The early nineties. A town in Romania. Night time. Abaza – by all accounts an ex secret policeman – is having fun, like the Joker in the films by Burton and Nolan, driven by perverse, criminal instincts, undermining the rules of every game. He makes veiled or churlish threats, he sadistically brutalises, he beheads, he poisons, he shoots, he profanes, he perpetrates abject carnage. The narrator and Fra accompany him, but cannot stop him, and what is more they are often mesmerised by and even drawn to his malefic vitality. With rare stylistic virtuosity, Mortido guides a tale full of cruelty towards an allegorical meaning, allowing us, today more than ever before, to confront the questions and challenges of a world “off its hinges”.
“Hello there, old man, are you in a spot of bother, or am I mistaken?”
“Hey, Abaza, is that you? What are you doing here at this hour? No, don’t tell me, huh, huh, huh!”
A police car with its headlights on was parked next to the taxi. The rather stumpy bloke in uniform, the one who had recognised him, got up from the kerb, from between two other blokes, one likewise in uniform, the other in civvies, and went up to Abaza.
This time you’ll have to put up with my words, which have been left to their own devices after Fra’s departure, you’ve no choice. Except to close the book. It won’t be any loss, that I guarantee you, although I doubt whether you’ll find anything better. Anything better to read or anything better in general. What meaningful thing could you possibly do? The two shake hands. The two shook hands. The two will walk over to the taxi together. Meanwhile, Abaza will greet the other bloke – “Hello, Sasha!” – who out of habit will answer, “Hello to you, captain, sir!” Then he will correct himself, mumbling, “Hello there, how are you?” He will notice the two girls kissing at a distance of some fifty metres from the place where he left them; he will observe the somewhat distinguished face, framed by a senatorial beard, of the civilian and I will ask myself where all these things have turned up from, I will wonder at the rustling of the trees and at their swaying shadow, I will lick my lips, savouring the salty trace of Mr Hariga’s blood and I will burst out laughing, not before Abaza has a chance to banter – “How funny! How funny!” I will keep saying to myself, in a good mood – with his pal: “Sovata!” – “Eisenhower!” The gentleman with the beard snorts rhythmically through his nose, humming a tune that is indistinguishable, but which, to go by the snorts, must by a hymn. Sasha greets, him, mumbles, then makes a sustained effort to think of something, but without success. Through his mind pass his wife’s buttocks, a black telephone with a crank handle, the numbered ledger from the office, the armband of the officer on duty, footballer Sabau, and Petre Mihai Bacanu. I leave him and reach the girls: the brim of the yellow hat shadows the face of the blonde, the hands delicately grasp the firm breasts, the lips of the girl with the hat slide wetly down the other’s throat, the other whispers, aroused, in a trance, “I love you! I love you!” They alone took no notice of Abaza, because Sasha still had his eyes glued to him, and the man with the beard was wondering, still humming away, where and under what circumstances he had met the chap with the raincoat and the hat the bloke had so jovially greeted. And there was someone else – I’m not going to tell you who – lurking in the bushes of the park, someone who had been following Abaza from the start. Concealed in the shadows, slightly hunched, with dry fingers he was caressing the handle of a pistol. If Fra were here, she would perhaps show me a boundless plain, upon which, upon a seeming crust, the people and events of the night would shrink, vanish, cease to exist, and nor do they exist. Fra would teach us to make out the otherwise unheard whistle of time, she would imperceptibly push us into her implacable vortex. And then all that would remain for us to do would be to laugh and to fall silent. For us to turn to stone, eye to eye with the Medusa. But since Fra has left me here alone, it goes like this: Abaza bends down, next to the taxi, lifts up the sheet and examines the face of the corpse. The bloke slaps his knee, unable to contain his amazement:
“What the hell, sir, that isn’t our corpse! Sasha!”
“What do you mean it isn’t yours?” grins Abaza.
“I’ll be damned if it isn’t a different one… Sasha!”
“What has it got to do with you if it’s a different one or not? You had a corpse; you’ve got a corpse. A corpse is a corpse. The main thing is for it to be dead. Nothing matters apart from that. You can swap them around as much as you like…” philosophises Abaza.
“Lieutenant, sir,” says Sasha, “I’m not joking. It’s not ours. What’ll we do?”
“Let the civilian come and take a look. He was the one who found him, after all. Sir! Sir! Come here a moment!”
The man with the greying beard comes over, snorting. He takes a look, he makes the sign of the cross, he takes a step back, and utters, with a strongly nasal timbre:
“It’s ours! I found it! All the dead are ours! People need to be converted, alive or dead! May God forgive this one!”
Abaza leaves them outside to exchange impressions and slips inside the car. The snake has coiled around the white, knobbly leg of the lady on the dashboard. The woman’s eyelids start fluttering as the automobile rocks under Abaza’s weight. Abaza returns with the electric razor. He hands it to Sasha. He makes a sign to him. Sasha does not understand. Abaza turns on the electric razor, he runs it over the cheek of the dead man, and then he passes it once more to Sasha, who, having understood, kneels down to finish the job. The lieutenant lights a torch and points the beam at the cadaver’s face.
“It keeps snagging,” complains Sasha. “A cut throat razor would do a better job. He’d have been like new in a jiffy.”
The electric razor buzzes like a hornet. The ashen skin is denuded. Sasha has shaved the right cheek, now he is shaving under the nose, he reaches the left cheek and shears a swathe as far as the ear. The electric razor jams. Sasha opens the lid, blows away the bristles, replaces the lid and goes on shaving, under the cheekbones, and then, lifting the sagging jawbone with two fingers, he shaves under the chin.
“Lieutenant, sir! It’s ours!” he cries happily and gives the deceased two resounding slaps on the jowls.
“Huh, huh, huh! I knew it! Go ahead! Go ahead!” orders the stumpy bloke merrily and points the torch in Sasha’s eyes. Sasha pulls the peak of his cap down over his forehead, grinning from ear to ear. I leave them for a moment, because the girls have just got up. The girl with the hat is carrying the blonde, who has her arms coiled around her neck. The long, flowing hair rustles beneath the moon. The two vanish forever next to the bush in which is lurking the one I’m not going to tell you about. Abaza and the stumpy bloke have moved a little to one side and are talking in a whisper. Smiling, the lad slips something into Abaza’s pocket. He hears the “ha ha ha’s”, interrupted by Sasha’s outcry:
“Lieutenant sir, God damn it, it’s growing again!”
The civilian intervenes, in a singsong voice, amid his snorts, and making the sign of the cross over the corpse:
“Anathema! Avaunt, devil! The Lord be with you! Do not blaspheme, my brother!”
“But can’t you see it’s growing again!”
“All things are by the will of the Lord!”
“Are you going to polish him up, then?”
“Leave it out, Sasha! The main thing is he’s ours!”
“And what am I supposed to do? Polish him up all night?”
“You’ll have to do the polishing…”
“How was I supposed to know it keeps growing, lieutenant, sir?”
“Polish him up as much as you’re able, and when you’re not able any more, then stop polishing. I’ll take over the polishing after that.”
The beam of the torch reveals the corpse’s yellow teeth and the stiff tonsils at the back of the mouth. Abaza humanely suggests that they bind his mouth shut with a handkerchief.
“How will I shave him then?” demands Sasha.
“Huh, huh, why don’t we light a candle by his head and sing ‘God have mercy’?” goes the lieutenant.
“Why not?” Abaza will retort. “Since the Revolution, you’ve been Christians.” And he will imitate his “huh, huh, huh.”
The gentleman with the grey beard – the civilian? – will take a small book from the leather briefcase at his feet, he will clear his larynx and nasal passages, he will go up to Sasha, warning him to say “Amen!” when he makes the signal with his index finger, he will position himself at the head of the corpse, he will open the book and he will begin to read. Abaza and the stumpy bloke are no longer visible. The one whose name I’m not going to tell you has come out from the bush and made the sign of the cross. But now the man with the grey beard stands motionless, his eyes raised to the heavens. Sasha has turned off the electric razor and is holding his cap under his arm. Abaza’s hat and the lieutenant’s cap are moving at a suitable distance from the ground. They – as I have already told you – are no longer visible. I interrupt myself, because I remember Fra’s silence before death, her gaze fastened on the whiteness of the wall. Today, as I write about that night and about Fra and about Abaza, I myself have a premonition of the place without dimensions in which all have perished and towards which – however many signs I will make here – I too will go in silence, thwarted by that vanquishing absence. You will not be able to stop me, my faraway girl. But let us not get carried away talking. Behold, the gentleman with the grey beard begins, choked, tearful; today I write his snorting words, words not his own – am I really so sure? – with all the dead, theirs and mine, behind:
“Among the souls of the righteous, rest, O Saviour, the soul of Thy servant” – Sasha gives a start and thinks to himself, “Papist! Papist!” – “preserving him in the blessed life which is in Thee, Who loves mankind. In Thy eternal peace, O Lord, wherein dwell all the saints, rest the soul of Thy servant. For, Thou dost love mankind!”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth