A love story set in the final decade of communism, In the Waters of Birth describes the atmosphere of those times without ostentation, via the lives of young intellectuals caught in the trap of history. The story of a nameless protagonist is complemented by three different voices, which alternately take up the narrative thread, illustrating the cruel reality, the dreams and utopias of the characters. Feeling he lives in an existential prison, the antihero of the novel decides he has not yet been born. He has not yet been born because he has not yet done anything important; he has nothing to look forward to in the future, nothing to leave behind him. But the parable is also a revolt against the system, a form of resistance to political alienation, in the hope of finding a meaning to life. The portrait of nineteen-eighties Bucharest is spiced with love affairs, scenes from the lives of the nomenklatura, but also scenes from the lives of bohemian artists; the reality of those times is finely observed, lucidly analysed, without bitterness.
It was hard for Dora to reconcile herself with Andrei fleeing the country. For a few days she was silent. She stayed awake all night, smoking at the kitchen window, she went out for walks on her own, came back looking even more strained. I respected her need to be alone. I knew that she was suffering, that she blamed herself on the one hand, that she felt humiliated on the other.
At first, she would say to me: “I can’t believe any of it,” lowering her voice as if somebody might hear us. Then, “I don’t understand.” But who could understand anything?
“I’m afraid,” she would whisper, press herself against me and repeat in my ear: “I’m very afraid.” I knew that she wasn’t afraid for herself or for the two of us, but for Andrei. Sisyphus had got sick of rolling the boulder up the mountain and furiously shoved it into the ocean. The novice swimmer had jumped into the deep water without a lifebelt. Or maybe that was just how we saw him.
After they interrogated her, she came back somewhat reassured. After that, she didn’t talk about him. She moved in with me permanently. The apartment where Andrei lived had been confiscated.
It was a torrid Monday. I had the day off; they were doing the annual disinfestation at the Institute; I brought my work home with me. Summer had descended on the city like a fainting fit. Scorching pavements, trams packed with hot bodies, dustbins full of rubbish that hadn’t been collected for days, emanating pestilential stenches.
Before lunch, Dora said to me: “Let’s go to the lido!”
A good idea during a heat wave, and besides, people were at work, so it wouldn’t be crowded.
It was also Dora who remembered, “It was at the lido that we first met, a few years ago. I can’t remember how many years ago . . . We ought to celebrate!”
She smiled at me mysteriously, tenderly.
It sounded like our first anniversary. I wasn’t a great one for anniversaries, but this time, I was enthusiastic. I put some bottles of beer in a bag, wrapping them in a towel to keep them cool, and we left. But surprise, surprise, the lido was shut. In our disappointment, we were insistent. The gatekeeper shrugged, they were changing the water, there was nothing he could do, he turned his back on us and went back inside his cabin.
We looked at each other. We didn’t feel like going back home or anywhere else. The heat was oppressive.
“Remember that hole in the fence?” said Dora. “I don’t think they repaired it.”
We walked around the building, went down a side street, along the side of the fence surrounding the pool. They hadn’t repaired it, the hole was still there, covered with just some pieces of cardboard. We looked up and down the street to make sure nobody was watching, we slipped inside and pulled the pieces of cardboard back in place after us.
The lido was deserted. Like a large canteen with a huge cauldron in the middle. It stank of chlorine, piss, and rotting seaweed. The smell of our world, a combination of mould and human excrement. The empty pool with its greenish, flaking sides looked depressing. But we were excited by the thought of being alone, of sneaking in, of having the whole lido to ourselves, with or without water. We got undressed and Dora got the idea that we should climb up onto the platform of the diving board. From up there, everything looks nicer. Reality is mollified, the details fade. We sat down naked on the wooden deck, opened two bottles of beer, and suddenly felt good. Free.
The sky, drowning in blue, became friendly, it was as if the heat had become gentler, it was our bodies alone that were burning. We sat pressed up against each other, back to back, then Dora turned around and put her legs over mine. I started caressing her breasts, she pressed even closer to me, bit my earlobe, I licked her long neck, we were mad with desire for each other. I penetrated her powerfully, deeply, she screamed in pleasure, it ended impetuously, our bodies in spasms. We were both trembling. An orgasm like a catharsis. We were happy. Or despairing. Like a genuine birth, I thought.
We remained entwined on the narrow piece of wood, like acrobats who have forgotten their number and no longer care about the audience, about duties, about anything.
“What are you doing up there?” we heard the watchman yelling.
We slowly parted and then stood up. The watchman was in a fury.
“Get down this instant! This instant! Damned lunatics!”
He was looking at us standing naked on the diving board and couldn’t believe it.
“Get down! I’m calling the police! This instant!”
He ran inside and we were left standing there like caryatids, up on the diving board. Dora took my hand. My body felt numb. We looked at the empty pool below us, we then looked at each other intensely, as if in a trance.
