Short stories, Ego Prose series, Polirom, 2012, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The Innocent and Collateral Victims of a Bloody War with Russia contains eleven unusual short stories, which mainly explore relationships between couples, as well as a series of minor, everyday dramas. The book’s main merit is the ingenious way in which it interweaves the drab everyday, camouflaged as reportage or personal diary, with aesthetic passages. Together these make up an ensemble of ideas and provide the volume’s guiding thread, creating a unified, novel-like whole. Although the author takes his characters to different countries (thereby providing picturesque settings), the principal concern that binds the texts together and creates the collection’s overarching theme is the confrontation with your own destiny, at an age when you become aware of the inevitable onset of old age.
The Unexpected Arrival of Poseidon on the Island of Zeus
It happened at around five o’clock one afternoon, about halfway through my holiday on Crete. I had left my things on my little islet, separated from the rocks of the big island by about one and a half metres of water, and I was swimming, peering at the shoals of little fishes of every colour, re-experiencing the regret of having lost my underwater camera to a thief in Prague. All of a sudden, as I was lifting my head out of the water to take a gulp of air, my eyes were riveted by a human apparition so spectacular, so suggestive, that I was barely able to hold back the cry forming at the back of my throat: Poseidon! So greatly did he resemble the ancient god of the sea, or rather my mental picture of him. About twenty metres away from me, on a rocky outcrop, a man of around sixty, in wonderfully good shape, was just about to go down to the sea. Of middling height, quite stocky, but with well-toned muscles, with no trace of fat beneath skin that was olive both by nature and from the sun, with a white beard long enough to flutter in the breeze, and with hair tied in a long pony-tail, likewise white, he was indeed an apparition, an epiphany. A few metres away from him, barking in a friendly, playful way, there was a poodle, of a colour rather like its master’s: white with black spots. The old god of the sea descended into the water and confidently struck out toward the main, doing a flawless front crawl. The dog went down to the water’s edge, took a short dip, shook itself vigorously, and then started running up and down the shore, barking every now and then in the direction of its master, but without very much conviction. Meanwhile, I came out of the water, dried myself, and picked up Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco, which I had decided to re-read. Absorbed in my reading, I failed to notice the either the god’s re-emergence from the water or his departure. When I stopped reading to light a cigarette, I merely noticed that the dog was no longer there, and nor was the heap of clothes left by the swimmer. There was no trace of the two companions anywhere in the vicinity.
Every evening, after five o’clock, I am in the habit of going for a long walk by the seashore. When I am feeling a little lazy or too tired after sunbathing and swimming all day, I take the shortest path to a small sea wall to the east of the resort. I stretch out on a chaise longue (not something I would do in the daytime, when I prefer the crag of my little islet!) and look at the stars or the waves, tranquilly alternating marine aerosols with cigarette smoke. From time to time I take a sip from a 50 ml bottle of whiskey. Obviously, the 50 ml bottle originally contained ouzo, but I prefer a drier, less sweet tipple. At longer intervals, I drink a mouthful of plain Cretan mineral water. But as a rule I don’t feel very tired, and so I take a walk along the esplanade for a few kilometres, as far as the little church in the port of Hersonissos. When I get there, I enter the church, one third of which is hollowed out of the rock, the other two thirds being built of stone, and I meditate for a few minutes, I light candles for the living and the departed, and then I sit on a wooden bench to the left of the church, beneath a cypress tree. That evening, however, much to my annoyance, I observed from a distance that the bench was taken, and so I continued my walk along the sea wall that shelters the port, at the end of which there is a small lighthouse with a green, but very powerful lamp. Evening after evening, hundreds of small fishing boats, yachts, sloops, and largish motorboats stand at anchor there and it is pleasant to hear them clinking against the buoys as they rock in the swell. The sound is softer than the one I heard on another summer night in a port on the North Sea, however. From a distance, I suddenly noticed that my favourite bench was now vacant, and so I strode off towards the stone steps that lead to the church. I tossed my canvas bag onto the bench to show it was taken and then went into the church for my short ritual of meditation and remembrance. I like to be alone in the house of the Lord, the same as there are many other places where I like to be alone. After leaving the church, I sat on the bank, readied my cigarettes and 50 ml bottle of whiskey, and rummaged in my bag for the bottle of water.
As I was doing so, I thought of the rainbow that had appeared above the sea after a sunny rain shower that had lasted no more than five minutes. I had admired it from the hotel balcony, while savouring my post-prandial coffee. An interesting phenomenon: there had been a few grey, compact clouds, and a few white, fluffy clouds, and so it was hard to determined where that brief, somehow rhythmic, rain shower had come from and why the rainbow had appeared while the last raindrops were still falling. Suddenly, I heard the sputter of a motor scooter in the lane that led from the quay up to the church. It came to a stop in front of the church and when I looked up I saw the god of that afternoon alighting from the scooter at the same time as the poodle, which had been sitting on the footboard. While Poseidon was stabilising the scooter, the dog went inside to inspect the church, and then came out and sat down beneath the cypress tree in front. The man entered, lingered for a few minutes, came out, and locked the door. He noticed me and greeted me with a nod of his head, muttering something that I didn’t catch rather than didn’t understand. I returned his greeting and he came closer. Seeing the bottle, he said in English that it was small. I made a sign for him to help himself. I took a sip and gave the bottle back. It emptied very quickly. He made a sign for me not to worry and went inside the church. I watched the small waves breaking on the shore inside the harbour, but the sound I heard was rather that of the waves breaking beyond the sea wall, out of sight. Poseidon lingered inside the church for a few minutes and came back holding a half-litre bottle of raki and two small glasses. “Raki,” he said, placing the bottle on the bench. I told him that in my own language it is called “rachiu,” which means that we must have borrowed the word from them, although not necessarily the recipe. We spent about an hour together, chatting in the strangest mixture of languages imaginable. We finished the bottle. He was seventy-two and had been the priest there for more than thirty years. Before that he had been a ship’s captain. He had lost his first wife while he was away at sea, returning from a long voyage to South America. He had lost his appetite for seafaring and at the age of thirty-five he had enrolled as a theology student on the mainland. In the beginning, he had served in villages in Crete, but just over twenty years ago, when the opportunity arose, he had settled here, at the church hollowed from the rock, a stone’s throw from the sea. He had celebrated mass according to the canons, but apart from that had left the church unlocked, in the hands of the Lord. But for about three years, after a series of thefts and damage caused by people who had started to shelter there during the night, he had been coming to lock the church when midnight approached. He had also lost his second wife, but at least this time he had been at home by her side, assisting her during her long illness and keeping watch over her to the end. He told the story of his life calmly, in that mixture of languages we had hit upon together, I mostly in French, he mostly in English, but we understood each other quite well: he was at peace with the world, with himself, and with the Lord above. He saw I had in my bag a small reproduction of a famous Greek icon of Saint Demetrios, my father’s patron saint, and he asked me if I would like him to consecrate it. I naturally agreed. I am not sure why he felt the need to shrive me. Perhaps because I was a foreigner. The Foreigner.
We drank the last glass. We shook hands, wishing each other kali nichta, and he went to his scooter. By the time he reached it, the poodle, which I had forgotten about, had already sat down on the footboard and was wagging its tail. He started the engine, waved me farewell in seaman’s style, and set off down the lane, leaving in his wake the fading sounds of the motor and the merry barks of his dog. I remained sitting on the bench beneath the spreading cypress. I smoked a cigarette, and then another, stood up and walked slowly back to the hotel. I was thinking about how I would have to wake up very early if I was to make my planned visit to the cave in which Zeus was born. What a thing! To have met Poseidon in the guise of a servant of Christ! On the island of Zeus.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“You read it and are amazed. A principle of composition, a reference, an ambiguous passage requiring elucidation, a parable, a minor philological detail, or a technique of seduction immediately strikes the eye. With uncontested mastery and chameleonic language, Liviu Antonesei has written a superb book, gathering together in one drawer most of the registers required by quality prose.”
“Reality is not what you believe or see: this is the moral of the book and of (almost) every prose piece it contains. In a world of simulacra, nothing is in fact what it seems to be: neither people’s lives, nor sexual relationships, nor major political events.”
“I have been a supporter of Antonesei the prose writer for many years. Hitherto I have held him to be very good. After the eleven short stories in this book, he seems to me very good and then some.”
“The whole charm of the prose pieces in The Innocent and Collateral Victims of a Bloody War with Russia is to be found in the absolute freedom of the themes, registers, and, why not, the settings. (…) Liviu Antonesei is a remarkable prose writer, endowed with both humour and profound nostalgia.”