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Matei Florian


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Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2009, 262 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

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Matei Florian has created a fantastical world peopled with a legion of gnomes that consist of coloured mist. At the forefront of this legion, a new couple are getting ready to join the gallery of legendary lovers: Both Hams and Regretel (N.B. this is a single name and a single character, the novel’s hero) and his wonderful Tristina. Their adventures in the world of the ‘even-legs,’ i.e. grown-ups, do not take as smooth a course as you might expect for such fairytale figures. These creatures of mist, some of them lisping or even crossed with pixies, endure tribulations and even tragedies, the same as the humans around whom they float... Indeed, their sufferings are no different than those of the humans amongst whom they move, and in this the novel is much more than mere fantasy. Matei Florian allows his mist-begotten characters into the story precisely in order to give fuller shape to a deeper, human story, in which love swings between the realm of dream and waking, in a dance of yearning, interspersed with drama. Both Hams And Regretel is a fascinating book that takes the reader on a journey through the whole spectrum of emotions.



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Excerpt from

GOOD MORNING! PARDON me for waking you up at this hour, it must be around four, it’s pitch black, if you want to sleep some more, I’ve got nothing against that, I’m not even asking you to open your eyes, let alone start making coffee, sleep snugly and listen to me, I almost wish I could reach you, for a little while, for a few moments, to see the city swathed in mist, that green, yellow, blue, chimerical mist, but ultimately still mist, the same mist as here; look, certain things are beginning to dawn on me, for example, why Usi, Altfred and Regretel wouldn’t be able to live in the city; just think of it, it’s easy, imagine how bewildering the street lamps and advertising hoardings would be to them, how long it would take them to realise that all this mist is nothing but an illusion, that there is no question of the boulevards being thronged with gnomes, that tucked away in the coloured mist there is no one to juggle raindrops, no, the neon and the lightbulbs can’t do that, just you try to persuade them and you’ll see how they look at you askance, how they look at you in amazement and sadness, no, they will never understand how coloured mist can be anything other than a dwelling place for gnomes, it’s their prerogative, I tell you, and maybe they are right, maybe this is the way it should be, except that I can’t stop wanting to be with you, to gaze mindfully at the slumbering boulevards and espy him there, among the blinking yellow traffic lights and the huge hoardings advertising beer, to espy that flickering gentleman who has made his shelter in my hair, who breathed softly with me all night, who fastened me with his steady blue gaze whenever I awoke giddy and frightened from that interminable bad dream, that gentleman somewhat taller than a dandelion seed and more thickset than a curled leaf huddling in the cold, you have no idea how dear to me he is, how I would guard him from any red gleam, be it a stop light or the colour of coca cola, maybe it’s better like this, me being here, I swear to you, I couldn’t bear to see him snuffed out, in amazement, and vanish forever, this much is clear, Regretel has no business being where you are now, and I am indebted to remain with him for as long as we still need each other, for as long as his soft light soothes me after every nightmare, and the tangled strands of hair on the crown of my head are still of some use to him. Sleep, don’t worry about me, I’ll still write to you, all the same, it’s enough for me to know that you are at peace, you needn’t turn over, although perhaps it wouldn’t be all that bad if you did, so that I could admire your tall brow and arching eyebrows, so that I could caress your eyelids with my gaze, your eyelashes and high, Amazon cheekbones, so that I could timorously draw closer to your fleshy lips and then draw away again bearing that most precious of things, your exhalation, I’m not quite sure what I would do after that, probably I would cup my palms fearful lest your warm breath be scattered, lest it abandon me, there are caresses I would never have been able to imagine, but never mind, don’t turn round, the main thing is for me to sense that you are there, then your back can twitch at the soft, ever so soft touch of my fingertips, with eager bashfulness, then your skin can harbour so many lost moles that it would be a shame not to awaken them to life, summoning them to quiver, to breathe, to delight in my fingertips, then, don’t forget that my hands were born from your waist, thence they detached themselves and set off through the world on their own, bound to me only by accident, and thither, to that long and undulating nook, they shall return one fine day. Sleep. I have no one but myself to blame if I can’t do that, if I’m afraid to close my eyes when I think that I might dream of you again, believe me, you wouldn’t want to find out what goes on in those dreams, probably they would frighten you, too, probably you wouldn’t want to read my letters any more, and so it’s better that I don’t say anything, Regretel is the only one who understands me, that’s why I need him so much; you know, once upon a time, long ago, he was called Both Hams And Regretel, he was a gnome like any other gnome, I mean to say he was a garden gnome, to be precise, a friendly, cultivated gnome, an elegant, courteous gnome, sociable and considerate, delicate and dreamy, I don’t know what you imagine, but garden gnomes are not at all rosy-cheeked and misshapen, with pointy caps and waistcoats, with beards and long stockings and stupid grins, the kind of gnomes that we, the even-legs, use to decorate garden paths, no, it would be crass in the extreme to believe such a thing, who has ever heard of a red gnome? haven’t you understood that a gnome turns red only when he dies? that this is the only way you can make a gnome disappear? that, if the even-legs did not exist, only dreadful suffering, profusion of years or unshakeable determination would turn them into that infamous colour? So, don’t you paint your nails red ever again! Don’t you parade yourself with clotted blood on your nails ever again! Let us be quite clear about that. Do you understand? In any case, every real garden gnome hates the others, our gnomes, and there is no gale or shower through which they will not furiously rush against them, in order to smash them in pieces. Regretel, for example, did not suffer such outbursts, but he did despise them from with all his soul: ‘You can’t smile all the time. No, probably not. You’re crinkled, wrinkled, tinkled. You’re an ugly. Ugly!’


