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polirom

Stefan Agopian


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Critics about

Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2014, 152 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

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One of the classics of contemporary Romanian literature, The Textbook of Happenings impresses the public with every new edition, bringing its famous protagonists, Zadic the Armenian and Ioan the Geographer, to the attention of new generations of readers. Written with extraordinary humour, most obvious in the dialogues between the two central characters, the book also excels in its intertextuality and erudition, including at the philosophical level. In fact, the two protagonists lead the reader through a realm of fantasy, with tales that are bizarre, sometimes phantasmagor­ical, with strange creatures that meld with people from the immediate reality, creating a mixture of history and utopia, of the real and the fantastical. And the author’s style of writing, well known to Romanian readers, fully contributes to this melange, not letting you put the book down.



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Excerpt from

Spring came quickly to the town and April burst forth like a light in the people’s souls, gladdening them. A frail wind unwound above the houses, gilding them with a boundless golden light. The fruit trees shed their blossoms like a white rain over the town, and pied birds arrived, eager to mate.
In the year 1807 Muscovite balls were the mode, the people had forgotten Osman Pazvantolu, and the Turks, sapped by the Russians, had loosened their grip on the land.


On the seventeenth day of April, Marin Ioan, a teacher at the Coltia School, awoke addled, his head thick, and a maggot-like sun bored into his crown and a mist-like aureole coiled around him, mocking him. And beside him, a mat of pond scum covering his face, slept Zadic the Armenian, snorting softly. He splashed in the bog for a while and the children laughed giddily, but not knowing that he was a certain teacher from the Coltia School, then laughing even louder and throwing things at him, that the mockery be final and complete. Therefore they laughed, only. But Marin Ioan, the teacher, paid them no mind. He found a muddy Thaler with that dumpy Maria Theresa on it and a few Zwanziger, but the Thaler was badly chipped around the edge and that sorely aggrieved him. He would have liked one of those new Thalers, one not yet blunted, one with Franciscus, the new emperor of Austria and other lands, on it. Then he shook the Armenian, waking him. The children laughed again, but now from afar. Zadic the Armenian awoke and off himself he picked a few frogs limp from the heat, then he got up, not like any other person, but firstly on all fours and, staying like that for a time, not even he himself knowing why, merely staying there and not thinking of anything in that stinking ditch, he then lay back down. Ioan Marin, which is to say, the geographer, thought of how big the world was and how little he was, ultimately. As he was thinking these things, how the world was boundless and he was nothing, like a gob of spit in that stinking water, the Armenian got up and said:
“Come on, it is late!”


Greenish sunlight settled over them. Zadic the Armenian, like a scrawny, miry bird, took a running jump and soared above the events of this world, and thence he said:
“Let us go and sign up, with voievode Ypsilanti, to fight the Turks, because that would be something. If the Muscovites are not afraid, then nor am I. But are you?”
“No, why should I be?” said Ioan the Geographer from his bog. “I am not even afraid of the devil!” he added and made a quick sign of the cross with his tongue, and Zadic the Armenian spat into the wind and he too made the sign of the cross with his tongue.
The wind tumbled over them, sweet-scented, drying their clothes. A dog came and sniffed them a while, then wagged its tail in friendship and sprawled next to them. Zadic the Armenian rummaged for a while and when he found what he was looking for, a penny, he tossed it to the dog. The dog slowly got up, sniffed the penny, wagged its tail again and then sat down.
“Is it stupid, this dog, or what the devil is wrong with it?” said Zadic the Armenian.
“It may be!” said Ioan. “For, that is why it is a dog.”
And then:
“Let us go, because the time has come.”
In a while they departed and the dog set off after them and then before them, as the whim came to it.
“This looks like it might be the vineyard of Gheorghe Totoroaza,” said Zadic, looking around him.
“It may be!” said Ioan, “but I say it is Formion’s, the one who sent his son to Paris, for which reason he sold the vineyard to Radu Sontu, who leased it to Hristea ot Dumitru Grecu for one hundred gold pieces, ten two-headed eagles, and twelve Zwanziger.”
“Aha!” said Zadic, “but from what I heard, Hristu Grecu has been laid low by a disease of the head muscle and now the vineyard is kept by his stepbrother, Taki Polihroni.”
“No!” said Ioan, “Taki Polihroni is a cousin of mine on my mother’s side, he is not the one who keeps it. It is Hris­tea’s mistress, one Maria Bonjescu, who keeps it.”
They spoke in that wise for a while, then they sprawled beneath a gnarled walnut tree, that they might rest, and the dog sprawled there too.
“Today may be a feast day,” said Zadic, “if we have not met anybody.”
“It may be Palm Sunday,” said Ioan, “for this year Easter falls very early.”
“Zounds, do you know that today is Easter day and we did not even know it!” said Zadic.
“It is not!” said Ioan. “For, if it were, we would have had to go to the midnight service and we did not go.”
The sun had risen above the crowns of their heads and there was a giddy scent of hot noonday grass. From somewhere far away the wind brought the scent of camomile to their nostrils.
“It is well that we sat down for a little, so as not to tire ourselves overly. As Plato said: man’s soul...”
“Yes, I know!” said Ioan. “Prudence, Firmness of soul, Rectitude, Moderation. ‘Prudence reveals to us the first Beatitude, and the other virtues, too, lead like three paths to the same Beatitude.’”
“When I think of it,” said the Armenian, “why would there be a need for four paths, when one is more than enough?”
“Marsilio Ficino,” said the other, “argues that a single path is enough: ‘For, through this gift that they bear within them, some face with a firm soul either death for their faith, or death for their native land, or death for their parents.’”
“My parents are henceforth dead!” said the Armenian and from somewhere produced a flask which he shook and the flask sloshed with a half-full sound and the two rejoiced at its sloshing.


For a time they drank in silence. On seeing them like that, the dog got up and slowly wagged its tail. The Armenian poured a little from the flask onto the grass and the dog lapped up the fiery aromatic liquid.
“Look at that, he’s drinking!” rejoiced the Armenian. “What do you think? Will he get drunk?”
“It’s up to him,” said Ioan, the teacher from the Coltia School.
He said:
“We too are somewhere, in a corner of the Angelic Mind, and we sit there in silence, but here we talk and drink. But both these words and this drink are there, although nobody drinks the drink and nobody says the words, they merely rest among the other words and things and nothing arises from it, from their resting there.”
“They rest there in order to have being, said Zadic the Armenian, then he drank from the flask, choked, coughed, his eyes watered, and he coughed again.”
He said:
“All our deeds rest there till the end and we know nothing of them at all and there is no distinction between them, unlike here, because whether in the beginning or at the end, all is one there.”
Ioan took the flask and drank and for a time they were silent, in the heat of that endless afternoon. Somewhere far away, as if through rippled glass, they saw some soldiers drilling. They were moving like well-honed dolls. Then, the muskets, which at first they had been holding to their shoulders, boomed. They were Muscovite troops, probably; they knew that after gazing for a time. Then a moustachioed dwarf arrived to disturb them.
“Zounds,” said the Armenian, “if you are standing here, why don’t you stand more to the side, so that I can see what the Muscovites do next.”
“They are resting now,” said Ioan the Geographer, who could see between the dwarf’s legs.
The dwarf kept standing there, bandy-legged and fierce. His moustaches bristled in rage and large beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and onto the ground.
“Blasted dwarf!” said the Armenian, infuriated that he still could not see, even if the Muscovites were now resting.
When a bugle sounded, the dwarf gave a start and said:
“Hey, you lot, what are you doing here?”
Zadic the Armenian laughed by the by.
“Zounds,” he said, “I do declare that that wretched dwarf is trying to pick a quarrel with us in the heat of the day.”
Ioan the Geographer looked at the dwarf and said:
“I think not, as he wouldn’t be so stupid!”
“Zounds, you know that dwarfs are stupid!” said the Armenian.
The trumpet sounded once more, stridently, shattering the afternoon.
“More Muscovites have arrived now,” said Ioan, who was looking again.
The dog got up and gave a short bark at the Muscovites, as if in fright, and then lay down once more. To one side a few plum trees were slowly shedding their blossoms, as if a snowfall were whitening the ground.
“Zounds, what is it?” said the Armenian with a start after a time.
“Nothing!” said Ioan, “except that the Muscovites have left, and then the dwarf left too.”
“Listen,” said Zadic the Armenian, “we could go and play dice at Birdie’s, but we don’t have any money.”
“We can go even so!” said the other, which is to say, Ioan. “I know a man who will give us money to play and if we lose, we don’t give him anything back, and if the opposite, we give him half of the winnings or more, I can’t remember which now.”


They drank from the flask until they emptied it, so that there would be nothing left to tempt them inside. They felt relieved of desire for a time, and then they felt the urge to drink again and it enveloped them like a fog and each thought of something nice in order to forget. Zadic thought of Muscovite balls, where he would enter disguised as a Turk to frighten the perspiring young girls, and Ioan the Geographer of Ingliterra, where he had never been. Finally, they were no longer able to think of all those things or of whatever other things there may have been on that warm and scented afternoon.
And about what happened to them next nothing is known, except these words that Ioan wrote in a book of his, Giografia: “Let it be known that this book, which is called Giografia, which is to say, the writing of all the face of the earth, was purchased by me, whose name is signed below, for six Thalers.”

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

 



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Critics about

 “The Textbook of Happenings is a superb short novel, whose pages enclose a world about which it would be hard to speak without paraphrasing. A text which, after a given point, writes itself, succumbing to dizzying (but well-controlled) play with cultural symbols, literary references (ancient, mediaeval, etc.), and a prose of inimitable atmo­sphere, which in fact tackles all the major themes of literature, like a veritable ‘textbook’: the meaning of life, culture, knowledge and wisdom, contemplation versus action, death and redemption.”

(Adina DINITOIU, Romania literara)

 “Sixteen years after first reading this book, I still get the same feeling as then: it is one of the best books ever written in Romanian literature.”

(Bogdan-Alexandru STANESCU , Observator cultural)

 “In this universe, the words have a taste, without any exaggeration, they grow, they shrink, you sense them along with the painting of an ineffable apocalypse, in which can be glimpsed two ancestral figures, Ioan the Geographer and Zadic the Armenian, sewn together in a dialogue of unworldly wisdom and Balkan flippancy, two philosophers of nothingness squabbling, boasting with counterfeit vanity, with hidden meanings, like the great understanding that accompanies madness. Carried away by the book, you never cease to rejoice and to be amazed at this textbook, which, without teaching you anything, shows you everything.”

(Angelo MITCHIEVICI, bookia.ro)

 “The new edition recently published by Polirom brings Stefan Agopian to the bookshelves of young people who have not yet had time to find out about him. And Agopian – already a classic – does not disappoint, even when read in the controversial year 2015. The time is ripe to observe that his happenings, old, fantastical, but profoundly human, are as immortal as can be. The initiated say of Agopian that he is Romanian literature’s best stylist. I have no reason to contradict them.”

(Andrei CRACIUN , Sapte seri)

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