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Archive for the tag “Romania”

Poetry Review: Father Dirt by Mihaela Moscaliuc

FatherDirtThe poet Mihaela Moscaliuc was born and raised in Romania, but came to the United States in 1996 to do her graduate work in American literature. She is now married to an American poet and lectures in world literature, poetry and translation in New England. She was recommended to me by another poet, because in her first poetry collection ‘Father Dirt’ she captures perfectly the ambiguity of living a-straddle between two worlds, two languages and cultures.

Like any immigrant, she has come across the ocean with ‘a saddlebag of ghosts’ from her homeland:

We carry cemeteries on our heads,

in our bellies, round our ankles.

She used to be:

the girl who dreamt her escape…

who now fuels homesickness with immigrant tales.

And what tales she has to tell! She remembers with sensuous delight the rich tastes, images, sounds of a Romanian childhood: the odd astringent friendship of quince, cutting the corn porridge with butter-combed strings, spitting out cherry stones in the graveyard, the wary pleasure of having blood oranges for Easter (an uncommon delicacy in those days), good-natured banter and gossip during the home-waxing sessions among women. There are also aspects of her cultural heritage that she struggles to come to terms with: the old-fashioned beliefs in potions and tinctures, the healing powers of nettle and marigold tea, rituals for the dead, whispered curses and protection against evil. There is both a luminous and an ominous quality to her remembered life.

Yet the shadows hanging over these childhood memories are much deeper than that, for these were the years of deprivation and dictatorship, when abortion was illegal and even young girls were subjected to forced fertility checks. Moscaliuc remembers denouncements of classmates in school assemblies, the arrest of midwives who performed abortions, the suicide of a high-school classmate, the forced sterilisation of Roma women. She remembers fear and innuendo, when a careless word could send you to labour camp.

In the most heart-rending section of the book, there are a series of poems about children in orphanages and on the streets, youngsters who died far too young, for whom Father Dirt was a comforting figure, opposed to the bleached soul of the poet who was trying to help them on a voluntary basis. These are angry, fierce, immensely sad poems, individual stories almost too grim to contemplate. Moscaliuc piles on detail after sordid detail, until they sound almost banal, in a condemnation of society’s collective blindness to the problem.

My orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth.

Twice a day they ascend, cross the boulevard,

Sniffing auroleac, flapping plastic bottles…

Sometimes they’re electrocuted. Come dawn,

they’re carted to common burial…

Come spring, the survivors will honeycomb the town,

each crater strategically placed to absorb warmth and mercy.

Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net

Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net

These poems come from a harsh, unforgiving place and they brought up painful memories for me.  The poet admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste or understanding, but she almost performs an act of exorcism by writing them down.

You ask me where these poems come from.

You traveled my country enough to know…

But this is the skin she wants to shed, the waters of yesterday that she no longer wants to wade through, although she will never completely forget them. She wants to fit in with her new world, with the sweet tomato aroma of her new home, and this is where she truly speaks to that yearning and sense of never quite belonging which every immigrant knows.

I want dreams in the American idiom -

[...] dreams with popcorn plots and slick endings,

dreams with heirloom seedlings, dreams

never in need of translation

An unforgettable volume of poetry (even given my biased reading, being of similar age and background as the poet). I was fascinated, absorbed, dragged into deep pockets of pain and back again. Above all, it has given me the permission to be bolder, more honest, more open about my own past and my cultural influences.

 

 

 

Fragment of a Chapter

I’ve been knee-deep in non-creative stuff lately, so this is my attempt to remind myself to be creative. Or to remind myself that I do have a book in mind! Here is the opening of Chapter 7 of my novel-in-progress, introducing the policeman who will help our two main protagonists to resolve the murder mystery.  The action takes place in a small town in the sub-Carpathians in Romania.  This is a slow, descriptive start to a chapter after some rather action-packed scenes, because it introduces a new character, one who will become important in the course of the investigation.  Do you feel it gives you a bit of insight into the character – too much, not enough? Would you read on?  And does it give you a bit of the local atmosphere?arges-250x187

Sergeant Dinu Vlăhuţ was up the stepladder, adjusting the flags in front of the Town Hall.  One of the flagpoles had got stuck again, so he had to get fiercely manual with it.  After all, you couldn’t have the national flag flying half-mast, as if it was a day of national mourning.

He’d climbed up there while it was still early and relatively cool, and he was in no hurry to get down.  It wasn’t like he had any exciting cases waiting for him in the office. Meanwhile, Gina and Lili at the public counter were more than capable of dealing with the ID card applications, criminal records checks and traffic fines.  Not that many of those ever got paid.

The Curtea de Argeş Police Station was located on the ground floor of the Town Hall, on the left. It didn’t even have a separate entrance, and they’d often get people wandering in asking about permits to open up shops or property certificates.  Dinu believed in helping people out and mucking in, but he did wish he could have a more slick, streamlined operation. A couple of computers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

However, according to the American cop shows he liked to watch on TV – and which now, after the Revolution, were plentiful on all TV stations –  NYPD didn’t have much better premises either.  Lots of open-plan offices with dingy furniture and everyone talking over each other while manning the phones…  Let’s face it, a darn noisy and tiring environment!  Surprising anyone ever got any work done, let alone solved complex crimes and hunted down serial killers, as they all seemed to do on a weekly basis.

He surveyed his surroundings from his superior vantage point.  Although Curtea de Argeş boasted a history dating back to the Middle Ages, the Town Hall was a modern building, designed to be functional rather than architecturally memorable.  It looked exactly like a school or a hospital, or pretty much any public building in Romania since the 1970s.  But Dinu was quite fond of the old place. At least it hadn’t been painted over in garish colours, like some other public buildings in recent years, in an attempt to freshen up after years of Communist decay.  There were even some flower arrangements on either side of the steps. And, because the gardener was paid directly by the Town Hall, he did actually bother to use the sprinkler every other day, so the grass was much greener than anywhere else in town in  mid-August. And…

‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from below, ‘Are you a police officer?’

Dinu looked down.  A pretty young woman was looking up to him.  Instinctively, he put his hands up to adjust his hat, then realised that he had left it down at the bottom of the stepladder. It had the annoying habit of falling off, being ever so slightly too large for him.

OK, time to get down.  He scooped up his hat as he descended and set it smartly on his blonde wavy hair,  his mother’s pride and joy.  He  folded up the stepladder. ‘Yes, I’m a policeman.  How can I help you?’

‘I wanted to find out more about the accident that occurred here a few days ago.   I am a friend of the deceased. Who would be the best person to talk to about that?’

She was indeed quite a looker. Surely there was no harm in being polite and helpful, although he was – of course –  a married man.

Review of ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Poenari Castle, Romania

Poenari Castle, Romania

This was always going to be a hard sell for me.  Not only do I not like vampire fiction or film series, all of which tend to take themselves far too seriously (with the exception of the tongue-in-cheek British series ‘Being Human’), but I also am tired of being associated with vampires simply because I originally come from the Carpathian mountains.  To be precise, my father comes from the place where the so-called Dracula’s castle stands in ruins, Cetatea Poenari.

I’ve become somewhat tired of explaining that the vampire myth has always been far stronger in Bulgaria and Serbia, even in Greece, rather than in Romania.  That Vlad Ţepeş the Impaler was indeed a historical figure but has nothing to do with the pale Count imagined by Bram Stoker, and indeed, very little to do with Transylvania.  That the bad press Vlad received during his life and especially after his death was deliberately promoted by political rivals. Yes, he was a bit of a tyrant, creative in his cruelty and ruthless in meting out punishment – your everyday despot of the Middle Ages, then!

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (...

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (1456-1462) (died 1477) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I tried to set all of that aside and read Elizabeth Kostova’s book about the search for Vlad the Impaler’s real grave with an open mind.  It is a novel where the real hero is historical research itself.  It owes much to the original ‘Dracula’  novel by Bram Stoker, and it is all about a story within a story within a story, with letters and stories by different characters in different periods (some historical, some more recent) creating a sense of time-travel.

The unnamed main narrator was a sixteen year old girl when she discovered an ancient volume and a secret stash of letters addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Gradually, despite her father’s reluctance and fear, she uncovers the innermost secrets and horrors of her family’s past, including how her mother and father first met.  Narrators past and present travel all over Europe, finding emblematic documents in obscure libraries and taking in many eerie sights on and off the beaten tourist track.  Along the way, they encounter strange characters, dangerous librarians and the living dead.  They also find corpses, missing friends and each other in the process.  All in all, it makes a change from the vampire type novels aimed at the Young Adult market, but some may find the insistence on documentary detail and the lengthy descriptions slow down the action.

I quite enjoyed the first few chapters, the gradual quickening of horror, the Victorian style and atmosphere (although it is set in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s). But it just felt too long and repetitive after a while and yes, there were inaccuracies. The characters all seem to have the same voice, regardless of their period, culture or sex.  If you want examples of thrilling research and discovery combined with love story or complicated action, A.S. Byatt’s ‘Posession’ or Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ are much better.  I have to admit that from about page 300 onwards (only half-way through), I skimmed through the chapters, simply because I did not want to admit defeat and abandon the novel.

book cover 3 the historianI read this book as part of my Global Reading Challenge, aided and abetted by Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise.  It is my contribution to the wildcard category – the Seventh Continent – an alternative setting you might not normally consider for crime fiction.

Four Women Writers

I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota.  So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below.  However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion.  Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).

Claudia Golea Sumiya:  În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)

Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo.  Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime?  Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound.  In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and  this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions.  There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.

Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)

Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories.  The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads.  Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends.  The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas.  Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.

Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter

This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania.  The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents.  The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions.  Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.”  The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.  The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them.  A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.

Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run

Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep.  An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour.  In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy?  The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little.  The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed.  I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London.  Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?

 

The Next Big Thing: I Wish!

You know how you see an award or a question on someone else’s blog and you think: ‘That is so lovely, so exciting! I wish someone would nominate or tag me for that!’ ? Well, this ‘Next Big Thing’ one seems to have been circulating for a while now among all of the writers’ blogs which I enjoy reading. But, sadly, it hasn’t reached me yet (cue haunting violins and moonlight glistening on my tears).  It’s not all ego, however.  I need an excuse to write about my WIP because it requires quite a bit of clarification in my own head. And I think best when I think out loud!

So I am taking matters into my own hands and jumping at Lisa Ahn’s wonderful suggestion that she is nominating anyone who is up for it.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Beyond the Woods – because it is almost an exact translation of Transylvania, which is where quite a bit of the action takes place.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came to me in the summer of 1997, before mobile phones and the Internet were so ubiquitous. I was spending my holidays back home in Romania with my parents, when news of Princess Diana’s death broke. I had a boyfriend in the UK at the time about which my parents knew nothing and it was a real challenge to get in touch with each other, as direct dial international calls were not possible from most telephones in Romania at the time. It occurred to me then how easy it would be to lose touch with someone in just two weeks, even someone you cared deeply about.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Crime fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wouldn’t go for big names.  I have a very specific picture in my head of what the characters look and sound like. Besides, it would be a great opportunity to do most of the casting (and filming) in Romania. The main male protagonist, Matt, would have to be a slightly geeky-looking, tall English actor. Yes, OK, I admit that Benedict Cumberbatch would probably be my first choice…

The main female protagonist would be one of the very talented and pretty young Romanian actresses, like Ana Ularu, Maria Dinulescu or Meda Andreea Victor.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Matt’s girlfriend Cristina dies in a car crash while trying to secure a divorce from her estranged husband in Romania, he reluctantly joins forces with Cristina’s best friend Eli to try to find out what really happened.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m so far behind on my edits, but I hope to get some feedback from agents first and then decide.  I’m open to all options!

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Far too long! Perhaps 4 years in total, although most of that time was spent NOT writing the novel.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I love crime fiction set in exotic locations (‘exotic’ for this purpose meaning anywhere outside the US or UK), but written by non-natives of those countries, with a strong sense of atmosphere, like Michael Dibdin or Donna Leon’s Venice and Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul.  The outsider looking in is a wonderful perspective, and I hope to achieve that through the eyes of Englishman Matt.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This will sound really odd, but my first husband (a Romanian) was the initial inspiration, although he is nothing like Cristina’s husband in the book. I hasten to add that it is not autobiographical in any way, but just a way to ponder: ‘What if he had been a different kind of person? What if I had got involved in other things?’ All those possibilities that never were probabilities.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I set the action in 1995 because of a real-life event that took place that summer (which fits in very well with the story). It’s amazing, however, how much I have forgotten about that period and how careful I have to be not to introduce anachronistic details into the story.

My turn to tag.  You know what’s coming, don’t you?  Because I felt like a child who had not been invited to a birthday party, I will not nominate just a handful of blogger friends.  Instead, I will just invite all of you who haven’t shared your story-in-progress yet to do just that.  If you wish to, of course!  I love finding out what people are up to and I promise to read each and every one of your blog posts.

 

Fragment from the First Draft

This is taking me waaaay out of my comfort zone, sharing a small fragment (something more than seven lines) from the first draft of my novel. The usual disclaimers (rough, unedited, only a snippet etc.) apply. The only reason I am considering it is because some of you, dear readers, kindly asked to see some of it, and because it is part of the 15 day writing challenge devised by Jeff Goins.

By way of background to the story: it is a crime novel which takes place in Romania in 1995.  This woman is a secondary character, the wife of the policeman who is helping my hero (who is English) and heroine (Romanian) in their crime-solving mission.  Gina plays a small but crucial part in destroying the evidence.  The fragment below describes her motivation for it to a certain extent.  Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated.  Don’t be afraid to be cruel in order to be kind!

To her surprise, Gina had not found married life and parenthood as rewarding as she had been led to believe.  She had been herded by her mother into the expectation that motherhood would confer new meaning to her life.  But now she often found herself wondering: ‘Is this all?  Is that all I have to look forward to in life from now to evermore?’  Oh, she loved the little blighter well enough, but she had to admit that she often did not like him much.  He was selfish, prone to tantrums, overly spoilt by his dad and grandparents, and he took all of that out on her.  As if she didn’t have enough troubles of her own!

