Mihai Buzea

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Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2018, 352 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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 I landed straight in hell. My hell took the form of a bus packed with gypsies, on its way to Istanbul. Without knowing anything about small trading with Turkey, I’d bought a return ticket from a tourist agency; like a lamb to the slaughter, I’d gone to the centre of Bucharest, to the intersection between the Embankment and Victory Avenue, I’d boarded the bus, I’d found my seat, I’d quietly sat down and was waiting to set off on the “excursion,” when the group of gypsies who made up around four fifths of the number of passengers (and there I was marvelling at how empty the bus was!) came back from the toilets. As pure bad luck (or good luck, depending on whether I’m looking at it from the viewpoint of the past or that of the present) would have it, my seat was just in front of the bench seat at the back (which stretched from window to window at the end of the aisle); but that was the area where the gypsies had set up their craps game, and so began my immersion in the real Romania, the one that’s not written about in any book (not even today is it written about, but for different reasons): the gypsies told me to “piss off,” I didn’t want to (it was my seat, I’d paid for it in dollars!), they elbowed me, they took my cap, they rolled my trousers up to see whether I had hair on my legs (“Look at that, he’s not a bumboy!”), I set up an outcry, they shoved me, they gave me a few underhand punches to the kidneys (they knew what they were doing, those gypsies), the Turkish drivers and the attendant came, they shouted at them in Turkish to get off the bus, after which they’d give them their money back, they told them to behave if they wanted to get to Istanbul, the gypsies acted all milk and honey toward them (I knew they were perfidious, but now I was seeing with my own eyes their extremely coarse “cunning,” designed only to buy time, not to convince), they swore on their children’s lives that I’d picked a fight with them all (“May me little bairns die! The lad’s a petty crook, a troublemaker, mister driver, your honour!”), that I had the face of a pickpocket (“He’s been in gaol, mister driver, I swear by my daughter’s blood, look at the nasty look ’e’s giving us! He’s dangerous, mister driver, I’m telling you, put him off the bus now, because ’e’ll cause us all bother on the way!”), but in the end they were the ones who generously conceded (“’E can stay, mister driver, did I say ’e couldn’t stay? We’ll keep a close eye on ’im, so that ’e won’t nick anything ’round ’ere”).

It’s obvious what kind of journey of initiation I had. They poked me in the buttocks with the points of their shivs when I wasn’t looking (carefully, not too deep, so as not to leave a mark: they held the knife by the blade, with just a couple of centimetres protruding past their fingertips), they kept walking up and down past my seat, taking it in turns, each boasting to the others (“Watch what I’m going to do to Bumboy”) about what little tortures they were going to inflict on me (and to which I wouldn’t be able to find an antidote, that was their great success) and which, I must admit, were highly imaginative, from the physical (punches to the ribs, kicks in the ankles) to the “refined,” in their opinion: good cop, bad cop, confession in exchange for a confession (“I told you ’ow mister Melu buggered me in Rahova, now tell us who fucked you in the arse; come on, you can tell me, ’cause I’ve been through it myself, Bumboy”), conversations among themselves, over my head, about how they were going to “cut” me in Istanbul and post my passport to my mother with a cock drawn on the photograph in chemical pencil (“Oi, Mircea, what you say? His ma will cry till she froths at the mouth, won’t she?” “She won’t cry, ’cause them mothers that has bumboys for sons couldn’t give a shit about their bairns”), anyway, by the time we reached Giurgiu, they’d just about exhausted their repertoire, I’d held up quite well (on the outside, because on the inside twenty thousand Mengeles were jumping up and down on my brain), I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, I clutched silence like a drowning man a straw. At the Giurgiu border post, I suddenly became their best friend, first of all to the group (“Bumboy, you’re our brother”), then to the leader, Mircea (“Don’t mind what them gypsies say, they don’t know what they’re talking about! You stay close to me, I’ll teach you what’s best”), to persuade me to declare that a part of their goods was mine. I categorically refused, I took a few more punches (it was night by now, everybody was smoking next to the bus), I realised that I needed to stay close to the drivers and attendants, otherwise it would be bad. It was a very good idea: as soon as somebody moved away from the bus to have a pee in the bushes at the side of the road, the gypsies would pile onto his luggage to steal whatever they could find (they kept asking each other: “What you nab from ’im?”). There were two Turkish students, the only foreign passengers on the bus, slightly naïve, they’d been sitting at the front with the attendant, and they found half their luggage stolen: clothes, personal items, packets of condoms, the gypsies didn’t waste time making a selection, but they didn’t get away with it, they were more laughable bunglers than thieves, because when the two students came back and saw their luggage turned inside out, they complained to the drivers, who marched straight to Mircea’s gang.

The chuckleheads started swear (“I swear by the eyes in me head, mister driver!”) that they’d seen me rifling the students’ luggage, but I had been standing right next to the drivers and the attendant the whole time (they spoke English, I’d been able to establish a basic channel of communication), and so, the gypsies received an ultimatum: either they return everything missing from the students’ luggage, or they would be left stranded at the Giurgiu border post. The gypsies moaned and wailed till they were blue in the face, but they’d have done better not to make a sound, because a customs officer came to ask what all the commotion was about, he saw what was happening at a single glance, he’d probably seen it all too many times before, and curtly backed up the drivers’ ultimatum (“You’ve got ten minutes”). To save face, Mircea and his cronies explained to the students that they, the students, had mislaid their luggage in the bus, but they, the gypsies, good lads that they were, had looked for it and found it, so that they wouldn’t be accused of stealing it. With a great deal of difficulty, we finally managed to pass through customs (there had to be a whip round, five dollars a person, to bribe the customs officer in charge so that he would let through the “tourist” bus crammed to bursting with bazaar tat, a situation repeated on the Bulgarian side of the border), after which the drivers changed places and we set out across the forests of the Stara Planina.

Beautiful country, Bulgaria. I’d had a passport since 16 February 1990, but up till then I’d only used it for short trips to Varna, because I’d really loved that town when I went there for summer camp as a kid; I’d made a few local friends, they’d told me everything a tourist needed to know about their country, I’d learned from them the fundamental truth that nobody had emerged from communism more impoverished than Romania, nobody, not one other country in the eastern bloc. It was also from them that I found out that their biggest problem since 1989 was criminality, just as our biggest problem was poverty. I’d been warned, yes, but nothing happened to me on that first trip, I didn’t have any encounters with the Bulgarian racketeers I’d been afraid of. Another thing to set aside.

The gypsies started to go to sleep, taking turns (I didn’t know it, but they really did take turns to sleep: some had fallen asleep, others were pretending, in their own way, they were as disciplined as a military unit), and so, I had the opportunity to get up from my seat and try to get to know my fellow passengers. Missus Anda, missus Gabi, missus Nela, missus Mari, mister Dicu. The leader seemed to be Missus Anda, nobody talked to missus Mari, and mister Dicu was with his son, a lad a year older than me, whose stupidity was a thing to behold (“He’s a bit withdrawn,” said mister Dicu); I can’t remember what the lad’s name was, even though I ended up sharing a bed with him, but what I found out by talking to those people astounded me: with the exception of the two Turkish students, all the passengers on the bus knew each other, because they worked in the same factory, or rather they had worked: having been laid off after “restructuring,” they were now trying to survive by petty trading in Istanbul, “like everybody else.” Which meant that the gypsies were neither a tribe, nor a clan, nor a gang, nor anything else; they were workers! This was the working class, they were the people who had built the socialism that my dad and I had tried to steal! Mister Dicu’s explanations threw me off kilter somewhat. I also learned a number of very useful things from him: namely, where to find the bazaar—Caddesi—where we were going to sell our goods (the laid-off workers had goods similar to mine: what they’d managed to salvage from the factory before being sent home); where the cheapest hotels were, where the Romanian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian small traders stayed (that part of Istanbul was their “territory,” the Russians were elsewhere, the Poles and the Hungarians had their own zone, the Georgians were everywhere); what goods you could buy with Turkish lira to sell at a profit in Bucharest; and last but not least, that Istanbul men were thoroughly homosexual, mad for young boys: he and his son stuck together constantly, they never went anywhere alone, and never at night (Istanbul men were something other than homosexuals, but mister Dicu had no way of knowing that). By the time we crossed the border at Edirne, I was a hungrier man than the one who lad left home. I was about to find out how little I knew.

Istanbul’s orgy of lights turned my head (in the years after the Revolution, Bucharest was a city of pitch blackness), but I didn’t have time to do anything else but follow mister Dicu and his little flock to the area where the hotels were, acting both as the translator and the negotiator to get us the cheapest accommodation possible (cheap my foot! 15 dollars a night, that’s how much the Turk charged me, on the principle that it’s not the person who asks the price who is stupid, but the person who pays it. At that price, I was given a room in which there was precisely enough room for a bed and to open the door. I’d never seen anything like it, but I adapted, because for two nights I slept in that bed with mister Dicu’s son). My skills as a translator strongly impressed my audience, and whereas in English lessons back in Romania I’d been a laughingstock, in Istanbul I was Walpole or Disraeli (it was then that I realised what Romanians understood by speaking a foreign language “perfectly”!). First thing the next morning, we set off in a herd to Caddesi, with our raffia bags full of goods.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth


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