In seventeenth-century Moldavia, a young dandy, a journalist from London, disembarks in Galati with plans to set up a printing press on these enchanting, bounteous shores, convinced that he will strike it rich. Unfortunately, no sooner has he disembarked than the porter carrying the chest containing his letter press and cast metal sorts falls into the icy Danube. From this moment there begins a story that captivates not through heroic deeds, but through paltry incidents, through atmosphere and language, through the customs, superstitions and misadventures of the characters. Taking refuge from everyday reality in history and the fantastical, Cezar Amariei builds a bridge to the present and brings into discussion problems that have remained unsolved for more than three hundred years.
Now, as the ship neared the shore, after a five-day voyage, he stood proudly on the deck and considered all the things that revealed themselves to him one by one. From time to time, he adjusted his cape or the lace cuffs of his shirt, he smoothed the embroidered velvet skirts of his coat, he admired his glossy stockings and, above all, his red-heeled shoes, his pride and joy, the latest fashion at Versailles, or at least so he had been told by the merchant from whom he bought them. He tightened the knot of the scarf with which he had wrapped his jaw, then crammed his hat on his head as he gauged the people on the shore.
The Danube was swollen with meltwater and its waters had risen and flooded the shores in places. Two men in rags, red-faced from drink more than the cold, each hurled a long pine plank to bridge the gap between ship and shore and allow the passengers to disembark without getting themselves or their luggage wet. John rushed to disembark first and as soon as he set foot on dry land he was accosted by a Jew with a long beard, but whose upper lip was shaved, in the Polish style, and who kept bowing:
“Shmil is my name, mein Herr, enlightened sir, I am money changer, should you require such a service or any other assistance, ah, I see you are not German, from Inghilterra, you say . . . I even thought that such an elegant gentleman could not be German, you are very different than a German.”
While John endeavoured to extract himself from the Jew’s vortex of verbiage and from the dreadful reek of garlic that he emitted with every breath, the two men fetched planks for the cargo hold and began to unload the ship. They had already brought to shore the Russian’s bolts of cloth, and meanwhile the Russian hired a cart to take him to the north of Moldavia. And now they rushed to unload John’s things. The keg could easily be handled by one man and the thinner of the two was carrying it in his arms, but the chest was large and heavy, both men ought to have carried it, but the stronger-looking porter had stubbornly heaved it onto his back. Half way between ship and shore, his legs gave way, perhaps because the weight was too heavy, perhaps because of the slippery mud the porters’ bare feet had smeared over the planks, perhaps because of the wine he had been imbibing since that morning, to warm himself up . . . With a croak, he fell to his knees on the makeshift gangplank. He strained to stand up, but missed his balance and ended up in the Danube, chest and all.
The Englishman felt the hooves of a hundred horses in his stomach, he tried to cry out, but issued only a long groan. Shmil said something in the language of the barbarians and straight away some dozen men, sailors, porters, peasants, shed their clothes and jumped in the water. Even a nearby monk quickly threw off his habit and, after a second’s thought, jumped in after them.
“I told them you’d give a thaler to whoever raises the chest,” Shmil informed them, proud of his idea. “It is a good bargain, enlightened sir, a good bargain!”
But Newcomb had strength only to remain standing, not to think. He watched the men floundering in the chill Danube, the heads bobbing for an instant at the surface, long enough for the men to fill their lungs with air before diving back into the water that only a few days ago had been swollen with the last of the melting ice. Before long, the men climbed out of the water empty-handed, shivering. Shmil quickly told them something that made all jump back in the water.
“I told that that you will give two thalers if they raise the chest, enlightened sir. It is a good bargain, have no fear, they will barely be able to buy a pig with that money, but you will recover your things. I will change your money into thalers, if you have none,” he said quickly when he saw the Englishman frown, “but I assure you that they will not turn up their noses at Polish póltoraczny or German groschen or Russian roubles, as long as it is money!”
John thought about how he had been too niggardly to pay a guinea for a fine beaver-fur hat in London, but now he was to give more or less the same sum to the barefoot men, should they raise his chest . . . But nor was the second attempt successful. “The devil must have pushed it into an eddy,” said the Jew, and the ad hoc salvagers emerged from the water. Shivering, they stood next to him menacingly.
“Give them a couple of small silver coins, enlightened sir, that they might eat and drink something, that they might warm up, since they did not jump in the water for nothing,” said Shmil, explaining the solution, and the truth is that he did not escape from the ragged men surrounding him until he had placed a small coin in the hand of each. But after that, he was confronted by the two porters, who also demanded money, for unloading his luggage, even if the most important part of it was now at the bottom of the Danube. Their impertinence was too much for him, since they had caused his loss, and so he told the Jew to translate for him, to the effect that not only did he refuse all payment, but he was the one who demanded compensation from them!
The ragged men did not seem swayed by his threats, a sign that they had dealt with such customers before, they took a step closer, their jaws clenched, and while one raised his fist as if about to strike him, the other quickly snatched the dagger from his belt, and then, in an instant, both vanished in opposite directions.
“See what happens, enlightened sir, if you issue threats . . . Around here, folk are hot-tempered, they take for themselves what is owed to them,” explained the Jew.
Scarcely did he have time to realise what had happened than a man in military uniform appeared beside him, looking him up and down and speaking slowly and with emphasis.
“This is Tudosie, the customs officer, and he says that you have to pay twenty thalers for entering Moldavia,” explained Shmil. “One thaler and a half per person and the rest for the goods. Although given how little goods you have, I think you ought to haggle, and maybe the boyar will deign to lower his fee.”
Newcomb mumbled something about his chest at the bottom of the Danube and his dagger stolen by the porters, but Tudosie cut him short, since the authorities paid him only to be a customs officer; he should write a petition to the pîrcalab, the governor of the region, if he had any complaints, but he was to pay him the money, a thaler and a half per person and four thalers per hundred thalers of merchandise, which is to say, twenty thalers in all. The Englishman could make no sense of this calculation and said that the oil in his keg could not be worth so much money; but was it really oil in the keg, and not raki or vutka, Tudosie wished to know, and he pulled out the stopper and took a hefty swig, which he then spat out with a stream of barbarous curses. What madman would bring linseed oil such a long way when the beautiful and bounteous land of Moldavia had its own oil? And cheaper, too. He couldn’t be in his right mind to bring oil all the way here, and in any case, the millers’ guild wouldn’t let him sell it. In which case, if he would swear that he wasn’t hiding jewels in it, he would redo the calculation: so, one thaler and a half per person and four to the hundred for three vedra of oil, and . . . what about the chest in the river? What would the voda say if he didn’t levy a fee on it, so what if it was in the Danube? Tudosie had been around a long time and he knew all the tricks people played to avoid paying taxes. How could he know that he wouldn’t retrieve it when the water was low, and then where would he get the customs fee? Twenty thalers in all!
In the end, after lengthy discussion, threats and pleas, on the advice of the Jew, who swung back and forth trying to reconcile the two, Newcomb agreed on five thalers with the customs officers. “We’ll talk about the rest if they raise his things from the water!”
While they were heatedly talking, a coach had pulled up beside them. The coachman had exchanged a few words with the customs officer and then waited patiently.
“A gift now, for a good bargain, since I have rid you of all your problems, so that I might take my little children something, since I have toiled beside you the whole day long, enlightened sir.”
He did not have to cajole for long, since the Englishman’s purse opened for Shmil, too, it opened more than once, even, “Surely you are not going to humiliate me by paying me the same as the tatterdemalions who floundered in the water,” until all the mouths waiting at home for the Jew had been given a little something.
“Now that you have finished your business here, climb aboard the carriage, for boyar Andrunache, the pîrcalab, is waiting for you. It pleases him greatly to receive foreign guests and listen to their stories. You are most fortunate, enlightened sir, that the boyar is a kind and generous man and knows how to untangle difficult cases, as he sits in judgement on court cases here. Good health and may you prosper in Galati,” said Shmil, before vanishing among the people on the quay.
He thought for a few moments as to whether or not he should go. He was reluctant to leave the place where he had lost his chest, he was still waiting for a miracle to happen, but it was obvious that the day would bring no miracles. Finally, he climbed into the low, squat carriage, a misshapen lump compared with London carriages. He clasped the keg of oil tightly, refusing every attempt by the coachman to take it and lash it to the back of the carriage. His misfortunes had dried up the reservoir of his trust.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Cezar Amariei’s debut novel is as dense as it is captivating. Our Paltry Days takes us back to seventeenth-century Moldavia where, from Galati to Jassy, the Romanian world is a motley tapestry of events and characters firmly rooted in the history of the times and the place. Although it reveals his sources through transparent self-referential subtleties, the narrative does not go over the top with otiose archaisms. On muddy lanes or on log-paved streets, at sumptuous feasts, between coffee, hookahs, vodka and choice wines, in salons thick with opium smoke and the sweat of boyar desires, in church, inn or salt mine, crossing forests and fords on horseback, the characters’ journeys are reminiscent of the adventurous world of Sadoveanu’s The Hawks, and of Constanta Vintila-Ghitulescu’s scholarly investigations of the imaginary.”