In November 2007, Romain Lannuzel Erasmus, student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, mysteriously disappeared without a trace. This case remains unsolved, when the novel begins with another mysterious disappearance of Costantinu Iliescu, a Romanian student. His girlfriend and two of his Erasmus colleagues sound the alarm and move heaven and earth to find him, but both police and university officials believe that Iliescu has left voluntarily and refuse to get involved. However, they will soon have to change their minds as the events that occur after the disappearance of the Romanian student reveal that something terrible, dark and macabre is happening at the college.
About the Author
Carme Riera was born in 1948 in Palma de Mallorca. She is a prolific author who has written novels, essays, and has ventured into scriptwriting.
A native of Barcelona, Josep Miquel Sobrer has translated a number of English titles into Catalan and has translated from Catalan into English Mercè Rodoreda's Broken Mirror and works by Pere Calders and others.
Read an Excerpt
Life Almost Still
By Carme Riera, Josep Miquel Sobrer
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 Carme Riera
All rights reserved.
A profusion of flyers bearing the picture of Constantinu Iliescu were pasted on the walls of the different schools. They appeared at the train stations in Bellaterra and Cerdanyola, on the campus buses, in cafés, libraries and the lobbies of the Vila apartments. Flyers also showed up, though not quite as profusely, on the façades of some buildings near Cinema Verdi in the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona and on the stairs of the metro stations of Fontana and Lesseps.
The flyers on letter-size paper – it was obvious they were homemade – had a photograph of Iliescu and some personal data: a Romanian student, 21 years old, 5' 9", stocky build, shaven head, blue eyes. Beneath these references, in gigantic capitals, was the word: "DISAPPEARED." Informers were to call the phone numbers printed at the bottom.
These flyers were created by two friends of Iliescu's: Laura Cremona, the Italian girl who was waiting for him the day he vanished, and Marcel Bru, one of Laura's few friends who was not an Erasmus scholarship student. Both Laura and Marcel kept their cell phones switched on day and night in the hope of receiving a clue to Iliescu's whereabouts.
There were many calls. Some merely inquired whether there would be a reward for whoever could offer a lead. Others, in blatant bad taste, came from idle idiots eager to poke fun. There were even some from xenophobes who claimed they were happy Catalonia had one less immigrant. Some called and hung up without a word which really annoyed Laura and Bru who expected to hear a ransom demand or at least get some information that would throw light on the matter Only two calls dealt with the issue in a direct way, both to Laura's cell phone, and they came from phone numbers with the prefix of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona where Iliescu, Cremona and Bru were all enrolled.
The first call was from Professor Rosa Casasaies, the adviser to the Erasmus students in the School of Letters, expressing dismay at not having been informed of Iliescu's disappearance before it was made public, especially in such an overwhelming and probably useless display. In those days, the school was almost empty due to strikes. Casasaies was annoyed but made an effort to be kind. Not being able to place Laura by her name, she insisted on knowing what courses Laura had registered for. She wanted to make sure the affair was for real, not a macabre joke that someone was playing on the Romanian student. After all, the school had been occupied by a sit-in protest against the new Bologna legislation for university studies, and for at least one week and a half, the general ruckus had plunged the university into chaos.
From their conversation, Casasaies was convinced that Cremona was telling the truth and had a justifiable reason for not having asked the adviser for help as she had assumed the university would not want to get involved in Iliescu's disappearance. The registrar's office where the students had sought to consult their friend's transcript had refused them the information. They claimed nobody but the student himself could access those private documents, even though all his friends wanted to know was where he stayed when he arrived in Barcelona and his parent's address so they could contact them.
"And from this you get that the university would just wash its hands of the matter?" Casasaies asked with a perplexed inflection in her voice, considering once again the tendency of the young to confuse things. It was one thing for the registrar to have strict orders not to disclose transcripts, but why would academic authorities ignore a student's disappearance?
She got no answer. The professor took advantage of the silence and insisted on the fact that the situation seemed absurd to her. Of course, they had the right to look for their friend, but it was better to act in collaboration with the faculty. To take the frying pan by the handle in a unilateral way, she added, would lead them nowhere.
"Do you understand what I'm saying, Laura?" She asked, attempting to establish a certain complicity by using the student's first name. "Did you understand? Do you know the Catalan idiom 'to take the frying pan by its handle'?"
"I do not," Laura replied drily. "I still haven't learned all the idioms ..." Now her voice sounded less arrogant and showed her Italian accent. "What we want is to find Constantinu," she continued, "as soon as possible. If you can help us, all the better."
"Of course, we want to help. How long has it been since you last heard from him?"
"He disappeared six days ago. We waited four days before putting up the flyers," she said in a tearful voice.
"Please come to my office and you can tell me everything calmly," Casasaies proposed.
"I can't go to your office because I'm not in Bellaterra," Laura said, recovering her blunt and aggressive tone which the professor pretended not to hear.
"Come on, honey," Casasaies encouraged her. "You'll see that everything will be all right. I will speak to the dean right away. We'll get in touch with Iliescu's family and you can come by tomorrow morning. I have office hours from eleven to one o' clock. Do you know where my office is?"
* * *
Rosa Casasaies had long been a professor at the School of Letters. When she started, her students could have been her siblings. She still went out to dinner once in a while with some of her initial students and a few of them had become close friends. In contrast, she had trouble understanding today's students who by their age could be her children; in fact Cristina, her daughter, was twenty. She didn't get along great with Cristina either, despite her efforts to make life at home bearable. She often had to pacify her husband who thought their daughter was a fool, spoilt by her mother right from the start. Spoiled and egoistical, she had built around herself a kind of wall. It was the same wall Rosa sensed in her conversation with Laura Cremona which made her think that communication with the Erasmus students was a sinking ship. But why? What had the school done wrong? It looked like the orientation sessions and the pep talks by the academic authorities telling them to feel at home and not hesitate to ask their advisers for anything they needed had been a waste of time.
The second call, barely an hour after Casasaies', was much shorter. It came from the dean's secretary. The dean was calling a meeting of the Erasmus students and advisers to discuss the measures to take regarding Iliescu's disappearance. The meeting was set for the next day at ten o' clock in the morning in the dean's office.
When Rosa Casasaies informed the dean of her conversation with Laura Cremona, the dean told her that she had just learned of Iliescu's disappearance. It was Professor Bellpuig who, running into her in a hallway, had mentioned the case; he was curious because the Erasmus kid was one of his students.
The dean had not noticed the flyers even though they'd been up for two days.
For more than a week, Dolors Adrover had walked from the parking lot to her office, intent on looking straight ahead. She did not want to see the graffiti related to the new order demanded by the strikers or the banners with insults to the president and to herself under portraits of Hitler and Franco – a clear accusation of fascism.
Being herself a vocal opponent of the Franco regime, Adrover, whose parents had been loyal supporters of the Republic and suffered retaliation under Franco, could not quite fathom by what strange and perverted fashion the kids who had occupied the school could be oblivious to her record as one who had fought hard for democracy and freedom. Worried and depressed, she slept badly, ate poorly and could not concentrate; she considered Iliescu's disappearance an incident of no importance. For about two weeks, since the school had been occupied and the strike pickets made it impossible to teach classes in a normal way, quite a few students hadn't been showing up. She would happily disappear too if she could, she confessed to Bellpuig before they went their separate ways, but she promised she would speak with Casasaies to find out what she knew about Iliescu. Anticipating the suggestion she suspected Carles Bellpuig would make about the necessity to call for a meeting of the Erasmus people, she told him she would call for one right away. If he wished, he could attend; that very morning, her secretary would let him know the day, time and place.CHAPTER 2
The whole November of 2008, the School of Letters of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona was a boiling cauldron of meetings.
Downstairs, in the occupied corridors and classrooms, the students met in permanent sessions to plan alternatives to regulated instruction, to discuss how and when to call for assemblies, what items to prioritize on the day's agenda and which would be the best strategy to continue their resistance.
Upstairs, in the departmental offices, the professors met to ponder what was going on downstairs. Some were quite happy with the situation. Not all was lost if the students had awakened from their apathy and expressed their disagreement with the system. Gaudeamus. About time! Some even took part in the meetings downstairs and helped design the protest programs. Others believed that this kind of awakening was not the most appropriate. Wasn't the occupying gang a minority that prevented the majority from attending classes? The majority wanted instruction and was loath to waste a whole year. A third group blamed what was happening upon a failing authority and insisted that the pickets should be expelled by force and told to go and protest at the main offices of Caixabank, the Banc de Sabadell or the women's floor of any Corte Inglés department store. Or better yet, at the Pati dels Tarongers of the Palace of the Generalitat. If those spots were too distant from their homes, the protesters could take their mattresses and sleeping bags, their butane gas stoves and food to any bank branch in the area where surely they'd be offered cava and caviar canapés ...
All of them requested to meet with the dean to give her advice, threaten her, yell at her or whatever. In response, the dean decided to call a meeting just as both Bellpuig and Casasaies had suggested. One more meeting, sure, why not?
At ten o'clock sharp on Friday, 28th November, Dolors Adrover, with professors Casasaies and Bellpuig "–I count on your support" she told them – received a small committee of students. Two girls and one boy: Laura Cremona, her friend Domenica Arrigo, also an Italian, and Marcel Bru. Homely and small, with his face the yellowish and grainy color of a lemon sorbet and his thin-rimmed round eyeglasses, Bru looked quite a lot like Leon Trotsky, a fact that Professor Bellpuig who had been a Trotskyite in his youth did not fail to notice. If the three of them had dressed differently, he in serge cloth with little bells attached, the girls in ankle-length skirts and brocade bodices, Bru would have appeared like a jester in the company of two fairy-tale princesses. Both girls were tall and pretty, especially Laura, a blonde, with the beauty of a Botticelli nymph, but one who had managed to lose twenty pounds. Both wore tight-fitting t-shirts reaching just to their belly buttons. As they sat around the conference table in the dean's office, their miniskirts revealed well-proportioned thighs which the seating arrangement of Bellpuig's classroom had obscured; he could now admire them to his heart's content. None of the students could mind his ogling. Why did they dress that way, he rationalized, if not to display such bounty of leg?
The dean's voice shook Bellpuig from his not at all metaphysical reflection. Dolors Adrover was addressing the only agenda item for that day's meeting: the measures to be taken, if any, regarding Constantinu Iliescu's disappearance. Even though she did not voice her conditional phrase out aloud, having been the dean of the School of Letters now for three years, she thought inaction the best path to follow.
"Unfortunately, early in the school year, a very high percentage of students disappear from classes, never again to set foot on the campus," she told them. "If you'd like, I could give you the exact number." She got up, went to the phone, dialed her secretary and asked for the statistics of the absenteeism that from 2000 on kept growing, year in and year out. None of the young people who had abandoned their studies had been kidnapped and none had been murdered, she stated vehemently.
"Nor have they been devoured by any ogre," Casasaies added. Besides having greeted them, she hadn't said a word and spoke now simply to reinforce the dean's opinion.
Considering the naïveté of these students, dogged as they were to think their friend had suffered some horrible fate, the reference to the children's story seemed to her most to the point.
Laura Cremona, with whom Iliescu had a romantic relationship, was quite obstinate. She insisted that Constantinu had not disappeared motu propio and then she paused to avoid breaking into tears.
The Latin phrase startled Carles Bellpuig, but then he recalled that the Italian educational system still taught the classical language which had been eliminated from the Catalan high schools. It sounded so strange coming from such a young mouth. "None of our teenagers would be able to utter such a phrase," he mused.
"Constantinu never failed to alert me if he couldn't make it on time," Laura continued.
Casasaies interrupted her with a question she thought relevant, even though the girl might be offended.
"How long have you two been going out together?"
"A month," she replied and suspecting the professor was questioning their relationship, she added, "but I know him well ... I am sure something has happened to him." She began to sob.
Domenica Arrigo, seated next to her, stroked her hair and kissing her on the cheek told her in Italian not to cry.
Bru gave Casasaies a look of contempt as if blaming her for his friend's tears. Perhaps to placate the students, Casasaies asked Laura if she wanted a glass of water and also offered water to her companions. The three declined.
The girl's tears had caught the professors by surprise. Bellpuig, who detested seeing women cry, rose and went to the window. It was a splendid morning and the view through the glass to his left had no buildings. But the spot was condemned. The work promised during the latest Grounds Committee meeting he had to attend would soon begin there. He thought the committee's name both artificial and surrealistic. A specialist in art history and one of the most highly revered professors in the School of Letters, he was also one of the oldest members of the university. He had seen the first buildings come up in that new university, a place that was to be so different from all the others, over a terrain with grazing sheep and a soil full of black worms. What a difference from today's Leviathan of a campus! But even more different were the ideas of today in contrast with the founders' ideals. Bellpuig smiled at his thoughts, as if to apologize to himself. Perhaps, it was as much of an exaggeration to call his generation's convictions "ideals" as to call "ideas" the banal materialism of the day summarized in the extraordinarily blunt motto: "A professor who flunks his students, flunks himself."
He returned to the table when he saw that, thanks to some tissues the dean had offered, Laura had quietly wiped her nose and dried her tears. Domenica Arrigo was now speaking. She insisted that in truth Laura always said that Constantinu never failed to warn her if he was late and it made no sense that the day he had decided to move in with them to the Vila apartment, he would not show up.
After her, Cremona took over. Her fears were real. Constantinu had not picked up his cell phone for seven days now, wasn't answering his e-mail and she had no way to contact him. She did not know his address, only that it was in the Gràcia neighborhood. No one else in his or her class knew it either.
"It's strange, isn't it?" Casasaies said, trying to recall Iliescu. It was truly strange that if they dated, Cremona wouldn't know where he lived. Casasaies did not know him because he wasn't enrolled in any of her classes and could have seen him only at one of the orientation sessions, and those had a lot of people.
Excerpted from Life Almost Still by Carme Riera, Josep Miquel Sobrer. Copyright © 2011 Carme Riera. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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