Part novel, part metaphysical essay and poem, Solenoid (which is about to get a new paperback edition) is a sum of themes and images to be found in Mircea Cărtărescu’ s work. Published at the end of 2015, it quickly generated an out pour of reactions, texts and reviews in Romanian literary journals, as well as a powerful response from Romanian readers. An important English excerpt has been translated by Rodica Guja.
I got lice again but I no longer find it surprising, scary or sickening. It just itches. I always have nits, I keep shaking them away when I comb my hair in the bathroom: nacre coloured little eggs, shining blackishly on the sink surface. Enough are left among the teeth of the comb and I clean them away with the old toothbrush, the one with the musty end. I can’t avoid getting lice – I am a teacher in a periphery school. Half the kids have lice, they’re found when school starts, upon the medical check, when the nurse uncoils their hair with the expert gesture of chimpanzees – just short of cracking the chitin shells of the captured insects between her teeth. However, she recommends the parents to use a whitish lye-like solution, smelling of chemicals, the same one the teachers end using. In a few days, the entire school ends up smelling of anti-lice solution.
It’s not so bad, though, at least we don’t have bed bugs, haven’t seen any for long. I remember them too, I saw them myself when I was about three, in the little villa in Floreasca where we lived around ’59-60. My father would show them to me when he removed the mattress suddenly. They were like scarlet little beans, hard and shiny like berries or like those black ivy grains I knew I wasn’t supposed to put in my mouth. But the beans between the mattress and the bed frame would run away quickly towards the dark corners in such panic, that I would start laughing. I looked forward to my father lifting the heavy corner of the mattress once more (when the bed sheets were changed) in order to see the chubby little animals again. I then laughed so vividly, that my mother, who let my hair grow long, full of curls, would always take me in her arms and spit at me against evil eye. My father would then bring the bug poison pump and shoot a foul smelling shower over the bed bugs hidden around the woodwork joints, giving them a hell of a time. I liked the smell of the bed wood, fir tree still full of resin. I even liked the smell of the bug poison. Then my father would put the old mattress back and my mother would bring the sheets. She would lay one of them on the bed and it would swell like a big doughnut I took an uncanny pleasure shoving myself in. I would then wait for the sheet to slowly fall over me, to mould over my little body, however not on each of its little parts, but designing complicated folds and creases. The rooms used to be big then, like halls, and there used to be two giant people who moved around and, nobody knows why, took care of me: mother and father.
But I don’t remember bed bug stings. My mother would tell me they are like small red circles on your skin with a white dot in the middle. And that they rather burn than itch. I don’t know, the fact is I always get lice from the children when I bend over their notebooks, it’s like a professional disease. I’ve been wearing my hair long since the time I could have become a writer. That’s all that’s left of that career, the locks. And polo-necks, like the one worn by first writer I had ever seen and who is left in my mind as the image, glorious and untouchable, of the author: the one from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My hair always touches the hair of the little girls, bushy and full of ribbons. Insects are crawling up on these chitin semi-transparent ropes. Their claws have the curvature of the hair thread which they clasp perfectly. Then they crawl on the head skin, leaving their excrements and eggs there. They sting this never seen by the sun, immaculately white, parchment-like skin – it is their food. When the itching becomes unbearable, I turn on the hot water in the bathtub and I prepare to exterminate them.
I like the sound of the water in the tub, that speedy whirl, the swirly attack of the billions of drops and strands twisted in a spiral, the roar of the vertical flow in the greenish gelatine of the water increasing infinitesimally, conquering the walls of the tub by obstacle driven swells and sudden invasions, looking like an endless strain of transparent ants swarming in the Amazonian jungle. I turn off the tap and it becomes silent, the ants melt in one another and the soft jelly-like sapphire rests peacefully, looks at me like a clear eye and expects me. Naked, I get into the water voluptuously. I immediately sink my head and I feel the water walls mounting symmetrically on my cheeks and forehead. The water feels tight, it is heavy around me, makes me levitate in its middle. I am the stone of a fruit with green-blue flesh. My hair spreads to the edges of the tub, like a black bird would spread its wings. The hairs reject each other, each of them is independent, each of them floats, suddenly soaked, among the others, without touching them, similar to the tentacles of sea lilies. I move my head suddenly to one side, then the other, to feel the hairs get tense, spread through the dense water, get weight, an unexpected weight. It’s difficult to snatch them out of their water sockets. The lice hang tight to the thick trunks, they become one. Their inhuman faces show a kind of perplexity. Their carcasses are from the same substance as the hairs. They also get soaked in the hot water, but they do not dissolve. The little respiratory tubes placed symmetrically on the edge of their corrugated wombs are tightly closed, like the stuck nostrils of the seals. I float passively in the tub, relaxed like an anatomical sample, the skin of my fingers swells and creases. I am also soft, as if covered by translucent chitin. The arms, left to themselves, float to the surface. The sex also tends to go up like a cork. It’s so strange that I have a body, that I am in a body.
I get in a sitting position and I start soaping my hair and my body. As long as I had kept my ears under water, I had clearly heard discussions and flumps from neighbouring apartments, as in a dream. Now I have gelatine pods in my ears. I move my hands full of soap on my body. My body is not erotic for me. It’s as if I were moving my hands over my mind, not over my body. My mind dressed in flesh, my flesh dressed in cosmos.
As with lice, I am not very surprised when my soapy fingers reach my bellybutton. This has been happening to me for a few years. At first I got scared, of course, because I had heard your navel can burst. But I had never worried about mine, because my bellybutton was only a hole in a womb “stuck to my spine”, as my mother used to say. On the bottom of this hole there was something unpleasant to touch that never worried me. The navel was nothing else but the hollow place of the apple the stem end sticks out of. We have grown up as well like fruits on a petiole crossed by little veins and arteries. But a few months ago, while I was moving my fingers hurriedly over this accident of my body, only for it not to be left unwashed, I felt something unusual, something that shouldn’t have been there: a kind of stump that scratched the tip of my finger, something inorganic that wasn’t part of my body. It was ingrained into the pale flesh knot that was starring from there, like an eye between two eyelids. I looked carefully under water for the first time, spreading the edges of the crevasse with my fingers. As I couldn’t see properly, I got up from the tub and the water lens from my bellybutton drained slowly. God, I was telling myself smiling, I end up contemplating my own navel… Yes, it was a sort of a pale knot, which had lately gotten more shape than usually, because at almost thirty, the muscles of my belly had become more relaxed. A fill like the nail of a child in one of the volutes of the knot proved to be just dirt. But, rigid and painful, the small black-greenish stump I had felt with the tip of my finger protruded from the other side. I couldn’t figure out what it might be. I tried to clutch it with my nails, but, while pulling, I felt a small pain which scared me. It could be a kind of a wart one would be wiser not to mess with. I tried to forget about it and just leave it where it had grown. During our lifetime we get enough moles, warts, dead bones and other miseries we patiently carry along, not to mention nails and hair, the teeth that fall off – pieces of us that no longer belong to us and that get a life of their own. I still have all my little milk teeth in a Tic Tac box, as my mother saved and cared for them, like I also have my pigtails from the age of three, through her care as well. Our pictures with broken enamel and jagged on the edges like a stamp are such mementos too. Our body did once indeed interpose between the sun and the camera lens, leaving its shadow on the film, no different than the moon does, upon eclipse, lay its shadow over the solar disk.
But a week later, once more in the bathtub, my bellybutton felt unusual and irritated again, the unidentified little stump had lengthened a bit and felt different, rather disquieting than painful. When our tooth hurts, we push it with our tongue at the risk of eventually finding vivid pain. Anything out of the ordinary on the sensitive map of our body turns us incisive and agitated: we must get rid of the upsetting sensation that doesn’t leave us in peace at all costs. Sometimes, at night, when going to sleep, I take my sock off and I feel that the fleshy, yellow-translucent skin on the lateral side of my big toe has thickened excessively. I clutch the hard swell with my fingers, I keep pulling it for as long as half an hour until I manage to rip an edge, which I go on pulling, with painful fingertips, increasingly irritated and preoccupied, until I detach a thick glassy peel with striations like digital papillae, a full centimetre of dead skin which now hangs disgracefully off the toe. I can’t go on pulling it, because I’d already get to the innervated layer below, to me, the one who feels the pain, nevertheless I need to get rid of that itch, that anxiety. I take the scissors and cut it, then I contemplate it for a long time: a white peel I’d produced unawares, same as I can’t remember having produced my bones. I bend it between fingers, I smell it, it smells vaguely of ammonia. The organic little piece, albeit dead, dead ever since it was part of me and added a few grams to my weight, keeps bugging me. I don’t feel like throwing it away, I turn off the light and go to sleep still holding it between my fingers. The following day all of this is definitively erased from my mind. However, I keep limping slightly for a while: the place I snatched it from hurts.
So I started to lightly pull the hard piece appearing from my navel, until I unexpectedly ended up holding it in my hand. It was a small cylinder half a centimetre long and as thin as a matchstick. It seemed blackened by time, musty and greasy and tarred by the passage of time. It was something ancient, mummified, turned into soap, damn if I know. I put it under the water flow in the sink and some of the layer of filth went off, showing its colour had possibly been yellow-greenish. I put it on the bottom of an empty matchbox. It looked like the burnt top of a matchstick.
A few weeks later, I extracted another fragment from the hot water soaked navel, twice as long this time, from the same hard and elongated substance. I now realized it was the flexible end of a piece of string, I could see the many twisted fibres it was made of. It was string, ordinary packing string. The one used, twenty seven years ago, to tie my navel in the miserable working class maternity where I had been born. My navel was aborting it slowly, one piece every two weeks, one piece the following month, then another one three months later. Today’s is the fifth and I take it out carefully and voluptuously. I straighten it, I clean it up with my nail, I wash it in the tub water. It is the longest piece yet and hopefully the last. I put it in the matchbox, next to the others: they stay there nicely, yellow-greenish-black, crooked, their ends slightly frayed. Hemp, the same stuff housewives’ grocery bags are made of, the ones that cut in the flesh of their hands when full of potatoes, the same stuff they tie packages with. On St. Mary’s Day we used to get a package from my father’s relatives in Banat, cakes with poppy seeds and honey filling. The unknotted string was my joy: I used it to tie doorknobs in order for my mother not to have another child. I used to make tens, hundreds of knots on each doorknob.
I stop caring about the string in my navel and go out of the tub, water dripping off my body. I take the anti-lice solution bottle from behind the WC and pour one finger of the stinking content on my head. I wonder which class I got them from this time, as if it mattered at all. Who knows, maybe it does. Maybe in different streets and different classes lice are of other species, other sizes.
I rinse the filthy solution, then I start combing my hair above the sparkling clean porcelain sink. And suddenly the parasites start to fall, two, five, eight, fifteen… They are extremely small, each greased in its own water drop. With a lot of difficulty, I get to see their bodies with widened wombs and three little legs, still moving, on each side. Their body and my body, as I stand, naked, bent over the sink, are made of the same organic tissues. They have analogous organs and functions. They have eyes that see the same reality, they have legs that take them through the same endless and incomprehensible world. They want to live, same as I do. I wipe them off the walls of the sink with a flow of water. They go down the drains underneath, they end up in underground sewers.
I go to sleep with wet hair next to my poor treasures: the Tic-Tac box with little child teeth, pictures from a time when I was little and my parents in their prime, the matchbox containing the string detached from my navel, my diary. I put, as I do many evenings, my little teeth on my palm: smooth little stones, still very white, that once upon a time used to be in my mouth, a mouth I used once upon a time for eating, uttering words and biting like a puppy. I wondered so many times how it would be to also have a paper bag somewhere with my vertebrae at the age of two or the phalanges of my fingers at seven…
I put the teeth back. I would really like to look at some pictures too, but I can no longer hold on. I pull the drawer of the nightstand and put everything there, in the “snakeskin” yellowed box, which had once sheltered a razor, a whisk and a box of Astor razor blades. Today it holds my shabby treasures. I pull the blanket over my head and I strive to fall asleep as fast as possible, maybe forever. My head skin no longer itches. Moreover, because it’s happened recently, I hope it will not happen again tonight.
I was thinking of dreams, of visitors, of all this madness, but now it’s not the right time. For now I’ll go back to the school where I’ve been working, lo and behold, for more than three years already. “I won’t be a teacher all my life”, I was telling myself, I remember as if it were today, when I was coming back by tram within the depth of a summer evening with scarlet clouds, from there, from the bottom of Colentina, where I had gone to see my school for the first time. But as you can see no wonder happened, so chances are it will be exactly so. After all, it hasn’t even been so bad until now. On the afternoon when, immediately after the governmental assignment, I went to see my school, I was 24 and weighed about twice as much in kilograms. I was incredibly, impossibly skinny. My moustache and long hair with a reddish shade at the time managed to only infantilise my appearance even more, so if I unexpectedly saw myself in a shop window or in the tram windows I thought I was seeing a high school boy.
It was a summer afternoon, the city was full of light all over and upwards, like a glass full of water overarching its brim. I went on the tram at Tunari, in front of the Militia Headquarters. I passed by my parents’ apartment building in Stefan cel Mare, where I was living as well, I looked, as usually, somewhere on the endless front to see the window of my room, covered with blue paper to prevent the sunlight, then I passed by the net wire fence of the Colentina Hospital. The patients’ pavilions were aligned in the vast yard like masonry war cruisers. Each one had a different shape, as if the various diseases of their inhabitants had dictated the bizarre architecture of the constructions. Or maybe the architect of each pavilion was chosen from among the patients suffering of a certain disease and created the design in order to symbolically represent his particular suffering. I knew them all, at least two had hosted me as well. As a matter of fact, right at the right end of the yard I recognized, with a thrill, the pink building with walls as thin as paper of the neurological diseases pavilion. I had spent a month there, eight years ago, for a facial paresis that still bothers me sometimes. Many nights I wander among the pavilions of the Colentina Hospital in my dreams, I get into unknown hostile buildings, with walls covered in anatomical boards…
The tram was then going past the former ITB Workshop, where my father had worked as a locksmith for a while. Apartment buildings had, however, been built in front of it, so it was hardly visible from the street. On the ground floor of an apartment building there was a clinic, right in front of the Doctor Grozovici tram stop. I had been going there for a while to have my injections, vitamins B1 and B6, as a result of the same paresis I had when I was sixteen. My folks would put the vials in my hand and tell me not to come back without taking the injections. They knew me too well. At first, I was throwing them in the lift shaft and telling my parents that I had had them, but this didn’t work out for long. Eventually I had to actually have them done. I would go towards the clinic, through the dark evening, my soul frightened to death. I would walk, as slowly as I could, the length of two tram stops. Same as on the days I had to go to the dentist, I was hoping a miracle would happen and I would find the clinic closed, the building demolished, the doctor deceased or at least a power outage disabling the turbine and the lights above the dentist chair. The miracle, however, would never occur. The pain was expecting me there, with its bloody aura. The first lady doctor from Grozovici who had given me the injection late at night was beautiful, blonde, very neat, but I soon became terrified of her. She was the type who regarded your naked bottom with total disdain. Not the thought of the pain to follow, but the disgust of that woman for the prick she was going to have an intimate relationship with (be it only to stick a needle in his buttock) was quickly liquidating my vague arousal and my sex was giving up the effort to raise its head a little in order to have a better look. I was then expecting the inevitable dampness on the skin that was to be martyred, the three-four slaps with the back of the hand, then the shock of the needle, always taking care that its tip not touch any nerve, vein, do anything harmful, durable, memorable to you increased afterwards by the poison coming down through the groove of the needle in order to be dispersed, sulfuric acid, through your entire buttock. It was horrible. After the injections of the blonde nurse I used to limp for an entire week.
Fortunately, this nurse, probably sadist-masochist in bed with her lovers, alternated in the clinic with another one, equally hard to forget, but for different reasons. She was a woman who scared you to death the first moment you saw her, because she had no nose. She was not wearing a bandage or a fake nose, she simply had a large orifice in the middle of her face, vaguely separated in two compartments. She was petite like a chicken, brunette, with eyes of a kindness that may have caught your attention, had her harridan face not entirely bewildered you. When I chanced upon the blonde, she immediately dealt with me. The waiting room was completely deserted. On the contrary, the nose-less midget seemed to be unusually successful: the waiting room was always full of people, full like the church on Easter night. I would come back from the clinic at two in the morning. Many of the patients who waited for their turn were bringing flowers. When the nurse appeared at the door, people would smile happily. And no wonder, nobody had probably ever had a lighter touch. When my turn came and she laid me on the oil cloth on the bed, my pants down, I got dizzy from the scent of the flowers that were still covered in cellophane and filled seven-eight vases lined up against the walls. The very dark brunette would talk to me calmly and evenly, then touch my buttock for a second with her palm and… that was about it. I never felt the needle and I only perceived the diffusion of the serum within my muscles as a slight warmth. In a few minutes everything would go away, so I would arrive home spry and happy. My parents regarded me suspiciously: had I thrown the vial God knows where again?
Then the tram would go on past the Melodia cinema, just before Lizeanu, then I’d get off at the next stop, Obor, where I would get on a tram that was driving perpendicularly on Stefan cel Mare, coming from Mosilor and getting lost into the depth of Colentina.
