The Bulgarian Truck (A Building Site Beneath the Open Sky)

(pp. 7-14 of the original text)

I’m going to write to her, because I simply must tell somebody about it. I want to share with her the relatively new way of composing a novel that I have in mind. Structure is what interests me the most in a novel, but apart from that, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about telling a story, even a highly interesting, enthralling, sensational story. That kind of thing leaves me cold… Even as a reader I’m not very interested in subject, and that’s why I only seldom read literature. Novels, I mean. I prefer novellas. They’re shorter. She knows this very well, and so there is no point in my telling her yet again or, which is more likely, in her contradicting me. She loves contradicting people. No, this isn’t why I’m going to write to her, especially given that it’s harder for us to quarrel this way, long-distance in other words, for us to contradict each other, to defend our differing opinions like two intellectuals each convinced of their own ideas and ready to argue for them to the bitter end. There’s nothing wrong in that. Especially given that I’m not at all sure that I will succeed: there’s no question of my convincing her, but I can’t even swear that I will go the whole way with this as yet vague plan I have in my head: to write yet another novel that won’t resemble any of the ones I’ve written up to now…

Marianne is in New York at the moment, and it takes the mail a few days to get there. It’s not possible any quicker than that. So, that means three or four days for the letter to arrive, and then another two days before she deigns to reply… Sometimes it doesn’t take her more than a few hours. She has a quick hand, as well as a quick mind, not to mention that she’s quick to anger, because she loses her temper at the drop of a hat. Of course, her temper tantrums are also a pose. She’s spoiled and knows she can get her own way. You might even say I’m the one who is to blame for always having let her get her own way… All the same, I think that ever since she was little, ever since childhood, when her parents probably pampered her (she was an only child!) and put up with all her caprices–ever since childhood, as I was saying, she has been accustomed to being flighty and overbearing at the same time. How do I know this? Well, if I didn’t know, who else do you expect would know?

Anyway, I’ll not receive her reply until seven or eight weeks from now, and that’s being optimistic. And then what will I do? If I wait that long, I risk losing my appetite to write, and then I’ll start playing chess instead or, worse still, I’ll start translating something, I’ll play the part of Flea the Footman[1] to some great writer or other (let’s see how they’ll translate that allusion!); I’m not saying I don’t like it: I love to translate, to luxuriate in two languages that I can speak almost on an equal footing, but translation, whatever they might say, is a waste of time for a writer, and at my age I will end up bitterly regretting any waste of time, in the final moments before I commit suicide or when I’m confined to a wheelchair without the will or the strength to take my own life…

You’ve taken leave of your senses, Marianne would bark if she could read my thoughts, if she could survey everything passing through my head as I sit stupefied here in front of the computer, carrying on this monologue instead of writing. Especially given that I have no excuse whatsoever. Nowadays, thanks to the computer, we’re no longer able to talk to the paralysing whiteness of a sheet of paper. We can no longer complain… And so, I ought to make an effort to write, to write anything, as long as I can say that I’m writing, that my fingertips are tapping the keyboard of the ordinateur (I don’t like the word computer, and not only because it comes from English: I just don’t think it’s an appropriate word for the tool in question, although maybe it used to be, long ago…). Whatever happens, something will still appear on the vaguely white square in front of me.

All right, here is what I’m going to do: I’m going to carry on a monologue, tapping the keyboard of the ordinateur.

Agreed, it’s not an email I’m writing, because Marianne doesn’t have an ordinateur where she is, and nor is it even a letter. I must confess that my printer is broken and therefore I couldn’t even pretend that I am writing her a letter. There wouldn’t be any point. What I mean is that despite appearances, I have no intention of fooling anybody.

And certainly not her.

a monologue is different from a letter I don’t have to wear myself out with punctuation and even as far as spelling goes there’s a lot more leeway especially when it comes to Tsvetan the truck driver who gave the impression of never having got further primary school whereas in fact he had been to high school although it was all like water off a duck’s back to him apart from that he is deft and intelligent he speaks sparingly but well especially to the ladies who are obviously attracted to him and how could they not be attracted to him have you seen his biceps his pectorals his shoulders his dark eyes and his greasy skin-tight trousers outward signals granted but what else do you expect the poor ladies to go by there’s always a risk you might be mistaken and end up with a pansy in any case when they have a bit of experience the ladies are almost always right on target especially if they sense that the male doesn’t waver goes in straight for the kill knows the ancient code which hasn’t changed much

but if this is what it’s going to be like then the whole novel can be taken as a monologue that only comes to an end because the author gets it into his head to publish it to see his name on the cover it’s a satisfaction I can well understand when you’re starting out I mean starting out on a career but after that I wonder whether it can still be called a satisfaction we might sooner talk about an obligation although to whom is not at all apparent

Dear M.,

I have started writing The Bulgarian Truck, half of whose title is lifted from your favourite writer, the one I can’t abide. Between her and me there is a huge gulf. Let me explain why. According to the latest socio-psychological research, there are two major differences within the human species: sex difference and age difference. (If you want details, one of the ones to read is Dany-Robert Dufour; he’s published by Denoël.) Death widens the gulf even more (I’m thinking of the implacable maxim of the encyclopaedias!); for although the two differences accumulate in parallel, as long as the individuals are alive, we cannot exclude the possibility, at least in theory, of copulation occurring between them, as a result of which it may be hoped that these differences might temporarily and to a certain extent be reduced.

Marguerite Duras was attracted to younger men, even men much younger than herself. She was a real “cougar”… And so for quite a while I was unable to stop myself thinking about an eventuality that I found not only undesirable, but also repellent: that she might also be attracted to me. I admit I was slightly wide of the mark. When I arrived in France, the novelist was already old, and in any case too old for my taste. I had seen a photograph of her taken by an American photographer, in which she looked like a bag lady: she was squat, with broomstick legs, and her large head, plonked on top of her body, was made to look even larger by an enormous cake-shaped hairdo. Do you remember? We were a couple by then. One night I dreamed that she was grappling me, her hands were clamped to my belt like a witch’s claws, and she was desperately trying to pull my trousers down. In that nightmare of mine, I thought, what the hell, why not let her? If she manages to bring me to the state of arousal required for copulation, then all well and good, she’ll deserve it… And if not, then maybe she will calm down. You told me the same thing, laughing your head off, when I recounted the dream: let her, it won’t kill you! Afterwards, we made love, for a long while, until we fell flat on our backs, drained of strength…

I think this is also the reason I wasn’t able to read her novels, and you would get annoyed and treat me in a deplorable way, especially when you heard me scornfully remark that I found them pretentious: strained populism, I used to say. I was referring to her early novels in particular. But also to The Lover. All right, I know, the later stuff, particularly her plays, a few films… The Truck, yes, of course…

You haven’t got a clue about French literature! you used to upbraid me. And even less of a clue about English-speaking literature, the great literature of our times. And you would reel off a list of names, some of which I had never heard of, some of which I had seen on book covers in bookshops, although I hadn’t read their books. I would flick through them, read a few lines, and then put them back on the shelf or the counter.

I think you were right. I am still what I was then: a peasant from the Danube…

And you added: the only writer from the East who has got the slightest idea is Milan Kundera. You would do better to ponder the profound definition the Czech novelist gives: “The novel is distinguished by its complexity.”

What can I say? It’s profound. It’s certainly profound…

What I’ve written so far seems rather humourless. I’ve been ploughing the sands… If I don’t erase it, it’s because I have all the time in the world to do so. At a single click it will all vanish into nothingness. Nothingness helps us to exist. Which is to say, it helps us not to keep stubbornly looking for a meaning to existence. Not to keep hole-picking.

I look out of the window: the sky is grey, but it isn’t raining… It’s not cold enough for snow. We’re in Paris after all: it snowed for a few days last month and the result was huge traffic jams. Not being used to the snow, Parisians were in a panic. I wonder what they would do if they were exiled to Siberia. I’m joking, of course… Or what they will do when the famous Gulfstream vanishes. This time I’m not joking: it looks like a highly serious possibility, a seemingly paradoxical consequence of global warming.

I’m not as profound as Kundera, which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make efforts to better myself: to dig as deeply as I can… Where? Into the text, where else… Writing is like a building site beneath the open sky (I can almost see you shaking your head). And I shouldn’t hesitate to erase, I shouldn’t be too lazy to perform such pencil-pusher labours: to write, to erase, and to erase again… That’s why the ordinateur was invented! More for erasing than for writing… I don’t even need to erase everything. What I mean to say is, only the things I don’t like or I imagine others might not like, those others who will make the effort to read what I write.

The reader ought to be able to erase the things he doesn’t like. To choose. To construct a book to his own taste using a writer’s sentences and words… Although for this to happen, books would have to circulate on the Internet. But not in their final form. Provisory texts… Open texts… Be they only books by authors who have agreed to play the game: let the readers have a say, let them erase or make additions… After they have made their modifications and once they are satisfied with them, let them put the text back in circulation, also on the Internet, obviously, and thereby let them give other Internet users the opportunity to intervene, with the attendant risk that countless versions of the same text might spring up, the same as happens in folklore, when a story or ballad is passed down by word of mouth. Nobody knows where it came from, who was at its origin, and it spreads throughout a territory where the same language is spoken. Or even different languages. That was also a possibility: collective, oral authorship, and likewise oral translation…

Writers who don’t want to join in the game will just have to go on sending their manuscripts to publishers so they can print them on paper… So they can publish them, distribute them. Because anyway people are still not going to rush to the bookshop to buy them. There are going to be fewer and fewer of them.

(pp. 29-32)

Here is a possibility I hadn’t thought of: Marianne receives the letter, picks up the telephone, and calls me.

– What’s with this letter? What is it you want from me? If you’re in need of some advice, as you say, then don’t start theorising about literature, don’t start going on at me about such paltry matters…

I say nothing, I have no answer, although I understand her very well and even think she’s probably right.

– Do you hear me?

– Yes, I hear you…

– Then why are you playing dumb?

– I’m not playing dumb. I just don’t know what to say…

– First of all tell me what the novel is about, talk to me about the characters. And above all else, who is driving the truck?

– A Bulgarian truck driver.

– Well then say so. A Bulgarian truck driver transporting goods to Europe.

– But Bulgaria is already in Europe…

– Fine, fine… Bulgaria, Romania, they’re in Europe and yet they’re not in Europe. It doesn’t really matter.

– Yes it does. Besides, you find out that the truck driver is Bulgarian just from reading the title.

– Are you trying to pick a quarrel with me? Tell me! Is that what you want?

– No, I don’t. How could I possibly want to…

– And who else is in the truck?

– Nobody. Who else could there be?

– A gypsy stowaway. How should I know?

– No, on my word of honour. Otherwise I would have told you… At one point he picks up a little old woman and drops her off fifteen or twenty kilometres further down the road, he gives her a lift from her village to the next village, where her daughter lives. She’s married to the village butcher… She’s fallen ill.

– So… Go on.

– This happens in Bulgaria. The truck hasn’t crossed the border into Macedonia yet. Her husband has been beating her, threshing her like beans, and she has been screaming and wailing at the top of her lungs. All the neighbours hear. And so one of them tells the old woman when they meet on market day. One of these days that butcher is going to kill her, so she says.

– Passionate!

– You wheedled it out of me. I wouldn’t have even talked about it.

– And what goods is the truck transporting?

– I don’t know…

– How can you not know? You have to know. It’s important. Anyway, tell me about the truck driver. How old is he?

– Is it important?

– Would you listen to him! Of course it’s important. Does he have a wife, children?

– No, he doesn’t. That is, he had a wife, but they’re separated. I don’t know whether they’re divorced. His wife ran off to Sofia.

– To Sofia?

