#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.
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Romanian Road Trip: Transylvania without Vampires

Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?

There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14. 

While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.

Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.

The inner courtyard suddenly transports you to a different century.
Reconstruction of the Throne Room – where the Ottoman representatives would come to discuss terms with the leaders of Transylvania.
Council room for the brief period during which Transylvania was independent of any empire.
Traditional German men’s costume from the region.
Traditional Hungarian women’s costume from the area.
Traditional Romanian costume from the area.

It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.

The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)

You can barely make out the mountains in the distance but on a clear day it is utter heaven. I’ve been hiking in these mountains many a time – and my parents live just on the other side of them, about 100 km as the crow flies.

We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.

The Small Square, which marks the second set of city walls in Sibiu.
The tiny windows in the attic are known as ‘the eyes of Sibiu’.
Four strapping young boys braving the Liars’ Bridge. Local superstition has it that if you utter a lie on this bridge, it will collapse.

By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!

One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).

The Next Big Thing: I Wish!

You know how you see an award or a question on someone else’s blog and you think: ‘That is so lovely, so exciting! I wish someone would nominate or tag me for that!’ ? Well, this ‘Next Big Thing’ one seems to have been circulating for a while now among all of the writers’ blogs which I enjoy reading. But, sadly, it hasn’t reached me yet (cue haunting violins and moonlight glistening on my tears).  It’s not all ego, however.  I need an excuse to write about my WIP because it requires quite a bit of clarification in my own head. And I think best when I think out loud!

So I am taking matters into my own hands and jumping at Lisa Ahn’s wonderful suggestion that she is nominating anyone who is up for it.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Beyond the Woods – because it is almost an exact translation of Transylvania, which is where quite a bit of the action takes place.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came to me in the summer of 1997, before mobile phones and the Internet were so ubiquitous. I was spending my holidays back home in Romania with my parents, when news of Princess Diana’s death broke. I had a boyfriend in the UK at the time about which my parents knew nothing and it was a real challenge to get in touch with each other, as direct dial international calls were not possible from most telephones in Romania at the time. It occurred to me then how easy it would be to lose touch with someone in just two weeks, even someone you cared deeply about.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Crime fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wouldn’t go for big names.  I have a very specific picture in my head of what the characters look and sound like. Besides, it would be a great opportunity to do most of the casting (and filming) in Romania. The main male protagonist, Matt, would have to be a slightly geeky-looking, tall English actor. Yes, OK, I admit that Benedict Cumberbatch would probably be my first choice…

The main female protagonist would be one of the very talented and pretty young Romanian actresses, like Ana Ularu, Maria Dinulescu or Meda Andreea Victor.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Matt’s girlfriend Cristina dies in a car crash while trying to secure a divorce from her estranged husband in Romania, he reluctantly joins forces with Cristina’s best friend Eli to try to find out what really happened.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m so far behind on my edits, but I hope to get some feedback from agents first and then decide.  I’m open to all options!

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Far too long! Perhaps 4 years in total, although most of that time was spent NOT writing the novel.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I love crime fiction set in exotic locations (‘exotic’ for this purpose meaning anywhere outside the US or UK), but written by non-natives of those countries, with a strong sense of atmosphere, like Michael Dibdin or Donna Leon’s Venice and Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul.  The outsider looking in is a wonderful perspective, and I hope to achieve that through the eyes of Englishman Matt.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This will sound really odd, but my first husband (a Romanian) was the initial inspiration, although he is nothing like Cristina’s husband in the book. I hasten to add that it is not autobiographical in any way, but just a way to ponder: ‘What if he had been a different kind of person? What if I had got involved in other things?’ All those possibilities that never were probabilities.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I set the action in 1995 because of a real-life event that took place that summer (which fits in very well with the story). It’s amazing, however, how much I have forgotten about that period and how careful I have to be not to introduce anachronistic details into the story.

My turn to tag.  You know what’s coming, don’t you?  Because I felt like a child who had not been invited to a birthday party, I will not nominate just a handful of blogger friends.  Instead, I will just invite all of you who haven’t shared your story-in-progress yet to do just that.  If you wish to, of course!  I love finding out what people are up to and I promise to read each and every one of your blog posts.