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)!

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