Novel, "Ego Prose" series, Polirom, 2005, 240 pages
Translation rights sold to: Syrtes (France), El Nadir (Spain), Nikita (Italy), Wieser (Austria), Modrijan (Slovenia), Prozoretz (Bulgaria), Geopen Konyvkiado (Hungary)
A satirical novel at first sight, but one in which the author, with verve and talent, paints a fresco of the post-1989 Romanian press and all its flaws: pursuit of cheap sensationalism, the invention and simulation of stories, etc. However, besides this subject in itself, the author slips in a number of other hot topics from the contemporary world, such as ideological conflict, terrorism and so on. The narrative is packed with suspense and spiced with a series of unprecedented situations, which provide abundant humour.
The President of Romania announces his official attendance at the funeral of a leading journalist, who has died in a motorcar accident. The press hunt him for a statement, an Arab terrorist to blow him up. However, as a result of a misunderstanding, both Antonie, the special envoy of a local paper, and Mohammed, the terrorist, fail to intercept the President. The two “hunters” meet in an empty church (supposedly the place where the President is due to make his appearance), into which Mohammed bursts carrying a rucksack full of dynamite, shouting : “Die, western pigs !” After managing to convince the terrorist that Romanians can only dream of becoming “western pigs”, Antonie resumes his hunt for the president, finally arriving at a press conference after the journalist’s burial. Suspected by the bodyguards of making an attempt on the President’s life, he is neutralised with a punch in the face. Antonie loses consciousness, and an orange tunnel opens before his eyes, through which he sees his entire past life. And it is not just any life ! Having once been prince of ruins, he becomes a journalist typical of our times: superficial and always chasing sensational subjects.
The brisk narrative continually changes its viewpoint and outline, moving at a relentless pace. Florin Lăzărescu is a master of the technique of cinematographic exposition, dextrously alternating planes and following multiple, conflicting narrative threads. One of these threads is, of course, that of Antonie, who narrates the ‘world’, after having supposedly gained satisfactory knowledge of it. The second is reserved for his father, Iosif, a history teacher, who, after serving time as a political prisoner, raises his boy in the mountains, far from the madding crowd. Then there is Ioan, the monk who takes the young and savage Antonie into his care. Autonomous levels of the epic deal with the problems of Elvis the gypsy, with his “magic” mirror, drugs, and fear of his boss, the Moor ; and with the desperation of an Arab terrorist, in the form of Mohammed, who wants to blow up ‘western pigs’ starting further east, in Romania.
In a novel with much humour but also a whole host of occurrences that ‘construct’ Romanian society at the limits of the tragic, Florin Lăzărescu provides a perspective of child-like innocence, projecting worldly horrors into the realm of fairytale and ludic fable.
He pushed open the door of the lift with his foot, holding the mirror under his left arm, and a plastic bag in his right hand. He set down his load by the door, unlocked it and entered the bed-sit. He went to the kitchen sink, but it was full of dirty dishes. He lifted the bag up to his eyes. A short jerk and the fish slid onto the carpet. It was a large carp, more than three kilograms.
In the morning, when he had left to go to work, with the mirror under his arm, he could never have suspected what a day was to follow.
Elvis was out of sorts. In the last few days he had not been selling enough to cover the money he had to give the Moor. He was scared to death of him, but with God’s help he could not even imagine that he would not be able to get through it all.
With the little bags of cocaine in the lining of his coat, with the mirror under his arm, he looked like a madman and nothing more. Who would hassle a man standing in a crowd with a pair of scales, inviting folk to weigh themselves? He was just earning an honest crust, without putting his hand in anyone’s pocket. That was how the idea came to him, as he was adjusting his quiff in the bathroom mirror. He had only just fallen in with the Moor and he needed a disguise, an alibi in case the police came and asked him what he was up to. And he remembered that man on the street with the scales, the man no one was paying any attention to. “That’s it!” he exclaimed, overjoyed. “People don’t have time to look in the mirror when they’re walking down the street, but it’s the kind of thing they need. Someone’s got a blotch on his face? Bingo! You stop him, show him it, and ask for some money… That’ll be the spiel for the cops. In reality, you’re luring the young’uns using the mirror. They’re always looking in the mirror. They’ll think it’s a lark. And as they’re admiring themselves in the mirror, you tell them that they’d see how handsome they’d look if they tried a snort of cocaine… And anyhow, you won’t need to spell it out for them. They’ll catch on quickly enough what’s going down.” Although naïve, Elvis’s ruse proved to be as efficient as it was simple. If he bumped into the police, at the most he would get a kick in the arse and then they would leave him in peace. They thought he was small-time. On the other hand, it was an excellent method for distributing drugs. Among young people he had come to be known as “the gypsy with the mirror”. In some of the secondary schools where he used to peddle his wares, a distinct idiom had even been created. “Let’s have a look in the mirror!” or “Are you going to be looking in the mirror tonight ?” were expressions laden with meaning even for many who had never met Elvis.
By lunchtime, he had managed to slip a few bags over. He rounded up the sum for the Moor. But his fear of him did not wane for so much as a moment. There was no fooling with him. He would split your guts opens with a single blow of the knife. His speciality. He had never seen him doing it, but he had heard enough stories about it. The last time he had called him in to hand over the goods – much more stuff than usual – he had said :
“Hey, Elvis, you’re doing a good job. You’ve expanded your market. It’s time to increase your ration. Not just the dough but also the merchandise. See how much faith I have in you ? How much I think of serious people ? But mind you don’t disappoint me, because then whack !” He sliced the air with an imaginary knife. “We turn over another leaf ! It would be a shame, a young, handsome lad like you !”
Elvis had never thought about death until then. But the idea that he could end up split open by the Moor’s bowie knife had given him a terrible jolt. Maybe that was why, for almot a week, Elvis had been going to church every day to pray.
He would leave the mirror by the steps and enter the empty church. He would walk on tiptoes, as though he were a burglar. He headed to the catafalque, upon which rested the relics of a saint, brought there the day before. He knelt :
He rapidly uttered the only prayer he knew, from when he was a child. Given the amount of help he needed, he sensed it was too little. He concentrated, trying something else:
He strained his memory in vain. That was as much as he could remember.
“Lord, if you’re there, then look, I’m leaving the bullshit to one side now. I told you the other day about this and that, but that wasn’t what all the trouble was about. I was beating round the bush with You. To tell You the truth, I’ve got a problem with a certain Moor and I reckon You can help me out. He’s caught me in trap with his drugs. I mean he’s forced me to sell drugs, because he gives me a part of the money as well. And I need money, ’cause I’ve got to eat somehow. ’Cause I’m only human. I know You’ve got problems of Your own and all that, and a load of beggars on Your hands to look after, but please could You look after me as well, ’cause the Moor’ll slash me with his knife. D’you know what he does, Lord ? I think You know. If you cross him, he grabs your head with one hand and slits you open with the other. A brother told me, who saw him when he did it to Pearly, who used to sell sunflower seeds, but, in fact, he was selling drugs the same as me. And Pearly wanted to do a runner with the money from the drugs, to set up house with one of the Moor’s whores, who said she loved him. Big deal, he said, the amount of dough the Moor has he won’t even notice. He’ll say fuck that Pearly, wait ’till I get my hands on him, and then he’ll find someone else, and he’ll not bother to look for him. Not him, Lord ! He nabbed Pearly and slit him open and he said to the whore look at how your geezer’s laughing at me with his belly. That’s what he said, that he’d made him another gob in his belly… I’m not one to do a runner with the money and You’re my witness that it’s never even crossed my mind. But I don’t think that I’m going to manage to sell all the drugs the Moor’s given me and I don’t have the guts to go and tell him. Even if he doesn’t split me open now, I can see it coming, he’ll have a grudge against me and do it later. Help me, Lord, and at least give me a sign if You’re on the ball…”
He raised his eyes and looked at the relics. Fear had seeped into his bones. It seemed to him that something was moving under the vestments of the saint. He moved back a few steps and then approached once more. He unveiled the skeleton and looked at it in its nakedness. In the hands joined over the chest, he observed that the middle finger was sticking out, as though pointing at something. Without thinking too much about what he was doing, he detached the finger from the body, thrust it in his pocket and fled out of the church. He grabbed the mirror and dashed with it into the first tram that came his way.
“This finger works miracles, I’m sure it works miracles, and it’ll save me from the Moor,” Elvis trembled for joy within himself.
He rode the first tram for a few stops, got off, and then got on another, thinking of going back.
“What if I make God angry? I’d better take the finger back. But what does God care about a holy bone? The number of bones He has in this world, he probably won’t even notice. It’s the least of His troubles…”
He walked straight up to some kids at the tram terminus. He got talking to them, but the lads laughed at him.
“Get the hell out of here! Do you think we’re suckers! We can get it at the school gates at half the price.”
Elvis turned his gaze to a man who was sitting on a bench, somewhere in the middle of the station.
“Look in the mirror and give a penny, your lordship!”
“I’m not your lordship and, in general, I’m not anybody’s lordship!”
“Come on, lordship, you’ve no idea what a bargain you’re getting here!”
He did not convince him.
“If not even the finger can help me to get hold of the money for the Moor, it means there’s nothing holy in this world.”
He decided to give God another chance. He went to the park, leaned the mirror against a tree and sat down on a bench on the other side of the path.
“Lord, if You’re there, give me a sign in the mirror! Tell me if I’ve made you angry! Do you want me to take the finger back? No, I’ll take it right now, just You tell me. Just give me a sign…”
He was watching the mirror as though it were a television.
The mirror captured the image of the world to the best of its powers. In the bottom half, the tops of the trees behind Elvis. In the top half, a patch of sky.
A still life.
A flock of crows furrowed the mirrored sky. Elvis did not rejoice at such a divine sign, on the contrary, he was annoyed, recalling what people on the street used to shout at him. Even the Moor, although a gypsy by birth, still used to call him “Hey you, crow!”
So, if even God separates the world into crows and all the other birds, it means that he can hardly expect much help from Him. Elvis avenged himself by dividing the dominion of heaven according to the image and likeness of the world. The Big God, unjust, bad, in other words indifferent to the misfortunes of folk of his kind. And the God of the gypsies, ragged, swarthy, who had filched a piece of the Old God’s heaven. “Hey,” he said to the Old One, “crafty you may be, and you think you’ve got no master, but let yours truly have a bit of sky where I can watch over my crows.” In fact, he didn’t even ask. The God of the gypsies quite simply stole it from Him, and the Old God wasn’t on the ball, it was as if you’d pinched a hundred quid from a billionaire. And from there, from his cubby-hole, the God of the gypsies looks after his brothers on earth. It was from him that Elvis was expecting a sign.
He wondered what were the chances of the saint’s finger having belonged to a gypsy. Are there gypsy saints too? If his grandmother, a great fortune-teller, had still been alive, he could have asked her. She knew everything. Even things that had yet to happen. She even knew when she was going to die: at the age of seventy-six. Two years before she died, he found her with her fortune-telling cards scattered in her lap, weeping. “Look,” she said, “I can see here as plain as can be that at the age of seventy-six I’m going to lose my sight. God is going to take away the light from my eyes. He revealed it to me in a dream and told me that I’d messed up all his calculations with my cards. All the loves I’ve kindled and quenched, and not one of them was to his liking. ‘You’ve been meddling in my affairs, Leloaie !’ God told me. “You’ve caused me much grief. I’m going to make your eyes turn milky so that you won’t peer any more into how I fashion the world, so that you won’t interfere any more in its course. You’ve greatly angered me.’ He’s going to take away my sight and leave me prey to all the sorceresses that wish me ill.”
And so it was. She slowly lost her sight and the gift of reading the cards. At the precise age of seventy-six, on her birthday, they found her dead in the middle of the room, on top of her scattered cards. Elvis had never believed up until then. He used to say that the only purpose of the cards was to part suckers from their money. And that’s why he never asked her to tell his fortune. Who could he ask now ? His mother had done a runner off to Italy. He had never found out who his father was and no one had ever bothered to give him any explanations about who was responsible for him coming into the world. When he grew up, he realised by himself. His mates used to laugh at him : “Your ma recognises your pa from a mile off !”
He wracked his brains, maybe he could find in some recess the name of a saint who might have been a gypsy. He kept turning it over in his mind as he sat on the park bench and he didn’t cease until the redeeming idea of the Feast of the Forty Martyrs came to him. “Out of forty,” thought Elvis, “one must have been a gypsy.”
But what was the use? He could not believe that he had nicked precisely the finger of one of the forty saints, and that one a gypsy.
In the mirror across the way had appeared a stray dog with one ear missing. It approached, growled at the sight of its own reflection and then ran off. It approached again, took fright at its own face in the mirror, growled, and fled terrified. Elvis watched this strange game for a while and came to the conclusion : “Stupid dog!”
In front of him, a little girl was going back and forth on roller-skates. In one hand she was holding a toy panda and in the other a bagel with just one bite taken out of it. Elvis suddenly realised he was hungry.
“Slow down!” he shouted at the little girl. “Keep still! I can’t see.”
“See what?” asked the girl, amazed, elegantly braking her roller-skates.
“The girl looked curiously at the mirror.”
“Is it yours?”
“Of course it’s mine! Whose else could it be?”
The girl shrugged :
“Nobody’s! And what can you see in it?”
“None of your business. You wouldn’t understand,” replied Elvis. “If you must know, it’s an enchanted mirror.”
“Really! Can I have a look in it too?”
“Only if you give me the bagel.”
She handed him the bagel.
“Now what do I do?”
“Nothing. You go and look in the mirror.”
“And what will I see?”
“I don’t know. Make a wish, and you’ll see whether it comes true.”
The girl trod on the tips of her roller-skates up to the mirror. She made her teddy bear look into it, straightened the bowtie around its neck, and whispered something to it, of which Elvis didn’t catch anything.
The gypsy was content. He had forgotten the Moor. His hunger too had passed. He stretched out on the bench and fell fast asleep.
When he awoke, it was almost dark. The park was deserted. Only the dog had remained. It was creeping up to the mirror and yelping.
Elvis got up and stretched. He called the dog and tossed the saint’s finger at it.
“Take that, something to chew on!”
He set off home.
“Elvis,” yelled the boss of the neighbourhood fishmonger’s. “Come here, because they’ve brought the fish ! Lend me a hand to unload them. Come on, because it’ll be you who has need of me tomorrow.”
Elvis had no choice. Anyhow, he had no joy at the thought of sitting alone in the house and thinking about the Moor.
He spent nearly an hour unloading plastic crates from the van, all of them full to the brim with carp weighing over three kilograms. All the fish were alive. The ones on top were struggling in agony, and Elvis, I don’t know how, started to grow frightened of them. He felt as though they might swallow him with their spasmodically gaping mouths, desperately searching for air. When one of the carp jerked madly and fell onto the pavement, he felt like howling in fright.
“Hey, Elvis,” said the owner of the dying fish, laughing. “I see that one likes you. Go on then, I’ll let you have it.”
He wrapped the carp in a plastic bag and gave him it when they finished.
When he arrived in the kitchen with the fish he was still afraid of it at first. He dropped it on the floor tiles and it seemed to him that the fish was endowed with a diabolical power. He had the impression that it was jerking and struggling on purpose, so as to instil even greater terror in him. He tried to pick it up, but it slipped from his hands once more. He took leave of his senses and started kicking it all around the room.
“Fucking fish. Not even dead you won’t keep still. Just you wait, I’ll fix you!”
He kicked the fish, projecting it against the wall.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you with my own hands. You won’t get to die a peaceful death.”
The carp’s body was no longer moving. It was trying to gulp the air, gaping its mouth open.
He gave it another kick.
“Die ! Die or I’ll kill you!”
He tries to kick it in the mouth with the tip of his foot, but he slips on the wet streak the fish has left on the tiles. He falls flat on his back, roaring in pain.
He gets up yelling.
“Just you wait, you fucker! Just you wait until I get changed, so that that I don’t get my clothes dirty, I’ll fix you!”
The fish was greedily gulping the air in the kitchen, more horrified at what was happening to it than at the cruel death promised by Elvis.
The gypsy quickly headed towards the door, picked up the mirror, took it to the bathroom and hung it from a nail hammered in the wall above the sink. He removed everything from his coat, including the drugs, which he placed on the edge of the sink. Then he undressed. He hung his clothes up and remained in his underpants.
He looked in the mirror, trying to mimic the fish’s mouth with his lips.
He splashed his face with water. He felt like singing. He was overwhelmed by immense and wholly inexplicable good spirits.
He looked at the drugs and wondered why it was that he had never tried them. Perhaps it was from fear of losing his mind, as he had heard can happen. Perhaps from miserliness. Why spend good money on trash ? Perhaps from fear of the Moor.
And just because he was well disposed, because he felt like singing, because he was thinking of confronting the Moor, he decided that the moment had come for him to see what all the fuss with drugs was about. He couldn’t conceive that anything out of the ordinary would happen to him. “I mean, here I am, now,” he looked into the mirror as proof, “I snort some flour up my nose and then suddenly I change! Ballocks!”
He took the mirror from its hook, placed it face up on the sink, and poured onto it the contents of a bag of cocaine. When he moved his nose towards the drug, he saw his face and burst out laughing. The white powder scattered all over the mirror. He gathered it back, using the edge of his palm, approached and powerfully inhaled air into his chest through his nostrils. His breathing was arrested and he gaped his mouth open spasmodically, trying to gulp as much air as possible.
He hung the mirror on the wall and stared at it, waiting to observe whether any change took place.
The more he looked at his face the more and more he burst out laughing. Uncontrollable laughter.
“Boo!” he shouted at his image in the mirror.
A boundless joy invaded his body. He felt it percolating through his blood into every cell.
He put his hand to his mouth, to stop his laughter, as though he were ashamed of the image reflected in the mirror.
“Ballocks! These drugs don’t have any effect. I’m still me!”
He poured out another bag, which he snorted straight from his palm.
He had never had such an urge to sing.
He turned on the tap and washed his face. He smoothed the hair on his temples with his palm and began to croon Love Me Tender:
“Luv me tenda… Luv me sweet…”
He grinned at the face in the mirror, which was starting to look strange.
“Never lemme go…”
He raised his arms, clicking his fingers, and continued aloud :
“You may have my luv complete…”
He undulated his body, trying to move like a belly dancer :
“Coz I luv you so.”
He was dizzier than after the heaviest of drinking sessions. A stifling warmth prickled in his flesh as though his bones had caught fire. He clambered up onto the bathtub, tottering, opened the bathroom window and stuck his head out. He vomited right in the middle of the street and then laughed.
“Sombrero-o-o!” a shout could be heard outside.
Elvis felt his temples bursting, as though someone had shouted at him through a megaphone from close up. Like a thunderclap that struck him from the blue.
He covered his ears with his hands. Just as he was lowering his arms, the shout was heard once more :
He tensed and answered with all the might of his vocal cords :
“Sombrero get stuffed!”
He closed the window and went back to the mirror.
“Boo! Boo!” he tried to cheer himself up.
Without any effect. He puckered his lips, imitating the fish’s mouth. For a fraction of a second, he saw the face of the fish itself, addressing him:
“Hey, crow, having fun on my money? Let’s see where you’ll get the money from now, to pay for the Moor’s drugs.”
Elvis went wild with fury.
“What do you care, you corpse? What’s it to you? Weren’t you better off when I forgot about you?”
The fish in the mirror said nothing.
“Lost your voice? Where’ve you gone?”
When he recognised his own face, Elvis remembered that the fish was in the kitchen. Trying hard to keep his balance, he ran to the witchen.
The carp had vanished.
He armed himself with a knife from the sink and scanned the room with his eyes.
“Fucking fish! Where’re you hiding? Think you can escape !”
Elvis was walking on tiptoes, so as not to tread on the carp by mistake.
“Fi-i-i-ish ! Fi-i-i-ish!! Where’re you hiding? Come out, I’m not going to do anything to you! You’re going to croak in any case, because you haven’t got any air.”
The fish was silent.
Elvis wondered how the hell you were supposed to call a fish.
“Kitty, kitty! Here, doggy, doggy!” he jested and the laughter hit him again.
He liked the new game.
“Me-e-e-e-ow! Me-e-e-e-ow!! Come out, or I’ll set the cat on you.”
He found it under the sink, behind the trash bucket.
“So this is where you were? Looking for water ? Water – ballocks!”
The fish was not moving at all. Elvis felt sorry for it.
“Come on, I know you’re faking!”
He tried to pick it up, but it slipped through his fingers. He became annoyed again.
“Now I’m going to cut you open!”
He shunted it into the bathroom with his foot. He turned on the water, put the plug in and lowered the fish into the tub. It floated belly up.
“Come on, give me a sign of life! I know you’re faking it ! But if you make a sudden movement and scare me, just you watch me kill you !”
He took it by the gills and dragged it out. He thrust the knife into its belly and split it open. Seeing the fish’s guts, he dropped it and felt nauseous. He bent down and vomited in the tub.
He slipped on the tiles, next to the fish, breathing more and more irregularly.
“Please God don’t let me die!” he prayed, feeling that everything was becoming dark before his eyes.
There was less and less air. He opened his mouth and stammered :
“All for nothing, because you don’t exist. Only the Moor exists.”
He collapsed face down.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Our Special Envoy has the value of a veritable manifesto for the new wave of prose-writers : an exceptional book, from which it is not easy to drag yourself away, even after you have finished reading it.”
(Andrei TERIAN, Cultura)
“Florin Lăzărescu knows how to create a sense of mystery : narrative threads are inexplicably abandoned, correspondences and ‘sacred’ subtexts glint bewilderingly at every step, gaps and ambiguities function as magnets for signification. There is no stridency, no exaggerated affectation, no theoretic white noise : the slangy, strong language as well as the reflections on God, death, madness, immortality and holiness sound extraordinarily familiar. The phrasing is simple, but beyond the exuberant verve there opens up intelligence and imagination.”
(Paul CERNAT, Bucureştiul Cultural)
“Our Special Envoy confirms Florin Lăzărescu as a literary professional, as a practitioner who knows that, besides talent or a ‘novelistic idea’, you also need the science of writing.”
(Doris MIRONESCU, Suplimentul de Cultură)
“Florin Lăzărescu is probably one of the few young writers who, once you have sampled his writing, becomes close and familiar to you. It is almost as if you expect to meet his characters walking down the street, and his humour is contagious and invigorating.”
(Bogdan CREŢU, Cultura)
“Our Special Envoy is the book of a mature writer, with an unmistakable profile, with an already well-outlined narrative project, whose sequel is awaited not only with interest but also enthusiasm.”
(Bianca BURŢA - CERNAT, Observator Cultural)