Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2017, 406 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Wounded in an ambush, Toma leaves the FOB Tagan-Kutschbach Special Operations Base in Afghanistan, where he has been attached to the Special Forces since 2009, and returns to his native village of Celei. A few months later, he is decorated by President Traian Basescu, but he feels the status of hero in the war against terrorism is incongruous with his personal situation: his wife has been having an affair with a policeman and has decided to run away to Italy with him; he is haunted by the memory of his friend who died on the frontline; the village is in the grip of paralysis. The symptoms of PTSD progressively take hold of Toma’s life. The only people he is really able to connect with are his seven-year-old son, a gypsy with whom he went to school, and his friend’s widow, with whom he starts having a purely sexual affair. Flashbacks from the war zone punctuate his everyday life, along with their antidote: memories of childhood. The first part of the H Trilogy, Shrapnel is a novel about violence, awareness, masculinity, memory, and time. It is a novel about institutional clichés, the psychology of crowds, the disintegration of personal identity. And a novel about survival.
We are sad to announce that Sgt Aaron Winter, aged 21, serving with the Green Berets for ISAF in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan, was found dead in his barracks on the evening of 17th Sept. An inquest into the circumstances of his death has been opened. His family have been informed and our hearts go out to them. We salute you, Sgt Winter!
Toma did not come across the word suicide either in the initial press statement about the death of the American soldier or in the various references to Aaron Winter that later appeared on the net.
On Wednesday night, he hadn’t been able to sleep. He turned onto his left side and contemplated the bare wall, onto his right side and contemplated a poster of Loredana Groza, and then onto his back, in which position he slowly attempted a wank, more out of a sense of duty toward his solitude than anything else, but he couldn’t manage it. Despite all that, two hours later, at around midnight, he still wasn’t asleep. He got out of bed and went to the bog. In the corridor, on his way to the bog, he noticed a strip of light coming from under Aaron’s door. Toma trod on the light and it felt cold beneath his soles. He felt sure the American was looking at porn on the net. He knew a site where you could build your own sex partner: you chose her head, then the body, the tits, the arms, finally the legs and the triangle in between. All from a photo gallery with dozens of options. After that, you clicked on the clothing you wanted her to wear: nurse, teacher, dominatrix, playboy bunny, whatever. Finally, a window appeared, asking you what you wanted to call her. You then clicked on action and the cyber started talking to you and showing herself to you and doing it. You could add a partner, also of your own creation, or one supplied by the site, and introduce them to each other. They would know what to do with each other. The American had created a chubby girl, dressed in strips of black leather, whom he called Angela. A couple of times, Toma and another lad from their barracks had entered the creative sex site with the American and they watched what Angela could do.
It was Angela he saw first. She was sitting in a leather armchair, with her arms crossed, her breasts bulging out of a glossy black bra. In her lap she was holding a pistol in a strange position, as if the barrel were some kind of metal dick. She was smiling at you from behind the screen and twisting the sole of her foot. She was shod in soldier’s boots. Between her shoulder and forehead, a window with the word action in bold type was flickering. She was ready. Ready for action. Aaron needed only to click on the button. But Aaron Winter was lying stretched out on the floor, his face to the ceiling. From his right temple came a red snake that had slithered as far as the blotch of light cast on the floor by the computer screen, and there it had curled up and fallen asleep.
Toma awoke from his paralysis only when he felt the stream of hot piss down his thighs. He took off his pyjama bottoms and used them to mop up the puddle on the floor. Then he took a step back and seated his bare bottom on the edge of the bed. From there, the body of the American soldier, the upper half swathed in shadow, seemed normal to him. For a good few minutes, he contemplated it as it lay stretched out on the floor, submerged in motionlessness and silence as if in a deep dream, and he had the impression that never before had he experienced such a cruel familiarity, a normality so intense that he would have needed another word altogether to describe it. He went back out into the corridor and with the palm of his hand pressed the yellow internal alarm button, without the slightest quickening of his pulse. Only after he reported what had happened through the interphone in a perfectly calm voice did he realise that he was clutching his wet pyjama bottoms to his chest and that he was naked from the waist down in the corridor of the barracks. It was then that the tiny beast began to writhe insanely beneath his sternum.
That was all the local mayor’s office had done for him: they’d given him the key to the castle, he was responsible for it, he had to lock and unlock the gate for the tourists, collect the entrance fees (whether or not he gave them a ticket and a receipt was up to him), call the police if anybody entered with a metal detector, patrol the site at sunset, walking from one end to another and then crosswise, make sure everything was in order. He then had to tick a box and sign the register. That was all there was to it. Nobody paid him anything, because it was an honorary position, and that’s why they chose him, to glorify his hero status. His only reward was that he was invited to attend staff meetings of the museum in Corabia, which lasted just twenty minutes and then descended into a drunken binge, with the mayor, the police, the museum director, and Mr Harnik, who was Turkish, although he came not from Turkey but from Galati, with the purpose of buying and developing the Party Headquarters club on the Danube bluff, which is what he did. And since he was a cultural enthusiast, he had also decided to sponsor the local museum from time to time, when needed, if any team-building sessions (i.e. drunken binges) were being held.
