Short Story Review – Gabriela Adameşteanu – The Hour Commute (trans. Georgiana Galateanu-Farnoaga and Robert Denis)

Gabriela Adameşteanu’s The Hour Commute (trans. Georgiana Galateanu-Farnoaga and Robert Denis) takes as its central conceit the hurried approach, boarding, travelling and exit from a train by “you”, the second-person protagonist, as the train travels from the city to the country at the end of the day. Initially published in 1989 in heavily edited form, it has now been translated from the original text, provided by the author to The Dalkey Archive Press for the Writing From Postcommunist Romania volume of the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Adameşteanu alternates between the sharp, urgent, breathless and harried thoughts and observations of the story’s protagonist, to the excited chatter of lower class Romanians as they travel home, discussing their lives, their troubles and, less often, their joys.

The Hour Commute begins with an attempt to convey the rush one feels when running late for one’s train. Adameşteanu writes a hurtling, descriptive, associative few paragraphs before her protagonist boards the train; these paragraphs help set the urgent tone of the story, which neatly juxtaposes with the slowed-down conversations of the fellow travellers.

You’re still running. It’s so hard to get on. Really, how did you manage? You mumble, elbow, could I get past – You clench your fists, what the hell – you gasp, excuse – You sept on a vinyl bag, shove your way with clawlike fingers through legs, hips, armpits, sorry – Half of you still hangs from the steps, I don’t know what I’ll do when I get old… Suddenly it seems to you the train is moving, and, terrified, you thrust yourself once more into the mass of flesh stinking of urine and plum brandy.

Who are the passengers? They are a motley crew, a horde of metal teeth, crooked teeth, white teeth,missing teeth, missing fingers, burnt faces, worn faces, wrinkled faces – cheerful faces? Yes. These people have been ground down by their government, the state-owned companies, and the careless lack of interest from the police and state security when wrong has been done to them. Yet, oddly, they are a mostly cheerful bunch, smiling in their misfortune and laughing at the pains of themselves and others.

”I used to work at Baneasa Airport. Ten years! I don’t know how I put up with it. They stole so much honey they’re gonna burn in hell!”Through the window of the compartment you catch sign of the enormous garbage dump in Chiajna. Then the crumbling walls of the old monastery, under an inexplicable cloud of smoke.“There were barrels this big! They’d break one of the slats with a chisel and drain the honey into a jar.”“Did you report them?”“Of course! ‘Fuck you and fuck your parents,’ I’d say, ‘when the police come I’ll be the one responsible.’ With all the police and security forces, they’d just walk out of the airport with a jar of honey.”

and

”Other people stole gas. Everybody who had a car did. One of them wore a shoulder bag – the perfect cover for a gas canister! He filled it with gas and left. Twice. Three times. Five. He just walked through the gate. Well, I said, fuck them, they steal way too much!”Houses painted in vivid blue and green; strings of tobacco leaves drying on fences. The carriage stops right in front of the train-station café. Two short men in faded overalls and dusty caps come out carrying open beer bottles.

“In sixty-eight he stole a plane. A Red Cross plane! He filled the tank and off he went. He flew over Hungary to Austria.”

Adameşteanu’s story becomes, then, a dual critique of Romanian society in the crumbling 1980s. From the perspective of the protagonist, everything is hurried but nothing is gained, and all that the “you” can see outside the train carriage are ruins, smoke and smog, factories belching into the air to create products you will never own and generate wealth you will never participate in, and inside the carriage where the people who create this wealth and work in these factories are dead before they should be and old before their time, chewed up by an uncaring state and laughing at the world because there isn’t much else they can do. Sure, the workers are aggressive at times (“’Fuck you and fuck your parents,’ I’d say”), but this is the aggression of a person blowing off steam to a friend,not the aggression of a population who has had enough and will revolt in the streets. These people have come to accept that their husbands, sons, daughters and parents will die well before they should and that these injustices will remain unaddressed. They have come to accept that they are young at seventeen and old at twenty. They have come to accept that their children find the world they have entered to be grubby and mean, and that they will hate their parents. They have come to accept that when there is bread their pockets will bulge with it to ensure the family can eat, and when there is not, they will go hungry.

Gabriela Adameşteanu’s The Hour Commute is a pleasure to read when it becomes purely descriptive – that is, when the protagonist shifts their attention away from the conversations buzzing around them and toward the scenery of faces and landscapes – because Adameşteanu has such a gift for savagely critiquing a situation without ever seeming to say something bad. The clues lie in the adjectives, seemingly carelessly placed, but on balance, serve to alter, enhance and refine the meaning of what is being said. The effect is one of accumulation, an increasing catalogue of misery, dirt, must, neglect, misfortune, violence and death.

After all, there’s a baby on the way.  And I suppose that can bring hope, even if right now it seems like the future is not Roman’s to grasp.

The Hour Commute is a short story by Romanian writer Gabriela Adameşteanu, and was translated by Georgiana Galateanu-Farnoaga and Robert Denis.

Author Gabriela Adameşteanu
Title The Hour Commute
Translators Georgiana Galateanu-Farnoaga and Robert Denis
Nationality Romanian
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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