Novel, Prose series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2015, 296 pages
Copyright: Cartea Romaneasca
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Radu Anghel studies clarinet at the Music Lycee in the Big City, which was once a Franciscan monastery. Surprisingly, however, the boarding school, a fascinating world in miniature, is not only a place of camaraderie and schoolboy pranks, but also the scene of terrible murder, of which Anghel is wrongly found guilty and sent to prison. His experiences in prison fundamentally change his life, depriving him of what would have been an exceptional musical career and plunging him into a vortex of dramatic events with an unexpected ending.
The Blackbird is a vivid, passionate story about life’s beauty and unpredictability, not only a captivating Bildungsroman, but a book about the senses above all else. Cinematographic and ingeniously constructed, a fabric of sounds and images, smells and colours, the novel depicts an apparently ordinary world, which aesthetic joy transforms into a spectacle. Above all these slices of life sits Dodo the raven, the boarding school’s mascot, the “blackbird.” It does not cry “nevermore”, like Poe’s raven, but rather imitates authorial voices, like a painstaking storyteller.
In the new boarders from form nine Dodo the raven often causes bouts of panic, confusion, even terror. We do not miss the opportunity to make fun of them, playing along, pretending that we too are scared. When they are working in the vegetable garden, when they are having a rest on a bench or quite simply going to dining room, out of the blue they hear a voice. A croaking voice that utters words or sings a snatch of music. The terror is even greater when the pupil hears his own voice resounding within the stone walls.
Dodo the raven goes back to his nest as evening falls. Nobody knows where he flutters the rest of the day, in search of carrion, perhaps. Being an omnivore, his choice of food is multifarious. He runs no risk of going hungry.
Sometimes, he pops up among the branches of the yew tree, in the middle of the day. It is striking to discover how playful so large and so black a bird can be, a bird that looks more like a gravedigger than a clown, to discover how friendly he can be. He flies from one to the next, imitating the cheeping of the sparrows. He is wildly funny. A great big bird, entirely black, with metallic, violaceous glints, vocalising like a tiny sparrow, in a reedy voice. A hilarious contrast, worthy of the circus. He lands on one of our shoulders, those of us he knows best. He pecks our earlobes or pokes his curved beak in our hair, as if searching for lice.
If Prada the pedagogue happens to be passing, Dodo the raven invariably utters the same four words: Prada is a villain.
Always imitating my voice.
“Why am I a villain, Anghel?” Prada asked me, when first he heard that short sentence in raven speech. “I did not say it, comrade teacher.” “So, you did not teach him it, but he says it of his own volition?” “The raven is capable of learning a number of words and using them intentionally, not like parrots,” Radu Lungu told me; he had read scientific articles about ravens. “You can check...” “All right, all right,” growled Prada the pedagogue, “but in your voice?” “Well, the raven imitates the sounds around him, including human voices...” “All right,” Prada continued to growl, “but why is it that Dodo has been saying those words only since you came to our boarding school?” I shrugged, my face full of dumb bewilderment. “That bird, black as the devil, is innocent,” further growled Prada and left without waiting for an answer.
What could I have told him?
In time, he became accustomed to those words, and they even seemed to amuse him!
* * *
Sunday, before lunch. The interval of the Philharmonic concert. My customary and expected meeting with Radu Orbul, after he became a student. He never missed a concert. There were one or two that I missed. When I felt a need for peace and quiet, after hours of practising the clarinet, after hours of orchestra or chamber music, I would climb Cetatuii Hill and look out over the city, without thinking about anything.
Now I need Radu Orbul. I am drunk with revolt and disgust at the same time. I am experiencing the desire that justice be done, that those guilty be punished, that he who is guilty be punished.
Radu Orbul had found out about the whole affair with poor Ponco. He had heard it from me, as well as from others. I had not concealed anything from him, not one detail. He who was guilty for his death was none other than Prada the teacher.
“You are jumping the gun, Anghel,” says Radu Orbul. “He had been on his routine inspection –”
“Out of the question, Radu! You don’t even know what you are talking about; you just want to pull the wool over my eyes, to make me calm down. On the very evening when we celebrated Ponco! The bastard, he drank a glass of wine, didn’t he? In honour of the flautist, of the fame he had brought the lyceum and the country. And then he stuck him under the shower. What do you call that?”
“He stuck you both under –”
“I wanted to go with Ponco, I was the one who got Prada het up, I challenged him, to send me too, not to let the lad with glasses go on his own.”
We both fall silent for a few seconds. The lobby is full: some are commenting on the conductor’s performance, others are talking about some football match or other. It is the interval; everybody can comment on whatever he likes. On almost anything.
“Do you think that it was because of me after all?” I whisper the question that has been haunting me for the whole summer holiday.
“Ponco was frail, quite sickly –”
“And he made a mockery of him precisely for that reason. He was frail, querulous, comically querulous. That shit Mirel is just one of his tools, a nobody. It’s Prada who is the sadist, believe me, Radu! But maybe I should have dragged him from under the shower after three minutes?”
“Calm down, Anghel. That’s my advice. Don’t step out of line and mind your own studies. You’re in your final year; next year you’ll be sitting the exam for university. Don’t scupper your chances... The clarinet is your future. What else could you do?”
Nothing. Radu Orbul was right. But I continued to rebel, to disturb the waters at the lyceum.
I wrote a protest against Prada the pedagogue. My schoolmates, almost all of them, agreed with what I wrote, but the only ones who signed were Fangli and Brinza. The others were carefully thinking about their futures. Futures that were in any case uncertain.
I was summoned to see the headmaster. It was not the first time. He always gave me the impression that my arguments amused him. In his eyes, I was ridiculously naïve. Like a marionette, jerking all over the place, out of control.
“He had to stick him under the shower on the very day when we were celebrating his success?”
“Comrade Prada is extremely correct and wants the rules to be obeyed without exception.”
“Rules he himself invented! You did not answer my question.”
“That evening, in truth, he could have made an exception... As I said, for him being correct comes before all else.”
“He was a sadist!” I blurted, observing all the while how the headmaster was becoming more and more good-humoured.
“What about you – you held your friend under the shower –”
“False! We held hands, in sign of protest. I didn’t constrain him. I made myself a wall. A small wall against the comrade pedagogue and his tool. I demanded that they pull us from under the jet of water. They weren’t brave enough. Or else they didn’t want to! They would have got their clothes wet! They might have caught a cold! Better they kill the frail Ponco –”
“Nobody killed him.”
“Oh but he did! Comrade pedagogue Prada did!”
“You are losing your head. Do you realise that you have started yelling at me?” the headmaster asked, with a cutting smile.
“Please excuse me. I didn’t mean to yell at you –”
“The discussion on this subject is closed. It is tragic what happened. We lost not just a human being, but an exceptional talent. However, there is no avoiding illness.”
“The behaviour of comrade pedagogue Prada is not worthy of a Party secretary. Quite the contrary!”
I blurted out the words almost without wishing to. I must have pulled such an expression of astonishment that the headmaster burst out laughing. “Right, right,” he muttered, still chortling, “not worthy of a Party secretary...”
All of a sudden I realised how ridiculous, how grotesque the situation was, that tragi-comedy I had been acting out together with the headmaster of our lyceum.
I mumbled a curt goodbye, I even bowed to him, Japanese-style, and I went out, while he was still trying to stifle his laughter.
I realised the pointlessness of my struggle, which resembled that of a fish on dry land, but I did not relent. I continued to inflame spirits on the corridors of the lyceum, in the classroom, at orchestra rehearsals, and, of course, in the dormitory. Whenever I got the chance, I would remind them of Ponco’s death. Of how he had been stuck under the shower by Prada the pedagogue, at the recommendation of our classmate, the Foot-Sniffer. Of how they had mocked the flautist in his moment of glory.
Some commented, played along, offered opinions. The subject was hot. The event had been shocking. Ponco had become a figure known in the Big City. The mass media had talked about his success. They had also briefly announced his tragic death, struck down by an implacable illness. The part about the implacable illness was a journalistic invention.
Most of the pupils at the lyceum avoided talking about those events. They were content merely to shake their heads, in compassion and helplessness.
In my madness there were moments when I recounted the event for the umpteenth time to Dodo the raven. Each time, he listened with great attention. After I finished, for a time he would make no sound. Then he would start to whistle, imitating the sounds of a flute. Musical phrases from Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle noir. One of the favourite pieces in Ponco’s repertoire, which sometimes he used to play to me alone.
Without interrupting his whistling, Dodo the raven would spread his large, black wings, vanishing over the wall, leaving me on the bench, tearful and helpless.
That autumn, our last school year, Prada the pedagogue was not re-elected to the position of Party secretary. Could the tragedy of Ponco, which I had brought to light whatever the cost, have played a part in that? Perhaps it was merely a coincidence. He had held the position for rather a long time and could not be re-elected, so they said. To me, it was a detail of all too little importance.
I experienced a slender feeling of satisfaction.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The Blackbird is about the destinies of characters depicted within a miniature concentration camp: a music boarding school, of the kind at which the author himself studied in the 1960s. There are unlikely, but also hilarious events (the book is by no means lacking in humour), situations both tragic and ridiculous, characters who will be hallucinatory for anybody who did not experience those times, real people, who will certainly recognise themselves in the pages of the novel, despair, but also hope.”
(Dan MOSOIU, radiocluj.ro)
“The Blackbird is an incursion into the final years of communism and the early years of the new democracy. Casting a hard look at the consumer society, ‘which consumes not only food, but sentiments,’ Radu Tuculescu writes a very harsh and profound parable.”
(Cristina BELIGAR, Transilvania Reporter)
“What I like about Radu Tuculescu is his faith in literature and his own vocation. The politician does politics, the actor acts, the director directs, the prose writer does prose not like Monsieur Jourdain, without realising it, but in order to put on the page something essential, at the point where his obsessions and our fixations intersect.”
(Daniel CRISTEA-ENACHE, Catavencii)