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polirom

Roxana Dumitrache


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Short stories, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2019, 176 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: Translation rights available

Book presentation

Papa Nicolaou and Other Very, Very Short Stories won the Polirom prize for literary debut in 2019, having been selected from one hundred and twenty-seven manuscripts. This collection of unusual short stories seeks answers to the big questions prompted by the challenges of fate and the alienated condition of women within a cultural code created by men. Viewed in terms of its thematic coherence, the collection may be likened to a highly lucid literary repertoire of contemporary women’s issues. At the opposite pole to “sensitive” women’s writing, dedicated to trenchantly autobiographical stories, the book is authentic and tender, but at the same time mature and lucid, signalling an emerging literary awareness marked by incisive intuition and auspicious brevity.



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Excerpt from

She tried not to focus on the buzzing, to collect herself, to touch herself and sit up. Unless it was some kind of strange dream which, spiced with the little fabrications that might turn it into an anecdote, ought to be dreamed to the very end. She knew from films that in the absence of other information, you could check whether it was real by pinching yourself, which is what she did, pinching her cheeks. She remembered when she was little and strangers used to pet her, pinching her cheeks, a gesture she found idiotic, you can’t find anything tender or affectionate in it. It’s like pulling a cat’s tail. She broke into involuntary laughter, limp and stretched out as she was, incapable of lifting herself from where she was rooted to the spot.


Hearing her unnatural laughter, which was alien, as if issuing from a body other than hers, she grew slightly afraid. It was the first time she had been afraid of her own laugh. Only people on the brink of madness are afraid of their own laugh, but she had different reasons. It wasn’t madness she was afraid of, but the way in which her laughter might wake somebody from sleep and signal she was there. Fear was a sure sign that she was alive and still rational. That she hadn’t been drugged, that she wasn’t suffering a cerebral trauma, that she wasn’t experiencing the proverbial hangover. The drone of the sprinkler didn’t much help her to collect herself, to settle back into herself, but quite the opposite, it decentred her even more badly. After her laughter, nothing else could be heard.


The splinters of her laughter were scattering through the room when what was very likely a human sound broke the suspense. On waking or whatever that fresh state of semi-wakefulness might have been, she intuited that the strange silence between those four walls was in fact the noise of the city and all its sadness, and that beyond the darkly tall ceiling was the sky. Whether it was raining or blazingly hot, day or night, a waxing moon or snowfall, she did not know. It was hard for her to remember what year it was. All of a sudden, all information seemed to have been drained from her. She didn’t know where she was, when and why and the worst was the lack of information didn’t not really disturb her. To wake up fastened to the spot, but in an unknown place, without knowing anything about what has happened to you or what is going to happen, in general, in the world, can be a trauma in itself. Or maybe she was experiencing post-trauma, who knows? Whatever the explanation might be, she couldn’t find it.
Instead of experiencing a panic attack, like any reasonable person would have in such a situation, she was experiencing a substantial calm, which came from within, rose to the ceiling, filled the room, and came back, in a loop, like a dolphin eagerly diving into the water after a series of frolics. That calm of hers erupted from within, filled the room and returned to her, limpid, clearly outlined. It was a sweeping calm. She moved her head from one side to another, but she could do no more than that, her body was one with the black leather of the couch. She could see clearly that she was wearing a white, slippery sweater and a pair of high-waisted jeans. She was barefoot, since she could see the dark-blue varnish on her toenails. That was all she could see from the position in which her body was immobilised. She was not paralysed, this she knew for certain, she didn’t have to check. In any event, there was no way she could find out, all she could move was her head, but apart from that her body had the vitality of a huge scarf tossed on a couch.

 

As she had foreseen, the rich silence was abruptly shattered. Human intervention was obvious. From where she was lying, meditating on the fact that all she knew was that she existed, she heard a conversation in which she clearly made out a tenebrous male voice and a whispered female voice.
“Have you finished?”
“Hey, not yet, just a little longer. I was tired, I couldn’t concentrate one bit.”
“That lot will be coming, I hope it won’t take you all night.”
“Did you talk to them on the phone?”
“Yeah. Idiots. I called them three times today to remind them they said they’d be coming at five. One of them answered, you’d have thought he’d only just woken up. At twelve o’clock in the afternoon. See what an easy life some people have?”
“Not everybody has to work with Zeus. Some bosses are okay.”
“I don’t know how the hell, but in my entire life, I haven’t met a boss who’s sound in the head. And I’ve had . . . how many? Eight years in client service, seven years in this shitty position, and another two directly exposed to that woman’s insanity.”
“You’re old. Never mind, Zeus will promote you. She’ll make you a demigod in Pipera.”


“I don’t care anymore. I’ve reached the stage where I don’t want anything else, nothing makes me happy anymore. Not holidays, not new dresses, not going to the restaurants I drooled over in my first year at university, when I arrived in Bucharest from Focsani with a suitcase borrowed from an aunt working in Italy and a huge raffia bag covered in little squares the colours of the French flag. It doesn’t even make me happy that I get to change my car every three years or even more regularly if I could be bothered to do the paperwork. Do you realise that some people envy me? The poor buggers, they’ve no idea how that stupid woman does my head in. She called me to the office on Sunday, I was sitting on the bog when she called. I flushed it while I was on the phone with her and she didn’t even react. Damn it, the woman doesn’t even have the fear of God! Said there was a ‘wee mistake’ in the PowerPoint and she couldn’t do the presentation with the clients!”
“Never mind, at least be happy that you don’t have kids.”
“It’s because of her that I don’t have kids! She’s completely insane. If she doesn’t have any, then nobody else around her is going to have any either. I haven’t had my own life since she became manager and brought in her gang of bunglers and frigid cases. Do you realise I don’t even have time to shave between my legs anymore? That’s why I don’t have children.”
“Is that why Sorin left you? Did he see you naked?”
“Don’t be an oaf! I’m thirty-seven and I have every vice in the world, apart from drugs, I haven’t done that yet, but I can tick off all the rest. All because of Zeus.”
“You’re mentally ill, Paula. You won’t solve anything if all you do is complain. You need to go see a therapist or something, somebody who’ll tell you the same thing as what I’m telling you, that you’re married to Zeus, for God’s sake. That’s why nobody else will have you. That lot will be coming any minute, let’s see what we can do for them.”

 

All she could hear were doors slamming, and the fear of being left alone was even greater than the fear of otherness. It was strange how the fear of her own being was stronger than that of strange beings. She still felt that she was unable to get up, but at the same time that she was in the world. The woman’s voice, the man’s voice, Zeus, the doors slamming, and nothing after that. Why was she unable to get up off the couch, even though she could move? Where was she? How long had she been there? And above all, who was Zeus? The only one she knew had nothing earthly about him and hadn’t destroyed lives. In fact, yes he had, countless lives, but none of them by PowerPoint and Sundays at work.


As her thoughts flew away to Olympus and she tried to remember how many lives of gods, demigods and mortals father Zeus had destroyed, the door opened with a bang. In the doorway, the archetypal image of the odd couple: Laurel and Hardy, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they were the only ones she could remember right then. A man the height of Lautrec and as thin as an anchovy, wearing glasses with black plastic frames, but completely lacking the vaguely clever air that glasses lend the charmless, dungarees, black or navy-blue, it was hard to say, accompanied by a huge man who filled the height and width of the doorway, who came across as clean, cheerful, good. The beginnings of an ignored bald spot, the rest of his hair swept back. Standing in the doorway, they didn’t seem at all phased by the woman prone on the couch in front of them. The small man with the glasses spoke first, he seemed the clever one of that strange couple.
“Good evening. Sorry to wake you. Your colleagues said that everybody had left. You can’t stay here, you know, there’s going to be toxic substances. You’ve got cockroaches, swarms of ’em, a real infestation, the whole of the first floor is hotching. Worse than in a public hospital.”


Still silent, her head turned toward the two ridiculous apparitions from exterminator company that her very own secretary had contacted after the employees had complained about seeing cockroaches in the bathrooms and the lobby, her eyes fastened on the men in uniform, weary of life and, probably, weary of death, if such a species of weariness exists, she managed a fleeting smile in the direction of the two men and in a new, tiny voice, feeling as if a slice of unpeeled kiwi had got stuck in her throat, the same as when she was little and wasn’t allowed to cry, she started singing softly to herself: Are you lonesome tonight… do you miss me tonight… are you lonesome tonight...
“Did you say something, missus? You know, we have to spray in here, you’re not allowed to be here.”
But she continued to hum, her eyes fixed on them.
Although embarrassed, DeVito found the presence of mind to signal to Schwarzenegger that he should go out into the corridor. They had to see how they could solve this one—in their business, as you might imagine, they had been confronted with lots of awkward situations, but this was something completely new.
“The woman’s drugged up. She’s singing like she’s crazy. What’ll we do with her?”
“We need to get her out of there or to phone that woman who called us and tell her this woman doesn’t want to leave the office.”
“Let’s give it another try, maybe she’s ill or something.”
This time Schwarzenegger acted as spokesman for the duet. He went up to her and asked her once more: “Are you okay? Shall I call an ambulance? Or shall I fetch you a glass of water?”


No response this time, either. The woman looked at him, through him, incontinently humming Elvis.
“Bro, she’s way gone. Let’s call that woman and tell her that there’s a woman lying here singing. And that we can’t do any spraying as long as she’s here, because she’ll suffocate. That’s enough, I’m calling her right now.”
“Hello, missus. Marian here. About the cockroaches. Look, we’re in the building, on the first floor, one of your colleagues is still in her office. We don’t understand what’s up with her. She was asleep when we came in and now she’s lying there, motionless . . . I tried, but she started singing something. No, we don’t know what she’s called. Third door from the lift. (To DeVito): Go out and look at the door, maybe it’s like at the doctor’s and it’ll have a sign with her name and position. (On the phone): What can I tell you, she’s brunette, hazel eyes, long hair. Jeans. Barefoot. (To DeVito, covering the phone with his hand, the way he’s seen politicians do when they’re being filmed): You’d think I was describing a missing person, she’s asking me her height, what kind of colleagues are they if they don’t know each other and they don’t know whose office is whose? If you asked me, I’d even be able to tell you how many of our lads support Rapid. (On the phone again): What do you want me to do? I’ll do whatever you tell me, but we have to sort it out somehow, so that we can do our job.”


She continued to sing, staring into space. Then she abruptly fell silent, and in a clear, almost cheerful voice said: “Zeus!”
And then she went on, just as clearly: “Tell her it’s Zeus. My name is Zeus. I am Zeus!”

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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Critics about

“An extraordinarily well written book, vivid and fresh, in which every image, carefully dosed and constructed, is the element of a vibrant story about us and about this agitated life that brims with seductive imperfections and with choices and directions that are not at all clear or final, this life that constructs itself moment by moment, form gestures, touches of the hand, and flashes of thought, from small, apparently significant changes, which, in fact, succeed in differentiating us and to the same extent uniting us women, but also us women and men, creatures of the same species subject, willingly or unwillingly, to a deceptive fate.”

(Alecart)

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