Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2015, 232 pages
Almost fifteen years since the publication of the novel Simion the Liftite, Petru Cimpoesu introduces us to The Other Simion, in a story full of humour and surprises. However, the humour is no longer tolerant, but has become sarcastic and, in places, unsparing. In the meantime the “transition” has come to an end, but Cimpoesu’s characters are prisoners of a past from which they cannot break away ; they seem trapped in the logic of failure. We find ourselves in the midst of Balkan capitalism, devoid of illusions and any moral sense. Temptation appears in the form of a supposed member of parliament, who suggests to Simion and his friends a simple and effective way of making money. Once the “pact” has been agreed to, a merry go round of absurd events is set in motion. For, The Other Simion is in fact the obverse of Simion the Liftite, and instead of Moldavian angels, this time we are dealing with incarnations of evil in its grossest form.
It’s worth coming to Bacau at least once, if only in passing. At least to see how ugly interesting it is. It is a town that couldn’t be more interesting, where the most prosperous businesses are the shops that sell clothes by the kilo. They all have the same announcement in the window : second hand clothes, fresh stock. But that’s not possible ; it’s a contradiction ! Because the fresh stock is old clothes. Nonetheless, in Bacau it’s possible. All those who have visited it admit that it is the most interesting town they have ever seen in their life, so much so that it is amazing its inhabitants can live in such a town. This would explain, at least in part, why they are always angry. Almost as angry as the inhabitants of Bucharest. Because they are dissatisfied with life. It means their mothers made a mistake in giving birth. Even the beggars are angry all the time. There’s one in front of the Catholic church who swears all day long. Not to mention the drivers ! They’re not quite as nasty as the ones in Bucharest, but I dare say they’re much angrier. Probably, after Bucharest, the biggest consumption of Xanax per capita is in Bacau. And it wouldn’t be any wonder. Let me give you a specific example : the statue of Stephen the Great looks like it’s made out of tin. It’s almost as ugly interesting as the statue of Avram Iancu in Cluj. And a whole floor of the erstwhile Luceafarul department store is given over to clothes by the kilo. Good God ! A thousand square metres of clothes by the kilo ! On every street corner you can find a shop selling clothes by the kilo, full of fat women looking at the clothes, examining them minutely for hours at a time, as if they were studying the Talmud. In any event, most of the women in this town look dreadful special, although it’s not their fault if they look like that. Many times I’ve asked myself why the women from this town are so interesting. What’s the secret ? There must be a secret somewhere. They couldn’t be so interesting and special for nothing. As if that weren’t enough, some of them have got big noses. Like Gioni’s ex wife, the one who’s deaf. And to top it all, they also have horrible special hair dos, which is an indication, were one needed, of their intellectual level. They have huge heads, and short, thick necks—and in addition to that, as will already be well understood, they dress specially, with clothes from the second hand shops, which smell of mould. I should also add that they cook very badly originally. No man should ever marry a woman from our town. My wife, for example, is from Moinesti. For some inexplicable reason, up until a certain age, almost all of them find somebody to marry, and after that they produce a brood of dopey children. The fruits of love, as Bazil calls them. The fruits of love play football behind the housing blocks all day long, hurling terrifying swearwords at each other. Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce any examples here. Four or five such little delinquents attacked Gogu one night. They broke his nose and covered him in bruises. For the time being, you don’t know who Gogu is. You’ll find out, however. There’s no rush.
The housing estates of Bacau are full of budding criminals, who play football behind the housing blocks and yell at each other for no reason. In the afternoon, when the children come out of school, you can hardly find room on the pavement because of them. The population of this town has increased at an incredible rate in the last few years, although the statistics show that it has declined. As if anybody believed in the figures any more ! In fact, Bacau isn’t a city in the proper sense, but a large number of housing blocks. The so called town centre is also a neighbourhood of blocks, with a somewhat broader street, on which there is an abandoned cinema, the old department store, the town hall, a few bars with slot machines, two churches, and a host of chemist’s shops. One next to the other. A swarm. I can’t understand why there are so many chemist’s shops. It’s irrational. Every ten metres there’s a chemist’s shop. And I can’t understand why there are so many weddings ; they’re every single weekend, although that would explain why there are so many children in this so called town. At the weekend you can’t go to a restaurant, because they’ve all been hired out for wedding receptions. Obviously, that is if you can call a room decorated with crêpe paper a restaurant. Don’t ever go to the toilet in a restaurant in Bacau, as you’ll run the risk of having a heart attack. But that’s not all. In fact, it’s barely the beginning, or the end. The beginning is the religious ceremony, which is usually officiated at one of the two churches in the town centre, the Catholic or the Orthodox. They’re at opposite ends of the street on which I live, or rather, since I now temporarily live Elsewhere, the street where I used to live. In the old days, it was called Main Street and it was full of Jewish shops. That’s because a hundred years ago, there were more Jews than Romanians in Bacau. That was the situation back then. I don’t know how or why they all chose to gather here. In the meantime, they took their chattels and moved to their own country. When they finally realised that they had ended up in Bacau. Now, for no reason at all, the street is named after Michael the Brave. What do we have to do with Michael the Brave ? Or he with us ? Nothing. It’s quite simply what the mayor decided to name the street. It’s the street with the most chemist’s shops and the most beggars in Romania, who watch you with greedy eyes when you enter a chemist’s shop, or rather when you come out, so that they can grab the coins you got in your change. The Orthodox church is at the northern end of the street and has huge bells, which, when they toll—and this happens a number of times a day—make such a racket that even with your windows closed, you have to shout if you want to talk to another family member. And all kinds of problems crop up. Whatever I might say, Emilia always thought I was shouting at her. “Please calm down,” she would say. When she said that, I knew she was about to have a fit of nerves. I read somewhere that people who sing are incapable of doing harm, I think it was in a book by Schopenhauer, or maybe by Ion Creanga. To be honest, I didn’t read it ; I heard it from Bazil. He reads lots of books and then tells me the gist, when we meet at Eternal Regrets. And so whenever I had an argument with Emilia, I would start to sing. You shouldn’t think I was actually singing. I just puckered my lips and whistled softly, barely audibly, whatever tune came into my head. That calmed me down as if by miracle, which means that Schopenhauer was right. On the other hand, it just made Emilia even more annoyed.
But anyway, in her case, it wasn’t just the bells that were to blame. The car horns made her even worse. One day, an aeroplane that had left Malaysia and was on its way to somewhere else crashed in the Pacific and hundreds of people died. Or maybe it didn’t crash, because to this day they haven’t found anybody. Maybe it’s still flying around even now. Maybe the people didn’t really die, but are hovering in the sky above the Pacific somewhere. But when I watched it on television, it broke my heart to see the desperate friends and relatives, waiting in the airport for the plane to land, the way they were crying and tearing their clothes in grief. Well, that was when Emilia had a fit of nerves, because she lost her tomcat. I think it jumped off the balcony, driven mad by the bells of the Orthodox church and the horns of the cars in the wedding procession that had just set off from one of the churches, this time the Catholic one. They were honking to express their joy and to invite us to participate in their joy. It’s something only natural and has become a kind of local tradition. Usually, our neighbours participate in the wedding goers’ joy by throwing bags full of leftover food at them from their balconies. Sometimes, they hit the windscreen of one of the cars, and obviously they rejoice.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Petru Cimpoesu is a virtuoso of comic language and situations, parodying the clichés with which the mass media suffocate us. But what genuinely delighted me about this novel is the fact that the author makes deft use of various narrative devices (postponed explanations, heightened suspense, surrealistic detours, grotesque touches taken to the point of the absurd, stories within stories) without them complicating your reading of the book.”
“Deliberately and with creative intuition, the novelist has chosen a mediocre narrator/character, one neither good nor bad, because the world he has chosen as the field for his investigation is a mediocre world, one neither good nor bad. Accumulating sundry news items, the opinions of the man on the streets, and the exaggerations of the mass media, Petru Cimpoesu’s narrative is an inventory and cross section, a grass roots recording of all kinds of contemporary events, events of every calibre and hue, from the issue of stray dogs to Internet trolls.”
“The humour is black and smoky, the cynicism all devouring, and the social fauna, busy with the balancing act of standing still, vehemently rejects mysticism. The revealing smile gives way to the grimace, spiritual indifference expresses the pragmatism of jokers capable of anything.”