Autumn Survey

My dear friends, I have arrived safe and sound at Portiţa. That's what the people from around here call it: Portiţa, not Gura Portiţei (at the barracks in Tulcea I saw some maps upon which other variations were written: Protiţcaja and Portisza Mündung; rather odd, don't you think?). They call it Gura Portiţei because it is here that Razelm Lake meets the sea, but now 'Gura', 'the mouth', is dammed-up. We have a beach that stretches all the way from Constanţa to Sfîntu Gheorghe, or, if we were to consult those same maps, from Küstenge to Catîrletz or Kadîrleţ. You can't imagine how deserted this place is. Or how bizarre. It doesn't even feel like I'm in Romania anymore. Maybe you'll take some time to come and visit. We have the Black Sea to one side, Lake Razelm on the other. Well, a part of the lake. It's actually Lake Goloviţa and it's enormous, even if it's smaller than Razelm. Water as far as the eye can see. It takes about an hour to get here from Jurilovca by boat. The one I came on was a leaky old wreck that swayed violently. With a bit of imagination, it could be used by our hard-working collective farmers for seeding, threshing or any other agricultural or acquacultural activities. You could even use it as a bob-sleigh, in the mountains. I've heard that during the winters here the whole lake freezes over. Lustrous dementia. Psychic ice-skating. Everything looks like a scene from a Flemish painting. I sighed with relief when I stepped onto the jetty. Near the barracks was a rat-infested outhouse made from reeds, set atop two jetties moored to the bank of a canal. There was a third jetty reserved for special occasions, viz (as pronounced by Major Faluhin) for Guests and Visits (by the natives of Tulcea), as well as several cages for the guard-dogs. Beyond the barbed-wire fence was a weather station. I don't know where to begin. For some time the letters I would send from the military school began with those grandiose mottos, like: The army takes up where logic lets off! a kind of BANG, got your attention, then the name Napoleon would pompously follow, like a carefully-placed sign, said with some degree of care, through which you could understand the amount of idiocy that was crammed into the heads of our older colleagues. ...We would take them and use them ourselves at the start of our letters, even before the obligatory 'Dear...' They were our autistic attempt at rebellion. I'm sick of drowning in manuscripts and drafts. I correct, censor out the shit, the pulp, waste of time. I'd be better off just writing it down once, without going back over it. There are no mistakes or things like that. At the school I began to write letters for the others. Lovers would get back together, relationships between absent fathers and the sons they left behind with their mothers would be patched up. Bitterness for all kinds of bitter people. I didn't push myself too hard. It came naturally. And what the hell could you censor here, there's nothing worth editing out. Anybody could work out that we'd ended up in a penal unit of some sort. Even mothers and fathers. For us soldiers, that's what Gura Portiţei meant. Now everything is well. Only two years ago, the post at Periteaşca was twelve kilometers away, and the one at Perişor was about twenty and something. Isolated. After a long hike to get there, the only thing you'd be fit for was to sleep for two whole days. The poor locals didn't even have electricity, or bread, or decent food. They weren't 'like everybody else', because at least that meant some level of decency. They'd've loved to 'be like everybody else'… The locals are tied down to their worthless lives. Fishing is the only thing they live for. Every evening, before sundown, they cast out their nets, and the next morning they return home with them full of fish. It's like something out of the poems we studied in primary school. Here, the definition of plenty is the perfect morning of a boat that barely rocks. Their mooring ropes draw them closer to the jetty. I don't really know what I should write to you about. Quite a few interesting things have happened to me here. For example, a Major in our unit won a gold medal at the Moscow Olympics. It's interesting to see a champion growing old, to see what he really looks like, in the flesh, not just through images on the TV screen. Then I have another colleague, a captain with an odd name, Ţofel. He spends his nights playing cards, table-tennis, chess or poker, and then sleeps through the day. Each morning, when the other major, the commander of the Jurilovca detachment, calls him up to report, Ţofel appears with his eyes half-closed, in tight-fitting pyjamas, if you can imagine that, and jumps from one jetty to another in his striped slippers, passing groups of soldiers mindlessly polishing and shining things, in order to reach the radio-operator's cabin. He's an alien, that's all I can say. He retreats to his own cabin after the conversation and does not appear again until around four in the afternoon, when he eats a cold lunch consisting of borscht and fish caught from the lake. Anyway, it's damn depressing to spend four years in the splendid isolation of Periteaşca. Even the devil himself would do a runner. That much I can be certain of. from Thin Air, to be published

by Cosmin Manolache (b. 1973)