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Denis Emorine




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copyright © by Denis Emorine and Phillip John Usher

Twenty-One Hundred Hours

By Denis Emorine
Translated by Phillip John Usher

To  Ilona W.

A few years ago, I was invited to a poetry festival, taking place in S---, a small city in northern Romania, not far from the Hungarian border. (This small detail has its importance.) There were writers of several nationalities, mainly from Eastern Europe, and a few from Western Europe, including a handful of completely uninteresting fellow-French writers. For my part, I spent my time with Romanian friends, in particular with Vasile, the director of an important publishing house in Bucharest, Oglinda.
And then there was Marika...
Moreover, it was thanks to Vasile that I had been invited to this gathering in the first place. He has been translating my poems and short stories for Romanian reviews and was planning to publish an anthology of my texts for Oglinda. I had met Vasile in 1996 in Iasi. We immediately struck up a friendship. Like many of his compatriots, he spoke French remarkably well. An excellent writer of poetry and prose, he often also wrote in French, which he would then translate into Romanian and vice versa. Vasile had also translated many French-speaking writers for various Romanian publishers.
I arrived at the Bucharest airport in early evening. Vasile and his wife Ioana had come to pick me up. Ioana had driven all the night in order to arrive by early morning.

Having left my luggage in the hotel room and quickly freshened up, I joined the other participants somewhat tired and understandably excited. The debate started: “What is the place of poetry in contemporary society?” Each one of us, including me, had something to say on this vast subject. Everyone spoke their own language, plus there was simultaneous translation.
We ate our meals together. The expenses of the stay were taken care of by an international banking organization, famous for its generosity (!). Certain writers were having fun stuffing their faces like nobody’s business. “My goodness, Eastern Europeans are famished, it is well known,” I said to myself, “it is thus completely excusable.” The first day, at lunch, an Estonian had collapsed, dead-drunk, in the restaurant and was discreetly evacuated to the nearest hospital. Vasile leaned towards me: “You now see where poetry is in contemporary society? On the floor! What a fine symbol!”
The conference, debates, and poetry readings were to start up again around 4 p.m. In the meantime, we all spent our time as we pleased: unending discussions, prolonged drinking sessions, a nap, or both. While Ioana recuperated from the fatigue of the voyage: driving her old Renault 14 (which, kilometer by kilometer, got closer to giving up the ghost) was a real exploit! On the coastal roads especially, the engine, out of breath, huffed and puffed…Vasile and I had decided to go for a stroll, with no precise destination in mind. Rather affluent, at least seemingly, S--- was very much like any town in Western Europe, a fact my friend pointed out to me.

Around the main town square, the prostitutes—no, I will not say “whores”, I hate that word—were looking out for prospective customers. “Just right for tea-time” said Vasile with a sense of humor that, for once, I did not appreciate. We were talking, in French naturally, since my knowledge of Romanian is limited to a handful of words (some of which are not that polite !). Vasile explained how one of his manuscripts, confiscated under the dictatorship, had been miraculously found in the files of the Securitate. It was a violent critique of an imaginary totalitarian régime in the form of a parabola by which the censors had not been deceived: “Razbunarea calicilor” (“The Revenge of the Paupers”). It had just been published after more than twenty years and had been warmly received by Romanian critics and billed as the novel of a whole generation. Vasile felt like he was rediscovering a youth confiscated by the dictatorship; making it a somewhat bitter rediscovery. His novel was going to be published in Russia, translated by our friend, the poet Alexandre Karvovski. We planed to translate it into French together.
All of a sudden, a young woman, not much more than a girl, approached us asking “Voulez-vous passer la nuit avec moi ?”
More than the question in French, it was the extreme reserve of her speech which surprised me. Taken by surprise, Vasile answered her in Romanian with a brusque tone. I, in French, said “Excuse me?”. She repeated, still in French, “Would you like to spend the night in my company?” I looked at her more attentively. She seemed to be about twenty, or maybe slightly older. Not really knowing what to do or rather what to say, I heard myself answer: "No, thank you".
She laughed: “Typical French politeness!”
I was a little embarrassed, I must say. Vasile was being humorous: “Come on, we’ll be late!” Noting how uneager I was to move on, he added: “If you want a quickie, it’s up to you, you can catch up with her this evening! It can wait for now, can’t it?”.
We moved on, me with regret, while the girl recited the beginning of a poem by Verlaine, staring right at me. I turned my head in her direction, and stood still while Vasile was still trying to drag me along. In a blank voice, I stammered that I would come back later. He glanced at me with no illusions, lacking all amenity, groaning something in Romanian, before going off. I raised my eyes. She was still there, looking at me attentively. I took a few steps in her direction. She smiled at me, murmuring: “Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine/ et nos amours faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne?” We were alone. Or, rather, I pretended not to notice the other women all wearing lots of make up and too vulgar for my taste. “Je m’appelle Marika...” she told me, smiling. I didn’t say a word. She had brown hair, with soft locks falling down to her shoulders. She was slender, beautiful. I felt ill at ease. Marika kept smiling. “I don’t have too much time” I managed to articulate. I must get back to the others...” I took a few steps, turned around: she hadn’t moved: “This evening, perhaps?” I said quickly. “Around 9 o’clock?”
Marika laughed: “Isn’t it more correct in French to say twenty-one hundred hours?” She was right. I said so and then left quickly without looking back.

I arrived late, of course, to the reading. A seat was still free near Vasile. I pretended not to see it, taking instead a seat in the last row next to a Macedonian who looked at me curiously. I asked him in English whether the debates had been going on again for a long time. He laughed and said yes. The poets were about to read some of their work, he added. I couldn’t concentrate on listening to the poems. I thought of... I closed my eyes for a moment. My Macedonian neighbor poked me, bringing me back to reality: “Hey, it’s your turn!” How did he know my name? That’s right, I’d forgotten we were all wearing badges with our name and nationality. I had just been called.
Unsure of myself, I moved towards the platform... I approached the microphone... I would have liked so much for her to be there in the room...

Around nine o’clock, or rather twenty-one hundred hours, I had succeeded in stealing away form my hosts, interrupting an improvised debate during dinner on “the writer’s bad conscience.” Did I have a bad conscience? As a writer or as a man? Difficult to say... Both, perhaps... Vasile was in some kind of mood with me, more or less. To tell the truth, I could not blame him for his attitude. During the previous week, he had organized on my behalf appointments with publishers, a debate on contemporary French literature with French teachers and students in the arts centre of S--- and I had kept on avoiding him.
I walked quickly in the direction of the infamous square. Several women were milling about in the fresh September air. None sought to retain me. Finally, I caught a glimpse of Marika. My heart skipped a beat. She rushed towards me, grabbed my hand tightly : “I was sure you’d come!” she said simply. I was grateful she didn’t come up to me like to any other customer...
She took me by the hand. Simply and gracefully. I looked at her. Marika was still dressed in black, amber-colored eyes, gracious, fragile and strong all at the same time. I know, it all sounds banal but I can do nothing about it since that’s the truth. We climbed a rather steep staircase. “Here we are” she said, opening the door of a tiny apartment. Its musty smell suffocated me. A simple folding bedstead filled up almost the whole room. I felt oppressed. The window was open wide. “I try however to let as much air in as possible,” Marika tells me as if excusing herself, “but..."

She stayed opposite me. I felt terribly awkward. Was it the difference in age? A 47 year old man and a girl of twenty? Not really... but could I explain to her.... Marika approached me. We were both intimidated. “Do you want...?” she began... I gestured a “No”. She did not seem surprised by the attitude of this rather disconcerting customer.
“I came to talk...” I murmured, “…with you. I don’t want to… to…”
“…to sleep with me?” she said while smiling
“Yes... or rather, no... “ I said sitting on the bed. She sat down next to me.

We spoke for a long time. She was Hungarian, a student in French. A part-time prostitute to help pay for her studies since her parents, having only just enough to live on, did not have the money to “support” their eldest daughter through her studies. Marika was writing a thesis on French poets of the early 20th century. At which university? In Hungary? In Romania? She did not wish to reveal such details. I did not insist. Having learned that a poetry festival was going to taken place in S---, she had made her way there, had borrowed this poor wretch of a room from a friend in order to better “devote herself to this food-earning occupation”—her own terms.
“When I heard you speak French with your Romanian friend, I could not resist. I accosted you...”
Time was passing. We were still speaking. An insane idea crossed my mind: Marika could perhaps speak at the poetry festival, I could present her... In a ridiculous moment, I suggested it to her. She nodded “No”. Of course, she was right. Another, even more insane, idea seized hold of me: I should bring her back to France where she could finish her studies in peace, but I did not dare suggest it to her.

I rose to leave, suggesting that we meet up the following day, perhaps a little earlier. “No, not tomorrow,” she says, “because...” I diverted my eyes. She was already “taken,” I thought. “Taken”--what a horrible word, really! I tightened my hand on her. She tightened her grip without saying a word.
“The day after tomorrow, then?”
“Right, then. The day after tomorrow.”
I left quickly without looking back. Once outside, I shivered. This feeling did me good. I stretched a little. I was numb. I raised my eyes. The night was beautiful, my first night in the company of Marika... I hastened my step. I was in a hurry to return to the hotel. The streets were deserted. What time could it be? I had no idea: I was both shaken and happy at the same time. “You are completely insane,” I said to myself. “You will never change!” As if to prove myself right, a cat meowed sadly, close by. I would have liked to have stroked it, but it remained hidden.

“So, it’s all going well with the whore? "Vasile asked the next morning. I didn’t answer. Actually, I wanted to slap him! but how could I be upset with him? Appearances were against me. I suddenly decided to phone my wife in Paris.
“How are you?” she asked. “You sound strange.”
I affirmed in vain that the travel and the long car trip had tired me out. She was not easily deceived.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine! It’s just that I’ve felt a little strange since I arrived.”
I soon hung up, after having asked about the children.
The day went by. Unrelentingly. However, in the arts centre with the other French writers, I had temporarily forgotten Marika. Vasile had introduced me cordially to the audience. I read some short stories. The students’ questions were interesting. I will not see her today, I thought to myself... I decided to present my excuses to Vasile who had done so much, but how could I explain the real situation? Vasile willingly accepted my excuses, nevertheless informing me that the Romanian editors were not at my orders, and that it was up to me to set up another meeting as soon as possible. I agreed. My friend looked at me curiously. We had known each other for a long time, but I could not see a way of revealing the situation to him: Marika interested me as someone to talk to, not as... Not believing me, Vasile would probably laugh and then tell me, using one of the typically French expressions he relished in, that “he would not set the bomb ablaze and that I was in any case a big boy...”
The following day, of course, I saw Marika again, and the day after that… My stay was getting close to its end. I would have liked to... What would I have liked, exactly? To prolong my stay? To no longer meet up with her each evening around “21 hundred hours”? To break up, if one can use such an ambiguous word... or quite simply to announce in a light-hearted tone to my family: “Here, let me introduce you to Marika. She is a student of French, and a prostitute in her spare time to pay for her studies. She will be living with us”? But, it is a well-known fact, the human being is generally weak. Undoubtedly, I would not make any departures from that rule.
It was the eve of my departure. That evening, she was not “taken” or, perhaps, she’d freed up her schedule to see me. I arrived a little early at the infamous square where I could no longer feel the evening freshness. As if they’d agreed on it, none of the prostitutes paid any attention to me. And I reciprocated, ignoring them. All dressed in black... they wandered about in silence. To what was this unusual garb due? Vaguely nauseated by the smell of cheap perfume, too strong and heady for my taste, I wandered about in the middle of a strange female ballet, which evoked for me Death’s dance, roaming in search of approving victims. My throat was dry. My student ran towards me, her hand stretched out. She seemed delighted to see me. I kept her hand in mine, perhaps a little too long.
“How about we grab a bite to eat?,” I suggested.
Marika shook her head.
“No, I have plenty of food in my small room.”
I did not insist.
“I leave tomorrow,” I said quickly.
She did not answer, turned her head towards me, smiling.
“Demain, dčs l’aube, ŕ l’heure oů blanchit la campagne, je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.”
I stopped her with a gesture.
“Do you have a poem ready for each circumstance of life?”
Her disarming smile made my heart wince.
Her room was still just as tiny. We sat on a small corner of the bed, as usual. We both had trouble finding out words. With my head lowered, obstinately staring at the ground covered with a fitted carpet which must have been blue, I started to think… Marika wore a red scarf over her ever-present black dress. The gift of a customer? A symbol I didn't understand? She turned to me, gently took it off and handed it to me.
“It’s for your,” she said finally.
I took her hand.
“I will not forget…” I started.
“You must not say that… You musn’t... You should leave now.”
“Are you chasing me out?”
“No, but saying goodbye is always difficult and… we will never see each other again.”
I remained silent. And all of a sudden, I spoke.
“Marika, I can leave you my address... or if you give me yours, I can send you books for your studies...”
Her face was close to mine. Her eyes looked into mine. Amber eyes. She spoke a few words in an unknown language... Hungarian? I don’t know. The room was half in shadow, and me too. Marika’s hands slipped into mine. She rested her head on my shoulder. Very gently. I did not move. Time had stopped. I wanted to remain there forever. Who ever would find us like that? Death ?

Moartea, moartea mereu...
în oglinzi
Cu gratii de sînge... (1)

These few worms of Vasile returned slowly to my memory... I had brought my last novel to Marika. She clapped her hands like a child. To make me, rather us, feel more at ease, I tried to summarize the story.
“It’s about a man whose wife has just died. He was Russian. Insane with sorrow, he leaves for Moscow and decides to research his late wife’s origins, to look for traces of her family. He wanders hopelessly along streets and around cemeteries, he sleeps anywhere he can, questions people in order to give life to her memory. Everyone thinks he’s insane…”
I stopped. It was ridiculous. I could feel Marika’s breath on my cheek, on my lips...
“You should leave now. Otherwise, we’ll perhaps do something crazy.”
Why is it now difficult for me to distinguish her face? Tiredness, of course, eternal tiredness! Why do we always hide the truth from ourselves? Why? It was too late to ask such questions. I knew the answer too well. The human being is weak... Why would I have made any departures from that rule?
I stood up, awkwardly. Marika followed me out. I took refuge in her arms, my face hidden in her hair. She said a few words in Hungarian…

Today, I received a letter from Vasile. I’ve been invited to S--- in Romania, very close to the Hungarian border.
“There will be many writers. I’m absolutely counting on you coming,” he wrote. “You’re going to receive a great poetry prize (I should not be telling you) and, on this occasion, I will publish an anthology of your texts in a bilingual French/Romanian. edition. Ah, and I was forgetting... a Hungarian editor contacted me recently. He’s going to write to you: he wishes very much to publish your last book...”

(1) “Death, always death… / in the opaque / mirrors / with their bars of blood.”

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