There are contrasts between the urban and rural in any country, but I sometimes think that Romania is an extreme example of that. No wonder I am dazed when I go back there for any period of time!
I was going to write a very lengthy post about the family saga La Medeleni, but I don’t have the energy for it right now, plus you are never likely to read it unless you learn Romanian, since its chances of being translated are close to zero. However, Life Begins on Friday is a book you can find in English, courtesy of Istros Books and the translator Alistair Ian Blyth (see link below). I cannot comment on the translation itself, since I read it in Romanian, except to say that it must have been quite a challenge to render the linguistic and cultural specificity of 1897 Bucharest into English. The author has also written non-fiction, historical accounts of everyday life in Bucharest at the turn of the 20th century, and this meticulous research and understanding of the period stands her in good stead in this novel, which was published in 2009, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2013 and had an unheard of success in Romania, leading to a second edition in 2013 and a third edition in 2018.
It is an amazingly unclassifiable novel, a complete mash-up of mystery, fantasy, literary, historical and romance. Above all, it is not the ‘type’ of novel that people have come to expect from the former East Bloc countries: either all about the Communist dictatorship, or else all about the poverty, crime and human trafficking after the fall of Communism. This is a fun novel, with endearing characters and a plot that never quite resolves itself but keeps you intrigued throughout. We find ourselves in Bucharest during the Christmas/New Year period of 1897. The main streets are lit up by electricity and full of elegant horse-drawn carriages, but just behind them are the dark streets, full of potholes and mud. Much like today, in fact!
On the snowy road on the outskirts of the city, close to Baneasa forest and lake, two young men are found at a short distance from each other, both unconscious and stunned. One of them is wounded and later dies in hospital, while the other seems to be a madman or amnesiac: hatless, wearing funny clothes, not quite knowing how to behave or how to speak politely, claiming to be a journalist, although he appears completely unaware of the current news. This is Dan Creţu (whom they decide to spell Kretzu, because they think he might have come from abroad) and he comes into contact with a series of close-knit characters who each tell part of the story from their point of view: the altruistic doctor Margulis and his family, including his disabled son Jacques and lively older daughter Iulia, who keeps a diary; the brave and witty little errand boy Nicu (my favourite), who tries to protect his bipolar mother, who is occasionally well enough to work as a washerwoman; the police inspector Costache Boerescu, friend of the Margulis (and former suitor of Mrs Margulis), who keeps trying to find any links between the two men; the journalists at the Universul newspaper; Alexandru Livezeanu, the spoilt son of a rich family, who seems to have got himself entangled in some unpleasant, possibly criminal activity. But there is so much else to enjoy here: cabbies, porters, German craftsmen crossing the border from Transylvania to find work in Bucharest, pigeons, stolen icons, rivalries between different sweet shops, banquets, present-giving, the novelty of using fingerprints to help in police investigations, the revolutionary medical opinion that tight stays and corsettes might actually be harmful for women’s internal organs and so much more.
In truth, the main character of the novel is Bucharest itself, the city with all its infuriating babble and imperfections, its corruption and crime, but also its charms and friendliness, a city that was then (as now) a bit of a building site. Human nature and the city of Bucharest seem to have a lot in common, immovable, unchanging except in superficial ways, with grounds for both optimism and pessimism, as a rather lovely passage makes clear in which the professions of detective and medical doctor are compared – or rather, the idealistic concept of the two. There are constant parallels between past and present, for those who like to read between the lines, but it is not a political book.
We begin to suspect rather quickly that Dan might be a time traveller from the present-day Romania, but he is never quite able or willing to explain his dilemma to the people he meets. As a visitor from a much more cynical age, he is perhaps more exasperated rather than shocked by the negatives of life during that period, but he becomes charmed by the manners, naivety and hopefulness of the characters who view the advances of science and the progress of their country with such optimism.
It was as though I had landed in a world where God was younger and more present, after living for years in a ruined world that had lost God, or had been lost by God. It was as though I could see the sky, after forgetting about its existence for years. It was as if I had come alive again, after being dead on my feet. I felt as if I had been taken under a wing. A pleasant feeling gripped me, full of love for everything I could see around me.
In one of the final scenes of the novel, a large party of dinner guests on New Year’s Eve try to imagine what the future might be like. One says he thinks that the Eiffel Tower will become a permanent fixture and a symbol for the city of Paris, much to the derision of the other guests. Others say there will be a cure for TB, that the whole world will be electrified, that people will travel to the moon just like in Jules Verne. And Dan does not disillusion them by predicting world wars or any of the other horrors that the new century was about to throw their way. There is a rather clever post-modern final chapter that tries to imagine Dan’s life in the future, while a poignant epilogue informs us about the fate of some of the characters in the story.
There is a sequel to this book, The Future Begins on Monday, which has not been translated, and a third novel The Innocents, is the story of a house and a family set in the author’s home town of Brașov. If you want to find out more about Ioana Pârvulescu, you can catch her on the 8th of November in conversation with Tracy Chevalier at the Romania Rocks 2 Festival organised by the Romanian Culture Institute in Bucharest. (Most of the events will be recorded and streamed online).
To read in Romanian: Viaţa începe vineri, editura Humanitas.
To read in English: Life Begins on Friday, trans. Alistair Ian Blyth, Istros Books, 2016.
Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).
My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.
However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.
I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.
If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.
If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)
My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!