BEF 2011/10 – Goose Chase [Romania]

11/03/2011

Carefree vagabonds, itinerant peddlers, hokey globe-gazing fortune-tellers.  Gypsies are popularly romanticised and imbued with a spirit of nomadic adventure.  But there is a darker side to the mythology that presents them as petty thieves not above kidnapping children, practitioners of a dark magic, furtive and wild.  The mystery of their whimsical but innocuous way of life clouds over with the suspicion that they are a people steeped in secrets, ultimately unknowable.  The truth is that the Romani people, as they are known and name themselves, are descendants of exiles who fled northwest from India into eastern and central Europe, where they spread to every nation of the continent.  For centuries, because of their fractured and isolated communities, the Romani have been the victims of persecution most notably in recent history by Nazi Germany whose pogroms are estimated to have murdered anywhere from 200,000 to well over 1,000,000.

Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s story Goose Chase is not about gypsies either as myth or as Romani, but it does employ some elements of the gypsy mythology as a platform to explore themes of justice and morality.  The story is the memory of an unnamed narrator, of growing up with his grandparents in, presumably, Romania (because Teodorovici is Romanian) sometime in the second half of the twentieth century, that is, under Ceausescu’s regime.  It is specifically the memory of the day when their, the narrator’s and his grandparents’, geese were stolen, and of the search for them and their recovery.  The story opens with a scene commonplace in bucolic life: geese wander about outside the yards of their owners, mingling but not straying too far as geese have a natural “herding instinct”.  The geese each have an emblem painted on their wings, a red square, a green circle, etc., rather like the way cattle are branded to indicate ownership.  The description of the geese serves the double function of setting the scene of the story and the introduction of its themes of justice.  One of the owners of the geese has decided that his flock is best identified by a brown phallus painted on their wings.  His neighbours complain to the local militia and he is forced to pluck the offending feathers and replace the phallus with a simple, abstract symbol.

…he was under threat of a hefty fine, though there was no law on the books banning the painting of phalluses on geese.  I know this because the neighbour, as he was plucking the feathers, said he wanted to see a copy of that law, and the militiaman explained to him, calmly at first, then with less patience, that in our village he was the law.  And in the end he even started swearing and waving his truncheon at the phallus-painter menacingly.

It is after this episode that the narrator is told of their missing geese and accompanies his grandfather on the quest for their retrieval.  It is not long before they discover that the culprit is one of the gypsies, who live up the hill beyond the water tower, and that Grandfather knows the thief’s father.

Teodorovici makes plain the separate worlds of the villagers and gypsies.  There is a different smell to their street; the act of walking it is enough to boast about to the narrator’s friends.  But it is the moral differences that Teodorovici stresses.  There is not even a police presence in the gypsy community.  “The village militiaman…always used to say that the gypsies weren’t his problem, that they should form their own militia if that’s what they wanted, but he wasn’t going to get involved.”  As they approach the house of the gypsy thief, there is a small crowd gathered in the yard of the house next door, milling menacingly on the periphery of the narrator and his grandfather’s business.  Instead of a dog there is a pig snuffling around the yard they enter, the thief’s yard, implying an uncleanliness and narrowing on the gypsies what Robert Walser said of all men.  The door hangs from a single hinge which may be a sign of a violent outburst, but is most definitely, in the eyes of a farmer, indicative of a neglect to repair it and a lassitude that betrays a deeper moral degeneration.

Grandfather explains his trouble to the thief’s father who recognises him as the train conductor and warms to his presence, because Grandfather often allows the gypsies to ride the train free of charge.  He is not only the conductor, we are told, but Chief Conductor, addressed as such by the gypsy, and thus not only plaintiff of their ersatz court but enrobed as judge as well.  It soon emerges that the gypsy has killed two of the geese already, and while Grandfather is busy deciding the thief’s punishment, there is a commotion next door that interrupts their trial.  There, a man, a lothario, is beaten and whipped for his crime of adultery, worked over with a knife.  The woman, we are told, will be hanged by her husband.  And the gypsy thief’s punishment?  Four days of work on Grandfather’s farm.

Gypsy justice is public and visceral (the pig is kicked, the gypsy father beats his thieving son, the man is whipped and cut) and seems almost a display, the sign that justice is being enacted.  The law of the village as embodied by the militiaman is vague, uncertain, and carried out as a transaction where a bit of money stays the whip and a lot of money turns the eye.  In going from the village to the gypsy community, the narrator passes from a world of words (threats are the only sign of punishment: the militiaman threatens with his truncheon, Grandfather threatens to smack the narrator, but never does) to a world of actions.  But is justice being done?  Is the punishment commensurate with the crime?  Does the lothario deserve the terrible beating (we are unsure if he even survives) he receives?  Does the adulterous wife deserve to hang?  Most of us probably have our answers to these questions, but for the narrator, they are inchoate mental concepts only beginning to condense into solid thoughts.

‘Goose Chase’ is translated from Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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