‘Kyra Kyralina’ by Panait Istrati, translated by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

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