Mircea Eliade * At the Gypsies- The Labyrinth

As we tackled House of Leaves, it’s important to pay tribute to one of the best Romanian authors – Mircea Eliade – who spent decades researching and writing about the symbolism and the minute differences between the sacred and mundane. In his personal journal notes, he remarks:

“These thirty years, and more, that I’ve spent among exotic, barbaric, indomitable gods and goddesses, nourished on myths, obsessed by symbols, nursed and bewitched by so many images which have come down to me from those submerged worlds, today seem to me to be the stages of a long initiation. Each one of these divine figures, each of these myths or symbols, is connected to a danger that was confronted and overcome. How many times I was almost lost, gone astray in this labyrinth where I risked being killed… These were not only bits of knowledge acquired slowly and leisurely in books, but so many encounters, confrontations, and temptations. I realize perfectly well now all the dangers I skirted during this long quest, and, in the first place, the risk of forgetting that I had a goal… that I wanted to reach a “center”.”

statuiaregeluicarolI.JPGThe essential feature for Eliade is the theme of the camouflaging of the sacred into the profane, with various textual avatars and representations. The symbolic of the labyrinth is of major importance to Eliade’s writing. In fact, he considers that his life is placed, with  all the successes and revelations, under the sign of the labyrinth, a sign that confers  an organic character, coherence and integrative vocation to events that appear as neutral, random during a lifetime.

At the Gypsies was written in 1959 in Paris and published in 1963 in Novellas. It represents an allegory of death and passing on, the reality hiding a layer of supernatural and fantastic – like much of his works.

The story

Mister Gavrilescu, a young piano teacher, overhears on his way back from a tutoring session a rumor about a new place close to the tram station, a place ran by gypsy women – considered loose women (in fact a bordello). Realizing that he forgot his folder back at the pupil’s place, he descends the tram into a hot summer day and starts his return.  While passing underneath a cool shadow, he realizes he is very near to the gypsy women’s place as he sees a young brunette with big golden rings beckoning him.

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He accepts the invitation as he wants to cool down a little and is taken to a small hidden house, where he is asked by a small, old lady to pick three women of different ethnicity. He picks a gypsy woman, a Greek woman and a Jewish woman for whom he pays 300 lei (three piano lessons!).

He is then taken by the young gypsy woman to a house past the luxurious front, into a “room whose ends he could not see, as the blinds were drawn and in the semi-dark the panels looked just like walls”. Even though no curtain had been drawn, the room begins to “mysteriously get lighter” and he starts feeling a “delicate and exotic” perfume. He then sees the girls he had requested. They ask him to guess which one is the gypsy.

Of course he guessed them the moment he saw them. The one that stepped towards him, completely naked and very dark, with dark hair and dark eyes, was undoubtedly the gypsy. The second, naked as well, except for a pale green voile, had an unnaturally white body and shining like ivory and in her feet she was wearing golden shoes. This could only have been the Greek woman. The third was the Jewish woman. She had a long skirt of dark red tafeta which squeezed her body in the middle, leaving her chest and her shoulders naked. And the thick hair, bright red, was bound and braided in a complex braid at the top of her head.

Gavrilescu guessed wrong. The dark-skinned girl was the Greek, the white one was the Jewish girl and the red-haired woman was the Gypsy.

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The girls tell him that his inability to guess right is due to the fact that “he remembered something, and lost it, and got lost in the past”. If he would have guessed correctly, the Greek woman tells him, “We would have sung to you, we would have danced for you and we would have walked you through all of our rooms. It would have been beautiful.

The professor sits down at the piano and starts playing. “He stops thinking about anything, stolen away by new and unknown songs, which he listened to like for the first time, that would come into his mind one after another, like he was remembering them for the first time.”

Eliade plays here with time and memory. as he walked into the Gypsy place, he became detached from the physical world and began his descent into transcendental.

Gavrilescu realizes that the girls are gone so he starts searching for them. He steps into a room “oddly made, with a short and irregular ceiling, with slightly warped walls which seem to disappear and re-appear in the dark“.

He tries to turn back when he feels a strong heat but he finds his path blocked and in the increasing heat, he loses his pants and undergarments, remaining “naked, thinner than he thought he was with the bones sticking out of his skin, with the belly swollen and slightly fallen, in such a way he had never seen himself before.” 

What Eliade is showing now is the first stage of death. Of going through a door in the wall and finding yourself naked and very warm.

Gavrilescu tries to cover himself (still embarrassed by his nudity) and goes for a curtain. But the curtain seems to pull him towards the wall and soon he is “shrouded, tightened from all directions, like he was tied and pushed into a sac

Gavrilescu wakes up near to the old lady who received him and can hear the metallic sound of the tram outside. He restarts on his journey to recover his folder and to his surprise, the people living at that address had never heard of him and have some vague notion of a lady with the same name living there eight years prior.

He tries to go on the tram again but finds out that his money is no longer good and when he arrives at home he finds that his key no longer fits the door. At the local pub, he has a surprise. He discovers that he had been missing for at least twelve years and his wife, Elsa, had gone home to Germany to live with her relatives.

Stunned, he returns to the gypsy house, pays 100 lei and asks for German lady he had refused at his first visit. He is sent into the luxury building where he meets his first love, Hildegard, who tells him she had been waiting for him for a long time. They go out for a walk in the garden, without bothering to open the gate anymore, and from there into a carriage driven by an old guy who formerly ran hearses.

“Something is happening to me. If I hadn’t heard you talking to the driver, I would have thought I was dreaming”

“So it begins”, she tells him. “Like a dream”.

 

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