“Shall we jump?” she asked softly.
In a fraction of a second my whole life unreeled before my eyes. The images overlapped with bewildering rapidity. Dora was standing motionless, looking at the empty pool. I felt my legs were at the edge of the universe, the same as in childhood, when I was afraid not to fall in the dark. Except that now, I was not afraid. Something strange was happening to us. We thought we had nothing else to lose. We had all of a sudden become courageous, we wanted to prove something, to fly, to resist anybody who wrenched us from our beatitude and shouted, “Get down! Get down this instant!” All we wanted right then was to remain like that, happy, naked, free, high above that world.
“Let’s jump!” I replied and gripped her hand even more tightly.
We couldn’t see any other salvation than to throw ourselves into space. We thought that we would have been able to be born that way. But the whole thing is not to miss the moment. We were grabbed and shoved down the steps. The watchman had called the police. The two goons ordered us to get dressed, without taking their eyes off us for an instant, they bundled us into a car and, to our surprise, instead of taking us to the station, instead of giving us a heavy fine, instead of arresting us, they took us to the emergency room of the Psychiatric Hospital. The nuthouse, in other words. I don’t know which of those outcomes would have been the worst.
We waited there for hours without anybody taking any notice of us. Dora fell asleep on my shoulder. My mind was empty, but I was ready for anything. Although I didn’t know what to expect. Finally, a doctor appeared and summoned us into a small office adjoining the large room where emergency patients were brought. Emergency is one way of putting it. Nothing seemed to be an emergency there and nothing was treated as such. He asked for our identity cards. Dora took hers out of her handbag and slowly placed it on the desk, with the photograph facing downward, as if it were the ace of clubs and she was waiting for the psychiatrist to read her future. Yet again, I didn’t have mine on me.
The doctor looked us up and down scornfully and went off on a long series of questions more or less connected to what had happened, which were immediately followed by stinging rebukes. He occasionally looked at the report written out by the policemen, he looked at us in a fury and seemed to be finding it difficult not to burst into an accusatory tirade. He was more like a prosecutor than a psychiatrist.
We felt ashamed. For our recklessness? For not having gone all the way? We had started out courageously and run aground on our own cowardice. Quite common, ultimately. The survival instinct had been stronger than the need to revolt. We were happy together. And who knows, maybe out of that happiness we had been born without our knowing it.
All kinds of thoughts were going through my mind as the psychiatrist studied me with knitted brows. Was he going to prescribe us electric shocks, which is what I’d heard people say happened to those who defied the system in one way or another? Or did he see it all as a puerile dare for which we deserved a beating with a truncheon? What were we in fact? What were we trying to prove? That we couldn’t live without each other or that we couldn’t live in this world the way it was? A tingle went down my spine. I looked at Dora, who was sitting meekly, with her head lowered, and I was gripped by despair, by an enormous love that swelled like a river in my veins, in my muscles in every cell. I loved her madly, and only now did I truly realise it. My blood was seething. For the first time, I felt strong. Capable of the greatest acts of madness. Right then, I would have broken down every door, I would have screamed, I would have saved the whole world from death.
The psychiatrist looked at me carefully, as if he had heard my thoughts. He stopped the interrogation and all of a sudden decided to let us go. But the procedure in such cases is that a relative collects you from the hospital, takes you straight home, and signs a declaration to keep you under observation for a few days. But I didn’t have any relatives, my parents didn’t live in Bucharest. I decided to call Radu to get us out of there. Dora gave an ironic smile. “He’s the most appropriate.”
I knew what she was referring to, but I didn’t have any choice. In any event, better Radu than somebody else.
He arrived quite quickly and signed the declaration, which said, “The patients are quiet, co-operative, without mental alterations in the cognitive or affective area. They do not present any danger to themselves or other people.” Below which was written the diagnosis: “Adaptive disturbances.”
Radu spoke with the psychiatrist cordially. We waited in the hall. Through the half-open door, I heard him assure him that we were just extravagant intellectuals. The doctor replied with a laugh, “I know. Wankers.”
On the way home, in the car, we spoke little. He dropped us off in front of our building, he didn’t want to come up.
“You agreed to keep you under observation,” I said. “Come upstairs, at least let’s have a drink.
Dora couldn’t stop herself: “He can keep us under observation from a distance.”
Radu turned his head and said over his shoulder: “Some other time.”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The novel could have turned into merely the story of the love between two lonely souls, who chance to meet on life’s path. But the author strives to achieve far more than a commonplace love story. The protagonists are misfits of the murky final years of communism, prisoners of a world they are unable to decipher, they cannot understand it, they live in an existential prison that dramatically marks the course of their lives. They are, as they too define themselves, ‘not yet born’.”