novel, Fiction LTD, 2006, Polirom, 648 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
University Professor Alexandru Robe experiences a 19 second Bucharest earthquake during which his computer picks up a message consisting of two indecipherable lines:
TOC OR IENC
A dire question follows the anagrams: “Would you like to know who is following you?”
Neither Robe, who is a literature professor, nor his girlfriend, Maria, a delicious but difficult art restorer, understand the gravity of the quake or why the mysterious words have appeared on Alexandru’s monitor.
Confused, Alexandru and Maria visit their old friend, Mihnea, a mathematics professor and computer wizard. They want to know what got into Alexandru’s computer, and it’s natural for them to turn to Mihnea. The three friends get together every week for drinks and discussions that circle around problems of changing identity. The identities are theirs, and the on-going discussion is urgent because the characters are living through the difficult transition from communism to capitalism in Romania.
During the visit to Mihnea, it becomes clear that something menacing did get into Alexandru’s computer, and the invader wasn’t a virus—nor, as it turns out, was the earthquake a normal geological event. The media never came alive with disaster stories. Alexandru and Maria were the only ones to experience the tremor. Alexandru begins to feel that either nothing is what it seems, or seeming is of the essence.
Meanwhile his friend Mihnea implies that whatever invaded Alexandru’s flat was virtual, and Mihnea associates the virtual message-leaving with a peculiar artifact come into his possession lately and as if by chance, a map of the Balkans dated 1766. The map had found its way toward Mihnea in the course of a curious evening with the five Frati bothers, virtually identical thugs of various ages.
When Alexandru and Maria look at the map, which centers on the Balkans, they spot its peculiarity right away. Geography is all accounted for, except for one glaring lapse. The Romanian lands (Moldavia and Walachia) have been geographically and geologically erased.
What’s going on? Maria sees that there’s another image under the map, which can’t be from 1766 either. Its graphic qualities come from a later time. The friends agree to meet the next day after Maria has had a chance to study the document microscopically at her studio. The game is afoot, but, Alexandru has to wonder, how long has this been going on?
Good question. Literature professor that he is, our hero learns something about the power of revision on his way back to Mihnea’s next day. Out of nowhere, two plain clothes detectives warn him to give up his search—for what, exactly? And how do they know? Alexandru refuses. The dicks beat him up, and when Alexandru goes to complain to the local police, he learns that there are no such cops attached to the district. Reality is being played with, memories aren’t what they used to be, and Alexandru and Mihnea are among the few who notice what’s happening.
Why so? For one thing, these guys are news hounds—into computers, physic, and butterfly theory. They are beginning to see, a little change in history/reportage over here leads to a big change in reality over there. Alexandru even has a computer program called lepidopterous that helps him monitor such alterations, and that’s not all. He’s aware of having lost something precious, two seconds of memory that vanished during the earthquake. So, while searching his own memory for his identity—formed in the nexus of childhood and adolescence—Alexandru becomes involved in detection that proves that CLUNIAH (the post-quake epigram that showed up on Alexandru’s computer)is a twisted form of Luchian, the name of a Romanian painter of the interwar period, and that TOC OR IENC stands for Cotrocien, the name of a museum near Romania’s Cotrocien Presidential Palace. Of course, the Luchian painting at the Cotrocien Museum is suspiciously misdated, an organization called Global Mind is messing with people’s heads, and only a character whose name keeps eluding us seems to know what it’s all about. That character has the distinction of being Romania’s Greatest Writer.
