Fear Is a Sickness: On Liliana Corobca’s “Kinderland”

By Maria RybakovaFebruary 28, 2024

Fear Is a Sickness: On Liliana Corobca’s “Kinderland”

Kinderland by Liliana Corobca

ONE OF THE most basic inequalities nowadays, if seldom mentioned, is the inequality of where you were born. Some, just by birthright, get almost everything: freedom to travel, economic security, liberty. Others face a lifetime of hunger, deprivation, precarity. This inequality is reflected in, among other things, the accessibility of literature in translation. Books by English-language writers are translated widely and dominate bookshelves all over the world. Other cultures, especially those of lesser-known languages, have a much tougher time finding their way to international readers.

Some countries, nevertheless, have great institutions in place that help promote their literature. Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA), for instance, allocates grants for translations from Norwegian, and generally raises awareness of Norwegian literature around the world. The countries that do not have the same resources, such as the Republic of Moldova, must rely on the enthusiasm of translators and publishers to give foreign readers a taste of their literature. Translator Monica Cure and Seven Stories Press have done an exemplary job introducing us to the oeuvre of Liliana Corobca. After translating Corobca’s 2017 novel The Censor’s Notebook, which won the 2023 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, Cure has now delivered another tour de force with her translation of Kinderland, Corobca’s lyrical and heartbreaking 2013 story of childhood abandonment in her native Moldova.

The leitmotif of the novel is the longing of Moldovan children. Left behind in the countryside, they wait for their parents. Due to their country’s dire economic conditions, the parents have traveled abroad as migrant or seasonal workers. Picture a geography lesson in the village school: the pupils are asked to locate on the map the various countries where the parents have gone to work. It’s almost the entire world: Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, Canada.

The 12-year-old narrator, Cristina, is taking care of her two younger brothers. She reveals how the children create a world of their own in their almost adult-less village. They build imaginary parents out of a pillow, with a hat and a coat. To cope with the absence of their fathers, they try to persuade each other that an actual dad at home is only trouble: he gets drunk and beats his kids. Cristina, for one, finds love and nurturance in her communion with nature.

With the unsentimental eye of someone who grew up in the countryside, Corobca maps out the habitual cruelty of village life. Animals devour one another. Children torture the animals. Parents and grandparents abuse the children. One grandmother beats her grandson “so he w[o]n’t get spoiled.” Husbands hit their wives. A woman in despair throws herself down a well and the villagers are upset—not because it is tragic but because the well is now “polluted.”

The narrator’s voice, sometimes poetic, sometimes world-weary, is always believable. “The way this younger generation is growing up, first they kiss each other, then they learn how to walk,” says Cristina about her youngest brother, parroting the way the elderly talk. She also imparts her words of wisdom, hard-won through taking care of the farm animals and her younger siblings: “People who are afraid first of animals, then of other people, come to fear even their own shadows, and end up getting sick. Fear is a sickness.”

In Kinderland, the escape from brutality, poverty, and abandonment comes from a child’s power to imbue the world with magic. The book acquires greater depth towards the end when a teenage “witch” appears in the village, bringing with her a hallucinatory mix of secret wisdom and sorcery. Says the narrator:

Evil isn’t always the opposite of goodness. We, kids, didn’t understand that. Nothingness is their opposite, nothingness is a kind of politeness, apathy, indifference. Evil is alive and it’s closer to goodness than indifference. It’s like love and hate, which are only one step away from each other. Evil is a state with feelings like regret, remorse. Indifference is a state of deadness, without any feelings. It’s hard to fight against it.

As Cristina recounts it, there’s magical dead water and life water to be found in the countryside. The village and the surrounding forest are places where children can commune with boars, and humans can be witches without knowing it. It’s also where everyone carries a marble inside their chest—a shiny marble if you are happy and good, a dim and shrinking one if you are bad.

Kinderland’s enchantment brings to mind Czesław Miłosz’s 1955 novel The Issa Valley. Like that book, Corobca’s does not really have a plot. It’s all about atmosphere: the vulnerability and toughness of childhood, the beauty of nature, and an almost metaphysical longing for the missing, faraway love of parents. In one scene, Cristina’s younger brother, Dan, complains of his boo-boos to his missing mother on the phone, who tells him: “Put the receiver there, where it hurts, and Mama will kiss it and make it better. And Mom does a big kiss into the receiver, there, does it hurt anymore? Dan: A bit, and Mom kisses it again, until all of Dan’s imaginary boo-boos are better.” Having to kiss away a child’s hurt on the phone because you must work abroad to provide for the child is a cruel metaphor for love and longing.

There is a whole fictional universe in Corobca’s novel that, if it weren’t for Monica Cure and Seven Stories Press, we would never experience: the belief in “places of trouble” and in the magical powers of eggs left at midnight on crossroads; the peculiar rituals of village children kissing each other on the butt in an abandoned outhouse to profess undying love; the stench of dung, the noise of chickens, the taste of plums; and the myriad games the abandoned children continually invent to survive the waiting and the separation.

Corobca and Cure had the great luck to find each other as writer and translator. I had the privilege of knowing them both. I met Corobca at New Europe College, an institute for advanced study in the social sciences and humanities in Bucharest, Romania. Every year, this institution brings together fellows, mainly from Eastern and Central Europe, and gives them grants for one-year research stays. Over the last few years, it has become an important hub of knowledge exchange among young scholars of the Black Sea area. It also welcomes creative writers.

And I met Monica Cure through the US-Romania Fulbright Commission. A two-time Fulbright grantee, Cure is a Romanian American poet, and the author of a book about postcards, which I found fascinating because my own first novel was epistolary. In her poetry, she sometimes combines, to great rhetorical effect, the English and Romanian languages. The ability to understand a different tongue is seen as magical and transformational. “[K]nowing what Bună means / is like being able to read minds,” she writes, upon hearing the phrase “Good Day” in Romanian (“Bună ziua,” or just “Bună”), thus reflecting the dreamlike experience of an émigré who comes back to her motherland and has the miraculous experience of being suddenly reimmersed in the language of her childhood.

There is beauty and melancholy in Cure’s poetry—a longing for a place and a language that have been lost and later rediscovered, precisely through loss and longing: “Before long, the scent / of lilac will fill the air and, / as always, promise / the presence of something missing, / whether or not we’re there.” A daughter of Romanian refugees who grew up in the United States, Cure not only shuttles between cultures and languages; she also builds bridges between them as a translator and scholar.

I was unable to put down Kinderland before I finished it, making me wish that more books from various regions of the world would find their way to English-language readers. I applaud the efforts of such institutions as New Europe College, whose fellowships bring together writers and translators from the Black Sea area. The organization Traduki, a civil society project based in Berlin (with a focus on cultural cooperation), connects readers with the literature of Southeast Europe by providing translation grants and funding residencies. The Romanian Cultural Institute has a translation and publication support program, and the London publisher Istros Books focuses on translations of texts from Southeastern and Central Europe.

This is something, but it is not enough. I keep thinking of the brilliant writers and their fascinating fictional worlds that still remain hidden from us because of the dearth of available translations. Mircea Cărtărescu’s novels are fortunately available in English thanks to New Directions and Archipelago Books, yet the piercing short stories of Romanian author Adriana Bittel, to give just one example, are virtually unknown to the Anglophone reader. I hope a discerning publisher will let us discover them soon.

LARB Contributor

Maria Rybakova teaches literature and creative writing in Astana, Kazakhstan. Her collection Quaternity: Four Novellas from the Carpathians was published by Ibidem Press in 2021. She is currently working on a travel memoir.


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