The novel describes the life of a family in a small provincial town when faced with the death of one of their children. The family’s attempts to adapt to the situation coincide with the changes taking place in Romanian society, with most of the action set in the post-communist period. Ioana Negrila, the protagonist, is a little girl caught between the events of childhood, her powerlessness to help her brother, and her need to get over his death. Together with Tudor, a neighbour of the same age, she tries to find out what happened to her brother, who died at a care centre for the disabled, but she is unable to find any plausible explanation. The world of her neighbourhood, her extended family, and the deterioration of her parents’ marriage bring resignation in the face of death only once she becomes an adult.
We left for Craiova on a Sunday, when uncle Tase’s car, the number of whose licence plate was odd, was allowed on the road. Dad paid for the petrol. Mama, Florinel and I sat in the back, the men in the front. Florinel was in very good luck. He was asleep. I was imagining myself talking to Dr Bebe about my brother. I had a serious look on my face and I was explaining to him that we had to find a solution. He didn’t even have time to answer because instead of turning left toward Craiova, uncle Tase kept driving straight ahead toward my grandparents’ house. A mockery.
When I got out of the car, I didn’t even answer Mama, who told me not to eat too many cherries. I wouldn’t have anyway; I like the sour kind better. Dad got out of the car and greeted his parents-in-law and thanked them for their help.
“All right then, go by yourselves, because I’m not a part of this family,” I said slamming the car door and running to the house.
Grandma came after me. I didn’t want to go inside the house, where it smelled of mothballs and old age.
“Never mind, lass, because they’re going to . . .”
She didn’t finish the sentence, but she seemed the only one prepared to tell me where they were going.
I went into the kitchen, and Granddad came in after me. Not even Dad ever stayed in their house for more than a quarter of an hour. Grandma cracked two eggs in a frying pan, and Granddad cut me a few slices of bread. On a plate there was a mound of grated cheese and chopped parsley. Mama knows this recipe for scrambled eggs too. She left the frying pan on the gas cooker for a minute after she turned off the flame. In the room you could hear folk music on Radio Craiova.
“Do you think they’ll . . .” Grandma started to ask as she laid the table.
“Nonsense. They’re wasting their money. They’re dragging the child with them for nothing.”
“They say they’re going to . . .”
“They’ve fallen in with a bunch of charlatans. But their business, it’s their child.”
“Maybe they made a mistake on the . . .”
“No chance of that! In Bucharest they’ve got the equipment, not like here.”
Granddad took care that the Securitate would understand everything.
“There’s nobody you can complain to,” said Granddad after a while.
“The curse from the . . .”
“What curse! Some are born with green eyes, some are born with blue, that’s life.”
“But you still can’t . . .”
“You don’t stand around and do nothing, but nor do you put yourself in the hands of a stranger. The doctors in the hospital are the only ones who are right, because they’ve got the equipment, they’ve seen serious cases. But what kind of doctor is he!”
“At the hospital, they told Godfather . . .”
“That he’s dying, and he hasn’t died. It happens, he has a few more days to live.”
“They said to try and . . .”
“To try elsewhere. The doctor’s called Bebe. There’s no doctor in the world with a baby’s name,” I said, still eating.
I didn’t make a scene, I didn’t shout, I didn’t behave like Cipri before the meeting with Doctor Bebe. I believed in what I said. Granddad was right. Doctor Bebe and uncle Tese were charlatans.
“See? The girl knows what she’s talking about.”
Outside it was dreadfully hot, and in the car Florinel had either roasted by now or would be roasted by the time he got to uncle Tase’s sister. Before we left the house, Mama had told me we would all be going, but you couldn’t rely on Mama.
It was the same story a few days later. Even now, the problem with Mama and Dad is that they don’t know when to give up.
When he saw him from his balcony, the Hobbler called out to Dad: “Dan, wait there, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Dad was taking the garbage to the skip.
“Come down, I’ll wait for you by the entrance,” said Dad.
When he reached the entrance, Dad noticed that the Cop had turned up in the meantime.
“Well, neighbour, what is it?” asked Dad. “My missus is calling for me to help her with the cleaning.”
The Cop was standing with his hands in his pocket, looking at the people passing on the boulevard. If the Hobbler hadn’t cast him an occasional glance, you’d have thought he wasn’t with them.
“Dan, listen up,” said the Hobbler.
Dad put down the garbage bucket, placed his hands on his hips, and the Hobbler moved a step closer so that he could speak in his ear. Dad looked like a striker receiving instructions before taking a free kick. The Cop was still pretending he wasn’t with them.
“Onel found out that next Saturday one of those people you’re looking for will be coming to Craiova . . .”
“He’s the best in the country, I can tell you on reliable authority,” said the Cop, still looking at the passers-by on the main street.
Dad’s face blanched. He’d thought Tase knew how to keep a secret.
“We decided to help you, don’t be annoyed that we want to do you a good turn.”
“I’ll take you in my car, we’ll drop in on my sister and go together, because my brother-in-law has got cirrhosis. A cousin in Bucharest arranged it for him, we’ll get you in with him, no worries.”
Dad barely managed to say that he would have to ask Mama, that he was willing, but he wanted to see what she thought. The last time it hadn’t turned out well. When they got back home, Florinel had developed a temperature and went into convulsions, and uncle Tase had also been the one who had to drive him to hospital.
“What do you say, neighbour? Aren’t we doing it for your own good?”
“Dan, you’re younger than us,” interjected the Hobbler. “We know what it’s like to have problems with your kids. The efforts we made so that Marius wouldn’t flunk French . . .”
“This one is different, believe me, he met Djuna, that woman from Russia, the Soviet Union, my cousin works in the army, look, read this,” said the Cop, handing Dad a folded-up page from a newspaper. “Take this, because I couldn’t be bothered to bring the whole magazine, because that lot would have started asking me all sorts of questions. They’d have all started pestering me to sort them out too.”
There were other people in the neighbourhood who were sick, but nobody like Florinel. It took Dad two days before he showed Mama the page torn out of The Flame. He’d read it in secret, in the bathroom, and then jotted a few things down in a notebook. Valeriu Popa was not like Doctor Bebe. In the first place, they wrote about him in magazines. In the second place, he was a friend of Adrian Paunescu’s. Or at least so he claimed. Dad didn’t want to see Adrian Paunescu. In eighty-two, he had taken part in the Flame Cenacle, which had filled Slatina stadium. A month before that, he’d been there for a match in which F.C. Oltul Scornicesti was playing, the team trained by Florin Halagian at the time, the trainer with which his favourite team, F.C. Arges, had twice won the Romanian Cup in the seventies. Piturca on the pitch didn’t compare with Paunescu at the microphone. He’d liked the idea of a cenacle with good music, poetry, but the way in which Paunescu declaimed poems and slogans had driven him out of his mind. Mama had gone, too. Paunescu had thrilled her, and he had struck her as a powerful, impassioned man.
“You think he’s a good man? He’s as fat as the Christmas pig!” said Dad. “He thinks we’re fools, he recites and the fools sing along with him. What are we, parrots?”
In front of our block of flats, they sometimes talked about the cenacle. Dad was the only one who hadn’t liked it. The Hobbler was the most vehement.
“Dan, you can say what you like, but what that man says about parents . . . It would melt the heart of a stone! I don’t want to hear another word from you!”
“Here I am arguing with that stupid Hobbler, who thinks Paunescu writes good poems. He’s written some good ones, did I deny it? But that’s not music, it’s mawkish propaganda about the rocky mountains and the voievodes,” he told me when he got home.
He liked Ducu Bertzi, because he was sincere and sensitive.
“Sensitive, insensitive, Paunescu is their father,” said the Hobbler, having the final word.
It was rumoured that Valeriu Popa had healed Paunescu’s father by means of a forty-two-day fast. Carefully selected food, fruit and vegetables grown without chemical fertilisers, strict meal times, rest and a purge using clay water. He had brought him back from the dead. The bio-energy healer had been born in a village near Craiova. He had studied in Bucharest. He went from town to town, like the Flame Cenacle, and received only small gifts, never money, so it was said.
Dad cradled Florinel in his arms when Mama came to feed him. He already had regular meal times, it wasn’t necessary for Mama to be told Valeriu Popa’s rules.
“I heard it’s going to rain on Saturday,” said Dad.
“Let it rain, what do I care?”
“Maybe we could take the little ones out.”
“Not if it rains,” said Mama.
If he’d been trying to broach the subject, it had gone for naught. The way he was cradling Florinel gave away his fear of Mama.
“I talked to the lads yesterday, outside.”
“I saw you.”
“The Cop had a suggestion, if you want . . .”
“If I want what?”
“Since he’s going to Craiova, we could go with him, he’s got business there.”
“Why would we go?”
“He’s taking his brother-in-law to a bloke who’s come from Bucharest. He’s from Craiova, but he moved to Bucharest and he’s a friend of Paunescu’s. He’s got Party connections.”
“We’ve been there once already.”
“I know, but we’ve got nothing to lose, that’s what the Cop said too, we needn’t worry about money, because the doctor doesn’t ask anybody for a single penny. He’s going there anyway, he just wants to have somebody to talk to in the car. Maybe something will come of it this time . . .”
“What will come of it? Nothing ever comes of it,” said Mama, leaving the room.
Dad knew she would come back. He didn’t go after her into the kitchen. He could hear Mama rattling a spoon against the sides of a glass. She’d made herself a lemonade.
“What will we do with Ioana?” she asked him when she came back.
“I’ll ask the Cop whether we can bring her with us. She can sit on our knees.”
They took me with them. Dad sat in front all the way to Craiova. The fact that Florinel was fast asleep convinced Mama that she had made the right decision. The whole journey, they talked about life in the neighbourhood and work at the factory. The Cop seemed a man like any other when he was by himself. At the steering wheel, he didn’t turn up his nose or look suspiciously at the road.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Diana Badica is the prose writer we have long been waiting for: the most tragic of her generation, but also the most comic. Seldom is somebody able to capture so much life in a single book.”
“Fresh, tragic, comic, Diana Badica’s novel surprises you, enchants you, makes you not want to put it down till you finish it. I had been wanting to read it ever since an excerpt was published on the internet. After I bought it, I realised that I had unwittingly done a good deed, since the royalties are donated to the World of Arthur Association, which helps children with learning difficulties.”