Bogdan Suceavă – Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?
Events like this don't happen every day, but there were odd characters running around Bucharest back then...
This may weird you out, the narrator of Bogdan Suceavă's Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum? warns in the opening sentence. And it is a strange story, replete with stubbornly suicidal teenagers, rampaging elephants, mathematical equations, angelic matter, the vibrations of statues of Stalin, a library that may or may not be the ninth biggest in the world, and the connecting thread that unites them all, St. Peter, a homeless man, a visionary, a genius, a lunatic. Yes, it might just weird you out.
Suceavă's narrator is happy to roll out the string. In terms of plot, there isn't one so much as the story becomes an accumulation of information, reference, and absurdity. The narrator, one suspects, has been quite taken with the (homeless?) St. Peter, and has subscribed, to put it somewhat mildly, to the man's ideas. St. Peter is a man who is described with a mixture of vaguely religious and certainly obsessive, terminology:
He had a secret den known to practically no one, in which, initiates said, he harbored the largest library in Bucharest. The number of books clearly surpassed that of the Romanian Academy library, which, going by the Library of Congress stats, was supposed to be the ninth largest holding in the world, only that St. Peter kept his in subterranean conditions that made you think of anti-aircraft shelters during the war. So as to never get lost in the regular inferno of his own database, he'd worked out his own system of cataloguing volumes, classifying, ordering and finding things after that. That basement was a place unto itself up to and including ample branching toward the sewer system. Over the course of a lifetime, St. Peter had crammed every nook with files, volumes without covers, photocopies, forgotten editions signed long ago, not to mention the large number of obscure authors no one ever heard of, and in that way his library seemed to form something like an alternate universe, somehow whole and plausible unto itself.
St. Peter has become obsessed with “angelic matter” and its creation, which comes from vibrations, or death, or perhaps both, and maybe statues and buildings are involved. Somehow. The narrator (as mentioned, quite taken with St. Peter and, on the whole, remarkably credulous) happily shares some of the algebraic equations used by St. Peter to investigate angelic matter, and what's more, is even happier to follow the crazy old guy about as he tests his theories.
In terms of what the story is “about”, the above is it. If it sounds like your fancy, you'll love the story. It's surely mine, and happily, Suceavă handles the material with the energetic enthusiasm and grandeur required for such a bizarre and absurd situation. It's an inherently ridiculous premise, and as such the story requires a strong narrator to avoid becoming a muck of reference and exuberance. Suceavă certainly succeeds, his narrator is as fun to read as the antics he relates.
But here's the curious thing: St. Peter is a great character, but, aside from the above quoted text, we don't learn much about him. He doesn't speak, and we don't really discover his thoughts. Instead, everything is funnelled through the narrator. Through him, we learn the history of the character, the motives, and the action – but never directly through St. Peter himself. For all we know, St. Peter could be a harmless old man wandering about, and the narrator himself is a lunatic, ascribing bizarre and intricate motives to essentially innocuous actions. We experience St. Peter at a remove while the full force of the narrator buffets against us – which one do we believe?
It's not a story about the entanglement and conflict between narrator and character, but the point is an interesting one, and it struck me continuously while reading the text. I do believe that St. Peter is who the narrator says he is, but the distinct lack of any concreteness to St. Peter's goings on and his mental state casts doubt. Suceavă's story is a pleasure in its willingness to court the ridiculous.
Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum? by Bogdan Suceavă 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:
---Agopian, Ştefan - The Art of War
---Bittel, Adriana - Names
---Cărtărescu, Mircea - Clockwork Animals
---Lungu, Dan - To the Cemetery
---Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Chewing Gum
Other titles by Bogdan Suceavă under review include:
---Daddy Wants TV Saturday Night
---Our Years of Beauty
Index of short stories under review
Contemporary Romanian Writers
Plural - Romanian/English Online Magazine
Czech Position - Literalab