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from the October 2004 issue

Nabokov in Brasov

A few days ago I was taking a walk, somewhere around The New Times, rushing ahead with my fists crammed into the pockets of my jacket. The industrial landscape was so dire it almost made you cry. Despite the fact that the sun was out it was very cold, the November morning frost hadn't melted yet. I was thinking about all sorts of literary drivel, when I heard someone call my name: "Hey Mircea, how are you, darling?"

A massive and silvery BMW had stopped by the side of the road a few steps in front of me and a completely unknown woman, sunglasses propped up on her forehead, smiled at me through the shotgun window. I walked toward the car and the woman stepped out. "Do you remember me? Do you know who I am?"

The more I looked at her, the less I knew who she was. "I don't think so," I said, smiling.

She was superbly dressed, astounding against that backdrop of miserable apartment buildings across the street, the cement factory and the crooked stands at the streetcar station.

"I am Adriana, Irina's sister, you came to see us once in Cluj."

OK, so I'd met her, once only, many years before, it was only natural that I didn't remember her. I mimicked the joy of recognition and we exchanged a few banal words.

"Do you still travel to Finland?" I asked in order to make sure she knew I knew her.

"Yes, I go there all the time, I work with a Finnish company. But tell me, how are you? How are things going? I keep hearing you've been coming out with new books, but you know . . . with all my work I'm way behind on my reading . . . Irina, however, buys all your books, for old times' sake, you know what I mean . . ."

I hesitated to ask, but it was inevitable. "How is Irina?"

To which this completely—I mean completely—unknown woman broke into a kind of naïve euphoria: it was clear that her sister was the pride of the family. "Well, very, very well, for a few years now she's been in Brussels, her husband is someone very important, member of the European Parliament."

". . . because that's the way history is written," went through my head. A few more words—"Let's stay in touch" (as though we were ever in touch!), "I am very happy to see you again"—and then the man at the wheel opened the passenger side door. Then the space closed up behind the disappearing car the same way you would close a fashion magazine with impeccably photographed objects. All that remained were the apartment buildings, wet and grimy, the holes in the road, and the pedestrians at the intersection, ill-looking and badly dressed.

I forgot what notary public or courthouse I was going to, what deed I had to sign, and I roamed for about a half an hour at random through those anti-utopian places. Irina at the European Parliament? Grande Dame of Brussels? The wife of a dignitary? And to think that I had hesitated to ask her sister about her out of compassion, in order not to embarrass her! All these years I had imagined Irina a total wreck, an alcoholic perhaps, haunted by a past she couldn't hide. Maybe homeless, like those who reek horribly in streetcars . . . Then I realized that it had to be like that, that life, which only a few years before had placed in my hands a kind of ready-made story, now offered me a natural ending, perhaps even an obligatory ending for her. I am not a "realist" writer, or a writer who chases after certain "subjects"; that's why I always hesitated to recount the three or four veritably interesting things I witnessed in my life. These days I have some peace (not peace of mind, mind you, but simply peace, solitude, in the most concrete sense—the door to my office closed, the little one asleep in his bed in another room, the older one doing something or other in the living room . . .) and I don't think about Irina, "my first woman" and a ridiculous enigma. The sorry enigma of sorry times.

I was a student at the University of Literature, an off-the-beaten-track graphomaniac, poet from head to toe (in my imagination); and yet I was colorless, short, skinny as a rail, so that the only aspect of humanity I had any interest in, girls, looked through me as if I were made of glass. I lived in a fierce solitude. Not even when I had gained a little notoriety, through the literary circles I frequented, did I succeed in attracting the attention of my female colleagues. I couldn't understand it. My most grotesque-looking friends, the most lame-brained of them, boasted of their overflowing eroticism, they bragged at parties in overwhelming detail about everything that took place on their "fucksters," as they called the couches in the tiny attic and basement rooms where they lodged. As for me, I was already twenty-three and not one woman had taken her place on my "fuckster" . . .

So, in the spring of 1979, when I went to Cluj for the Eminescu Colloquium, I thought that for one moment I had finally grabbed hold of God's foot. That's where I met the first woman who gave me a vague sign of sympathy. She was four years older than I, already a graduate who had been given an assignment as a teacher in a tiny Transylvanian village. She had majored in Romanian, with a minor in English. She wasn't very pretty, looked kind of sluttish, and when she walked she seemed to be staggering with every step she took. Nothing that she wore ever fit her. From the very beginning we felt good together: two demented individuals, living inside their own fiction. I spoke only in quotes from my favorite authors, she spoke ironically and parabolically, so that at times, during our long and wise discussions on Cluj's streets, we would realize that each of us was talking about something quite different than what the other thought. Once she paused next to a street lamp and asked me: "Don't you think that Cluj is merely a state of mind? A dream from which we must awaken?"

