In Lindenfeld, a Swabian village in the Banat region, abandoned for more than two decades, preparations are underway for a “theatrical performance” intended for a single spectator : Klaus Bernath. The latter abandoned the village in his youth, “escaping” to Germany and becoming, in the meantime, a millionaire. Now in his old age, the wealthy Klaus wishes, after all these years, to visit his childhood home. In order to conceal the truth regarding the abandonment of the now deserted village by its former inhabitants, his son and biographer hire a number of actors, screenwriters, scenographers, a director, a group of art students, and a professor of the theory of art, whose “mission” is to restore Lindenfeld to life. Thus begins a true spectacle, in which the people of the village are brought to life by actors, the houses regain their former colours and nature is recreated by man. In this charade, however, relationships develop, the actors sometimes enter their roles too deeply, and the life of the reborn Lindenfeld catches the characters in the web which they themselves have spun. Everything is finalised before the coming of the village’s great son, more or less grandiose plans are hatched, so that, on his arrival in the village, Klaus Bernath finds a community which does indeed live according to its own rules, not one that merely mimics life. However, since what began as a charade can only conclude in the same way, the plans constructed by the occasional inhabitants of the village are thwarted by the unexpected death of the old Swabian on his return from Germany. This novel is simultaneously a parable about an artificial society, but one which nonetheless mechanically adopts the natural rules of a genuine society.
The buses came to a stop in the little square in front of the Mayor’s Office, letting the people alight and collect their luggage. After that, with a few deft manoeuvres of drivers experienced in conveying tourists to all sorts of out of the way places, and playing for applause, admiration and a hefty tip, they managed to turn round at the end of the lane and head back to Caransebeº. With two driverly toots of the horn, one from each bus, they pierced the silence of the village as they went, saluting those who, for the next two weeks, would be the villagers, the inhabitants of Lindenfeld. Otto, who had arrived with Petrică Florescu in the jeep somewhat earlier, said to himself : “Now it can all really begin.”
They stayed together, no one was curious enough to venture into the village. They arranged their luggage around the four of five new benches in front of the Mayor’s Office and then returned into a compact group. No one strayed from the platoon ; no one left the area. On the contrary, proving that they were a close‑knit team, they instinctively formed a square and waited to be addressed. This was the result of discipline : they acted as a team only when it was the case, when circumstances required. It was now the case to demonstrate they were disciplined and so this was what they did. “Discipline is the art of synchronised adaptation,” as the Director had once attempted to define it, five years previously. “No,” Little Sepp had corrected him. “Discipline is the art of making chaos appear choreographed.”
At the time, only a few months had passed since the Revolution and the distinctions between democracy, discipline, censorship and anarchy were still not very clear. Now, however, definitions were no longer a priority for anybody. “We are disciplined by definition, even if we have no definition of discipline,” someone once joked at a meeting, during the same period.
Petrică and Otto advanced into the middle of the square and, after a brief exchange of pleasantries with the Director, the Producer and then, at random, with two or three of those whom they thought were leaders of opinion, they requested a bit of quiet.
“In fact, we have already quiet here, it’s one of the quietest places I know,” said Petrică. “Isn’t it ?”
“I want to ask you something,” said Little Sepp. “Where are all the villagers ? They can’t all be at work…”
“That’s precisely what I was about to tell you. The villagers have only just arrived, on two buses,” Petrică quipped, in order to give the discussion a more bracing air. “For the next two weeks, we will be the villagers. But about all that, about the artistic performance in which we are to take part, writer Mr Otto von Romanoff, the author of the script, is now going to speak to us. He will speak in German. I’m sure that everybody can understand. Mr Otto,” said Petrică, in German. “Please reveal to us the details of what is will be taking place here over the next two weeks.”
A suave subservience, somehow complicit… it was his speciality. He still had the lively reflex of making himself looked indebted to bosses, whenever they were around. As soon as they left, he would assume for himself all the prerogatives of boss and impose the same treatment on subalterns. He was just as good at being a subaltern as he was at being boss. In the present case, Otto was the boss because he had had the idea and because it was he who had authorised the expenditure for the operation.
“Dear colleagues… I shall venture to refer to you thus because I hope that we shall be colleagues together in this artistic experiment. Not merely because we have signed contracts whereby your services as actors have been procured. I believe that we shall be sharing much more than a contract for the provision of services. What is going to take place here will not be a film, it will be an excerpt from life. It will be a reality show, if you will. Let me be more explicit. Five years ago, I met an extraordinary man, who was born here. He is one of the richest men in Europe, among the top five in Germany. I was so impressed by his character that I took it upon myself to write his biography. We talked for hundreds of hours. I discovered an exemplary personage. I also discovered that he has not forgotten his roots, that he has not for one moment forgotten his native village. That is why I wanted us to visit the place together, with myself accompanying him as his biographer.
“However, on finding out that Lindenfeld was an abandoned village, I couldn’t just stand by idly. I could not accept that a man who loves his birthplace so much would turn up here and see that nothing remains of what he had expected to see. Together with Mr Petrică Florescu, I came up with the plan in which you are about to take part. We wanted to give substance to Mr Klaus’ dream. We wanted to furnish him with a reality to match his dream. Thus, we are going to give a reality performance ; we will be offering a living, vigorous, animated and prosperous Lindenfeld. You will play the parts ; you will be living characters in this dream. Klaus Bernath’s reunion with his native village depends on each and every one of us, on each and every one of you.
“I would like to anticipate a potential objection : ‘Won’t we be committing a fraud ?’ you will ask. No, not at all. This is a beautification of life ; it is a correction of reality. It is a show. Instead of the cruel spectacle of an abandoned village, in which the life of the community has been extinguished, we will be offering what our main character expects. Just as some people spend money on paintings, excursions, theatre tickets, or expensive cars, we have purchased a slice of life. A beautiful slice, instead of a mouldy rind. A slice that Klaus Bernath abundantly deserves. His biography cannot tolerate the homecoming to a wasteland. We cannot offer him a dead vista. His weak heart wouldn’t take it.
“I have to tell you that your great compatriot has already had one severe heart attack and we consider that the shock of a wasteland would prove fatal. As you can see, beyond the artistic aspect there is also a humanitarian aspect. It is his intention to stay here for a week, to collect his thoughts at the grave of his mother, at the grave on which is also inscribed the name of his father, and then to leave. He will take with him an image which will give him new vigour, which will make his old age more pleasant. This is why I appeal to you : offer him this week without suspicions, without disruptions. The roles you will be playing are those of simple villagers.
“Some of you will even be distant relatives, he does not have more than a second or third cousin here. That is, he didn’t have. Cousins from among those whom he doesn’t know, who were born after he left. It won’t be a problem. For you, for your artistic career, this week of rehearsals and then the week of non‑stop performance will be a challenge. But also an opportunity. The opportunity to live a different life, to assume a different existence. I am relying on you and on the contracts we have signed. There is one last thing I would like to say, although I don’t think it entirely necessary, as I suspect you must have understood already, but I shall say it nevertheless : all this is a secret. If he found out that he had been deceived, Klaus Bernath would suffer major heart problems.
“I would like you to agree to keep the secret until you leave here, the day after our guest leaves. If anyone would like to back out, then say so now. We don’t want to force anybody to stay against his or her will. Neither love nor art can be made by force.”
There was amazement on the faces in the square. A heavy silence descended upon them all. It was a minor shock from which some recovered quickly, others more slowly.
“And so there isn’t going to be any film ?” asked some one at the back, somehow hiding, to avoid being identified. It seemed that this was a question that had arisen in the minds of most of those present.
“Not for the time being, no. There won’t be any film ; that was just our little stratagem to keep the operation secret. We want everything to be well organised, not to get out of control. Please believe me when I tell you that you could not have been better paid if you had taken part in a film shoot. But let me remind you, this is much more than just acting in a film : you are acting in the life of a person.”
The collective murmur persisted for another minute or two and then died away. It was transformed into a set of superimposed conversations. Cliques and affinities had been resumed. But, regardless of their differences of opinion as to life at the Theatre, now they all thought alike. None of them wanted to go back to Timiºoara. Some had made their farewells to friends, informing them that they would be away on tour for two weeks, others had left their keys with neighbours for them to water the plants, a few others just wanted to take in the clean mountain air. They all had reasons to stay. None found the strength, or rather the weakness, to leave. Otto had displayed sufficient pathos and conviction for them not to lose faith. The emphasis had shifted from their desire to get to be in a film at last, albeit only as extras, to the avant‑garde gesture of enacting the spectacle of everyday life in a village that had not known such a thing for decades.
Essentially, it was not even a hoax. It would have been worse if there had been some kind of irregularity as regards the money. The new artistic perspective was rapidly debated within the little cliques, after Otto had made a strategic withdrawal into the Mayor’s Office, together with Petrică, the Theatre Director and the permanent Producer. He had wanted to emphasise the fact that everything had the approval of the Theatre management. The Director had smiled in a certain way when they were being told how things stood. He knew, the others told themselves. And, they continued to reason, if he, who is the epitome of prudence, is in on the story, then it means that there is nothing out of order. “I wonder how much he has been paid,” Little Sepp asked a stagehand, who had already had a fair bit to drink and was flushed in the face. “What does it matter how much he gets, what matters is how much I get. I’m not complaining. It’s very, very gooood,” said the stagehand, who, now that he had consumed a fair amount of alcohol, was speaking only in Romanian, although he himself was one hundred per cent Swabian. For it was only in Romanian that could he get out the swearwords so expressively.
No, nobody wanted to go back. “It would be stupid for us to leave without seeing what will happen,” Kristina kept repeating what was going through her mind, looking towards the door of the Town Hall and watching for the moment when Otto would come back. After convincing herself that she had been heard, she fell silent just as expressively, just as theatrically. “It would be stupid,” she said, this time only in her own mind, “for me to leave and to miss the chance to woo that German writer. Let’s see how great he is, the slyboots. I mean, you’ve changed your tune from being a writer, and now we’re performing in someone’s life, aren’t we ? Well then, mister talented, I’ll show you whose life I’m going to be performing in. Wait until you see what role I’m going to play ! Just let me see if you can write as well as I can act !”
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth