him in to the authorities for misbehaving, it’s for his own good. Look, Tina didn’t want to be a mammy. We were wracking ourselves to find some shady character to do a deal. To accept the dough, to risk gaol. Anything for Tina not to have the joy of cashing in the state’s popular maternity indemnity. What’s that you say? We interned her in hospital on the sly, at night, when the shady character was on duty, alone. Tina lost her nerve. She saw those sinister blinding white wall tiles, and the operating room. I held her little hand. You’d have thought it was me who’d got her pregnant, not some drunkard. But I had to keep her spirits up. She was about to pass out. You liked the sex, you pay the price. It’s the classic ruse, a miscarriage, you lugged something heavy up the stairs and gave yourself a rupture, lost the pregnancy. He would give you a blood infusion. You would start haemorrhaging. He would call the prosecutors to draw up a report. You would act woebegone, weep when the bloke with the notepad turned up, if you were a bit of an actress. You would make out you were in despair at not becoming a happy mother. It was all for show, everybody knew what was going on, but they closed their eyes to it. But with my Tina the blood began to gush and wouldn’t stop. I thought she was dying. She went pale, green, ashen, purple, black, white as chalk. The doctor took fright too; he was jumpy. He could already see himself with a corpse on his hands, at the prosecutor’s office, I the undersigned, accused of reckless manslaughter, ten years inside. There are jokes about it today, but back then it was serious. Tina’s life was slipping away, not on tiptoes, not in slow motion. It had bolted, in a panic, rushing to get out of her enfeebled body. Only an emergency transfusion could save her. If. Where to get hold of her blood group, A2, RH positive? The doctor asked me to give a sample, on the off chance, in desperation. Small chances of a match. He had a buxom nurse who kept cracking jokes at all the wrong moments. She talked about death as casually as about a packet of cigarettes. She would openly say cock, cunt, tits, arse, fuck. Back then I was a wilting violet, a mimosa, I blushed. Nowadays my gob is filthier than an open sewer. Tina’s chances, almost nil. You’re going to die a nice death, missy, said the nurse. Better than growing old, wasting away, full of aches and pains, all ugly. Better young like this, the whole neighbourhood will be weeping alongside your hearse, bonny lass. The doctor had turned the colour of liver. But he didn’t realise that we’ve got the devil in us, Tina and I. We’re the same species of unhappy woman. In vain did the doctor turn the same colours as Tina, green, white, purple, in the end she survived. Lucky we match each other in this way too, not only in lovers and misfortunes. He drained the blood out of me, about a bucketful. You should have seen us both stretched out on those beds with their shit-brown oilcloth, with their tattered filthy sheets. The doctor was wringing his hands by the door, he was afraid of the prosecutor turning up, who guarded proletarian morals, or some other enemy of his doing the rounds of the hospital, snooping around ready to shatter his career. The maternity wards were riddled with agents. What a bad transaction he had got himself into with Miss Tina, all for 3,000 lei. Look at what a dirty trick she was playing on him! Dying when he was on duty and scouring out her cunt. Just do it, don’t give up your pleasures, the nurse told her. Me, I still fuck. There’s not one bloke in this hospital I haven’t had. But without a condom, you don’t let him up your snatch. If he wants to, fine, if not, then bye-bye! Next please! Don’t believe any of that talk about how he’ll pull his cock out when he’s about to come. Men, hark my words, girls, will forget anything and everything just for a bit of meat. They’re cowards too, they vanish as quick as a flash, they’ll even forget what your name is. Well, if you please. They left me drained of blood. I fainted. I lost the thread. I remember those gleaming white tiles, the dim light bulb and Tina stretched out half dead. When I came round, the little’un was lying there all bruised, like a newborn kitten, pink, bloody, in a white enamel dish, where the doctor had kept his surgical instruments. He showed it to Tina. She was crying. “My baby, my baby!” she was going, with her head between her hands and rocking at the edge of the bed, her eyes fixed on the enamel dish like a madwoman. It was like she was on drugs. I dozed off. I was too weak. The doctor and the nurse took us home in a car, so that we wouldn’t die on them in the hospital, get them into hot water. That was at dawn, when he came off duty. The trams had started to leave the depot, carrying the last insomniacs, and were dispersing here and there.

