Novel, “Fiction Ltd.” series, Polirom Publishing House, 2009, 408 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Although simple at first sight, the subject matter of the novel revolves around the dialogues between its two protagonists : Dr Cassian Robert, who has abandoned his old folks’ home in order to retreat to an alpine cabin near a disused meteorological observation post, and Mara, his neighbour, who is living in the old weather station. These dialogues form wide ranging stories, drawn from the recollections of Cassian and Mara, and are shot through with an epic thread that lends the book savour and suspense.
Doctor Cassian Robert, persistently visited by Mara, who is the daughter of Theodora, a woman he loved in his youth, discovers in this young woman a confidante, in spite of his initial reserve. On the one hand, Mara acts as a trigger for the doctor’s reminiscences. On the other hand, the young woman, who, after the death of her father, has been leading a lonely life in a disused weather station, has plenty of stories of her own to stir the doctor’s interest.
Their “game” of interwoven stories becomes erotically charged, but it is precisely the older protagonist who refuses to be caught, sometimes having to resort to inventing puerile or even embarrassing excuses in order to rebuff the young woman’s advances. This relationship, which in the end leads to erotic consummation, conjoins the characters’ personal stories, endow¬ing them with joint meaning and thereby expositing two different types of loneliness, which together constitute the major theme of the book. This theme is that of waiting – waiting for the end, from the old man’s viewpoint, and waiting for a moment that might initiate a different kind of existence, from that of the young Mara.
“Old man,” Mara said to me, “I’ve decided that it’s about time I got to know you. With mother things were the way they were and no more than that, if I’ve understood rightly. I took everything you said at your word. Of course, I’d be glad to find out that she was happy, even if father was sometimes absent from the story. The more time passes, the more I think about her and try to explain to myself why she remained here, wracked by father’s outbursts of jealousy, why neither you nor she managed to carry any idea or any desire through to the very end. Certainly, you’ve explained it to me, but I keep coming back to your arguments and there’s something that doesn’t stand up, doesn’t fit into the story. It’s obvious you didn’t stay here day after day, because you had a job, a family, and perhaps even other creatures that desired you… Given that you saw each other from time to time, it means that logic was stronger than that feeling, than the power of the senses. It means that the love couldn’t have been all that great. Is it possible to love like that, part time, or else, how can I put it, to love while excluding the body, the senses ? Can such a love last ? Was it real ? Isn’t it the case that you remember mother only when you’re close to these places ? These questions of mine probably seem silly to you, but I don’t have any experience, as I hope you can guess… Only what I’ve learned from your books and from the films on television, when it was working… I would watch some story or other like an idiot, I didn’t understand the language, but I would invent subjects working on what I saw and in that way my needs, my loves, my desires would be consummated… I used to visit various countries, listen to countless languages, but in reality, behind what I was seeing, I kept on discovering my pain, my loneliness and the need for something else no matter what… You and mother had the chance to be fulfilled, to follow your feelings, because love or desperation can force you to do exactly what they urge you to, but it wasn’t to be… Three unhappy people : you, father and mother… I sometimes used to run away from school and I would glimpse mother either at the window or sitting on that large, round rock, staring into space, waiting for something… It’s only now that I find myself in these same places, waiting for something, I don’t know what exactly, something that might change my destiny or break the monotony of the days, it’s only now that I understand better… I sit by the window or on that rock and gaze at the path that comes towards us… Sometimes I see various animals that don’t have the courage to climb the path because of my dogs, but more often than not I feel close to mother… I get the feeling that she would want to tell me something, because now, looking back, I realise that in reality we never discussed anything seriously, she felt my love and I felt hers and that was enough… On the other hand, how could mother tell her only daughter, her inexperienced daughter, those pains and discontents that generally resist being put into words ? I had to deduce everything, to observe how the two glaciers slowly slid further and further away from each other, and the words that signalled this fact were alien to me, unknown… Very rarely, when she couldn’t manage to conceal her tears, she would assure me that I was too young, and that I couldn’t understand the sufferings she was going through. He’s your father, he has to be respected, that was the sort of thing she used to tell me before she became hermetically sealed…”
Mara spoke without pauses, as if she had rehearsed her puzzlements aloud countless times before plucking up the courage to tell me them. I realised that she had long wished to rid herself of these questions, to which not even I, after such a long time, had very clear answers. “That was the way it was” – this was the only thing I could tell her, I had no other explanation, however much she doubted what I said. In the absence of Theodora, far away from her, logic and my feelings assured me that at the next meeting I would take the decisive step, because I wished to with all my being and I promised her in my mind that I didn’t care about the consequences, however grave, but when I found myself face to face with her, fear of the consequences, lack of courage, entanglement in the moral thicket would prompt us both to give it up once again. I thought that my very well concealed antipathy towards her father and the joy of discovering that Theodora was happy with me stemmed, more than certainly, from the truth that his entire affection had been lavished on her mother alone, that she, Mara, had been excluded and that it was precisely this that created in time her strange solidarity : she was reliving sufferings that were known or suspected. This was probably why, hidden behind Theodora, it came more easily to her to speak about herself or to lead me into an area that interested her ; this is why I too felt encouraged to meet her half way, although I wasn’t very sure that I had put my finger on her deepest wound : “What about your monk ?” “You forgot the question I put to you,” she hastened to answer, with a strong note of reproach in her voice, “but I’ll remind you about it later. As for the monk… He disappeared for a while, but one day… That’s the way he’s made… I think that not even he knows what he wants beyond fleeting love affairs. I hated him, I detested him, but in the end I realised that I ought to be grateful to him. In reality, I had desired that sin, with him or anyone else, out of curiosity, out of need, not even I know why… I had to open or close this chapter too… All the creatures and insects were doing something of the sort, and of course I couldn’t remain the exception…”
She spoke with such detachment that it gave you the impression that she was talking about someone else or that the naturalness or the impassiveness of the creatures around her had rubbed off on her, the living creatures in the midst of which she lived most of the time. As far as I was concerned, I would have preferred it if she hadn’t gone on, if the need to come to her aid had not obliged me. “How do you think I can be of use to you ?” I enquired, trying unsuccessfully to pass over an episode that wasn’t hard to imagine. “You’re disquieted by certain signs… Am I to think there was a pregnancy ?” “Oh, no, I’ve got over those feelings,” she laughed, without any trace of reserve. “I’ve told you about the first night of peace after father’s death, when the monk came… He left without telling me whether he was going to return, but the following evening he showed up out of the blue, to the annoyance of the dogs, which didn’t like him. He brought me some bread, cooking oil, sugar and, to top it all, a bottle of red wine. I prepared a meal for him – maize porridge with sheep’s cheese – and we made small talk about Dogari, about the new foresters, who had come upon a shepherd with his head smashed in. He drank half the bottle of wine by himself, because I was content merely to taste it, and then he went into the adjacent building to sleep. Half an hour later, I heard knocking on the door and the dogs barking. As usual I fetched father’s gun… I hadn’t used it yet, but it makes an impression when you come out holding it, it’s intimidating… Astonished, I see the monk, but without his habit, in just underclothes… I thought I was having some kind of nightmare, that father’s ghost had come on an inspection and didn’t like whom it found here, and so it had come here running, unclothed, but I didn’t exclude the possibility that some pain, some unexpected suffering had disturbed its rest. He didn’t say what was wrong, he was content merely to slip past me and quickly sit down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t have the strength to stop him. Otherwise, the last thought that would have entered my head was that he might be interested in me as a woman. This impression was strengthened by his uniform, his monk’s habit, and the fact that he had conducted father’s funeral and that I had received him with all due respect… Unfortunately, his intentions made themselves all too visible in the seconds that followed : he got up from the bed as soon as I closed the door, and his wild eyes, fixed on my breasts, made me think to adopt a defensive stance, although I still couldn’t believe it, I was still afraid of making a fool of myself, of offending him, but he didn’t give me any time. In a matter of seconds he immobilised me, pinning my arms behind my back and flinging me on the bed. Then he started kissing me, noisily, and whispered between clenched teeth : ‘Don’t be an idiot, you’ve got nothing to lose !’ Whenever I think of him, I’m overwhelmed by a not at all repellent smell of sweat mixed with another, bitter smell, of wine, and suddenly my shoulders and breasts will ache because of the terrible effort to free my arms. I didn’t scream, I stopped myself until I felt my strength slowly, slowly seep away, then I burst into tears, and later I was even indifferent. It had to happen sometime, with him or with another, it wasn’t important whom, I belonged only to the mountain and to a few animals, I didn’t have to account for myself to anyone, no one would have mourned me or buried me if it had come to that, if madness had impelled him to be even more violent, and so I begged him to let me undress myself, so that we could do it in peace, but he didn’t want to. ‘You’re very strong and I don’t trust you,’ he told me, ripping off the few clothes I usually sleep in. ‘I’m convinced the Almighty made you for a thousand men, not just for one… We’ll die together, but you won’t escape me !’ In reality, it wasn’t his threats that subdued me, but precisely that need, suddenly aroused, from the whole of my being, a pleasant pain I’d never experienced before. I invited him and rebuffed him with equal force, I needed what was happening, but I was also very afraid. In any case, I let him do exactly what he desired and, from the dizziness of my senses, from the peace and resignation that had overcome me, I woke to find myself being slapped across the face : ‘Why didn’t you prevent me, you idiot ? Didn’t you find anyone until me to make you a woman ?’ Any reply would have been in vain, our sweat and my tears had mingled, and now I was gazing at him with heightened interest. Nothing separated us any longer, apart from a few tatters. He was a strong, handsome man, and I continued to follow him with my gaze, waiting for the judgement which, at last, he pronounced. ‘Will you ever be able to forgive me for the evil I have done you ? I am a scoundrel, a failure, I have never succeeded in anything, I have never carried anything through to the end, I have wasted my life because of a being I was hoping to be able to kill. You are a saint, I don’t deserve you, you alone might heal me of the memories, of the shame that I live like a savage, like a man who has never known faith and morality…’ Then he removed the belt from my jeans and with tears in his eyes held it out to me : ‘Lash me as hard as you can, help me not to forget the terrible wound I have inflicted on you… But the devil, the wretched devil impelled me to it, guided my steps… You’re so beautiful that I went out of head… I will be at your feet for the rest of my life, if that’s what you want. Do not spare me, strike me and spit on me. You have before you a ruin, a human stain, a nothing worthy of pity…’ He knelt, he grasped my legs with both arms and, weeping, he began to kiss my feet… He told me in minute detail of his loves, the road to failure, as if I myself ought to have forgiven him and encouraged him. It was a terrible night, with love and tears, of hatred and fury, a long, unique night, which I can’t rid myself of, like an infirmity. I ended up crying too, but for completely different reasons, for I had begun to be tormented by thousands of fears… A future child, condemned, like me, to fear, misery and loneliness… In spite of the tears and the details that enveloped some of the moments, I knew the monk far too little, and the thought that he might have some secret disease or that he might come back to me gave me no peace… All those stories were arguments for his instability and nothing, not even his tears, could make me believe that at least now he was being sincere. Everything was against me : where he had found me, what I was and who I was. In any case, I felt humiliated, defeated, dirty, but liberated from any curiosity, I knew at last what I hadn’t know until then, I had aged somehow, and time, in spite of the pleasure, revealed to me new and unsuspected questions and doubts. And at their origin was no one but the monk. This was why I didn’t want to see him ever again, whatever the price, and the thought that he might touch me again horrified me, and thus that hatred, which was growing like a storm bursting from a cloud, took on proportions the more time passed before he reappeared at the Station. This time, the dogs sensed him from far off, and so I had time to get my gun, never before used until then. It was the only solution to escape from him once and for all. It was as if I had lost my mind, I