Dan Lungu - To the Cemetery
A man has died. It happens all the time. We usually don't know what to do, or what to say. It's true if he is our father, and it's just as true if he is a workmate. All the words have been said, we've heard them on television and at the movies and now, when we say them ourselves (because we don't know what else to do but say them) we are aware they are dusty cliches, dry and useless. “He was a good man” says nothing at all, but be present at any funeral and you'll hear it.
A man has died. Dan Lungu's, To the Cemetery is acutely aware of these well-worn phrases, and what they mean to us when we say them. For all that stock phrases are exactly that – stock; meaning bland, uninspired, unoriginal, flat – they comfort, because when we say it, we feel as though we are slipping into a familiar groove. The trouble of death can be ignored because we've said something we've heard before, which means we are able to ground the experience in something known.
Aurel had fallen from a scaffold several months earlier. The report stated that the scaffolding was damp and slippery, though some people said he'd been a bit shaken up. It would have been awful to have written that he'd been a bit shaken up, thought the broad-shouldered man. He didn't know exactly why, but it would've been awful.
A man had died. Aurel. We don't learn much about him. He's dead, his family is distraught, and his workmates, all union men, are unsure how to approach the occasion. One notes to himself that he barely knew the man a month before the injury which led to his death, but at least he has the afternoon off, fully paid. Another thought the funeral would mean he could get home early but, looking at his watch, it doesn't seem likely. Lungu shifts effortlessly from one man to the next, spending just enough time with them to note their utterly mundane thoughts. And why not? The banal and the ordinary are just as appropriate during a funeral and immediately after a death as the profound and the intimate. It's all a part of things, and though we sometimes feel bad about it – witness the sudden mortification following a chuckle from a joke. We laugh and we feel guilty. We think ordinary thoughts, or we itch, or we're hungry, or we want to go to the bathroom, and we feel guilty. It's the guilt of our aliveness, so stark in its opposition to the sheer unmitigated deadness of our sibling, parent, lover, friend.
A young man with a moustache plucked a grape from the boss's bunch. “It'll be strong, 'cos they're sweet,” he said. The corner of the boss's mouth curved into a smile, but he quickly resumed a serious expression.
A man has died. The repetition is useful, it grounds the text and develops a rhythm. Lungu's text is much the same, repeating in it's short (three and a bit pages) length similar descriptions, similar words. Again, it's the familiarity that calms everyone, the repeated action and the sense of having a part to play in a role. Nobody is terribly sure what they should be doing, until suddenly a man stands and yells that he needs four men to assist with carrying the coffin. Immediately, four spring into action, for they now know what they can do to be useful, to participate. They aren't awkward watchers but engaged and involved actors. They have a purpose. Lungu understands the importance of ritual, custom and cliché, all three of which have the effect of soothing us while increasing our respect for docility and what's normal and ordinary. It isn't always pretty, but these ceremonies help.
A man has died. What was his name? It's Aurel, but it doesn't matter if you forget. He's referred to less as a man and more as a symbol for a Man Who Has Died. The story's plot, if it has one, hangs loosely on Aurel's incapacity to provide for his family now that he has died. That is all resolved, which is nice (though the resolution is temporary, to say the least), but Lungu isn't concerned too much with the plot, and neither are we. What's important is his examination of the ritual of the funeral, the way it helps to provide closure, yes, but more importantly to begin the disassociation process, both from the dead person, but also from our own feelings for them.
A man has died. And that, in the end, is okay.
To the Cemetery by Dan Lungu 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
---Suceavă, Bogdan - Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?
---Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Chewing Gum
Other titles by Dan Lungu under review include:
---Mr. Escu's Adventure
Index of short stories under review
Contemporary Romanian Writers
Plural - Romanian/English Online Magazine
Czech Position - Literalab