First Edition Provenance
First publication: Mircea Eliade, La Tiganci si Alte Povestiri. Bucharest: Editura pentru Literatura,1969.
Mircea Eliade, Mystic Stories: The Sacred and the Profane. Columbia University Press., 1992.
Introduction to the Selection from With the Gypsy Girls – by Maria Stanciu
“Every exile is a Ulysses traveling toward Ithaca. Every real existence reproduces the Odyssey. The path toward Ithaca, toward the center.”
Eliade, Romanian theologian and philosopher, did not make the allusion to “exile” and “odyssey” without a personal connection to these states of being. Having lived in a country consistently ruled by some form of authoritarian regime between 1907 and 1945, Eliade was imprisoned for his political implication with the Legionary Movement in 1938, and eventually exiled to France in 1945 once the communist regime gained control of the Romanian state. An open proponent of the ethnic nationalist state centered around the Christian Orthodox Church, Eliade was in clear opposition to the communist party’s denouncement of religion. While traveling and teaching in Western Europe in the years following the second World War, he wrote anti-communist pieces in Luceafarul, a Romanian-language publication aimed toward the advancement of young writers of the new communist state. In 1956, Eliade was offered a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where he taught History of Religions for the last thirty years of his life. His immigration to the United States prompted his disassociation with Romanian political involvement, a wise choice considering Ceausescu’s heightened paranoia and heavy recruitment of expatriates as Security spies between the 1970s and 1989. Eliade’s subsequent focus on academic and theological writing was most heavily influenced by his early studies at the University of Calcutta and the resulting fascination with the “mystique indienne,” combined with an intrinsic devotion to Romanian folklore.
Eliade wrote fictional works with the same elan as his academic and philosophical writings, all the while developing notions of the “Sacred” and “Profane” space, with the “Axis Mundi” as an intermediary between the two. Eliade defined the Sacred space as “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.”¹ An axis mundi is seen as the center of the cosmic world, perceived as a universal pillar “which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below.”² Therefore, Eliade formulates a tripartite system of the world, broken up into the sacred space constituting a break in homogeneity, a break symbolized by the opening of a passage, a passage which is penetrated by the axis mundi. These terms originally coined by Eliade in a religious context being to formulate an architectural construct, as recognized by their author in his appreciation of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.”
“…the historian of religions, in the same way as the writer of fiction, is constantly confronted with different structures of (sacred and mythological) space, different qualities of time, and more specifically by a considerable number of strange, unfamiliar, and enigmatic worlds of meaning.”³
Weaving mythology with notions of human quest and exile, the novelette La Tiganci (With the Gypsy Girls) written by Mircea Eliade in 1959 introduces the deconstruction of space as a medium for transcendence. The novelette is part of a series of “mystic stories” in the fantastical fiction genre, explored by Eliade in the 1960’s. A third-person narrative, the story begins in Bucharest’s suffocating summer heat, near a tram station. The protagonist, Gavrilescu, is a mediocre piano teacher whose absent-mindedness is attributed to his artistic nature. His intended destination on the tram is deflected by the recollection that he’s forgotten his briefcase at a student’s house, prompting him to return to the desert-like heat.
“Have you any idea what time it is?” (204)
Once on the street, Gavrilescu becomes distracted by the “gypsy house,” which he has passed many times, but never entered. The garden adjacent to the house is seen as a “shady oasis,” to provide shelter for the heat-struck artist. He wanders into the shade of the walnut trees, instantly transposed away from the city, and is at once welcomed by a young gypsy pulling him into the house. His confusion persists as he is introduced to the “old woman,” who asks him to choose between a Gypsy, a Greek, and a German girl. Gavrilescu refuses to meet the German, for reasons unknown. He fumbles for his wallet, at which point the old woman reassures him that there is no hurry.
“Plenty of time. It’s not yet three o’clock.”
“I apologize for contradicting, I’m afraid you’re wrong. It should be almost four. At three I had just finished my lesson with Otilia.”
“Then the clock must have stopped again,” the old woman said deep in thought.
Gavrilescu is taken to an old hut behind the house by three women, “a Gypsy, a Greek, and a Jewess,” and is reminded not to mix them up. The women lead him through a labyrinthine procession around the property, from an old cottage full of screens to a completely obscured hallway filled with foreign objects, to a room with a piano in which he is asked to perform. The entire ritual alternates between periods of sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, with Gavrilescu as the helpless subject of the young women’s game. Throughout the procession, Gavrilescu reveals his regret for having abandoned his German fiancee, Hildegard.
“He was frightened by his own screams, and found himself running insanely in the dark, bumping against the screen, upsetting mirrors and all sorts of tiny objects which had been curiously placed on the carpet, frequently slipping and falling, but picking himself up and racing on.” (201)
Gavrilescu ultimately finds himself back in the old woman’s room, lamenting about the torturous elements of the young women’s game. He hears the rattle of an incoming tram from outside and is reminded of his duty to retrieve the forgotten briefcase. As soon as he exits the house and steps into the the world of reality, he is met with an even more ardent heat. The streets are as abandoned as he had left them, and upon his first interaction with people on the tram, it becomes evident that years have elapsed while he was in the “gypsy house.” He does not pick up on any of the signs, such as the changing currency, and continues to seek out his wife Elsa, neighbors, or any familiar tie. Upon finding none, he returns to the gypsy house, where he is pointed to the seventh door, the room of the German girl who “never sleeps.” In his fear and confusion, he reaches the thirteenth entrance before finally finding the right one, where he is welcomed by a young Hildegard. She takes him outside to the taxi driver and asks the man to take them to the woods, in no hurry.
“Hildegard,” he spoke after a while. “Something’s happening to me, and I really don’t know what it is. If I hadn’t seen you speaking to the driver, I would say that I was dreaming…”
“We all dream,” she said. “That’s how it all begins. As in a dream…”
Eliade masterfully rips his protagonist -and the reader- away from reality by gradually deconstructing familiar objects and settings. Gavrilescu exits the “sacred” space of Bucharest’s familiar street, and is led through a convoluted initiation into the “profane,” the gypsy house. Eliade consistently marks the passage of time as an unclear concept, culminating in its complete distortion. This is apparent when Gavrilescu attempts to re-enter the sacred, and is met with an altered version of reality. It becomes clear that he has already transcended to another state of being, and can only be brought to acceptance by his former love. Their departure into the woods is an allusion to the Romanian folkloric belief of the forest as symbol of eternity. Ultimately, Eliade conceives a universe of its own by using his devices (the Sacred and Profane space), with the liberty offered by fantastical fiction.
“It is fruitless to try to read into the events and characters of the stories a hidden meaning that may illuminate certain aspects of immediate reality. Each tale creates its own proper universe, and the creation of such imaginary universes through literary means can be compared with mythical processes.”⁴
1,2 Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: the nature of religion. New York : Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
³ Eliade, Mircea. Tales of the Sacred and the Supernatural. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1981.
⁴ Eliade, Mircea. Youth without Youth and Other Novellas. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1988.
Gavrilescu describes the gypsy house from the tram.
“It’s the talk of the town,” Gavrilescu said fanning himself with his hat. “Looks like a fine house, though, and what a garden!… what a garden!…” he repeated admiringly, shaking his head. “There, you can just see it,” he added, stooping somewhat to see it better.
A few men stuck their heads against the windows, as is by chance.
“It’s disgraceful,” the old man spoke again, sternly looking straight on. “It should be stopped.”
“Those are old walnut trees,” Gavrilescu went on. “That’s why it’s so shady and cool. I hear that walnut trees grow big enough to give shade only after thirty or forty years of life. Could it be true?”
The old man pretended not to hear. Gavrilescu turned to one of the other passengers who had been looking pensively out the window.
“Old walnut trees,” he said, “at least fifty years old. That’s why there is so much shade. It’s a blessing in this sultry heat. These people are lucky…”
“These women,” the passenger said, never raising his eyes. “They are gypsies…”
“So I have heard,” Gavrilescu went on. “I take this tram three times a week, and believe me, every single time there’s been talk about them, about these gypsies. Does anyone know them? I wonder: where did they come from?”
“They’ve been here for twenty-one years,” someone put in. “When I first came to Bucharest, these gypsies were here already. The garden, however, was much larger. The school had not yet been built…”
Gavrilescu wanders into the gypsies’ garden
Then he quickly stepped out into the platform, just as the tram was coming to a stop. After getting off, Gavrilescu was aware of the same torrid heat and the smell of the melting asphalt. He crossed the street to wait for a tram going in the opposite direction. “Gavrilescu, my good man,” he whispered, “mind what you’re doing! It does look a bit like old age. You’re growing soft, you’re losing your memory. I say it again : be careful, you’ve no right to do that. 49 years of age is a man’s prime of life…” Yet he felt tired, exhausted, and he sat down on a bench in the glaring sun. He looked around at the empty street, closed shutters, lowered blinds, houses which appeared to be deserted. “People going away on holiday,” he thought. “One of these days Otilia will be gone too.” It was then that he remembered: it was in Charlottenburg. He was sitting, as now, on a seat in the sun, but in those days he was hungry, without a penny in his pocket. “When you’re young and an artist everything seems easy to put up with,” he thought. He got up, took a few steps up the street to see if a tram was in sight. As he walked, the torrid heat seemed to abate. He came back, leaned against the wall of a house, took his hat off and started fanning himself.
A few hundred meters up the street there loomed something like a shady oasis. From a garden, dense leafy lime-tree branches were hanging over the sidewalk. Gavrilescu considered them, fascinated, yet hesitating. He looked once more up the tram rails, then set out with long firm steps, keeping close to the walls. Once there, the shade didn’t seem quite as dense. You could, however, feel the cool of the garden. Gavrilescu began to breathe in deeply, slightly tilting his head back. “It must have been heavenly a month ago, with the lime-trees in bloom,” he pondered in a dream. He went up to the wrought-iron gate and inspected the garden. The gravel had been recently watered. You could see the round flower-beds and, at the back of the garden, a pool of water. That very moment, he heard the tram squeaking and rattling by. “Zu-spat!” he added, raising his arm and waving his hat at it for quite a while, just as he used to do at the North station when Elsa left for a month’s stay with her family in a village near Munich.
Then, quietly, sedately, he walked on. Having reached the next stop he took off his coat and was preparing to wait when a slightly bitter smell suddenly reached him, a smell like walnut tree leaves squashed between one’s fingers.
Gavrilescu enters the gypsy house
For so many years he had ridden past this garden, never once moved by the curiosity to get off the tram and consider it closely. He was walking slowly, his head slightly tilted back looking at the tall tree-tops. Suddenly he found himself in front of the gate. There, as if she’d been hiding on the look-out for him, a young, beautiful, very dark woman stepped up; she was wearing a necklace of gold coins and large golden earrings.
Taking his arm she whispered:
“Coming to the gypsies?”
She smiled a broad smile, her eyes danced, and seeing that he was hesitating, she gently took his arm and pulled him inside. Gavrilescu followed her quite bewitched; yet after a few steps he stopped, as if to ask a question.
“Don’t you want to go to the gypsies?” she asked once more, her voice still lower.
She gave him a brief, deep, direct look, then took him by the hand and quickly led him to a small old house which he could hardly have suspected, hidden as it was among large lilac and elder clumps. She opened the door and gently pushed him in. Gavrilescu entered a strange half-light as if the windows were of blue and green glass. He heard the tram coming, as if from afar, and thought the metallic rattle simply unbearable. So, he put his hands to his ears. As the noise died out he discovered an old woman, quite close to him. She was sitting at a low table in front of a cup of coffee. She was considering him with interest, as if waiting for him to wake up.
“Your heart’s desire, what shall it be today?” she asked. “A Gypsy, a Greek, a German girl…”
“No, no,” Gavrilescu intervened with a gesture of defence. “Not a German girl.”
“Well the, a Gypsy, a Greek, a Jewess shall we say,” the woman went on. “Three hundred lei,” she added.
Gavrilescu put on a grave smile.
“Three piano lessons!” he uttered searching his pockets. “Not counting the tram fare both ways.”
The old woman sipped her coffee and sat pondering.
“You’re a musician, aren’t you?” She suddenly said. “Then you’ll be satisfied.”
“I am an artist,” Gavrilescu said, while extracting several damp handkerchiefs from one of his trouser pockets and methodically inserting them, one by one, into the other pocket. “I am now, unfortunately, a piano-teacher, but my ideal has always been pure art. I live for the spirit… I beg your pardon,” he stammered placing his hat upon the small table and beginning to put in it the objects he had taken out of his pockets. “I can never find my wallet when I want to…”
“No hurry,” the old woman said. “Plenty of time. It’s not yet three’o’clock.”
“I apologize for contradicting,” Gavrilescu said. “I’m afraid you’re wrong. It should be almost four. At three I had just finished my lesson with Otilia.”
“Then the clock must have stopped again,” the old woman said deep in thought.
“Ah, there we are at last,” Gavrilescu burst out, triumphantly producing his wallet. “It was in the right place…”
He counted the bank notes and handed them to her.
“Take him to the hut,” the old woman said looking up.
Gavrilescu is led through the gypsy house
It was a room, the limits of which he could not see, for the blinds were drawn, and in the half-dark, the screens and walls looked alike. He entered stepping on the carpet which became ever thicker and softer; it seemed as if he were walking on a mattress. With every step his heartbeat became faster and faster, until he was afraid to go forward and stopped. That moment he felt suddenly happy, as if young again, on top of the world, as if Hildegard, too, were his own.
“Hildegard!” He exclaimed, addressing the girl. “I have never given her a thought these twenty years. She was my great love. The woman of my life!”…
Yet, turning around, he realized that the girl was gone. He was aware of an insidious exotic perfume, and heard the clapping of hands. The room grew mysteriously lighted, as if the curtains were slowly being drawn, ever so slowly, one by one, so that the light of the summer afternoon could slowly filter through. Yet there was time for Gavrilescu to notice that none of the curtains had moved. He was faced by three young women standing a few yards in front of him, clapping their hands and laughing.
“It was your choice,” one of them said. “A Gypsy, a Greek, a Jewess…”
“Now let’s see if you can tell who is who,” the second said.
“We’ll see if you can tell who is the Gypsy,” said the third.
“Now guess! who is the Gypsy? Who is the gypsy? the three of them shouted.
Gavrilescu got up from the armchair and pointing to the naked swarthy girl in front, solemnly pronounced:
“Since I am an artist, I accept this test, even though a childish trial, and this is my answer: You are the gypsy!”
The next moment he was taken by his hands. The girls whirled him in a reel, shouting and whistling. The voices seemed to come from afar.
“That’s no guess, no guess!” he heard as if in a dream.
He tried to come to a standstill, to tear himself away from those hands that were madly wheeling him around as in a fantastic reel; but it was impossible to set himself free. He could smell the hot scent of those young bodies and that exotic, far-distant perfume. He could feel, as an inner, but also outer sensation, the feet of the girls dancing on the carpet. He also felt that the reel was gently carrying him between armchairs and screens, to the far end of the room. Yet after a time he gave up resisting and was no longer conscious of anything.
Upon waking up he opened his eyes on the dark-skinned naked girl kneeling on the carpet by the sofa. He sat up.
“Have I been asleep long?” he asked.
“You were just about to doze off,” the girl soothed him.
“Why, what on earth have you done to me?” he asked, putting his hand to his head. “I feel a little dizzy.”
He looked around in amazement. It seemed to be a different room; yet he recognized those screens that had drawn his attention as soon as he had come in, symmetrically disposed in between armchairs, sofas, and mirrors. He couldn’t figure out how they were structured. Some were very tall, almost reaching to the ceiling. You could have taken them for walls if, in certain places, they had not jutted right into the middle of the room at sharp angles. Others, mysteriously illuminated, looked like windows half covered with curtains disclosing interior corridors. Other screens were curiously and brightly colored or covered with shawls and embroideries. From their disposition, they seemed to form recesses of various shapes and dimensions. However, after considering one of the recesses for a few seconds, he came to the conclusion that it was simply an illusion, that what he saw were actually two or three separate screens fusing their images in the greenish-golden reflection of a large mirror. The moment he realized that it was an illusion Gavrilescu felt the room swaying around him, and once more he put his hand to his head.”
Gavrilescu enters the piano room
She drew him swiftly in and out of those screens and mirrors. Eventually she quickened her pace at such a rate that Gavrilescu found himself actually running. He tried to stop for a second to catch his breath, but the girl wouldn’t let him.
“It’s getting late,” she spoke as she ran. He had again the feeling that the voice was whizzing past as it rushed from a distance.
This time, however, his head did not turn. Because he was running fast, he had to avoid bumping against innumerable sofas, soft cushions and trunks, small wooden chests covered with carpets, and large and small strangely shaped mirrors which confronted them unexpectedly as if they had been recently placed on the carpet. Suddenly, at the end of a passage between two rows of screens they entered a large sunny room. Leaning against a piano, the other two girls were waiting.
“Where have you been all this time? the red-haired one asked. “The coffee’s cold.”
Gavrilescu caught his breath, took a step towards her, and raised both arms over his head as if trying to defend himself:
“No, no,” he said. “I won’t have any more. I’ve had enough coffee. My ladies, despite my artistic temper, I lead a well-regulated life. I don’t care to waste my time in coffee-houses.”
As if she hadn’t heard him the girl turned to the Greek:
“Why have you been so long?” she asked again.
“He remembered Hildegard.”
“You shouldn’t have let him,” the third girl said.
The Greek girl crept up to him and began to speak. She was talking fast, under her breath, occasionally wagging her head or smoothing her lips with her fingers. But Gavrilescu did not understand her. He smiled and listened, a vague look in his eyes, occasionally murmuring “It would have been fine…” The gypsy’s foot struck the carpet ever more fiercely producing a muffled subterranean sound. He stood it until that strange savage rhythm seemed impossible to bear. Then, with an effort, he dashed to the piano and began to play.
“Now you tell him too, you Gypsy!” the Greek girl shrieked.
He could hear her coming closer and closer, as if dancing on a gigantic copper drum, and a few minutes later he could feel her hot breath on his back. Gavrilescu stooped down at the piano and pounced furiously as if wanting to remove the keys, to tear them away, to dig into the womb of the piano with his nails, and then even deeper.”
The Gypsies play “hide and seek” with Gavrilescu
There seemed to be no end to the screen and as he advanced the hear became unbearable. He took off his jacket, furiously wiped the perspiration on his face and neck, then slung the tunic on his bare back like a towel. His arm was groping again as he was going along the screen. This time, however, he was up against a smooth cold wall, so he clung to it with both arms extended. He stood a long time against the wall, taking deep breaths. Then he began moving slowly along the wall, never leaving it. He was sweating abundantly, so he stopped, took off his shalwars and began drying his body and face all over. At that moment he thought something had touched his shoulder; with a sharp shriek he jumped sideways, frightened. He felt beads of sweat running down his cheeks and was panting. At a sudden twirl the shalwars flew out of his hand and disappeared far into the dark. Gavrilescu stood a moment with his arms raised, spasmodically closing his hands, as if hoping to find out, from moment to moment, that the shalwars were within reach. He suddenly felt that he was naked, and crouched down, his hands on the carpet and his forehead protruding, as if ready to start a running race.
He began to advance, feeling the carpet around him with the palms of his hands, still hoping that he would find his shalwars. He occasionally discovered objects which were difficult to identify. Some looked like small boxes, but upon closer examination, proved to be gigantic pumpkins wrapped up in shawls. He would hardly decide on the nature of the objects because he was ever faced with new ones which he began to feel with his hands. Sometimes large pieces of furniture would stand in his way. Gavrilescu carefully avoided them, not knowing their shape and being afraid to upset them.