What work did Tina do that year? Unemployed, bargain hunting. I’d found myself a nice little number at the radio station, but we barely made ends meet, because we had to share everything, as you can imagine. We didn’t have a pot to piss in. She would vanish for a while; she would turn up with baggy eyes, disappointed by some pair of long johns. Me, idem. And that’s how we got by until ’89, when, on Christmas Eve, a soldier nearly made a sieve out of her. I mean, girl, you didn’t die from the abortion, hunger, disgust, fear, but you’re felled heroically by a bullet. In December. He wanted to shoot her for not presenting identity papers. I quote. “I have orders to shoot anything that moves.” But especially sexy girls? You’d have thought he was hunting sparrows. Tina, with the barrel of the gun poking between her tits: “When I go out fucking I don’t carry my identity card with me, because the militia will catch me and have me declared a scrubber. It’s Christmas, Mr Khaki. Leave it out.” Our Tina had spent a whole week in bed with some bloke. She didn’t have a clue what was going on. The telephone had been cut off, no radio, no telly. When she went outside, she thought the bullets were fireworks, that the proles were having a party. And, bang, the soldiers wouldn’t let her pass. There was shooting all over the place. The neighbourhood was full of madmen emptying their magazines. Understand, lady, stay indoors if you value your life. She didn’t understand. That was exactly what Tina wanted, to see what was going on, what comedy was being played out. Her hackles were up. She had to scent blood. Her nostrils were swollen with the gunpowder, the burnt kerosene and diesel. Emily, me that is, I set off at a run to the address from where she’d called me cheep-cheep on the payphone. They had given her a coin to make a call, her last wish, as it were. To rescue her from the soldiers’ bayonets, she said. I had been wandering the streets the previous nights, mingling with the insurgents. I brought water, bread; I chanted slogans! I begged the tank drivers to go back to barracks. I slept in a metro station. I arrived home dead tired, when, pow, the telephone rings. Tina, of course. To come and collect her. She was cheeping about how she had her back to the wall. What the hell is going on in this rotten city? What are they filming? Crowd scenes, extras, the whole works. A platoon wanted to gang rape her. They’ve got hard-ons the shape of automatic pistols, I swear. If they scare me much more I’ll go into labour, have a miscarriage, enter the menopause, darling. You tell them. They’re hungry for some snatch. Let Emily do something. Let her certify to the blockhead that she is who she says she is. Even if she hasn’t got an identity card, she’s an honest woman. A bit drunk and sleepless, as you can imagine. Girl, it’s a revolution, I told her. “Ballocks!” she snapped. I had bored her long enough. The dictator is kaput, I say. It’s over! I insist. Come off it! Don’t make me laugh! She didn’t believe one iota. Emily, bang, hangs up the telephone, about turn. I was hoping I would find her alive. The soldiers didn’t know very much. They had their orders. I turned up at the address in the Trabant. The bullets were flying! Whiz! Bang! I reached the scene of the crime, locked horns with a soldier. I’m telling you, I had been dusting the offices at the radio station, making coffee for a boss who was determined to fuck me during working hours. He was dying for my botty. He kept a photograph of himself and Nixon in his office. For the bloke in khaki, who kept prodding Tina with his machinegun, my bit of paper with a radio station stamp on it was not worth shit. He’d wipe his arse with it if he came down with diarrhoea. I told him that the prisoner was on the side of the revolution, she had fought, she was one of ours. Tina was laughing and smoking. What the hell are you doing with that gun? It’ll go off and you’ll kill an innocent person! I’d barely managed to fool him, and then Tina laid into me. She was giving me a tongue lashing, that I should stop making stupid jokes. What revolution, are you out of your mind! She couldn’t give a shit, and it would be good if I could drop the masquerade. She thought we were making fun of her. The soldier, perplexed, insisted on taking her to the barracks. If not, he was going to shoot her right then and there. I lost control. I started screaming at him, scratching him, crying hysterically. The soldier took fright. What he was seeing was one tart laughing her head off and another ready to beat him up. An old-timer general, Mardare, happened to be passing; he was left speechless by the scene. The glorious Romanian army disarmed by two tarts. Plus I was wearing an armband. I’d have done better to hang a pair of knickers there. He was thinking of medals, ranks, orders. Plus the tricolour on the Trabant, because I’m a patriot in my own way, like you wouldn’t believe. Given it was a matter of the homeland the general capitulated. He gave an order for the squad to disperse. The affair ended in glory. The soldier, a sergeant by rank, the platoon commander, with his footsloggers, had wanted to turn her into a sieve for sifting flour. To mix her with the corpses lined up on the pavement and to cook up an offal stew for the stray dogs. Damn it, they ate nothing but man flesh, liver, kidneys, testicles. A whole pack of them, all of them famished, maddened by the stench. That’s what he said, smoking a cigarette after the incident, monosyllabically, for Tina ’n’ Emily. We took some photographs. One of them had a Laika camera, very cool. A group portrait: the two of us with the platoon, tittering. A memento. When you think that they had wanted to butcher Tina! You wouldn’t have had anything to investigate now. The sergeant could hardly wait to be discharged. He had less than a hundred days to go at the barracks. Tina gave him some money to get drunk with his comrades. To drink to the revolution, homeland and girlfriends, whatever his heart desired. Big-hearted, she took her bottle of perfume from her handbag and sprinkled him. Then me. “I’ll be your servant in heaven as payment!” she cheeped. I don’t know why she was so amused. There I was, weeping, half dead, and she was laughing. I needed a shower, cigarettes, coffee. The town was thick with smoke. Tracer bullets were whizzing through the dusk. A column of lorries passed, waving flags, shooting in the air. The driver squinted into the large, cracked rear-view mirror to see whether we, crowded by the soldiers, were alive. The soldiers climbed aboard, we remained behind. You saved my life, says Tina pathetically.
And that’s why you burst out laughing! I said. In an instant, the street emptied. They had started shooting from somewhere. Later, Tina found out that our soldier had not made it home. He had been mown down by a salvo of bullets that very night, Christmas Eve ’89.

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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