The novel One Sky Above Them is a fresco of the changes that took place in Romania from the “obsessive decade” (the Stalinist 1950s) to the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, in which the minor histories of people allied to the communist regime or at odds with it are incorporated within and give shape to the wider historical period. Resistance fighters in the mountains, deportees, political prisoners, regime opponents, dissidents, border escapees, and revolutionaries, but also the Securitate, political leaders, torturers, informants and many others, victims and oppressors alike, all live under the same sky between 1945 and 1991, the chronological boundaries of this epic tapestry on which the author worked for a decade. Ruxandra Cesereanu offers us narratives of lives and deaths dictated by a violent collective history, which can be likened to the world depicted by Varlam Shalamov in Kolyma Tales.
Tinu woke up early in the morning with a craving to give his dog a beating. His palms were itching and he felt an urge – he didn’t know why – to beat his dog, Murgu. Yes, that strong, handsome dog had a horse’s rather than a dog’s name; it was named after the horse Tinu had loved as a child. Once a proud stallion, Murgu had died of old age, having been Tinu’s companion throughout a wretched, disfigured childhood. Tinu was an orphan, raised by a drunkard uncle and a crippled aunt, who used to scold him all day long in that tiny house in a mountain village.
Murgu the second was a hale Alsatian, with glowing eyes, a sturdy tongue and perfect teeth. Like his master. They both had bright tan hair. Tinu loved his dog for its animal health, for the way it leaped over obstacles and sniffed out a scent. It was the perfect dog, more useful than a human being. He had had the dog since it was a puppy, since he finished Securitate college, where he had worked with animals trained to sniff out enemies of the people. He felt more comfortable around dogs than people. Had he been able, he would have lived among dogs and horses, but that kind of thing wasn’t allowed; it would have been against nature. Had they found out about his childhood love for Murgu the horse, his comrades in the Securitate would have laughed at him. And so Tinu had grown distant from them: he had never married, because women were too dangerous, you couldn’t put your faith in them, but nor had he continued to live in a man’s world. For the time being, his life’s companion was Murgu the second, an intelligent dog, trained by its all knowing master.
He told the dog everything. The dog had its own room, or to be more exact a passageway where Tinu let it sleep, because that dog was almost human and it would have been a shame to treat it like it were an animal. And now here he was – he didn’t know why – feeling an urge to beat his dog. His palms were itching, as if stung by nettles. He hit Murgu with his cane a few times, without knowing why. He didn’t get it: the dog was his only friend, after all, the only one he ever talked to. He had raised it; he had been like a father to it. That dog was almost like a son or a brother to him. He struck it a flurry of blows for a whole minute and then stopped. Something was not right. The dog wouldn’t stay still: precisely because it couldn’t understand why its master was beating it, it kept trying to bite him, and one of its bites lashed Tinu’s hand like a whip. Tinu struck it a few more furious blows and then the beating ceased.
The dog gazed at him, downcast, questioningly. Tinu gave it its food: Murgu gobbled up the meat, but didn’t touch the bones. Tinu was in the habit of feeding it more like a human than a dog. After that Tinu stroked the dog, and Murgu sensed that the bond between him and his master had returned to normal. At around six in the morning they both left the house and made their way to their barracks: Murgu had no way of knowing, given that he was nonetheless just a dog, but Tinu knew all too well that that day they would be setting off into the mountains to track down bandits. He had told the captain that he was going to take his dog with him, and the captain had readily given him permission. An extra Alsatian could never go amiss, especially if it had been trained as an elite dog. But Tinu kept Murgu beside him, not letting him mix with the other dogs. In the truck, Murgu sat quietly next to his master and did not let the other soldiers stroke him. They travelled for about five hours, up into the mountains: a convoy of four trucks each carrying thirty soldiers, whose mission was to capture the bandits.
Hunting down enemies of the people was an adventure Tinu liked, because it made him feel young and strong. The captain had briefed his subordinates for a few days beforehand and made it clear that they were to capture some men and a woman, who were wandering around the mountains armed with guns. They had to be taken alive, but at a pinch, they could be shot in battle. It would be no great loss if they got shot. They had studied maps of the mountain and after they reached their base camp and ate their tinned rations they had been divided into search groups. Each soldier in the Securitate troops had some rather blurry photographs of those men and that woman, the bandits in other words. The men were ordinary peasants, like Tinu, and so was the woman. All the same, Tinu wondered to himself about that woman. What was she doing there, up on the mountain? Was she sound in the head? What was she doing with those men? Was she their mistress? No, the captain had told them quite clearly that the woman was married to one of the bandits, a forester. Tinu kept looking at her photograph; he even showed it to Murgu, as if the dog ought to have known her for a lifetime. The woman looked like any other woman.
They were bandits. They had been told that hundreds of times. The fugitives were robbers and they wanted to overthrow the social order. Tinu ruminated on the propaganda slogans they had all been told, and then he remembered what he had done to Murgu early that morning. Why had he beaten his dog? Why? He would have liked to comprehend it. The other soldiers were chatting away about all kinds of things, about life at home, about what their folks were up to, about girlfriends, brothers, sisters; Tinu was the only one who had nobody, nobody except Murgu. But apart from Murgu he also had the Party, as his spiritual grounding. The Party had given him the opportunity to join the Securitate troops. For him, being in the Securitate troops was something powerful and radiant. Among other things, it meant the power to kill. It was a terrible power: you could kill people and not be punished if you killed the people the Securitate pointed a finger at. It was in this way that Tinu had come to understand the meaning of power.
He became very focussed on that camouflaged march through the forest, because he wanted to capture a bandit. He knew that if he did he would get himself noticed. He didn’t necessarily want to shoot a bandit, that would be pointless, but he was dead set on capturing one of those enemies of the people. Maybe he would even capture the woman. That chestnut haired peasant woman, an ordinary, everyday sort of woman. The captain had advised them to be cautious: the bandits were armed. He had warned them not to let themselves be fooled, to be all eyes and ears. They went through the woods in concentric circles, tightening the noose around the bandits. Choking them. Tinu felt like a real man. It was manly to do battle against bandits like that. They smoked as they went, they spat as they went, and they even urinated as they went. That was a real soldier’s life. None spoke. They combed through the forest like that for a few hours, without finding anybody. Not a trace. The bandits had escaped. Despite the captain having been informed, via his contacts in the nearby villages, that the bandits had been spotted in the area. Nothing. Not a trace.
They then spread their greatcoats on the ground and sat down at the edge of the forest, near a footbridge. They lingered there a long while, until a soldier heard a rustle on the other side of the stream. Then they saw some bearded figures passing at a run. Tinu immediately took aim, because he had spent a long while training for the chase, and started shooting at one of the figures. He gritted his teeth and hoped to hit that bandit, who would thereby become his trophy. He was on the hunt, because that was what life was, a hunt. He even thought to hear the yelp of a man hit by a bullet and it was then that he sensed he had hit one of the fugitives. All of them had been firing away, without budging from that spot by the river. They had fired hundreds of rounds; bullets had been whizzing through the air and the foliage. Then, after about ten minutes, they stopped. What if he had hit the woman? He wouldn’t have wanted that. He wanted his bullets to have hit a man. He had no quarrel with the woman. His battle was with the men.
After the shooting stopped, once the guns were emptied and smoking, like in a war, they stood quietly for about ten minutes, to make sure that the bandits were either dead or had fled. Then they began to search. Tinu reached the other bank in a rush and was the first to find a corpse. It was a young man, whose beard made him look older. Tinu was positive he was the one who had killed that man. He felt manly. With the toe of his boot he rolled the corpse over on its belly, and then on its back, to view it from every side. It was his trophy. What a good thing he had not killed the woman! He had no appetite for anything like that. If it had been the woman, he would have felt guilty. But that young man, crumpled on the ground, shot in the belly and in the head, was nothing less than his prey, his trophy. Some of the soldiers were curious and came up to him. Others were uneasy and others still were incensed; they wanted to kick the corpse. But Tinu would not let them: that man, the bandit, was his trophy. Nobody had the right to touch it or damage it in any way. He was dead and that was enough. Tinu had shot him. He would earn a commendation from the captain and perhaps even a promotion.
The captain did indeed commend Tinu. But the bandit wasn’t his yet. He still had to be displayed in the village. Tinu didn’t like the idea, but he was forced to accept it. The comrade captain was more knowledgeable than he was. But after being displayed at the crossroads for a few days, so that the whole village could see, the bandit’s corpse would be his trophy, and his alone. He didn’t quite know what he was going to do with it. In any event, he would have plenty of time to think about it until then. And then Tinu, without knowing why, suddenly thought about something else: why had he beaten his dog early that morning? Why had he struck Murgu?
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth