Dumitru Tsepeneag (Țepeneag): Hotel Europa (Hotel Europa)
Our unnamed Romanian narrator is living in Paris, married to Marianne, a French journalist. He is clearly based on Tsepeneag himself, having, like Tsepeneag, left Romania well before the Romanian Revolution in 1989. Not surprisingly, Romania is still very much on his mind. It is not entirely clear what he does, except that he writes, possibly novels that are not novels. Whatever he has done, he now intends to write a novel about Romania and the overthrow of Ceaușescu. What this novel will be is not clear either to us or to him but Marianne suggests that he write about his journey with Médecins sans Frontières to Bucharest, which he made in December 1989, just before the execution of the Ceaușescus. While he hesitates over writing his novel, it is clear that the novel we are reading is the novel he may yet write.
He mixes in his current life with Marianne and both the journey to Bucharest in December 1989 and other events concerning what happened in Romania both before, though primarily after December 1989. His life with Marianne seems to be a mundane conventional marriage. They have breakfast. They argue. They disagree. He seems to have a life somewhat separate from hers, focussed as he is on Romania.
As regards his journey to Romania, he clearly shows that he is an unreliable narrator. The journey not surprisingly had its problems. He recounts the story of wolves eating the corpse of a man but this, we later learn, may have been an exaggeration. He also tells us of seeing a crime of passion in Venice, which may or may not be true. In Romania he meets a group of students and learns from them details of the events in Romania during the revolution. One of them, Ion, becomes nominally the main character of the putative novel. However, as he admits, though Ion is meant to be the main character, he himself, as narrator, is turning out to be the main character, not least because he knows himself better than he knows the seemingly fictitious Ion.
Our narrator has a somewhat cynical view. He criticises Western intellectuals for having watched what was happening in Eastern Europe without reacting, watching what he calls the great experiment, to see if it would work. He suggests that the Romanian Revolution was really carried out by Securitate (the Romanian secret police) acting under orders from Gorbachev.
Our narrator has kept in touch with Dr. Gachet, the doctor whom he accompanied to Bucharest with Médecins sans Frontières and the doctor has now examined him and told him that he is not in good shape and needs lots of rest and relaxation. So off he goes to the house of a friend in Brittany, to write his novel. He keeps in touch with Marianne by phone and mail (no email then). She is urging him to return to Paris but he is resisting and becomes somewhat obsessive about her frequent phone calls. Indeed, he seems to miss their Siamese cat more than he misses her, not least because the Siamese cat frequently offers him advice. Both seem closer to the talking cat than they do to one another.
At the same time, however, we are following his novel and, as it is about Romania and Romanians, we are also following events there. Ion has left Romania and is making his way across Europe. He first goes to Budapest, where the Hotel Europa is located and where a series of strange events confront Ion. (This will by no means be the only Hotel Europa he encounters on his travels. Indeed, Hotel Europa can be seen as symbol for all of (Western) Europe.) He even manages to win a lot of money at a casino but it is gradually taken from him by various thugs, of which there seem to be a lot on his travels. Ion is planning to flee Romania but is also looking for his girlfriend, Maria, who seems to have disappeared. He seemingly meets/sees her on numerous occasions but is not sure whether it is her.
Things are not going well in Romania and a large amount of Romanians are fleeing the country. Neighbouring countries are not happy about this. The locals call the Romanians gypsies, while the authorities are trying to restrict Romanian immigration. Hungary is reluctant to do so, as there are many people of Hungarian origin in Romania but Austria has no such qualms.
Meanwhile, our hero is having problems with his novel. He stops and starts. What sort of novel is it to be? He thinks of writing a Bildungsroman but is not sure. He is putting too much of himself and not enough of Ion in it. The story gets sidetracked. The novel and real life seem to get occasionally confused. Gradually, Ion makes his way to Paris, hoping to find the narrator (whose name he does not know, as nor do we). He has a series of adventures, often strange, while the narrator and Marianne continue their dispute by long-distance. (Marianne heads off to Moscow, arriving just in time for the 1991 Putsch.)
This is a hilarious, totally anarchic novel, very funny but, at the same time, making a lot of serious points about Romania, exile and migration. At the same time, Tsepeneag is playing with the novel genre, as, at times, it is not always clear where the novel begins and real life ends. Indeed, it is not always clear if there is a boundary between the two. In short, it is very creative and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
First published 1996 by Editura Albatrosa
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010
Translated by Patrick Camiller