Before dawn, the workers descended into the giant crater, some thirty metres below ground, and manned their stations. They had almost reached the depth required to lay the piled raft foundation of the nineteen-storey skyscraper. The soil was muddy, the diaphragm walls and heavy-duty pumps could barely cope with the groundwater infiltration. Beneath Paris, there was an immense swamp just waiting to surface. The only way to keep it at bay was to pour reinforced concrete over the piles anchored in the bedrock seventy metres deep. The excavators still had a lot of dirt to remove from one corner, and were being pressed on by the steel fixers who were tying together the horizontal skeleton of rebar cages. At the opposite end of the building site, the concrete mixing trucks were already discharging their viscous load through long hoses guided into the formwork. The deadlines were very strict, there was no room for hesitation. The workers were supposed to reach ground level by the summer and welcome the autumn from the tenth floor. Which was doable for a steel-frame building with glass curtain walls.
The operator sipped from his white plastic coffee cup. He drove the excavator bucket deep into the ground, scooped up soil, swung the arm over to the dump truck, unloaded it and swung back. He was about to sink the steel teeth forward and down again, when he saw a man climbing out of the ditch, waving his hands at him. The operator froze the boom in mid-air. The sudden halt shook the machine violently and his coffee spilled all over the dashboard. He swung the cabin door open and shouted out:
‘What are you doing there, you bloody idiot? I could’ve killed you!’
The man crept up towards the excavator. Apparently, he didn’t understand what the operator was saying. The operator grabbed a crowbar from under his seat, lit a cigarette, got down and squished through the dark, petroleum-jelly-like bog.
‘Take a good look at this crowbar, ’cause I’m gonna shove it up your ass! You understand that, don’t you?’
‘Ich heisse Otto,’ said the stranger in a friendly tone and pointed a finger to himself. ‘Otto!’
‘Vasile,’ replied the worker. ‘I’m Vasile.’ He was Romanian, like all the other workers on that building site. ‘So why are you here?’
‘Wir sind in Frankreich, ja?’
‘What?’ Vasile frowned at the two-metre-tall intruder who had wormed his way out from under the earth, dressed in what looked like a black SS uniform with a swastika band on the left arm and wearing a German helmet with a miner’s headlamp on it.
‘Frankreich!’ repeated the stranger. ‘I,’ he explained, pointing to himself again, ‘come from the interior of the Earth.’ Then he pointed towards the mouth of the tunnel he had come from. ‘The Earth is hollow, like a ball. Football?’ he said, describing an imaginary sphere with his palms, before letting it drop to his feet and kicking it hard. ‘Gooaaal!’ He started jumping with his arms raised in the air.
The operator knitted his brow. Who the fuck was this crazy guy? Better put him to sleep with the crowbar and find out who he was later. But the stranger was out of reach, and there was a gun on his belt, so Vasile decided it was better to work an unpaid extra hour to complete the day’s work than to take a bullet.
‘Ja, ja,’ Otto went on, ‘the Earth is hollow, has a sun in the middle and is inhabited by the Aryans who found refuge there after the Second World War, fleeing the outer surface of the planet. They all went below near the North Pole and then rushed like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse over the Atlanteans and the Aztecs, who thought they were safe forever down there. They were all Wagnerianly slaughtered – it was like the twilight of their gods. You thought Hitler died. Ja, his lookalike died, but he lived with us long enough to build a new Berlin according to Speer’s plans. When he finally passed away, the real Maréchal Pétain came to power and laid his body in a mausoleum like Napoleon’s. You have to bow in front of him when you see it, and on top is erected a tower – baptised Eiffel – to cast your eyes over after you’ve bowed. The ruler of the Fourth Reich, who created a civilisation without Jews, Arabs and Negros, a purely French civilisation, as he called it, went on to change the name of the capital to Paris and that of the river down there to the Seine. His successor, Führer Lepen, kept these names and ordered the construction of a mausoleum topped with an arch of triumph for his predecessor and another one, with a glass pyramid above it, for when his time would come. And now he has sent me, his Deputy Führer, to Frankreich, to establish contact with its leaders and start negotiations to reunite us with our motherworld. Don’t think of it as incest, but rather as the kind of symbiosis not at all uncommon in nature. But I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry, which is why instead of following the North Pole route, I’ve decided to take this shortcut. By my calculations, I’ve reached the right spot, so I’m asking you to …’
‘Do you speak French?’ asked the operator. He couldn’t make out anything of the endless flow of words.
‘Was?’ asked Otto.
‘Rumänisch?’ Otto slapped his forehead. ‘Here is Romania?’
‘Ja, ja,’ Vasile mocked, laughing.
‘You traitors!’ shouted Otto, taking a map of Europe out of his pocket. ‘This means I must dig another thousand kilometres to the west. Scheisse! I can hardly wait to meet you again, Vasile. We will wipe out all of you, you subhumans. It is because of you that we, the French, have lost two world wars.’
‘Whatever,’ said Vasile, shrugging as the tall guy turned around and left.
Otto disappeared back into his tunnel. Vasile climbed back into the cabin and set the bucket in motion.
A month after this encounter, the foundations finally reached the right depth. Although Vasile had tried to block it up, Otto’s tunnel seemed like a bottomless pit. The chief engineer decided to place a large slab on top of the entrance and pour concrete over it. Once this was done, everybody forgot about it.
A couple of months later, having dug a thousand kilometres to the west, Otto surfaced under the Atlantic. Ocean water poured into his tunnel and filled the hollow centre of the planet, drowning the inner world. On the outside of the planet, sea levels dropped abruptly by hundreds of metres. Overnight, Japan was no longer an island, but one of China’s terrestrial nerve-endings; the Netherlands tripled its territory and went on to secure it by methodically expanding its dams; Venice emerged entirely from the lagoon and began to stink as never before, so it was abandoned; and Italy no longer resembled a high-heeled leather boot, but a round-toed rubber one. Most seas drained away, the deltas turned into cascades, while the USA and Russia massed border patrols, radar installations, rockets and masons on their new terrestrial border – the former Bering Strait, also called the New Checkpoint Charlie. The Bermuda Triangle was now opened for agriculture, although no insurance company would promise to compensate farmers if they lost their tractors and ploughs in the fields; while Cuba became part of the USA – the High Fidelity State. Its licence plates called it the Car Museum State. The idea of deepening the Suez and Panama Canals was soon discarded, leading to a sharp increase in the price of crude oil and a general switch from fossil to renewable energy resources. The planet took its time to adapt to the geographical and climate changes, but it eventually regained its usual pace and most countries carried on much as before.
This was the drop that made the glass of globalisation overflow. For several historical controversies were far from being resolved and the draining of the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea helped reinstate them on the public agenda – much more effectively than opening the Channel Tunnel or the arrival of the last refugee boat. So is Great Britain only an ungrateful but strapping extension of France or, on the contrary, is the Gallic rooster nothing but a travesty of the perfidious raven of Albion, vocal but impotent, perched with ruffled feathers on the manure heap of the continent? Is l’Hexagone, which is now more an obese Octagon, a never-ending European-style strike taking place in an Africa that is on social care … or vice versa? Has Europe transformed itself into a giant hinterland of its former colonies or into a vast demographic and economic débouché of the Chinese? Besides these, there are other issues – such as what was more damaging for humanity, Nazism or communism; the rights of an individual versus those of the majority; liberty, equality, fraternity or death; why Romania and Bulgaria are in the Schengen Area and Russia in NATO; was there or was there not an Armenian genocide in Turkey; do ETs exist or are we alone in the Universe? (in which case nobody sees us from on high, so we can stop pretending) – all issues still to be debated some other time or, even better, forwarded to the UN for a resolution. Once an issue, global warming became just a joke the Canadians played on the Eskimos. And since fossil fuels were no longer in demand, all terrorists lost their jobs and were sent home, where each of them received an oil well, to use as they pleased.
Anyway, humankind was saved.
By Alexandru Potcoavă
Translated by the Author
Originally appeared in Romanian in Ce a văzut Parisul (‘What Paris Has Seen’), Herg Benet Publishing House, 2012.
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Alexandru Potcoavă has worked as a journalist for many years and is a member of PEN Club Romania. His poetry, short-story collections and novels include Alexandru Potcoava and Bianca Sat on Alex, Pavel and His People, Our Country’s Scouts Must Always Be Cheerful! and The Life and Return of a Halle.