– Where she met a Romanian and went back to Giurgiu with him.

– To Giurgiu?

– She is half-Romanian on her mother’s side. Her mother was from by the Danube. She also speaks the language a little.

– What language?

– The Romanian language… Her mother was from Zimnicea…

– From where?

– From Zimnicea. It’s a small town on the Romanian bank of the Danube. Like Giurgiu, except smaller…

– How old did you say he was?

– Who, the truck driver?

– Yes, isn’t he the main character?

– Yes and no.

– What do you mean?

– There are other characters, too. First of all there is the narrator, who is also the author, as well as being a character himself, which is to say, the other characters talk about him and involve him in the plot. After that…

– Off you go again.

– All right, but the author is important, especially if he is also the narrator, as well as being a character. It allows me to make him look omniscient without interfering with the lifelikeness of the plot all that much.

– Piffle! Tell me the subject. I want to know what happens. That’s what I want to know…

– What do you expect to happen? I don’t really know. I’ve only written thirty pages so far.

– Are you going to tell me what happens next?

– No…

– You don’t even know what happens at the end. You haven’t got an ending…

– I know how I would like it to end, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet.

– You mean to say that you’re writing without knowing what it is you’re writing about, without having any idea about how the characters develop and interact. In short, you don’t know the plot or the subject of the novel. I can’t believe it…

– Believe what you like. I am… That is, I am not…

– I’ve no idea what you are or what you imagine yourself to be, but whatever you are, you’re not a novelist…

Marianne angrily hangs up the telephone.

She must have been reading Nicolae Manolescu’s Critical History of Romanian Literature, I say to myself.

(pp. 38-39)

his wife’s name was Nina she was very young and she didn’t want children it’s too early she would say but he used to insist as a matter of fact not even he knew why he had got it into his head but she was having none of it not for the life of her I don’t know how she managed it but she had got hold of some pills which she hid in a shoe in the bottom of the wardrobe so that Tsvetan wouldn’t be able to find them she liked making love with him but she couldn’t stand his long absences

I know what you get up to on the road how you go a-whoring left and right everybody knows that a truck driver finds himself a whore in every town he passes on the way

you’re exaggerating he would half-heartedly say in his own defence

and I know it was precisely because she enjoyed being with him in bed that she missed him and it was hard for her to wait for him and so it’s no wonder that one fine day she found herself a big strapping man in Sofia where she’d gone to buy herself a new dress Tsvetan had given her the money they no longer lived in Sofia but in a small town near the border with Macedonia she found herself a man from her mother’s home town of Zimnicea a Romanian who claimed he knew a cousin of hers and then they fell to talking and she realised that he wasn’t making it up she didn’t speak Romanian as well as she used to because she had been living in Bulgaria for a long time since when she was at primary school when her mother had fled from Romania she ran off with a Bulgarian some time in the 1980s later after the death of Ceausescu she had gone back and forth across the Danube but she still knew a bit of the language

in any case Vasile could get by in Bulgarian they could each understand what the other was saying quite well and they booked into a hotel

(pp. 51-52)

it was not Nina that Tsvetan was thinking of now but his father whom he remembered as having been away all the time although his father wasn’t a truck driver Tsvetan didn’t even know what exactly it was he did he had heard all kinds of stories some used to say he worked for the secret police not for the Bulgarian secret police which didn’t really count but for none other than the KGB he often used to visit Germany where he had a friend or rather a boss who bore an uncanny resemblance to Putin anyway after he died Tsvetan had found among his papers and other assorted documents a photograph tucked inside one of his numerous passports which were all in different names and in that photograph he was with Putin himself or else the person in the photograph looked terribly like him they were smiling at each other he didn’t show it to anybody of course he had worshipped his father despite having seen him only a few times in his life the truth is that his father had more or less abandoned him and if Tsvetan had gone to high school it was thanks to an aunt who lived in Sofia she didn’t have any children of her own and she had grown fond of him he didn’t even know whether she was Kiril’s sister that’s what his father was called or whether she was her cousin or maybe the cousin of Rumiana who had died giving birth to him what is for sure is that when she found out that Kiril was dead Sonia was very upset she burst into tears and rolled off the bed on which she had lain down to answer the telephone she fell onto the carpet still holding the phone crying her eyes out

some people even went as far as to say that Kiril had been mixed up in the plot to assassinate the Pope not to condemn him but perhaps quite the opposite the truth is that the head of the Catholic Church was not much liked in Bulgaria where all the people were Orthodox Christians apart from the Turks

but that was going too far the man who fired the pistol was a Turk called Mehmet Ali-Agca and it wasn’t proven that he had accomplices and it would even seem that the CIA manipulated him so that he would cast the blame on the Eastern Bloc countries and on the KGB I’ve no idea

opinions were divided Tsvetan had even read a book about the conspiracy

(pp. 55-58)

Marianne, I don’t understand why you’re so angry… You hung up the phone on me. That’s just the way you are. It doesn’t take much to make you fly off the handle. But this time you didn’t have a single motive. Not one! What is so bad about my not liking Marguerite Duras, your favourite writer… Or maybe you thought I was being ironic, that I was making fun of you. I didn’t have the right tone of voice. I’m sorry… I’m a bad actor. I admit it. It’s true that the telephone isn’t the most appropriate tool for maintaining peace and harmony between people. You hear the voice, but you can’t see the other person’s face, his eyes. The information is incomplete. You can imagine anything at all about the other person. You’re tempted not to let him speak, not to let him finish explaining himself. And then I… You know very well that I’m no good on the telephone. I’m utterly hopeless. I admit it. I can’t speak, I can’t find the most suitable tone of voice or words, I become aware of it, I get annoyed with myself, I tend to become monosyllabic, I can hardly wait for the conversation to end. No matter how hard I try, in the end I get grouchy, even impolite. That’s why I prefer to write to you. Of course, when you call me on the telephone, I’m overjoyed to hear your voice, but I would also like to see your face. Please understand… The fact that I can’t see you inhibits me. I’m sorry, but I can’t get used to that particular tool of communication. I’m a writer, not an orator…

I erase the last sentence, which is unbelievably stupid.

But don’t think that I’m writing to you just so I can complain about you hanging up on me. These things happen… It’s not pleasant, obviously, but what can you do… I’m writing to ask you to help me find a subject. You’re right: when you start writing a novel, you have to have thought of a story already, even if you alter it after that, even if you tidy it up here and there. And so I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to use a story that already exists, one that has been told before, at great length, by a heavyweight novelist, one of those ones from the nineteenth century, the century of the novel, the century of narrative. Balzac wrote a whole load of stories, but either I’ve forgotten them, or I never read them in the first place. Madame Bovary I do remember. I know: it’s not by Balzac. But even so… Madame Bovary is Flaubert or vice versa: Flaubert is Madame Bovary. I don’t know who Balzac would be… What I mean is that I don’t know which character he could be identified with so closely that you would be able to say Balzac is he… In any case, not Père Goriot, but sooner Eugene Rastignac.

Anyway, I digress. I should stop. But I think you get my point.

It won’t come as any surprise to you if I tell you that I’ve never liked reading novels. I’ve written a few, because I wasn’t capable of doing anything else. You will say that what I’ve written up to now aren’t even novels, not even my most recent ones, where I strove to get as close to the reader as I could, to be not only readable, but also to the reader’s taste… The word is that I didn’t really manage to pull it off. Both of you are right: you and the reader. You are also a character in it, and this is what annoyed you the most. I understand. I’m not jealous, you said. I don’t care what people say. Well, I don’t know whether things are really like that. What annoyed you the most–and with good reason!–is that I exaggerated when I narrated my extra-marital affairs: some of them I quite simply made up. Believe me… You’re a bit of a braggart, you told me once. I don’t know whether you were trying to disguise your annoyance by means of irony or vice versa. (What do you mean, vice versa?) I narrated, or rather invented, those affairs because that is what the public demands. The public is our master. People want love stories, sex scenes. That’s what they want… The great public!

I acknowledge that I shouldn’t have written it in the first person. But I let myself be influenced by those women novelists who are so fashionable nowadays. I took Christine Angot as my model. Why do you laugh? Don’t you believe me? I don’t have her talent, obviously. Nor have I experienced as much as she has: all those affairs, each more sordid than the next and narrated with such passion. Maybe she really did experience everything she narrates, especially in her latest novel, you know, the one about the singer who likes to fuck her from behind, taking pleasure in mixing up the two holes. Forgive me. I know you don’t like crude language and that you reckon it to be out of keeping with my advanced age. When you were young, you were more tolerant. Because back then I was capable of doing more than talk about it, whereas now… True, nowadays I would need something like a poetic context to be able to get down to, I mean, to get from the one thing to the other. Poetry is like a balm… All right, I’ll erase that right now.

One day you told me, perhaps also in writing, that it was about time that I gave up this occupation, which suits me less and less the older I get. Meaning literature. Quite simply, I shouldn’t write any more. Or, if I’m incapable of abandoning this rather outmoded pastime, I should content myself with writing articles for newspapers and magazines, here or in Romania. Am I dead set on fiction? Then the only thing for it is to write short stories like I did in my youth. With a short story I run less of a risk than I do with a novel. I’m in no danger of forgetting various aspects of my characters or, even worse, what they have already said. I have given serious thought to the things you said. I know… They weren’t idle words. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to follow your advice. But anyway, given that I haven’t got much time left, it no longer matters whether or not I write. It’s of no importance whatsoever.

(pp. 108-114)

I woke up at the crack of dawn I was experiencing a feeling of well-being I had been dreaming about writing a novel without punctuation all I had to do was add a few full stops and commas at the end when I finished it I was writing quickly it was as if it were typing itself on the keyboard of the ordinateur and the novel about the Bulgarian truck was rolling along smoothly Tsvetan was whistling at the steering wheel with his umbrella by his side the one whose handle was shaped like a crow’s head but let’s not get carried away it was more like a hawk’s head an eagle’s head with a curved very sharp beak

then the road was blocked by a building site what I mean is that the road was under repair Tsvetan braked but the truck didn’t stop dead but skidded for another few metres a good job he pulled the hand brake and he managed to come to a stop just half a metre behind a red car which had probably come to a stop because of another car which had probably

he even dented it a little what the hell it happens

that was how he met Daisy at the petrol station a few kilometres further down the road Tsvetan had pulled into the petrol station to check his engine his hand brake which didn’t seem to be working properly Daisy was in the red car she came after him and started speaking to him in English the Bulgarian had learned English at the American high school he used to say that he was more interested in English than any other subject he was already thinking of becoming a truck driver when Sonia heard him she would get annoyed

get some sense into your head Sonia would say and he couldn’t understand why she used to get so annoyed about it

what do you want me to do learn French and become a writer

and so he could get along quite well in English he had had the opportunity to practice during his trips all over Europe everybody was capable of stringing a few words together in that genuinely international language

Daisy wanted to ask his advice on the best way to get to Podgorica he didn’t waste time thinking about it he told her the easiest thing would be to follow his truck it wasn’t all that far they would get there in no time she was American not English all right then Tsvetan thought about saying something to her about Bush and how much people admired him in Bulgaria and not only in Bulgaria but in all the other surrounding former communist states and especially in Romania where Tsvetan had been recently with a mysterious load contained in sealed crates which nobody had even inspected at the border then he changed his mind he remembered that Bush wasn’t going to be in office much longer there was going to an election the American woman looked anxious probably impatient and so he climbed into the cab of his truck Daisy was following just ten metres behind smiling to herself for some unknown reason

two hours later they reached Podgorica

I have sent the opening pages to Marianne. Rather premature, she said when I told her over the telephone that she would be receiving them soon. Lately, I have given up trying to find out whether she is being ironic or not. For obvious reasons, I omitted the pages where I wasn’t able to replace Milena with Milen. I also skipped a number of passages about Beatrice, which she might have found too lubricious. I don’t know whether I did a good thing or not… Having done so, having concealed a part of the text from her, I’m not sure what point there is in asking for her opinion. I regret it now, but it’s too late. Although it has to be said that she has less to read like this.

– It’s a pity you don’t have an ordinateur with an Internet connection at your end.

– What possible use would I have for one?

– We could communicate more easily…

Just three days later she telephones me again.

– What? You’ve received it already? I say in simple-minded astonishment.

– The U.S. postal service is quick.

– Yes, well… So… have you read it?

– Yes, of course I’ve read it.

– It’s not the final draft, you do realise. There are a few places where I can add or, on the contrary, subtract things. It’s a building site…

– Thank the Lord!

– What do you mean?

– Here’s what… I’m saying it for your own good. I don’t want you to get upset. You know very well that I always try to be sincere when I’m giving my opinion. This is why you need my opinion. You know that I don’t lie. And this is not the first time I’ve told you…

– Say what you’ve got to say!

– You ought not to write novels any more.

– But what should I write?

– Short stories.

– I wrote enough short stories in my youth.

– Or sketches… Texts of two or three pages. Or better still, poems. Really short poems, haikus…

– You’re exaggerating!

– Of course I’m exaggerating. In order to be more convincing.

– But what is your criticism? Specifically…

– It’s full of repetitions.

– Repetitions?

– Yes, yes…

– That’s the way I write… It’s musical! Don’t you know?

– I think you’re exaggerating on that point, with the music… Your poor unfortunate reader. He’ll get the impression that he’s always reading the same text. That he’s going round in circles…

– Good.

– He’ll think that you have forgotten what you have already written and that is why you have written it again. Or that you were in a hurry and bungled the job. The reader is not going to think of music… He bought a novel. He paid money for a book because he likes literature, not music. Understand? Why put him out? If he wants music, he’ll listen to music… He’ll buy himself some records or CDs. He’ll go to a concert. It’s that simple.

– Yes, it’s simple.

– The novel is distinguished by its complexity, as the great novelist Milan Kundera said. But it’s not music…

– I see you’re repeating yourself…

– I’m repeating myself so that you’ll get it into your head.

I say nothing. There is nothing else I can do. I am of course tempted to hang up the telephone, but I restrain myself. In the end, wasn’t I the one who sent her the manuscript? Wasn’t I the one who asked for her opinion and insisted that she should read it now that I have reached, at best, the midway point of the novel?

After a brief pause, she goes back on the attack:

– For Beatrice, the Beatrice character… couldn’t you have found a less pompous name for her? I mean…

– The names can be changed.

– …I mean. And another thing, you make this Beatrice–or whatever her name is–blonde on one page and brunette on the next.

– Really? I hadn’t noticed.

– You hadn’t noticed because you’re a senile old duffer. I told you not to write another novel…

– Here you go again… If you’re right, then thank you for drawing my attention to it and for helping me out like this…

– There, you see…

– But the reader might imagine that she dyes her hair: first black, then blonde.

– Why not white?

– You’re right. White would be even more exciting. Black/white. In fact it’s a natural alternation…

– You’re being facetious! You would be better off playing chess, even though you’ve never been any great shakes at chess, either. At least at chess the verdict isn’t long and drawn-out… You lost, now sling your hook! Whereas in literature you can believe you’re no end of a good thing… You imagine that the people who criticise you don’t have any idea about modern, I’m sorry, about postmodern literature… An utterly stupid idea, you must admit…

I have hung up the telephone on her. Yet again.

Angrily, I sit down in front of the ordinateur. I look for the offending passages and erase them. For example: “have you seen his biceps his pectorals his shoulders his dark eyes and his greasy skin-tight trousers stretched over his muscular thighs so that his genital organ stands out in relief more prominently than in other men women are sensitive to such outward signals…” It’s pointless my getting annoyed. Foolishly. Maybe Marianne is right. As far as music goes… There’s no need to go over the top. I’m not going to turn my novel into a kind of Ravel’s Bolero. Apart from anything else, the composition would be too simple. Too simplistic…

When it comes to Beatrice’s hair colour, my patience runs out before I find the passage in question and so I give up.

[1] The now proverbial Flea the Footman (Aprodul Purice) was a diminutive courtier in fifteenth-century Moldavia. During a battle, when Stephen the Great’s horse was killed, Flea gave up his own horse, crouching down so that the equally diminutive Stephen could mount using him as a stool. 


Dumitru Tsepeneag

Dumitru Tsepeneag (b. 1937) was a leading member and theorist of the Romanian "oneiricist" group in the late 1960s and early '70s, before the communist regime suppressed the literary movement. The regime viewed Tsepeneag as a troublemaker, and in 1975 Ceausescu himself personally signed the decree stripping him of his Romanian citizenship, thus forcing him into exile. He settled in Paris, continuing to write literary work in Romanian, and later in French, as well as publishing extensively in the press. Since 1990, he has commuted between Paris and Bucharest. He has translated into Romanian books by Alain Robbe-Grillet, André Malraux, Albert Béguin, Robert Pinget, Alexandre Kojève, and Jacques Derrida. His short prose, novels, and collections of articles include Exercitii (Exercises, Bucharest, 1966); Frig (Cold, Bucharest, 1967); Asteptare (The Wait, Bucharest, 1972); Arpièges (the French translation of the then-unpublished Romanian novel Zadarnica e arta fugii (Vain is the Art of the Fugue), Paris, 1973); Les noces nécessaires (Paris, 1977); La défense Alekhine, a book on chess theory (Paris, 1983); Le mot sablier, the integral French-language version of the bilingual Cuvintul nisiparnita (The Sandglass Word), the Romanian passages being translated by Alain Paruit (Paris, 1984); Roman de gare (written in French, Paris, 1985); Pigeon vole (written in French, Paris, 1988); Inscenare si alte texte (A Staging and Other Texts, Pitesti, 1992); Nuntile necesare (The Necessary Weddings, 1992); Un roman la Paris (A Romanian in Paris, Cluj, 1993; definitive edition, Bucharest, 1997); Reintoarcerea fiului la sinul mamei ratacite (The Son's Return to the Bosom of the Errant Mother, Jassy, 1993); Hotel Europa (Bucharest and Paris, 1996); Calatorie neizbutita (Abortive Journey, Bucharest 1998); Pont des Arts (Paris, 1998); Razboiul literaturii inca nu s-a incheiat (The Literature War Is Not Yet over, Bucharest, 2000); Prin gaura gheii (Through the Keyhole, Bucharest, 2001); Destin cu Popesti (A Fate with the Popescus, Cluj, 2001); Maramures (Cluj, 2001); Attente (Paris, 2003); Clepsidra rasturnata: Dialog cu Ion Simut (The Upturned Hourglass: Dialogue with Ion Simut, Pitesti, 2003); La belle Roumaine (Pitesti, 2004, Paris, 2006); Capitalism de cumetrie (Godfather Capitalism, Polirom, 2007); and Frappes chirurgicales (Paris, 2009).

Alistair Ian Blyth

Alistair Ian Blyth's translations from Romanian include the novels Little Fingers and The Days of the King by Filip Florian (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Our Circus Presents... by Lucian Dan Teodorovici (Dalkey Archive Press), Coming from an Off-key Time by Bogdan Suceavă (Northwestern University Press), and Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality by Max Blecher (Plymouth University Press). He's also translated short fiction by Cosmin Manolache and Iulian Ciocan (Dalkey Best European Fiction), and the nonfiction works An Intellectual History of Cannibalism by Cătălin Avramescu (Princeton University Press) and Becoming Within Being by Constantin Noica (Marquette University Press).

Copyright (c) Polirom, Iaşi, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Alistair Ian Blyth, 2012.