He didn’t realize how long he had been crawling in the dark on his knees or on his stomach. He had given up hope of ever finding his shalwars again. It was the heat that bothered him the most. As if he were walking in the garret of a tin-roofed house, one afternoon of torrid heat. He could feel the parching air in his nostrils and objects became ever hotter. His body was soaking wet and he had to stop occasionally to rest. He would them stretch as far as he could, legs apart and arms extended, sticking his face into the carpet, breathing deeply and nervously. He stood transfixed for a moment, feeling the sweat on his back grow cold. He couldn’t remember what happened afterwards. He was frightened by his own screams, and found himself running insanely in the dark, bumping against the screen, bumping against mirrors and all sorts of tiny objects which had been curiously placed on the carpet, frequently slipping and falling, but picking himself up and racing on. He found himself jumping over cases, going around mirrors and screens. Then he realized that he had entered a half-dark zone and was beginning to distinguish contours. At the far end of the corridor, unusually high up on the wall, a window seemed to open, the light of the summer twilight filtering through. As he walked into the corridor the heat became unbearable.
Before reaching the window he stopped again, frightened. The sound of voices, laughter, of chairs being pushed back on the parquet floor reached him, as if a whole group of people were getting up from the table and heading towards him. That minute he saw that he was naked, thinner than he knew he was, bones sticking out from under his skin, but his belly swollen and flagging such as he had never seen himself before. There was no time to run back. He seized a curtain at random and began to pull. He felt that the curtain was very nearly coming undone. He propped his feet against the wall and leaned back with all his weight. But something unexpected then happened. He gradually felt that the curtain pulled him its own way, with growing force. A few minutes later he was against the wall, and though he tried to set himself free by letting the curtain go, he did not succeed. Very soon he felt himself overwhelmed, tied fast on all sides, as if bound hand and foot and pushed into a bag. It was dark again and very hot. Gavrilescu realized that he couldn’t stand this much longer, that he would suffocate. He tried to call but his throat was dry, as dry as wood, and the sounds seemed smothered in thick felt.
Gavrilescu returns to the gypsy house after realizing that years had elapsed in Bucharest during his few hours in the gypsy house
The door opened that very moment and, on entering the garden, Gavrilescu made for the brushwood. A pale light could still be seen in the window. He knocked timidly on the door. Seeing there was no answer he tried the handle and entered. The madame had fallen asleep, her head on the table.
“It’s me, Gavrilescu,” he said, giving her a gentle tap on the shoulder. “You’ve landed me in a fine mess,” he went on, seeing she was coming awake and beginning to yawn.
“It’s late,” the Madame said, rubbing her eyes. They’re all gone.”
But giving him a long look, she recognized him.
“Ah, it’s you again, the musician. There’s only the German girl. She never sleeps…”
Gavrilescu again felt his heart thumping and felt a slight tremor.
“The German girl, did you say?”
“One hundred lei,” the madame said.
Gavrilescu began fumbling for his wallet, but his hands shook ever more violently and, on finding it among his handkerchiefs, the wallet slipped down onto the carpet.
“I am sorry,” he said, stooping to pick it up. “I’m rather tired. It’s been such a terrible day…”
The madame took the bank note, got up from the stool and, on the doorstep, pointed to the big house:
“Now, mind you. Don’t get lost,” she said. “Walk right along the corridor counting seven doors. When you reach the seventh, you’ll knock three times and say: “It’s me, the old woman sent me.”
Breathing heavily, Gavrilescu slowly advanced towards the building that was shining silvery under the stars. He climbed the marble steps, opened the door, and stood hesitating for a moment. A badly lit corridor was stretching before him. Gavrilescu again felt his heart pounding as if ready to burst. He proceeded, very excited, counting aloud the doors he was passing. He soon found himself counting: thirteen, fourteen…and stopped, quite unnerved. “Gavrilescu, my good man, be careful, you’ve done it again. Not thirteen, not fourteen, but seven. That’s what the old woman said, you’re to count seven doors…”
He meant to go back and count again but after a few stops he felt drained of all strength. So stopping before the first door in sight, he gave three knocks and entered. It was a large and sparsely furnished drawing room. By the window, looking out into the garden loomed the shadow of a young woman.
The girl gently led him on. They crossed the garden and walked out without opening the gates. The driver was waiting and dozing. The girl drew him as gently as before into the carriage with her.
“I swear,” Gavrilescu began in a whisper. “I give you my word that I have not a penny left…”
“Which way, Miss?” the driver asked.
“The way to the woods, on that winding road,” the girl said. “And drive slowly. There’s no hurry…”