SEPTEMBER 14, 2014
ROMANIAN VILLAGE LIFE, at least until fairly recently, bore a striking resemblance to how it was lived 200 years earlier. Spells or curses were invoked to grease the wheels of fortune, and many villagers kept faith in the magical properties of everyday things. In this, the “last virgin land in Europe,” as his book has King Carol refer to it, Bogdan Suceavă has set his fictional pearl, Miruna, a Tale.
Born in Romania and now a math professor at Cal State Fullerton, Suceavă established himself as a freewheeling fabulist in Coming from an Off-Key Time (Northwestern UP, 2011), a dystopian satire of Bucharest in the chaos following Ceausescu’s fall. In that frenetic novel of ideas, one crusading sect battles another, all under the jaded eye of an also-cultic secret police. Off-Key Time is to the capital city what Miruna is to the provinces, together reflecting two very different aspects of Romanian temperament. In both cases — writing about grim Bucureșteni or their mellower country compatriots — Suceavă can’t resist a good story, any more than his characters can resist the thrall of superstition or ideology.
Focused this time on a hamlet high in the mountains called, for whatever long-ago reason, Evil Vale, Suceavă paints a portrait of kinship and community in tones both more tranquil and nostalgic than his earlier work. This being the Balkans, tranquility has its limits. But even the many flourishes of violence that pepper this short novel are cast in a gauzy, mystical light.
Despite its brevity — the novel clocks in at under 140 pages — the narrative travels back and forth across several generations of the Berca family, using its current patriarch, Niculae, as a fulcrum. After years of ignoring his many children and grandchildren, in his decline he begins to impart decades of lore to seven-year-old Trajan, who will go on to narrate the text years later, and to the boy’s younger sister, the eponymous Miruna, whose unique bond with their grandfather leaves her heir to “his vision, such that an entire world passed into her.”
More prominent than either child, and the most vividly rendered of the Berca clan, is great-grandfather Constantine. After volunteering as a teen to fight in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-’78 — which Romania joined in order to win its independence from the Ottoman Empire — Constantine sees things that will haunt him in ways more likely to entertain than horrify the reader. “The colonel who drank so much vodka before a battle that his guts caught fire when the Turks shot him,” for instance: such anecdotes share the characteristically morbid sense of humor of the region.
After his military service, Constantine is granted the deed to a piece of land outside Evil Vale. A barren plot, nearly worthless, and yet, “for us, Berca’s people, it was as though history began right then and there, because no one in the family had ever owned land before that.” History could also be said to have begun when, on his way home from the war, Constantine spends a good part of his soldier’s pay on the highly symbolic purchase of a German clock, as though he were carting a small piece of modernity with him to the Făgăraș Mountains. This immediately marks him as an eccentric in Evil Vale, where “time was infinite and haste was relatively unknown.”
Working his uniquely inhospitable land, he manages to clear the tree-high brambles like a Carpathian Paul Bunyan, accomplishing in a few weeks what “would have taken others a lifetime.” In defiance of the local well-digger’s advice, he finds a source of water on his property, shoveling “twelve ells deep” with his soldier’s spade, ingeniously hoisting himself up and down by a rope tied around his waist. And rather than cast a spell, as more seasoned villagers would do, he fights the many wolves who dominate the surrounding forest by shooting them with his rifle. All this flouting of tradition earns him a dubious reputation. “That madman Constantine Berca,” says a villager, “after getting hay from dry earth and measuring time with a German’s clock, now has a German rifle with two nostrils of flame, and it did to death a wolf last night.” Still, Constantine is at best a half-hearted herald of progress, and he soon learns the advantage of wielding spells, as though the place exerts as much of a tug on him as he does on it.
The elliptical narrative finds him part of a convoy of local merchants traveling to Bucharest to sell their wares, while maintaining a lookout for an infamous bandit named Oarţă Aman. Reputed to have killed hundreds of Turks in the previous War of Independence, Aman and his band have perfected an m.o. of robbing nobles traveling by carriage to Bucharest, then quickly disappearing back into the vast forest. King Carol tries to tame this wilderness, a process that includes census takers registering the identities of 10,000 people whose existence had previously been invisible to any governmental authority.
A shootout ensues with Aman, and the bandit opts to disappear yet again, after a fashion, this time by blowing off his own face, making positive identification impossible. Who’s to say then, in a later chapter set during World War I, that it’s not Aman, or possibly his ghost, returned to strike against the occupying German forces? Employing a Balkan-flavored evangelical fervor, of a kind Suceavă evoked in Off-Key Time, Aman humiliates and terrorizes the Germans by carving crosses into their cheeks.
“Is it appropriate,” Trajan, the now-grown narrator, muses in one of his asides, “to tell children about all the sad and terrifying events of the past?” When his sister asks their grandfather to pick a more age-appropriate story in which no one dies, Niculae Berca tries, but Miruna sees through it. One of the book’s more interesting tasks is to explore what makes some stories pulse with vitality while others seem utterly false and dead, an idea brought artfully forward into the 1970s when Niculae subscribes to the Communist party newspaper, so full of the latter.
It’s grandfather Niculae who, in his failing health, provides the book’s organizing frame and denouement, but it’s an ensemble cast. Old Woman Fira keeps the town’s gossip mill churning, very old Father Dimitrie tries to save her spell-casting soul from damnation, and extremely old and senile Elifterie’s every possession has been donated to him, even his speech, “for he never spoke with his own words, only regurgitated the words of someone else, repeated snatches of speech, perhaps from the day before, perhaps from times long past.”
But the most significant character consistently remains the place itself. Suceavă serves as its curator, preserving its anachronisms of custom and language (as in that wonderful phrase “did to death a wolf last night”), while trying to understand it all via Trajan, in a voice often bemused but mostly elegiac. Storytelling is a spiritual balm against the inexorable march of time, the book demonstrates, and a necessary one because, even in this fairytale landscape of Europe’s “last virgin” place, nothing stays the same forever.