The Romanian Riveter: Jacob’s Death (I) by Sorin Titel, translated by Antuza Genescu

The room should have a very high ceiling, so that if you look upwards you can barely discern the area where the whitewashed walls – dirty white walls, repainted recently, while they were waiting for the old man to die – support the weight of the ceiling from which a thin, black string hangs; at the end of the string, a dirty bulb – with small, dark dots that resemble the reddish freckles on the old man’s face – spreads light that hits the shoebox-like rectangular walls; then there is the daylight, which comes from only one place, a window high up behind the old man, which goes through not to the outside, but to a dimly lit corridor – somebody has broken a glass or an ashtray there and the shrill echo of the broken glass seems to last forever – therefore the light comes from behind and now, when with an unexpected gesture he flips the switch in the heavy, grey, almost immaterial light of the room, his grey hair, lit from behind, resembles the moon’s obscure aura on long, long summer evenings (evenings when the daylight holds out for a while, flows into the night until very late and discolours it, the white, dead moon being the only sign that the brightness of the day is long gone, a grey, dreary moon hanging in a bluish void); he might remember this hour: the silver horses with hot, fragile, swollen bellies lying on a dull green field, the muddy holes in which the horses step and splash themselves all over … To the right, also behind the old man there is a door; the moment it swings open with a long, wailing creak, he would be able to see what lies on the other side if he turned around, if he were so humbly curious as to do so. He would see a long corridor lit by similar bulbs hanging from very thick black strings at equal intervals. By now, the old man should start fretting in the room, his back hunched, his nose knotty and hooked, his moustache stained with nicotine, his body bent very low, almost touching the black-and-white squares in the chessboard-like cement floor. Because seen from above, perhaps from the nook with a dirty, cobwebbed window, the old man might resemble the only pawn left on a chessboard, a pawn somebody moves hither and thither, from a black square to a white one and back; this is how you imagine him running from one chair to another, always searching for something with his short-sighted eyes. He bends his head so low that his thin grey moustache nearly dusts the chairs, those ordinary, blue kitchen chairs. All this lasts for hours, days, maybe weeks, until night finally comes and the old man calms down. At the end of the corridor, a door opens to the street, a door with a bell that opens from time to time, and then a prolonged sound, clear as a child’s voice, is heard in the corridor. A cloud of snow bursts in and somebody near the door stomps the snow off his boots. You can hear the dull stamps and the voice of the old man talking to himself: ‘I can’t leave, why won’t you understand? You think I don’t want to go, you think I’m heartless, you think …’ It is better if the old man talks while looking up at the dirty little window, it is better if he joins his words into a long, endless lament. And he will also say, ‘I can’t leave, please understand I can’t. The wind from Coșava blows so fiercely it cuts right through me. I can’t leave, why won’t you understand …?’ His voice must be high-pitched, he must reach the shrillest notes. Then his voice will break all of a sudden, in the middle of a sentence. The walls will play an important part in this: instead of absorbing the old man’s words, his childish whining, they will reproduce them endlessly; anyway, he thinks the words he mangles will come back into his mouth, so that he can chew them like some bitter drugs or spit them out again in disgust. ‘The biting wind’s cutting right through me … I can’t, Iosif, please understand, from beyond Coșava.’ The words are coming back erratically, disjointed, although the oxen and the heifers and the old cow with the broken horn and the horses with their hot, swollen bellies are there, on the deserted plot of land of burnt grass, summer’s hot ashes. He says, ‘I can’t leave, you must understand I can’t.’ No more tears to shed; his eyes are dry. The warm nose of the playful, thin newborn calf barely standing on its spindly legs pushes the swollen udder, the milk bucket overturns, the milk spills – all over the place and warm, steamy manure in the middle …

As soon as the sound of broken glass fades away in the corridor beyond the nook window through which the yellow daylight comes, the old man starts singing in a loud, cracked voice. The song must sound as natural as possible, it must be long, gentle, monotonous, like a wail. He must turn around, nobody should be able to see his face, just the back of his head, his silver-grey hair with two knots on top of his head, his round head on a neck as thin as a child’s. He will also have to try not to shout the words; instead, he should blend them together, so that they sound like one single word repeated persistently. All this time, at the end of the corridor, the door will hit the wall, blown by the wind, in rhythm with the old man’s words. ‘I’ve left the horses in the woods, they are cold, I must cover them with a blanket, you see,’ says the old man, uttering random words. It would be better if the tram stopped at the end of the corridor so that he could finally leave, get on the almost empty tram. It is better to choose an older vehicle, one of the first electric trams that slightly resemble the horse-drawn trams. Once it has reached the outskirts, it would be better if it didn’t stop at all, but instead it moved very slowly, so that the hurried passengers can get off. The ticket seller can sleep on the tickets in her narrow cabin; then the tram could stop in a small forest where some calves could move their wet bellies closer to the tram windows. Then the old man will stay in his tiny room again, bent over the kitchen chairs, searching for somebody with his inquisitive eyes. ‘Ana has just been here with Milan’s mute boy,’ he mumbles, his tongue a bit too thick, so you can barely understand him. When he gets tired of searching, or when he merely gets tired, he draws a chair to the window with great effort. After he has finally managed to climb onto it, he has to stand on tiptoes to look through the dirty little window into the mysterious room from where the sound of broken glass came. A room similar to his own should be chosen, a square, not a rectangular one, with whitewashed walls and a wooden ladder leading to the dark, rectangular hole of the attic. It must definitely have a cement floor with squares like on a chessboard, but red and blue, not black and white, like in the old man’s room. It should contain nothing but very big wicker baskets that the old man studies carefully through his dusty window. The basket closest to the little window the old man looks through is full of ripe tomatoes that were picked just a little while ago, that were washed here and there a short time ago, with water drops that reflected the strong light of the bulb. There must also be other baskets in the room, but the old man cannot see them because he is short-sighted. Then the attic door should be slammed shut, the light should be turned off unexpectedly and only the light from the old man’s window should remain. A streak of light separating the other room in two, shining on only half of the basket of tomatoes. ‘I can’t leave, Iosif, can’t you see I can’t leave, the wind from Coșava blows so fiercely that …’ says the old man aloud, pressing his mouth to the filthy little window, and his words remain there, crushed by the cold, dusty glass. This time the words will be more an excuse than a lament, they will mingle together freely, as the old man’s tongue has started growing thicker. ‘I can’t, you must understand, do you think I wouldn’t like to go, my horses are shivering with cold, the wind’s blowing so harshly, I’ve prepared the woollen blankets to cover them, and now I …’ And as he watches everything that is going on in the other room, he will have to keep staring at the tomatoes he can’t reach. Then, with a shaking hand, he will scrawl his name on the dusty, narrow window. But his hand gets tired after the first letters, the name is left unfinished, an i and an a scribbled in the dust, shaky, crooked, as if it were a schoolboy’s first attempt at handwriting. The old man climbs down awkwardly and drags himself to the other end of the room. He pulls out another chair, lifts it with difficulty and tries to stand it on top of the first chair. The chair falls down and hits his legs. It would be better if he didn’t shout in pain. He should be much too concerned with his thoughts to be aware of the pain. He lifts the chair again with great effort and balances it on the other one with the skill of a circus artist. He clambers on top of the chairs, stands still, triumphant, and gazes at the room from high up. It looks totally different to him now. He lifts an arm and touches the ceiling with a finger, which fills him with joy. Then he leans on the window once more and presses his nose to it, feeling the strong smell of dust and dirt. On the other side, the light is on again and a young man stands half-naked in the middle of the room, among the fruit baskets. There are grapes and apples. Only now can the old man see them, because he is in a higher place. Head bent to one side, lips slightly parted, the young man looks at him with wide eyes. They stare at each other for a while in silence. Then the young man starts moving his lips as if asleep. Obviously, his slightly swollen and moist lips cannot utter any words. Finally, the old man realises he knows the younger one. ‘He is my son, Iosif,’ he tells himself in amazement and wipes the dirty window with his wrinkled hand, so that he can see him better. He even whispers his name as he places his mouth against the glass. The young man doesn’t answer; he just stands still and stares at him. The old man won’t give up, so Iosif finally moves the basket of grapes closer to the window and climbs on it awkwardly. His feet turn red from the grapes, the grapes melt his legs, he slips, falls on them and crushes them with his weight, stands up again and the bright-red juice oozes across his chest and shoulders, his hands and thighs, even his face is covered in that sweet, bloody fluid. He signals to the old man that he doesn’t have a chair, so he can’t reach the window. The old man will have to be surprised when he sees they look remarkably alike. He will probably have to be sad too, because he cannot squeeze through the narrow nook to the other side and the door is locked. Or maybe he will not even have to think about this. He will only have to tell his son, though he won’t be able to hear him, ‘I can’t leave, please believe me, I can’t, the wind’s blowing so fiercely, I can’t …’ Or the old man will have to imagine that he is talking, because no sound will come out of his mouth, except that continuous, meaningless gibberish. After a long time, he will start counting the walls. At first, he will count four, then five, and the faster he counts, the more walls he will find. They will take various geometrical forms and at a certain point there will be so many walls that all the angles will disappear and the room will become circular. It will be a smooth, round surface, white and by no means hostile. In the end, Milan’s mute boy, the village idiot, might turn up, sitting on a chair in front of the old man, staring at him and mumbling incoherently. After him, three old men will turn up as well, to watch him without moving. Then he will bend down to kiss the village idiot’s feet.

By Sorin Titel

Translated by Antuza Genescu

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Sorin Titel (1935–1985) is one of the most important Romanian fiction writers of the 20th century. One of his best known works, The Long Journey of the Prisoner (1971), was translated into French by Marie France Ionesco. His most significant project is the tetralogy published between 1974 and 1983. Its novels (re)define Banat as a literary theme. Mixing diverse influences – the nouveau roman, Chekhov, oneirism – his writings are both innovative and tragic.

Antuza Genescu (b. 1968) is a freelance translator, teacher and writer. Besides several volumes of Romanian poetry and art albums, which she has translated into English, her work also includes translations into Romanian of various poets around the world (Sudeep Sen, George Szirtes, Fiona Sampson, Jean Portante, Alice Notley, Erkut Tokman, Kama Sywor Kamanda), as well as science fiction authors like Gene Woolfe, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, Orson Scott Card, Robin Hobb, Stephen King.

Category: The Romanian RiveterTranslationsSeptember 2020 – The Romanian Riveter


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