Novel, "Fiction LTD" series, Polirom, 2009, 392 pages
Half love, half about love. This, in short, might define Dan Lungu’s new novel.
[...] In the beginning there was Andrea. With Andrea I discovered America and saw Paris, call it what you will, at the age of nineteen. She was about twenty-five, I think. Quite simply, I liked her and one day she took me off and gave me what I wanted. I wouldn’t even have dared look at a woman six years older than me – a real woman, as it were. My contribution was modest: I moved my two hands, as rigid as brooms, over her nicely arching back and made a pleasant sperm donation. I repeated the manoeuvre a number of times, registering satisfactory progress. I had discovered, for example, the efficacy of the erogenous zones: I even used to imagine them as secret buttons under the skin, which you had to identify, like in a computer game, getting closer and closer, and which, once activated, quickened her breathing, made her voice hoarser, knocked the stuffing out of her. After a while, roguish lad that I was, I set myself the task of getting a shrill out of her. But for that I needed a larger collection of buttons, a bit like you used to need an entire collection of stamps to cut a figure in the neighbourhood. I decided to enrich my collection by going out with other girls. Especially since I had the experience now, didn’t I? I pulled Laura. She wasn’t a beauty, but I reckoned that she must have erogenous zones. I didn’t manage to ferret out many buttons, because I was barely at the stage of holding her around the waist and kissing her when a common acquaintance told Andrea that she had seen me slobbering over some girl down a side street in town. Things ended lamentably. Andrea was very firm: she didn’t want to be mixed up with a bastard like me, while I didn’t really have any explanations to give her. My performance in that situation was woeful; when I remember it, I feel like thrusting my head inside my shirt for shame. I began by promising solemnly that it would never happen again, the same as I used to do in front of my parents whenever I put my foot in it, and I ended up pleading, with tears in my throat, for us to a least meet one last time, in token of farewell, blah-blah. I think that by the end I even had the cheek to tell her that she didn’t know what she was throwing away.
With Laura it was something else. We were both students and I pulled her in a bar. In the meantime I had seen Paris a few times, or America, however you want to call it, but that wasn’t what she was primarily interested in. She was a tomboy and we used to drink elbow to elbow. We were happy in our way. Lord, how much we supped together – I get a shiver down my spine when I think of it now! We used to drink in the rooms of the student hostel, in grotty bars, on park benches, on the shore of the lake, in the bus, up trees, and even in the scoop of a mechanical excavator. After a while, she convinced her old folks that she couldn’t go on living in the hostel, where the conditions weren’t conducive to studying, and they rented her a bedsit, where we used to drink as though we were demented. We had no shame in front of each other. Heavy drinking and above all hangovers create a special intimacy. At first, what I felt when I was with her was the same as if I had been with the lads at school drinking liquor on the sly, and towards the end of the year we spent together we felt like two decrepit veterans, who had gone through no end of scrapes together. Of course, what brought us together the most was the final period, when we practically cohabited in a ménage-à-trois: me, her, and the booze. A bottle of booze was in no wise ever lacking. It was our staple foodstuff. A bottle of beer has calories equivalent to a loaf of bread, as we always jokingly used to hearten ourselves. Or to four eggs, if I remember rightly. We devoured whole ovens of bread; we ate enough eggs for a lifetime. We ruined ourselves shoulder to shoulder, but we felt wonderful. Lord, how much care of each other we took! I would wake up in the night, my stomach griping, when I heard her first retches, and hold the basin for her. I would pat her reassuringly on the back and give her a slug of beer to rinse her mouth. Nor was she any less forthcoming. In the morning, she would put cold compresses on my brow and make salty coffee. Every now and then she would wash the sheets. She used to buy pickled cucumbers. She would open the tins of corned beef she received from home. I would pour the vodka into the glasses, measuring it out equally to the millimetre, and she would rotate the beers in the freezer compartment, because they didn’t all use to fit at once. I would go out to buy some mustard while she boiled the Frankfurters. We could almost understand each other just by a glance. Sex, although not lacking, wasn’t essential. Most of the time, we wouldn’t even be able to remember how it was we woke up undressed one next to the other. “You were a beast last night,” I would tell her, with my tongue like felt. “You were nothing less too,” she would reply affectionately, casting her eyes around for a bottle that might still contain some dregs. I won’t dwell on the embarrassing moments we went through together because of swinish binges, nor on the odours we reciprocally offered each other. It was lucky that we separated after a year. I’m sure that we would have ended up a banal couple of alcoholics. That year, I barely managed to scrape through my exams. She didn’t even turn up, and her father withdrew her from the faculty. He had had enough of pouring money down the drain. We wrote each other e-mails for a while. But without the salutary warmth of alcohol, our relationship no longer had any zest.
