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Ion Vianu


Excerpt from

Critics about

Novel, "Fiction Ltd." series, Polirom, 2010, 408 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Excerpt from

4.

 

… Like Otokar, I had fallen in love with a boy. A boy younger than myself: Florian. Like me, he was fair-haired, but more delicate than Mironi. He was the epitome of the top-of-his-class student, but also a refined intellectual, who read poetry and listened to music, the same as we did. I would never have told him my true feelings for anything in the world. In any case, what was it all about? I did not aspire to be one with him! Physical contact seemed horrible to me... but nevertheless, I could spend entire afternoons by the lake, watching the sun sink behind the willows in Bordei Park, and thinking about him. I used to experience that yearning, that tenderness of the heart which is the sole proof of being in love. It is the love preliminary to love, the rosy-fingered dawn of love’s torrid day. I was filled with a desire to impart to him my knowledge, my tastes, like an antique pederast, to lavish upon him my overflowing intellect. I was heedless of the fact that the difference in age between us was not so great, that I was not Socrates, and nor was he Alcibiades. At other times, I would lie in wait for when he left, I would linger by the school gates or play truant from the last lesson of the day. I would accompany him as far as his house, talking of various things, above all about the poets I had been reading: Barbu, Arghezi, Minulescu (I feigned to like the latter merely to please him). Finally, in front of his house, I would touch his rather dryish hand. Perhaps I also used to gaze at him in a certain way.
In time, the sweet, cloying melancholy of feeling—on the shore of the lake, between the willows—my heart as tender as sirloin and my fresh brow teeming with pedagogical ideals began to weigh on me. I confessed my feelings to Mitya and even arranged a meeting between the three of us, so that the Great Con could convince himself that I was not making it up, that my lover really did exist. (The Twin was abreast of it, as was Mironi; they made no pronouncement as to whether what was happening to me was good or bad.) After we parted from Florian, Mitya reacted. “What,” he said, “would you really be capable of sodomising that boy?” “Yes,” I replied, without hesitation, but I sensed that I was showing off. I was a thousand light years from doing anything of the sort. “Because,” continued Mitya, “it’s a horrendous business. It hurts, it’s filthy...” I was silent... in that silence of mine there was much stubbornness and far too little embarrassment. The conversation with Mitya somewhat threw me off balance. I was beginning to feel the absurdity of the situation, to understand that I was a victim of self-love. I loved my own feelings far too much. I cultivated them with a gardener’s care. I was touched by my own tenderness. What was the good of it? True, I did not yet know that you can never escape from falling in love, that love always begins like this, with a vain contemplation of one’s own inner beauty. This is how we are made. Now I desired to have done with the whole thing and I did not know how. In the end, I invented a stratagem. I reinvented literature, one might say, the art of addressing someone while pretending that you speak to all: I wrote a story. About a boy of sixteen who falls in love with a younger boy. About his beautiful bouts of melancholia. About their walks, about their conversations, about their two dryish hands brushing against each other, vaguely. I made no mention of anything resembling the conversation with Mitya. I had to find an ending for my story. I strode into the future. I made room for fantasy. I imagined suggesting to my lover that we should meet once more. The place was the Museum of the Village, on the steps of the wooden church from Maramureş. It was there that I declared my love. When I finished the story, I told Florian that I wanted to read something to him. I had written a ‘novella’. The ideal place for the reading was the wooden church. I persuaded him to play truant from school. We met on a beautiful summer’s day, in the tranquil church porch, and I read him the story. The last sentence was: ‘Ion persuaded him to play truant from school that day. They met on the steps of the wooden church and Ion read him the story.’ The text broke off ex abrupto. In that moment, the historic present of the reading coincided with the real present. I was reading to him a scene that took place on the steps of the very same wooden church where we found ourselves at that moment. I looked Florian straight in the eye. What happened next was up to him. He said, ‘I understand you, but no.’ Then he said ‘no’ once more. As far as I was concerned, it was a relief. But this had to remain hidden from him.

 

5

During our peregrinations, whether alcoholic or ‘pure’, I once played a game. I tried to imagine what each of us would be like thirty years thence. Mitya saw himself as a kind of beggar-prophet, dying in a ditch. I imagined myself as a university professor, a fat, inveterate bachelor, an erudite ravaged by every vice, dividing my time between the library and clandestine casinos. A raid would catch me in such an illicit spot. We would all be hauled off to the police station. The policemen would discover that I was the great scholar Ion. I would observe with satisfaction how low I had sunk. As for The Twin, he foresaw himself being a poet, a man of letters, a translator of the refined Elizabethan poets. Mironi used to say, ‘I won’t live that long. In that far-off time, my eyes shall see night. Death. In fact, it is nigh.’
Let it be understood that we did not have ‘career’ plans. Otokar alone used to say that he would was going to be rich, a kind of director general, a high-ranking, international official. The rest of us were a band of depraved rebels.
We were naïve without being innocent. We were vice-ridden without being rascals. We were well-read without being learned. We were truants without being layabouts. Our ideals were lofty, but like birds wheeling above a lake, sometimes we would plunge into abjection, emerging with sullied wings.
We looked at the generations before us. The men of the generation immediately before ours were more afflicted than us: soldiers who had been cut off while retreating, caught in a pocket behind enemy lines without any hope of breaking out, and taken prisoner. Somewhere, on the other side of the front, the victors could be glimpsed. We had no way of knowing that they too, or at least some of them, who were ‘cretins’, as we liked to call them, were full of doubts and fears. It was their own comrades that they feared above all. Then the class enemy (it took ten years for the whole system to come toppling down, for us to realise that their fear of the class enemy was not merely hypochondria). For the time being, the hand they played was impertinence. One of the boys from our camp had gone to one of their editorial offices. He had translated Rimbaud. ‘He is a poet of the Paris Commune,’ he had said, testing the seawater with his toe, hoping, without believing, that he would be published. ‘It’s decadent poetry, comrade,’ the editor, Veronica Porumbacu, had replied. ‘All right,’ countered the translator, ‘but there is still great artistry in his versification.’ (‘Great artistry”: a standard expression, a quality, no doubt about it, but still no excuse for ‘bourgeois formalism.’) ‘Ha, ha,’ sneered the cadre. ‘We know how to be formalists, too. But we don’t want to be. We can churn out the same stuff right here in the office. Just for practice.’ These were the kind of impertinent idiocies they spouted, but they were also afraid. Afraid of their own kind, above all, and then of the ‘Americans’. Even Dan Goldstein, the white knight of theoretical Marxism, was full of doubts. Wasn’t the fact that he sought refuge in quoting from the works of Lenin an indication of how insecure he felt? But we were not clever enough to have any inkling of their fear. We had enough fear of our own to deal with.
We were prisoners all. Even the guards of a prison are prisoners. They have the limited freedom of going home when their shift ends; but the next day they return to the penitentiary. They are not beaten; they are well fed. But they too are shackled by the leg with an invisible chain. The prison itself has a horizon, that of release. The huge prison in which we were growing up had no release date. It was for life. Whether you tried to oppose it by negation, or whether you tried to force yourself to love it, you belonged to it forever. An insurmountable wall separated us from the world outside, whence no news came. There was an aching contrast between time and space. In time, the world beyond the border became the world of our culture, with which we were in continual contact, but only through books. In space, it was inaccessible. We never imagined that we could ever reach the world that was there. There, in the illuminated cities, in the cathedral squares, in the museums that were the repository of all the world’s beauty. It was the grave defect of our imagination, the sentiment that the limit was impassable. It was an admission of the passivity that had overwhelmed not only us. Equally as grave was the illusion that the ‘socialist order’ was there for all eternity.
A boy a little older than us had for many years been training as a swimmer. Then he went down to the bank of the Danube, somewhere near the Iron Gates. He crossed the Danube. The Romanian border guards sensed something was up. They opened fire... in vain. The daring young man swam on through the hail of bullets and reached the Yugoslav bank. And from there, after the obligatory spell in prison camp, he reached France. If you were not made from the stuff of heroes, you stayed behind, in Romania.
 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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