Dumitru Tsepeneag (Țepeneag): Pigeon vole (Pigeon Post)
At this stage in his career, Tsepeneag was writing in French and reading this novel, you would have no idea that it was not written by a French writer. It is set in France (Paris) and almost all of the main characters are French and those that are not French are not Romanian. Tsepeneag had been driven out of Romania by Ceaușescu and would not return till after his death.
Though Romanian authors would write post-modernist works post-Ceaușescu, at this time, shortly before Ceaușescu’s execution, it would not have been approved of. However, in this book, Tsepeneag lets loose.
Our narrator is living in a sixth floor (or is it seventh floor?) garret in Paris. He is trying to write a novel and failing dismally. Not only do we not know what the novel is about, nor does he. As any writer, he focusses on his environment. He observes, from his window, Maryse walking her dog. We get regular reports on her activities which tend to be more or less the same. Maryse is a widow. Jean-Jacques, her husband, died two years ago. Our narrator was distantly related to him, so he called him Uncle JJ. They ran a vegetarian restaurant, which failed and then a health food shop – La Vie Claire – though Maryse spends little time there and has employed someone else to manage it. Our narrator can see the shop from his window.
This focus on the mundane is not limited to Maryse and her shop. He has two neighbours he observes, including a young woman with a baby. He nicknames the mother Lolita. There is also a married couple who frequently row and then have noisy sex to make up.
There are, of course, the eponymous pigeons. He has always liked them. His mother hates them and called then rats with wings. His friend Edgar and his father kept them. He just observes them.
He likes being alone. I write in order to stay alone as long as possible, so much so he has refused to have a telephone installed, though he later relents. Communication has to be by the post.
So he struggles to write. He tries various beginnings but goes nowhere. He draws on the paper. He fiddles with all the things on his desk. He thinks about writing. Our souls are doomed to deletion, our words are but fleeting and never quite right, quite accurate, writing is but the stammering on the soul and literature is rushing headlong towards its own extinction. That may be true but its final steps are clamorous, its penultimate gestures cheerful, excruciating. It will expire in such a cacophony, such a din we’ll that will hardly notice. And we’ll go on writing as if nothing had happened.
He plans to write to that year’s big prize-winning novelist to show his sincere esteem and devotion for his work by copying out the whole novel in black pencil and then erasing the better part of it, adding a few random words here and there from the dictionary. However, he is too lazy to do so.
He dips back into his childhood, about which we learn a fair bit – a fairly conventional childhood. However, he has three friends, Edgar, Edmund and Edward, with whom he is still in touch, though Edgar is now in Wuppertal and Edward in Marseille. He writes to them asking for help and, specifically, sends them a questionnaire, which asks personal and, in some cases, directly sexual questions. He is not sure if he will get a response. He does, though only one really answers the questions. Edward gives the standard suggestion for any French writer- write like Chateaubriand. Edmund suggests a collective work, which our narrator really does not want.
There is one person he does meet regularly. He also makes it clear that he has invented this man, though we can soon work out that it is, in fact, Tsepeneag himself. In other words we have Tsepeneag writing a novel about an author who is not (probably) Tsepeneag who has created a character who is Tsepeneag. Get it? No? Good.
He bumps into him outside La Vie Claire. The man plays chess in a local café. He regularly goes and watches him. He cannot play himself, though is learning from watching the man. Chess clearly represents what is missing in his life – order and structure. Is literature ever anything but a process of re-ordering, he says.
However, he does get down to writing his novel and this results in increased chaos. The three E friends all appear and one is arrested. Edgar has essentially written a good part of his novel. Our narrator comments Your idea of a novel is that of a weed stricken with propagation fever. The novel is the devil. It has raped poetry with its big stiff black prick. We get cannibalism and cricket (the game), anonymous letters and, as this is France, a strike. Am I afraid to finish the novel? He can hear the sound of a typewriter coming from his room.
This is a very witty and very post-modernist novel, which I found very enjoyable, though others may be less enamoured of its chaos, fragmentary nature and randomness. How to justify fragmentary writing? he asks and fails to answer. The author plays games, obsesses with seemingly mundane and arbitrary issues, lets the world go to hell and struggles with identity. We learn why the three friends’ names all begin Ed when he writes a letter to Dear Ed. Are they interchangeable? Is he interchangeable with the chess-playing Tsepeneag or the real Tsepeneag? Various relatives pop in and out and we are never quite sure where they fit in. Who exactly is Héloise who married Mr Egg and then Dr Bacon? Does it matter? The world is going to hell and no-one is picking up the pieces.
First published byP.O.L. in 1988
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008
Translated by Jane Kuntz