Woman Reading by Alexandru Ciucurencu
THE BUNKER beneath Nicolae Ceausescu’s “People’s Palace” — an enormous edifice the Communist dictator never got to occupy before some of those people, on Christmas Day 1989, stood him before a firing squad — receives excellent cell reception. Even down here, in this cold dark cavern, the voice on the phone sounds strangely near, virtually inside my head.
I hear my name spoken in a throaty, Middle-European accent, vocal qualities once associated with my mother but in this case belonging to Simona Kessler, Romania’s first and for years sole literary agent. She agrees to schedule an interview, though not tomorrow morning, as she has a prior commitment regarding “orphaned books.” As we pick a day and time, I duck away from the Palace tour and huddle in a discreet corner of the basement to explain why I’ve been whispering.
“Well, enjoy that horrible building!” she signs off merrily, as the group begins to trudge back upstairs.
Following our sternly beautiful guide through the soulless complex, built overtop one of the capital city’s once-vibrant historic neighborhoods, feels like wandering through a less than benign dream.
“If you have any questions,” the guide proposes, “ask them now.”
I am full of questions, if not the kind she means. Was it wise coming here? Why have I? Not just to this “horrible building,” but to Bucharest in the first place? I wanted to see the country where my mother was born. And to research a piece about the “local literary scene.” However, I am quickly finding such an assignment impossible without setting off vast fields of long-buried landmines — historical, political, and all too personal.
Through the years, Romania has stood in the crosshairs of multiple empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet) and experienced a level of turmoil a pampered American like myself can hardly imagine.
“We’re not in Updike territory. We’re not in the territory of bored people out in the suburbs wondering where their lives went. People were driven insane by Communism and more insane by its disappearance.”
The speaker of these lines, several days before my Palace visit, is Jean Harris, an American translator of Romanian writing and one of its passionate champions. She moved to this country of 20 million with her Romanian husband just eight years ago and first taught herself the language by studying fairy tales.
We’re meeting for dinner this evening in mid-May at my hotel, Casa Capsa, chosen not for convenience so much as its storied past. Early in the previous century, a prominent feud escalated, says Harris, when one of the involved parties rode into the building on horseback to beat the other with a whip. In the 1930s, Capsa’s restaurant functioned as Bucharest’s version of the Algonquin Round Table. By the Communist 1960s, all the waiters were assumed to be police and all the tables bugged. Now, despite some refurbishment and the passing of two decades since the ’89 revolution, the place gives off a desultory vibe, which may explain why the dining room is mostly deserted, or maybe it’s the other way around. A waiter soundlessly crosses the carpet to take our order.
After recommending I try the ciorba de perisoare, ...read more