Novel, "Fiction Ltd." series, Polirom, 2011, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
A love affair between the main character/narrator and Milena/Mailena, a Slovak writer, comes into being in the virtual world, thanks to an assiduous exchange of e-mails, which intersect with the narrator’s messages to his wife, Marianne, who is in New York to treat a mysterious illness. In parallel, the narrator invents Tsvetan, a macho Bulgarian truck driver who is making his way across Europe, and Beatrice, an inscrutable dancer and lover of hedgehogs. Dumitru Tsepeneag weaves together the lives of these two characters invented by his narrator in a way that is strange and wholly unique. But behind the sound of the book, there is a more solemn story, one of emotions and lost illusions. For, ultimately, The Bulgarian Truck is a story of old age and of preparing oneself to meet death.
After all, a monologue is different than a letter, and a novel, in which monologues intertwine with dialogues, is the art of complexity… You can’t say that such commonplaces don’t have their own role to play: quoting them prolongs the text, dilutes it, makes it more readable. What’s more, the reader is happy at being able to grasp the profundity of the author’s idea, and he will even play his part in disseminating it. The next day, he will tell his wife or friend:
“You know, the novel is the art of complications. Hold on, that’s not it… It’s the art…”
“Of complications?” wonders the friend, calmly sipping his mug of beer.
Then he wipes the foam from the corner of his mouth with a napkin. He dabs delicately and waits for the other to clarify his idea.
“No, that’s not it. It’s the art of complexity, I tell you. Of complexity… You understand my meaning?”
“The art of complexity, of course…”
It’s the same with punctuation. Even if it’s nice to write without punctuation, even if the absence of punctuation can be justified in the case of the monologue, it is wise that the writer not abuse it. He would do well to consider the reader. Meaning none other than Tsvetan, who apparently never got further than primary school. He also went to lycée, you say? Very nice! But did he graduate? Did he sit his baccalaureate? And how many books has he read since then? And what kind of books? He read that book about the conspiracy… Very good! And what else has he read? True, with his job it’s impossible. You can’t expect him to read while he’s driving. He listens to music, no problem there… Pop music, granted, but music nonetheless. Sounds making up a melody that is squeezed in the clamp of a rhythm that becomes obsessive. Most of the time the words are in English, which has been of great help to him in absorbing a language that is absolutely necessary in our day and age. An imperial language! The language of globalisation… He likes to call it the American language…
And when he stops for the night, preferably in a town, or a largish village, then you can imagine that he abandons himself to entertainments more pleasant and more bracing than reading.
He likes women, and women like him. And what is there not to like: you’ve seen his biceps, pectorals and nape, his dark, oily eyes, his trousers moulded over his muscular legs, so skin-tight that his genital organ stands out strongly in relief, with the result that it looks more protuberant than other men’s. Perhaps it really is… Are women sensitive to such exterior signals? I don’t know for sure. Probably. Why wouldn’t they be? Although there is always a risk. You can be mistaken and end up with a pansy, a milksop. There’s always a degree of risk. You have to weigh up these exterior signals in relation to the overall behaviour of the male. If he doesn’t waver, if he aims straight at the target, then it means he doesn’t have any complexes, he’s not afraid to abide by the ancient code, which has remained more or less unchanged in its essence. Although there can be no doubt that it is the woman who makes the choice, it is fit and proper that she should pretend to be a little timorous, hesitant, and then the man will have to be insistent, even to act a little rough. But he has no choice: that’s the game…
It wasn’t like that with Milena. I didn’t go right up to her. It was she who came to me. To be more precise, it was as if she came en marche arrière…
I was at a cocktail party held in honour of some female writer or other who had just won the Femina Prize. It’s only very rarely that I go to cocktail parties, and I was there completely by accident: I had bumped into a critic on the street, a journalist who also writes literary criticism, a lickspittle, he possesses neither style nor backbone, he writes almost exclusively about the authors of two publishing houses, they probably slip an envelope stuffed with banknotes in his pocket every now and again, I wouldn’t swear by it, but that’s what people say…
“Let’s go to the cocktail party,” said he.
“What cocktail party? I’m not in the mood…”
“In honour of Mme What’s-her-name. There’ll be food, and above all lots to drink. Come on!”
