Simona Sora (born 8 July 1967) has published literary reviews, essays, and translations in cultural journals in Romania and abroad. She published the novel Hotel Universal (2012), which was translated in France (Belfond Publishing House), and Croatia (Bozicevic Publishing House), the essays Regasirea intimitatii (The Rediscovery of Intimacy, 2008), Ultima Thule. Cetatile dacice din Muntii Orastiei (The ultimate Thule. The Dacian Forts of the Orastie Mountains, Artec, Spain, 2009), and Seinfeld şi sora lui Nabokov ( Seinfeld and Nabokov’s sister, 2014). Simona Sora won several awards: the Prize „Ion Creangă“ of the Romanian Academy, the Union of Writers Prize for Debut Book; the Observator Cultural Prize for Debut; the Alba Iulia Colloquia on Contemporary Romanian Literature Prize for Exegesis of Romanian Prose; and the Romania Literara Prize for Debut. She was one of the finalists in the Literature Section of the Prometheus Grand Prizes awarded by the Anonimul Foundation in 2007. In 2007, she was awarded a PhD in Philology for her thesis on intimacy and corporeality in literature.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
On the night when they laid its foundation stone, the Hotel Universal (or the Teodoraki Hotel, as it was known at the time) was still in the middle of Bucharest, as if somebody had taken rule and compass and measured out equal distances from the Paupers’ Quarter to the Cuckoo Market and from the rills of the Tanners’ Quarter to the Water Tower. And if, after taking those measurements, that somebody had paused pensively on the empty spot purchased in July 1849 by Hagi Tudorache for trade in Leipzig wares, he would have been amazed to see approaching at around midnight from the direction of the Red Inn, without haste and without talking among themselves, the three merchants who had banded together to build the inn: Tudorache, Leon Manoach and George San Marin. The spring rain shower had stopped a few minutes earlier, but the changeable April air had not yet cleared. They slowly walked past the Greeks’ Inn, turned toward the Stavropoleos Monastery, and emerged from Saddlers Street in the lane at the back of the Old Court, still silent and with a heavy gait, as if they were on their way to be tried in a court of law. When they reached the back of the shop of Ghinea the shalwar merchant, Hagi Tudorache came to a halt and took from his pocket a key, with which he unlocked a slab-like portal on the other side of the lane, which led down into a cellar. The three descended into a narrow tunnel that smelled of something burnt. Behind them, the slab shut soundlessly in the exact moment when it began to rain once more.
It is not known for sure what happened in the cellar, recounted Maria, more than a hundred years later, in the kitchen where she was making rose-petal jam with Maia. Leon Manoach had later told his wife, Sofia, and she had told Radu, in her room at the Hotel Universal, that as soon as he descended below ground he had sensed a smell of sulphur and burnt wood. It had crossed his mind that he should go back, but as we was moving through the narrow tunnel between Hagi Tudorache and George San Marin, it would not have been easy. And so the three of them went forward – after descending the wet, slimy flight of steps (nobody had passed that way since they had been washed) – as far as the end of the passage, with only Tudorache’s candle to light the way as he led them to view the cellar of the future inn. It had also been Tudorache who, two years previously, had purchased from Polizu and Petrovici the foundations burnt in the great fire, without yet knowing what he was going do with the site. He felt old and ill, he moved with increasing difficulty on legs that were like lead and tingled painfully in the morning, and it was increasingly difficult for him to find joy in anything. But those places, which would later be called Gabroveni, had awakened him. He wished to build an inn there, not a bezesten – a Turkish-style enclosed bazaar for merchants – but a house for men of lesser girth and their close lady friends.
He had the money to build it for himself and to give it the name he dreamed of: The Tudoraki Inn. Sometimes, at night, he would see the inn sign shining between the gas lamps. In the daytime, he would see it standing out between the two storeys among the hodgepodge of Gabroveni Street commercial premises. At the last meeting with his brothers (a meeting of the richest merchants of Bucharest, held every year at the end of April, attended if not by the Prince’s adjutant, then at least by a special envoy of the Leipzig merchants), however, he had been advised to join forces with Manaoch and San Marin to build the inn in the middle of the lane at the rear of the Old Court. Each was to contribute equal parts, leaving a fathom for the lane. But the cellar was to remain intact, swarming with vermin and reeking of mire. “How could Hagi Tudorache build a fine building over such a sewer?” wondered Maria, leaving Maia to eat her jam and hurrying off to answer the telephone, which would not stop ringing.
They walked like that for an unknown length of time, as the tunnel twisted and seemingly turned back in the direction whence it set out, Maria went on, showing Maia the green chair. Sometimes they trod on each other’s heels and splashed each other when Costache came to a stop, making a sound like a bridled horse: before them opened a circular room, in the middle of which they saw a stone blackened presumably by the fire. As if they had known what to do – and George San Marin, the only one who never spoke about that night, perhaps really did know – they knelt around the truncated stone, which resembled a table, and waited until Costache, snuffling and cursing the day when he decided to build himself a hotel, rather than a bezesten, in the heart of Bucharest, lifted himself from the mire and mumbled a few words, of which Leon caught only “complete” or “completely”, words that were muffled and creaky, like a door left ajar. At least that is what Sofia recalled, in the Universal, as Rada read the coffee grounds.
By the early ’90s, when the Hotel Universal at No. 12 Gabroveni Street was converted into a student hall of residence, the building had long since ceased to be at the exact centre of Bucharest. Dilapidated and damp, infested with rats which swarmed along long corridors covered in an ancient mustard-coloured carpet, which, especially in summer, emanated an odour akin to that of a stagnant pool, the Universal was conceded to the League of University Students after many nights of cunning negotiations. The building could not be demolished, as it had been nationalised illegally, but nor could it be used as a hotel for normal people, and so it became a bargaining chip in negotiations between the new crypto-communist regime and the students who but a few weeks previously had fled panic-stricken beneath hails of bullets that were either real (as they themselves believed) or imagined (as others would later claim). “What did we die for in December?” one of the heads of the League of Students had asked during the negotiations held in January.
“For the Universal,” answered one of the new secretaries of state from the Ministry of Education, who was still in the habit of slowly pronouncing his name followed by his new title when he looked in the mirror each morning. And the answer of that new political commissar was to have a long career at the ministry in question. For years and years, whenever there were tough negotiations or budgetary recalculations whereby money was channelled elsewhere than would have been normal, the final answer to the question, asked in mocking tones and increasingly drowned out by deep guffaws, “What did we die for in December?” the final, abyssal answer, provoking peals of laughter, was always the same: “For the Universal.”
Maia lived at the Hotel Universal from the very beginning. She had chanced to be present at the nocturnal negotiations, when the former proletarian brothel (as Teodoraki’s inn had become after being nationalised by the communists) was allocated as a student hall of residence, and, via the former revolutionaries’ associations, she had been given a room on the top floor: a mansard added in the 1970s. At night, when frenetic music and orgasmic shouts echoed up from the inner courtyard to her book-crammed mansard with a balcony, Maia knew with a clarity she was not wont to analyse that she had come home. In spite of all this, she had never lived in Bucharest before. She was completely unfamiliar with the city’s old centre, with its reeking, crooked streets. Not even in films had she ever seen anything as promiscuous as the Hotel Universal on Gabroveni Street. Nevertheless, when for the first time she touched the metal bar of the glass door in the main entrance and trod the broad red marble step in which the letters HU were embedded in white stone, she felt the tangled knot of rage that had accumulated around her thymus during long years of failure, humiliation, and fear begin to dissolve.
She entered the smoky lobby where the bar of the former hotel still plied its trade alongside the administration of the new hall of residence. Nothing had changed, she told herself, in that anomalous way typical of her nature. Some swarthy men were leaning against the wall to the left. Rhythmic thuds could be heard coming from behind the bar. And when Maia said hello, as if she were in the reception of a real hotel, the laughter changed to snarls and grunts and the music from the bar began to howl. For an instant she felt the urge to open the door by which she had just entered and flee. But she remained standing in the middle of the bar, bewildered, trying to understand what she was doing there and above all why she felt at home in that sewer in which she had arrived by chance.
For a moment she thought about whether she should take the lift to her room on the last floor. But she straightaway abandoned the idea – a life-saving intuition, as she was to say to herself a few weeks later, when the lift cabin broke loose in the middle of the night and fell from the top floor all the way to the basement with an infernal crash. She climbed the two double storeys, where the rooms were twice as tall as the mansard. The staircase narrowed toward the large windows that looked over the inner courtyard, whence could be heard a cacophony of competing music and somebody shouting at the top of his lungs “Noro!” It smelled of garbage and plaster and undoubtedly this was how it would smell to the very end: two distinct, superposed smells, one heavy and sour, the other artificial. On the second floor she paused. It was dark. The only light was from outside. She felt a scraggily cat rub up against her legs, but it scampered away before she could get a look at it. This was the only time she ever saw a cat in the Universal. Out of breath, she slowly climbed the staircase, which by now wound in a spiral, and began to look for her room, using a lighter to see the numbers on the doors. At the end of the staircase she turned right instead of left and had to retrace her steps when she saw that the door numbers were getting higher. She groped back the other way, burning her fingers on the yellowish flame of the lighter, and on the second door she saw the number 308 writ in large figures. She took the massy key from her pocket, whose large metal fob weighed at least a quarter of a kilogram, and tried to open the door. The lock would not turn. Starting to panic and trying to force the lock, she realised that the door, which had suddenly and silently swung open, as if it had been oiled only yesterday, was in fact open.
Three kinds of humiliation
Pavel Dreptu had run away from home. It was not the first time. Over the course of three marriages, each of which ended badly, he had left home many times, he had taken refuge, imperiously, dignifiedly, at the lodgings of female students (of the vain and solitary kind, without friends or lovers). These budding intellectuals, bluestockings crammed with undigested reading, quivering to declamations from Kavafis and Marcus Aurelius, received him with open arms. The main thing was that they should not be natives of Bucharest: provincialism lent them a complex, of either superiority or inferiority, and that never went amiss. Moreover, if they were from the provinces, they usually lived alone, and given he was also their professor they were delighted to take him in. The main thing, and this he remembered from his youth, was to catch them unawares, to envelop them in tales of strange loves and certain death, to gaze penetratingly at them while demanding they conjugate a Greek verb, and then to turn up at five o’clock in the morning, that is, neither in the evening nor at night, and, devastated, to ask for shelter. None had ever refused him.
With Maia he acted no differently. He attempted to turn up out of the blue early one morning. He vainly knocked on the door of her room in the Hotel Universal for ten minutes. There was no reply. He then sat down on the fusty carpet, unchanged since the 1970s, when the mansard had been added. He took out the bottle of Bobsleigh vodka he always kept in his shoulder bag and drank himself to sleep, something he had not done for a long time. He awoke when the cleaning women climbed to the third floor to take their ex officio coffee and stumbled over him. They took him for a drunkard from off Lipscani Street, because he looked dreadful: black and blue, one eye swollen, his jaw lolling. During the short time he had lain there, he had soaked up the stench of stale urine and booze from the mustard-coloured carpet. He mumbled something about Maia, but the women berated him, shaking their brooms at him, and he fled stiff-legged, leaving behind his Bobsleigh on the window ledge overlooking the inner courtyard. If he had not been so drunk – for the last few days he had been guzzling enormous quantities of alcohol as a way of forgetting the savage beating administered to him by his future wife – he might, with his one good eye, have seen Maia leaning, her eyes wide open (although she was fast asleep), against the balustrade of the balcony of room 308. And if chronic alcoholism had not exacerbated his narcissism, and if it had entered his head to open the window at the end of the main corridor, he would have seen Maia smiling as she stood there motionless, because at that very moment she was dreaming of soaring above the courtyard of the Universal, of flying over the Stavropoleos Church and the Dîmbovița River, before swerving over the High Court and gliding back down Smîrdan Street, as far as Lipscani Street, where the huddled shops were starting to open, with their cheap bridal gowns and kerosene.
