Sentimental Education

Norman Manea | March 27, 2009
Translated by: Jean Harris


Sentimental Education
It had been raining for some time when the lady accosted me at the Gheorghi Dimitrov intersection. She asked me about a tram stop, Number 17 toward Lacul Tei. When she tilted her immense red umbrella, I saw her: Madam Doctor Alfandari!—the blond of one summer afternoon a millennium ago, when that star had plunged straight from the studios of Hollywood into our wretched little kitchen, there, where everything was cramped and dark and Bukovina in the 1950’s. I was a star myself back then in my pioneer’s red neckerchief and red badge, with my red declamations and discourses in red, and I was really wowing the crowds, up to and including the “Hollywood” lady, who would return to the her Hollywood—known to mortals as Bucharest—a few years later. Nor had I had forgotten that actress’s voice or her words: “I want to meet this boy’s mother!” Flurried, Mama kept wiping her hands in her oilcloth apron.
Only now the star of yesteryear was there beside me at the tram stop, Number 17 toward Lacul Tei. I had confirmed the precious information right away: Yeah, this is the stop toward Tei.
I saw her before me: Madam Doctor Alf—aka the mother of my amour-partner during those first Bucharest student years—now in a younger, svelter version.
Her Parma overcoat, as I was tempted to call her superb cape of sandy mohair, enveloped her tenderly. Beautiful, oh yes, la belle inconue had, something of a film star’s exotic loveliness. She kept smiling with a sort of provocative complicity. A strange combination of Simone Signoret and Marilyn Monroe. I’d grown rooted to the spot, unable to move my legs. It looked as if I’d been waiting for tram 17 too.
It was raining. It wasn’t raining. It seems that it no longer rained. The lady’s umbrella was closed. She kept dancing it graciously between her fingers. She shook her helmet of golden hair in a youthful way, and looked at me again and smiled at me once more. The next instant, she had taken me by the arm. She was a bit taller than I, and we were heading away from the tram stop. We had gotten to talking about the film at the documentary film center on Marx-Engels Boulevard, toward which we were also heading, for lack of a better target.
The True Face of Fascism the Soviet documentary was called, and it turned out we’d both seen it the previous week. Odd, just exactly this film…not much fun as a subject for a first conversation. Disturbed as I was by the film, the lady seemed disposed to catch the movie a second time. Yes. Surely they deserved another look, those subversive hints at the current situation. So many scenes to be commented on, really.
—You’re Jewish, no? the actress’s voice was heard to remark,
I didn’t like the question. I preferred the complicity of cineasts. Why would I be Jewish? I didn’t have the nose or the accent. … Just because I had accepted the discussion about fascism? The film wasn’t even only about fascism. Didn’t fascism or communism mean anything to anyone in this country, not even in such infamous times? Wasn’t anybody, but anybody, interested—apart from myself and la belle inconue who‘d accosted me? Had all our fellow citizens really remained hedonists and astral dreamers given to jokes, and wine and song and picayune mundanities?
Jewish? What do I have in common with Jews… I’d be grateful to be left in a corner to breath, just that I recited at a breath. I carried that quotation around inside.1
The lady gave me a long look. She didn’t suspect that the words weren’t mine. The name Kafka wouldn’t have increased their weight. She wasn’t granting the conversation any role but the one that suited her, I’m sure.
—Philosopher or merchant?
Not having registered my response, she went on heedlessly with the conversation.
—Those are the two categories, aren’t they? My husband is a merchant. You seem to come from the other group.
Free professions, both, I was ready to cry, alien to the true face of socialism! But you couldn’t deliver yourself of something like that out of the blue, recklessly, to an inconue.
But yes, I was in the disadvantageous category. I couldn’t deny it. I had come to a halt, and I gave the unknown lady a long look too. Smiling, she held out her hand.
—Alice Aslan.
The name seemed Armenian…Yes. Armenians are good merchants, but I didn’t see the connection with myself. The first name Alice didn’t divulge a thing. Blond hair, great, liquid, green eyes—an image from Hollywood. Cosmopolitan cliché of beauty from anywhere.
I discovered fragments of her biography in the following hours of walking, on rain rinsed streets toward Cavalry Way, near Strada Sihleanu, where I boarded with Doctor Iacobi, and from there around Liberty Park. She lived alone. Her husband had crossed the frontier illegally. He was well set up somewhere abroad. She hoped to get there herself too, as soon as possible. Until then, she was a suspect and provisory person. She was eking out a modest but honorable existence at the one of the SPICUL bread shops on Bălcescu Boulevard.
I knew the place. The SPICUL bakery was near the Library of the Romanian-Soviet Friendship Association, RSFA, where I went daily. Great pastries with meat and cheese...The clients hadn’t the least suspicion that library and pastries would both vanish soon.
No, no I hadn’t seen this superb representative of the former “exploitative class” at SPICUL’s cash register. Like other exotic pariahs, the lady talked in an off-hand way about the crummy way she earned her daily bread.
Night overtook us. We sheltered in an angle of a building or in park bushes by turns. Long kisses under the umbrella of darkness.
Rachele, I murmured, dizzy with embraces. …I was naming her lips Rachele and her breasts and her laugh of anonymity. Laughing, she protested at the sound of the strange name as at a tolerable extravagance of the student’s. Rachele, Rachele, Frenchwoman, African, Jewish, redhead…No, no she wasn’t a Frenchwoman, African or a Jew. She was a Romanian, okay, and she hadn’t heard of my hypothetical incestuous mother-in-law (Doctor Alfandari) nor of Rachele the redhead, lover of Doctor Thibault in the Roger Martin du Gard’s novel, suddenly embodied in her own flesh before me.
With the end of adolescence, the mixture of literary-erotic reveries hadn’t let up just like that. Bucharest’s libraries had intensified the dizzy intoxication. Long, solitary courses in failed pursuit of unknown women kept ending in the same the same stupid frustrations, lacking dramatic quality, to say the least. Ela Alfandari (the daughter of Madam Doctor), who had herself come to Bucharest for her studies, had served the first years of my novitiate in amorous masturbation. Rushed, preliminary games, prolonged to the point of paroxysm—fainting—on the narrow bed in the young lady’s cell only halted when the poor bachelor’s manhood couldn’t be reigned in any longer. Then the tigress would withdraw, horrified and exhausted. The freedom of the anonymous—that’s what the provincial high school boy had dreamed of when he came to Bucharest. Wide streets, their damp lanes: the magnetic trail of a comet, overtaking you on the instant. Long, futile courses in the wake of some unknown just stepped from a theater or movies or a library or hairdresser’s. Timid, silent hunts. Thrilled, frightened, the one who followed would wait for however discreet a sign of being hunted in his turn. Scent-driven frustration would map the city against the lyric splendor of hounded seasons. The face of the instant: the pallor of the worker who undressed, and suddenly dressed again, respectable, revolted, tamed; the towel with which the major’s wife carefully wiped her sex on New Year’s Eve when her soldier was on duty far from home; the folds of the tango singer’s fur coat—trailing after her: the solitary one awaited the sign of consent; the huge buck teeth of the flat chested accountant: sickly, given to hysterical pawing.
At some point, a Friday afternoon on a street called The Beauty’s, Nr. 20, the address passed in whispers from one student to another.
One entered though a courtyard. The door opened onto the service stairs. In front of the staircase, a little old man with a beard, poorly but decently dressed, seated on a tripod. 25 Lei. He was there to collect the fee, deliver the password. A small room on the first landing. A long bed, flowered spread. Basin with water on a chair. In bed, smiling, Rabelais’ maid. Wide face, pale, big black eyes. A shock of bristling hair, pitch black. A sneering smile. Pure routine. The furnisher of the address wasn’t handing out more than minimal preliminary information: the “Sluterend” Mom was the wife of military motorcycle champion who was bulking up his income on the QT.
The woman heaves a sigh. The client undresses: the coat, the pullover, shoes, shirt, slacks. The woman pulls her nightgown over her head: naked.
She gets off the bed, advances barefoot. Big feet, big nails thickly painted: red.
She spreads her legs. Without moving, the student scrutinizes, the nails—big and ugly—the legs, ugly and big. The woman climbs back on the bed again. The client climbs on top of the woman, ugly and big as she is, on her slack, sweaty breasts. The big hand, sticky between the client’s legs. Maternal words. Fingers that try to rouse him. Roused for an instant, extinguished after a moment, old, neglected.
Rachele promised something else. Far from her master, the merchant, wrapped in her regal Parma cape, she would finally burn off the weight of the contorted years. Hidden by day beneath the mask of the SPICUL cashier, La inconnue would finally take possession of the nights of the student tempted by philosophical confusions.
We had met at last! Huddled into each other under the great Parma tent of merino or mohair or who knows what bewitched covering, we’d arrive at the appointed time, soon. The lady with the red umbrella seemed as eager as the neophyte.
We had arrived in front of the house. She didn’t ask me in. She didn’t let me kiss her anymore. She took precautions against the neighbors, it seemed. She lit herself a cigarette. She offered me one of the celebrated Kents as well. Kents: in those years, the illicit coin of social favors. We decided to see each other in three days, on Saturday night. She was inviting me to her house for Saturday night!
Nothing diabolic will happen anymore. La inconnue won’t disappear, nor will she change her mind at the last moment. We will have a refuge, a bed, a dark corridor, any space good for a blaze. This time, the only problem was for each of us to survive until Saturday night. Saturday, seven thirty, the Hollywood alcove!
The socialist era provincial hadn’t had a particularly lucky sexual apprenticeship. Precocious puberty, accelerated by reading ran smack into the diversion of Revolution. Was it the frivolity of applause around the little poseur from the provinces? Loveable girls had crowed round the celebrity offering, in obscurity, tender lips and tender throat, and little portions of tender, little breast. That’s it, that’s enough. Mama’ll beat me black and blue…The darkness of cinema halls meant Brînduşa or Pusy or Silvia or, especially Ica, the least attractive, but melancholy and bizarre. Darkness, whissspers, the search for lingerie and skin: to the elbow, the armpit, the shoulder and below, lower, dizziness, down, lower, pains and phallus and pus. In a trance, literate Ica had transfigured passion. Intercepting the lyric message, my Mater Dolorosa translated the danger into ghetto code: “This boy is gonna kill us in a few years time.”
Doctor Alf’s daughter would soon initiate the intoxication in other dizzy parties. The shamelessness of unfinished preliminaries. Then, the classic hospitality of the maid servant. In between soldiers’ nocturnal halts, Lucreţia willingly sheltered the young gentleman’s ejaculation…. Smelling neither of jasmine nor fried onion, her young body was only imbued with soldier scent mixed with woman.
The young gentleman attracted to philosophy not to commerce hesitated to make short of the shameless smarting in his pants at a doctor’s. There were no private medical offices anymore. He had no one to whom he could talk about scandalous secrets. He resigned himself to living together in fear with the viruses of the damned. The newspapers and the radio and books and conferences and mass meetings didn’t address such hidden bourgeois anxieties. “The greater the moral depravity, the more severe public opinion.” Ever less revolutionary, reality was confirming the sayings of the revolutionary, Saint-Juste, who didn’t live long enough to witness socialism.
The patient had healed in the end, however, and on Saturday night Rachele du Gard was going to restore his faith in his youth.
There in the dilated belly of the self-same and pregnant day, time passed quickly and not fast enough. It was a matter of two stops on the Destiny Line before arriving at the holy day of rest, ordained by the Unseen, who rested himself on Saturday too.
Sunny afternoon. Quiet twilight, great birds of the air stock still in midheaven. Pacing back and forth in Liberty Park, the nervous one perpetrated sparse, small steps without ruffling the passersby. The seconds passed without haste. Contemplative, pensioners on their benches placidly watched the timid one’s well-played apathy.
Nifon Street, in its place: houses aligned as they’d been two or twenty or thirty days ago. Number 28: same as before. Nothing changed, all things in their place, a split-second eternity of timeless place and time. Two stone steps in front of the prismatic building with its single level above the ground floor. Two doorbells: identical, one under the other on the solid, black oak door. The names placed above them, identically. A pointer presses the Alice Aslan button. The clock on the street corner shows 7:36.
The door opened right away. Beautiful, although not as young as on the evening of the first encounter. Everything was prepared, no need to rush. There was no need to start too quickly or finish too fast—the words went on saying that, while out of childish urgency, unbridled embraces kept up a contradiction. There were attempts at conversation, though. Were those flights through banality to stimulate intimacy and desire?— those frivolous, insignificant phrases about the doctor she was consulting, that old fart, who didn’t prevent hand or allusions from landing where they weren’t supposed to go.
Good wine, expensive glasses, the clink of a world withdrawn in hiding…The alcoves of our fortress groaned with the spasms of coupling, whispers and sighs, gnashings and groanings and the curses of all classes and ethnicities and ages. Private space having become the only wealth, we were withdrawing with our selves and inside ourselves. ’Ey, let me see you, now when you don’t have the informers and lies and dirt around you any more…quickly, quickly, before the Securitate guys rush in. Only, no one stormed into Alice Aslan’s pleasant little flat. Here there existed neither cause nor excuse for victimization. We were naked and free in the large, clean bed. The courtesan did her duty. She wasn’t hurrying. She didn’t begin too quickly, and she had no idea of stopping. Only, letting himself be served way too well of his partner’s ardor, the guest passed from excessive impatience to passivity in excess. Were tricks making the bodies’ kinetics artificial? Or—the other way around—was artificiality stimulating ardor? The thought set off on it’s own tangent. The body had collapsed, played out. Duplicity wasn’t doing much to potentiate pneuma.
In the end, the object of desire defines itself naturally, as the thinker knew. Concrete obsessive terms, country-style, precise, used for mare and sow and bitch and female antilope. The organ, yes, the simple term, like an order—the organ itself needed to replace verses and romantic dreams. The philosopher kept thinking about that while following the efforts Rachel wielded on the face and lips and humid tongues full of mucous and the secretions of desire. The dilatant was paying attention to the courtesan’s reflexes, to the lips, hand, breasts. Elementary spring of cosmic traits: obsessed by the sustenance of which he never wanted to tire—the student went on perorating like that in his head. All that stood in for something more ample, as Rachel was now trying to prove. Imponderability. Yeah. It wasn’t a negligible word, neither in the epic of eroticism nor in erotic psychology either. One time it works, the next, not so well, another time: not at all—even if the provocations seem the same…and philosophy doesn’t get you over being put off. Neither does a cigarette although Alice kept smoking a great deal, and in the end I smoked too, more than I could bear. Drained of all desire, I left at dawn—burdened with spleen, smoking yet another cigarette Alice had forced between my lips. Inadequate, drained dry, fed up, overwhelmed by the efforts and expectations of the beautiful courtesan, who had remained insatiable and immodest all that long and over-long night, the beauty from the land of wonders where she held sway.
My partner hadn’t changed her mind at the last moment, nor did she suddenly vanish into thin air, nor was she ugly—au contraire. Notwithstanding, something had screwed up the mechanism of desire. The night’s energy had grown dilute; its captive: shipwrecked in overly lucid torpor. The perfect sexual camaraderie, the extreme concentration—and the extreme naturalness—the ecstasy of coupling, they would all have to be learned in a longer exercise of intimacy than the first meeting allowed.
That livid morning, leaving Madam Aslan’s alcove, I kept remembering the opening seasons of my Bucharest debut. Fascinating, the city unclothed itself before the stranger. I couldn’t get enough of wandering the boulevards, the parks. Vagabond, I went on roving through restaurants. The mystery of the houses engulfed me in the obscure hours of the morning. It seemed to me a surprise lurked in the blink of a second. Fear and peril joined at every step. The exasperation. The desire for discharge. The hurried, spiced eroticism of panic, the smell of mating. The little mug of some wage slave, straying alone at that hour of night, in the tram that was withdrawing dopily back to the depot, where the hurried coupling could have happened—barely there, at the depot, in some angle full of boxes and tools, or even in the deserted tram. The one who slept wasn’t asleep at all. The passenger lay in wait. The motorman watched him in the mirror over the dashboard. Everything that was happening or would happen later or would delay happening resembled the dementia of the March afternoon, in the third semester of my student years, during a seminar when I found myself near that slender girl, Sanda Ionescu, the giddy daughter of some aristocrats who’d managed to escape. All of a sudden we were pawing each other under the desk, my hand deep under her skirt, between her moist, silky thighs, wetter by the minute, her hand inside my increasingly damp pants. The professor carried on with the demonstration at the board. Perspiring, we continued taking notes with our free hands. Sexuality: intensified by natural catastrophes, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, dictatorships. Was it exasperated and potentiated under the nose of tyrannical overseers? Could I have been neutralized by the security emanating from the comfortable studio of Madam Rachele du Gard?
I didn’t look for her again in the week that followed. Alice gave me a call after some ten days. Uninspired, I answered grumbling, bored..
When, after several months, regrets overwhelmed me, the longing to make up for the error came too late. She wasn’t answering such useless, foolish calls anymore, nor was she working at the SPICUL store where I kept trying to pick up her trail.
Panicked, in the weeks and months that followed, I began to look for her everywhere and nowhere. And the next year, too, and after that, everywhere, nowhere, in the addressless unknown.
In Belgrade, in ’83, in the Fanar coffee house, her gaze lost in the silvery rim of the cup. When she rose, suddenly, the blaze of her red hair…she looked at me as if I must have been the client she waited for. It was the last day of a conference in which I had participated. My Bucharest colleagues isolated me from the beginning, for traditional reasons or maybe out of impatience to arrange purchases on a large scale: furniture, televisions, refrigerators, for which they had established connections. Afternoons, I kept wandering aimlessly around an ugly city that seemed a luminous oasis—frenetic, electrified by appetites and intoxications—compared with the dark and phantoms that continuously terrorized the “Little Paris” of Bucharest. Then I would get back to the hotel early and watch on television all those things you couldn’t see in back home. On the night before leaving, though, I had stayed on the streets till late. Around midnight I entered the Fanar. Alice had dyed her hair red. Now she looked like the Jewish Rachele, returned from Africa, in the novel by Martin du Gard. I sat down in front of her. She smiled at me, without recognition. She had forgotten Romanian. She only recalled stray words. I didn’t know Serbian. Before leaving together, we understood each other via brief appeals to Russian, and we would have understood each other without words
I saw her again after several years, grown younger, in a bus from West Berlin. I climbed down, agitated, following the silhouette that was moving away toward Check Point Charlie, the boarder with the East. I reached her, panting. I asked how I might get to the Einstein Café. With a nervous gesture, she shook her narrow, fragile shoulders—surprised. Her scarf uncoiled like an orange snake. Smiling, well-disposed, she accompanied me for several paces. Then, after several more, she took me by the arm, as in the old days.
At the Pompidou Center in Paris, she handed me a real surprise. She was standing there, tall and straight, in the courtyard where three teams of acrobats and clowns competed for the audience’s favor. A superb autumn afternoon, soft and sunny. She was looking up toward the escalator I was riding down. When I reached the ground floor, I headed directly toward the slim, statuesque blond who went on leaning against a wall, waiting. I asked her how the exhibit seemed to her. She seemed taken aback. She hadn’t seen the exhibition, perhaps, although the artist was a conational, and she should have taken note of it. Did her confusion have another cause, maybe? She no longer knew any Romanian at all. I took up the question again in French. Without success. I tried the few English words I knew. She answered right away, smiling gladly. Pointing toward the adjacent street, she proposed we drink a coffee or a cognac at the LE MASQUE bar. I opted for coffee. I only drank stiff drinks in the evening, and I didn’t have the money for that kind of tab. She understood. She knew that those fortunate enough to have passports from the East were short of cash, and she hurried to make it clear, I was her guest. We kept quiet, both of us, for a while. She felt obliged to tell me that she lived in Amsterdam, that she worked as an assistant-secretary for a famous doctor.
—Ah, that old doctor. The old fart…
—What, what did you say?
She was looking at me stupefied. She frowned, and again I saw the furrow that appeared whenever Alice knit her brow. Blue eyes, smooth, pale cheeks, long, thin hands…Yes. The tall, slender Dutch woman had Alice’s voice, so much huskier now, the result of tobacco.
—What? I tried in German. It’s nothing, foolishness.
She understood Deutsch. That was making the dialogue easier although it didn’t look as though she enjoyed the invader’s language.
—I suppose the doctor is courting the assistant.
—Not that I’ve noticed. We have a cordial relationship. Strictly business.
—Aha! your husband …I understand.
—I’m not married. That is to say, I was. To an oriental.
—Oriental! Yes, of course…I’d forgotten. Oriental, really? Oriental?
