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There is a Jewish mythological character who takes on the personality of whomever he happens to be standing next to. This proves so annoying, in the Hassid tale, that he is put in jail. There, he immediately becomes the jailer. Nothing can be done. Now imagine another mythical character, this one only half-Jewish, who becomes exactly the opposite of whomever he is sitting next to. In romantic and existentialist literature this type of hero is given great credit because of his conscious effort to stay this way. In reality, there is no effort. This process of perpetual revolt is involuntary. On the contrary, his deepest wish is to be like everybody else. But due to an organic imbalance, this is impossible.
The person referred to here was floating in amniotic fluid inside his mother's womb one fine afternoon in August 1946, while at the lavishly set dinner table, his mother and his grandfather were involved in a horrible argument. The old man kept pushing diamonds and jewels at the young woman across the table, between the matzoh soup and the fresh bagels, while she pushed them back with a determined pout. The old man was trying to buy the young woman's consent for marrying his son, the father of the thing inside her. In the Jewish manner, Grandpa was lamenting:
—Oy, oy. Why is my son so blind? Such stubborn woman!
And then, (because his mother wished more than anything to stay healthy) when the baby kicked her as hard as he could, she lost her composure, and the argument ended. She consented to marry the old man's son.
The photo shop on the main street in town was a present from the old man. The young couple moved into the back of it and began outfitting it with gadgets and new paper decorations. The Nazis started to flee, the times were horrifying and absurd, and the prospects for the shop were dim.
It was always a mystery to be looked into, this survival by the Jews in fascist Romama, and an even greater mystery how these particular Jews managed to do all the crazy things they did under the shadow of the Gestapo. An enormous statue fell on the father's foot once during a forced-work program, but he got up intact. Which was very lucky because the statue was full of explosives carved into it by partisans. The unexploded representation of General Bratu on his horse was gingerly lifted by the rest of the work crew, some of whom were in the know, some of whom had no idea, and restored to its equestrian erectness in front of the German Kommandatur in Piazza Victoria. As Father limped away as fast as he could, the explosion turned the square to shambles. In this way did fate intervene, a method of intervention which the unborn baby was to inherit.
* * *
Grandfather paternal had a bazaar where he sold cheap trinkets, while in the back they had resistance meetings and poker games, Russian roulette and clandestine Jewish services. Protected as they were by some wayward angel, when the Gestapo began poking around, the old man's crazy manner misled them into thinking the noise came from across the street and they soon arrested a completely Aryan gendarme's family residing there. Sixteen years later, in the lobby of a movie house, the young progeny of these people was accosted by an ugly old crone who began to scream in a crazy-prophetic manner:
—Your grandfather was a thief. He stole our gold. He gave it back to no one, may he rot in hell where the purple crows feed on Jew meat. And your father was a whore. Every woman in town came under his power. I personally kept the room he rented from me for two lousy cents a day where he brought his tramps, malignant queers, bestial phonies.
Everyone was listening. Was it true? Perhaps. It is very possible that, besides being partisans, they had been pirates. And, as for his father's women, he knew all about them. They later became his mother's favorite recollection. He rather admired him for it.
So, while his father and his grandfather practiced resistance, piracy and sex, his pregnant mother was taking photographs of fleeing Nazis who posed sadly with their local German girlfriends. Suddenly, the Nazis fled to the accompaniment of sad sentimental harmonicas while the population of the town (which was mostly Sass, Transylvanian Germans) threw flowers and candies after them.
The Russians were coming.
Standing up in her 1933 dress with a flapper hat on her pretty red curls and a glass of champagne in her hand, the soon-to-be mother followed the armored divisions crawling grimly West and had, in a flash, the brilliant idea of giving her baby a Russian name so that when the bloodthirsty Bolsheviks stomped through the neat little flower garden, they would be stopped dead in their tracks by this act of etymological devotion.
Andrei Ivanovitch began to squirm.
As the German tanks receded behind clouds of dust, father came home, and when he heard his baby's new name, he began laughing. He finally controlled himself and, drawing his breath, he told the mother that:
—One: The Russians were our friends.
—Two: That he was the commander of the famed Romanian Trees, the partisan regiment which was famous the world over.
—Three: That when the Russians came they would kiss, embrace, toast and decorate us.
This mother could not believe, but later that evening, when the song "Katiusha" began echoing from the distance, her husband passed by the window of the photo shop dressed in military fatigues waving a machine gun and followed closely by fifty familiar-looking men, all her neighbors, shouting: Spasiba! Spasiba! Spasiba! Everyone else stood behind locked doors or else were burying German paraphernalia under the floors.
Well, the Russians filled the streets and their wild parties began. They seemed completely oblivious to the town population, and soon a bunch of courageous young girls appeared on the street. They came out partly because of the adventure and the good-looking soldiers and partly prodded by the folks inside who were beginning to die of hunger.
Just as his father had said, his family was soon invited to dinner by General Azamov, and the Third Order of Stalin was pinned to his chest among champagne toasts and clouds of smoke.
The soldiers were rather shy and gentlemanly and a lot more interested in the young lady's charms than in the name of the strangely named brat howling in her womb. And they loved to be photographed.
The shop's inventory at the time consisted of two ancient cameras, an enlarger, and a number of cardboard figures of generals on horses and tuxedoed dandies holding beautiful cardboard girls by thin 1920s waists. These figures had holes cut in them where their heads should have been and the customers stuck their own heads in the holes to be photographed. The Russians went wild over these, sticking their blond, black and brown heads in and out of these figures all day long.
The young lady, who did not look very pregnant, was adjusting a head in a hole overlooking a cardboard lake, a flaky boat, a stiff girl and a flaky moon when sudden sharp pains swept her off her feet.
Even at the hospital, he was undecided on the issue of whether or not he should get born. Moving his eyes slowly over the hanging intestines and undigested hunks of beans and fat which had been his home, he was still undecided as to whether he wanted to see the rest of the world. But in the room next to them a stillborn child was delivered. This information, communicated subtly to him, made up his mind. He would not be dead. As long as he would live, he would not be dead! He screamed and, voilà, This World!
In the cab back from the hospital, he struck no sound and the cabdriver turned away from his horses, which were proceeding leisurely up the cobbled street, and told his mother:
—He's a snail-baby, that little devil!
—Salty and folded in, that is, ma'am. In our part of the country we call them snail-babies 'cause they don't talk till they are four years old.
—What kind do you have? said Mother.
—Mine are screamers, ma'am, frog-babies! Their insides is lined with hot peppers, hot sausages and eighty proof tzuica. Har har har.
But the cabdriver was wrong. The reason he had stopped squealing was his secret suspicion that his mother had no brain of her own and that, while he was in her womb, he had supplied her with all her ideas. A second after his birth, a puzzled expression had come upon her face and, from that moment, it never left her.
During her days in the hospital, most uniformed Russians had gone on West, leaving behind all the shadowy civilian ones. His father and his group had followed them West.
* * *
The country settled comfortably back into its long and ancient history of riots, assassination, turmoil and gossip. The photo shop, under strange management, acquired a number of more modern-looking cardboard figures while the baby howled unattended in the darkroom, propped between a tray of developing fluid and an enormous pile of unclaimed pictures.
The king resigned, leaving his country, a fugitive, and headed straight for his Swiss bank accounts. The Communists came to power. His father returned but disappeared immediately on a strange mission. The dictator of the country was a woman. The world's first woman dictator, Aha Pauker, had a short haircut and a dry voice. Under her direction, political "enemies" were eliminated, including thousands of peasants who refused to go along with collectivization.
Everyone, however, loved photographs and the photo shop was humming. The cardboard figures were going out of style. The baby howled insults to the customers. His mother began several romances.
One day, a big red shawl was brought in. Mama wrapped Baby in it and got on a bus. Two days later, after miles of fields, rivers and ruins they arrived at the ancient city of Alba Iulia, which means White Dawn Julia. The little red bundle was delivered to a tall gaunt woman with a sharp nose.
—Kiss your grandmother! said Mama.
Baby wet his diaper.
Excerpted from AN INVOLUNTARY GENIUS IN AMERICA'S SHOES (And What Happened Afterwards) by ANDREI CODRESCU. Copyright © 2001 by Andrei Codrescu. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.