An Émigré in New York: Extract from Norman Manea’s ‘The Lair’

The Lair

The Lair

Norman Manea is an acclaimed literary figure, whose works evoke comparisons to such giants as Kafka and Musil. Translated into English for the first time, The Lair explores the human condition of exile, love, isolation and the disorientation of being submerged in another culture. Set in New York in the months preceding 9/11, the novel introduces us to the protagonist who, like the author himself, is a Romanian professor in exile. In this exclusive extract, we are introduced to Peter, a Russian émigré struggling to catch a train in bustling NY.

Extract from The Lair by Norman Manea (translation by Oana Sânziana Marian)

* * *

A new morning, not yet opened. The long and powerful arm of a magician sets in motion the trick of the day. The yellow box stops at the curb’s edge.

‘‘Penn Station.’’

Above the steering wheel, the mug shot and name of the driver: Lev Boltanski.

‘‘Are you Russian?’’

‘‘I was.’’

A hoarse voice. A wide face, small eyes.

‘‘Where from?’’

‘‘Odessa.’’

‘‘I thought Odessa was in Ukraine.’’

‘‘The Soviet Union! Like me, Odessa is from the Soviet Union. Few people know the difference between Russia and Ukraine. You’re not American.’’

‘‘I am now. Just like you.’’

No, it’s not exactly the beginning of the day . . . The day had started with the stranger whose small, white hand handed him an immaculately white card with gold letters.

‘‘I wonder if you’d agree to appear in a television commercial. The pay is very good.’’

And before him, the diminutive Dr. Koch. And before him, the thought of Lu, the failed attempt to see her. The present! The present, mumbled the pedestrian. The new motto of his life: the present.  That was all: the present! In his past life, there was the guilty past and the gleaming future forever deferred. Now, however . . . he stood bewildered in front of the stranger who was reaching out a small, white hand to him.

‘‘Don’t be alarmed. One question, that’s all. Just a question.’’

It was a sudden confrontation. The approach gentle, but guarded.

The intruder is about forty years old. Long, beige mohair overcoat. Immaculately white shirt. No jacket. Short, black hair; black, reckless eyes. Rounded movements, like those of a dancer or a jester. He pulls a black leather wallet out of his jeans. He unfastens the magnet clasp and pulls out the business cards. He extends an immaculately white card, with an address in gold letters: the code of happenstance.

The pedestrian isn’t paying attention, entranced by the aggressor’s footwear. Cowboy boots! The elegant gentleman is wearing cowboy boots under expensive, slim-cut jeans.

‘I’m a producer. Curtis. James Curtis.’’

That’s what it says on the business card: James Curtis, producer.

‘‘I wonder if you’d like to appear in a television commercial. The pay is very good.’’

‘‘Me, in a commercial? What kind of commercial?’’

‘‘For Coca-Cola.’’

‘‘Me? Coca-Cola?’’

‘‘As a chess player.’’

‘‘Chess and Coca-Cola?’’

‘‘Yes, something like that. A man concentrating on the game. At a certain point, he reaches for the glass on the table. Coca-Cola.’’

‘‘Aha,’’ says the chess player, smiling. ‘‘No, I’m sorry. I’m no good for something like that.’’

‘‘The pay is very good, as I’ve said. The ads go into syndication and the royalties come automatically. When you least expect it.’’

‘‘No, that’s not my kind of thing.’’

‘‘Think it over. You have my card. Call me. If you change your mind, give me a call.’’

‘‘Thank you. I told you, I don’t . . . ’’

‘‘Never say never, as we say here. You’re not American, isn’t that right?’’

‘‘Why wouldn’t I be? Do Americans not play chess? They drink Coca-Cola, in any case. And Pepsi. I don’t, but I’ve played my share of chess games. When I was younger.’’

‘‘See? I knew it. You look the part. Think about it. You have my number, call me. What’s your name?’’

‘‘Peter.’’

‘‘Peter what?’’

‘‘Peter.’’

‘‘Okay, Peter, I’ll remember. Give me a call.’’

‘‘You look the part!’’ Peter the pedestrian mutters, abandoned on the corner of Broadway and 63rd Street.

That’s what the producer thinks, if he’s even a producer. A nice day, isn’t it, Dr. Koch? James Curtis, commercial producer, offered me the ad of the day, Doctor! And so, I looked into the Curtis mirror.

A step to the left, and another step. Once off the curb, he raises his hand. Taxi! The yellow cab stops at the curb’s edge.

‘‘Penn Station.’’

Above the steering wheel, the mug shot and name of the driver: Lev Boltanski.

‘‘Are you Russian?’’

‘‘I was.’’

A smoker’s voice. A wide, soft face, small eyes, large teeth, weathered brow.

‘‘Where from?’’

‘‘Odessa.’’

‘‘I thought Odessa was in Ukraine.’’

‘‘The Soviet Union! Like me, Odessa is from the Soviet Union. Few people know the difference between Russia and Ukraine. You’re not American.’’

‘‘I am now. Just like you . . . Do you like it here on the Moon? The capital of the wanderers, lunatics, and sleepwalkers. Do you like it? A real wonder! One of 777 wonders of the world.’’

Lyova is silent, but seems attentive.

‘‘Manhattan Island, bought for a song in 1626 by a Frenchman, Minuit. For twenty-four dollars! He paid the Indians in glass beads. They were growing wild strawberries and grapes here, corn, tobacco. All around there were wolves and bears and rattlesnakes.’’

Lev or Lyova listens, silently. He doesn’t ask anything, seemingly uninterested in the gregarious passenger. He drives slowly, relaxed, atypical for the New York taxi driver. He stops at 34th Street in front of the station, simultaneously turning off the engine and the meter.

‘‘How much?’’

‘‘Eight dollars.’’

The passenger rummages through his pants pockets: first the one, then the other. Next, his jacket. The two pockets of his pants, four of his jacket. He stammers; he doesn’t stammer.

‘‘Two dollars! That’s all I’ve got.’’

‘‘What’s that? What are you talking about?’’

The mirror above the steering wheel. Look at that, we have a mirror, Doctor. Fate gave me a real mirror.

‘‘Did you say something?’’ the Soviet-Ukrainian Russian asks.

‘‘No, nothing. But I have no money. Two dollars! That’s all I’ve got. Let’s go to the bank. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for the trip to the bank. There’s an ATM on 28th, right there on the corner. A couple of minutes from here.’’

Lyova peers at his passenger in the mirror, mumbles something in Russian, or Ukrainian. The taxi takes off. The bank is close by, on the corner of 28th Street. The passenger says nothing and waits. Lyova turns around, taking a closer look at the lunatic in the back seat. The mirror’s not enough; he wants to see the crook’s face.

‘‘What’re you doing? Not getting out?’’

‘‘I really screwed up. What a mess. My ATM card is in my wallet. I’ve only just realized that I left my wallet at the library. The cafeteria. Or maybe at the doctor’s. I went to see a doctor.’’

‘‘You lost your wallet, with your ATM card in it. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?’’

‘‘I haven’t lost it. I left it somewhere. At the doctor’s or at the library.’’

‘‘Should we go there, then? Are you going to pay for this trip, too, with money you don’t have? Is that what you’re trying to do? Do we go to the library, or the doctor’s?’’

The customer doesn’t answer.

‘‘Was the doctor a psychiatrist? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Here they don’t ask you what your trouble is, just if you have insurance. That’s what they ask. Do you have insurance? Not what hurts or what you think hurts. He was a psychiatrist, wasn’t he?’’

‘‘He wasn’t a psychiatrist. I don’t know where I forgot the wallet. Maybe at the library. Let’s go back to the station. I’m going to miss my train.’’

‘‘And the train ride is free, huh?’’

‘‘I’ve got a ticket already. I bought a round-trip ticket.’’

‘‘Aha, so we’re going back to the station. A free ride, eh?’’ He mumbled something in Russian, or Ukrainian. ‘‘Ah, no, I forgot; you’ve got two bucks. You’ll give me your last two bucks to get me going. The rest in colored beads.’’

‘‘I’m really sorry. Please forgive me. Look, here’s my MetroCard, with twenty dollars on it. Take it. I only just bought it today.’’

‘‘When? When did you buy it? Before the doctor or before the library?’’

‘‘I got it when I arrived at the station.’’

‘‘What am I supposed to do with a MetroCard? I don’t ride the subway.’’

‘‘Maybe someone in your family can use it?’’

‘‘Ah, so now you’re subsidizing my family! It’s probably used up. Or there are only two dollars left on it. So I’d be better off taking the two dollars in cash. Is that what you’re saying?’’

‘‘I’m not saying anything. I’m just asking you to forgive me. Believe me, I am ashamed. But things like this happen. They can happen to anyone.’’

‘‘And what do we do when they happen?’’

‘‘Look, let’s go to the subway station. Right here, near the bank. We can check the card on the machine. It’ll show that it’s not used up. Twenty dollars left on it. It’ll only take a minute.’’

‘‘And who’s going to do that?’’

‘‘Well, I . . . or no, better you. You check it. I’ll wait here in the cab.’’

‘‘Sure, I go check it, and you take off!’’

He whistles out a short phrase in Russian, or Ukrainian.

‘‘Take my bag with you. Believe me, I won’t leave without my bag. It’s too important. Here, I’ll give it to you. I’ll wait here.’’

The passenger struggles to get the bag over the divider. Lyova takes it and groans at its weight.

‘‘What’ve you got inside, granite? Mercury? Mercury is heavier, isn’t it?’’

‘‘Books, stuff. Personal things.’’

‘‘Personal things! That’s why they’re so heavy!’’

Lyova heads toward the subway station, with the bag in tow. He waddles like a potbellied duck. He comes back, slouching to the left, because of the bagful of mercury.

‘‘Okay. It’s unused. Twenty dollars. I’ll take it.’’

He goes to get back into the car but his door is blocked by a cheerful Italian. Jacket, pants, hat, all made of black leather.

‘‘I have to get out to Westchester, fast. It’s very urgent. I’ll give you a hundred.’’

‘‘Westchester! I can’t. I’m in enough of a mess as it is. This jerk doesn’t have the money to pay for his ride.’’

‘‘How much is it?’’

‘‘Eight dollars. Actually, twelve. Now it’s twelve.’’

‘‘I’ll give you eight bucks, twelve, whatever. I’ll give you twenty. A hundred and twenty bucks to Westchester. Let’s go. Right now.’’

Lyova measures up the mobster, takes a step toward the car, raising his hands up in the air like a heavyweight.

‘‘Look buddy, I’m not going to any Westchester! I’m taking this passenger to Penn Station. Penn Station! He’s going to miss his train.’’

‘‘Penn Station! Let the guy walk, it’s close enough! I’m offering you a hundred and twenty bucks!’’

‘‘I’m not going! I already told you.’’

‘‘You’re an idiot! An idiot!’’ yells the mobster.

Lyova doesn’t seem offended. He agrees, ‘‘Yes, sir, I’m an idiot.’’ He returns the bag to the passenger in the back, slams the door, spits some words in Russian, or Ukrainian, and sits behind the wheel. He doesn’t start the engine. He wants to calm himself. Distracted, he looks at the passenger in the mirror.

‘‘Why were you at the doctor’s? Are you sick?’’

The patient doesn’t answer.

‘‘Is it serious?’’

‘‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’’

‘‘Why did you go to the doctor? A checkup, as Americans call it? But you’re not American. What’s the matter with you?’’

‘‘Nothing, I told you.’’

‘‘Here, we’re just numbers. Nothing more. Insurance, accounts, credit. Numbers. Why see a doctor? The wife? Is your wife sick?’’

‘‘My wife?’’

‘‘Your significant other, as they say here? Wife, friend, partner, significant other.  Is she sick?’’

‘‘No, she works at that doctor’s office. I go there to see her from time to time. She finds out when my appointments are and makes sure she’s not around. She knew this time, too, I’d bet on it. No sign of her.’’

‘‘Divorced? I mean, are you separated? You go to see her even though she doesn’t want to see you? Is that how it is?’’

‘‘We’re not divorced.’’

‘‘Okay. Let’s go to the station.’’

Lyova turns the key, the cab sputters, and then they are at the station. The customer descends; the bag descends.

‘‘Wait, mister! Take your goddamn MetroCard. Take it with you.’’

‘‘What’s that? I thought we agreed . . .’’

‘‘Beat it! Go on, get out of here!’’ Lyova shouts, swearing in Russian, or Ukrainian.

Crowd. Hubbub, commotion. The traveler eventually finds the timetables, then gets lost. Then finds track 9. Then the train. The present, nothing else. Not too bad, not too bad, the train repeats in rhythm as it slowly leaves the metropolis behind.

Norman Manea

Norman Manea

Norman Manea is Francis Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer-in-residence at Bard College. A novelist and essayist, he first published in Communist Romania in the 1960s, producing a string of socially critical works that led to his departure in 1986. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and he has received many important cultural and literary prizes, including the MacArthur Fellowship (U.S.), the Nonino International Literary Prize (Italy), the Prix Médicis Etranger (France), and the Nelly Sachs prize (Germany). He is a member of the Berlin Academy of Art and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the French government has named him Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The Lair (hardback and ebook) is available now from Yale in its Margellos translation series (more information on this series can be found on its official website).

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