Novel, ”Ego. Prose” series, Polirom, 2008 (2nd edition), 264 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Elijah Cazane Père is an insignificant individual, who, because he has the “gift” of cultivating huge tomatoes, finds himself under investigation by the Securitate – the secret police. His confrontation with the regime cannot but end in the typical fashion, when he is “accidentally” run over by a lorry. His epic tale is continued by Elijah Cazane fils, who becomes the protagonist of a tale in which he had seemed merely a secondary figure. However, it is the son’s role to bring to life Elijah Cazane père, and thereby sketch a portrait of Romania in the 1960s, a country that rests upon naivety, vain hopes, people created by the system, and also victims of the same system. Vasile Chiriţă, the former interrogator of Elijah Cazane père, is a highly important character in the novel, one unique in Romanian literature in the way he is constructed during the course of the narrative. Introduced into the story as a perfect representative of the system, with a “glorious” future ahead of him, the colonel begins to doubt his own values precisely after contact with Elijah and his marrows, and above all the gigantic one-and-a-half-foot-wide tomato he has grown. His ideological position gradually shifts, tending towards a mysticism that affects his work as an interrogator. From the shadows, he even ends up taking an interest in the fate of the now orphaned Elijah Cazane, helping him to gain a place at a lycée college in Bucharest. But it is precisely his penchant for mysticism – going as far as séances to summon the spirit of Karl Marx – that will prove to be the undoing of the secret policeman, destroying his career and ultimately presenting him to us as a man outside the system, interested only in the fundamental questions of life.
Beyond its political dimension,The Life and Deeds of Elijah Cazane is a subtle meditation on the human condition, an ironic look at events, if we think of the ingenuous relationship that develops between the son of the torture victim and the daughter of the torturer, and a historical excursus. It is a novel about a tragedy, a book that is masterfully controlled, extremely well balanced by fine humour, and full of meaning.
The Childhood of Elijah Cazane
Two things ought to be elucidated concerning the childhood of Elijah Cazane: the first is that, although everyone swiftly agreed as to the sweetness of the child, there were, however, certain divergences as to his appearance. Elijah could not be called a bonny child. Sweet, yes. But not bonny. The old man, for example, would have wished from all his heart for the child to look less like his father and more like his family, to have a smaller head, one not so bulging at the back, to have more regular and less lopsided ears, to have softer hair. (The capillary adornment of wee Elijah was developing evenly and spikily, with the hairs perpendicular to the curve of the cranium in whichever part they grew.) His grandmother, in her turn, would have wished for a grandson less ruddy in the face, more curly‑headed, with hair undulating down his nape. If his nape had been capable of fleshy wrinkles, it would have been even better. His nose should have been littler. The children in the neighbourhood were frightened of Elijah at first and did not want to play with him. Later, they accepted him in their games, in the role of the negative character. Since the recurrence of this practice quickly bored him, for a large part of his childhood Elijah preferred to wander by himself up on Elm Hill. Perhaps Georgeta too would have wished for him to be bonnier, for his wee legs to be straighter, and for them to be shaped less like light bulbs. In an old photograph of Elijah, one of those photographs that are held in high esteem in the countryside, inserted between the glass pane and frame of the wedding picture above the bed, the child is wearing short trousers (thus his matchstick legs are visible) and has an awfully large head. Of course, years and years later Georgeta Cazane abstractly nurtured the impression that the lad had been the bonniest in the world, and this is the distinctive way in which she wove her memories ; a fine powder with glitter that gleams briefly and then dims beneath the passing light of memory. In the background of the same photograph can be seen his grandparents’ apple orchard and, behind a narrow cluster of poplars, Elm Hill, slowly climbing and disappearing into the clouds. The clouds in the photograph heralded rain. The picture had been taken on 6 September, on his fourth birthday. In the yard, a middle‑aged man with a wasted face had shown up ; the skin of his cheeks sagged, like that of folk who have formerly been fat and suddenly lose weight in the wake of misfortunes. He had not said who he was or whence he had come. And in any case Elijah did not hear or pay any attention. He had been walking through the orchard scraping the fiddle under his chin. In reality, the man had introduced himself to Georgeta, who came out to greet him holding a large wooden spoon. Elijah peered into the yard through the fence at the edge of the orchard and saw his mother talking sadly to that man. He would make small, nervous gestures, then rest his hand on his trousers. The jacket was military, the overcoat not. But perhaps the trousers were too. He could not hear what they were saying. Elijah waited a littler longer to see whether something interesting might happen – it did not, the two of them were standing and staring into space – then he abandoned his lookout post and went on walking through the garden and scraping his fiddle. It should be mentioned that the fiddle, which was already a year old, enjoyed special attention on the part of the child. It is here that the second elucidation promised above finds its place. From a very early age, besides his unusual precociousness Elijah had also had a special gift for do‑it‑yourself. He would make stuff out of anything at all, he would knock together objects, he would invent other unfamiliar things whose purpose was known only to him and about which he would give no elucidation. Utensils would vanish from the kitchen : where’s the cheese grater, child, did you pinch the saltcellar, don’t you nick that ladle, you little devil ; and the whole family would find them in all kinds of assemblages with moving parts, to which the above objects contributed alongside bits of wood, bobbins, nails, and bent wire. The original form of the fiddle had been subject to improvements. In place of the nails that held the wires on the bridge there were now easily manoeuvrable bobbins. Of the four original wires, there had remained only two, for reasons unknown. The sounding box had been rounded by means of scraping with a knife, and upon it Elijah had painted, with whatever he had found to hand, hundreds of jagged lines. In short, the child had artistic as well as handicraft proclivities, which awaited development. With the fiddle in his hand, Elijah abandoned his lookout post when he heard himself called. He skirted the yard, so that no one would have an inkling he had been spying, and he came in through the gate with an innocent air, as though he had been playing on the road. No one paid any heed to his ruse. His mother was sitting sadly on the chest in the yard. The man, also seated, was staring into space. “Elijah, the gentleman wants to take your photograph.” Elijah did not know what a photograph was. Curious, but also worried, he froze to the spot with the fiddle in one hand, the bow in the other, his hair standing on end, and he gazed intently at the man who was rising to his feet, rummaging in his leather bag with the buckles, removing a rectangular black box with an eye in the middle, looking through that eye straight at him, and saying, “Don’t move”. “Stand still, Elijah.” “Don’t mo‑o‑o‑o‑o‑ove… now.” And he heard a clipped, dry sound. Elijah jumped. “All done. Go and play.” It had begun to drizzle. “Go into the house.” The man hastily put away his Zenith camera, promised Georgeta he would be back, and then looked at Elijah. “Do you play the violin ?” Elijah was hanging from the gate of the porch and swinging. The man bade farewell and with hunched shoulders left by the gate. Through the pales of the fence, Elijah could see him hopping to avoid the puddles, diminishing towards the end of the lane. He looked like a spider, because of the hood of his overcoat, which he had pulled over his head as he went. At the wayside cross at the end of the lane, he turned left and disappeared. Georgeta quickly pushed Elijah indoors and dried his head with a towel. Outside it had grown very dark. Grandmother came from the next room with a lamp, and made the sign of the cross. Behind her, grandfather, less timorous, looked at her with vague irony. Elijah was not afraid of lightning. He ran quickly into the lumber‑room, to be alone. He shut himself up there and began to scrape lugubriously on his fiddle. The old woman was aquiver, the old man too was giving signs of irritation, and only Georgeta sat in thought motionless. The darkness in the room was intermittently illumined silver, then, after the lightning had discharged, it became deeper and the blackness was superposed upon the crack of the thunder. In the pause between two bolts of lightning, Georgeta revealed to her parents the identity of the man who had photographed Elijah.
The rain was beating against the window, and through it, could be seen a distorted image of the ashen tumult of the poplar branches. Georgeta’s words appeared and disappeared amid the thunder like the prow of a rowing boat left to the mercy of the waves on the sea. “Elijah,” the old man shouted towards the lumber‑room at one point. The sounds of the fiddle ceased. “Come to grandpa. Come on.” Elijah gave no signs of life. “Wife, you tell him to come.” The old woman slowly went to the squat door of the lumber‑room and pressed the handle. In the darkness, by the ladder that led to the attic, a wee little creature could be made out. “Come on, Elijah.” The shadow advanced a little and acquired a certain consistency. The fiddle became visible first of all, because of its light‑coloured wooden box. Then the frayed brown short trousers. Thirdly, Elijah’s eyes. Lastly, the rest, rather purple. “Geto, the child was cold, come quickly, he’s like a duck’s gizzard.” “Elijah, what’s wrong ?” “He must have been frightened by the lightning,” the grandfather explained, without conviction, thinking of the unruffled sounds of the fiddle as long as the storm had lasted. The old woman opened the door to the porch and ascertained that it had stopped raining. “Geto, open the windows, the rain’s stopped.” She crossed the yard, went into the kitchen, and came back with a thick slice of bread spread with jam. “Take it.” Elijah was kneeling on the chest and looking through the open window towards Elm Hill. Then, lowering his head and leaning out, he looked at the grass at the base of the house. The blades were bowed beneath the raindrops. Gradually lifting his gaze, he saw that those in the orchard were just the same. At the bottom of the orchard, under the apple tree propped against the fence, Elijah observed how a droplet of water was running along the fine gutter of a blade of grass and saw the same thing further away, in the meadow where Elm Hill began. He climbed the slope with his gaze. Everywhere, water was quivering englobed into drops. At the top of Elm Hill especially, he espied how at the tip of a crocus petal a bead of water was dangling elastically, then fell to earth and was absorbed. When water dripped from the eaves, rapidly traversing his field of vision, Elijah turned his head and shoulders and stared up at the roof. “Elijah, sit still, stop jerking your legs and eat your bread.”
It is very hard to believe that the objections of Georgeta Cazane regarding the slightly comical appearance of her son were in earnest. The child had a sufficiently agile mind for his age, he did what he was told, he did not put on airs, he did not roll around hysterically like the spoiled little girl who lived three houses up the same lane, he was, in general, well disposed – a sure sign that he had no worms in his stomach – he had a hearty appetite for play and food. For example, on the memorable day when he was photographed, the activities of the little Cazane were as follows : he played all morning, he ate with qualms some hen soup after seeing his grandfather kill the bird and watching the decapitated fowl run around the yard – a typical scene that forever marks the subconscious of a child, which is why we often find it described in books – in the afternoon a man came and talked to his mother, after which he took his picture, which is to say he did not do anything to him, later it rained heavily and he hid in the larder, where, seeing the lightning outside, the idea of making a lightning machine for himself occurred to him.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“I think that it is now possible to discuss political fiction in the Romanian novel of the last fifteen years. In Răzvan Rădulescu, the emphasis is on the comical, on the inadequacy of the Securitate to the real world (a real which, in the order of this narrative, includes the fantastical!), exactly in the sense of the first chapter of Bergson’s book: the Securitate reacts like a comic mechanism, it investigates as though it were reacting mechanically. As though it had suddenly jumped out of a box.”
“When you know how to tell a story, regardless of where the action is set, you have every chance of becoming enchanting, as Răzvan Rădulescu is, and a success with readers.”
“An excellent novel!”
“The name of the author is today more resonant, thanks to the screenplays he has co‑written for films that have given a new face to Romanian cinema (Goods and Money, Niki Ardelean, Colonel in Reserve, The Death of Mr Lăzărescu, The Paper will be Blue), as well as his critically acclaimed novel Theodosius the Smaller. Elijah Cazane is a prose work such as there have been very few in the last decade.”