Daring to Remember

The Yellow Notebook

  • Read in Romanian by the author
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  • An excerpt from The Yellow Notebook by Filip Florian
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A short story by Romanian author Filip Florian, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth

My memory may be slowly rusting, but it is sound. It is still sound. I don’t care about other people’s memories, I don’t depend on them, and, given how many medicaments I swallow daily, at least I don’t have to take lecithin. Because of the cold rain, which neither abates nor gets heavier, my knees ache dully, as if they wanted to show me the fate of things that have rusted completely. And I write. What else can I do? I write, without resorting to the unguent, without taking a fourth pill, and without neglecting the American bombing raid. I think about the destruction raining down on Bucharest, nothing more, because, after all, I have the teacup and teapot to hand. My favourite tea. Wild thyme. Unsweetened.

Be that as it may, the thing that I remember clearly, above all else, is the buzzing: a dreadful, maddening buzzing, as if thousands of bees were streaming into my ears. I wasn’t afraid of their stings. I was clutching my hands to my ears, but it was pointless: the bees were flying around inside my head; they were swarming, thudding against my eardrums. I thought they must have started building honeycombs, and so I was expecting something good to come of that droning din; I was hoping that a few drops of honey would trickle down my cheeks. But they did not trickle. It was not until late on Saturday evening. I was certain that the swarms must have been feverishly busy, after mother bathed me in an enamelled basin and cleaned my ears with tufts of cotton wool twisted around matchsticks. She collected more crumbs of wax than ever before, and placed them in the round metal tin in which long ago she used to keep mentholated bonbons. On the lid of the tin it said ‘Daphné’, and mother promised me that one fine day she would melt the wax to make candles.

Nor can I forget the darkness: a pallid, dusty darkness, sprinkled with streaks of light, six of them, as many as the air vents in the lid. I was crouching there, lying on my side, having refused to be lain on my back, so that I wouldn’t look like Uncle Paul had, stretched out in his coffin that winter. The suitcase shuddered with each detonation. It was like a cracked barrel tumbling over cobblestones. And I saw the white cemetery, the grave that had been excavated with textbook precision, the mound of earth heaped on the snow, the cassocks of the priests and the black coats of the mourners, the flowers and the lacquered coffin, the icicles drooping from the arm of a chubby stone angel. I was unable to move and, after a while, I asked myself whether I was still breathing. As it was unclear to me whether the air was still entering my lungs, I surmised that death is not at all painful, that it envelops you softly like a downy mist. I pinched my elbow as hard as I could; it hurt like hell, and just as the floor began to quake more violently than before, I grew certain that I was still alive. Mother was beside me, not in the suitcase, as there wouldn’t have been room for her inside, but stretched alongside, under the bed, wrapped in a blanket. If the rolled-up blanket was like a huge green pancake, then mother, in the middle, must have looked like cherry jam. I would have given anything to stick my hand out of the suitcase and pinch her, too, but it was impossible, and so I started to scream at the top of my lungs, until I realised that not even I could hear myself. From the way I was screaming and rocking inside the wooden suitcase, I might say, although I can’t be sure, that I must have screamed and rocked the same way inside my mother’s belly two months before I was born, in the earthquake of 1940.

Apart from that, time dilated, the minutes tumefied into hours, the seconds went haywire and the cuckoo in the clock on the wall must surely have fled, seeking some sheltered nook or chink. In the end, the house gradually ceased to quake, the bees inside my head were quelled, the minutes became minutes once more, the seconds regained their cadence, the cuckoo returned to the clock and sang thrice, and our voices all thronged together. As ever, the hoarsest voice was to be heard last and drowned out the others, because great-grandfather, a former artilleryman, was rather deaf and did not suspect that other people could be any different than him. Helping each other to their feet, Lili, Aunt Marieta and great-grandfather dragged the suitcase from under the bed. They also pulled out the rolled-up green blanket. They left mother and me to catch our breath, to hug each other and not let each other go, to shake off our numbness and comprehend that it was over. When at last I looked at her, I could not believe what colour her face was, somewhere between the bluish gleam of fish scales and the white of flour. Then, looking around me as if through a dirty windowpane, I discovered the disarray in the room. Thick and sluggish, the motes of dust were like minuscule droplets gleaming in the light, but they could not swathe the multitude of shards, the books that had been tumbled out of the bookcase, the upturned lamp, the cracked jug, the daffodils strewn over the carpet or the large painting, depicting a quay in Venice, also fallen to the floor, and having come loose from one corner of its frame. Although it was one of her duties to keep the house clean, Lili did not budge to go and fetch broom and dustpan. She was standing motionless, with her hand to her mouth, as if to stop the sounds emerging from between her lips.

