Novel, "Proza" series, Cartea Românească, 2010, 248 pages
Copyright: Cartea Românească
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
FOUR ROMANIAN POETS, one pact (each poet shall wander the earth for five years in search of the sources of Poetry with a capital P), in the end broken by all of them, adulterous loves, affairs based solely on sex, but also true romances. These, in short, are the ingredients of a book that speaks of love, odysseys in search of it, and, above all, poetry. The premise of the novel is the point where the biographies of the poet friends intersect and are transformed from reality into fiction. Recognisable in places, the characters permanently slip from the reader’s grasp, changing course and identity. They are masters of disguise. Just when the threads of the story seem to have joined, a sudden reversal of situation radically changes the viewpoint. Different paths, different roles, different stories come to the foreground. Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari cultivates the art of suspense in a novel in which there are, in effect, no secondary characters.
THE GHOST OF A MAN in love haunts Europe, on the trail of a married woman. From Barcelona to Leghorn, from Naples to Villefranche-sur-Mer, he follows me like a shadow, a mad Romanian on the faint trail of an adulterous Spanish woman. Our love was linked to water, to a dyke on the Cantabrian Sea, to six anchors he saw against the sky, to Mediterranean cruises. While the Tinto Brass Band and I were thrilling audiences in the concert room, Adrian was on the train, or in a bus, or somewhere on an aeroplane, always on my trail, trails of foam and salt that did not dissolve on the shore, but took on life precisely there. If the ship was late, he would be in the port, holding a cigarette. And if the ship was early, he would already be on the dock, with his seductive voice.
The same as in gambling or in war, in adultery you need luck, a lot of luck, and I, glory be to God, have had plenty. Of course, this luckiness was competing with unluckiness, but, if I were to draw a line, I would find that luck wins hands down; a line that would join up invisible ports and oceans and cities, waiting rooms and hotels, and, necessarily, Transylvania, which I used to imagine as being all forests and crags, and which, in my western frivolity, I used to associate with Dracula. It no longer matters. It really no longer matters now. For me, the Mediterranean has dried up, and the Cantabrian Sea is no longer any different from the Atlantic Ocean. The Tinto Brass Band have fallen silent, the sculptures that Javier and I made still sell, some even change owners, others may have been melted down, who knows? It is no longer important. I was able to choose, but I could not have lived differently. I have come to be exactly what I feared I would become: a lonely woman, who is trying to rid herself of her memories, the same as you would try to rid yourself of a swarm of flies, except that in this case it is not enough merely to quicken your steps and wave your arms.
For a long time after I die, my ghost will haunt the ports of Europe, hard on your trail. The faint trail of a married woman, he said. The strange thing is that he told me this for the first time not in a European port, but in an African one, La Goulette, or La Bocanada, as we Spaniards call it. Adrian had arrived a few hours before me and managed to visit Sidi Bou Said, a small fishing hamlet, whose houses reminded him of the villages of Andalusia. There, as the wandered the lanes with their smell of fish, among the blue and white houses, he told himself that for three months he had been nothing but a ghost haunting the ports of Europe. Of the Mediterranean, as I corrected him later, when I disembarked from the ship for five hours on shore.
We were together in a taxi, in North Africa, heading to a private beach. Five hours pass with the speed of a rabbit crossing the road. Then, back on the ship, I sent a text message to Javier, to let him know that I was setting off to Barcelona, and I received a message from Adrian, who wished me a pleasant trip. And then I was back with my boys from the Tinto Brass Band, and if the mood took us we would jam, we would play our instruments, if not, then we didn’t, in any case, we didn’t rehearse for long, we knew by heart the set we played night after night. Sometimes, the captain’s mate would come to the concerts. It was to him that we owed the contract. He had heard us playing in a bar in Barcelona, and after the concert he came up to us and asked us whether we would be interested in signing a contract with MSC. I thought it must be a record label. MSC, MSC, we kept saying, while the captain’s mate smiled, then he informed us that it was not a record label but a shipping line that specialised in luxury cruises.
He had first heard us on the radio and said to himself that what he was hearing was not at all bad, then he heard one of our records, in fact the only record we had out at the time, Tanga y otros bailes, and the tracks on the record convinced him that we were good, and so all that remained for us to do was to come to a decision in less than a week. In the beginning, we were offered a contract for a single cruise, seven nights on the Mediterranean, and if things went well, and the captain’s mate could see no reason why they wouldn’t, we would sign a contract for a whole season, which is to say, until October. For me, that contract was manna from heaven. That same night, I signed the contract for the first cruise, and immediately afterwards I telephoned Adrian. It was ten past three where I was, and ten past four for him. I told him about the incredible opportunity that was being offered to us. I heard how he whooped for joy, how he was chocked with emotion, how he forgot half the Spanish he knew, how he lit a cigarette, how he started to make plans. But it was with Javier that I celebrated. It would appear that, at long last, the money had turned up for the press we had been wanting for some time. I drew up a list of what we had to do before I embarked and he left for his symposium in Italy. Bills to be paid, two scale models for Javier, a technical inspection for the car, telephones, rehearsals, as many rehearsals as possible with the Tinto Brass Band.
When I waved to Javier from the deck of the ship that was leaving Barcelona, all I knew was that seven nights later, probably on the same dock, Adrian would be there to meet me and I would be waving to him, but not the same wave as I gave Javier, although the gesture would appear to be the same—right arm raised and slowly swaying in the air—but no, our unspoken worry was not to repeat the gestures used with the other.
