Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2018, 352 pages
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.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth