Novel, "Prose" collection, Cartea Romānească, 2007, 456 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
In The Siege of Vienna, Horia Ursu realises a fresco of Transylvania after the Second World War – from the period of triumphal communism to the chaos of post-revolutionary transition – a novel of Central-European nostalgias, of the decay of a world with aristocratic roots. The characters – Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Armenians, who make up a multi-ethnic milieu, a harmonious Babel where linguistic differences are no obstacle to communication – are united in the pride of having belonged to a former empire and at the same time in their complex of dwelling far from the Centre, far from a Vienna imagined as a place of miracles… But not even Vienna is what it used to be: it is by no means accidental that one character in the novel hangs a copy of Franz Geffels’ painting The Siege of Vienna in the dining room of his modest apartment-block home. The whole world, in fact, is completely different from what it was half a century ago. The old social hierarchies have collapsed, and with them aristocratic values. A former collective-farm manager, the picturesque and frustrated Ignat P. Brînduşă, who since the 1989 Revolution has become a prosperous entrepreneur, ends up buying valuable paintings from the collection of a distinguished lady – impoverished aristocrat Alieta Ster. Likewise, the same genial and self-satisfied character, who believes his time has at last come, evokes in passing the decline of the family of Count Teleki after communist nationalisation. The author displays a fine and sombre irony : characters cut from the same cloth as Ignat P. Brînduşă lay their hands not only on the priceless homes and belongings of the former aristocracy, but even on their sumptuous and “well-sited” funerary vaults…
The Siege of Vienna is a novel that ought to place Horia Ursu among the important writers of Central-European literature, alongside Bohumil Hrabal, Jaroslav Hasek, Milorad Pavic, and Milan Kundera.
Apart from days off and national days, Sebastian Gavril Gheretă does the beat of the neighbourhood streets with a clear awareness of the importance of his mission. Besides a mailbag and a uniform, he is also equipped with a Simpson bicycle. In winter, he goes only on foot.
For today, he still has a newspaper and a letter left to deliver. That means another two houses. On his round, Alverna Sreet is, as they say, the end of the line. Those who live here are mostly old folk and solitaries. They are either childless or their children have left home. Pensioners.
Together, the spick-and-span front yards, the flowers in front of the houses, and the plaster gnomes dotted about the gardens strive with all their might to conceal the sadness and fear of death in the gentle eyes of the householders.
Whoever passes here daily will age more quickly. He ought to demand supplementary pay for toxicity, like the workers at the UPSA pharmaceutical works, and free Gerovital anti-aging remedies.
Many have been the times Sebastian Gavril Gheretă has intended to take up the matter with his boss. After all, he might be able prove that old age is contagious, like scarlet fever or chicken pox… You can prove anything. The main thing is to have arguments. And a vested interest, naturally.
It is true that folk are affable with him. Won’t you have a coffee, Mr Sebastian ? Some walnut jam ? A good cigarette ? I got a packet from my son today. Please take this bottle of wine. It’s exactly what it says on the label. This box of make-up is for your missus ; Christmas is coming. And they all ask him not to take them the wrong way.
Mr Horacsek repairs his bicycle for free. Mr Micu cobbles his shoes – only his work ones – for half the price. They all love him.
Didn’t Mr Zegrea say what dreadful isolation would engulf them all if it weren’t for him, the postman ? Mr Gheretă, you’re a vaccine against loneliness. You can believe me when I say this, because I know all about medicaments ! He believes him.
A good thing he likes his job. He treats the letters with exceptional care. With love, even. In every letter lies concealed a person. He dislikes telegrams. Even if not all of them bring bad news. Good news can cause misfortune only when it comes too late. He has met such cases during his career, for he is a career postman. Like a career soldier.
With letters it’s different. You see the envelope and you ask yourself : “man or woman?” without looking at the name of the sender, “young or old ?” depending on the writing.
Every detail counts: the form and colour of the envelope, the postmarks and, finally, the stamps. They all say something about the sender, but also about the recipient. Show me the letters you receive, and I’ll tell you who you are.
The “recommended” deliveries drive him mad. They can only be handed over on receipt of a signature. But some people are away on business, others are ill and in hospital, and others are well and truly deceased. How are they supposed to sign?
He finds Dionisie Precup in the kitchen, stooped over his newspaper collection. A few pots and pans on the stove at a medium heat. The cuckoo clock announces midday.
“Come over here to the bundle, Mr Gheretă!” calls Precup, raising his arms.
“I see you’re arranging your collection,” observes the postman discerningly.
“Not a bit of it ! See this notebook?”
“I see it.”
“Is it? Of what?”
“The things a man can find in a newspaper…”
“If he knows how to read one. To interpret one, to be more precise.”
“There’s no other way !”
“Interpretation is all !”
“Nothing can exist without interpretation !”
“Correct, most correct, Mr Gheretă. Let’s take an example.”
