Centred on the stories of two main characters, Evghenie, an aspiring writer, who cannot find his real aim in life, and Valeria, his landlady, Florin Lazarescu’s novel captures not only their two different kinds of “numbness”, eternal writer’s block, in Evghenie’s case, and the fear of looming Alzheimer’s, in Valeria’s, but also the “numbness” of an entire city and all its everyday dramas. For, the city in itself, with all the minor stories that go to make up the wider story, is the third character in the novel, its pulse described now with bitter humour, now with specifically Romanian dramatic means, in a way that becomes spectacular, thanks to the author’s talent at constructing minor episodes of great power. Raising the issue of perpetual failure, in the form of the characters’ inability to salvage their recent memories and use them as a means of prevention, Numbness is a tale of futility, of hopes that exist only out of a human need for hope, but without any real horizon, of small joys which ultimately emphasise the tragedies behind them. A profound book, written with verve and great attention to detail.
In large part, what he is today is also thanks to the strong influence of Cazimir. Evghenie was in the tenth form at a mechanical sciences lyceum when the Revolution came. He was studying, in a manner of speaking, for his second year exams, and the only definite thing about his future was that he had to invent something. He did not know what exactly, but he was positive that there was something in the world still waiting to be invented, something vital, as vital to mankind as slippers, something nobody had thought of before.
He watched the Revolution on television. He was glad of the change and came to believe even more firmly that, under the new circumstances, he no longer had any excuse not to invent something. In the first spring of absolute freedom, when he heard that he would be able to rid himself of mathematics forever (he only liked physics), he decided to transfer to the philology section.
It was there that he met Cazimir, who was permanently to alter his fate. Unlike Evghenie, Cazimir was apparently clear even then about what he wanted to do in life: to become famous, to be universally admired, and, if possible, to make money out of it. He reckoned that the best and shortest path to achieving all these was to become a writer. That is what happened immediately after the Romanian teacher told them to write a symbolist poem for homework, abiding by all the rules of the movement she had taught them about. Evghenie composed a parody, which had the rest of the class rolling around laughing, but Cazimir’s poem moved them almost to tears. In the break, their schoolmates, the girls in particular, hugged him and consoled his “riven soul”. This was what converted Evghenie: he would become a writer.
And so they quickly became renowned throughout the lyceum for the two skills at which they excelled: playing basketball and composing poems both comical and sad. Cazimir believed in them with all his soul, Evghenie less so. Perhaps only after he wrote the first did he have the momentary impression that words were capable of inventing something new, something vital to mankind. But he never really and truly believed in them. When he wrote it was somehow an intellectual exercise, just a way of keeping up with Cazimir.
After they became literature students at the university, they set up a literary circle, in which Evghenie experienced the most glorious period of his life. For him it was not the writing that proved to be important, but the people, the debates, the whole thrilling atmosphere.
After successfully taking part in a few bog standard literary competitions and winning two prizes, Cazimir turned to prose. “Poetry is a dead end. You will never go far with poetry. Nowadays the novel is supreme,” he confided in him. He did not take Cazimir very seriously until the evening when he joyfully handed him a hundred pages which he had run off on the printer: a novel. It sounded good, but not even he suspected how far he would go with it. When a relatively well established publishing house published it, before he even finished university, Evghenie realised that Cazimir’s dream was no longer an illusion.
After university, it was almost natural that they began to drift apart. Evghenie frantically looked for a job so that he could make a living in the city. Cazimir became part of the writing clique. He stopped attending meetings of their literary circle, which faded away, as if it had never existed. He went on to publish other books and became a well known writer.
Their friendship had become more like a fraternal bond of blood. They cared about each other enormously, but there were times when they did not get along at all. Evghenie did not know whether it was merely a question of his own personal frustration or whether a fundamental change had really come over Cazimir since he published his first book. He was saddened by the way in which he was transforming himself: for example, the way in which he altered his past from one interview to another. When they first met, they were both young and foolish. About two years into the literary circle, Cazimir started claiming that he had written a novel when he was still at lyceum. Then he gradually created another myth: in secondary school he had written one novel and started working on a second. After a while, Cazimir went completely over the top with it: he spread it around, and even seemed to be convinced of it himself, that he was a born writer, that he had started writing a novel in his first year at junior school, not long after he learned the alphabet.
And there was another thing that annoyed Evghenie. Whereas in the beginning he had supported him and tried to encourage him to become a prose writer, for more than a year now he had been going on at him about how agonising it was to be a writer: “Bro, you’ve no idea what shit you’re getting yourself into. Don’t take up writing. I didn’t have any choice, and if I stop now, I’ll die of hunger. I’m past the age of forty. I don’t know how to do anything else. Do you think there’s any glory in being a writer? Well, there isn’t. You can’t even imagine how awful you feel when you have to puff up your feathers in public, to create an aura of genius for yourself by wearing a white scarf, while at the same time writing tawdry crap just so people will read your books.” Even at the wedding reception, when it was just the two of them at a table, Cazimir told Evghenie: “Bro, in the end it’s you who has made more of a success of your life than I have. To hell with books! You have managed to fend them all off. Nobody has put a yoke around your neck. Stay the way you are! Live! Enjoy it! Don’t get into this writing shit. Literature today is an industry, bro, with frigid critics, publishers, booksellers and readers, and the only way to get their attention is if you cudgel them over the head. Wretched commercialism. Nothing more.”
“Give us the memory stick!” the freckled lad said. “We’ll sort you out in a jiffy.”
Evghenie handed him the memory stick.
“What format do you want?”
“Big enough to fit in this,” he said, showing him a photograph album.
“Right you are,” said the lad, examining the album.
“I’ll be outside having a cigarette.”
“It’ll be ready by the time you get back.”
Evghenie goes back downstairs and stands by the entrance, in the smokers’ corner. The man with long grey hair, but an incredibly young looking face, is standing next to a stack of around one hundred identical books. He is holding one of them and leafing through it with trembling hands, almost moved to tears.
“Is it ready?” Evghenie asks him. “Is the waiting over?”
“It’s ready,” he answers, without lifting his eyes from the book.
“Why did you have so many copies done? What do you need them for?”
The longhaired man turns to him and for an instant gives him a rather aggressive look, but then his expression resumes its wonted placidity.
“These aren’t copies, mister. This” – he hands Evghenie a copy – “is my published book. My prose debut. I have another five books of poems to come.”
“Shouldn’t you have got a publishing house to print them?” says Evghenie in surprise.
“What do you think this is?” says the longhaired man, pointing at the building behind.
“A photocopying centre.”
“Not only. It’s also a publishing house. You bring your book and the cover on a CD and they print it for you on the spot.”
“I thought that in order to exist officially a book had to have a kind of registration number, like a car, that it had to be listed in the records of the National Library.”
“I know that, mister. I’ve been a member of the Writers’ Union for ten years, damn it! It’s called an ISBN number.”
“What’s the problem, then? You can buy one from here.”
Evghenie looked at the cover of the book. There was a name, a title and a subtitle, in large, bold letters, and a black Don Juan silhouette against a red background:
An Eagle Eternally Without a Nest
– a novel –
When he tried to give him back the book, the author thrust it away.
“Get out of here, mister! Keep it, please!”
Evghenie put his hand inside his breast pocket, to take out his wallet.
“Let me pay you for it then. How much does it cost?”
“Out of the question. I haven’t even decided on a price. It’s priceless,” he quipped awkwardly. “Anyway, it’s my pleasure, take it. In the end, what other joy does a writer have than giving to his readers?”
Feeling foolish, Evghenie is about to leave, holding the book.
“One moment, mister. Let me autograph it for you,” said the author, stopping him in his tracks.
Evghenie accepts the autograph, gives the writer an encouraging pat on the shoulder, shakes his hand heartily, casts a glance at his bicycle, and then goes back inside to pick up the album of wedding photographs.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth