There is something very familiar to me in the language, landscape and characters described by Bogdan Suceavă. Unsurprising, really, because he is of the same generation as me, growing up under Communism but then having the opportunity to go and study abroad in the 1990s. He got his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Michigan State University (coincidentally, one that I was seriously considering for a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the time) and has been teaching the subject at university level in California ever since. Nevertheless, alongside his passion for geometry, he has always been equally diligent in writing and publishing, initially prize-winning short stories and novellas, but then moving on to novels. A few of his works have been translated into English by Alistair Ian Blythe. For a good dose of traditional Romanian atmosphere, I would suggest Miruna, a Tale. Or, if you want to see just how tricky a time the early 1990s were in Romania after the fall of Communism, you might want to try Coming from an Off-Key Time. He is also a contributor to the anthology of Bucharest Tales, published by New Europe Writers in 2010.
I have to admit prior acquaintance with his work: I edited the translation of one of his novellas for the online multilingual literary journal Respiro back in the early 2000s, so I have signed copies of two of his short story collections, including the one I am currently reviewing: Bunicul s-a întors la franceză (Grandpa Goes Back to French).
You may wonder at the strangeness of that title, but the short story that lends its name to the entire anthology is about a grandfather who is trying to remember his youthful, mostly bookish knowledge of the French language. It is a very moving tale of a grandson trying to get his eighty-year-old grandfather to eat and take his medication, when all the old man wants to do is write his memoirs and get them published, so that the present generation will know the truth about Romania after the Second World War and the anti-Communist resistance movement. He sends off his lengthy manuscript to a newspaper editor, who somewhat jokingly tells him he’s be better off writing all that in French. The grandfather takes this seriously and rewrites the entire volume, trying to assuage his guilt at not having followed his former army comrades into the mountains. An incredibly sad scene takes place in the park, when the grandfather proclaims loudly, in a mix of Romanian and French, that ‘everyone needs to hear the truth’, and his grandson has to disillusion him:
‘There’s nothing new, Grandpa, in all of this. They know it all. And they don’t care. It’s the past, nobody cares about it anymore.’
This feels very true and is in stark contrast to the endless tomes written about the Second World War in Britain. I remember an author telling me that nearly every middle-aged man she met at the London Library was writing a book about WW2. It makes me wonder if it is better to live in a country that tries to bury its past or one that tries to glorify it. Of course, one approach does not exclude the other…
Other stories bring in a dose of humour, such as The Story of Al Waqbah, in which the narrator tells us about his cousin Matei, whose childhood naughtiness persists even in adulthood, when he becomes a respected mechanic in the tank division of the Romanian army and gets sent to the (First) Gulf War. A mix of British, American, French, Polish and other forces all get involved in Matei’s complicated plan to build a home-made distillery to make fig brandy in a country where alcohol is prohibited (with predictably bad consequences).
One of the stories takes place on an American university campus, but it feels to me like the author is at his best when he sticks to the time and places he knows in his bones. When Night Falls in Bucharest borders on the melodramatic, but gives an interesting insight into the compromises you had to be prepared to make as a second-tier Communist party bureaucrat aspiring to become a minister under Ceaușescu. The Disintegration of the Fatherland into Elementary Particles looks at more recent Romanian society (future, actually, 2006, when in fact the book came out in 2003) and the more violent, disorderly ways in which people might channel their discontent and anger at the prevailing corruption and dysfunctional political system.
Not all of the stories have a political slant. The author is having fun experimenting with genres and styles. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and an ease of switching from a more lyrical to a factual style. There is a pseudo-scientific and historical style in Greetings from Prague. Your World: Rock Music and Guava Perfume is the story of a lifelong friendship between a boy and a girl, that somehow never quite turned into love, a universal tale of missed opportunities and miscommunication, a yearning for what might have been. There is a short, experimental bit of prose about a man walking the streets while desperately trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.
An interesting collection of short stories of an author still testing the ground and honing his craft. One or two of them will certainly stay with me, and I am now curious to read his novels. Next time I go to Romania (if I go to Romania any time soon), I will search out more of his work.