By Ion D. Sîrbu, trans. Andreea Iulia Scridon, with a critical note by Ionucu Pop
Don’t torment me: I don’t know, I don’t know! I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know if it happened, if it did happen (and I don’t think it did, I can’t think it did), then surely it isn’t me now writing these foolish words. This isn’t a declaration, I had a guiding principle throughout my life, this being: never will I make any sort of declaration; I wouldn’t even know what to declare, whom to declare, I hope it’s clear to everyone that I have no clue how I got here, in order to be tormented by this too-white paper and this too-black fountain pen...You can beat me, kill me, I lost the key; and the address too, and the names of everyone who, who... I mean to say that I’ve forgotten the beginning. The very first beginning. A coil, like a snake in mud, twists around in my stomach, it doesn’t hurt, it only irks me... In every machine there is, isn’t there, a screw, a trinket of a screw or a technical bauble, a tiny, sneaky thing which, if it is missing, sets the motor on fire; or the machine simply forgets how to turn on without it; or, finally, it explodes. And in books, in every book, there is a page, in every poem there is a word, in every dramatic role there is a line, a certain line; just fancies in fact, but which, however, if lost or broken, or burned or stolen (and I mean stolen), everything becomes absurd, equivocal, ridiculous. And even incriminating... And in my life, in the continuous chain of my poor life, an eye jumped off, a ring like an eye, without which, I swear, I no longer know who I am, nor would I be able to tell you how I got here, in these strange clothes, under this wall so green it hurts my brain to look at it for hours on end. Don’t torment me, better yet, help me wash my eyes and mouth: take me out, into the world’s gigantic night, and leave me alone under the sky. Under the starry sky and beneath the immoral stars of death. Leave me alone, the plain is large, it is generous, the maidens I loved in my youth have entered the stream and drowned, all of them... It’s nice there, the wind blows, it’s quiet as it was the day when... when... when... I’ll try to gather my thoughts. To think. I’ll try to remember... But, please, I implore you, don’t hit me anymore. I can’t bear it.
First there was that phone call: the telephone rang exactly at 11am. I remember precisely, because I have the habit of eating breakfast at this hour. I was sitting at my table, beneath the third window. Two little meatballs and a tomato: no bread, no bread, my doctor told me to stay away from carbohydrates and sweets; they fatten you, disturb the pancreatic metabolism. I was minding my own business, biting into a meatball and watching, bemused, the ridiculous exercises of a group of firefighters pretending to put out an imaginary fire. I had Pirandello before me, I was studying him, perhaps, I don’t like Pirandello, I liked him in my youth, now, after the War, he didn’t seem to make any sense anymore. But if I brought him off the shelf, I said to myself, it wouldn’t hurt to sift through him... Rehmke, the toad-eater, passed through the reading room himself: of course, without his tie and without his cigarettes. And shameless. He’d broken off, without asking me, half of the second bread roll, swallowed it whole, passed by Miss Lothe (my colleague, a nice, discreet girl), whispered something priggish in her ear, then, turning around, snatched my cigarette —I only had two left — and disappeared, but not before winking at me and snickering in a complicit manner. (The arsehole!) I remember all of these details very precisely. Precisely because they are details and because they engrained themselves into my memory before... Therefore, before, before the telephone rang, and before I, distracted, reached out for the receiver. (My fingers were oily, I’d probably forgotten that a few pink napkins had been laid out right there.) I picked the receiver up and, in the crumb of a moment it took to bring it to my ear, I felt, for the first time, I swear upon my honour, for the first time, that something wasn’t right. I’d experienced something similar before: once, on a mountaintop, I’d gazed out for a long time over the peak after an Andean condor floating over the abyss, and I grew dizzy, a sort of faintness of the gaze and of the small brain; I had to lie down, lie with my face to the earth; for several hours in this way, and then at the seaside when, climbing exhausted out of the water and trying to unblock my ears, the world suddenly toppled over, sounds switched off, I myself, for a moment, felt myself someone else and somehow another...But these things happened on the mountain and in the sea and many, many years ago. Now I held the receiver, I didn’t know who had called me, why they called me, and still, my heart jerked with terror and a foreign, cold fear struck through the length of my spine.
‘Yes, hello,’ I said, ‘Who would you like to speak to?’
A grave, calm voice responded shortly:
‘Who are you?’
I said my name: Hans Hauch.
‘The actor?’ Responded the voice on the other end.
‘Of course,’ I replied, slightly annoyed.
I was in the theatre’s library, was speaking on the phone in this library, I found it stupid that someone who was calling me here didn’t even know that I was the actor Hans Hauch, the great Hauch, the only Hauch...
The voice in the receiver was one step ahead of me. It began to scream:
‘Please, be serious, I have no time to waste!’
‘This is ridiculous, who are you?’
The final countdown! Several thousandths of a difficult moment passed. I could hear whistling, aggressive breathing. Then, the scream:
‘I am the actor Hans Hauch, sir, and I don’t have time to waste with such stupid farces!’
‘I don’t either,’ I yelled, ‘you’re a boorish idiot!’
Silence. In the receiver, as if in a seashell, the waves of a calm sea fomented, the evening wind scurried beneath Lebanon’s cedars... Finally, with seemingly sad gravity, slowly and collectedly, someone said, in a whispered, sincere tone, not at all theatrical:
‘Mate, you have my word that the person you’re talking to is Hans Hauch, the actor. Is that clear? Do you understand?’
‘What should I understand?’ I muttered, irritated. ‘Then who am I?’
‘That’s your business,’ said the voice, and I heard the beginning of a laugh.
I slammed the phone down and cursed his mother. I threw the rest of the food in the rubbish bin; my day was ruined. I took Pirandello, hurried down into the theatre’s square and went out rambling up and down the boulevards, upwards towards the fortress. It was snowing, the city had emptied out, I hopped into an inn, ordered a bitter, I was surprised night had fallen so early, and this unnatural snow surprised me too, but after my second bitter, I suddenly grew calm. I began to laugh, on the inside, of course, I began to laugh in wonder.
Why are you staring at me? With your big and empty eyes, with your green fingernails? I’m telling the truth. That’s all: I laughed, I drank bitter and laughed again. But nobody heard me, I was alone at the table, the innkeeper had gone out to shovel the snow... It’s useless for you to hide behind trees, useless to try and catch me. It’s useless for you to grin like that. I see you, I hear you. I’m not afraid of the night, I’m not afraid of the stars, and I’m not afraid of you either. Somewhere there’s a god of actors, for the great actors of this foul world, he sees, he sees me and takes care of me, his servant. It’s useless for you to follow me, I’ve burnt the time that has passed; and my reflection in the mirror and my youth I have sacrificed on the altar of Theatre. Damn all of you, I’ll climb up to the Fortress’s tower and hang from the clock hands. I’m sick of you all, you who look through me as if I were a wall, all of you who were born after the War and now walk down the street with your pockets full of rocks, your heads full of new ideas, grinning over guitars and drums...
... The bath scene came later. I was naked in my white washroom, naked in my white washroom. I was preparing for a shave. I set up my razor, whistling, as usual. The little things to do with the hygienic ritual of shaving delighted me: ‘Well-shaven, well-pleased’ doesn’t seem to me an ad, but a proverb. I’d prepared my Gillette razor (superior, in every possible sense, to Rotbart razors, for instance), I was soaped up, and then, as was normal anyway, I raised my lashes, looking at myself in the mirror. When I shave, like anyone else, I look in the mirror, but I don’t actually see myself. I watch that soapy face distractedly, I don’t care who it is, I shave with care, wash him, disinfect him, I’m not interested in this person. Of course, I know that it’s me beyond him, but I don’t care. Since I was born, I’ve known that I am me, as anyone who has a mirror and a white washroom knows. No? But then, on that fateful Friday, March 13th, 195..., as I raised my gaze and looked in the mirror, I froze suddenly: I no longer whistled, I’d begun to tremble... That wasn’t my face! It absolutely wasn’t me in the mirror, I know myself, for Pete’s sake! It was my father in the mirror, Father, looking like he did the day he died. He’d called me to him, I was in my uniform, wait, what uniform, I was already a student at the Conservatory, exactly, a student and nothing else, still Father had called me to him. He was unshaven, he had a spiky white beard, bloodshot eyes, lined with water. He looked at me searchingly, in wonder, as if seeing me for the first time; then he gestured for me to come closer and bend down closer to his face. I thought he wanted to kiss me or bless me (he was an old school evangelical Protestant), or perhaps ask me to forgive him for not being able to offer me a better world, or at least a better era in this world...I was hoping for something like that, as I stared at the cold glassiness of his eyes, exhausted by enormous fear. Or wonder. Or blame, it doesn’t matter! (I don’t know why I always fixate on details of no importance, it’s as if I run towards the stage wings exactly when I’m meant to be reciting the central monologue of the play.) Father pulled his bony hand out from under the duvet, he let out a long moan (his dentures clattered in his mouth), then he pinched my nose and, with unbelievable strength, twisted it. With cruelty, with hatred, ‘Hans,’ he said, whistling like a witch, ‘listen up. Hans, listen up, listen up!’ Mother was crying in the living room —Father had died for her several months before —she was crying because rats had eaten the margarine she’d hidden and because my sister, Mathilde, had been killed in a blitz...Mother died too, some time after this, in her discreet and modest way; I was guarding an attic or a train station and, notwithstanding all of this, my head raised, from my white washroom in which I shave every other day, I must declare clearly, so that they who must hear should hear, they who call me, they who spy on me behind these green walls, full of well-hidden microphones, so that the whole world will hear: I didn’t go to war, I didn’t shoot a gun, I was Protestant, I had epilepsy, but sometimes they called me to that attic over the train station...And I became epileptic precisely—I repeat, precisely —so that I wouldn’t have to go to war, shoot a gun, die... But who believes me, how can I prove this now, after so many years have passed? How? That’s what I screamed at them, as I stared at father’s face, grinning at me in the mirror. This and many other things I could have told the men up there, the ones ‘in their right’, but I was afraid that he would reach his bony hand through the glass and...
I didn’t break the mirror then... I just called my wife. But Helga wasn’t home, she’d gone I don’t know where, she had this very bizarre habit of leaving suddenly and leaving the door wide open behind her. Soaped up and still unshaven, I went out into the hallway, meaning to close the door. In its white entryway stood an old beggar, smiling. He only had one eye, the other he’d probably lost in the War, on the front, who knows which of the fronts. He smiled childishly, he didn’t seem to be insane, or humiliated in his rags. I gave him a good nudge down the stairs, ‘I’m sick and tired of drama, of tragedies, I detest —as I don’t know which one of the classics says —I detest history’s perfidious travesties, et cetera...”; that’s what I yelled after him (this and nothing else) and, immediately after, I went into the bedroom and threw myself onto our conjugal bed. I cried, but not because of the beggar, nor out of rancour before the ineluctable truths of the classics: I cried for my lost childhood, for the trees shredded by bombs, for the open door; I cried for the burnt books and the parts I never played, or which were forbidden. An actor who cries, home alone, absolutely gratuitously and without any particular note, represents a lugubrious phenomenon, pathological really... I almost wanted to laugh at my own stupidity, through my tears... It wasn’t stupidity really, and if it seemed so to those on high, it’s only because I was naked and unshaven and because I had run in fear (this was the word: FEAR!) out of my white washroom, out of my washroom, so white... Relieved, as if after a confession, I passed into the kitchen. I shaved there. Without a mirror... (‘And you, all of you shave without a mirror, in hidden kitchens, while your wives are gone to the train station, the rag fair or the old cemetery; you shave without understanding that to lose your name means to lose the sky above, to lose the moral law within you, it means drinking bitter while it snows outside or it rains or a mendicant wind blows towards the seas in which our sailors rot. It’s useless for you to climb trees, useless to photograph, for naught do you have the dogs howl at the moon beneath my closed window. I didn’t break the window, I can look at myself in it, I’m still Hans Hauch, the actor, even if I sometimes think of Seneca, of his death, of Einstein, of his death, of Zweig and all the other countless bastards who grew fed up with life and died in order to avoid the suffering of shame...’)
Our life flows through ruins: we put on plays in sheds, train stations, in markets cleaned of debris. We have an audience, and success too, sometimes, after our shows, the city’s band arrives — the new fanfare, of course — playing waltzes and polkas and hits of the past century for us. ‘The Word’, cries Hermann, our new director, ‘The Word will disperse the horsemen of the Apocalypse. We, the actors, each of us is the Prometheus of the new world, we are the apostles of peace, the teachers of mankind. It through us that grave History commits her final act of self-judgment’. Excellently played, no sufleur in sight, three newspapers typed my name out in capital letters...All would be well in the best of all possible worlds, if it weren’t for those mysterious phone calls I always get, either at 11 in the morning or 11 late at night. Now, the individual in question no longer claims that He is the real Hauch, the actor. See, I’m not going around screaming either, defending my identity and biography... We speak of the weather (never of the times), he asks after my health, after Helga, he even praises certain scenes he’s seen me play... It would all seem a farce, or a sort of theatre outside of the theatre, if he didn’t end every conversation with that sinister threat: ‘Our patience is running out: you need to decide, otherwise, otherwise...’. After I put the phone down, a sort of faintness of the intestine grips me, my sternum hurts, my clavicle, my brain tells me to vomit... One day I went to Poste-restante, I have a box there for correspondence and press. Box H/354. I’ve had it for three years. Or four. Anyway! I wanted to pick up my mail - what mail? I don’t have any friends or family anywhere, look, just a few prospects, ads, our theatre magazine. I try to open the box and fail, the key isn’t fitting. I complain: an old clerk appears, he’s known me for so many years, he confronts me, leaving me perplexed. He says: ‘I regret to inform you, I know the actor Hauch, I’ve seen him in The Resistible Rise of Arturo, in Biedermann, Mr Puntila and his Man Matti (I only play villains, what can you do, this is the postwar destiny of all great actors in the entire world), I saw him, continued the old postman, and in Borchert’s The Man Outside, and that Vichy Jew. As a result, I know the master Hans Hauch, I know him, I respect and admire him, like any honest German of our times. However, I regret to inform you: you are someone else. You resemble him, I won’t deny it, but you are someone else. Mr Hauch picked up his mail. An hour ago. I feel obliged to invite you not to go on insisting. Otherwise... otherwise... otherwise...’
I know where I live, I haven’t forgotten: 45 Gorky Street, the 6th floor. I always go by stair, an actor needs his exercise; his figure belongs to the profession, as his words belong to the public... This time I pass before the building, I’m not wounded, yet I feel like being a hero, entering into that ridiculous role of the unknown soldier returning home: from nowhere...to nobody... I don’t go up, there’s no point, Helga isn’t waiting for me (I don’t even know if she ever really waited for me, except perhaps for those few days when we were engaged and spent our days in a basement owned by Mr Meitner, former war criminal...); there’s no gas left in the cooking lamp, the milk bought yesterday is certainly sour by now. I pass by my home, I want to walk down that freshly paved alleyway. You all, leave me alone, don’t come here anymore, it’s useless to keep following me. My soul hurts, I’ve lost a part, a sky, a heavy book. I’m 45 years old, I could have been in the War, nobody believes that I didn’t kill anyone, that I didn’t pull the trigger...In fact, I’m not even being accused of any crime, however, I realise that a moist and dirty shadow is looming over me...I smell the stench of an idea born in a cellar, of a two-faced rat, of the man who loses not his shadow, but the clean light of his being. To hell with all these singers, with their great expectations: I will go down this road, I will kick over all the boxes full of preserves, I’ll descend towards the filth of the great river...I won’t sing, I don’t know how to sing, only those who went to war knew how to sing, I guarded an attic and a train station and, whenever it was needed, I gave an exceptional performance of the epilepsy attack scene... I won’t sing, then, but I will grind my teeth, like a curse, like a horrid swear: Heimat, deine Sterne... ha, ha, ha! I haven’t broken the mirror yet, my name is Hauch, and also Hans Hauch, gentlemen, even if now, like a wasteland dog, I squeeze past fences, past old rubbish bins. Perhaps, I tell myself, my illness is called Weltschmerz, perhaps it’s a typically German disease and its real name is Weltscham, Urweltscham, the feeling of original guilt, the complex of the sin that cannot be forgiven, nor avoided... If only rains were unleashed now in a flood, if only an angel with a flaming sword would come... ‘Bravo, Hauch,’ I hear behind me, ‘bravo, you actor, you fake, you coward, bravo, Hauch, your career is only just beginning!’
I’m not what they call a believer, despite the fact that I’m afraid of the darkness, of sin and of the possibility of life ‘beyond the grave’. The tutelary deities before which I kneel and to which I bring sacrifices are named Maxim, Bertolt, Walter: an actor is allowed to call his gods (authors or directors) by their first names: I too am called Hans by the younger actors who gossip amongst themselves, or simply, The Old Man... One day I did, however, try to pray. I sought out an empty church, a former chapel or crypt, I don’t even remember anymore, I entered (it smelled of mice and rotten library) and, as I’d decided beforehand, I knelt before the cross. I only wanted to say this: ‘Help me, I’m going mad, I can’t bear it anymore!’ But it was impossible. An actor remains an actor even before God, nobody should believe him, precisely because he can make anyone believe him. Evil does not thunder down from the skies, nor is it sent by the demons of hell: evil is found in the world’s theatrical structure, in words’ capacity to lie, in the duplicity of so-called values or ideals. Or, simply, evil comes from our incapacity of denying, through and with claptrap, life’s hideous face, the fatal calling towards nothingness, the sisyphic destine of endless self-deception... I left the chapel crying: I’d become convinced that universal acting begins with Cain and continues with Hitler, that there is no way out, nobody knows the hidden secret of swimming in the murderous ooze of used-up words and of compromised gestures: at least I, Hans Hauch, now felt in my footsteps, as in Dürrer, a dog with red eyes following me, sniffing me...
So, I had thrown myself into bed and was asleep. Better said, I was snoozing. I don’t remember what season it was, nor if it was afternoon or evening. I don’t remember and it’s of no importance anyway. Suddenly, as if in a dream, I heard the doorbell. I didn’t jump up to open it. I knew Helga was in the kitchen, washing dishes or crocheting, she would go and see who it is, who could it be at our door? (The snake in my stomach began to move again.) I heard her going out into the hallway, then an unclear murmur and the door slamming shut. I wasn’t sleeping anymore, just pretending to. My wife came to the bed and put her cold, moist palm on my forehead.
‘Are you sleeping?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘The doorbell woke me.’
‘There was a man here to see you. I told him you were asleep.’
‘Who was he?’
‘I don’t know him. He said that his name was Hans Hauch and that he’s an actor at some theatre.’
(Listen, you all, good people, you all, cold and indifferent stars. Pay attention, you, dogs, and you, shadows that follow me: my own wife, my good Helga, tells ME that the man who just rang the doorbell is named, is named...)
I jumped out of bed and began to scream.
‘Are you mad, woman?! I am Hans Hauch, I am the actor.’
She was smiling.
‘Look,’ she said to me then, ‘the stranger left a note with his address. And he said that you must seek him out tomorrow. After the sun sets.’
‘You’re mad, you’re mad! You’ve lost your mind!’
I wanted to strangle her. She began to cry.
‘Why are you crying?’ I said then. ‘Why are you crying? I’ll go, Helga, I’ll go. And I’ll tell him who I am, what I do and don’t believe. I will prove to him that I’ve always been watching, that I never even shot crows with my gun, that I never, ever sang, and when I had no other choice, I executed my epilepsy number heroically, that repulsive scene with the jerking, moaning, and foaming at the mouth...’
When was that? Helga has been gone from my house for a long time now. I remember that, one evening, she came back for a few minutes. She had a small valise in her hand: she stared at the books, at the knickknacks, she turned the bedside lamp on and off. She didn’t even turn towards me, as if I didn’t exist, as if we were strangers in a waiting room... She headed towards the door and, from there, in the doorway, she called after me, with a knife’s voice, a saw’s voice: ‘You’re dead, Hans, go there, before it’s too late..!’ She disappeared after that in the crowd, the stream passed, I don’t know, I think that, burning with fever as I was, I kept after her everywhere... But Helga ran, she flew, I howled after her with all my strength: ‘Not even you, not even you?’
Yesterday, after sunset, dressed in my best clothes, I went... Everything went on normally... Vodka, whiskey, coffee (but what coffee!), a uniform... (Comic. Ridiculous. Fantastic.)
My name was returned to me, but, in any event, another was offered. I accepted it, only I know what it means to lose your name, to end up having to beg for it. I told the tale (with wit; for naught, the actor is an actor in hell too) of the epilepsy scrape; there was laughter, naturally, everything was verified, they knew I wasn’t lying, that my past is spotless... Potato-patata, stuff, jokes, we ended up laughing, talking like friends, we even sang Gaudeamus...
That was it. I swear!
What I don’t understand, what I won’t understand even after death is why, on that night of all nights, I broke the mirror for good. All mirrors. The mirror in sich.
Don’t torment me! I don’t know, I don’t know...
I don’t know how the mirror broke.
I don’t know what I lost. Where I lost. Why I lost. I didn’t go to war, I didn’t sing, and when I look up at the stars of my fatherland, I want to roar like a hyena...
Critical note: Ion D. Sîrbu
The members of the Sibiu Literary Circle appear in 1946 under the guise of a deck of cards. This pack image, which also implies a hierarchical factor, portrays Ion D. Sîrbu (1919 -1989) as a Jack of Spades. More than half a century later, it’s safe to assume (as the exegetes have done) that positioning within the Literary Circle is susceptible to change, and that I.D. Sîrbu has migrated from its periphery to its centre, belonging now, from the perspective of posterity, to the quartet of Aces of that literary group.
This extraordinary career propulsion in the ranks of the Sibiu Literary Circle, and in Romanian literature in general, was made possible by what Sîrbu’s life and writing represent. Beyond his impeccable morality and biographical right-mindedness, the author born in the Jiu Valley excels in prose, theatre, the essay form, and not least epistolary and journal writing, marked by incredible wit and a brilliant sense of humour, irrigated by an athletic personality with a rich philosophical cultivation. Posthumously, Sîrbu’s contributions constitute the main pole of literary resistance, (i.e. against the totalitarian regime[s] at the hands of which the author suffered greatly); his is the iconic example of Romania’s so-called “drawer literature”, pieces of writing that couldn’t be published in the country during the communist regime (1947-1989) because of their dangerous attitude towards this system, which would quietly await the right historical moment in which to see the light of day and deliver justice. In Sîrbu’s case, that moment arrived immediately after the author’s death, which ironically took place two months before the Romanian Revolution. Ion D. Sîrbu’s “drawer prose” was a spectacular surprise that played a great part in the better re-evaluation of his literary position. As mentioned before, this posthumous “revenge” positively affected his ranking within the Sibiu Literary Circle, whose main representative in prose he has now become.
From a generational point of view, this Transylvanian literary group belongs to what is known now as Romania’s “Lost Generation”, or War Generation, writers whose destinies were plagued by historical hazards (the Fascist Iron Guard Movement, World War II, the establishment of the Communist Regime) that directly interfered with the content and the quantity of their publishing. They are called “lost” because they were rediscovered during the period of “thawing”, a moment of ideological relaxation during the 1960s and the 1970s favouring the autonomy of artistic production. This resulted in their renewed debut alongside much younger writers who now constitute Romanian neo-modernism. Such is the case of the great writers associated with the Literary Circle of Sibiu, a group that emerged from the transplant of the King Ferdinand I University of Cluj-Napoca to Sibiu after Northern Transylvania was assigned from Romania to Hungary as a result of the Vienna Diktat. Sibiu, which remained a part of the Kingdom of Romania, was to be the host city of some young students who later became important Romanian literary figures of the second half of the 20th century: Ion Negoițescu, Ștefan Augustin Doinaș, Radu Stanca, and of course Ion D. Sîrbu among others.
ANDREEA IULIA SCRIDON is a Romanian-American writer, translator, and Lilliputian influencer. Her translation of a series of short stories by Ion D Sîrbu, a representative of subversive writing under the communist regime, is forthcoming in 2021 with ABPress.
Art by Izzy Fergusson