#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

19 thoughts on “#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds”

  1. Very reasonable to get riled about historical inaccuracies Marina Sofia! Especially nowadays when all the resources to check are so readily available. These both sound appealing – I found that quote about Ted wanting to say yes really heart-breaking, and the kaleidoscopic style of Sandu sounds interesting.

    1. Yes, they are very different and yet both well worth reading. I don’t think it’s that easy to find English language resources about that period and that region (other than Russia), because Western countries were simply not interested at the time or later and few resources were digitised.

        1. Of course, I still feel they could have consulted some Romanian historians – it’s not like there aren’t tons of them at universities all over the world, who speak English very well…

  2. That’s frustrating about the historical glitched in the Sarah Armstrong as the other elements of the novel sound pretty good, and that period is vert much my era. I’ll keep it in mind.

    Re the Cristina Sandu and the subject of synchronised swimmers, have you seen Celine Sciamma’s film Water Lilies? A really beautiful debut with hints of the brilliance that was to follow.

    1. Yes, lovely film Water Lilies. I did think of that while reading this book, there was the same kind of lyricism in the descriptions of the swimming (although no love relationships between the girls).

  3. I’m glad you found these enjoyable, Marina Sofia, despite the historical issues. You’d think those would be checked before publication, but… Still, the writing styles in both of these sound interesting, and the approach to storytelling in both of these is interesting.

    1. You know I’m not usually a fan of spy thrillers, precisely because I feel they are sensationalist rather than accurate, and spy work is often anything but glamorous. I think this one did a fair job of presenting it as much more complex and mundane…

  4. Not picky at all! It’s annoying when such detail is not properly researched, and even more so in a place you know so well. I’m glad you had more success with the Sandu. I’ve had my eye on that and am more than happy with vignettes!

    1. It appears that the author relied mostly on the work of an American anthropologist Katherine Verdery (whose anthropological work I do know, of course, but who recently published a memoir about her fieldwork in Romania My Life as a Spy: Investigations in a Secret Police File). I have huge respect for Verdery and am now really keen to read her memoir, but the difference between US and Romania was much greater than between US and UK in the 1970s and also she did her research in rural areas of Transylvania, so not sure that fully captures the experience…

  5. I really like the sound of both The Starlings of Bucharest and The Union of Synchronised Swimmers. The latter might be a good one for Witmonth.

    1. Yes, it would be a good #WIT book – and I’d love to ask the author about the challenges of translating her own work (I don’t think I’d be able to do that…)

  6. I have a copy of The Union of Synchronised Swimmers to read and review for Shiny New Books. I’m intrigued by your comments and will try to adjust my expectations accordingly!

    1. I think all publishers are trying to cut costs and so don’t employ fact-checkers or do quite such rigorous editing anymore… Besides, aren’t most people who work in publishing rather young? The 1970s probably feels like ancient history to them, so they are unfamiliar with the nuances.

  7. It does seem odd to use Bucharest in the title if the main part of the story is set in Moscow. I can’t think of a good reason for that decision – and its rather misleading

    1. Yes, this annoyed me most – rather misleading (and unnecessary). Maybe to make it a bit more different from all the other spy thrillers that are set in Moscow.

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