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from the November/December 2003 issue

from The Roulette Player

By chance, the first roulette player I ever saw escaped with his life. Since then, for many years in a row, I attended hundreds of roulettes and I saw many times an image that cannot be described: the human brain, the only veritably divine substance, the alchemical gold which contains everything, scattered on the walls and on the floor, mixed up with splinters of skull. Think about bullfighting or gladiators and you will understand why this game soon infused my blood and changed my life. Roulette has in principle the geometrical simplicity and force of the spider web: a roulette player, a boss, some stockholders are the drama's characters. In secondary roles you have the basement's owner, the cop that makes the rounds in the neighborhood, the common porters hired to dispose of the corpses. The relatively insignificant sums that roulette endowed them with were, from their point of view, veritable fortunes. The roulette player was, most certainly, the roulette's star and its reason for being. As a rule, the roulette players were recruited from the rich throngs of the unfortunates ever in search of bread, resembling vagabond dogs, drunks, jailbirds barely out on the street. Anyone, as long as he was alive and willing to place his soul on the battleground for  money (but what did money mean under those conditions?), could become a roulette player. It was, as well, preferable that he was, as much as possible, bereft of social relations: job, family, close friends. The roulette player has five chances in six to survive. He usually receives about ten percent of what the boss earns. The boss must be in possession of serious funds, because, in case his roulette player dies, he has to pay the stakes of all the stockholders who bet against him. The stockholders, in their turn, have one chance in six to win, but, if the roulette player dies, they can demand stakes ten times over, or twenty times, according to prior agreement with the boss. The roulette player, however, did not have five chances to live out of six, except the first time he played. Statistically speaking, if he placed the pistol once more against his temple, his chances diminished. At his sixth attempt, his chances dwindled to zero. In fact, until my friend entered the world of the roulette, becoming the Roulette Player in capitals, there were no known cases of survival after even four games. Of course, most of the roulette players played occasionally, and would not repeat for anything in the world their dreadful experience. Only a few were attracted by the possibility of making money, and this usually in order to employ a roulette player themselves, thus becoming bosses, which was actually possible after the second game.

There is no reason to continue here with further description of the game. It is stupid and alluring like any game hallowed, in all honesty, by the stain of blood, which was pleasing to our despicable participation. I return to the one who destroyed the game by force of the fact that he played it to perfection. From what legend tells (which you could hear at the time in all of the city's taverns), he was not recruited by some boss, he single-handedly found out about roulette and had himself sold. I suspect the boss who hired him was very happy to get himself a roulette player without any trouble, because usually long and exasperating transactions were necessary, agonizing bargains with those who assigned their soul to the auction block. At the start any vagabond would demand the moon in the sky and you needed consummate skill to convince him that life and blood are not worth the entire universe, but a certain number of paper bills, a number that depended on the demand of the market. A roulette player to whom you didn't need to demonstrate he was in fact nobody, whom you didn't need to threaten with the police, was unhoped-for luck, all the more so when he accepted without discussion the first offer, proposed out of the corner of your mouth, with glance askance, in the manner of bosses. About the first few roulette games that my friend participated in, I couldn't find out very much. I can't imagine, the first and second time he survived, even the third, that he was noticed by the stockholders. At most he was thought of as a lucky player. After his fourth, his fifth, he had already become the central figure of the game, a veritable myth, in fact, that would burgeon exorbitantly in the years that followed. During a period of two years, until our encounter in the restaurant, the Roulette Player lifted the pistol to his temple eight times in various cellars throughout the filthy labyrinths underneath the foundations of our city. Each time, I was told (and later could see it for myself), on his tormented face, almost without a forehead, an overwhelming terror etched itself, an animal fear that you couldn't bear to witness. It seemed as though this very fear cajoled fate and helped him escape. His emotional tension reached a peak when, tightening his eyelids and smirking, he abruptly pulled the trigger. You heard the slight click, after which his frame with its heavy bones crashed softly to the floor: he lost consciousness but was unharmed. For several days he slumbered in his bed, completely emptied of vitality, but then he quickly recovered and took up again the life he shared between the cabaret and the brothel. As hard as he tried, being possessed of a limited imagination, he could not spend as much as he earned and ended up increasingly wealthier. He had long relinquished the support of the boss, becoming his own boss. Why he continued risking his life was an enigma. You could only come up with one explanation, that he did it for a kind of glory, like an athlete who attempts in each race to surpass himself. If that in fact was the truth, it was something entirely new in the world of the roulette, which was always played exclusively for money. Who would get it in his head to become a world champion at surviving? The fact is that the Roulette Player was presently the winner in this race, which he ran against one other competitor only: death. And, just when it seemed this clandestine cavalcade was about to tumble into monotony (those who went to witness my friend's roulettes did it only out of the desire to see him gone once and for all, not to bet, because they had developed the increasingly resigned sentiment they were betting against the devil), the Roulette Player perpetrated his first gesture of defiance, which practically liquidated the roulette, pulverizing any possibility of competition outside of the one between him and everything that surpasses our unfortunate condition. In the winter of that year he announced, through the ineffable, speedy, and certain network of information of the world of the roulette, that he would organize on Christmas night a special roulette: the revolver's chamber would be loaded with two bullets instead of one.

