Ştefan Agopian – The Art of War
Carmen Muşat writes in Contemporary Romanian Literature: A Tale of Continuity and Innovation, which forms the introduction to Absinthe 13: Spotlight on Romania, that the characters in Ştefan Agopian's The Art of War, “perform their existence as if waking into a series of cartoons.” She's right; just like in a cartoon, physical actions are exaggerated, mortality is presumed missing, and the absurdity of mores and manners are painted in a ridiculous light. Bugs Bunny appeals because he highlights the inherent foolishness of our ordinary ways, and also because the game of hunter and hunted will not, we know, end in a true death. No, cartoons are a series of fake scenes set amongst a real backdrop – it is no accident that the adjective “cartoonish” is applied to characters or situations which seem unreal, implausible, comedic, and caricatured.
Thus, in Agopian's story we read sentences such as, “Day broke impotently like unto a blunt blade scraping the gloom caked over our bodies.” It's ridiculous, but it fits the tone of the story. The Art of War opens with Zadic the Armenian and Ioan the Geographer of the Coltia School hunting rats to eat; these are grandiose men, expansive in their conversation and possessing of a heightened sense of self. Zadic is the type of man who, when his friend catches a rat to eat, will tell him it “saddens my soul” to capture an animal – but he is quickly convinced to eat it when the smell of cooking garlic permeates the air.
Agopian quickly sets the pace and tone of his piece. Zadic and Ioan are caricatures, men shifted from real people into archetypes, their qualities extended to stretching point whereupon the story can stake its claim over the exaggerated mannerisms and verbal tics of two intellectuals gone to seed in Romania's trying Communist period. These two bumble about together in a manner reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon, or perhaps more closely, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Much like the Don and his squire, the two have deluded themselves about their situation, creating castles in the sky when they are really just eating rats in a hovel. But they are friends, and even when caught up in faux-outrage over some perceived slight, their affection comes through.
Agopian soon introduction another character, this one a nameless spy hunter who communes with God, or at least, he believes it is so. He is equally deluded, but his methods are more sinister. He is first encountered whilst Zadic and Ioan, along with Ulysses-the-Bird (who, naturally is a bird and, naturally, wears armour which is, naturally, rusty but still good – for a little while yet), are walking underneath an “aubergine” sky in search of an inn:
A red-hot slug fell sizzling into a puddle at the Armenian's feet. The three of them stared, stupefied, until the Armenian finally said:
“They almost got me!”
Ulysses-the-Bird clack-clacked his bill and said:
“We must make ready for the fight!”
“We are going to fight them!” quoth the Armenian as he unslung his harquebus from his back and planted its forked rest firmly in the mud. Ioan unfurled a tattered banner and placed it next to the rest. For a moment they stared dumb-struck in admiration of its limp flutter.
From here the story begins a rough alternation between Ioan and Zadic, and the spy hunter, as they make battle. Agopian ratchets up the intensity early and often, introducing cannon, gunfire, howling wolves, banners, and more. The spy hunter sees this war – a war now, not just a battle – as his test from God, while Zadic and Ioan are just plain old having fun.
The month was November, as I have already mentioned, and in the course of my progress I had heard as well as seen that the enemies of the Rule are exceedingly many. In consequence, the practice of impaling offenders, skinning them alive, tearing their tongues out, lopping their arms off, gouging their eyes out, having them nailed down as well as other practices that keep us safe from our foes, such as jailing, confiscation, transportation, precipitation from the tower should be increased fourfold if we are to forestall the onslaught of ill-wishers. I have counted and marked all the ones who defied Thee and, in my estimate, their numbers run into ten thousand or thereabouts, counting only those unearthed in the inns at which I actually stopped.
Agopian's text swirls with invention. Each of the characters are given their head, allowed to take their extravagances to their natural extreme, and the net effect is a raucous, chaotic, cacophonous explosion of high-flown proclamations, torn apart limbs, sprays of blood, mighty calls and a particularly enthusiastic bird. Zadic and Ioan's sections are more absurd, certainly, whilst the spy hunter's sections are over-the-top religious:
I paced the room distractedly and even kicked at the cannonball so that it rolled off from the place it had come to rest, only to discover underneath a scorched patch somewhat like the burn left by an iron forgotten by a slothful tailor on a trousers' leg. Like a true nincompoop, the innkeeper looked at the sear and set to lamenting the damage, thus managing to disturb my thoughts as to what should be done. I told him off, and in the course of speech the calm necessary to all beginnings did gradually take hold of my mind, my soul, and my body because, as Porcesius says, three are the making of man, and likewise of God. And as I have already said, my mind did clear up, my soul did calm down, my body was strengthened. And being thus perfect, and free from any ferment of added interference, my mind proceeded to conceive The Art of War.
It's all a lot of fun, and clearly Agopian's characters are enjoying themselves. The stakes should be high, given the death toll, the violence, and the extreme proliferation of weaponry, but this is, we remember, a cartoonish story – so the stakes are non-existent, really. The characters seem to know this, and are happy to play with their implied lack of mortality. It's a game, all of it, and nothing can be taken seriously except the game itself, which must be played according to its rules. Agopian understands that the most liberated of characters are those without limitations, and thus his characters, extreme, deluded, chaotic, immortal, impervious, may take their actions to their absurd end point.
The Art of War is pleasantly saturated with quotes and references, mostly literary, and mostly Biblical in nature, or related to the Ancient Greeks. Agopian places his references and then leaves them there – he doesn't do anything with them, instead content to allow his characters to act as ignorant mouthpieces for those people and concepts far more serious than they. By doing this, Agopian smudges them with the absurdity of his characters, tarnishing those idols we take as sacred. In a somewhat blasphemous way, God is negatively affected by the spy hunter's sheer exuberance for the ridiculous, and it is the same for the Greeks, the philosophers and statesmen and of course, for Romania itself.
And this is, perhaps, the crux of the matter. In his willingness to make everything ridiculous, Agopian is of course casting a critical eye upon Romania itself. The story is set near Craiova, and there are many references to the Romanian Revolution, both hidden and exceptionally explicit (there is, after all, a list of names of people who dared to say that). Zadic and Ioan represent the Romanian intellectual, unable properly to ply his trade and follow his intellect where it will – you do what the State wishes, else you operate under a form of samizdat. The spy hunter, with his zeal for aiding God – the State – is a tool of oppression.
But one should not read too much into things. The story stands as an absurd and enjoyable piece of violent cartoon imagery. It stands equally well as an allegory, and works as a satire. It is, in short, a satisfying work.
The Art of War by Ştefan Agopian is a short story from Absinthe: New European Writing - Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania.
Other stories from the Absinthe: New European Writing Issue 13: Spotlight on Romania issue include:
---Bittel, Adriana - Names
---Cărtărescu, Mircea - Clockwork Animals
---Lungu, Dan - To the Cemetery
---Suceavă, Bogdan - Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?
---Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Chewing Gum
Index of short stories under review
Contemporary Romanian Writers
Plural - Romanian/English Online Magazine
Czech Position - Literalab