To find out what it all means, Alexandru and his friends kidnap Romania’s Greatest Writer at a conference on the Black Sea Coast. Mihnea slams a sack over the writer’s head, and the team drives him back to a small town on the road to Bulgaria where they tie Romania’s Greatest Writer to a chair and try to get answers. Sounds tough, but then, they guy’s name ends in ESCU, which may be a jumbled form of SECU, the popular name for Securitate—collectively Romanian’s most prolific writer, without doubt. And that’s not all: characters enter reality, vanish from it, appear in earlier or later historical periods—all with the aid of a nano-computer once in the hands of Camile Petrescu, whose most famous novel in the West is Last Night of Love, First Night of War, a tale of the early Twentieth Century. Alexandru’s grandfather is among those who enter and exit history at various times, a problem for Alexandru whose life depends on his grandfather’s existence—as does, curiously enough, the truth about the death of the World War I flying ace, the Red Baron, whose demise is revealed in the single valid copy of a French, Communist-era comic book discovered in Vienna. And so it goes with Pynchonesque abandon until Romania’s Greatest Writer vanishes from his sack—unless he becomes Alexandru himself. There’s no way to tell, but we do find out who the villain is. The notion of virtual being gets a workout along with the idea of identity’s being hard to maintain under any economic system whatsoever. Complex, thoughtful, built on repetitive permutations, it all comes off in a giant romp. (Published on http://translations.observatorcultural.ro/)
Most people sleep at night. They conk out, out of pure nerves and helplessness, not to mention the odd case of fatigue. No one ever asks them what deeply rational reason they have to waste 204,400 hours, which is to say 8,516 days, which comes to 23.3 years of their lives not saying a word and snoring: four and a half billion individuals knocked out cold, reduced to vegetables or anemones, plunging with healthy abandon night after night into—even they don’t know what. Seventy years spread over a pie chart with a slice cut out.
I’ve been trying for a long time to figure out what’s going on in their heads when they close their eyes. What irresponsible composure lets them accept total separation from whatever keeps them from turning back into vegetables or ash—serenely, with open arms, without the slightest guarantee they’ll ever wake up? There are no guarantees, but they all go for broke. Ask any one. He’ll tell you he’s been sleeping like a new born babe. Personally, I smell fresh earth each time I lay my head on the pillow.
Still, needing my sleep, I came up with a solution after a while: I’d disconnect my body without renouncing my mind. Plugged into the network of my thoughts, my brain would go on working behind my eyelids. My flesh on stand-by, my muscles would twitch on and off. You could pinch my toes and I wouldn’t feel a thing. With my nerves, it was more complex. Half turned to stone. The other half kept sending electric signals. Then I’d start my little neuro-economic electromotor. It helped me pass like a phantom through my numbed out body. Sixty-five kilograms snoozed—I told you, I think, I’m on the skinny side—all watched over by a few microns of information.
Far from the eyes of the world, power was shared out on a corporate basis among zones of hemispheric influence; conflicts unfolded, transactions took place and (in a balance of forces) pacts were concluded among cognitive blocs, short term or indefinite. A ruthlessly agitated competition: each hemisphere tried to seize control and dictate the terms of my actions—several hours, even days in advance. I was undergoing full-fledged cerebral capitalism, colonized by my own imperialist thoughts. Each aimed to occupy as much space as it could, to extend itself through arteries and capillaries, to appropriate the neuronal resources of its adversary in a glorious finale. No one had a clue what was going on in my brain’s subterranean economy among the conflicting giants of my future actions. Not even I knew who controlled their fluctuating stock exchange; my thoughts flickered with the rhythm of electrochemical supply. The bidding went on constantly, loudly, in a frenzy; decisions where constructed rapidly in luminous portfolios, like commodities ready to be put on the market. The struggle would go on for hours; so would the sleep in the rest of my body. The next day I’d wake wrung out, livid, bags under my eyes but still alive.
Of course, my friends and did other things at night. Cezar wandered aimlessly through the city, haunting the areas from Floreasca to Unirii, and from Universitate to Eroilor. He was looking for Mihnea, to show him some drawings rolled up in a cylinder. I don’t know why, but he thought that Mihnea was avoiding him by orbiting along ahead of him as the Moon moves about the Earth, near but out of reach. If you didn’t know Cezar, you’d have said he’s one of those guys who mug you first then ask after your health. Cătălin had a thing for movies. He’d go alone with a Bruckenthal screwdriver freshly arrived from Germany. While the actors made out on the screen, he’d unscrew the number plaques from the backs of the chairs (white, encased in plastic, left over from Ceauşescu’s days), and he’d switch them around. The next day, you’d discover whole rows with the number six, eight or twelve, depending on Cătălin’s preferences that night. Andrei worked in a club popular with rockers, and you don’t want to know what he put in place of the beer or what he poured in the cocktail glasses. Anyhow, as soon as the room disappeared in smoke and the guitars started, it didn’t matter anymore. You felt like you were in an airplane that had crashed in the ocean. As for Mihnea, he wasn’t running away or anything. He was just fast asleep, with his tomcat under the quilt at his feet. Between ’leven and four in the morning, you could hardly imagine a happier guy. I loved them all: they were my friends (we did “Revolution” together, first at Piaþa Romana and then at the National TV), but I would have placed them without hesitation in the same class as the weirdo who drifted through Herăstrău Park in his undershirt and jockey shorts, regardless of the hour or season, a supermarket bag in one hand and a basket ball in th’ other.
As for me, I was into serious things. When I wasn’t fighting sleep with one hemisphere, I was diving directly into the computer. I was the proud owner of a Chinese excuse for a computer, patched together from odds and ends that Mihnea scrounged up over the course of a year by liberating them from the Math Department at the University where he worked as an Assistant, and I got the whole shebang connected to the internet. Not that I was paying an internet provider, no siree, I was using the cable of the Arab family on staircase B—the Yussefs’. The connection had been installed outside, under the window, on the Clinic side, near a linden branch. I went on piling up bits until presto change-o it morphed into a Pentium—and that at a time when people were still standing in line for a 486.
The problem wasn’t the materiel, however, but—as in one of Breughel’s late paintings, the personnel. Mother Nature hadn’t cut me out of cloth very different from my friends. I had my own quirk, and the bothersome little guy in my brain knew how to blow his whistle loud enough. I was a bit of a peeper back then. And I assure you, it wasn’t books I was after.
I was searching for humanity’s great catastrophes. I’d manage to pick up the Discovery Channel, and then I’d sit down comfortably in a chair, a bottle of Bragadiru beer at my side. No, you’re right, that beer wasn’t made after ’89, (the label was killing, with ªtefan the Great dismounting near a vat), but Andrei used to bring me a crate every other week in memory of the good old days:
“Limited edition, pal, for export only. Some guys I know get hold of the stuff and supply the club, strictly Q.T . The boss has no clue.”
I knew the sort of guys Andrei knew and I kind of gave them a wide berth. They didn’t seem like types that frequent libraries: some washed-out Ukranians, who worked a morning rout between Bîrlad and Huºi with two Moskvich jalopies and a pickup. Some people said they weren’t Ukranians but Bessarabians; either way, they were just as ferocious. They’d single out a great big trailer truck headed somewhere abroad, just as it chugged uphill, and they’d get it between those Moskvich jalopies. The guys would jump onto the top of the truck, they’d slash the tarps, and they’d hurl off the crates, moving all the while. The pickup waited next to the ditch at the side of a country road. They’d load the goods and gun the cars back downhill. The truck driver would thank his stars he’d made it to the top in one piece. There’d been some tough guys who’d slammed the door open or grabbed their mobile phones and came to an unforeseen end, shot full of holes like Swiss cheese, or wound up with two fingers missing.
My beer smacked of vodka and adventure. I’d dash over the keyboard and enlarge the image of my favorite broadcast: Air Crash, a story that reminded me twice-a-week that someone’s bad luck is other people’s delight. I could see planes going Boom! in the air, ripped open by healthy explosions, the fuselage twisted, smelted back like cigarette paper. The seats, complete with passengers turned to stone, would take off two by two, still attached to bits of floor that sliced the clouds. Bodies floated through the air among split-open suitcases, first charred then instantaneously frozen in their free fall. There began an unsurpassed whirlwind of fingers, socks, tooth brushes, photographs and bits of reactor; blood, water and kerosene mixed together in monstrous bubbles, indecently honed in on by the camera’s virtual eye. I had an insane appetite for the black and gold trails of jet fuel—as if lighting a firecracker on Christmas night, alive and terrifying. The other guy’s bad luck was my delight indeed. With every disaster I prolonged my chances of survival. I felt reinvigorated, fulfilled. That could have been me up there, yet others had taken my place. They had simply perished as statistics, while I would go on, reborn as if I’d survived an assassination attempt in a foreign land. I delighted in the meaty images frame by frame, the way old Madam Moscu in Eliade’s story enjoyed her nauseating roast shred by shred.
My appetite didn’t stop there, either. I had to live with my adrenalin perpetually pushed to the limit, discharging volley after volley into other people’s fear so that mere airplanes didn’t do the trick anymore. Now I was studying trains that derailed, plowed into marshes or houses, freight trains that crashed into school busses, barges butting into bridge heads, ships that sank in the ocean while the passengers snoozed. I’d get on at Eschede and sit next to the guy from ICE 884 with the red hot iron rod that came off the chassis piercing through the floor at 176 miles per hour and then through the seat, an inch away from the guy’s leg. Then the conductor would calm the guy down in true German style by telling him that he couldn’t pull the alarm signal until the conductor personally looked into the case. I’d watch captain Willie Odom bump his barge at night into the railway bridge on Big Bayou Canot. The guy was just thinking he’d moored his craft, only that was right when the Florida express jumped off the rails he’d displaced with his maneuver. I’d take water on board along with the men, women and children on the Scandinavian Star—cold water, salty as only the North Sea can pour into your lungs—mackerel gigging around me, but the orchestra would play on, as if on the Titanic set. Death would come shortly, like a heart attack. No time to scream or say your prayers or (in some cases) even wake up.
I’d spot the schtick every single time. I got a kick out of discovering it at the same time as the investigators: it was as if we’d managed to avoid the disaster. The reconstruction united us in a pleasant, definitive way. Those sober calculations made me feel powerful, serene, invulnerable. I was fascinated by the infinitesimal details that lead to all hell’s breaking loose, the hidden nuts and bolts that divided life from death, patiently waiting to be triggered, to be shifted a millimeter out of position, like two imperfectly mounted pieces of a jet engine. The nuts would come loose, the dissected tubing would fall apart, the controls would go haywire and hearts would be pounding like crazy while Alaska Airlines Flight 261 would take a nose dive from 25,000 feet.
The irony was total. Even these great and perfect machines that carry us from place to place would need to go to the garage where they ended up being serviced by half-baked jerks. You’d taxi your Boeing into the hangar and who knows what hose or bit of metal would give signs of wear and tear. You’d get the replacement from storage and you’d ascertain that it didn’t carry the exact serial number although it fit, more-or-less. You’d call the maintenance chief. He’d take a look see, fiddle with it, and he’d say: never mind; it’s OK. The hangar doors would swing open. The plane would go out, flight worthy. Like the family car getting out of Jiffy Lube. The only thing would be that two hundred and something individuals would climb into this buggy beside the driver and they’d fly in her two times a day at 3000 feet over the Pacific, Atlantic or Magheru Boulevard in Bucharest.
The mechanics of death didn’t involve anything complicated; its gears functioned in a linear, precise cause-and-effect way, with none of the suspensions or psychological depths that writers have searched for centuries. No. A badly insulated wire shorted out, the spark smoldered, melted the rubber, spread along an aluminum polyurethane coating, reached the hydraulic cables and severed them, made it to the automatic pilot circuits and blew them out. Sans cables, the plane couldn’t keep its direction, sans automatic pilot, it no longer responded to the controls. At over 150 miles of cables and at over 300 tons, the Wright Brothers’ bird from Kitty turned into a cannon ball. Then came the fall. It was as clear and simple as roaring down a Romanian mountain road. Look! No breaks.
