Issue 4/1980 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An excerpt from Laturi (‘The explosives expert’, 1979). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

“It only took one good bash!” With tears in his eyes, chuckling and spluttering, Korppi, the sentimentalist, told the story of Linda’s love affair. Korppi hadn’t been an old codger then; like Chekov’s Versinin, he could have been dubbed the love-lorn major, although he was only a lieutenant for he had loved little Linda when he had been an officer guarding the refugees interned on Suursaari: interned not for their safety but for the protection of his country. “She loved getting parcels, oh yes, but she didn’t give a damn for me! And did I take what belonged to me?

Yes! No! I nibbled here and there but I never swallowed a whole bite … On the other hand, there were some who took a bite and swallowed it, one of them was called …”

“Selim!” shouted Enver.

Selim, that jelly. He was Korppi’s subordinate on guard duty, and had he known the other fellow had been flirting with Linda he would have killed her! But how could he have known? What took place under a clump of hills along a wooded lake shore…

But it had been observed that women got pregnant even when they were imprisoned, and this prisoner begged Korppi to arrange for her to go to the mainland for her confinement so that the child could be saved. Korppi was furious and hit her and then took from her at last what belonged to him, although it was by force, and promised to arrange the trip for her. Nevertheless, he was not the father, the father was someone else …

“Selim!” shouted Enver.

Selim and Selim, and which others? There had been that strange fellow, always alone, who went around strumming all the time. How and by what right had he got the instrument? He was always strumming and staring with his eyes, his crazy eyes. Korppi always gave the man the really shitty jobs, couldn’t stand him, but he couldn’t have known what had happened there on the wooded shore of the lake… Once Korppi had thrashed the man soundly, hoping he would raise his hand in self-defence so that he would have the right to shoot him… Not because Korppi had known anything about the business between Linda and the man, but perhaps he suspected something or perhaps he just hated the man and he didn’t know why. The man just lay on the ground, on Finnish soil, on a little clump of heather – Korppi remembered that detail particularly – and Korppi could have killed the man, kicked him to death, and although the man protected his head the blows fell on his ribs and groin and Korppi had before now… But when Korppi stopped, breathless, and went to sit down on a tree stump, the man had slowly raised his head and looked, and Korppi could have sworn there was scorn in his eyes. Then the man had slowly risen up, blood pouring from his face, and had felt himself, felt his bones, slowly waved a hand, swung his hips round, limbering up like a runner, taken a few steps, had bent down and touched the ground, but first of all he had wriggled his fingers to make sure they were undamaged… He turned his head and neck, drew a breath; jumped up and down, free and easy, on the spot, like an athlete after a set of exercises. Korppi began to see red. Then, the devil take him, the fellow raised a hand and began shadow-boxing in slow motion, wheeling nimbly round, like a boxer in a ring, until he was quite close to Korppi. Then Korppi lept to his feet and pulled his pistol from its holster (“That one up there, do you see it”, snapped Korppi, pointing to a Lahti 3.5 hanging on the wall), but the man stopped in mid-air, laughed and dropped his hands, wiped the blood from his eyes and Korppi had suddenly begun to fear that if he shot the man full of holes the man wouldn’t fall dead to the ground, that he wouldn’t fall at all, he would just stand there, full of holes, laughing at him … Then Korppi would have gone mad. The man turned and started to walk away, plucking his instrument from the foot of a spruce tree as he went. “Halt!” Korppi had shouted. Then he had called for Selim. “Was Selim there?” “He was! He didn’t do a thing. He just stood there and looked around and hummed between his teeth now and again…” So he ordered Selim to break the mad dog’s instrument. And Selim repeated the order but didn’t move and the man just smiled, but Korppi was determined and because he himself was afraid to approach the strange fellow he again ordered Selim to break the lute and raised his pistol, and Selim had gone and broken the lute against a rock and had thrown it into the forest, not vengefully, for he hadn’t known what Linda and the fellow… were to each other; if he had known perhaps he would have taken the lute and crushed it into little pieces… And the man had just looked and shrugged his shoulders and then walked away, whistling, and how he whistled, how beautifully (Korppi: crazily, like a madman), it was as though the forest had gone quiet to listen to him, for it was, suddenly, absolutely still, so still one hardly dared breathe… The man had walked out of sight but his melody could still be heard and Korppi sent Selim after him to shut him up, but Selim couldn’t find the man, nor did he want to… Korppi sat in his armchair and nodded off, he had talked too much and he felt sick, his mouth was full of spittle which ran down his chin into the dirty lapel of his coat. Silence then old boy, you shouldn’t know more anyhow… Enver looked at the picture of his mother and whispered: “Beautiful Mother, tell me more, your son is tortured by not knowing”. He stared steadily and long at the picture, and the lovely Linda’s fragile features faded and only the eyes remained, and Linda’s own story unravelled like an explosion from the nebula of tales – NGC 6720, a beautiful secret planetarium called the Perianthic Nebula, where stories about love and solidarity and friendship thrive.

Enver could hear himself talking, Linda was speaking through him, they both had the same high-arched cupid’s bow lips:

“You see, my father was a bard, or really a minstrel. He came from the city of las in Romanian Moldavia and was only a minstrel in his spare time, but with all his heart. He was a builder by trade, he dangled from the scaffolding round new buildings, I don’t know whether he was a bricklayer or a plasterer or a carpenter – it isn’t important – only that he was always singing, even when his work was hard and his pay was low. He didn’t always sing at work – it depended on the foreman and the boss. It was said in las before the War that the houses constructed by builders who allowed him to sing on the job were more beautiful and lasted longer and were warmer and made the people who lived in them happier than those built by builders who stopped my father singing.

“Nose to the grindstone, Jew, don’t you like the work?” A house built by a type like that collapsed just before the completion ceremony – in the middle of the night, fortunately. The builder was blamed for stealing cement and steel and a thief he was, too, but anyhow people began to say that the singing workman had got his own back on the builder, although it was trumped up, a stupid rumour. The house had collapsed because the cement was too weak. But after that the singing workman couldn’t get work, he was known in the district and the local builders were superstitious. His name was Ion Aaron Lipscanescu, which means ‘man from Leipzig’ in Romanian, although his name revealed clearly that he was anything but a Leipziger. When work dried up in Ias he travelled to Bucharest but his reputation had galloped before him and he couldn’t find work there, either. Ion Aaron decided then to devote himself to music an idea that came from within him, for he had sung and played all his life. But the gipsy musicians would not accept him, although they recognized his talent, because his name was Ion Aaron and Jews did not play folk music, except their own of course, but not Romanian music. “Why don’t you play the violin in some chamber orchestra, lone, Ionelule,” suggested old Nicu Stanescu, himself a great violin player. “Surely, yes, your own sort will help you, play symphonies, those quintets, quartets, whatever, get your fame and fortune that way… fame anyway.”

“Nene Nicu, I don’t want to play classical music, not concertos, or quartets or symphonies. I want to play with you, I want to play your doinas sirbas briuls breazas and horas,” Ion Aaron assured him and proved it by inspired improvisation on the XX cobza lute and by playing both the short whistle flute and the long dark-toned caval flute, and getting all the notes right first time.

“Good, good, you’ve got technical ability, the hold is good, you’ve got feeling too, if I couldn’t see you I’d think a gipsy was playing. If you could play behind a curtain… No, it wouldn’t work. You play well, but you’d play badly with us. Or we’d play badly with you. I know my boys. They’re good boys, they’re musicians. They’ve got warm hearts, but, they’re afraid of you, you’re not one of them, how can I put It, you don’t know us, we don’t know you. You can come and visit us, as a curiosity, but you can’t be one of us, lone, Ionelule.”

But Ion Aaron wasn’t the type to give up. He was born a minstrel, he knew it, and he intended to die one, in the way minstrels usually die – and there are lots of different stories about that. He worked at the Gara de Nord as a porter, lived as best he could, slept in a basement room in the worker’s quarter of Cotrocen and sat in the local café drinking tsuikka and thinking.

At last he found the answer: if he learnt to play the most Romanian of all the instruments, they would have to accept him in a gipsy band. He saved his wages and bought a set of gipsy panpipes, each pipe of a different length and thickness. He tried, but he couldn’t play them. He practised but he learnt nothing. He had never tried such a difficult instrument. He got sounds out of them, but they were hazy and faltering, hoarse or shrill.

He needed a teacher. But there was hardly anyone left who knew how to play the panpipes, in Bucharest there was only one man: Lunica Faca, a small dark man, with a touch of the divine between his ears.

Ion Aaron tried to talk to Lunica. But Lunica himself had only just learnt to play the pipes and didn’t consider himself a competent teacher, he was still in the process of bringing the pipes to life. Ion Aaron didn’t relent, he went repeatedly to the maestro, wore him down with his petitions and prayers, sat outside his front door strumming in the evening or playing dreadful falsetto warblings under his window until Lunica gave in and agreed to take the persistent enthusiast as his pupil. He had no cause to regret it. Ion Aaron was exceptionally teachable, gifted and dedicated, nor was it long before he had, alongside Lunica, developed great promise as a player and exponent of the panpipes. After two and a half years of study, a relatively short time, Ion Aaron didn’t consider himself fully prepared but decided, nevertheless, to approach Nicu Stanescu again. And this time Nicu and his boys listened in rapt silence to Ion Aaron’s playing, and when he had finished they embraced him in silence and in that way he became one of them. His dream had come true. He played with the gypsies, went about with them, lived as they did, always learnt new things and strange music and had never in his life been so happy, never before and never again. For Fascism had made its appearance, war was already on the doorstep; the Iron Guards organisation had reared its head, not actually daring at that time to pour petrol on Romanian soldiers and set them alight as human torches, but the Guards happened not to like the idea of a Jewish musician playing with gipsies, whom they didn’t like either but had to put up with if they wanted to hear their own folk music, for the gipsies played it best. And so one day a little band of Iron Guards waited for Ion Aaron outside the Carul cu Bere Restaurant. They grabbed Ion Aaron, they beat him with their fists, they flogged him and knocked him down, they kicked him until he was unconscious. The gipsy musicians were frozen to the spot and then began to melt away towards Calea Victorie, except for little Goga, who had pulled a knife from his pocket and leapt into the cluster of green-clad heroes and managed to stab two of them in the chest before their leader, Bucharest’s nimble-footed back streeter, grabbed his pistol and fired two shots at Goga, both of which found their target. The Iron Guards, rust red with their own blood, fled. The musicians darted back and picked up Goga and Ion Aaron from the street and vanished, as though they had all been swallowed up.

Goga didn’t die, Ion Aaron didn’t die, a doctor had been conjured up in a second and he had staunched their bleeding with deft musician-like fingers, muttering to himself: “Disgraceful, disgraceful to leap on artists, how dare they, they can’t be Romanians – they must be vampires disguised as Romanians!” The shocked doctor was murmuring to himself, expressing his country’s love for art and artists and their anger and hatred for the rampaging Iron Villains.

Young Goga was sent to the mountains of Poianaa to recuperate, Nicu’s boys left Bucharest and travelled to another city, for the wounded Iron Guards were cruel and thirsty for revenge and it was best to avoid them. Ion Aaron stayed in hiding, and was nursed to health by Nicu’s niece, who rubbed Ion’s hands and fingers every day with goose grease, until they were once again flexible and nimble. Ion’s mouth was in the most pitiable condition, the lips had been smashed, a tooth had been broken, he’d never puff a wind instrument again if it weren’t seen to. The gipsy girl cleaned his mouth with herbal extracts, forced him to gargle with different mouthwashes, prepared gruel and mild ciorba soups which she carefully spooned into Ion Aaron’s mouth. These were Uncle Nene’s orders – and anyhow, one had to help others, suffering had to be eased. Ion Aaron was so moved by the girl’s care that he felt it his duty to get better, and rally round and lift himself out of the state of depression which the sword-rattling attack of the Iron Rats had thrown him into. He improved rapidly, his mouth was already well enough for a kiss and when the girl next bent over him, using her ring finger, to spread on some grease made from the liver of a greater titmouse, Ion Aaron pulled her by the head towards his face and kissed her tenderly. The girl let it happen and decided to be frightened when Ion let her go. Then Ion proposed to her. But the girl hung her head and shook it. Nene Nicu had said… What? Nene Nicu Stanescu himself came to the city and explained his views on this sort of love and liaison.

“My dear Ion Aaron. You are well now. You are a reasonable man. You are an artist. But because of you we had to leave this place and hide. Goga was shot because of you. We don’t blame you. But these are dangerous times and things will probably get worse, for your people and mine and for everyone in this country and this part of the world and elsewhere, too, from what I have read… and heard. I beg you, therefore, leave, go far away, think of us, bide your time and then come back, if you still exist, if we still exist, if music and love and children and country and sky still exist. Whatever may become of Viorica, give her up now, go, leave her, but don’t ever forget her, think of her with tenderness and gratitude and even love her, I am not one to interfere with the feelings young people have for each other… love her as much as your heart can bear, but from a distance… Farewell, my brother, son of my brother, take your bones away and keep them in one piece and remember sometimes your Uncle Nicu and Uncle Lunica and the boys. And hate those Greenshirts or Brownshirts or Blue or White or Blackshirts, whatever they are, hate them and sing until they drown in the mire.”

The old fiddler kissed Ion Aaron and left for the far-away city of Timisoara. Ion Aaron pulled together his bones and his gear, his flute and his lute, looked into the depths of Miss Viorica’s soul and then went away himself, far away, farther and still farther…

He wandered from country to country, avoided those where the Brownshirts or Blackshirts were already in power, played in cafes, starved, enjoyed himself sometimes, slept, loved, grieved and grew lean and moved on again, first to the west, then towards the north and finally found himself in Finland, the Land of the Thousand Maids. In the capital Aaron found an orchestra called Dallapé and ended up playing the guitar with them. The swing of Negro Jazz amused him so much that he could hardly keep from laughing out loud at his own solos and he asked to be allowed to play the saxophone, so that laughing would be difficult. But he wasn’t allowed to play the saxophone very long, for war broke out that winter and he lost his job. He eked his way north, as far as the Swedish border, but he wasn’t allowed to go across, so he went to Vaasa, where he had never been before, and played there for a while in a restaurant called Ernst’s, until he got fed up with the German name and returned to the freezing capital. A peace treaty had been signed and he was able to slip back unobtrusively into Dallapé’s orchestra; he played better than anyone else and put on so much weight that they noticed him and kicked him out, not because they had anything against him personally but just to be on the safe side, for his sake and the orchestra’s and the whole nation’s … He played in the Klippan, on a pleasure island, in return for food and lived nearby in a fisherman’s hut and never went over to the mainland – until war broke out again and the Security Forces came to the island and took him in their brand new police launch, manned by three men, and the group was led by a police official who looked like a German language teacher. And finally he found himself interned, an internee, interned on an island which was so big that it was called Suursaari, Big Island. And good God, after all those phases of his life, after all those years of wandering, he found here that delicate bird-like creature who was to become the mother of his child, just as if it had been written in the stars, the purpose of his life and his wanderings … From my point of view, of course, it was just that, for I wouldn’t exist otherwise, I wouldn’t be the son of a minstrel and a delicate little lady… or of anybody else, which couldn’t help but affect my life very profoundly.

There he sat, this Romanian musician, on top of Suursaari’s smallest hill, which was called Mulku, for he wasn’t fond of heights, this son of the endless flatlands of Moldavia. There he sat and played his panpipes, which he kept hidden, by the way, in the hollow of a willow tree. Soldier Selim, who was later made a father without deserving the honour, had broken Aaron’s cobza lute, but no-one had ever found his pipes; he played a sad lament, a doina, which he had written himself. It described the village of Hilipicest, where he happened to have been born, where he had spent his early childhood, for which he had rarely been homesick until now, until he had come here, to the barren north. His playing was so mournfully beautiful that Linda, who was walking in the forest in the opposite direction, stopped to listen and forgot where she was going and who she was going to meet, and Selim waited for her in vain on the shore of Paha Lampi…

Linda slowly approached the hill and the playing seemed closer, she saw the player and recognised him, for they had both been put to work making barbed wire, but rather far apart from each other; she had hardly noticed that muscular, diffident, quiet man. But how he could play… The man signalled Linda to come closer, but without stopping his song; there was something decisive and calm about him, almost authoritative, and Linda obeyed and went up to him. Ion Aaron stopped playing and said in a soft Yiddish:

“You should not walk alone in the forest, Miss Linda, soldiers could be hidden here. Who knows, even bears?”

“You yourself shouldn’t come here to play your pipes!” answered Linda in German. “I have permission.” She bit her lip, for she had been forbidden to say anything about Korppi’s permission, whatever anybody might think about her…

“All right,” nodded Ion Aaron. “I understand. Life is short. Our life is perhaps shorter than the average. Go now where you intended to go, but come back here tomorrow at the same time, if it suits you. For I want you to notice that I, too, am alive.”

Linda no longer went to see Selim, nor did Selim seek her out, for he knew that he had already been selected for other duties on the mainland, but didn’t know how to tell Linda, so he hadn’t said anything and was, therefore, rather relieved when she stopped coming to their meeting-place. The next day Linda was enticed to Mulku at the same time by the playing of the panpipes, and when she was near the player, the playing stopped for a moment but then that sensuous fluting started again with new strength, for life was short, especially their life, for the minstrel had said so. The slow doinas became, after a while, quick briulas and horas and the fast rhythms made even the animals of the forest love each other. For a fortnight, Linda and Ion Aaron met every day at the same time at Mulku and nurtured their short life and became very close. Then suddenly the minstrel vanished. He disappeared not only from Mulku, he vanished from the whole island. His panpipes were not found in the hollow of the willow tree, which made Linda think that Ion Aaron had disappeared of his own volition, deliberately, had slipped his moorings, as they say. But where could he have gone; he was, after all, interned. The guards searched everywhere for him, so he hadn’t been taken anywhere. The fellow had just put his pipes in his bag and gone. That’s what artists are like, thought Linda and burst into tears because she would be left alone and in Korppi’s arms, as Selim had been deputed to shore duty on the mainland.

Some little while after Ion Aaron had vanished, Linda began to feel that she was pregnant. Panic overwhelmed her, she turned to Korppi, whom she hated, and asked to be transferred to the mainland for the birth of the child. Korppi was furious, assaulted her and then agreed. When her time was near, Linda was taken to the capital for her delivery. When she was asked the father’s name, she blushed (ashamed of lying, not of her pregnancy) and mouthed Selim’s name. In her defence, she reflected that Selim could have been the child’s father. Ion Aaron, the vanished man, could no longer be a father, could no longer be anything, he didn’t even exist except as matter somewhere, or energy, or a tune, or a musical echo.

Enver became silent, Linda became silent, Korppi snored, Enver looked at him and turned his head away so that he wouldn’t think about that codger having had his mother in his hands. He began to feel something akin to hatred for the fellow. He picked Linda’s picture up from the floor and the feeling of hatred vanished, replaced by contemptuous pity. That feeling didn’t last long either, because Enver soon forgot all about the irritating old boy as he began to understand how much it would mean to him to find his father, Ion Aaron Lipscanescu! He left the old boy sleeping in the kitchen and stepped briskly across the street to his own cottage. He intended to go on a trip.

Translated by Mary Lomas


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