The largely autobiographical Plans in Life tells the story of a Romanian family, spanning the period from the Second World War to the present day, including episodes set in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps, during the Ceausescu dictatorship and the chaotic transition period after 1989, and also in the present-day, rapidly changing West. All these episodes are viewed through the eyes of the main character, Vili Barna, a writer and researcher who emigrates from Romania to Germany in the 2000s after obtaining a scholarship. At the age of forty-five, he contemplates his life with unruffled calm. Gliding back and forth in time, he experiences past and present simultaneously, not only his own past and present, but also that of the father he lost as a child, whom he now rediscovers with the help of the harrowing diary of his time as a prisoner of war in the USSR, which Vili transcribes on to his computer during his residences in the West. Via an exchange of e-mails that he carries on during his solitude in the West, Vili’s absurd and often darkly humorous experiences also relate to the life of Romanian emigrants in Italy and Canada, with all its frustrations and disappointments. Before and after 1989, Vili experiences all the anxieties of an honest Romanian intellectual who dreams of reaching the other shore after the Ceausescu dictatorship. After all the political and social adversities of the 1990s, after all the betrayals and desertions around him, he will concentrate on his family and the immediate future. His plans are aimed at a life abroad, where the goodwill of strangers might give him at least a crumb of normality from time to time. Written in the third person, Plans in Life also discreetly probes the problem of contemporary man’s identity and the contrasts he has to cope with. This is the problem with the past, which you cannot simply leave behind at home like an object. The past is part of you and helps you to reconcile yourself and the rest of the world. This reconciliation is precisely what the main character is attempting to achieve in the numerous situations – whether remembered or experienced directly – in which he is caught up in the novel. A heroic, but not always successful endeavour.
“Maybe it would be better for us to settle down here, at home, however hard it might be, for us to stop looking for jobs in the West, to live our lives here… The villains who rule Romania now and who make our lives so hard won’t inherit the earth…”
It’s Diana, her voice, which now resounds in his head as he waits for take-off. It’s a very tempting proposal. Foreign countries have an extremely tiring side to them, prior to any advantage, prior to any gain. The thing that drives him to make these trips is, he thinks, a disquiet he has not yet managed to define. He would like to get something more out of life, so it would seem, but this “something” is still unclear in his mind. He is dissatisfied with his experiences, but this dissatisfaction has no definite cause. Maybe this is to do with his artistic inclinations, but such an explanation isn’t enough for him, because he has almost always tried to suppress these inclinations, to marginalise them, not to grant them any recognition. They don’t belong to him and he has nothing to do with them. It might come from a vague desire to see the world. That might be it, but whenever the world acquires new meanings in his mind, in that instant it becomes a reason for discouragement, for taking a step back rather than a step forward. Why should he keep looking for jobs in the West? It’s obvious that nobody is looking for the kind of qualifications and work experience he has: mixed, unclear, unsuitable, either too recent or too old, either insufficient or overly specialised. And then there is the fact that he is forty-five. He shouldn’t forget that. Employers also look at your age. People like him, over the age of forty-five, can cause problems related to health insurance and additional costs. Maybe it would be better to give up the thought of emigrating, to settle down, and to resign himself to living at home the life he has left to live. To look forward to seeing his children earning their own living, to seeing them set up in their own homes, on their own two feet. To look forward to having grandchildren and even to helping raise them. These are things not to be dismissed out of hand. Why not? It’s not very healthy to live day after day a life that is always projected into the future. It is about time he remapped his route.
As these thoughts are passing through his mind and given there is still a little time before take-off, he stands up and rummages in his bag in the overhead luggage compartment. He needs the book he has kept separate in the side pocket. It is Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch. Old age and all it entails, the lack of horizons, the endless hours of insomnia, the aching bones and body, the lack of energy and any inclination to go out, the inescapable depressions, as if you were in a pit and can’t climb out because the walls are slippery and there are no handholds…
“We bought a house with a lift,” he hears his German friend Kurt say, “because we were thinking about our old age, when we might not be able to climb the stairs…”
They have changed their old house for a bigger one, in the same little town near Cologne, a house with a lawn and a spacious garden, with lots of bedrooms upstairs, with bookcases scattered throughout the house, with books everywhere, a house full of warmth, with a light, spacious office on the ground floor, immediately to the right, where he can work at will and receive guests, a house with a garage, with very large basements that have plenty of room for washing machines and closets for clothes and all kinds of things. He and his wife, Greta, are now working from dawn to dusk on the finishing touches, reinstalling the plumbing, putting new tiles on the walls and floors of the bathrooms. The workmen will finish in about a month. They have invited them to stay despite all the work being done, but everything is fine, because all they need is a pillow on which to lay their head in the evening. And if there is a functional bathroom, then everything is perfect. In the first place, there is the joy of seeing each other, like true friends. Matei hasn’t come with them. Only Vili and the girls: his wife and daughter. He likes to call them “my girls”, because that way he feels as if he has his feet planted more firmly on the ground, as if his life is more stable. Matei had to go and experience a turning point at the petrol station in Austria, he had to go back home and stay another two weeks all by himself, he had to regret his decision to leave, his impatience, the impulses of youth.
“When would you have liked him to experience the impulses of youth, Vili? When he is old?”
He’s right, of course. On the patio overlooking the garden, Greta listens to Diana and Vili talking about Matei’s departure. She smokes her cigarette, relaxed. Kurt arrives. It is a very pleasant evening, although Vili is feeling slightly ill, he doesn’t know why. He is suffering from some kind of flu, a kind of exhaustion, a kind of being nowhere and everywhere at once, a kind of giving up combined with perseverance and the will to go on. It is more of a giving up. It appears to be a common-a-garden bout of flu. Nothing philosophical at all. Greta fetches him some pills, which she tries to persuade him to take exactly as it says in the instructions, one every six hours over a number of days – him, with his phobia for medicine, with his insufferable way of turning everything into a problem, of coddling himself like a coddled child. Kurt suggests that they should try some different kinds of German beer. He has fetched the bottles they bought in the petrol station, and now he comes back with glasses of different shapes, each suited to a different variety of beer. They begin the experiment, drinking from larger or smaller cylindrical and then oval glasses. They tell jokes and imitate drunken people. Kurt is amused by the fun they are having together, and Greta smiles indulgently from her armchair. Vili would like to feel better, at least for the sake of such a moment of shared friendship, but he feels ill, despite having taken two of Greta’s pills.
“If you’re ill, you needn’t stay, Vili,” Kurt says in German that is clear and plain, adapted for the ears of a beginner. “You can go and lie down in bed.”
In his mind he thanks him for his concern. To lie down in bed is the thing he most wants right now. And so he stands up, excuses himself, and leaves. The others remain behind to draw their conclusions about the different varieties of beer. It has been a long day, albeit very pleasant, with the tasting of countless sorts of mustard in a shop in Monschau so stylish and elegant that you were afraid to go in. When you come from the East, even if you have seen quite a lot of Europe, you experience such fears. Then there was the visit to the amazing Rotes Haus, in whose kitchen Vili felt as if he had been teleported back to the eighteenth century. Then there was Bonn, where they took photographs in the inner courtyard of Beethoven’s house, and Maastricht, with strolls through deserted squares and beer in sunny outdoor restaurants. He always had a sense of déjà-vu. For quite a while he has lacked any interest in the new, the curiosity that used to impel him to adventure and the unknown, the desire to make plans, to change plans, the decision not to give up. He tries to confront the ache in his bones and his exhaustion, stretched out on the double bed in Grete and Kurt’s bedroom. Like good hosts and friends, they have let them sleep in their room, while they themselves sleep on the couch in the living room. Thoughts about emigration crowd through his mind. Thoughts about whether there is any point, whether it is reckless on his part to keep insisting on an endeavour that has kept rebuffing him, that has wasted time and money and energy. Daria and Violeta are in Italy. If he left, too, his mother, old and alone in the countryside, would have no one but Carmen.
“At least she would have somebody, Diana!” he says, one day.
“What a nice consolation… I have nothing more to say on the subject,” she answers in passing, without providing any additional explanation, because she knows he has understood perfectly.
Diana has faith in his powers of understanding.
“Other people have completely abandoned their aged parents,” he continues, seeking support for his theory.
“So what if they have?” she says. “Does that mean we ought to do the same thing? Wouldn’t going abroad mean giving up the final years we might have spent alongside our mothers, who bore us and raised us, and whom, given the way things go in our life on this earth, it won’t be long before we never see again?”
“Alright, alright, but nowadays it’s easy to travel,” he says, examining every facet of the problem, adding further elements to his plea in favour of recklessly going abroad. “Aeroplanes are accessible. You can get home in just a few hours from wherever you might be in the world.”
“So what if you can get there? The problem isn’t getting there, but not staying at home…”
“Look,” he continues, in his mind, “after we take off and I admire the city of Zurich from on high, with its lake and elegant houses on the shore, where life is easier and suffering melts away in the comfort and lack of worry about what tomorrow might bring, or so I believe, I will get back home. And at home everything is easier. Or is that merely what they say? It’s both easy and hard, as the song goes. It’s hard because I can’t find what I’m looking for: an environment more suited to the plans I keep making. And it’s easy simply because I was born and raised there and I don’t come from anywhere else. When you’re a foreigner, you experience everything with the maximum amount of stress, because you want to succeed among foreigners, because you want to find a place for yourself. When you’re at home, your place goes without saying. It’s your place and you don’t need to ask permission to stay there.”
He thinks this is the difference between being abroad and being at home. He might add some other thoughts and reflections, but there’s no point. Reflections are bearable in small doses, but he doesn’t want to annoy anybody.
He visits schools to give talks about healthy living. Neglect and disorder have built their nests in the schools. Children no longer have the patience to sit quietly for even five minutes in a lesson. They are agitated, they are not interested in books, in reading, and the poor teachers have nobody to talk to. Schoolchildren nowadays want something easy, something that won’t tax their brains too much, something that is easy to remember, like the score from an important football match.
“We’re dissatisfied,” says a girl in the back row, “because not all the teachers make an effort to make their lessons interesting… And we get bored…”
It’s a lycée class, with boys and girls from families of above-average income. It is apparent from the clothes and the perfumes. It is obvious from their arrogant attitude, devoid of any trace of shyness, of any lack of confidence. All the same, he has to provide an answer, not only to this girl, who is so sure of herself, but to the whole class. He doesn’t feel in his element, but he knows he must at least try.
“Teachers aren’t actors here for your entertainment!” he answers, aware that he is pouring oil on the fire. “Teachers have their good and their bad points, like anybody else, and they are here to help you learn. Are your parents always interesting, fresh, ready to talk, there for you whenever you’re at home? Don’t you have off days, when you can’t be bothered with anybody or anything? And besides, don’t you see how badly paid they are? Are you living here in Romania or on some other planet? Why should teachers be obliged to put up with all your spoiled-brat caprices? Can’t you see how nasty and insensitive you’ve become? Little terrorists who make decent people’s lives more miserable than they would have been otherwise. Have you ever asked the teacher who fails to amuse you in his or her lesson whether he or she has eaten that morning, whether he or she has enough money to buy at least one book a month, whether he or she has enough money to pay his or her wretched mortgage instalments, whether he or she finds any pleasure in talking to baboons like you every day, who are incapable of anything except giggling? What kind of people are you going to grow up into? Who taught you to be so cynical? Your parents? Soap operas with women who are so aggressive that they come to blows with the men? Wake up to reality, children. Tomorrow it will be too late…”
He seems to have touched a sensitive, sentimental, tearful cord, one that also works in politics. He feels like he has hit a nerve. And he went on in the same vein, continued in the same tone of cheap indignation, for around twenty minutes, bombarding the poor things with rhetorical questions by the dozen. There was silence. When he finished, he went out, giving them merely a dry, professional “goodbye” and leaving the door open. He heard their round of applause, but he didn’t go back to take a bow. It wasn’t a concert, for him to give an encore. They were applauding, if you can imagine the like…
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“A dense, well-structured novel, a ‘slice of life’. The way in which the plot of the novel is able to rise from dialogue between the characters to the level of a dialogue between Eastern and Western Europe is something that really does connect with future plans in life…”
(Dan C. MIHAILESCU)