So I went. There were already a lot of people there. I also spotted a few writers published by Éditions P.O.L. Some of them pretended to recognise me. But they had difficulty pronouncing my name. The French have great problems with foreign names. They even mangle English and American names. In other words, they pronounce them à la française. It’s a throwback from the days when the whole world spoke French. The intellectuals, I mean to say, the ones who travelled and met people from other countries. Why make the effort of learning a foreign language when they could make themselves understood in their mother tongue, which is to say, in French. Other people learned in their stead, the ones eager to communicate with them. True, this isn’t the whole of the story. Also to blame is the accent. If it’s so hard for them to speak a foreign language, it’s not only because of their acute self-centredness, which nowadays seems downright ridiculous, like a top hat on man wearing an undershirt. An undershirt that is too short, exposing his belly button. Nowadays, when the whole world speaks English. I don’t know whether that’s a good comparison. It’s a rather humorous one, albeit slightly exaggerated, I admit. In the end, it doesn’t matter.
And so there I was, talking to a very nice P.O.L. author, about whom I had written a number of glowing articles – it didn’t take much effort, as I genuinely like him – and he was telling me that he played chess and that we should play each other some time. I smiled benignly. Why not? As a rule, writers are cack-handed when it comes to playing chess. But as Igor is Russian, maybe he won’t be such a walkover… I mumbled my consent and knocked back my glass of vodka. He knocked his back and moved away. He had nothing else to say to me. He could hardly have talked to me about my novels or lauded them when he hadn’t even read them. At least he had read the articles I wrote about his novels. But how then did he know I’m a good chess player? Obviously, he must have read the back-cover blurbs. That’s still something!
Left alone, there was nothing else for it except to go to the barman and have him refill my glass. There was still vodka left, but the champagne had just about run out. In front of me, holding out her glass, a woman with hair dyed Venetian blond turned her head to me and looked at me with her blue, all of a sudden quizzical eyes. She had prominent, Slavic cheekbones. She was between thirty and forty. I’m no good at gauging women’s ages. In any case, she looked very young… In comparison with myself, I mean.
“There’s no more champagne,” she said.
“I’m not bothered. I don’t like champagne. I’d rather drink a little vodka.”
She took the glass from my hand and held it out to the barman. Vodka! And the same for her. She leaned forward as she held out the glass, touching me with her bottom, which wasn’t very large, but was shapely, firm, muscular. The shock triggered a small chemical reaction inside me, the blood descended to the bodily part being touched as quick as a flash and, as she was still in a leaning position, waiting for the barman to get round to filling the two glasses, she felt the transformation, she even encouraged it, bracing her buttocks against the particular spot, which was now gurgling with blood.
Afterwards, our conversation lasted not even five minutes. From her very first words I discovered that her publisher is Gallimard. She was delighted to hear that I am with P.O.L., a publishing house that has seen a meteoric rise since coming under the wing of her own. That’s how she put it. Since being given a leg up, in other words. Nonetheless, that doesn’t prevent it from remaining independent. To a certain extent… We both laughed. Then we polished off the vodka in our glasses and went out the door: she assured me that she lived nearby, on a neighbouring street, and that she had some genuine Russian vodka at home.
And she lifted her buttocks so high that, carried away, and without intending to, I planted myself somewhat lower: it doesn’t matter, it’s good there too, she whispered, and she had a slightly Slavic accent that was rather agreeable.
If you start speaking a language after the age of twelve or thirteen – I read this somewhere, in a work on linguistics or phonetics – then no matter how hard you try, you will never get rid of your native accent, or else you would have to have a perfect musical ear, although even then it would still be hard, because the vocal cords are already formed, the whole throat…
“Not now, not straight away, go and wash.”
And so I went.
Since she arrived in New York, Marianne has been getting lazier and lazier when it comes to writing. Not that she was ever a graphomaniac. She would say: I prefer reading. With me it’s the opposite. In fact, I’m not so sure. With her I preferred making love. At least that’s what I would tell her…
She’s not to be outdone:
“And I do with you, too,” says Marianne.
“With you, of course, but for that it’s recommendable that we be as close to each other as possible, preferably in the same bed.”
“Don’t be pedantic!”
She doesn’t write, and so she picks up the ’phone instead. Sometimes she even calls me in the middle of the night, her excuse being that she doesn’t know how to work out the time difference. “There’s a difference of six hours,” I tell her, but without deluding myself, especially given that her answer is so disarming: “Is that what you think?”
Last night, when I got back home, no sooner had I closed the front door than the ’phone rang.
“Did I wake you up?” she asked.
“I was reading…”
“You were reading?”
“Yes, why are you so amazed? It does happen on occasion. I couldn’t sleep. And so I was reading…”
“In that case I can’t be disturbing you all that much.”
“No, you’re not, but I’d like to go and get a glass of water. I’m very thirsty.”
“Reading makes you thirsty?”
“And what do you drink when you’re thirsty?”
“What do you mean?”
“Whiskey or vodka?”
“This is why you’re phoning me at two in the morning? To ask what I like to drink?”
“Is it two in the morning?”
“It is here…”
“And there I was worrying myself that you might not be at home…”
I’m not sure whether she is being ironic, rather gratuitously – because with her irony stands in for humour – or whether she is jealous, whether she suspects something, although not even she knows what exactly. This is the most interesting phase of jealousy, but also the trickiest for both parties: when you don’t know why exactly you are jealous.
“Come on, we’d better go to bed. To sleep.”
“I can’t. I haven’t had dinner yet.”
“You’re right there, you can’t…”
“I ’phoned you earlier. You weren’t at home.”
“That’s entirely possible. I was at a cocktail party.”
“I phoned you half an hour ago.”
“I was probably on the toilet.”
“Then you must be ill. You must have diarrhoea. You should take something.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I also ’phoned you an hour ago. Were you on the toilet then, too?”
I remain silent for a few moments. I don’t know what to say. I cough. I’m very thirsty. After the vodka and everything else. Finally, I decide to mount a counterattack.
“This is how you spend your time? Instead of eating, sleeping, resting. You need to lead a calm, orderly life when you are undergoing medical treatment. You know very well! Your doctor told you so.”
At the other end of the line there is not a sound. I don’t think she has hung up. I would have heard something, a click, a clack, a sound however faint. She has left the telephone off the hook, on the bedside table or the bed, or maybe on the kitchen table, and she has gone into another room. I know she is staying with a girlfriend, her name is Laura, in fact no, Laura doesn’t live in New York any more, I don’t know where she lives now. I’ve lost track of her. Maybe she has gone back and is living in New York again. Anyway, it’s not important.
Marianne left three months ago to take a course of medical treatment not available anywhere else. Everybody says that the Americans are still the best in the field of medicine. I didn’t go with her when she started her treatment. I had a public reading in Brussels. Now I regret it. Why do I regret it? Because I need to be able to situate my interlocutor (I don’t like to say that Marianne is a literary character) in a specific and familiar place. In any case, the reason I hate talking on the telephone is that I can’t see the other person, and that annoys me. It’s even worse when you can’t even picture the place from where the other person is speaking. There are telephones that display an image of the person you are talking to. Or aren’t there? Well, that’s what they tell me. I’m going to suggest that she buy one, although I’m not sure it’s such a good idea: she’ll want me to buy one the same. And then it will be hold on to your hats: the telephone will be ringing every hour of the night and day. I don’t think it would be worth the trouble…
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“With great literary ingeniousness, Dumitru Tsepeneag embeds a message in his novels, a meaning that can be reconstructed only after the painstaking procedure of reassembling the broken shards – an ‘osiric’ process, from the myth of Osiris, to use the author’s own term. Like Dumitru Tsepeneag’s other novels, I believe The Bulgarian Truck brings us face to face with the apocalyptic signs of the end of a cycle of civilisation.”
“A novel different to those he has written up to now. Such is Dumitru Tsepeneag’s literary project in The Bulgarian Truck. And it really is something different: it’s not merely a book, but a ‘building site under the open sky,’ where some very deep digging is going on. But how deep? As deep as the novel. But what is important is not the novel, as the writer tries to convince us. What is important is the journey, the story, the journal of the novel, as André Gide said.”
“From the outset, Dumitru Tspeneag opted for experimental prose and almost all his narratives are narratives of a text, rather than texts of a narrative, if we accept the distinction made by the theorists of the Nouveau Roman. In The Bulgarian Truck he goes further: he places all his cards on the table, he depicts the conventions of the experimental novel, he reveals the tricks of narrative, he converses with his characters about the construction and deconstruction of the novel he is trying to write. Finally, he turns his hesitations into an epic and rather than offering a unitary and coherent work, he presents its building site. In this new textual adventure, the writer wagers on the reader’s curiosity to discover the secrets of an atypical novelist. It must be said that he succeeds.”