Even I realized the idiotic bookishness of her words and answered her sarcastically: "Don't you think that Borges said the same thing about Buenos Aires?"

"No, no, I really believe it. I actually believe that nothing matters, that everything is our dream or someone else's dream about us . . ."

I couldn't remove her from her reveries. At the seminar I read a piece that no one understood. Irina and I talked about it later, in a train compartment, drinking vodka from cups made from orange-peel halves. I was very surprised: she understood. I was surprised also that she let me kiss her, and more . . . but not much more.

Once home I began to receive letters from her, about once every two weeks. Purely intellectual, spare in style. What she read, what she translated . . . She really liked Nabokov and D.H. Lawrence, she read the American postmoderns in English, had developed a passion for Robert Coover. She had without a doubt a critical talent, her observations were uncommon. Only toward the end of the letters did she insinuate a kind of tenderness, of the chaste kind. She ended invariably with "Good night, sweet prince."

But I had fallen in love with a colleague from Bucharest and the story with Irina was beginning to lose its contours. But, again, tough luck. The colleague in question was determined to remain a virgin, at least for a few more years. We smooched like mad in the hallways of old houses, but my journal remained unblemished and, for God's sake, I was about to turn twenty-four! I began to write love poems, as a sort of compensation. A weak compensation. Despite my absolutely real love for my colleague, I would have slept with anyone, even an old crone. Especially considering that an old crone for me at the time was anyone over thirty.

Thus my hopes were reborn when I ran into Irina again the following year, this time at a poetry recitation as part of the I Sing Romania festival. I saw her in the distance, among a group of people who were waiting in line at the entrance of Arizona, the legendary restaurant (in truth, a sordid dive). She saw me and came to greet me, staggering even more than before. Her hair was now short, falling in dull stripes along her cheeks. Each time I saw her again after a while, I was amazed at how ugly she was: thin dry lips, pug nose, skin dry as parchment . . . Except for the eyes: they displayed a live intelligence, a kind of romantic madness, an indifference toward everything around her. When she invited me to her place I immediately sensed the motion of the hormones in my abdominal zones: finally, good-bye childhood, this time nothing could go wrong! But something did go wrong. Because Adriana, Irina's sister, was back from Finland and we spent the entire miserable evening looking at voluminous photo albums of Finnish sunsets, Finnish firs, Finnish reindeer, Sibelius and Berzelius and Hellholelius and Fuckallius . . . Hours on end waiting for Adriana to leave and for the fun to begin, until I finally ended up leaving myself, furious and humiliated; and so, another year passed. My only consolation, a poor one at that, was that in one of the books I was reading then, The Genius and the Goddess, Aldous Huxley recounted how he had remained a virgin till the age of twenty-six! There you have it, it could always be worse! As for me, I swore it wouldn't take that long. Better death than dishonor.

Today I think it would have been better to stick around in childhood a little longer. Because the miserable afternoon when I "became a man" is still one of the most painful and sordid memories of my life. Irina called to tell me she was in Bucharest, that she had established residence in Bucharest (how could that be? What happened to her job as a teacher in Transylvania? Had she obtained a retraction—notoriously difficult unless one had connections? And even if she had, what was she doing in Bucharest?), and wanted to meet me regarding something that was very important to her. I rode the subway until I was sick of it, all the way to the Defenders of the Nation Plaza. I found the building, went up the stairs into the hellish stink of spilled garbage, opened the door to the one-room apartment that reeked of beef stew, and kissed Irina, whose cheeks and hair also reeked of stew. She was wearing a robe with little flowers. I didn't want to eat, just had to solve my problem. Her face was contorted into a femme fatale attitude. She put a towel on the bed and stretched out with her butt on it. I myself lay next to her. The big surprise, clearly one she had planned, was that she wore no panties underneath . . . After a bit of straining I was a man, but instead of the happiness and release I had imagined, I felt nothing but intense nausea at the reek of the stew, irritation at the fact that I finished almost the moment I started and disgust for everything about that afternoon, the ungraceful and reeking woman next to me, the one-room apartment with crooked walls, even the twilight sky sweating through the curtains over the windows. All I could think about was how to get the hell out of there and never lay eyes on Irina again. She had vanished into the bathroom for personal reasons and then returned into the room's ashen air with her large boobs, her excessive pubic hair (I had imagined women to be quite different), her muscular hips. She put on her robe and lit a cigarette.

Here the tone of my story will change from scherzo-pathetic to grave and lugubrious, something sullen, morose. But that afternoon I didn't feel any such abrupt change. Evening fell, the penumbra became dense. If there was anything not quite right, like in a movie (I thought of it like that later on), it was what she told me then, still standing, with her cigarette burning between her fingers: "Mircea, I would like you to help me with . . . something. I don't know what to do."

"What is it?" I was still in the grip of disgust. My pants were inside out—I had taken them off in a hurry—and I was extracting my socks out of them.

"Look, I'm not going to beat around the bush." But instead of saying what needed to be said she balanced her cigarette on the window ledge and started to make an ashtray out of a pencil-scribbled piece of paper she tore from a notebook. When she finished it, she deposited the ashes in it until the pure incandescence of the tip was completely freed of its ashen shroud: "I was asked to join Securitate . . ."

My mind is usually slow. I'm always thinking of something else, so I often miss the point. I lived the most important moments in my life as though they were bits and pieces of someone else's. It was the same in that moment, what she said wasn't getting to the depths of my heart. "And what did you say?" I asked indifferently, as though she had told me one of her dreams. Irina looked me in the eyes for the first time, with a kind of frightened defiance. After which she began a long blah blah blah, as though rehearsing a role in the mirror: rather than wasting her life as a miserable teacher in the provinces, why shouldn't she go where her qualities would be appreciated . . . young and intelligent people could change things from within . . . they could travel to other countries . . . have access to libraries . . . she could take advantage of her position to do good . . .

I wasn't listening anymore. I was slowly waking up. Oddly, thinking of Securitate, the most unlikely and stupid things were coming to mind: a long line to get beer at Bucur Obor, hundreds of people, and a very nervous individual shouting when a few gypsies tried to cut in. "He's from Securitate, I know him," an old man told me with a kind of respect. "He's got power to put things in order." In my apartment building there were many people from Securitate, I played with their children. I recalled the jokes about them, Mother's warnings to be careful what I said, because Securitate was everywhere. Who were the people who worked for Securitate? What was Securitate? And why was it my fate, like a bad joke, to become a man with someone who worked for Securitate, even though she was only about to become one of them? I let her speak, I let her try her best to convince me (herself, really) that she was doing the right thing, and so she went on and on with her plea to the void, long after she realized I wasn't listening to her anymore. I could barely see her face. Through the paper-thin walls of the building you could hear everything: someone flushing the toilet, voices on the TV, music . . . After she finished she lit another cigarette and silently smoked it to the end. Then she stretched "voluptuously" next to me, kissed me "sweetly," caressed me obscenely—no quotation marks this time—and wanted to start from the top. I pushed her hand away and told her, like an automaton, without feeling the "drama" of that moment, that she was an idiot, that she would ruin not only her own life but the life of many others as well, that I didn't want to have anything to do with her if she took that step. And in fact, if she'd already accepted, what did she want from me?

"But I had no one to talk with, no one to advise me. I don't know anyone here, there is no one I'm close to. I had to tell somebody I could trust . . ."

I left while it was still dark and walked back home through the puddles, the mud and the gravel, staring suspiciously at the vigilant cops. Only when I lay down in my own bed did I become aware of the insanity of that evening. "Dumb bitch," I mumbled, but oddly, I was the one who felt like an idiot, like a man who had just done something very stupid . . . I fell asleep, my head feeling heavy from all the cigarette smoke, determined to forget the whole thing.

After that, things improved with my sexual journal. By the age of twenty-six, Huxley's fateful age, I had written in it, with letters of fire, four names. No longer troubled now by those matters, my poetry turned philosophical. A few months after the "evening of my becoming a man," I received, in the middle of the night, a desperate phone call from Irina. She was crying and screaming into the receiver. Was she drunk? I didn't think she was a drinker. I was trying to make sense of her very confused string of words. She was residing, for purposes of secret training, at the headquarters of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the city of Eforie. She was sharing a room with two colleagues who were "nothing but whores, they beat me all the time, Mircea! They brainwashed me, Mircea, I am forced to do awful things, Mircea, I can't take it anymore, Mircea, I can't, I can't!" She was howling with tears, repugnant as a child dripping with snot. She had barely managed to escape that evening, headed for the first public telephone. She wanted to run, she wanted to hide, it didn't matter where. "Come to my place," I shouted into the receiver, but she hung up abruptly. I waited for her in vain the entire night.

In the following few years things took a very bad turn. The weather was cold and miserable, there was no heat. Securitate, till then the butt of everyone's jokes, became a horrific myth. Fear spread with the inevitability of a psychosis. I was thinking often about Irina. What was she up to, that miserable creature? Was she on one of their demented missions? Had she become an instrument of terror? She, who did not believe in reality, she who was in love with Nabokov? After a very long while I began to get phone calls from her again. It was always late at night, and it was always to borrow money. Her voice sounded progressively more cracked, more insane. Most of the time she was probably drunk. I couldn't lend her any money, I was poorer than poor, but always asked her what she was up to. "I can't tell you anything," she would say and hang up. Like all men experiencing insomnia, meticulously reviewing the long or the short list of their female conquests, recalling phantasmically the things they did with each of them, I couldn't forget the one who, whether I liked it or not, had been the first, was the first and would always be the first, no matter how long the list might eventually become. Despite her appalling decision, or perhaps because of it, I felt much tenderness and compassion for her. I met Irina each time she called in order to help her, despite the risks. I knew she wouldn't harm me. But around 1986 the phone calls stopped. Irina disappeared and I thought it was forever.

I would see her again however, in circumstances I could never have imagined. A few weeks after the revolution I was hanging out with my friends Nedelciu and Hanibal in my "office," a tiny room on the second floor of the Writers' Union, where I was working. I was responsible for literary "passes," that is, assigning apartments in resort areas to writers who needed peace and quiet in order to write, but as my job lasted only a few months, from autumn to spring, I was unemployed during that time. I had even managed to set the office on fire, forgetting to turn off the stove heater one evening. The door's glass was broken, the heater was black from smoke, and a few of the floor slats had turned to carbon. We were prattling on about our brand-new review, Counterpoint, when we heard footsteps tramping up our narrow, steep stairs. I couldn't believe it when I saw, filling the doorway, melted snow in her hair and snow on her white sheepskin coat, a woman I barely recognized as Irina. Her wide Transylvanian face was caked with makeup. She wore her hair even shorter than before, in a ridiculous Beatle hairdo over her eyeliner-drowned eyes. As our heater roared at full strength once again, the snow on her jacket, a kind of down until then, turned instantaneously into rivulets of streaming water. She looked like a wet cat and during the time she spent with us she was indeed nervous as a cat. She spoke like a madwoman, nearly schizophrenic. My friends stared at her, snickering to each other.

We walked along Lilly Street all the way to the Romanian Athenaeum. The snow was falling in dense, tiny flakes. There, in the park across from the Athenaeum, with the statue of the poet Eminescu shrouded in snow, we sat down and talked. Everything around us was dazzlingly white. She told me she was scared, desperate. She felt she was being followed. "I was implicated in Brasov. The workers' revolt in '87." That she couldn't speak with anyone except in open spaces. She appealed to our old friendship, could I find her a job, some tiny place where she would be left forgotten. "You're working at the Writers' Union now, couldn't I fit in there somehow? I could do simultaneous translations, type, proofread, anything, anything at all . . ."

I began to moralize like an idiot. "See, Irina! Didn't I tell you from the beginning you were doing something very stupid? Look at you now! What happened to your talent, what happened with everything you wanted to do?"

I expected her to look down, her chin to her chest and weep in expiation, but suddenly she threw me a proud and ironic look, as if to say: "You know what, why don't you just cut all this crap . . ." It was as though a great dark power remained underneath the desperation of her circumstances. However, she returned right away to her former whimpering: "What do you say, do you know someone who can help? Is there any hope for me?"

I explained to her I was nothing more than a miserable office worker, I'd barely been there two months, I had no connection with anyone who ran the place. It was the absolute truth. She said nothing. We walked together a few more steps, we said good-bye. I returned to my overheated little room. "Who was she?" Nedelciu asked. "Just somebody . . ."

I left my job at the Writers' Union and got another at the Critical Review. I didn't do very well there and was hired by the University of Literature as an assistant professor. For eleven years, during which my life became progressively busier and more complex, the times I remembered Irina were few and far between. Still, I thought of her during the nights at the University Plaza, when, along with tens of thousands of others staring up at the Geology balcony, I shouted till I lost my voice: "Send Securitate down to the mines/Make them dig coal, WE need our lights," and remembered her each time the miners came to Bucharest in combat formations and attacked the general population. Between my nebulous projects, the thought of writing something about her never left me. Nabokov implicated in Brasov, I was thinking. Nabokov in Brasov. Robert Coover burning Securitate files at Berevoiesti. D.H. Lawrence demonizing the intellectuals. And the horrific, monstrous, overwhelming Securitate wishing me each night before going to bed: "Good night, sweet prince . . ."

Strangely, the rare times I still recall her, Irina appears to me neither in her apartment full of landscapes from Finland, nor in her grungy one-room apartment by the Defenders of the Nation plaza; nor do I see her in the winter light of the Athenaeum. I see her as I saw her the first time, when we roamed the streets of Cluj, bantering about literary and metaphysical themes. I see her staggering in her high heels and looking as though someone had tried to obliterate her silhouette at random with an eraser. This very moment, as I write these lines, I hear her clearly saying, as we walked past the multicolored façades and gates of that Transylvanian city: "Don't you think this entire city is a figment of the imagination? You know, for me nothing counts, nothing exists for real . . ."


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

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