I have now read twenty Romanian novels in a row. The overall impression is that Romanians have had a thoroughly miserable twentieth century. Starting with the oppression of the peasants, as described in Zaharia Stancu‘s Desculț (Barefoot), followed by World War I, described in several of the novels I read, for which the Romanians were spectacularly unprepared and were soon overrun by the Germans, the anti-Semitism of the late 1930s (Mihail Sebastian‘s De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years)), World War II, covered far less than World War I in these twenty novels, and then the aftermath of World War II and the Gheorghe Gheorghiu-De era, described in Petru Dumitriu‘s Incognito (Incognito). Then there is Nicolae Ceaușescu era, mentioned in several of the novels and then the post-Ceaușescu era, covered in Augustin Buzura‘s Recviem pentru nebuni și bestii (Requiem for Fools and Beasts). In all cases, it is a story of unremitting suffering, with brutal and cruel governments, secret police, wars, poverty starvation, arbitrary killings, lots of violence and little chance of escape.
It may well be that there are Romanian novels which give a rosier picture but either I have missed them or, more likely, they have not been translated or, perhaps, even more likely, they have not been written.
You would think that at least the Romanians could have love and romance as a redeeming part of their life but, at least according to these novels, that is not the case. The first novel I read, published in 2011, does not deal with the horrors of the Romanian experience but is is about a woman writing her story to her boyfriend whom she is dumping, as he is useless. Vica in Gabriela Adameșteanu‘s Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning) also has a useless husband who just sits at home watching TV all day. Indeed, most of the men in the book do not fare well as husbands and lovers. Donna Alba is nominally a love story but what a messy one, as our hero, to get the girl, behaves very badly indeed. Camil Petrescu‘s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War] might seem like a love story but it is about a love affair gone wrong. Gellu Naum‘s surrealist Zenobia (Zenobia ) is perhaps the closest we come to a happy romantic relationship. In short, happy marriages and relationships are rarely to be found in these novels.
There are few of these novels that do not deal with the oppressive political and economic situation. Gellu Naum‘s surrealist Zenobia (Zenobia ) is one, though we do see a life of hardship. Cecilia Stefanescu‘s Intrarea soarelui (Sun Alley) mentions the Securitate only in passing and politics does not enter into the story, though it is far from a happy story. Ioana Pârvulescu‘s Viața începe vineri (Life Begins On Friday) is set in 1897. we are in Bucharest so we do not see the hardships of the peasants and while politics do occur, they are not vicious or threatening as in novels set in later periods. Dumitru Tsepeneag‘s post-modern Pigeon vole (Pigeon Post) avoids the problem entirely. It is written in French, set in Paris and does not have a single Romanian character in it.
As for my favourite, I very much enjoyed the two Istros novels – Cecilia Stefanescu‘s Intrarea soarelui (Sun Alley) and Viața începe vineri (Life Begins On Friday). Both have a clever bit of time travel in them, though, in neither case is it key to the plot. Sun Alley tells of a love affair going doubly wrong and is a very intense novel but superbly written. Life Begins On Friday is also a clever novel and tells a good tale well. Max Blecher‘s Întâmplări din irealitatea imediată (Adventures in Immediate Irreality; later: Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality)‘s a formidable visionary novel. However, what I shall take away is that I am glad that I did not live in Romania in the twentieth century.