I promised Jonathan this Romanian anthology a few years ago but soon found myself overwhelmed by the task, because so few of the truly formative Romanian authors have been translated into English, even less so their short stories. Occasionally, where I might have been able to present an extract from a novel, the translations were dated or poor.
The situation has not necessarily improved significantly in the intervening years, but I have managed to source a few additional translations, although I should warn you that some of them are my own, often done at short notice in a fit of pique because I was frustrated with not finding something suitable to share with you.
I also ran into a second problem: how should we even define ‘Romanian’ writers? We not only have a number of minority languages in the country itself, but many of our most recognisable names (Eugen Ionescu, Emil Cioran, Herta Müller, Paul Celan) did not write in Romanian. At some point I would love to edit a multilingual anthology of writers who could be loosely labelled as ‘from Romania’, but who write in German, Hungarian, Romany, Ukrainian, French, English, Tatar and so on. But we have to start somewhere, so here is my imperfect initial list of recommendations. I’ve attempted some rather vague system of classification, but those writers are slippery sods, who keep defying my attempts at organising them in themes, when the truth is that all of the different ‘schools’ could come under the umbrella of “haz de necaz” (Romanian expression = “making fun of trouble”).
Caragiale is one of Romania’s major literary figures, best known for his plays but also his sharp satirical sketches. His short stories paint a discomfiting picture of the pretentiousness of Romanian society in the late 19th Century, although one might argue that the targets of his sarcasm – corruption, snobbishness and self-serving hypocrisy – are universal subjects. Most Romanians can recite many of his catchphrases, but I chose a slightly less well-known short story about helicopter parenting and influencing exam outcomes, which still shows his talent for capturing human foibles and rhythms of speech.
“Let me give you just a few examples of what schools do to the younger generation. I’ve seen children with excellent academic abilities being forced to repeat a year because they didn’t have pass marks in music or PE… You do realise the injustice of that, to be a year behind because of not having musical or athletic aptitude?… You have to agree, this is in the same vein, equally as absurd, as letting a young man who wants to study Law repeat a year because his Ethics is not quite there yet… What does Ethics have to do with practising Law, anyway?… Wouldn’t you agree?”
First published in 1900, you can read a work-in-progress translation of it on my blog
Rebreanu is one of the foremost Romanian novelists of the 20th Century, usually credited with the founding of both the ‘realist’ school of literature set in the rural environment (a bit like Thomas Hardy), as well as the psychological novel. The novella Ciuleandra, published in 1927, falls into the second category and is the story of a young aristocrat who strangles his beautiful and blameless wife (of peasant origin) on the night of the royal ball. His father arranges to have him committed to an asylum to avoid a public trial and thereby besmirching the family name – a more extreme and tragic example of helicopter parenting perhaps.
Cadmus Press, 2021
My third choice is also more of a novella than a short story, by a working-class writer who was quite fashionable in the 1930s-40s in France and Latin America, where he was often labelled ‘the Balkan Gorky’ (does anybody read Gorky nowadays though?). He was living in France when he wrote it and first published it in French, before completely reworking it and publishing it in Romanian. It was not well received in his homeland (one critic waspishly said “It was written by a docker in the port of Brăila and it shows”) but it remained one of the stories closest to his heart. The beautiful Kyra Kyralina of the title is being raised as a courtesan by her mother, and is later kidnapped and taken to a Turkish harem. Her younger brother sets off to find and rescue her, and this becomes a picaresque novella with a naïve protagonist who has to grow up very quickly. It has a Thousand-and-One-Nights quality to it, full of languorous prose and descriptions.
“I mounted guard near the window and munched cakes while the lovers, who seemed to have fairly decent manners, sat Turkish fashion on the floor, singing and playing Oriental tunes. There was a guitar, accompanied by castanets and a tambourine. My mother and Kyra adored it all and would often do the handkerchief dance which made them dizzy with its twistings and twirlings. Then with flaming cheeks they would throw themselves upon the cushions and lie there fanning themselves, with their legs drawn up under their long silk skirts. Fragrant herbs were burned and cordials were consumed.
The men were young and beautiful and always dark. They were elegantly turned out, with pointed moustaches, carefully trimmed beards and hair that exhaled a strong scent of almond oil and musk. There were Turks, Greeks, and sometimes Romanians. Nationality was of no importance provided they were young, beautiful, refined, discreet, and not too eager. My role was a thankless one. I have never told anyone until now what agonies I suffered. My duty was to keep watch, seated on the window-ledge, and to save the party from sudden interruptions.”
Talisman House, 2010
Finally, a contemporary story, although it describes life in the 1980s, when power cuts were becoming the norm. The narrator’s father resorts to all sorts of tricks to be able to watch his favourite TV programme. Funny and bizarre, this kind of story reminds you how ridiculous everyday reality under Communism could be – so strange, that it feels like surrealism.
Published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Writing from Postcommunist Romania, Spring 2010
Urmuz is the pen name of one of the most unusual yet influential writers Romania has ever had, despite his brief literary career (he committed suicide in 1923) and his meagre output (he left behind at most sixty pages of writing in total). While some compare his flash fiction type of works to the tragic absurdity of Kafka, and others emphasise his comic tour de force à la Lewis Carroll, to me he is far more clearly linked to Tristan Tzara (also a Romanian) and the Dadaists.
“It’s not true – all the table companions agreed – that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. No – they affirmed with all their might – in the beginning, long before any word appeared, there must have been sign language, because it is highly unlikely that cosmic matter or heavenly bodies learnt to speak out from the very start. It was quite possible that they were incapable at first of even asking to go outside, or at the very least to say ‘papa’ or ‘mama’.”
Published in Firmament Vol. 3, No. 1, Sublunary Editions, 2023
To continue in the absurdist vein, this one-act play by Eugene Ionesco from the 1950s breaks with all theatrical conventions. An elderly couple receive invisible guests and distract each other with stories, half-remembered memories and the occasional sharp dig at each other. Although theatre-goers could not quite agree about the message of the play, to me it represents the futility of all attempt to make sense of life and the perennial human longing for connection and to be understood.
First performed in French as Les Chaises in 1952. Published in translation by Faber & Faber, 1997
This is another novella rather than a short story. The author died aged only 28 and was bedridden for the last ten years of his life. He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is thanks to the reaction of readers in the West, who have compared him to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz.
This novella is an indefinable genre-buster, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. The first-person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. This is a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time: the narrator’s reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – as though he is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it.
“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul. Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images. The magic word that might convey their essence would have to borrow from the essences of other aspects of life, distil a new scent from a judicious combination of them. It would have to contain something of the stupefaction I feel watching a person in reality and then following his gestures in a mirror, of the instability accompanying the falls I have in my dreams and the subsequent unforgettable moment of fear whistling through my spinal cord, or of the transparent mist inhabited by the bizarre decors of crystal balls I have known… I had nothing to separate me from the world: everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve. The attention I paid to my surroundings, nebulous though it was, was not simply an act of will: the world, as is its nature, sank its tentacles into me…”
New Directions, 2015
As an anthropologist of religion, I had somewhat mixed feelings about Mircea Eliade and his legacy both in religious studies and literature. This ambivalence was deepened after reading how he dropped his friend Mihail Sebastian in the 1930s because of his antisemitic leanings. I am therefore not including Eliade in this personal anthology (and sadly, not Sebastian either, because he didn’t write short stories). However, I do like the way that contemporary poet and short story writer Paul Doru Mugur has taken one of Eliade’s more bizarre and mystical stories, ‘The Secret of Dr Honigberger’, and given it a very contemporary sci-fi twist. This entire short story collection explores issues of identity and our fears of AI; it is disquieting but also remarkably funny.
“‘Anyway, what is reality other than a dream?’ he started telling himself. Since this idea was so precious to Mircea – the ultimate truth for an artist to aspire to – that helped me immensely. Because he considered a priori that all that was happening to him in his dreams was merely an attempt for his innermost desires to find symbolic fulfilment, he did not suspect for a long time the reason behind the extraordinary coherence of his experiences in the realm of Morpheus. But at some point, he realised that his dreams were not his own… he became worried that evil forces were possessing him, so he decided to give me up for good… The end of the story, consequently, becomes a kind of exorcism, rather against my wishes. Well, that’s as good a way to end the story as any, especially one of which not even the narrator can make any sense.”
Published in Psychonautica, New Meridian Arts, 2022
How could I leave out our best-known contemporary writer? Although Nostalgia is usually described as a novel, each story is entirely self-contained. This first one is probably the best: the account of underground parties in Bucharest, where roulette of the Russian variety is played – and the extreme thrill-seeking or legendary status perhaps that one man is chasing.
Published as part of the novel Nostalgia, Penguin Modern Classics, 2021. Originally published by New Directions in the US in 2005. Fragment also available in Words Without Borders
This novel became a word-of-mouth smash hit when it was published in 1983, and very soon was out of print because it was deemed a ‘revisionist’ view of history (i.e. not corresponding to Communist propaganda). It is a family saga spanning most of the 20th Century in Romania, including touchy subjects such as the nationalisation of property, ‘bourgeois’ political prisoners and family members who fled to the West. The main theme of the novel is lost illusions, which of course was inadmissible at the time – yet, in spite of that, the novel was adapted for the stage in 1986 and for four years it performed to sold-out audiences.
Published by Northwestern University Press, 2011. Extract published in Words Without Borders, Oct 2004
This collection of largely autobiographical stories may be more for devotees of Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, but to my mind it provides a good point of entry to her work. It is not quite as grim and dark as some of her later novels, but it’s certainly not an easy read, with plenty of tales of domestic violence, cruelty towards animals, alcoholism and so on. Yet at the same time it provides a child’s view of growing up as part of an ethnic minority in the west of Romania, with sensuous descriptions of family and village life, and of a lonely child finding some connection with nature.
First published in translation in Nadirs, University of Nebraska Press, 1999
Cârneci is better known as a poet and art critic, and this hypnotic, fevered dream of a book certainly reveals her poetic qualities. Fem is her only novel to date, although I would call it a loose collection of vignettes. The female narrator writes a letter to her lover, in the hope of making him change his mind about leaving her. She tells stories of her childhood, her dreams, the flowering of her body, of how they first met, of key moments in their relationship. It is above all a celebration – and an almost metaphysical examination – of femininity, although the author describes herself more as a ‘passive feminist’.
“What is happening, why aren’t I right with myself, what have I forgotten, what don’t I understand? Obsessively, the same thoughts passed through my mind, as my unsettled gaze rose over the transparent nylon socks wrapping my thin calves, then the gently curved thighs under the white dress I had on… I embraced myself in a single gaze, head to toe, seated politely on a green and slightly damp bench. I tried to understand my body, to love it. It seemed so strange, this body which enclosed me as though in a hermetic box, this liveried and absurd body, as though it had grown by itself, without any effort from my part; I almost couldn’t recognize it, it almost wasn’t mine. A kind of surprised pity passed through me, mixed with disgust. Who had stuck me in this pinkish-white package, from which I could never extract myself? Who had put me, without the possibility of escape, in this uniform of flesh, bone, and hair, with limbs that ended in ridiculous protuberances, with hands and feet that ended in claws?”
First published in translation by Deep Vellum, 2021. You can read an excerpt from it on LitHub)