That’s why Marga, with her way of being, left me mouth agape.
[...] I think it was three days after we crossed paths, Marga and I, that I witnessed a scene that for me was strange. It all happened in the bedsit where I was living at the time, not the same one where I used to have drinking sessions with Luana. A more modest and relatively outlying bedsit. I spend almost a year and a half there with Marga, although, at the moment we got together, I was on the point of leaving it. I couldn’t keep abreast of the expenses, even though the rent was way below the going rate. I put off leaving only because Marge turned up. For that I was obliged to borrow money from friends. I couldn’t carry off my meteorite – because she had effectively fallen out of the blue – to a room in a bachelors’ hostel, which is what I had been planning for myself. After the night of the drinking binge, we began to see each other daily, even to spend a good many hours together. After a week, she moved in with me, without, however, giving up the two-room flat she shared with a girlfriend. Around three days later, as I was saying, she turned up at lunchtime with a chic little suitcase, in which I could have fit my entire wardrobe. I thought that she wanted to give me a surprise, bringing her clothes. As a sign that our future was now to be shared. She carefully laid it on the table and we began to chat. We talked about everything under the sun, without once mentioning the name of Tudor. Unexpectedly, she started to undress. Without interrupting the conversation. The same as any normal man’s, my blood began to race, like a formula one engine. And with good reason! Up until then I hadn’t seen her naked from any distance, but rather bared her skin in portions, caressed it by chance; we had frolicked in semi-darkness. I knew the mentholated taste of her saliva, had sniffed the perfumed lobe of her ear, and had discovered the scent of her favourite deodorant, but I had not had the chance to enjoy an overall image of the nude. As the fabrics peeled away, like in those electronic strip-poker games, I went weak at the knees. She was gorgeous! A real corpse, as they say at the newspaper office. Smashing from head to toe, from heel to crown. I even wondered how such a looker could have landed in my ramshackle bed-sit. Maybe she had wandered into the wrong neighbourhood by mistake. She was quite tall, almost as tall as me, and had glossy skin. The same sandy colour was uniformly distributed over her whole body. She had snub breasts, with nipples like two mulberries. When she moved through the room, it was as if her bones were dancing beneath the skin, as if they were somehow musically floating. I had only ever seen the like on the small screen. Luana, even though many was the time that she had seemed appetising, was a cartoon compared to what was now presented to my eyes. And it wasn’t something on a screen or on glossy paper, but rather sat square on my threadbare blanket. To feel her pulse I only had to reach out my hand. Exaggerating, I can say that I didn’t even know whom it was I slept with. She had seemed beautiful to me, but not dangerously beautiful. Of course, in time I got used to her charms, but back then I goggled like an idiot. She went on talking calmly, carefully placing her blouse over the back of the chair or meticulously inserting one bra cup into the other. After a moment of paralysis, my heart leapt back into place, I approached and clasped her waist. “It’s not the right moment yet, Andi,” she told me in an off-hand voice and headed toward the bathroom. I heard the shower flow and thought with horror about my Lilliputian and ramshackle bathtub, about the patched-up showerhead that hissed and spat in all directions like a toothless old codger. Then I looked around my room and got the urge to do a quick bit of tidying up. I gave up the idea, realising that it was stupid, given that Marga had already seen very clearly what a disaster there was in my den. If I think about it, both the embarrassment about the bathroom and that subsequent urge were not at all in my nature and had only arisen against the backdrop of the confusion caused by her presence. In fact, they were a homage. A homage of which I was not conscious and of which she had no idea. I moved aimlessly about the room, fetching a cup of water from the kitchen and then taking it back. Waiting for the shower to shut the hell up so that I could pounce on her. I would have gone after her into the bathroom, but it was so cramped that there wasn’t room for two. I would have had to stay there with my arse sticking out of the door. In short, I was bursting with impatience. I examined myself in the big mirror in the hall. I pulled my lips back and looked at my teeth. I champed them a few times. I tugged my ears foolishly. I felt the mole on my shoulder. Everything was in order. With the exception of my tracksuit bottoms. Which I was not only still wearing but which also benefited from an indecent swelling at the crotch. I burst out laughing and in a few manoeuvres I tried to arrange things. In vain. I was just turning round as Marga emerged from the bathroom. Before I could throw myself on her, she had arrived in the room, next to the table. I caught up with her and put my hands on her shoulders, but she had already grabbed the little suitcase. She said, “What’s all the hurry, Andikins!” Then she installed herself on the bed, with the suitcase next to her. She opened it radiantly, like a Christmas present. But she didn’t extract a pair of knickers, as I had been expecting, but rather she brought to light a whole new world to me: fancy little boxes of various colours; small, large and medium tubes; scissors whose point was curved like a duck’s beak; coloured jars and phials; hairclips, teased elastics and bobbles; two plain combs and one with a socket in the handle; a mirror embedded in a purple plastic frame, with a handle; a brush and who knows what other bits and pieces I can no longer remember. In other words, a veritable pharmacy. She began by inspecting them minutely, sorting them. Some to the left, others to the right. Then she detached a double bottom from the suitcase lid, in which were inserted dozens of tubes of lipstick, as though in an ammunition belt. Following complicated calculations that furrowed her brow, she extracted five items, which she deposited in front of her, beyond the suitcase. After that she puckered her lips and hesitated. She had a cute little face, like a squirrel’s. Her nipples had become small and hard, like two unripe mulberries. She made up her mind relatively quickly. She took a piece of cotton wool, which she soaked in liquid from a little canteen – acetone as I was later to discover – and started cleaning the varnish from her nails, much to my puzzlement: it had suited her very well and wasn’t at all chipped. “Why are you spoiling it?” I asked her in a whisper. “Ugh, I’m bored of this colour… I’m going to do them in orange, I think,” she answered sulkily. We exchanged a few more words, but the more she went on scrubbing her nails – first her fingernails then her toenails – the conversation began to wilt, and then completely died. Marga was absorbed in her meticulous task, which she was performing with visible pleasure. She was sitting bent over herself, attentive to each little detail, to each brushstroke. She was holding her tongue between her teeth and every now and then she would let out a satisfied “aha!” To her, I was probably somewhere beyond the horizon, maybe even at the polar icecap. So I sat on a chair and leafed through a newspaper. My tracksuit bottoms were now draped over my crotch as prim and proper as could be. Only a slight disarrangement interposed later on, after Marga had finished painting the new varnish, violet much to my surprise, and started flapping her hands in the air like a frightened bird. The disarrangement was due to the fact that I thought she had finished all her business. But I had a rude awakening. After the drying of the fresh nail varnish followed the spreading of the creams. I had finished going through the articles and gone on to reading the small ads, but not for one moment did it enter my head that I would also reach the obituaries. Nonetheless, I have to admit that the spreading of the creams involves a ritual worthy of close attention. It was a great pity that I didn’t ascribe it the proper importance from that very day, but within a year and a half I had occasion to catch up with a vengeance. At the time, I only caught the ritual from the head down, missing the stages dedicated to the forehead, cheekbones and chin, as well as the eyes – for which she would delicately squeeze from an orange tube a little thread of cream the size of a sparrow’s dropping, then spreading it with a circular massaging motion around the circumference of her eye sockets. But that day I saw her fingers moving with infinite delicacy over her throat, which she gracefully stretched forward, insisting on each individual cell, especially in those areas where there is a major risk of wrinkles appearing. Naturally, the effect of the cream was, as I was later to discover, almost null if at night you don’t sleep on a cylindrical pillow, under the neck more than the head, so that it keeps the throat slightly flexed. Then her hands descended over her body, caressing her shoulders, diligently massaging her breasts – from above and from below – evenly distributing the cream over her abdomen and buttocks. She was wholly absorbed in this activity, with a smile of contentment on her face that betrayed a profound satisfaction. The thighs and calves came next, for which she reserved long and rectilinear movements. The last quarter of an hour was dedicated to her feet, with the proper attention to each individual toe. It was not until then that she deigned to cast me a velvety glance. I had long given up on my planned assault. Nor was she in a hurry, for, sitting motionless, so that the beneficial creams could deeply penetrate the skin, she animatedly expounded her own theory of feminine beauty to me. According to her theory, women have the supreme duty to be beautiful. For that reason, they must make use of all the means that progress and the human mind have discovered to this end. No, it shouldn’t be an egotistic act. Woman had to look as good as possible for the man by her side, for her lover. As proof of her love. She was not at all in agreement with those women who pampered their bodies only in order to display them in magazines, on the screen, or in pole-dancing clubs. The only beneficiary should be her partner. Which is to say me, I told myself, and I felt my chest puff out as though under the sweet weight of a medal. That’s how I got it into my head not to bother her at such moments, because it was for my benefit. We went on chattering for a while, for her skin was feeding slowly but thoroughly, and in the end we both got into bed, because it had grown late. We both slept happily.
