DOROBANŢI SQUARE WAS BLOCKED off by trucks. You could no longer cross the square by car. They were a means of protecting the national television station, which was broadcasting from the building beyond them, next to Aviatori Square. Four gigantic trucks, including two tankers, each flush with the next. Nothing could have budged them. I remember it very well, because I hid underneath them twice, when the shooting started.
That morning. A warm, unreal Christmas morning. You could go out wearing just a shirt and denim jacket and not be cold at all. It was as if it wasn’t winter. It was much easier to flee if you were wearing light clothing, above all when the shooting started and you wanted to take cover. When you heard the machineguns opening fire behind you, or above you, or alongside you. On 23 December I saw the Central University Library in flames. It was also on 23 December that I came close to getting shot, on one of the side streets next to the television building. I heard the bullet ricochet off the wall. Against the wall. I know the sound of lead smashing into stone. You see the dust from the wall flying every which way. Not far. Chaos is what it looked like to me. No, I wasn’t going anywhere in particular. If it had happened, it would have been an accident.
The Socialist Republic no longer existed. In fact, nothing existed for the time being, apart from the air filled with bullets and the streets filled with people.
For two minutes there had been no more shooting. I emerged from the stairwell of a block of flats, where I had taken shelter with another twenty people. I peered outside. I knew what I had to do. I headed south down DorobanŢi Way, towards the university.
All of a sudden, I saw him.
All of a sudden.
I saw him in front of me.
It came as a shock. It was as if he had slid through a mirror and materialised right there on the boulevard, emerging from silvered depths to meet me. He was wearing a greyish-blue uniform, one that was all too familiar because I myself had worn it for nine months, up until 3 July 1989. I had the feeling he was wearing the very same uniform as I had once worn. Against all military regulations, his head was bare, without a helmet or cap, and he was swinging his rifle in one hand beside him. He was slightly taller than me and his face was very drawn, maybe from a lack of sleep. I was a few paces behind him and I could see him wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve, as he slowly walked down DorobanŢi Boulevard, without any platoon, without any commandant, but with the distinctive insignia of the unit where, a few months previously, I had done my military service... The one detail that set him apart from the thousands of soldiers dispersed throughout Bucharest, who were fighting terrorists to save the Romanian revolution from fanatical counter-revolutionaries, was the blue and white squiggle of thread on his epaulette, which indicated shorter length of conscription. I knew very well that in the whole of Bucharest there was only one platoon with reduced length of military service and whose soldiers wore greyish-blue uniforms. The young man in front of me is thus a kind of brother, a comrade in arms, but he would never recognise me as such, not the way I look now. I am a civilian. I no longer wear boots with ferryboat toecaps and clamped tightly around the ankles. I no longer wear a grey-blue cap. I’m wearing my white trainers with blue stripes, my faded jeans and my East-German jacket. I’m proud of it: I was wearing it on the day I got out of the army. I’m caked with dust, if not mud, from when I threw myself to the ground in DorobanŢi Square ten minutes ago, when, from the tops of those buildings, they opened fire on us, the few hundred of us gathered in the square. It was the third time in three days when they opened fire as I was crossing DorobanŢi Square. I reckon they must be shooting at the Caragiale Lycée. Yesterday, I photographed the windows, naturally, but I don’t have the film any more. They confiscated it from me at a checkpoint near the university. They searched my pockets and found my Smena 8 camera. They removed the film. I would photograph this brother of mine in blue-grey, but I left my camera at home.
It’s chaos. And yesterday it was the same. As I was saying, it’s hellish. After they removed the film from my camera and rummaged through all my pockets, I left it at home. I don’t have that film any more. I don’t have any way of proving anything from my story. The only film I have left is the one inscribed on my retina. What did I see? How we ran when the shooting started? Or the young man who got hit by a bullet and whom the crowd put in a red Dacia car, his leg bleeding profusely? The car sped off in the direction of the Emergency Hospital, veering to avoid another Dacia that had been flattened by a tank. Only my memory. Only the images in there. I have no proof. Let’s say it is all a fiction.
I was there.
Now I need to get the university at any cost. Two days ago we started drafting the statutes of the new League of Students. In fact, I was the one who wrote the first draft. I made history. After that, they started to tinker with it. They took a vote. They went through it with a fine-tooth comb. The text started to expand. It changed. They tossed it in the bin. Then they took it out again. Apparently, we are going to resume work on it at ten o’clock this morning. If I ever get there. If not, they’ll discuss it without me. Let them talk. I helped them shift the discussion from empty words to written text. It was I who helped them to be precise. There are moments when it seems to me as if the beautiful new world cannot be born without me. Even if they flay my hide for it. I am no longer afraid. After two days of being shot at and seeing other people get hit, your fear starts to fade a little. You make an end to your reckonings and all you wish is not to scream when one of the bullets whizzing around Bucharest at random hits you. I’ve thought about it. If the fates pick you, it’s important not to make a spectacle of yourself with pointless writhing about. It’s a matter that depends on a calculation of probabilities. But to moan... It’s impossible not to think about it. Yes, I know. Now I am there, on the street. Bullets are flying every which way, randomly. I run my hand over my freshly shaven cheek. Yes, of course. I shaved and made the sign of the cross before leaving the house. As they say, the devil knows.
The scene reminds me of that morning in January 1989 when I went for a walk in Bãneasa Forest with Cristi. Cristi, my brother-in-arms from the army, that helpless child dressed in a soldier’s uniform, a uniform that hung from him like a carpet left out to dry on a fence. We weren’t allowed to walk along the road. Only the cadres could walk there. There was a password. And so we were walking through the woods, parallel to the road. The military police could only have stopped us if we had set foot on the asphalt. No problem. Let’s go through the woods. Bãneasa Forest, dense and wild. The sludgy snow, like a white swamp. Like a welcoming soup. Just thirty metres into the woods, no one could see you from the road. Cristi said, ‘Let’s go that way.’ He pointed to where you could emerge on to the main road from Bucharest to Ploieşti. From there, a hundred metres to the south, in front of the Meteorological Institute, there was a bus station. You took the bus for two stops, and then you reached the main bus station in Bãneasa, where the no. 131 has its terminus. Yes, the very one, the famous hundred ’n’ thirty-one, which takes you to the Caragiale Lycée. For, I was a Caragialist. The hundred ’n’ thirty-one bus is my homeland. It takes me home. When I’m on home leave.
I am looking at the soldier who is walking in front of me. He has a strange, groggy gait. I suspect he didn’t sleep last night. Because there is a revolution, and the Socialist Republic no longer exists. I slept for a few hours, in my own bed, at home. I slept like a baby, for about three hours. I don’t think it was longer than that. After I got back from the university, I slumped in front of the television. There, on the cushions, all unawares, exhausted, terrified, I sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. A sleep like death, profound and black. There was shooting in DorobanŢi Square and it was clearly audible from my bedroom, although it is a long way away. Our block of flats is tucked away down one of the side streets near Floreasca. There was silence in our district. I slept with that noise in the distance, in my father’s bed, because I thought it would be more sheltered if they started shooting at the building. Ideas. You get to thinking: if they start firing their machineguns, which part of the building will they hit first? It’s a good job they build using reinforced concrete. Inevitably, you look around you and wonder whether you would be exposed if someone started shooting from a rooftop or other, whether your window and your position in bed allows three collinear points out of all the bundles of possible angles. There you have it. An unexpected application of Menelaus’ Theorem, inside your retina. A section through multi-variable reality. You picture in slow-motion the bullet nearing your flesh, gliding along a ray, crashing through the window, shattering your flesh and bursting your veins, entering house and mind, ka-boom. They say you hear your eardrums popping. If no such trajectory exists, then you can sleep peacefully. You can even fall asleep while exposed to unknown potential trajectories. I know that, too. It’s possible even to sleep on the front line of hazard. Anything is possible in this world. And sleep is capable of anything.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth