Novel, FICTION LTD series, Polirom, 2018, 248 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
In Vergo a great many things are happening that have a bewilderingly disruptive effect on the lives of its inhabitants. All of a sudden, there are no more deaths in the city. Nor are there any more births. The search for a logical explanation brings no answers. In the absence of answers, almost the entire population of the city chooses the path of inhibition: parties and debauchery. Customs, order, and religion enter into decay. The city becomes an oxymoronic paradisiacal hell. It seems that Tiber, a character with an anatomical deformity without precedent in the medical casuistry, is at the root of the chaos that grips Vergo. Another character, the marquis, a rigorous intellect, tries to work out an existential equation for the elements that mark the new human condition of the Vergonites. He does not succeed, but the future state of affairs begins to take shape in his mind.
The Vergonites, so it would seem, were to experience countless changes within a future whose limits could not be glimpsed. A shared future. Each would have had his own future until not long ago. A limited, continually shrinking future. Until he died. The future after death proved to be an ineptitude, it could not be sensed, measured, it was at most a rhetorical device. A Christic promise. From the time when they too were people whose days were numbered. Back then, not even when they used to talk about God were the Vergonites able to articulate a clear opinion. The future appeared to them sooner as a fear; the fear of the Lord was the silken whip that guarded the faith. Even back then, there were some of them in whom it evoked no fear, while others were all but terrorised. The Lord, everywhere and nowhere, gazed on them unceasingly. The idea of God, since He could not be seen, touched, heard. The Lord was not a person; nor did he fit any tense of the verb, so the marquis always thought: past, present and future were only for humans. In order to make real (?) reference to God, he thought that a fourth tense had to be discovered. Maybe a poet would find it, metaphorically. Hont, the city’s bard. Or Vusek. Not Vusek! Such would have been the opinion of any of the Vergonites interested in that sort of thing, even in passing; from Vusek could be expected nothing but neuroses. He was incapable of anything sublime, such as a fourth tense, a fourth time. Only if it had been a question of a diabolical time, a pitch-black, frozen, static time, only then would Vusek have had the vaguest chance. Not even then. They lived in a frozen time, yes, that was it, there was no need for a black spark from the mind of that reprobate. A satanic time. No. The clock in the tower of the town hall, the table clocks, the pocket watches, the pendulums, all continued to measure the seconds, minutes, hours . . . Why should the Vergonites bother their heads with chronological details? They were ubiquitous, both inside time and outside it. They were like saints to those outside the bounds of the city; also, like devils. A dual measure.
Gradually, a new culture took shape in Vergo; it resembled no other, in the opinion of the marquis, which he shared with no one. A counter-culture. It threw into disarray an increasingly blurred past. A past dissipated by a temporal shock. A clouded future swallowed the limitless. The lack of the sine qua non condition: death.
The marquis was unprepared for endlessness. He believed that Vergo had reached, for a time, the geographic pole of a great misunderstanding. The greatest misunderstanding. A temporary suspension of time, nothing more. He was certain of it: but for how long? And why? The magnetic pole was the Lord. Earthly geography, with its well-known poles, was for the textbooks, for sailors; the universe of the marquis had a single pole. A physical impossibility. But God is an Idea . . . Something was missing from his chain of reasoning. Into his mind there suddenly sprang a saying he had read or heard, he could not remember where: The Devil sits on the point of the needle! The pseudo-cosmogony instantly turned to dust: the marquis was also confronted with a pole of evil! In order to escape the difficulty, but only sinking into it deeper, the marquis went back to an older, perfidious question. A pagan question. Is God capable of building a wall that none might pass? He cobbled together an answer capable of putting a temporary end to the search for another, more satisfying, answer: God Himself is the wall! It left an ingress: God builds the impossible obstacle sitting atop the brickwork! Above all things! Never complete! The universe was sooner a rough sketch, humans were not fully outlined, moving shadows, everything was a figment—which way to turn?
The marquis found no way out of the labyrinth, but before returning to the trap, he did manage to make breaches in it. For example, he remembered that he once rode the wheeled wooden horse that his grandfather had given him as a present. In his hand he held not a sword, but a book of photographs. A photograph had forever remained in his mind. He had looked at it countless times. A girl of fourteen or fifteen, of a beauty he was never again to encounter. He showed it to his grandfather. A little devil! he told him. Beneath her hair she has little horns, which keep growing! He had not paid much heed to what his grandfather said. A fairy tale. If he had met that girl later, after she became a woman, he would have followed her down to hell itself. What use to him were the secrets of heaven and earth now, had he been able to discover them? The marquis picked up one of his tomcats and the touch of its fur did him good.
In the city, many things that once were orderly had got out of control. Civil servants from the Capital would arrive to reorder them as best they could. Above all, they made efforts to collect taxes. There was nothing much to collect, since people were working less and less and even then, desultorily. People no longer saved. Apart from a few misers, who continued to hoard money and things, without remembering the change that had taken place in the city a few years earlier. The misers did not party, they did not dance, they did not dally with women, they kept hoarding; how much could they have hoarded before the non-ending of the world? Or before the Apocalypse, when, for sure, God would have saved only the saints. The city had been visited by immortality probably only by divine oversight. But celestial oversight was hard to countenance; from up there, He was more likely to send down a parable to his earthly disciples the alchemists, who, shaking their test tubes and heating their retorts, stubbornly went on seeking life without death. The Omnipotent, if not the devil himself, one might even think, had decided on what the Vergonites, and not only they, still found difficult to believe: the much-desired life without end. Because they had not also been given eternal youth or at least a cessation of physical deterioration, there had to be something sinister behind it, as more and more people were beginning to think. Only the Apocalypse foretold by the Scriptures could have put a stop to it all. When that finally came, the whole earth would be like a burning pyre, and the Vergonites’ endless life would prove to have been merely an interlude. That was what Bernar the astronomer had decided not long ago. The day foretold by the Book would come and that would be the end. Bernar was a believer; through his telescope he sought not only the known stars, but the star of God. A star yet to be discovered: He had to have one, reckoned Bernar. But he also said to himself, after a meeting with the marquis, who had told him about the Vergonites who would eventually end up living dust, that the Apocalypse was by no means the end of the road; that dust, heated by the sun, did not disappear; there were laws of physics. It turned into something else, the marquis did not know what, but he was convinced that the atoms survived, each of them imprinted with the memory of a Vergonite. Carried on the cosmic wind, which would then start blowing toward other stars, as a final punishment, a galactic exile. One atom per star! There weren’t even so many Vergonites; an exile worse than death; each mote, deaf, blind, mute, imprisoned within its own memory. Unable to communicate, to receive news, to be touched by another mote, to see it, hear it, curse it, love it, strike it: the final, absolute, eternal solitude. Nothing but memory! The most terrible punishment, that’s more or less how it would end up, according to the vision of the astronomer: every Vergonite a mote on one of the stars; he, too, a mote. Unless by then he discovered the star of God, Who, in gratitude, would bring him to His side: the invisible Saint Bernar! Or on the contrary, Who would expel him, for disturbing his privacy, to a different universe, since the astronomer himself said there were an infinity of universes; that’s where Bernar would end up, thanks to his knowledge. Bernar, who was not the worst of the Vergonites. Where then would Vusek end up? Or Tiber, who, as sister Irma believed, had brought only misfortunes to the city. He was deserving of a hell! As if the others, according to Bernar, were destined for Heaven. Whether short, long, or endless, life led to the same place: to punishment: payment! Not even Heaven was a reward. Only humility, the tranquillity that could only tire, prayers of thanks, milk, honey, till they came back up your gullet, not wine, beer, slivovitz . . . At least wine, which, in the Book, was pleasing even to the Lord . . . Forget about skirt! A hell!
The gendarmes reappeared, a platoon; a major was appointed Governor of the city, the mayor was at his beck and call; the tribunal and cells were reopened, order had to be restored. But it was not very easy to rule people who no longer feared death. There were methods: beatings, gaol. Torture, why not? If there was no other way. The city’s citizens could live for centuries if they liked, but they couldn’t neglect their duties to the state. The locals grumbled at first. But they were finally forced to submit, when another platoon was brought, then another—those madmen in the Capital were capable of sending a regiment, many regiments, a gendarme for every inhabitant, a few armoured cars had even appeared, which were more like iron scarecrows, green tractors; the state would have done anything at all to restore order to that city that set a bad example to nearby towns and even to the whole country. Many foreigners dreamed of moving there, and so a story was concocted for those who wouldn’t give up, who were constantly seeking a way to linger in Vergo. They were told that two old people, a man and wife, who had arrived before the ban on settling in the city and who lived with some relatives, had died less than a year after the doubtful blessing. And that this had been hidden for a time, until their bodies had been secretly removed from the city to be sent to some relatives. The Parish Council had decided this, so it was said. Any foreigner, even the Pope, had he been granted the right to live in Vergo, would have died when his time came! The tale took hold. Those thinking of buying a house or permanently moving in with relatives gave up the idea; those staying in hotels quickly left. For, at the same time, they had started saying that the old couple had been murdered! Secretly taken outside the city and strangled and then clandestinely brought back inside Vergo, dead. It showed the city was no place for strangers! Nobody produced any proof, but insistent repetition of the story brought the desired effect. It was also said, likewise to make an impression, that three inhabitants of the city, who had been outside the city walls on the day when the stained-glass windows of the monastery were smashed, had died after a time, even though they had returned; others, in the same situation on the day in question, were also to die ordinary deaths when their time came. Even though they were of an advanced age. Centenarians, but mortal. This was to round off the story, which had by then become a legend. All over the country, and even outside its borders, whenever talk turned to what was happening in Vergo, the legend was mentioned. It was not well to linger in that city, where everything was out of step with the rest of the world; something bad might happen to a stranger at any time. This while some of the locals, ungrateful for their fate, were even thinking of leaving the city! They had received an extraordinary gift and they didn’t know how to appreciate it!
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“This novel by Alexandru Ecovoiu is a kind of shadow play, in which the concrete combines with the metaphorical and the abstract, image with idea, pure fiction with an implicit judgement on literature. An intelligent book, written by an author of great imagination, but also, in the postmodern spirit, constantly aware that he is engaged in the cold, calculated endeavour of constructing a literary text. Over the years, I have often wondered what is the secret of this author who is so discreet within the Romanian market, but always in the attention of magazines and publishers in the West. At the level of the novel Ambitus at least, but also to a great extent that of his other books, I think the main argument resides in the impact of the ideas, against the backdrop of the description of fictional, exotic worlds impossible to identify with real life, but in which everybody is able to recognise familiar mentalities, customs, issues, characters.”