Novel, Top 10+ series, Polirom, 2012, 216 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The Childhoods of Daniel Abagiu (the name contains a pun on the Romanian word labagiu, meaning ‘wanker’) is a collection of texts that can be read separately, as short stories, but which are interrelated and form a whole. The main character of these texts is Daniel Abagiu, episodes of whose childhood and adolescence are recounted. The book sets out to fill in the boxes of a Mendeleev’s Table of growing up in the final years of the communist period in Romania. Communism makes its presence felt, but it does not fundamentally alter the kind of experiences that children and adolescents have everywhere else in the world. There are tales of holidaying with his parents, schoolboy crushes (when Daniel falls in love with the head of the pioneer detachment, from an older class), magical times spent at his grandparents’ house in the country, children’s outdoor games between the housing blocks where they live or in the school playground, the live hens his parents buy from market and slaughter at home, the fledgling sparrow that he saves after it falls from the nest, the lyceum toilets that become a meeting place where pupils can smoke on the sly, and the protagonist’s first sexual experiences. Although written in the third-person, the texts narrate everything from the perspective of the child protagonist, with the candour and cynicism characteristic of childhood. Each text is also accompanied by another in the first person, which contributes the perspective of the grown-up Daniel Abagiu.
The boxes of Mendeleev’s Table are not completed in sequence, and some are missing altogether. And so perhaps a better analogy would be a game of hopscotch, around whose squares the reader is invited to jump and thereby reconstruct his own memories of childhood and adolescence.
When he was little, his parents used to take him to the seaside and he would always be vexed at all the annoyances he had to put up with before they finally got to the beach. Quite apart from the fact that he would be dying of impatience even before they left the house to catch the train, the journey in itself was an ordeal. Little Danny’s family always used to travel to the seaside on the night train, so that they wouldn’t have to face the heat of the day (as his mother said), and from early that morning there would always be the most unbelievable commotion.
As they used to set off at around three or four o’clock in the morning, the boy had to go to bed early and have a good sleep beforehand. This forced early bedtime reminded little Danny of New Year’s Eve. Obviously, he didn’t sleep so much as a wink, because he was too excited and he would keep bombarding his mother with the words: “Oh no! It won’t be long before we’re gone!” To the horror of his mother, who was superstitious about certain expressions and always used to explain to him, with increasing irritation, that when you say somebody “is gone” it means he’s dead. God forfend!
As soon as they arrived at the station, little Danny’s enthusiasm would wane and then crumble to dust when he was confronted with the unstoppable tide of people boarding the train. Once on board, and once the luggage had been manhandled into place, the children were straightaway lain across the adults’ knees and told to go to sleep. In each compartment of the train there were at least two or three children subjected to the same, invariable treatment. Little Danny couldn’t stand lying with his head in either his mother’s or his father’s lap. But was there any reasoning with them? They would force him to lie down and were oblivious to his whingeing. To make things worse, when the conductor came, they would tell him to curl up so he would look smaller, because they had paid half-fare for him and little Danny was no longer the right age. But the representative of the law was not to be deceived and there would always be a big argument with his parents. To show the conductor how little the child was, his mother would sit him on her knees (true, he was heavy), she would pat his head and say: “Calm down, pet! You sit here with mummy!” As if he was the one who wasn’t calm…
After the storm whipped up by the man who punched the tickets had died down (in the end, he would retreat, his head spinning from all the parents’ arguments), the moment would come for all the passengers in the compartment to get out their packets of nosh: plastic cups, tomatoes sliced with a razor blade, thermos flasks, smoked cheese, penknife forks, chicken legs, chicken breasts, cucumbers, sausages, medicine flacons filled with salt – it all made little Danny dizzy.
But what made him dizziest of all was the smell of boiled egg, which, after being announced by three successive raps on the metal edge of the little foldout table, would invade the entire compartment, amplified by coming from as many sources as there were passengers. The boy would grow nauseous, but they never opened the window until much later, in the morning, when they caught their first sight of the sea, crowding up to the window and gazing in enchantment at the blue patch of water. It was natural that they should gaze so dreamily, because in the landscape before their eyes they glimpsed the seductive promises of an unforgettable holiday.
After the train stopped in Constanta, little Danny would start to perk up. What he liked most of all was when they passed the nudists (who would be facing the railway line, legs spread and arms akimbo to catch the ultraviolet rays) and it was strange that each time the train would speed up. Then he would recall the time he went to Tekirgöl, when he was little. How gullible he had been back then! He was revolted, even frightened, by the therapeutic mud and his father would say that he was going to make him a general: he would paint epaulettes, buttons and insignia on him, and little Danny would stand there proud at having become an important person all of a sudden, but then his father would smear his whole body, telling him it was healthy and that it would stop him from getting rheumatism. Little Danny wouldn’t understand and he would burst into tears, upset at not being a general any more and at having been tricked.