The next morning, however, at around the same hour, when the concierge shouted up to her from the ground floor – her smoker’s yell resounding around the asymmetrical space of the inner courtyard, causing the windows to rattle and eliciting foul-mouthed curses – Maia heard all too well. She woke up straight away. She promised herself that she would lay out more pillows on cement floor of the balcony in the evening. She pulled a pair of jeans over her pyjamas and raced downstairs. The only thing that entered her mind was that somebody must have died, even though it was highly unlikely that anything of the sort could have happened without her being forewarned in some way, even in some comical way, like when her other grandmother had died, with whom she had not been very close. At the time she had dreamed a Chip and Dale cartoon, which started out normally enough, with the two squirrels storing nuts and acorns in a hollow tree. As they worked, the squirrels grew so tired that their eyes began to shine disturbingly, lighting up the forest. But when the hollow tree was full and the lumberjack arrived as usual with his axe, the two critters turned the green laser beams of their eyes on him and reduced him to a pile of ash. The cartoon ended with a white spotlight circling into the middle of the screen while Dale concluded interrogatively: “Need any planks?” They did indeed need planks that very day, but they bought them from the funeral parlour, already joined together.
The person on the telephone was Pavel Dreptu, however, her professor: he was giving an optional course on poetry, which she herself had suggested he do, when she was appointed to the teaching board on behalf of the League of Students. He begged her to come and visit him. He was desperate. He would probably not hold out until evening, he said. He was feeling very poorly. He had been beaten up by some hooligans on his way home. They had given him a black eye, broken his false teeth, punched him in the kidneys. He knew she had once been a nurse, he finally said, tossing in the one argument Maia would not been able to resist. She quickly dressed, took some syringes, gauze, bandages, and ampoules – the still intact first-aid kit she had had since the revolution – and ran to Lahovari Square, whence she took the number 331 bus to New Bucharest.
The door to the flat was unlocked. As she pressed the jammed doorbell button, she remembered that these had been his last words over the telephone: I’ll leave the door unlocked – in a grave voice, as if he were lecturing – make sure you look after me. She entered, aware of the gravity of the situation, although she would have preferred not to enter. She called out a few times in a strangled voice and she almost took fright when he appeared, holding a handkerchief to his mouth, dabbing himself, apologizing and taking her in his arms in a single jerky motion, as if he were a robot whose batteries were running out. Maia mi, he said in a fiery voice, Maia mi, how good of you to come! He was well pickled again, he was surrounded by a strong reek of alcohol, and when he hugged her with both arms, clasping her in an unpleasant vice-like grip, Maia remembered how her father used to smell when he came back home from work late at night. She extricated herself, mumbling something of a practical order. She felt like walking straight out of that grey chipboard door on the ninth floor. What was she doing there? But in the end he was a drunk, grateful old man, men from the south are more affectionate, and probably he was slobbering only because he hadn’t had time to put in his false teeth properly, his wonderful false teeth, as he was later to tell her, when they would work together on deciphering some long since deciphered old manuscripts. But right then his wonderful false teeth were posing serious difficulties when it came to attaching them without their slipping, which visibly hindered him from seducing Maia. Excuse me, he said, looking at the front door, excuse me for a moment, and he went out, leaving her in the middle of that room sparsely furnished with an old desk, a trunk full of letters from a single person, and, along the walls, squat shelves with books maniacally arranged by author and language. She did not feel like touching anything. The spines of the books were aligned to the millimetre; the blank page on the desk was exactly parallel to its edge. There was no carpet on the floor, and so when he came back, Maia could hear his approaching footfalls rhythmically tapping on the polished parquet. His sagging, moist face contrasted with his English clothes and his white hair, which was a little too long, but combed strand by strand. Maia tried to view him with professional eyes. She had no idea whether his swollen eye needed to be washed first or to be bandaged without further ado, whether he had had an X-ray, whether he had taken anything to ease the pain apart from alcohol. She asked him whether he had been to the police, and he gave a bitter laugh: I saw them coming between the tenement buildings, I tried to avoid them, but they surrounded me, saying, old man, you’re getting a bit too big for your boots, aren’t you? And I couldn’t fend them off, even though I’ve been used to beatings ever since I was a child, when my father clouted me I would end up on top of the wardrobe, he sent my flying more than once… As he recounted the beating to Maia now (he had already described it on Free Europe as a delayed spasm of the Securitate), he went over to the trunk full of letters from a single person, on which Maia had strategically seated herself, and he dramatically fell to his knees, letting his head rest in her lap. Maia felt the thin material of her jeans grown damp from the mixture of liquids on his face, but she did not move, she held her breath, wondering what it was he wanted of her. It was pity he wanted and so she briefly stroked his thin, glossy hair. He sprang up with a metallic grinding noise and kissed her on the mouth, babbling meaningless words: come, come, duckling, let’s go, right now, now, now, come… But Maia, fearful that her irrepressible need to vomit would humiliate him once and for all, leapt to her feet, still welded to the slippery sucker of the century-older man, she burst out of the front door, and then fled down the steep stairs. Finding herself in front of the building, she realised that she had left behind her first-aid kit from the time of the revolution, how vexing… She reached the no. 331 bus stop. It was deserted. A bus had probably just left. She could not hear, she could not see, she could not feel the cold, she could not think. All she felt was a nauseating, opaque dizziness. She leaned against an electricity pylon, unable to understand why she felt so sick; she had been through worse things. Maybe he had poisoned her. It was exactly like the first symptoms of strychnine poisoning; she had read about it in a book about famous poisoners. She did not even feel it when a dog, one of the hundreds of strays that roamed New Bucharest, cocked its leg and released a boiling jet of urine over her jeans. It was the third humiliation she had suffered that day, a humiliation she tried to wash away in the sink in her room once she got back to the Hotel Universal. She dried her jeans with the iron and scented them with L’air du temps, but in the end she tossed them down the rubbish chute, certain that she would never wear them again.
Reconstruction of the place
Contemplation and meditation on things visible and invisible
If you could have looked down from beneath the roof of the Universal at the plan of the narrow tunnels that the tenants of the student hall of residence entered and exited during the three days and nights of the sequestration, you would have seen the shape of a pretzel. On each side of the corridor on the ground floor of the hotel, two false walls had been built, it was not known when, which joined in front of the administrative office and next to the two rubbish chutes at the end of the building that faced the Cocor department store. To enter the Hotel Universal tunnel you had to know that the floor by the two rubbish chutes lifted up and that you could safely descend into the cellar or go another two metres and then, where the two loops of the pretzel joined, you could emerge directly into the street via an air vent. “The last pretzel,” as they called it, was the tunnel via which the tenants of the Universal could enter or exit the hotel in less than three minutes. Of course, almost everybody knew of the exit, even Mr Dincă, but at least during the three days and three nights the sequestration lasted, neither the police nor the informers from the Law faculty, known to one and all, discovered that you did not have to go through the heavy plate-glass and metal door on Gabroveni Street in order to leave the Universal.
The “last pretzel” had been built at the same time as the mansard and the three non-existent rooms above the administrative office, in the same period when all the pretzel shops in central Bucharest had been shut down. It was said that at the end of the 1970s Ceauşescu himself had ordered the closure of the small shops that baked and sold pretzels, so that Nicu, his youngest son (lately exiled to Transylvania, where there were neither pretzels nor cheese pasties), would not be tempted to come back home, no longer having anywhere to snack between meals in the capital. By all appearances, the arrival of the black Dacias on Magheru Boulevard at five o’clock one Friday morning and the confiscation of the dough, which had already risen and which, despite the cold, would go on rising inside the cars of the secret police and on the Glina rubbish tip, where it was finally dumped, were part of a pattern that may be summed up as: Eat a proper meal!
The blue shop signs were taken down, all of them rather uninspired, as each merely stated, too simply: Pretzels, along with an authorisation number. The stocks of by then rock-hard pretzels were confiscated, which not even the stray dogs that had by then started to multiply would have eaten. And the doors of the bakeries were sealed, like at a crime scene. From Cosmonauts’ Square to Dorobanţi Square, from the Perla Restaurant to Magheru Boulevard and the University, which young Nicu used to pass on his way to the Danube Restaurant and his first brandy of the day, there was not one pretzel to be found. The next day, when the Little Prince, as they called him, went outside into air as smokily tinted as his sunglasses and the windows of his Renault, he must have thought he was dreaming. All the pretzels in Bucharest had vanished and they would not be returning any time soon. Some even said that it was unlucky to sell pretzels, after the last pretzel baker in Romană Square had climbed to the top of the tall block with the portico and shouted in a cracked voice for more than an hour, shaking like a leaf, until they straitjacketed him and took him away to Hospital No. 9: With pretzels and cheese pies you were the boss, damn your eyes!
At the very same time, at the Hotel Universal they constructed a gigantic pretzel-shaped tunnel, furtively and by night, although also taking care over the proportions and details. Historians of communism argue the tunnel was undoubtedly the work of the wing of the Securitate that would eventually strike at Ceaușescu. In fact, it was a pretzel-shaped reconstruction of the old tunnel from the early days of the Gabroveni Inn, now reconnected to the interior and stairwell of the hotel. In the middle of the pretzel, just before the administrative office, could be found Christian’s room. Christian was a mysterious character, a poet and later a historian of the Church Fathers, of whom many strange things were said, including that he had joined the Jesuits and practised Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises to the letter. What that entailed nobody could say, however, since the exercises had not yet been translated into Romanian. When Christian went to Spain for good, following in the footsteps of the Jesuit brother, the students from Turnu-Măgurele took over the room, and Cosma – the brother-in-law, as he was known, as if he were brother-in-law to the whole of the Hotel Universal – decided to renovate it. He was not content merely with repairing and repainting the room; he also wanted to soundproof it, and so he started drilling holes in the wall. It did not take long for him to discover, at the end of the bed, facing east, a bricked-up wall, which gave on to a passage that ran the length of the original wall, parallel to the hotel, curved around the stairwell and then ran back along the other side of the building. At the rubbish chute it continued as far as the air vent on Covaci Street, behind the University. Cosma did not retrace his steps, but went straight to Noro to tell him about the whole adventure. Noro the wise decided that it should remain a secret and so it did for a few months, until they needed a secret exit, for a policeman and psychologist were bent on discovering who had pushed the Literature professor from the third floor of the Hotel Universal.
Noro entered and exited the Universal constantly and obsessively during those three days of unauthorised sequestration – an illegal and pointless interdiction. When the investigators sent for him, Noro was not at home. Where can he be? Dincă asked respectfully. In the shower, answered Simona, even though the water from the shower lashed the century-old cement so loudly that everybody on that floor could hear it. Maybe he had finished showering and was getting dried in complete silence, suggested Dincă, just as respectfully, after which he went down to his office and informed the self-appointed investigators that Noro, the accommodation manager and chief of the Turnu-Măgurele gang, had just got into the shower, but he would definitely come within the next hour. He came about two hours later, after the lads retrieved him from the basement of the Literature Faculty, where he was prospecting with a view to opening a bar.
That evening, when he told them what had taken place during the interrogation, they all regretted not having made certain things clear from the outset. For example, that they had never told Dreptu he should leave the Universal; that Mişu had not beaten him up when he, drunk, surly and uninvited, had sat down at their table at the Blanduziei Beer Garden; that he, Noro, was fast asleep with his wife in his room on the night when the professor had fallen from the third floor. All these things were partly true, but there was also something else: Dreptu had been informed that he had to vacate his room by the beginning of the summer session, which is to say, within a week; Madhouse had almost frightened the old professor to death when he had lifted him in the air, grabbing him by the lapels of his green corduroy jacket and choking him with the collar of his shirt, albeit without hitting him.
On the night of Dreptu’s fall, Noro had been fast asleep in his room, until Simona shook him and shouted in his ear: wake up, they’re killing the old duffer! What Noro had not told anybody was that he had rushed out into the dark corridor, wearing only his underpants and a vest, and in front of room 308 he had collided with Georgică. The door was wide open and within there was total darkness; they both entered, but there was nobody in the room or on the balcony, and when they leaned over the balustrade, they saw a little heap with two straight legs, like something from Aliona’s tarot pack, and each went back to his room, until morning, when, with the first light, the first screams rang out.