novel, Fiction LTD, 2006, Polirom, 648 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
University Professor Alexandru Robe experiences a 19 second Bucharest earthquake during which his computer picks up a message consisting of two indecipherable lines:
TOC OR IENC
A dire question follows the anagrams: “Would you like to know who is following you?”
Neither Robe, who is a literature professor, nor his girlfriend, Maria, a delicious but difficult art restorer, understand the gravity of the quake or why the mysterious words have appeared on Alexandru’s monitor.
Confused, Alexandru and Maria visit their old friend, Mihnea, a mathematics professor and computer wizard. They want to know what got into Alexandru’s computer, and it’s natural for them to turn to Mihnea. The three friends get together every week for drinks and discussions that circle around problems of changing identity. The identities are theirs, and the on-going discussion is urgent because the characters are living through the difficult transition from communism to capitalism in Romania.
During the visit to Mihnea, it becomes clear that something menacing did get into Alexandru’s computer, and the invader wasn’t a virus—nor, as it turns out, was the earthquake a normal geological event. The media never came alive with disaster stories. Alexandru and Maria were the only ones to experience the tremor. Alexandru begins to feel that either nothing is what it seems, or seeming is of the essence.
Meanwhile his friend Mihnea implies that whatever invaded Alexandru’s flat was virtual, and Mihnea associates the virtual message-leaving with a peculiar artifact come into his possession lately and as if by chance, a map of the Balkans dated 1766. The map had found its way toward Mihnea in the course of a curious evening with the five Frati bothers, virtually identical thugs of various ages.
When Alexandru and Maria look at the map, which centers on the Balkans, they spot its peculiarity right away. Geography is all accounted for, except for one glaring lapse. The Romanian lands (Moldavia and Walachia) have been geographically and geologically erased.
What’s going on? Maria sees that there’s another image under the map, which can’t be from 1766 either. Its graphic qualities come from a later time. The friends agree to meet the next day after Maria has had a chance to study the document microscopically at her studio. The game is afoot, but, Alexandru has to wonder, how long has this been going on?
Good question. Literature professor that he is, our hero learns something about the power of revision on his way back to Mihnea’s next day. Out of nowhere, two plain clothes detectives warn him to give up his search—for what, exactly? And how do they know? Alexandru refuses. The dicks beat him up, and when Alexandru goes to complain to the local police, he learns that there are no such cops attached to the district. Reality is being played with, memories aren’t what they used to be, and Alexandru and Mihnea are among the few who notice what’s happening.
Why so? For one thing, these guys are news hounds—into computers, physic, and butterfly theory. They are beginning to see, a little change in history/reportage over here leads to a big change in reality over there. Alexandru even has a computer program called lepidopterous that helps him monitor such alterations, and that’s not all. He’s aware of having lost something precious, two seconds of memory that vanished during the earthquake. So, while searching his own memory for his identity—formed in the nexus of childhood and adolescence—Alexandru becomes involved in detection that proves that CLUNIAH (the post-quake epigram that showed up on Alexandru’s computer)is a twisted form of Luchian, the name of a Romanian painter of the interwar period, and that TOC OR IENC stands for Cotrocien, the name of a museum near Romania’s Cotrocien Presidential Palace. Of course, the Luchian painting at the Cotrocien Museum is suspiciously misdated, an organization called Global Mind is messing with people’s heads, and only a character whose name keeps eluding us seems to know what it’s all about. That character has the distinction of being Romania’s Greatest Writer.
To find out what it all means, Alexandru and his friends kidnap Romania’s Greatest Writer at a conference on the Black Sea Coast. Mihnea slams a sack over the writer’s head, and the team drives him back to a small town on the road to Bulgaria where they tie Romania’s Greatest Writer to a chair and try to get answers. Sounds tough, but then, they guy’s name ends in ESCU, which may be a jumbled form of SECU, the popular name for Securitate—collectively Romanian’s most prolific writer, without doubt. And that’s not all: characters enter reality, vanish from it, appear in earlier or later historical periods—all with the aid of a nano-computer once in the hands of Camile Petrescu, whose most famous novel in the West is Last Night of Love, First Night of War, a tale of the early Twentieth Century. Alexandru’s grandfather is among those who enter and exit history at various times, a problem for Alexandru whose life depends on his grandfather’s existence—as does, curiously enough, the truth about the death of the World War I flying ace, the Red Baron, whose demise is revealed in the single valid copy of a French, Communist-era comic book discovered in Vienna. And so it goes with Pynchonesque abandon until Romania’s Greatest Writer vanishes from his sack—unless he becomes Alexandru himself. There’s no way to tell, but we do find out who the villain is. The notion of virtual being gets a workout along with the idea of identity’s being hard to maintain under any economic system whatsoever. Complex, thoughtful, built on repetitive permutations, it all comes off in a giant romp. (Published on http://translations.observatorcultural.ro/)