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Dan Lungu: Raiul găinilor [Chicken Heaven]

This novel is set on Acacia Street in Bucharest, during the post-Nicolae Ceaușescu era. Everyone knows everyone else and they regularly meet and gossip, particularly at the local bar called The Rundown Tractor. Most of them are retired. There are two families that are a bit separate from the others. The Colonel has the largest house, surrounded by a high wall. He is the only person on the street to have a car and one of three to have a telephone. No-one on the street has ever been into his house, till the beginning of the novel. The Socoliuc family have a sick person in the house so only talk in whispers and keep themselves to themselves.

However, at the start of the novel, Milica manages to enter the colonel’s house. She has a sick child and needs to telephone the emergency services and calls on the colonel to help. While waiting in the hallway for him to phone, she looks around. Once her sick child is taken care of, people are keen to invite her to tell them about what she saw in the colonel’s house. She has never been so popular so is happy to oblige. At each house she visits, she embellishes the story somewhat, adding a few details. He has a thick pile carpet. You can walk on top of the pile. It was apparently a gift from Ceaușescu.He has lots of paintings on the wall and these are reputed to be ones the Germans stole during the war, which were meant to be returned to their rightful owners but never were returned.

She makes the rounds but then, after ten days, no-one is interested. In the The Rundown Tractor, Mr Petrica has criticised her. Why did she go to the colonel when there are two phones nearer? Yes, the occupants were away but she did not know that. If she had been worried about a sick child, she surely would not have noticed all those details. Her husband hears this and berates her. She defends herself and is ready to challenge Mr. Perica but never gets round to it. More important;y, there is another bit of gossip. It seems that Veronica (Fanica) Geambașu had been on holiday with her parents and come back pregnant. Who was the father? Inevitably, it turns out to be complicated.

The Rundown Tractor is owned and managed by Ticu Zidaru, a colourful character who likes nothing better than chatting with friends. We get a story from the past, told by Mitu. This was in the Ceaușescu era. He often arrived late for his job but as he was accompanied by a friend who had a senior position, he got away with it. However, when the friend was promoted and got his own car, Mitu went on his own. The first day he was late, he was punished. He blames the trams which often ran late. One day,he is so fed up he decides to complain to Ceaușescu. He sets off to his office, knocks on the door and is received by an official. The official knows he is a Moldavian and only explains much later how he knew. He is eventually admitted and has to pass through a host of doctors who do all kinds of tests, before being admitted to the Great Man’s office. Ceaușescu is playing dice, deciding for example whether he will go to Zimbabwe or plead illness, On such a throw, he decides to give Mitu a car – not a new one but a one year old one, which he had won, playing a game called 321.

He wants to know what people are complaining about. He wants to know if Mitu has children. Mitu says not but it turns out that Ceaușescu not only knows that he has two children, he knows their names and what they like (he gives him presents for them). He even gives Mitu a cigar he had received from Castro, which makes Mitu sick. The car is waiting for him when he gets home.

We follow the earlier story of the street, with the murky ravine, full of rubbish and sewage which the local authority eventually fills in. The colonel’s house is now built on this filled-in ravine but, at the time, there were plans to extend the railway station and all the residents were to be thrown out of their houses. In good Romanian Communist fashion, they were given little notice of the imminent arrival of the bulldozers to knock down their houses and nor were they informed when the whole plan was cancelled and their houses spared.

The novel continues in the same vein, with the rabid dogs arriving en masse and Hleanda, a resident, managing not only to control them but to unite them in a religious crusade. It does not work out well. We learn about Mitu, the man who may (or may not) have visited Ceaușescu. Mitu had had seven wives. He did not mind the various wives so much but was not happy having seven mothers-in-law. He feels that Ceaușescu would have survived if only he had not banned yoga (because it was spiritual). We meet Vera Socoliuc, mentioned above, who marries the Socoliucs’ son and then, after living with them for a while, decides she is dying, meticulously prepares for her death, takes to her bed – and does not die. We meet Aurora, the obsessive knitter (and talker) who is on local TV for her knitting. There is Costel Spătaru, the most disagreeable person in the whole street. There is Relu Covalciuc, obsessed with his chickens and wonders whether there is a chicken heaven. He has to deal with a plague of earthworms.

Unusually, for a Romanian novel, at least the ones I have read, this is light-hearted and very funny. Even Ceaușescu comes across as something of a bumbling idiot rather than the evil dictator we know him to have been. There is no Securitate and if people are arrested, it is for criminal rather than political reasons. Unpleasant things do happen – the plan to destroy all the houses, for example – but the people – mainly retired, mainly not very well-off – manage to survive. They drink (a lot), they gossip, they quarrel, they mock and … well they do not seem to do much else. The social centre of the street is the The Rundown Tractor, though it is mainly men that go there, with the women left to gossip in the street and deal with their often drunken husbands back home. It is a thoroughly enjoyable novel but, sadly, available in six other languages but not English

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Polirom
No English translation
First published in French as Le paradis des poulesby Jacqueline Chambon in 2005
Translated by Laure Hinckel
First published in German as Das Hühnerparadiesby Residenz in 2007
Translated by Aranca Munteanu.
First published in Italian as Il paradiso delle galline by Manni in 2010
Translated byAnita Natascia Bernacchia
First published in Spanish as El Paraíso de las gallinas by Icaria Intermón Oxfam in 2011
Translated by Francisco Javier Marina Bravo
Also translated into Hungarian and Slovenian