43 Celsius: the hottest day of the year so far. I decide to walk up town, just to see how it feels. No point hiding indoors, better to adapt, that’s how humans survive. Plus, there is something I need to do – find out about Romanian writers. The Internet helps, but not much; Wikipedia offers only sketchy profiles. I want to read Creangă in his own words, see what the wilful ruralist was up to. Caragiale too, seems he has a barbed wit. Maybe even Iorga, the intellectual who was shot by fascists.
I make my way through tight streets, keeping to the shade. Not many people out today, the city centre seems quieter than usual. I walk past the fruit and vegetable market at Piaţa Amzei. I remember shopping here in my first week in Bucharest, in 1994. I bought a big bag of juicy oranges from Portugal, or so I thought. Now I know better: portocală means orange.
I find the library in an elegant old villa. Suspended over the entrance is an ornate domed canopy of glass and wrought iron. It looks like a giant clam-shell. The wide lobby has several smaller rooms leading off. Three women sit behind a counter, chatting quietly as they sort through books, tickets, and papers. They seem surprised that I should want to register. They seem concerned when I mention Romanian authors.
“We don’t have many of their books in English,” the lady in the polka-dot dress tells me. But she’s friendly and efficient and I am soon filling in an application form.
“What do you?” she asks.
“I wear several hats, but mostly I’m a writer,” I reply.
“I see, and where do you work?”
“These days, I work at home, mostly.”
She gives me a funny look.
“No, I mean where is your desk?”
Now it’s my turn to give her a funny look.
“By the window,” I reply. I have a feeling one of us is missing the point, probably me. Maybe she means what business do you work for? But that’s my business. All I want to do is borrow books.
She stares at me for a moment then sighs and ticks the box marked intellectual. She has shiny red nails and holds the pen with her thumb and three fingers. I used to write that way, until a teacher said it was wrong. I wonder why. I wish he could see this box marked intellectual.
I walk down a short corridor into a medium-sized room with good natural light and some beautiful wooden bookcases. Old guys in suits and hats browse the shelves. The ladies were right: the English section is pretty small. I scan the shelves, left to right: Brontë, D.H. Lawrence, Dick Francis, and a hundred others of varying credibility. But no Romanians, how come?
“English translations are hard to find,” explains a beautiful young librarian. She smiles sweetly from behind her heavy desk of polished oak. Her hair cascades in corkscrew curls onto bare brown shoulders, backlit by the morning sun. She appears to have a halo, like she’s in an advertisement for shampoo. She’s quite a picture. No wonder there are so many guys in here.
I return to the shelves, disappointed but determined to find something after my long walk in tropical heat. I flip through a dusty volume of Thoreau. A phrase jumps from the page: words are our most treasured relics. Perhaps that’s whyI can’t find the ones I want.
Someone taps my arm, a delicate touch like a butterfly. I turn and find the young lady from the shampoo ad offering me a book. It’s old and yellow with dog-eared corners and a familiar face printed on the front: Mihai Eminescu, the Romantic poet with the rock-star looks.
“In English, buried in our cupboard!” says the librarian, with a perfect smile. I thank her and open the book.
The poems are lyrical, dreamy and evocative. I have a soft spot for Wordsworth and his impulse from a vernal wood, so the style feels familiar, reminds me of school exams. It’s not quite what I was looking for, but something draws me in. For a translation, the language has an authentic fluidity, the metre rises and falls just at the right time; the rhymes are not forced. Eminescu had a good translator for this collection. I turn back the pages, keen to find out who.
A youthful face gazes out from the fly leaf. The young man looks about eighteen years old. His features are symmetrical and very Romanian: strong nose, firm jaw and dark eyes – intense but mischievous. He looks like someone who would relish an argument as much as a joke. But like so many images from Romania’s infamous ‘Golden Era’, this one has a slightly surreal quality. It is halfway between a painting and a photograph, as if the publisher lacked proper equipment and had to falsify the final result. But if the medium is the message, this is a perfect visual reminder of an era when nothing was real: black was white, up was down, and if they really did paint the grass green for the president, why wouldn’t they ink a photo? The young man’s name is Corneliu M. Popescu.
Below the picture is a copy of his signature, flowing across the page. The characters are regularly spaced. He seems sure of Corneliu, which is written with a strong hand. But when he writes Popescu, the characters wobble as if he is not so sure about his place in the real world. The strong but solitary M’ seems to contain hidden potential. I get the feeling he’s a clever kid. But did he really translate all these beloved poems? There are dozens. I’m intrigued, now.
Overleaf, young Corneliu describes his approach to the challenge of translation. He seems to have an intuitive grasp of English, a poet’s passion for nuance and an academic’s curiosity for linguistics. He thanks his parents who devote all their forces to preparing for me an active and useful life in society. He makes special mention of his mother. An only child, you see.
His father Mihai adds a biographical note about his talented son. But the first paragraph makes my eyes pop:youngCorneliu died in the 1977 Bucharest earthquake, aged nineteen. His translation of Eminescu was published posthumously. It explains his dad’s adoring prose, but it doesn’t explain the loss. What could? His father’s notes ache with parental regret. After a few pages, I feel like someone sucked all the air from my lungs. Tragedy does that to you. I find a seat by the window and read on. The beautiful librarian gives me a smile.
Even allowing for a father’s love and retrospective embellishments, Corneliu was a gifted individual. It seems his earliest teachers spotted it. He had extra classes and excelled at school.
By the age of ten, he was translating Robert Louis Stevenson. At high school, Corneliu began translating Eminescu, hoping to finish the task before enrolling at medical college. He was also keen on maths – one of those rare students who can master arts and sciences. His dad was a lawyer with an avid interest in humanitarian issues. From the age of thirteen, Corneliu attended conferences in Romania on science and world affairs, where he met Nobel prize-winners, diplomats and VIPS, chatting to them in English, learning and honing his language skills. A warning light flashes in my brain: weren’t Romanians who travelled a lot during Communism usually ‘connected’, in some way? Maybe, but should that diminish the dedication of a talented boy?
There are some more photos – Corneliu with his parents on holiday in Transylvania, grinning at the camera. In another, Corneliu’s hands are deep in his pockets and he smiles wide as he strides confidently forward, his winter coat unzipped on a sunny day. His mother follows a few paces behind, small and stocky with the same distinctive eyebrows but a weary expression, as if life is not so easy with a child prodigy. Again, the photos have been retouched and have a spooky, almost supernatural quality to them, as if mother and son floated down from the sky.
The biographical note works towards its inevitable, shocking finale. Mihai Popescu describes how his wife and young Corneliu both died at home in the earthquake of March 4. There was a fire too. Reading between the lines, it seems their bodies were found entwined, as if seeking refuge in each other’s arms, as if hoping to survive together or perhaps not to die alone.
Corneliu M. Popescu is Immortal! , concludes his grieving father. A touch grandiose, but maybe Thoreau was right: words are our most important relics. I turn the page to find a simple but evocative line-drawing of a mother and son embracing. Opposite this is printed the first Eminescu poem as rendered by his teenage translator, a century or so after it was written.
And should it be together that we shall die one day
They shall not in some cemet’ry our separate bodies lay
But let them dig a grave near where the river flows
And in a single coffin them both together close
That I to time eternal my love beside me keep
For ever wail the water, and we forever sleep.
The little library suddenly feels too claustrophobic. Every other book seems irrelevant. This is the one I came for, I know it now. I walk out of the wood-panelled room and stand at the reception. The lady in the polka dot dress asks me if I want Ion Creangă in French, they found it upstairs.
“No thank you,” I reply, “this will be all.”
She stamps my card: three weeks’ loan. Then I leave the library.
Outside, the sun is at its peak. The gods want to make horseshoes on my head. I stash the old yellow book in my bag and cross the road, towards the shade.
My head is still spinning, but I can’t help notice an old building with a crumbling façade looming dark and high above me. It would surely tumble like a house of cards at the slightest tremor.
I find myself wondering how it feels to perish in an earthquake. Is it a quick death? Or do you lie under tons of masonry, as the life is slowly squashed from your broken bones?
I think about young Corneliu, gasping his last breath.
They say some men call for their mother as they die. But I doubt it brings any consolation, unless she hears you.
Footnote: In 1982, the Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation was established. Co-ordinated by the The Poetry Society (UK), it continues to attract many contestants, every two years.
‘Buried’ is taken from Never Mind the Balkans: Here’s Romania, by Mike Ormsby, available in paperback and on Kindle.