Novel, EGO.PROSE series, Polirom, 2019, 120 pages
And Happiness Was Compulsory sails the sea of memory in Andrei Craciun’s inimitable style. In the novel we encounter Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu as they ride in the Queen of England’s carriage; the dark 1980s; the ex-Securitate agents and the early profiteers of the transition period; and other extraordinary characters, such as the blind gypsy wise man who has the power to see the future and a young woman from a southern-Italian mafia family. The storyteller is a journalist who roams the earth in search of the truth behind an old Hungarian ballad that had the power to push people to the verge of suicide. A traveller who wanders through ports and backstreets, he endlessly searches for subjects to report on in places at the edge of the world, tortured by agonising melancholy for the lost paradise of Dawn Lane, the street of his childhood. And Happiness Was Compulsory is a book about the promises of early beginnings, about communism and post-communism, newspapers and broken hearts, love and death.
Then the dictator appeared on our small screens, but he wasn’t shaking hands and issuing directives, he fell next to a wall and next to that wall his wife fell too, the dictatress, and after they broadcast the execution on the television, it didn’t take long before it started to snow, but I was living outside time back then anyway, so I can’t tell you exactly how long it lasted, above Dawn Lane there first floated a silence like that before God created the world, then the cheers erupted and Gigi Bumboy went outside at the back of our block of flats, hugging in his arms the whole sky above the machinery plant, howling like a wolf, if a wolf had been able to howl exactly these words, “They killed him, they killed him, the fuckers!” then more and more people came outside from our building and they struck up a ring dance of joy such as had never been seen before and such as will never be seen again, and the snow was falling on them down from the sky, I had a bit of wood carved into a rifle and I was able to wave it to greet freedom, full of hope, I was six years old when I heard the enchanted flute of our Mr Hrabal, even if I didn’t know that I was hearing the enchanted flute at the time, and the men and women ran down the stairs to fill the lane with their shouts, they were in a hurry because they’d been hungry, and now they were very happy thinking of the oranges that were to come, and I slipped among their legs, climbing the stairs, following the blue snake of the bannister, the one I dreamed of at night soaring above the tarred roof of our stumpy building and ascending to the heavens, I climbed, climbed, climbed, I knew where I was going, in the airing room on the top floor they’d locked up the building’s Securitate man, the airing room was a cell, and comrade Mihalache was its only prisoner, they’d tied him to the radiator throughout all the days of the Revolution, so that he wouldn’t poison the water and kill us all, since we’d heard on television that that might happen if we left the Securitate men at liberty, comrade Baciu brought him a bowl of cream rice and a cup of water every morning, and in the evening, he took the bowl and the empty glass and gave comrade Mihalache a kick up the arse, but he didn’t kick him furiously, he kicked him carefully, mostly to see whether he was still alive, comrade Mihalache would growl that he was alive and still he didn’t repent, it’s now 25 December 1989 and I’ve reached the top floor, the airing cupboard, I look through the keyhole and see comrade Mihalache weeping, the people haven’t thought to stone him to death or set him on fire or haul him up to the roof and throw him off, the people have forgotten him here, and comrade Mihalache is crying and I can feel his pain and I can also feel the pain of the dictators falling next to the wall, I can feel the pain of those sacks of old meat now riddled with bullets, and then, looking through the keyhole at the building Securitate man’s tears at the death of the dictator, I discovered my first superpower, I could genuinely feel people’s pain, the pain of things, the pain of all creatures, the pain of things that happened and the pain of things that didn’t happen were my blood and the chambers of my heart filled with the sadness of the world, a lifetime has elapsed since then, my human lifetime, and a human lifetime is no small thing when the human is you yourself, and night after night I looked up at the sky and the stars looked back down at me, that time was unlasting, I saw unlasting time as it elapsed, and time became a fat cat, lazy and blind, time can never stop, time cannot look, night after night, neither the sky nor the stars look back at it, the pain of time is therefore eternal and I knew that pain too, I was not like all the other children, children run through the days, they don’t stop, they don’t listen to the pain of time, they are heedless and immortal and eternity doesn’t frighten them and after all death sometimes spares them, heals them and tames them, and later, when the lads grow up and the lasses grow up, they cling to love, fame, illusions, they live blind and he who dares to see is driven away, and the one driven away was always my brother, the stranger, the madman, the solitary, and I could have wandered through the world embracing my brothers, sharing with all pieces of my heart, because, if you didn’t know, the heart never ends, you can endlessly break your heart, take eat, sirs! take drink, sirs! for this is my heart, yes, I could have wandered through the world, sharing food with the hungry, comforting widows and orphans and prophesying a future life that was a little more just, I could have lived without money, as scandalous and inhuman as a saint, but I found a different treasure, I started to tell the stories of people’s lives and I didn’t promise anybody eternal life, all the stories ended with a death, as has always happened everywhere, and it is very well that all lives end with a death, let’s not forget that, all the parents in the world are murderers, they sentence their children to death, it’s a sentence that cannot be commuted, and they also sentence them to life, you will say, but it won’t necessarily be true, do you know how many people die without having lived a single day on earth? — poor puppets pulled on strings by their time, thinking others’ thoughts, following roads already travelled, accumulating days full of unhappiness and disappointment — certainly people don’t feel guilty that they murder their children, since many surround them with love and feel deserving of admiration and respect, many murder their children only by instinct or accident, they are guilty murderers and the whole history of mankind is founded on that guilt that harrows neither our souls nor our minds, and if you ask what happened next, then know that comrade Mihalache was released from his cell and he continued to live among the people who had tied him to the radiator so that he wouldn’t poison their water, those people later elected him to rule them, providing him with a minor executive function in the town hall, and the slate was wiped clean, both the excesses of the golden age of the dictators and the excesses of the revolution, comrade Mihalache died of cancer of the tongue, not at all an ordinary disease, one that seldom kills, at least not on our lane, there were people who never forgave him and who never asked his forgiveness, those people saw comrade Mihalache’s tongue cancer as proof that God really existed, as for the pain of the dictator, know that I spent many years trying to understand that stuttering man murdered on the day of Christ’s nativity by a nation of innocent barbarians who had elevated him and venerated him and let themselves be starved and humiliated by that barbarian who didn’t know all the letters of the alphabet and who never learned a trade more honest than that of cobbler’s apprentice, obviously the dictator was a murderer, there are accounts that he gave the order for people to be murdered in the years when the peasants’ land was stolen from them, the thieves called it collectivisation, as if theft committed in the name of a collective is less of a theft, the dictator was elevated over the bowed heads of his people, he was cunning, he surrounded himself with lackeys and let himself be adulated in stadiums, as he had once seen done in Asia, the whole history of the twentieth century is contained in the story of that boy who runs away from home barefoot, is adopted by the Party, distributes manifestos against the bourgeois exploiters, goes to prison and gets out of prison, perches on the tanks of the Red Army, which he said were coming to liberate the country from the fascist yoke, but liberated it from fascism only to drag it into communism, the whole history of the twentieth century is in the story of that headstrong young man who could not even bear to lose at chess, even though he didn’t know how to play chess, who survived an aeroplane accident and followed behind the coffin of his mentor, another dictator, taking his place only to rule with even greater cunning, the pain of that man who, when the tanks crushed the Prague Spring, ascended to a balcony and trenchantly condemned the immixture of larger states in the internal affairs of smaller states, viewing such immixture as proof that God did not exist, since if He existed, He would not allow such a thing, and thereby he tricked the whole world into thinking he was a decent man and he ended up riding in the Queen of England’s carriage, in which it is rumoured that he farted and then blamed the horse, but such rumours could be passed on only in a whisper, since his kingdom was riddled with informers who would have trampled on your corpse to gain their own advantage, and a story about our dictator farting in the Queen of England’s carriage was an act of sabotaging the socialist revolution, the dictator was not a decent man, he ran up excessive debts and then, like a true peasant, he decided to pay everything back, regardless of the cost, which was borne by the people, he filled stadiums with young people and the young people spelled out his name and the name of the dictatress using their bodies, he moved the peasants to the cities, into vertical rectangles, where, at intervals, water gushed from the wall and you could wash your arse, and that was a big step forward, a sign of undeniable progress, because that nation had for thousands of years wiped their arses with stones and weeds at the bottom of their yards, and he moved the peasants here and he made them spy on each other, he demolished churches and people’s houses so he could build himself a palace, believing himself to be the chosen one, a pharaoh, a god, and all his life he never bothered to learn the letters missing from his alphabet and in the end he died in a revolution, or a coup d’état, or a coup d’état disguised as a revolution, next to that wall, and he was old and ill with diabetes, and his last words were words in praise of the republic, and he died singing the Internationale as he faced the bullets, which ought to have revealed him to us as a hero, but it didn’t, it was merely the last act in the history of a fanatic, and above all the dictator was our father, we were his children, he sentenced us to death, we were irrevocable events in the days of the anti-abortion decree, our entire country had been a prison camp in which women had abortions in agony, everything was primitive back then and happiness was compulsory, young people put on military uniforms and went to serve in the army for years, to defend us from the enemy who never attacked, but the enemy was in ourselves, and in all the years that followed I felt the pain of the aborted embryos and the pain of those who patriotically crawled in the mud, dreaming of their houses, from which they had been torn, the last children forced to be grown men for their country, as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had before them...
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth