Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2007 (2nd revised edition), 216 pages
Translation rights sold to: Dalkey Archive Press (USA), Sphinx Publishing (Egypt), L’Harmattan Kiado (Hungary), Aisara (Italy)
The main character of the book, a man of thirty, lives in a modest flat on the fifth floor of a housing block. Every Sunday, the protagonist performs a kind of ritual : he climbs onto the window ledge and waits for a suicidal urge, which, however, never comes.
The events of the novel unfold over the course of three days. On the first day, the young man sets off to the town’s railway station in search of prostitutes. On the way, he runs into another young man, known during the story as the “bloke with the orange braces”, who has hanged himself from an old steam engine in an unused siding. The protagonist saves him and takes him to the station hospital, from where the bloke with the orange braces discharges himself on his own two feet. The main character will later find the man he saved in a railway workers’ bar. He is unwillingly embroiled in a fight provoked by the bloke with the orange braces, who breaks a chair over the head of one of the prostitutes in the bar, leaving her in a pool of blood. For the second time in the space of the same day, the protagonist saves the bloke with the orange braces, this time from the fury of the drinkers in the bar, and takes him back to his own flat. This is where the entire atmosphere of the story takes shape : a disabused world of strange neighbours and a building superintendent who is an old woman yearning for a relationship with a young man of thirty.
During the other two days covered by the action of the novel, we discover that the young protagonist is a member of a kind of club for “professional suicides” – people in search of death, sometimes for the most stupid reasons and in the most bizarre ways : one wants to kill himself by sleeping with as many women of easy virtue as possible, in the hope of contracting a fatal disease ; another wants to commit suicide by drinking huge quantities of the finest quality whiskey, until he falls into an alcoholic coma ; etc. They are all “suicide artists”, and it is into this strange group that the young man of thirty would now like to introduce his new friend. Parallel to these events, the two attempt to find out whether the prostitute in the bar has managed to survive being hit over the head with a chair. The answer will not be revealed until the end of the novel.
The finale closes the circle of the tale : during a further visit to the railway station, the protagonist discovers that the prostitute has died. He does not tell his new friend about this. At the same time, however, frightened at the turn that events have taken, he comes up with a plan : he convinces the bloke with the orange braces to go to the station, to the locomotive where he first found him. And he proposes that they both commit suicide. The young man tells his companion that in this way the railway workers will understand that they both regret the incident with the prostitute – and they will be forgiven. In fact, the protagonist’s plan is to free himself from the noose and to chase away anyone who tries to save the other, allowing him to die and thereby escaping from any legal consequences of his association with the prostitute’s murderer. The plan fails, however, for various reasons – the protagonist does not allow his new friend to die, but rather tells him the truth about the prostitute and about what he has been planning. It all ends with a roar of laughter, an agonised roar of laughter which consecrates the general principle and theme of the book, according to which whoever has failed at everything else in life can only be consistent and fail at his own death.
There are days – what am I saying : months ! – when I desperately wait for events, praying for something the hell to happen, hoping for some phone call to wrench me out of the numbness, to inform me that, somewhere in this apparently so immobile world, something is happening worthy of my attention. But the phone call does not come, however much I pine away waiting for it.
But when events are determined to assail you from every side, it is no longer any surprise at all when your phone rings. Moreover, it is absolutely no surprise when you hear that the first words from the other end of the line are :
“Today is the day !”
Indeed. What could be surprising in that, when in the last few hours you have saved someone from death twice, you have witnessed the possible murder of a prostitute, you have slept in the same room as the presumed murderer and, at the same time, subsequent suicide, you have visited an ex‑girlfriend, more than fifteen years older than yourself, and, the cherry on the cake, you have dared to call that ex‑girlfriend “madam” ?
I myself had been thinking that today is the day : it is the day that comes after yesterday, the day on which I’ll continue to have to put up with a series of questions whose answer I don’t know whether I’m capable of finding, the day on which I’ll be swinging between regrets and curiosity. But, recognising the voice at the other end of the line, I realise that this day brings something extra with it : the respectable madness of my pal the former theologian, who is thinking of killing himself by drinking whiskey until he enters an alcoholic coma.
Lately, he has told me about this intention of his countless times. And I, naturally, admired him for the idea (just as I had admired him before that for the idea with the prostitutes). However, also taking into account the fact that he would never manage to save up enough money to buy ten litres of the finest whiskey, as he would have wished. The time when he worked for a private firm, with a more than satisfactory wage, had passed. Once, just once since he was laid off, he managed – from his dole money, which he was still receiving at the time, and from his work as an amateur dogcatcher – to put aside a sum sufficient for three litres. He phoned me up then too. And he set about drinking, happy. All the while he talked to me about suicide. Philosophically, pathetically, but at the same time enthusiastically, as though it were a question of the supreme creative act of which man might be capable. In the end, in order to justify his claim, he went on to biblical arguments :
“Maybe you don’t know,” he said to me, “but the Bible presents God as having four essential qualities : firstly, through the way in which he acts toward the Pharaoh at the moment the Jews are freed from bondage in Egypt, God proves to be a powerful, fear‑inspiring force. Also through the liberation of the Jews and, above all, through the way in which he resolves that situation, He proves His wisdom. Through the punishment He inflicts upon those who have persecuted His people, God manifests his justice. Then, we discover a third quality in His respect for the promise He made as regards the descendants of Abraham and in His entire behaviour to His people. The fourth principal quality is therefore love. Get it ?”
I had understood the bit about the qualities. But I couldn’t see what it was he was getting at. I nodded, as though I had been fully edified.
“Proceeding from this summary characterisation,” he continued his idea, “We could find an answer to the question ‘Why the hell did God create the world ?’ What do you think, could we ?”
What else could I say ?
“Well, no, my friend, look but we couldn’t. How the devil could we ! Let’s take the first quality of God : power. Why did God need to manifest his power over mortals ? Why did He have to create the Earth and mankind, when, as the Bible says, He had previously created the angels ? Therefore He already had someone He could show off His power to. Here’s the problem, but pay attention : in distinction to angels, the Creator offered humans the possibility of multiplying, evolving, learning, choosing. He gave humans a part of Himself, making them creators in their turn. And also in distinction to the angels, man was also offered the right to be disobedient. So, God’s power was manifested to us as to subjects, which is what angels are, but only as payment for the war man has started against the divinity. Think about the times when God has revealed His power. To Cain, who committed murder. To the Pharaoh. To the rulers of His people, when they defied Him. It can therefore be said that His power only manifests itself in self‑defence. In conclusion, to the question ‘Did God create the world in order to have someone to manifest His power to ?’ I can answer you without hesitation that He didn’t. Because, in the beginning, He had no intention of showing His power to mankind. He was obliged to do so. Well then !”
My pal the former theologian paused for a few seconds, probably to gather his booze‑addled thoughts.
“But let’s see,” he went on finally, “how things stand with the second quality, wisdom. Do you really think that the world was born out of vanity, out of the desire of an absolute awareness, such as God, to prove its wisdom before much inferior existences ? His wisdom helped Him to build the world, yes, but the display of that wisdom was is no case one of the purposes for the appearance of the world. How much could the appreciation of some ignorant wretches have pleased Him, the embodiment of wisdom to the maximum degree ? Not at all, don’t you think ?”
“That’s right, how could it ?” I nodded, more and more bored by his explanation.
“Another quality of God is justice, as I’ve already told you. As God’s first creation, namely the angels, had been conceived in order to live in justice, it can be presupposed, forcing the argument it is true, that God created man in order to be able to manifest His spirit of justice. Though slightly fatuous, this claim might, nonetheless, be taken into account. However, in the very first chapter of Genesis, we discover that God declares Himself satisfied with His creation, regarding it as very good. As he was referring to His creation in Paradise, it seems quite clear that He was satisfied with what He saw at that moment. It might therefore be considered that the temptation of Adam and Eve had not been foreseen by the divinity. In other words, not even His redemptive wish had been part of the purpose for creating the world, as long as, when He declared Himself satisfied with what He had made, sin did not yet exist. It therefore remains to be seen how things stand with the fourth quality of God.”
“Love,” I interrupted, from a desire to contribute something to the discussion.
“Yes, love. I see you remember. Did the One Above need love, and was that why He created us ? No, my friend, the angels loved Him too. So, it’s clear that it wasn’t a need for love that made Him invent man. Tell me, then : why the devil did God create the world ?”
“How should I know ?”
He was already drunk and terribly incensed, and it seemed to me that his entire philosophy had completely lost any coherence. Ultimately, after all that prattle about God and the world, he had arrived back at the same question as at the beginning.
However, although he was already seriously reeling, and his eyes had begun to dart about rather strangely in their sockets, my pal proved capable of resuming his discourse :
“You see, if you weren’t paying attention ? Well, didn’t I mention at one point that, in the very first chapter of Genesis, God declares Himself satisfied with His work ? That’s the secret, my friend. Imagine a painter or any other kind of artist, who, when he finishes his work, is enthused by the idea he had and looks on the result with satisfaction, murmuring to himself : ‘It’s a good piece of work’. Although he knows that the difficult task of putting the finishing touches is still to come, he rejoices at the thought that what he has before him is his own work, born of his own idea and brought to fulfilment by him alone. You see ? Like the artist, God created something and put His name to His creation. And, above all, like the artist, God had no purpose, no reason for creating the world. But people have always posed the question : why were we created, after all ? And, since the simplest answer, which is to say “just because”, didn’t suit anybody, philosophy came into being. And philosophy led to evolution. Now, at last, do you see why God created the world ? Just because !”
After that discussion, I often thought about my pal’s explanation and I discovered a host of meanings, each one of them equivalent to a revelation. But I hadn’t understood anything at the time. And nonetheless, I said :
“Yes, I see. Except that I don’t see what connection it has with your suicide.”
“I’ve been wasting my breath on you, in that case. Well, how the devil could it not have a connection ! ? My suicide is an artistic act, my friend. And, like any artistic act, it has no motivation. Or, if it has, it’s not one that just anyone can discover.”
And then, suddenly distracted, he added :
“That’s why, you see, you’ll never succeed in killing yourself.”
My indignation, aroused by the sneering smile with which he accompanied that assertion, could, I think, be heard far from his abode.
“Who the fuck made you think you’re cleverer than me ! ? How’s that : you succeed in killing yourself, but you don’t credit me with any chance at all ! ?”
“Exactly. Look, let me demonstrate it to you. What reasons have you got to kill yourself ?”
What reasons did I have ? That was a stupid question, to which I probably shouldn’t have given him any answer. Nonetheless, I said :
“Do you know what I would like from life ? A beautiful woman to take care of me and to have sex with me until I feel I can take no more. In fact no, a lot of beautiful women to take care of me and have sex with me until I feel I can take no more. I wouldn’t say no to a hefty inheritance from some uncle in the West – not that I have one. I’d also like to be a footballer. Those footballers are the richest people in uniform. I’d probably quite like to loll around in bed all my life watching television, eating, having sex and reading. Or – aha, yes, most of all ! – to invent a device, a kind of magnet, to attract all the money lost by all the people in the world. Not all the money lost throughout time, I’m not that pretentious, but, let’s say, over a fixed period : over the course of a month. Well, you see, not one of these things, not one of my wishes is ever going to come true. That’s why I want to kill myself !”
My whiskey‑drinking pal complemented his smile with a roar of laughter.
“You’ve given yourself away,” he said. “Now do you see why I told you that you’d never kill yourself ? Because you have too many motives. That’s the main, in fact the sole motive a normal person should have for killing himself : not to have any motive. Because behind each of those motives lies hidden a wish. And any wish, believe me, brings with it some hope of fulfilment. If God had had such easily detectible motives for creating the world, I tell you that the Earth would not exist today. Because God is too clever not to have realised the idea I’ve just laid out to you.”
