The Black Envelope

The Black Envelope

Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Black Envelope
    Book Description:

    A splendid, violent spring suddenly grips Bucharest in the 1980s after a brutal winter. Tolea, an eccentric middle-aged intellectual who has been dismissed from his job as a high school teacher on "moral grounds," is investigating his father's death forty years after the fact, and is drawn into a web of suspicion and black humor.

    "Reading 'The Black Envelope,' one might think of the poisonous 'black milk' of Celan's 'Death Fugue' or the claustrophobic air of mounting terror in Mr. Appelfeld's 'Badenheim 1939.' . . . Mr. Manea offers striking images and insights into the recent experience of Eastern Europe."-New York Times Book Review

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18862-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-2)
    (pp. 3-18)

    In the kiosk window, the lovely curled head of a spring morning. Small black eyes. Crimson lips, pink-enamel cheeks.

    “The newspapers! They’re just coming. The papers will be ready in a second.”

    The men huddling around the window came to life.

    The girl moved back inside the kiosk to arrange the stacks of papers. The pavement was no longer large enough. There were pedestrians darting everywhere, casting impatient glances to left and right—wave upon wave of bustling ants. The line for the paper grew longer.

    “I haven’t got any moreFlacăras,” announced the soprano. “And this one is the...

    (pp. 19-32)

    It was late afternoon when Dr. Marga heard about the article in the popular weekly.

    The patients had gone out onto the hospital grounds. The doctor was sitting on a bench. He took off his glasses, rubbed his forehead, undid his smock, and tried to relax.

    His thin stripe of black beard dripped with perspiration. He wiped it with a handkerchief. He tried to forget his tiredness. He crossed his short arms over a jutting belly and stretched out on his back. His hands were soft, his shoulders, too, but his short legs turned leaden. As he unwound, he gave...

  4. [A VIOLET SKY. A]
    (pp. 33-40)

    A violet sky. A bluish silhouette with a pack of whelps. A bitch’s head, if you looked closely enough; it was nothing other than the oblong head of an angry bitch chasing the night sky, followed by clouds coming from all sides and covering the nocturnal sea. And somewhere, sometime, the ghost of the murdered father, forty years ago.

    His hand trembled on the cup’s enamel rim. Tolea gripped the handle, lifted it slowly, and took a sip. The coffee was cold, as usual, having been left for hours in the pot until whenever. As if he were not alone:...

    (pp. 41-59)

    Tolea had learned from his friend and neighbor Gafton that redundancies were likely in many enterprises. He shrugged his shoulders apathetically. Then he heard that as much as 40 percent of office staff would be affected. He smiled and switched on the transistor lying on the desk of his colleague Gina: Monte Carlo, his favorite station.

    Then someone started the rumor that such-and-such a comrade director had already been replaced by another comrade director; that certain networks were being dismantled and new links and combinations established. He looked on impassively at the hysterical reactions of his colleagues at the Hotel...

    (pp. 60-75)

    A dark dilapidated café. The eccentric, distinguished vacationer is waiting with his legs crossed. Wide-open check jacket. Dark-red silk scarf sticking out from the collar of his black shirt. Huge black sunglasses. On the chair next to him: a suede jacket and an umbrella. By the chair a small leather suitcase full of colored labels—the first hour of a short break in the mountains, the first coffee with milk. Coffee with milk, wow! It’s not quite so extraordinary in the mountains, where there are cows, milk, butter, sour cream: you should be able to get a coffee with milk...

    (pp. 76-99)

    Chest out! head up, seeming not to notice the other heads around. The star of the street, towering over it with no thought for the audience. Red scarf, under the open collar of a white shirt. Among signs and shop windows, the day-colored comet: the master pedestrian, available cheat. The roles all payable to bearer, already prepared. The tittle-tattle, the backbiting, the jokes, the pedantic quotations, the banter. Soft, gentle trampling underfoot, ever so carefully. Thick-soled shoes, plush, the kind in which you sink pleasantly and yet also have a firm grip. The duck’s foot settles elastically over its full...

    (pp. 100-106)

    The light in the room turned violent, artificial, hostile. He switched it off. He moved away from the window; the room seemed to have been pacified. The soft half-darkness had tempered the gloom within and the light outside, in a kind of acceptable complicity.

    At some point—when exactly?—the hazy shadow had sneaked through the door.

    “It’s me, Toma; we know each other. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

    The familiar voice: well trained, polite. The spy’s voice; the voice of the night.

    “Are you reading? What is it? Ah, that paper. The business with the old woman, the...

    (pp. 107-123)

    He had been awake for a long time, but he still felt listless, stupefied. He opened closed his eyes, stretched out his hand to the alarm clock that had not sounded. His hand trembled on the rim of the clock, then fell back by the crumpled sheet on the floor at the edge of the bed. He had been sleeping naked, uncovered. He remembered that during the night he had probably gone onto the terrace to get some fresh air. It had been a restless night, burdened with strange dreams that had been chased away along with the darkness. He...

    (pp. 124-139)

    Mrs. veturia gafton was not very audible, or visible: it was not easy for her to be seen by neighbor Vancea. But she existed without a doubt, in everything, all the time.

    The absence of the tiny lady became like a permanent feature, coded and mysterious. But when she finally appeared, she seemed to contradict the magic through which she had taken on flesh and blood. An absolutely concrete and perfectly ordinary apparition: Mrs. Doctor Gafton. Not only did the banality of her presence not contradict, it actually heightened the insidious power of her absence. That power suffused the vibrating...

    (pp. 140-141)

    Comrade orest,

    Source Mushroom is not available for the time being. She’s in bed with a bad flu. I don’t think it’s a lie this time. I rang her in a rough tone of voice; I know that scares her. She wants us to meet as soon as possible, to know for sure that everything’s in order. So we’ll leave Mrs. Mushroom for a week to recover.

    Yesterday I visited Uncle Mihai at the Association’s nursing home. It’s better for him there. It may also be better for me, as you say, that I don’t have to see him every...

    (pp. 142-163)

    Darkened windows. The rain had been falling all night. The sluggish hour. Sleepiness, bad temper. The languid floundering continued to spread. A rage leavened through postponement.

    ‘What did I ask you, Comrade Vasilică?”

    The phlegmatic Boss Gică, dark and mysterious as on his off days. A harmless-enough pig, brought up among poultry; you can’t even be sure he’s not a tomcat or an ugly bitch; until one giddy day when it occurs to him to appear as a wild boar, so that his skin snaps at the seams and the fire catches hold of that coarse, putrid snout full of...

    (pp. 164-164)

    Comrade orest,

    I approached him at last. It seems Chatterbox does not want to talk to me. He answers politely and tries to get away as fast as he can. Narcissus? I know that for him, too, days and nights are divided into hours for eating and shitting and sperm, films, sleep, clinic. That’s all, he’s not a Martian. The key aspect remains the economy, I know. Precisely here people forget the great Marxist discovery: being determines consciousness, not the opposite. The capitalists have learned to use the weapon well. That’s the real question, the central point; that’s where the...

    (pp. 165-170)

    Every wednesday tolea set aside an hour for his telephonic endeavors. Afternoon, evening, morning, lunchtime, however it came: the operation had to be completed, without fail. The dial would turn sixty, ninety, a hundred times, according to whether Tolea was in a hurry or idling and soaked, like a frog after a heart attack, or a chirpy goldfinch hopping and skipping all the time.

    His eyes on the face of the watch: one o’clock precisely! Not a second more. No one answered, but Tolea did not give up. The address was the only one possible, taken from the Exemplary Association...

    (pp. 171-173)

    Comrade orest,

    You are right: Madam Mushroom knows more than she lets on. Each time Virgin Veturia plays the same innocent act. But after she opens the door a little to the family toilet, she soon livens up. Dirt acts as a stimulant, I know that. She’s not doing anyone any harm, and she may even be doing herself some good, as I keep telling her. Gossip, the national art of conversation, is a popular exercise in intelligence and style. It keeps the mind alert, I know. What are the pieces of information that so much fuss is being made...

    (pp. 174-208)

    Dominic was not dr. Marga’s patient. No, he wasn’t. There would have had to be indecent consultations for which neither seemed prepared. Dr. Marga probably still saw in the muddled over-fifty the same shy adolescent of yesteryear, the brother of his former friend Mircea Claudiu.

    The problems with which Professor Anatol Dominic Vancea Voinov appeared one morning at Marga’s consulting room, trying to explain the reasons for his dismissal and the implications of the trial he had been forced to undergo, had aroused the doctor’s compassion and goodwill. He was ready to help the outcast escape his troubles; that is,...

    (pp. 209-209)

    Comrade orest,

    You are right: Ortansa Teodosiu can be approached. Lively, prying, good at wangling things, she gets into every little corner, as you say. I would suggest the code name Masterkey. The fact that she lives here in the block is a big advantage. We are on friendly terms with each other, not like between manager and tenant. It would have been harder with her husband, an arrogant little upstart really full of himself. They both make illegal profits, of course, but Masterkey hasn’t lost a certain modesty and decency from her original condition in society. She’s clever, charitable,...

