Reading Romanian Literature

I have already mentioned the stash of books I brought back with me from my trip to Romania earlier this month. I also had a bit more time to read, being on holiday (although, naturally, I did spend a lot of time sorting out paperwork and chatting with my parents, which were the two main reasons for going there). So I also raided my father’s bookshelves. He is as great a reader and book collector as me, although he tends to prefer non-fiction, political biographies and history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that I’ve managed to read ten Romanian books already this month – with more than a third of the month still to go. Since none of them have been translated into English, I will review them briefly here.

Martha Bibescu

Martha Bibescu: Berlin Journal 1938 and War Journal 1939-1941

Princess Martha Bibescu (aka Marthe Bibesco in France) was born in 1886 in a noble family in Romania (Lahovary) and married into another noble, even princely, family (Bibescu). She spoke several languages fluently and knew everyone who was anyone across most of Europe during the early part of the 20th century. She was also a popular writer, a prolific diarist and a cultural and political hostess, often engaging in ‘soft diplomacy’ with those in power.

These two diaries are fascinating for their insights into the political climate of the time. I expected Martha Bibescu to be the typical spoilt socialite complaining about declining service and the lack of respect of the working classes, but she comes across as remarkably empathetic and clear-eyed. Despite her obvious privileges, wealth, many love affairs, she was a shrewd judge of character, especially of politicians and their duplicity. She was a personal friend of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany and in her Berlin journal, she describes the delusional hope that he and his wife harboured about every becoming essential to German life again. She also met Hermann Göring during that trip, but never succumbed to the Fascist temptation: on the contrary, she describes a handsome young officer in SS uniform as the ‘bait to reel them [Western powers] in’.

She was also profoundly loyal to Romania, although not necessarily to the constantly changing governments of the time and rapid switches in alliances. She was fully aware of the challenges of being a small country surrounded by great empires and I couldn’t help but admire her analytical abilities, how she cut through the bullshit to get to the core of problems. She was a great admirer of British diplomacy and level-headedness, although she had been brought up in a Francophile culture, and sent her grandson to be educated in England, believing that would be the most influential culture in the future.

Lavinia Braniște: Sonia ridică mâna (Sonia Raises Her Hand) and Mă găsești când vrei (You Know Where to Find Me)

Braniște is the epitome of the millennial generation in Romania, I feel, and the three novels she has written to date are excellent at describing the daily grind of life in contemporary Romania from the perspective of a young woman, well-educated but somewhat drifting between jobs, relationships and family, struggling to find a sense of purpose in a society which is still quite prescriptive about what your goals and direction should be. Both of these novels are somewhat similar in style to her first one (the one I am trying to shop around at various publishers), but address different topics: in the first, Sonia is confronting the recent Communist past and how it lives on in the memories of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations; in the second, she explores issues such as domestic violence, force control and lack of self-esteem. Both are topics that are often brushed under the carpet in Romania.

Mihail Sebastian: Ultima oră (Breaking News) and Insula (The Island)

Sadly, Mihail Sebastian only wrote four plays, of which only the first two are frequently performed. These are his two lesser-known ones: Breaking News is a frankly barely believable farce about a mix-up in a printing press. The historical research paper of a university professor accidentally gets published in the local paper, full of misprints, causing mayhem when an oligarch and his pet MPs and ministers believe that it is written in code, threatening to reveal some of their nefarious corrupt or even illegal deeds. Some might describe the comedy as heavy-handed, but the absurdity of censorship reminded me of Communist times (no wonder this was not performed much back then), while the lengths to which politicians are prepared to lie and obfuscate… well, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore.

The final play, The Island, was never finished – only two acts out of the planned three exist. It was nevertheless performed posthumously in 1947 with an ending by Sebastian’s friend Mircea Ștefănescu, but I only read it in its original state. As if to emphasise the universality of his themes, Sebastian has set this play in an unspecified country (possibly in Latin America), prone to revolution or civil war. Three travellers, Boby, a football player, Nadia, a young painter, and Manuel, a wealthy businessman, are all stuck in the country when an unspecified major war-like event breaks out. There are no ships or trains to take them out of there, banks are frozen, so they have to find some cheap accommodation and sell off their possessions in order to survive. They are so hungry that they eat a pack of aspirins that they manage to find somewhere. Although there is some witty banter, this feels much less like a comedy and more like a serious drama about the plight of refugees – which is understandable, since it was written in 1943-44, when the outcome of the war in Europe was still far from certain. As a Romanian Jew, I have no doubt that Sebastian was both more aware of and more sympathetic to the refugee stories they must have been hearing at the time.

Tony Mott: Toamna se numără cadavrele (Autumn Is the Dead Season) and Bogdan Teodorescu: Băieţi aproape buni (Nearly Good Guys) and Teodora Matei: Himere (Illusions)

I reread the first two and read the third one so I could write an application for a translation grant for Corylus Books. Fingers crossed we get some funding this time, as I think they would both appeal to an English-speaking audience. Tony Mott’s book is set in beautiful Brasov and features an indomitable, fast-talking, no-nonsense female forensic scientist, while Teodorescu’s is a more experimental novel depicting politics and social issues in recent Romanian history, under the guise of a juicy bit of police investigation. Teodora Matei’s book continues with a slightly more light-hearted entry in the police procedural series featuring the older, slightly jaded chief inspector Iordan and his young, charismatic sidekick Matache, investigating an apparently unrelated series of killings of family men all over the country.

Alina Nelega

Alina Nelega: Ca și cum nimic nu s-ar fi întâmplat (As If Nothing Happened)

At first glance, a story like thousands of others, about growing up during the 1980s in Romania, but the author is a playwright and theatre director, and it shows in the phenomenally fluid way she slips into other people’s voice and stories. The main character here is Cristina, who has to come to terms with her own sexuality as a lesbian, which was completely illegal in Ceauşescu’s Romania and punishable with jail, but there are many other experiences we hear too, in an indirect but extremely lively speech, as if we are following someone filming a speeded up documentary of tragicomic scenes. Although both the author and her main protagonist are roughly a decade older than me, there were so many descriptions of situations, people and places that I could relate to and made me laugh or wince out loud in recognition.

One unforgettable vignette is when Cristina, who lives in a small town in the north of the country, attempts to go to the seaside with her small son and her friend Nana. As they reach Bucharest on the train, she realises she forgot to take the rubbish out and that her house might be full of cockroaches when she gets back from holidays. She can’t phone her friends to take out the rubbish, because most of them don’t have a phone or else aren’t close enough to borrow a set of keys off someone and empty her bin. She can’t go back to do it herself, as the train connections are horrible and it would take her forever. So she decides it would be best to send a telegram from the Central Post and Telephone Office in Bucharest (the only place from which you could send telegrams at the time), but the girl at the counter becomes suspicious that Cristina’s laconic text ‘Please throw rubbish’ could be a code for something political, so she refuses to send it.

I hope this gives you an idea of the great variety of books being published in Romania today – and hopefully at least a couple of them will get translated into English (they seem to be doing better with French or German translations).

Insiders/ Outsiders: Summary of Recent Reading

Lots and lots of honeypots! And by honeypots I do NOT mean the seedy lap-dancing bar in my home town, but the many good and thought-provoking books I’ve managed to read now that I no longer spend my evenings blogging, reviewing, marketing and so on. Now that we have been given a slight reprieve of sentence for the deadline for exiting the EU, I have time to continue reading and reviewing books for my #EU27Project separately. The ones I briefly describe below are on top of those reads.

Jim Crace: Harvest

My son bought this book out his own pocket money, because one of the colleges we visited had it as a set text for A Level literature. He hasn’t read it yet and, to be honest, I’m not sure he will like it, as he still struggles to handle the ‘slow bits’ of books such as 1984 or Dracula. And this book, although it has no shortage of ‘events’, is far more about the atmosphere and characterisation, hence full of ‘slow’ bits. I enjoyed it though, so eloquent and well-written, with the timeless quality and rhythm of poetry, describing the death of a way of life… and showing that any nostalgia is probably misplaced. The theme of ‘us vs. them’, the aversion to outsiders (some of it entirely justified) is subtly but powerfully done.

The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla)

One of those books that should be required reading in schools and libraries, to make people aware of true stories about (and, above all, by) immigrants rather than skewed media reports. An American edition has just been published, but the original version had to be crowdfunded, as publishers would not touch this project at first. Not all of the contributions are of high artistic merit, but they don’t need to be: they are eyewitness accounts, polemical essays, thinking out loud and trying to make sense of things. One reservation I had: it would have been nice to have had contributions from Roma, Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, who have their own stories of discrimination to tell, showing that it goes beyond race and is sometimes harder to pin down or confront because of that. Or am I just biased?

Zahia Rahmani: Muslim, transl. Matt Reeck

Well, if you want to read the story of a person who is never quite at home in any culture, then this slim volume is perfect for you. The author (and the narrator in the novel) are from the Kabyle-speaking, nomadic minority population in Algeria. The narrator protests that they’ve been dumped and labelled together with all of the Muslims in North Africa and have had Arabic forced on them. Her father supported the French army during the Algerian war, so after independence the family are forced to flee to France for refuge, and instead find themselves unwelcome. A lyrical, disquieting prose poem of a novel, moving between past and present, France and the Algerian desert, prison camp and imaginary places.

Helen Dunmore: Exposure

A well-known refugee trope appears in this book: Lili is the daughter of a Jewish family who had to flee Germany during the Second World War, now settled in England and married to the rather naive and hapless Simon, who is working for British Intelligence. It is the height of the Cold War and double agents are being uncovered with alarming regularity, so when Simon is asked to cover up an irregularity for his boss and former lover Giles, he is the one who gets accused of spying. A novel that focuses much more on the consequences of major world events and accusations on ordinary people and families, rather than a spy thriller, mercilessly excoriating the snobbery and small-mindedness of the so-called Golden Age of Little England that so many still aspire to.

The next three books I read are not so much about migration or being accepted into the community. But they still fit in the insiders/outsiders theme, because they are about family. Who gets accepted into a family? And how does love manifest itself in a family? Can love survive at a distance? Are we forever marked by the loved ones who got away?

The German language version was quickly vetoed by English publishers.

Monique Schwitter: One Another, transl. Tess Lewis

Schwitter is a Swiss actor and writer, and her novel moves swiftly between Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as her narrator, a married writer with two children, discovers via a Google search that her first great love has died. This makes her reassess her own life, and remember all of the men she encountered and loved, however briefly, and however you might define love, including her own unreliable husband. Just how much are we shaped by the people we encounter in our lives, especially those we love?

Helga Flatland: A Modern Family, transl. Rosie Hedger

A Norwegian family with grown children and grandchildren are all gathered in Rome to celebrate a seventieth birthday. Instead, it turns out that the beloved parents are planning to get divorced. This shock news shatters all the comfortable assumptions of past and present lives and forces the three siblings to rethink their own family ties and ways of loving. It all seems so normal and civilised on the surface, but it’s all about close observation and what is left unsaid.

Lavinia Braniste: Interior Zero

The very title of this Romanian novel is interesting: it’s the extension number of the narrator, Cristina, who is working well below her abilities as a receptionist at a construction firm. But it also refers to her inner emptiness, how she tries to make the most of a life that doesn’t offer her any great satisfaction and very little hope. Her job is boring, her colleagues annoying and her boss is ruthlessly desperate to make her mark in a man’s world. Cristina has a long-distance, on-off lukewarm relationship with a former classmate. Her rented flat is dingy and her landlord keeps all his junk and pickled vegetables on her balcony. Her mother has been working abroad in Spain for many years now and feels guilty about having left her daughter alone during her formative years, so she sends her money and Spanish delicacies, not realising that her daughter doesn’t like tinned octopus. Unsentimental, refreshingly clear-eyed and slightly self-deprecating, this is the voice of the millenial generation in Romania – but has great similarities with millenial voices elsewhere (Sophie Divry or Sally Rooney, to name but two). If any publisher would be interested in having this translated into English, I hereby offer my services! (It has been translated into German and has been quite a success there.)

OK, I suppose the last one does qualify for #EU27Project read (and Muslim is translated from French, so technically that one does too). But I plan to get around to writing a few dedicated reviews for books from EU countries which have not yet appeared in my reading.