Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2012, 312 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Red Shift is an epistolary novel consisting of a long letter in which the narrator addresses his son, who is in Germany with his mother, the narrator’s ex-wife. Within this elaborate and, as the letter-writer himself admits, “literary” missive, the narrator’s identity is gradually revealed to us (he is Romi, formerly a French teacher and now a journalist in a town in Transylvania, a lonely, drifting alcoholic), as well as the reasons why the “writer” has ended up in his present state, although we do not find out the most important reason until the final pages of the book. The novel is structured like a nest of boxes. The frame story, Romi’s long confessional letter to his son, contains the story of the narrator’s encounter with an Englishwoman named Diana, who has come to Romania with an aid convoy for a centre for handicapped children. She is a young woman, but it is as if she is trying to conceal her youth (she certainly doesn’t take any advantage of it). She is taciturn, but nevertheless, one night, after copious amounts of cheap Romanian vodka (the same vodka as the narrator drinks night after night), she reveals her own story. Romi answers her story with one of his own, about how he met Grete Tamas, a beautiful violinist haunted by nightmares, who later became his wife and then, as a result of that marriage, the mother of the letter’s addressee. The ending, when we finally discover the reason for the narrator’s present solitude, is surprising. Grete’s brother Hans, who had fled to Germany in the communist period, invites the narrator and his family to spend two weeks with him after the revolution. The siblings harbour a terrible secret, which is accidentally revealed to the narrator. Shocked, he takes the irrevocable decision to break off all contact with the brother and sister, but thereby loses contact with his son, who, we intuit, has now reached an age when he is mature enough to read and understand his father’s long letter.
The orphanage where I was to meet Alin Sirbu was about twenty kilometres from town, on a hill at the edge of a village. I was familiar with a number of such ancient buildings, which you found scattered throughout Transylvania: some were rustic castles, others the remains of fortifications that had been converted into offices, warehouses, or workshops after the war. Too large and too old to be maintained properly, they had been in ruins for years and were beginning to be abandoned. In the description Alin Sirbu gave me when he arranged our meeting he provided me with some familiar landmarks, but I had passed through the area many times and so I recognised the place easily, as soon as I left the village. The large iron gates, facing onto the main road, were wide open. One of them was hanging askew. Behind the wall enclosing the estate, the dense vegetation of a wild garden was visible.
To give you a better idea, it was like a visit to an enchanted castle, a visit decided upon by a madman in a short interval of lucidity. The madman was I, at the wheel of my car, and the madness was the opaque screen that was there, every evening, when I returned to my third-floor den. This respite occurred on a September afternoon whose atmosphere was like acacia honey.
We hadn’t set any particular time for our meeting and so I had no reason to hurry. I drove through the gates at a walking pace. The cobbled lane led up a gentle slope and at that hour of the afternoon it was deserted. In the distance loomed the round watchtower with its conical roof and the rear wall of the building, a white patch in the dense, tangled greenery. I think that at this point I permitted myself a few moments of romantic dreaminess. It was still a long time until the first hoarfrosts, and even longer still until the first snows, and a somnolent, holiday atmosphere still lingered, a remnant of the dry summer that swathed in golden mists the villages of the uplands as far as the mountains, as well as the city whence I had set out in mellow sympathy with the season. Usually, the onset of evening would quicken my pulse, but until then I still had a respite of calm and, with a pang of regret, it crossed my mind that I ought to have taken advantage of such moments in the past. In that afternoon reverie I imagined that it had been somebody else who had been deciding what I should do and I took the occasion to rebuke that person for ruining my calendar and letting me waste so many days.
I suddenly had the impression that something, a body, had fallen out of a tree at the edge of the lane directly in front of the car, but if I had had the strength to judge normally I would have realised that the distance was too great. In any case, it had fallen with the litheness of a cat. When I found myself with that something a hand’s breadth or less than a hand’s breadth away from the front of the car, it was already too late to do anything. All of a sudden, in that very instant, the skin beneath my shirt became soaked in a cold sweat.
Everything happened almost simultaneously after that. First came the impact, travelling like an electric shock through the steering wheel and into the pit of my stomach. Nevertheless, I was in first gear and moving without acceleration. Although paralysed with fear, I braked by reflex and still managed to realise that the engine had stalled. What I did see in front of me, all too well, was the head, a hand’s breadth above the end of the bonnet, and the two raised arms. The impact had come only a moment before, a dull thud, after which the body rolled towards me and came to a stop on the windscreen. And there was something else: the incredible grimace of the malicious or mocking laugh, in which, and of this I am sure, there was no trace of fear or pain. And then there was silence, the motor was dead, and in the blink of an eye the car was surrounded on all sides by dozens of children.
With the still inert body on the bonnet, my reaction probably seemed comical. I shouted something and forgetting to unfasten my seat belt I tried to open the door and get out of the car. I was unable to do so. I could feel the dozens of children pushing up against the car to prevent my egress. The truth is the shock had driven me insane, as I was later to realise to my shame. I remained frozen, helpless in my seat, gazing fatuously ahead of me, while a hundred or more eyes looked at me like a fish in an aquarium.
