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from the January 2015 issue

Onomasticon

A hidden gem of Romanian literature, unknown abroad and a specialized taste at home, Mircea Horia Simionescu’s Onomasticon offers English-language readers a festival of delight. An invented dictionary of first names, its entries vacillate between brief descriptions (a gnomic utterance, an image, or sometimes only a street address) and long, more-or-less realistic narratives inspired (however distantly) by the name. While the invented reference book may remind readers of Jorge Luis Borges or Milorad Pavić, Simionescu began his work independently, in 1958, in response to a friend who asked for help in naming his first child. The first part of Simionescu’s “novel with a thousand characters,” up to the letter J, appeared in 1968, to be completed to Z in 1977. It is the first volume of a tetrology entitled The Well-Tempered Wise Guy, which he concluded in 1983. The present selections follow Simionescu’s advice to dip in and out of his text, following, in the absence of a unifying plot, our curiosity for particular names or the dictates of chance. —Sean Cotter 

AARNE “ . . .The family lived in a permanent state of alarm. There was never a moment in which someone didn’t need a glass of water, a bandage, a cigarette, something done in town, some kind of aid. And as the boy Aarne was always at hand, their house resounded all day long with their cries:

—Aarne, open the door for the postman! Pick a bunch of parsley for Grandpa! Go to the kitchen, quick! Aarne, come here! Go there! Leave! Stay! Aarne! Aarne!

The grandfather, wounded in the war of reintegration, was startled sixty times a day in his chair with nickel wheels, and each time he would shout, with a child-like joy:

—To arms! To arms!

The confusion was inexhaustible.

The panic and enthusiasm would eventually die down. Then, in the sitting room with the piano and dusty ficus, in the dining room, the bedroom, on the glassed-in veranda, a silence would settle, like that which falls over great battlefields.” (H. Thindham: Locutions and Lucurbrations)

ABELARD “Being difficult to remember, the name is recommended for those children of simple people who otherwise would be called Ion, Costică, Vasile, and who, once forced to study, with great sacrifice, several elementary grades, once compelled to sweat heavily in the advance of trade, and obligated by economic laws to produce in all types of grime almost all we need, once instructed to follow the orders of kings and commandants, become, in the end, ideal biological units, mechanisms of nerves with all it takes to go to war, fight heroically, die blown to pieces and be completely forgotten, a short time later.” (Thomas Leyt: Composition Exercises)

ABSOLON Absolon Pop, 19 Colonel P. Ionescu St., Bucharest. (the telephone book)

ACACHIE In the Orthodox calendar, celebrated on March 31: “Saints Acachie, Opatie, and Gangrei.”

ACHIM As a child, he suffered from the disease called humility. Poor man! Now, as a consequence of that awful disease, he acts like a tyrant toward waifs and dreamers, holding forth (to the young) in long speeches about life’s hidden dangers.

ACULINA Likeable girl under a foreign roof. Her masters (or relations) dress her cheaply and smack her at a hasty word. She is married off, one afternoon, to a brutal drunk. After he dies, she remarries with a corporal on leave, who has a country inheritance. She maintains the corporal’s house, and in the course of a fire, she burns like a torch, making the neighborhood tremble with her screams of martyrdom.

Her religious soul comes back to the kitchen at evening to scrub the pots and boil mast for the pigs.

BLANCHE Many imagine Blanche to be blonde. But most are brunette, hairy, petite, smokers, with guilty twinges and violently accusing gestures.

BLIMA Before leaving the country for good, Blima, misunderstanding the price of furniture, picks up an ax and destroys, in front of the buyer, first her Louis XV dining set and then the bedroom.

CORIN A feverous person, precocious. His hours melt into a dizzying rush. He lives as much in one year as others do in ten. He left us further and further behind, until he lived in the next century. Alone, without contemporaries.

CORINA The Knight’s Tower has a balcony. Above it, a little window. The window is named Corina.

DELIA The chemistry professor said that if you plunge a flower into liquid air, it turns to crystal. Its natural colors achieve eternity. I don’t know how scientific this is; however, the image is one of the most delicate I know, and I passionately save it in my jewelry box. Living things, sunk through an act of will into a substrate of love and enthusiasm, become preserved within ourselves forever. DELIA M. was a very strange girl. Thin, pallid, weak. She lived in one of those modest houses remaining in the city of T. from the time of Grigore Alexandrescu. Her being floated softly among the termite-eaten columns of the porch, her papery hand pushed the heavy door of unplaned wood. An unjust, unjust movement, a terrible effort. Then, the outdated lace curtain shook slightly, a sign that Delia was there, that the darkness of the room had not consumed her.

Delia reappeared in a few days, promised to meet her friends, made wicked jokes (she looked suddenly like a seamstress from television!) and, in the end, perished under the enormous trees of the city park. She was a poet.

One afternoon, I found her tombstone on the edge of the cemetery. The first leaves of autumn had fallen. The ground was wet beneath my feet. Dark matter had closed forever over the light of this exciting being.

I did not want to understand this passing.

Now, however, after twenty years, I understand the strength and benefit of the earth that enwraps her. Delia remains young, like a crystal flower.

DELIO Not to be trusted: when he writes, he keeps his index finger on the belly of the nib.

DEMOSTENE While I continue to sketch a tree, on the hill of Voforâtă, Mr. Demostene, the shopkeeper, aged seventy, explains death. Under the guise of testing my pencil, I note, with fidelity, some of his observations. “Death is a wooden fence, long and braided, made of thick switches, beside a snaking path. You have to go forward, because as yet, nothing better than God has been made up. There is a gate in the fence from time to time, and you think of peeking through the switches, beyond, to trick the gates a touch and skip ahead. And you get used to going on, and you feel you can’t go on . . ..

One day, just when you don’t have one handy, you notice you’ve left too many gates behind, and you’re gripped by fear. Then your leg and hand go weak, and you reach, in your humanity, to catch yourself on the fence. You meet a gate, your gate. And just like that, you pass through without even noticing.

Then, in a happy spot, a garden, all the sadness that had held you is suddenly destroyed.”

DESDEMONA Today, unusable. For the rest, see the play by Olivio Petronelli.

DESANT Given this name, he starts off with a quandary.

DESPINA That is, police-blue, a thick frame, gilted; woman who can betray an old friend and reform the metric system.

DESPOT Lovely child! And he plays so nicely! He can read at age six? Bravo. And what slip of paper is he hiding in his pocket? Aha, a detailed plan to incinerate the house, from all sides at once, starting with his grandparents’ bed and those hidden, well-ventilated passages too narrow for the firemen. Shockingly well thought-out, a solution of white phosphorous, thickly applied, unfailingly effective.

DEVI Like Tavi, Guvi, Ovi, short and tough, a wooden plug in the stuff of a labile character.

DEZIDERIU Constructed of copper rings, those used to hang curtains.

DIA Dia Pazon (Mexico).

DIAMANDI What remains on the plate after the fish has been eaten.

DIDA Dida, Trida, Cvartida, like Adina, Didina, Tridina. Also possible are Decida, Dodecida.

DIDO and Aeneas, by Purcell. Chorus in the echo, lascivious tears.

DIETRICH Carriage perfect, hairstyle asymmetrical, somber line to the neck, statuary profile, hairy little finger snug in a silver ring, monogrammed . . ..

DIMITRIE He sent her a terrible letter: “I loved you with all my heart. You didn’t understand. There was no sacrifice I would not have made for you. I adored you. Now, I understand that everything is over. My heart is torn, I drown in my tears. I beg you, send my letters back. Please include the golden charm (the other you may keep, in my memory). Send me the blue comb and the other things I gave when I thought you were different than you really are, the box with pyrography, the silk scarf, the garter case, the beige dress, the necklace and gloves. Life without you has no meaning. Meaningless as well the memories you have of me. I am sure they will torture you. It would not be bad if you sent back the three volumes of Teodoreanu (no longer available in bookstores) and the felt hat. Even though they are passed from fashion, send them back to me, the fact that I gave them to you during a day of enchantment rekindles my passion, and reopens my wounds. I hope you will keep the purple hatband, a symbol of mutual understanding between two happy lovers. Yours, forever, D.”

DINEU (Unattested) Official or intimate.

DINORAH Like Cinerama.

DIOPHANÉ If the child were a gun, the bullet would start off, stop halfway down the barrel for a moment, then race toward the target.

DIONA Diona, my cat, loves milk, drawers, silks. A spendthrift. I imagine she will enjoy travel and mud baths.

ELVIS Elvis MacPherson, saxophone player.

ELVIRA A perfectly healthy name. An Elvira often travels. She takes shelter in the poor rooms of student geniuses. At the age of thirty, unable to travel any more, she became a switchboard operator at Victoria, and she had moments of happiness connecting with Paris, Geneva, and Buenos Aires. She knew Brâncuși. She loved Pallady.

ERMILIU In trolley 83, which I boarded so to arrive at the Gara de Nord before the express, the stories of Enache (cf. the name!) followed me insistently. At Visarion a middle-aged woman got on, blonde, with a large chest like a pigeon’s. She sat in the seats reserved for the elderly, not knowing that, only one seat behind, her biography, presumed but as precise as her type of woman, unrolled like a ribbon beneath my brow: Mady was born in the slums of Chibrit, forty years ago. As a child, her family taught her the rules of a hard life. Her father once punched her mother, leaving her bathed in blood; she learned to lie early, proved herself a good student of the celebrated Madame Doicescu, the midwife, Didina Melidoneanu, and Apasia Teodorescu. At fifteen she ran away from home with the postman, who left her two weeks later, to run by himself to another address. At the school for seamstresses, she performed several daring thefts from the other girls’ coffers. No one would have known a thing if a schoolmate hadn’t caught her transmitting a coat to a soldier. Expelled, she did not want to leave school, for fear of her mother. She attempted suicide. At eighteen, she married Corporal Dogaru, wounded in the war of 1916. The age difference (twenty years) provided the bad match with memorable scenes. Dogaru found her in bed with her cousin, and being as cruel as he was demented, he yanked on her hair until she stopped reacting. The poor woman reformed. The husband idolized her, moved by her good behavior, another two weeks. At the start of the third, one Monday at lunch, Dogaru was found dead of a stroke. The coroner, Matei Alexandrescu, her former accomplice in the trade school thefts, mistook gas for cerebral aneurysm.

Mady erased the traces of her biography, moving into a studio with two rooms on Arcului, near Piaţa Rosetti. The dwelling space had been separated during a housing crisis, and one room now belonged to a journalist. A limited and uncultured person, he spent hours on end conversing with Mady, while his bosses thought he was investigating in the field. During the course of these conversations, she created a varied and dizzying sensational story, for two days, to intimidate the imbecile, but he didn’t react to her intimidations.

An officer appeared at the door, determined to discover stolen state secrets in his papers, and foreign objects in his possessions; the officer looked under his bed for a wanted murderer. The battle lines were drawn. Mistress of her means, Mady requested that the individual evacuate, which he did.

Finding herself with two rooms and a bath, Mady fell in love with a professor. While his wife was traveling to Sovata with the children, Mady appeared at the professor’s divorce trial; her hair disheveled, she made accusations—in a word, she claimed to be his maltreated wife. The divorce was granted. She married the university professor. The students greeted her with great respect. The abandoned wife, however, beat her soundly and spat on her body.

At Arcul de Triumf, the actress Greta Marinescu got on.

At Strandului, Mady got off.

At Casa Scânteii, Greta Marinescu got off, and Titi Fănuş got on, along with Geta Praporgescu.

At Podul Băneasa, they both got off.

Still thinking and pondering, I found myself at the airport. I had thought I was on the 83 to the station. But, oh! The 83 doesn’t go to the station. I would have waited for a plane instead of the express, I didn’t have anyone in particular to meet, but it was evening, and the ticket man had just got on, Ermiliu, an old acquaintance, a polite and serviceable person. The chance to ride back without a ticket.

EUPHEMIA The woman who speaks through her nose while eating mashed potatoes. As seen through a keyhole, while someone who knows you’re there keeps sitting between your eye and her.

FATINE The distinct call of a decorative cat. A quite thin figure on a coffee cup rim. Dear and libertine, like a doorbell at the head of the bed.

FĂRĂMIŢĂ Lambru, folk musician.

FERDINAND This was the name of Doctor Stoica’s old Pontiac, always bouncing among potholes, as its master bounced toward his patients’ needs. Poor Ferdinand died, and Dr. Stoica broke down.

GABRIELA A neuter name. GABI: velvet, plush, salons without echo, in which footsteps disappear and voices whisper across the surfaces of thirsting things. “Brocade-quality.” (Goethe)

GAFIC “He met God. As he describes their first encounter, during which recommendations were made, it seems that God spoke perfect Romanian (although He faced some obstacles in the conjugation of ‘to make,’) was completely up-to-date with nationalization (which he opposed), and dexterously interpreted the discourses of government officials. Gafic was sure, in 1948, that the Lord and master of all souls intended for a bus, one he had owned for many years, to travel to Buzău once a week and to bring back wine and fresh cheeses, which sold well in the market. He was not part of any sect, rather he invented a new religion. One convert to Gaficism spent some years in jail because God stopped working with him, at the last moment, the very night when he was supposed to ship some sacks of grain, obtained for a bribe from a mill.

That day, God had been helping another adept, from Craiova, and His omnipresence device had broken down, unseen and ineffable.” (Hari Boniface: Scenes) II. Adjective: gáfic.

from Dicţionar Onomastic. © Mircea Horia Simionescu. By arrangement with the publisher, Grupul Humanitas. Translation © 2014 Sean Cotter. 

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