Often, in summer, when the scent of fried potatoes wafted through the blades of grass, Regretel used to dream of how a host of pixies armed to the teeth with nettles, thistles and ramsons would surround him, bundle him up inside a huge burdock leaf and bear him off, solemnly, gravely, ferociously, to the statue of a garden gnome. There, in icy silence, they would press their hideous faces to that beardy figure with the red cap and murmur dreadful words, droning, unintelligible words. After a while, the painted mouth would begin to grimace, the podgy legs would creak dreadfully, the plump body would start spinning round, and then, as if pulled by an unseen hand, lean backwards. What Regretel was dreaming would make him cry out: that ruddy apparition was hollow inside. ‘Henceforth you will remain here inside this dank and constricted belly, you will be the soul of this god, and your name will be pitch blackness,’ Regretel would hear, before awaking in a blue sweat. The pixies would vanish one by one. They would throng through a dense snowfall, they would slide pell-mell over frozen snow, ‘not long now, only a little longer,’ Both Hams And Regretel would say in his dream, ‘and then I’ll wake up, I’ll see Matilda the cherry plum tree, and Matilda will rustle softly, hey, I still have time to melt the snow, but better not, maybe not,’ then his garden would appear to him, green and gleaming, Matilda the cherry plum tree would rustle softly, ‘you fell asleep and you cried out,’ and the dogs would gaze at him quizzically and bark, mostly out of politeness, ‘Hams, Hams, it’s all right, we have bad dreams too from time to time.’


My dear sleeping lady, what would I not give to have a drop of Both Hams And Regretel in me, to spend the night in the matted, bushy pelts of the dogs, to be comforted by Matilda’s flowers, to sigh at a warm gust of wind and surrender myself to it, now I understand, too late, in this chilly cellar, with a dim lightbulb overhead, now I understand how much I have longed to be a tiny splotch of blue mist, to rise slowly on the wind over a garden with flowers, cherry plum trees and dogs, ‘Mister Letitius, Mister Vermont, bark the same way as you have always barked until now, for joy, out of hunger, in spite, for the sake of form, and for nothing, I respectfully inform you that I shall be going away for a while, I shall probably be back by evening,’ yes, joy and the spring sun would tint me blue, probably I would float, but of course I would float, what else could I do? firstly over the spruce trees, then the cable-car pylons, then far away, quite simply, I would remember Missus Tree-hollow Suzy, I would visit her in her branchy, aged tree, we would sample a little caramelised resin and she would recount to me, for the umpteenth time, the beautiful tale of the Gnome Bored of Foxes, then we would bid each other farewell, she would sigh courteously and flush pale green, ‘do come again, darling Harms, so that I can treat you to some more resin,’ probably yes, but of course, I would say to her as I left, politeness would not permit me to point out her mistake, ‘I am Hams, not Harms, madam,’ I whispered to her once, and she went on swaying as if nothing had happened, probably yes, but of course, of course I might at a pinch meditate on the fate of those gnomes who are about to fall asleep, on how many things lie concealed behind the rustling and the mist, how much sadness must leaven in the hollow of an old tree when you no longer rule the wind, and your mist is becoming heavy, sluggish, and laden with that oppressive brick-red that presages the end, probably yes, or probably I won’t experience such times, to me it will happen differently, but it’s as sure as sure can be, and then I will bring to mind All’laugh, the Nordic immortal, the re-educated one, the one who long ago, longer ago than back then and much longer ago than now, when my name has become simply Regretel, dared to rise up against the Order of the Stone Pleistocene Gnome and was cast down tumbling and driven out, together with his mad stone, driven somewhere far away, but very close to me, I would find him jolly and condemned to immortality, he would treat me to wild strawberries and benevolence, he would sigh on the sly, just for himself, but I would already know everything, his solitary immortality, his yearning for the mountains high, we would then spin out the mist, drawing it into lovely colours, we would gawp at the pylon and then avert our eyes when a cable-car of that cursed colour glided above our heads, we would feed the stag with greens and pulses and listen to the valley and the drawling murmur of a train moving into the distance, ‘clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack,’ All’laugh, the Nordic and immortal, would start to hum, and I would leave him to his memories and puckered joy, on parting I would bid him take care of the stag and be wary of the even-legs, I would bid him visit me soon, I am but a few raindrops distance away, after all, he can spend the night in Letitius or in Vermont any time, I would tell him that Vermont has an airier pelt, but also more fleas, which drive him into a fury in the depths of the night, he wouldn’t listen to me, probably not, of course, he would go on scouring the valley and gazing wistfully at the mountains, an eternity is a long time, probably yes, as sure as sure can be, of course, and before it gets too late, I would reach the vicinity of the rocks with the smoke and I would find Tristina there weeping. Yes, of course, I would be dazzled by her violet beauty, by her gentle and overwhelmingly lonely sighs, I would approach only by the by, I would conceal myself behind burdock leaves and stones and gaze upon her in a swoon, with fear and amazement, until the bears showed up.

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

 



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Critics about

Both Hams And Regretel is a book of strange beauty, without compare in Romanian literature.”

(Marius CHIVU)

“Matei Florian’s solo debut with Both Hams And Regretel was greeted at the end of last year as a literary Christmas present and as a ‘book unique in Romanian literature’. (…) The narrator of this surrealistic opus, whose chapters, seven in number, all begin with the magical formula ‘Good morning!’ is a solitary young man, who, at the onset of winter (and, as we later learn, on the threshold of death), has withdrawn to a ‘ramshackle house’ in the mountains, built for an unreachable (and, as we later learn, dead) lover, to whom he sends long, heart-rending and incoherent love letters, describing his loneliness, which, by way of compensation, is populated with miraculous creatures.”

(Paul CERNAT)

Both Hams And Regretel is a singular book in the current literary landscape, a delicate, ludic text, with notes of fairytale and irresistible humour, which reveals the full extent of Matei Florian’s talent as a writer, establishing him as an idiosyncratic voice.”

(Adina DINIŢOIU)

“This is a rare, hybrid book of moods and contrasts, which, in the apparent delirium in which it unfolds on first contact, hides the clarity in which, for whoever has the time and patience, unfold even the most tangled of emotions and ordeals, as a rule those that are the most essential.”

(Alina PURCARU)

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