I knew all these places well, it was my area in a way. My mother used to do her shopping in Obor. She used to take me along, when I was little, in the sea of people in the old market. The fish hall, with its unbearable stink, then the big hall with its bas-reliefs and mosaics depicting incomprehensible scenes, eventually the ice factory in front of which the workers would always handle ice blocks, white in the middle and miraculously transparent at the edges (as if they permanently dissolved within the air around) were all fantastic citadels from another world in the eyes of the child I was. There, in the Monday morning Obor market desertedness, walking hand in hand with my mother, I saw a poster stuck on a pole which haunted me for a long time: a giant octopus emerged from a flying saucer and held its arms towards an astronaut stepping on some red earth, full of stones. Above it read The Planet of Storms. “It’s a film”, my mother told me. “Let’s wait for it to come closer to us, at Volga or Floreasca”. My mother was afraid of the city centre, she wouldn’t go out of her neighbourhood except for when she couldn’t help it, for example when she had to buy my school uniform on Lipscani, with checked shirt and trousers that already had “knees”, as if somebody had already worn them in the factory.
Colentina was also familiar to me, with its ramshackle houses on the left and the Stela soap factory on the right, where they made the Cheia and Camila laundry soap brands. The rancid grease smell born here spread over the entire neighbourhood. Then there was the brick building of the “Donca Simo” weaving mill, where my mother had once been working on looms, then some timber warehouses. The street, miserable and gloomy, thrusted itself forward, further into the horizon, in the heat of the summer, under the huge, whitish skies one can only see above Bucharest. I had actually been born there, in the Colentina neighbourhood, in the suburbs, in a derelict maternity improvised in the old building of a half gambling-house half brothel from before 1944, and I had lived my first years somewhere around Doamna Ghica, in an intricate bundle of alleyways that could easily belong to a Jewish ghetto. Much later I went back there, on Silistra street, with a camera and I took a few pictures of the house of my childhood, but their developing failed. That area no longer exists, it was erased, my house included, from the face of the earth. What has replaced it? Apartment buildings, obviously, like everywhere else.
Going past Doamna Ghica on the 21 tram, I entered a foreign land. There were fewer and fewer houses on the sides and dirty lakes appeared. Women with creased skirts were washing their carpets on the shores. Soda bottling stalls and bread shops, wine and fish shops. An empty, gloomy, endless street, seventeen tram stops, most of them without curbs and without meaning, like tiny railway stations in the middle of a field. Here and there a cart full of empty bottles. Gas container centres where one would start queueing in the evening to get them the next day. Perpendicular dusty streets, village like, with mulberry trees on the sides. Kites tangled up in the electrical wires between wooden poles covered in kerosene.
I reached the end station after one hour and a half of swinging inside the tram. I think I was left by myself in the wagon for the last three-four stops. I got off in a big round crossroad where the trams were turning to go back along Colentina, like Sisyphos. The day was drawing to the evening, but it stayed amber coloured and spectral, mainly because of the silence. Here, at the end of the 21, there was no man in sight. Long and ashen industrial halls with narrow windows, a water tower in the distance, an orchard with trees literally black with fuel oil and exhaust gas inside the large circle of the tram tracks. Two empty trams motionless next to each other, without drivers. A closed ticket booth. Strong contrasts between the scarlet light and the shade. What was I doing there? How would I live in such a remote place? I started walking towards the water tower, I reached its root, where there was a door with a padlock, I looked up at the sphere shining on the sky at the end of the white painted cylinder. I went forward towards… nothing, towards a desert… It seemed to me that not the city ended there, but reality. A street going to the left had a small metal sign with the name I was looking for: Dimitrie Herescu. The school ought to be somewhere on this street, my school, my first job I was supposed to go to on September 1st, in more than two months. The pink and green building of an Automecanica was not able to destroy the village image of this place: houses with shingles, yards with rotten fences, dogs on chains, flowers of the suburbs. The school was on the right, a few houses away from the Automecanica, and it was, of course, deserted.
It was a small school, an L shaped hybrid, with an old cracked wing with broken windows and an even gloomier new wing at the back of the small yard. A crooked basketball panel without net on the ring in the yard. I opened the gate and went in. I took a few steps on the asphalt of the yard. The sun had just started to go down, so a halo of rays had nested right on the roof of the old building. They thrusted out of there sadly, blackly in a way, as they weren’t lighting anything, but only increasing the inhuman loneliness of the place. My heart had sunk: I would enter this school, benumbed like a morgue, I would go forward with the class register under my arm on its dark green painted corridors, I would go up to the first floor and enter an unknown class where thirty alien kids, more alien than if they belonged to a different species, would be expecting me. Maybe they were expecting me already, silent at their desks, with their wooden pencil boxes, their notebooks covered in blue paper. Upon this thought the hairs on my arms raised and I went back out in the street almost running. “Anyway, I will not remain a teacher my entire life”, I told myself while the tram was carrying me back to the white world, while the tram stops were left behind, houses grew closer and humans were again populating the earth. “One year at most, until I’ll be joining the editorial office of a literary magazine”. And during the first three years of teaching in School 86 I have indeed entertained this illusion only, like some mothers nurse their babies long after the time they should have been weaned. My illusion had grown up as big as I was and I could still not bear – and in a way I still can’t bear it today – to not open my shirt, at least sometimes, and let it cannibalize me voluptuously. The residence years have gone. Forty more years will pass and I’ll retire from this very same place. At the end of the day, it hasn’t been so bad till now. I had long periods with no lice. No, come to think of it, it hasn’t been bad in this school and for what it’s worth, maybe it was almost good.
Sometimes I lose control of my arms under the elbows. I am not afraid, sometimes I could say I actually like it. It happens unexpectedly, fortunately only when I’m alone. I write something, check term papers or drink my coffee or cut my nails with the Chinese clippers, and I suddenly feel my arms are terribly light, as if filled with volatile gas. They raise by themselves, they pull my arms up from the shoulders, they levitate gaily through the dense, dark-shiny air of the room. I then get jolly too, I watch them as if I saw them for the first time: long, slender, with thin bones, with a little black hair on the phalanges of the fingers. In front of my charmed eyes, they start to gesture by themselves, elegantly and weirdly, to tell stories that could maybe understood by the deaf. My fingers move precisely and infallibly then, in series of incomprehensible signs, the ones from the right hand ask, the ones from the left answer, the ring finger and the thumb close in a circle, the little fingers skim through something, the joints pivot with the slender energy of a conductor. I should be mad with fear, because someone else, in my own mind, commands these obviously qualified movements, desperate for decryption, nevertheless I rarely feel happier. I look at my hands like a child taken to the puppet show, who does not understand what happens on the tiny stage, but is fascinated by the agitation of the wooden beings with woollen hair and dresses of crepe paper. The autonomous animation of my arms (thank the Lord, not when I am in class or on the street) calms down in a few minutes, the gestures slow down, start to look like Indian dancers’ mudras, then cease and, for two-three minutes more, I can enjoy the enchanted feeling that my arms are lighter than air, as if my father, instead of balloons had swollen two household gloves of thin rubber from the gas stove pipe and they have now replaced my hands. And how could I not regret when my real hands, brutal, heavy, organic, scratched, with the striations of the muscles and the hyaline white of the tendons and the veins soaking in blood re-enter the skin gloves with nails at the end and suddenly, to my amazement, I can make the fingers move the way I want, as if I could, just by focusing, break a branch of the plant on the windowsill or pull the coffee mug towards me without the slightest touch.
The fear only comes later, after this fairy tale (happening once every two or three months) has become a mere memory I start wondering whether, among so many other anomalies of my life – for this is what we’re talking about – I have in the fairy tale independence of my hands another proof that… everything happens in a dream, that my entire life is a dream or something sadder, more serious, crazier, however truer than any fairy tale that could ever be invented. The joyful-terrifying ballet of my hands, only here, in my ship shaped house on Maica Domnului, is the smallest, the most insignificant (for benign, actually) of the reasons I write these pages for myself only, in the unbelievable loneliness of my life. If I had wanted to write literature, I would have done so ten years ago. I mean if I had really wanted, without conscious effort, like you want your foot to take a step and it takes it. You don’t have to say: “I order you to take the step”, you also don’t have to think about the complicated process that turns your wish into fact. You need only believe, have as little faith as a grain of mustard. If you are a writer, you write. The books come without your knowing what you need to do for it, how your gift functions, such as the mother is made for birth and she gives birth, in truth, to the baby who grew in her uterus, without her mind participating in the complicated origami in her flesh. If I had been a writer, I would have written fiction books, I would have had ten, fifteen novels by now with no more effort than the one I make to secrete insulin or daily transit my food between the two orifices of my digestive system. I however, then, a long time ago, at the time my life could have still chosen between indefinitely many directions, ordered my mind to produce fiction and nothing happened, exactly like it would be in vain to look at my finger now and shout “Move!”.
During my teenage years I wanted to write literature. I still don’t know if I missed this way because I wasn’t really a writer or out of sheer bad luck. I was writing poems in high school, I still have a few notebooks somewhere, and from certain dreams I know I had also written prose, a big A4 notebook with hard covers, full of short stories. This is not the right time to talk about it. Back then I used to compete in Romanian literature Olympiads that took place on rainy Sundays in unknown high schools. At the time I was a hallucinated kid, almost schizophrenic, who used to go in the high school yard during breaks, next to the long jump pit, sit down on its curb and read lyrics loudly from worn-out little books. People used to look through me, not listen to me talking, I was a prop on a stage backdrop, not even a good one, in a huge and chaotic world. Because I wanted to become a writer, I decided to take the exam for the Literature School. I passed it smoothly in the summer of 1975. At the time my loneliness was complete. I was living with my folks in Stefan cel Mare. I was reading eight hours a day, turning from one side to the other in my bed, under the perspiration dampened sheet. The pages of the book took the ever changing colour of the vast Bucharest skies, from the golden of summer afternoons to the dark, oppressive pink of the snowy evenings in the depth of winter. I wasn’t able to tell when full darkness set in. My mother would find me reading in the room submerged in darkness, while the page and the letter actually had the same colour and I was no longer reading, but dreaming that I was going forward into the story, deforming it according to the laws of dreaming. Then I would come back to my senses, stretch, get up from the bed – I had only done that during the day in order to go to the toilet – and I would invariably go to the large window of my room to be able to see the entire Bucharest overflowing beneath fantastic clouds. Thousands of lights were lit throughout the farther and farther houses, in the neighbouring villas I could see people moving like lazy fish in aquariums, much farther coloured neon advertisements went on and off. But what fascinated me was the huge sky above, a higher and more overwhelming dome than that of any cathedral. Not even clouds could go up to its apex. I would stick my forehead to the cold, elastic glass and I would stand like that, a teenager with holes in the armpits of his pyjama, until my mother called me to dinner. I would then go back to the lair of my loneliness, deep underground, to read further with the light on and another identical room dilated in the window mirror until tiredness overwhelmed me.
During daytime I used to go out for a walk through the never ending summer. I would first go and look for the two or three friends I never found at home. Then I would wander in unknown streets, I would find myself in neighbourhoods I was not aware existed, I would get lost among strange houses like bunkers from another planet. Old pink merchant houses with fronts loaded with little stucco angels pitifully dented. Nobody ever in the streets covered by the bower of old plane trees. I would enter the old houses, go through their rooms filled with kitsch furniture, go up bizarre external stairs, discover vast and empty halls where my steps sounded indecently loud. I would go down to electrically lit cellars, I would open rotten wood doors and I would reach earth smelling corridors with thin gas pipes along the walls. On the pipes, stuck with slobbery foam, coleopteran pupas were slightly pulsing, a sign that wings were being modelled under their shell. I would get to the cellars of other houses, go up other steps, enter other deserted rooms. I would sometimes get to very familiar houses, as I had once lived in those chambers, I had slept in those beds. Like a child stolen by nomads and found again after years of estrangement, I would go straight to chests where I would find the fifty lei silver piece they had put in my basinet upon my first bath, now so blackened that you could no longer distinguish the features of the king on its face, the bag with the tuft cut at the age of one when I had chosen, they say, the pencil from the metal tray, or my poor little milk teeth, the complete set I have already described here. Wandering further every day of the summer of ’75 in the streets and houses of the torrid city I had ended up knowing it well, learning its secrets and turpitudes, its glory and candour. Bucharest, I had understood then, at 19, when I had already read everything, was not like other cities, which had developed in time, changing shanties and storehouses with big condominiums, replacing horse trams with electrical trams. It had appeared suddenly, already ruined, in crumbs, with fallen plaster and broken nose of the stucco gorgons, with electrical wires suspended above the street in melancholic bundles, with a fabulously varied industrial architecture. They had wanted from the very beginning to design a more human and touching city than a Brasilia of concrete and glass. The genius architect had designed crooked streets, bottomless sewers, half collapsed villas invaded by weeds, houses with the front wall entirely collapsed, impracticable schools, skewed and spectral seven floored stores. And, above all, Bucharest had been designed as a large outdoor museum, a museum of melancholy and ruin of everything that exists.
It was the city I saw from my window in Stefan cel Mare, the city which, if I had managed to become a writer, I would have described endlessly, would have taken along from page to page and from book to book, devoid of people, but full of myself like a network of galleries in the epidermis of a god inhabited by one microscopic lucent sarcoptes with hairs at the end of its hideous stumps.
In autumn they took me to the army and they wiped out both poetry and delusional literary ambitions from my mind. I can disassemble and reassemble the updated Kalaschnikow. I can smoke its crosshair with the smoke made by the handle of a toothbrush in flames, so that it doesn’t shine on the shooting range. I inserted twenty bullets in the loader, one by one, in winter at minus twenty degrees, before going on duty to guard a remote corner of the military unit, in the middle of the north wind and desertedness, from three in the morning until dawn. I crawled one kilometre through mud, with the gas mask on my face and the thirty kilograms knapsack on my back. I inspired and expired mosquitos in the bedroom, five-six in each cubic centimetre of air. I washed toilets and scrubbed floors with a toothbrush. I broke my teeth in war biscuits and ate potatoes with skin from my kettle. I painted the trees in the unit. I fought a fellow soldier for a tin of fish. Another comrade almost thrusted a bayonet in me. I haven’t read even one book, actually not one letter, for nine months. I haven’t written or received any letter. Only my mother visited me once every two weeks and every time she brought food. Far from turning me into more of a man, the army multiplied my introversion and loneliness by ten. I am still amazed I survived it.
The first thing I did after liberation in the summer of the following year, was to fill a tub of hot water, blue like a precious stone. I let the water go above the safety valve and reach the brim of the porcelain tub, curve above it a little. Naked, I got into the water spilling on the bathroom floor. I didn’t care about anything, I had to get rid of the filth of the nine months of military service, the only time wasted, like a dead bone, in my life. I submerged myself completely into the blessed substance, I held my nostrils with my fingers and I released my head deeply into the water, until I touched the porcelain bottom with the top of my head. I stayed like that, on the bottom of the tub, a lean teenager with ribs pathetically visible through the skin, my eyes wide open watching, kilometres above, the light reflections on the water surface. I stayed like that for hours, without feeling the need to breathe, until a dark skin came off me and started to make soft folds. I still have it on a hanger in my wardrobe. It seems to be made of soft rubber and you can clearly see the features of my face in its texture, the nipples on my chest, my water creased genitals, even my fingerprints. It is a skin of filth, agglutinated, hardened filth, grey like a piece of plasticine you mix all colours in: the filth of the nine months of military service which have almost killed me.
In the summer after the military service, which I had imagined, while I was squatting in trenches during night shooting, to be a paradise of endless freedom, being a civilian again with the mystical-sexual aura entailed, but which proved to be as lonely and deserted as the previous summers – nobody on the phone, nobody home, nobody I could talk to for days (except my ghostlike parents) – I wrote my first real poem, the one which would remain my only literary product ever fully ripe. Ever since then I would always know what Hölderlin’s lyrics meant: “Give me one summer only, Fates / And one autumn, for my poem to ripe…” I have also lived like a god for a few months in 1976, while I wrote The Fall, and afterwards my life, which should have opened towards literature as naturally as you open a door and you finally, finally find out your deepest truth in the forbidden room, took another turn suddenly, almost grotesquely, like you turn a switch on a railway. I transformed from Hölderlin into Scardanelli, locked for thirty years in his tower built above seasons.
The Fall was not a poem, it was The Poem. It was “that unique object by which nothingness honours itself”. It was the ultimate product of ten years of reading literature. For ten years I had forgotten to breathe, to cough, to vomit, to sneeze, to ejaculate, to see, to hear, to breathe, to love, to laugh, to produce white cells, to defend myself with antibodies, I had forgotten that my hair needs to grow and that my tongue needs to taste the food. I had forgotten to think about my fate on earth and look for a woman. Lying on my bed like an Etruscan statue on its sarcophagus, yellowing the sheets with sweat, I had read myself close to blindness and schizophrenia. My mind no longer had space either for the blue skies mirrored in pools in spring or for the delicate melancholy of the snowflakes sticking on a building corner plastered in calcio-vecchio. When I opened my mouth I uttered quotes from my favourite authors. When I lifted my eyes off the page, in the room submerged in the reddish-brown dusks in Stefan cel Mare, I could clearly see the walls tattooed with letters: there were poems on the ceiling, on the mirror, on the leaves of the see-through geraniums vegetating in their pots. There were lyrics on my fingers and my palm, poems written in ink on my pyjama and my sheets. Terrified, I would go to the dresser mirror in which I could see myself fully: I had poems written with a needle on the white of my eyes and poems written on my forehead. My skin was tattooed finely, maniacally, in a handwriting I could interpret. I was blue from head to toes, I stunk of ink like others stink of tobacco. The Fall had to be a sponge that should suck all the ink of the lonely nautilus I was.
