Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2011, 240 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
He is ninety-two, has a controversial past, and is suffering from prostate problems. He lives in a palace, where he is waited upon like a Byzantine emperor. His nights are haunted by illness and memories of a life dedicated to the Church and the political powers of the day, from the Iron Guard to the Communists. His days are dominated by the urgent matter of settling who will succeed him on the throne of the Patriarchate of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Canny and wily, the old man knows he is surrounded by unscrupulous individuals ready to usurp him at any time. He can number his trusted friends on the fingers of one hand. The younger men in his entourage despise his political compromises, while those with the real power mislead him, allowing him to believe he is the master of his own decisions. The tentacles of power hold him in their clutches up to death’s door and even beyond. Will the Patriarch succeed in thwarting his rivals’ plans?
The Nights of the Patriarch is a fascinating novel not only because of its highly sensitive subject matter, namely the links between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the country’s current rulers, including members of the former communist regime, but also its powerful portrayal of the Patriarch, which creates a character unique in Romanian literature.
“I kiss your hand. I ask your blessing, Your Beatitude!”
The metropolitan bowed and kissed his hand. His enkolpion and the large solid-gold cross of his office glittered against his starched black vestments, whose material was of the finest, and which no Italian fashion house could have tailored more elegantly. His cassock set off his ascetic face, his long grizzled beard, his straight nose, his small, penetrating eyes, and his slender fingers, those of a man who had mastered the secrets of restraint and measured speech. A discreet perfume accompanied him, like the halo of a saint in an icon. He was nearing the age of fifty and did not yet possess a paunch. Normally, church hierarchs were recognisable by the calibre of their girth. It was a sign that he had started at the bottom and gone far. He was the apple of the Patriarch’s eye. Had he not sent him, during the communist period, to study in Paris? And had he not then made him the Church’s Foreign Minister? The organs of state had also groomed him, it goes without saying: in those days, you did not just go abroad as the whim took you. But the two of them spoke the same monastic language and shared the same concern with the mission of the Church. The Patriarch had taken care to advance his protégé. He had seen that he was a God-fearing man, who thought only of the future of the Church. He also had relatives in the Army. He even used to visit the Romanian troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was viewed favourably by the authorities.
The Patriarch received him in his office, where one door led to the dining room and the other to the bedroom. As long as he knew the bathroom was close, he felt more at ease. The room had white walls and red chairs and carpets. In the morning the large windows flooded it with daylight, but in the evening, when the ornate crystal chandeliers were lit, it was imbued with all the hues of summer: dazzling white, yellowish white, torrid yellow, orange, bright red, dull orange, inky blue. The solid wood table was, as usual, piled with all kinds of files, folders, papers, brochures, pencils, fountain pens, textbooks, and visiting cards. The Patriarch made a sign for him to sit on the chair opposite to him. The matter at hand was likely important.
“I did not sleep very well last night. What news from the Metropolia?” asked the Patriarch, eager to pass quickly over his mention of being weary. It had slipped out unintentionally.
“We have secured restitution of a large part of the forests. It is going well,” said the Metropolitan. “I am trying to get back the forest land that was reapportioned to the parishes. There are some priests that are putting up a fight, but they have no choice, they will have to cede the land in the end. They woke up to find they owned the forests on paper and they are trying to cling on to them, although they see very well that they cannot cope. But there are other discontents that might take an unpleasant turn.”
“What discontents? On whose part?”
“Rumours have reached my ears that a number of priests are thinking about organising themselves in a trade union.”
“They what? A trade union? What do they need a trade union for?” asked the Patriarch, as if he had never heard anything so outlandish in his life.
“They are afraid of the coming changes in the Statutes. They want the bishops to be elected by the priesthood and for the Synod to expel any hierarch who has been exposed as having collaborated with the Securitate.”
“Have you ever heard the like?” said the Patriarch, angrily. “A trade union for priests!”
“So far, they are nothing but rumours, Your Beatitude, but there is discontent.”
“Rumours! There’s no smoke without fire! We need to find out who is spreading them! Don’t you have anybody keeping an eye on these priests? Don’t you have anybody to mingle with them and then name names? Or might it be a set up?” said the old man, giving a start, as if an angel of light had just passed through the room and revealed to him the real face of things.
“But who could be behind it, if it was? I don’t see who could be. I’m inclined to doubt it,” said the metropolitan, in amazement.
However familiar he was with behind-the-scenes machinations and the convoluted paths of clerical thinking, he still found such a surmise unexpected. But what if the old man was right?
“Investigate and find out!” added the Patriarch, and his words had the tone of an order. “The Synod?”
Had he already moved on to a different matter or was he thinking of consulting the Synod about the rumours of this trade union for priests? The Patriarch spoke to him without looking at him. His eyes were wandering somewhere overhead, towards the folds of the heavy drapes that framed the windows. But they did not come to a rest at the drapes, but continued searching, beyond them, beyond the walls of the palace, beyond the city, beyond the world, where he seemingly expected to glimpse somebody: the shadow of night’s apparition, the Old Man. From two enormous paintings, hung to the left and the right of the door to the dining room, Patriarchs Miron and Nicodim, weighed down with the robes of their office and the burdens of history, motionlessly listened to the conversation in the palace that had once been theirs, a conversation interspersed with long silences. The palace was full of sumptuous salons, painted cupolas, portraits of metropolitans and patriarchs, fluted columns, secluded belvederes, halls, and passages, a labyrinth swarming with secrets, like souls that could find no rest.
“At the beginning of September? It’s summer now, the holidays… September, as usual.”
“Yes, yes, at the beginning of September is fine. In about six weeks. How many can we count on?” asked the Patriarch.
“The majority, I think. They would have no reason to reject the amendments you propose,” answered the hierarch, making a slight bow.
“Is that what you think? Well then!” said the old man, now looking him straight in the eye.
“They don’t refuse to vote for something unless the representatives of lay bodies get involved, people who…”
“Who do not know anything about how to run the Church and want to place their own people in the top positions,” said the Patriarch, finishing his sentence. “The Church Electoral College is one thing and the Synod is quite another. At least you can keep a tight rein on the Synod!” The tone of his voice contained an anger he rarely allowed to show. “The way I have kept a rein on them since 1990. The Electoral College should have a consultative role and nothing more,” he went on. “The order of the day will be three matters: changing the Statutes, your taking over my positions as Archbishop of Bucharest and Metropolitan of Hungro-Wallachia, and the Cathedral of National Redemption. First you will be my locum tenens, and afterwards Patriarch. This matter has to be resolved,” said the old man, making a brief grimace.
“Are you feeling unwell?” asked the hierarch in a concerned voice.
“I get these stabbing pains occasionally,” said the old man in passing. “I see they’ve calmed down about that report now, the one about the communist period. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
“The Presidential Commission reached the conclusion that the Church… Your Beatitude… that there was a lot of collaboration with the communist regime,” said the hierarch.
“They have no idea about the life of the Church and what we went through!”
“Nobody takes any notice of them, Your Beatitude. So many other serious matters have cropped up in the meantime that what they write in the report is eyewash. The problem is that the country has descended into anarchy. Undeclared anarchy, but anarchy all the same,” said the metropolitan. “Wherever you go, in the state institutions, in the administration, nobody lifts a finger, they all go their own way, without any respect for the rules. You can see for yourself that even in the Church…”
“It’s a free-for-all… And the communists are all fighting among themselves. I never thought I would live to see the day,” said the old man. What is the latest news about the commission to study the Securitate archives?”
The metropolitan leaned towards him and said softly:
“They’re able to tamper with the files.”
“How do you know?”
“I have my sources…”
“What about your file, Your Reverence? Are you sure you have one? Let’s ask our people in the commission,” said the Patriarch, knitting his brows.
“Your Beatitude, such documents vanish and reappear only according to the given situation… After all, they published findings about Your Beatitude a few years ago…” the metropolitan continued.
“So what? Aren’t I a member of the Academy? Didn’t they agree to the site and the funds for the Cathedral of National Redemption?” smiled the old man, slyly. “There have been various attempts, but we needn’t be concerned. It’s too much of a muddle. Some people contest the findings, others point the finger, but there are very few historians who can make sense of what is written in the files. The law on access to the files is vague, and in any case we’re going to have it changed. They’re working on it. It may also be argued that the former Securitate falsified reports, signatures, information, so that it could have a hold over the Church. Let us mobilise our monasteries in Moldavia, our people in Transylvania and the Army, in the Securitate, the faithful who will support us. I won’t withdraw until you are invested with the other functions. It needs to be negotiated with everybody. What about the press?”
“There are a few magazines, but apart from the Moldavian Trinity…”
“Is that what they call them?” said the old man, amused.
“Yes, the Trinity, meaning the newspapers, radio and television,” answered the hierarch. “The tools of Salvation!”
“Bishop Ioanichie is clever, but he doesn’t have enough men in the Synod. Hasn’t his file surfaced?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so. He’s one of those people whose files were apparently destroyed in a fire, during the Revolution,” answered the hierarch, unable to suppress a kind of regret mixed with envy in his voice.
“Have you any idea what is in your own file?”
“I don’t know for sure, but there would have to be some reports sent to the Securitate from France, descriptions of people, names, statements…”
“The Securitate demanded the same from every hierarch who travelled abroad. And we had the duty to inform the state about anybody who was plotting against Romania or spreading negative propaganda in foreign parts. It is what any ambassador would do for his country. Was it not the normal thing to do?”
“Yes, back then, it was normal, but nowadays such things are interpreted differently. His Grace Andrei introduced me everywhere, he knew…”
“If he is in Your Reverence’s file, and there is no reason why he would not be, given that he was, as you say, your liaison officer, then you have no cause for alarm: he is protected on all sides, and he has reached the venerable age at which nothing can damage him any more. An enlightened man, a great scholar, no matter what they might say,” said the Patriarch animatedly, as if he had been describing his own virtues.
“But it is well known that he was the one the communists sent to close down the monasteries in the 1950s. He was the terror of the monks. And then there are his connexions with the Freemasons and the Securitate.”
“I know all about that, because I lived through it. Wasn’t the first patriarch one of them? And did that hinder him from shepherding the nation and reviving the Church? It didn’t hinder him, quite the contrary. The Knights of Malta and the other lodges bent their knee before him and agreed to go into hibernation. You have to know a man’s soul, not to judge him according to others’ opinions, which is what they are doing now. The masons, the Securitate… Ioanichie’s file must be chock-a-block in that case! You have nothing to fear. The Statutes will be changed, I shall transfer the functions to you by patriarchal decision, and the Synod will have no choice but to agree to it.”
“Files have always been used as a tool for blackmail. You know how it works. The session of the Synod begins and you receive an anonymous note: ‘Your Reverence, you have a rather nasty file with a certain state institution that deals in the exposure of former Securitate officers, eradication of corruption, or whatever. Mind how you vote!”
“Does Your Reverence have a file with any of those, what do they call them, anti-corruption agencies?”
“I don’t think so. I was talking hypothetically.”
“Come next week and we shall talk about it at greater length,” said the old man, rising to his feet.
It was the sign that the discussion had ended. He felt as if his bladder was about to burst.
“I ask your blessing,” said the metropolitan, and bent to kiss his hand.
He had realised that the Patriarch was not feeling himself. In the palace there were rumours that during the night he got up every hour to go to the bathroom. He felt a pang in his heart. He was about to leave, but he turned around and asked:
“Are you well, Your Beatitude?”
“My prostate has been giving me some bother, but it’s nothing serious. I’m taking medicine for it. I’m not worried. Come on Thursday. I’ll also be summoning the general, so that we can confer…”
“I ask your blessing,” the metropolitan said once more and then withdrew, his footfalls inaudible, and leaving behind him a scent of fine soap.
He would have liked to kneel before the old man and to clasp his hand in his. Perhaps he would even have made confession. There were so many things he would have liked to do, but the occasion never presented itself.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The Nights of the Patriarch is a captivating, unusual, non-fiction novel, with a substantial historical background and the potential to become an explosive film if adapted for the big screen. ”
“Contemporary historical fiction, blending into the plot plenty of real information and situations, The Nights of the Patriarch takes a hard look at the Romanian Orthodox Church, which has not yet settled its accounts with the past and among whose hierarchy there are still many sullied clerics, giving rise to endless internal power struggles and a prolonged moral crisis.”
“I am convinced that The Nights of the Patriarch will become Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s best-known novel. Following on from Deadly Confession and The Book of Judges, maybe we shall also have another stage adaptation.”
“In this story there are no ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ parties; there are only people. From first page to last, this story of a man confronting the inevitability of his own transience is distinctive for the naturalness of its phrasing, imagery, and characterisation. The Nights of the Patriarch is not the novel of a ‘journalist’, but a prose writer in the true sense of the word.”