When it was time—and it was time almost every month—either the mayor or somebody else would phone the director and say, “Aren’t we having another session, director? We could do with one.”
“If we could do with one, then we’ll have one, of course we will . . . what, do we even need to discuss it, mayor?”
“We’ll bring some of that wine, the good stuff that that priest from Celei makes, you know how good it is, a real beauty. I’ll get Tomita Stratan to arrange it.”
And that’s the way they manage culture (or rather viticulture) in Olt County.
“You hero, you! Come to daddy and let me kiss you on the cheek!” That was how the museum director usually greeted Toma, thrusting a plastic cup in his hand. “Let daddy give you a drink, so that you’ll forget all your troubles.”
Once, he tried a different and surprisingly eloquent approach: “That’s the way memories are . . . like women who let you feel them under their skirts, but who don’t say a single word, not even what their name is . . .”
A while back, Toma had made the mistake, also at a meeting, of telling the director about Livia and Italy and Costi, and that was what the aforenamed was referring to when he employed the word “troubles.” The fact was that all the museum’s cultural entourage now knew about Toma’s marital drama, because the director had got blotto at the meeting in early July, when the institution celebrated its acquisition of a manuscript by Virgil Mazilescu, a poet born in Corabia, and he’d started berating the chief of police, saying it was because of him, because he didn’t train his men properly: “Is that the way you handle them . . . your lads . . . because look at that, they run off with other people’s wives . . . our hero here . . . who fought in battle . . . because of you . . . because you’re an incompetent philistine, and now he’s the one who has to suffer . . .”
“I’m what you say, director, I am . . . what can I do? But I’ve got a heart, you know . . . a heart of gold,” answered the chief of local police, resting his head on his arm and his arm on the table, which was heaving up and down like a ship on the waves.
The chief of local police was indomitable when he was sober—he cracked the whip without mercy if his orders weren’t obeyed. When sober, he’d never spoken a single sentence to his son Adelin that didn’t end in an exclamation mark. But when drunk, he was a little lamb. You couldn’t recognise him. It was as if even his facial features altered. His eyelashes lengthened, his cheeks flushed, and sometimes even those grey eyes of his moistened at some nice word. He was a regular at the secret club in the basement of Party Headquarters, but nobody knew or was allowed to know that apart from Mr Harnik, who was his friend; the two of them helped each other out when the need arose.
It wasn’t because of the museum meetings that Toma agreed to be the keeper of the key to the castle, but because of Amalia. Too many places in this world are designed to contain you, to inveigle you, places that capture you in their centripetal force and begin to break you apart atom by atom until your awareness becomes more and more clouded, your heart starts to beat in a rhythm alien to its own metabolism: airports; supermarkets; motorways; battlefields; television talk-shows; computer games; the music that blares at top volume from the window every car, in every café, in every means of public transport; politicians’ verbal diarrhoea; religious dogma; thousands and thousands of bad movies; places that call you, yell in your ears, need you to inhabit them completely, dedicate your whole identity to them, perpetuate their meaninglessness through your every word, your every action.
And Sucidava was the complete opposite of all that. It was a place that needed you, a place that didn’t demand anything of you. Perhaps because of that Toma felt capable of giving it his all. And yes, it was an honour to be the keeper of the key to such a place. In his mind, Livia began to coincide with the other spaces, with the traffic on the motorway, with the music played at top volume. Amalia was Sucidava.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Transgressing Toma’s war experience, the novel Shrapnel confronts us, as if in a mirror, with the image of a devastated people, who have either left the country or resigned themselves to the place of their birth, a people too often overwhelmed by sufferings of every kind, accustomed to them, abandoned by a state on the verge of collapse, a people eaten away by poverty, of course, but also above all by uncertainties to do with its national identity . . . From the antechamber of death in Afghanistan to the native village that has become a place where nothing happens, Toma is a simple man, in whom a mindless, atrocious History has left its shrapnel, not only in one of his legs, but also in his mind. In short, a smaller history, part of the wider history of a post-communist country, itself part of a history wider still, that of Eastern Europe, adrift as it has never been before.”
“This novel, which lets nothing escape its view, be it poetry, metaphor, or humour is one of the best that Polirom has published since it started promoting contemporary Romanian literature. I would say it is memorable, but I’m worried lest some think I’m being excessive in my praise. My copy is full of yellow post-it notes marking the exceptional passages. I hope you take my recommendation and try Shrapnel.”