Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2010, 248 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Vlad Carasiniu, a young art restorer, awakes from clinical death in the middle of the night. Managing to escape from the cemetery chapel, he wanders until morning, in a dramatic attempt to re-find himself and re-adapt to the world of the living. Once “contaminated” by death, nothing will ever be the same for him again. He refuses to have any contact with the people he formerly knew, his family in particular, out of a mixture of shame and guilt. The shock of coming back to life triggers in him a crisis of conscience and a series of flashbacks: his short, failed marriage, the suicide of his young wife, Graþia, and his platonic love for an older woman, Davida. His meeting with lawyer Teo Caba, a former champion racing driver and his rival for both women, will elucidate many unknowns. For the first time, he will undertake an unsparing examination of his professional life, where he has proven to be an imposter, abusively altering the paintings he restored. In the morning, he is witness to an accident, an explosion that kills Davida, with whom he has just been talking. Wishing to lay the body of the woman he revered in the coffin from which he has so recently escaped, he finds there two other carbonised bodies. He is filled with indignation and disgust. Rejected by death, abandoned to the mercy of a new life, Carasiniu creeps into the cemetery and lies down on his mother’s grave, where he falls asleep.
As far as he is concerned, this was how things stood: the first image he remembers is that of his raised torso, exactly the same as he had seen his mother suddenly sit up, with the last flickers of her diseased heart, shortly before she died, three-quarters unconscious, in a primal effort to raise herself up one more time. But the difference between them was that he had raised himself up post mortem. He was now sitting up, rigid, as if this was the position in which rigor mortis had overtaken him. Then, consecutively, there was the sliver of light coming from the left, in deep darkness, the feeling that he was in his own bed, and, immediately thereafter, the sensation of his hands lying folded across his stomach. It was the lucid fraction of a second in which he fully understood, in a wholly inexplicable way, what had happened to him: the death into which he had entered and out of which he was now emerging. He assured himself that such a truth, one too cruel to be endured, would anaesthetise him, would make him believe that nothing had happened to him; that such an extravagant shock, one more spectacular and diabolical than that of death itself, would momentarily not allow him to think of anything except … yes, here it was, the fact that nonetheless he was not in his own bed, among his own things. Where then? He could not yet recognise the place. He swiftly sought refuge in the unpleasantness of discovering his hands lying folded across his stomach rather than his chest. Of course, those limp and lifeless arms might have slipped down to his stomach in his effort to raise himself up, especially given that he had probably sat up with a jolt. But Carasiniu continued to credit his intuition of the first moment, an intuition that left room for no doubt. They had made a mockery of him. He had been the victim of negligence, if not malevolence. On the part of whom? Not someone directly involved, as it is a known fact that the family are spared from touching the dead body …
Dead body? What dead body?
He felt like his eyeballs were frozen, and they stung when he tried to move them. For the first time he lacked the balm of tears. The liquid that laves the eyes had evaporated, had utterly vanished. Any attempt to blink triggered a tiny, localised earthquake, which in turn set off thousands of stabbing pains. Perhaps these were nothing more than shards of his inability to concentrate. Now, all that was necessary was to reconcile himself to the thought. What thought? No, he mustn’t even think it! Above all not that! He had to wait. Nothing more. To postpone the blow. Happily, the truth had up until now merely jostled him. His real collapse was coming round from his collapse, and this was what he had to palliate …
He heard a thunderclap not far off. Given the faintness of the reverberation, he gauged that he was protected by walls, albeit not very thick. A chapel? Had he already been interred? In horror, the question cleaved to the roof of his mouth. He felt he was suffocating. He wanted to raise his arms to his chest, but he was unable to budge them. He strained at least to twist his torso around, but to no avail. Likewise his head. It was as if he were cast in stone. He gave up. He pretended not to notice. No, he had not been buried, if he was able to sit up. It was strange, Carasiniu reasoned. If his wrists were still rigid, how had he been able to raise his torso, a manoeuvre that was hard enough for him to perform in real life?
He toppled back, his entire torso collapsing without the slightest tensing of the muscles. He fell like a bale. He felt no pain. It was not his body. He no longer had a body.
In what stage of death was he? Granted that he had not yet been buried, where was he stretched out? Stretched out! Had they already deposited (the word filled him with horror) him, had they taken him somewhere else? Who had placed him in the coffin? What hands had washed him?