    (pp. 210-226)

    The professor felt the burden of doubt, as so many times before. Moments of discouragement and loneliness when nothing made sense, and his weird occupation still less than anything else. Is the slave defined by his fear of death, the master by his will to take risks? Did fear or risk define his stubborn solitary resistance? Why can’t we all go to prison simultaneously? Why do I myself avoid prison? Why don’t I shout out loud my disgust?

    The shades that visited him at night, and even the people he sometimes heard during the day, repeated the same petty phrases....

    (pp. 227-253)

    No one answered. He had checked the address, the name, the telephone number: everything was correct, but no one answered. It’s working but not answering. So let’s go there, to the scene itself, to the house. If there’s still no one, then just maybe that no one will answer the door.

    The week becomes dynamic: Wednesday on duty by the phone, Friday on the spot. Something will happen in the end, even if it is nothing that happens.

    He waits at the Rond stop for tram number 23. The tram doesn’t come. The passenger waits, the tram comes, completely full;...

    (pp. 254-269)

    Morning, afternoon, shut up indoors. An ever so long, ever so wide, never-ending Sunday. Timeless time, outside time.

    A deaf-mute Sunday: he did not answer the telephone, nor did he hear when his neighbor, Gafton, knocked timidly on the door, once and then once more. Tolea lay in bed, thinking. He was furious. He kept remembering the Saturday trap. The portfolio with the Cuşa photographs had not offered the long-awaited key. It infuriated him, the portfolio infuriated him, although he did not quite know why. Had he really discovered nothing? Had he discovered too much, without discovering anything?

    History, indeed....

    (pp. 270-271)

    Comrade orest,

    As planned, I went to the reception at Central Army Headquarters. Modest food, rushed service. I wasn’t too keen on the guys’ mugs there, I have to say. The Source showed, in fact, but it didn’t cheer me up. The engineer has good judgment, I must admit, but also a way of looking down on things from on high. He’s not plugged into details, I know. And he’s too evasive in anything to do with Narcissus. On the other hand, I liked his theory about paternalism. A basic human need—we both agreed. Guidance, order, stability, continuity. Many...

    (pp. 272-292)

    This time dominic was determined to put little Marga in his place: I don’t need your Irina! Stop playing the pimp: I’ve lost the patience for cuddling, unless you’re prepared to accept other motives as well! The whole thing makes me puke, Doctor. I’ve had all I can take of your charitable tricks.

    In the rear of the confessional was always Marga the professional, with his exercises in casuistry and therapy and ergo-psychotherapy: subterfuges, exotic spices! Nonsense, Father Marga. I’m the adolescent of long ago, immature and incurable, the hesitancy and the excess, trembling and secrecy. The intensity, Doctor, the...

    (pp. 293-299)

    The day kept to its usual repertoire, but the evening did not bring any soothing change. The stifling heat continued without respite.

    A strange, unbearable infusion. Magnesium and iodine emissions lifted into the air multicolored peacocks, phosphorus rainbows. Pink smoky fog. Frozen sky, frozen time. Completely under the sway of the spring night, the hospitable sea, the great hospitable night which forgives our laughter and swallows up our dead bodies.

    Suddenly the well-known shudder. A trembling of the shoulders. At last, the night that takes us back, gives us back. At last, the oblivion in which we day laborers of...

    (pp. 300-301)

    Comrade orest,

    Masterkey gave me the details about the hospitalization of Chatterbox. Nothing very much can be understood. Not even the doctor has been able to have a talk with him yet. For the time being they’re shoving a handful of tablets down his throat every four hours. No improvement is likely in the near future, according to Masterkey. He hasn’t been violent, nor has he uttered a word so far. Deaf-and-dumb. I know he won’t have any memory of his offbeat investigations, or the Tranzit work team. The kid’s unhinged, says Saint Veturia. One night ten days or so...

    (pp. 302-309)

    He dozed off, lost himself, then Ira appeared.

    Her snow-white face, rising from the collar of a black dress. Her snow-white hands, out of dark billowing sleeves. Scarcely had the words been heard when—

    There had to be maximum attention, maximum concentration. How can mere nothings tie you up like that, so that you forget the goal, the line? The secret line of fate, whispered Irina.

    Forget fear and boredom, forget the day’s ballast, the humiliating artifices. Let a single secret line accompany you. Not some stupid detail of the day. Nothing else, my little cricket—only the supreme principle....

    (pp. 310-321)

    Ringing. She has neither the strength nor the desire to pick up the receiver. She knows what will follow: a long silence. Recently she has been getting this mute call, more and more often, which she is careful not to decode.

    The ringing comes back after a while. She jumps up from the chair, realizing that, in fact, it is the doorbell. This has happened to her before: yes, thoughts without thoughts, like a state of drowsiness; the one you keep calling without ever calling him now calls and does not call you. But it is a different sound, in...