Saturday, 27 March 2010

Sampling small town life in Romania

My trip to Romania took me to a remote town and mountain resort named in the book only as W, but seemingly based on the actual resort of Sinaia.

Romania itself is located in South-eastern and Central Europe, North of the Balkan Peninsula, on the Lower Danube, within and outside the Carpathian arch, bordering on the Black Sea. The country shares a border with Hungary and Serbia to the west, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova to the north-east, and Bulgaria to the south.

Interestingly, the oldest modern human remains in Europe were discovered in the "Cave With Bones" in present day Romania. The remains are approximately 42,000 years old and as Europe’s oldest remains of Homo sapiens, they may represent the first such people to have entered the continent.

It is therefore perhaps fitting that my book of choice for Romania is “Little Fingers” by (then) debut novelist Filip Florian. The main premise of this work revolves around a huge pit containing a significant number of human remains, found as the result of a recent excavation of a fort on the outskirts of the town. Added to this premise is the strange fact that the little fingers of these skeletons appear to be missing – or are going missing.

This discovery acts as a catalyst to bring out a number of underlying tensions within the town (and, one assumes, Romania as a whole). Views are polarised: the Chief of Police is convinced that these are proof of a recent atrocity under Communist rule; the main protagonist of the novel – the archaeologist Petrus whose excavation is postponed due to the discovery – believes them to be the remains of plague victims; and the visionary local priest links them to his visions of the Virgin Mary as a divine intervention of sorts.

It must be said, however, that this description – and that given by the publishers – is in danger of painting a picture of a more coherent narrative than actually exists. Rather, this initial scenario acts as a focal point to hang a number of very disparate and unconnected portraits of key figures within the town. Petrus’ account probably comes nearest to a narrative account, depicting his boredom at his enforced absence from the archaeological site, and his blossoming relationship with a daughter of one of his Aunt’s friends in the town. Elsewhere in this work however, things are much less structured: ranging from an effectively comical account of the life of a photographers’ camel through to a long (some might say overlong) account of the history of the local priest, Onufrie. The arrival, late on in the novel, of a group of Argentinean ‘experts’ intent on ascertaining if these remains really are the result of a recent governmental massacre, is obviously intended to bring in a degree of political satire in relating the recent Argentinean junta to that of Romania’s recent Communist past, but I have to say much of this intent went over my head.

That said, despite the fractured narrative I did enjoy this book – it was well written, had some interesting characters, and depicted life in post-Ceauşescu Romania well (albeit in the confines of a small mountain resort). The characters were uniformly fascinating – and diverse – and Florian maintained a rich vein of humour throughout.

As one Amazon reviewer put it:

“This novel, aside from being a subtle analysis of the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy, and portrait of Romania through its interspersing folk tales, faith, tradition, originality, hospitality and inborn artistic spirit of its people, is a beautiful set of tales about loneliness, alienation between people and looking for one's own means of expression.”

I couldn’t put it better myself, so shall sign off on this perceptive analysis.

I now travel onwards to Chişinău, in the Republic of Moldova, located between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east and south, with the book “Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family” by Canadian writer Stephen Henighan. This work is about his time lodging with a Moldovan family whilst working as an English teacher in the capital city.

Trains between Romania and Moldova depart from Bucharest, so I get on one of the regular InterCity trains from Sinai to Bucharest. It costs about 10 Euro for a 2nd class ticket and takes just an hour and half. I arrive in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord station and grab a quick meal (a lovely, but filling, plate of 'Frigărui' skewered meat) before getting onto the overnight train, which is direct into Chişinău in Moldova, taking about 12 hours. A point to be aware of: when the train changes wheels at the border (Romania and Moldova trains run on different gauge rails) it’s like getting a free trip on a carnival ride (except that it happens in the middle of the night, when you’d least like that kind of thrill)!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Strange Days in Hungary

I have just spent a fascinating couple of weeks in the outer reaches of Hungary, with an excellent novel entitled “The Melancholy of Resistance” by acclaimed Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai.

