Augustin Buzura: Recviem pentru nebuni și bestii (Requiem for Fools and Beasts)
This novel is partially set after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 and you night think that after so many years of repression, everything would be so much better in Romania. You would be wrong, at least as far as this book is concerned. It does go back to the Ceaușescu era as well, so we get a double dose of grimness.
Our hero is Matei Popa. He is the editor of a crusading newspaper and it is very hard work, leaving him exhausted by the end of the day. It is not helped by the fact that he continues to receive threatening letters, presumably from former Securitate personnel. The most recent ones have informed him that they can easily get him and prove it by telling him that they have placed certain innocuous items in his house. The next time, the items will not be so innocuous. He checks and the items have indeed been placed in his house without anyone seeing anything and without any evidence of tampering.
Matei is single. We know that he had a childhood sweetheart, Elena, and we will soon learn what happened to her and we know that he is no longer with Estera, his other girlfriend. We learn her story as well. While visiting a friend, Dr Cernescu, for a party, he meets Anca. She is divorced – her husband was abusive – and is, by profession, a translator/interpreter. They become friendly but not, at least initially, lovers. She, too, starts receiving these letters and she suspects Dr Cernescu may be the guilty one, perhaps jealous of her association with Matei. Matei does not believe it.
We follow Matei’s early life. He lived with his parents and brother, Visarion, in a small flat. His father had been a miner as they live in a big mining area and Matei will initially follow him in that profession. The father had been involved in a mining accident and had been badly injured. He now spends his time in a wheelchair and has completely lost his memory. He spends his time drawing lines. Visarion spends his time wearing headphones and planning how he might escape Romania and go to the West. The problem is that the borders are very secure and there is no way that he will be given an exit visa. Though he does not know it, the Securitate have been spying on the family and know of Visarion’s plans. They even know which side Matei sleeps on, as the Securitate officer will later tell him.
Matei is very good at football and plays for the local team belonging to the mining concern. They could do well and there were hopes that they would be promoted to the major league but the way they make money is to throw matches. Corruption is rife in Romania, both in the Ceaușescu era and afterwards.
Matei, who plans to accompany his brother if he finds a way of escaping, decides he had better learn English if he is to to go to the West and engages a private English tutor. The tutor has a daughter, Elena, who even occasionally helps give the English lessons. She has a boyfriend but she makes it clear that he is temporary till she finds the right person. She and Matei gradually grow closer. One day, they are in the wood, kissing and cuddling, when five tractor drivers appear. They are attracted to Elena. Matei is able to hit two of them but then he is hit on the head. When he awakes, he sees the men raping Elena, while he is tied up.
He is in hospital for some time, where he learns that Elena’s father blames him. The father will take Elena to Germany for treatment. They do not return. The police claim that they are unable to trace the men, They were undoubtedly temporary drivers and could now be miners or farm labourers. It is clear that, for the police, the matter is not important as there were no deaths. Matei, when he recovers, does his own investigation, but without success. Finally, he borrows some money and bribes some of the locals for information. He manages to find one of the men.
Matei spends some time in prison, finally being released on an amnesty. He survives and, as in any good book where our hero goes to prison, he finds most of the other prisoners more congenial than many of the people outside. In theory, political prisoners do not exist in Romania so, though there are clearly are political prisoners, they are invariably imprisoned on trumped-up charges. With the help of a fellow prisoner Matei manages to get out of the prison for three hours, nominally to go to a doctor but, in fact, with his friend, to go to the local brothel.
Meanwhile back in the post-Ceaușescu era Matei and Anca have changed their suspicions. Theodor Antim had been very pro-Ceaușescu and often blackmailed people who were heard criticising him. When Ceaușescu fell, he disappeared for a while and then re-emerged, profoundly anti-Ceaușescu. He now has a gutter press newspaper but still blackmails people. It seems he has been able to get hold of Securitate files, containing salacious information and blackmails people about them. Given his Securitate connections, it would seem he could gain access to Matei’s house.
Matei, however, does not seemed perturbed and increases his attacks on the wicked. He is warned that moths burn their wings when they come too close to light. His response to the person making the remark is that he can go and fuck himself. Indeed, Matei seems highly critical of many of the people he comes across, particularly journalists. ( He was talking about the only subject that interests him: himself is a typical comment.)
Back in the past, after prison, Matei eventually finds a job but he and Visarion concoct a plan to escape. It all goes horribly wrong and Matei will later find himself under arrest again, beaten up by the Securitate. Fortunately for him it is 1989 and Ceaușescu is about to fall and, with him, the Securitate. Matei is ably to join in the revolution, which Buzura gives a colourful picture of.
In many ways, this is an excellent portrait of a country which is clearly an unpleasant place to live in. Buzora pulls no punches on the horrors of the Romanian regime and its lackeys, nor on the corrupt, venial and vicious people who came afterwards.
Matei may be something of a hero, in that he stands up with regularity to the organs of power, the Securitate and the police in particular but it is not always terribly convincing. For example, the second time he is arrested, while he is being tortured, he still manages to insult his torturers, as though they were sitting quietly having a chat in a café. On several occasions, when he is confronted by a police or Securitate officer, he again shows a lot of bravado, knowing full well that they have all the power and can easily arrest, injure, imprison or kill him with impunity. In virtually all cases, they seem to back off. We see this same bravado in the later period when he not only ignores the threatening letters, renewing his attacks on the corrupt, but seems relatively unconcerned that they were able to enter his house and car without difficulty and could (and, indeed, do) attack him.
However, it is clear that Buzura feels that the only way to oppose power and corruption is to stand up to them. Matei had a chance to escape but did not take it and remains in Romania, fighting against the wicked. Both he and Anca do struggle with the situation and how it is affecting them and others. Something in us is wrong, deformed, we do a series of things reluctantly, without enthusiasm. We ignore ourselves or we haven’t yet found the mature person in us, and the wise man, says Anca. She turns to Eastern religion and philosophy to find comfort but it does not work. They do unmask the people threatening them and while that might temporarily solve the immediate problem, you get the feeling that there is still a long and never-ending battle ahead.
First published in 1999 by Semne
First published in English in 2004 by East European Monographs
Translated by Liviu Bleoca