Dionisie Precup commences a feverish search for a certain page in the notebook. Gheretă unbuttons his overcoat. He gazes at the bundle of newspapers in amazement. Most subscribers use them for wrapping. Precup is an exception. He has wrapped his bread and bacon lard or salami in a muslin cloth embroidered with the initials P.D. Newspapers are neither hygienic nor aesthetic. And nor do they reflect the standing of a state-educated foreman, now retired, and exceeding patriot. A tribune, no bones about it !
“Is it something important, Mr Precup ?”
“Important ?” Precup gazed at his guest over his steamed-up glasses, which had fallen to the tip of his nose. “Vital, Mr Gheretă ! As you will see presently.”
Gheretă bent piously over the rather greasy notebook which Precup had, not without a certain pride, thrust to him from the other end of the table, but all he could discern were figures in two strictly aligned columns, beyond which only chance or an obscure logic could dominate. The figures at the bottom were the sum of those above and were inscribed more heavily, in red ink, providing an imposingly conclusive air.
“What arithmetic, Mr Precup !” exclaimed Gheretă, returning the notebook with undisguised respect.
Dionisie Precup smiled indulgently. He had been expecting such a mistake.
“Arithmetic, Sebastian ?” (He permitted himself to speak on first-name terms when his superiority was not only that of seniority.) “Life, Sebastian, life !”
“Life, life,” echoed the puzzled Gheretă. “But what’s it for, that’s the question, Mr…”
“What do you mean, what’s life for ? For life…”
“Don’t you understand ?”
“Wait and see !” In order to make himself more easily understood, Dionisie began to pace around the table, with his hands behind his back, his gaze fixed now on the ceiling, now on the pans. The even shuffling of his house slippers was a tone lower than the bubbling of the food beneath the lids. As though satisfied with what he could hear, Precup went on : “Since the beginnings of the press, the news has been divided in two : national news and international news. Correct ?”
“Correct, in a way,” murmured Gheretă. His eyes were slowly lighting up, like the earth after a total eclipse of the sun.
“The national news is of no concern to us, because it changes nothing. Correct ?”
“Even so, some famous person or other dies, there’s another decree, another law, another photo, a revolution…”
“With or without all those, we’re still back where we started. Whereas the international news… The international news is… how can I put it, Gheretă ? It is the salt and pepper of History. With a capital H, Gheretă !” Panting after so much effort, Precup came to a halt, solemnly raising his right hand to his heart, while beads of sweat broke out all over his brow like mute rounds of applause.
“History, which means… We’re sitting on top of a huge chunk of salt. Since Roman times… I’d never thought of anything like that, I can tell you straight out, Mr Precup, and it won’t be long before I reach retirement. We even export salt. To the Hungarians, for instance. Without our salt, their goulash wouldn’t be worth tuppence.”
“Leave out the goulash, Sebastian, and let’s get back to the matter of life,” said Precup curtly, visibly put out by the postman’s verve. Ignorant until a few minutes ago, and now here he is giving lectures on international commerce.
“Well said, Mr Precup ! That lot don’t merit our attention, even if they, if they could, would shove our salt, History and all, where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Gheretă was now sitting on a chair, clenching his buttocks slightly and thinking of Dózsa György, the Hungarian who led the Transylvanian peasants’ revolt and has a street named after him in Cluj.
“The international news is,” Dionisie Precup learnedly resumed, “like the heartbeat. Sometimes it slows down, which is no good at all, because without a pulse a man dies… Of loneliness, of boredom, of isolation. Look at Cuba, North Korea… Iraq.”
“Which is nothing we can complain about.”
“By no means,” Precup hastened to add. “The proof : in the last two years, the international news has increased by fifty per cent compared to the years in which it didn’t exist at all.”
“Naturally, Gheretă. And that’s not yet all : the news items from the West are more numerous than those from the East…”
“And since news stories are like heartbeats,” Sebastian rapidly deduced, looking consipiratorially into the eyes of the master…
“Exactly,” cried Precup, and placed two short glasses and a bottle of plum brandy on the table.
“And since without heartbeats, a man dies, it means that we… who are in the East… we have…” emphasised Gheretă, choked by the emotion of a self-evident conclusion.
“We have, Sebastian, we have!”
“A good thing the Lord provides, Mr Dionisie, because I for one had lost all hope.”
The glasses were full. Gheretă rose to his feet, grasped what was his due and, after making the sign of the cross, tossed down his glass.
He was preparing to leave when an unavoidable question brought him to a halt on the threshold: “Do the others know?” Gheretă whispered, looking around him cautiously.
“Everyone lives and dies in the world he understands,” said Dionisie Precup dreamily and extended his hand to the postman, without noticing that the latter, bent slightly forward, was with energetic movements adjusting the broad strap of his mailbag over his unbuttoned overcoat, whose crumpled skirt was hanging like a vanquished flag.
The smile and the outstretched hand were thus proffered by someone who, for a time, was sending out into the world his clumsy, although sincere and kind-hearted, ambassador.
A metal tooth gleamed for an instant in his upper left jaw like the bulb of a torch, a gentle, encouraging signal, and Gheretă at once understood that in his case there was no more place for etiquette.
“My question, because I still have one,”Gheretă lowered his eyes hypocritically, after removing his hand from the handle of the door on which he was now leaning, “My question, Mr Precup, is this.” He paused and cleared his throat. He felt very hot, a good thing he had not buttoned up his overcoat. He coughed once more and said : “Wouldn’t we know, even without interpretation ? Because it was on the television, live. There were dead people… We all saw it…”
“Listen, Gavril !” Dionisie reddened. His fingers were clamped to the metal tabletop in search of a point of support which, according to the opinion of Gheretă, a man who reads so many newspapers might have done without. With his eyelids lowered, standing motionless, he might have been a maypole decked out for May Day, as Gheretă said to himself, satisfied with the image as well as its suggestion of the cast-iron health, without which the host risked ending up with an unforeseen funeral.
“Don’t you feel well, Mr Dionisie ?” Gheretă asked barely audible. Maybe he was searching for the right words. That man must be wallpapered with words inside. A good few layers. He needs time to find the most suitable ones. As long as the circulation of the blood has not erased them.
The search seemed to do Precup good, for his redness returned to its place in the heart, like a dog retreating to the shade after barking at a stray passer-by in the midday sun, and his voice could be heard once more, clear, wise, but still upbraiding : “Since when have the dead been arranging your life for you? And then, how many were there in the end ? What, can a revolution be compared to a major train accident or air disaster ? Not to mention earthquakes…”
“Maybe it’s something else, all the same,” ventured the postman. “Over there, no one dies, apart from… Lord preserve and protect us ! Whereas in a revolution…”
“We don’t know why we are living, let alone why we die,” said Dionisie sighing. He was pleased by the sharpness of his thinking, which that daft postman was unable to fathom.
“Yes, that’s about right…”
Dionisie gave a start, unpleasantly surprised by the unexpected approval of Gheretă. Maybe he too had moments of inspiration.
“But the question remains,” went on Gheretă imperturbably.
“Did it happen or didn’t it?”
“Well, here comes the interpretation!” said Dionisie and thumped the table with his fist. The empty glasses toppled over, but no one paid them any heed because Dionisie was once again in the saddle of his favourite hobbyhorse. “It’s as though you were trying to answer the question of whether or not God exists.”
“Here it’s how you feel,” said Gheretă timidly.
“How you feel, the devil! Lord forgive me ! Mountains of books have been written, tonnes of arguments.”
“Do we have arguments ?”
“A good job we do !”
“Pro and contra or only pro ?”
“And contra, Gavril, and contra, because we’re living in a democracy !”
“Then it happened,” cried Gheretă happily. “It happened !”
“It’s well understood that it happened. But with a dose of the national specific.”
“What do you mean ?”
“There’s nowhere else like here !”
“Right ! Where else could you hear so many carols ? You know what Cain said ? ‘It was the most musical revolution of the century’s end, Gheretă ! God preserve you !’”
“You see that you understand ?” asked Dionisie wearily. “Even the enemies…”
“I understood before that, but could I say anything ? As for carolling, only in a whisper. If the Revolution hadn’t come, we’d have lost our voice…”
“And our folklore along with it.”
“What a sad nation we’d have been, Mr Dionisie, without folk ballads and songs of valour.”
“Whereas like this, the steak falls completely the other way up on Sundays and national holidays.”
“So, it did happen !”
“For me, yes. The foreign signs say yes.”
“The domestic ones don’t count, as you said.”
“No, because they are subjective : stray dogs, the nomenklatura, unemployment, corruption, incompetence…”
“What a bad state we’ve ended up in, Mr Precup.”
Dionisie was no longer listening to him. Next to the stove, with a coloured apron around his neck, he was scrupulously and greedily sampling now the soup, now the meat. The stewed cabbage had long been ready. The “purée” was still to come.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Horia Ursu reveals his real stature in this novel with a capital ‘N’, one of the most important prose works published in recent years. If I try to compare The Siege of Vienna with any Romanian novel similar in its epic structure, problematics and atmosphere, I realise that the precedents are consummately lacking.”
“My Christmas present would be a novel about which too few have heard : The Siege of Vienna by Horia Ursu. This novel, which absorbs its grandeur from the glimmer of little things, events and people, is an astonishing fresco of pre-and, above all, post-revolutionary Transylvania, in which the most powerful presences are the absences, the gaps, as the author calls them : the German gap, the Jewish gap, and, politically speaking, the Eastern gap.”
(Ioan Es. POP)
“A fabulous mythology of the periphery in general, but also a tragicomic parable of post-revolutionary Romania freshly rediscovered as a province of Europe, The Siege of Vienna is not only one of the most remarkable novels of the year, but also a book that consecrates Horia Ursu as one of the strongest contemporary prose writers.”
“After two decades, Horia Ursu fulfils the critics’ predictions and offers us a novel in which epic force, refinement of language, humour, literary subtlety, Gogolian openings toward fantasy, and narrative fluency combine in a dense, crepuscular beauty.”