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Novel, "Fiction Ltd." series, Polirom, 2011, 400 pages
National Award for Prose - "Observator cultural" magazine
Matei the Brown is set in the period between 1945 and 1959. The novel’s protagonist, Bruno Matei, a Romanian puppeteer of Italian ancestry, is presented from two different perspectives, on two narrative levels. In the first, which unfolds in Jassy, a city in north-east Romania, over the course of the year 1959, he is suffering from partial amnesia following an accident, and is a free man, albeit constantly shadowed by Bojin, the secret policeman assigned to him. A relationship develops between him and the secret policeman, and a series of ‘mysteries’ regarding Bruno Matei’s past life are placed in circulation. As a diversion, the Securitate invents dramatic events in the main character’s past, events which obviously never took place, but whose sole purpose is to remould his present, to make him docile and obedient to the new totalitarian order.
Matei the Brown is the first purely fictional work to explore the communist prison system in Romanian literature.
Another five weeks, during which his cellmate was twice replaced, elapsed before he was at last brought to the room where the interrogator was waiting for him. And there, before the man in front of him had time to raise his fists against him once more, Bruno confessed. He confessed briefly, without being asked any question, without even waiting for the interrogator to open his mouth. Yes, he had known from the start that his two students were legionaries. Yes, he had suspected that Octavian, who had been the first to come to him for private lessons, and afterwards his friend Mihai, wanted to use the group in order to spread hostile, counter-revolutionary ideas. Even in his presence, the two had sometimes talked about the Captain’s (*1) ideas, trying to win him and his other two students over to their side. And yes, he too, Bruno Matei, was to a certain extent guilty, as he had not opposed those ideas, but rather, from a desire to hold on to his students, he had allowed them to think that he would be willing to support their line. This would explain the declarations made by the two legionaries, according to which he himself was the head of the entire organisation, and which had come to his knowledge via his own interrogator. This conclusion was also perhaps justified by the fact that, as he was older and more experienced, he had encouraged them, saying things that were otherwise innocuous, but which, as he had to admit, might also be interpreted differently. So, he was guilty, he acknowledged his own guilt, he begged forgiveness for that guilt. He had unwittingly fostered the idea that there was an organisation, but he could also say in his defence that, after the death of his father, under the pretext that he was in mourning, he himself had put a stop to the group’s activity, he had ended the so-called private lessons, precisely because he had grown alarmed at the direction things were taking.
The next morning, after yet another sleepless night, this time due to an impatience he could barely suppress, Bruno stood trembling in front of the door until it opened and the warder stepped into the cell. He let them put the blinkers on him without asking any questions, even though his first cellmate, the one from Tirgoviste, had been removed from the cell without being blindfolded. And not even when he heard the door to the latrine did he lose hope, thinking that perhaps this was standard procedure, that perhaps he would have to sign various documents, that perhaps the formalities of his release would last half a day, or all day, and so it was preferable that he should relieve himself beforehand.
This hope, albeit one that grew increasingly slender, gave him strength throughout the summer of 1949 and for the whole of the autumn that followed. Each day elapsed in exactly the same way. Reveille was at five o’clock in the morning. Seated on the stool or standing up, facing the peephole. Then the door would open and he and his cellmate would turn to face the wall. They would stand with their backs to the warder. They would be taken to the toilet. They would be brought back from the toilet. Face the peephole. The door. Face the wall. The first ration of food: a piece of bread and boiled beetroot juice. Hours passed sitting on the stool or standing up, facing the peephole. And finally the door would open once more. Face the wall. The second ration of food: cabbage juice, which he had not been able to stomach during the first days, the rancid stench had made him ill, but he had grown used to it in time. A few bits of pearl barley floated in the so-called soup. Then more hours spent sitting on the stool or standing up, facing the peephole. Again the door. Again face the wall. The third ration of food. The same cabbage juice. From time to time, instead of pearl barley, a few peas. Face the peephole. The door. Face the wall. The toilet. Bedtime at ten o’clock. Facing the door, hands in view, on top of the blanket. From time to time, the door would open for some other reason. Once a week, sometimes more seldom, they would be taken outside for half an hour, into the fenced enclosure. Otherwise, over the course of the summer and the autumn, the door opened only when a cellmate was taken away permanently and another took his place. Days that elapsed in the same way, over the weeks, the months. But during all this time there was not one day when he did not think that eventually, sometime soon, perhaps when he was least expecting it, the door would open for some other reason. For some completely different reason.
Sometime in early December, the warder roused him from his bed at one o’clock in the morning. And Bruno’s first nocturnal interrogation, although it did not conclude with a beating or any physical pain – an interrogation whose sole purpose was to introduce his new interrogator: a tall, broad-backed man of around forty, whose eyebrows joined together above his nose – put an end not only to his dreams and his expectations, but also his naivety, which, in various ways, had succoured him thitherto. Amid grammatical errors, vulgar words and menacing chortles, he discovered from the new interrogator that the declaration he had made in spring was good, useful, even interesting, but not nearly sufficient. That declaration was a start, he told him, but it was a start that must continue with ‘textbook’ confessions, and in those confessions he, the interrogator, who was ultimately a kind of priest, was expecting to hear the lost sheep of the flock, as he put it, “bleating about Patrascanu”(*2) to hear him “bleating about the group of damned legionaries” that he, the sheep, and nobody else had trained. And having said that, the new interrogator laughed, he told him that he could go back to living in clover the same as he had for the last few months, but that he should be prepared, because that night was “only the beginning,” and there would be others to come, and then yet others, until he yanked the very last word from his gob, as he wasn’t so daft as to waste his nights like that without getting anything in return.
During the first series of the promised nights, they beat the soles of his shod feet with a crowbar. And when the crowbar ceased to thrash his heels and toes, when he imagined that it was over and managed to staunch his tears, Bruno was lifted to his feet and made to run from one wall of the room to the other. Twenty times. Thirty times. Forty times. And as he ran the torture proved to be crueller even than the blows from the crowbar. Afterwards, once he was back in his cell, laid on the bed, the frost continued the work begun by the interrogator, transmitting the pain from his feet to his throat, and thence all over his body, a pain that was like a snake coiling around his organs, biting them, rending them, crushing his liver into his lungs, his lungs into his heart, his heart into his spleen, until Bruno felt that all his innards had merged into one, huge organ, burning inside him, suffocating him.
(*1) Corneliu Zelea Codreanu (1899-1938), leader of the fascist ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’, also known as the Iron Guard.
(*2) Lucretiu Patrascanu (1900-1954), former Romanian communist leader, who was purged, arrested in 1948, imprisoned, interrogated, subjected to a show trial, and finally shot.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The narrative structure is truly ingenious, and the composition, with its painstaking alternation of perspectives, gradually sheds light on the story in the first part in a wholly unexpected way. A great book.”
“This is a novel of man as a political animal, confronted by a totalitarian reality that modifies, confines and alters him. After Bruno is lobotomised by the regime, his mistrust of any other ideology, and even of any revolt or flight abroad, is telling. Bruno chooses to live in no man’s land. For this reason, the novel is a consummate symbol. Moreover, it is a courageous symbol, which is based on original reflection.”
“Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s latest novel, Matei the Brown, is also his most substantial to date. Besides constructing a remarkable central character, and besides its oblique but penetrating analysis of a very turbulent period – communist Romania in the 1940s and 50s, with the emphasis on life in the totalitarian prison system – Teodorovici succeeds in constructing an enviable narrative structure, revealing numerous directions for deeper reflection, at both the aesthetic and the ethical level. The perfectly crystallised style and the impeccable rhythm of the sentences round off this endeavour by one of the most important Romanian writers of the last decade.”