With the action focussing on Nicolae Ceauşescu, the same as in the author’s other two novels, The Best Novel of All Time is passionately written, borrowing its structure from the thriller genre, but providing a number of keys for reading. The central character is White Swallow-Wort, a young man of twenty, who, in 1989, the year in which the novel is set, organises a number of attempts to assassinate the Romanian dictator, in partnership with obscure “low-lives” such as Arvinte, Doru the Disaster Victim, Fisente et al.
The atmosphere is alternately ridiculous and tragic, managing to amuse but also to chill any reader for whom the reality of communist Romania is unfamiliar. A distinctive note is provided by the dictatorial couple, Elena and Nicolae, who are captured in all their grotesqueness, from their hunting parties to their more banal, but piquant, everyday conversations. Shot through with religious allusions and commentaries, The Best Novel of All Time, which constitutes a (merry) Bible of Romanian communism, was warmly received in the press, and is considered the author’s best.
The missing lady rowers of Lake Snagov
IN 1981, NICOLAE CEAUSESCU built himself a holiday palace on Lake Snagov. Shortly after the President began spending his Saturdays, Sundays and some weekday afternoons in his palace at Snagov, the lidos along the entire shoreline of the lake thinned out and then disappeared. The restaurants in the vicinity of the palace were closed down. Rowing or swimming in front of the palace when the Secretary General was in residence was banned. The buildings in immediate proximity to the palace were demolished, and any international flight paths that passed over the palace were diverted. From 1986 onwards, even the canoeing and kayaking lessons that had previously taken place on the lake were abolished. And so Marcel Sucu, who worked as a kayak instructor at the Willpower Sailing Club, not only had no more lady owers to tamper with, but had also been on the brink of becoming jobless. All the sailing clubs around Lake Snagov had been evacuated. In the end, Sucu Marcel not only didn’t lose his job, but he also even sweetened his routine to the maximum. For three years he had been on permanent leave from work, with the exception of short periods, of between one week and three months, when he nonetheless had to attend kayaking and canoeing contests on the other lakes around Bucharest. In all the commotion of the changes, the equipment storeroom and boathouse of the Willpower Club had, by some error, remained in service. Having eluded the vigilance of the first evacuation measures and advantaged by the cessation of all sporting activities on the water, the storeroom continued to exist under the protection of inertia. And the two employees of the Willpower Club went on receiving their wages, because they had been assigned to this particular work point.
As early as October of 1988, White Swallow-Wort had asked Marcel Sucu to wangle it so that he was moved to the phantom storeroom. A month later, Sucu managed to get a transfer there, in the dual capacity of deputy trainer and storeroom man. In the end, he got to know the area, the rules, and the people as well as any local.
“You go in alone,” said Sucu, elegantly unlocking the door of a permanently uninhabited two-storey villa.
“I’ll go and open the storeroom, because there’s a chance that no one will have turned up to work today.”
“Wherever you like. Make yourself at home.”
Left alone, White Swallow-Wort took his shoes off by the door and, with a gait that was more silent than a tomcat’s, he examined first the ground floor and then the entire villa, from basement to attic. He chooses the first-floor drawing room, draws up a chair to the edge of the large window, and scrutinises Ceausescu’s palace, exhibited in almost its entirety on the other side of the lake. He examines the white hulk of the palace, with its Spanish or Moorish details, not even he is sure which. Strangely, the palace has only one storey. There is a belvedere on the right side, the one furthest from him. On the other side of the building there is a fountain, whose tuft, like foaming champagne, he can glimpse above the roof. There are huge fields, the grass discoloured in places, where the helicopters land and take off. There are paths, mainly covered with white gravel, and mostly hidden from his view, masked by islets of shrubbery, with five-feet-high lamps mounted directly on the lawn, by clumps of trees, or by the annexes to the summer house, jetty and garages. On three sides, at the edge of the fields, the palace is surrounded by woods, and on one side by the waters of Lake Snagov, now gleaming blood red.
“So, we’re going to shoot him just because we don’t like his cooking ?” says Sucu, settling into the second armchair, pointed toward the window through which dusk can be seen settling over the palace.
“Isn’t he the one who decides what people put on their table ? He’s the one who draws up the menus for everyone. And no one in Romania likes what he eats nowadays. In a way, he’s going to be shot because of his bad cooking.”
“If you’ve changed your mind, tell me straight out, Mr Marcel.”
“It’s always good to look at a problem from as many points of view as possible. It brings you inner satisfaction. Ceausescu the cook, strolling among us with a ladle, from which he doesn’t want to dish out any soup. All his soup goes to fatten foreigners… Have you ever known me try to wriggle out of anything ? But you have to have an inner satisfaction, to view things in the world as strange as they are.”
“How do they seal off the lake ?”
“Always half an hour before Ceausescu arrives. A speedboat takes up position in front of the palace.”
“Three, but that’s not important. When Ceausescu goes inside the palace, another two small boats flank the first motorboat. And the guards deployed in the woods gather around the palace.”
“What does that mean ?”
“In the first line there are twelve men. I’ve counted them. Everything else is guesswork. Because the ones who advance into the woods don’t show themselves. And a part of those who make up the team, without you knowing it, are locals, who just keep a watch glued to their windows.”
“Don’t they enter the uninhabited houses ?”
“Not as far as I know. Three years ago there was a regulation that the Securitate had a set of keys for each uninhabited house in the vicinity. But now, it seems, it no longer applies.”
“Fetch it here, please.”
“WSW, hasn’t anyone told you that all that nonsense with disguises can only bring us bad luck ? Someone will give you a shove and you’ll fall in front of a bus.”
From the ground floor, Sucu fetches a voluminous fishing rod sleeve, made of waterproof khaki canvas, from behind the fridge where it had stood propped against the wall.
“Isn’t fishing banned ?”
“Yes, it is. But given that the undercover officers sometimes pretend to be fishing, no one abides by the ban. But Ceausescu, if he sees an angler, asks whether it’s the fishing season. ‘The comrade is going to prison,’ he said with sadness, when he caught a lieutenant who was guarding him and pretending to fish outside the legal season. What could his superiors do ? They banged the poor lieutenant up in ‘University’. True, they didn’t classify it as poaching, and after a while he received a pardon
and they promoted him.”
The bundle of rods inside the sleeve is tied up with three rubber bands. There are five simple and two telescopic rods. And hidden in the middle, like the axe in the bundle of fasces, there is a long-range Dubretskoy sniper’s rifle with a heavy stock. White Swallow-Wort extracts the rifle, holding it with his right hand by the slot for the telescopic sight. He props the rifle vertically between his knees and fishes the sight from the sleeve, which is stashed in a receptacle that resembles a slender thermos
flask. Finally, he removes the round metal ammunition case, stowed at the bottom of the sleeve, upon which the rifle stock and the fishing rods had been resting.
“Don’t you want me to handle all that ?”
Inside the round case there are three rectangular boxes, each with twelve bullets. Two are intact and sealed with a band of blue paper. The third, which opens like a packet of cigarettes, contains not smokes but eight bullets, steely grey and resembling the worn stumps of crayons.
“They’re as I left them. I haven’t touched them except to fetch them.”
In February, White Swallow-Wort and Marcel Sucu had spent a week in the Făgăraş Mountains, training to fire the Soviet weapon with precision. In the mornings they set out from their cabanas, they journeyed for four hours on foot away from any hiking trail, and practised shooting only during storms. In this way, the cracks of the shots were inaudible, but the strong winds, blowing sideways across the line of fire deviated the projectiles. In the mountains, the great problem had thus been that only one in three bullets hit its target.
“Do you want me to stay here with you ?”
“No, on the contrary. When do you have to go back to Bucharest ?”
“Whenever I like. But in the evening they start getting grumpy. And after ten at night all traffic is forbidden in the area, unless by prior communication.”
“In any case, he won’t be coming this evening. If he comes, it’ll be at five o’clock in the afternoon, six at the latest. So, you won’t need to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow. I’ll come round at ten to wake you up, and we’ll drink a coffee.”
“No. I have a request. Don’t come round until we’ve finished.”
“Tell me straight out what it is you want.”
“Behave exactly as you would normally. If I need you or you need me, we’ll agree upon a signal. You know the terrain. What would be the most suitable signal ?”
“Hm. If you want to call me, draw the curtain in the bedroom facing the storeroom. If I want to alert you to something out of the ordinary, I’ll hoist the club flag on the pole and put a padlock on the cable, so that none of my colleagues can take it down.”
“How many days can I stay here ?”
“It’s entirely up to you.”
“And how long would that be ?”
“Two weeks. The doctor has asked me to air the pipes and keep an eye on the blokes who’ll be coming to change the radiators. They’ll have to call me when they want to come, because I’ve got the keys.”
“Will he be annoyed if I nibble things from the fridge ?”
“He won’t, but I will. How can you have come here without bringing your own food ? Are you trying to do to me what Ceausescu does ? That’s our food on the bottom shelf of the fridge. You have two salamis, a kilo of spam, cheese, onion, fish and olives. Two jars of jam. Butter. You can use sugar and oil from their rations, because they’re very obliging folk. In the freezer, you have eight loaves of bread, also on the bottom shelf. In the fridge there’s also a pan of stuffed cabbage leaves, from Smaranda.”
“Did you tell her what we’ll be doing ?”
“Absolutely. I told her, ‘Woman, while one of us is shooting Ceausescu, the other can throw stuffed cabbage leaves at him. And so mind what you cook for the little’un !’ Look here, I’ve been cultivating women in my garden since I was fifteen. And I’ve never had any nasty business because of some skirt. So keep your hair on, as far as Smaranda’s concerned.”
“Did you or didn’t you tell Mrs Smaranda that I was coming to Snagov ?”
“What do you think ?”
“You tell me.”
“Look here, WSW, it’s you who ought to be taking a leaf out of my book when it comes to handling women. That’s all I’m going to say.”
“All the thieves that end up in prison have women to thank. The only thief that doesn’t trust them is Mr Marcel. Why do you think I get myself a new one every year ?”
“I don’t know.”
“So I don’t get attached to them. Once you get attached, you lose their respect. A woman is a man’s joy, but she needs to be kept at your feet, like a dog. You don’t tell a dog all about the films you’ve enjoyed. You give it orders.”
“I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“I never get angry at you.”
“Thanks for the food. Tell Mrs Smaranda from me.”
“Don’t push your luck. If you stay for a week, what’ll you do all that time ?”
“I’ll take a look outside. I’m curious as to how that lot guard him. How does he arrive most often, by helicopter or by car ?”
“Both. More often by car. If he comes by helicopter, it means he’s really bored and then, more than certain, he’ll go yachting. In such cases, he goes alone.”
“How long does it take him to get from the helicopter or car to the Palace ? How long from the Palace to the jetty ? What else do I need to know ?”
“How do I know ? He walks the same as anyone else. Perhaps a bit briskly for his age… Thirty seconds from the helicopter to the palace. Five seconds from the car to the palace, because it leaves him by the door… When he comes out of the palace and heads towards the jetty, it takes him a minute, because he has to cross the whole of that lawn. Not to mention when he goes for a walk. Ah, that’s something I didn’t tell you. For a while he had a very strange habit. Maybe he’ll take it up again.”
“He and Elena dress up in hiking gear. Each has a rucksack laden with a few kilos of sand, and they set out at a brisk pace around the grounds, so that they will tire themselves and sleep better.”
“I can’t believe we could get that lucky.”
“We won’t. He gave it up. Elena probably nagged him too much. Since then he doesn’t take her along. He takes the yacht out.”
“Anything else ?”
“There’s just one thing we haven’t discussed. To shoot Ceausescu is the easy part ; the hard part is not to be pulled down into the grave after him. After we liquidate him, how are we going to make your getaway ?”
“Have you got any ideas, Mr Marcel ?”
“Yes, let me shoot. Can you listen to me for two minutes without interrupting ?”
“In the last three months I haven’t come up with anything better. In the instant after the first shot, the whole area will be sealed off. Not even a bird will be able to get out. They’ll leave no stone unturned. If I stay in the storeroom, I won’t have any bother. On the other hand, if they catch you, who won’t know where to run, the guard will tear you apart with their bare teeth for shooting him, they’ll dip their handkerchiefs in your blood and dance around your corpse.”
“If they dance nicely I won’t mind… I sinned. Forgive me.”
“If you remain in Bucharest and I shoot, it’s our only chance. I’ll whack him, hide the rifle and get away from the spot as fast as I can. I make my getaway through those tall reeds and from there I can look after myself. Only I know where to swim under water and where to come up, at the other end of the island, under the remains of the wooden bridge from the time of Vlad the Impaler. In the confusion that follows, I expect all the guards will come running here, and then spread out to comb the area.”
“How old are you Mr Marcel ?”
“You know. Why are you asking ? Fifty-two.”
“And you know how old I am. Twenty. And so I’m quite quick on my feet. What, are you afraid that if they catch me I’ll betray you ? You think that if they get hold of me I’ll betray you. That’s why you want to do the shooting, at least so that no one will be able to denounce you.”
“When tortured painstakingly by someone who’s good at it, no one can resist crumpling.”
“Not even you ?”
“Not even me. You can make anyone at all betray even his own father and mother under interrogation, in rhyming couplets and dancing on the corner of the desk like a ballerina.”
“Maybe. But I’ve never crumpled.”
“You’ve never had occasion. You were saved by two antiques, a crock tied to a piece of string and a hunchback.”
“And now ?”
“Alright, you shoot. But just you make sure you do two things for Mr Marcel. Hit the target. And if you end up signing statements, write my name without father’s initial, because dad wasn’t too happy when I took up thieving.”
“You should hurry.”
“There’s still plenty of time. So, do you have an escape plan ?”
“I don’t have any plan. I have an idea. But I can’t tell you it.”
“I’m off. If I can help you with anything, draw the curtain.”
“You said there was a telephone in this villa.”
“In the ground-floor bedroom.”
“Is it working ? Has it been disconnected ?”
“Defects can occur anywhere at all. But as long as I’ve been here, the telephones have never been down.”
“Do you have a telephone at the storeroom ?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then I have a life or death request to make of you : stay at work, on every working day, until six o’clock in the evening. Even this coming Saturday.”
“Well then, WSW, at last you’re talking like a lad with an undisturbed library.”
“Here comes the most important part : even in the moment you see the motorboat that heralds Ceausescu’s arrival, or even sooner, if you pick up any sign that he’ll definitely be coming, make a telephone call to the number I’ll give you and ask to speak with comrade Bagel.”
“Is that all ? What if he’s not there ?”
“He will be. When you’re sure you’re talking to comrade Bagel, tell him this, word for word : ‘Comrade Ionescu says the plate is full.’”
“Why not tell him the cup is full ? Or that the gun’s gone off ?”
“If you want to live to ripe old age, remember the words exactly as I told you.”
“‘Comrade Ionescu says the plate is full.’ Will he say anything
“Then you hang up.”
“The number ?”
“59 55 55. I’ll write it down here, but tomorrow destroy this.”
“I learn from everyone. If you want to teach me a trade, I learn. If you order me to destroy it, I destroy it. 59 55 55. It’s an institution. Look, here are the binoculars. You don’t do crosswords, so I’ve saved you two ‘specialist reviews’. This one’s paracentric, something completely new, the bee’s knees. This one’s tubular. French and Korean. No one in Bucharest has anything like it.”
White Swallow-Wort takes the two “specialist reviews”, which are in fact two sophisticated mechanisms, wrapped in thin card, and he lays them on a pillow of the couch.
Preparing to bid him farewell, Marcel Sucu grasps his hand and does not release it all the while he speaks.
“WSW, if instead of killing you, they make you President tomorrow, take care what you cook.”
“I’ll consult with you.”
“Not a bad idea. You’ll be the head cook, and I’ll be a consultant. For those impoverished compatriots of ours, we will cook steak and dessert instead of bones and bagels… But first of all, you’ll have to give me back the lake. You’ll tell them, ‘Takethis here lake and drag it over to Mr Marcel’s, but after you’ve filled it with lady rowers eager to train !’ Goodbye ! Live like an American President, WSW !”
“Thanks. Let’s meet again in good health, Mr Marcel.”
“You can’t. Either you’ll end up more, or much less. From this business you can’t come through merely healthy.”
The blood-red glints of light from the lake reflected on the front wall and window of the villa have been extinguished. The two can now barely discern each other’s faces.
White Swallow-Wort remained for another half an hour by the windowsill.
Marcel Sucu went downstairs and with his hands thrust in his woollen trousers he jingled the keys and coins therein, whistling as he went. The cold was beginning to bite, and Mr Marcel was wearing only his customary grey sweater, with two black stripes across the chest, moulded to his athletic frame. He kept thrusting his chin outside the edge of the turtleneck, like a skittish stallion.
Silence settled like sand strewn by a shovel over the two children of darkness.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth