An Olive Branch

Radu Cosaşu | January 08, 2009
Translated by: Florin Bican


An Olive Branch

Tinibalda had suggested going for a hike in the Piatra Craiului mountains, to forget about everybody and everything. I was in love with her back then. Her hips were way too broad. It didn’t bother her, though. Nothing would ever bother her. She used to wear tight-fitting dresses much to her disadvantage and on the other hand ate Jonathan apples which, she claimed, made up for… Made up for what? She had a way of leaving her sentences unfinished. I was thrilled by her contempt for syntax. She believed in my talent. If I asked her for details she obliged and said that I’d survive. No one ever died out of a case of hunger. Her father had gone on a hunger strike in prison, back in ’38. And was he dead? No, siree. He’d lived to receive a private pension, having spent an extra 15 years working for the trade union movement, from ’45 through ’60. Tinibalda adored him, yet she wouldn’t introduce me to him. “Not good for your morale.”  “A former underground communist? Not good? Nonsense…” “Not good, believe me. You’ll be much better off in Piatra Craiului.” Our money wouldn’t even take us out of town. Tinibalda assured me money was the least of all problems in our Romanian motherland. I had to laugh, and she dragged me into the cinema.

I was always blessed with girls crazy about the movies. My film education went hand in hand with my love education. Never could tell the two apart. They’re dialectically connected. What’s more, Tinibalda – having gotten through Siberian Ballad and The Kuban Cossacks -  went on a diet of Italian neorealism and apples. She’d eat apples in the cinema hall. She was constantly reminding me of  a woman giving me private French lessons who’d turn up for class – according to the season – with cherries, corn on the cob or prunes. I couldn’t concentrate on account of all that pulp munching, but Tinibalda was a discreet, considerate chewer in the obscurity of the dark cinema. She’d cause no disruption whatsoever. She was ruminating her fruit, I might say. She loved the Italians’ squalor and drama. “It just makes me cry – anything wrong with that?” She came out of Two Penny Worth of Hope limp as a wet noodle – in her own words – and she grieved silently from the Scala cinema all the way to our home in Traian Street. We took the back stairs in the dark, and I felt her tear stained arms. Could it be her tears had reached down to her elbows? I stopped at the first floor, propped her against the lawyer Manolovici’s kitchen door and gave her a luscious kiss. So there she was, fluffy, yielding and warm, until we heard from inside: “Your bath’s ready, Marcel, m’dear…” and then we hurried upstairs to our place.

This is not to say I’d hauled her in a different, more cheerful frame of mind from the Siberian Ballad, complete with Liszt concerto and Lake Baikal. Like hell I had. She’d also cried her eyes out (like a dripping bucket) over Piriev: “Let me cry my eyes out like a dripping bucket, otherwise I won’t understand a thing.” I had to let her, but what was that “otherwise” doing in her sentence. One is supposed to say “or else”, “if not”… “Why aren’t you talking naturally?” “As if I knew why I’m not talking naturally when I’m crying.” She was right. I kissed her bang in the middle of the street.

Only I didn’t like mountains. If I “must needs” go on vacation in order to forget my miserable lot, I’d much rather go to the seaside. Tinibalda didn’t fall for it. Her bouts of jealousy were icy, sudden and piercing: “I’m not going anywhere in your short stories.” She knew about Diana. She’d read the copy of Frontiers I submitted for publication munching her way through four Jonathan apples. She hadn’t liked it, but she hadn’t chucked it away either. “I can see why they didn’t publish it,” she decreed adamantly while wiping off the fruit juice now dripping down her chest. “That’s not why I let you read it. I know why they didn’t publish it. I don’t write in order to be published.” “Then what for?” “For you to cry your eyes out.” “I didn’t cry, did I? I don’t cry when I see you’re dumb. Had it been up to me, I wouldn’t have published it either,” she reiterated the verdict. “Two more years or three and it will come out in print,” I persisted in my irritation. “We won’t be together by then,” and she turned on one side, facing the wall. “Your hips are exactly like Diana’s, that’s exactly how”… “Dadde, dadde”, she retorted, face stuffed into the pillow, in agreement with the pact we’d made at the market one Sunday, when we bought cream from a Transylvanian woman who’d reply to the woman in the next stall with those exact words: dadde, dadde. The other woman was talking nineteen to the dozen, berating her copiously for loving a man who was unfaithful to her, and the Transylvanian woman, by way of comment, would just reply dadde, dadde. “What’s that supposed to mean, dadde, dadde?” Tinibalda had asked, scooping a generous helping of cream with her finger. The Transylvanian woman was as mirthful as could be: “Dadde, dadde’s how we say around here. In your parts ‘twould be mebbe-mebbe.”  I’d agreed with Tinibalda that whenever the hint of a conflict threatened to pit us against each other we should say dadde, dadde to chase away the specter of war by means of that spell-like incantation. Naturally, for an answer like that I kissed at luscious length the back she proffered, till she turned to me abruptly and whispered that unless we went to the Piatra Craiului mountains…

