#EU27Project: The Transylvanian Trilogy

It’s taaken years of mental preparation and gradual acquisition of books, and about a year in the reading (the first volume followed by a gap and then a rather breathless devouring of the two remaining volumes). But I’ve finally done it: finished the entry for Hungary in my #EU27Project. And what a magnificent entry it is: Miklós Bánffy’s trilogy The Writing on the Wall, a.k.a. The Transylvanian Trilogy.

I have to admit to a stuttering start with it. I picked it up at least three times to read the first 10-20 pages and got lost in the profusion of unfamiliar names and events. But once I found the key that opened the door, I was rewarded with an entire (vanished) world that I had difficulties letting go of…

The 2nd book in the trilogy.

It’s a monumental work, running to 1392 pages, yet my feeling by the end was that it finished too soon, because it barely addressed the war and its aftermath. So, for people comparing it to War and Peace, I would say it’s more peace overshadowed by the gathering clouds of war. It is far more similar to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, mourning the loss of the same empire from the point of view of minority ethnic groups who have benefitted from the Empire, but have an ambiguous relationship to it.

Bánffy himself was an incredibly interesting man, a politician as well as a writer, mature and liberal, suspicious of both Hungarian and Romanian nationalism, trying a conciliatory middle ground after the Versailles Treaty, a rapprochement to the Allies during the Second World War (during the period when both Hungary and Romania were in the German camp) and somehow forever caught in the middle as a proud Transylvanian. He lived long enough to see his beautiful home,
Bonțida, the inspiration for Denestornya in his book, destroyed by the retreating, resentful Germans, and his ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ occupied by the Soviets.

Banffy Castle, Bonțida. Renovations have started on it in the past couple of years.

It must have been even more heartbreaking ultimately than described the final chapter of his trilogy, where he allows himself to utter a cry of despair:

Now this beloved country would perish, and with it most of his generation… that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formaleu, that had ingored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their stregnth was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

This is a family saga as well as a description of Hungarian society in the ten years preceding World War One. All of life seems to be present in its pages: we have a love story (several, in fact), affairs, friendships, betrayals, disappointments and heartbreaks, political intrigue, fraud and loving descriptions of a landscape (and its people) that clearly meant a lot to the author.

Bonțida Castle in 1890, from Wikipedia.

I certainly enjoyed reading about the fancy dress balls in Budapest, charity bazaars in Koloszvar (Cluj), carriage processions drawn by Lippizzaner horses bringing guests to a hunting party in Slovakia, weddings and parties, duels and conmen, romantic moonlit serenades, jinks and high spirits like stealing cows by youthful members of the privileged elite to prove the laziness of the nightwatchman… and yet… I felt uncomfortable with the excessive wealth and pomp, the hedonistic lifestyle of many of the characters in the book in their huge manor houses and lands bequeathed to them by the Emperor, and their casual cruel references to the ‘local’ populations who were their servants. I am sure that is precisely what the author intends: there is much affection in describing that lost world, but also a chilling indictment of his fellow aristocrats’ self-indulgence and indifference to the plight of others.

Miklos Banffy and his family in front of Bontida, including his daughter Katalin, who was involved in the translation of his masterpiece.

The main protagonist, Balint Abady, tries to be fair and organise cooperatives on his land (reflecting, I am sure, Banffy’s own liberal beliefs), but the truth is many of the Magyar landlords and artistocracy were unbelievably cruel to the majority Romanian population,
who were essentially their property, i.e. serfs (and not that friendly to the ethnic Germans either, who were however largely merchants and craftsmen, therefore more independent – as for the gypsies and Jews, well…). Balint’s mother has a generous yet very patronising way of distributing Christmas presents, and owns such vast swathes of land that she loses sight of it and falls easy prey to those who trick her and mistreat the people living there.

Still, I can’t help melting when Banffy describes the mountains so lovingly, the same mountains that I grew up with and adore. For him, they clearly represent the Garden of Eden. There are so many moments which impregnate themselves on your retina, like Balint and the love of his life Adrienne bathing naked in an ice cold stream high up in the forest:

They emerged from out of the thick trees onto the bank of a sizeable basin of water, almost circular, with steep banks dipping down to it that were so regular they might have been carved by the hand of man himself. Here the cranberries tumbled in tropical profusion; and here and there could be glimpsed bluebells, buttercups and pale green ethereal ferns. In the middle of the basin, some rocks rose above the surface of the water… glistening with the water that flowed around and over their smooth, polished surface.

Apuseni National Park, photo credit: Gabor Varga, Romaniatourism.com

I have a vested historical interest in Transylvania, of course, as some of my family originated there (then escaped across the mountains into Wallachia when things got too bad), so I found the political elements of the story fascinating. I hadn’t realised before quite how much tension there was between Hungary and the Austrians, despite the ‘K. und K.’ agreement (Emperor – Kaiser – of Austria, King of Hungary, so a dual monarchy and devolved parliament). Some of the speeches in the Budapest Parliament are probably taken word for word from the author’s own speeches and experiences of politics. Banffy (via Balint) is clearly highly critical of the infighting amongst Hungarian politicians, their focus on petty parochial issues instead of the major international threats heading their way.

It is, after all, a generally accepted rule that only some cataclysmic event or terrible danger can wipe away the preoccupations with the joys, sorrows and troubles of everyday life. The news was mulled over when they read the morning newspapers, argued and discussed in the clubs and coffee-houses and possibly even discussed at the family meals, but, while it was, everyday life went on as usual and most people only thought seriously about their work, their business interests, property, family and friends, their social activities, about love and sport and maybe a little about local politics and the myriad trifles that are and always have been everyone’s daily preoccupations. And how could it have been otherwise?

Most readers will skip the politics and be attracted to the diverse characters and family histories (be warned: there are lots of names and complex family alliances through marriage, it’s quite a challenge to keep track of them all). It is an immersive experience, you become so engrossed in the minutiae of their daily lives, anxieties and sorrows, that you are very reluctant to leave that world.

Above all, there are some real set-piece scenes that will linger in your mind long after finishing the books. Balint’s cousin Laszlo Gyeroffy starts out with such high hopes, optimism and talent and becomes a tragic figure, a victim of his own foolhardiness at the gambling tables; his death is ignoble and lonely. The scene of the death of Balint’s mother, by way of contrast, is beautiful, peaceful, as she slips away, surrounded by all she loved. Balint’s lover Adrienne is quite frankly annoying at times, with her dithering between passion and keeping up appearances, although of course we have to understand that she was living in different times and there are examples in the book of what happened to women who defied social expectations.

A captivating and unforgettable reading experience, and if it makes you want to visit Cluj, Bonțida and the Apuseni mountains, then all the better. I’m planning to go there next time I’m in Romania!

Apuseni Mountains, from Senior Voyage website.

Reviving the #EU27Project

114 days or 17 weeks until the 29th of March, which is my self-imposed deadline for the #EU27Project. Yes, by then I want to have read at least one book from each of the EU member countries with the exception of the one flouncing off. I started this project quite a while ago, even before Britain triggered Article 50 in 2017. And, just like Britain, I was not quite prepared and spent a lot of time faffing about and procrastinating. Or doing the same thing over and over, like reading books from France and Germany.

So let’s do some arithmetic, shall we? I still have 15 countries to go through, for which I’ve read absolutely nothing. In the case of some countries (Cyprus and Luxembourg), I am struggling to find anything in translation. And I am likely to want to ‘redo’ some of the countries, for which I didn’t find quite the most satisfactory books (Romania, Greece or Italy, for example). That means at least one book a week from this category. Eminently doable, until you factor in all the review copies and other things that crop up. However, this will be my top priority over the next few months – my way of saying goodbye (sniff!) to the rest of Europe.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Here are some books that I have already sourced and will be ready to start shortly:

Bulgaria: Georgi Tenev – Party Headquarters (transl. Angela Rodel)

Hungary: Miklos Banffy – well, I need to finish that trilogy, don’t I? (Especially in the centenary year of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)

Slovenia: Goran Vojnovic – Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney – struggled to find something from this country, but this seems to fit the bill: the author, like the protagonist is Serbian/Slovenian and  this novel about discovering your father is a war criminal will fit in nicely with my Croatian read.

Croatia: Ivana Bodrozic – The Hotel Tito, transl. Ellen Elias-Bursac – another author and protagonist who experienced the war as a child, considered one of the finest works of fiction about the Yugoslav war.

Estonia: Rein Raud – The Death of the Perfect Sentence, transl. Matthew Hyde, described as a spy and love story set in the dying days of the Soviet Empire

Latvia: Inga Abele – High Tide, transl. Kaija Straumanis – experimental and anti-chronological story of a woman’s life

Lithuania: Ruta Sepetys: Between Shades of Gray – this is not a book in translation, as Ruta grew up in Michigan as the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, but the book is very much based on her family’s tory at a crucial and tragic time in Lithuanian history

Slovakia: Jana Benova – Seeing People Off, transl. Janet Livingstone – winner of the European Union Prize for Literature

But then I met Julia Sherwood at the Asymptote Book Club meeting, and she has translated Pavel Vilikovsky’s Fleeting Snow from the Slovakian, so I had to get that one as well. So two for Slovakia.

Malta: Very difficult to find anything, so I’ll have to rely on Tangerine Sky, an anthology of poems from Malta, edited by Terence Portelli.

Belgium: Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent  – bought a few years back at Quais du Polar in Lyon, highly recommended by French readers

Denmark: Peter Høeg: The Elephant Keepers’ Children, transl. Martin Aitken – one of the most experimental and strange modern writers – I can see some resemblances to Heather O’Neill, whom I also really like, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea – this one I found at the local library, so yay, finally saving some money! But it is quite a chunkster, so… it might be impractical.

Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos: What’s Left of the Night, transl. Karen Emmerich – because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets

So, have you read any of the above? Or can you recommend something else that won’t break the bank? (I’m going to try not to buy any more books in 2019, which may be an obstacle to reading my way through the remaining countries, as libraries do not stock them readily).

Cycle route 6 in Franche-Comte, with my beloved Montbeliard cows sipping Doubs water.

Final point: I do not intend to stop reading books in translation from all of these countries after the UK leaves the EU, by any means. In fact, I’m thinking of doing the EUVelo 6 cycle route from Nantes on the Atlantic to the Danube Delta across all of Europe and reading my way through each of the countries en route (10 of them). Maybe when the boys leave home, if my joints will still allow me to…

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.