I agreed with him. And I agreed with him so much that the discussion was followed by a greatly enhanced consequence of the morning’s outbursts on the ledge. So, in expectation of the urge, I strove to find out whether I have wishes or not. The window ledge thus became a kind of barometer of desires.
As for him ? He drank a bottle of whiskey after that. Consequently, he got drunk enough for his sexual appetite to make him abandon the other two bottles and leave the house in search of a woman.
And, as he didn’t have any money for prostitutes, that evening he stopped in front of every person of the female sex that came his way, and said to them, seriously reeling :
“Would you like to make love with me ? After that, if you don’t like it, I can commit suicide.”
Of that event I remember that the next day, when he awoke from his drunken stupor, he told me over the telephone :
“Look, my friend, didn’t I tell you last night ? Desires stifle any appetite to kill yourself ! It just so happened that I slept with a woman… Farewell suicide !”
* * *
“Today is the day !” the voice at the other end of the line now solemnly resounds.
And, for all that I know what he is referring to, since the entire relationship between us is based on a single point in common, the only way I can react is to ask mechanically :
“What day ?”
I hear a mutter of annoyance.
“What do you mean, what day ? Haven’t I told you about it umpteen times ? It’s the day on which I’ve managed to buy enough whiskey to kill an elephant. Are you interested ?”
This time, although I haven’t the slightest doubt about namely what should interest me, I don’t answer mechanically, but only out of a pointless desire to banter with him :
“The whiskey ?”
More muttering, more annoyance – an infantile satisfaction for me.
“It’s only for me, my friend, as you know full well. Are you interested in coming to see me kill myself ?”
This isn’t a case of a wedding that you don’t have enough money to go to and so you excuse yourself by claiming to have a heavy cold. Nor is it a case of a birthday party, which you have reasons not to go to because you don’t like music at full volume or people dancing when you don’t know any kind of dance. This is a case of witnessing a suicide. And such an invitation, as everyone must agree, is hard to refuse. Even if accepting it would lead to having to listen to another interminable lecture about God and His four essential qualities and about unprecedented artistic acts. You can easily tolerate something of the sort, when you think that the opportunity of witnessing a suicide in the fullest sense doesn’t crop up very often in your life. What else can we say : you would have to be completely mad not to take advantage of it ! Except that for me there is a hitch :
“I’m not available.”
I’m talking nonsense. If she could hear me, my former neighbour would be right in imagining that between myself and him with the orange braces there is much more than a mere friendship.
“I’m not alone,” I hastily correct myself.
“Well, this is something I never expected you to say. You’re thinking of missing such an opportunity for the sake of a woman ?” marvelled the voice at the other end of the line.
Not for a woman, no. In fact, not for anyone. All I want at the present time is to convince my whiskey‑drinking pal to invite the person I’ve spent the last twenty hours with as well. Although I haven’t asked my friend with the orange braces whether he wants to come, I’m convinced that, like myself, he wouldn’t want to miss such a moment.
“I have a guest. A friend. Couldn’t he come with me ?”
He mutters again, expressing for the third time his annoyance in this way.
“I don’t really want to. It’s a personal act : you know how I see it. You’re welcome, bearing in mind…”
“But he’s one of us !” I interrupt, hoping thereby to convince him.
In the next instant I cannot but wonder what the hell I meant by that. What did that “one of us” mean, which I uttered so nonchalantly ? Had some kind of caste of suicides been created in my mind, of which I too was an honourable member ? Stranger still is that the mind of the one at the other end of the line seems to be on the same wavelength as mine. Because to my friend, who today has decided to put an end to his life, this “one of us” seems as natural as can be, given that he concludes, with relief :
“Ah, alright ! In that case, I can’t see any reason not to bring him along.” (…)
* * *
Even if the atmosphere ought to be relaxed, bearing in mind the fact that it overlaps with a number of unexpected achievements in the life of my friend the former theologian, I feel something weighing on my chest. I don’t know what. Anyhow, this feeling becomes sharper the moment I see our host pouring coffee into the cup of my friend with the orange braces, whose presence I have quite forgotten in the last few minutes.
