Novel, Prose series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2014, 240 pages
Benjamin was born in a maize field on the edge of a town at the far end of the country and was raised in the humble family of a carpenter. As the communist dictatorship hurtles towards collapse, the carpenter’s son begins to exert an inexplicable attraction over hundreds of pilgrims, who make long journeys to meet him and speak with him, even if only for a moment. Although the Securitate keep him under close surveillance, the young man manages to vanish, and on the eve of the events of 16 December 1989, it appears that he is in Timisoara.
Nominated for Romania literara Book of the Year 2014 and the Union of Romanian Writers Prizes, 2014
I am the younger brother. Him, my older brother, they call Benjamin. It is supposed to mean “beloved.” I don’t know why they called him that; they were not beholden to anybody. There had been no uncle, grandfather or great-grandfather called Benjamin before him, who had to be commemorated. I am his younger brother and there was no way they could have asked me what name to give him. Had it been possible, I would of course have had an opinion about it. But nobody ever asks me. We live in a new district, in fact an old slum. Ever since they began to build the blocks of flats by the Hospital, the slums have been called residential districts. Even the colony of shacks by the station is now called the Romanian Railways Residential District. After Dej died, they changed a lot of names. The Maxim Gorki Cinema became the Ion Creanga Cinema. The same thing happened with the streets. As the streets were older than the cinemas, they have changed their names more often. Queen Maria became Filimon Sirbu, then they discovered that that Sirbu had not been as glorious as they thought, not even as glorious as Vasile Roaita, this I realised because Strada Vasile Roaita lasted around ten years, after which they named it after a drunken pessimistic poet who was born in a bourgeois house with an orchard, opposite the Bank, the only building that had a Romanian flag at the entrance without a red flag beside it, although most of the locals had no idea who the red flag belonged to, whether to the Russians or to the Party, because to them they were both the same thing. After a while, the red flag vanished, and so did the name of the decadent poet from the plaques that said what the street formerly named after Queen Maria and then after the hero used to be called, the hero having turned out to be a dyed-in-the-wool spy, and so the citizens had to change their identity cards yet again to prove where they lived, which was now the ordinary sounding Popesti Road, which is to say, the road to the village whence came the women with headscarves and aprons who brought milk in five-litre kegs, right to their customers’ doors. This time it appeared that everything would be in order and nobody would want to change the name of the street again. But it was not like that. The milk women with the headscarves vanished unobserved, and so too real milk began to vanish, along with cream and the reassuring scent of good living, and the street, all unawares, got ready to change its name again. Streets can change their names, but with people it is a little harder, although that does not mean it cannot happen. Those who do so have solid reasons and generally they change their surnames. Their first names are permanent. I met a man who changed his first name. He was one of Benjamin’s admirers, I can’t find any other word for it ready to hand, he wasn’t quite an admirer, he was something more than that, something less than and something completely different than an admirer. Before he died, he told me his real name. He told only me. Although it would seem a mere coincidence, when he died, I was the only one in his room, a rented room at the dark end of a row of rooms that gave onto the courtyard of the most dilapidated Jewish house in town. In that house it had been a long time since any of the former owners or tenants had lived, the world had completely chanced, and so it was that Benjamin’s admirer lodged there, in the room at the end. He had chosen that room from instinctive impulse, he wanted to be as sheltered as possible from the eyes of the curious, but that was not the reason why he changed his name. Nobody knew about his changing his name. Nor would I have known if I had not chanced to be beside him when he gave up the ghost. In fact, it is inappropriate to say: “gave up the ghost.” True, the soul departs, is separated from the body in which it has dwelled for a time. Neither is the soul the owner of the body and nor does the body hold any sway over the soul. It is cohabitation, an agreement. As if the soul were a lodger. After a while, it leaves. Nobody stays in the same dwelling place forever, not even if he is regarded as its owner. I saw with my own eyes how his soul, that is, the soul of Hariton Milea, to give him the name by which he was known in the district, separated from his body. It does not happen how most people imagine, which is that he would have groaned or suddenly tensed and then exhaled, as if sighing. Not by a long way. The soul separated from the body: it is like a small flame, like a bird, like a drop of oil on water, it is reddish yellow, sprightly I would say, like a songbird, it rises, it lingers for a while over the body, it whirls and then abruptly it is gone. It must go somewhere, but where I cannot say. It was there that I realised for the first time that death is unconnected with the departure of the soul. Another space of time elapsed, I do not know how long, because I was too overcome with emotion to be able to gauge how much time elapsed before Hariton Milea truly died. What I mean is: how much time elapsed before his body no longer had life, even if the soul had departed. During this interval Hariton Milea spoke. He spoke to me, he held my arm, his fingers clutched my arm, he gripped so tightly that he left bruises. And after he fell silent, after he died, the fingers remained clenched and I had to pull myself from the clutches of death, as the saying goes, because I no longer sat beside Hariton Milea, but beside Death itself. That was the first time I thought seriously about my older brother, Benjamin. In fact I thought about what he always said when there was somebody to listen to him. Hariton, who had just died beside me, after he revealed to me the best-kept secret of his life, that of how it was he changed not only his surname but his first name, Hariton was one of the ones who listened to him whenever he had the chance. I thought that there might be something worth taking into account in all the things Benjamin said. And he said many things, so many things that you did not feel like believing him. I at least didn’t. But Hariton was fully convinced that my older brother spoke the truth and not just any truth. He was so convinced that when he was with Benjamin it was as if he became a child, a diligent pupil, he was wide-eyed and open-mouthed, he nodded, he looked around him, seeking to find the same enchantment, perhaps the same happiness on the faces of others. Without a doubt he did not find anything of what he wished, but he did not give up, he went on, he kept close to his idol, following him step by step. That was Hariton Milea or, as he confessed to me regarding how things stood, that was who he seemed to be. But as many things in this world are not understood, Milea was both the one and the other at the same time.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth