Novel, Prose series, Cartea Romaneasca, 2015, 376 pages
Copyright: Cartea Romaneasca
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Since Franz Mayer, the photographer to the Royal Court, opened his studio in Theatre Square, the faces of Bucharest’s inhabitants have been reflected one after the other in his display window. Through the camera lens, the young artist immortalises on pieces of cardboard not only the course of History, but also hundreds of individual histories, behind which Time implacably flows. Simona Antonescu has the gift of reading the stories in the still living eyes of people captured thanks to the miracle of photography and of reconstructing late-nineteenth-century Romanian society. In this way it is possible to write the history of the first decade of independent Romania, from the victory parade beneath the Arch of Triumph headed by King Carol I to the Romanian Pavilion at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889. The Photographer to the Royal Court fulfils Franz Mayer’s dream. His photographs have become immortal.
The child raised his hand above his head and slipped two dirty fingers into the frock coat pocket of the gentleman in front of him. The crowd that surged from every side helped him to pass unobserved. Had he not been constantly jostled by the people to his left and right, the gentleman under attack would easily have felt that his pocket was being rifled. But in their eagerness to find the best possible spot, the people in the crowd had discarded good manners. You could see elegant ladies and respectable gentlemen resorting to the use of their elbows as they pushed their way to the front rows.
The little pickpocket’s face was only half washed. Probably that morning he had cupped his hands to splash it with water, but when it came to scrubbing it thoroughly, including behind the ears, zeal had deserted him, with the result that now he had one cheek that was clean on its chubbier parts, but was bordered by the layered tidemarks of previous days’ dirt. His shining white skin showed that the urchin was Romanian. From experience he knew not to look up at the target of his attack, since insistent glances had made previous victims glance down at him at the most inopportune moments. Therefore, he fastened his eyes on the pocket and his own hand.
Through the eye of his camera, positioned on a tripod in the very middle of the square, Franz espied him. For a moment he examined the gentleman under attack, trying to divine whether the theft would mean any great loss to him. The entire scene, the deft movements of the little devil and his skillfully averted eyes, enchanted the photographer.
He would have liked to continue watching, but for that his conscience needed to know that the gentleman would not suffer any great misfortune. The tall top hat of matte satin, as black as coal, but with a bluish shimmer when the sun shone directly on it, the new frock coat, seemingly tailored especially for the great event and now being worn for the first time, the dazzling white shirt front visible at his neck and the gaiters cut from cloth of the same colour and fastened with black buttons, all of these put Franz’s conscience at rest.
The petty theft about to occur would be no great misfortune to its victim.
Just as the purse, gripped between two fingers, was emerging from the pocket, a new character abruptly entered the photographer’s lens, propelled from behind by the heaving crowd. A policeman, who had probably been lurking all the while, just a pace away, but who had remained hidden from Franz’s eyes because he was standing outside the frame, laid a hand on the child’s shoulder. In fact the hand sooner landed on the small shoulder as a result of the surging crowd. Probably the policeman had intended to let the child finish his pickpocketing and then to apprehend him, but things had come to a head.
From behind could be heard voices, conveying the news in waves towards the front rows: “They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Franz straightened his back and cast a swift glance above his camera, towards the Triumphal Arch. He gauged the distance with his eyes once again, adjusted the focus, and examined the sun’s place in the sky, so that the light would fall in the direction he had chosen. Everything was ready. Beneath the Triumphal Arch was expected the Romanian Army, victorious in the war between the Russians and the Turks, having brought about the country’s much laboured-for independence. His Royal Majesty King Carol I of Romania was due to appear at any moment, leading the victorious army home.
The alarm proved to be false. As if on cue, the crowd quieted down and voices were lowered. Franz once more put his eye to the viewfinder and resumed his study of the square through the camera placed on its tripod. The scene that had delighted him but a minute before had progressed in his absence. The child was nowhere to be seen. On the spot where he had been, the policeman now stood with legs spread wide apart and hands behind his back, in a stance of authority. He had pushed his tall, bulbous cap back on his head, as if he were ready for action.
Franz examined the face of the man in the frock coat, trying to divine there the denouement he had missed. He looked serene and completely oblivious to the danger that had stalked him. He turned the camera towards the policeman. On his face could be read pride; his gaze swept up and down the crowd, as if everything belonged to him. The photographer concluded that the theft had been prevented in time, but the little pickpocket had slipped through the hands of the law, probably losing himself among the ranks of people behind, where the policeman could not pursue him.
At the gates of the city, at the start of the Mogosoaia Deck, the town hall had hastily erected the Triumphal Arch that was about to receive the Romanian Army with the appropriate pomp and gratitude. The Mayor had ordered the structure, which was made of wood covered with plaster adorned with bas-reliefs and inscriptions. Voices had immediately been raised in protest, since a wooden frame clad in plaster would not stand the test of time, as a true Triumphal Arch demanded. The Mayor had quelled those voices with a promise that an arch identical to the one to be used for immediate purposes would later be built from enduring stone.
The building work lasted two weeks.
At the end of the two weeks, if you set out from Sarindar along the Mogosoaia Deck back towards the square, you could see the structure looming in the distance, arching above the two-storey buildings. The large angel placed in the very middle of the Arch, holding aloft the wreath of victory, his wings lowered over his back in sign of peace, looked as if he were traced directly on the sky to anybody who looked from the middle of Mogosoaia Deck and even from elsewhere, from the middle of Outer Market Avenue, which some had begun to call Forbears Avenue. To the right and left of the big angel of victory, the architects had placed another two angels at his feet, which became visible only after you passed the end of the avenue.
That early October day was not particularly sunny, and the sky, which was now serene, now cloudy, worried Franz. A slight wind had begun to blow, fluttering the flags on either side of the Triumphal Arch. Franz had counted twelve flags on each side, proceeding in two files from the Arch as far as the entrance to the wooden-planked Mogosoaia Avenue.
The former Big Lane, now adjoined to the Brasov Road, was called a “deck” precisely because it was paved with wooden beams, which made the carriage wheels sound like a song from the olden days. Franz recalled from previous years how the autumn rains, beginning around Anna’s birthday, which was on the very same date, 8 October, had seeped through the logs and collected underneath, adding to the melted winter snow and new spring rains, swelling the wood year after year and causing headaches for every mayor of Bucharest, who could only quell the uproar made by the journalists on that subject by constantly replacing old beams with new.
Perhaps that is why Cariagdi, the new mayor, had lately come up with another proposal that had given rise to floods of different opinions, namely that the Mogosoaia Deck should be cobbled, the same as many other of Bucharest’s main roads. The city’s coachmen and all the coach owners, without exception, had immediately come out against the idea. It was harmful to the horses’ hooves to tread only on cobbles, they said.
But a new camp came out against them and on the side of the mayor, made up of those flighty young men who already knew by heart all the makes of motorcar manufactured by the Germans and Americans. This camp, which seemed thitherto to have developed somewhere out of the sight of the visible Bucharest, was growing more numerous day by day, alarming the old guard with the seeming strength their voices. In a year or two, horse-drawn carriages would be but a memory, they said, having been replaced by swift motorcars whose rubber tires were unaffected by cobblestones.
Anna’s birthday! The thought remained at the surface of Franz’s mind.
Every year, in the middle of autumn, the Mayer house filled with guests, Rosa was provided with a temporary helper, and the household cook ran up and down like a madwoman, driving intruders from the kitchen, without taking care as to what words she wielded. Franz himself had been taken to task in previous years, being told: “Find something else to do in your own rooms, master, and leave me to look after the preparations, because you can be of no help to me here among my pots and pans! What’s more, I even trip over you trying to shield you from the boiling pots I have to carry hither and yon! Please forgive me, madam,” the cook went on, addressing the lady of the house, “but take him out of my way or else I shall have to do something about it myself.”
And so Franz got into the habit of avoiding the kitchen before the party.
But this year the party fell on the same day as a great occasion for the country. The Prince of Romania was returning from the conquered gates of Plevna, riding at the head of the Romanian Army, the same as he had ridden before his men throughout the war. He was bringing with him the barrel of the first Ottoman cannon captured in the sieges of Grivita and all the other redoubts of Plevna, to forge from its steel his crown and that of the future kings of Romania.
To Franz had fallen the honour of taking the official photograph of the event. The fact that it was on the same day as his wife’s birthday had spared him the usual unpleasantness of the early part of the day, when he was at a loose end in a house turned upside down in the fever of preparation, to which it was obvious he could lend no assistance.
He had therefore been overjoyed, both at the honour Her Majesty Princess Elisabeta had bestowed on him by commissioning the photograph and at being released from the annoying feeling of uselessness he felt at home on such a day.
Suddenly, the whole sun emerged from behind the clouds, putting surprised smiles on the faces of those in attendance. A number of gentlemen at the front raised their canes and touched the narrow brims of their top hats with the tips. Two young ladies accompanied only by their maids opened their lacy parasols, as if on cue, concealing beneath them the end of a smile whose beginning had, however, been noticed by the man at whom it was addressed.
The children immediately recovered from the torpor that had gripped them because of the wait and broke ranks, vanishing from sight, into the open in the middle of the square. Behind them, their nurses plucked up courage and crossed the line of policemen and street sergeants, grabbed the children by the hand and brought them back. But they all took advantage of that short moment to cast curious glances into the distance, through the Triumphal Arch, along the old Brasov Road.
The people at the front of the crowd had their eyes on them and were waiting for a sign. The nurses lowered their hands, with which they had shaded their eyes as they peered into the distance, and lowered their eyes to the ground, ostensibly to look to their wards. Nothing could be seen.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The Photographer to the Royal Court is a vintage novel, which succeeds in capturing the larger History via small histories, with numerous tales of mystery, magic and the fantastic, and initiatory narratives. It is proof of an authentic talent. The author’s next book will confirm that she is what she promises here: a great writer.”
(Elisabeta LASCONI , Ziarul Financiar)
“I read the opening pages with surprise and enchantment, with a broad smile spreading across my face, pausing frequently so that my heart would stop racing and with two contradictory desires: to read the whole thing all at once and to linger over each page as long as possible.”
(Laura CALTEA, lauracaltea.ro)
“The Photographer to the Royal Court is not the type of book that ‘you can’t put down,’ but something that you take pleasure in placing on your bedside table, with the thought of picking it up again in the evening or in your next moment of relaxation.”
(Iuliana COMANESCU , Sapte seri)
“The author’s ‘tactic’ has been to begin each narrative thread from the point marked by an authentic photograph, a photograph that she not only explicates, but also integrates into the narrative. And so, although I was expecting the book to be just a semi-biographical story about the upward career of Franz Mandy (the character Meyer), it is far from being just that. The Meyer family, which is at the centre of the plot, creates the context for other immortalised faces to tell their stories one by one, and when their stories interweave, the prose becomes enthralling and unforgettable.”
(Iulia DROMERESCHI , bookblog.ro)