Romanians know how to look at their reality with curiosity
The literary couple Hristo and Diana Boeva presented in Ruse three new Romanian novels, which are a chance to expand the borders of our known world
On October 7, 2021, Romanian literature translator Hristo Boev and his wife and literary scholar Diyana Boeva presented in Ruse the three latest Romanian novels translated into Bulgarian: Embers by Liviu Rebreanu, The Elevator by C.G. Balan and Mortua est by Teodor Hossu-Longin.
Boevi are known for their impromptu talks on Romanian literature and society. This was their third visit to Ruse in this format in a year and a half. On all their visits, the Bridge of Friendship blog has covered the event with video and a report from the scene. The streaming of the current event sparked interest on Facebook – shares, likes, comments – a sign that there is a need for more events like this.
Hristo Boev was true to his style of giving lots of information about Romanian literature. At the same time, Diana Boeva noticed characteristic tendencies in the authors – for example, that Bucharest is the setting of the action in their books, that Rebreanu is characterised by his status as a classic, that Balan is marked by his expatriate life in Canada, and that Hossu-Longjin recreates a post-socialist urban reality of the Romanian lost in the transition, who can also be a lost Bulgarian.
The event was interesting not only for people with a curiosity about Romanian culture. The Bulgarian public space needs a return to natural, human, intellectual and as much as possible sophisticated communication. The format that the Boevs are implementing, and their unceasing work in the territory of literature, brings something modern that could inspire more people to openness and break the boundaries of existing intellectual tribes. In order to present the three books, they travelled from Dobrich with their daughter, and immediately after the end of it they went back, realizing a specific form of literary or event tourism.
The Bridge of Friendship blog has posted below a transcript of the event – a 40-minute presentation of the three novels and a 10-minute discussion segment on issues raised by the presentation.
Teodora Dyankova, Head Librarian of the Ruse Regional Library “Lyuben Karavelov: Hristo Boev and Diana Boeva bring extremely large amounts of creative energy, which they tirelessly share with us. Just one month after the literary festival within the project “Written Treasures of the Lower Danube” I am very happy that we can gather again to talk about the reception of contemporary Romanian literature in Bulgaria. Despite the fact that Romania is only a stone’s throw away – as Vazov says in “Nemili-Nedragi” about the Bulgarian emigrants looking at the Bulgarian coast from Vlachia), we have actually seen on many occasions over the years that connections are very difficult to make, due to the need for everything that comes out in Romanian to be translated by people like Hristo Boev. And so as close as Romania is to Bulgaria, we believe that neither Romanian literature is known in Bulgaria, nor Bulgarian literature in Romania. Now Hristo Boev and Diana Boeva will tell us about their tantalising struggles to make it possible for Bulgarian readers to meet Romanian literature.
Diana Boeva: Good evening! We are very pleased to be here with Hristo. My feeling when I am in Ruse is that it is an urban place. Together with Hristo, we will present three books published by Nordian Publishing House. We will start with a classic by Liviu Rebryanu.
In this photo we are with my daughter Maria, who is currently filming the event. In the picture we are presenting the three books mentioned together with a monograph we have already shown in Ruse – “The Different Dobrudja”. For the other photo I have to say that Hristo is the winner of the Liviu Rebreanu Award. What year is Hristo from?
Hristo Boev: The Liviu Rebreanu Museum is in the Bistrita-Nasaud district. It is a point of Romania located very far north. The man you see speaking is holding my PhD in English. This is the director of the literary museum. His name is Ion Pintia. I received the prize of the literary museum for my translation of Liviu Rebreanu’s novel Adam and Eve. It is a novel that has never been translated into Bulgarian. The novels he wrote that have been translated into Bulgarian are Ion, Chouliandra, The Forest of the Hanged, and others. His novels Adam and Eve (2016) and Embers (2021) have appeared in my translation. Embers is the author’s penultimate novel.
Here is the edition of Embers. I just want to mention a few words about Liviu Rebreanu. Born in 1885 and died in 1944, he was director of the National Theatre in Bucharest. In addition to Romanian, he spoke Hungarian, German and French very well. He wrote some of his works in Hungarian. Hristo, can you tell us something more specific about Rebreanu’s personality?
Rebreanu is such a great literary colossus in Romania, just like Mircea Eliade. They are of the same magnitude. Perhaps Rebreanu is also more significant, because Eliade is known more as a scholar than as a writer, while Rebreanu is known only as a writer. His works are absolute classics in world literature. I am happy to be able to contribute to the promotion of Liviu Rebreanu’s work. I am particularly happy to do so with a novel that is interesting in itself as a genre. Any line from this novel can be quoted directly on Facebook as a thought. There are many thoughts about love in the novel. So the book is remarkable in that respect too.
In fact, you and I were talking as we traveled here that The Forest of the Hanged is a hugely popular movie, along with Ciuleandra. Can you tell us in one sentence what is so distinctive about this film and why it is considered one of the classics of Romanian cinema?
There are many classics in Romanian cinema. It is simply the most internationally recognized film. The Forest of the Hanged is perfect in every way. Whatever criteria we apply to it, it completely covers and even exceeds them. Many Romanian films do the same. Quite simply, The Forest of the Hanged is considered the most successful film. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other successful films.
Back to the novel Embers. I’d like to read just the beginning.
“The house was one story and had a ground floor, a strip of paved courtyard and an ornate iron gate facing the street, and a garden at the back. It had recently been painted grayish yellow, a color Rosemary had learned from an architect friend that was more durable and resistant to the ravages of time. It differed from the other buildings on Transylvania Street in its facade, which was studded with interlocking plaster ornaments. As the ground-floor windows were as wide as those on the first floor, but only half as high, and almost reached the level of the pavement with the lower edges of the frames, curious passers-by might have noticed what was going on inside if Miss Rosmarin had not taken care to cover the interior windows with paper imitating milk glass.”
Dear friends, the classic writer is obvious in the details from the very first paragraph. Hristo, tell us what is characteristic of the novel Ember! Is there anything that distinguishes this book from the rest of Liviu Rebreanu’s work? I read Ciuleandra. It was amazing.
I think Embers is also an amazing novel. It is centered around the personality of the main character Liana. What’s interesting is that Rebreanu manages to give us her perspective completely. She lives in the Rosmarin family home. She has two brothers. She is a young lady about to be married. The problem is that she belongs to a rare breed of people in the younger generation of the 1930s who believe in deep moral principles. So she thinks it’s natural to find a man to marry – a man she has feelings for. But times are changing. Her girlfriends have relationships with all kinds of men. Very contemporary. She’s having an affair, unfortunately, with an aviator. He’s her first relationship. But for him, she’s not his first relationship. This creates the potential for tragedy. And it does.
Liana has to decide what to do now that her relationship with the aviator isn’t going the best way. Whether or not to get married. Her plans to study at university fail. On top of this, Rebreanu shows us the atmospheric presence of Bucharest, with its streets and buildings, and its people. There are different perspectives. The book is very well organized compositionally. It begins in October and ends in October. You can also see the Romanian press. Different layers of society are represented.
What stands out is Liana’s huge presence and the recreation of her feelings. It can be compared to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Listening to Jar’s current issues, let me ask you what makes an author a classic! I forgot to mention a moment ago that Hristo is a professor of American and British literature, in addition to being a translator. What makes an author a classic?
To become a classic, a book must be readable 100 years later. This is true of all Rebreanu’s books. Dickens is read 200 years later and new adaptations of his works are constantly being made. If the text is so powerful, universal and transcendent as to arouse interest after so many years, then we are surely dealing with a classic.
Before continuing with Corneliu Bălan, I have one more topic. Romanians’ love for Bucharest is particularly evident. They describe their capital with great curiosity, love, understanding and criticism. You and I talked about the fact that when we look back… we have Vezhinov, Smirnenski, but we seem to lack literary reconstructions of Sofia. What kind of place is Bucharest for Romanian writers?
Having said Bucharest: it’s quite appropriate to say that the three novels you see here are set in Bucharest. Of course, it’s a different Bucharest: Bucharest of the 1930s under Rebreanu, Bucharest of the 1990s under Hossu-Longin’s Mortua est, and Bucharest of the 2000s. Basically, any words we could say about the representation of Bucharest in Romanian literature would be few. There are many works that reveal what Bucharest is now and what it was between the wars. For example, Mihail Sebastian’s novel The Accident, which I translated, or Cella Serghi’s Spider’s Web.
Bucharest is a mythical and magical place. Every line dedicated to Bucharest, whether written in the interwar period or now, creates a sense of experience in the reader, who can be transported to the capital through the text.
I am reminded of the Bucharest of Calea Victoriei (the city’s main shopping street). Listening to you, I was reminded of a connection with Bulgarian literature. In G. B. Stamatov’s Sofia is present, but through the opposition village-city. This is not the lively Sofia.
