Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2008, 315 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
The protagonist of Sun Alley, an exceptionally intelligent twelve-year-old boy, who is experiencing first love. One summer afternoon, on his way to see his girlfriend Emi, he is caught in a rain shower and shelters in the hallway of a block of flats. Led by a strong odour, he goes down into the basement, where he comes upon the corpse of a young and very beautiful woman. Little by little, Sal will attempt to discover the mystery of this dead body and, at the same time, will advance in his amorous relationship with Emi, a strange liaison which unfolds in parallel with the adulterous affair of a grown-up couple whose path Sal repeatedly crosses. As the love story with Emi evolves, Sal tries with all his might to hide it not only from the ironic eyes of his friends in the neighbourhood, but also from his parents – whose decisions might shatter their minor idyll – thereby developing a veritable adulterous mindset, which can also be observed, in practical terms, in the adult couple. The connexions between adults and the two children on the one hand, and the dead body discovered by Sal on the other, are much deeper and more complicated than they at first seem. Sun Alley is a novel about the roots of adultery and about the destiny of an exceptional young boy who, thanks to his gifts, has the power to see his own future with his mind’s eye.
If you looked closely with your eyes scrunched up, a drift of salt had collected in the folds of caramelised skin ; it was as though a fine snow had powdered her whole body. It was like dry earth covered with sparse blades of grass, left over since autumn, upon which hoarfrost had formed. This bare expanse was his field of battle, where he would convoke all his enemies. His insecurity made him anticipate potential enemies. His gaze roved far, scanning the horizon, intuiting and foreshadowing situations. He was a leader of armies, with a single feeble soldier under his command, but one whom he permanently suspected of treason. He sized her up as she lay on the linen sheet, one of her legs bent, shading the rest of her body, arms splayed out, eyes closed, scrunched up against the strong light. As she lay, transfigured by the scorching sun, it seemed to him as though she was offering herself up to the entire tribe which lurked starving. Whosoever wanted her would only have had to stretch out his hand and break off a morsel. At first sight, she seemed to have a spoiled character. But at the same time, she had accepted to stay with him ; she had waited for him all this time, which had elapsed so slowly and agonisingly. There was no way she could have exerted pressure or laid down rules. For them, the watchword had, up until then, been patience, but in reality neither of them knew for sure what exactly it was they were waiting for. They would crawl furtively among the sand dunes in the morning, their eyes sunken from sleeplessness and deadened by the sun, isolated from the world and full of doubt. A few miles away, their sleepy families lazed in their sheets, without even the slightest doubt wafting above their eyelashes.
“How did we end up here ?” he asked her one day.
She was a lizard, without awareness.
She rolled towards him, pressing her thighs together and shielding her face with her left arm. The skin of her inner arm was whitish, almost translucent. There, the earth was mellow and new. Her breasts were hanging to one side and in that position they looked like the dugs of a matron, furrowed by slender veins, as fine as the cracks in paintings exposed to unfavourable light. In the close, dense air, over that scrap of beach where they were hiding, seeking a solitude of which they could not be at all certain at any moment, there wafted a vague feeling of happiness. The sand subsided beneath them, measuring an hour and a quarter, an hour, sometimes less, depending on the itinerary of those back home, on their suspicions and intuitions ; on how quickly they would be overcome with the fear of being caught. Three weeks had passed already, and they had grown used to slipping away, to camouflaging their presence, to scenting each other from afar. They had grown used to all the contrivances : seeing each other only when the others could not see them, the daily trysts, the daily closeness, as though these had created for them a kind of conjugal rhythm. It also gave them, besides sadness, a strange feeling of possession, which threatened to extend over the hours that did not belong to them. It was sometimes a good feeling, because it placated them and quickened in them the feeling that they were entrusted to one another, it gave them a security it was hard to find in Bucharest, where their acrobatics with busy itineraries were often dangerous, not only for others, but above all for themselves.
Now, she fixed him with her eyes through the acute angle formed by her crooked arm. She was hidden, trying to intuit whether he was thinking of leaving or whether his mind was merely elsewhere. Had he let her, she could have remained like that, silent, motionless, looking at him intently, furtively, imagining what diabolical plans were going through his head. In exasperation, he asked her why she could not trust him, but she stubbornly insisted on reminding him that once he had abandoned her with no regrets, and that this might happen again at any time. No promise in the world could have quieted her. In a way, he agreed with her, because, in reality, he too felt the need for reassurance, but had he asked it of her, it would have opened a chasm between them, over which they would thenceforth have had to perform acrobatics in order to survive their own powerlessness and limits. Otherwise, when he thought of “the two of them” he had a sensation of optimism. It was the same as when he thought of his grandmother. They had found her stretched out in bed, wearing black patent leather shoes with a bow-shaped buckle, yellowish stockings, a red and green tartan skirt, from beneath which peaked the lace of her petticoat, and a white blouse with frills and flounced sleeves under her black waistcoat. They had all had the impression that grandmother had dressed up to go to the theatre, and the clothes, although inappropriate for her age, had convinced them for a good few minutes that she was alive but had merely fallen asleep. Even though in the air was floating a faintly acrid smell, which had smothered the scent of lavender, it was only later, when they wondered why grandmother had got all dressed up, that they began to suspect that the coquettish woman had in fact readied herself for death. A sensation of optimism – as if, however bad the situation was, and it was very likely that it would not improve soon, things, at least for the moment, looked beautiful, even though they were decomposing inside. But he often thought of the future and made plans : how he would gradually distance himself from those at home, how he would succeed, just as gradually, in becoming more dispensable and more invisible until they grew accustomed to his absence, he would take away his clothes one by one, a few beloved books, no more, especially the 1001 Nights, and, like a cartoon character made of elastic, he would stretch first his suitcase-laden arms, then half his body, he would bring up his left leg and, with a final graceful effort, he would withdraw the right, barely touching the ground with the tips of his toes.
“Why are you laughing ?”
He could not tell her, because, however attractively and amusingly he might have recounted the situation, he knew that she would have sulked and stopped speaking to him. She would have reproached him that the day he was dreaming of was not going to arrive very soon, that, in any case, it would never arrive if they no longer wished it to happen.
“Do you think we should leave ?”
“No, why ?”
She buried her face in the linen sheet like a little girl and from there she said in a muffled voice :
“Because you’re showing signs of impatience. If you want me to go, just tell me.”
He dragged himself towards her and straddled her, crushing her under the weight of his body. It was an agile movement, he had moved like a cat, not giving her any time to come to her senses before she found herself beneath that monster, suffocated and punished by his love. He decided then and there to show her every time she was wrong, to stop wasting words. Discussions were perfidious, they slid implacably from neutral zones towards their situation as lovers, which she viewed complicatedly, adoringly and disgustedly, he indulgently and fatalistically.
“What are you doing ?”
She had asked him half holding her breath, grimacing as though repulsed, but suddenly she was transformed, as though he had pressed a button by accident and the mechanism within her had once more started running. On the beach, in the distance, the outline of a man with a ponytail was expanding. He was holding a surfboard under his arm. He had emerged from the maize field, from among the corncobs that were lifting their silks to the sky. He was shuffling along in flip-flops, advancing haltingly, as though he were already exhausted. She tried to drag herself gently from under him, but although she was struggling, she succeeded, with a dignified and distorted smile, only in freeing one of her legs.
“Get down, please, everybody will see us.”
“I’m proving to you that I didn’t want to leave.”
“I know, you’ve proved it, now let’s go.”
“Why ? !”
She had screamed it in his ear, making him bury his head in the hollow between her collarbone and her arm. He could feel the outline of his face sunken in her flesh, and he could hear her swishing her legs, as though the sound were the breeze in the grass. He held her tightly like that for about a minute, but it seemed longer. He released her and saw her flushed, irritated face, on which the wrinkles, in annoyance, seemed to have entrenched themselves deeper. And in an instant, fine, snaking streams of tears began to flow down her cheeks, tracing an imaginary semicircle around her cheekbones and pattering audibly onto the rug. He could have sworn he heard the sound they made.
The surfer passed them with his head lowered, swinging his free arm, indifferent to what was going on around him. On a sunny day like this, on a beach where the only thing to be seen was a single linen sheet with two frolicking lovers, what could go wrong ? He could have killed her right there, in the seconds in which the young man passed them, without arousing any suspicion. Why then was nothing so simple for them too ? This set him thinking. He spent the rest of the time in silence, until he saw her getting up and beginning to gather her things together. He gathered them too and was happy that the decision to leave was not his. He was not sure whether his gesture had infuriated her or left her indifferent. In fact, it had been a gratuitous and adolescent outburst, just as some men sometimes feel the need to hang their arm around the neck of their partners, marking possession and at the same time conceitedness.
On parting, after he left her at the corner of the street, he sat in the car for a little while longer, watching her walk away. She had regained her self-confident way of walking. She moved innocently, as though she were returning after doing her morning shopping. There was no need to agree on a rendezvous. Each of them would be on the beach at eight. They would never be more than a few minutes late, and only if something unforeseen happened.
He pressed his right foot down on the accelerator pedal and with the other gently released the clutch. A holiday at the seaside had not initially been part of his plans. For the children, the news had come as though they had just bumped into Santa Claus. He had warned them at the very beginning of summer that he would not be able to be absent from work for more than two weeks. With a degree of cruelty, he had made them choose between the mountains and the seaside. He wanted to make it seem as though the decision was theirs. Up until then he had heard the girls daydreaming countless times about paddling in the surf. Then, after a Sunday visit to his brother-in-law, who also had two daughters, boisterous and insufferable according to some, the idea had come up for them all to go away together, to a pension in the Apuseni Mountains. And while at first he had tried to explain with a certain obstinacy that they had already made plans, he noticed in amazement that everyone, but especially the girls, seemed more and more bewitched by the idea of an adventure in the mountains, even if the people they would be going with were not all that to their liking. Milk and honey flowed from the lips of his brother-in-law, as he was carried away by storytelling exuberance, and the mountains he conjured up were like giants, who had come to life and could barely wait for the beautiful young misses from the city to arrive. The girls had stretched out on the floor, leaning on their elbows, devouring the words of their uncle, which he accompanied with sweeping gestures. Their eyes had already begun to imbibe the wonders. They had settled into the pension and were already savouring the copious meals laid out on rustic tables, they were ransacking larders full of jars of jam, sherbet and fruit jelly, smelling barns crammed with hay, wrinkling their noses when the air prickled their nostrils, and breathing deeply to rid their lungs of all the specks of dust accumulated over the year. And the wind was blowing through their hair while a sun like a big round yellow melon beamed above their heads. Although they had up until then wheedled and pleaded and made him swear that this summer they would toast themselves in the “ultra-violets,” which for the little ones represented a kind of flower like those their father nurtured, in less than a second all his plans had been shattered, the peaks of the mountains were already looming in the distance and at the two girl’s feet unrolled a magic carpet on which Dori, and also Mari, for whom her sister’s desires had become her own desires, crouched and flew off into the distance. And even though their father had given them a number of silent hints, knitting his brows, the girls had no eyes for him and were gazing into the distance. They could already see themselves rolling in a meadow, purring at the blades of grass and cooing in pleasure.
By the time they had arrived back home, the decision had already been taken despite him, and during the entire night that followed he had thought about how he would tell her and how they could arrange things so that the separation would be as brief as possible. He stopped in front of the house. He put the car in neutral and lingered a while longer in the thrum of the engine, waiting. He wanted to remember more clearly the moment when he had, on his return from that dreadful holiday in the mountains, discovered that he could not bear to wait for her another month. The thoughts had jumbled up in his head, he had started hatching insane plans to get her back and when, after a number of hours walking the streets gesticulating and talking to himself, he had decided to go after her. In any case, he had known the answer from the very start, and the thought of finding any other solution had been stupidity. Now he felt ashamed that he had dragged the children into this madness and had tempted them into being the ones who, once again, had chosen in his place. And in the hours before their departure for the seaside, when the rest of the house was seething with impatience and feverishly packing, flinging clothes almost blindly into suitcases, he had locked himself in the kitchen and from there contemplated the wilted flowers of his neighbour from the garret, which the woman, crazed by the heat, had forgotten to water after prolonged efforts to keep them alive and fresh.
He looked down the road. It was very early. And it was only then that he realised they could have stayed on the beach for another half an hour. It also crossed his mind that, if he had managed to kill her, as the surfer would later have recounted, on being questioned by the police, he would probably not have stopped the engine, but would have kept on going, like in the American films, he would have sped away, gobbling up the miles and raising clouds of dust behind him. He would have been transformed into a tranquil fugitive, and he would never have had to think of her again except as a memory.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“From a psychoanalytical point of view, Cecilia Ştefănescu’s prose succeeds in describing with acuity and finesse essential moments in the development of the female soul, from fascination with the boundless to nostalgia for it. What psychoanalysis conceals in scholarly tomes, accessible only to specialists, the writer offers for the catharsis of all.”
(Vasile Dem ZAMFIRESCU)
“I would say that the literary air, the elaborate writing, and the painstaking construction all give a stylistic note specific to Cecilia Ştefănescu, but without excluding the freshness or rawness of sensation.”
“Although she plumbs, like Cărtărescu, the depths of the age of uncertain sex, Cecilia Ştefănescu forcefully breaks free of slavish, epigone imitation. Her vision, supported by an authoritative style of writing, captivating even in its imperfections, explores the furthest limits of femininity in the name of femininity.”
“The author avoids, with childlike grace, the vulgar exhibitionism approved of by those with literary velleities. Perhaps also because she has something intimate to say, something with an inner import.”