I haven't read a novel by a Romanian author in a long time. I, along with many other young people here, tend to avoid local literature because a)it may be full of social commentary and communism issues (people are already fed up with it, yet it may prove interesting for a foreigner); b)it might be brimming with obscene words (although there is a market for that, I'm sure); or simply c)it may turn out to be a disappointment. Surely, this could be a reaction of a country whose members are not overly patriotic, read less and less and are not able to come to terms with their place (and time) in history.
Fortunately, Filip Florian's [b:Little Fingers|4810971|Little Fingers|Filip Florian|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348303666s/4810971.jpg|4575658] follows none of the above criteria. It is indeed anchored in a reality that is purely Romanian, but doesn't overstep the line in either direction. For a debut novel it is a really nice surprise and, with its help, I've managed to make a step closer towards reconciliation with my own country's literature.
The prose is dense, with long and winding paragraphs, with an abundance of parentheses, resembling the writing of South American authors. I was surprised (and glad) to discover a touch of magical realism, which I love. There is a whole cast of characters here, which is at the same time the strength and the weakness of the novel. Strength - because Filip Florian is a masterful portrayer, endowing his characters with unforgettable traits; weakness - because we sometimes get the feeling of disparate episodes, with no apparent connection. The novel leaves the impression of being rather a collection of short stories, brought together by a common place and time.
In a small mountain resort, among the ruins of a Roman settlement, people discover a mass grave. The local police chief believes that the human remains are the result of a mass murder during communism, which prompts an investigation. The archaeologists affirm that the bones are much older, yet the press immediately embraces the story of a communist massacre. Because of the political implications and general mistrust, an impartial party is called upon the site - a team of Argentinian specialists, who will decide the remains' true provenience.
This is the background story, upon which Filip Florian brings to life his wonderfully portrayed characters: a landlady who divines in coffee cups and dreams of a knight in shining armor; a widow who collects cats and who was once in love with an English nobleman; the oldest man in town who has a habit of catching (and cooking) pigeons; the old man's wife who found a better companion, Jesus; a colonel who collects little fingers. Through these pages emerges even the portrait of a country, Argentina, touched by the tormenting disease called 'los desaparecidos'.
But the most memorable amongst all is Gherghe the orphan/Onufrie the monk, whose magical lock of hair has forced him to constantly wear a hat. Since he experienced a miracle escape from a labor camp, he has been dominated by visions of Virgin Mary; he spends many years in seclusion, writing the Bible from memory, on tree barks; his time is measured by the cutting of his strange tuft of hair. In a country where religion prevails, and the cult of saints is at high esteem, we witness through Onufrie the birth of another saint.
There are a lot of references to Romanian social and political life that a foreigner might miss, so I'll try to cover a few that I've noticed:
*reference to hammer and sickle
- of course, one of the symbols of communism;
*the Argentine anthropologists were to be received at the train station with meat rolls and beer
by a local branch of the ruling political party. This is a reference to the general mocking of our Social Democratic Party, which on a previous elective year tried to earn some votes by giving free beer and meat rolls (a traditional dish);
is the nickname of Nicolae Dobrin
, a famous Romanian football player, born in Pitești (my hometown);
*Pitești is also the unnamed town
mentioned for its tulips and horrific penitentiary
, where brainwashing experiments were carried out during communism.