When I embarked, I didn’t regard myself as wholly ignorant when it came to ships. I’d been on a ferry before, and I lived near a port, and if I think of my family tree, my ancestors, before settling in Castilla La Mancha, were mariners. Then, since being with Javier, I had begun to take sculpting in metal seriously, and for raw materials, there is nothing better than a decommissioned ship. I had a friend who would give us advance warning when an abandoned yacht or cruise ship showed up, and we would rush off and scavenge everything we could. It was an easy, cheap and quick way of getting hold of iron. But the ship upon which I was now embarking exceeded anything I had imagined. 290 metres in length, 32 metres in width, 13 decks, more than 1,000 cabins (each with a television, air conditioner and mini-bar), a casino, golf course, saunas and Turkish baths, a children’s playground, a medical centre, shopping centre, swimming pools and theatre auditorium (where we were to give concerts), a library, an art gallery (the collection left a lot to be desired, but there was a good photography exhibition), bars and restaurants, 13 lifts, and all these floating on the sea under a Dutch flag and named Poesia. MSC Poesia, built by a Frenchman and launched by Robert de Niro. At first, those of us in the Tinto Brass Band went everywhere together on board, as if we were visiting a large city for the first time. We were inseparable from the moment we woke up until the moment we went to bed. That was for the first two days, until I found the internet room, where the rate per hour was much lower than if I had hooked up in my cabin. In any case, every night I still felt like leaving Adrian a few messages, and so I would get out my laptop and connect to the internet in my cabin, I couldn’t stop myself, even though I knew he wouldn’t be online and that he wouldn’t read them until the next day. It seemed incredible to him that the ship was called Poesia, stop making things up, he would say, and I would hasten to say, no, no, that’s what it’s really called, I’m not making it up, and he would shake his head, stupefied and unconvinced, but all this happened in Barcelona, at the end of the seven-day cruise, when, as I had predicted, on the quay it was not Javier but Adrian who was waiting for me. We quickly went away from the port, from the eyes of the others in the Tinto Brass Band, which we had to avoid, the same as so many other eyes. Hurrying to the rented car, I experienced once again one of those moments when I would have wished that everyone else was blind, so that we could embrace, without having to lock ourselves in the hotel room he had rented before lunch, as soon as he had arrived in Barcelona. For two days and three nights we remained in the hotel. I spoke volubly. Adrian smoked, drank and listened. I almost forgot to eat. We looked out of the window, we slept and we laughed, we laughed like madmen at anything at all. I showed him a few photographs taken on board, I had a whole load of them saved on my laptop, but Adrian didn’t want to look at them. He preferred it when I told him stories about one thing or another. I expect you made a splash with your Latino jazz, he said. And I expect that countless wealthy Germans fell in love with you. His ingenuous jealousy incited me to be malicious. So I mentioned Javier. I knew he didn’t like it when I mentioned my husband, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Javier says that anyone who stays with me for more than ten minutes ends up falling in love with me. To say this to Adrian was proof of frivolity, that’s what it seemed liked, but I swear that it wasn’t at all like that, I repeat, I couldn’t help myself, and as soon as I said it I regretted it.
On the first evening, we celebrated the extension of the contract. A week later, I was to re-embark: the same route, the same repertoire. Now I knew by heart all the routes and the timetable of arrivals and departures. We debated the possibility of him embarking as an ordinary tourist, but the risk of him being seen by my bandmates was too great. Wait a minute, he said, why can’t I take a cruise? And let’s say that by coincidence you’re performing on the same ship. I can be a tourist the same as the next man. Yes, of course you can, I said, but it would be preferable not to find yourself on the Poesia. It would be too much for Javier. I would never leave the cabin. I could wait for you there. Then, he admitted that I was right, that it would be terrible to know you were nearby and have to pretend that I didn’t know you or for us to exchange small talk within the limits of decency allowed in memory of the symposium in Candás. It would be awful. That’s right, I said. I was afraid I was pushing my luck.
That night I don’t remember us making love more than once. Then he read something to me, I think it was some poems by Gimferrer or Gil de Biedma, or both, as usual he had a number of books with him. And, as usual, I fell asleep as I listened to him. I fell asleep on the carpet and woke up in the bed. Over coffee, in the morning, I asked him whether he really didn’t want to see Barcelona. For the time being it’s enough for me to see it from the window, he said. From the window all we could see were other windows and below, at one end of the alley, a few rubbish bins. I smiled. The day had got off to a good start. It was just the two of us, together, alone. The clouds that were gathering in the sky did not interest us. We betted on the rain. I said it would rain straight away, he said that it wouldn’t rain for another two hours. We sat with our eyes glued to the sky. I lost the bet, and so I had to go down to the bar to buy cigarettes and chocolate. Adrian telephoned me on the mobile and told me to look out of the window or listen. I couldn’t do either, because I was in the lift, but it’s obvious it must have started raining, I said.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Rarely have I read more simple or more powerful sentences. With his background as a poet and translator of poetry, Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari is among the latest wave of prose stylists in Romanian. In spite of the rather uninspired finale (and a beautiful cover that says nothing about the book itself), The Comparison is an intelligently and stylishly written literary novel. It is a novel with soul, one that will win admirers. It deserves it.”
(Marius CHIVU, Dilema Veche)
“Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari’s Comparisons are thus Wong Kar Wai-style coincidences, chance surrealist meetings (on a dissecting table), comparisons enabled by poetry and many other things, in a poetic ‘novel’ whose elegant, spare, minimalist writing hypnotises the reader line after line.”
(Adina DINIȚOIU, Observator cultural)
“Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari’s new novel, The Comparison, is the book of an aesthete. It has great artistry (in effect, it is nothing but art, from one end to the other), but without this affecting its narrative qualities.”
(Cosmin CIOTLOȘ , România literară)
“All the female characters become addicted to reading, and the way in which they express their love imprints on Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari’s prose an authenticity I did not think was still possible in contemporary prose.”
(Cosmin BORZA , Dilemateca)