Then, one fine day, Marga vanished the same as she had appeared: unexpectedly.
Of course, Marga was an extraterrestrial creature and had arrived from a faraway planet. She used to feed through her skin. The nutritive substances were hidden in cosmetic creams. That’s why she had no smell. The vitamins and minerals were contained in creams so as not to attract attention. She had intelligent chiefs. Her chic little suitcase was no less than a secret laboratory with a handle. It was a portable kitchen, but one that also contained the apparatus whereby she could send and receive information. Of all her accessories, the comb with a socket in the handle was the most suspicious. She, artificial woman, had come to extract a secret from the earthlings. Because she had to bear a name, they called her Marga. But her real name was something else. Probably something with a lot of W’s and X’s, maybe even a Q. What secret she wanted to extract is not known. The secret she wanted to discover was secret. In order to fulfil her mission, she needed a source. From whom she could wring information. Which is to say a sap. In order to be successful with the earthlings, the female had been tailored to their tastes, by consulting Internet porno sites. At first, the spy hooked on to Tudor. But Tudor was a moron who didn’t know what world he was living in. He didn’t have a clue about any secrets. So, it was necessary to change the source. Her chiefs authorised it, vexed at wasting so much precious time. For the secret was also urgent. And so she found another sap, Andi by name. He was a down-at-heel journalist, with limited access to information. That is why the spy worked a spell and infiltrated him into the investigative department of the newspaper where he was employed. Andi thus became less down-at-heel. At work, he soaked up a huge amount of information, which the spy would wring out of him at night between the sheets. It was hard work wringing out the data, but she did her duty. The most difficult thing was the smell, but apart from that it was quite enjoyable. The earthling didn’t smell of cosmetics. He reeked like a human male. Which for a synthetic being is rather icky. She put up with it for as long as she could, and when she could stand it no more, she reported back to those above. She gave a detailed explanation of the situation. Her chiefs, holding their noses, had to agree with her. They allowed her to end her sojourn without having extracted the whole secret. But they transmitted the following to her: “Be nice to that stinker and don’t leave him out on a limb. At least write the lamebrain a note. End of transmission.” She replied: “I wasn’t just nice about it but very nice, and I wrote him this: ‘You reek horribly like a human. I’m sick of you. I hate you!’ End of transmission.” “That’s no good, girl! The bloke will catch on. He’s not daft. Be more subtle. End of transmission.” “Oh, alright… I’ve changed the text: ‘Dear Andi, I’m sick of the squalor…’ End of transmission.” “We knew that you were a clever girl. You’ve done a wonderful job. For that we’re giving you another two lives as a bonus. We’re looking forward to seeing you! End of transmission.” After this dialogue, the spy opened her chic little suitcase and rubbed herself with a special cream. Not so much as twenty seconds passed and she grew a pair of huge wings, as beautiful as could be. Then she carefully climbed onto the window ledge, picking her way among the littered cigarette-ends, and took flight towards her distant planet.
Of course, she took the little suitcase with her.
She must have tucked it somewhere under a wing…
I had to find out somehow why she had disappeared!
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“How to Forget a Woman is with certainty already a media star and may also become a bestseller or the starting point for a successful screenplay.”
“No one will learn how to forget a woman by reading this book, but the reader might learn many things about how to write prose. A novel that is all the more surprising for being very simple. All the levers of the complex narrative structure are excellently camouflaged. And Marga is a genuine lesson on how a character can shine in her own absence. She made me recall, not only because of her name, Cortazar’s Maga, that enigma of Hopscotch.”
(Bogdan Alexandru STĂNESCU)
“Like all Dan Lungu’s books, the novel How to Forget a Woman is a book you can’t put down, from the first page to the last. It is a novel which will certainly not disappoint the ever more numerous fans of Dan Lungu’s writing.”