Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2010, 496 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
THE NOVEL DESCRIBES the fate of four childhood friends, who experience days of enchanted happiness in their grandparents’ village in the Banat and plan to cross the border clandestinely one night during the Easter of 1986. One of them stays behind and the other three are captured by border guards. The consequences are dire and will scar them forever. Two of the friends, Leo and Cristina, make another attempt to cross the frontier and this time succeed, later settling in Los Angeles. The third, Marius, follows them after the 1989 Revolution. Left behind again, Paul becomes an English teacher and writer in Jassy, where he studied at university. Poor and naïve, Paul places all his hopes in a literary scholarship offered by the enigmatic Mr Dunkelman. At the same time, his friend Marius, now a U.S. citizen, returns to Romania, seeking to take revenge on the border guards from that fateful night in 1986. Marius’ constant companion is a pornographic videocassette, Wild Goose Chase, which has a significant connexion with his life in America. Dunkelman and Marius arrive in Romania at the same time. They meet, just as Marius and Paul will meet again, for the world in which the four friends move is governed by laws other than that of chance. In this way, Paul will find out about what became of his three friends in America (Leo becomes a drug dealer, Cristina a pornographic film actress) and about the tragic death of their friendship. Marius will have his revenge, but he will not elude fate.
THE MEMORY OF THAT night claimed dominion over Marius’ mind almost by the second—the moment when the soldiers made him and Leo dance salaciously together and feel each other up, to the tune of Cinderella, by a band from Dobrudja, with the same name as the chemical paints factory in Timişoara, Azur, while the swarthy Marcel sang along, with the words
I know you by your pumps, Cinderella,
You’re the whore that humps, Cinderella,
I know you by your shoes, Cinderella,
You’re the whore that screws, Cinderella...
while the soldiers kept kicking the two frightened, dirty, tearful boys in the backside, the minutes in which Marius was made to crawl beneath all the benches and beds in the guardhouse, shunting a wooden suitcase in front of him, so that he could pass his driving test, as the sergeant informed him, the sight of Cristina being made to mop the floor with a greasy rag that stank of drains, on all fours, her head bowed, while the soldiers came up and felt her raised backside, pinched her thighs through her skin-tight jeans, and then one by one—the first to make bold being the very same swarthy Marcel—crouching over her and jerking suggestively, rhythmically bumping her uncovered, sweating back with the insides of their legs.
Cristina was weeping, with her head almost pressed to the greasy rag on the floor. The soldiers were laughing, and the atmosphere was becoming more and more inflamed... Marius felt it, too. Leo felt it, too. He had been taken to wash his face and come back with a black eye. They all felt it. And at one point, Marcel went over to Cristina, who was mechanically scrubbing the floor with the rag, frozen in the same spot. He grabbed her curly, now greasy and matted hair, and dragged her upright.
‘Ow!’ the girl cried. ‘It hurts!’
‘Up you come,’ the short soldier said to her. ‘Let’s give you something else to polish...’
The sergeant took a step towards him.
‘Marcel,’ he said quietly, ‘leave her alone. Let’s not get ourselves into bother.’
‘We won’t get into any bother, Dan. I’m not going to rip her,’ replied Marcel and grinned broadly, baring his teeth.
He grabbed Cristina by the shoulder and yanked her to her feet. Now it was clear that the weeping girl was ten inches taller than Marcel. The spectacle would have been comical if it had not been so terrifying. The girl allowed herself to be led away by the pint-sized kaki-clad soldier.
‘Where are you going?’ the sergeant asked, nevertheless stepping out of their way.
‘To the cell,’ said Marcel, grinning. ‘Where else?’
He set off down the narrow corridor that led to the tiny cell, dragging Cristina behind him. The girl followed with limp steps, as if it no longer mattered what happened to her. Marius, who was polishing some pairs of black boots, caught her hazel eyes, but they seemed empty. Maybe the shock had driven her out of her mind, thought Marius and he was filled with grief. He watched her disappear down the corridor, dragged along by the short, evil gypsy, he saw her white, mud-stained trainers, then her long, beautiful legs, bending lifelessly as she walked, as if they were made of rubber. After that, the soldier vanished somewhere to the left, into the cell.
A few seconds later, from the cell could be heard frightened gasps and whimpers, a resounding slap, and the furious voice of Marcel:
‘Put it in your mouth, whore of the devil! Put it in your mouth when I tell you to! Suck it, bitch, suck it!’
Marius and Leo rushed to the cell in that very instant. Three or four nonchalant soldiers, who had barely taken any notice until now—it was not the first time they had been party to such scenes—jumped to their feet to stop them. Leo, who was holding a broom, jabbed one of them in the face with it. He turned to the second, who pinned him in an armlock. In the meantime, Marius had reached the door of the cell. For an instant, enough to manage to see,
(Cristina is kneeling in front of the swarthy soldier, Marcel. A knife blade. His trousers are undone. He is savagely stuffing his penis in the girl’s mouth. Cristina jerks her head to one side. The soldier is grabbing her by the hair. He is tugging her hair and pulling her face toward his erect penis. He is yanking her hair, jerking it back and forth, forcing her to rub his member with her lips. A ‘short,’ as Marius was to hear years later. Large, round teardrops are rolling down the girl’s cheeks... and CUT!)
after which another soldier jumps on him from behind, felling him with a rugby tackle, so that he falls face down on the cement floor of the corridor.
From the cell comes Marcel’s voice:
‘Take care of those milksops...’
‘Dan, are you coming, eh? You should see what lips the lass’s got! A bit stubborn, but a craftsman. I’ll bet she’s polished a fair few truncheons in her time!’
Marius and Leo were sitting on a wooden bench, dirty and bruised. They looked like two sacks of rags dumped there and forgotten, although a soldier was keeping an eye on them. Their faces were streaked with blood and tears, and their clothes hung from them, rumpled, torn and split at the seams. The sergeant, Dan, had gone into the cell. Then another soldier. Then another. And another. All of them. Marcel remained within and was probably making sure that everything went smoothly. He was obviously enjoying the role in which he had been cast.
When at last he came out of the cell, the swarthy soldier seemed placated.
‘Come on, girl, wash yourself,’ he said quietly, dragging Cristina behind him.
Marius and Leo raised their heads and gazed after their friend. It was as if it was not she. Her face was ravaged and her eyes were empty. Her cheeks were red, furrowed by the trails of blackened tears. Whitish, viscous smudges covered her whole face and neck, they had dried in her dishevelled, now completely matted hair, and stained her t-shirt, a black t-shirt with a picture of Michael Jackson wearing a white jacket, from the cover of the Thriller album.
Later, when all three were huddled in the cell, not daring to look at one another, Marius heard from the other side of the door the melodious voice of Marcel, who was recounting that scene of which the young man from OraviŢa had only glimpsed a few seconds:
‘You should have seen the way she sucked... Crying and sucking. Crying and sucking. What else was I supposed to do with you, you pretty little thing, when you got up to all kinds of tearaway tricks like that? I could hardly shoot at her there on the border strip, could I? God forbid! What if I’d hit one of them? I’d have had a mortal sin weighing on my soul...’
One of Marcel’s comrades said something, but Marius did not catch it.
‘Like you say, Sile, but not exactly,’ Marcel went on. ‘She was better off crying her eyes out like that! It’s something else entirely to kill a man. Remember, Dan, when Miricã shot those two criminals last year, at Christmas? You wouldn’t remember Sile, because you weren’t here. You’re still a greenhorn. It was some German from Timişoara and his wife...’
Marius gave a start. Miricã: that was the name of that likeable Oltenian at the sentry post, the one he had met last year at the country fair. He had shown him the bullets from his gun. He had put them in his pocket and run back to the village.
‘Two weeks leave they’re giving me,’ Marcel continued to perorate.
‘A good job too, Marcel—you’ve got a long way to go!’ someone laughed. ‘No sooner do you arrive then you have to get on the train to come back!’
‘That’s right, mister Marcel. How long does it take you to get home?’ asked someone else.
‘It’s a fair way, greenhorn. I take the train from Timişoara direct to Jassy, and from there it’s another hour to Iacobeni,’ said Marcel. ‘Iacobenii Noi,’ he added, to be specific.
‘Iacobenii Noi,’ repeated Marius in his mind, as if learning it by rote. He lifted his eyes towards the small window of the cell, where a steak of ruddy light was visible. Day was breaking. The boy gave a loud, heavy sigh. In his chest he could feel a pain so great that it took his breath away. It was not a physical pain, but it had brought tears to his eyes. He looked towards Leo, who was sitting in a corner, at the end of the cell bed, with his head on his knees, his face hidden in his hands. At Cristina he did not dare to look. He could hear her breathing heavily, moaning and snivelling. ‘Sucking and crying,’ Marius remembered. ‘Sucking and crying.’
The prosecutors did not show up until around nine, in an Aro jeep: two prosecutors and a driver. They collected the three youngsters as if they were cutlets, taking them out into the yard of the military base. One of the prosecutors clapped handcuffs on them, like dangerous criminals. In that instant, Marius pictured himself in OraviŢa, in front of the Prosecutor’s Office, with his mother there to see him getting out of the jeep with his cuffed hands pressed to his belly. Although perhaps no one would inform her. There was no one to inform her.
He heard as if through cotton wool the driver asking someone, probably one of the soldiers:
‘Are you going to watch the match?’
‘I reckon we’ll win. We’re bound to win.’
No one mentioned what football match it was they were talking about. For Romanians, there was one football match that week: the final of the European Champions’ Cup. The day before, Marius and Leo would have rejoiced to remember the match and they would have been capable of talking about the Romanian team for at least an hour. But the night that had just passed had forever changed a large part of their perspective on the world and their way of judging things around them. That night of 4 May meant the last night of childhood for Marius. But the brown-haired kid—or rather erstwhile kid—knew for sure that it had been the last night of childhood for Cristina, too.
He climbed into the back of the Aro. Then came Leo, and last of all Cristina, whom one of the prosecutors gallantly helped to climb in. Marius squashed himself onto the narrow back seat and cast a glance into the yard of the military base. A platoon, under the command of a pasty-faced, unshaven lieutenant, were marching around in a circle on a raised concrete platform, singing with manly pathos a martial hymn:
We have a land, a task,
A mission to fulfil,
And if the enemy should ask,
Tell him, iron is our will,
And if the enemy should ask,
Tell him, iron is our will...
The door slammed shut, cutting short the song. The driver started the engine.
‘Everything all right back there?’ asked one of the prosecutors asked, turning his head.
Marius and Leo nodded, although nothing was all right, back there.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“It’s hard to find anything in Good Night, Children! that needs to be discarded, any contradiction, any oversight. The articulations of the text work perfectly. It was a sure hand that wrote this novel. Without doubt, it is one of the best novels not only of this year but also of the generation of prose writers to which Radu Pavel Gheo belongs.”
“A book about friendship, but also about the impasses of the ‘labyrinth’, Good Night, Children! is also about suicide. Or, to put it more clearly, a book that defines the uncommon vocation of a (still) young writer, Good Night, Children! is a landmark book for the beginning of the new millennium.”
“What has Gheo the mastercraftsman wrought? In the first place, a story, head to tail, with suspense and everything else, a breathtaking story that won’t let you put the book down. So, it is a story, and then there are the characters, the dialogue, the solid construction, everything required to make a ‘classic’ novel. But there is also something else, something which might, pretentiously, be called a premise.”
“Good Night, Children! is a novel you read with the same concentration with which it has obviously been written, and with the same pleasure that the author has put into all his books up to now. Of those books, this novel is his number one achievement: it is a pinnacle reached by a still young prose writer and an entire generation, whose problems it absorbs.”