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Stefan Agopian


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Novel, "Fiction LTD" series, Polirom, 2004, 296 pages, format 130 x 200 mm

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Book presentation

This novel brings to life the miracle-laden atmosphere of the Nineteenth Century, revolving around the history of a boyar family in southern Romania. In this milieu, angels and demons are to be encountered. The boyar Tache de Velvet, around whom events unfold, is the “element” that transports us back to a time when history blended with the fantastical. Throughout the narrative, the “classic” tale of a trio of unlikely heroes, namely the boyar Lapai and his brother, the Dwarf, who are, of course, joined by the central character, Tache de Velvet, intersects with a host of other colourful tales, which respect neither the rules of time nor space. Thus, the present becomes future and the future is transformed into past, allowing anything to become possible in the simultaneously historical and fictional space created by the author. The characters and, implicitly, the tone of the narrative are impregnated with languor. The boyar Lapai is a sluggish type, the sort of man who falls asleep while standing up and consequently does nothing but break the crockery. His brother, the Dwarf, is a thinker by definition, while Tache, reinventing his own past, gives the impression of a man undecided, whose choices are scarred with uncertainty. The novel weaves together a multitude of stories, while the main narrative thread gets into a knot and then snaps, only to tie itself together again at the very moment it seemed to have run out. Far from being just a literary experiment, the mad tale of Tache de Velvet, constructed with much humour and full of adventure, keeps you on the edge of your seat through the power with which it recreates history in combination with myths, legends and phantasmagoria.



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Excerpt from

I was born at the beginning of this wretched century and my father rejoiced at having an heir. He quickly consigned me to oblivion, however. The times were harsh and that was all his joy. In the year I was born, Pasha Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders overran Oltenia. They pillaged the land, but they did not reach as far us. Father, who had been prepared to confront them, was left wretched. He had fortified the manor and readied the men. My mother was fearful of his preparations. However, as she was in labour, she did not have very much time for suchlike. Father, leaving her in the care of the women, would wait in the fields all day, scrutinising the horizon. The week before I was born, he dismounted only to eat and to sleep for a few hours, at night. That happiness he had in waiting was, of course, incomprehensible to my mother. The news of my birth reached my father at an adverse moment. He had just discovered that he was less at the ready than he thought. He paid the news no attention. His mind was preoccupied with coming up with a definitive means of defence. He dotted the estate with pitfalls, at the bottom of which he drove in well-sharpened stakes. A stray cow fell into one of the pits, and its dying bellows marked my birth. A peasant fell into another, as he was returning from the manor. He came to no harm, clambered from the pit and went on his way. The next day he told of his misadventure and my father was seized with rage. He ordered the one who had come up with the idea of the pits to be flogged, and then to fill them in. He fell ill with the gout and no longer concerned himself with anything. He was in great pain, but that did not stop him from dishonouring a serving girl. Mother, being lately confined, found everything out only much later.
Immediately after I was born, my mother was seized with a fit of hysterical laughter, which went on for two whole days. The midwife said of me that I would be a blithe child, but this was not at all to be the case. Mother stopped laughing at the moment father took to his bed, struck down with the gout. As he was ill, he asked to see me. He gazed at me for a long time, but said nothing, and, after a while, made a sign for me to be taken away. His mind was on other things, as would later emerge. The German doctor who was treating his gout talked to him at length about dogs. This idea appealed to father and, as soon as he was well, he bought three pairs of German dogs, of the kind known as “bear-biters.” To these he added a few other pairs of hounds, as big as bullocks, called Molossians. He busied himself with breeding them and tending the puppies, and forgot all about us. The dogs proved to be fierce, and father was beside himself with happiness. When they almost killed a beggar, father was elated. After this incident, the peasants no longer had the courage to wander about the estate as they pleased. After musing deeply upon the matter, father decided that he nonetheless had too few dogs – and so he bought another ten sheepdogs, of the Komodor breed. These were dogs of the Hungarian steppe and, despite their gentle appearance, they soon revealed that they possessed the souls of ravening beasts. To make them even more dire, he would starve them and lash them. Then he would let them loose at night, and they were direr than any pack of wolves. Mother, whenever she managed to catch him, at a moment of respite, would try to talk to him and even to remonstrate with him, but it was all to no avail. Father had eyes only for the dogs. Because of them, the servants began to desert us after a while. He managed to catch one in the end and, summoning them all together in order to be witness, he threw the wretch as bait to the ravenous dogs. He did not let him be killed, but the man was seized by epilepsy after that and died a month later. Then, one day, one of the dogs died foaming at the mouth and glassy eyed. Father was almost apoplectic with fury. He made up his mind to train them to eat only from his hand, but while he did so, another five died. He punished the men as harshly as could be, but they swore they were innocent. Years afterwards, mother was to confess to me that it was she who had poisoned the dogs, but father never found out anything.
During this time, I was growing up, as badly misshapen as could be. I had a squint and, on examining me carefully, mother discovered that one of my legs was shorter than the other. After discovering this, father no longer wanted to have anything to do with me and for a while he even tried to sire another child, but more with other women than with mother. The truth is that the defects disappeared in time, but father did not live to see it.
In the year 1801, Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders overran Oltenia once more. It was a winter of heavy snows. The city of Craiova was burnt to the ground. Manaf Ibrahim had penetrated deep into the land, pillaging towns ever further east. Receiving the news, father awaited the confrontation with his heart in his mouth. Retreating with rich booty, Ibrahim’s men had chanced upon Malura. Father, with thirty excellently trained and armed men, was waiting for them.

 

The raiders were seeking shelter for the night and perhaps they wished us no harm. And suddenly a shot rang out over the fields. Rushing upon them with loud cries, father managed to frighten them and to kill two or three of the more drunken ones. Ibrahim, unable to comprehend what was happening, gave the order to retreat. They slept who knows where and then, in the morning, they descended upon us. Perhaps they would not have come, but during the tumult created by my father’s attack, a female prisoner, who was as dear to Manaf as the eyes in his head, had managed to escape. He was hoping to find her with us.
Father, however, was expecting Pazvan-Oglu’s Turks to return and greeted them as was fit. Battle was given beyond a slope named Mill Rise, and so only hoarse yells and isolated shots reached us. As they fought, some ten of the attackers made a detour and, at Ibrahim’s orders, fell upon the manor, in order to search for the woman. Mother proved to be a woman of much resourcefulness : on seeing them approach, she let slip the dogs, about which father had forgotten in the heat of battle. The beasts saved us from certain death. After the pack had finished with them, there was not much left of the ten Turks. Rifle in hand, mother too brought down a raider. Seeing all this, the servants raised a cry, rejoicing stupidly. Once set loose, the dogs turned the course of the battle, rushing upon Mill Rise. The Turks were fighters by trade and had more or less exhausted father’s men. The pack killed on the spot more men than father and his band had been able to. And when they fled, Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders left behind them much booty and many prisoners. Happy, father buried the dead all in the same place, Christians and pagans together, and into the grave, he also hurled the carcasses of the huge dogs, some ten in all. Those under his command murmured at this, but they could do nothing, knowing how dreadful the Former High Logothete could be when moved to anger. Pruna the priest raised a scandal, but to no avail, so blinded was father by the caftan that Mihail Shutzu the Voievod had sent as a reward for his exploits with the raiders, together with a letter so finely worded that father thought himself the most important man in the land, after the Voievod.
And so, overjoyed and thinking only about what had happened, he engaged a learned man and set him to write a treatise in Latin entitled On the advantages brought by dogs in the fight against the Turks. He even said therein that the Turks could not be defeated otherwise, except with an army of the most fearsome dogs. He printed the little book in Brashov at his own expense, and it ended up, who knows how, in the hands of a German prince, who ruined himself breeding dogs.

 

