Florina Ilis

Excerpt from

Novel, Cartea Romaneasca, 2012, 688 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Book presentation

The action of the novel Parallel Lives begins on 28 June 1883 and ends on 15 June 1889, two dates that are seared in the collective memory and which simultaneously strengthen and undermine the myth of Romania’s national poet, Mihai Eminescu. In a documentary novel that defies the laws of time, Florina Ilis reconstructs the more than one hundred and fifty years of Mihai Eminescu’s existence (during his lifetime and after, real and imaginary), from the nineteenth century to the present, his life as it was lived, recorded, idealised, denigrated, imagined. The life, illness and death of the poet continue to be the subject of current debate, unanswered questions, conspiracy theories. Was the poet a genius? Did he love? Was he mad? Was there a plot to assassinate him? Etc. etc. In a dramatic attempt to get to the truth, Florina Ilis examines countless authentic documents, medical records, apocryphal accounts, diaries, urban myths, period testimonies, letters, manuscripts, files compiled by the pre communist and communist secret police, and heated debates in cultural magazines, newspapers and blogs, as well as resorting to the subtle play of the imagination. A poetic genius such as Eminescu, whose “parallel lives”, both historically real and metaphysically imagined, are synonymous with modern Romania itself, required a vision to match, one capable of dreaming, outside history, in a process of national metempsychosis, the archival documents of a timeless “political police.” Seven years after the publication of the bestseller The Children’s Crusade, Florina Ilis takes not only the contemporary Romanian novel by surprise, but also the theory and history of literature.


Excerpt from

3, Among Dr Sutu’s patients,

Eminescu was an unhoped for exception, from the clinical point of view (what specialist in nervous diseases would not wish to treat the likes of a Nietzsche, a Lenau, a De Maupassant or an Eminescu?), but he was also incommodious (from numerous other points of view). In order to reach a diagnosis, Dr Sutu needed time (which he did not have). Of great assistance to him was Mr Maiorescu, however, who, during their brief interview (before Maiorescu went off on holiday), confided to him his misgivings in regard to the poet’s heredity, insinuating, without going into détails embarrassants, that in Eminescu’s family there was a predisposition to démence. Then, with a certain degree of coyness and delicacy, citing Dr Kremnitz, who had treated the poet as a patient, Maiorescu gave the doctor to understand that Eminescu also displayed manifestations syphilitiques, but with a view to protecting the good reputation of notre ami, it would be preferable that such information not be made public and that the shameful disease not be mentioned in any wise. The doctor understood. Mr Maiorescu should not concern himself on that score and he could be assured of his absolute discretion (nobody could poke his nose into the affairs of the private institution he administered without it coming to his knowledge). The doctor would have to make a diagnosis, however, be it even a provisory one, otherwise it would create the impression (in the eyes of public opinion) that Eminescu had been admitted to the sanatorium against his will (or even without being sick), thereby giving rise to all kinds of interpretations. Mr Maiorescu was in perfect agreement with the doctor, but given that he could rely on the doctor’s full discretion, he was convinced that he could likewise count on his considerable expertise in the treatment of manies. Was not Dr Sutu the author of a study on aliénisme? Was he not an authority on the subject? Yes, he was! Then, his expertise as an aliéniste would surely help the doctor reach a diagnosis that was accurate and appropriate to the situation. In regard to the length of time the poet was to be kept under observation, a matter on which the doctor requested clarifications, Maiorescu’s answer could not have been more concise: As long as it takes to save him! He went on to explain to Dr Sutu that political events (domestic and foreign) were of such a nature that Eminescu might be arrested at any moment, and in his present state of nervous over excitement matters could only be aggravated. Once the storm has passed, then we shall see, concluded Maiorescu hastily (the events to which he alluded were in full swing).


These arrangements having been made, Dr Sutu did not make haste to examine the patient delivered into his care. Because of certain social obligations, on the day the patient arrived the doctor had been obliged to leave the institute earlier than usual. He had, however, left precise instructions as to the administration of morphine injections should the patient become violent. The following day, having certain other matters to attend to, the doctor went to the institute only to check that everything was in good order. He spoke for a few minutes to the superintendent, who brought to his attention certain delays connected to food deliveries, but after receiving every assurance that the problem would be solved during the course of the day, he departed his office. The doctor on duty accompanied him to the carriage waiting by the steps, providing him with a succinct report on the state of the patients as they went. On the third day, when he finally came to see Eminescu, the patient was asleep (still under the influence of an injection of opiate sedatives). He examined him on the fourth day, visiting him both in the morning and in the evening, before bedtime. The legal deadline for drawing up a medical certificate was gradually slipping away. Nevertheless he jotted down on the patient’s chart a number of symptoms of the illness, which he had learned from the orderlies in charge of the patient: incoherent delirium, disjointed movements, sensory illusions and hallucinations, destructive tendencies, agitation, spitting, etc. He asked for details about any persons who had visited him or enquired about him. He prescribed sedative injections and a suppository. He also recommended walks (what else?) and hydrotherapy. Mercury treatment? The doctor scratched his chin. Hmm. He recommended a healthy diet (no alcohol, no tobacco, no fatty foods, etc.). Let him be given paper and ink, should he so request. And when he is calmer, let him be brought in for examination.

When, two days later, he entered the doctor’s office, Eminescu ceremoniously introduced himself as the Pharaoh Tlà. Dr Sutu signalled the patient (the pharaoh) to make himself comfortable, pointing to the armchair in front of his desk. He gently explained that he had summoned him so that he could have a talk with him. About what? About anything. The doctor hoped to get from the patient an answer that would enable him to establish a diagnosis.
He took the direct approach. What is your name?

Employing the arguments of a personal metaphysics (inspired by Buddhism), Eminescu demonstrated using simple equations that through an irreversible process of metempsychosis he had become the Pharaoh Tlà. Wherefore, in order to convince the doctor (of the irreversibility of the process), the poet made a number of important, secret revelations connected to his previous identity. Looking conspiratorially now at the door of the consultation room in ward C of the institution, now at the tall barred windows, fearful lest he be overhead by indiscreet ears (the agent of the foreign powers who was on his trail) and assured, by virtue of those necessary precautions, that nobody could be spying on him (not even Baron von Mayr), the poet told the doctor about the pharaoh’s multiple identities. Pharaoh Tlà, explained the poet, choosing a cryptic language: crr! tlà! tlà! tlà! crr! a little frog tlà! tlà! and a mosquito, bzz! tlà! tlà! tlà! tlà! the Marquis Bilbao! Wortmasturbation.


Dr Sutu was attentive. Attentive (how could he be otherwise?) to his own thoughts. He was pressed for time. The (three day) legal deadline for issuing a medical certificate establishing a diagnosis had already elapsed. Moreover, he ought to have convened (in accordance with the Sanitary Law of 1874) a commission to examine the patient. Mr Maiorescu had paid the patient’s hospitalisation expenses (no complaints there), but he had gone off on holiday before he could draw up a written application for the poet’s hospitalisation (an application which, in accordance with the law, should state the nature of his relationship to the patient). For the present, the doctor was unconcerned. Matters could still be arranged in the appropriate manner. He leafed through a pile of documents. He knew exactly what he was looking for: articles four and five of the regulations for hospitalising and discharging psychiatric patients. He ran his finger down the paragraphs of the regulations until he came to the part that interested him. He read between the lines: a patient who behaved violently in public  (1)  could be hospitalised only on the basis of a report from the prefecture of police (signed, in the present instance, by C.N. Nicolescu, the head of the prefecture of police) and, in the absence of relatives to recommend hospitalisation, such recommendation could be made only by friends (Const. Simtion, V. Siderescu, G. Ocasanu, et al.) or even neighbours (Mrs Slavici) who knew the recalcitrant personally. Perfect! Up to now we have been acting legally. And henceforward, in order to keep him in hospital (after his provisory admission), all that is needed is a medical act establishing the diagnosis (which will be forthcoming if the doctor decides to sign the document on his desk). Almost a week had passed since that unfortunate day (28 June) and the doctor had not yet written up the document in question. He could no longer delay.

A cricket! exclaims Eminescu looking out of the window, interrupting the chain of the doctor’s thoughts. The patient pricks up his ears. Can you hear the cricket? No! the doctor shook his head. A cricket? Yes, a cricket. He laughs. Who am I? The crown of an antique king! Can you hear the cricket? No? Because it’s inaudible. Ha! Ha! Who am I? the poet burst out violently. The swift transition from one mood to another, from exuberance to bitterness, does not go unobserved on the doctor’s part. As he watches the patient, he makes notes in the clinical journal. I don’t know; tell me who you are! Eminescu becomes enraged and starts shouting: Tlà! Tlà! The crown of an antique king! Matei Basarab, the ruler of the land, and all the names of history am I. He looks the doctor fixedly in the eye. With a gaze impossible to bear. Or the Marquis Bilbao, he whispers in a dull voice. Balthazar. Yes! Balthazar. Althaz. Zathla. Tlà! He would have liked to say something else, but he has forgotten. He would like to sleep, to sleep the eternal sleep. Eternal peace. How hot it is! Oh, what heat! To swim (with the weary fins of a fish) in the molten sun. To sleep on the waves. Waves of coolness. It is the bottom of hell here, nothing less (it burns you). Seeing that he has calmed down, Dr Sutu resumes questioning him. Do you remember, Mr Eminescu, where you were yesterday? And the day before yesterday? You were brought to us on 28 June. What did you do the day before that, do you remember? Yes! the poet answers clearly. He who loses the bet has to pay up two bottles of Johannisberger. Within ten years King Carol will also become King of Bulgaria. Ha! Ha! My blue skies, my black mountains, and my green valleys, my blue skies, my blue skies, and my blue skies. My blue skies. Blu u u u u ue ski e e e e es… Ki e e e es…. E e e e eyes…


(1)Procès verbal drawn up by the police commissar for Section 18 of the capital. […] I told the aforementioned Eminescu that nothing unpleasant was going to happen to him, that he had to get a grip on himself… and in reply, he rushed at his friends, at the bathroom attendant, pushing them outside the door, then threw himself in the bath full of water, splashing anybody who tried to pull him out. We were forced to put him in a straitjacket and we took him to the Caritatea Institute, with the assistance of Ocăşanu and Const. Simţion… At Caritatea we entrusted him to Mr Suţu. Source: the Commissar.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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