After the success enjoyed by the republished novel Pas Parole Café, Matei Vişniec returns to prose with a new novel. This time, the centre of the world shifts to the Saint Medard Café – an agora of letters, a contemporary Tower of Babel, whither gravitate only authors and characters. An entire universe presided over by a French publisher without a publishing house, Monsieur Cambreleng, who, worn out by reading the manuscripts he receives, the hundreds of pages of words written by authors avid for literary glory, in a world in which sound and image are supreme, decrees the death of words. His primary passion is now collecting dead books, which fill bookshops that have become abattoirs, due to readers blind and deaf to the suffering and tears of unread books.
In a Paris besieged by its glorious history and the famous figures who have inhabited it, countless unusual occurrences unfold, invisible to the untrained eye : a poem conquers the planet, a cat keeps a diary, a love affair spins out of control, dreams invade reality, and all the city’s inhabitants unwillingly become characters. Panic Syndrome in the City of Lights is a vivid dystopia, which takes shape beneath the pen of a failed writer, the central character in this total novel.
Gogu Boltanksi was my best friend from kindergarten up until the end of high school. My relationship with Gogu Boltanski was profound, formative. Not only did we grow up together, but we also discovered literature and the magic of creativity together. Both he and I were good at Romanian and we started writing poetry as early as the fourth form. As we were almost neighbours – Gogu lived just two streets away – we used to see each other every day after school and after we finished our homework. I used to talk to Gogu a lot, about everything under the sun. Of course, being children, we also used to play : we would duel with wooden swords, we would build dens from dead leaves in autumn, we would gallop on imaginary horses through gardens (our neighbourhood was one of houses with immense vegetable gardens and fruit trees at the back). Another shared joy was going to the cinema together, on Sundays to see cartoons and during the week all the films not banned for children under sixteen.
With Gogu I discovered the joy of reading and the voluptuous pleasure of buying books. Sometimes we would buy a literary magazine together – Luceafărul or România literară – and together we would read the poems of our older confreres. I say “confreres” because in our minds we already thought of ourselves as great poets. We used to read each other’s poems and mutually analyse them. Gradually, our relationship became one of rivalry, of literary competition. Each tried to astound the other. I had begun to write short plays ; Gogu had begun to write a novel. We never managed to finish anything, but we used to urge each other on to ever new literary and philosophical experiments. By the age of thirteen I had already read Kafka, Oscar Wilde… By the age of fourteen I had read Camus and declared myself an existentialist, while Gogu regarded himself as a phenomenologist. By the time we started high school we had become local celebrities. We used to be invited to the county seat to recite poems at literary cenacles. We were published in various school magazines… Gogu, who was more athletic than I, had a more imposing physique. He was tall and blond. He had even begun to bear a slight resemblance to Paul Newman. I had a bit of a complex about my physique, especially since I wore glasses, and my myopia was advancing at a gallop.
At the age of seventeen, when he strolled through town, with a cigarette between his lips and a book or notepad under his arm, serene and luminous, with the aura of a man who has found all the answers to the problems of existence, Gogu was as handsome as a Greek god and drew the gaze of all the girls. I myself had begun to admire his nonchalance, all the more so given that for him literature had become the most important thing of all. Gogu was a great chess lover, and every day, at five o’clock in the afternoon, he would present himself at the town Cultural House, where the other chess lovers gathered. When the weather was bad, the chess games were held in a room with large windows that looked onto the street, so that passers by could cast a glance inside and see dozens of heads in deep concentration, bowed over chessboards on which there still survived two or three pieces, in an endless endgame. When the weather was good, the matches would take place outside, under a canopy of ivy, in a kind of metal cage that was trying to be an arbour.
The end of high school was the moment when Gogu and I realised we had ambitions in life that were diametrically opposed. I wanted to go to Bucharest, to take the entrance exam for the Faculty of Philosophy and to publish my poems as quickly and in as great a number as possible, to become a famous writer, if not the greatest Romanian writer and, if possible, the greatest writer of all time. Gogu, however, was content with his reading, with the hours he spent at his writing table, with the moments he experienced in front of a chessboard in the Cultural House. When it came to choosing where continue his studies, Gogu opted for the mathematics section of a recently established institute in the county seat, not twenty miles away.
In effect, we parted. I went to Bucharest. He remained in the provinces, and after a while he gave up full time study and started night school, because he had found a job as a porter, which allowed him to earn money but also in fact to read all day. But we still saw each other regularly during holidays, when we rediscovered all the intensity of our former discussions. It was then that I sensed the first symptoms of the disease that the scientific community would later recognise under the name I proposed for it : “Gogu Boltanski syndrome”.
Gogu Boltanski became a kind of inverting mirror of my own destiny. The more I exerted myself in life, the more Gogu led a life of ease. The more I widened the circle of my contacts and concerns, the more Gogu simplified his life, preserving only reading, writing and chess. “You’re mad,” I would tell him in the summer, when I arrived in Rădăuţi and regularly found him between five and eight o’clock in the evening at the chess club in the Cultural House. How could a man with his talent bury himself in that small town, in that sad hole, in that no man’s land, which can only drag you down, a veritable metaphysical ball and chain for the spirit, a mire for creativity ? “Come to Bucharest, better to be a vagabond in Bucharest than to squander your energies here. In Bucharest there are chess matches galore in all the literary editorial offices. You’d be better off playing chess at the editorial offices of Amfiteatru magazine. I’ll introduce you. You’re a man of charm, better read than all my peers at the Monday literary cenacle. Come and test your powers in the arena of the capital, in the great arena of the capital, where you truly deserve to do combat… Wake up, Gogu, shake off your lethargy, come and face the world, come and meet truly interesting people, interesting women, come and see plays at the theatre, attend concerts, witness the spectacle of the world…”
Gogu would always listen to me without interrupting, somehow fascinated and amused, curious but also unconvinced. “Don’t be lazy,” I would tell him, “try to shake off this Oblomovism. You’ve got hundreds of pages of prose, dozens of notebooks full of poems. Try to publish them. Send them to publishers, magazines, literary critics…”
From Gogu’s eyes, I understood that my speeches had no impact upon him. And in any case Gogu was not a lazy man. On the contrary, Gogu worked, in a way, harder than me, in the sense that he gave more time to the essential things. Gogu woke up every day very early, with the sunrise in summer, at around five o’clock in the morning, and somewhat later in winter, at around seven. Every day, he reserved at least three or four hours for reading, an hour for studying famous chess games, two or three hours for writing, and an hour for exercise (he used to go cycling, or else he would run as far as the stud farm at the edge of town and back again). Almost every day he spend an hour either in the town bookshop, leafing through books, or in the reading room of the library, leafing through magazines and newspapers. His interest in films had lessened in time, but he used to watch a genuinely interesting film on video at least once a week, at the homes of various friends who received cassettes from abroad… Whether I like it or not, I must admit that each time I saw Gogu in the holidays, I discovered that his reading was more solid than mine, that he was more up to date than me on the latest books to be published, that he knew much better than me what was happening in the world, as he used to listen every night to foreign radio stations that broadcast in Romanian, such as Free Europe or the Voice of America.
Of course, I used to tell him about events in the literary world, I used to tell him about my encounters with various writers, with Bucharest celebrities, with colourful characters from the world of the theatre. Gogu would listen to me with great attention, I could see his eyes sparkling, he liked all those stories… But somewhere, in his conscience, in that innermost zone that dictated his disciplined life, he nonetheless regarded me as leading an anecdotal existence, far from the essence. But to cap it all, Gogu never reproached me with anything : the reproaches were a one way street, from me to him, as if it were I who possessed the truth and he refused to accept it. This ritual went on for years… And my feeling that Gogu Boltanski was the mirror of my pointless strivings grew stronger. After I left for Paris, in 1987, we didn’t see each other for a few years. But in 1992, on my return to Rădăuţi, I found Gogu in the same place, with a group of chess players of all ages, teenagers, adults and old men, at the chess club in the Cultural House. I waited for Gogu to finish his game, against a young handicapped lad, and then we both went for a walk. Well, Gogu was the same man. He had got married in the meantime, he had a child, but he didn’t live with his family, because family life prevented him from seeing to the essential things. He earned little, but he didn’t need money, he didn’t desire to travel (although everybody now had a passport), and he hadn’t been dazzled by the new chimaeras of the consumer society.
“What’s it like in Paris ?” Gogu of course asked me, genuinely interested in my experiences, but his question didn’t possess any extra intensity compared to those of six or seven years ago, when he had used to ask me, “What’s it like in Bucharest ?” Telling him about my Parisian life, about my travels through Europe, I in fact felt a little embarrassed. For, in the meantime Gogu had learned German and managed to read Heidegger in the original. His reading had turned greatly towards philosophy in the last few years : he read Sartre, Ciroan, Raymond Aron and Foucault in French. As far as reading was concerned, I could no longer compare with Gogu. In fact, the years spent in the West had been for me a continual flight. I wrote more than I read. And as for the essential books of the last decade, I was informed rather than imbued.
The sensation of embarrassment I felt following my meetings with Gogu was the first clear symptom of the illness that I would later call “the syndrome of panic on arrival”. But for a long time I didn’t know why I was embarrassed, why I was overcome by doubts and even a feeling of slight guilt when I saw Gogu again, at intervals of two or three years, in my home town. One thing was clear, however : when I used to see Gogu, I had the feeling that nor had I ever left Rădăuţi. To be even more precise, I had the sensation that everything I had experienced, the emotions of emigrating to the West, the intoxication of literary success, the stress of the struggle for affirmation, had been nothing but a dream… When I was in Paris, of course, I didn’t think about Gogu very often. I had enough things to do and enough personal equations to solve. But when I returned to Rădăuţi, I would suddenly feel a pit in my stomach : Gogu was there, waiting for me, untroubled, in the town bookshop or at the chess club, seemingly in order to remind me that movement does not exist given that we always come back to the source, and that restlessness is an illusion.
In 2003 or 2004, it was the same. Visiting my parents in Rădăuţi for a week’s holiday, I bumped into Gogu on the street. In fact, it was he who saw me. He was just setting off on a bicycle ride and stopped to say hello to me. Would you look at that, I said to myself, this time he’s the one in motion and in the position of having to stop in order to have a brief conversation with me. And indeed, Gogu stopped and we exchanged a few words, for three or four minutes, and then he rode off on his bicycle… And I was left feeling small, minuscule… I almost shouted after him, “Gogu, forgive me for making you dismount from your bicycle, for taking away three minutes of your daily ride, forgive me, who in the first seven months of this year have spent most of my time in aeroplanes and airports, who have clinked glasses of champagne in dozens of embassies and given lectures in three languages to audiences of thousands… As I watched Gogu ride into the distance on his bicycle (with a copy of Houellebecq’s Les particules élémentaires in the basket) I was once more overcome by doubt, almost by fear. More than ever before I had the feeling that in fact there is no difference between the one who leaves and the one who remains, once destiny draws the line at the very end.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth