Novel, “Ego. Prose” series, Polirom, 2006, 224 pages
The novel The Girl From the Oblong House is a cruel story about identity, destiny and what would be if… Three possible versions of the same love story which takes place in the communist Romania of the the mid 70s. A story with two teenager protagonists: Ileana and Stefan. Being 17 years old, Ileana is forced to take an important decision for her life – to keep or not to keep her child.
An impressive, spectacular, stylistically very well controlled novel. The narrative is structured in three parts, each related by a different voice. The first part is the novel of a little girl, Ileana, who lives a childhood full of misunderstandings equivalent to miracles. The second part, narrated by Ileana’s daughter, Ina, reconstructs the later life of the woman, from the moment she meets her future husband, Ştefan, to her finding consolation in the arms of a lover, due to her spouse’s brutality, and her subsequent suicide. In the third part, the narrative belongs to the young Ileana herself, still in high school when she meets Stefan during a holiday at the beach resort of Costineşti. Ştefan proves to be violent from the very first, but also capable of tenderness.
“Drunk again! You’re a waster and you’ll end up on the street.”
He remains silent and merely tries from time to time to crack a joke, but it never works with her. Better he go into the girls’ room. He gives Laura’s hair a tousle and then stays awhile on the edge of the bed in which Ileana sleeps. He starts telling her a story in which she’s the main character. She falls asleep with her mind elsewhere and in her dream she continues to hop around, wearing her dress with the flounces. She’s holding a doll with green eyes and black hair, she’s dreaming of poppies, millions of poppies, of fields that envelop her, and she’s floating. She’s a snowflake, a bird, a crocodile. As she lies on the narrow wooden bed, on which I, too, now sleep, she looks like a stunted, rachitic cherub. In fact, she is making one of her long journeys along frozen streets, she is floating in her ball gown, it’s the one from the end of year party, slightly altered: white with lots of flounces. And she dances until she ruptures the patent-leather shoes she got for Easter. However wonderful the warmth and the rustling of the material against her thighs might be, Ileana has never been able to get over the episode of rupturing the shoes. She starts and sits up suddenly. She has cold lacquered leather on her feet. Thousands of creases from all the footwear ever made in her grandfather’s workshop have sunk into her soles and she is having the same dream as on the night her father died.
In fact, it is a long dream that has been going on for years in a row, it keeps drawing her into its crevices, it drives her mad, it binds her up tight and then unreels her with the force of a yoyo.
It was when she was just a kid like me that Ileana lived the most.
One morning, she tried to paint on her eyelids the signs she had borne with her from overnight. The result was a stupid pattern, with a few straight lines and some round, phosphorescent scales. She went around the house like that for a while and kept frightening Laura when she suddenly closed her eyes, and she annoyed grandmother terribly with her scrawls. She got over it after a while, but she never knew how to reproduce the drawings from back then, although I asked her countless times at least to try. To remember, like she does with the skein of some song that it seems to me she hasn’t sung for a long time. All I need to do is tell her a word, such as “suitcase”, “felt heart”, or “bubble”, and she will ponder for a little, then begin to hum exactly the song I was thinking of but a minute before. They are like figurines which I cobble together, so that we can both play for a while. After that, neither of us can recall them.
Mother slowly opens the wardrobe and carefully removes a pair of white shoes, with rounded toes, which fasten with a strap. I think she must have shown them to me at least a hundred times, with the same excitement and the same awkward gestures. I look at her well looked after hands as she turns the shoes from one side to another, the long fingernails retract in an instant and I know that I shouldn’t ask anything more. She can’t believe she has grown, she can’t get used to the thought that this really is the last pair of shoes her father made.
Excerpt from Part II
From the evening when my parents met until they went to the seaside quite some time passed. Each had a short, nicely packaged personal history when they boarded the express to Constanţa.
It has been twenty-two years since they queued for tickets. Ileana still has a passion for those green pasteboard tickets, and so she has saved them in the notebook with the cherry-red covers, in which they are attached with glue by the corners. Sometimes, we would stop at the window of the ticket office and look at the apparatus with which the woman with permed hair stamped the date on the tickets. We would pretend to want to find out information about a particular train, just so that we could wait for her to open the metal cabinet once more. I kept asking Ileana her how many tickets could fit in there, but she would squeeze my hand and pucker her lips, and I would know that I had to shut up.
Ileana is mother, my childhood friend, the girl who invented the game of “jumping in front of the car”. I did not tell anyone about the tingling I felt when we crossed the road at a run and held each other tightly by the hand. We would wait for the pedestrian light to turn red and, as a rule, watch for the oncoming car with the greatest speed. The first step was like in a dream, the word “now”, which she said for me, would be fluttering somewhere behind us. It had been left behind and we were stepping onto the asphalt. The air became thick and dusty, and so the roof of my mouth would always be so dry that it was if I had swallowed a cork. We would be at about half the height of the windscreen when our feet landed in unison on the roadway. I would have liked to preserve that leap because I thought of myself as the greatest and most courageous ballerina. I glittered so brightly that the windows of the car could have shattered into tiny pieces. Each time we would flee the scene, nothing had happened to us, but we had to hurry, the pellicle of madness might melt in an instant. Mother then used to laugh like a crackpot and she would say no more about it. She always used to ask me how I felt and my wrist would be hurting from having been wrenched and I thought that one day my arm would separate from my shoulder and I would be spread like a pancake over the zebra crossing, and instead of cherry jam drops of blood would ooze.
I was scared of that stupid game and, if I had told Stefan what Ileana was teaching me to do, I think that a huge argument would have erupted; he would have gobbled us up snowflakes and all.
My parents were certifiably insane and ought to have been sent for treatment as a matter of urgency. They preferred to make our lives hell, to display a smattering of normality, to pummel us mutely in the evening, and to count the bruises on our bodies in the morning, each in his own corner.
Excerpt from Part III
I couldn’t believe that my childhood friend knew so many things about instruments of torture. She explained to me how to get rid of a pregnancy, and my eyes boggled so sadly that, had she looked at me, we would have both burst into tears. And we would never have stopped.
“I spoke to Dr Mureşan and we’re going to his house. He’ll put you on the kitchen table, he’ll take a curette in the shape of a spoon handle, and after that you’ll be free to do whatever you want.”
I had already started to tremble by the time Missy came to the technical details:
“Better I don’t scare you altogether.”
I insisted; I wanted to know what was in store for me:
“Come on, tell me! What does it matter?”
“After that, the curette keeps bashing the pregnancy in the uterus until it breaks…”
The mad din of shattered rock was already resounding in my ears. Slivers of flesh were gushing everywhere and I instinctively raised my hands to my eyes.
Ina has grown weary. She is sitting nicely in her nest and doesn’t know what is in store for her. By this time tomorrow, she will have been gathered drop by drop in a chipped enamel basin. And she will try to hide. To escape from the hands covered in rubber gloves. I promised her things and I’m not going to keep my word. The penguin with the orange beak will gather dust and remain for a long time in the window of the Sadoveanu Bookshop, amongst the colouring books and the waterproof bags, and no one will buy it.
I met Stefan in front of the Hotel Modern, we went into the lobby and he couldn’t unglue his eyes from me. He hugged me I don’t know how many times and kept asking me:
“Do you need anything? Ileana, tell me what I can do to help you!”
He smelled vaguely of brandy, enough to make me remember how he acted when drunk. It was as if he had grown and he was still very dear to me. I had imagined so many things about us ten or twenty years from now that I no longer needed any other reason. I felt like asking him:
“What do you want me to tell you about Ina? Do you think I made some kind of mistake?”
The exchange was like this: I gave him the ruby ring and he handed me some money. I didn’t count it, but it must have been enough for me to pay for the abortion. I set off home on foot, with the hundred from Stefan in my pocket.
“It’s five to four. Look how quickly we’ve got here!”
I’d given the money to Missy, so that she could take care of that part, and now all I had to do was quite simply to go in. Two steps, and that would be all. Missy comes up to me, she takes my head in her hands, she brushes my hair behind my ears and she kisses me on the forehead – with lips that are burning hot! Barely do I have time to come to my senses when the door opens and I find myself pressed up against a coat rack, which is about to collapse on top of me. Through my sandals it seems to me that the linoleum here, which imitates parquet, has lately been washed with some sticky substance that has not yet rubbed off. Missy has vanished from the doorway, I hear her voice and I try to catch up with her. I only managed to glimpse the outline of the women who opened to door to us, but I registered that she had a short-sleeved cotton gown that came to below her knees. They went off together and left me with merely:
“Stay here, on the couch, until we get the table and the instruments ready!”
The television is turned down low and the man on the screen is moving nothing but his lips. I am alone in a dining room stuffed with furniture and I would like to go to the window. The table in the middle, with four high-backed chairs, makes me change my mind in an instant. In any case, the windows look onto a large, closed balcony. And there is no air at all in here. When they came into the room I was standing up. Missy took me by the hand:
“Come on, we’ve to go into the kitchen, because the doctor is calling us.”
The woman in the navy blue gown followed us:
“Poor girl! You know, the first time is the worst, but after that you learn. What the hell are we supposed to do, whelp like rabbits, like those brainless men would want?”
What rabbits? O, Lord, why can’t it be over already?
I hear Missy, with her motherly voice, and I give a start:
“Auntie Vali, what a good job you’re helping us. I know that Adrian’s right, if she’d said earlier, maybe it would have been easier. But she was scared…”
“Don’t worry about it, dear, we get desperate women coming every day begging us to save them. We can’t sort all of them out, only acquaintances. You yourself know all too well from your mother how it is. What are you going to do about nursing school, have you given it any thought?”
Through the net curtains of the open door I saw Mr Mureşan: greying, wearing a blue shirt and brown trousers. He was standing with his back turned and he had placed something on the flame of the gas stove.
“Come on, Vali, get a move on, otherwise we’ll be here all night! What the hell are you doing?”
The woman span round like a top, placed one stool on top of another, and rummaged in a cupboard for a packet of cotton wool and a bundle of towels. The doctor was still minding the gas stove, but because we had all fallen silent, he turned his head toward me and said:
“Let’s see what we’ve got here… Tell me, why did you wait so long like a silly cow? If you saw you were late, didn’t it enter that pretty head of yours that you’d end up with your belly up to your ears…”
It was impossible for me to catch what he was saying, I understood each separate word, but I couldn’t for the life of me put them all together. I was being dismembered; nothing could keep my arms attached to my shoulders and my legs to my hips.
“Mr Adrian, please… I promised Ileana that we’d help her, because we know each other, and now…”
“Look here, Missy, I’ve known you since you were born! It won’t be long before you’re spreading your legs here, too. And then what will your little ears hear… What can I say: you all start getting sensitive when you end up here with me! What, isn’t my arse trembling in case they come to the door and arrest me?”
Vali made a sign for us to leave him in peace. Missy looked at me with eyes from which now and then dripped huge teardrops, and because we were sitting pressed up against each other, leaning against the same wall, I could hear them as they pattered onto the pattern on the linoleum. I was trembling from every joint when Mrs Vali took me by the arm and led me to the table.
“Come on, hitch your skirt up and climb onto the table! Or better still take it off altogether so that you won’t get it dirty. Missy, go to the bathroom and fetch a towel to cover the girl up, so that she won’t get cold.”
I climb onto the kitchen table in these people’s home and my bottom sticks to the cold waxcloth. I don’t know how I should seat myself, but they’ll tell me.
Missy brings a towel and covers me from the waist up. My legs are dangling like loose threads, and she is squeezing my hand and saying:
“Hold the towel between your teeth so that you won’t bite your tongue from the pain. And so you can scream when you can’t bear it any longer.”
“I don’t want to hear a peep out of you! Otherwise, I’ll leave you with it half done and hallelujah…”
Someone raised my legs, the man was telling them how to seat me so that he could see the better. There is a desk lamp stuck to my midriff. It’s the only warm thing in the room. I’ve clamped my teeth to the edge of the towel and this is the first time I’ve really thought that I’m going to die and that I’ll undergo all the tortures of hell there. The doctor has thrust his hand into my belly and he presses until I gasp for breath. He speaks with Vali, asks for something from the stove. There is nothing for me to do except wait and count as quickly as I can. From my waist down a pit has yawned open and my skin gives way. It stings and I want to spew out my innards once and for all. But I can’t, because they’ve pulled them all out and spread them over the table. They’re rummaging through them with a grater with tiny sharp teeth. He’s trying to reach the wee lump of flesh that has to be minced until it separates and tumbles into the basin by my legs. My mind goes no further, I inhale and bite the fluffy towel with which they have covered me, but I let out a whine too late to realise it. I let it out and as if in a dream I hear the man snap at them:
“These abortions, it’s as if they know what we’re doing to them, look at this one here, how it flinches, the devil take it…”
When I opened my eyes, he was cursing his lungs out, and Vali kept slapping me. I had a vinegar-soaked rag at my nose and there was a thick puddle by my feet. They had trodden in it and prints from their slippers could be seen everywhere. I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t. I’m still registering something, but I’m caught between two hooks that are dislocating my organs. I breaking through to the other side, I can no longer restrain myself, and the pain elongates and comes out of me, swaddled in a scent of fresh blood. In my ears there is only the sound of cutlery and clashing shards. He has gripped the first chunk of flesh, but he can’t manage to rip it out, and so he yanks it once again.
“Listen, that’s all you need, to play some trick on me! Come on – take her away! I’ve had enough for one day. Another two like you and I’m giving up this game!”
They set me down and dragged me to the bathroom. I slipped next to Mureşan, who was soaping his hairy hands in the kitchen sink. They had cut me into pieces, and these two women were trying to stick me back together again.
Vali propped my bottom against the edge of the bathtub and turned on the tap. She wetted a sponge and started cleaning the bronze-coloured crust off my thighs. Missy filled her fists with water and, as she sprinkled my face, kept screaming hysterically in my ear:
“It’s over, over, at last…”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The success of The Girl from the Oblong House resides in its powerful poetry of evocation, memory, and the phantasms of all the characters, who are nothing but avatars of one and the same eminently feminine voice. All that I can hope is that henceforth this cruel, strange and highly original novel will bring Ana Maria Sandu recognition as a writer of the first order.”
“With this unexpected and dense novel, the authentic and highly personal poet of up until now has become one of the most original and interesting prose writers in our literature today.”
(Simona SORA, Dilema)
“I venture to say that The Girl from the Oblong House is a novel that sometimes attains the sincerity of poetry. It is a novel about women and with women, with masculinity being represented, more often than not, by grotesque characters, by monsters or clawed rapists, by drunkards or brawlers.”
(Bogdan ROMANIUC, Suplimentul de cultură)
“The The Girl from the Oblong House is a remarkable musical score, in which the pen of poet Ana Maria Sandu encounters her authentic vocation for psychological fiction.”
(Bianca BURŢĂ-CERNAT, Observator cultural)
“The drama/trauma perpetuated strongly individualises this poetic, hallucinatory, sophisticated and ‘feminine’ novel. It is, without doubt, one of the best novels of 2006.”
(Adina DINIŢOIU, Observator cultural)