The chances of survival were now only three to one, if we didn't consider the progressive reduction of his chances after so many games. Many connoisseurs, even after the Roulette Player's death, considered that this Christmas roulette was his stroke of genius, and that everything that followed, even though more spectacular, was no more than a consequence of this gesture. The subterranean room belonged to a cognac factory and preserved the chemical reek of poor-quality alcohol. Though it was larger than other rooms I had been in, that night it was filled to the brim. Anywhere you looked you stared at somebody well known, officers and painters, a few bearded clerics, industrialists and society women, all of them animated by the unexpected innovation brought to the rules of roulette. The blackboard on which two young men in shirtsleeves wrote the odds of the bets occupied the entire wall behind the crate upon which the Roulette Player would take his place. In time he made his appearance, barely discernible through the blue smoke of the cellar. He stepped up on the crate and, after the ceremony of the detailed verification of weapon and bullet—which lasted longer than usual, as the members of the crowd couldn't refuse themselves the pleasure of caressing, almost voluptuously, the gun's barrel—picked up the pistol, loaded it, shoved the two bullets at random in the orifices of the chamber, which he twirled by rolling his palm over it. The tiny cogged cackle was heard again in the silence of the room, but, as always, the silence was not disturbed by an explosion, and no flower of blood stained the wall's plaster. The Roulette Player collapsed from the crate into the arms of those in the first rows, knocking over glasses and propelling rolls of coins over the improvised tables. I wept then like a child, from relief and despair, because I had bet a sum which for me was gigantic, and lost, like all those who had taken an obstinate stance, the more it was evident to them the Roulette Player's chance of winning was colossal. We left the tortuous lair, as always, in small groups, and, with the night outside, with the silence of the outskirts, we felt as we walked as though we were the target of a gaze that had dissolved all the surroundings, in the layer of blinding, florescent snow that had fallen over everything, over the display windows adorned with Christmas trees and stars of silver paper, over the rare passersby loaded with packages and bundled-up children, with scarves shrouding their mouths and noses. Here and there a woman with cheeks glowing from the humid cold, curled up inside a fur coat, dragged her boyfriend or her husband in front of the shop windows displaying boots or shawls, which cast upon their faces shadows, violet and turquoise and azure. My walk home took me alongside the children's park, where a horde of urchins smeared with candy would pause bewildered before the tiny houses selling lemonade and gingerbread. A father huddled in bulky clothes, who dragged after him on the thin ice a sled mounted by his little girl, winked at me. He was one of the bosses I encountered at another roulette. Suddenly I felt horrible.

Certainly, I promised myself to break with the world of the roulette. But during that time I published around two or three books a year, I had the sort of success that preceded a long silence and then forgetfulness. With each new book I recovered my roulette losses, and then I would dive again into it, under the earth, where a foreboding of the flesh and the bones lures us while we are still alive. The one thing I wonder most about now is the "idealistic" and "delicate" content of those books, the nauseating D'Annunzioism I indulged in. Noble reflections, royal gestures, silk lace, scintillating mots d'esprit and a narrator who is wise, all-knowing, who spun out of the substance without substance of his stories thousands of dainty charms. Once again lured into roulette's conspiracy, it was impossible not to be instantly hit, as though by a wave that turns hotter and hotter, more turbulent, by the news about the new rules of the game tacitly imposed by the overwhelming personality of the Roulette Player. After repeating two more times the two-bullet roulette, he saw himself so wealthy, so engaged in tens of branches of the country's big business, whose stocks he owned, that roulette, as a low-life affair, as a source of existence or wealth became an absurd idea. On the other hand, his odds tended to decline, despite the fanatics who ruined themselves by obstinately playing against him. At a single sign from the Roulette Player, the whole system of bets crumbled. It was considered in bad taste now to organize roulettes where some miserable vagabond would place the pistol to his temple. There were no more bosses and stockholders, and the only one who still organized roulettes was the Roulette Player. But everything became a spectacle, with tickets instead of bets, spectacle with one performer only, who, from time to time, like a gladiator in the arena, confronted destiny. The rented halls became more and more spacious. The tradition of the underground hole was abandoned, the reek of blood and manure, the Rembrandtian first names. Now the subterranean rooms were decorated with heavy silks, with oily shine, crystal goblets on the tables submerged in waves of Dutch lace, furniture decorated with floral intarsia and candelabra with hundreds of prisms and quartz icicles. Instead of the ordinary beer, sophisticated drinks were served in bottles with odd shapes. Women in evening gowns were escorted to the tables, from where they curiously surveyed the stage, where for now played an orchestra from which shot out in every direction the golden funnels of trumpets, the curved necks of saxophones, the graceful cylinders, in constant motion, of trombones. I suppose that was how the room looked when the Roulette Player, for the first time, loaded the revolver with three bullets. He had now as many possibilities to survive as to play this demented game for the last time. Because this new ambience, the ostentatious luxury that mantled like a chrysalis roulette's terrifying insect, did nothing if not inflame the spectators' fervor for the smell of death. Everything that follows is very much the truth. The Roulette Player doused his hair with brilliantine and wore a smock with the loose trousers fashionable at the time, but the revolver was real, and so were the bullets, and the probability of the expected "accident" greater than ever. The weapon circulated through everybody's hands, leaving on one's fingers a subtle odor of oil. Not even the most delicate lady in the room concealed her eyes, in whose violet sparkle you could read the perverse craving to witness what many only heard about roulette: the cranium cracking like an eggshell and the ambiguous liquid substance of the brain gushing on the gown's lap. As for me, I have always been shaken by the craving displayed by women to be near death, their fascination with men who, almost metaphysically, smell of gunpowder. The incredible success with women of a chimpanzee, haggard and stupid, who from time to time gambles with his own life, must have its roots in this. At no other time, I believe, did they love with such zest, those women, than after witnessing a man's death, and arriving home with their lovers and shedding their bloodied dresses, stained like bandages by the ashen substance and the ocular liquid. But the Roulette Player stepped up on the crate adorned with red brocade, lifted the pistol to his temple and, with the same expression of convulsive fright on his face, jerked the trigger. Then, in the silence that suspended everything for the time of a few seconds, all you heard was the thud of his frame on the floor. After a few days' delirium at the hospital, the Roulette Player resumed his usual life. It's difficult for me to forget his tortured aspect, sprawled with his face staring upward on the Bokhara rug at the foot of the crate. Other times, the roulette players who survived were booed and hooted by the forlorn stockholders; but now, my friend was cheered like a movie star, his body, plunged into unconsciousness, was surrounded with veneration. Young women, weeping hysterically, swarmed toward him and were happy to merely touch him.

The roulette with three bullets greased inside the chamber fuses in my mind with the events that followed. It was as though the diabolical arrogance of the Roulette Player propelled him more and more to offend Hazard's divinities. Soon, he announced a roulette with four bullets, thrust into the chamber's alveoli, and then, with five bullets. One single empty orifice out of six, one single chance of survival out of six! This game ceased being a game and the most superficial among those who occupied the velvet armchairs felt, not with his brain, but with his bones and his cartilage and his nerves, the theological grandeur that roulette had achieved. After the Roulette Player loaded his weapon and twirled the chamber, unleashing again the tiny staccato cackle of well-oiled black metal, the hexagonal piece, heavy with bullets, paused with the single empty space in front of the barrel. The click of the trigger, which sounded with a hollow echo, and the collapse of the Roulette Player, were surrounded by a sacred silence.

I sit with my blanket over me at the writing table and yet I am horribly cold. While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick. I twisted and turned in my bed all night long, a helpless sack of bones steamed by sweat. Outside nothing exists anymore, never. No matter how long you journey, in any direction, all the way to the infinite, all you find is the black fog, dense, solid as pitch. The Roulette Player is the stake I bet on and the bit of dough around which the fluffy bread of the world might possibly flourish. Otherwise everything, whether it exists or not, is flat like pita bread. If he existed, and he did exist—that is my bet—then the world exists, and I will be no longer forced to close my eyes and, with shriveled skin on my bones, with my flesh as my sheath like a fur of blood, I will march forth as long as eternity lasts. From this story, let me fashion myself an aquarium, the most miserable, because I have no interest in a decorative aquarium, where he and I, each a guarantee for the other's reality, will attempt to survive, like two semitransparent fish, with heart visible in its throbbing, and dragging after us a thin strand of excrement. I am horrified at the thought the aquarium will be left punctured. For God, let me make an effort, though I no longer feel my spine.

For years on end the Roulette Player managed to clutch the Angel by the lapel of his coat. The evening came, though, when he grabbed him by the throat and, gathering all his strength, stared him deeply in the eye. And the Lord, toward morning, crippled him and changed his name . . . In that last evening of the roulette, practically the entire upper crust of the city congregated in the huge refrigerated hall beneath the abattoir. The hall's décor may have appeared entirely odd to those accustomed to the parvenu's ostentatious luxury of previous halls. I can't tell whether it was someone's intuition or a reminiscence from À rebours that inspired the nostalgic hybrid, leading to a somewhat perverse admixture of promiscuity and refinement, whose effect was far more powerful than that of the pomp of a few months back. At first impression, with the exception of the sheer size of the hall, you had the impression that you were inside one of the old cellars from the "prehistoric" period of the roulette. The walls were filled with obscene scribblings and inscriptions rudely scratched or traced with charcoal, but an eye with the merest of training could not help observing right away the aesthetic refinement, the coherent and emotionally stirring manner of a great artist, whose name, for obvious reasons, I prefer not to remember. The tables simulated, out of precious wood essences and golden moldings, the sardine barrels around which sat the stockholders of the bygone era. Crystal mugs simulated the gross aspect of those made from cheap glass, down to their greenish nuance and the artificial blemishes. Gloomy filters scattered a morbid light, like tallow flame, admixed with waves of bluish smoke, like the cheap stogies of old, only now perfumed with musk and awakening a delicately nostalgic sentiment. On the stage, at the front of the hall, rested a veritable orange crate, brought in from the harbor and filled with the inscriptions of an Arab firm. Inside the hall, lured by that evening's fantastic stakes, you could recognize, in their white burnooses, diverse petroleum magnates, movie stars and singers in current vogue, industrialists with starched shirt fronts and carnations in their lapel buttonholes. Everyone agreed, at the entrance, to have a silk scarf tied around their eyes, which they couldn't remove until entering the hall. I myself was, I say this with enough disgust that I can't be suspected of lack of modesty, a sort of star, which attracted even the stares of the most blasé among them, even of those who were next to me that evening. Never were my books, which had grown thicker and thicker and in keeping with their taste, so highly publicized: noble, yes, first and foremost noble. Generous, first and foremost, generous. Thus sounded the commendation of the jury when I received the National Prize: "For the noble and generous humanity of his books, for the complete mastery of an expressive tongue."

When the Roulette Player made his appearance in the room, bedecked in bizarre strips of cloth that tastefully simulated rags, and when the master of ceremonies, disguised as a "boss," opened the box which he brought under his arm and presented to the public a superb Winchester (now in a private collection) with ivory handle and shimmering barrel, everyone stopped breathing. We could not believe that what was to follow would take place. Because the Roulette Player had announced a few weeks before that at the next roulette he would load the revolver with all six bullets! Between the progression from one bullet to five, no matter how unlikely that was, and the present insanity was a chasm from one single chance to no chance at all. The drop of the human which the Roulette Player had still preserved in his attempts had evaporated now under the million suns of certitude. The verification of the bullets and the weapon lasted hours on end. When they were returned to him, the Roulette Player took his place on the crate, he clattered them in his fist like dice, then inserted them, one by one, into the six holes of the chamber. With a violent jerk of his palm, he put them in motion. "Useless," I remember someone whispering next to me. In the terrifying silence, the tiny cogged cackle of the chamber could be heard clearly. Shaking, with face convulsing, a fear in the eyes that you might only witness in those in agony, he lifted the pistol to the temple. The crowd stood up.

I strained so hard to scrutinize him that I could feel the bulging of the veins in my temples. I could see the pistol's hammer lifting slowly, appearing to vibrate. And abruptly, as though this vibration propagated itself into the room, I felt the ground run from under my feet. I saw the Roulette Player crumbling from the crate and the revolver discharging with an apocalyptic blast. But the air was already filled with a deaf clamor, severed by the screams of the women and the clanging of the capsizing bottles, now splinters. Overtaken by the panic of the constricted space, we stepped on each other in order to scramble out. The tremors lasted a few good minutes, transforming entire streets into piles of debris and twisted metal. In front of the exit, a derailed streetcar crashed into a furniture store and turned the windows to smithereens. After an hour the earthquake started again, less forceful now. Who had the courage to venture into their own homes that night? I walked the streets until the morning's fog whitened the horizon and the dust of the shattered buildings settled on the sidewalks. It wasn't till then that I remembered the Roulette Player had been probably abandoned there, in the subterranean hall, and I went back to see if he was still living. I found him stretched on the floor, tended to by a few individuals. One of his legs was sprained from the hip and he gasped from pain. Next to him lay the revolver, reeking of gunpowder, with only five bullets in the chamber. The sixth left a blackish hole in one of the room's walls, near the ceiling. I stopped a car on the street and took my childhood friend to the hospital. He recovered quickly, but limped for the rest of the year that he still lived. That evening he buried the roulette, soon obliterated from everyone's mind, in the manner we usually forget anything that we bring to perfection. The younger generations, after the war, never caught sight of these Mysteries. I alone bring witness—but for you, no one, for you, nothing.


© Mircea Cartarescu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2004 by Julian Semilian. All rights reserved.

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