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Dumitru Tsepeneag (Țepeneag): La belle Roumaine (La Belle Roumaine)

The novel both opens and closes with a quotation from Novalis: Life must not be a novel that is given to us, but a novel that is made by us. Ana, the eponymous beautiful Romanian woman does just that. She invents her own story as she goes along. We first meet her in a café in Paris. It has its share of colourful characters: Jean-Jacques, the somewhat gruff owner who is not, of course, impervious to the charms of Ana, Ed, his assistant, who turns up when he wants and Yegor, the Russian, somewhat stereotyped, not least because Tsepeneag, as a good Romanian, is not going to shy away from mocking Russians. In short, Yegor drinks vodka, a lot of it. However, when the mysterious and beautiful Ana turns up on a regular basis, sitting quietly at her table, reading – is it a German book she is reading? – Jean-Jacques makes sure that her table is kept for her. The regulars know this and shy away from it. Any casual visitor who tries to sit there is shooed away by the regulars if not by Jean-Jacques.

But is she Ana? Or is she Hannah or Annette or Anne or Aneta? And what is her surname? She seems to be called Silbermann but that seems to be her step-father’s surname, not her father’s. And was she Jewish or was that just her step-father? And was her father killed at Auschwitz or just her step-father? And is Ana a doctor or a nurse or a prostitute (or all three)? Does she work for Ceaușescu (this book spells it Ceauxescu but I shall use the more conventional Romanian spelling)? Was her twin sister kidnapped by a pedophile, raped and killed or did she just disappear or was she snatched by Gypsies? In short, Ana is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators with a different story for each lover (and there are many of them).

We follow (though not exactly in chronological order) her career, as she moves from Romania to Germany and then to France. In France she has an affair with Yegor (to Jean-Jacques’ disgust), seemingly casual, though he is clearly smitten. She also has a fling with Edouard, the painter, who loves Matisse and paints her nude. In Berlin (which comes before Paris chronologically but after it in the book) she meets two philosophers – Johannes and Dieter. At first she is with Johannes and, indeed, they talk about philosophy amongst other things. Then she disappears. Johannes suspects that she is with Dieter, his friend since childhood and fellow philosopher, but has no evidence. He goes to Dieter’s house, pretending to want to borrow a book. He peeks around but finds nothing, though we know that she has just left. Of course, she is soon going to leave them both and head to Paris.

Why does she move to Paris? She is accosted on the U-Bahn by an athletic man who rubs up against her. He uses the code-word Conducătorul (Romanian for leader) and then mentions Scornicești, the village of Ceaușescu’s birth, and instructs her to move on to Paris. Why? We do not know. We have previously learned from her that her parents were rich and spent much time in Paris and had stayed in Romania during the war though we have also learned that they came from Bessarabia and had been poor or they had been killed in Auschwitz…

Where does the money come from? The Romanian Secret Service or was that really her seen with the prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne? And who is Mihai, who seems to be following her but never quite meeting up with her? And will he ever arrive? And is she taping her lovers and , if so, why?

Two things about her seem certain. She likes sex and she enjoys the author Dumitru Tsepeneag, seeing the film of his book Hotel Europa and reading his book Pigeon Post.

As we might expect from Tsepeneag, this book is chaotic, irreverent, very funny and completely anarchic. If you are looking for a straightforward plot and easy answers, this is not the book for you. Tsepeneag leads us down many paths and, in the end, we have no idea what the truth is, if, indeed, there is a truth. No matter as the book is a wonderful read, truth or no truth.

Publishing history

First published by Paralela 45 in 2004
First published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2017