It was also at Tekirgöl that his father had run into a friend, a workmate, and they spent all the time talking together. Little Danny would sunbathe with the men, with his father and his workmate, and as the two were talking endlessly and he was terribly bored, the lad got it into his head to put his finger on the thingy that his father carried around under his belly with such great care. The friend had made a scandalised face and his father had clouted him. Touch it and it grows. And grown it had.
At the office where they allocated hotel rooms for the whole resort it was hot, crowded, and stuffy. Tempers were fraying and in the crush the slightest thing could spark a row. This holiday, the same as every year, his father had obtained tickets for the Venus resort via his union. There was always a long wait to be allocated a room. Little Danny was sitting to one side, on one of the suitcases, and his parents were sweating and being jostled in the throng. The boy was again getting very bored. He kept stepping outside, but not for very long, because his parents had left him in charge of the luggage, in case anything got nicked. He looked at the people. He played with a suitcase fastener. He ate some more puffed rice. He was sick of everything, especially given that the beach was not visible from there. Everything was dry and dusty. You would have thought you were not even at the seaside. From time to time a woman with a babe in arms would enter, in despair at having been given a room that was infested with bedbugs, flooded because of a burst pipe, or covered in mould from the damp. The other people would all take the side of the woman against the people at the counter – what with her having a small child as well, the poor thing!
They were staying at the Hotel Diana, on the tenth floor. His father, who had brought with him all his tackle, would straightaway station himself on the seawall with his fishing rod. He almost always used to bring back a brace of fish, which he would place in the bathroom sink with the cold tap running. For this reason, the sink was occupied most of the time and they had to get washed using the tap from the bathtub. In spite of all his precautions, the fish would quickly go off. In any case, there wasn’t anywhere they could cook them. His father always used to say that he would take them to the restaurant kitchen, give the staff some money, and ask them to cook the fish the way he liked it, with garlic juice, but this never came to pass. Instead, there were endless discussions about the nature of the fish. The problem was that gobies look like dogfish, which have a nasty sting in their tail and are inedible, if not downright poisonous. His mother would always claim that the fish his father brought included dogfish, or that they were all dogfish, and that he was reckless, that he could kill them all, including the boy. He would do better to throw them away, not to keep them there pointlessly. His father would keep his cool. He would leave the fish where they were and bring yet another full bag each morning.
Once, when little Danny was sitting on the seawall next to him, his father pulled a fish from the water and after examining it, tossed it at the lad, shouting: “Dogfish! Dogfish!” Little Danny started to bawl and cry. Although he was in a very good mood, his father lost his temper in the end, because the boy would not stop snivelling. It was making him embarrassed, because people kept looking at them, and so he whacked the boy across the back of his head, causing little Danny to fall off the rock atop which he was sitting and scrape his knee. The boy kept screaming, now even louder, and did not stop until his mother came and told him consolingly that there was no need to cry, because the fish had not been a dogfish, but a goby.
There is still a photograph of little Danny peering at his scraped knee, his snivelling face all twisted. His father had insisted on immortalising the moment.
One morning, while his father was out buying postcards to send to relatives and his mother was lying with her hands behind her head, eyes closed, soaking up ultraviolet rays, little Danny had gone off along the seashore all by himself to look for big, unbroken shells. There had been a storm that night and with a little luck you could find wonderful things. The sea was calm and the waves sometimes lapped against his ankles or erased his footprints in the sand.
As he was walking along, he saw a group of men doing something. What exactly they were doing he couldn’t tell. Out of curiosity he went up to them and no little was his wonder when he saw a huge fish lying on the sand. The men were saying that it had been brought in by the tide and were wondering what kind of fish it might be. Some said it was a dolphin. Whatever it may have been, the men were practical-minded and so they set about cutting it up and skinning it. Even though he had seen dolphins on the television and thus knew them very well (he was mad for Flipper), little Danny no longer had any way of knowing what that heap of sliced-up flesh might once have been. They had cut off the tail and it was lying to one side, of no interest to anybody. Little Danny plucked up courage, bent down, and touched it. It was as big as his head and covered in thick, black, rubbery skin. The lad would have liked to ask them for the tail, given that he could see they didn’t need it, but he was too embarrassed. He thought that he could have used it when he went swimming: he had seen some foreign tourists using a flipper for two feet.
On another day, he saw another crowd of people gathered on the beach. It was around noon and he was lying with his mother on the sheet (his father was out on the sea wall). The word went from mouth to mouth that somebody had drowned and all the people on the beach were looking in that direction with worried faces. Some were peering through binoculars. Little Danny wanted to go and see, but his mother forbade him. Some people who were coming away from there said that the body was bloated and purple. Little Danny was horrified that the poor man was going to suffer the same fate as the dolphin and he hated from the bottom of his heart the gaggle of people around the drowned body.
Little Danny was having lots of fun by the seaside. He was building sandcastles with fences made from the matchsticks or cigarette butts he found on the beach. His folks had bought him a water pistol, which he used to squirt them with when they were sunbathing. And sometimes his mother would take him to the merry-go-round or buy him candyfloss and popcorn. But most of all little Danny liked to paddle in the sea. He had an inflatable ring with the word Olympus written on it. He was always swimming, making a honk-honk noise when other people got in his way. His mother did not know how to swim and that is probably why she did not let him stay in the water long. She kept telling him that he would catch a cold and made him lie next to her on the sheet so he could sunbathe, telling him to turn face up or face down from time to time.
When little Danny stayed in the water too long, his mother would get annoyed and tell him to come back to the sheet that instant and to take his underpants off, because they were wet and would make him catch cold. The first time, he did not want to, but when his mother lost her temper he had no choice but to take them off. He quickly turned over on his tummy, but his mother was having none of it and told him to lie on his back, to soak up the sun on his front, because he had lain face down long enough. With much grumbling, little Danny lay on his back and because he was overcome with embarrassment, he put a towel over his face. At least they wouldn’t see his face. But the towel didn’t do much good. He could still hear people passing next to the sheet and he wanted the earth to swallow him up. What is more, as if to make a complete fool of him, he could feel his thingy starting to grow bigger, little by little, unstoppably.
It was night. The beach was deserted. From nearby music wafted from a restaurant, and little Danny was walking barefoot over the sand. He did not know how he had got there. He was walking and looking left and right to see whether he could find any toys, like he had found a metal toy tractor one morning, no doubt left behind by a foreign child. But no such luck this time!
The sea was black, as if it were muddy. There was so much of it that you could make millions of mud epaulettes, buttons, and insignia.
He found himself up to the waist in mud. Then he realised that his whole body was smeared with mud. Horrible! He was about to burst into tears when he noticed that he was in fact in the sea and that the water was washing the mud off him.
The moon had risen above the sea. It was a full moon. A streak of light streamed towards him. He wanted to follow the luminous trail, but it took him great efforts to move. In fact, no matter how hard he tried, he could move no further. It was as if he were stuck in something highly viscous that prevented movement. Then he jerked forward and began to swim. He was free now and noticed that he could reach a very high speed. The water was like a very soft, welcoming bed, in which he felt safe. He romped right and left. His body obeyed him instantly and he had but to jerk in order to move in any direction he wished.
He swam for a long time, and joy pervaded his whole body, giving him a pleasant tingling sensation. When he noticed that day was breaking, he started to turn somersaults: he leapt above the water as high as he could, he dived, and then he leapt again even higher, moving his body very gracefully through the air. After a while, he thought that he had better go back, although he would have liked to stay. He had been gone quite a long time and his mother would make a scene again. He began to swim slowly to the shore. As he neared the seawall, he noticed a figure perched on a rock overlooking the sea. He recognised his father, diligent as ever, and he could barely contain his admiration: he got up so early each morning! He went closer the better to see him. His father was sitting motionless, and his face was bathed in the red dawn light. He swam back and forth and then it occurred to him: “I should avoid Dad’s fishing hook,” he told himself and struck out towards the shore.
He was nearing the shore at speed, a little frightened at what might have happened with the hook, when all of a sudden he felt himself stop suddenly and a strange ache overwhelmed him. It was like utter exhaustion. He wanted to cry out, but when he opened his mouth no sound emerged. He was trembling all over, and when he felt as though he was suffocating, as his vision grew dim, he saw as if in a dream some people gathered around him, stooping over him, examining him curiously.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Anti-literature, Ferdydurkism, an ingenuous look at the Ceausescu period: it is impossible to talk about Cezar Paul-Badescu’s book and ignore such features. But nor am I under any illusion that I have exhausted the subject. The text also contains (nomen odiosum!) something ineffable, something the critic will not be able put his finger on, but which the reader will fully sense. It is the charm of the text, the solidarity you immediately feel when confronted with naked simplicity, devoid of pretentiousness and pretentions. It is a poor book that enriches you, a sad book that makes you happy.”
“Cezar Paul-Badescu sets the risk of sincerity, kept within the limits of artistic licence, in opposition to everyday existence. He alternates a young man’s linear and ironically amused narrative with the magical realism of a child who seems to embody the universal experience of that age. Sarcasm interweaves with nostalgia for a realm of symbolic links, and the self-centredness, cruel serenity, and sadism of a strange imagination are counterbalanced by the generosity of emotional attachments that linger in the mind even after the ‘divorces’ of growing up.”
“A novel about the personal past of a narrator whose vocation is that of an anti-hero, an example of anti-literature or ‘not-at-all literature’, as Paul-Badescu would call it, The Childhoods of Daniel Abagiu is nurtured by a spirit that is shared by all those intellectuals who grew up with one foot in a dictatorship and the other foot in post-communism. It is a book which, at least in theory, ought to open up a whole new way of thinking about literature and, at the same time, about the arche-theme of the recent past.”
“If read intelligently, the book provides important hints about the development of fiction in the postmodern period. And whatever they might say, this is already a stake worthy of note.”