Category: Romania Page 1 of 4

Mateiu Caragiale: Craii de Curtea-Veche (Gallants of the Old Court; later: Rakes of the Old Court)

The latest addition to my website is Mateiu Caragiale‘s . This is a new translation of a novel voted the best Romanian novel by a poll of Romanian readers. It follows a dissolute group of people who carouse, drink, gamble and whore in fin-de-siècle Bucharest in the area of the Old Court, a now much ruined former castle/palace. Caragiale uses a rich and colourful language and pours on the descriptions, sparing no-one (except perhaps the unnamed narrator) his lavish portrayal of a dissolute society, where there is virtually no redeeming character. It is great fun to read through the eyes of the somewhat naive narrator and an excellent addition to the canon of Romanian novels in translation.

Andrea Bajani: Se consideri le colpe (If You Kept a Record of Sins)

The latest addition to my website is Andrea Bajani‘s Se consideri le colpe (If You Kept a Record of Sins). Our narrator is Lorenzo who learns of the death of his mother in Romania at the beginning of the book. She had been treated as the black sheep by her family and then kicked out of the family when she had an affair shortly after her wedding to a man approved by her mother. The man disappears after Lorenzo is born. She remarries but helps develop a weight-loss machine with another man Anselimi, and the pair move to Romania to make the machine. It is clear that their partnership is not just commercial. She visits and phones but less and less as the time goes by. When she dies, Lorenzo, who had been brought up by his stepfather, had not seen or heard from her for a long while. He goes to Romania for the funeral and to try and learn something about his mother but does not like the country and does not like Anselmi. Like his mother and step-father,he has been abandoned but is unclear what to make of it.

Romanian literature Part 2

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.

Mihail Sebastian: De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years)

The latest addition to my website is Mihail Sebastian‘s De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years). This is a novel about anti-Semitism which, for a long time, was very prevalent in Romania. Our narrator is at university studying law in the 1920s and he and others Jews are frequently attacked, not just verbally but also physically. He is befriended by a lecturer in political economics, Ghiţă Blidaru, who is based on Nae Ionescu. Sebastian considered Ionescu his mentor ans asked him to write a foreword to this book which turned out to be a vicious anti-Semitic diatribe. Blidaru is sympathetic towards our hero and steers him away from law to architecture. We follow his career as an architect, starting with a huge oil well/refinery project. Anti-Semitism, while it seemed to quieten down, is still rife and he is horrified by the anti-Semitic comments of both a very good friend and his boss towards the end of the book. Sadly, anti-Semitism will continue in Romania.

Max Blecher: Întâmplări din irealitatea imediată (Adventures in Immediate Irreality; later: Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality)

The latest addition to my website is Max Blecher‘s Întâmplări din irealitatea imediată (Adventures in Immediate Irreality; later: Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality). Blecher was dying of spinal tuberculosis when he wrote this book which was very much influenced by his stay in France when he met some of the Surrealists. On the surface it is simply an account of his boyhood, particularly one hot summer but given his state of mind, it turns out to be a highly visionary account of life (and death), replete with Surrealistic images and a view of life that looks well beyond the ordinary, while not entirely ignoring the ordinary (sex, death). Above all it is the amazing visionary images that makes the book a classic of Romanian literature.

Irina Teodorescu: La Malédiction du bandit moustachu [The Curse of the Moustached Bandit]

The latest addition to my website is Irina Teodorescu‘s La Malédiction du bandit moustachu [The Curse of the Moustached Bandit]. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Robin Hood-type bandit is tricked by Gheorghe Marinescu who manages to steal the bandit’s ill-gotten gains and leaves him to die locked in a cellar. Before he dies he curses the whole family till 2000. We follow the family as mainly the first-born son dies prematurely and other misfortunes befall them. They call on priests and soothsayers to help to no avail. One woman walks to Jerusalem but somewhat spoils it by stealing some gold. She eventually dies like the bandit. But still the curse keeps on working…

Panait Istrati: Les Chardons du Baragan (The Thistles of the Baragan)

The latest addition to my website is Panait Istrati‘s Les Chardons du Baragan (The Thistles of the Baragan). The novel is set in the very inhospitable region of Romania called Bărăgan, known for its thistles. The poor people struggle to make a living there, We follow the story of Mataké, who is a boy for all the novel. His parents try to make a living fishing carp but it all goes wrong. His mother dies and he and his father go to work on a farm. Mataké and his friend decide to run away but struggle in the Bărăgan. He gets a job making and repairing cart but it does not get much better, with the story culminating in the 1907 Romanian Peasants’ Revolt.

Cecilia Stefanescu: Intrarea soarelui (Sun Alley)

The latest addition to my website is Cecilia Stefanescu‘s Intrarea soarelui (Sun Alley). Emi and Sal are twelve year olds. Neither has a sibling. They meet and fall for one another but are, of course, too young to do anything about it. We follow their growing love and passion. However his parents do not approve of her and plan to move away from the area. Sal suggests they run away together. Emi is initially reluctant but agrees. We do not learn till much later in the book how it went. We see them later in life and it would seem that they still love each other but there are still issues that prevent an entirely happy union. It is difficult to explain what a first-class novel this is without giving away too much of the fairly complex plot but Stefanescu really delves into the psychology of Emi and Sal, their relationship and those closest to them.

Filip Florian: Degete mici (Little Fingers)

The latest addition to my website is Filip Florian‘s Degete mici (Little Fingers). The basic story involves an archaeological dig of a Roman fort. About 300 feet from the dig, a horde of seemingly modern bones is found. It is immediately suspected that they are the bones of victims from a massacre by the communists in the 1950s/1960s. The local police chief closes off the dig, to the annoyance of the archaeologists. Various representatives of political prisoners arrive. Everyone – police, coroner, soldiers, archaeologists, representatives, press – has an agenda. However, Florian tells a host of side stories, most of which are completely irrelevant to the main plot, making the novel somewhat bitty. All becomes clear when a team arrives from Argentina, who are experienced at examining bones of murder victims and all is resolved.

Gellu Naum: Zenobia (Zenobia )

The latest addition to my website is Gellu Naum‘s Zenobia (Zenobia ). Naum was a Surrealist poet and this is very much a Surrealist poet’s novel. Our hero is called Gellu Naum. While visiting Mr Sima in the country in the depths of winter, he meets and immediately falls in love with Zenobia, the name he gives her – we never know her real name – and his love is reciprocated. The pair set off together and go and live in a burrow like moles with Dragoş, an old, an almost inanimate man. After surviving the winter, Gellu explores the swamps before the threesome set off for Bucharest. Dragoş will go off with Empedocles as a child, while Gellu wanders the streets of Bucharest, meeting many dead people – he admits to not being able to tell the difference being the dead and living – and the pair will live in surrealistic but relatively happy harmony before returning to the swamps. The book is full of surrealistic images – death and animals abound – and strange behaviours but is interesting reading if you do not expect the conventional.

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