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George Balaita


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Novel, "George Balaita" series, Polirom, 2011, 560 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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Seven years hence, Judge Viziru will arrive in Albala. He will be looking for old man August the hatter. He will find him: in his hen-roost workshop, as he calls it. Will he be any older? Who can say? The other old man, Iacubovici, will have died four years previously, a man who had seen plenty in his life, but who had always done the same thing: making trousers. Granted, they were trousers of all sizes and kinds: stout old men’s; tall, thin old men’s; self-important young men’s; middle-aged men’s, who hold in their bellies while you’re taking their measurements and ask for something youthful but not too flashy, well-pressed trousers that will show off their maturity and wisdom, as well as a vigour imbued with experience; shy and surly adolescents’, who produce from their pockets pages torn from illustrated magazines, make me a pair that hang like these; children’s, whose mothers lead them by the hand; sailors’; velvet trousers; dungarees; and how about some soldiers’ trousers, oho-ho, that’s more like it, old-fashioned uniforms, parade trousers and everyday trousers, with or without piping down the legs, colonels’, captains’, lots of lieutenants’ and even a sergeant’s or a general’s trousers, all the arms, the honour and the pride in the world concentrated in a gusset of the finest cloth, in the stripe of a pair of ceremonial trousers. But who will remember old man Iacubovici the trousers maker? He will be replaced by a dyer, which is to say, not the dyer himself, but the dyer’s assistant, the one who receives the clothes (and anything else capable of being dyed or laundered, because a dyer of course always deals in the other business, the laundering, not just the dyeing of whatever requires it, and not all at the same time), who will be a youngish man with bushy sideburns or a middle-aged woman with red hair – dyed, but not at the dyer’s – who will perhaps previously have been a cashier in a hairdresser’s or a tally clerk at a broom factory or a vendor at a bread or a soda water booth. Garments of every kind will hang from millions of wire hangers, behind a long counter, a carnival cloakroom, the dyed garments on the one side, and the laundered garments on the other, awaiting their owners, whose surnames are inscribed on a ticket, along with their forenames, addresses, occupation and everything else that the young man or woman – the elusive dyer’s assistants – might need to know about you, the citizen who has brought in an old coat. This will be downstairs, but upstairs, in the old attic made of planks, old man August the hatter will still be at work. There he will be, even if instead of coats on hangers there were a cobbler or a tailor and his apprentices or a watchmaker sharing a table with a man who repairs fountain pens and sunglasses. Old man August will be there.


Judge Viziru will climb the wooden stair. Perhaps he will count the steps. Eleven. The fifth reinforced with an iron rod. Were any of his old acquaintances to see Judge Viziru, he would say that seven years truly have left their mark on him. Old man August the hatter will unplug his electric iron. After the death of old man Iacubovici, the hatter will, at last, work with an electric iron. And the sole reason for this will be that, after Iacubovici’s demise, his apprentice also departed, the lad whose cheek was speckled like the throat of a starling and who was constantly sucking milk bonbons and who always saw to the charcoal iron of his master upstairs. Let it be well understood that you’ll never get all the creases out of a rumpled hat using an electric iron instead of one that is a million-odd years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Old man August the hatter will notice, without saying anything, that a head like the newcomer’s would suit a hat with a narrow brim. Perhaps even a hunter’s cap. A broad-brimmed hat would be completely out of the question. It might also suit the comical sort of nonsense they wear nowadays, a beret or a flat cap, but in that case what he is doing here, upstairs with me, this man who has the air of having just alighted from a train? This will be before he, Judge Viziru, can say: hello, I am Judge Viziru, I’ve never been to Albala before, I arrived in town half an hour ago, and old man August the hatter, looking into his watery eyes, eyes that are neither impassive, nor apathetic, nor weary, but sooner impenetrable, although even then, in the distant future, seven years hence, it will, as ever, be impossible to say anything much about the look in his eyes (it will only be possible to say words that have already been said: serene gentle wily malicious wise friendly, but when you observe the way he looks at you and listens to you, such words get jumbled up, you might think that from that flurry of words something new and true might emerge, one pure word to incorporate all the rest, you will be waiting, but nothing will happen, and once more you will see his watchful, benevolent eyes before you and words about what those eyes might mean), and so, looking at Judge Viziru, old man August the hatter will ask: how can I help you? Judge Viziru will say: can I leave my bag here? Certainly, the old man will say. An elderly man, he will totter forward, pick up the black travelling bag, which is chock-full and has thin metal handles, and place it on a chair behind his workbench. Then he will wait for the other man to speak: He will look like this: as curious as necessary, not overly deferent (in the end, he’s an old man, a grandfather, a great-grandfather), but polite, obliging (after all, he is an old-fashioned craftsman receiving a customer), displaying a reserved dignity, an all-encompassing goodwill. The same as he is today, seven years hence old man August the hatter will be wearing a rather long, slightly rumpled light-coloured coat with wide lapels, a waistcoat underneath, not very wide trousers, you might even say they are narrow, quite long in the leg, so that from his boots almost as far as the knee they are like a corrugated tube or a concertina or something of the sort. And what about his boots, with their bulbous toecaps, almost gigantic, you wonder how they don’t fall off his feet. Unless his frail body rests on the feet of a much larger person, perhaps those of the person who would have matched his huge, wily, gentle head. The colour of his trousers: never too dark, sometimes herringbone or checked. Sometimes he wears a loosely knotted scarf around his neck, the ends tucked into his waistcoat. It is not certain whether August the hatter, during Judge Viziru’s visit, will be wearing that handsome scarf about which father Antipa used to say: it reminds me of Jan Kiepura’s scarves. But apart from that, the old man will be the same as ever. You’re a bit of a madcap, a comedian, to dress like that! A strange sensation: with growing anxiety and disquiet the judge will wonder why he has entered, what he is doing there, in that improbable room divided by a wall of planks that looks like a ceiling and floor at the same time, not like a wall, why he is standing in front of that old man (who looks not only different but completely different than he has imagined, given what he has heard and what he thinks he knows) with the feeling that he has arrived in a familiar place, that the old man has been expecting him and knows him, and then, vague at first, but suffocating him in the moments that follow, a reality that all of a sudden seems perilous: he is a stranger there, he doesn’t know anybody, and that shrivelled old man with the huge head is hostile and mocking. Perhaps he has been fetched thither from a collection of garden gnomes. My coming here makes no sense, are the words that will perhaps pass through Judge Viziru’s mind, and he will wish to go back, to descend the wooden stairs, good day, I think I have come to the wrong place.