Only outside, in the yard, did I see the smoke hanging over the city. A huge, gloomy blanket of smoke, like pitch spilling across the faded azure of the sky. And in that faraway blackness there intertwined hundreds of thick, undulating plumes of smoke, like serpents that belched flames not from their jaws but their tails, and which were ascending to the firmament, heading south, in the direction of the sun, trying to swallow it. Even though the gigantic cloud, darker and more swollen than any other, was not coming towards us, I would not have let go of mother for anything in the world. I was clinging to her knees, my cheek was pressed against her left thigh, I could feel her running her fingers through my hair, and from her whispers and the pleats of her skirt there rose a reassuring mist that protected me from the smoke and the countless serpents that teemed within it. Petrake, the dog, with his light brown spots and floppy ears, must have sensed that he too would find protection there. He kept rubbing up against mother’s legs, whimpering, and licking her shoes. All around us, however, there stretched a realm of fear. Stella, grandfather’s riding mare, had demolished the stable door and was running around madly, leaping over everything that stood in her way: the benches in the orchard, the barrels left out to dry in front of the cellar, the fences around the strawberry patch, the freshly clipped hedgerows at the edge of the gravelly path. God knows how, but one of the cows had escaped from the pen and was trying to keep up with the sweating mare, while the others, together with their calves, were lowing frantically and crowding up against the log gate, until it almost burst asunder. Likewise, the tufted hens were cackling and flapping, clutching at the mesh fence with their claws and pecking the air with their beaks, as if maddened by gadflies. High in the sky, above the tops of the poplars, endless flocks of crows were racing eastward, the starlings had ceased to wheel and loop, and behind the house, in Cernica Forest, there was an uproar of bird cries such as I had never heard before. For a while I thought that the keening wails coming from the direction of Bucharest were the hisses of the snakes, but Auntie Marieta, grandmother’s sister, explained to me that they were the sirens to signal the end of the air raid. True, I saw not one aeroplane in the sky and not one explosion. In the end, the din gradually abated and we could make out the chimes of the bells from the monastery by the lake. I wondered who could be pulling the ropes in the belfry, whether it was old Macarie, from whom mother used to borrow books, or some younger, more robust and more frightened monk.

A strange arithmetic, a game of numbers that I have never succeeded in untangling, seeped into that day. Being a Tuesday, there were three inauspicious hours and, as the calendar on the wall showed, the date was the fourth of April. Afterwards, things became muddled and repeated themselves, because there on the farm five human souls had experienced terror, and great-grandfather, with his military knowledge and chest full of medals, had reckoned the same number: five waves of bombers. But it was not until much later, in the middle of the afternoon, that the mathematical logic really started to become complicated, when the navy-blue Ford appeared, speeding over the field and continuously honking its horn. Covered in soot and dust from the road, the car came to stop by the steps of the porch, and for a good few seconds, nine, or perhaps sixteen, the motor continued running. Grandfather was leaning with his head pressed to the steering wheel, while grandmother was shouting for us from the back seat, her face unrecognisable. Instead of powder and foundation, her cheeks, eyelids and chin were caked with a grey layer, furrowed by slender streaks, where the mascara and tears had run. Then they both got out of the car. And so we were no longer five, but became seven. Some of us wept, all of us kissed, while Petrake kept getting under our feet and we thought about how we would have been eight if father had not been at the front. Grandmother drank some water, an astonishing amount, and grandfather asked for some of the strong twice-distilled apricot brandy, tossing back glass after glass. They were both talking over one another, agitatedly, with a welter of gestures and opinions. They kept contradicting each other. She was describing dreadful scenes of horror, tragedies and catastrophes, while he was saying that now he knew what hell looked like, because hell had spilled over Bucharest. He kept saying how amazed he was at our family’s luck: we had escaped safely, our houses in town were still standing, his jewellery shop was intact, and the farm had been a safer place to take shelter than anywhere else. He was saying that the Americans were not daft enough to drop their bombs in the woods, and the Germans had not had time to build any bunkers or arms dumps nearby. I admit that, aged four, I wasn’t interested in the fate of the family’s houses, the shop by the University or German fortifications. What left me open-mouthed were grandfather’s descriptions of how on Grivitza Avenue he had seen a horse shattered by a bomb and flung into the air before landing on a third-floor balcony; of how two severely wounded twin brothers had found each other among the rubble; of how, and this he swore, the statuettes and crosses from the Saint Venera Cemetry had flown as far as the ruins of the railway workshops; of how he had heard there were thousands of dead; of how he had seen hundreds of silvery aeroplanes and dozens of bodies in flames, men and women burned alive on the roof of the Hotel Splendid. On recounting the episode about the cemetery, grandfather took another sip of apricot brandy, more calmly this time, and concluded there was a stroke of good fortune in this. He was addressing Marieta, who was still dressed in mourning, reminding her that he was the one who convinced her to have Uncle Paul buried in Bellu Cemetery, whereas as she had been set on Saint Venera. Whether he heard or not, most likely not, great-grandfather coughed, rose suddenly to his feet and started describing the B24 bomber. As he had discovered during a game of skittles, from a colonel in supplies, the aircraft had four 1,200-horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines, nine gun ports, and a crew of ten. Apparently, it weighed 27 tonnes and could carry a payload of three tonnes of explosives.
Night was falling. Petrache had gone down from the porch and was sniffing around the clumps of budding peonies. He cocked his leg over the roots of one of the clumps and then began to bark. He barked and he barked, until mother went to see what was the matter and found a gleaming bomb protruding nose down from the soil.

*

Stretched slantwise over the bed, still sluggish and sleepy, Andrei was thinking about how flies must have heads made of rubber. He was watching them tapping against the windowpanes, over and over again, without being knocked unconscious, without feeling any pain. In particular, he was following the flight of a large bluebottle, a specimen worthy of inclusion in an insectarium, when a wafting stench left him gagging. He leapt from beneath the checked blanket, opened the window and craned his nostrils towards the mountain breeze outside. From the height of the balcony, he could see the whole street laid out before him, and so it was not hard for him to ascertain that none of his friends were loitering thereabouts. Postprandial grogginess reigned. It was as if the whole town had taken sleeping pills. The trees were limp. A jay was hopping along a fence top. The ducks from the yard had slunk away somewhere. And Gruiu, the neighbours’ dog, was lolling by the cherry plum tree to which he was tethered. Somewhere down in the valley, however, a little blob could be made out: slowly, tenaciously, a woman was climbing the hill, swaying between two huge bags. He gazed at her for a while, but as the cool air took no account of his thin pyjamas, he went back to bed.

Barefoot, he shuffled across the floor, but he went unnoticed. Sunk in an armchair, his spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, his grandfather seemed wholly absorbed in the notebook he had found that morning. An old, yellow notebook he had chanced upon. He had showed it to him when he came back from school, at around two o’clock, just as the sun was slipping behind the clouds, and since then he had been reading it uninterruptedly, turning the pages infrequently, deciphering with difficulty the minuscule, faded writing, obscured here and there by blotches. As a kind of tic, he kept turning back to the familiar passages in the first part, patiently scrutinising them. In any case, to judge from the old man’s absent look, you would have thought that the fart had emerged from the stove or from a drawer in the desk, and not at all from his bloated belly, a belly which had first appeared in the world eighty-four years previously. And the gases, although far from any chemistry laboratory, preserved all their potency, in the tranquillity of that early October day. They had spread all around, reeking sulphurously, invisible, penetrating into the cracks in the furniture and the walls, into every nook, into the creases in the bedclothes. Stifled by the stench, Andrei gave up trying to breathe through the cotton of the sheet and took refuge in the kitchen. As he was going out of the door, two watery eyes, encircled by wrinkles, measured him from above the lenses of the old man’s spectacles. ‘I’m thirsty,’ mumbled the boy.

In the sink a number of dirty dishes had accumulated, the wreckage of lunch. He did not hasten to wash them. He cut two slices of bread and spread them with jam. There, too, the flies were tapping against the windowpanes. It was quince jam. A russet light was descending above the forested peaks to the west. And so it was as if the family’s hopes were gradually coming to fruition: they had left him in the hands of his great-grandfather for a term so that he would regain his appetite in the mountain air. Soon thereafter, but not very soon, he pushed the things on the table to one side using his forearm: the teapot, the salt cellar, the pot of stew, a ladle, and a postcard delivered the week before, having been sent from Peru by an unknown woman, who was unaware that his great-grandmother, Veturia, had been resting for six years in the cemetery at the edge of town. In the space he had cleared, he laid out all the things from inside his satchel and, among all the textbooks and bits and bobs, he opened the album, stuffed not with stamps, but with photographs of actors. As he swallowed a tart mouthful, he smiled at Stallone, who continued to scowl, holding his boxing gloves at chin level, ready to launch a devastating uppercut. Then he stowed his collection of photographs, wrapping the album in a newspaper. He licked the jam from his fingers and started on his history homework. The idea of those peasants drawing their carts into a circle in the middle of the plain at Bobîlna to hold out against the army astonished him. It would have been the same as if he, among the blocks, in Bucharest, instead of running away from the very first, had barricaded himself behind the dustbins and waited for the onslaught of the neighbours whose car tyres he had deflated. Rather than fretting about the fate of mutinous peasants, however, he preferred to find out what had caused Gruiu to start barking madly. He looked out into the yard and saw that Auntie Nutza, with her theories about lard and bacon, had let the pig out of the sty.

Then the telephone rang, and Andrei was astonished at not being able to hear the old man boasting about how he was as fit as a fiddle, telling whoppers about how well his great-grandson was getting on with his lessons and new teachers, complaining about his pension being late or passing on the latest neighbourhood gossip. In a way that had never happened before, his great-grandfather was speaking in a low voice, with frequent pauses. And so the young boy, who could not make out even half of what was being said, approached on tiptoes, careful not to knock anything over, pressed his right ear to the door, resting his palms against the jambs, and set about eavesdropping. And the story, to which his mother was also listening on the other end, started at something past ten that morning, when the old man had softened his shaving brush in hot water, lathered his face and prepared to shave. It was a curious hour of the day, because he usually tended to his moustache and white bristles at dawn, after washing. And then, just as things always happen the way they are meant to happen, according to the necessary sequence of coincidences, he ascertained that his razor was all but blunt. With his face covered in lather, he had opened the bathroom cabinet and rummaged inside, among the buttons, candles, bobbins, needles, slivers of soap set aside in case of hard times, boxes and sachets of medicaments, scissors, brushes, plasters, bottles of medicinal alcohol and lavender. As he was trying to grasp a comb, he had thrust it aside with his fingers by mistake, managing to glimpse how a razorblade, in its red paper wrapper, had slipped down a crack in the wood and fallen somewhere down the back of the cabinet. Because he could not get at it, he lifted the cabinet off the nails from which it was hanging on the wall and placed it on a chair. He emptied it of all its bits and pieces, removed the middle shelf and fetched some pliers, a hammer and a chisel, in order to remove the thin plywood base. To his surprise, however, the bottom shelf slid out easily, revealing the three-centimetre gap above the base. In that narrow space, along with balls of dust, desiccated spiders and the razorblade in the red paper wrapper, he discovered a notebook. The edges of the cover were curling and the pages were streaked with damp and mould. It was a yellow notebook, great-grandfather whispered over the telephone, not because such a detail was a secret, but because his voice was choked. And then he fell silent. In the silence, the boy thought he detected a kind of sigh, like a swish of air or a draught. Then, his mother, in the flat in Bucharest, and he, in the wide hallway, where dusk was falling, discovered who was the owner of that notebook, a person beloved by them all, for he had been her father, his grandfather, and the old man’s son. From the way he could hear them being described on the other side of the door, Marcel’s notes resembled not a diary, but rather a series a harrowing memories, stories redolent of bitterness, tenderness and irony. In the room, the lamp was unlit, but through the keyhole, rather than rays of light, it was as if a dense air was blowing, burdening the darkness. The boy listened to words regarding an accident and an unsuccessful operation, he caught details of strange episodes, about an American bombing raid and an arrest, after which his great-grandfather lit the light bulb and started bustling about. Although he had been expecting it, he hadn’t been called to the telephone.

At the hour when they usually ate buttered toast, his great-grandfather told him he wasn’t hungry. Nor did he feel like listening to the football, and so he asked the boy to take the radio into the kitchen and keep the volume down. Nibbling some floury biscuits, Andrei felt goose bumps along his arm when the presenter, at the end of an Italian melody, announced that they would be now be broadcasting live from Stephen the Great Road, where Dynamo Bucharest were about to do battle with Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA Cup march. Amid the roar of the crowd and the jabbering of the commentator, for a while he ceased to munch, as if the taste of the biscuits might have prevented him from recognising the names of the players. Then the match sent him into a tailspin: with his clenched fists he banged the tabletop, he leapt into the air when Demollari missed, he trembled with every fibre of his Dynamo-supporter’s being when the Portuguese went on the attack, he suffered disappointment at Moga’s and Dorinel Munteanu’s shots, he chewed his nails, he gasped at Figo’s dribbling skills, in his mind he soared alongside Stelea the goalkeeper, and at the end of the first half he felt drained. In the break, while the news bulletin was flowing in an undertone and he was stirring a glass of squash with a teaspoon, a strange cough sounded from the other room. He turned off the radio. It was a hacking, persistent cough. Then it grew louder and quicker, transforming into a stream of rattling croaks. The boy froze, with the teaspoon in mid air, until silence fell. A long, ringing silence. Later, when his great-grandfather emerged in the hall, Andrei felt like he was about to faint. The old man had not died, but Dynamo, after extra time, thanks to Gerstenmayer’s goals, beat Sporting and packed them off to bed.

 

Filip Florian © Mircea Struteanu
Filip Florian from Romania
Filip Florian was born in 1968 in Bucharest, Romania. He studied geology and geophysics at the University of Bucharest (1987 – 1990). He has been an editor for the cultural magazine “Cuvîntul”, and subsequently at Radio Free Europe, as well as a free-lance collaborator at Radio Deutsche Welle. As a widely published independent author, he has participated in numerous literary festivals and book fairs, in Frankfurt, Turin, Leipzig, Istanbul, Warsaw and Budapest. Some of his most recent work includes the novels Zilele regelui (Bucharest, 2008), Băiuţeii (Bucharest, 2006 and 2007) and Degete mici (Bucharest, 2005 and 2007). The latter has also appeared in German: Kleine Finger (Degete mici – Little Fingers) (Frankfurt am Main, 2008). This was his first novel, for which he received many awards, including, in 2005, the Debut Prize conferred by the cultural magazine România Literară.

 

Translation by Georg Aescht
Georg Aescht was born in 1953 in Zeiden, Transylvania (Romania). After studying German and English  literature at the University of Cluj, he taught at a German secondary  school in Romania. In 1984, he emigrated to the  Federal Republic of Germany. After working for seven years as a corrector at a  typesetting company, he took over the job of one of the editors at the Ostdeutscher  Kulturrat (East German Cultural Council) Foundation in Bonn, where he now edits the Kulturpolitische  Korrespondenz (Cultural Policy Correspondence). Besides publishing articles  on cultural topics, he has translated the work of many Romanian authors into  German (Ion Agârbiceanu, Carmen Francesca Banciu, Filip Florian, Norman Manea,  Gellu Naum, Alexandru Papilian, Andrei Pleşu, Mihail Sebastian and Alexandru  Vona, among others) He also translates from French into German and has worked  as an editor and publisher.