The Turks, alarmed by the text, which had been hurriedly translated by a court interpreter, entered into conflict with Russia. They preposterously demanded that there should be no more dogs in Wallachia and desired that this should be set down in the Hattisherif, or Sultan’s Decree, of 1802, immediately after the part that read : The fourth fefta is that such and such Turk, should his slave pardon such and such Nazarene, and should this slave, after having pardoned, die without having received Turkish law, then such and such Turk, his master, shall not become the cheironome of the one pardoned, such and such Nazarene. Therefore, it is befitting that these feftas be obeyed, according to their content, as is meet.
Which is to say, the following words were to be written :
“And since, against my most high and eternal imperial highness, a Nazarene has written a book in Latin, titled On the advantages brought by dogs in the fight against the Turks, beginning with the words ‘In this time of wretchedness, subject as we wholly are to the cursed empire of the Crescent Moon, I, the Former High Logothete Gavrilă Vlădescu, have ordered that this book should be written so that herein shall be shown the many advantages, when with dogs one must fight.’
“And hereby we shall show this Nazarene forgiveness, but all the dogs in Wallachia shall be slain by law, as they have brought much grief to my most high imperial highness and my undying glory.”
The Russians did not allow this to be written in the Hattisherif, given it was ludicrous and pointless. However, father was admonished by Prince Constantine Ipsilanti for the impertinence he had displayed and was punished by having to stay on his estate for two whole years, something which was wonderfully suited to his thoughts. He knew that Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders would come again and he was preparing for it.
To me, who had reached the age of three at the time, no one paid any attention and I was more or less left in the care of the servants. I had begun to talk, but I had proven to have a stutter and I walked with a limp in one leg. Father was loath even to look at me, but given that he was rarely at home, it was not often that I came beneath his gaze. Mother would look on me only with pity. The servants had taught me to play Turkish dice and I believe I must always have won, because I always had copper coins with which I never knew what to do. One day, I bumped into father’s legs and he gave me a sound thrashing, and because I bawled without stuttering, father continued to thrash me whenever he caught me, saying that only thus would I get rid of my stammer. He did not live to see the miracle. In the same year, Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders overran the land. In a moment of wisdom, father sent mother and myself, together with a few servants, to Craiova, at the house of a friend. In his entire life, this was the only sound deed he managed to accomplish.

 

When we heard the news that Pazvan-Oglu’s marauders had retreated across the Danube, mother decided to return. It was autumn and we had been away from home for a whole month. I remember almost everything : the ruins of our house were still smoking. Mother, whom I descried from the cart in which we had come, stood rooted to the spot as she looked on. The body of a defiled woman appeared before my eyes. I could not understand what that woman was doing there. Then, upon posts driven into the ground in order to take the place of the missing bodies, I descried the heads. I did not recognise father, who grimaced down at us from a post loftier than the others. I did not know what it all meant. The putrefying bodies of the dogs were strewn everywhere. Large, black crows hovered above our heads. The sky darkened and a drizzling rain broke above us. We had entered upon autumn and those hideous corpses greeted us in good season. The peasant who had handled the cart said after a while :
“Make the sign of the cross, lad !”
Cap in hand, the locks of his hair plastered to his forehead, he made the sign of the cross, broadly with his huge hand, as it rained on us the while. Against the leaden sky, the peasant covered all with his frame. He smelled of smoke and damp dog and cold, mouldy maize porridge, his shaggy clothes made me sneeze.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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Critics about

“For days on end, Tache, boyar Lapai, and the Dwarf traverse the plain, heading from Oltenia towards Bucharest in order to reach Tudor’s revolution ; they linger at inns, they wassail and spin out tales. Their ‘heroic’ expedition fails lamentably, and they miss the train of History and action. Their profession is waiting, procrastination, exasperating idleness, expectancy (a malady that critic Eugen Negrici, Ştefan Agopian’s greatest admirer, names ‘adiaphoria’) – none of which rids them of the misfortune of becoming victims of a diabolical crime. Mamona the Younger implacably plots. With satisfaction Tache de Velvet unfolds the story of his life, adding to the reconstruction the entire palette of possible colours, sensations, feelings and rhythms.”

(Ion SIMUŢ)

“So many wonderful things have been said about Tache de Velvet that a trifling oddity might be slipped in among the older and newer praises without offence. And this oddity, a fantastical claim and nothing more, goes something like this : Tache de Catifea is a never-before-seen seashell.”

(Filip FLORIAN)

“The novel presents the strange and fantastic history of a boyar family from nineteenth-century Oltenia. Oltenia becomes a space where objects are allowed to float ; where curious angels and agreeable demons live together among cattle and people ; and where the brilliance of the ideas springs from the sweetness and restfulness of prattle. Oltenian boyar Tache Vlădescu, nicknamed Tache de Velvet, is a Balkan Oblomov, plunged into idleness and indecision, strange in bearing, but a storyteller like no other when it comes to his many misfortunes, guessing whence come threats and anticipating states of grace. The first edition of the novel was published in 1981, but the present edition is considered by the author to be definitive.”

(Elena VLĂDĂREANU)

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