We continue to Corneliu Bălan. His novel The Elevator was written before the pandemic. The mask in the picture is not related to it, but it looks like it was also written by me because there are not many friends here. This seems to be from today. Corneliu Bălan is in the picture. He was born in 1972 in Bucharest. He is an engineer who graduated from the University of Architecture in Bucharest. In 2004 he obtained a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in Ottawa, Canada. He is Canadian. He lives there.
We premiered his novel Escroc Srl at Dobricih. The author appeared then on the internet. It was interesting. He published satirical articles in various publications of the Romanian diaspora in Canada. Hristo translated his first novel, Escroc Srl. Elevator was his second novel. His favourite authors include Kafka, Bulgakov and Orhan Pamuk. His novel The Elevator was published in 2019. It is published by Humanitas Publishing House. The book is translated into Bulgarian by Hristo. You say The Lift is an excellent novel. Again, it looks back to his childhood and Bucharest. What distinguishes this novel from Crook Srl.?
Corneliu Bălan’s novel presents a dystopian Bucharest of 2010. On the one hand, it is recognisable in Bucharest. On the other hand, it is a city that is strange, that can be frightening, but that is also romantic. It is certainly surreal. The theme of the novel is how a young man survives in the capital, when in fact he has a university degree and nothing else. He has no experience. It describes how he tries to get a job. I think it’s a very topical theme for young people. This young man is in a huge corporation where, strangely, he doesn’t have to do anything. It’s very surprising for him.
He is told to keep a person company. It is not clear who that person is. The book is full of mysteries that the protagonist tries to solve on his own. He doesn’t know why his salary is being taken away, and at the same time he thinks he could be fired at any moment, because he doesn’t really know who he is supposed to keep company with. No one has told him and no one wants to tell him.
The corporation has its secrets. Neither department knows what the other is doing. This is a metaphor for modern Romania, and I think modern Bulgaria, with the lack of communication between different institutions, with the way people feel lost. The novel is extremely powerful. I would say that it not only fully lives up to Crook Srl. but it is also better written. Escroc Srl. had won the Romanian award for best novel of 2013. That’s no small feat, considering that Romania publishes around 150 novels a year.
In The Elevator we see a writer showing that he is a writer. He shows that he can say whatever he wants and do it beautifully. For me, this book is exceptional. Personally, I put Corneliu Bălan after Orhan Pamuk. I have said before that I personally place Balan immediately after Orhan Pamuk as a strong Balkan author. This is no exaggeration. I know what I am talking about. I’ve read enough to be able to say that. There are no weak points in the novel. It can affect all kinds of readers – not only those who want to imagine Bucharest and feel it, but also those who want to identify with the young man trying to survive and getting lost in the capital.
It is typical of Bălan to have many lyrical moments. I’m going to read one of them.
“Father. That’s what he was like. He always made a good impression. He knew how to approach me, in the short time he saw me, with his gifts – funny and cheap. More than my mother, who invariably hovered around me, invariably bringing clean clothes and hot meals, could handle.
When I turned nine, three days after my birthday had passed, my father had put glow-in-the-dark figurines on my bedroom ceiling. He brought as a gift figurines shaped like stars, Venus, Saturn, planets, comets, constellations. It took him all afternoon to arrange them in a sort of Milky Way. One galaxy for the whole apartment. I don’t think it cost him much. All his presents were like that. But at night, after lights out, it took my breath away. I was floating in space. “Dristor” stayed down, away from me. And my block was heading at the speed of light towards the final frontier, on a mission to explore vast, undiscovered worlds where new life forms and super-advanced civilizations surely existed. At times we went beyond the speed of light while using those 10 lei and 15 bani figurines. Mom’s full plates never managed to do that. I wiped my tears with my cuff and then calmed down when I saw my big palm and thick wrist. You’re not a child anymore, I told myself. Or you’re mourning a daddy from a past childhood.”
A revealing excerpt from Corneliu Bălan’s Elevator. It surprises me, Hristo, that this book lacks the melodramatics we are saturated with on Facebook and social media. It’s serious, elegant, and takes you forward. Reading here, I noticed again Corneliu Bălan’s assertion that one’s dreams can be recorded by a machine. It was ominous that it could come to that.
In fact, it had got there. The idea of what you see as a mask and the recording of dreams is something Corneliu Bălan himself worked on in Canada. This is a Huawei product. Bălan works as an engineer there. This experience gave him the idea to write the novel – in his own words, using the Huawei machine. It’s not a mainstream product. It’s more like a prototype that’s still being tested.
Hristo, from a purely narrative point of view, something else strikes me about Corneliu Bălan. He narrates very lightly, very pleasantly, and at the same time he doesn’t present anything off the cuff.
Dear friends, there is an online broadcast at the moment and I hope we will address a wider audience. That’s what happens with great authors. Not everything has to be told. I’m not saying you have to read between the lines. But you have to get a head start on reading them. You have to make your own discoveries in what you read. That’s why there are classics. Bălan is a good Romanian author. But, if only because he is from the Romanian diaspora, it seems to me that in Romania he is not given the credit he deserves. Really, Hristo?
He can’t get the credit he deserves, given that he doesn’t exist in this country. He chose to be an immigrant. I myself chose to be an immigrant in Canada, so I can understand that. I was an immigrant in Canada, so I can understand that. But there’s no way he’s going to attend the awards. It’s not a small thing. There’s no way he’s going to meet the literary trepidation in Bucharest. He himself is from Bucharest. So it’s his decision, which naturally condemns him to less media attention.
I spoke to Corneliu Bălan. I asked him questions. And he had insights. He once said: “Diana, all the nice crooks moved out of the Balkans in the 1990s”. He has a great sense of humor. I really enjoy reading and talking to him. He is fresh. He’s not burdened like those we talk to here about a certain social reality. He says that his novels express his love for Romania. His nostalgia is to tell stories in a fresh and unfettered way. Maybe it’s there in this particular novel. Before moving on to the next author, Hossu-Longin, let me note that there is a sleeplessness, a rotation between blocks, an extremely urban environment in this novel. This is how it was in the late socialist period, which we remember with Hristo. Holed up in the spaces between blocks, with other children, there among others. Is that so?
It certainly is. Only with a Kafkaesque flavor that needs to be mentioned. The author is fully aware of this and captures it very well – wandering in these post-socialist spaces, in which I believe many Bulgarians, but also many Romanians, were lost. So the observation is absolutely true. It creates a dystopian image of Bucharest, because some things in the novel are very surreal.
So many purely technical things I said about this novel. Insomnia, the Kafkaesque sense of things, late socialism. Mysterious Bucharest, utopian and anti-utopian, romantic and modern. These aren’t fragments, they’re not fragmentary. The narrative works very nicely or something of a carving, but very painfully enjoyable because of the narrative. It will be appreciated by anyone who loves good literature.
I did a great blurb for Bălan. But it’s not publicity, and rightly so. When something is valuable, we have to say it’s good. Elevator is a very well translated book and a must read. The girls are present. Interesting girls. The girls in dreams. But they are present as part of something else, not as emphasis, not as summary words to draw readers in. In a curious way, the girl in general is also present… the brown-eyed girl.
“But before they could really take off, the compartment door opened and she appeared in its faintly outlined frame. She approached slowly, as if she didn’t want to disturb me. She stopped a whisker or two away from me. She had white glasses and was looking at me. He gestured gently for me to speak, but, as usual, I was blocked. Her brown eyes were crisscrossed by long, dark lashes touched with mascara, and for the first time I thought, “God could have brown eyes and be a woman.”
That’s how it ends. Whatever one might think after such an ending. And what a man might think about that. I have no idea, but it sounds curious.
I guess that means we just rea a timeless classic.
Yeah. [Chuckles] Moving on. Mortua est. Theodore Hossu-Longin. Born in 1972 in Bucharest – same as Bălan. Both authors are from the ’70s. Studied journalism in Romania. Published a volume of short prose at the age of 26. He is the son of a famous writer and a journalist from Bucharest. What can you tell us about the writer himself, Hristo? Is this novel a fictional documentary, Hristo? Or not so much?
A novel – autofiction.
There are three Romanian authors I read with curiosity. Will you read the excerpt?
Yes. When I said “expression”, now you’ll see what I mean. The book is not entirely expressive, but rather individual moments and feelings of the author. Here’s how it all begins:
“The red rays of the sun” pierced the sky, like knives whose brilliance refused to freeze, and the light , leaking from deep wounds, hurt my eyes, flooded with the pain of the unspoken word. I looked, seized with bitter bewilderment, at the globe which, burning its last moments, was sinking into the violet sea stained with living blood. I had surrendered. I raised my hand and turned the metal handle; the two windows groaned faintly, in the voice of a tubercular old man, and a wave of cold, damp air greeted me inhospitably. (Have I gone mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad a thousand times?) I was trying to see beyond the grey net that painted the sky in fantastic shapes. I was delirious that I could reach the lost freedom, but my eyes were glued to the graces that were a chessboard for giants.”
The beginning of the novel introduces us to the hero’s predicament. He is in a hospital being treated for insanity. The Romanian Revolution, the internment in Germany have led to the loss that Bălan speaks of. But in Hossu-Longin, it is a morbid state in which one cannot find oneself.
Talk about the title.
Mortua Est is a Latin term. It means “she is dead”. It refers to Romania. It refers to the past moment. Today, the author is much more optimistic about the future of his country.
Dear friends of European literature, I started with a classic, Liviu Rebreanu, and recommended Bălan with his classic work, The Elevator. From insomnia we moved on to Longin’s novel, which says “she is dead”. It’s obvious that Romanian authors have the courage to fight for their country. I hope that we too, in whatever way we can, have the courage to fight for our country: through literature, through history, through our behaviour, through citizenship. And so let us continue to live here. Hristo, let’s finish like this: is she dead?
Is it Romania? Definitely not. It is a very alive country. The proof is that we are currently discussing his texts and works. So it is very much alive, it has huge potential and a bright future.
We end with the future of a European România and a European Bulgaria. I was curious to sit in front of you. Thank you!
Thank you too! If you have any questions, I am at your disposal.
Hristo, does your relationship with the Romanian writers you communicate with help you? How does this help in translation?
Yes. Because if something is unclear in the Romanian text, it cannot remain unclear in the Bulgarian one. The reader will say, “What’s this nonsense?”. The two contemporary authors are Facebook friends of mine. And Ioana Pârvulescu. I have translated three of her novels. I communicate with all the authors I translate to clarify things.
In one case, with Ioana Pârvulescu, she asked me to change something in the book. It turned out that there was an error in the original version – a woman referred to as Austrian was actually German. This was corrected in the translation. So the translation also serves to correct errors in communication with the writer.
Vladimir Mitev: A challenge also from me, as far as you know Bulgarian literature, especially contemporary literature. It seems to me that the novels presented now have a technological aspect. I don’t just mean the machine that records dreams. The societies themselves in the novels are technological and modern. To what extent does this trend appear in Bulgarian literature? Is there a gap in it?
Literature between the two wars is also very technologised, as you rightly observed. Rebreanu’s and Cella Serghi’s novels encompass the whole range of technological achievements of the time. Telephones, planes, ships. Naturally, this is also a fact in contemporary Romanian literature.
As far as Bulgarian literature is concerned, I find it hard to say. I can rather speak of classical Bulgarian literature, where factories are present – in Dimo, Vaptsarov. In Smirnenski there is an extraordinary presence of the city. We should see this in contemporary Bulgarian literature. If authors do not reproduce it, they do not reflect their time.
Time cannot be missed. In Vezhinov, Vaptsarov, Dimov or Talev they catch their time. Do we succeed today in capturing time? Do we escape it through vague narratives of morality? Sooner or later, this conversation comes up when we compare ourselves to European authors.
What Hristo and I didn’t say is that in Romania both weaker and stronger writers have a distinct sense of the structure of the novel. And here we come to tradition. What tradition do these Romanians have?
There are about 30 classic novels between the two wars that are very strong. Symbolist poets are strong in our country. Among the novelists we have representatives like Dimov and Talev. Unfortunately, we have authors like Georgi Raichev, G.P. Stamatov and Hristo Yasenov, who are not studied. They create a different idea of time and have written quite valuable things. Bulgarian literature could be better if it were based on a full range of good authors. In my opinion, contemporary Bulgarian authors don’t know them because they haven’t read them.
I read an interview with a young writer. They asked him if he had read Vejinov. It turned out he didn’t know him. It made me sad.
Hristo and I are trying to say that Romanian authors don’t waste time. And they don’t comply. They have honesty in their hearts. I once spoke to the writer Florin Irimia. I was enthusiastic about their literature. He said: – I don’t understand you. He said, “We can do more”. They have a high bar. They have a good tradition. They’re using their reach and taking advantage of it.
Whenever I read Romanian authors translating, I see how many different authors coexist. In our country, everyone has come full circle. In Romania, many people have the right to be part of Romanian literature. They have a historical, critical vision, they exist together. Cotton said, “If the novel doesn’t make you happy, what will?”.
We have to read novels. Everything will get better from then on.
Photo: Hristo and Diana Boevi in Rousse (source: The Bridge of Friendship)
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