Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2006, 264 pages
Translation rights sold to: Czarne (Poland), Acantilado (Spain), Panorama + (Bulgaria), University of Plymouth Press (United Kingdom)
This book by brothers Filip and Matei Florian is original first of all for its technique : each narrator recounts an event from his childhood through his own eyes, while the other rounds off the story, gives it new meanings, and offers revelations to his co‑narrator and brother. Thus, ‘delicate matters’ that had remained unelucidated in the past are cleared up in the present, confessions are made, and truths unuttered at the time are now spoken. The dialogue between the two narrators provides delights for the reader, as the pair’s childhood grows from memory beneath our very eyes, with a candour and force that transports us to a miraculous world, interpreted and evaluated by the mature eyes of those who now reinvent it.
However, beyond this aspect, there is a freedom from constraint, created by the child’s viewpoint, whereby serious, personal subjects are dealt with, such as their parents’ divorce or the death of their grandparents, but above all general aspects of life in a totalitarian society. The aberrations of the ideology and way of life imposed by communism are refracted through the prism of childish naivety, which accentuates their absurdity and grotesqueness. What remains in spite of such aspects is a serene book, whose finale, to which every page builds up, is, in fact, brotherly love, a love ‘narrated’ through the personal miracles of each brother, miracles that are now dissected, brought down from the magic of childhood into a realism which naturally still preserves a question mark, a fairytale thread.
The authors familiarise us with the various characters that descend from the world of fairytale into Baiut Alley in Bucharest, where the two brothers live : for example, Sting and Stung, Matei’s friends, who suddenly turn up in a jar of mustard, and whom Filip now regrets, at the time the story is told, because he never saw them. Or we delight in characters who cross over from the cinema, television and children’s magazines, becoming ‘Joe Lemonade’, ‘Giani Morandi’, ‘Rome Specs’ or ‘Brooslee’, names reinvented for the stars of the day, filtered through the childish imagination and brought back to life for the amusement of the reader in the pages of the book.
Their shared love of football, moreover for the same team, Bucharest’s Dynamo, creates other episodes, develops another world, one of sighs and incomprehensible passions, which draws the two brothers closer, creating for them a shared frontline. This love unfolds at a level that comes close to poetry : football and its related passions are narrated with candour, so that we discover a story beyond the stands, another tale of the miraculous which we all too often pass by without discovering.
In the end, The Baiut Alley Lads is a novel about the miracles in our own back yard, regardless of whether they occur in an obscure lane in an obscure district of a land kept in obscurity by communist dictatorship. However, even if they are viewed only through the lens of naivety and now transformed into an exceptional tale, for miracles there are no impediments, no barriers. And those who attempt to raise barriers to the miraculous are, ultimately, doomed to disappear. What remains is a simple tale, but one that is astonishing in its power to absorb us even now.
The incredible adventures of Sting and Stung
Sting and Stung came into being in a jar of mustard, the very next morning after I dreamt of serpentine roads and devils. Had it been necessary to invent a realm from whence they might come forth – a couple of translucent, earnest‑looking blobs, faceless and ageless, and generally possessing no other quality save their existence – then that jar, of the kind Mum used to wash thoroughly as soon as the mustard had finished, for subsequent use as glasses, and thick, ugly, heavy‑duty glasses at that, then the jar upon which I was fixing eyes still dazed by sleep and dreams would have been by far the most appropriate.
There is one thing I have learned (although no book was required for that end, just a tiny amount of attention), namely when miracles occur, even small‑sized miracles like this one, it is never enough to focus on just one aspect. So as to prove to you that I’m not being funny, or trying to pull your leg, or having you on, or anything like that, having been carried away with the thrill to which almost all grown‑ups succumb the moment they put pen to paper, I assure you I am fully aware of how unlikely it is for two characters to come into being – hey, presto ! – in a jar of mustard. Granted, it would be far more convenient were things to happen that way, yet I would somehow feel uneasy about it because 1. It’d mean throwing truth down the drain and 2. I’d no longer be able to look you in the eye (to say nothing of Filip, who’d never want to hear from me again, and that’s a fact). For his sake then, if not for your own, and ultimately for my own sake, I’ll do my best to clarify, as tactfully as narrated miracles demand, the genesis of Sting and Stung in a jar of mustard, one dull Sunday morning in October, most probably at eight o’clock.
To sum up, Sting and Stung came into being one dull morning, following the night I had that dream about serpentine roads and devils, a dream that has continued to pursue me (with almost wizard‑like persistence) to the present day. (...)
All I know is that I woke up in a dazed state (as I’ve already told you), with flickering strip lights and coiled devils weighing heavily on my mind, grabbed a picture book without too much text – Snow White – and made my way into the kitchen. Mum was toasting bread on the gas stove, and the resulting fragrance together with the burning light bulb (it was a dark, overcast day) made the kitchen, how shall I put it, seem like the first and the last place on earth, the only place whose existence was beyond all doubt, as though in the beginning God had not created light, the waters and the dry land, but that kitchen of ours with Mum toasting bread in it, prior to summoning me out of sleep, story book in hand. I don’t know what that book had to do with it all, I didn’t so much as glance at it, I knew it by heart, yet, I feel bound to say it once more, when you’re dealing with miracles even minor details are there for a purpose. Filip was not there, it may not even have been Sunday, but as far as the jar of mustard (into which my eyes bored with no hint of alarm), the morning and the fragrance of toast are concerned, you should not for a moment doubt them. I could of course claim that I was hearing, filtered to a high pitch through the window pane, the clip‑clop of horses drawing a cart over the asphalt, and the garbled street cry of the gypsies asking for empty bottles to buy : emmee booo’les, hooo ! Yet something tells me I’d be superimposing images, and superimposed images are the last thing I need right now.
I had no particular expectation that morning, the dream had slowed down to a distant throb, I was sitting on my chair at the table, staring into the void, until the void into which I was staring sucked me in with a thoroughness that enabled me to realise that what I was actually staring at was the mustard in a jar.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever had the curiosity to pay any attention to what goes on in a jar of that description, but I assure you that, at first, you won’t notice anything much, except a mass of something which could only be described as yellow. If the mustard jar has already been opened, the view is much better, of course : the mustard spoon has carved into the mass a network of tunnels, paths, and highways. At this point it is quite easy to lose yourself in their maze, stained yellow and damp though they might seem to you. And since a miracle (unfortunately or fortunately) can almost always also be explained logically, I don’t think it’s going to be a major challenge for anyone to come up with the following question : “what’s the use of all those tunnels and crossroads and lanes if no one lives in there ?” I do believe that is what I must have asked myself. And just like that, in a most natural sequence of events leading from the answer to a logical question to a miracle with the fragrance of toast, without Mum, whose back was turned on the whole thing, not even remotely suspecting what was going on in the kitchen of flat 40, Sting and Stung, the two inseparable friends who were to become the trustworthy companions of my childhood, came into existence. I did not whoop with excitement, nor did I whoop with terror, the light bulb did not flicker like the strip light in our bathroom, the window did not burst open from some unaccountable gust of wind, and the dogs in the street did not let out so much as a whimper when from down there, from deep inside the jar of mustard, the following conversation echoed for the first time in the Barracks Road district of Bucharest and, quite possibly, the whole of the universe (how am I to know ?) :
“How’re you doin’, Sting ?”
“I’m doin’ fine, Stung.“
“And how’s Missus Sting doing ?”
“Oh, she’s doin’ fine, too. And what about Missus Stung ?”
“She’s doing fine. Bye, Sting.”
I’m telling you the truth, I listened to them talk without batting an eyelid. That was another thing I’d just learned : miracles are easy to get used to. At that particular age, at least.
It is elder brothers who are always the problem. It is not as if they had anything against our miracles, frowning upon them, or anything like that. Not at all. It is simply that they find miracles somewhat hard to comprehend. And if a brother happens to be eleven years your senior, now that is definitely a case when you have to take a break and fill him in nice an’ easy, so that on future occasions you will be sure to avoid any surprises. But be that as it may, I’ve got to take some time off at all costs. Make a detour. Digress, divagate, stray from the subject. Open that thing we commonly call a parenthesis. Or whatever. Here are some points (seven in number) :
• Little brothers have their own distinct and not‑to‑be‑tampered‑with reality
• Notwithstanding the undeniable credit that goes to them for having watched Mum’s belly getting bigger and bigger (with you inside), having pushed you around in a pram, having listened to your priest‑like gurgles and the like (the list could go on for many pages), elder brothers have no right whatsoever so much as to hint that your memories (however vague they might be) are, in actual fact, erroneous
• When that kind of thing does occur, nonetheless, it ought to be properly acknowledged as such, so as to remove the slightest shade of suspicion. Consequently, such ambiguities as “I’m afraid I don’t really remember” should no longer occur on the same page with statements of such obvious certainty as “he’s been laying it on thick, way too thick”
• Objections, reservations and misgivings would be much easier to accept if we, the little ones, were granted, even for just one moment, the right to decide what’s true or false regarding certain episodes in the child‑life of the big ones (for instance : Filip + Alexandra Stefanescu ; Filip + Comrade Ularescu).
In conclusion :
• Little brothers are envious of elder brothers
• Little brothers and elder brothers can never be equal
• It all comes down to Sting and Stung.
Some of the miracles gracing the biography of elder brothers
The trouble is I have never seen Sting and Stung for myself, be it because I wear glasses, or be it for different reasons altogether. Now I did used to hear Matei talking as he moved around the flat but, why should I lie to you, I thought he was talking to himself. (…) As for the theory Matei advances in the previous chapter (“It’s elder brothers that are always the problem”), I happen to believe the exact opposite. And in order to prove that it is younger brothers who are always the problem, I’m going to give you my own list of points (also seven in number) :
• For a while, younger brothers firmly believe there is only one reality, and it is only brothers that fall under two different headings – younger and older
• Younger brothers would not even for a moment suspect that, in the distant past, older brothers did all sorts of things in close communion with their own angels and elves
• Timepieces tick independently of both brothers’ will
• Each age has its own miracles, each miracle its own witness, each witness a brother (or was on the point of having one).
• Brothers can write a book together, but can never come across the same angels and elves simultaneously
• Even when they grow up, younger brothers remain younger than older brothers ;
• Younger brothers never forget having their butts kicked by older brothers.
What am I to do, then, I, Filip, concealed so far behind the mask of older‑brother ? The only thing left for me to do me is reminisce nostalgically about how I used to kick the butts of younger brothers, immerse myself in my own miracles and serenely swim among them.
Miracle A : Summers are so hot in Severin, so muggy, that you try to stay in the shade wherever you can find it. We found it behind some bushes in the graveyard, spread our mat on a very big stone (on which someone had carved some letters and numbers), laid out our things around the house, and started cooking a meal in a rusty tin (which someone had used for lighting some candles). I fetched four earthworms, snapped them into small segments and allowed them to simmer in our stew, the girls chopped rose petals, anemone buttons, iris leaves, mixed in some gravel and dirt, stirred well so that the stew wouldn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, and when everything was ready, we put the food onto plates (torn out of newspaper pages so as to approximate round shapes). Next, since we were playing mums and dads anyway, we had to undress and lounge naked about the house, watch telly, hang our clothes on the peg, a wooden cross (on which someone had carved some letters and numbers), but still something was missing, as the mum and the baby had no willies, so we looked around for two twiggies, adjusted them properly, so that Cerasela and Lori would also have their willies like all human beings.
Miracle B : The beige Soviet Pobeda car would drive off its patch of packed earth in a cloud of dust, would charge through puddles splashing right and left like a speedboat, would drive off through the snow leaving deep ruts in its wake, yet it would always grind its way back to the same spot, so that I could see it from our windows, parked sideways outside our block. And there was also Fane from the sixth grade who, as a rule, would hit me repeatedly across the back of the head saying my noggin looked like a watermelon, and who, after each football game, league or international, would chase me till he caught me, twist my arms behind my back and unleash a rain of finger‑flicks at my lugs (and such jug lugs, too !) until it hurt so much that I started crying. And then one Wednesday, when the championship was off and no one in Severin remembered the cup because Rapid had beaten Știința in the end game and they say you shouldn’t trouble the dead for forty days after their demise, Fane lent me his catapult. And he said I wouldn’t be able to hit the Pobeda. Now the Pobeda was no longer parked sideways, for I wasn’t upstairs, in either the large or the small room, but down on the packed earth, where I could have a front view of the Pobeda. And you can bet your bottom dollar I hit the target, hit it spot on, I did, first shot I took, I shattered its windshield to smithereens, showering the bonnet with tiny bluish glass shards (like fish scales), and Fane chased me till he caught me, twisted my arms behind my back till the owner came followed by his wife (the nurse who’d once given me shots when I had a bad cold), they were screaming their heads off, red in the face like boiled lobsters, he was wearing his pyjamas, she was wearing a housecoat, then everyone came and Fane told them I was a Dynamo supporter. Some time later Dad came (he was a Steagu supporter), then he left, not straight away, but in two days or so, went into Bucharest to buy a Pobeda windshield with the holiday money he had set aside for our trip to Sarmizegetusa.
Miracle C : Harun‑al‑Rashid had been at war for some time. He loved his country and wanted to defend it. But he also loved his wife, and so, although he had the eunuchs guard her against evil men, Harun‑al‑Rashid, without letting her know, had also arranged for his faithful djinns to guard her, just in case. And guess what happened. The eunuchs he’d hired were not really eunuchs, they were just pretending to be eunuchs, but in actual fact they could do all sorts of things, and as the woman was pining for what Harun‑al‑Rashid used to do to her in times of peace, she came to an agreement with the eunuchs that they should be doing those things to her, or, well, that they should just do them to each other. It was lucky the djinns were there. They got terribly angry about what was going on in the bedchambers, and squeezed under the palace (where the foundations were, I suppose) and started shaking it with all their might, hard, really hard, so as to punish Harun‑al‑Rashid’s wife and the eunuchs who’d lied about being eunuchs. And at that very moment, as I was reading how the palace was shaking and how cross the djinns were, everything started shaking for real, although the block in the Baiut Alley was not exactly a palace. The walls and the furniture were making cracking noises, the lamp was swinging as though I had climbed up onto a chair and given it a shove with my hand, toys, notebooks, books and pencils were galumphing on the shelves, on the brackets and on the table, my reading lamp was hopping up and down at my bedside, and even I, no matter how hard I was trying to keep to one place, was sliding towards the edge of my bed, but what I found worst was the noise, the windows rattling in their casements, the doors threshing on their hinges, a series of thuds culminating with an explosive one, a racket coming from somewhere else, the objects that, having had enough of galumphing, had now started falling onto the floor, the djinns were truly going berserk, no matter how faithful they were to Harun‑al‑Rashid, they were behaving too much like the evil spirits of Crihala and had now stampeded into Barracks Road, I could not for the life of me figure out what I’d done wrong, I was a nine‑year old child after all (and quite harmless compared to the eunuchs), and I threw my blanket to one side and jumped to my feet and in the hall I ran into Dad who was reeling towards me, shaken out of his sleep, in his underwear, not wearing his glasses, then Mum was there too, coming out of the bathroom, all wet, with nothing but a towel wrapped around her body. I was trying to tell them about the djinns (to make them understand), I was stammering, shaking, unable to get the right words out, the three of us were rolling as if on board a ship in a storm, Mum was hugging me in her arms, caressing my hair, she suddenly understood what I meant by those djinns and told me it was an earthquake. There was an earthquake going on, you know, a big, big earthquake, and on being given that particular piece of information, I no longer worried. Dad was fully awake now, he dragged us into the door frame (Dad was an expert on what to do in the event of an earthquake), he was steadying us with his arms, and we just stood there clinging to one another for a long, long time until the objects around calmed down, the cracking noises, the galumphing, the rattling, the threshing and the thuds came to an end, the lights went off, only the moonlight stayed on (a large reddish moon), and now people started galumphing, spilling out of their blocks like ants out of their anthills, screaming and running, I guess no one had told them it had been an earthquake and not the revenge of the djinns that had hit Barracks Road. Later on we discerned by candlelight what had caused the explosive thud following the series of lesser thuds, it was the telly, whose screen had shattered like a Pobeda windshield hit by a catapult. Before I fell asleep, Mom told me a story about a white‑dotted mushroom out of which a mass of dwarves were spilling out, running among the tiny flowers and grass blades in the meadow, and screaming happily, just like the people outside.
Miracle D : the Spanish teacher was sitting with her legs crossed, the Spanish teacher’s skirt had slid back, I was standing next to the teacher’s desk, watching the Spanish teacher correcting my essay in red ink, the Spanish teacher’s left thigh was bare, the day was sunny, the Spanish teacher’s high‑heeled shoe was quivering slightly, on my essay written in blue ink all sorts of red signs were throbbing, the Spanish teacher’s left thigh coloured brown whenever a passing cloud obscured the sun, I wished I had written a long, long essay, with plenty of mistakes, because the Spanish teacher’s left thigh had dozed off, it had dozed off for sure, one could tell by the way it was breathing, and it would have been such a pity to wake it up.
Translated by Florin Bican
“There is no way you could not like it. You have to like it !”
(Mihai Iovanel, Cultura)
“I assure you that you won’t have read anything like The Băiuț Alley Lads ! And not just because the novel has been written by four hands, by two brothers, but also because it is very rare to find someone who has written about childhood with so much style, winningly blending fantasy with nostalgia and humour.”
(Marius Chivu, Romania Liberă)
“Paradise exists – it was invented by two brothers somewhere on Baiut Alley. This book by brothers Matei and Filip Florian delicately and innocently skirts a gloomy epoch. Not because any political annulment of the regime is part of their candid concerns, but because the Ceausescus, secret police informers in their block, and ideologies are absolutely secondary to the story. They are far from possessing the power of a Steaua‑Dynamo match, or a neighbourhood game of football where defeat ends in tears and sobs.”
(Florentina Ciuverca, Evenimentul Zilei)
“The Baiut Alley Lads is not a book about ‘today’s world’, but a lucid submersion in the magic of an intimate past. Solidary over time, the two cavalier‑brothers from Baiut compose with humour and ironic delicacy a fresh and charming book about the everyday miracle of their childhood during the Ceausescu regime, one of the most beautiful ‘young books’ to have been published in Romania in recent years.”
(Paul Cernat, Bucurestiul Cultural)
“The Florian brothers’ book remains one of the most convincing novels about communism.”
(Andrei Terian, Cultura)
“The Baiut Alley Lads is an extraordinary tale – with two voices that are extremely different, but which communicate perfectly, with broad thrusts and scrupulous contradictions, with refrains as long as a series of parallel histories, and with much love – of a fabulous family from a place in which nothing is accidental.”
(Simona Sora, Dilema Veche)