Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2013, 256 pages
Translation rights sold to: Liberties Press (Ireland)
Eager to make his life easier, a journalist with homosexual proclivities gives up the press and women and goes back to university to write a doctoral thesis on manele. For the purposes of research, he moves to the poorest district of Bucharest, Ferentari, an area still stuck in the anarchy of the 1990’s and where petty crime reigns supreme. He finds himself in a world of contrasts, peopled with vagrants, ex cons and junkies, a closed, harsh community, no place for the faint of heart. Besides thugs and brawlers, however, he also meets somebody prepared to show his sensitive side, at least every now and then: Alberto, a ex-con from a notorious family of crooks, who has discovered in prison that he is also attracted to men.
The novel The Soldiers: Tale from Ferentari won the Observator cultural Prize and the Best Book of the Year Award at the Romanian Publishing Industry Gala, 2014.
The real reason I split up with Ana was that I wanted to drink to my heart’s content, to flood my neurons with uncontrollable quantities of alcohol, but without having to feel guilty about it. But no doubt about it, the circumstances in which she gave me my marching orders also count: very drunk, I gave 50 lei to a down-and-out from the Brasov Station to let me suck his dick, and after that, arriving at the hotel, I boasted about it loudly for a whole hour, I did my colleagues’ heads in with the horribly sordid details, on the balcony, while Ana was in the room next door and could hear everything. The next day she sent me packing and told me that she’d never been so ashamed in her life; a week later, she sent me an e-mail saying she didn’t want any more melodramas from me, I’d revolted her to her very marrow and she wished me the best of success in my future dick-sucking.
Despite my passion for alcohol, for two weeks I barely touched a drop; when I’m really depressed, I don’t drink, some kind of instinct for self-preservation comes into play and stops me doing it. It was late autumn and, as often as I could, I travelled to work by bike, even if my hands froze to the handlebars.
Predictably, what I missed the most was not the sex, but the intimacy I had built there, after I got into bed and turned off the television; I thought how simple it was, that I would be able to grow old with that person, that she understood me and her body obeyed me. It didn’t matter that she was a woman, I knew her and she knew me and we could talk to each other. I missed the intimacy with her the most – her sex, although I had learned quite quickly how to use it, had been the last part of her body I befriended, for two years or so it had been something alien; it was hard for me to ejaculate and most of the time I thought about boys to make it quicker. But as contorted and lame as it was, my relationship with her had given me an affective comfort I had never encountered before, it had put a plaster on the fears and horrible moods that had been causing radio interference all my life, up until the age of thirty-six, when I met her.
After a few more weeks, when the withdrawal phase had passed, it still hurt, but otherwise I kept arguing with her in my head all the time, there was no escaping it: as soon as I was alone, I would start talking with her, explaining things, pontificating about how she was wrong.
It was also around that time, in fact a little while before then, that I began to come up against the loneliness of the long winter nights and to go out every evening to one of the local taverns; I didn’t drink much at the tavern, two or three beers, but it frequently happened that I would drink a bottle of wine at home after that and get blotto. Rarely did I drink more than that in public, because after four beers I lose control and can’t stop myself, I find myself in ridiculous situations, coming out with such nonsense that I want the earth to swallow me up the next day. If it happens when I go out in the centre of town it’s not necessarily a problem, because usually I’m with friends or people who know me. But when it happens in Ferentari, it starts to be a problem, because I’m no longer among friends, and the people here don’t understand what’s going on and react unpredictably.
One December evening, to give an example, I drank three beers at Boieru’s and my rascally little legs didn’t take me home, one bus stop’s distance from Boieru’s, but rather one bus stop in the other direction, to that dive on Zeicani. Visiting cheap dives is part of my job, I’m writing a doctorate on manele and that’s why I live in this district, to be close to my subject, because Ferentari is the only district in Bucharest where manele still rule, where people don’t give you dirty looks if you listen to manele.
Whereas at Boieru’s in winter it’s deserted most of the time, even at weekends, it’s the opposite here: at every hour of the day the two rooms are thick with people’s breath, like in a stable. The place is full also because the indigents can drink beer by the two-litre plastic bottle; the owner’s trick is that he opened his bar next to his grocery store, I mean, you buy beer from the grocery, you go out into the street and from the street you enter the courtyard of the bar and only then do you reach the bar. In summer, everybody drinks in the little courtyard; in winter, they crowd inside the shed at the bottom. This autumn they renovated the shed and clad it in plasterboard; in November, some relatives of the owner started drilling: they added a few spotlights, a false ceiling, an imitation counter, and whatnot, anyway, they lent it a little bit of class for the poor folk who hire it out for baptisms and weddings.
But to come back to what I was saying before: the story about when the alcohol spoke through me and made me look like an idiot. When it happened, I remember that I’d already drunk three beers at Boieru’s and I didn’t care any more that it was December and there was a blizzard outside; I made a beeline to that dive on Zeicani.
Inside it was hotching and I said to myself: I’ll have myself another couple of beers. One of the boys who works in the grocery, a relative of the owner’s, came to my table and said that there was going to be a wake that night, with fiddlers playing next to the deceased, and that if I gave him 20 lei he’d take me there. I didn’t give him the money – I’d buy a beer or two, but I wouldn’t pay the money, it was too much. And besides, I was drunk and I said that I could manage on my own.
In the first room there was a ping-pong table, on which two vagrants (one aged twenty five, the other, the fat one, past thirty) and a labourer in his forties were playing dice. About ten minutes later the owner’s sister showed up and she chased away the vagrants. The labourer asked me if I wanted in, because the lads were waiting outside. Why not?
The blizzard was hurling splinters of ice in my face and making my eyes water, really nasty weather, and the lads were waiting around the corner; one was large and fat (about six feet) and the other thin. The fat man warmed the dice in his fist and let them roll off his fingers; he wasn’t wearing gloves and I could hear he was breathing heavily, like somebody very drunk. After he took the money off the bloke I’d come with (about three and half lei in small change), he commented that the dice were loaded, and the fat man took a menacing step towards him and showed him his fist: what’s that you say? Wasn’t one beating enough for you that time? And the labourer shut up. The fat man exuded aggression like a peasant exudes sweat.
There wasn’t any more money and the fat man insisted I join the game, he said it didn’t matter if I didn’t know how to play, whoever rolled the highest score took the money, but drunk as I was, I didn’t agree to play, I said that I was going to the wake for the brother of fiddler X. Do you know where it’s being held?
There’s a tent on Zeuri, the poor lad was just twenty-four and died of an overdose. I’m Alberto, the ex con, you can find me at the tavern on Zeicani. That’s how I met Alberto, although for now, it’s not about him, but about that wake I want to recount.
The wake was indeed being held in a military tent, between the housing blocks near there. There was a table at the entrance, one of those round plastic ones, and some chairs around it. There was another table at the back of the tent, at which I sat down, right next to a rusty gas heater, supplied by a canister placed in a tub of water. A middle-aged man, a relative of the deceased, placed a bottle of wine in front of me, along with some cheap salami and bread. It was that wine that did for me. I tried to make conversation with the man, but he answered only in monosyllables, through gritted teeth; the man was obviously grief-stricken, and exotic tourists were the last thing he needed. I wasn’t welcome there and if they gave me food and drink it was only out of politeness, because that is the custom at wakes. I asked about the deceased, and that put an end to the conversation, because it was a private matter and the man had died in dubious circumstances.
Drink makes me boorish, I can’t see or sense anything in context any more, my self-confidence overflows and anything becomes possible. At the main table, the friends of the deceased were talking loudly, making fun of each other and splitting their sides with laughter, and that was the table that drew me like a magnet. Without thinking twice, I went to their table. To get them to notice me, I said look, I work for the press, and if you agree, I’ll call somebody to come and film things, make the deceased a star.
Where do you work, then, mister journalist, if you’re such a hotshot?
But at the time I didn’t work for the press any more, I just wrote articles a couple of times a year for a crappy left-wing website with a hyper-intellectual audience – and so I told them about that and they all started to laugh: what did you say it’s called? Never heard of it, mate. If you’re a journalist then I’m a priest. Go home, man, you’re drunk, leave us to our grief, we can’t be bothered with a scene – but I didn’t want to listen, I kept insisting that we film it, make him a star, and one of them got bored and took my glasses off, he started to feel my nose: what a big nose, what did you do to make it grow that big and crooked? Are you sure it’s not made of plastic? And he kept tugging it left and right, to see whether it was false, while the others rolled around laughing. And after he got bored of doing that, he told me to go home, because I was drunk, and in the end, because I refused to get up, he took me by one arm, without even getting angry, and threw me out of the tent; and as I was leaving, by way of farewell, he gave me a kick up the arse, but also in a bored way, like you’d kick some cur barking between the housing blocks.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Slangy, amusing, permissive, but above all unexpected, and terribly well written (I am not the only one to think so). It’s by Adrian Schiop, it’s published this year by Polirom, and it will remain in your mind. It is The Soldiers: Tale from Ferentari. A book you can bite into deeply and which you’ll want to finish for two reasons that couldn’t be more contradictory: because you’re mad about it, but also because you find it hard to bear the pressure of its reality, a book that is like a punishment you have been waiting for, because you knew it would bring back a little order.”
(Anca ROMAN, altiasi.ro)
“A type of prose that I would call hard-core realism, precisely because of the non-counterfeited nature of the transcription. The Soldiers has extraordinary narrative tension, which makes it look like Romanian miserablism’s first thriller. Whreas the format was well outlined from his very first novel, only now has the subject that seems fully to harness Schiop’s talent been identified. There is much humanity and beauty in the residues of this powerful novel, one of the most powerful of recent years.”
(Alex GOLDIS, Cultura)
“When I started reading The Soldiers, I had no idea what kind of a book I was holding. I picked it up out of curiosity, not because it had been recommended to me. And I wasn’t disappointed, although it genuinely shocked me, In the first place, from the very outset the language jumps out at you; it is not only lewd, but downright brutal. In the second place, the subject matter, which is not exactly popular in Romanian literature, or in literature in general, also played a large part in the shock I felt.”
(Ovidiu LEONTE, bookblog.ro)