I didn’t need either the computer or late night broadcasts with aeronautic disasters (why do they only show them at night?) to understand how things stood. I don’t know how many times I thought about those floating cities, suspended, their assorted population composed of hundreds of thousands of lives throbbing simultaneously in the air, all engaged in various pursuits: reading, sleeping, chatting, picking their noses, bound to each other by seat belts, mobile phones and an inane sense of comfort and security. I was familiar with this feeling too—I used to screw my eyes shut so as not to throw up. Between you and the earth that bore you stood a mere sheet of tin and 27,000 miles of empty space; you couldlook at the tips of your shoes and see the tin vibrating. Beyond the porthole, the sun glowed on the fuselage with a dead sheen, a frozen metallic light flickering in the rarified oxygen. Even if you somehow survived the cold and suffocation, the pressure would crush you like a ten story building.
I had a world of choice. With Avianca 45, I would have hit my head against the ceiling twice, at forty-four and twelve thousand feet; the second go round the floor would have wound up under my feet. In American Airlines Flight 10, I’d have caught the storm plagued landing in Little Rock, Texas before going into a skid and crashing come-all-come-one into the airport walkway; it was night, it was raining buckets, a wet tornado poured out of the sky, the kind you only see on TV. With Swissair Flight 111, I’d have fallen calmly, discretely in the dark while only the cockpit smoldered behind closed doors. The pilots would have been fifteen minutes in the smoke at that point, charred, oxygen masks and all, and me, in second class I wouldn’t have known a thing. I would have had enough time to catch a glimpse of the sky from TWA Flight 800 as the seats headed vertically down—the other half of the plane, severed by the explosion, plunging into the Atlantic before our eyes. Of course, the whole thing would have taken time too, around thirty seconds or thereabouts. With Air France Concord 4590, I’d have been squashed beyond recognition before having a chance to see a thing. No one would have made sense of it all except maybe the truck driver who filmed the scene from the highway. And possibly the copilot of the Air France 747 with president Chirac on board, Chirac having just landed from Tokyo where he’d attended the G-8 summit. “Attention!” The two planes had somehow passed each other on the runway, within five or six yards.
It all would have happened faster than the twinkling of an eye. You’d get into the plane all nice and easy and climb all the way above the clouds, spread out in a seat with Mc Donell-Douglas or Rolls-Royce written on it. The engines would stop, and you’d find yourself in a boulder falling from the heavens. The metal cylinder flying at 90,000 feet transformed itself instantaneously into a lump of crumpled aluminum foil. You know what would have made all the difference between my life and the happy life of any yokel who’d chosen to stay at home? An inch of wire, a bit of rod and a strip of rubber. These fittings, defective, un-oiled, too close or too far from one another made all the difference indeed, drawing destinies closer or keeping them farther away from the passengers’ skeletons, creating a gap between the eye and the last image it had seen, creating a gap between the skin and its support of flesh until existence resembled a Xerox copy passed through a fax machine. I would have come to an end unpleasantly, administratively, in a way I couldn’t stomach, a name on a sheet of paper glued to an airport window.
I’d take another slug of the old Bragadiru, and the catastrophes would show even brighter, like the sword of the national prince, which had jumped off the label straight into the Museum of Art. It had been recently brought back from Turkey, in fact, in the keeping of two thugs. One week later they had loaded it back on the trailer truck, showcase and all. I was watching the scenes on my monitor discontentedly, almost angry. Beyond the fires and collisions, serious things were going on, even more serious than the commentator’s rueful voice let on.
Translated by: Jean Harris and Florin Bican (published on http://translations.observatorcultural.ro/)