Novel, Cartea romaneasca, 2011, 392 pages
Copyright: Cartea romaneasca
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Rudolf (Roro), a brilliant pastry chef afflicted by a mysterious illness, inherits his mother’s all-consuming passion for elephants and a stigma from a strange alchemist with whom he refuses to make a pact of immortality, choosing instead to be the ruler of a realm of momentary miracles born from the oven’s flames. The descendent of an ancient family of Transylvanian counts, but born in Brittany, Roro will travel east to Vienna on the trail of the elephant dreamed of by his mother. His fame as a patissier-enchanter first takes him to the court of Maximilian II, where he will meet Princess Anna of Habsburg, to whom he will be bound by the tension of a forbidden love until the very end. The painter Arcimboldo, puppet masters, Venetian glassblowers, Katherina the witch, the mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler, the hunchbacked Duke of Mantua, a female midget, and a she-wolf are just some of the characters that will accompany this monstrous-bodied genius back west, to the coast of Portugal, now overrun by Spanish armies, where the encrypted text of his destiny will be fulfilled.
The Sweet Tale of the Sad Elephant is a surprising novel, in which narrative charm combines with the sumptuousness of fine quality baroque writing. It is a sweeping, captivating Bildungsroman, written in an aestheticising manner, and at the same time a parable that reflects upon alterity and the magnetism exerted by the different, the unusual, the exotic.
“All too well,” laughs Otto, “I shall put you to the test! But until then let us walk for a little. It is your first outing.” Our stroll takes us past the garrison, with its smoke-blackened, scaffolding-clad walls, where we mingle with people, horses, mules, water barrels, windlasses, and barrows of stones, and he tells me of how the Turks tried to storm the city, but the walls did not fall. Vienna is rebuilding and reinforcing its gates. It was through the same gates that Barbarossa and his crusaders rode forth, and it is said that their blood returns each night in the form of red clouds, to mingle with that of the robbers executed here. “Where?” asks Roro. “On the very spot where you now tread, but the flagstones are scoured after each execution, and in winter they are wiped clean by the snow. That is why you cannot see anything. Better that we go back, and I shall show you the Scottish monastery, long ago demolished by the cannonballs.” “It seems more a city of flame than of stone,” says Roro, “and now I understand why my mother, who was always afraid of fire, met her end here.” “Your mother died in Vienna?” “I was sent a sign one night to that effect.” “It was only a dream.” “A dream, yes, but one that was true, as this is the way we talk with each other.”
After these words, Otto thinks it would be better to return. The child still has need of rest. The scorching air and whirl of the city have perhaps reawakened his illness. Nonetheless, a short detour for purchases in the Flour Market is required, especially now, with the solstice festival on its way, when guests will be arriving at the inn. The man wants to walk ahead, but Roro has already stepped out before him, as if he knew the way. “We cross the little bridge and turn right,” he says, and it is not a question, but a reinforcement of what his thick legs and swaying elephant’s gait have already decided. “Since when have you been like this?” asks the innkeeper. “Since my mother, Amanda, scalded herself and a red scar appeared on her hand, and she no longer allowed me to enter the kitchen.” But the grain market is right here and with a murmur of impatience Roro has rushed to the first stall, and so his words will be drowned out for a time. But his eyes and nostrils will be searching: this flour is too coarsely ground, and this is too old, over there the mice and weevils have been at work, and over here there are moth larvae, this is damp, that is a fraud, as it is mixed with millet, and what do we have here? Oh, more bran than flour! And so Roro goes from one trader to another, inspecting the sacks merely with a glance, but without stopping in any one place where he might say, “Yes, this flour will bake the most tender pastry, if you wish to buy, then buy here.” The man has followed him, bewildered, but the journey has been short, like a sharp intake of breath, and now, at the end, after he himself tastes, smells and weighs, he must acknowledge the judgement already pronounced: this is the best flour! “We shall buy,” he says, and turning to Roro, “How much?” “You may buy every sack, and I, if you will permit me, shall make flat cakes, biscuits, cakes, pain d’espagne, and pasta, and then, using honey, mint, walnuts and cocoa, I shall make some bonbons.” The man says nothing and does as he has been bidden. He buys mint, cinnamon, acacia honey, wildflower honey, butter, and precious cocoa powder. Finally, without another word, they return home. But in the instant when, in front of the oven ready to receive the well-kneaded, well-rolled dough, the child’s eyes feverishly kindle once more, Otto asks: “Who are you?” “Like you have already said, an elephant.”
The evening passes in silence and likewise many others thereafter, but the cakes and the bonbons multiply and heap up in clean wicker baskets and crates, ready for the solstice, and thus it is that the histories repeat themselves and overlap with each other, for it was on one such day that Amanda had waited for Amadeus. “My mother knew when he would be coming,” says Roro all of a sudden, and Otto, who had been carrying a mattress up to the best room, stops in his tracks and answers that if other strange guests had not stayed at the same inn, he would have been fearful of all the flights of imagination he heard. “But they are all true.” “Very well, then tell me the tale.” “But that is all I know, that her heart was troubled for a long time before he arrived and touched her hand, and that she is supposed to have gone with him to the ends of the earth, although she was sweating with terror and for a time her whole being ceased to exist.” “But how do you know all this?” “As I told you, I dream it.” “You cannot dream what your mother once felt, you can only dream what happened to her, and only if you were there and then remembered it.” Roro says no more, only that he would like to know who the guests were that Otto mentioned shortly before and what they were like. “Were they perhaps a theatre company?” “We have had theatre folk before, yes,” continues the innkeeper, putting down the mattress and sitting on it, as if he had been stricken by a great weariness or had all of a sudden grown sleepy, but not in the normal way, as only his body is about to drop, while his voice remains present and grows more vivid with every word: “But I’m not talking about actors, or snake charmers, sword swallowers or other charlatans” – and at this point Roro would have liked to interrupt him and ask him why he called them thus, but he says nothing, as the man’s eyes have closed – “but about one man who was all these things at once and many more, and who walked between worlds as if dancing on a tightrope. He claimed he was a doctor, although his coffers held no remedies, but were hiding places for all kinds of curios, telescopes, mirrors, pestles and mortars, lamps and alembics, purple stones and blood-red powders, charts of the stars, pairs of compasses, wands, a document with a wax seal, and even a rose. He had all kinds of things in his coffers, but they were light for all that, the same as the footfalls of the man himself when he arrived and departed, wrapped in the same cloak, beneath which he hid or maybe flew, so swiftly and so silently did everything vanish behind him, both the tread of his foot on the floor and the sweat on his sheet, except for a gleam of embers, which lingered floating in front of the windows, on the steps of the house, above the roof, sometimes even in the foliage of the trees, long after he was gone.”
Roro would have liked to find out more about where this strange guest went and what he did when he returned, but Otto has fallen silent and with a groan followed by a long shudder, which shakes his entire body, he opens his eyes. “I would like a little wine,” he says. The boy hurries to fetch the carafe, and now it is his turn to wipe the brow of the awakening man. “I do not know why I told you these things,” he says after he drinks, “because I myself did not witness them and perhaps it was all an invention of my grandfather’s, who used to keep this inn and who in his old age would wander like a madman through the courtyard, raising dust and muttering that in the depths there is hidden gold, as the doctor is supposed to have left in writing before he departed forever. For, it was in those days that all the enchantments of the cloaked astrologer, magician and charlatan are supposed to have taken place.” Roro fills the innkeeper’s cup and curling up on the mattress, not to go to sleep, but perhaps the better to preserve the words in such an embrace, asks only if the strange traveller and guest of that inn concealed his face under a hat. “A hat?” asks Otto in fright, “What a thing to say!” And he swiftly raises his arm in front of him, to strike down not the child, but rather an old elusive fear. “A hat you say!” he groans, lowering his vanquished hand, for the phantasms do not float through the room, but rather fill his soul. “A tapering hat was always the first thing you glimpsed when he came. And then a dark cloak. Do you know about that, too?” “I only asked.”
