Bucharest is a city near and dear to my heart. Between Fall 1994 and Spring 1996, while providing volunteer humanitarian service there, I walked the grey avenues, packed into crowded buses, licked summer ice cream in the parks, and cuddled orphans. Even after leaving Romania for my native California, I felt I had taken part of it home with me, and have been drawn to anything relating to Romanian language and culture ever since.
Romania has a great literary heritage. Mostly available in Romanian, but now sometimes found in English, are breathtaking classics like Forest of the Hanged and The Uprising by Liviu Rebreanu, the short stories of Ion Luca Caragiale, Romanian Folk Tales by Ion Creanga, and Mihai Eminescu’s lyric poetry. I brought a box set of Eminescu’s poems home with me, hoping it would help me retain the Romanian I had learned. These works were mainly written in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the Second World War and the onset of communism in Romania, and haven’t gained much recognition outside of Romania, though their artistic quality is very high.
Three Romanians on the World Stage
While in Bucharest, I also bought a poster bearing the title Trei Români (Three Romanians) with a black and white photograph of three very scholarly looking men. In this photo by Louis Monier, three men stand together, sharing a friendly conversation at Place Füstenburg in Paris in 1977. These men are Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, and Eugène Ionesco, three of the most brilliant writers and philosophers of contemporary Romania. Though I can no longer find the poster, the same photo is featured in a Romanian Pinterest post shown below:
These three men represent the face of Romanian thought as it entered the world stage in the 20th century. The man in the middle, Eugène Ionescu, was a playright with a penchant for the absurd, while the men on each side –Emil Cioran on the left and Mircea Eliade on the right–were philosophers, essayists, and writers of fiction. These three friends met while studying in Bucharest in the 1920s. Their studies and eventual writings reflected the questions arising at the time: fascism vs. socialism, nihilism, existentialism, and questions of religion. They wrote about these things as the world was dramatically changing during World War II and afterwards, as new regimes fought to secure their place. The writings of all three men, who all eventually emigrated to France and later to America, influenced the ideas and work of thinkers and creators from other parts of the world.
In his book Essays in the Politics of Culture, Joseph Frank mentions these three Romanians and their impact:
“In the aftermath of World War II, there was a great influx of refugees into the United States, three of whom were Mircea Eliade, E. M. Cioran, and Eugène Ionesco. Eliade, the much-admired historian of religion, appears, under a fictitious name, in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein. His books on the history of religion elevated him to a commanding height in the field, and he attained fame as a novelist both in his own country and in France. Cioran, known for his brilliantly disillusioned reflections on history and culture, written first in Romanian and then in French, was praised as one of the greatest contemporary stylists in his adopted language. Ionesco pioneered the vogue of the theater of the absurd, and his comic but also symbolically tragic plays were performed everywhere; eventually he was elected to the Académie Française. All three men were the subjects of a fascinating French study, Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: L’Oubli du fascisme (2002), written by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine.”
The attempts of these men to make sense of the global and national changes of the time they lived through is formidable. We can still learn from their ideas and creativity, as many of their themes still find application and appreciation.
The Impact of the West
In the 1980s and 1990s, Romania underwent dramatic changes. The Romanian revolution in 1989 heralded in a new era for the country, born amidst the decay of the old. It was in this period that Romania gravitated toward the newly accessible influences of the West. State-run institutions and security began to be replaced by capitalist enterprises. I remember that at first capitalism came in the form of street vendors who sold American cigarettes, random goods from Turkey, newspapers and porn; but later the global brands came. Newly elected officials and police forces were at first too corrupt to be called in for help, but have since become more reliable and transparent as time has gone on.
It’s taken a number of decades for Bucharest to catch up with Western Europe economically and socially, for better or worse. More remote parts of Romania still remain largely untouched by time and technology. A trip I took there with my family in 2018 opened my eyes to the way Romania, and Bucharest in particular, had changed. But I could still find traces of the old familiar culture, the spirit of traditional Romania that is timeless.
Now that Romania has had some time to let new systems fall into place, to join the EU and enter the digital age, it has a significant story to tell. It now understands the ways of the West and the prominent powers of the global stage, and can give them a taste of her hard-earned experience. She can return them the favour by trading her cultural wealth and meaningful stories for their material aid. Bucharest is now a place where investors come, where communication networks are being updated to the latest technology, and where democracy is truly doing its work of rooting out corruption and making the people’s voice heard. This puts Romania in a position of power to tell her story.
The Story of Romania
Some recent novels have emerged to tell the story of Bucharest and the modern Romanians, not only in facts and analyses, but also from an expressive, emotional standpoint. They take the facts of what happened in the past 40 years and attach it to a more universal meaning to which we can all relate. Told through the stories of life-like characters, these stories inspire us to learn from the past, to cry with the suffering, to value our freedom, and to work together as communities for the greater good.
Here are a few of such novels I’d like to share:
I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys is a novel that rang with such truth for me. Though the author is Lithuanian-American, her impeccable research has brought authenticity to experiences that are not widely known. Her novel shows the life of an average Romanian teenager, from the months leading up to the revolution, to just after. She permeates the story with the hallmarks of oppressive communism. Her depictions of dark stairwells in socialist apartment blocks, for example, where the lightbulbs have been stolen for use in private apartments, capture the pathos of Romanians in that time, a people in a truly heart-wrenching state.
The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer is another story that tugged at my heart strings and filled my eternal hunger for Romanian content. Written from a child’s perspective, and combined with tales from an imaginary world, this novel brings out the aching longing of ordinary people for the freedom of expression while living under the proverbial thumb of a communist dictator. The author is American but made close friendships with Romanian immigrants, who shared their experiences with her. So is the fiction founded in historical fact.
From the Rooftops by V M Karren is another type of Romanian story. It’s a fast-paced thriller that intertwines the lives of ordinary Romanians, post-revolution, with a criminal network that has flourished in the aftermath of communism’s demise. It also puts Romania as a hiding place for criminals in perspective with greater Europe, since criminal networks like this one often grow like cancers without borders. Karren is a lover of world politics and current events as well as literature, and took his inspiration from known criminal networks in the region, as well as from personal experience in Romania and Ukraine.
Many other great stories inspired by Romania exist. Here is a list of a few more historical novels to discover, worthy introductions to this captivating country:
‘THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS’ BY HERTA MULLER A Nobel Prize Winner (based on a true story)
‘EMBERS’ BY SANDOR MARAI
‘THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY’ BY MIKLOS BANFFY
‘THE BALKAN TRILOGY’ BY OLIVIA MANNING