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Cezar Petrescu: Întunecare (Gathering Clouds)

This novel was published in three volumes in Romania. Sadly, only the first volume was translated into English so this review is merely about that first volume. When World War I started, Romania initially kept out of it. King Carol was a Hohenzollern and supported Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had a secret treaty with Austro-Hungary that Romania would fight with them if Austro-Hungary was attacked. This book starts during the early part of World War 1 when Romania is playing a waiting game. Indeed, there is much speculation as to whether the country will fight on the side of the Russians (and British and French) or the side of the Germans and Austro-Hungarian Empire. The story starts with the Vardaru family. Pavel Vardaru, married to Laura, is an army colonel. His brother, Alexandru, is a member of parliament. He is a widower, formerly married to Elena, with one young adult daughter, Luminiţa. Luminiţa is in love with Radu Comşa, Alexandru’s secretary, a relationship her father approves of. Also at this reunion is Mihai, the orphaned nephew of Pavel and Alexandru, who had been brought up by Alexandru and is now a teenager.

We soon learn that Alexandru and Radu both have their failings. Alexandru has been quick to condemn the Germans and, like many Romanians, would be happy for the Romanians to beat the German allies, Austro-Hungary, so that Romania can take back Transylvania, currently under Austro-Hungarian control. (It is interesting to read Miklos Bánffy‘s Darabokra szaggattatol (They Were Divided), which gives the Hungarian perspective on this issue.) However, he freely admits that he is selling wheat to the Germans, even though Romania may shortly go to war with Germany and its allies. He justifies it by saying that politics and business are separate and, anyway, if he sells the wheat to a broker, he will sell it to the Germans and, in any case, everyone else is doing so. Radu, meanwhile, while courting Luminiţa, is having an affair with a married woman, Zoe Vesbianu. Petrescu tells the stories of several of the minor characters and we learn that Zoe’s father had been an inveterate and very poor gambler and had managed to gamble away his own and his late wife’s fortune. When Sofron Vesbianu had come to buy up the remains of the estate, he saw Zoe and bought her as well. Early in the book, Radu will break off with Zoe, though their paths will cross again during the book. Radu had been in love with Maria, a woman he and his best friend Virgil Probota had been at university with (she is now a doctor). Radu has felt that she was not well enough connected to be his wife and, by the time, he had realised his mistake, she had married Virgil.

But the main theme of this book is the war. Radu is involved with the German buying Alexandru’s wheat and the German tells him that the Germans don’t want war but, if it came, they would easily beat Romania. Others seem to feel that Romania is ill prepared for war. Radu, however, feels that war will not come. Petrescu shows us the speculation of various people and groups of people as to whether war will come, who Romania will fight and what will be the outcome. Young Mihai, for example, is very enthusiastic and feels that Romania will sweep the Hungarians before them. All turn out to be very wrong. Within a few days, war is declared and Romania attacks Austro-Hungary, with their allies, the Russians. They are initially successful and the people cheer as Austro-Hungarian prisoners are brought back to Bucharest. However, things soon change and it turns out that the Romanians are woefully under-armed and are badly beaten. The parades of prisoners soon turn to parades of wounded. Some of the ladies looking after the wounded comment on how badly the men have been wounded.

The rest of the novel is about the calamity of the war. We get detailed pictures of the Romanian army in full retreat, with wounded abandoned, generals running away and men fleeing as fast as they can. Radu gets a job in a ministry dealing with requisitioning but, initially, he cannot find the office, as no-one seems to know where it is. When he does find it, no-one is doing any work. We see the government and the people fleeing Bucharest to Iaşi, where again Petrescu gives us colourful portraits of minor characters, such as Prince Guryi Sergeyevich Vorshagin, a very rich and very well connected Russian who spends his time playing cards with Dumitrascu Raclis, Zoe’s father, while her husband is making lots of money speculating. The first volume ends inconclusively though, in the remaining volumes, Radu will join up and get badly wounded. He will break off his engagement to Luminiţa and become totally disillusioned with post-war Romania. The first volume on its own is certainly interesting, showing, as it does, Romania’s ill-preparedness for war and the disastrous consequences that result, but obviously it would be much more interesting if we had the remaining two volumes in English, to follow Radu’s course through the war and post-war.

Publishing history

First published in 1927 by Scrisul Românesc
First English translation (first volume only) in 1957 by the Foreign Languages Publishing House