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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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The building next door, the nineteenth-century Hotel Particulier that once belonged to the Cazanu family, now houses the Union of Artists._]

I knew of no Lutheran church, and though I had not visited every street and square, I recalled no spires mounting the crowded, crane-ridden skyline I saw from my balcony. As for the mosque and the Ottoman workshops, I could not even place where they might once have stood; the nearest I had seen to a minaret was the brick chimney of the clinic incinerator. For people like Leo, however, the city’s redesign had not succeeded in obliterating the place’s memory of itself; the old town ached in Leo the way a lost limb aches on amputees, pulling on the vacancy it once occupied.

Half of the information in the paragraph had been crossed out in red; then, alongside it, in copyeditor’s shorthand, Leo had defiantly marked
– it was only the words that stood, and only through them that the place now would.

With his racketeering money Leo bought books and paintings and icons. He salvaged from the wrecked buildings, buying job lots of furniture and art from the demolition men, going out with the Lieutenant in a van camouflaged as an ambulance and stripping condemned buildings before the wrecking balls and bulldozers arrived. What he didn’t want he sold on or exchanged at a mysterious place I had never seen and which was called, simply, ‘Shop 36’. It was better known by its more evocative nickname,
le magasin de l’ancien régime
, where the detritus of old Romania found its way to be sold to tourists, gangsters and Party hacks.

It was as if all that was being destroyed around us was being stored in Leo’s flat, where everything belonged to some scattered or abolished set: from unpaired candelabra and antique chairs to erotic photographs, from unframed canvases to paintingless frames. It was all there, a gilded flotsam of salvage, and it occupied every surface, filled every drawer, teetered over every edge. The paleontologist Cuvier could reconstruct extinct species from a femur or a shin bone. Perhaps Leo might rebuild Bucharest from the glittering remnants he had crammed into his flat? The icons, the paintings, the paving stones and shop signs were all tagged and logged and shelved; there were clothes and jewels, old mirrors, street-signs… a small mother-of-pearl box with a forgotten saint’s fleshless finger sat on top of the only item in Leo’s front room that was not antique: a huge smoked-glass cabinet with a state-of-the-art television, video and hi-fi system.

The walls were papered with photographs Leo had taken of the destruction, not just in Bucharest but beyond, where ancient villages were being razed and old towns all over Romania were being flattened by Ceauşescu’s architectural pogroms. Using his network of informers, Leo amassed evidence from across the country for news agencies in Europe and America. The clippings – from
Le Monde, The Times, Die Zeit
– he kept in a row of scrapbooks on his desk. Shelved nearby was a run of video boxes of action films and horror movies, sequels, prequels and spin-offs:
Rocky, Rambo, Friday 13
, Indiana Jones
. Inside the boxes the spines of the cassettes were marked with a date and a place. These were the films Leo or others had taken of the razing of villages and city streets, the churches and the monasteries.

His flat had become the city’s hidden visage, like a backwards portrait of Dorian Gray: as the place itself disappeared around us, so Leo’s apartment grew in compressed splendour.

‘These places,’ Leo said to me one night, pointing at a tiny glass-covered arcade of shops in Lipscani, ‘these places are as much under threat as the rain forests or the Galapagos…’ A double row of tiny workshops, each with a different trade, twisted to the left, then opened onto a regimented precinct where all the shops had numbers. Six years ago, there had been a stone courtyard with a fountain and a street theatre where the city’s musicians, from students of the conservatoire to passing gypsies, met and improvised. Leo claimed he could still hear them. He put his hand on my arm: ‘Listen,’ he whispered, closing his eyes. At these moments Leo would go into a kind of trance, tuning into something that for him was still going on. His belief in the continued existence of lost places was not just a way of speaking.

The lights were on in a nearby bakery, and the smell of rising dough and warm ovens drew people in, ready to sleep outside for their chance of fresh bread. It was past midnight, and we were using an old map, made in 1920, to navigate the unlit streets. ‘This is how you measure what you have against what there was,’ Leo said, ‘you walk it, what remains of it, you hear the clamour of all that’s gone. It’s your listening that brings it back.’

We always used old maps or guidebooks, from the 1890s, the 1940s, the 1960s. For Leo, an occultist of place, each gone epoch could be recalled and for a moment brought back. We would cross the dark, cold, kitsch-marbled squares of Ceauşescu’s Bucharest using a map that told us we were in a bustling side street full of cafés and cabarets. We walked the length of a wide, new-built avenue following a map that claimed to take us through a web of twisting alleys between two blocks of the brewery quarter. Around us the uniform grid of main roads stretched emptily, but for Leo we were brushing the sweating walls of a
, dodging broken glass and with the smell of smoke and hops in our nostrils. He marked out his lost walks on the new maps, overwriting their expanses of blankness and thuggish symmetry with the old streets and buildings, plotting his itineraries. The maps came to resemble geological diagrams, where time was expressed in layers, and where, for all their passing, for all their irrecoverability, all periods existed simultaneously.

On my second nocturnal expedition with Leo to the depths of Dorobanti, we came upon men and women roasting a pig. They drank wine from barrels and sat and talked or danced in lamplight to accordions and fiddles. It was like a dream scene. Nobody spoke, just danced or sang or gestured, offering their food and drink, celebrating something which was never made clear. Passers-by like us happened on it by accident and were amazed. Like me, they thought at first they were dreaming, but Leo was convinced that we had stumbled in on the past, that we had
crossed over
, he said, that the city was full of such ghostly intersections of past and present, seams of layered time ready to be mined. We spent all night there, drifting back into the grey morning in time for work.

I thought I had been drawn into a group hallucination, but Leo assured me it was real. We spent all day arguing about it: we could go back, he said. We
go back, that very night. To take a particular walk, walking particular streets in a particular order, was like reciting a magical invocation. The lost walk had its syntax, its word order, like any spell. He was right. We found it again, a midnight fair in the urban clearing, and we visited it twice more before it disappeared. After that, Leo merely looked for the next thing, like the underground casino we found with a map of the catacombs, where a derelict nineteenth-century machine room beneath the Atheneum had been opened up by a Metro excavation. When we visited, it was full of men and women at gaming tables, with waiters in suits serving drinks and a pianist with an electric keyboard. It was real enough, but Leo was convinced it was part of some subterranean society, that old Bucharest was being rebuilt and repeopled underground. Leo could still find these places. He believed that they were holes in a sort of space-time fabric, time out of time, place out of place.

To balance out the dream of the old city, Leo made me visit the new Bucharest, where whole peasant communities had been forcibly relocated to the cement outskirts. Families were broken up and moved into tiny flats, often without water or electricity or even windows. Many took their animals with them: goats and pigs rummaged around the rusty metal and broken concrete, shat in the corners, rutted in the courtyards. Cockerels, disorientated, crowed beneath builders’ floodlights in the dead of night and hens yaffled in the scaffolding. Old men with narrow eyes and calloused hands peeled potatoes and old women sat on deckchairs in peasant dress, watching the cranes stalk the strange horizon, listening to the mixers and diggers, new beasts lowing in the asphalt fields. It was a tragic transplantation. Many wandered off, back to the land, or to where the land had been. They were found, half-mad, walking the motorway hard shoulders; or, if they ever made it out of the city limits, weeping over their flattened shacks, their lost livestock. The few who stayed on the industrialised farms took jobs as machine hands or in abattoirs, or staffing the vast hangars where dioxin-filled pigs were shackled to the ground and fattened on darkness and fear.

Everything was muffled, time-delayed. I listened to the
World Service, whose velvety voice of neutrality, patience and
assured us, in the face of the very facts it recounted, that all was as it should be in the world. There was also Radio Free Europe, the US-funded radio station dedicated to making mischief in the Soviet bloc. This was regularly jammed, and though it kept you informed about events in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia or East Germany, it hardly mentioned Romania. What you learned was that those places about which you heard the most tales of repression were also, relatively speaking, the least repressed. In Romania we had nothing of the sort. People talked about the Iron Curtain as if there was only one, but Communist East Europe was itself a system of partitions, curtains behind curtains. In the Comecon cosmos, Romania was the dark planet.

From the few bare sentences in the ‘News in Brief’ sections of the newspapers – a village bulldozed here, a food riot quelled there – you could deduce the clamped-shut world of Romania, and, between the lines, make out the strangled voice of rumour and hearsay, distorted, crackling with white noise, breaking up like a bad phone line. That was the sound of our everyday life.

The silent phone calls continued. Sometimes there were two or three in one day, sometimes nothing for a week. Always the line crackled and fizzed with the static from the listening devices I knew were tapping in, and always there was the caller’s indecisive, vacillating breath. Once he – I knew it was a
– was on the verge of speaking: there was something there, a name, a word, the edge of a voice.

In the afternoons I walked through Herastrau Park or visited the museums. The Museum of the Communist Party of Romania dominated them all, an empty cavernous place whose lights were on all day despite the power cuts, while the Museums of Romanian History, Natural History and Science stood dwarfed and in darkness nearby. The Party museum advertised an exhibition on the ‘Heroism of the Family’, alongside its permanent show of ‘Omagiu’ to the
and his wife.

The Natural History Museum offered more stimulating fare: an exhibition entitled ‘Evolution and Extinction’, illustrated with a poster of a sceptical-looking giant lizard. I had visited the exhibition twice, and bought the poster that now hung on my office wall.

As a power-saving measure, museum visitors were organised into groups and the lights in each room were turned on as you entered and off as you left, the loud click of the switches reverberating in the high-ceilinged halls. It was like a tide of darkness following you, engulfing room after room behind you as you went. Walking past the skeletons of mammoths and brachiosaurs, their bones wired into place and clipped together with metal hinges, their skulls craned upwards and their jaws cranked open into silent screams, you felt the momentum of depletion, the world subtracting from itself faster than it could replenish.

Bucharest’s modern parks were flat, planted with dwarfish shrubs and benches arranged to give the sitter maximum exposure and maximum discomfort. You never stayed long anywhere, harried on all sides by an invisible watchfulness. All the fountains were dry. As you walked you passed statues of one of the harmlessly dead: composers, poets, historians, scientists, evacuated from their own stories by these anonymising official monuments.
The safe and useful dead
, as Stalin called them, never shy of adding to their numbers.

The older parks and gardens were more convivial. The nearest one to my flat, Parcul Kiseleff, was overhung with trees and criss-crossed with pebbled paths, canopied with overarching branches and set back from the street. These small groves of privacy were rare in Bucharest, and by now were only to be found in the well-to-do suburbs where foreigners, Party officials or members of the dilapidated bourgeoisie still lived. For most Romanians, leisure was rationed and policed, the regime reaching even into the slow, slack hours of inactivity.

The old enjoyed the benefits of their irrelevance. I would stop and watch them: courteous, dapper little men who tipped their hats to passing ladies or competed with each other to give up their seats for someone older or frailer. The women brought tea in thermoses and pastries in boxes tied with ribbons, shook their heads and tutted at daring propositions, laughing at familiar jokes. Some spoke to each other in that meticulous, creaky, buttoned-up language known as
Capsia French
. Retired technocrats, ex-apparatchiks,
from the pre-communist era… the police wasted little time watching them.

It was as I passed late one afternoon that an old gentleman signalled with his stick for me to wait for him.

Où habitez-vous?
’ he asked me. Where did I live? ‘
Ah, ça tombe bien, je vous accompagne, ce n’est pas loin de chez moi.
’ ‘That’s handy, I’ll walk with you, it’s not far from my place.’

He introduced himself – Sergiu Trofim – and extended a hand for me to shake. It was small and dry, pocked with liverspots and missing its index and middle fingers. Drawing attention to the neighbouring stumps was a heavy gold ring on his wedding finger, set with a large turquoise stone. His sleeves finished with antique Dior cufflinks.

Mon plaisir
,’ he said, bowing slightly when I told him my name. Trofim greeted everyone as if he had heard of them before, as if they came to him cresting the wave of a happy reputation.

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
10.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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