All she had ever learnt about bookkeeping was out of date in the new market economy and had to be relearnt.  There were other, younger accountants snapping at her heels, with their new-fangled degrees from private universities (luckily, still not officially recognised) and their mastery of foreign languages.  She had been told she should learn some English or French too, that it would help further her career. What if their enterprise is privatised and sold off to foreigners: then where would she be, out on the streets?  Whereas if she could chat with her would-be bosses in their own language, that might make a difference.

But when was she supposed to have the time to learn a foreign language?  With the child still not sleeping through the night and Dinu often away on night-shift, or else dead to the world when he did get to sleep at home.  She also had her mother-in-law to look after, who was not necessarily getting more decrepit every week, but certainly more demanding.  Plus trying to maintain the fruit and vegetables weed-free and unbitten by pests on their small plot of land.  She had been told that keeping a few chicken would be no trouble, and that having freshly laid eggs would be such a bonus to her son’s health.  So now she had to feed and clean after those stinky, cackling nuisances.

And, to top it all, Dinu had now taken it into his head to build a house behind his parents’ old one.  True, their current house was small, dark and old-fashioned, with only an electric plate in the kitchen. The running water was barely running, since the pipes had burst last winter.  But now they had a building site to contend with as well.  Dirt everywhere and drudgery from morning till bedtime!  If Dinu ever took it into his dim little brain to mention having another child again, she would punch him right between his eyes!

Her only pleasure was spending her money on foreign chocolate.  When she got her salary (in ever-increasing mounds of cash, which were actually worth very little in the current inflation), she would stop at a kiosk on the high street on the way back from work.  She would buy pretty much the entire stock and hide it at the back of her wardrobe, trying to resist the temptation to have more than one entire tablet a day.  She was beyond caring what her body might look like if she gained too much weight.  She had no feeling of guilt at spending so much money on chocolate that she never shared with anyone else.  After all, her husband was willing to spend every last leu of his on that child: it had to be all foreign nappies and toys for him, oh, yes!  But he didn’t want to spend anything at all on her, his wife.

And now he was getting far too involved in this stupid case, all because a posh bird from Bucharest had batted her eyelashes at him.  Well, she would teach him what Gina was capable of, that she would!

The men had been nicely suited, with those fashionable pastel-coloured broad ties that she wished her husband could wear instead of that sweaty police uniform.  They had descended as a synchronised pair from their Dacia with tinted windows.  They had been well-spoken, polite, not at all like the security forces of the olden days.  Yet she had no doubt that was what they were.  Any Romanian worth his or her salt could sniff out these people a mile off, no matter how many manners they might have acquired in the meantime.

They had expressed their concern at Dinu’s over-involvement in this case, which she fully agreed with.  In fact, she hadn’t quite realised quite how many extra enquiries he had made in Pitesti and Bucharest on behalf of the posh bird until these gentlemen made her aware of them.  They asked her if he kept any paperwork at home (she didn’t think so), if he had confided in her any details of the case. He hadn’t and she wasn’t interested anyway, as if she did not have enough worries of her own.

Upon hearing that, they expressed their sympathy. Delighted that someone was finally listening to her, she poured out much more of her daily anxieties than she had intended, even more than she had shared with her girlfriends.  Not that she had many of them here, in this godforsaken little town.  And the men had nodded and taken her seriously, instead of trying to laugh off her concerns.  They had promised… well, she wasn’t quite sure what, but it sounded a relief, a solution to her problems.  Nor was she quite sure if they actually promised anything.  But, at any rate, they painted a picture of future possibilities.  Lifetime employment for herself, a promotion for her husband, most likely a move to a more happening part of the country, a big city.   Where her son could grow up in a civilised fashion, away from the dirt of the crumbling old house and animal shit. An escape from the clutches of her mother-in-law and the building site.  A chance to put herself first, instead of slaving away for others.  A chance to make that life for herself that she had hoped for, but which had somehow passed her by.  Until now.

And all they asked in return was to find out where he kept his notes and evidence from the case, and to hand it over to them, or, failing that, to destroy them.  Sink this nasty little story, which had nothing to do with them.

What could be simpler, more natural?  If (or rather, when) Dinu found out, he would be furious at first, but surely it was time he realised he was not Colombo or whichever of those American detectives were his heroes.  He would thank her once he realised how much they could gain from simply letting things rest.  Leave things be.  It wasn’t like they were hiding something, it was more about not wanting to dig any deeper and uncover unpleasantness.

So, if her husband wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details, then she would have to snuffle  them out herself.  But she would have to be clever and resourceful, for there was no way that she could access any of his documents at work.   That much was clear. Although she had little respect for the coffee-swilling, nail-painting and endlessly chatting ladies at the police station, she was sure that they had enough basic police training to know not to share any documents with outsiders.  Even outsiders who were married to a police officer.

So what other solution was there?  She would have to convince Dinu to bring his paperwork home.

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