Today’s Translation Tuesday is brought to you by MARGENTO, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova. The lyrical excerpts from Romanian essayist and poet Simona Popescu’s writing explore a mood—memories of the nineties related as if at a remove, stating plainly what the narrator saw, while encapsulating the myriad complications simmering beneath the still surface of the narration.
“I confess I do not believe in time. I like
to fold my magic carpet, after use,
in such a way as to superimpose one part
of the pattern upon another.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
“Then everything regroups as if in a hot fog
where things recover among the obscure
plantations of the accidental.”
—Gellu Naum, The Blue Riverbank
“I have no idea of time, and I don’t wish to have”
—Wislawa Szymborska, On the Tower of Babel
In the house of my childhood, somewhere in my parents’ mixed up bookcase, leaning on a couple of books stood a black teddy bear in a white sash ribbon with some red lettering on it saying Grüsse aus Berlin. On other shelves there were other “souvenirs” from Abroad. For instance, a wooden cylinder with a lid in the shape of a Russian church dome, with a rose and the word “Bulgaria” burnt onto it. Inside was a vial of Bulgarian rose perfume. My folks never traveled Abroad. In fact, nobody in our little town ever traveled Abroad. Not even the Saxons and the Hungarians who, judging by the language they spoke, had to have another country somewhere, if push came to shove, right? You have as many countries as the languages you speak, the saying went. The Hungarians and the Saxons were therefore half foreign. But even so, even they never got Abroad—it was only the old people that sometimes went, but they always returned. Nobody needed them and they didn’t need anybody or anything except a quiet life in their homes. Only old people returned. They and the migrating birds.
It was me who had brought the rose perfume home. I was 12 when I went, without my parents, on a trip—well, yes—Abroad. I don’t recall much. It was I think in spring, there was I think a crisp sun, I was on a terrace I think by the sea, somewhere on a cliff, there were breakers I think in front of me, not very close though, I think I never went down the stairs to dip my toes in the sea. In the “vision” conjured by the word “Bulgaria” in which I’m a child a milky light and a bluish expanse approach me. And I’m all alone there, for a second, my back turned on everybody else. And I can hear a roaring wind. (I am back there anytime I want. I’m 12 and then—as I keep adding now—44. I hold an invisible butterfly net in my hand and collect images with it.)
Therefore, by studying geography like a parrot I make not only my own dream come true, but also the dream of so many friends of mine: to defeat the Stubbornness in the Teacher’s Noggin—and thus also revenge cohorts of other students who had to put up with him. And as a reward, here I am a month later seeing the Black Sea for the first time in my life, from Abroad, while having my second bottle of peach nectar. Somewhere around here is your country too. As seen from here, it is also Abroad. The Sea is Abroad. In motion, always in motion, and boundless.
I already knew that there were two kinds of Germans in Germany: the ones living in the EFF URR GEE and those in the GEE DEE URR. Little did I know back then that even us Romanians were also of two kinds, those in Romania and those in Bessarabia, since nobody would breathe a word about that. When I was in senior high, though, a friend who was a big fan of King Michael used to recite a couple of Eminescu’s lines sounding somewhat like “From the Dniester to the Tisa’s vale / All Romanians now wail,” and that’s when it started to dawn on me what that wailing was about. Later actually, in the early 1990s, Moldovan vendors started to pop up at our marketplaces selling odds and ends almost for free. People would say they stopped by the “Russians’ stalls” and bought stuff “from the Russians” although the “Russians” spoke nothing else but Romanian, actually a variant of the language very close to the one spoken by the Moldavians in Romania, although sounding a bit childish. A pristine, childish, funny, and lively version of the Romanian language! Later on, there were newspaper headlines about the “flower bridges” across the Prut River and I watched the televised fraternization. Did they really cover the bridges in flowers? Who did? Us or them? Half and half? A national bard and a poetess in a bandana—a b(e)ardess?—joined the party of a guy who had written poems about Ceausescu, hogwash doggerels. What kind of “Bessarabia” was fraternizing with that part of “Romania”? But there was a different Bessarabia just as there was a different Romania. I encountered it when I met up some very young writers. They gave a poetry reading at the university and then the next day one of them showed up with a shaved head. It was the early 1990s, the age of all sorts of fraternization and inlawing. Oh, so many new families! The town twinning of places in RO and places in BL or FR. Western brothers arriving with vans full of “relief supplies.” Impounded by the big shots, the “organizers.” Village name signs also displaying the names of the western European twin towns or sister cities. Oh, so many new relatives! Euro-fraternization was all the go, we received—and this is just between me and you—pretty much what they threw out! I once got a package, a nice white bleached bed sheet with a blue floral print, Jugendstil style. It tore apart right away, it was rotten and clean, rotten and spotless, and I also got some expired supplements, like lots of them. Someone must have entered my name on a welfare list. It was 1990. I popped the vitamins. Expired, who cares? But then the whole fraternization thing slowly died out. And there’s still a long way…to becoming relatives, I mean, and then to becoming unrelated. And then related again, as Europeans. There’s a long, long way. A whole…lifetime.
I was 12 and had never seen a real life Bulgarian or heard anyone speak Bulgarian. In fact nobody ever talked about Bulgaria. Only in the Macao card deck the Bulgarian man did team up with the Bulgarian woman. Both in folk costume and opinci footwear (which made them look exactly like the Romanian, Polish, Yugoslavian, and Czechoslovakian couples). Yet it was not the nectar, but the television that would make me bond with Bulgaria, ten years later. Well, the television was itself a sort of nectar to my eyes and ears. When, later on, there was nothing left for us to watch on TV than stammering Ciao…sescu rhythmically waving at the viewers, the Bulgarian channel would show undubbed movies every night: Antonioni, the Taviani brothers, Fellini, and so on…The movies of the “Latin gens,” the Latin race the Romanian teacher used to tell us about in class drawing on poet Vasile Alecsandri’s lines: “The Latin gens is the true queen / Among the world’s many a tribe, / A holy star on the forehead whose beam / Will shine throughout the endless time. / Onward forever, that’s her fate, / Leading the way for all the gentes / With a graceful yet commanding gait— / Her trail pure radiance and resplendence.” Vasile, as we simply called the guy, once received a great prize across the whole gens for the above. So we kinda caught our Latin brothers’ drift, since we also truly hailed from…Rum. But it was not until thirty years later that I got to see the City of Rum, Rome, that is. We therefore comprehended the lines in Antonioni’s movies, in which people talked little and rarely. Well, it’s also true that there was little talk in Bergman’s movie as well, and it made no difference whether nobody got what the characters said in that sorrowful and seemingly always interrogative glossolalia of theirs. I would make of it whatever I wanted, something having to do with their wasteland, their Norse wasteland—that’s what all that was actually about, beside what one would see on the screen. The Norse wasteland had something of the hieratic about it, not resembling at all the damp, oppressive wasteland of Romania which looked rather like an abandoned industrial site. Norse despondency looked ascetic. Unlike ours, swarming with critters. Pure sorrow, up there. Not covered by the flowery drapes of the deranged joy down here. Under those drapes, the nation of our sorrow multiplied. Resilient, like cockroaches…
Translated from the Romanian by MARGENTO
Simona Popescu currently teaches contemporary Romanian literature and creative writing at the University of Bucharest in the School of Letters. She is the author of five books of poems—including Lucrări în verde sau Pledoaria mea pentru poezie (Work in Green. My Plea for Poetry, 2006)—, a novel—Exuvii (Exuviae, 1997)—and four collections of essays: Volubilis (1998), Salvarea speciei: Despre suprarealism şi Gellu Naum (Saving the Species. On Surrealism and Gellu Naum, 2000), Clava: Critificţiune cu Gellu Naum (Clava. Critifiction with Gellu Naum, 2004), and Autorul, un personaj (The Author, a Character, 2015). In 2004—2008 she coordinated Rubik, a collective novel she wrote together with twenty-eight other young writers. She is recipient of a number of major literary prizes while her works have been published in translation in the U.S., France, Hungary, and Poland.
MARGENTO (Chris Tănăsescu) is a poet, performer, academic, and translator who has lectured, launched books, and performed in the US, SE Asia, Australia, and Europe. His pen-name is also the name of his multimedia cross-artform band that won a number of major international awards. He is co-author of poetryartexchange, his co-translations with Martin Woodside from Gellu Naum’s poetry (Athanor and Other Pohems) were nominated by World Literature Today as Most Notable Translation in 2013, and he has written the libretto for a rock opera composed by Bogdan Bradu. He deploys networks-of-networks and natural-language-processing algorithms in his collaborative poetry, and continues his work on the graph poem project together with Diana Inkpen and their students at the University of Ottawa. MARGENTO is Romania & Moldova editor-at-large for Asymptote.
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