But old man August the hatter will say: your honour, as you’ve climbed all these stairs, it will be as well to ask me what you have to ask me. I have indeed come to ask you something, Judge Viziru will say. Unexpectedly, something in the old man’s voice and in his whole demeanour will cause him to feel awkward and to trust him. You’re right, he will say. I shall ask. But I’m not conducting an enquiry. I’m sure you’re not interested to know, but the only people who don’t conduct enquiries nowadays are the ones who don’t want to. I read the newspapers, the old man will say, I can see for myself, it must be some kind of fashion, rather like boating before the First World War. Yes, Judge Viziru will say, it’s the fashion. Looks like it’s one that’s here to stay, the old man will say. And he will add: this wouldn’t be about Antipa, would it? Seven years ago, I was a procurator in Dealu-Ocna, Judge Viziru will say.
I understand, old man August the hatter will say: the one man knows from the start who the guilty one is and the other man sets out in search of somebody innocent. The one man knows for certain, the other man gropes in the dark, I understand.
I’m having a long holiday at the moment, however. I was ill for a long time and, just when nobody was expecting that I would ever get up from my sickbed, I set off on my travels.
You must have done the doctors a very bad turn, a disappointment they’ll never forget.
And I’m here now in order to know. I have to know.
It is true that I am the only hatter in this town and perhaps the whole region, and it is also true that I am a good craftsman, although for a long time I have been doing the job of an apprentice, given that nothing else is in demand (nobody realises that I do the an apprentice’s job like a master craftsman!), but whatever else you might say, I’m just a hatter and that’s all I know.
And I know that you know.
When the judge and the procurator turn up, there’s also need of a lawyer. Or there ought to be. I don’t have one.
Antipa told me that you are like the town’s living chronicle.
Oho, your honour, you do have a way of putting things. I recall a nephew of mine, a teacher and author of school textbooks and stories for soldiers, if you will allow me.
I have to know. Help me. I know you know.
It’s getting late.
Not for me.
I’m sorry I can’t offer you a cup of tea. Since Iacubovici died, I don’t make tea up here any more. Our old water heater has conked out. Ask, I’m listening. Although time scatters (or gathers?) all things. What do you want to know?
It all started from a joke. Many years ago. What I would like to know is how far you can you take a joke. When they are very ill, religious believers pray with humility and in return for their health, they undertake to make sacrifices, offerings, as they say nowadays, to God. They keep their word. I don’t believe in God. But while I was wasting away on my sickbed, while I was dying and could hear the weeping and the plaints of those around me, I said to myself (was I praying?): let me live and then I will have to find out: how far can you take a joke? Without praying, I said: O Lord, help me to find out. I didn’t become a believer after I got up from my sick bed, but I have to find out, I have to. Perhaps this was the only reason I got better.


Oh, your honour, I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you how far you can take a joke, what a strange way you have of expressing this ideal of yours, how far, anyway, I don’t know how far, but what I can do is tell you a joke. A hermit spent forty years in the wilderness meditating. Forty years he lived there, eating nothing but roots and ants’ eggs and meditating. When he returned to the city, all the people crowded around him and asked: tell us, you must have found out in all those forty years: what is life? I found out, said the hermit, that life is a well. A well, murmured the crowd, a well. A well? wondered the city’s philosophers. They debated the question and the next day the most learned among them went to the hermit and said: we have thought about it long and hard, we have pondered all through the night, and we have reached the conclusion that life cannot be a well. How could it be a well? Very well then, replied the hermit calmly, life is not a well!
It doesn’t strike me as being a better joke than the one we told seven years ago. But I don’t want a parable. I want to know the boundary, how far can you take a joke, I want to know with my senses first of all, to be able to shout here, the same as when I stand at the edge of a river I know without a shadow of a doubt where the water ends and the land begins.
You won’t find out, your honour. Such a boundary doesn’t exist. You’re still young, if you will allow me.
Oh yes I will, Judge Viziru will shout. The boundary exists. It exists. It has terrified me without my ever seeing it. Now I am searching for it. I am not yet cured. I have to find out. Perhaps you are too old to know it, mister hatter, you come from long ago. Our times have discovered the boundary. Once I know how far and how much I have to joke, then I shall be rid of the fear. And then I shall be free and healthy.
When?
For the time being, I’m gathering the materials. Classifying. But I’m in a hurry. As if I were working under contract, to a deadline. Unbelievable as it might seem, it is as if had signed this contract with Antipa himself. And it is on his account that I have to get to the bottom of it all. You have to help me. You may not be aware of it, but it was I who made the bet with Antipa. Afterwards, Anghel and the others got in on it. Afterwards, but not much later, the joke took a monstrous turn. How? When? Why? I’m switching on the tape recorder. I’m listening. I’ve got plenty of time…


This is the conversation that will take place between Judge Viziru and old man August the hatter seven years hence. As they talk, the tape recorder mechanism will whirr continuously, its green eye will gleam, its spools will slowly wind. It will grow dark. Downstairs, they will shut up shop. They will shout upstairs: take care, old man August, fasten the padlock after you check the Yale lock. Yes, the old man will shout, and the tape recorder spool will conserve in its memory that meaningless word, takecareoldmanaugustfastenthepadlockafteryouchecktheyalelock. Descending the stairs after Judge Viziru (long after midnight, but not before he has offered him at a knock-down price one of the choicest and most elegant of hats, something that never goes out of fashion, like a dress coat or a smoking jacket), old man August will say to himself (shaking his head, albeit cautiously, so that it won’t topple from that slender neck of his, lopped off by its own weight): madmen, this judge, too, this Viziru, he’s a madman, young people today live in a world haunted by madness and their story will end in madness. But they’re sad and they’re comical, you need to help them with a word, with a tear, with some joy. As much as is possible! (In various situations, Antipa often used to use the same words: as much as is possible.) Judge Viziru will remain in Albala a long time. Investigating, listening, asking. Spools of tape and thin notebooks with yellowish densely written pages. In the final two weeks, the judge will live with old man August the hatter himself. He will appear satisfied with the results of his investigations. That is what he will call them: investigations. Three days before his intended departure, he will be run over by a sixteen-tonne lorry. A huge refrigerated lorry transporting veal to Italy. Carne dei Carpati. He will die on the spot, on the asphalt, on the ring road, behind the new stadium. Sixty thousand seats. Not far from the place where there used to stand the planked pens and sooty unplastered brick walls of the old abattoirs, where the whitish poplars ceaselessly swayed, and not far from the bank of the river where, not long after Antipa was born, the Poet used to walk, his hands behind his back, the deep pockets of his overcoat stuffed with all kinds of trifles, empty tins of unguent, coloured vials, hairpins, bits of string, shiny pebbles, corks, the tattered hem of his coat fluttering around his long legs, like banners of mocking madness. Since Judge Viziru will have nobody in the world (the two children will have remained with his ex-wife, from whom he will have separated a few years previously, etc.), old man August the hatter will keep the light-brown spools of narrow tape and the thin notebooks in a trunk. Insignificant objects that the deceased had not been able to take with him.

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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