“Sugar ?” the one who has invited us asks, as affable as ever.
“Instead of coffee,” I hear my companion say, “couldn’t you give us both a cup of whiskey ?”
And here is the explanation for the pressing sensation in my chest ! For the third time in the last few hours, the voice of the assistant at the dispensary suddenly resounds in my ears : “If you give him a brandy, he’ll tell you everything.” How could I have forgotten ? I realise – a little too late, it is true – that I have made a mistake in bringing my guest here. The other also thinks the same thing, goggling his eyes, utterly stupefied. Then, ignoring the one I have come with, he snaps at me :
“Didn’t you tell him what I want to do ?”
“Yes, I did.”
I am genuinely scared at what might come of the gaffe made by the one with orange braces. What if we get chucked out ? How the hell could I have forgotten ? There’s no doubt about it : I’m to blame. I should have pointed out to my friend that he should restrain himself, however much that bucket of alcohol might tempt him.
“He was joking,” I say, trying to mend the situation and at the same time pinching my companion’s thigh with all my might.
“What the hell’s got into you ?” says the latter, jumping up from his chair and rubbing the spot where I nipped him.
And as I’m endeavouring to give him a conspiring wink, he unexpectedly clouts me across the face, a slap strong enough to topple me onto the carpet, chair and all. In the seconds in which I try to come back to my senses, reason, crammed into one corner of my mind, demands that I should not react, that I should behave normally, especially given the fact that I’m not in my own house. Unfortunately, however, reason has very few other courses of action to dictate to me, and so, once I’m on my feet, I reply with all my force, punching my aggressor. In the sudden welter, I nevertheless manage to see my frightened whiskey‑drinking friend grab the bucket, cradling it in his arms to protect it. This move comes too late, however. In the next moment, the one with the orange braces, roaring, rushes at me, shoving the former theologian, who, with the bucket in his arms, had just thrust himself between us. So it happens that, as we are rolling on the carpet, chaotically slugging each other, fighting without any well‑founded reason, a drawn‑out moan fills the room…
At that moment, as though on cue, we cease the fight that had erupted out of the blue. This affords us the opportunity to see our host on his knees, noisily lamenting in front of the spilled bucket, in front of the puddle of expensive liquor which, with each passing moment, is spreading over the carpet.
* * *
We sit gloomily around the table, upon which the bucket is enthroned. In spite of the wholly tragic situation, my friend who had planned to kill himself today can no longer find the strength to reproach us with anything. He merely weeps, with his head in his hands. And we try to console him. Patting him on the back (the one with the orange braces). Or on the head (me).
Using a piece of gauze, we have managed to collect a small part of the liquor spilled on the carpet. Which, added to that remaining in the bucket, makes, at present, one or perhaps two litres of whiskey standing on the table. We each have a cup of whiskey in front of us ; we are each trying to dissolve our bitterness by drinking from our cups. Undoubtedly, however, someone is less upset by the situation, and that someone, in spite of his guilt‑ridden sighs, is my friend with the orange braces. In the end, he has got what he wanted. Now, without encountering any resistance on the part of our host, he can drink as much as he likes from the bucket of liquor.
Nor is the atmosphere at all improved in the moment when the most afflicted among us, my pal, who has missed another opportunity to commit suicide, bursts into hysterical laughter. In fact, he even manages to scare us, when he thrusts away his chair with a shriek and climbs onto the table, and then starts to dance around the bucket. Such a reaction is anything but normal and so, seemingly of the same mind, we grab him by the legs and pull him back down.
There is no way we can stop his laughter, however. Amid guffaws, he manages to say :
“And so there it is, brothers, ha, ha, starting tomorrow, instead of seeing to my own affairs in the other world, I’ll be back to my staple trades : unemployment and bounty hunting ! Because there is no chance of me winning the lottery a second time !”
“Bounty hunting” is merely the pompous term he uses to describe his work as an amateur dogcatcher or, to put it more accurately, as a man who scours the streets for days on end in search of pedigree dogs. Once he finds such a dog, my pal scans the newspapers for small ads that begin “Pedigree dog lost in the … area.” If a small ad includes information that fits the description of the dog he has found and, above all, if it concludes with “Reward for the finder”, he presents himself at the owner’s door with the quadruped. If not, then the dog regains its freedom. More often than not, however, taking into account that not many dogs go missing from their owners at random, my pal helps them to go astray, without too many scruples.
“You said that you’ve put some money aside for your funeral. You could spend it on another ten litres… So, there’s still a chance of killing yourself,” I encourage him.
He looks at me as though I’m from another planet, and stops laughing.
“And not be buried in the proper way ? Are you mad ? !” he shouts at me. “What do you want, for them to cremate me ?”
From the way he is looking at me, I probably ought to realise that the idea is utterly idiotic. But, I don’t know why, it seems to me that there is not much difference between being buried and being cremated, given that, in any case, the act in question occurs after you die. And so I naively express this opinion.
“Look here, it’s obvious that you don’t know anything,” he attempts to enlighten me, lowering his voice. “But I, in contrast to you, still read a few things. I’ve read that, if you burn, in the instant that your body reaches the temperature of a living person, you come back to life for a second. Get it ?”
This time it’s my turn to look at him as though he were from another planet. But he doesn’t give me very long to philosophise in the margins of this idea because, raising his voice, he says :
“What use to me is another second of life ? ! Go on, tell me, what use is it to me ? !”
Naturally, he doesn’t have any use for that one second. So, without commenting further, I pick up my teacup of whiskey and knock it back. In complete silence, the other two follow my example.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Outlying districts dominated by aggressive gypsies ; filthy trams full of motley and dubious people ; strange, elderly pensioners, the suspicious and malevolent neighbours in insalubrious blocks of flats ; homeless glue‑sniffers – this is the everyday circus that unfolds in the background of the novel.”
(Marius Chivu, Lettre internationale)
“The core of the story is the escapade of a pair of melodramatic faux suicides, who existentially glide through the periphery of all unimaginable worlds in search of the miraculous ‘nothing’. Two hundred pages of one‑hundred‑per‑cent Romanian circus flow before your eyes in this successful spectacle, not recommended for faint‑hearted pensioners, but recommended to all those who want to taste a serving of life prepared slightly differently, according to an original recipe, with ninety‑nine extremely piquant flavours.”
(Alin Ionescu, Academia Caţavencu)
“The publication of Our Circus Presents : constitutes, without any exaggeration, an event. The novel is an anthology of memorable scenes, whose tipping point can be anticipated in every sequence.”
(Şerban Axinte, Contrafort, Republic of Moldova)
“There is much laughter in Teodorovici’s novel, the uproarious laughter of characters faced with a ridiculous world, the healthy laughter of the reader, black humour, the absurd, self‑irony, linguistic humour, and situational comedy. But behind the scenes there is also enormous sadness. The sadness of the clown (the reader‑clown, the character‑clown), who is all the sadder the more acutely he understands his condition as a man who, after having failed at life, cannot but fail at death.”
(Sanda Tivadar, Familia)
“Besides the verisimilitude of the language and the surprising naturalness of events that are by no means natural, Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s book has the merit of localising its action in the strictest present. This anchoring in the present is not one that is in ‘major events’ ; there is no trace of ‘mythic figures’ in the pages of Lucian Dan Teodorovici. The spectacular is extracted from the most innocent of places, and if this has piqued your curiosity, then read the novel.”
(Cristina Ionica, Romania literara)