Iulian Ciocan

Excerpt from

Critics about

Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2015, 256 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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On the morning of 25 June 2020, Latin teacher Nicanor Turturica awoke later than usual. Not just because it was a Saturday, but because he had played online chess until after midnight, against an obstinate Australian, who flatly refused to admit defeat at the hands of a representative of some Lilliputian country. Nicanor Turturica idled in bed for a while, wondering at the much too dark cloud he could see through the window, and realised with alarm that his deep sleep had not banished his weariness. Yes, although he was still a man in the prime of his life, at the age of sixty, with increasing frequency he was bothered by a state of extreme tiredness, his eyes ached, and he suffered cramps. To blame, an obtuse physician had told him, was supposedly the Internet, and to be more precise, online chess, in which he had found solace after the sudden death of his wife. But how could he live without any refuge, after an accursed breast cancer had stolen away his younger wife? This was why, for a few weeks after the funeral, Nicanor Turturica had succumbed to alcoholism, and then, after a heated discussion on Skype with his daughter, who lived in the United States, the teacher discovered online chess, giving up vodka and wine. And after a while he met the mild and gentle Raya, a widow of sixty-two, who sold pies at the faculty canteen and whom he started to visit at weekends. The insatiable window would have liked to have sex every night, but what with his Latin lessons and online chess, that would have done him in altogether. And so he persuaded her that they should meet just once a week. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. But when it came to chess, he could not tolerate any absence. He would sit in front of the computer for hours on end, doing battle with opponents from every continent, accumulating victories with a grim determination worthy of a better cause and losing his temper after every defeat, which, of course, seemed to him stupid and unfair. But on the morning of 25 June Nicanor Turturica felt so exhausted that he abandoned any thought of turning on his laptop or the television set. Perhaps that opaque physician had been right when he claimed that his tiredness was caused by his sedentariness, by sitting in front of the computer and the television. “Life means movement!” the physician kept reminding him, a truth that only now revealed itself to him in all its grandeur. He had to get into shape as a matter of urgency; apart from anything else, that evening he was due to cast himself into the burly arms of Raia from the canteen, who made up for lost time with great ardour, draining him of strength.

After taking a fortifying cold shower and breakfast, Nicanor Turturica put on a faded tracksuit, among the junk heaped on the balcony he found a pair of shabby training shoes, unworn for a decade, and then he left the spacious three-room flat to jog around the nearby park. On the landing, which was strewn with discarded cigarette butts, he bumped into a neighbour, who was in a great hurry and muttered something in annoyance.
“What’s up with you, mister?” Nicanor Turturica asked the man, who was usually polite and smiling.
The neighbour paused for a moment, opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water, unable to articulate any words, waved his hand in disgust, and continued climbing the stairs, with astonishing nimbleness.
“The man obviously has a problem. He must have had a row with his wife,” Nicanor Turturica said to himself, slightly offended, and went out into the courtyard of the block of flats.
It was a beautiful summer day, a peaceful Saturday, perfect for relaxation after a week’s work. But the Latin teacher got the feeling that something was not right, that in the air floated an oppressive unease. Nicanor Turturica looked up at the sky, staring at the grey clouds that were coming from the south-east and inexcusably blotting the serene firmament. They looked like clouds of smoke, spewed by a big fire. “What the hell is going on?”
In the old park, which by a miracle had survived the onslaught of unauthorised new buildings, there were far fewer mothers and children than usual. Why could that be? Nicanor Turturica walked a little way down a path, did a few basic warm-up exercises, and sat down on a bench, in the shade of a rotten poplar. “This exercise is actually a good thing,” the Latin teacher said to himself, taking a deep breath of fresh morning air. He sat for a while and admired a row of rotund bushes. Then, he thought of Raia. He did not know whether he wanted to go to see her that evening. His relationship with the woman from the canteen was not based on any deep feelings, but merely on sex and the fear of loneliness. What would become of them in a few years, when not even sex would be possible? Nicanor Turturica heaved a sigh from the depths of his soul.

When he returned to his block of flats, he saw a huge truck loaded with furniture outside. Another neighbour, a petty functionary, with whom he often chatted about life, was urging some porters to hurry. In a car next to the truck, the functionary’s wife and daughter were sitting in a fluster; they could barely wait for the porters to finish their job. A few tenants were standing to one side and whispering about the functionary’s departure. Greatly surprised, Nicanor Turturica went up to the frantic functionary and asked: “Where are you going, my friend? Are you moving house?”
The other man looked at him as if he were from another planet: “Don’t you listen to the news? When was the last time you turned on the television, Nicanor?”
“Well... I think it was yesterday morning... What has happened?”
“You’re asking me what has happened? We’re toast, Nicanor! Yesterday, Transnistria invaded Moldova. Russian tanks have entered Anenii Noi, and the Moldovan army can do nothing to stop them. Can’t you see the cloud of smoke covering part of the sky? The Transnistrians hit some oil tankers with their shells. I’m fleeing to Romania! The Transnistrians will be here within two days, and since I work at the Ministry of Culture and I’m the one who organises Romanian Language Day, I’ll be one of the first they punish. They’re vicious, Nicanor. Near Bulboaca, they killed in cold blood thirteen Moldovan soldiers they’d taken prisoner... I’m sorry about the flat. I haven’t been able to sell it, but life is more precious...”
Nicanor Turturica listened to the functionary’s confession with eyes boggling in amazement. It seemed to him as if it were a bad joke, something ridiculous, but at the same time he felt a lump in his throat: “Maybe it is just a small, passing conflict? There have been all kinds of local clashes over the years –”
The Latin teacher’s interlocutor looked at him with pity that bordered on the insulting, and finally, with firm conviction he said: “No, Nicanor... This time it is serious. It’s war, Nicanor. I advise you to get out as fast as you can, unless you’re waiting for the liberators like that lot...”
The petty functionary turned his gaze in the direction of the tenants, who were whispering to one side.
All of a sudden there came a peal of hysterical laughter from somewhere above them. They looked up and on an upper-floor balcony they saw a pensioner notorious for his drunken benders and puking on the stairs. The pensioner was laughing heartily, with tears in his eyes, and Nicanor Turturica thought that he must have been drinking all night again. But the pensioner then began to shout, gesticulating wildly and cursing the petty functionary: “Nu chto, svoloch’? Smatyvayeshi udochki? Tak tebe i nado! Katisi v svoyu Rumyniyu!”

“Can you see how much hatred he’s got pent up in him? This is barely the start! Can you imagine what it’s going to be like when the Transnistrian tanks enter Chisinau? That’s all, Nicanor. I’m in a hurry, take care,” said the functionary, looking at him with the same insulting pity.
Nicanor Turturica felt the immediate need to go home as quickly as possible. He opened the door, kicked off his training shoes, and rushed to the laptop. Every site was reporting on the Transnistrian military invasion. One of the photographs showed the leader of the self-proclaimed republic, Smirnovich, interestedly examining the town hall of Vadul lui Voda, which had been abandoned by the local authorities. So, they had even occupied Vadul lui Voda! Nicanor Turturica turned on the television. Moldova 1 was showing disturbing images from the front line. He saw a Moldovan armoured car that had been hit by a shell, with charred corpses strewn around it. Then, the President of the Republic of Moldova, Nicolae Flenchea, appeared on the screen to address the nation. The president reviled the Transnistrian separatists, who, with the support of the Kremlin, had villainously attacked Moldova. The Moldovan Army, said the head of state, would try to halt the offensive by the enemy, who was armed to the teeth. The Moldovan authorities requested the help of the UN and NATO and hoped that the whole of mankind would stand by the Moldovan people and force the invaders to withdraw. The president called on all men capable of fighting to take up arms and defend their country. The president’s message was solemn and rousing, but the fact that his voice trembled alarmed Nicanor Turturica. Was he capable of fighting at the age of sixty? Like hell he was! The Latin teacher turned off the television and sat in downcast reflection for a few minutes. What should he do? Flee the country like the petty functionary? He decided he would play chess on the computer for a couple of hours and after lunch he would go to see Raia.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth


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