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Zsuzsa Selyem: Moszkvában esik (It’s Raining in Moscow)

This is not, strictly speaking, a novel but, rather, a series of stories. However, they are all linked, as they all concern the Beczásy family whose seat is in Háromszék County.

The family had had a complicated history, as was the case with many people in that part of the word. They were originally from Armenia but moved westwards when the local Muslims decided they did not like their Christian neighbours, and ended up in Háromszék County. However, all is not smooth in Háromszék County which changed hands in the twentieth century from Hungary to Romania, back to Hungary and, since Wold War II, has been in Romania. Not surprisingly, the family were caught up in and suffered from these changes, which is one of the key themes of the book. Miklos Bánffy‘s trilogy, all three reviewed on this site, covers this issue in some detail.

Though we follow many of the family through the ages, the focus is on István, who lives till the ripe old age of ninety-seven and who has his granddaughter transcribe his memories. There is one decidedly interesting perspective. István sees things through the perspective of plants and animals. He is thoroughly devoted to agriculture. Perhaps because of this, we often see the family’s story from the perspective of animals on their estate – from barn owls to ants, from blackbirds to dogs, which gives us a decidedly quirky view of what is going on.

What is going on is often unpleasant, with violence, corruption and brutality. Selyem is quick to condemn the the politicians. The opening story, set in 1947, is an example. We meet a group of people, particularly László Luka, the finance minister, (here given his Hungarian name but known in Romania by his Romanian name, Vasile Luca) who is visiting the estate to hunt. He is nicknamed the Lord of Chance and is clearly an opportunist. He will not fare well.

Three examples from this story somewhat set the tone. Firstly, we get a graphic description of the hunting of hares, which are slaughtered in great numbers, leaving their young to die of starvation. Luka compares it to the Fântâna Albă massacre, a particularly brutal slaughter of native Romanians by the Soviets. Szenkovic, the Minister for Light Industry, who is also present at the hunt, wondered why equality and fraternity were for ever failing here and if the Soviets had indeed managed to achieve it over there. The answer is clearly no.

Liliana the eldest daughter of the current Beczásy sees the horror of the bones left by the eaters as well as the dead animals and of the other stranger [i.e. Luka] who would navigate through a dictatorship betraying everyone and goes on to describe other forthcoming horrors, including the the torture of her father by the Romanian secret police, the fall ofCeaușescu as well as the suffering of the animals.

While we are following the story of István, from his early sexual initiation, aided by his uncle to his request to his granddaughter when ninety-seven to record his life, we also follow events in the country. One particularly interesting event, in which the Beczásy family seems to be involved, concerns counterfeit money. When the region goes back to Romania after World War I. Hungary, as in World War II, picked the wrong side and there is bitterness towards the French because of the Treaty of Trianon. A plan is concocted to flood the market with counterfeit French francs, which were also used to pay off the Hungarian debt to Romania.

However, it is the animals that help us along, observing what the humans do and commenting on the weaknesses of them. The cat says that humans cannot judge right balance between their own abilities and ambitions and that humans spend too little time meditating and stretching , while the hemlock fir – yes, even trees get their say – feels humans always have such a hard time having to divide things into two and having to keep dividing up and destroying everything. I have to admit the one I enjoyed most was the bedbug who, of course, sees humans purely as a source of food (i.e. their blood) and is in a cell with István and other prisoners.

The Beczásy are torn from their house and sent off to remote Dobrogea where István is sent to prison (with the bedbug) and tortured but manages to survive, only because his interrogating officer forges his signature on a confession. He gets out and because of his agricultural skills, is able to survive.

His agricultural skills have been seen earlier. After World War II, the authorities come to get rid of him as an enemy of the people. However, when they ask the people for their view, to their surprise, the war widows defend him. He has managed to get a tractor and fuel and his wife has invented a seed sowing device and he manages to do not only his own fields but those of others.

Selyem is not impartial. She clearly utterly despise the communists, both the Romanian ones and the Russian ones, which are the ones we see in this book. From Stalin to Ceaușescu, they are depicted as evil, cruel, vicious and corrupt, something which history has confirmed. There is, however, one exception.

Ana Pauker was the first women to become a foreign minister in a modern state. She was a devoted communist, who sticks to her principles. Her husband was killed by Stalin. There was even a rumour that he made her shoot him but there is no evidence for that. She even featured on the cover of Time Magazine where she was mocked. However, Selyem felt that she was a woman who stuck to her principles. She saved many Jews, allowing them to leave for Israel, just as Stalin was ratcheting up his anti-Semitism campaign. It is she, who indirectly, because of her devotion to original Russian communism, who gives the title to this book.

Could you please tell me why Ana Pauker is walking with an umbrella on the streets Bucharest in blazing sunshine?
Because today it’s raining in Moscow

This is an excellent book, showing up the horrors of communism, both in Romania and the Soviet Union, while the so-called enemies of the people who, though they had their faults (István, for example, looks down on women), did far more for the people than the communists ever did. The idea of using animals (and trees) to watch and evaluate humans could have been mawkish but is definitely not. The animals are not Disney animals but perhaps best described as sensible creatures who see our many failings. However, though the animals are there and do make several appearances, the story is mainly about the humans who struggle to survive, not always successfully, under a brutal regime and, as with Miklos Bánffy face the loss of their home and identity because of decisions made by politicians.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 2016 by Jelenkor
First published in English 2020 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Erika Mihálysca with Peter Sherwood