Short stories, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2008 (2nd edition), 280 pages
Translation rights sold to: Antonios Stamoulis (Greece)
Dan Lungu is not only a well-known novelist, but also a highly regarded short-story writer. His collection of short storiesRetail Prose is now in its second edition in Romania. Both editions have been enthusiastically received in the Romanian press and, more recently, on readers’ blogs.
The first edition was published a few years after the collapse of the communist dictatorship in Romania, and the author was greeted as one of the most talented prose writers of the younger generation, being viewed as representative of what the critics called “post-socialist” or “post-communist realism,” the aesthetic of a new literary wave. His tone is sometimes blunt and rough, sometimes candid and sensitive, which has enabled him to create his own inimitable style. The world he explores through his short stories is one of “rupture” or “transition” : a Romania emerging from totalitarianism, but not yet having reached democracy and capitalism. Past nostalgias and mentalities blend with present fears in the fine fabric of everyday behaviours and lives. Dan Lungu has an excellent sense of observation, a sensitivity for significant details, an anthropologist’s ear for reproducing colloquial language, and a psychologist’s acuity in capturing attitudes and the flux of thought. All these are conveyed in writing of great finesse.
This collection can also be read as a novel. It is a novel of life’s different ages. The first short stories explore the world of the child or the adolescent, while the last ones focus on the world of the old. In the middle can be found adults of varying occupations: from a bulldozerist to a journalist. The brisk pace, finely dosed humour, discreet maliciousness, and occasionally incredible occurrences all combine to provide pleasant, empathetic reading. Beyond the political context that shines through in some of his texts, Dan Lungu writes about people above all, about their illusions and sufferings, their weaknesses and joys. About appealing or ridiculous people, naïve or conniving people, wistful or pragmatic people. About each and every one of us.
As you alight at the bread factory tram stop, if you head through the passageway of the tenement house with the tobacconist’s on the ground floor and past the upturned dustbins, you will come to a row of flaking four-storey blocks which were at one time orange. Behind them stretches a field where the folk from the few houses forgotten among the blocks let loose their hens, pigs, and cows. It’s also where the children go to play. In these blocks live workers from the TSPM, which is to say the Tools and Spare Parts Mill, as anyone curious enough to ask will discover. Most of them are the sons of peasants from villages nearby or farther afield, who have been to trade school and “taken refuge in town, because the bread’s whiter there.” They married the daughters of peasants, who in their turn went to trade school and work alongside them in the factory. They have a flat – “good, bad, that’s all there is to it !” – “in the prefab bocks” of the industrial zone. “But it’s alright, ’cause it’s near work.”
The bulldozerist is not a peasant’s son and the others make fun of him. They ask him how many teeth a sheep has in its upper jaw. His parents had been labourers and lived in a flat near the centre of town. He quarrelled with them over a girl, whom he took as his wife. He went to trade school and moved lock, stock and barrel “to the blocklets.” But that was long ago. Now he is forty-two. He is tall and brawny. His moustache is tinted black. He speaks loudly and cracks nuts with his teeth. He is a peaceable man. He never gets annoyed when playing checkers. And he likes to sit perched on his bulldozer, which seems made to measure. “My name’s Virgil and I’m a bulldozerist !” he would introduce himself, shaking your hand and beaming from the bottom of his heart. “You’re a big’un, Virgil, you’re way up there !” the scrawny little fellow from the ground floor would always shout out to him, delighting in his own words.
“Condolences, Mr Virgil !” an old woman, a former accountant, said to him. That was when his wife died. He was up on his bulldozer and it was spring. Geta had been admitted to hospital for a minor operation – “a trifle, comrade !” At the beginning, it was a matter of two days ; then a week, “because a small complication has arisen” ; then two weeks ; then a neighbour came to inform him that he was summoned urgently to the hospital. “Shall we do an autopsy on her, comrade ?”
In fact, all the important events in his life are somehow connected to the bulldozer. He had met Geta one Saturday morning. He was a teenager, crazy about cranes, elevators, bulldozers, and excavators. He knew a spot at the edge of town where they were building a block of flats. On Saturdays and Sundays, there would be a bulldozer sitting there, tilting to one side like a quince about to topple. Every weekend he would go to see it. He would sit on a mound of earth and admire it. Out of all the casings, iron, concrete, barrels of tar, and heaps of gravel, the bulldozer looked the coolest. Not even the girders, or the stacks of autoclaved cellular concrete, or the ruddy mountains of bricks were more appealing to him. One Saturday morning, a stone’s throw away, two snot-nosed kids were barring a girl’s path. They were flicking her with two long willow switches and calling out dirty words. He leapt to her defence and led her off towards town. She had been coming back from the woods, where she had been on a school outing, but she had got bored and decided to go back home on her own. She was called Geta and for him this name became one that was very beautiful. Then came Ana, another beautiful name. Ana was born in the first year of their marriage. It was also on the bulldozer that he received the news of her birth, as though he had not budged from it for so much as a second.
The former accountant had said to him : “Condolences, Mr Virgil !” He did not know what to answer, whether to thank her or not, and so he said nothing. The other neighbours recollected that Geta was an upright woman, that she had had a good heart, that it was a shame she had departed so young, that those doctors ought to be hanged from the nearest lamppost. He agreed with them all. For three days he was unable to mount his bulldozer. He washed it, he greased it with Vaseline, he changed its oil, he filled its tank with diesel, he tended it like an invalid. He would have wanted to christen it Geta, just like he had seen in those films where they name ships. The good ship Polar, the schooner Hope, the yacht Annunciation, the bulldozer Geta. Three days later, he went back to work. Ana learned to cook food, do the laundry, sweep.
Now and then, they would visit Geta’s grave. He had welded her an iron grating, which he painted green, and Ana had planted a few flowers. The whole cemetery was full of iron gratings, but the designs were different. They were all made at the TSPM and smuggled over the fence, with half for the porter. It crossed his mind that it is reassuring to be enclosed by a fence made by your workmates.
Every time, Ana would snivel, silent and hunched over the cross. She looked like a little old woman. She would also light a few candles. Then they would go back home, not far away. As they left, Ana would keep turning to look. The new cemetery had come into being at the same time as the industrial zone. A patch of earth, fenced in with concrete plates. The gate was big enough for military trucks to pass through, for there was also an army base nearby. Virgil had known many of the people buried in this cemetery : Tănase, a lad from the foundry, who had been scalded by molten aluminium ; a certain Brînză, from Ghireni, who had had a heart attack, even though he was only a young man ; Amariei, who had been crushed by an iron girder… and wasn’t there another one… but no, they’d taken Ailenii and buried him in his village, up in Todireni. In the beginning there wasn’t even a church, and so they used to take them to the church down the hill and after that back up to the cemetery. That was until one day, when the director sent a team of skilled welders and good materials. It was ready in a week. A church welded from sheet-metal, with sheet-metal crosses.
The Revolution caught him – that’s life ! – riding his bulldozer. He was filling in some pits with the rubble from the houses demolished at the end of the High Street. From some folk they took only their gardens, from others their outhouses. But from most they took even their houses. They built a new district for the workers at the new factory.
When he spotted fat little Artimon leaping over the pits like a restive horse, the only thing he could imagine was that a fire had broken out somewhere. “Ceauşescu has fallen !” Artimon managed to blurt out, in a strangled voice, leaning with both hands on the bulldozer, as though he wanted to push it into town. “What’s that you say ?” he asked him yet again, sharply, so as to be sure he had heard aright. “Ceau… Ceauşescu… it’s all over !” For a moment Virgil was left with his mouth agape. He hadn’t been expecting anything like that.
Finally, he watched it on telly with all the others in the factory, they sent a lad to fetch some vodka, they kissed and, in the end, they even danced the Ring-dance of Union in the inner courtyard, among the coils of wire, the pipes, the rusty radiator elements, and the rolls of cardboard. To a man they all understood that from that moment a new life was beginning.
Virgil continued to ride his bulldozer, and not even two years had passed when, at the height of summer, at four o’clock in the afternoon on 16 August to be precise, the factory porter signalled him from afar that someone wanted him on the ’phone, rotating one hand next to his ear and holding the other in a fist next to his cheek.
He gazed at the little man in the hardhat and was amazed, murmuring to himself : “On the phone ? !” He had spoken on the phone no more than five times in his entire life, and that was only when constrained by circumstances. He climbed down from his bulldozer and put on his checked shirt. Then he set off briskly towards the cabin. From a piece of plastic a plastic voice asked him whether his name was Virgil Crîsnic. He would have liked to swear at the person on the other end, but he couldn’t swear at someone unless he was there in front of him. What’s all this ? He was calling him all the way from his bulldozer, which is to say he’d called him and no one else, just so he could ask him whether it was him ?
“Do you have a daughter, Ana ?”
He gave a start and everything became clear to him. In hospital, as they had been expecting, the girl had died. All those doctors ought to be strung up from the nearest lamppost. “Mr Crîsnic, do you want us to do an autopsy on her ?” “It was because of her heart, you know. A lot of stress. Had she suffered any disappointments in love ?” Just let Ghiţă come with the car to take her home. “She was a sensitive soul, apparently. Probably exhaustion… poor diet… little misfortunes… you know the kind of thing…” He would have to call on some of the women to prepare a halfway decent funeral. “She collapsed on the street, at a bus stop to be precise. It was crowded, hot… A man and a woman brought her. Do you recognise her ?”
The small, white face, the thin arms, the polka dot dress… He nodded yes. His huge frame began to shake softly, as though he were a child someone was trying to waken in the middle of the night without frightening him.
Some time later, he brought her home and summoned the relatives, few in number. The neighbours outnumbered the family. As it was torrid outside, there were whispers about having to bury her quickly. “Especially them with a heart condition… Yes, yes… The ones with a heart condition don’t last long…”
At the cemetery, the priest told him that he needed a death certificate, otherwise – that’s the law – he couldn’t bury her.
At the tribunal, they asked him for something from the doctor and for some fiscal stamps.
At the tribunal kiosk they didn’t have any stamps. Maybe round by the Youth Club.
Round by the Youth Club they didn’t have any stamps. Maybe round by the Hyperion Cinema.
They didn’t have any there either. There wasn’t anywhere in town that had any.
“Mister, you can’t find them anywhere, give me that document and we’ll try to sort it out somehow… You know… it’s so hot… ah… today’s the third day.”
The clerk, on his feet, short in stature, with grave incipient baldness, is leaning his palms on the sheet metal of his desk. In spite of the heat, his grey jacket is buttoned up to the top. He gazes sternly, his ashen eyes brimming with the importance of his position. That of functionary.
“Mr Crîsnic, I very much regret that I am unable to help you. It is against the laws of the land and my own personal principles. Moreover, if I proceed to do what you are urging me to do, it would mean prison, one hundred per cent.”
“Give me that document, I’m asking you man to man, I’ll sign for it, what the hell ? !”
“Mr Crîsnic, you are putting me in a very delicate situation.” (He shows signs of anger.) “If it’s not legal then it’s not legal ! Is this why we had a revolution, so that we could cling to illegalities ?”
“I can’t bury her in a field… like a dog… she’s a baptised Christian ! What am I to do with her ?”
“It’s not my problem ! I don’t know !”
“After I bury her, I’ll search the whole country for stamps… I’ll bring you them… and we’ll have done… we’ll have done with all of this.”
The gentleman in the office leaned over towards Virgil’s ear and whispered confidentially : “Don’t keep looking for stamps, because there aren’t any. They don’t manufacture the Socialist Republic ones any more, the stocks have run out, and the new ones are not on sale yet… I don’t even know whether they have printed any. Better bury her like I told you, in the garden and without a priest.”
“But she’s a Christian, how can I bury her like a dog ?”
“Then keep her in the house, to rot !” thunders the functionary, hitting a sheaf of files with his fist.
The relatives, under one pretext or another, had fled. Auntie Sanda was the last to leave, saying that she knew a trick with stamps from older documents, because that was what a neighbour of hers had done, who had just buried her husband. The stench had begun to creep down the stairwell, slipping under the neighbours’ doors. He did not dare lift the sheet from Ana’s face. A neighbour complained that the smell had become unbearable, that maybe it would be better if he took her outside, into the air. “Please forgive me, Virgil, but even the kids are off their food now !” Someone banged on the radiator pipes. Maybe the accountant lady or maybe the lathe turner from next door. He heaved the coffin up onto his shoulder and took it round the back of the block, into the field. He knew step by step what he had to do, except that he couldn’t leave Ana all by herself. He lit a fire of thistles, dried cowpats, and plastic bags. A bearded figure with watery eyes asked him if he could warm himself. It was Costică, he knew him, and had often even given him crusts of bread. He was out of his mind and lived on people’s charity, but at a pinch you could come to an understanding with him. He told him to wait there quietly for him and that he would bring him something.
He went behind the factory, to the pits. With a natural gesture, he wakened his bulldozer, which began to snuffle contentedly. He checked its diesel and stroked it. He told it they had business. “We’re fetching Ana and going into town. First thing in the morning, he’ll find her on his desk. Just you wait and see how happy he’ll be !” He gave it another two manly slaps on the crupper, mounted, and revved it up. Its whinnying sent a shiver down his spine. And the lever gleamed like a sword in the rays of the moon.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The author feels in a Chekovian and sees in Gogolian way, but the atmosphere of his prose is Kafkaesque ; micro-realism made up of post-modern pre-fabrications conceals abyssal dramas. Dan Lungu excels in capturing the awkwardness of minor failures. These are prose pieces about failed intimacy. His anti-heroes sporadically seek refuge in reveries, oneiric fantasy, nostalgia, complications, and chatter, but end up falling back into the safety net of the banal."
“As a prose writer, Dan Lungu is very convincing. ‘Hard’ and mature, with the knowledge and ability to construct a character, with a sombre vision of the world, which he expresses without too many concessions to the reader’s sensibilities, always trying to give his tales ingenious twists, so that the same reader will not have any reasons to get bored. Dan Lungu is a young prose writer of indisputable talent.”
“There is no prose piece in this volume which you can skip from boredom or which ‘arouses’ critical indifference in you. They are all written with a sure touch, in the register of a tempered realism, shot through (in their essential parts) with lyrical streaks.”
“One of the most provocative and artistically most accomplished books of short prose to have been published in Romania since 1990.”