Novel, "Fiction Ltd." series, Polirom, 2011, 240 pages
Copyright: All rights available
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Victor, the novel’s main character, suffers from the acute feeling that he is living in the posterity of his own youth. After childhood and adolescence, which, in hindsight, coincided with the happiest period of his life, he has the feeling that the present unfolds merely out of inertia. He has a bizarre, unsatisfying job, plus the obsession that his wife, the jolly Veronica, has been secretly replaced with another woman, who resembles her perfectly, but who possesses none of the charm or the dreams of the girl he married. In his escapist fantasies, his memory continually projects film sequences from his past, when alongside his college buddies life had meaning and savour. The scenes from his youth, recollected in colloquial, slangy language, unfold at a brisk place and overflow with often licentious humour. The present also plays its part in the narrative. One day, shortly before Christmas, Victor meets a man who speaks a strange language, accompanied by Nana, his interpreter. With them he embarks on an adventure that might change his life. But it all depends on him… After the bestseller How to Forget a Woman, which tackled unusual subject manner, Dan Lungu has written another surprising story, unconventional in its style and subject matter.
A few years after finishing high school, on his first day at his first job, he got the niggling feeling that he wasn’t doing what he ought to be doing. He knew that there were plenty of people who would have been happy to have a job as a taxi driver, but still he couldn’t be glad about it. The vision of a sprawling future of identical, colourless days, shimmering like a grey halo around the steering wheel, disconcerted him. It wasn’t the work in itself that daunted him, but the monotony and the routine. Having to eat at fixed times had driven him out of his mind even at an early age. Any kind of scheduled repetition roused in him a mania for unpredictability. He would have been capable of breaking his leg on purpose just to thwart other people in their expectations of what he had to do. Instinctively, he fought for every second or hour to himself, for whims and split-second decisions, he reserved the right to change his mind, even at the risk of appearing unreliable, all so that he could preserve his own conception of freedom. He couldn’t help but think of the irritation of a young horse feeling the harness for the first time or the impotent fury of a lashed, hungry circus lion that has to learn to ride a scooter.
His first wage packet came with the awkward sensation that he was being rewarded for his obedience and docility. Then he moved in with Veronica, so that they could be together every day. His life began to settle into a routine that later depressed him. Although he never found the time to check whether it was true, he was convinced that trained animals had the curious, all too human habit of often staring into space.
He had worked before then, of course, in all kinds of temporary jobs, or else he had earned money from small-time wheeling and dealing. He had sold doilies and ball bearings in Turkey and Poland, he had dug ditches for walls or drains, he had worked as a supply teacher in a muddy village, he had acted as a fence for perfumes and lipsticks, he had picked grapes, and he had laboured on building sites. Whenever he needed money, he always found something to do. It wasn’t exactly convenient, but the important thing was that he felt free. But Veronica wanted a family. She was sick of makeshift arrangements, of only ever making love once in a blue moon. She wanted a house of her own, a kitchen of her own, pots and pans of her own, a bed of her own. Maybe this was what had impelled him to get a job, more than his mother’s incessant nagging.
The other taxi drivers, who were of widely varying ages, were good blokes, but Victor didn’t play checkers with them. Something prevented him from feeling he was one of the gang, he didn’t know what exactly. It was as if the wine was flavourless. Drinking sessions with those family men exuded an unbearable sourness. The clinking of glasses sounded like the jingling of chains. In their company and under their suspicious eyes, he felt increasingly alone. Meanwhile, Veronica didn’t waste any time, and became increasingly wifely. She was so considerate that she began to forget to smile and caress his hair. She spent all her time cooking his meals and ironing his clothes, and so she had no time left over to think of him. He ought to have been content. She did everything a wife could possibly do for her husband.
After a few years of living together, one Sunday morning he woke up and still drowsy he looked at the woman lying in bed next to him. In her place there lay a stranger, her leg poking outside the blanket. To judge by her features, she looked like Veronica. She might have been a distant relative, but she wasn’t the woman he had fallen in love with. The flesh of the creature lying there gave off no light, and the scent was completely different, like a rotten apple. It was only then that he realised how long it had been since he and Veronica had lain there like that, side by side. It had been a long time since they had inhaled each other’s scent, since they had kissed, joked, fooled around together. He had almost forgotten what she looked like and in fact at that moment she reminded him of that woman locksmith who had long ago turned his head.
Presently the creature opened her eyes, almost causing him to recoil. The eyes were opaque, the smile distorted. Then, slightly dazed, he got up and started to put his clothes on, studying her out of the corner of his eye. The hair, eyes, cheeks, forehead and chin all preserved something of the old Veronica, but they weren’t hers. The breasts had lost their firmness and the thighs had grown fuller. They still looked exactly like hers, but he could swear they weren’t hers. That woman lying on her side in bed was a perfect copy down to the very last detail, but she wasn’t the girl he had fallen in love with. As if to prove him right, the creature asked, naggingly:
“What’s that noise? Is the water leaking from the toilet cistern again? Go and turn it off at the pipe, otherwise we’ll end up paying through the nose.”
He went into the kitchen to make the coffee, but he couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that Veronica had been replaced by somebody else, like in all those stories about babies getting mixed up in the maternity hospital. Yes, somebody was playing a practical joke on him and had swapped her with another woman, because to his mind it was impossible for a person to change so much in such a short time. The woman in his bed was some strange creature called Veronica, which looked a bit like her, but which was alien. The worst thing of all was that she didn’t realise it and that he couldn’t prove she was an imposter, either to her or to anybody else. At that moment, he felt alone, frighteningly alone.
He extinguished the burning sensation in the pit of his stomach with two glasses of cold tomato juice and while the coffee was percolating, he gazed out of the window. A beggar was rummaging in a dustbin with a long stick, and his mangy dog was waiting impatiently to receive some scraps. It wasn’t the first time he had seen them. The two were a heartrending sight. Or at least they were to him at that moment. After a while, remembering the bizarre event of that morning, he tiptoed to the bedroom and peeked inside. The creature was there, sprawling under the sheet, with her bottom pointing toward the door. The sheet rose and fell to the regular rhythm of her breathing. She had likely dozed off. The aroma of coffee had no effect on her, unlike in the adverts. He went back into the kitchen, rejoicing at the thought that he would be able to savour his dose of caffeine all by himself. But his joy was short-lived: the bed creaked and the voice of the fake Veronica, hoarse from sleep, demanded a glass of water. He wavered, but then decided that he had better do her bidding. Her eyes still puffy, the creature drank the liquid all in one gulp, placed the glass on the bedside table, and then smiled again, terrifyingly. For a second it crossed his mind that he was the victim of some hoax or perverse game, the fake woman between the sheets knew all too well that she wasn’t Veronica, but it amused her to wait until he realised and questioned her identity. The creature stretched, her vertebrae popping, she half uncovered herself, lasciviously, hinting that she was stark naked under the sheet, and cooed:
“Today’s Sunday and I’m entitled to some cake. I’d like to eat it before my coffee…”
He felt a chill down his spine. In their private amatory language, which they hadn’t much used of late, a cake meant making love and it was more or less obligatory on Sunday mornings. The fake Veronica knew all the secrets of their life as a couple, which caught him unawares. He looked at her uncomprehendingly. Then he saw her nipples, which were incredibly small in comparison with the volume of her breasts, and the clover-shaped birthmark on her neck, which turned scarlet when she was aroused. The counterfeit was flawless.
He ended up between her legs, without knowing exactly how and, above all, without wanting to. From a kind of instinctive masculine pride he finished the job, and he would have been a liar if he had said he had felt no pleasure. Broadly speaking, the erogenous zones of the alien woman reacted precisely as he expected, and much to his surprise she was familiar with his all his little lovemaking habits. Once the final echoes of orgasm died away, he was sure he had caught her grinning. He took a long shower, much longer than usual, using much more soap, to wash away all the traces of her touch from his skin. She dozed off again and awoke around lunchtime, allowing him to drink his coffee in peace and think of a thousand things in the meantime.
He kept his eyes on her for the rest of the day. He monitored her movements, gestures, words, tastes. They were incredibly similar to Veronica’s, but there could be no doubt about it: that woman was a stranger.
After this event, he realised that in fact he was dead. As a result, his life began to change imperceptibly. In other words, he learned to cohabit with the fake Veronica, the simulacrum of the woman he had once loved.
He called her Veronica, even though he knew it wasn’t her.
And sometimes, when he when was drunk, he used to tell her about the love of his life, Veronica, the flighty young girl who once stole his wits.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“It is worthy of praise that this novelist of the dramas of lowly humanity and the aberrations of Romania’s post-revolution transition period has so ably managed to reconcile the demands of mainstream public success, becoming the most popular and exportable Romanian prose writer of the new wave.”
“A new novel by Dan Lungu, with such an unusual title as In Hell all the Light Bulbs are Burnt Out, cannot but be a pleasure (even a joy) to read for any reader, including a critic.”
“A novel of nostalgia for a time of innocence, but also the death of illusions, the revelation of the irreversibility of passing time, the implacable process of ageing, In Hell all the Light Bulbs are Burnt Out is a book about disappointment and fear of life. At one point, Victor, the main character, gets the feeling that ‘life is a tube that narrows the further you go, so that you have to stoop lower and lower’.”