My poem had seven parts representing seven stages of life, seven colours, seven metals, seven planets, seven chakras, seven falling steps from paradise to hell. It had to be a colossal, stunning cascade between eschatology and scatology, a metaphysical ladder on which I put demons and saints, labia and astrolabes, stars and frogs, geometry and cacophony with the impersonal rigour of the biologist who sketches the orders and classes of the animal regnum. It was also a huge collage, since my mind was a puzzle of quotes, it was also a summa of all that could be known, an amalgam of patristic and quantum physics, genetics and topology. It was, ultimately, the only poem which deemed the universe futile, sent it to the museum, in the same way the electric locomotive replaced the steam one. Reality, elements, galaxies were no longer necessary. Here was The Fall, in which the All-There-Is flickered and shined in an eternal flame.
The poem was thirty pages long, hand written, of course, like I was writing everything at the time, because my yearlong dream, a typewriter, was untouchable. I used to read it again every day, I knew it by heart or I was actually feeling it, checking it and dusting it daily as if it were a weird machinery from another world that came who knows how, through the mirror, into our world. I still have it today on the original pages I wrote it, without ever erasing one letter, in that summer when I turned twenty years old. It looks like an ancient writing, kept under a glass bell in a great museum, in controlled temperature and humidity conditions. It is also part of the artefacts I surrounded myself of, in the middle of which I feel like a kind of a many armed god in the centre of a mandala: the milk teeth, the string in my navel, my pale pigtails, the black and white pictures from childhood. My eyes from my childhood, my ribs from my adolescence, my women of later. The sad madness of my life.
In autumn, a luminous autumn as I could remember no other, I went to college for the first time. On the 88 trolleybus, while I was passing Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya going towards Batistei, I bubbled with happiness like champagne: I was a college student, like I had never dreamt, student at the Literature College! Every day from now on I would see the centre of Bucharest, which seemed to me at the time the most beautiful city in the world. I would live now in the splendour of the city that ruffled, like a peacock, its Intercontinental Hotel and National Theatre, the University and “Ion Mincu” institute, the Cantacuzino Hospital and the four nation fathers’ statues at its tail with hypnotic eyes and changing shades. Air threads were sparkling around, young girls were hurrying towards their colleges as well, the world was new and hot, freshly out of the oven and it was there entirely for me! The college building seemed to me blown at inhuman proportions, the marble hall seemed a deserted and cold basilica. The white tiles were more worn than the black ones on the chess table of the floor. Thousands of steps had deepened their surface, sweet as an agate. The library hall was the womb of a ship packed with books. But I had already read them all, every single one, in fact I had already read every letter ever written. However, the height of the hall took me by surprise: 27 floors panelled with numbered glass covered oak shelves, communicating through little ladders the lady librarians went up and down on with piles of books in their arms. Their boss, a repulsive bearded young man, sat at the desk always, like an automaton, receiving and sorting the files from the students who were queueing at the front of the hall. Along the walls, like in another Castle, there were heaps of books that were to be sorted and that constantly fell noisily, startling the people at the tables.
Because this will be important later in this writing, which is not, praise the Lord, a book, legible or not, I want to insert a detail here. The first time I entered the library hall – where I haven’t wasted a lot of time anyway during college, as I was not used to reading at a table, I could only do it in bed (a piece of furniture which, along with the book itself, was part of my reading kit) – I suddenly had a thought I couldn’t get rid of. In the centre of the hall there were the file cabinets, massive ones from last century, full of drawers with hand written labels in outdated calligraphy. I kneeled in front of one, for the letter V was down, on the first row next to the floor, I pulled the drawer and I discovered the hundreds of yellowed typed cards, like whale teeth, with the name, the author and other book data, more and more, and more and more useless. Towards the bottom of the drawer I found the name I was looking for: Voynich. I had never known its precise spelling, but I guessed it right.
This name had been ringing in my ears ever since, in the 6th grade, I had cried with sobs for the first time while reading a book. My mother heard me and she came running to my room in her shabby dressing gown, smelling of soup. She tried to calm me, to comfort me, believing I had a tummy ache or a toothache. She understood with great difficulty that I was crying because of the dog eared book thrown on the floor, a book without covers, with at least 50 pages in the beginning missing. Many of our books at home looked like that, the one about Thomas Alva Edison as well, the one about the Polynesians too, also From the North Pole to the South Pole. The only ones that were complete and never read were (I still have them in front of my eyes) Marching Battle by Galina Nikolaeva and Thus Was Steel Hardened by N. Ostrovski. In between my inconsolable sobs I told my mother something about a revolutionary, a monsignor, a girl, such an intricate story that I hadn’t even understood it properly (especially since I’d started it at the middle), but had impressed me terribly. I didn’t know how the book was called and I didn’t care about the authors anyway at the time. In the evening, when my father came home, leaving his briefcase on the table as usually (I would always take out the Sport and Scanteia to read the sports news), he found me with red eyes, still thinking about the scene in which the young revolutionary finds out that his father was no other than the detested Monsignor! “What book is this, dear?” my mother had asked him during dinner and my father, wearing just underpants and undershirt, like he used to at home, said something that sounded like “voynik” with a full mouth, and he added “The Gadfly”. Indeed, the young man was known over there in Italy under the name of Gadfly, but I didn’t even know what this word meant. “One of those big grey flies with bulging eyes”, my mother explained. I have never forgotten that evening when I cried for four full hours while reading a book, but I had never had an opportunity to learn more about the book and its author. The first surprise was that the author was actually a female author, I could now see her name on the card, Ethel Lilian Voynich, next to the year The Gadfly was published, 1909. I felt a bit of a triumph, I had clarified a story almost ten years old, but actually my frustration should have deepened. I did not know at the time that the name I was looking for in the file – for which my crying of long ago had been a kind of strange premonition – would be connected with two of the most important directions of my searches, because the unhappiness of not having become a writer paradoxically cleared, and I hope this is not another illusion, the way to the real meaning of my life. I didn’t write fiction, but this freed up my real vocation: to search, in reality, in the reality of lucidity, of dream, of memory, of hallucination and any other. Although it spreads fear and horror, my search fully satisfies me, like the disdained, never homologated arts of flea training or prestidigitation.
I have thrown myself into my new life like a maniac. I was reading old literature with inept professors and studying monks and little friars who had written three lines in Slavonic, those too according to foreign canons, because the historical emptiness of a culture that came to life pretty late had to be justified. But what did I care? I was a student of the Literature College, something I had barely dared dream before. My first seminar paper about versified psalms had had almost one hundred pages. It was monstrous, went through the entire possible bibliography, from Clément Marot to Kochanowski, the psalms of Verlaine and Arghezi. All the poems I quoted in my thesis were translated by me in their original prosody.
But how alone and without chances I was! I used to leave the university towards the evening, when the asphalt, wet from the rain, was reflecting the lights of the advertisements in the boulevards. Many times I skipped the trolley and walked home, past the big interwar buildings on Magheru, the Scala bookstore and the Patria cinema, then, when the evening became yellow like lamp gas, I used to immerse myself in the streets full of scarlet and dark blue houses, then black as tar, from Domnita Ruxandra and Ghiocei, amazed again and again that I could get into any house, in each of the old rooms, barely illuminated by a stump of candle, in the upstairs rooms with cottage pianos, in cold corridors with flower pots in which dusty rose bays were withering in the shade. Mysterious on the outside, with their cohort of stucco figurines, these ancient houses were even more mysterious inside. Empty and silent, with not a spot of dust on the tables loaded with crocheted mats, they seemed to have been abandoned suddenly, in a terrible panic. The inhabitants had not taken anything along, as upon a devastating earthquake. They had been happy to get away alive.
My parents were expecting me at home and this was my entire life. I would leave them watching TV and go to the room facing Stefan cel Mare. I would curl up in bed and wish so intensely I died, that I could feel at least a few of my vertebrae consenting. My bed would then become an archaeological site in which the yellow and porous bones of an extinct animal were lying in an impossible position.
My Fall, the first and only map of my mind, fell on the evening of October 24, 1977 at the Moon’s Literary Study Circle, which was meeting at the time in the basement of the Literature College. I could never get over this trauma. I still remember everything with the clarity of a magical lantern, like the tortured remembers the wresting of his nails and live teeth when he gets up from sleep shouting, soaked in sweat. It was a catastrophe, however not in the sense of a building collapsing or a car accident, but of the coin thrown towards the ceiling and fallen on the wrong side. Of the shorter matchstick deciding your fate on Medusa’s raft. In each second of our lives we make a choice or we are thrown by a blast of wind rather on one corridor than another. The line of our real life hardens behind, fossilizes and gets its coherence but also the simplicity of destiny, while our lives that could have been, that could have detached themselves every second from the winning one, remain dotted, ghostlike lines, quantum phase transitions, transparent and fascinating like stems vegetating in a green house. I blink now and my life ramifies, because I could have not blinked and then I would have been another, more and more remote from the one who blinked, like streets that start radially from a narrow square. At the end, I will be surrounded like a cocoon by the transparent fibres of billions of virtual lives, billions of paths I could have started on by changing the angle of movement infinitesimally. I will meet, after an adventure of a lifetime, the billions of my possible, probable, random and necessary selves, having arrived at the end of their histories, we will tell each other about our successes and failures, adventures and boredoms, glory and shame. None will prevail over the others, as each of the others has a world no less concrete than the one I call “reality” around him. All the endless worlds generated by the choices and accidents of my life are equally concrete and equally true. My billion brothers I talk to at the end, in the hypersphere of the summing up of all the histories generated by my ballet through time, are rich or poor, die young or very old (some never die), they are geniuses or losers, clowns or undertakers. If nothing human is from the start alien to me, I eventually embrace all possibilities through my brothers and I fulfil all the virtual realities contained in the joints of my body and my mind. Some of them will be so different from me, that they will cross the gender barrier, the ethical imperatives, the Gestalt of the body scheme, becoming sub- or superhuman or alternative-human, others will only differ from me by unnoticeable details: one ACTH molecule released by his striated body when my striated body released none, one more K-cell in my blood, one alien sparkle in his eyes…
I don’t know how I would have been now, when I write here, in this cobwebbed room in the ship shaped house, in this half-dark in which only the edges of the old windows have a yellow shine, if my poem would have been well received then, on October 24, 1977. Maybe I would have had, right behind me, a book case in which (makes me sick to think about it) my books would have been aligned, with my name on their spines, with titles I cannot imagine. In thirty years they would have gathered, one tome next to the other, a complete study of my internal world, because I can’t imagine I would have ever written something else. Maybe I would have been, like they say in the Scriptures, a man attired in soft clothes, in front of whom the crowds in squares bow. If we met now, six years later, he, who was successful at the Moon’s Literary Circle with The Fall, and me, whose Fall, although identical to the last letter, was despised, this could only happen at a random meeting of teachers with an already well-known author, on a working Saturday, at “Iulia Hasdeu” or “Caragiale”. We would have waited for him in silence, we, the herd of Romanian teachers bitter with our small salaries, the inspectors’ tyranny, the same lectures about kids ripped by vultures or when a bridge is blown up, about attributes and complements and separating of complex sentences into simple ones, while he would have drunk his coffee in peace in the Principal’s office, would have thrown in jokes to which we would have laughed obediently, then all of us would have gone forward, a statuary group full of dignity, on the corridor with portraits of writers towards the ceremony hall and the colleague on my right would have bent to the one in front of her and whispered: how nice he is, dear… Because for the likes of them the writers are dead, and the deader the better. Indeed, the writer at the presidium table would have looked much younger than me. He would have had the confidence given by prestige and literary achievement, daily contested by the denigrators from the literary world, however undeniable. He would have spoken simply, as his books anyway spoke complexly and subtly. He could have afforded to be modest and warm to a world about which he didn’t know and didn’t want to know anything. He would have then given autographs (God, to give autographs!), and I would have stood in a long queue with his book in my hands, thinking it could have been mine. He would have asked what my name was, when I would have reached him, and he would have looked in my eyes for just an instant. He wouldn’t have been surprised by our identical names, everything would have been – or is now, when I am writing this – like in a trance, like in a dream. He would have written my name, then something like “best wishes” and he would have signed the same name, however deformed by the habit of many and hurried autographs. He would then continue with the teacher from School 84, who would watch him happily, as if he were a fiancée. I would have put my overcoat on and left home through the slosh with his book in my briefcase among the texts of the seventh grade. I would have read it in a heartbeat, all night long, because in any case I love literature, I love it further, it is the vice I cannot get rid of and the one that will destroy me.
That night I was wearing the dark yellow high neck mohair sweater my mother had knitted for me. Both my white polo neck and this sweater were somewhat livresque: I knew this was how a writer was supposed to look. A few years before I had seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the author in the film was wearing a blouse with the collar wrapped around his neck. He was typing the entire day in this kind of uniform and, as a consequence, beautiful girls arrived in his room through the window, after having come up there on the fire escape stairs outside. I could not guess at the time what kind of beings would show up at my panoramic window on the fifth floor, from which I saw the widespread, Balkan image of the city, old frontons, façades, baroque gables, drowned in vegetation. I was twenty one, I was as skinny as a shadow, had a terrible haircut and a precarious reddish moustache with a missing spot on the left side. My dark face with bluish circles, my entire life concentrated in these eyes, seemed to be a sketch in coal. But I had written The Fall, the mad spiral, large like a maelstrom in the first chants, then more and more frantic, hysterical, as the divine turned into obscene, geometry into anomy, angels into demons of medieval bestiary. I had entered the petty hall, an ordinary class, with blackboard and desks, with brown painted wall panels, together with other ten-fifteen students. Inside those seemingly smoked walls, with a few linguists’ portraits soiled by flies, the rest of my life would be decided. I knew that at the moment the meeting started, when the young professor and critic with greater authority than a man can have, with oracular voice, with verdicts nobody had ever contested, announced the two poetry readings. Next to the critic there was a lady I didn’t know, dressed in pink like one of the mimetic mantises that expect their pray inside flower cups disguised as inoffensive petals. The others were my colleagues, most of them poets, regulars of the Moon’s Circle. It was a young circle, established just one year before, which had taken its name from the huge, perfectly round moon that floated above the University on the first evening of the Circle’s meeting and that seemed to occupy a quarter of the sky that night. Black, with two or three windows lit only, the University building clacked beneath it, compressed in the middle as if by a ball of incalculable weight.
A guy with moustache I had never seen before was the first to read. His set of lyrics was called The Technology of Autumn, concentrated, bizarre poems with something unexpected in each of them. Then it was my turn. My paper sheets, about thirty, were hand written. I went through them, one after the other, in an impersonal voice. My reading lasted for almost an hour, and during this time my lank silhouette probably disappeared from the hall. In any case, I no longer had a body or sheets of paper covered in writing in my hands. I was inside my poem which had substituted the world. I was going around in its spiral with an increasingly smaller curvature. I was collapsing from line to line torn by the roughness of the reptile skins, by the thorns of the scorpion tails. For me reality lasted for an instant, as if the first lines:
Golden lyre, let your wings pulsate until I end this chant
Hide your horse head deep in the silence
Golden lyre, let your wings pulsate until I end this chant
would have turned into another dimension and would have connected themselves to the last, becoming identical, indiscernible:
mud of the crates
mud of the muds
mud of the fogs
The last word of the poem, written in majuscules, was FINIS.
As usually after the readings ended, there was a break to be followed by critical comments. During the break nobody approached me. All of them had probably felt the sacred horror of a fundamental piece of writing. I had goose bumps on my arms anyway. I had been in the centre of my skull, I had seen the live, elephantine statue beneath the pale bones dome occupying it entirely and nevertheless I got out of there alive. Now everything I perceived was the disturbing mohair itch on my bare neck. My eyeballs diverged with tiredness. The outlines of the hall and of the ones sitting on the seats started to melt in the filthy light until everything left were some golden skeletons floating ghostly through the air. I was breathing the glory equally, with dry lips. Sanctification would follow: I, the anonymous kid with the look of a rope belted fratello, will become the hope of universal poetry by one single leap others need a lifetime for. I didn’t have to write anything else, ever. I would remain the author of The Fall, the one with an eternal coloured marble lectern in the Eden of posterity. Towards the end of the break the great critic came towards me and asked me one thing: “Actually, what is your real name?” He was wearing a grey suit that evening and a cold-blue tie. He wasn’t forty yet. Nobody, if we didn’t go back one century, had ever had such authority and power at such a young age. I stood up from my chair and I told him it was exactly as I introduced myself. “Oh, I thought it was a pseudonym…” Then he turned his back to me and went to the teacher’s desk, the sign that the meeting would start again. The floral lady, with a stony face like a kabuki actress, sat down next to him.
I don’t know if Akasha exists, the universal memory of anthroposophists, where each gesture made and each word uttered by each man and each shade of green ever seen by the complex eye of every locust are kept, but nothing of what I lived that night has disappeared from my poor memory, carbonized and ripped by bad luck. The turning point of my life. Then, during that hour of not even ferocious slaughter, of casual slaughter, despising and with smiling lips, the coin fell on the wrong side, the short matchstick was left in my hand and my career as a writer continued, maybe, in another possible world, wrapped in glory and splendour (but also conformism, falseness, self-deceit, vanity, disappointment), but over here it was left as a never fulfilled promise. I have been poisoning my nights for seven years in the masochist effort to remember the grimaces, the sounds, the movements of air currents from that underground hall that would be the sepulchre of my hopes. Somebody was toying with a pen, turning it between fingers. Somebody had turned towards the girl behind and smiled knowingly. Somebody was wearing a kind of suede boots. My mohair collar was itchy, my cheeks were burning.
My poem was referred to as a product of literary pathology. As a mixture of cultural detritus not properly digested. As a skit of… (about twenty names were inserted here). The first guy who had read was a real poet, I was something bizarre. “A precious artefact was added to the shelf of today’s modern poetry horrors”. “To want to reach the hundred, to be able of six”, terrible Arghezian sentence. As the speakers went on, my amazement and shame were going out of themselves, were exceeding their limits. This was impossible, I couldn’t be in a gathering of the blind. I cavilled at each positive suggestion, I was trying to not understand the ironies and not hear the sentences thrown with careless toughness. Of course, the situation would reverse itself. The first speakers had been mistaken, they were the non-discerning small fish. Every time a new one started speaking, I focused on him in the illusion that I could make him say what I wanted to hear, the way you push your body at the steering wheel when you dare a risky overtake. This time it will be good, from now on things will change, I was telling myself, but the young commentator, a colleague from my college, proved to be as independent and unamenable and ruthless as a surgeon holding the trepanation saw. For this is what they were doing: a vivisection of my martyred body. Wresting of the heart on the high platform of the temple. Amputation without anaesthetic, but also without hate, like children wrest the legs of flies. I was also shouting, inaudibly, same as them and likely useless. Bombastic, emphatic, of an ambition which should be used for a better cause, my poem would go from one hand to the other, they would quote prosodic flaws and “obvious” aesthetic inconsistencies. Sometimes, because of the “law of high numbers”, one could quote a phrase “which, due to the age of the author, could give some hope for the future”. As the evening went on, they would speak less and less about The Fall and more and more about the lyrics of the other poet, mature and raw-graceful, elliptical and enigmatic. Eventually, I had been completely forgotten, in a pitiful corner, camouflaging my turpitude.
I was more ashamed than I had ever been. In the beginning I had been surprised and indignant, now I only wanted to disappear, to exist no longer, to never have existed. I was no longer hoping, no longer defending myself, my thoughts no longer fought against their thoughts. I was like the little mouse left swimming in a bucket, with no possibility to escape, who lets itself go down to the bottom when it loses hope. However, as carbonized as I was by so much obtuseness and disdain, I still held on a tiny piece of hope: the great critic. Not seldom had he turned by himself and in a definitive manner the verdicts of the people in the hall and his words were carved into immortal granite. Like a medium, he could not be mistaken, for he was inhabited by the Daemon and if he were mistaken all would leave the evidence and go on the tracks of his mistake. The critic, who always spoke last and always memorably, would give The Fall back its initial giant stature, its abysmal depth and its ecumenism. The cathedral had been transformed into a public toilet but, in his high pitched, playful, however powerful voice, the critic could sprinkle it with holy water again. Feverish, my head down, I was only waiting for the final speech of the evening, which was actually expected by everybody in the hall. And he started speaking after a long break that showed that nobody else had anything more to say.
He started with me and described my poem as a “raving whirlpool of words”. Interesting, even stirring in intention, but an obvious failure of the concrete realization, “as the poet does not have a sense of the language and not by far the talent required for such an enterprise”. It was exactly its immense ambition that made the poem ridiculous. “One has to first learn to walk, then run. The poet who read here tonight is like a baby in its walking harness who wants to run the marathon and win it…” He continued within the same register, quoting here and there, reminding what was said by the previous people, always agreeing with them, and in the end, before going to the following reading, he turned his thumb down with the following sentence: “The poem reminds me of those comical films in which there is a huge cannon that swells a lot when the fuse reaches the powder and then a ball is rolling and falling, flop, on the ground, one step away from the barrel…”
I don’t know what he said about the other poet later.
The manuscript of The Fall still bears the fingerprints of all those who spoke then. In hundreds of sleepless nights I ruminated the same crazy script: I followed and punished all those who mocked my poem and destroyed my life. But above all, for years, I have taken revenge against the only being who, tied and powerless, a simple live anatomical exhibit made for torture, was given to me forever: myself.
I am, therefore, a Romanian teacher at the General School no 86 in Bucharest. I live alone in an old house, “the house in the shape of a ship” I have already mentioned, which is located on Maica Domnului street in the Tei lake area. As almost every teacher in my subject, I have dreamt for a while to be a writer, same as Efimov still lives within the violin player playing at tables in pubs. Efimov, who had once believed himself to be a great violinist. Why didn’t this happen, why didn’t I have enough faith within myself to get, with a smile of superiority, over the evening at the Circle, why didn’t I have the manic conviction that I am right against everyone else, when the myth of the not understood writer is so strong, albeit its dose of kitsch, why did I not believe in my poem more than in the reality of the world. I have been looking for an answer to all this every day of my life. On that already deep autumn evening I went back home on foot, blinded by car lights, in a state of paranoia I had never experienced before. I could no longer breathe with bitterness and humiliation. My parents, who had opened the door for me as usually, were speechless. “You looked like a ghost, you were white as a sheet and did not understand anything I told you”, my mother would tell me later. I couldn’t sleep all night. I read my poem again and again and each time it seemed different: genius, imbecile, imbecile-genius, genius-imbecile or only useless, as if its pages were white. I had recently read Dostoyevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova and it had seemed to me his most wonderful text, unfinished as it could not be continued because the young author had reached one of the extremes of his world too early. I had thought a lot about Netochka’s father, Efimov, the one who had taught himself to play the violin and, consumed by passion and inspiration, had become famous in his remote gubernia. The vanity of the humble man haunted by a fantastic power had no limits: Efimov had ended up believing he was the greatest violinist of the world. Until, wrote Netochka (but can we believe her? What did this girl know about art, about music, about the violin? How much did her father torment her with his furious madness, with his vanity crises and his later collapse into desperation, disease and drinking?), a “true” great violinist from Moscow came for a concert in the capital of the gubernia. Of course, of course, after having listened to “the true one”, Efimov had never touched the violin again and disappeared from his own phantasmagorical world, from the world of his daughter and from the world of Dostoyevsky himself, barely leaving behind a stink of ridiculous tragedy and scherzo damnation. Poor man, tricked by the petty devil of the province. I think that nobody who read Netochka has ever doubted Efimov’s mediocrity as a violin player, his insignificant glory of one-eyed among the blind, his pathetic self-deceit. But I, after having lived like him and like gods for a few months of the summer of ’76, terrified by my own greatness, by the all-powerfulness of the one inhabiting me and leading my hand on paper, so that my poem had flown on the pages without erasing, without ever coming back, without additions, without re-writing, as if I had just removed, one by one, white strips that covered letters and words, I knew that Efimov had really been a great violinist, too great and too new and too emerged out of nowhere to be really understood, that neither the governor, nor the ones around him, despite feeling the strength of his art, had perceived but a great light without contours and would not have been able to explain why that music, totally different than the local one, moved them so deeply. I knew that not he, who was handled like a puppet by a hand from another world was the impostor, but the “great”, “true”, perfect, worldwide famous Moscow violinist, who had concerts before kings and princes in Paris and Vienna and who deigned, at the end of his career, to come to the bottom of Russia to make the barbarians over there happy with the grace and nobility of his art. An art according to rules, according to canons obeyed for centuries, a perfect music, certainly, but human. And this human quality was the very currency that was valid everywhere, in palaces and shanties, because it’s so pleasant to feel the weight of a coin in your palm. While the inhuman, disorderly art that did not care either about the structure of the human ear or about the structure of the violin, that did not know the limitations of the fingers’ movement on the strings, the art arrived with magic from another world into Efimov’s body could press the frozen blade of the knife against your palm, cutting it on the line of destiny, so that you should afterwards wear its scar forever.
Of the thousand answers I gave in nights of fever and torment and in days of dreaming, during classes, while the children worked on a paper, or in a shoe shop, in frozen bus stops or waiting in front of a medical office, to the question of why I did not become a writer, one seems truer than the others in its paradox and ambiguity. I read all the books and I didn’t end up knowing even one single author. I heard all the voices clearly, like a schizophrenic hears them, but I have never been spoken to in a true voice. I wandered through the thousands of halls of the literature museum, at first charmed with the art with which a door is painted on each wall, in trompe l’oeil, with such details accompanying each wood splinter and its sharp shadow, each paint peel with the feeling of fragility and transparency, which made you admire the artists of illusion like you have never admired anything in this world, but, eventually, after thousands of kilometres of corridors with fake doors, with air smelling stronger and stronger of oil paint and diluents and stale, this wandering goes further and further away from contemplative walk and transforms into disquiet, then panic and inability to breathe. Each door deceives you and disappoints you, the more so the worse your eye had been deceived. They are wonderfully painted, but they do not open. Literature is a tightly closed museum, a museum of delusional doors, of artists worried about shades of brown and the most expressive imitation of the door leaves, hinges and knobs, by the velvety black of the keyhole. You just needed to close your eyes and feel the wall continuously and endlessly in order to understand that nowhere in the literary edifice is there opening and fissure. But since you are seduced by the greatness of the gates overloaded with bas-reliefs and cabalistic symbols or the shyness of a farmer’s kitchen door with a pig bladder for a window, you don’t feel like closing your eyes, you would like, on the contrary, to have one thousand eyes for the one thousand false exits set in front of you. Like sex, like drugs, like all the manipulations of our mind that would like to finally crack the skull and come out, literature is a machine producing first bliss, then disappointment. After having read ten thousand books you can’t help wondering where was my life all this time? You swallowed the lives of others always with a missing dimension compared to the world you live in, regardless how artistically powerful they were. You saw the colours of others and felt the roughness and sweetness and possibility and exasperation of the conscience of others, which eclipsed and pushed your own sensations into the shade. And if you had at least penetrated the tactile space of other beings, but you have always been turned around by the fingers of literature. You were hearing the promise of an escape in a thousand voices while even the sheer bit of reality you possessed was being stolen.
You become successful as a writer with every book you write. You always want to write about your life and you always write about literature only. It is a curse, a Fata Morgana, a way to falsify the simple fact of truly living in a true world. You multiply worlds while your own world would be enough to fill a thousand lives. With each page you write, the pressure of the huge literary edifice above you grows, forces your hand to make movements you wouldn’t want to make, forces you to stay on the plane of the page when you would maybe like to tear through the paper and write perpendicularly on its surface, like the painter is forced to use colours and the musician sounds and the sculptor volumes endlessly, up to sickness and hatred, all this because we can’t imagine things could happen any differently. How can you get out of your own skull by painting a door on the internal smooth and yellowish surface of the forehead bone? Even if it could go beyond one side of the square, the paper would go on forever, but it can’t even go beyond that first side, because the two dimensional mind cannot conceive going up from within the prison walls, perpendicular on the plane of the paper.
An answer, maybe truer than others, would therefore be this one: I haven’t become a writer because I had never been a writer from the start. I loved literature like a vice, but I have never believed it was the way. Fiction doesn’t attract me, it hasn’t been my life’s dream to add a few fake doors on the walls of literature. I have always been aware that the style (which is the hand of literature inserted in your own hand like in a glove) so much admired in my great writers is only ravishment and possession. That writing is eating your life and your brain away like heroin. That at the end of a career you can only ascertain that you said nothing with your mind and your mouth about yourself, about the tiny facts that formed your life, but always about a reality that is alien to you, whose intentions you followed because you were promised redemption, a symbolic, bi-dimensional redemption, which doesn’t mean a thing. Literature is too many times an eclipse of the mind and the body of the one who writes it.
Because I haven’t written (I have been writing a diary, indeed, during all these years, but who cares about the diary of a nobody?), I can clearly see today both my body and my mind. They are neither beautiful, nor worthy of any public interest. But they are worthy of my own interest. I look at them every day and they seem delicate like the transparent stems without chlorophyll of potatoes kept in the dark. Precisely because they haven’t been turned around in twenty fiction books, poems or novels, precisely because they were not deformed by calligraphy. I started writing in this notebook (I haven’t mentioned a word about it to anyone), in special circumstances, precisely the type of book nobody would write. It is a piece of writing doomed from the start and not because it will never become a book and remain a manuscript thrown over The Fall in my drawer with little teeth, string from the navel and old pictures, but because its subject is much more alien to literature and more wrapped around life, feeding off it like a thread of bindweed, than any text that has ever been put on paper. Something is happening to me, there is something in me. Unlike all the writers of the world, precisely because I am not a writer, I feel I have something to say. And I’ll say it badly and truly, like everything worth being on paper should be written. I think repeatedly that everything is how it should have been: I had to be destroyed on that remote evening at the Circle, I had to completely withdraw from any literary environment, I had to be a Romanian teacher in a normal school, the most obscure man on earth. I am writing now and I am writing precisely the text I have always imagined while reading sophisticated and powerful and clever and coherent and full of madness and wisdom books, and have never found: a piece of writing outside the museum of literature, a real door scribbled in the air, through which I hope I shall really get out of my own skull. A text that the one who gives autographs in meetings with teachers or in whatever foreign lands has never even dreamt.
I usually arrive in the teachers’ room among the last, long after the bell has rung. The hall with olive-green paint (the colour of the schools, hospitals and police stations) is poor and saddening. On the long table, the almost single piece of furniture in the room, the red tablecloth has been worn out by the many elbows rubbing against it. Usually I only find one teacher in the room, sitting at the table with an open class register and making notes in blue ink. He doesn’t even lift his eyes to see who came in. The drawing teacher. The Latin teacher, the Physics teacher. A kind of melancholy fog swirls in the room, especially on winter mornings when it hasn’t quite dawned yet and it snows on the shrivelled window panes. You are in a dream, but whose dream?
I take my register, one of those lying in a heap on the table and I go out into the deserted corridors of the school. Narrow corridors with low ceilings, like groundhog galleries, dimly lit by the windows facing the inner yard. I go past countless doors painted white, beyond which unknown deeds occur. I can hear sharp, hysterical, authoritative voices. They shout, they explain, they beg. Suddenly a door is slammed against the wall like a flower filmed in high speed explodes off its bud, and a child runs past me. Then you can hear the shouts of the teacher ten times louder. The door closes back and the murmur starts again. The child disappears around a corner of the corridor and never comes back.
The corridors seem to be endless, although the school is small. You always turn in 90 degree angles, you always go up and down stairs with badly cleaned tiles. You go past toilets with wide open doors, past the physics laboratory and the biology laboratory, past the dentist’s office. I have been wandering in the corridors of this lair for three years, but I could never learn its configuration. I still mix up class registers and end up in the wrong classroom. The laboratories seem to always change their location, the boards with best students are sometimes next to the entrance door, sometimes in front of the secretariat, sometimes at the end of the remotest corridor. I sometimes stop in front of one of them: the thirty pictures in six rows, pictures of boys and girls, seem to me so spectral in the greenish air, that I always shiver: they are faces of larvae, all the same, however each a bit different, as if the best student boards were large insectariums hung on the walls of a natural science museum. I can hardly get away from their fascination and go on, the Romanian teacher with his huge register under the arm.
I go up one floor, then another one and another one. I know the school only has one, that I am not really awake yet (it’s a quarter past eight), however I keep on going up, seems I’ve been going up for centuries. It’s an infinite tower of classes and overlaying corridors. I finally stop in a large dark space (too little light comes from the inner yard) with the same white doors around. Class 5A, 5B, 5C… Along the corridors the class letters finish up the Latin alphabet, they go to the Greek one, the Jewish one, the Cyrillic one then Arab and Indian signs show up, hideous Maya heads, totally unknown signs in the end. I have never known how many classes there are in School 86.
It’s foggy and deserted. Forty children are waiting for me in one of the classrooms, but which one? I guess wrongly almost every time. I open a door in doubt, the students turn to me from their desks, the teacher breaks off the fractions series (if it’s the super beautiful Florabela) or a reptile standstill (if it’s the feared Gionea) or the tics of a Tourette syndrome patient (if I found Vintila, the Geography teacher). “I apologize” I say and I close the door humbly with the feeling of one who was the witness of a shameful secret unwillingly. What happens between children and teachers there, behind the white numbered doors, has always seemed to me sealed by a taboo as powerful and unbreakable as going to the ladies’ toilet. During each break I sweat like a pig. Not because I think I wouldn’t find my classroom again, but because I imagine I would again and again open closed doors beyond which I have no business to be.
Finally, the children in the most improbable classroom seem to be expecting me. There’s nobody in front of the class, at the teacher’s desk. However, my insecurity persists: what if this is the class of another late comer? Only when I see them opening their books and notebooks and accepting me there, in the small space in front of the desk rows, I calm down a bit. It’s my class, I am finally where I belong. But what class am I in? Is it the sixth? The eighth? Children seem all the same to me. I make the effort of my life to find out, from the three-four faces I recognize, if I am in Mrs. Radulescu’s class or in the one Uzun is class master of. I go to the teacher’s desk, I put the register on it, I sit down and I call the roll. I get up and I start walking between the desk rows peering at the pages of the open books – God knows which lesson I have to teach. Do I have grammar or literature? I am the worst teacher who has ever taught. “Where are we?” I ask them. A little girl in the window row answers: “We extracted the main ideas from <La Brosteni> up to the third part”. Ok, I am in the sixth grade, probably 6B, ok, at least I know this. I’ll manage from here. I look at the children almost gratefully. I start talking automatically, my mind elsewhere. They write down what I dictate, their minds elsewhere as well. Probably they had wondered as well which class they were to have, what strange and incomprehensible animal would enter the room, adult, thus alien and monstrous, in order to take charge of them before the following break. We now stand face to face, my face I know from mirrors and I hate like I never hated anything in the world, and their forty faces with small unformed features, their faces I have always been afraid of. “Let the children come to me” comes to mind every time I enter a classroom, five times a day, “for the ones in the kingdom of heaven are like them”. Faces of children, faces not from the earth, but from a remote and foreign kingdom. I would have so much to tell them, I could meticulously build the bridge between two cultures or two civilizations (between two species?), however I talk to them about Irinuca’s goats and I explain to them what itch mites are, because I defend myself, because for three years I have done everything to get away and run, to be inconspicuous, to not be cornered.
There are good classes and bad classes, classes where I go in peace and classes where I don’t dare enter. Every year they gather the problem children, the unstable, recalcitrant, dyslexic in one class. Gipsies, seen by the terribly prejudiced teachers as a people of psychopaths. Children who can’t bring flowers and chocolates to the teachers. They used to have stupid, drunkard primary school teachers, kept in school out of pity, and now, when they have a different teacher in every subject, they can’t cope and teachers can’t cope with them either. “I go to 5D as to the lion pit, I need to defend myself with the ruler and register” someone in the teachers’ room always says. Women, especially beginner teachers, come out of there crying. All teachers beat the hell out of them and start over the following class. There’s nothing to be done. I go in such a class like in a torture room, one of the many expecting us in life (I have lived my entire life in torture rooms). There’s nothing to be done, best is to not think about it in advance. You go there automatically, with your register under the arm, towards that corner of hell. You’ll be tortured for one hour, then you’ll escape. For one hour you’ll be provoked, defied, mocked by beings no taller than your chest, but many and attacking in waves. You cannot oppose the vastness of your knowledge to them. Your world is not their world. Your authority ends at the classroom door, where their authority starts. You get away easiest if you go past them without looking into their eyes and you sit at your desk where you remain immobile, catatonic until the exit bell rings, unmoved by the chaos, shouting, running through the classroom, fighting with erasers and pencils, the glue they put on your chair. You would then want your senses to shut down one by one like sleepy eyes, to become your own statue of years later, when the heroism of former teachers will be repaid by their image in stone sitting at the teacher’s desk in front of forty children of stone, like a memorial of the double ordeal of school.
The end bell ring always takes me by surprise. I don’t know if the bugles of the Apocalypse will ring louder, but the one in each class would be enough to raise the dead from their vaults. I break to pieces every time it rings and I put myself back together with difficulty. The children run away from the classroom much earlier than I do and they leave me alone between the empty desks and the blackboard, which suddenly seem to me so sad, that I search for a hook in the ceiling to hang myself. Around me, on the walls, there are absurd boards: images of the pig and the cow for younger classes, Mendeleev’s table and the dissected digestive tract of the pigeon for the older ones. Pieces of a world we will never understand. I take my register and I go down towards the teacher’s room holding it under my arm and this time the road seems shorter and as simple as possible, as if the teachers’ room were around the corner. However, it takes me the same time to reach it, because the space is packed with children who swarm like wasps in a nest, restlessly, shouting as if they stuck needles in your eardrum. You can’t go through, because they are stuck to each other like siamese, but you can throw yourself above them in an agile jump all teachers know and can do – the rest hasn’t survived – and they will take you from arm to arm over their heads full of nits, feeling under your dress if you are a woman and searching your pockets if you are a man, but eventually putting you down in front of the teachers’ room safely. Once you’re there, you level your clothes, you erase the desperation from your face, and you go in affably, ready to joke and gossip as if nothing had happened.
My colleagues sit around the table. On the walls around them there are big, fly soiled pictures of deceased personalities. Out the window one can see the water tower as well as an ancient abandoned factory with broken roof and little trees grown on the brick cornices from seeds blown by the wind. It is the playground of the children from the neighbourhood, who get into the abandoned halls through entrances only they know. They come home exhausted, grease stained and with something weird in their eyes. When I leave the school and go past Automecanica towards the end station of the 21 tram, I meet them in groups of two or three wearing that look which says “we were there again”. In each “square” meeting before being allowed to go to class, the children’s uniform is inspected. Fingers go through the boys’ hair and, if the hair is longer than the fingers’ width they are sent for a haircut. The girls have two vulnerabilities: the headband (it must be white cloth, not plastic, must be worn at all times) and the length of the dress, which must reach their knees. Both of them wear another sign of school slavery: the registration number. In old times it was written next to the name of the school, yellow thread on a muslin patch sewn on the left arm of the uniform. The registration number was used to identify students who behaved improperly in public places, the ones who went to the movies or stayed in bars during classes. I don’t remember when the patch was replaced by the tattoo, but I remember it was because students were sticking their numbers with fasteners, so they could be easily taken away upon leaving the school, when the girls removed their headbands as if they burnt them. For years, on the first day of school, when the nurse was inspecting the children’s tummies for signs of rash and their heads for lice and when all of them were given their vaccine – a drop of pink liquid on a cube of sugar – the dexterities teacher would show up (boys were taught locksmith trade, girls seaming) with the hot pyrography needle. One by one, their shirt sleeves rolled up, the children would bear the meticulous inscription of the number that would identify them as students of School 86 on their left shoulder, in coarse letters. After the haircut, headband, uniform (the girls got down on their knees between the desk rows and the seam was not to touch the floor) and registration number inspection, the warning of the headmistress would inevitably follow: “Don’t let me catch you in the old factory during breaks. The ones I find will be suspended for three days and obliged to study in the library!”
The library threat has immediate effect, very few children dare take the risk. The school library is also a dungeon. From the dentist’s office you go down narrow cement stairs, deep underground like some of those WCs in the basement of old railway stations. The librarian is the Mathematics teacher, sick with diabetes, who supplements her half teaching norm with a few hours of being a public guard. She’s wide, occupying the entire table of the little entrance hall of the library and her face is full of warts. Children can hardly fit through because of the barbaric idol closing the entrance.
On her unpolished wood desk painted with red ink there is always a jar with a murky liquid. It’s her algae treating not only her diabetes, but also her sight, bladder, intestinal traffic, ovarian cysts, memory lapses, snoring, warts, retching, boredom. Her algae are the cure-all long expected by humanity and revealed by a Russian professor called Naumov. First time they showed up in school was a few months ago, brought by Mrs. Bernini, the music teacher. The mystical jar shined like the sacred calyx in the sun. Inside there were a few pale, translucent beings with delicate inner anatomy floating in a hyaline liquid similar to sperm. Surrounded by colleagues, Mrs. Bernini unfolded sternly a piece of paper with the words of the great scientist mimeographed for the tenth time, typed in largely spaced, almost illegible characters drowned in ink. They said that the algae with a complicated scientific name grew and multiplied in their jar with no need for food, and the liquid they lived in had to be drunk once a week and replaced with tap water. A cure with the miraculous algae had to last for one year, after which perfect health would be guaranteed in this century and eternal life in the next. The music teacher had sent her female colleagues for glasses and upon their return she inserted one piece of the lazy whitish animals from the primordial jar in each glass. Every one of them was now religiously following professor Naumov’s cure. The algae had indeed multiplied and the murky liquid, although rather disgusting, could be drunk in the toilet while holding your nose. The female teachers had completely forgotten other attempts at “old-age-less youth and death-less life” made in the past. How they had kept, for example, one spoon of oil under their tongue for six hours every Monday according to the prescription of the Czech doctor Nemecheck or how they retained their urine for three days, once a month, suffering terrible ordeals, as a cure for nostalgia.
There are no books in the library. In old times there had been a few hundred children books, but they got mouldy because of the humidity underground. The covers are now rotten with green stains and stinking of penicillin and the pages are swarmed by tiny scorpions without stinger. Most of the former books are now little heaps of dust on the equally rotten shelves. The room is small, the light comes from very high above or through a little window covered by a wire net like all school windows. The worst behaved children are punished to stay here in the afternoon, until it gets dark, having nothing else to contemplate except the elephantine, overflowing back of the librarian. Even when she was sleeping with her head on the table, watched by the jar full of an eerie light from the twisted sunrays coming through the window, the student arrested could not escape, because it was impossible to get out between the thick hairy legs of the librarian with varicose veins going up and down like languid earthworms.
My colleagues always write something in the class registers, they delete it with hard erasers which rub the paper until they punch holes and when they talk they do so whispering, twitching their mouth towards the one they talk to or covering it with a notebook, like students do in class. And likewise, they are pathologically afraid of the headmaster, of Borcescu. When they were summoned to his office they became white as a sheet, as if a huge tarantula invited them to visit her lair. I am afraid of Borcescu too. I don’t feel like seeing him very often, although I know he has a kind of shyness towards Romanian and Mathematics teachers. His entire office smells like face powder and foundation. It’s his specific smell, impregnated in in his clothes, his hands, his face and his hair. When this sweetish stink infiltrates into the teacher’s room, the teachers automatically jump, because they know the school master will show up a few instants later. And here he is, indeed, here is his short and obese body on which the perfectly spherical, disproportionately big head seems the final ball of a snowman. His face is unforgettable, as the pinkish-brown powder that covers his sweaty skin like a mask never camouflages his weirdness fully, it rather replaces it with a different but similar one. The man has vitiligo, his face and hands (maybe the rest of the body too?) are covered by spots, skinned and discoloured portions, others too pigmented, so that his body looks like a kind of a football sewn of variously coloured leather patches somebody smeared thick make-up with sickening smell on. Beneath three threads of tobacco coloured moustache, his toothless mouth can’t pronounce sibilants and is powerless with fricatives. Borcescu is the more to be feared the less understandable his words are. He always gives someone an order and the addressee attempts to understand it, terrorised that he could misinterpret the headmaster’s mumbling. For a quarter of an hour you can see the poor teacher, his head stuck to the window, combining and re-combining words that lack essential consonants.
A while ago, in the 70s, Borcescu’s specialty had been to invite young female teachers for a trip in the mountains. He was gallant, courteous, his hair was thicker and the signs of the disease were paler. And above all, a rare thing in those times, he had a Fiat 600 irresistible for enough women. They would start on the road jolly and in the middle of nowhere the teacher would stop the car and threaten the woman next to him that he would throw her out of the car unless she lets him… Many of the school teachers had been with him this way. Other than this, he deals with teaching biology which he turned into a very nice business. If he teaches the anatomy of the rabbit, all children have to bring a rabbit to school. Only one is dissected with obvious pleasure by Borcescu on a big porcelain platter placed on the teacher’s table and the other ones are taken to his home, where his rabbit farm thrives. If he teaches about fish, each child has to buy one carp at the neighbourhood food store. One is dissected, the children see its gills, intestines, nacre coloured bladder, eggs in compact packs, and the others belong to Headmaster sir, who sells them outside his gate using a scale as old as Methuselah. Mrs. Mimi had managed to get her grabs on him a little before I came to the school. Poor Borcescu had paid in one day of bad luck for all his tripper pleasures. He had taken a hitchhiker and stopped a few kilometres later with the same blackmail, the woman said nothing, let herself be cramped in the space of the tiny Fiat, but didn’t stop afterwards until she brought the miserable bastard in front of the marriage clerk. It turned out that Mimi, rather old and ugly like a pig, a teacher as well somewhere in Berceni, had a higher rank than our future headmaster, the blackmailed blackmailer, who finally got what he deserved. Ever since, Borcescu had not only put a stop to his sexual escapades, but to life itself, because seldom had a husband been terrorised by his wife like he was by the consort who was now governing his household with an iron fist. In the first two years of residence I was sometimes called in his office and, if he was in a good mood, our conversation would invariably end with him calling me from behind his desk, as if he had to tell me something of great importance. I would come close to him reluctantly, the powder stink would become murderous, he would get his pink lips close to my ear and whisper, his eyes widened by irrepressible terror: “Young man… young man, don’t get married! Do you hear me?” I would accept his game and ask him rather innocently: “Why, Professor?” “Well, my boy, do you know how it is to be married?” “How is it, Professor?” “A bit worse than being hung!” He would look in my eyes and continue apparently joking: “Not much worse. Just a bit worse… Keep this in mind…” All older teachers had told this unbelievable story, however true and endlessly repeated in the thirty years since Borcescu had been teaching in this neighbourhood, of which the last twenty as school headmaster, about Mrs. Mimi bursting into the school through the entrance door, about the windows busting into shivers from a push of the woman rabid with anger, about her formidable kicking the secretariat door, pushing the pompon-wearing girl on duty and entering the headmaster’s office like a snowstorm. Teachers and students together rushed outside and saw through the office window how Mrs. Mimi, upon finding the office empty, stopped for an instant in bewilderment, looked for the miserable husband all around, how she eventually pulled him by the ears from under his desk, like an obese student, and started knocking his spherical skull until he started mumbling something incomprehensible, his face in flames.
I usually stand next to the heater, looking at the old factory and the water tower beneath the dusty Bucharest skies. I don’t gossip with the female teachers, I don’t drink the liquids from their jars, I don’t try to be closer to the gigantic Florabela, whose breasts and Venus mountain remain naked and hot, regardless how decent her clothing might be. In the teacher’s room I am an absence, a man of shade. The Romanian teacher who comes and goes as discreetly as if he never existed. After the last class I go to the teacher’s room in order to drop the register. I go down the stairs to the ground floor and get out the door. Regardless of the month, when I leave the school it is always autumn – the cold wind makes the thick, shiny dust swirl, impregnates it in my eyelashes and my hair. I get to the big circle of trams turning at the end station. Their wagons seem to come from another century – their tin plates are rusty, their lights are broken. There is a sea of people in the station all looking in the same direction. From very far away, from the depth of the Colentina Road, tram 21 comes swaggering. It should take about three times more people than it can hold. Some will travel on the buffer at the back, others hung up the door handles. I let it go loaded with the human polyp and since the next will come in half an hour I start walking along the welded pipes factory. The wind pushes me from behind, waves my hair, sticks papers and dirt from the road to my body. I go past tiny soda container stalls, bread stores, tyre repair shops, timber warehouses. The sun goes down, the world becomes scarlet coloured, every passer-by I meet increases my loneliness.
I bought my house in 1981 for the price of a Dacia. I was living with my parents at the time, on Stefan cel Mare, in a long apartment building with eight entrances connected to the Militia Headquarters. I had spent my childhood in the Circus Park and later, in adolescence, I used to often go back to the sun-drowsy park in order to sink within its heart of shade and sparkle, towards the lake full of bulrush and eternally bending over weeping willows. On frightening evenings with clouds taking monstrous shapes I would go down towards the lake and sit on a bench. I would sit there for hours looking into the coffee coloured water and mumbling the lyrics my mind was packed with – Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont… I was borrowing books from the neighbourhood library at the time, the one next to the grocery store, apparently never visited by anyone except me. I happened to enter the library loaded with bags of potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers. I would leave them in the little entrance hall next to the door and I would go in the shade of the room full of books. The librarian was a discreet man, as insignificant looking in reality, as concrete and present in countless dreams of later. The books, aligned in alphabetical order, were for me like those boards with postal boxes that occupy an entire wall at the ground floor of apartment buildings. How many times I had wished, when I was a child, to have the keys to all those boxes! I would have spent my mornings reading letters and thus getting into the intricate and sad lives of all people. I sometimes managed to take one out through the thin gap with great difficulty, using a little stick and inserting my fingers as deep as I could into the dark space, terribly frightened of being caught. I would then read about diseases and funerals, requests for loans, indecent proposals and divisions of land plots. And I finally had all the keys now! Each book was a gap through which I looked within the skull of a person. There were as many skulls with the boxes of intelligence, courage, pride, melancholy, shrewdness separated and numbered in indelible pencil. I was opening each book like a surgeon who was to operate on a skull, but in addition I had the amazement of a doctor who would find something different than the usual circumvolutions and the usual grey-brown substance irrigated by trees of blood vessels in each dura mater he slashed: a crouched baby ready to be born, a giant spider, a town in the first hours of the morning, a big and fresh grapefruit, a head of a doll with eyes turned inside. What strange osmosis between my skull and the one of an old author would then occur, how weirdly our foreheads would clear up! How our foreheads would then be connected in the forehead area, like in two Siamese, how his cerebral substance would merge with mine! I was looking in his mind, reading his thoughts, I could feel his pains, his silences, his orgasms. His moments of enlightenment. I would pour my mental content over his like sea-stars digest a nest of shells. We would connect, we would mix, Apollinaire and I, T.S. Eliot and I, Valery and I, until an unrealistic hybrid that made one’s spine shiver would be born, like a hologram, between us: the book. The madness of melting into the liquid gold tank of poetry.
I would look at the lake water reflecting the clouds and the buildings on the opposite shore until it got dark and the park got completely deserted. I wouldn’t even perceive my unhappiness any longer, just like we are not aware that we are made of billions of cells, that we are a cluster of lives. Only when the lake surface no longer mirrored anything but the stars would I get up, my bones stiff, and plunge into the alleys once more. One night I went around the lake floating half a meter above the ground. Another night I saw that I could step on the surface of the tar black water and I walked across it. But the nocturnal Circus Park, as different from the daylight park as woman from man, has never ravaged me as much as in the night when I arrived to an area I had not seen as a child, although I’d known it was there. It was very far, towards the Lacul Tei Boulevard, where the winding alley suddenly opened to a vast space of terrible loneliness. In the middle there was a basin full of black water. A statue was standing in the basin, a naked young man who defended himself with his arms against a terrible threat. His stony silent dread caught me too, because that teenager was obviously me, his eyes enlarged with terror were my eyes.
I have always been frightened, pure fear arisen not from thoughts of danger, but from life itself. I have permanently lived the dread of the blind, the disquiet of the deaf. I could never truly sleep at night, because the instant I closed my eyes I knew there was somebody in the room who was looking at me, who was slowly coming closer to my sleeping face. How could I defend myself when my senses resorbed, when I surrendered to the enormous world? My dread has always come especially from the fact that we do not know how the world is, we only know its face illuminated by senses. We know the world constructed by the senses in our mind, like you build a house mock-up under a glass bell. But the enormous world, the world as it is indeed, impossible to describe through millions of senses open like sea anemones in the continuous tide of the ocean, is everywhere around us and crushes us, bone by bone, in its embrace. When I was about twelve years old my fear of the world became acute and precise. I understood then for the first time that not the jaws, the fangs, the claws, the hooks, the thorns of bestial monsters, not the phantasm that my frail body would be torn apart were the source of my continuous anxiety, but the emptiness, the nothing, the unseen. I was then avidly reading some little brochures of fantastic and adventure literature. On Thursday mornings I used to wake up at dawn and run to the newspaper kiosk lest I miss an issue. The facsimiles were cheap and naively illustrated, but the stories they told filled me either with wonder, enchantment and enthusiasm or with horror and anxiety. Be they about temples and gold bars from the jungles of the southern continents, about cities undersea, about experiments of psychopath scientists, about extra-terrestrials impossible to understand, about intelligent viruses that conquered the world, about spirits invading your mind and taking the reigns of your will, the stories were populating my hours of loneliness and, naturally, were flowing into my dreams, homogenizing my inner life. Two of them have deeply impressed me to the day.
The first story (by whom? I never knew; the names of the authors were merely a negligible hieroglyph on the cover) was about a peasant from remote Siberia who was sleeping in his hut next to his woman while biting frost was coming in through the logs, bringing snowflakes. The peasant woke up a little before dawn and could no longer feel the woman next to him. He thought she went out for necessities and went back to sleep. But when morning came and he saw she hadn’t returned, he went to the porch closing his nightgown. What he saw left him speechless. In the snow fallen overnight, so clean that even God wouldn’t have dared step in, one could see the woman’s footprints going from the house threshold up to the middle of the yard, where they suddenly disappeared. All around the snow was untouched. The last sentences of this story, which didn’t give a soothing explanation of what had happened like many others, left the peasant staring into the sky with a dumb look.
The second was about a convict who had been rotting in a jail cell for years. He was convicted to life and guarded with such harshness that the miserable man was certain he would die in his dungeon. But one night he heard some faint knocks in one of the walls. He put his ear against it and heard them better: clear, intelligent, repeated elaborate series of knocks at certain intervals. Amazed, the prisoner believed he had had one of the hallucinations that accompanied his miserable incarceration. But the following day at the same time he heard the series of knocks in the wall again and then again, day after day. He learned the series of sounds by heart and started to write down what he heard on the section of the wall hidden by the bed. Now and then the alternative sounds became more complicated, as if new “words” were introduced into the code by the neighbour beyond the wall. It took the prisoner months to guess the first connections in the secret web of the knocks, then years to master their language. Eventually a dialogue was established, as the prisoner started answering in the same code he wrote down in an invented graphics with half-moons, spur gears, crosses and triangles scribbled on the wall). The neighbour, he now understood, was giving him the details of an escape plan of breath taking courage and incredible simplicity. One night, after having finished all preparations, the prisoner escaped upon strictly following the instructions. Years later, when he was rich and famous after having invented a fake biography, he asked permission to visit his former prison in order to finally meet the one he owed everything to and try to save him in return. He was taken to the cell where he had wasted his youth and he asked the prison guard about the prisoner beyond the wall. But he found out in amazement that only the sky and the sea were behind that wall. The wall was an external wall, tens of metres above the waves breaking against the rocky shore…
I felt the same sacred terror, the same feeling that beyond the world mock-up built by our senses from cheap materials there is somebody who watches you intently, whose prey you are, who approaches slowly on its thousands of sticky threads while you are incapable of knowing it, you, who only have a bunch of antennae although you should be able to perceive The Whole, on the night I was in the Circus Park, next to the star-reflecting silent pool with travertine borders. I had the same feeling of hopeless loneliness much later, in the autumn of 1981, when I walked on Maica Domnului street for the first time. It was a putrid and luminous autumn. I was twenty five and had no future on earth. For one year I had been a teacher in the bottom of Colentina, where I knew (I know it today too) that I would retire from. I would then die without leaving any trace of my passing through the world, a fact that was bringing me some kind of dark joy. On an October Sunday my unhappiness – which was then the air I breathed – took me out of the house. It had rained furiously the entire morning but in the afternoon it suddenly turned silent and the buildings across the road became clear and transparent, dressed in a light which came from nowhere. I went down, I started walking through the sparkling wind towards the Circus Alley, then I crossed the park. The lake was now muddy and brought its drowned bodies to the surface. I had never crossed neither in my childhood, nor later, beyond the remote side of the lake, beyond the row of the four apartment buildings eternally mirrored by its waters, the “diplomats’ buildings” where chocolate coloured little girls and obliquely eyed little boys played on the balconies with peg tops and mirrors. I knew that behind these buildings there was the Lacul Tei neighbourhood, which had a mythical topography for me, because my godmother lived there on an endless little street with ditches on the sides where people poured the slops. In those yards, as far as one could see through the fences, the beans and tomato stakes tops had coloured glass globes which reflected the clouds. Galvani high school was there too, as well as a half collapsed school and, above all, a big timber warehouse which filled the neighbourhood with fresh resin smell. But Maica Domnului street did not lead directly to that area, it went askew towards Colentina.
I crossed the railway beyond the park, the one I’d never seen a train on, and, like I had imagined, I was greeted by a place like no other in the world. When one is four years old every new place is so. The state of hallucination and dreaming accompanies one always until the memory tracks get printed on one’s brain. Any new landscape is fabulous and unusual in itself, regardless how common it were in truth, because “in reality”, “in truth”, “as it is” are still phrases without meaning for one who perceives reality the way we later live in our first memories or dreams. Maica Domnului street has always seemed to me like a tentacle of a dream in the world that is awake or, if everything exists on the inside and reality is a mere illusory artefact, as a flicker arrived from the deep and submerged childhood.
On Maica Domnului there is no “normal” house and person, because normality itself ceases here. There is also no normal weather. When you enter this track, this channel from another world and another life, the climate changes and the seasons turn upside down. Here there’s always, like I wrote before, a putrid and luminous autumn. The asphalt strip spread who knows when over the formerly cobbled road became discoloured and gnawed like an old rag. It’s full of mounds caused by the livid germs of the plants below. On the sides of the road there are old merchant houses as well as several houses built between the wars, little villas once good looking and modern. But how weird! For each of them has a monstrous appendix, or just out of place, a fantasy of an architect who seemed to have designed one part of the edifice in full daylight and the other when he was awoken in the middle of the night, forced to design on the sketch board in the light of the full moon.
All the houses here have round windows which burn strongly at sunset. All have forged iron gates, Art Nouveau stems with orange, azure and light purple stained glass pieces flickering in between them. They are all plastered with calcio-vecchio blackened by the passing of time. But half the plaster on each façade has fallen down. The wall thus skinned shows its dusty brick. There are gaps among the bricks, there’s mortar missing. Most windows have no glass, they are covered by yellowed newspapers in tatters. Bizarre and rusty ornaments extend from the roofs like the stumps of terrible cripples raised towards the sky in reproach and revolt. Crooked towers and domes, vulgar cement statues with broken faces, clusters of pale pink painted angels which look like a procession of larvae. One of the houses has a rampart, like medieval fortresses, another one looks like a tram depot, a third one is simply a solemn vault in the middle of a yard with not one single flower. When the evening falls, the scene gets soaked in blood like gauze and becomes unbearable.
Most gardens have white and pale purple four o’clock flowers that darken the evening air with their smell. In others you can only see weeds. At dusk the people who live here go out in the street and squat in front of their strange houses, being stranger and more enigmatic themselves. Most of them are gipsies sheltered in the ruins. They don’t have running water or electricity and pay no taxes. There are also Romanians of the suburbs, carpenters working in undertakers’ shops, tool men in this or that factory, tram ticket sellers. They sit around in the evening, their sleeves rolled up. You can also see them on the balconies – young girls dressed like prostitutes hang undershirts, bras, underpants and flashy coloured unidentifiable rags. Dangerous looking tattooed men smoke while looking towards the end of the street. They all speak loudly, seem to quarrel endlessly, however there is something so melancholic in them, that one must admit they are the most appropriate dwellers of my street.
You have to go along the street for a long time in order to reach the house in the shape of a ship. It is the only one with no fence and it doesn’t need one, the way it somberly dominates at the end of a waste ground full of rusty springs and ancient refrigerator containers. Everybody throws their old stuff in front of my house. It isn’t even actually ship shaped, it has a shape which stubbornly opposes any description. The lower side should be cubic, but it somehow became a pyramid section with the larger base above, like a paper boat. A crooked lop-sided tower stands on its platform. The tower can be reached on an external raw cement spiral stair twisted tightly up to the only door of the room, worn-out by bad weather. The lower floor, the actual house has an almost monumental entrance: a heavy forged iron gate depicting two long haired maidens carrying lamps in their thin hands. To the left there are two square windows latticed with the same forged iron, black iron in thin convulsively contorted bars. The front is grey, worn out like all the other houses in the street. The round window of the tower burns madly into the sun at any time of the day. The tower is unearthly beautiful against the clear sky full of white fluffy clouds of summer mornings, but in deep evenings the scarlet flame of the window stuns you. This demented, desperate shine, this cry for help made me then, on that October evening, desire the ugly sad house more than anything in the world. I crossed the waste ground until I got in front of the door. Beyond the black bars the glass was broken. The square windows as well. A cold wind, smelling of wall debris came from inside. A piece of paper with “For sale” written in ball pen was stuck next to the door. Underneath there was a phone number and “Ask for Mikola”. I went around the house while the dusk became denser. Behind it there was another street whatsoever with grey apartment buildings, as if the tree of streets in the neighbourhood had produced those fruit of Creole exuberance and sadness only in Maica Domnului. There had been another entrance once on the blind wall at the back of the house, but it was now closed with bricks. At that moment, in front of that blind entrance, I saw myself living there my entire life, because if every house is the image of the one inhabiting it, no matter how deformed and deceitful, then I knew that there, in that tesseract of ash, I had found my most flawless self-portrait. I was already imagining myself in the narrow room of the tower, looking at the sky through the round window, while the horizon was getting dirty yellow and the first stars were coming out in this lamp oil shade.
As soon as I got home that evening I talked to my folks about buying the house. My mother knew Maica Domnului very well, street of hookers and knifers. Shouts and reproaches began: “Is this why you got so much school? To live with the gipsies? Maybe tomorrow you’ll bring me a daughter in law in a creased skirt! They’ll steal the pants off your ass, they will!” “You don’t know them, listen to me” my father poured some more gas on the fire. “Will you ever again be able to sleep from now on? Every night you’ll have a scandal, fiddlers, accordions, swearing – you know, like the gipsies… Hang a shirt outside? You’ll be looking for it for a looong time tomorrow!” They kept this on until I lost my patience and I went downstairs to the phone booth to call Mikola.
The man’s voice made me think he was very old. The house, he said, had been built by him in the previous regime. It was, therefore, about a half of a century old. As he was away from home a lot (he had been in jail for sure), the house remained uncared for after the war and it slowly deteriorated. It needed a bit of consolidation and the water and electricity installations needed to be changed. Other than that it was a good house, as he had designed it himself and built it there in that city area which seemed to have good future. It had been empty for six years, the last inhabitant had gone to Israel and the gipsies couldn’t go in or didn’t want to. So the inside was relatively functional. Maybe I could also buy the furniture. After having said this in a heartbeat, in a panting voice, I asked him about the price and then uncle Mikola, pushing his hat back, looked at me with his round blue eyes that always looked surprised because of the deep lines on his forehead. Dambovita and its grassy banks could be seen through the window of the room we were talking in, a crowded little kitchen with a table covered by an oil cloth. “Well, we’ll agree”, he told me. I seemed to be a good boy, this was more important for him than the money. He couldn’t leave his house to just anyone. Then he started telling me a very confusing story at first, with a kind of senile liveliness. My classes were starting at two, I had already missed the military training and couldn’t afford to also miss the first actual class. However, I eventually missed it, because the old man’s story, as unbelievable as it was, gripped me and I didn’t have the heart to shorten or interrupt it.
The man had been something hard to define in his life: inventor, physicist, architect, even a kind of medical doctor, his name was Nicolae Borina if the name rang a bell. I looked at him blankly. Among others, he had invented the “Borina solenoid”, which had never been patented, first of all because the inventor had no kind of school. He had only attended a few primary grades in Abrud or Alejd “where I should have a statue already, yes, sir!”. He had spent ten years in the United States, where he had met Tesla (who at the time was only a brand of a radio for me) and his solenoid was, as I understood, a continuation, an extension of the research of his master in electromagnetism. Back in Bucharest around 1925, he had lead a picaresque life, he had made some improvements to electrical trams, studied elevators, tried to produce electrical power through combinations of coils and magnets… He had built three or four industrial halls and even stepped on the stage of the circus, where he had had an amazing event (so he said) with voltaic arcs. “I produced electrical sparks of up to eight meters in length, yes sir, until the damn tent burned and they threw me out of there too.” As a spicy item, he had met among tens and hundreds of other conquests (if you were to believe him), the famous Mitza the Cyclist, luxury coquette with a huge palace in Christian Tell, he had installed a dynamo on the front wheel of her Dorlay pink bicycle, most likely the first one on a bicycle in Romania. He had eventually been hired by an Austrian medical equipment company that produced mainly dentist chairs and other equipment for stomatology offices. He had built the house in those obviously the most productive times of his life, when the famous solenoid was fully up to speed and uncle Mikola was ready to conquer the world. He had lived in a hotel before, like the entire Bucharest high life, but in the latest years, mostly as a result of practicing “unipolar medicine”, he had gathered enough money to afford building the house. When the story reached this point, I asked him what kind of therapy that was, how he treated his patients. “Don’t think I was one of those quacks from Flacara. I truly healed people, yes sir. Don’t ask me how, but I did heal. The highest society people would come to me and every one of them left satisfied. Just for you to understand, I was using an equipment invented by me (using the sketches of master Tesla, to be honest, but with my original contribution) that consisted of one red and one blue spiral (made of very pure copper bar, painted and insulated) connected into a double propeller. This double spiral was two meters high and wide enough to fit one person. I asked them to stand in the middle of a chalk circle on the floor and I lowered the spiral from the ceiling over them. I then circulated magnetic unipoles through the coils, the greatest secret of science, yes sir. The great Tesla himself could not figure those babies out. The session lasted two hours and the patient was healed of diseases of the body and soul. Hepatitis, tuberculosis, melancholy, syphilis, paronychia, love for the wrong person, bad dreams, even some forms of cancer were eliminated from the body, which flowered suddenly like at the age of twenty.” Of course, the envy of the trade had promptly functioned, so in a few years he had become the target of wretched attacks. They had eventually put him in jail for quackery and only the testimony of several persons from the high-life had saved him from losing his fortune.
He had chosen the location for the house according to a complicated procedure. I had listened to the old man with interest and amusement up to that point. From here on, however, the story became heavy with a lot of technical details I could not evaluate and was not interested in. I understood later the meaning of his demonstration: uncle Mikola seemed to believe in an energetic network of the Earth which had some points of great intensity (nodes) and some inert points. His house needed to be placed on a node, the closest on the map. One could find such points either by using the sensitivity of a geomancer or by making mind-boggling numerology calculations. The old man had used both methods. Once he found one of the Bucharest nodes by using the art of numerology, he also verified the computation accuracy through his hyper-sensory abilities. “The magical area was right there, in gipsyland, on that waste ground. I felt it as soon as I arrived. I immediately perceived a silence as pure as the white of the snow, the silence from before the appearance of the ear, before the notion of sound, sir. Or maybe the silence from before the creation of the world.”
He had bought a plot of about five hundred square meters, making sure that the node was entirely covered by its perimeter. He had dug a deep wide hole for the foundation of the house and while doing so he had discovered very old ruins dating from the abyss of history. Nicolae Borina had laid his solenoid there, in the pit of fresh clay. It had costed him a fortune. In was a nine metre diameter torus. Sixteen layers of coils made of five millimetre thick copper wire were twisted on a ferrite core in an incredibly complicated structure with alternations of direction and orientation, calculated in accordance with a mysterious numerology system. This huge coil had been manufactured in Basel and brought into the country on the railway by special transport. It had been transported at night from the Filaret station and secretly installed on a foundation with hydraulic cylinders and bearings in the Maica Domnului hole, depleted of the antique vestiges which had been carried to the Tei garbage pit without too much fuss. A concrete layer was poured over the solenoid and the house was built above.
My life had enough madness even in those times, but the old man’s story left me breathless. The second school class had gone and so would the entire day. I couldn’t care less about it. The old man was delirious, I knew that, but I knew better than anyone that delirium is not a waste product of reality, it is a part of it and sometimes its most precious part. Besides the house, I was buying a story – its handbook or instructions manual. From then on, I would be the owner of a house that was built, albeit in the imagination of a ninety year old senile man, above a giant coil buried underground, as if uncle Mikola, in his unexplainable magnanimity had given me his own brains under a glass bell, with a ship shaped house built on its hemispheres.
“On September 12th 1936 I finished the house, young man. It stood up alone, beautiful like a pearl, in the middle of the waste lands and shanties of Tei. It was painted and furnished on the inside too, all the framed paintings and pictures were hung on the walls, the precious carpets (now worn-out rags) were shining in lively shades… The black iron stems at the windows sprouted young buds and twigs… It was a wonder you could fall in love with like you would with a woman with large hips, generous thighs… I had a house on the ground, but I never enjoyed it, sir…” Because the woman proved to be frigid. The solenoid, whatever it could be used for, never worked. It was the greatest disillusion and defeat in the inventor’s life. He had started the machine on the first evening. Besides the great coil, it also included several engines, as well as other machineries, partly invented by him. The air started humming, the floor was vibrating lightly, but the miracle (the old man, with unexpected stubbornness after so many disclosures, refused to give me the least indication about it) did not occur. So he advised me to forget about the coil and, if I still wanted the house, to enjoy it as if it were an ordinary one, although… Although, he added resentfully, it’s a shame…
Mikola hadn’t even enjoyed the ordinary house. Immediately after the regime change he was locked up for political reasons (former Legionnaire? member of a historical party?) and not released until 1964. The property rights on his house were restored to him with great difficulty, only after a friend intervened with high party authorities. Fortunately, it hadn’t attracted the greediness of any of the new hot shots because it was in a miserable and ill-famed neighbourhood. After having stayed empty and being gradually consumed by rain and snow, the old man had leased it to this guy and the other, but he hadn’t found tenants for a while. Now, when he was probably living his last years, he thought of selling it, although he didn’t think he could. “Only a man like you could see something worthy of desire about my house. I can feel you want to live there. It is clear that it was not you who chose the house, it chose you. I can only wish you have more luck with it than I had. Forget what I told you (I so seldom have the chance to talk to someone) and bring the woman you’ll choose there. It is a good house, sir, it will be good to you both.”
He sold it to me for seventy-five thousand lei. The money came from my parents eventually, for what were they to do? They borrowed it from the mutual help house, they are still paying instalments today. I had seen the inside of the house at the end of the week I had met the old man, however, when I first started towards Maica Domnului with the ownership deeds in my briefcase and the entrance key in my pocket it was as if I had arrived there for the first time and, in fact, it has been the same ever since. I am always surprised and charmed with the melancholic putridness around, with the silence and the outlandish remoteness of that street, different from any other. I only feel this tormenting happiness in the afternoons when I am almost asleep and, in a flash, I remember the landscapes from my essential dreams.
I come into my house, always, as into a great womb. I can almost hear the purl of the intestines around it. At night, when I watch the stars through the latticed windows, I seem to see the nervous ganglions of the great woman I live inside of. The creaking of the old furniture and the floor sounds to me sometimes, in the middle of the night, like the cracking of the vertebrae of a huge spongy spine. I am happy in my house. I got to know its inner anatomy so thoroughly. The rooms have crooked walls and neither has the same height as the other. The cabinets go up to the ceiling. Their wood is spongy, seemingly swollen by invisible currents. Lamps of the same forged iron as the gratings at the doors and windows hang from the ceilings. The bathroom is always damp, the oil paint of the greenish walls is faded, the iron of the taps seems eaten by salt. The bathtub is deep, one of the old ones with lion paws. All the porcelain on the bottom is gone, like the enamel of old teeth. Sometimes, when I stand naked in front of the bathtub filled with grey water it seems to me that I am in a world without time, in a photograph: I have always been like that, I would always be like that: stuck there, next to the rusty toilet pipe, incapable of any movement, looking at the silent water I will never get in.
My house has tens, hundreds or thousands of rooms. I never know where I’ll get when I open a door. They are all silent, with huge crocheted tablecloths, red crystal candy bowls on one or three legged round tables and china cabinets with sailing ships. Sometimes there are narrow corridors between the rooms with windows crowded by pale crawling flowers. I always go up and down a few steps from one room to another and I am always surprised, once I open a door, either by an enormous hall with strange allegories on the ceiling or, on the contrary, by a closet which can barely fit a couple of brooms and rags. As soon as I come back from school, usually around six in the evening, I start my search through the house. The light is rose-red and clear like a jelly filling the whole space. Sometimes it feels I don’t move and the entire house rotates around me: the windows come towards me, the corridors incorporate me slowly, the doors open when they arrive in front of me… Perspectives change continuously and I go forward while actually motionless, always amazed by the changing landscapes.
I eventually get to my bedroom, which always remains the same among the changing rooms: the only banal, dusty place where the texture of the faded sheets, the worn-out varnish of the wardrobe, the wobbly table, the nightstand where I keep my treasures have become transparent and eventually vanished from the field of my conscience, like you can no longer see the soft, upside down grail of the jellyfish in the water of the ocean. Everything in my bedroom is real: the cloth is cloth, the paint is paint, I am an insignificant mammal who lived for an instant on earth. The ladder I use to go up to the terrace is next to the wardrobe. It’s like a library ladder, the ones that glide alongside the wall. Only here it is tightly screwed to the ceiling. There is a trapdoor above that I lift with difficulty when I reach the top of the ladder and suddenly the blue sky with summery clouds appears in the variable geometry gap in the ceiling. I go on the house terrace which, if not for the white tower grown crookedly and asymmetrically above, would look like those white cubes the people in the Near East live in. The tower is painted white, with thick plaster peeled by rain and heat. Spiral stairs surround it, twisting around its entire circumference. The terrace is flat with no parapet; sometimes I lay a sheet there and I sunbathe under such low clouds that I feel them warm and moist touching my calves, my nipples, my nose and my chin. The sun mirrors itself in the round window of the tower, making it burn like a lighthouse on a rock.
The tower with its strangeness and metaphysics that actually made me buy the house has a door on its upper side, right under the roof. For a long time I found it impossible to understand why the spiral stairs and that suspended entrance were needed. The door had once been painted scarlet, but in my time only traces and peels of the old paint hung on the wood rotten by time, full of insect pupas and transparent spider webs. It was always closed, not with a padlock, like you would expect, but with a code like some diplomatic briefcases. There was an iron rectangle with four equally greasy pieces (blackish vaseline made them slide in their sockets despite the rust that had almost erased the figures) that could be turned with your finger to show one figure on each face. The number that opened the lock with a clink of cams was 7129. Mikola had whispered it in my ear like a great mystery: the number was secret and should not be written down anywhere.
When you opened the door the pitch darkness inside seemed hard and compact: where would you enter, how could you fit? You would be pushed back through the door by the force of the volume of darkness you displaced. However, you noticed, once your eyes got used to the darkness, that you can step on a small corridor, a grid suspended over the night. I remember when, my heart beating anxiously, I first entered the tower. After I closed the door the world disappeared. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t see anything, seeing itself had disappeared. I could not remember what to see meant. I closed and opened my eyes without feeling any change. The other senses had disappeared too with their related worlds, except for the pressure of my feet on the grid. Extremely scared, I tried to open the door. But no door existed any more. The walls around me were no more. I stretched out my hands into the emptiness, into nothingness and my fingertips, like insect antennae, tried to grasp reality. Or to generate reality, like little electrical sparks. They came back inert, however, with no news from death and desertedness. I was alone, suspended like a statue on my grid, in the infinity of the night. I stayed in that state for hours and hours. My palms were going over my face and body to prove that existence continues to exist. I was crying unheard, I fully felt, like in so many nights of fright and cold sweat, the terror of the ceasing of being, of the disappearance of the world. Eventually the surfaces and the sounds and the tastes and my internal organs and the perception of acceleration and the ineffable flavours came back, or my brain built them again, like a tireless weaver and his flying shuttle, so that imperceptible filaments, cords and infra-real loops were weaved in the non-being first and used to knit the web of space and time. Vaguely, phosphorescently, the walls were recreated around me, as if light would have started to flicker, increasing by one photon every instant, but increasing as well by ricocheting on surfaces, inventing them slowly. I restarted to perceive the things around me and, when my fingers stopped on the extraordinarily vague phantom of the ebonite switch I felt that, for a nanosecond, I filled the creator’s skin of splendour and flame. I pressed and there was light, blinding and unbearable. It took my eyes yet another eternity to get used to it.
A metallic ladder was hanging from the metal grid. It went down towards the tower floor in the middle of which, however apparently floating half way up, there was a round ivory object that occupied about a quarter of the visual field. The rest was made of the rectangular sandstone tiles of the floor. The object seemed to levitate in the tower shaft but when you went down until you could touch it, you saw that it was actually supported by an ivory metal column stuck on what appeared now clearly: an old complicated dental chair with faded leather on its head cushions, with the drill and turbine iron covered in fine salt, with the front tray full of nickelled tools. The round piece above was full of bulging glass disks, like car headlights. In front, at the height of the patient who would have sat on the chair, there was the round window, like a porthole, the one that made my house look so much like a ship. Its glass was covered with a kind of a lid that also had a cipher with way more figures than the other one. I didn’t try to open the porthole for a long time, because my entire attention was taken by the chair that has been waiting there for tens of years maybe, fixed to the floor in bolts. Not one speck of dust, no spider web, not the least trace of mould in that silent room showed the passage of time. It looked like an image from the centre of your mind, clear like in a camera lucida and equally enigmatic. I sat down on the yellowish chair covered in fake leather, like I would do over and over again. One push of a metal switch turned on the lights on the huge porcelain plate. I remained suffused in light, my back against the chair, my head leaned on its head cushion, like a navigator in a ship crossing the gap between galaxies.
What was this vision doing here? The old man hadn’t told me anything about his “dental office” that I initially imagined the tower to be. But what kind of office could this be, where in order to reach you needed to go through the bedroom, go up a stair, get out on the house terrace, go up again on the narrow and dangerous cement stair that went around the tower, then go down like in a submarine in order to get to the dentist? Who would ever get into that claustrophobic and sinister trap? And where was the waiting room? I thought about all these in the hours when, withdrawn in my tower under the clear light of the bulbs fixed in the ivory platter, I played with the instruments on the enamelled tray in front of me: weird crooked tongs, round little mirrors, baroque hooks, needles, drill heads, top-like grinders… The substances that give dental offices their specific smell were missing: the amalgam, the gips, the anaesthetics. There was no smell whatsoever in my tower.
Was it possible that uncle Mikola had tried to play the dentist at a time of poverty in his intricate life? Had he used the home chair for learning the dental techniques? But who could have played the guinea pig? Or was he trying, as an inventor, to upgrade existing chairs, to improve their electrical side, the transmissions, the rheostats? But there was no sign of repair, no lubricant, no loose screws, the machine was perfect like an insect with hard shell and flawless mechanical articulations. It was entirely functional, although old fashioned and somewhat weird looking as a consequence: each turn of a switch lit a little light and the heads of some suspended machine with hard cables of metal coil started sizzling speedily. A switch was lifting and lowering the chair making the noise of an ancient elevator. Another one made a reddish rubber hose with a metal piece at the end start sucking imaginary saliva.
For a long time I was a guest in my own house. Because the times were awful and one could only find jars with floating livid vegetables, inedible, in food stores and because I was suffering of loneliness like a dog, I preferred to go on living with my parents, in Stefan cel Mare. At least my mother knew where “they distributed” the egg ration, where “they brought” cheese. We would go at dawn or even at night behind an apartment building across the street and we would stand in a queue in terrible frost, in the middle of animal like crowds, for a chicken carrion or a bottle of watery milk. It was, however, food, I was, however, with my folks, I had someone to exchange a word with. Now and then I would come straight home and spend the night in my bedroom in Maica Domnului. How many times, in that era of endless sadness did I not wake up with the feeling that I am in a cell, narrow like a vault, buried deeply underground? How many tens of times did I not think I could hear the knocks of an impossible escape through the wall? How many notebooks did I fill in those times with half-moons, spur gears, crosses and triangles, obscure however essential language, like the notations of logicians? The terror of being in the world, my animal fear in front of the nothingness of our lives would then show up in its entire desperation. But the knocks in the wall would stop before they could be deciphered and the endless night would replace them.
I want to write a report about my anomalies.
In my obscure life outside any history, which only a history of literature could have fixated in its taxonomies, some things happened that don’t happen either in life or in books. I could have written novels about them, but a novel blurs the meaning of facts and makes it ambiguous. I could keep them to myself, like I’ve done till now and think about them until my skull breaks every evening when I curl up under my blanket while the rain outside strikes the windows furiously. But I no longer want to keep them to myself. I want to write a report, although I still don’t know how and I don’t know what to do with these pages. I don’t know if it’s the right time for this either. I haven’t reached any conclusion yet, any coherence, my facts are vague flashes in the ordinary smoothness of the most ordinary life, small crevasses, small inadvertences. These shapeless shapes, allusions and insinuations, accidents sometimes insignificant by themselves, but getting something foreign and obsessive when you put them together, need a new and unusual structure in order to be narrated. It should be neither a novel or a poem, for they are not fiction (or not entirely), nor an objective study, because many of my facts are singularities that don’t allow description even in the laboratories of my mind. When it comes to my anomalies I can’t even make the distinction between dream, ancient memories and reality, between fantastic and magical, between scientific and paranoid. My guess is that, in fact, my anomalies have their source in the area of the mind where such distinctions don’t operate and this area of my mind is nothing but another anomaly. The facts in my report will be ghostlike and transparent, but that’s how the worlds we live in simultaneously are.
I have long kept the kitsch locket I received when I was seven from the foreign tourists who came to the State Circus in their buses. When we found out that a bus had arrived, we forgot about our games in the sand or the swings, we forgot about the frogs from the bulrush-invaded lake behind the park and ran towards the circus building with its huge prismatic windows and its azure-blue, waved dome in which I seemed to have lived my entire life. We would gather around the massive bus and, despite our parents’ warnings (“I don’t want to ever see you begging from foreigners again! Are you beggars? What will this people think about us?”), we would stretch our hands out towards them in order to receive a piece of chewing-gum or a keychain with the Eiffel Tower, a tiny metal car painted in lively colours… I was about seven years old when a woman who was just getting off the bus in a printed skirt and round pink earrings smiled to me and put that gold plated brass locket in my hand. I ran away with it and stopped under the loaded chestnut tree next covering the water pump. Over there I was no longer in danger that a bigger kid should snatch it from me. I looked closer at my present, it was shining strongly in the summer sun. It consisted of a round golden little coin fixed in a metallic frame. On both sides of the coin there were letters: A, O and R on one side, M and U on the other. A few days passed before I deciphered its mystery and this happened when I flicked the coin out of boredom and it started rotating so fast on its little pivots in the metal frame, that it turned into a golden globe, loose and transparent like a dandelion, with the ghostlike word AMOUR in the middle. This is how I see my life, this is how I feel I’ve always been: the unanimous, dull and tangible world on one side of the coin and the intimate, secret, phantasmagorical world, the dream world of my mind on the other side. Neither is complete and true without the other. It is only the rotation, only the vortex, only the vestibular syndrome, only the careless finger of the god that starts the movement of the coin, giving it a new dimension, that makes (for which eye) the inscription engraved on our mind visible, on one side and the other, on day and on night, on lucidity and on dream, on woman and man, on animal and god, which we eternally ignore because we cannot see both sides at the same time. And nothing stops here, because the transparent liquid gold inscription in the middle of the sphere needs to also be understood and in order to understand it with your mind, not just see it with your eyes, you need your mind to become an eye in a higher dimension. The dandelion globe must be rotated as well in an unimaginable plane in order for it to become, to the sphere, what the sphere is to the flat disk. The meaning is in the hypersphere, in the unnameable transparent object resulted from flicking the sphere from the fourth dimension. But I’m getting way too early to Hinton and his cubes that my anomalies seem to be related to in an indistinct way.
My facts will therefore be ghostlike and transparent and impossible to decide, but never unreal. I have always felt them directly. They have tormented me uselessly long. In a way they have stolen my life as much as my books would have, had I managed to write them. Moreover, they have another source of doubt and indecision: they are not over, they go on. I have some hints, I made some connections, I start seeing something that looks like coherence in the charade of my life. It is obvious that I am being told something insistently, constantly, like a continuous pressure on my skull, on some of its protuberances, but what is this message, what is its nature, whom does it come from? What is expected of me? I sometimes feel like a small child put in front of a chess board. You took the white pawn, wonderful. But why do you put it in your mouth? Why are you clutching the board and inclining it so that all pieces should slide? Or is this maybe the solution? Maybe the game is won exactly by the one who suddenly understands the absurd of the game and crushes it to the ground, the one who cuts the knot while everyone else is trying to unknot it?
I’ll therefore weave a story of my life here. Its visible side is, I know it better than anyone, the most unspectacular, the dullest of lives, the life that matches my insignificant face, my withdrawn nature, my lack of meaning and future. A matchstick that burned almost to the end, leaving a whitish trail of ash behind. The Romanian teacher of School 86 in the bottom of Colentina. Nevertheless, I have memories that tell a different story, I have dreams that strengthen and confirm these memories and together they built down there, in the underground of my mind, a world full of fantastic, indecipherable events that however cry for want of deciphering. It’s like a collapsed floor of my life – the cables were severed and the connections to the edifices that stood on the surface were broken. In my childhood and teenage memories there are scenes I can hardly locate and cannot yet understand, like pieces of a puzzle thrown in a box. Like dreams waiting for translation. I thought of them so many times, they present themselves in front of my eyes so clearly (I lift a glossy piece of cardboard with round protuberances or holes against the light; its design is clear like a mirror: a few blue flowers, part of a wall panel, a string of pearls on a neck with no body, the paw of a cat…), that my mind is full of allegoric images and figures, all enigmatic, since an enigma is the sign of non-completeness: the god is only the visible part of his world with one more dimension than ours. Each of my memories and dreams (and dreamt memories and rememorized dreams, for my world has thousands of shades and gradations) bears signs of belonging to a system, like the extensions and holes of the puzzle pieces. A great part of their “abnormality” consists of this click mechanism – “my anomalies” – because as far as I know about people from literature and from life, nobody has observed the joining system, the fasteners and the clicks of certain type of ancient memories and dreams. When I was a child, my parents used buy me from the unforgettable “Red Riding Hood” shop at Lizeanu with floors smelling of gas so pungently, the cheapest and most ordinary toys, always the same: the tin wagon with naïve images, the dwarf who got out of a rubber egg, the hen with a little key one wound up to get it jump around, several cubes with images of the cow, horse and sheep and “the games of little pieces” with images from fairy tales. I enjoyed the latter most. On the front side they had pieces of an image that was presented wholly on a piece of paper and on the back each fairy tale had a different pattern in different colours. Of course that in the beginning I assembled the pieces in accordance with the images: the piece with Snow White’s left eye was joined with the one with her right eye. The elbow of a dwarf joined the shoulder and a part of his chin. But soon enough the construction of the final image from fragmented mixed pieces was getting simple and boring. So I started to join the puzzle pieces on their back side. I gathered them in heaps with the same back side pattern and joined them in accordance with the logic of their joining system only: the extending circle of one piece matched the circle carved in the glossy square of the other. It was terribly difficult sometimes, but this difficulty increased my satisfaction and gave the game a new meaning.