The mountains really got on my nerves. They were way too big. I could see them framed by the window, enormous, hulking, overwhelming. I couldn’t look at them. I’d turn my face away in genuine horror, and there was nothing childish about it, either. They confronted me with the vastness of death, its vastness and my pathetic limitations. They were eternal, relentless, sternly unyielding in their sentence: I would perish while they’d endure. The candor of the conflict sent shivers down my spine as I lay in bed alone at the lodge, Tinibalda busy meanwhile making coffee and sandwiches.

The coffee failed to resuscitate me. After drinking it to the dregs, in compliance with Tinibalda’s directions, the glass rose in a playful chiromancy of perspective (its depth clogged with the black deposits) right against the sun-flooded window and from there, against the same awesome wall of the Piatra Craiului Mountains. “Get a move on, lazy bones, get going,” Tinibalda urged me while tightly securing every last strap and string of our rucksacks. The vigor she put into it was getting on my nerves. She resorted to logic in order to make it clear to me—and in a complete sentence, too—that she had it on good authority – Einstein’s: that if you want to get rid of dark thoughts, focus, early in the morning, in one direction, just one, such as doing up your shoes neatly. “What dark thoughts have you got?” She’d hoist the burden on my back, shoulder the smaller rucksack in her turn, and give me no rest till the evening when we’d blunder upon some lodge in the otherwise peaceful and sunny massif. I understood she wanted to save me through effort, through strenuous hikes, both long and apolitical. One evening we wanted to stay at a hunting lodge, with some lumber jacks, and fell trees for a day or two. They wouldn’t have us. The guys sent us – with due humor – down some hair-pin bends where a mountain road was being tarred. Tar, they surmised, might be more to our liking… “Let’s go there,” I said, and Tinibalda was off like a shot, galloping down the mountain paths, the pans and pots in her rucksack rattling merrily, like a parody of the chants of some savage ritual.

I believe that was the beginning of my enlightenment. We spent the night sleeping next to one of the roadmen’s tar tanks. It was nice’n’warm there, on the black scorched grass reeking of gas. The summer cool had descended upon the mountain. Since I was a small child back home I had been partial to gas, to its smell, to the solution for scrubbing parquet floors. Tinibalda wasn’t fussy either. Wherever you’d put her to sleep – “if I’m with you…” – she was feeling good and right, o my Lord, what a delight. At night, in that place, I had an uncommonly clear dream, no psychoanalytic mystery attached: under the tar vat, I reared up on my hind legs and went all the way down to the Sinaia train station, from where we’d set out for Piatra Craiului. There, at the station, I was persuading the station master to allow me to board a locomotive and accompany the engine driver and the fire stoker all the way to Oradea. I want to write the best reportage of my life: a night in the locomotive. I want to sing praises to fire, labor and the Romanian railroad system. The man raised no objections. He only wanted to know why Oradea. Because that’s where I’d done my military service, in the 50’s. I could have stayed at university as an extramural student, but I’d said to myself, the essential thing is to join the people’s army as a conscript.

In the morning, Tinibalda kissed my forehead. Next my lips. When the tarmen saw us, their faces lit up like an idyll : smiling white teeth against a black background, as in the old ads for shoe polish. “Well, if that’s what you’ve dreamt, that’s what we’ll do. We’re off to Buchares,t and I don’t mean maybe. I’ll talk to Paul right away.” Tinibalda, didn’t know Paul, of course, but like any Red Cross or Red Crescent organization she had boundless trust in the humanist word and even in man per se.  So we made our way down to Buşteni to the same tintinnabulation of pots and pans. In Buşteni I showed Tinibalda the bookshop of my adolescence where, during petty bourgeois holidays I spent in Poiana Ţapului,  I used to borrow books by Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu – “I know, she replied, your dark past is not unknown to me” – and we took the train downstream, to the Capital. She fell asleep on my shoulder, broken as an olive branch.

Paul had nothing against the idea of reporting on a locomotive: “write it, by all means. Off you go. We’ll take care of the paperwork. Let’s see it first. Then we’ll put in a good word higher up or lower down as the case may be.” Paul had suggested a night on a local train locomotive: Sighişoara – Odorhei, say. Tinibalda was adamant, though: “Back to your short story haunts?” She had a point there. Sighişoara meant Diana. The vigilance of her memory was incorruptible. She took the following decision: we’d spread out the map of Romania, she’d close her eyes and put her finger on it at random. That’d be our starting point. “You’re going to come with me?  But how?  And what are you going to do about the institute?” “Well, I’ll get them to send me there. There’s things to be done all over the country.” She spread the map over her bulbous thighs. She closed her eyes. Timişoara. “Did you have anything in Timişoara?” “An adventure in a dining car: I peeled ten oranges with an incredible woman.” “ Oranges are no fruit.” “What are they, then?”

In Timişoara she went with me everywhere – the Romanian railroads headquarters included, where I solemnly declared in writing that I was going to board the locomotive of the Timişoara Oradea fast train at my own risk. The head of department was watching us in amazement, as I was signing, with Tinibalda slumped over my shoulder. It was akin to marriage at the registry office, a moment the head perceived as such, with bulging eyes. He had never experienced anything like it. That night, at 11:24, Tinibalda got into her car, and I continued on my way, on the embankment gravel, to the locomotive. I was shaking neurotically, the way I had on Piatra Craiului, the way I always did whenever faced with stone and its Freudian  pun: disapierre!  As I was walking past the cars, I let out a loud yippee. As in pee pee. Pee – locomotive – tank – Malraux – the human condition, the book I couldn’t stop reading. In my pocket I carried note book and pencil. All I needed was cyanide to be a real spy. Didn’t feel attracted to it, though. Never thought of suicide.

The mechanic and the stoker had been waiting for me with fraternal patience. They’d never been blessed with a journalist in their cabin. They were chatty, cheerful, calm, with their big packed lunch of onion and bacon unwrapped on a carbonized chair. They were eating with the light shining on them from below, from the depths of the firebox. They immediately offered me a bite, so as not to leave on an empty stomach. We partook of their meal. We set out. En-tranced, I first entered a trance of silence, next, eying them with that Proletkult-induced awe that made out a god of the laborer and a mere mortal out of the intellectual, I exited the tunnel of idolatry and moved on to their neorealism, with their children an’ all, their wages an’ all, their women an’ all, with the modest tendency of waving off tragedy and letting in the light of their lives and diligent labor, stripped of any heroic aura. I liked them. It was warm, it was dark, it was red. A lyric undertone pervaded the night, tiny stations echoed with the sounds of Lilliputian bells as we sped by, the plain held its peace – sensual, caressed and fertilized, with a whistling sound, by the nocturnal flight of our hot machine. Our fraternity had reached the level of trench literature: I told them one of my few railway-related adventures, from Cluj to Oradea, when, as a conscript, I’d boarded a local slow train, second class, and sat down next to peasant woman like all peasant women who could have been my mother but was apparently unaware of the fact, with whom, out of nothing, out of a mere glance, I ended up going through the long tunnel after Ciucea in a passionate embrace. And who, once in Oradea, made me promise I’d come to her house in Nojorid the following week. “And you didn’t go,” the stoker anticipated the grand finale with great epic sense. No way I’d go there – Nojorid gave me the creeps. That’s where I’d had my first gallop at cavalry school, in the open; a plane flew over us, the horses panicked, we couldn’t keep them under control, they shed us from the saddles and we head to search the area for them all morning, else it’d’ve  been the end of us… As far as I was concerned, Nojorid was an accursed place. The two laughed: “You feared you’d fall off her saddle too,” the engine driver commented quietly, taking a look at his watch in the light of the fire. “That’s the army for you,” was the stoker’s even more elliptic contribution. “That’s us, men,” the engine driver concluded.

From Oradea, Tinibalda wanted us to return to Bucharest by air. She annoyed me. Didn’t she know I couldn’t stand flying? That I dreaded being separated from the earth no matter how? Yes she did, but it was all the same to her. Man has to try all velocities. After the locomotive – the plane. Did she want to give me the Prometheus treatment? I yelled at her, right at the station, in front of the second class ticket window, amongst the mêlée of poultry and humans: “To hell with you and your plane”… On the train, putting my arm round her shoulders at the window, out in the corridor, I benignly explained to her: I couldn’t work in a panic, the plane would have ruined me, I wanted to write the best reportage in my life, those men were most formidable, I needed some peace and quiet. She  shook me off, violently. “That station there, it’s also out of the too Diana story.” Yes, I stupidly blundered. “All you’ve lived through with her, do you have too…” “Diana doesn’t exist, you nitwit!” “Everything you write does exist, you’re no good when it comes to inventing.” “Dadde-dadde,” but she remained morose all the way to Bucharest, and it was a long way, plus an hour’s delay in Câmpina.

The reportage finally had a Malraux ring to it, exuding the obsession of solidarity and responsibility. A neorealist gulf stream softened its bookish roughness. There was no mention, of course, of either Freud or the Nojoridian woman.  The light was focused on the engine driver’s watch, on the stoker’s shovel and kids, on the nocturnal bacon and onion – but no matter what course you chose to follow, their end was radiant  - coal and diamonds – with the idea of virile fraternity. The reportage was coldly entitled A Sentiment. It was dedicated to T. “Mrs T. of the novel you used to read in your dark past?” Tinibalda quipped, having relaxed at last. Playfully, I crossed out the initial. “There’s some more you should cross out,” she sternly observed. A cloud came over me: was she a Promethean censor?

The only thing was, Paul didn’t happen to be at the office. He wasn’t expected back for a whole month, as he was at Knokke-Le-Zoote and some other literary latitudes. The season had started for going out into the great wide world. I gulped. Not that I was craving for Europe, of course. Trips abroad had always failed to elicit my excitement, and passports had always seemed like actes gratuits  to me. I gulped at the thought that I would be dealt with by Stoicănescu, a literary man of extremely frowning disposition in my case (the accusative case, to be sure), an incurable enemy of negativism, no matter the disguise under which it came (here endeth the quote from his article). And to be sure, a man primarily concerned with content, Stoicănescu, was given to unveiling negativism in all forms. No form was cunning enough to disguise the donkey ears (of formalism – author’s note) – another memorable citation I bore in mind and heart as I walked the narrow corridors of the newspaper office towards the remotest room where he worked in his capacity as head of the prose department. I found him behind his desk. The man, we all knew, would only leave his office at the call of two of the laws of biology, and that only in the afternoon. Otherwise, he led a wizard of Oz kind of life. As for me, I was feeling like the lion of the same story, gentle, fearful and tearful. Under pressure, the literature of my soul had a hysteric bibliography: I’d switch in a flash from Malraux to Ispirescu’s fairy tales. In two steps – granted, abrupt ones – I would cross without a hint of hesitation from The Magic Mountain to The Knight of The Golden Star and no longer knew whether I was Castorp or the bodiless beauty of the story.

Stoicănescu, nevertheless, immediately started reading my piece with great kindness, since he knew from comrade Paul – he’d never call him by name – I’d been sent on a fact-finding mission, an idea he hadn’t objected to, as he firmly believed that every man should be given a chance. He invited me to sit down and wait till he finished reading my manuscript. Not even literature can be deprived of efficiency. Obviously. From the balcony of his office I signaled desperately to Tinibalda, who had luckily positioned herself down in the courtyard right under Stoicănescu’s window, with a strange intuition of the course I had followed through the building, and was now reclining with arms wide spread on a bench. Tinibalda signaled me calmly that she’d be waiting for me and raised her left fist, clenched tightly, in a new Non passaran! I was deeply moved – that caused me to plant myself, erect and dignified, on the chair opposite Stoicănescu’s desk. I immediately understood he was reading me carefully, without haste, without formalism. Half an hour later I felt I couldn’t take my own rigidity anymore and decided to ease myself into his plush armchair, tucked away in a corner and intensely moth-eaten. The man never lifted his eyes from the manuscript. An increasingly well-defined smirk was beginning to cloud his visage. I noticed he didn’t resort to his pen as he read. His notes on the margin – “well, I never”, “come off it”, “watch your ideological step”, “dangerous curve”, “is this our reality”, “since when have we reinvented melodrama?”, “we have disallowed Hamletianism”, “the green tree of life is much richer…”,  “being a moron is not the solution…”, “is the author totally unfamiliar with Lenin?”, “now what?”, “now you’ve lost me”, “the bourgeois editor…”, “liberty=necessity” and many other scathing phrases had become famous by now, and they were being passed around like legends. He wasn’t even benignly fiddling with his pen. He was reading me with a smirk. At dusk, Stoicănescu solemnly reached me the manuscript. Automatically, I jumped up from the armchair and took it, unaware of what was coming my way. There followed a somber act of accusation – as implacable as it was well-argumented: not on his life was that reportage – intimist, vulgar, minor and totally irrelevant – going to be published in Romania. My well-known negativism – which I hadn’t atoned for sufficiently, it appeared – had found even more perfidious forms of expression. It was now serving itself of the new, of luminous sentiments, even of goodness without a contour: my negativism was a new form of petty bourgeois sentimentalism, at the expense of  the working class. The workers would stone me if they read how I distorted their lives and sentiments, how I used their coveralls to cover up my dirty tricks. “Dirty tricks?” I finally reacted with a start. “We’re not utterly unfamiliar with Freud, if you don’t mind”… “Since when are you punning in foreign languages?” – I charged. “Nothing human is alien to us”- and he stood to his feet, cheerfully enough. I felt pity for myself. I was consumed with the thought of compromise: “Now seriously, can’t we do anything about it?” “Burry the whole thing” – and still, he gave me his hand.

Tinibalda, as we walked down the Magheru Boulevard, listened to my accurate account of the events in absolute subjection; there was no polemic overtone on my part, no hint of tendentiousness. “So I’ll wait for Paul to read it,” I concluded, clinging to her, irritated by the crowd, either avoiding people or bumping into them, a situation that never fails to appear stupid when you’re in the process of recounting ideas in the street. Tinibalda didn’t appear in any way inconvenienced by the background and space. Taking neorealism one step further, at the end of my reportage she asked for a pretzel. “I haven’t got a single lei on me.”  “You said you had ten.” I bought her the bread ring, I offered her a glass of soda too, from the same stand. She accepted and we made our way to the boulevard where films were being shown, while she kept munching the pretzel. The andante started, coherently enough: don’t make that face, I’m not making a face, yes you are, there’s worse things in the world, what are they? I was replying promptly, with undisguised fury, suddenly intent on reaching a scherzo finale with her. We turned into Edgar Quinet Street, where would you like us to go? Tonight it would be nice…” “Nothing would be nice” and I exploded “There’s nothing worse than not being published…” She snubbed me, proffering a stub of bread ring. “I remember you saying you didn’t want to publish. You’re contradicting yourself.” “Idiot,” I voluptuously replied, “Idiot!” “Dadde-dadde…”.

We walked past the Capşa restaurant. “Invite me for some zander bonne-femme. If you invite me for some zander bonne-femme, I’ll explain to you what you have to change in order to be published.” “There’s nothing I need to change. I’m not changing anything.” “You need to make it brighter…” “I need to do WHAT?” I found myself yelling outside the Romarta copiilor children’s fashions store. “What do I need to do?” I yelled as I stopped. Tinibalda was staring me in the eye. We were frozen in the middle of the crowd avoiding us as they cast furtive glances. “You crazy?” she said under her breath. “Repeat, repeat what I need to do,” – in the twilight, the screen on top of the building across the road started displaying the news of the day: Mogadishu… “You crazy?” and she attempted caressing my face. I knocked her hand aside. All the stamp collectors around Romarta stopped trading stamps with each other and converged upon us: “Leave her alone, Miste. Just go away, lady, forget the joker” – Tinibalda was watching me, handsome as ever, batting her eyelids in rapid movement. “Tell me, tell me,” I kept yelling “tell me what’s not bright, how do you know what’s bright?” I could here a ripple of laughter. I punched her again in her ample hip, in the most obscene tribute I’d ever paid to neorealism: a man and a woman who adore each other rowing in the middle of the street. She turned on her heels, trying to get out of the group. The word Canberra was flashing on her face, all the way from down under. I changed course to another film genre (French cinema this time, the Gabin-Morgan type of passion as seen at the Cinemateque), twisting her arm behind her back till she screamed “ouch” and someone punched me in the shoulder: “friggin’ monster ”. “Now tell me what I ought to change, what…” She was nursing her arm. She was driving me crazy: “You want to ruin me? You want to save me, you bitch? Bitch… I don’t want to write…” “Don’t write her, then” one of the stamp collectors chimed in. “You want me to write crap? Cannot… Would not…” “Write whatever you want,” Tinibalda finally yelled, “and go to hell with your ideas an’ all,” she managed to articulate one essential sentence to the end.

I suffered her to walk across the street, but immediately ran after her through the open circle of those who had secured her passage—along the pavement outside the Army Club, where the café-concert band was striking the opening bars of the Persian Market. A number of people had followed me, ignoring the cars whose drivers were slamming the brakes in stupefaction. Tinibalda was making her way to the movie boulevard. The idea struck me that she would go to see The Stagecoach at the Trianon, as she had mentioned earlier that morning. After many a long year of gold-star cinema, they were showing the first western. I couldn’t let her go alone. I couldn’t for the life of me miss her viewing of the first western in her life. I started calling after her: “Wait, I’m coming with you, don’t go in without me…” She wouldn’t turn. People were laughing, stomping their feet, giving chase. I could hear cries of “don’t let her go,” “grab ‘er,” “you bet yer ass,” “no chick is ever worth It,” “trams and women you should never run after”; I was calling after her “Tini, baby…” And suddenly “dadde-dadde”… The traffic didn’t come to a halt, the trolleybuses went on hurtling by hurtfullyt towards the Cişmigiu Gardens, the world news were flashing on and on, Tinibalda was ambling stately, resolute, her ample hips straining at her sleeveless, tight summer dress. Once again I yelled “dadde-dadde”, a man in the merrily-marching troop volunteered a diagnosis: “Guy flipped his lid, leave him!” Still, at the second ultimatum, Tinibalda stopped. Just outside the Military Museum adjoining on the Central movie theatre. She was waiting for me. I walked up to her. There was no one else around:

“Take me with you to see The Stagecoach,” I whispered to her with a new-found gentleness, the gentleness of an olive branch.

“If you promise to change it.”

“I’m not changing a thing,” I yelled as I was turning yellow.

“…if you promise me…”

“…nothing! I promise you nothing...”

“I can’t live with a demented guy,” she uttered smoothly, normally, no trace of passion in her voice. I was blinded by her serenity and logic. “Only the demented…”

I drew a deep breath and from the bottom of my lungs I blew the air in her face as if I had wished that she’d vanish that very same moment, like some evil spirit. Tinibalda failed to vanish. Yet neither did she manage to complete the truest sentence that ever crossed her mind and my life. Its end was of no interest to me – I was well aware:

“I’ll see you when it’s published…”

“In one hundred years,” she said, binding with painfully unexpected lightness, the life bleeding out of the wound.

“In one hundred years, then…” and with exaggerated cheerfulness I skipped over to Gambrinus, where in true Bucharest style I ordered cheese pastry and beer.

I was always lucky enough not to bump into women after a breakup. Still, in accordance with the curse Tinibalda pronounced, I can only write what I live, incapable of inventing, of saving myself. I’m left with a trauma, though. From time to time, I phone the woman I used to love and, instead of saying something, I breathe heavily, kind of hissing into the receiver as a token of my existence. Then I hang up.

About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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