He glimpsed the streak of light once more, somewhere on the left. It was not the light from home. He remembered his arms folded across his belly. He made a swift calculation. He had been right. They had been laid there from the start. Given that all his joints were rigid, from his shoulders and elbows to his wrists, their angle could not be altered, even if he had sat up. Which is what in fact happened. He continued to ponder. If his arms had been folded over his chest, the angle of his elbows would have been acute, although not necessarily forty-five degrees. Having grown rigid in this position, he would not have been able to budge them by any means, regardless of whether his body rolled over to one side, regardless of whether it was propped up or in a sitting position. But this was not how things stood. His elbows had mortified at an acute angle. He had judged it well: his hands had been laid over his stomach. Can it have been merely the haste of the people whose job it was? Their impatience to get shot of him? Indifference or disregard? Maybe hatred? But why this lovelessness on the part of your relatives? What did you to them? Did you know anything about all this before you died?
He strove to discern what was around him. Better not to see anything. He should not complain. Added to the shock of knowing that he had been dead for a while, this shock would certainly have been too much to bear. He continued to feel as if his body were at a great distance. Pulverised. Emptied of all meaning. Only his mind had fully returned. He concentrated on his mind. Thoughts and suppositions were darting at dizzying speed. He tried to catch hold of something, anything, something that eluded him, precisely those things he knew he could not explain, but which he was ready to accept without explanation. He would dissect them later. He would have all the time in the world. He would ruminate on them long and thoroughly, if he had the mental strength for it. If he went on breathing, living … breathing … and how hard it is to breathe … how heavily breath weighs on the chest … for the time being someone else was doing his thinking for him, in his stead, avidly collecting and recording it all for him, someone else, his own mind or a disembodied spirit, in any case it did not have his body, but it had entered him with a colossal exertion of will, and now it was roaring inside him, continually prodding him, niggling him, commanding him not to fall asleep, to remain awake, and he could hear it, he could hear himself reciting the commandment, “Do not fall asleep! Do not fall asleep! You will lose everything if you fall asleep again!” as if he were unconsciously speaking with this spirit’s voice. Without moving. Without caring. On the point of fainting, because fainting tempted him. It would have been pleasant to go limp, almost to abandon himself. He felt a great weariness at existing. It demanded too much effort and he would have liked to rest. He wanted to close his eyes. They stung and burned. He closed them, but not a trace of darkness, benevolent darkness, darkness the good, the deep. He saw something else entirely. Bizarre, nightmarish shapes, shifting irritatingly, or others, which were minuscule, made of jagged lines and rhombuses, orange- and green-hued honeycombs.
He opened his eyes. And in the instant in which he tensed and raised his neck a little, he saw a blotch. It was real. It seemed to be sliding underneath the rays, elongating, growing, stretching not far from him, next to him, even, a few paces away, a white streak, something like a light, to the left of him, a pleat … a plank! A catafalque! And yet another. And another.
Oh, God! He was not alone.
He jolted upright, flailed, spewed. He was shaken by a spasm, then twice more. The liquid spattered insubstantially between his swollen lips. He was sitting up once more. He was moving. He could see. His eyes were blinking. A teardrop, like the water of life, welled in the trough of his eyelid, and then he knew he was saved. Moisture dwelled in his bodily tissue once more. What had they dressed him in? He could feel he was growing cold. A terrible cold. He was shivering. But it was summer … He found this paradoxical: he was coming to life, but the more he came to life, the colder he was. There was no source of heat to be found … He struggled to swallow, to move, not to remain still, to leave.
He strained. He twisted his midriff around with some ease. The midriff … the warmest area of the shroud. Unlike the feet. It seemed as if they were miles away. Did he still have feet at all? Nevertheless, in spite of the cold, the life in him had been unshackled and was coursing along every conduit. Irreversibly. Through his shoulders and neck, through his arms and head, through his tingling hair, which even now was bristling painfully, standing on end all over his skin. A lightning bolt caught his gaze, on the wall to the left. He recognised the tiny window. The only window. “You could suffocate in here,” he said to himself in annoyance. A single window … wasn’t it insufficient? Once, he had sought it in desperation. At the funeral of his uncles … his mother’s brothers … killed in that road accident. He knew the chapel. The Orthodox Cemetery, Orthodox Church Street. A narrow entrance, a large triangular room, as he remembered it, with the two niches on either side, for the “privileged”. And at that moment, he knew not how, only by the density of the darkness that followed upon each bolt of lightning, he was able to estimate that it was around midnight … the night had barely begun … There was a long night ahead of him. He was gripped by panic. How long had he been lying here? For one night? For two? He had located the window, but not the doors, which he could likewise remember. Opened wide during the day, shut with iron bars at night. Iron bars? Was he, too, shut in? He pressed his throbbing temples. At his uncles’ funeral he had counted another five catafalques. And along the walls, among the heaps of withered flowers yet to be thrown out, the coffin lids and funeral wreaths had leaned …
The lids? Were the others also uncovered at this moment? How had he not thought of it? And how many were there?
He propped himself up more firmly. His eyes gaped wide. And, yes, in the increasingly distinct semi-darkness he was horrified to descry in the nearest coffin the first outline of a dead body, corseted in lace. Stretched out. Exaggeratedly stretched out. Petrified and shrunken. Translucent. The protuberant nose, the corrugated and hollowed cheeks, two craters at the foot of a haughtily soaring chin. And the orbits … the eyebrows tumbling down their bony slope … And the elongated, knobbly phalanges … It was as if the body was contracting, teetering …
What if one of them were to awake from death the same as he had?
He let himself fall back, inside the sheet. He knocked the back of his head and his elbows. The sheet seemed tighter. Overly tight and flimsy. Made for a prone and motionless body, not a squirming one, like his. In any case, it was, for the time being, the safest shelter. He lifted his hand to his heart, which has beating fit to burst. What if one of them were as terrified as he? And what if the terror impelled that other dead body to do murder? He could hardly believe that this other would find the strength to do it, but who can gauge the reserves of a dead man in his desperate struggle to survive? He strove not to make any movement. “Shut up, shut up, shut up. Stay calm!” Maybe he had been lucky and they had not seen him yet. They had not spotted him. He should keep alert. He should wait. No more. He should breathe, calm down, lie where he was, breathe. That was all. He should lie motionless where he was. He should play dead. Yes, yes, dead. He was nothing more than a dead man. No one accosts a dead man. No one needs a dead man.
For a while he waited to see if anything would happen. Half an hour? An hour? He did not know how long. He detected no movement. Not a living breath. Gradually, he regained his courage. Perhaps he was the only living person here after all. He should make no move. He should preserve his strength. He should cast the ballast over board, so that the balloon basket would stay aloft. He had a respite in which to make a laudation of each of the minimal reflexes he had gathered, below the threshold of consciousness: the nostrils to inhale, the lungs to receive the offering, the blood to stream, the heart to pump and keep rhythm. Neither sight, hearing, smell nor touch was imperiously needful to him now. Rather, it was the brain, above all, that needed to be reined in. If it were to return in force, it would burn all the circuits. For the moment, he was called upon merely to allow a minimal impulse to seep into the other organs. Prudently, unawares. The same as in his trade. In restoration. There, Carasiniu had discovered the benefits of restraint. There, he had learned that to re-paint means above al to restrain your impulse to paint. What was important was not to give devitalised colour a gleam it had never possessed, but to revive it within the limits of its fadedness, to display the same temperance with which the master once applied the pigment to the canvas. The efficiency of the colour. What is left for the restorer to do? To follow in the tracks of the master, to follow the precise tracks of his idea, feeling and reflexes, his pulsations and discouragements …
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“From so many novels competing to exhaust the subject matter of communism, Dora Pavel’s book is a breath of fresh air, a pioneering work. Dora Pavel has the strengths of the great contemporary novelists.”
(Bogdan ROMANIUC, Suplimentul de culturã)
“The opening of Dora Pavel’s novel displays the strength of a long-practiced prose writer. You read the first sentence, extending over almost twenty lines, all in one breath. It rapidly introduces the reader into the heart of the subject, daringly challenging him in a mode of address to which, assuredly, he will not be able to remain aloof.”
(Iulia IARCA, România literarã)
“Powder wagers on two winning moves: the first is the treatment of an existential and religious taboo in a mocking way, as an imposture, in the manner in which it appears in contemporary prose worldwide … The second is the articulation of a rebellion against lifelikeness even within a realist convention strictly dependent on the lifelike. This crucially important wager, together with the startling entrée into the subject, makes Powder an excellent novel, which achieves not only a set of aesthetic performances but also offers an engrossing read, one that competes for the highest echelon of contemporary Romanian prose.”
(Mihaela URSA, Apostrof)
“Dora Pavel completely re-invented herself as a writer with the novel Agatha Dying (2003). The young novelist (if not by age, then at least by vocation, she is an author of the ‘2000 Generation’) has not yet given up her new identity, however, and threatens to become one of the most professional voices in current prose. … Powder reconfirms the talent of an original prose writer, with her own specific imagery and obsessions, who is worth watching carefully in future.”
(Alex GOLDIŞ, Vatra)