Short stories, "Fiction LTD" collection, Polirom, 2008, 336 pages
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The volume is arranged into two sections. The first includes stories written before 1990, which were originally part of a self-contained collection impossible to publish at the time. The second contains stories written after the year 2000. Thus, the author achieves the feat of bringing face to face two opposing periods in the recent history of Romania. What connects the two sections of the book and effectively constitutes the key to this comparative exercise is the author’s appetency for the trivial occurrences of the immediate day-to-day, regardless of when the stories were written. Two realities are created, which, although they differ in essence, at the level of the ordinary person, of the ordinary personage contained in the narrative, are ultimately not so unalike. Cimpoeşu’s Romania is not populated by characters that differ in the two periods covered by the narrative, but is governed merely by different situations, in which the same kind of people are to be found. Apart from that, the comedy of the situations, the existential absurdity, and the fine irony sketch a portrait of a society situated at the limit between tragedy and comedy.
Nevertheless, in this collection Petru Cimpoeşu does not stake everything on the social aspect of things, although this does loom from each story. The humble circumstances of his characters are, it is true, universal, but beyond this the reader will also discover accents specific to Romanian society. In their mediocrity, the characters come to life both through the author’s protective irony and through their own humour, which saves them from derision. Almost every story contained in this collection deals with unhappy situations and characters (unhappy because of fate – such as a functionary, a watchman, a mediocre teacher, a minor provincial writer – or unhappy because of the results of their own actions – such as a Party activist or a secret policeman), but the minor tragedies are always balanced by comic language and by the narrator’s judgment, which explodes the dramas and reconverts them into a smile, however sad.
The finale of each story in the volume is unexpected, more often than not giving a different meaning to the whole. But the stories are also surprising for the way in which they describe human types. The result is a unitary volume, despite having two sections that might at first sight appear antagonistic, which gives the reader topics for meditation, but also plenty of reasons for enjoyment.
ON 4 APRIL 1986, ISPAS OCTAVIAN VASILE, an editor at The Red Flag county newspaper, received a letter which would irremediably mark his fate. Apart from the newspaper accountant, no one knew for sure which of these three names was his surname. I.O.V., as he signed his articles, was known as a quiet and conscientious man, a man of advancing years – he did not have long until retirement – whose daughter was preparing to sit her university admissions exam. The letter he received began like this :
I confess to having hesitated a long time before writing to you… etc. etc.
In general, the reserved, decent tone of the letter displayed a knowledge of life. The respective person proved herself to be aware of the fact that age, both hers and that of the addressee (I am no longer young, I am almost thirty-five, she confessed), their experience of life, and the social status of each made any juvenile exultation superfluous, even ridiculous. Apparently, the tidy handwriting and correct grammar displayed no distinctive marks, but what did not escape the experienced eye of journalist I.O.V. was that the t’s, with their long and slightly sloping base, indicated stubbornness, and that the d’s, with their curlicues to the right, denoted a fertile imagination, just as the i’s, with their slash-like dots, revealed a passionate and changeable spirit. From the letter it emerged that the person who had sent it was a country schoolmistress who commuted from town. A black-and-white photograph endeavoured – and to a large extent succeeded – to render convincingly some of the physical qualities of the sender. The oval face, snub nose, full lips, and small mole on the left cheek together formed a pleasing, slightly outmoded, but nonetheless optimistic visage. Mr I.O.V. went to the editor-in-chief and told him that it was absolutely necessary to finish researching an article he had begun writing up a few days ago, on the subject of the current stage in the maize harvest. Then he rushed home. Here, on the pretext that he had to prepare some highly important material for the paper, he withdrew to his study and locked the door from the inside. His wife was watching television. Their daughter was visiting the professor with whom she was preparing for her exam. I.O.V. remained in his room for just over an hour, after which he emerged in order to ask for a cotton wool swab ; a streak of blood was trickling from his nose and had even stained his dressing gown. As was foreseeable, his wife went into a panic and began to scream, especially given that she could not remember where she had put the cotton wool. She commanded her husband to sit motionless in an armchair, to hold his face upwards and raise his right arm above his head, while she ransacked the house in search of the cursed packet, at the same time putting a host of questions as regards the circumstances of the accident. She did not find it – there was probably no longer any need, because the haemorrhage had in the meantime spontaneously ceased. Instead, on I.O.V.’s desk, next to the typewriter, she found the photograph of a young woman and beside it a sheet of paper on which were written by hand the following words :
I have received your letter and, on reading it, I felt a kind of…
A kind of what ? This Mrs V. could not discover, not daring to bother her husband with a question that was more than inopportune, if we take into account the precarious situation in which he found himself. For added safety, she placed a compress soaked with vinegar on his forehead and made him swallow a few spoonfuls of jam, although, objectively speaking, such measures might seem exaggerated and pointless. In general, she did not meddle in his work and did not even read The Red Flag, and as far as sentimental matters went, she considered them to have been resolved once and for all since the moment when, by common accord, they had agreed to sleep in separate beds.
