Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2011, 384 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Five figures are projected against the polychromatic backdrop of modern London: Razvan, Maria, Traian, Sabina, and Gruia, each with his or her past and future. Their stories unfold in parallel, with the exception of the aleatory and fleeting moments when they intersect, albeit without consequence. A gay, left-wing PhD student, a second rate painter, a stockbroker, a woman looking after a dying old man, and a slightly autistic man living without official documents, they all have one thing in common: Romanian citizenship. In these five typical lives Ioana Baetica Morpurgo captures the alchemy of one of the most terrible human experiences, that of being uprooted.
The beach is a postcard. I’m walking the length and breadth of a postcard that is less than half an hour’s walk from this morning’s crowded town. The massive bluffs have been sliced sheer by thousands of years of ebb and flow. From beneath the green skin there peeks a flesh that is soft and old, a flesh of bruised, ruddy clay. A huge cement penis stretches awkwardly into the water. The promontory, I mean. An anaemic, garishly dressed old woman sells tea and ices from a tin hut.
I met Ravi last year, at the beginning of summer. It was during the first year of my PhD, to be precise. At a party. He was with an Englishman – a dandy named Julian, an Arts student at U.C.L., like me. I remember talking to that Julian about his research subject: the golden number from the ancient Greeks to the postmodernists. What a load of wank. The English pump money into all kinds of stupid research. Ravi stood there motionless as his lover spouted his convoluted explanations. He was holding a glass of red wine in his left hand, and he uttered not a word. He was the other man’s mute shadow. From time to time, the living body, Julian I mean, would almost mechanically touch its shadow lightly on the shoulder, as if to console it for some unspoken deed. Or as if it wanted to make sure it was still there, that its shadow hadn’t wandered off, like Peter Pan’s. I had already lost the thread of the theory of the golden number and what equations you need to apply in order to discover it in the installations of Damian Hirst, and I was trying to wink at Ravi without being detected. He was wearing a baggy linen shirt with a short collar and a pair of rather tight black jeans. He had the kind of smile that gleams in the eyes, while the facial muscles and lips remain aloof. He was tall, almost as tall as me, but seemingly more fragile. I wanted to see him in motion, taking a few turns around the room, which was thick with cigarette smoke, voices, cocktails and postgrads.
“Ravi, similarly, is a human product of the golden number,” said Peter Pan, brushing a lock of black hair from his partner’s forehead and smiling as if hinting at a double entendre, as he would have liked to believe. Inanely, more like.
In the hour I had spent talking to him, it was the only thing that Mr Golden No. had said that seemed to me irrefutable.
Ravi lowered his eyes to the Persian carpet motifs – it looked like quite an expensive carpet – and ruthlessly squashed a grape under the sole of his shoe. Nobody noticed this apart from me. Julian was already standing with his back half turned. The host was introducing him to some fag hag who worked at the Tate Modern, but I didn’t catch what it was she did.
I remember spending the entire evening furtively trying to gather as many details about Ravi as I could. I discovered that he was twenty-five—the same age as me—and that he had come to the U.K. with his parents, four sisters and an uncle a few years previously. Peter Pan had picked him up in a gay cinema house in Soho. They had been together for a few months. But not all that long.
After a while, you meet only people who have had their fill of being fascinated. Your stories leave them cold; they no longer impress them, no matter how impressive they might be. The only way to move such people is with existential electric shocks, with fire-eaters, conjurers, celebrities, heroes, perhaps even death, although I doubt even that would impress them. The spectacular is part of their daily routine. But pain, for example, is something banal to them. It doesn’t enter into the equation. It isn’t worthy of their interest. Especially if it doesn’t affect them personally. But how did I get onto this topic?
Ah, yes, now I remember. I was thinking of Peter Pan, Mr Golden No., Julian, Ravi’s ex. Well-read, urbane, self-confident, habitually apparelled as if he lived early last century, a consummate conversationalist, obviously from a wealthy family (apparently there was a lord in his family tree), without being excessively snobbish, in other words, without being too overt or strident about it (rather it was a kind of intimate, reflexive and mysterious snobbery; he seems proud of being a bit of a snob), Julian gets on my nerves as much now that he is no longer any obstacle as he did then, that June evening when he brushed a lock of Ravi’s hair from his forehead… Why? Because he’s clearly the kind of Englishman who, once he grows up and finishes with his golden numbers, straight away casts anchor in the Conservative Party or a P.R. job, or, even worse, takes a running dive straight into M.I.5. I can’t imagine what Martin saw in him when he made friends with him. Not to mention Ravi. I’ll never forgive him for that. Tell me whom you fuck and I’ll tell you who you are.
“What exactly is it about?” (Julian, that evening.)
He had made the mistake of asking me about my doctoral thesis and we had ended up discussing the war in Iraq.
“It’s about the way the Americans reacted to the problem of terrorism. They responded by maximising the terror, by spreading it all over the globe. The politics of fear, in other words. That’s what it’s about. A million people gathered in Teheran to demonstrate against the attacks in September 2001. Seven years later, the U.S. is one of the most hated nations on earth.”
Mr Golden No. seemed interested in the topic, and so I continued:
“At present, there are more than eighty thousand prisoners being held in secret prisons run by the C.I.A. and the governments around the world that co-operate with them. Did you know that? Guantánamo is just the tip of the iceberg. And most of those people weren’t even captured on the battlefield, which means that they’re civilians and ought to have been tried in civilian courts. But that hasn’t happened. Every prisoner held unjustly and maltreated in a C.I.A. prison awakens vengeful fundamentalist tendencies in at least another dozen Islamists. Do the maths and you’ll see whether western democracies are in more danger now than they were in 2001.”
“Most of the prisoners were collaborating with the Taliban or terrorist networks, and the rest are suspects. You can’t just release them in the middle a war and let them run riot,” answered Julian, calmly lighting his third cigarette.
In fact, it was a pipe. Peter Pan smoked a pipe, not cigarettes like the hoi polloi.
“Actually, many of them were bought at five thousand dollars a head, as part of a programme of civil co-operation with the civilian population in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Americans paid five thousand dollars for any individual served up to them on a plate as a terrorist suspect. You can imagine what such a sum of money means to a peasant in southern Afghanistan. It’s the equivalent of seven year’s labour. They grab whomever they can lay their hands on and sell him to the Americans complete with a cover story. They’ve used it as a method to settle scores in countless tribal feuds. And once you’re a prisoner on some American base somewhere, then you might as well have vanished into thin air. Special renditions to the middle of nowhere, in Morocco or Egypt, where they torture you until you tell them what they want to hear.”
“You’ve been indoctrinated by the left-wing press. There are also genuine terrorists among them. It’s not easy to detect them. And if the choice is between keeping innocent people in gaol for a few years and a repeat of the events of September 2001, then I have no compunction. I don’t agree with torture. I can’t ignore the position of intellectuals like Chomsky, or Harold Pinter, who said in Nobel acceptance speech that torture is unacceptable under any circumstances…”
(Hmm, I thought, the bloke’s not completely out of it, I said to myself. Maybe he’s playing devil’s advocate. I should be more careful about what I say from now on.)
“…but I can’t see what else the American government could done in the present situation. It’s responsible not only for national security, but also for preserving western democratic values.”
“Blah, blah. What western democratic values? Consumerism? Flagrant breaches of human rights? The freedom to choose between two hundred television channels? Their freedom to poke their noses into the politics of other states, like they do in Gaza? Like they did in Chile in ’73?”
“Are you comparing human rights in the U.S. with human rights in Iraq?” continued Julian.
“All right, but if they’re on a mission to preach democracy the world over, what made them pick Iraq? Most of the terrorists involved in the 2001 attacks were Saudis. Women in Saudi Arabia are more marginalised than they were in Saddam’s Iraq, and homosexuality is punishable with death in other Islamist countries around the Middle East.”
“Now you’re going to serve up the theory about the Americans wanting to gain control of their oil reserves.”
“Does it seem to you an unreasonable hypothesis?”
Julian reached for the half-empty bottle of wine and topped up his already half-full glass. He topped mine up, too, although I didn’t want any more to drink, and then continued in the same impassive tone of voice. I was aware that my cheeks were burning and I could barely suppress my irritation.
“It seems to me that attacking a dictatorship that refuses to negotiate by diplomatic channels and is on the verge of obtaining weapons of mass destruction is a reasonable course of action, wouldn’t you agree? Moreover, Al Qaida were working with Saddam,” says Peter Pan, sipping his wine.
“And where are Saddam’s nuclear weapons? Not even to this day have they found any. And the Americans employed torture to obtain their proof that Al Qaida was working with Saddam. This is what we now know. Al-Sheikh al-Libi, the man they got the information from, was tortured by the Egyptians. They mutilated and electrocuted him for six months before he told them absolutely everything they wanted to hear. What would you choose: to be castrated or to say you were a bear?”
“You seem very annoyed… Is there anything I can do to help you regain your composure?”
“And as for nuclear weapons, not only have they not found any in Iraq, but in the meantime North Korea and Iran have been pursuing their nuclear armament programmes unmolested by the U.S.A.”
It was obvious that I was never going to convince Peter Pan. Julian is a successful product of the kind of Thatcherite thinking which his parents, who cashed in on the right-wing politics of the 80s, probably indoctrinated him with while he was still in nappies. Moreover, Julian is the kind of man who washes his hands of any difficult situation under the pretext that as an artist he is above such mundane matters. He has a certain expression that flickers across his face from time to time, especially when he catches you getting overexcited about some cause or other, a barely perceptible smile, while he lifts his head slightly and cocks it to the right. He looks down on you, from an ivory tower, cut off from the unbearable temperatures of the times. And the fact that not even for an instant does he lose his self-confidence makes him the collateral winner of the argument, granting him a kind of victory of style.
He had stopped listening to me or had lost interest in answering me, and so I tried to steer the conversation in a different direction:
“How can a homosexual be on the side of the establishment when everybody in the whole history of gay culture, from Socrates to Lorca and Pasolini, has been a rebel?”
“Homosexuality has got nothing to do with politics, it has got to do with eroticism,” he answered, in a tone of voice as if he were sharing some kind of secret. “I was hoping you would be able to tell the difference, darling. You oughtn’t to lump the two together. Otherwise you might end up not being able to reason when it comes to political ideas, and not being able to experience pleasure when it comes to erotic practices.”
It was then that yet another penny dropped for me. English private schools have a warm relationship with both the establishment and homosexuality. He turned to Ravi, who had been following the whole conversation with an ironic smile on his lips, looking for an answer in his facial expression, but didn’t find one. Then he proceeded to socialise with the others, hoping not to get lumbered with any more human rights activists for the rest of the evening.
An hour or so later my mind was still busy with two different trains of thought. First, I was obsessed with Ravi, for whom I had already created a glorious past of penury and isolation, of toil in the cotton fields, barefoot, stripped to the waist, scorched by the merciless sun of southern India. And second, I kept coming up with all kinds of arguments that I could have elegantly and ruthlessly served up to him: definitions of modern democracy, N.A.T.O. treaties infringed by the signatory member states in the case of Iraq, and so on. But in the end, the evening was mild and the bottles of champagne kept sprouting on the tables like poppies in a cornfield, sweet, sweet innuendo all the way. I had another conversation with two readers from my department, I can’t remember what about. They’re both good blokes, gay without being ostentatious, calm, pragmatic, healthy, intelligent, but rather ugly. I wouldn’t have got mixed up with either of them. Maybe that’s why they were drawn to each other. Etc. etc.: this is all that is left to be said about the evening in question. Apart from another isolated incident. The incident involving Martin.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Between manifestos and being part of the new literary generation, Ioana Baetica Morpurgo reclaims a personal style of writing, one in which she is authentically at home and genuinely believes in.”
“What is visible first of all in Ioana Baetica Morpurgo’s work is a good praxis of reading (the author is a philologist by training). She writes with unexpected maturity, in various registers, with a dose of (self-)irony, slightly reflexively, and with plenty of moments of poetic grace, thanks to oneiric/surrealist inserts.”
“She is authentic, a specialist in parabolic tales, written with great precision and imagination. Her sentences are sinuous, lacking in caprice, the coherence of the images allows the gaze to pierce unhindered to the meaning of the metaphor, and the details are allowed to say their piece.”
“Ioana Baetica Morpurgo fits perfectly into the outraged, disabused and cynically provocative new wave of writers currently in fashion. This is a younger generation obsessed with marginalisation, a feeling of its own futility, and the voice crying in the wilderness, a generation that finds escape in slang, vice and textual artifice.”
(Dan C. MIHAILESCU)