I am certain that they had seen me as soon as I entered the lane. They must have been lying in wait, hidden in the bushes, not far off, if they had managed to surround me on all sides before I knew what was happening. They had burst out behind me, all of them with the same incredible swiftness of small creatures too fleet for the eye to follow. There were very many of them and they were all wearing yellow tracksuits with a black Mickey Mouse printed on a patch on the breast pocket. As far as I was aware, the older ones were standing further back, in reserve, like referees, and the more aggressive and raucous ones, with their bellicose cries, were the smallest children. These were the most numerous. I espied some of them in the rear-view mirror, running up to the car after being left behind, but I had the impression that a number of others had jumped out of the trees at the edge of the lane.
Most of them were crowded up against the driver’s door and on checking I verified my impression that they were deliberately preventing me from getting out of the car. Others were trying desperately to open the passenger door, which was locked from the inside, and they were making a menacing, pantomime show of ripping it from its hinges. This probably lasted no more than a minute. During this time, others, clambering on top of each other on the bonnet, were peering at me through the windscreen in curiosity.
It was strange: in fact, they were screaming and laughing. It took a little while before I realised this. They had taken me prisoner and they knew that I was utterly defenceless. Without my seeing how they did it, one or two of them had managed to clamber up the back of the car onto the roof and I could hear the muffled thuds of their feet above my head. I think that this is what brought me back to my senses. I shook my fist at the ones on the bonnet:
“Get down off there!”
After that I started the engine and gave a long, angry toot on the horn, although I didn’t have the courage to drive away, given all the bodies pressing up against the car. The one I had hit with the car had recovered or was pretending that he had recovered and this gave me a little courage. I think that it was then that I discovered he was laughing. There were another two, just as small, on top of him, almost crushing him, and they were clinging to the windscreen wipers. The others were laughing along with him, as if at a highly successful prank…
“It means they like you,” Alin Sirbu explained to me, laughing, having come to greet me after hearing the car horn. “I think they liked both you and the car, fifty-fifty. When people come here and they don’t like them, they pretend not to see them. Believe it or not, I’m one of the ones they don’t like. What do you say to that? Not to like me, who came dressed up as Father Christmas! When they see me arriving in my car, if I find them on the road, they turn their backs. I haven’t deciphered the message yet, but it’s obvious I inspire them as being something evil, like a wizard in a fairytale or an ogre…”
As if by magic the children had indeed vanished as we walked side by side down the now deserted lane. Alin Sarbu was amused by my plight. His arrogant smile, which would have annoyed me at any other time, gave the impression that he viewed my mishap as being of no importance. Could his mere arrival have put the army of children to flight? I was inclined not to believe it. But what I thought then is of no significance, at least not yet. “Lock it and leave it here,” he advised, assuring me that my car was not in the way and that nobody would interfere with it. I did as he said. In the end, I ought to have laughed, but I no longer felt like it.
As I told you, evening was approaching, but the oppressive heat of a dry summer in its death throes still lingered. This was why I was wearing a t-shirt and sandals on my bare feet. Vaguely out of sorts, I could not help but notice that on this point, too, Alin Sarbu made an overt display of his own difference, a difference that brooked no objections: he was wearing a red tie, an elegant, immaculately pressed shirt, and a dark, official-looking suit. It was as if he were scoring points in some kind of match, but with an ostentation that was typical of his way of being in general, not just with me.
“You will find it interesting and you will like it,” he had stressed that day, when I had been intending merely to have a quick look around, without any obligation to write about it. I accepted without pleasure, as there was no question of there being anything in it for me. I myself don’t know why. Probably I had nothing better to do. That is the truth: at first, it was without any motive. It was because of that authority of his, which left nobody any room for objections, and his cutting irony if he sensed you were wavering, Alin Sarbu knew how to give orders and on a number of occasions when I was present, I noticed that he was obeyed in military fashion, without protest. In the first, and perhaps also the second, year after the fall of Ceausescu, this was something very rare, an exception, even an anomaly. Almost nobody had a firm mandate of authority not immediately subject to contestation, and this applied all over Romania, from the top of the pyramid to the remotest hamlet. Now, as I reconstruct events, viewing them from a distance, I realise that this is what won me over: his self-confidence. But I suspect that he had sized me up very accurately. What I mean to say is that he intuited something not even I was aware of, that I was moribund, that I was beginning to shrivel up, to atrophy, and that I would soon be completely dead. I think he knew that I did not have the energy to make any objection. Nevertheless, toward me he adopted a roundabout method, which was based on trust, like a privilege.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“A fairytale constructed in an interesting, intelligent, unexpected way, with a surprise ending. The most interesting shift I found in Red Shift is this: the shift from words (stories, storytellers, conversations, confessions) to silence (key interlocutors who refuse to tell their story), and thence to revelation.”
“Under the pretext of a letter to a faraway recipient, the novel recounts the story of two lives that intersect for a short time in post-revolution Romania. Apart from what the characters do and recount, let us note the writer’s pleasure in writing prose, in constructing a novel. His phrasing is always careful, his pages closely packed, and each scene is constructed as the visible part of an as yet inaccessible whole.”
( Stelian TURLEA)
“A chronicle of the mores of communist and post-communist Romanian society, an epistolary, psychological, mystery novel, Red Shift has all the ingredients required in order to make a captivating read: suspense, eroticism, mystery, drama, although it skilfully avoids the sensationalism that might otherwise accompany such elements.”
“It is a book which, in its sunniest passages, possesses a youthful tone I have rarely found even in books by writers much younger than Radu Mares.”