I can’t help wondering whether our ancient memories, the ones that cross our lives staying so clear, while thousands of other maybe more important moments leave our memory, whether also the dreams which obsess us with their clarity and seem to be made of the same substance as our obsessive memories are not such a game, a test, an exam we have to pass in this inexplicable adventure of life. Maybe our heartbeat is just the metronome that measures the time given to us in order to find the answer. Maybe we’re doomed if we reached the last beat and we understood nothing of the immense puzzle we live in. Maybe if we found the solution and gave the answer we would be released from the cell of the great penitentiary or at least we’d go up another level towards our freedom. The little white mouse running in Plexiglas corridors doesn’t know its memory is being tested, he simply lives his life. Its brain is not able to wonder: Why am I here? What about this labyrinth I found myself in? Isn’t the labyrinth itself with its symmetries, with its piece of cheese at the end of the remotest corridor, the sign of a superior world, of an intelligence which makes my poor mind look like some fumbling in the dark?
The fact that I did not become a writer, the fact that I am nothing, that I have no importance in the outside world, that I am not interested in anything in it, that I have neither ambitions nor needs, that I am not deluding myself by drawing “with sensitivity and talent” doors that will never open on some smooth labyrinth walls gives me a unique chance or possibly the chance of all the lonely and forgotten ones: the chance to explore the strange vestiges of my own mind as they appear to me in the endless succession of evenings when, while it progressively gets darker in my silent room, my brain rises like the moon and burns stronger and stronger. Then I see on its surface palaces and hidden worlds that never show themselves to the ones who run in the labyrinth, obsessed with the cheese bite, without an instant of rest, convinced that this is the entire fate they have in the world and that there’s nothing else beyond the white curved walls. I wonder how many lonely and insignificant people, how many clerks and tram drivers, how many unhappy and grieving women, without fortune or university degrees, without power and hopes, are diggers in the rich earth of the autumn dusks, full of pupas and worms, shaking because of the groundhogs wandering in their tunnels?
From the autumn of 1974, from the age of seventeen, my life has been doubled by a paper lining to which I have only granted up to now the inattentive importance the beggar grants the newspaper he uses as cover against the cold. I am talking about the diary I’ve written for thirteen years with no particular intention, as a pure inner voice reflex. It contains literary exercises, reflections about the books I read, frustrations and sufferings, dreams and unusual states. I wrote in old school notebooks with lines or squares, with greenish covers of incredibly poor cardboard with a stupid dwarf on the front cover and the multiplication table on the back, then in expired calendar books with shrivelled plastic covers, in “student” notebooks with metal spiral, in other long and narrow notebooks like ticket counterfoils, in anything I could find, using ball pens and textile tipped pens of all colours (some pages have faded, becoming almost illegible)… They are all thrown in the lower drawer of my bedroom bookcase in a mess, but I’ll arrange them these days in chronological order in order to be able to extract the fragments I am interested in and I almost know by heart. Many of my anomalies are recorded there on the pages that are almost stuck to one another now. They are dated and noted sometimes in passing and without giving them any importance, other times with a thrill and a terror that surface well through the transparency of the text. At least those facts I cannot doubt, at least they were engraved in the unreal reality of my life. If I hadn’t had the diary, in fact, I doubt I would have ever started writing these pages. First of all because I would have lost the habit of writing, even non-literary writing, of simply filling pages with ink loops. It’s unimaginable how stultifying the job of a teacher is, how much you degrade, year by year correcting papers and testing students, repeating the same sentences tens and hundreds of times, reading the same texts “with intonation”, speaking with the same colleagues in the eyes of whom you see the same desperation and powerlessness they see in yours (and that you see yourself every morning when you shave in front of the mirror). You know you’re going down, you know your mind becomes a vomit of bombastic quotes and clichés, however there’s nothing you can do but holler unheard, like the tortured alone with his torturer while watching with full lucidity how the tissues of his body are ripped, how he is eviscerated alive with no possibility to withstand. Moreover, because I would have forgotten. The pages are live leaves of my memory, the letter loops are flexible and young synapses like vine tendrils. I didn’t write novels and even if I had, they would have been the mere ramification of my diary, of my tunnel of veins and arteries, as if at the end of each twig, like at the end of as many umbilical cords, a chubby and compact foetus had grown, with a face resembling my own. My diary is my testimony, it is the proof that in a certain instant and place with fixed coordinates the world opened, it made a breach through which the charming and terrible pseudopods of another world creeped in, not the ones of a fictional world or of the world of a heated brain but ingrained in what we still call reality. It was not in a dream, nor in hallucinations, nor in hypnagogic or hypnotic states that my visitors came and I was violently stricken against the wardrobe after having been wrested from my bed by an irresistible force, together with the sheets, it was not within the alternative game of fiction that I dissolved so many times in the flames of crazy ecstasy, it was not during aroused phantasms that I was coerced to participate in horrible, horrible copulations… Everything was real, everything was within the plane of existence in which we eat and drink and comb our hair and lie and go to work and die of longing and loneliness. Real is the dream as well, real are the first memories too, real (how real!) is fiction, nevertheless we feel they are foreign to the grey, hard, stiff, stubborn homeland without imagination, meaning or redemption, the cell we were thrown in after having sipped the dark waters of the river Lethe. The real, our legitimate homeland, should be the most fabulous realm, but it is the gloomiest prison. Our destiny ought to be the escape, even if towards a vaster prison that leads to a vaster one in an endless series of cells, but for this to happen the doors should finally open in the in the yellowish wall of our frontal bone. I shall graze in here with a rusty nail, during months and years of miserable, animal-like strain, this door on the wall that will eventually (I have my signs!) have to yield.
I know that nobody does this, that all people all resigned and silent. Escape from this prison is impossible. After all, the walls are infinitely thick, it is the night before our birth and the one after death. “Why would it make sense to think about the infinite non-being to follow? I’ll darken my life in vain. I still have a fair amount of years till then, for the time being I can enjoy this blessed light, the full moon raising above the forest, the discreet functioning of my gall bladder, my ejaculations into happy wombs, the fruit of my work, the lady bug going up towards my fingertip to stretch rumpled cellophane wings. Nobody knows what will be beyond the grave.” We don’t think any differently than the ones in ancient times: to drink and eat, for tomorrow we’ll die. And it is not possible to think differently in the logic of the prison with infinite walls. Is there any other way than digging like a sarcoptes in their endless dermis?
I have always had a strong feeling of predestination. I felt myself to be chosen merely because I opened my eyes to the world. For they were not the eyes of a spider or the eyes with thousands of hexagons of the fly or the eyes at the top of the feelers of the snail. I have not come to the world as a bacteria or a millipede. I felt that the huge ganglion inside my skull predestined me to the obsessive search of the exit. I understood that I must use my brain like an eye, open and watchful under the transparent cover of the skull, able to see with another kind of seeing and detect the fissures and signs, hidden artefacts and obscure connections of the test of intelligence, patience, love and faith that the world is. For as long as I’ve been aware, I have done nothing else than searching for breaches in the apparently smooth, logical, flawless surface of the mock-up beyond my skull. How should I think, what do I need to understand, what are you telling me, you who whisper to me in an unknown language?
“Since I exist, since I was given the impossible chance of being”, I tell myself again and again, “there is no doubt I am a chosen one”. We are all chosen in this sense, we are all enlightened, for the unanimous sun of existence enlightens us. “I am chosen for a second time because, unlike the wasp or the shell-fish, I can think within the logical space and I can build mock-ups of the world inside which I can move small-scale and virtually while my arms and my legs move in the inconceivable real world. And I am chosen for the third time because unlike merchants and installers and warriors and whores and clowns and other cohorts among my fellow humans, I can meditate about my choice and I can think myself thinking. The object of my thinking is my thinking and my world identifies itself with my mind. My mission is, thus, one of topographer and cartographer, explorer of the hills and undergrounds, secret rooms and solitaries of my mind as well as its Alps full of glaciers and ravines. On the tracks of Gall, Lombroso and Freud, I also try to understand the colossal, waved, imperial and after all inextricable Gordian knot which fills the forbidden room of our skull, plaited from wire and hemp, spider silk and saliva threads, from the obscene lace of garters and fine scales of golden chains, from the flexible duct of the bindweed and the anthracite black whip of the stag beetle antennae.
Up to this point our choice is natural and comes as a matter-of-fact gift, although it remains a miracle. If I had been a writer I would have stopped here and I would have been happy and ultra-happy with my power of invention, with my beautiful and unusual books. After all, we live in a charming prison, no less magical than anything we can imagine. At the end of my life I could proudly show a series of novels or poetry books left behind me like as many thick and sensual slices of the bread of the world I lived in. To be human, to live a human life, to bring new people and new beings created by your mind into the world, to enjoy the seventy rotations of your world around the ball of lava that keeps it alive – this is what can be called happiness, even though it is mixed in each single life with blood, sweat and tears. But a fourth choice exists, a choice compared to which the entire literature of the world has the volatile consistency of the dandelion threads.
The doorman of our school, Ispas, is an old tobacco addicted gipsy eternally unshaved with the dry skin of people born in a big, ugly city full of unhealthy stinks. He always sits between the two latticed doors at the entrance in front of a tiny fir-tree wood table covered in the dandruff that falls off his hair. No one cares about him, not even the children. Nobody sees him coming or leaving from work. He lies there wrapped like a ragdoll in his brown uniform in the humblest job in the world. But his brown and teary eyes are human like the eyes of stray dogs. No one looks at him, but he looks at the ones passing by, seeming to weigh them, to classify them, to give them a purpose. The only ones who talk to him now and then are the cleaners, especially aunt Iakab who, fat and voluble, with mongoloid face and conspicuous moustache, mingles in the teachers’ room gossip. Everybody learned about the doorman’s mania from her. He is a lone man who divides his life between the school and the hall of an apartment building at Colentina River where he sleeps on a mattress. The inhabitants let him stay there out of pity and they even allow him to live in their apartments if they are away for a longer time, because the old man hits the bottle as much as he can but wouldn’t steal to save his life. “What do you think this man has under his bonnet?” says aunt Iakab bursting into laughter. When she laughs, her olive cheekbones lift as if she had two little meatballs under her skin. “That one day a flying saucer will come and take him to another world. Yes, dear, him of all people, yeah, right…” At night Ispas would go out in the street and stop in the middle of a crossroad. He’d stand there for hours, ready, with his old filthy briefcase swollen like an accordion and the neck of a bottle capped with a corn cob coming out of it. He would look at the sky and shouted at “them” to come, for he’s ready. “Yeah, he’s just the one to be taken, ain’t he?” throws a bored teacher before getting out with the register under her arm. They had all been mocking the fixed idea of the doorman for years but he, silent and humble between his doors, knew better. He had time to wait and he also had faith. At night he would watch the starry sky from our tiny world and even if he would never be kidnapped up there, this thing alone made him better than the ones around him, people without hope and sarcastic running day after day to the cheese from the Plexiglas labyrinth. At least he was watching the stars, he, the most pitiful man who ever lived on earth, was at least thus showing his desire to go out in the open.
Because any choice is a scandal. It doesn’t account for the face of the man or his deeds or his ideas. It is unimaginable and for a rational mind built for this world it is downright madness. When the believer says “I shall be redeemed”, the sceptic reminds him that an insignificant tick which lives for a nanosecond on a speck of dust in one of the billion of billions of galaxies has nobody by whom and no reason to be (it and no other) watched by the eye from another world and eventually saved. That we cannot claim to be redeemed more than a bacteria from our intestinal flora. Why would I be saved, I of all the people on earth? What is precious about me, what fruit could be picked and by whom from the grain of light of my consciousness?
I have never laughed at the doorman and his flying saucers. He is just one of those who feel they are strangers in our world. One of those who struggle, search and wait. I think the restlessness of those like him, as ridiculous as it is, is already the sign of a choice. For no one in this world, where everything conspires to build a perfect illusion and a matching desperation, can hope if hope was not given to him and cannot search if he doesn’t have the search instinct deeply engraved in the flesh of his mind. We search foolishly, we search in places where there’s nothing to find, like the spiders that weave their web in bathroom halls no fly or mosquito can enter. We dry out in our spider webs by thousands but what doesn’t die is our need for truth. We are like people drawn on a paper inside a square. We cannot go beyond the black lines and exhaust ourselves searching each corner of the square tens and hundreds of times in order to find a gap. Until one of us suddenly understands, because he was predestined to understand, that one cannot escape from the plane of the paper. That the exit, large and easy, is perpendicular on the paper, in the up to then inconceivable third dimension. So that, to the amazement of the ones left inside the four lines of ink, the chosen one suddenly breaks the chrysalis, spreads enormous wings and raises slowly, throwing his shadow over his former world from above.
 Neighbourhood of Bucharest, capital of Romania, the native city of Mircea Cartarescu
 In Romanian popular lore, certain individuals can bring bad luck to others (especially children) by looking at them (casting the “evil eye”) and / or commenting admiringly. In order to counter the bad spell, one has to pretend to spit at the victim in order to prevent the “evil eye” effect
 Romania’s majority religion is Christian Orthodox (Eastern). In the Orthodox Calendar there are two St. Mary’s Days, but the most important one, referenced here, is on August 15th, celebrating the “falling asleep” (going to Heaven) of Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus. The other St: Mary’s Day (the “small” one) is on September 8th and it celebrates Holy Mary’s birth. On such a day of a Saint, believers who have the Christian name of that particular saint celebrate their name day. Mircea Cartarescu’s mother’s (as well his alter ego’s, the narrator of this novel) name is Maria – Mary.
 Geographical region in Western Romania, going beyond the present day border with Serbia, which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1918.
 Neighbourhood of Bucharest which, as well as the aforementioned Floreasca, is in the vicinity of the Stefan cel Mare Boulevard and neighbourhood where Mircea Cartarescu grew up. Colentina is a peripheral neighbourhood towards the north-eastern part of the city, which still has old, shabby, neglected houses, generally inhabited by low income classes.
 In communist Romania college graduates could not choose their job, institution or even place or region in the country where they would work. Communist party driven governmental authorities would assign each student a job. Many teachers, doctors, engineers would end up getting jobs in remote villages or localities hundreds of kilometres away from their hometowns and even spouses and children. For someone to receive an assignment in Bucharest (the capital) they would have to have had either an excellent academic record or a “connection” to a handful of powerful individuals high up in the communist hierarchy.
 Name of a street and public transport stop from the Stefan cel Mare neighbourhood
 The name of the communist Romania police force, the present day Police Headquarters are still in the same building
 ITB – Romanian acronym for the Bucharest Public Transport Enterprise
 Name of a street and public transport stop in the same area
 Oldest and largest outdoor market in Bucharest
 Calea Mosilor, large road connecting Stefan cel Mare and Carol I boulevards
 Well known shopping street in the old city of Bucharest
 Street and neighbourhood in the vicinity of Calea Mosilor, Stefan cel Mare and Colentina
 Car and truck repair workshop
 Literally, Mother of our Lord
 Lat, sarcoptes scabiae, itch mite, the parasite causing scabies
 Building of a famous high school in Bucharest renamed such by the communists after a Soviet partisan
 Street in the city centre next to the Bucharest University where Mircea Cartarescu attended the Literature College
 The Architecture University of Bucharest, next to the Bucharest University, like all the other buildings mentioned here
 “The Sparkle” – The official newspaper of the Romanian Communist Party
 French poet of the Renaissance (1496 – 1544)
 Jan Kochanowski, Polish poet of the Renaissance (1530 – 1584)
 Tudor Arghezi, Romanian modernist and symbolist poet, novelist and journalist (1880 – 1967)
 One of the largest boulevards in the city centre, connecting the University Square and the Roman Square
 Street names, Lady Ruxandra and Snow Drops
 The Circle existed in reality under the name of “Monday”. Mircea Cartarescu did indeed read his poem, The Fall, on the mentioned evening, and it was received with universal praise and acclaim. The “great critic” is Nicolae Manolescu (b. 1939), the Monday Literary Study Circle leader and most influential literary critic in Romania for more than 30 years. Currently the President of the Romanian Writers’ Association.
 Bucharest high schools named after the Romanian prodigy poet Iulia Hasdeu (1869 – 1888) and playwright and novelist Ion Luca Caragiale (1852 – 1912)
 References to two short stories in the communist time Romanian literature curriculum for secondary schools
 Lime tree
 Short story included in “Childhood Memories” by Ion Creanga, children’s fantasy and literature, short story, novellas and anecdote writer (1837 – 1889)
 Character in Childhood Memories
 In communist times all children were gathered regularly in the school yard and aligned on three sides of a square shape – the teachers would sit in front, on the 4th side of the square – for various announcements or ceremonies (like the end year prize ceremony). Such gatherings were called “the square”.
 Title of a well-known rather metaphysical Romanian fairy tale (re-)written by Petre Ispirescu, editor and folklorist (1830 – 1887)
 Within the Securitate, Romania’s secret police – lots of teachers were informers and officers
 One of the two brands of automobiles produced in communist Romania.
 The small river which crosses Bucharest from NV to SE
 Little towns in Transylvania
“The Flame”, magazine published in Romania since 1911, initially covering literature, extended to cover various areas since communist times
 Geomancy is a form of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossing handfuls of dust, soil or rock
 Member of the Legion of Archangel Michael, Nazi organization and later political party in interwar Romania