But the festival was on its way and there were many preparations to make: rams to be slaughtered, vegetables to be steamed, and rooms to be cleaned. “I know nothing about sprucing up rooms, but I shall bake you more pastry, this is how I can help,” says Roro, and without waiting for a blessing he sets off toward the kitchen, where he stays for two whole days and nights, without sleeping and without uttering a word, kneading and shaping, not with his previous tranquillity and joy, but with a haste that heats his breath and fills his mouth with bitter saliva even when he tastes the caramel or honey fondant. And from his hands that smooth the warm pastry there emerge little horses and fishes, and butterflies with sugar wings so fine that they would start to beat at the slightest breath of air. It is the moment when a wave of hoarseness and then a surge of dark ebullition rise from the boy’s throat, taking his breath away and causing him to seek something with his fingers, a support, or a defence, or perhaps merely this small serene island that blossoms on his face after the cataclysm at Fliegenburg. For, yes, it is true, the mark has not been erased, it has remained just as he remembered it, smooth and clean, and a butterfly keeps opening and closing its wings there. But the touch is different now, as if it had seeped beneath his pores, as if the external flight responded to the quiver beneath his skin, and as if it were no longer peaceful, but laboured and troubled. And running his fingers over his face once more, the boy knows that in this instant Amanda would have asked him, “Does it hurt?” and he would have answered without hesitation, “Yes, it is the only place on my body that hurts.”
Roro will ask for another two days to finish all his baking. But in all that time nobody will enter the kitchen. They will leave firewood and freshwater at the door, along with the finest pestle and mortar, a pair of scales, clean crockery, and acacia flowers. This is the agreement. Otto keeps to it, won over by the aromas that have filled the house and the courtyard, attracting people to the inn. “What is cooking?” “Oh, wonders for the festival,” says he, unable to give further explanation. Nor will he know what is in store even when Roro flings open the door one morning and rushes into the yard, trembling all over, and says that he needs tables, as many tables as possible, to be placed in the sun, before he vanishes back into the kitchen. When he returns, this time wrapped in a hooded cloak, he is bearing the first tray of sweetmeats. The scent is dizzying, intense, and at the same time distant and light, but none the less oppressive, violent, but controlled, extravagant, but restrained, wholly hypnotic, as it gathers and then quenches within it too many things all at once: flowers, a slight smokiness, glowing embers, golden dust whirled by the wind. All these things are there or perhaps they merely were there, but now are gone. Otto takes a step back, dizzied, and when the child places the tray on the table and uncovers it, revealing a swarm of sugar butterflies with beating wings as fine as smoke, the innkeeper freezes to the spot. “No, no,” his lips murmur, “no.” But Roro pays him no heed, preoccupied as he is with bringing his trays of figurines from the kitchen and laying them on the wooden trestles. Back and forth he goes, constructing in the sunlight pyramids of burning wings. They are green and blue, yellow and white, red and violet, depending on how the light glints on the fine crust. “It cannot be true. These butterflies seem alive, although they are made of sugar. It is an enchantment,” Otto says at last, and the boy answers with the words we already know all too well: “It is all true.”
And so the festival of the summer solstice commences in an inn near the Am Hof Garrison in the year of Our Lord 1565.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Diana Adamek masters different narrative voices with a fascination that is unique in contemporary Romanian prose. Gliding swiftly through the pages of this novel, you will be led beyond the exceptional stylistic refinement towards the revelation that the main character himself experiences: we always arrive in the place where we are expected.”
“Diana Adamek gives us a book of adventures and phantasms, about friendship and love, about art and beauty, a parable of predestination, tantamount to a fore-writing of destiny, an epically marvellous, exquisite and stylistically seductive parable.”
“Learned forays into historical geography, magic, alchemy, art and philosophy and delicious haute-cuisine digressions are the sumptuous backdrop to a story that proves yet again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in one of the most beautiful novels to have published in the last few years.”
“By writing this triumphant exotic and cosmopolitan book, without local fixations, but imbued with the individual charm of so many imagined places, Diana Adamek has given us a beautiful literary vision of baroque, mannerist Europe – whose centre was Vienna and whose circumference was everywhere – in Romanian literature.”