On the night when they laid its foundation stone, the Hotel Universal (or the Teodoraki Hotel, as it was known at the time) was still in the middle of Bucharest, as if somebody had taken rule and compass and measured out equal distances from the Paupers’ Quarter to the Cuckoo Market and from the rills of the Tanners’ Quarter to the Water Tower. And if, after taking those measurements, that somebody had paused pensively on the empty spot purchased in July 1849 by Hagi Tudorache for trade in Leipzig wares, he would have been amazed to see approaching at around midnight from the direction of the Red Inn, without haste and without talking among themselves, the three merchants who had banded together to build the inn: Tudorache, Leon Manoach and George San Marin. The spring rain shower had stopped a few minutes earlier, but the changeable April air had not yet cleared. They slowly walked past the Greeks’ Inn, turned toward the Stavropoleos Monastery, and emerged from Saddlers Street in the lane at the back of the Old Court, still silent and with a heavy gait, as if they were on their way to be tried in a court of law. When they reached the back of the shop of Ghinea the shalwar merchant, Hagi Tudorache came to a halt and took from his pocket a key, with which he unlocked a slab-like portal on the other side of the lane, which led down into a cellar. The three descended into a narrow tunnel that smelled of something burnt. Behind them, the slab shut soundlessly in the exact moment when it began to rain once more.
It is not known for sure what happened in the cellar, recounted Maria, more than a hundred years later, in the kitchen where she was making rose-petal jam with Maia. Leon Manoach had later told his wife, Sofia, and she had told Radu, in her room at the Hotel Universal, that as soon as he descended below ground he had sensed a smell of sulphur and burnt wood. It had crossed his mind that he should go back, but as we was moving through the narrow tunnel between Hagi Tudorache and George San Marin, it would not have been easy. And so the three of them went forward – after descending the wet, slimy flight of steps (nobody had passed that way since they had been washed) – as far as the end of the passage, with only Tudorache’s candle to light the way as he led them to view the cellar of the future inn. It had also been Tudorache who, two years previously, had purchased from Polizu and Petrovici the foundations burnt in the great fire, without yet knowing what he was going do with the site. He felt old and ill, he moved with increasing difficulty on legs that were like lead and tingled painfully in the morning, and it was increasingly difficult for him to find joy in anything. But those places, which would later be called Gabroveni, had awakened him. He wished to build an inn there, not a bezesten – a Turkish-style enclosed bazaar for merchants – but a house for men of lesser girth and their close lady friends.
He had the money to build it for himself and to give it the name he dreamed of: The Tudoraki Inn. Sometimes, at night, he would see the inn sign shining between the gas lamps. In the daytime, he would see it standing out between the two storeys among the hodgepodge of Gabroveni Street commercial premises. At the last meeting with his brothers (a meeting of the richest merchants of Bucharest, held every year at the end of April, attended if not by the Prince’s adjutant, then at least by a special envoy of the Leipzig merchants), however, he had been advised to join forces with Manaoch and San Marin to build the inn in the middle of the lane at the rear of the Old Court. Each was to contribute equal parts, leaving a fathom for the lane. But the cellar was to remain intact, swarming with vermin and reeking of mire. “How could Hagi Tudorache build a fine building over such a sewer?” wondered Maria, leaving Maia to eat her jam and hurrying off to answer the telephone, which would not stop ringing.
They walked like that for an unknown length of time, as the tunnel twisted and seemingly turned back in the direction whence it set out, Maria went on, showing Maia the green chair. Sometimes they trod on each other’s heels and splashed each other when Costache came to a stop, making a sound like a bridled horse: before them opened a circular room, in the middle of which they saw a stone blackened presumably by the fire. As if they had known what to do – and George San Marin, the only one who never spoke about that night, perhaps really did know – they knelt around the truncated stone, which resembled a table, and waited until Costache, snuffling and cursing the day when he decided to build himself a hotel, rather than a bezesten, in the heart of Bucharest, lifted himself from the mire and mumbled a few words, of which Leon caught only “complete” or “completely”, words that were muffled and creaky, like a door left ajar. At least that is what Sofia recalled, in the Universal, as Rada read the coffee grounds.
By the early ’90s, when the Hotel Universal at No. 12 Gabroveni Street was converted into a student hall of residence, the building had long since ceased to be at the exact centre of Bucharest. Dilapidated and damp, infested with rats which swarmed along long corridors covered in an ancient mustard-coloured carpet, which, especially in summer, emanated an odour akin to that of a stagnant pool, the Universal was conceded to the League of University Students after many nights of cunning negotiations. The building could not be demolished, as it had been nationalised illegally, but nor could it be used as a hotel for normal people, and so it became a bargaining chip in negotiations between the new crypto-communist regime and the students who but a few weeks previously had fled panic-stricken beneath hails of bullets that were either real (as they themselves believed) or imagined (as others would later claim). “What did we die for in December?” one of the heads of the League of Students had asked during the negotiations held in January.
“For the Universal,” answered one of the new secretaries of state from the Ministry of Education, who was still in the habit of slowly pronouncing his name followed by his new title when he looked in the mirror each morning. And the answer of that new political commissar was to have a long career at the ministry in question. For years and years, whenever there were tough negotiations or budgetary recalculations whereby money was channelled elsewhere than would have been normal, the final answer to the question, asked in mocking tones and increasingly drowned out by deep guffaws, “What did we die for in December?” the final, abyssal answer, provoking peals of laughter, was always the same: “For the Universal.”
Maia lived at the Hotel Universal from the very beginning. She had chanced to be present at the nocturnal negotiations, when the former proletarian brothel (as Teodoraki’s inn had become after being nationalised by the communists) was allocated as a student hall of residence, and, via the former revolutionaries’ associations, she had been given a room on the top floor: a mansard added in the 1970s. At night, when frenetic music and orgasmic shouts echoed up from the inner courtyard to her book-crammed mansard with a balcony, Maia knew with a clarity she was not wont to analyse that she had come home. In spite of all this, she had never lived in Bucharest before. She was completely unfamiliar with the city’s old centre, with its reeking, crooked streets. Not even in films had she ever seen anything as promiscuous as the Hotel Universal on Gabroveni Street. Nevertheless, when for the first time she touched the metal bar of the glass door in the main entrance and trod the broad red marble step in which the letters HU were embedded in white stone, she felt the tangled knot of rage that had accumulated around her thymus during long years of failure, humiliation, and fear begin to dissolve.
She entered the smoky lobby where the bar of the former hotel still plied its trade alongside the administration of the new hall of residence. Nothing had changed, she told herself, in that anomalous way typical of her nature. Some swarthy men were leaning against the wall to the left. Rhythmic thuds could be heard coming from behind the bar. And when Maia said hello, as if she were in the reception of a real hotel, the laughter changed to snarls and grunts and the music from the bar began to howl. For an instant she felt the urge to open the door by which she had just entered and flee. But she remained standing in the middle of the bar, bewildered, trying to understand what she was doing there and above all why she felt at home in that sewer in which she had arrived by chance.
For a moment she thought about whether she should take the lift to her room on the last floor. But she straightaway abandoned the idea – a life-saving intuition, as she was to say to herself a few weeks later, when the lift cabin broke loose in the middle of the night and fell from the top floor all the way to the basement with an infernal crash. She climbed the two double storeys, where the rooms were twice as tall as the mansard. The staircase narrowed toward the large windows that looked over the inner courtyard, whence could be heard a cacophony of competing music and somebody shouting at the top of his lungs “Nora!” It smelled of garbage and plaster and undoubtedly this was how it would smell to the very end: two distinct, superposed smells, one heavy and sour, the other artificial. On the second floor she paused. It was dark. The only light was from outside. She felt a scraggily cat rub up against her legs, but it scampered away before she could get a look at it. This was the only time she ever saw a cat in the Universal. Out of breath, she slowly climbed the staircase, which by now wound in a spiral, and began to look for her room, using a lighter to see the numbers on the doors. At the end of the staircase she turned right instead of left and had to retrace her steps when she saw that the door numbers were getting higher. She groped back the other way, burning her fingers on the yellowish flame of the lighter, and on the second door she saw the number 308 writ in large figures. She took the massy key from her pocket, whose large metal fob weighed at least a quarter of a kilogram, and tried to open the door. The lock would not turn. Starting to panic and trying to force the lock, she realised that the door, which had suddenly and silently swung open, as if it had been oiled only yesterday, was in fact open.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth