Marking the growing presence of Romanian literature on English bookshelves, Angels, Adolescents and Trucks: New Romanian Books in English was a talk at Waterstones Piccadilly, dedicated to celebrating some recently translated gems of the country’s contemporary literature. Organized by the Romanian Cultural Institute, part of their colourful program for the London Book Fair, the audience had a chance to see what this long neglected country can offer to British readers. Dorian Branea, head of Romanian Cultural Institute, guided us through the evening, giving special focus to the work of two Romanian writers, Dumitru Ṭepeneag and Ruxandra Cesereanu, both present at the event.
To begin to understand modern Romanian literature – or at least the circumstances under which much of it was created – Dumitru Ṭepeneag seems a good choice: the connection between his literature and the seismic political events of its time is inescapable. Faced under communism with the deadening state-sponsored cult of Socialist Realism, Ṭepeneag and a group of other writers rebelled by creating a new literary trend of their own – ‘Aesthetic Onirism’, inspired by surrealist paintings – and was accordingly persecuted. A natural bit of ‘grit in the machine’ – he spoke actively and politically against the regime at the Writers’ Union – Ṭepeneag was marginalised, forced underground and, on a trip to Paris in the mid-1970s, stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile. Yet his publications continued to be read in his home country – whether for escape or for dissection of Romanian reality – for life itself here, as the 1980s got underway, was increasingly surreal.
The Bulgarian Truck, written by Ṭepeneag, is ‘a novel about how impossible it is to write a novel,’ as the author put it bluntly himself. We learned how the book’s narrator, also a writer, struggles with his work, as the new writing technique he’s invented is criticized by his more widely read wife. While trying to escape from his troubled marriage – mocked constantly by his wife even from abroad – he ends up in an affair with a young Slovak novelist: a relationship that takes form through the acrimonious exchange of e-mails. So far so realistic – yet the book has its surreal elements too – a wife whose height keeps altering, a lap dancer obsessed with collecting snails and hedgehogs, and names that are often deliberately misspelt. The book has been described as ‘like reading someone else’s dream…. a moving balance between whimsy and reality’, though perhaps the most tantalising comment came from his American publisher, who remarked that one of Ṭepeneag’s biggest merits is his being ‘capable of so much filth’. Translator Alistair Ian Blyth echoed him: translating Romanian literature into English is so enjoyable, he said, ‘because it’s full of humour, full of sex.’
Thus from ‘filth’ to the divine: in Angelus, a newly-translated novel from another Romanian writer Ruxandra Cesereanu, we see three speechless and incorruptible angels descend to a metropolis built in a former empire – it may or may not be Bucharest – and learn how hard it is for people to breathe freely after decades of repression. Her weapons, the author Lawrence Norfolk has written, ‘are truth and the kind of imagination that spawns garbage-collecting flamingoes, a reimagined paradise and Seraphic chocolate.’ “God is dreaming in this story” Cesereanu remarked to us, explaining how Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity gave an iconographic model for her work. If this sounds reminiscent of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, it’s no accident: the book is in many ways Cesereanu’s post-modern reply to that earlier book, and was written out of experience no less gruesome than the Soviet terror – Cesereanu, unlike Ṭepeneag, was able to stay in Romania, witnessing the worst excesses of the 1980s, as leader Nicolae Ceausescu became increasingly capricious, tyrannical and paranoid. Living through the resulting Revolution of 1989 – the dictator’s execution bringing an abrupt end to his reign – Cesearanu had a moment of epiphany: participation in a single of the Union Square Movement – a protest before the first communist-free election – had awoken her moral consciousness.
We didn’t hear much about the other books on the bill: only a brief excerpt of Angelus was read out, and Ramona Mitrica – a key figure on the London-Romanian scene – was finally unable to attend. This was a shame, as her publishing house Profusion is actively engaged – almost entirely, it seems – in bringing her country’s writers to a London audience, and she could surely have supplied a a bracing overview of the trends on offer. Romanians are an increasing presence in the UK and in our everyday lives, yet all too little is known of their culture. This night went some way towards suggesting how Romanian literature survived and, despite Romania’s long nightmare of isolation under communism, how it forms a genuine and distinct part of the European tradition – yet it still left this reviewer wanting more.
Dumitru Ṭepeneag’s The Bulgarian Truck and Ruxandra Cesereanu’s Angelus can both be purchased from Amazon, at £10.59 and £14 respectively. Angels, Adolescents and Trucks: New Romanian Books in English was an event funded by the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.