Not as well known as Nicolae Grigorescu or Constantin Brancusi for fans of Romanian art, Ion Andreescu is my favourite Romanian painter. He lived a quiet, sadly all too brief life as an art teacher, studied for a short while in Paris in 1878/79, and painted some of the most evocative Romanian landscapes before his death in 1882 at the age of 32 from TB. He is particularly good at capturing the forest in all seasons and all moods. His paintings offer me pure escapism, a breath of fresh air.
Autumn is spectacular in the Romanian mountains and, as if to alleviate my homesickness, I’ve discovered the amazing photographs of the very talented Alex Robciuc. Here are just a few examples, but you can follow all his work on alexrobciuc.wixsite.com/photo or check him out on Facebook. He was the award winner for Romania in the Sony World Photography Awards 2019. No filter required!
There is a Romanian expression: ‘Să luăm o pauză și să ne reculegem.’ Translation: ‘Let’s take a break and gather our thoughts or our forces or our strength.’ There is a similar word in French: ‘recueillir’, and we could potentially say it’s equivalent to ‘recollect’ in English. But it means a lot more than just remembering: it has nuances of ‘meditation’, ‘keeping a minute’s silence’, ‘recovering your equilibrium after an emotional upset’ and so much more.
So why am I launching into this lengthy etymological explanation? I suppose it’s my way of saying that I need a break as my personal life gets more complicated and unpleasant. Previously, I was able to find refuge in reading and writing when things got tough (summer of 2014 – bet you didn’t even notice at the time that things had gone awry). But as things drag on and on even longer than the Brexit negotiations, and with an equally impossible outcome, I need all my strength to cope with the turmoil. I’m finding it very difficult to write reviews or poetry or anything that is not an angry rant.
In other words, it’s time to press the ‘Pause’ button.
Stu from Winston’s Dad blog is an inspiration for all lovers of translated fiction. He seems to get through more books (and from a wider variety of countries) than nearly anyone else I know. For March, he is challenging and encouraging us to read fiction from Eastern Europe and I can only say bravo to him and feel slightly ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it myself, since I originally come from that part of the world. Which, of course, is currently very keen to rebrand itself as ‘Central European’.
Knowing what a massive problem emigration is for many of the former Communist countries, I picked a book from Moldova about economic migrants: ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov (translated by Ross Ufberg, published by New Vessel Press). This little-known former Soviet Republic is said to be one of the poorest countries in Europe. I have a special fondness for Moldova because it used to be a part of Romania, with whom it shares religious, historical and cultural traditions, and the majority population speaks Romanian (although the Russian state and minority population persist in calling it ‘Moldovan’).
It consists of a series of vignettes of the villagers of Larga in Moldova, who spend most of the book trying (and failing) to get to Italy, by hook or by crook, legally but mostly illegally. Italy becomes the ‘promised land’, the land of milk and honey, of plenty of job opportunities (cleaner, dishwashers or caring for the elderly) and amazing salaries of no less than 600-800 euros. Serafim Botezatu has a different but equally burning reason to get to Italy: he has been dreaming of its rich history and culture, its artists and architecture since he had come across a book called Views of Rome in the library as a ten-year-old. He has even taught himself Italian from an ancient, torn textbook that he borrowed from the library.
Needless to say, his dreams – and those of his friends and neighbours in the village – are systematically shattered. They each pay 4000 euros to people smugglers who fail to deliver them to their destination in Rome. They form a curling team in an effort to obtain an Italian visa, undeterred by the fact that they have no ice rinks or equipment, and need to practise using brooms on raked earth. They attempt to convert a tractor into a plane, only to be shot down by the cloud-dispersing bullets of the Moldovan government. The submarine they attempt to build out of the remains of the same tractor does not fare much better. One man sells a kidney and then tries to raise a pig as an organ donor. The village priest organises the First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Christians to the unclean land of Italy to reclaim the lost souls of Moldovans who have gone there.
All of these stories are cobbled together in a non-linear fashion, with jumps between viewpoints and time settings. It’s not very hard to follow, but it can be distracting, and adds to the slightly surreal quality of the tales. The humour is very black indeed: there is a lot of death by accident or suicide. Lorchenkov depicts a village and a country where everyone is corrupt, stupid, crazy or just desperate to leave, including the president, who is ready to fake his own death in a plane crash in order to find a job in a pizzeria in Italy. The satire is sharp, often biting, the stories grotesque, and – although I did smile at some of the scurrilous humour and absurd predicaments – I thought the author sometimes lacked real compassion.
I may be biased, but I did wonder if that was because he himself is Russian rather than Moldovan, and the son of an army officer rather than a farmer. At many points in the story the characters express a distaste for agriculture and hatred for the land, which does not quite ring true for at least the older generation of farmers. There were some comments about how life had deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet empire, which is probably true – the power supply, for instance, was always firmly situated on the Russian side of the border – and overall he sounds really fed up with life in that ‘failed state that no one wants’, as he has called it in interviews. But what irked me is the lack of presence of any Russians in the story, as if only Romanians and gypsies are doing silly or nasty things in present-day Moldova.
Moldova lives in constant fear that it could become the next Ukraine. In fact, there was a brief civil war between the two ethnic groups in the early 1990s and there is a separatist state within its tiny surface already. It remains a country with beautiful landscapes, delicious fruit and wine, a tortured history and a difficult present. I enjoyed this corrosive and viciously entertaining portrayal of a disillusioned society, but for a more nuanced depiction of the plight of Moldovan villages and the desire to emigrate, I’d recommend reading Stela Brinzeanu’s Bessarabian Nights.