Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2007, 432 pages
Each chapter of the novel is one of a serie of separate episodes, each of which might stand alone as a short story in its own right, but which is at the same time linked to the others by the circulation, within the book as a whole, of the same characters, places, events (described from different perspectives), and atmosphere. The novel is a realist/fantastic mélange, in which half a century in the life of a village (Saints Village) on the Danube Plain is evoked. The author is an exceptional spinner of tales, both in the realist and in the fantastic vein (villagers versus ghosts, talking horses, people who discover only from others that they are dead, curses, enchanted loves). Three narrators can be distinguished : an objective, third-person narrator, and two subjective narrators who seem to be trying to cancel each other out. These three narrative voices construct the human geography and spiritual space of this imaginary village by the Danube. The three intertwining narratives describe a host of events, major and minor, thronged by dozens of characters, in a style that is redolent of the spoken word and characterised by continual and conscious digression. Although within the preponderantly realist substance of the narrative there are be found elements of the fantastic, these are conveyed in the most matter-of-fact way. Besides stories of the children born in order to meet the quotas of Ceauşescu’s demographic decrees, and besides the local history of the village, ancient and modern, there also appear elements that relate to the mythology of the settlement and the hidden face of things. In general, the narrators’ accounts are characterised by humour, but this is more often than not employed as a screen for bitterness, sadness, and despair.
Not long before losing the heath of his body and mind, Priest’s Dad was getting ready to take some yellow melons to market in the big city. He had a craving to stand behind a stall, to hawk his wares in a booming voice, to joke with the customers who seemed inclined to buy or to bicker with those he suspected of having no mind to dig in their pockets. He was eagerly looking forward to catching the scent of the market in his nostrils. Just by thinking about it, this scent, mingled with the hubbub of the throng, used to elate him like a glass of new wine. He himself had not been to market for many years : he would take care to send others in his stead, because to him, in his pride in finely crafted commercial transactions, it seemed that market-stall haggling no longer rose to the loftiness of his imposing stature. And so he sent others. But now he had an old man’s yearning for bustle, for the odour of pickled cabbage, tarragon, parsley and dill, apricots, peaches, garlic, cucumbers, for the eternally damp asphalt, for the griddle that dispersed the dense fumes of grilled sausages, for the sparrows that nested and quarrelled raucously under the market roof. The evening before, he had readied a tall wicker basket : in it he had placed the yellow melons, arranging them with care, and, to cushion them against jolts and blows, he had sprinkled straw between them. In vain did his son, the priest, strive to convince him that the bus tickets and the market surcharge would cost him just as much – if not more than – the amount he would earn on the goods to which he was so carefully tending. The old man, usually offhand, curt, and forbidding with those who defied him in any way, had merely waved his hand in weary disdain, thereby asking to be left in peace. In the morning, he shook one of his grandsons, who, in the still undissipated mists of sleep, cursed him by his mother and swore at him by many things that were holy. In the end, the grandson rose from bed grumbling and did not hold his peace until receiving a clout across the back of the head. From the shed he fetched his grandfather’s famed barrow, and loaded it with the basket, which was covered with a wicker mat sewn with the thin wire usually used for making beehive frames. In the cool and the disquiet of morning, the old man walked silently towards the bus stop. For the first time in his life he distinctly heard the noise the wheels of the barrow made on the sand, the gravel and the grey cobbles of the road. “I’ve grown old, devil take it,” he said to himself and barely stifled a sigh. His grandson helped him to put the basket in the belly of the bus with chipped and peeling paintwork. And then, when he saw the old man climbing the steps, he cursed him aloud for the clout he had been dealt. “Aha !” a woman sitting on the first seat observed almost with joy. “You’ve gone soft, old man ! Remember when you whacked me on the head with a wooden spoon, when I said you hadn’t put enough onions in the meatballs ? Not so strong now, are you ? Your manhood shrivelled up, has it ?” Priest’s Dad muttered something, from which the uppity woman understood that she would have to be carried away on a stretcher if she dared receive between her legs the stallion vigour of the trader, and that the thrusts of his member would pierce as far as her throat. The woman appeared ready to try what Priest’s Dad suggested, but she doubted that she would require any stretcher. The boaster would demonstrate foresight if he readied a coffin for himself, because, after bedding her, there was no way he could remain alive. The old man made no further retort and headed calmly towards the back of the bus. But after he went three paces, he muttered to himself : “Shut that mouth of yours…” He sat down on the benches above the engine. A tendril of burnt diesel smoke rose between them. He pulled his hat over his eyes, lowered his chin to his chest, and was soon asleep. Two hours later, the driver came to wake him. He alighted, stretched his numb loins and stiff neck, and removed the basket from the belly of the vehicle. He gave some small change to an urchin who helped him carry his wares into the market over the road. Here, he was elated neither by the frolicking of the sparrows that nested under the roof, nor by the smells he had been craving, nor by the bustle, nor by the swarming crowd. He could not understand what was happening to him, what he was doing there, alien and awkward in that dizzying ants’ nest. People kept bumping into him and telling him to get out of the way. Just as he was about to bend over his basket and unfasten the mat that covered it, sewn with wire for beehive frames, he espied on the high concrete fence that separated the market from the immense grounds of the mental hospital a man calmly looking at the ants’ nest from aloft. Then he climbed down and headed towards Priest’s Dad without hesitating and without letting him out of his sight. The trader racked his brains and all of a sudden, exceedingly clearly, he knew just what he was doing there. He abandoned the basket in the market and headed towards the hospital gates. For a long while he groped, at the doors of the dozens of wards scattered among the trees of the endless park. Nonetheless, after asking a number of people he met along the asphalted lanes, he found the ward in which his lawfully wedded wife languished gazing vacantly at the high ceiling from which dust-blackened strands of spider’s webs dangled. He sat down beside her on the edge of the bed and began to talk to her evenly, in a voice that was neither loud nor a whisper, to tell her about things at home, about how sales were going, about making plum brandy at the back of the barn, and about the sweets in the larder tucked out of sight of prying eyes. He asked her questions, to which he also replied, and now and then he wiped her mouth with a handkerchief soaked in water. A few hours later he decided to leave. He rose from the bed, straightened his rumpled clothes, and felt around in the large, deep pockets of his apron. He pulled out two green apples and a few walnuts, which he placed next to the woman, who had not taken her gaze from the same spot on the ceiling for even a moment. On the pavement in front of the hospital, he had time to see the dust, the discarded coloured wrappers, the sun-scorched weeds. “Would you look at what the devil – Lord, forgive me – I’m thinking of now : I’m imagining what some pigweed mixed with dust from the tarmac would taste like.” Then he departed on the dilapidated bus and fell asleep with his eyes fixed on a hole in the floor, through which could be descried the racing, ashen road. When he found out that his father had returned from the market without his basket, the priest decided on the spot to send the old man and his second wife to the hut without electricity and drinking water, situated in a hollow between two hills, where every year he sowed wheat.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“In fact, this is the first thing I ought to have written: Whoever Falls Asleep Last is an astounding book. What it delivers is neither entertainment nor the current science of those Romanian prose writers who display their stock of ‘lessons in life.’ To put it briefly, the novel offers an ultra-innervated vision of a matter that literature has learned to forget: the ‘art of moving souls.’”
“Whoever Falls Asleep Last is an exceptional novel, among the best to have appeared after 1990. It is a substantial novel, written with finesse and intelligent irony (a shameful irony, if one might put it like that), written by a prose writer upon whom, as far as I am concerned, I am resting all my hopes.”
“I do not hesitate to say that Whoever Falls Asleep Last is one of the most engrossing books to have been published since 1989, apt definitively to impose a name deserving of respect: Bogdan Popescu.”
“There is no point hiding light behind a bushel: Whoever Falls Asleep Last is not just a superb novel, but a masterpiece of post-1989 Romanian literature.”