Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2011, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Four Men Plus Aurelius is set in a film studio, where a mysterious man turns up one day, claiming that there is a character in the novel Madame Bovary that no one except him can remember. As a result, everybody stops what they are doing and goes off to reread Flaubert’s novel. This proves to be more problematic than it would have seemed, however. The premise on which Doina Rusti’s novel is based also provides an occasion for remembrance, on the part of the central character, Licia, who falls in love with the newcomer. The men in her life – tempters, seducers, and inconstant heartbreakers – re-emerge in her memory one by one, transfigured and burdened with old guilt. This adventure, which blends together murder, sentimentality, and a tomcat that is simultaneously loved and hated, gradually replaces the narrative of the conventional novel. For, this is literature that is also about literature…
I walked out of the door of Action Film studios and went straight to the seedy bar on Moise Nicoara Street. It was full of people from the hall of residence, mostly acting students, but also some from my corridor, where you mainly find people who have paid an official surcharge not to have to share a room: the masters students, like myself, mature students, artists embarked upon a protracted process of training, and various fauna from the student crime underworld.
I ordered myself a mug of draught beer and took a gander at the other people sitting in the bar. Ani was there, of course. As soon as he laid eyes on me, he pounced. I’m not saying I was picky. In any case, the state I was in at the time, I would have drunk with anybody. The bad part was that I downed so many beers that my erotic standards were drastically lowered. As we made our way to the hostel, we both knew that he would be sucking my tit that night, although it wasn’t entirely out of the question that I might change my mind just as we were coming out of the lift.
Ani had a very smart room all to himself. He’d paid a hefty bribe to get it.
“I could have got digs anywhere,” he explained to me, “but I like this hall of residence because it’s full of artists.”
The small table next to the bed was bristling with bottles, mostly hard liquor, and on the shelf above it there were lined up some stupid framed photographs: suited busts, with neckties and gelled hair.
“Where did you get the name Ani?”
“It’s short for Animal.”
He wasn’t annoyed and nor was he being ironic.
“What’s your real name?”
“I’m not telling you. It’s a crappy name. When I was in high school, somebody nicknamed me Ani in reference to some film or other and it stuck. I liked it because it’s short.”
“That must mean your real name is beyond polysyllabic.”
“Like I said, I’m not telling you. What’ll you have to drink?”
“Is that you in those photographs?”
I didn’t feel like drinking, but nor could I be bothered to go back to my room, and so I decided to make a brief inspection. The framed photographs with the starched bust stood out against the white wall, one in particular, whose gilt edge cut my finger when I picked it up. The man in the photograph was looking aslant, smiling insinuatingly, his face illumined by the dazzling white shirt collar. I almost staggered backwards. In fact, I could even see myself slamming into the wall behind at a hundred miles an hour, lit up by green spotlights and with my hair standing on end.
But obviously that was just in my imagination. In reality, I was standing in Ani’s room, rooted to the spot, holding a crappy gilt frame and enduring that trademark Aurelius gaze, the face of the man who had shattered my pride, the man I’ll never be able to forget. Not even fifty years from now, when I’ll be doddering in a hospital bed, trying to suck the spoon being held out to me by a nurse, not even in the petrified sleep of death or beyond, in the black void, where the last molecule of my memory will linger agonisingly with the sole purpose of keeping alive the arrogance of that man.
The refined and superior-looking man smiling in the photograph on Ani’s shelf was Toni, or Ion Antonescu, to be exact, one of the four men who have destroyed my appetite for reading.
“In the photographs,” Ani’s voice tinkled behind me, “in all five of them, in fact, it’s my brother.”
An unlucky day
Toni! I fell in love with him at first sight. Absolutely! It’s stupid, but there you go. What, are we animals to go by just appearances, without ever knowing what’s behind them, without knowing what’s in the brain hidden behind the face? But you have to admit that it does happen.
I saw him in the corridor, at the Cassandra. It doesn’t matter what I was doing there, but I’ll tell you, if you insist. I was handing out flyers for a show. The drama students are always putting on pretentious stuff like that. He had to come to see a performance and was waiting for a floozy I knew to look at, who was studying to be a director. I can picture them even now: he was wearing a green t-shirt and her hair was full of extensions, beads and coloured threads, like something out of a film from the 70s. I saw him and I might have forgotten him, although he kept ogling me. You know the kind of greaser who’ll be with his girlfriend, sometimes a first-class bit of stuff, but will keep leering at other women, to let you know that the broad he’s with is just temporary? Well, that’s exactly the kind of wanker Toni was. My brain rejected him, but at the same time my blood was frothing.
The next day, I met him again. He was in the Mosor, drinking a coffee. I entered and noticed him, but pretended not to see him. I sat down in a spot from where I could keep him under observation, of course, and I admit that I stared with all my might. Back then, I still had the earrings my mother left me, which made me feel very important.
In the end, he got up and came over to my table.
“Are you the one from Theatre Studies, in the same year as Madi?”
All right, it’s true: there are whole legions of blokes who lay eyes on a woman and then go up to her and ask her about some other woman. I swear that wasn’t what got me! It annoyed me, but I could let it pass. It was something else that really killed me.
A saxophone was tootling down the back of my neck, and Toni was talking nineteen to the dozen:
“I’ve had it off with Madi, about twice.”
“I get it,” I said. “The first time was shit and so you had another go.”
