Novel, EGO. PROSE series, Polirom, 2019, 384 pages
A bildungsroman in which petty, everyday communism determines the main character’s path in life. Set in a number of towns in Transylvania and in Bucharest in the 1980s, the novel explores Cristina Nemes’s attempts to discover herself and achieve maturity, to keep her memories alive and to express in writing her feelings, as well as her relationship with her partner, an actress. Despite her efforts to free herself of ever more drastic constraints, she succeeds only in sinking deeper into the contingent, from which the only escape is the imagination, as an antidote to the hallucinatory level of external reality. Following a path imposed on her by the times—from university to a career as a teacher and then a lowly Party activist at the Song of Romania centre, she isolates herself more and more from the world of the everyday, she remains on the margin of intellectual and social life, seeking her salvation in a world she constructs for herself, but which collapses at the slightest contact with the pressures of totalitarianism. as if nothing had happened is a novel about the lack of opportunities in the absence of the freedom you cannot win except by choosing between acceptance and resistance, a choice the main character refuses to make.
She was in an elite class, she’d ended up there by mistake, but now she was proud of it, they were all the children of bigwigs, they had made-to-order uniforms, and their parents went abroad whenever they liked, they had parties with whisky from the hard-currency shop and at home they kept forbidden magazines with glossy paper that smelled like the art catalogues from the library. Once, Tibi came to school with a copy of Playboy, and so in the lunch break, all the boys in the class stood and whistled at every page, gave marks out of ten, while the girls were dying of curiosity and envy, but pretended not to care and even diligently revised their lessons. A couple of the girls tried to catch a glimpse, they even gave the boys the sandwiches they were saving for the five-o’clock break, but for nothing, since they still didn’t let them get a proper look. The next day, Bizonel came with an even racier mag, which, this time, they leafed through in silence, guiltily, no longer giving marks or whooping. Apparently, there were men in it, too, which is why the girls were ejected from the classroom and for the whole of the break, the boys took it in turns to stand at the door lest any girl try to enter. But the next lesson they were having a Romanian test, and she moved to Bizonel’s desk, because he was very poor at literature and he’d been begging her to let him copy on the test, he was going to give her some Hungarian chocolate from the shop where his mother worked, she was a cashier in a delicatessen where you could buy clumps of gummed-together sweets, which all had the same taste, regardless of colour or price; powdered coffee made from chickpeas and coffee substitute; rock-hard wafer biscuits that got stuck in your throat; and biscuits made from flour and water, which broke your teeth and in which you sometimes found pieces of grit or bits of thread.
She let herself be fooled for the sake of a packet of Africana milk chocolates with peanuts, and while he copied, she purloined the magazine from his bag and, since she had finished the test quickly, she left with the atlas that was twice as large as their textbooks, allowing her to slip the magazine inside it and walk out triumphantly — to the silent cries and grimaces of Bizonel, held back by the wondering, indulgent gaze of their tutor, who was also their Romanian teacher. She went straight to the girls’ toilets, where she waited for Nana to finish her test so that she could come and look at it with her. They didn’t emerge for physics, they also skipped the technology lesson, about wood chippers, and technical drawing. At first, they were embarrassed and claimed not to want to look at it, but then they realised there was no going back, since none of the boys would have believed them if they said they hadn’t looked, and so they looked, given they had it and they’d never seen anything like it before. It grew very hot in the girls’ toilets, they were both sweating in that cubicle, whose door didn’t even shut properly, they no longer even smelled the stench, what was more, they had even begun to like that sharp mixture of bleach and ammonia, so that was what one looked like, erect, empurpled, repulsive, but most of all they were amazed by the tongue and the things that could be done with it, other than awkward kisses at parties and moist, out-of-breath groping in the rooms placed at their disposition by their understanding parents. Finally, they grew a little frightened at how theirs looked when spread apart, she’d never really looked inside one, ew, that’s what we look like, said Nana, maybe it’s trick photography or something, don’t do my head in, I’ll kill myself if that’s what it looks like, I’ll have bad dreams, what can we do, it’s not something nice, it’s—what. Or. How can that be? Try to think of something nice: a Sunday at your grandparents’ in the country, a new five-speed bicycle, one of those expensive Czech ones, or tall green trees, with light filtering through the leaves. Or the cakes your mum makes before Christmas, which they weren’t allowed to celebrate, but she still made harlequin cakes, with yellow icing and coloured pieces of Turkish delight, or Jerbo with walnuts, or chocolate cake, she had no idea where she got it, how much money she spent or how her mother got hold of butter, eggs, real cocoa and good flour, but once a year she managed it. She said it was for her birthday, her birthday was a week before Christmas, it was the day when she was born, so that’s why she’d been born, fine.
Obviously she knew everything, sex, penetration, she’d got ten out of ten in anatomy, but those photographs were different from the drawings in their textbook, she’d never imagined that, faceless women, faceless men, nothing but legs and crotches. How would she be able to look the boys in her class in the face now without seeing their crotches, the organs crushed by the white or coloured textile, her teachers, her parents, people on the street, without imagining them in those ridiculous postures, straining for an orgasm with all their might. She didn’t even want to look at herself any more, to feel the moist warmth she felt between her legs or the slight tremble when she turned the pages, she couldn’t stop, she was panting slightly, Nana was breathing heavily too, they were both sitting on the lid of the toilet seat, when Nana started to laugh quietly, like an idiot, then she started laughing too, they both tittered until they burst into guffaws, after which they no longer knew why they were laughing, but it was good to laugh, they were whinnying and shrieking, each infected the other with her laughter, her midriff ached from the laughter, and Nana put her hand over her mouth, quiet, the teacher on hall duty will catch us—imagine the old biddy’s face if we gave her it, it’s almost worth getting caught, might it be the old biddy who taught physics or the old biddy who taught history, because they were all old biddies, even if some of them were not even forty, because after forty you can say any woman is an old biddy, can’t you? And they burst out laughing again, they laughed and laughed without being able to stop, now out loud, now muffled, in any event, they couldn’t breathe, tears were streaming down their faces, she put her hand over her mouth because she was too hysterical, that’s enough, let’s get out of here, and then Nana licked her fingers and bit her hand lightly, and she did the same back to her, because Nana had her hand over her mouth, she licked her too, she bit her hard. Then Nana screamed and bit her on the lip, then they kissed nicely and stopped laughing, they put their hands everywhere they wanted and she liked her long, clumsy fingers a lot, thicker at the base than the tip, her square knees and long legs, her grey-blond hair, her high cheekbones under the glasses she didn’t want to take off because her eyes looked bigger under the thick frames.
But even without glasses her lips still tasted of Pelikan ink, as sweet as cough syrup, because they’d just taken a Romanian test and Nana couldn’t write anything unless she ate a little ink first. nana laughed again, but not so loudly, she rubbed her cheek against her breasts and said, come on, let’s tear up this filth, put it down the toilet and flush it away, but she couldn’t do that, she put it back in the atlas, washed her face in the bunged up sink, half full of dirty water in which were floating long strands of hair and a couple of cigarette butts. She looked in the flaking mirror above the sink, among the black cracks her eyes were moist and her cheeks red, her lips were blue in the corners, she wiped them with the sleeve of her blouse. When they went back, the classroom was empty, it was Saturday and nobody would set foot there till Monday morning, so they jumped the fence and went home.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“After being involved in Romanian theatre for decades, making a name for herself as a leading figure in the field, Alina Nelega returns to literature with an overwhelming novel. Contrary to the (otherwise highly subtle) title, lots of things happen here, things that often keep you on the edge of your seat, and which throw into relief the bumpy life of a girl and then young woman from Transylvania in the gloomy 1980s, who therefore finds herself in a dictatorship that pervades, without your being able to escape it, the tiniest details of life; she finds herself in a patriarchal society in which female aspiration is thwarted by her family above all, which still lives in the Stone Age. This is why femininity (in its various hypostases and in its various aspects, from enthusiasm to mutilation, with love, motherhood and sexuality thrown in) is the dominant theme of the book. Obviously, there are other themes just as exciting, which the reader will discover in this powerful and unsparing novel, which I warmly and confidently recommend.”