Mohamedou Ould Salahi: The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga

The latest addition to my website is Mohamedou Ould Salahi‘s The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga. Mohamedou Ould Salahi is best-known for having been unjustly imprisoned in Guantánamo for fourteen years but this novel, which he wrote in English, has nothing to do with his imprisonment. Indeed, no Westerners appear in it at all. It recounts the tale of a camel herder, Ahmed, between the world wars, who loses a camel and his hunt across the Sahara for her. We learn of his many adventures, from a poisonous viper to cannibals but also both the hardships of the Sahara and the camaraderie of the nomads. It is a very fine story as we follow not only his colourful adventures, but learn of his past, the past of his family and of his tribe.

Isabel Bogdan: Der Pfau (The Peacock)

The latest addition to my website is Isabel Bogdan‘s Der Pfau (The Peacock). This novel gives the impression of being written by a Scottish or English writer, being set entirely in the Highlands of Scotland and featuring primarily Scottish and English characters. Lord and Lady McIntosh rent out holiday cottages on their estate and are planning, for the first time, to rent out the West Wing to a group of bankers (with their own cook and psychologist) who are coming for a team-building exercise. They are worried about their peacock which attacks anything blue and has attacked the car of a guest, causing damage. When the laird sees that the banker boss’s car has been attacked, he shoots the peacock and conceals it under leaves. However, the bankers’ boss’s dog discovers it and the boss thinks her dog has killed it. She instructs one of her staff to get rid of it. The cook volunteers to cook it, pretending it is pheasant and then, later a goose. She finds gunshot in it so now everybody has different ideas on the fate of the peacock. Throw in the bankers’ not entirely successful team-building exercise and a snowstorm and things get messy. It is a very enjoyable book but also a serious discussion of how we can have different perceptions of the same event.

Saulius Šaltenis: Kalės vaikai (Bees on the Snow)

The latest addition to my website is Saulius ŠaltenisKalės vaikai (Bees on the Snow). The novel is set in a village in eighteenth century Lithuania. The problem for the Lithuanians is that the Germans, in particular, but also the Russians control the area. Early on, we see a Lithuanian family driven out of their home and tavern just because a German family want it. We get a host of colourful characters such as Fingerless Limba, the teacher and coffin-maker, the herdboy who becomes bell-ringer, Karvelis, poor Lotė the Betrothed and her fatherless child Jonelis and, above all, Pastor Kristijonas whose mother negotiated with Death to save him from the plague and who chooses his coffin, seemingly after he has died. Their enemies are mocked – the Germans, the bishop and his retinue and the small squire who married a much larger woman. Above all we get a host of wonderful linked stories- sometimes more than one version of the same situation – and lots of colourful characters, some good, some bad, quite a few both

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.

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