I have visited around 20 countries on my journey to date, and whilst every book has had its merits and value I have encountered a range of different literary forms, and a range of literary accomplishment. Krasznahorkai, it must be said, stands out at this stage of my travels as a hugely significant writer whose importance has been rightly recognised outside of his native country. According to Susan Sontag, he is “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville”. W. G. Sebald had this to say: “The universality of Krasznahorkai's vision rivals that of Gogol's Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

I have to agree. The key premise of this novel is deceptively simple – a strange circus rolls into a small, run-down town, purporting to show a huge whale carcass as its main exhibit, along with a shadowy figure known as ‘The Prince’. This character appears to have a sinister hold over previous towns’ audiences – many of whom have travelled into this town with the circus… with a possibly nefarious intent.

Against this backdrop we are concerned with the machinations of three main characters:

– a hapless and pliable, but essentially good-natured individual who is widely seen as the town idiot and is caught up in events with tragic consequences.

Mrs Eszter
– a totalitarian individual who is plotting a take-over of the town, with both the circus and Valuska as key tools for realising this.

Mr Eszter
– the downtrodden academic husband of Mrs Eszter: a recluse who has removed himself from the disintegrating society around him, yet is spurred into action in defending Valuska; who he alone can see merit in.

My initial thoughts as the plot unfolded were that Krasznahorkai was depicting a scenario with strong echoes of the US author Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s works are shot through with similar gothic depictions of small town values being challenged by the appearance of sinister circuses (such as the short story collection “Dark Carnival”, and his seminal novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes”)

However, whilst Bradbury tends to use this device as a means to affirm positive small-town social values in the face of external threats (the threat is generally overcome by the wholesome US protagonists), no such succour is afforded here. Rather than a challenge to be overcome, the circus here is more of a mirror that is held up to an already rotten society (graphically depicted by the descriptions of refuge-strewn streets and roaming packs of feral cats who have gained ascendancy over their human neighbours). Furthermore, it is a catalyst to a scenario which – given the downbeat but also ironically humorous first half of the book – is genuinely shocking in its impact on both the town and the main protagonists.

I won’t elaborate further on this; as to do so would be to spoil the excellent plot, but suffice to say that Krasznahorkai does not compromise in his apocalyptic vision of events in this work. Related to this point - and I have felt this in previous works on my travels – I cannot help feeling that perhaps I am missing out on key allegorical points that are being made in this novel. As a non-Hungarian I feel that maybe the relevance of the whale is passing me by in some way, as is the dilemma of Valuska’s character in the face of the circus driven mob. And indeed the enigmatic role of “The Prince” (which is, for me, the least satisfactory character in the book as he is altogether too enigmatic – although that is possibly the point!).

I should also make a reference to Krasznahorkai’s wonderful use of grammar and language in this book. Whilst this is not a stream-of-consciousness work, his elongated sentences are beautifully constructed and unique in their delivery. As the translator George Szirtes puts it: “a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” Yet this is an eminently readable work – and due respect should also be given to George Szirtes in his excellent translation here.

All in all, a dark, difficult, but extremely rewarding and enjoyable book. I didn’t want the novel to end and I reread the final chapter several times for the sheer pleasure of it. You can’t really give higher praise to a book than that.

A Hungarian colleague of mine has recently stated that this book is not an accurate representation of Hungary as a country, as it is set miles from the capital of Budapest. And of course she is right: it isn’t. No book, in a single location (even a capital city), can ever represent an entire nation – and that goes for my own home nation of England. However that is also the nature of any trip around the world, or to other countries. Even if one visits a place in person, one will never see the whole country, or the whole cultural context of that society, in a single visit. All we can ever do as an individual is try to get a sense of a nation: along with, hopefully, an appreciation of our common similarities and a celebration of our differences. That is what I am attempting in this trip – however, if you feel I am getting the balance wrong for any particular country please do let me know.

And so it is time to leave Hungary for the neighbouring state of Romania. I steel myself for the series of rickety trains back to Budapest and then – being a glutton for punishment! – take a 14 hour over-night train from Budapest direct to Brasov (in Transylvania). Having made the connection at Brasov’s (rather functional) station I then, in the early hours, take the one hour journey by rail from Brasov to Sinaia:- a small spa resort in the Carpathian mountains where my visit to Romania begins… with the novel “Little Fingers” by Filip Florian.