—I hope you’re not racist like people from Eastern Europe?
—No, not at all. Just curious. Armenian?
—Indonesian. A former karate champion, now a trainer. We’ve been separated for three years, but we see each other from time to time.
In the evening, I changed metros three times and wandered around until I found the apartment building on Folie Mericourt.
Superb apartment, like in the design magazines. The Dutch woman’s friend—an interior designer, as the room’s decoration made clear—had gone on vacation. We were alone. I’d brought one of the Stolychnaya bottles with which I had filled my suitcase for Bucharest, to have something to sell and give as gifts.
Convinced we’d be going to a restaurant, the woman from Amsterdam hadn’t prepared a thing to eat. In the end, we remained in the great cube of colored crystal, Kirsten on the black sofa, the East-European on the red one facing her. We drank. We talked.
—Don’t rush it. Tomorrow, tomorrow we’ll do everything.
I didn’t want delays. I didn’t have time to put things off.
Kirsten detested impatience, perpetually, as she went on saying. She felt haste as an aggression against her, like an invasion of filth. She was living in Amsterdam with a younger man who was grateful to her for having taught him to make love slowly, methodically, without hurry.
—Haste makes waste.
I gave a start of recognition. That proverb that somehow linked haste withdebased
—Yeah, I instructed him. He’s gotten to be an expert in calmness and the gradations of fucking.
I startled again. The terms were so similar, and the secretary from Amsterdam kept watching me, attentive to the effect of her language. Then she cast off her dress with a kind of disdain, bored with the formality we’d been carrying out. Naked, on the rubber mattress, on the parquet…nothing worked out too well. It wasn’t going to function without calm and gradations.
—Do you have a sister?
She had risen. She was on the sofa. Long, white, with one leg on the backrest of the couch to let her sex be seen.
—Sister? Me? I don’t have any sister.
—Aha … a mother then? You got a mother?
—Mama, my mother? What exactly do you mean?
—Yeah, a mother…relations.
—Relations with my mother? Good, close, complicate…The relationship with my mother is complicated.
Kirsten wasn’t smiling anymore. Only a whopping Romanian curse could have put a stop to her chatter. Obsessed by the stranger’s obscure center—which must have been something like his heart of darkness—she had grown excessively serious. She was giving me this fixed look. She didn’t seem displeased with the failure, but she didn’t seem disposed to chalk it up to haste and lack of gradations either. Haste and lack of gradations belong to the world of well-hidden secrets.
—Your doctor, the old fart, is he a psychiatrist?
The question didn’t shock her. Her smile had turned cunning and wry; her face: glacial.
—Psychiatrist? Not in the least. He’s a surgeon.
We fell silent. It lasted till she picked up the inquiry.
—In a rush to liquidate the act, isn’t that so? It lacks love, maybe? That childish word…The need for love, is that it? Or guilt, some hidden guilt…So you want to liquidate the fuck quickly, is that it?
She twisted around. She bent toward the vodka bottle on the floor. She was no longer young, but her body was well-maintained, elastic and smooth. Only a drop of vodka remained. She wet her long white pointer and sucked it gradually.
—Or are books to blame?...Or socialist politics? You haven’t had time and you haven’t been allowed to try sexual nonsense? Well, but prohibition increases interest, no? Interest leads to experiment, and experiences lead to experience, no?

            I no longer answered. For my part, I looked at her fixedly too, not the least curious to discover the interrogator’s obscure center.
            We both smoked in silence from her packet of Dunhills. Naked and indifferent, we slept side by side on the mattress. I slipped outside at dawn, exhausted, wrung out, like after a drunk—with bitter herbs. I wandered a long time in the cold air, on the streets of the capital of love, toward the quartier where doctor Thibault used to meet Rachele in a city estranged from itself.
I didn’t call Kirsten back the next day as I’d promised. I felt badly. I wrote to her afterwards from Bucharest, from Jerusalem. Before leaving for the Maastricht Congress2, I dropped her a few lines from New York on an illustration of Van Gogh minus an ear, then from the Hotel Simplicissimus, letting her know that I would stay a week in Holland and that I’d be able to make it to Amsterdam. No reply.
I never would have imagined that she would pounce just like that, all of a sudden in the elevator of the apartment house where I was living. Years had passed. I was coming down from the 34th floor. The door opened on 16. Nobody there. Then this slender blond with short hair darted in, a minuscule white dog in her arms. I hadn’t seen her until that moment. There are 52 floors and around 1000 apartments in our building on the Upper West Side. There’s no way to know everyone.
Bad and cold, Alma had a thing for daily gymnastic exercises, not to mention the smell of Micro, the puffy, hysterical, mangey little mut. That little dog somehow balanced out the young lawyer’s ambitions and frustrations, which she called self-esteem in a cutting, implacable voice—a kind of test that separated the living from the dead, the men from the boys.
I wasn’t having difficulties with English anymore, but I was hardly up on erotic slang. Alma was exuberant, perfectly functional in bed, and she offered the added advantage that I could easily slip into her boudoir several times a month without anyone’s knowing, for an hour or two, or even three. It bugged me, the way she went on delivering herself of bouts of juridical and ethical rhetoric, but I kept coming back to the hideout on the 16th floor on a regular basis. To the burial I didn’t go, however, although all the residents participated. No one would have suspected any special relationship with the deceased. The accident had simply ripped to shreds the long, elastic body of the mother and her darling’s miniscule corpse. The image obsessed me. I didn’t need funeral ceremonies. At the burial I would have been able to meet Alta3, Alma’s twin sister, about whom the delighted neighbors never quit telling stories.
A year had barely gone by when Alta pounced in the lift. She had a bicycle in place of a little dog, and there was a book of Henry Miller’s tied to the handlebar. She had been a ballerina. She had a gracious and jesting way of directing sexual operations.
—Let me begin. That’s it, between the lips. It’s getting bigger. It’ll get big. Hold off, hold off or I’ll bite you. Look, it’s getting bigger. Hold off as long as you can.
Her voice had grown clear. All traces of hoarseness had disappeared. Alta hadn’t smoked for more than ten years.
—That’s it. Don’t let go. Hold it. Hand here, in the burrow, at the boiling point. Now, now come in. Slowly, powerfully, the way I told you. Slowly, slowly and strong.
One Saturday—I’d come up with pretext of a migraine for not going with the family to the mountains for the weekend—I slept a whole night at Alta’s. I’d wanted this extravagance for a long time. She continually summoned me to take the risk. She was going to get married soon. She was attached to the idea of our spending a night together.
A painful exaltation. Morbid, tardy ecstasy of one’s ultimate nights near the delicate, vigorous body of yesteryear.
Deep sleep. Youthful. An expiation. Trail of luminous, blue smoke. Tramline 17. Rachele was climbing down cheerfully in her long, red cloak with little Micro in her arms. Excited, we embraced. The waves of venomous mohair stupefied me—that funeral cloak. I kept fighting back tears. My nostrils had filled with sweet poisons as of old—the aroma of the nocturnal aphrodisiac, the wound, the ferocious instant, the fatal drug of old age.

1 Translator’s Note. The passage comes from the Diary of Franz Kafka: What do I have in common with Jews I don’t have anything in common with myself, and would be content to stand quietly alone in a corner, satisfied that I can breathe.”

2 Translator’s note: the PEN International Congress in Maastricht, 1989

3 Translator’s note: Alta means “ the other” in Romanian.


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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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17 December
Tardes de Cinema Romeno
As tardes de cinema romeno do ICR Lisboa continuam no dia 17 de Dezembro de 2009, às 19h00, na ...
14 December
Omaggio a Gheorghe Dinica Proiezione del film "Filantropica" (regia Nae Caranfil, 2002)
“Filantropica” è uno dei film che più rendono giustizia al ...
12 December
Årets Nobelpristagare i litteratur Herta Müller gästar Dramaten
Foto: Cato Lein 12.12.2009, Dramaten, Nybroplan, Stockholm I samband med Nobelveckan kommer ...
10 December
Romanian Festival @ Peninsula Arts - University of Plymouth
13 & 14 November 2009. Films until 18 December. Twenty of Romania's most influential and ...
10 December
Lesung und Gespräch mit Ioana Nicolaie
Donnerstag, 10. Dezember, um 19.30 Uhr Ort: Szimpla Café Gärtnerstrs.15, ...

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