Although the next day was a Wednesday, I.O.V. unexpectedly expressed a desire to stay at home. He telephoned the newspaper office and, on the pretext that he had a temperature, he requested a day off. His daughter left to go to school – for she was a pupil in her final year – and his wife went into town to do some shopping. As Mrs V. would later testify, it was as though she had a presentiment. Something inexplicable was weighing on her soul. Perhaps she had also had a twitch in one eye, but she no longer knows precisely which. In any case, on arriving home, she found I.O.V. with one finger crushed. Let us not exaggerate : with one finger bandaged. He had bandaged it himself, after trying to hammer a nail into the wall, to hang a picture. To the insistent questioning of his wife, he gave a few equivocal, contradictory answers, finally admitting that it would have been preferable to read a book. Premeditatedly this time, Mrs V. made another trip to his room and found another sheet of paper on the desk, a letter with a different opening :
On receiving your letter and reading it, I was pleasantly impressed by…
What could have come over him, all of a sudden, hammering that nail into the wall ? Couldn’t he have let it wait ? And if he was determined to do it nonetheless, couldn’t he have been a bit more careful ? Such arguments, although they cannot change the course of events very much, have a certain effect on the level of morale. Proceeding from this premise, Mrs V. undid the bandage, saw what was to be seen, bound the finger back up, and doused it in plenty of medicinal spirit, to reduce the risk of infection. She knows that these minor domestic accidents sometimes have most disagreeable consequences, if they are not treated with the utmost care.
Every occurrence has its own explanation. For example, one day, Mrs V. was just coming back from town when she saw a little green man in a tree, with his legs splayed and arms outstretched, as though he were doing gymnastics. This mysterious phenomenon, which she interpreted as an omen of earthquake, drought or other natural disaster, can easily be explained thanks to the progresses of science. In essence, it is a case of an optical phenomenon. At the moment when she noticed the little green man in a tree, Mrs V. was on the bus, and the bus was waiting at a traffic light – information sufficient for her daughter to elucidate everything in just a few sentences : the little green man was reflected from the lights of the pedestrian crossing in one of the bus windows, and thence in the window opposite, creating the illusion that he was hanging from the tree by the pavement, an optical illusion of the most banal variety. If we bear in mind that the daughter of Mr I.O.V. and Mrs V. was preparing to sit a university admissions exam, the fact that she discovered the explanation so readily will surprise no one. And nevertheless, in the soul of Mrs V. the shadow of a superstitious disquiet continued to subsist.
The little green man was seen on Thursday. On Friday morning, I.O.V. awoke earlier than usual, with the precise intention of ironing his own trousers. However, unable to find a cotton rag, he used a piece of newspaper. But the thermostat of the iron was defective ! No other explanation can be surmised. Instead of the temperature rising to a certain value and then remaining constant, the iron became so hot that, upon first contact with the paper, it adhered to it, and the paper in turn adhered to the trousers. All subsequent attempts to rectify the results of this situation were doomed to failure. Not even in the book 1001 Tips for Your Household is such a case foreseen. Consequently, I.O.V. found himself obliged to waken his wife, although it was highly unpleasant to disturb her at such an hour. Indeed, Mrs V. awoke, but continued to have the impression that she was still asleep and dreaming. Later, describing events to his colleagues at the newspaper office, she was to recall that, in the desire not to offend her, he had begun making a buzzing noise in imitation of the alarm clock.
The same day, I.O.V. lost ten lei ; the banknote quite simply vanished out of his pocket, or else it had been stolen.
Between Friday night and Saturday morning, one of his molars became inflamed. He realised this later, in the morning, when he went to the bathroom to shave. His jaw was burning, he could feel the blood throbbing in it, and it had doubled in size. He telephoned the newspaper office – in order to explain the newly arisen situation – and took a strong dose of painkillers. It was also on Friday, but in the afternoon, while he was going downstairs with the garbage pail, that he slipped, I don’t know how, and emptied its contents onto his first-floor neighbour’s doormat, the neighbour with whom he had had discussions due to the fact that for almost a week someone had kept forgetting to turn off the bathroom or kitchen taps. In the opinion of Mrs V. and of her daughter Lenutza, this someone was none other than I.O.V. himself.
Here now is the stage to which the letter of reply had advanced :
I must confess to you in all sincerity that your letter has troubled me exceedingly.
It is probable that this opening was found to be satisfying, because the next Sunday, when the first symptoms of the mumps appeared, symptoms which I.O.V. had ignored, believing it to be a simple matter of otitis, the letter continues as follows :
I have been extremely busy for the last few days and, for this reason, I have not been able to reply to your letter as promptly as I would have wished…
Finally, the next Tuesday, Mrs V. decided to put her foot in the door. Her husband’s behaviour during the past week increasingly worried her, even scandalised her. She was going to say openly that she knew everything, that a man of advancing years, such as he, ought not to be party to such ridiculous games, billets-doux and suchlike. Of course, their daughter must not learn any of this, and so she had sent her into town to buy soap powder. Stepping into the room, Mrs V. found the blinds drawn. This complicated her mission, for she could not bear to argue in the dark. Moreover, Mr I.O.V. was asleep. But what if he was only pretending ? In order to check, Mrs V. raised the blinds and shuffled the papers on the table, as though she were looking for something. Had he awoken and reproached her for disturbing his things, she would have been ready with the excuse that she had lost the key to the letterbox. She cleared her throat a few times, she opened and closed the window, she rummaged in the wardrobe, she slammed a few drawers, but I.O.V. merely murmured something unintelligible and turned over on one side. Thank God he was still alive ! Mrs V. withdrew to the kitchen and waited until her daughter returned from town. At eight o’ clock on the dot, she sent her to summon her father to dinner. A few minutes later, the frightened Lenutza returned and declared that her father had meowed at her.
The last bullet of any war is, as a rule, fired into the air. The next Thursday, in overcast weather, I.O.V. was admitted to hospital. A few days later, his wife dropped by the newspaper office. She had bags under her eyes, she had been crying, and she burst into tears once more when she told the tale of how everything had come about. She showed his colleagues the photograph of that woman, whom she considered wholly guilty of all the misfortunes that had recently occurred. Each tried to encourage her, arguing that the mumps was not an incurable disease, even if, after a certain age, it can be accompanied by complications. They all hoped that I.O.V. would return to their midst as soon as possible.
In the afternoon of the same day, the editor-in-chief and the editor’s secretary went to the hospital and talked to the doctors, and they brought I.O.V. flowers and a jar of apricot jam. That evening, during a layout meeting, the editor-in-chief made an announcement to the entire staff. After criticising in severe albeit abstract terms the state of discipline at the newspaper and the tasteless pranks that some had been playing on others, including the penning of so-called letters from so-called female admirers, he brought to their knowledge that I.O.V. was feeling better, that he had begun to eat again, and that the mumps was on the ebb. In the one-bed hospital room he had been allocated, he had been provided with writing materials. Unfortunately, he refused to receive visitors. Instead, he entirely dedicated himself to the composition of letters he never managed to finish. In such circumstances, his return to the staff was doubtful. The doctor made progress in treatment conditional upon the extent to which he would manage to modify the content of the letters, which for the time being had settled upon the following formula :
Your tomcat is waiting. Why don’t you give me any sign of life ? Ah, sweet pilfering pussycat, I can hardly wait to meet you and to…
There was not the shadow of a smile, not a single word was spoken. After the meeting ended, they all went home in silence, burdened by a guilt known only to them.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“At the antipodes of those authors who tickle their audience by exploiting all the clichés that give us pleasure (a cheap pleasure, recognised and recycled as such), this writer, as original as he is difficult, obliges us to follow him in various fictional experiments, with slippery ladders and textual trapdoors at every step.”
“The author always knows how to tread the fine line between parodic derision and troubling mystery, between farce and psychotic hallucination – a thing not at all within every writer’s reach. Furthermore, he proves to be an acute psychologist/characterologist. An entire gallery of idealistic, delusional, frustrated or obsessed characters, each more picturesque than the next, file through the pages of this multi-layered and captivating novel.”
“Petru Cimpoeşu must have had a lot of patience to have waited until what was his due – at least since the discreet publication of The Tale of the Great Brigand in 2000 – was finally recognised : the fact that he is one of the most important prose writers of the 1980s generation.”
“The volume Nine Old Prose Pieces. Illicit Fictions opens a long-ranging discussion regarding the avatars of eighties-ist prose and the relation, in hindsight, of the eighties-ists themselves to this type of writing.”
“The Petru Cimpoeşu of the short stories is more lively, more impulsive, less technical, but also more direct than the author of the elaborate novels. The pleasure of narrative is more in evidence and is conveyed to the reader in the form of the joy of reading. Illicit Fictions are games of maturity which the novelist composes as recreation after having become a perfect master of his craft.”