no longer had any misgiving, no one was taking my hand from the gun. Sometimes, at night, I had missed him so much that precisely this feeling, an explosive mixture of love and hatred, heightened the need to be merciless, with both him and myself. I warned him that it would be well not to come any closer, I threatened him a number of times, I showed him the gun, I fired a shot past him, to convince him that I wasn’t joking, but he didn’t stop, he continued to climb with even, calm strides, as if he were sure I wouldn’t kill him, I discharged another round into the air, and he, calm, almost indifferent, continued to advance, convinced I wouldn’t have the courage to kill him. And I didn’t have the courage. Moreover, in spite of the disquietude and the numerous unanswered questions during the whole period he had been gone, I found no fault in him : in reality, if I hadn’t wanted, he would never have succeeded in forcing me to make love. All kinds of folk have passed through here – shepherds, foresters, day trippers, soldiers, geologists, students – and most of them had evil intentions, they didn’t wear me down with their innuendos, or even direct propositions, he was the only one to find the solution…
Then, he stayed with me for a whole week and promised me that he would forget his girlfriends, the monastery, the past, and that ‘until death us do part’ we would remain together, because we were made for each other, we had so many things and needs in common that from two great defeats perhaps a victory would emerge. After getting married, we would sell the animals and my few possessions, and with the money and what my parents had left me we would travel far away from these places, start life anew, because nowhere could be worse than here. In spite of his arguments and logic, a shadow of doubt refused to abandon me : perhaps this time… How many defeats do you have to have in order to draw a conclusion ? The monk believed in the things he was saying, in his plans, only for as long as he was with me, and he stayed with me for only a week, during which time I felt happy, although I watched him uneasily, convinced he would disappear, the same as every other time. Which was in fact what happened. I felt his impatience to leave, the call of I know not what, of some woman, of the road, of risk, of other sins, and it was possible to read them on his face all too easily. What’s more, even when we made love, I wasn’t the woman he was thinking of. One day he went to sell a cow and, as was to be expected, he neglected to come back. What was strange, however, was that during all this time I didn’t miss him, but I’ve thought intensely about those days, which were so different from anything I had ever experienced up until then.” “And did you take him back ?” I enquired, wanting her to bring to a conclusion this story that seemed to obsess her so much. The moment had come for me to eliminate this subject from our relationship once and for all, but also to know it as it really was. I also thought that she was telling me the story of her affair with the same unexpected detachment not only to oblige me to understand something behind the events and the words, but also because she needed my forgiveness. “Of course I took him back. He told me that his superiors at the monastery had punished him, making him pull up all the thorn bushes on a wild hillside purchased by the abbot for a derisory sum. He assured me that he had remained there and endured the whole punishment, one that was extremely hard, out of the need to suffer for the evil I had caused him. As a result, I couldn’t check up on him, I took all he told me at his word… Whereas before I had no hope, this time a very small one came into being, one perhaps as small as one of daddy’s little clouds… With the money from the cow, besides some foodstuffs, he bought me clothes, for everyday and for special occasions, in order to convince me he was thinking of marriage, a gesture that didn’t move me because mother had left me countless pairs of jeans and, of course, lots of clothes with which I was ready to face the bitter frosts and long winters up here. Money wasted, but the gesture nurtured my scrap of hope… And then, he left with my consent, after having helped me for a few days to gather hay for the animals I still had left. He was going to find a place for the two of us, far from Natalia and Madeleine, from the monastery of eternal temptations and, of course, from the memories… The winter passed, spring came and the reverend monk failed to appear. I thought of many possibilities : that he had been eaten by a wild beast, that he had been killed by a jealous husband who had caught him with his wife at a more intimate moment, that he had gone off to Canada to look for his great love, but above all that I had not been up to his expectations… I was only able to offer him what he looked for in any other woman… At least that’s what I thought…”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth