Novel, Cartea Romaneasca, 2011, 416 pages
Copyright: Cartea Romaneasca
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
In the nineteenth century, the young Kostas Venetis, who spends his childhood as a novice in a monastery in Greece, undergoes a spectacular transformation: a demonic invert (with the hauteur of a Nietzschean superman), he travels through colourful worlds, experiencing the squalor and fascination of Istanbul, the picturesqueness of Bucharest, the effervescence of revolutionary Paris, the splendour of Vienna, and the melancholy of Venice, mingling with all social classes, from tavern dregs to the nobility. His descent into Evil, in which sodomy and intertextual play, violence and exquisite aestheticism, cabbalism and conspiracy theory, fiction and historical fact, murder and the Oedipus complex all combine to form a narrative of initiation masquerading as a thriller, situating The Life of Kostas Venetis in the tradition of the nineteenth-century decadents.
Kostas took another sip of wine, sat lost in his own thoughts for a while, his chin lowered to his chest, and then continued his tale:
Not far from our village there was a monastery dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Built upon a rocky outcrop, the monastery was a gloomy sight, more like a conglomeration of ramshackle masonry, from the middle of which bulged the rain-streaked cupola of the church. The church was hundreds of years old, with smoke-blackened, flaking frescos, and even at the height of summer it was as cold as an ice factory.
I used to go there to attend the liturgy on feast days, and it was also there that I took communion four times a year, according to the canons of my religion.
On the eve of the days when I went to church, they would bathe me, delouse me, and give me clean linen. In the morning, I would put on my holiday best, which father had bought in the city. My clothes, which gave off a pleasant scent of lavender, used to make the neighbours’ lads look at me enviously. I had to take great care not to blotch them with candle wax or snag them on the rusty nails that protruded from the rickety woodwork of the choir stalls. Father too would dress in his town clothes, donning a handsome jerkin and a dapper fez, which were not at all in keeping with his rough-hewn face and thick, drooping lips. He went to church every Sunday, and after the service he would linger for a long time in the cell of Father Makarios, who was the monastery confessor. My mother used to go very rarely, however, only on the highest feast days, for she was not at all pious, for which reason the village gossips used to say that she was in league with the devil, whose private parts she was supposed to kiss every Saturday night, to instil her with the power to tempt their menfolk. They also used to say that she had the power to bereave a man of his virility, that she knew how to make a cow’s or a sheep’s udder turn dry, and that by uttering certain spells she could fetch swains to her bed sheets astride broom shanks or wooden spoons.
I have no idea whether my mother really practised witchcraft, but it was true that she had no time for priests or the church, and she never kissed either the hand or the stole of Father Makarios. My father used to blush with shame and humiliation whenever the priest came to our house with the icon (for, our village had no other church than the one at the monastery), and my mother, if she did not manage to hide away in some nook, would make the sign of the cross in haste, pretending not to see the white, body hand extended for her to kiss.
And this is all the stranger, my son, given that the women from my village used swarm around Father Makarios like flies.
The priest was a young man in his prime, with skin as white as milk and eyes the colour of chestnuts. He had the voice of an angel, and many times I heard it resounding like a trumpet in the chilly monastery church, as the priest’s eyes fulminated with fury, for he herded his flock with great harshness, constantly demanding that they repent.
In those days, I did not understand much from the sermons of Father Makarios, and I always used to feel drowsy in church. During the liturgy, my father would kneel and bid me to do likewise. The stone floor of the church gnawed at my knees, my spine grew stiff, it was increasingly hard to hold my back straight, but I strove with all my might to imitate my father, not from piousness (for at the time I had less faith than the dirt under my nails), but from pride. I battled sleep and tried to keep my eyes glued to the stern countenance of the priest, whose face, haggard from fasting, resembled those of the saints in the icons. The old women from the village thought I was very pious. They would pat me on the head, and at the end of the service they would stuff my pockets with wrinkled apples, stony bread rolls, raisins and locust beans. They also always used to give me the little cups of sweetish wine they brought to the church as libations for the souls of the dead.
One day, Father Makarios told Brother Minas, an elderly, gentle monk, to teach me how to beat the rhythm on the xylon, the wooden board whose muffled clatter summons the faithful to mass in Greek churches. Brother Minas proved to be a worthy teacher, and I quickly learned the skill. In a short while, I even became so adroit that it brought a wan smile even to the face of Father Makarios. It was then that he patted me for the first time and gave me a bunch of grapes.
The priest’s fleshless hand smelled of basil, the same as the stubby fingers of Yannis.
Thenceforth, whenever I went with my father to his cell, which was filled with dusty old books, Father Makarious seemed to gaze at me meaningfully from under his handsomely arching eyebrows.
In a short time I came to beat the xylon more skilfully than even Brother Minas.
The churchgoing old women viewed me as a miracle. They used to tell my father that I was made for the church, and he began to boast about me. He even bought me a new jerkin, made of blue velvet, which I was allowed to wear only to church. But my mother looked at me askance and said that dressed in a priest’s robe I would look like a devil.
I had come to be very proud of myself, and when a withered old woman once kissed my hand in the church porch, I saw it as a sign from God. I began to keep harsh fasts, eating only bread and water. I never went out to play and I often used to ask my father to read to me from The Lives of the Saints.
On seeing my zeal, my father taught me the letters of our Greek alphabet. And once I had penetrated the mysteries of reading, I became even more vainglorious, convinced as I was in my soul that I had been chosen by God. I behaved coldly and scornfully toward my father, who used to try to win my favour however he could: he would bring me prayer books and brightly coloured icons from town, he would try to temper the willow rod which my mother still never flinched from using to thrash me, and he would take me with him when he went about his business, bragging that his son was as pious as a monk.
But all my piety was nothing but a veneer, German woman.
Little did I care about loving my neighbours. I loved nobody and nobody loved me. Perhaps only my father nurtured a little feeling for me. All I wanted was to be seen as an extraordinary being, whose destiny was loftier than that of ordinary men. If thitherto I had known only the strength of my fists and arms, now I felt in me an inner power, a power that I could also read on the austere face of Father Makarios. And that power helped me to endure with ease the punishments to which I subjected myself or which others inflicted upon me. I could live for three days in a row on nothing but a piece of bread and a handful of olives, without hankering for the meat stew bubbling in my mother’s cooking pots. I could endure the willow rod without blinking an eye, without making the slightest moan, something that made my mother rabid with fury and say that I was possessed by the devil.
I had acquired a self-control that was unusual in a child, but my wickedness had become steeled and honed.
I used to walk with my eyes fixed on the ground, creeping slowly along by the side of the wall, the way I had seen the monks walk, but my soul would be seething with pride.
What tore me away from my devilish piety for a while was the mystery of the female body.
I, Kostas Venetis, did not always feel disgust for the female sex.
God wanted me never to be able to couple with a woman; He wanted me to live according to the law of the Sodom of old. Even when it happed that I penetrated the hindmost hole of some woman, I was still committing what is called sodomy. The more depraved I proved to be in my love for men, the more impotent I showed myself to be with women.
Long before I found out how the act of coupling is performed between a man and a woman, I noticed that the sight of certain parts of a woman’s body made my little member swell and harden and that this gave me a great deal of pleasure.
I began to peek up my mother’s skirts, out of the corner of my eye, thrilling at the sight of her thick white legs, which resembled dough. When she lay down on the couch in the bedroom, addled with ouzo, her skirts would ruck up and once I even dared to touch her bared leg higher than the knee.
My fantasies teemed with thick white legs, to which I would press my palms, which I would explore with my lips and tongue, which I would suck and bite like a mad dog.
These fantasies did not relinquish me even after I began to mortify my flesh through fasting. I was ashamed of this weakness of mine, for I had learned from the sermons of Father Makarios that women are base creatures worthy of contempt. But temptation had seeped deep into my flesh, and the beguiling image of nakedness frequently appeared in my mind, causing my member to feel like a red-hot nail.
In church, during the services, my eyes had begun to wander over to the women’s pews, hunting for a petticoat that might by chance have risen to reveal a fleeting glimpse of ankle or calf. And it was there one Sunday morning that I chanced to discover Kiva.
Kiva, which was also what my mother called her, was a girl of about thirteen, who tended the sheep of Kir Apostolis, a wealthy peasant as fat as a Mangalitza pig and dreadfully tight-fisted, and who was also my godfather to cap it all. Under her rough black dress, like a nun’s, her firm breasts and strong hips could be divined. She was taller than all the other girls of her age and she held her head proudly, as though born to give orders. Her cheeks, like those of Iannis, were the colour of rose petals. My eyes consumed her greedily, trying to sneak under her Sunday clothes. In my imagination I saw her firm round thighs, and my member began to throb and harden.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The Life of Kostas Venetis is a novel that grips the reader from the first page to the last. It has rhythm, plot, suspense, and also a moral. Octavian Soviany has become a prose writer of the highest calibre.”
“A novel of adventure and mystery, an inside-out Bildungsroman, incorporating a philosophy that explains the evil structure of the world, The Life of Kostas Venetis is one of the pinnacles of contemporary Romanian prose, a remarkable achievement for Octavian Soviany, who proves to be a prose writer of the first order.”
“The Life of Kostas Venetis is a disconcerting book, a novel of atrocious charm, full of decadent nostalgia and naturalist, sordid, picturesque touches, giddy with the spirit of debauchery, barbaric violence and Levantine languor, imbued with the pleasant scent of basil, as well as the most pestilential stenches.”
“In brief, Octavian Soviany’s novel is the tale of a Greek homosexual on his death bed, a decrepit, innately evil old man consumed by a hatred of women that later extends to a hatred of all mankind. He tells his story to his lover, whom he nicknames the German Woman, and who has the task of putting it on paper. The text is intercalated with other stories, told by their protagonists, painting layer by layer a complex picture, illustrated with rare talent.”