How old is she, the chair of judges asks the coach, unable to believe her eyes. The reply—fourteen—sends a shiver up her spine. What that young girl has achieved blasts away any progression of numbers, words, and images. It defies understanding. There’s no way of classifying what has just happened. She tosses gravity over her shoulder, her tiny frame carving itself a space in the air.
Why did no one tell them that was where they were meant to look, protest the spectators who miss the moment when, on the ten centimetres’ width of beam, Nadia C throws herself backwards and, arms outstretched, launches into a triple back flip. They turn to one another: has anyone understood? Did you understand?
The electronic scoreboard shows COMANECI NADIA, ROMANIA, followed by a 73, her competitor’s number, but where her score should be: nothing.
They wait. Pale-faced, the Russian gymnasts come and go in the rest area reserved for coaches and competitors after they have performed. They know. For their part, the little Romanian girl’s team-mates look on as if in despair. Dorina has her hands clasped in front of her, Mariana mutters the same few words over and over, another girl has collapsed, eyes tight shut. As for Nadia herself, standing slightly apart from the others, ponytail askew, she doesn’t even glance at the scoreboard. He is the one she sees first: Béla, her coach, arms raised skywards, head thrown back. She finally turns and sees the judgment: this terrible 1 out of ten written in bright lights for cameras the world over to see. One point nought nought. In her mind, she goes over possible mistakes, perhaps the dismount after the somersault wasn’t steady enough, but what can she have done to deserve this? Béla hugs her, don’t worry my love, we’ll lodge a protest. Then one of the judges catches his eye. Look: the Swede is standing up. Look: he has tears in his eyes as he stares at her. And everyone will recount this moment over and over, so often that now she is no longer sure whether she actually lived it: perhaps she saw it on TV, perhaps the episode was written for a film.
The audience has risen to their feet, and eighteen thousand bodies unleash the storm. They stamp rhythmically on the floor, and in the midst of the din the Swedish judge’s mouth opens and closes. He is pronouncing inaudible words, thousands of flash bulbs generate a shower of intermittent lights, she catches sight of the Swede: what’s he doing? He’s holding up both hands; the whole world films the judge’s hands reaching out to her. So the girl stretches towards him, begging his confirmation . . . is it a ten? And here he comes, nodding gently, face hidden behind his raised fingers. Hundreds of cameras hide the child from him; the other young girls in the Romanian team are dancing round her, yes my love, yes, that one point nought nought is a ten.
The scoreboard gyrates slowly from left to right, from the judges towards the audience, passing by the gymnasts, showing the number one that should read ten. A decimal point in the wrong place. Or rather, a decimal point that stubbornly refuses to be moved. A man is coming and going between journalists and judges. His official MONTREAL 1976 OLYMPIC GAMES t-shirt has dark patches under the armpits; he wipes his brow. The president of judges motions to him to come over, there’s too much noise, something made the machine malfunction, I tell you; the whistling forces them to lean close to one another, are you joking or what? The whole world is filming, it’s the first day of the competition. Where is that damned Longines guy? The engineer who designed the scoreboards clambers over the journalists kneeling round the little girl to reach the judges’ table. They’re gesticulating: your system doesn’t work! And the Longines guy tells the IOC representative, who has cupped his ear to hear him—it works in the other competitions, IT WORKS, the computer doesn’t make mistakes, you’ve caused the malfunction, he points a finger at the judges but everything has shifted, they’re no longer paying him any attention. The judges have become spectators, they weep and applaud the girl sitting next to her coach, her narrow back turned towards the senile machine that is still grumbling: one point nought nought.
They go into a huddle at the break. OK. Did the Romanian or somebody on her team have access to the computers? Could she have swallowed something that possibly sent the system haywire? You’re off your head, man, making things like that up just to cover yourself. Quite frankly, it’s almost unbelievable! They blame each other. During the preparatory meetings the Olympic committee told us ten didn’t exist in gymnastics, protest the Longines engineers, whom the press have dubbed “team one point nought nought.” At 13:40, the verdict: the computer database failed due to the input of unusually high scores. The young girl has defeated the computer.
They have until the next day to adapt the computer system to the child. They push buttons, compile programs. An extra number has to be added. The decimal point moved to the right. What likelihood is there that she could do the same again, do you think “that” could happen again tomorrow? I don’t know, says the English judge. I don’t know, says the Czech judge. They try to imagine exercises that would be worth ten on the beam. Find it impossible. No one has ever scored ten in Olympic gymnastics. They are asked a second time. Are you sure you weren’t carried away by the spectators’ enthusiasm? No, they reply. They really scrutinized the girl, trying to find any slipup; there was nothing. No mistakes. More than that: some of the judges would have liked to go further, to give her eleven out of ten! Twelve, says the Canadian judge. New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.
“If Comăneci were competing against an abstract standard instead of human rivals, could she still be given a perfect ten?” someone asks Cathy Rigby, a former gymnast who now works as a commentator for ABC. “If Nadia were doing what she’s been doing, all alone in an empty room, I’d still have to say that she would get the perfect ten” replies Rigby, after thinking hard about the possibility of inventing an abstract standard more abstract than perfection.
They attempt to downplay what has happened. The following morning, the Olympic committee demands that Nadia take three additional drug tests. A debate rages: are we witnessing the emergence of a new generation of baby gymnasts, or is she one of a kind? It’s a geo-political earthquake. The Soviet coaches are taken to task: you mustn’t let Romania humiliate us, comrades. Ludmilla will save us! But that afternoon, Ludmilla finishes her floor exercise with a tragic, statuesque pose, a performance greeted with polite applause. Ludmilla rushes to sob into the arms of her coach under the Romanian’s impassive gaze.
The elements are invoked: is she swimming in an ocean of air and silence? The sport itself is called into question: it’s too brutal, almost vulgar compared to what is happening. They start from scratch: she doesn’t sculpt space, she is space, she doesn’t convey emotion, she is emotion. She appears—an angel!—just look at the halo all round her head, the glitter of hysterical flash bulbs, she rises above and beyond all laws, rules and certainties, a sublime poetic machine that blows everything apart.
Her routine is discussed: yes, it’s true, there was already a foretaste of it with Olga at the 1972 Munich games, but now, with Nadia, it’s the whole banquet in one go! Grace, precision, the sweep of her gestures, the combination of risk and power, and yet all of this seemingly effortless! It’s said she can repeat her perfect routine fifteen times in a row. And that bone structure of hers . . . bones like silken threads. Morphologically superior. More elastic.
They search, play with words like these, then change their minds, try to encapsulate her. The little communist fairy. The little communist fairy who never smiled. They cross out the word ‘adorable’ because it’s been used too often over the past few days, and yet that’s what it is: painfully adorable, unbearably precious. And, obliged to look at her from our position as adults, yes, we wish we could slip inside her arduous childhood, stand as close as possible to her, protected as she is by her immaculate leotard, on which there is no sign of perspiration. ‘An Olympic Lolita weighing barely forty kilos, a fourteen-year old schoolgirl with the body shape of a young boy, who submits to everything demanded of her,’ they write. We would love to anoint ourselves in the shower of sparks she gives off like a magical, boisterous toy. Tear ourselves from our sluggish, hormone-encumbered organisms hormones. The little girl claws at our desire, we want it, oh, the desire to touch her, to be near her, a spiraling desire that is ever more urgent and it’s already over, the exercises on the beam lasted ninety seconds. Her fame spreads like an epidemic. For the finals, the ticket touts run out of the sixteen dollar tickets they are charging a hundred dollars for; everybody wants to watch her, see her launch into her routines, so light you fear she will never come back down to earth. And when she sprints into her somersaults her elbows give her even more speed, the absolute firmness of her flesh squeezed into the white costume, she is this shooting mechanism wonderfully freed from her sex into a marvellously frictionless and higher childhood.
Things no longer look the same. Nadia is where it all begins. The other gymnasts are mistakes, the ideal deformed. The weight of years separating her from those who are beginning to be called “the others,” those who, the moment this child returns to the arena, nervously pluck at the fabric covering their buttocks. To hide away the flesh, hide what suddenly seems too much, incongruous, ridiculous even. Their leotards now seem too low-cut, too tight perhaps to contain the flattened chests of young women, chests that, as they run towards the vault, quiver imperceptibly. All that—breasts, hips, as a specialist explains when the event is retransmitted—slows down the twists, weighs down the leaps, spoils the figure. Ludmilla is “terribly womanly.” In a photograph in a daily newspaper, next to the Romanian nymphette she looks disproportionately large. As for Olga, frankly it’s almost embarrassing. The camera lingers on her, livid after the coronation of her Romanian rival. No, she isn’t tired, she is worn-out: she is twenty, almost—and you can hear the laughter of the other journalists in the studio—almost an old woman, she has too many miles on the clock, doesn’t she?
Others knit their brows, let’s be fair about this. A lady, yes, that’s more like it, this Ludmilla is a grand dame. And after all, once upon a time Olga was a fairy too; one day Nadia will be going through what she is going through now. At the same moment the image freezes on the Romanian with the tiny face, the way she is nervously chewing her thumb, and a journalist murmurs to himself: ‘Such small thumbs . . .”
Lola Lafon is a bestselling Paris-based novelist and musician. The author of three previous novels, Lafon was born in France and grew up in Sofia and Bucharest. The original French edition of The Little Communist Who Never Smiled won ten prizes, including the prestigious Prix de la Closerie des Lilas. She lives in Paris.
Nick Caistor is a British journalist and translator who has twice been awarded the Valle-Inclán prize for Spanish translation. He lives in Norwich, and is married to fellow translator Amanda Hopkinson.
This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Seven Stories Press from The Little Communist Who Never Smiled by Lola Lafon, translated by Nick Caistor, publication date August 9, 2016. Copyright © by Actes Sud. English translation © 2016 by Nick Caistor.