He pulled up a chair. He wasn’t the kind of man you remember by his face. Proof of this is the fact that I barely recognised him in the photographs on Ani’s shelf. But he had the Aurelius attitude: he was the inaccessible scoundrel, who felled me with one blow. Even though I saw very well what he was capable of, I couldn’t budge. It was as if I was nailed to the tabletop, and that two-bit charmer was getting under my skin, niggling me with all kinds of dirty talk, to the point that I imagined I was seeing an engorged glans poking out of his mouth.
“Who are you shagging?”
“Are you curious or is that a professional question? You get a bit yourself every now and again, don’t you?”
I remember that the barman was looking at us and his ears were burning. He had a mouse-like face and red ears. I still remember him. There were also some tarts who kept looking at us out of the corner of their eyes, from the next table. The cigarette smoke, the squeaky jazz, and those people in my field of vision have remained in my mind to this day.
We sat in the café for about an hour. Toni told me at great length about what an animal he was in his relations with the chicks. He spoke in a staccato voice, about a semitone higher than mine, and his lower lip was protruding like a leech. I looked into his eyes and could feel my nipples chafing under my t-shirt.
At one point he stretched out his arm and put it around my waist. I admit my expectations were high, even if I could feel the barman’s eyes boring into me. I would have stripped naked for him if he had asked me to. He knew that, of course. He gave me exactly that jubilant Aurelius look, and then he glued his lips to mine. He didn’t French kiss me; he just glued his lips for a second or two.
It was around lunchtime, and the tables had begun to empty. The barman was staring at us like a madman. And in that instant I realised that Toni had just finished his number:
“Nah,” he said, pulling a face. “You’re not my type.”
He stood up and made for the door, without any regrets. He had got me to stick my mug out, and then he had knocked my teeth out. That’s what they call an inevitable. I remained sitting there at the table, frozen, with the barman staring at me, and thirty knots in my throat.
Finally, I found out that he hadn’t even paid for his coffee.
By the time I reached the hall of residence, I was like an old tyre: worn out and infested with ancient odours. On my corridor they were doing repairs. In fact, the whole place was like a building site. They had taken the lift out and the walls of all the corridors had been sanded down to the bare concrete. I had a look down the lift shaft, which looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. I don’t know how long I stood there. A few seconds. When I turned around, he was there. What did he want from me? I don’t know. I can see him now, standing next to me, smiling, with a gel-stiffened tuft of hair. I can’t explain why I remember that detail. But believe me, when I think of that colloidal tuft, even now, three years later, I feel a hot breath of steam in the cotton of my panties.
I took fright at the time, obviously. How would you have reacted in my place if you had turned around to find a bloke breathing down your neck? And not just any bloke, but precisely the one who was lodged like a thorn in your brain.
I can’t even remember if I shoved him away.
I don’t know what I did exactly.
All I can remember is the shriek I couldn’t manage to release – it was more of a gulp – and then the heavy thud at the invisible bottom of the lift shaft.
It was an accident. I swear!
Toni was found dead in the lift shaft, aged twenty-one, and I still dream of him, not so much him as my state at the time and my unfulfilled desire.
That night, the night of his death, for the first time in my life, I went to sleep without having read first, curled up on a mattress in Mangalia.
Obviously, there was no question of lingering any longer in Ani’s room. I put the photograph back on the shelf and said, more for the sake of politeness:
“Ah, he’s your brother! That’s why you look alike.”
“I’m surprised you say that. Not many people notice the resemblance. Toni was studying acting. He died here in this hostel. Perhaps you heard…”
I immediately shook my head, but I didn’t dare make my exit. And as Ani was looking me straight in the eye, I asked, almost casually:
“How did he die?”
“He was found at the bottom of the lift shaft. I think somebody pushed him.”
That takes the biscuit! Even the police said it was probably an accident, but as I had already pretended not to know anything about it, I couldn’t really argue the toss with him.
“Maybe it was an accident.”
Ani’s eyes were glowing and he was looking at me combatively.
“I’ve discovered a witness.”
I could hardly have left after I heard that. I even imagined myself pushing Ani out of the eighth-floor window.
“What do you mean? Was there somebody who saw something?”
“A girl was seen next to the lift.”
“And that’s all. I’m still looking. That’s why I live here.”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Four Men Plus Aurelius is a book you read with great pleasure, because Doina Rusti’s imagination also operates at the stylistic level, where the ingeniousness of the metaphors and visual comparisons stands out. The author has her own demon: tireless inventiveness.”
“All the dramas are connected with books, it is all literature, depending on how you look at it. An enchanting book.”
“Doina Rusti has written another captivating novel, deceptive in its volubility, capable of producing ambiguous effects from even the drabbest ordinariness.”
“Fast-paced, sinewy, with a thriller-like plot, countless surprises and out-of-the-ordinary events, the novel is a page-turner. One thing is for sure: Doina Rusti tells a story well, with panache, and the quality of her writing engrosses you in the delights of this novel from the very start.”
"I do not have much time for reading... but it was enough to open one and I could not close it until I read it through. The other book struck me down, too. Doina Rusti is an excellent prose writer, of great talent and intuition; she can have a rude style when needed, but other styles, too: humorous and candid, sarcastic and affectionate towards her characters who are always intense, interesting, ambiguous, original, as the author wants them to be."