Novel, Prose series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2015, 592 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The Corso Trilogy is a fantastic foray into more than half a century of the history of Timisoara, from the early years of the communist dictatorship to the unleashing of the capitalist tarantula in the 1990s and the invasion of Italian entrepreneurs. The first novel, Operation Aubade, the code name for a secret service, described in a fantasy style, is a music hall epic with paranormal beings and Securitate agents. The second, Jewellery, and Hats, and Ponchos, and Long Hair, and Pearls, describes an attempt by high school rockers to cross the frontier illegally and reach the graves of their idols, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The final book of the trilogy, The Wonderful Businesses of Capitalist Ilie Sfeic, is a fresco, in the manner of Hašek, of the post 1989 world and follows the capitalist adventures (which end up in bankruptcy) of the main character, a double of the book’s author, a greenhorn in a New World of bosses of all kinds, degrees of illegality, and tastes. All three of Daniel Vighi’s novels are illustrations of the magic formula of unity in diversity, thereby guaranteeing a polyphonic reading, along with a dizzying voyage through time and space.
Auntie Marioara washed the floors at the central headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Department, which was part of State Security. The F.I.D. mainly dealt with economic espionage in the West. Auntie knew that, just as she knew other things that mere mortals had no way of knowing, let alone knowing they even existed. In the echelons of the secret service, she was somebody, they told her so when the hired her, many years previously, it was even before the Hungarian Revolution and, if she remembers rightly, it was back then that the big boss, as they called Comrade General Draghici, had told them clearly and so that even a dunderhead would understand that they were answerable to themselves alone for what they did, and not to the Party, and to Party personnel to be precise. Oho, said Auntie Marioara to herself, as she was washing the parquet and airing the big meeting room, with its thick curtains claggy with cigarette smoke, oho, said she, how the years have passed, from Dej to the Oltenian we’ve got now, the years pass, but they always had to be on duty, that’s why, as she told everybody, she wasn’t interested in anything the apparatus did, the lads saw to their own business, with all kinds of reactionary elements, without necessarily caring about them : “I feel sorry for myself and my career, you bastard,” Autnie Marioara’s colleagues often said in the interrogations which, in any event, were conducted far from that meeting room with its thick curtains that stank of tobacco, and with its presidium table covered with a red velvet tablecloth imported from China.
“What are you doing, Marioara ?”
“Working, what else, comrade general.”
“Get a move on, then, we’ve got liturgy.” That’s what General Nica used to say, the boss of the people in Department S. He liked to mix up Party terms with Church terms. General Nica liked to joke.
“I’ll be finished in a jiffy. I’ve still got to arrange the flowers for the presidium.”
“All right, all right, leave them here, because nobody takes any notice of them anyway,” said Comrade Nica, not knowing that there was a tiny microphone hidden in them. Only Auntie Marioara, who was an undercover officer, knew about it. Who the hell could have imagined that higher up than them there was another department that nobody knew about apart from Auntie Marioara ? Nobody knew a thing. It never even entered their heads that they could be under surveillance, although if you thought about it, it was blindingly obvious. Department S of the F.I.D. dealt with the big enemy, as the people from Moscow had called them for years on end, the same as the propaganda apparatus and everybody else : the big bellied Anglo Americans, with their braces and cigars, as the caricatures on Soviet Revolution Day, May Day and 23 August depicted them. The capitalists, high finance and the stock market, brothels, gambling in Las Vegas. There was no messing around with that lot ; the undercover officers could defect at any moment. That’s why they needed counterespionage departments under deep cover to keep the people in Department S under surveillance.
Well, that’s the reason for what happened every Monday lunchtime, namely the Department S operational meeting. Spied on by the microphone in the bouquet, they sat down at the table : General Nica, Lieutenant Colonel Isfan, Captain Cioca, and Sergeant Major Boca. For the time being. Another two were to arrive shortly : Colonel Prunea and Lieutenant Major Savescu from the equipment section. The discussion, as recorded by the microphone concealed in the bouquet of roses on the table, was quite different from the one they put down in the minutes, which were usually typed up by Sergeant Major Boca, a woman past the first flush of youth, who was in with Lieutenant Colonel Isfan, but who had also done a stint with General Nica and enjoyed the attentions of Captain Cioca. She had had it off with all of them, in fact, as was plain from the reports of the undercover counterespionage people, codenamed Furrow.
The meeting begins and as usual the general tells each of them to spill whatever they’ve got to spill. Colonel Isfan begins slowly. He reads his report while the others around the table yawn, Cioca discreetly scratches himself, Boca lets his thoughts wander. “It’s very hard,” he tells them, “it’s very, very hard.” The others nod, quite disconsolate and downcast. Auntie Marioara busies herself around the room, she checks the second microphone, fitted in the ashtray according to the latest Western standards. It may well meet Western standards, but it was supplied by Main Central, she told her fully undercover boss, Comrade Serge. That’s the name she knows him by : Serge the Russian. Just Serge. To hell with you all, Auntie Marioara said to herself the other day, wanting to play the game differently, to get one over on Serge and his lot. She doesn’t know how just yet, although it would give her a really big kick, the difficulty resides in the fact that she can’t cross the fence, she doesn’t know, in other words, how much of what she knows is known on the other side, among the gang she’s keeping under surveillance on behalf of Main Central in the Kremlin. It’s very hard to infiltrate two targets at once : the world of Catholic monks and the network of the espionage and counterespionage services outside the country. Comrade Boca has the intelligence task of constructing intelligence infiltration of the Benedictines and Minorites within the country. Comrade Cioca, on the other hand, has the operational task of constructing infiltration outside the country. “Ballocks to you,” informer Arpad told him. Arpad had infiltrated Benedictine and Minorite circles at the Laudamus Domine Monastery, as they called it in Securitate documents, since that wasn’t the target’s real name, just as Arpad wasn’t really called Arpad, except in the intelligence reports. “The time has come,” they told Boca, to check out this Arpad, to see whether he’s doing his duty. I have my doubts.” On hearing this, General Nica lifted his eyes from the papers on the desk in front of him. “You what ?” he seemed about to say, but was pre empted by his colleague Isfan, the lieutenant colonel, who was reckoned to be the only one capable of unravelling all the knotted threads resulting from so much information, from so many networks, spies, counter spies, mince and tater pies, as Big Daddy said in amusement when he found out what they got up to. “What do you lot do over there all day, we pay you for results, not dog turds, understood ?” “Understood, Comrade First Secretary,” General Nica had mumbled in terror, and now he yells at them : “What do you mean you have your doubts, Comrade Boca ? You have doubts and you don’t report them, meanwhile Big Daddy’s breathing down my neck, do you understand what I’m saying, Comrade Boca ?” General Nica regained his composure, an irritated composure : “What doubts do you have, comrade, what doubts do you have, out with it, before I pluck you bald, report your doubts so that we can take measures. We haven’t got much time.”
“Allow me to report, Comrade General, don’t think I’m shirking my responsibilities, I’ll report everything that’s happened to me so you can judge for yourself, and maybe Comrade Lieutenant Colonel Isfan can unravel why I have doubts.”
“Report your doubts, man.” Whenever he said : “Report, man,” his subordinates knew they were in trouble, that he was annoyed, that he might even dish out punishments right there at the table. All of a sudden, there was complete silence. Even Lieutenant Colonel Isfan sat frozen in his chair. He was really annoyed and it didn’t look like he’d be able to hoodwink him all that easily : “Careful,” he whispers in Lieutenant Colonel Isfan’s ear, “careful, because you never know whose cover will get blown and then we’ll all get burned.” He decides to take the floor, plucks up courage, gives a meaningful cough, but before he can say anything Colonel Prunea and Lieutenant Major Savescu from equipment come in.
“Why can’t you come on time, eh ?”
“Permission to report : we were detained at the photo studio. We’ve got new cameras, we decided to present them, and you know how it is, you have to sign dockets that you’ve taken them from stores.”
“We don’t need anything like that right now, we’re talking about something else, we’re not even interested in them.”
“Understood. We’ll listen and take the floor.”
“There’s no reason for you to take the floor, we need to work harder, produce results, otherwise the People will be paying us for nothing, that’s what Big Daddy told me, and I’ve no intention getting a reprimand because of you. He keeps pumping me about what results you’ve achieved, what’s going on, so and so is not like so and so from before, he sticks his nose in, wants to know what we’re up to, wants to inspect things, do you understand ? We’ve got nothing to discuss. All I’m going to do is ask you whether or not you understand.” They nod their heads, it’s clear, nothing is unclear, the results speak for themselves. “That’s more like it, get to work, don’t wait for me to give you a shove from behind, because for better or worse, we haven’t got any partisans hiding out in the mountains any more, is that clear ? You can do a good clean job nowadays, there’s no great risk, things are different now, we don’t have any more armed bandits, is that clear ?”
The comrade general gets up from the table, very determined, his subordinates do likewise, all of them subserviently rise to their feet, slightly afraid, not greatly afraid, but afraid just for appearances’ sake, it’s not the first time, after all, and finally the boss goes out and in accordance with operational procedures the others go out too, they don’t wait even for a minute, they go out pell mell, leaving the bouquet of flowers sitting awkwardly on the table. Finally, Auntie Marioara appears, picks up the bouquet and takes it away. She goes out of the door on the right, to her room with the equipment she needs for the secret operations she is engaged in. In fact, they know what she’s engaged in, but she knows that they know. That’s the big problem. They know about Auntie Marioara, but they don’t know she knows they know.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“There is a lot to savour in the writing of Daniel Vighi. Despite the fact that the subjects he deals with are extremely serious. The numerous stories about the Securitate, informers, undercover agents, double agents, and double double agents make it possible a grassroots reading of a strange, stark and oppressive world. The ironic and self ironic charge of the main characters—besides making the reading experience more pleasurable—creates a state of almost paroxysmal tension from the existential point of view. And that’s because ‘comedy is the final stage of tragedy’ (Albert Camus), is it not ? But it’s not necessarily a case of comedy here, but a case of comedy in the fullest sense. A world peopled with all kinds of individuals who, through their own accounts, create a multiple and ambiguous intrigue.”
“The Corso Trilogy confirms Kundera’s idea that certain events, even though they are do to with recent history, can only be narrated in a novel. And the fact that there is a lot of laughter in the other two novels Daniel Vighi includes in his triptych, Operation Aubade and The Wonderful Businesses of Capitalist Ilie Sfeic, shows us a different kind of attitude towards the problematic relationship Romanian writers have with recent history. The same as Ha½ek, to whom explicit reference is made, Vighi urges us to laugh on almost every page. To laugh and not to forget.”