Filip Florian: Degete mici (Little Fingers)
The novel opens at an archaeological dig of a Roman fort in Romania. The fort has been known for many years but was only first archaeologically explored in 1932, with the dig best remembered for the elegant lady in charge. It is now being further explored. Our narrator is Petrus. This is one of those annoying novels when you do not know the name of the narrator until well into the book and then only when, almost by chance, another character mentions his name.
However, there is a problem. A child playing nearby discovers a bone. It is clearly a human bone, Further examination reveals lots of human bones, some three hundred feet way from the dig. Major Maxim, the local police chief, is on the case. Many suggested that the bones come from people executed by the Communists in the 1950s or 196s0. The professor at the dig who has dug up more old bones than the Major has had hot dinners, insists the bones are from around 1800. The Major is having none of it and closes the dig. The professor goes home, leaving instructions that he is to be called only when the matter is settled. The coroner suggests that the Major is only making such a fuss because he was about to lose his job and this could save him. He is backed by groups representing political prisoners, who arrive from Bucharest.
Petrus digs around in the archives of the local library to see if there is any evidence for these bones from the 1932 dig, while resisting the approaches of the large lady librarian. He is unsuccessful in the former but more successful in the latter.
At this point we are off on a tangent, following Petrus and his family. We meet his Aunt Paulina, whom he lives with. She is a widow but currently being wooed by an elderly gentleman. We meet her neighbour, Eugenia(Jenny) Embury. When still at school she had met Lord Neil Embury. The pair eloped, to the horror of Eugenia’s convent school mother superior and her father, though the latter relented when he realised who his son-in-law was. However, the war is starting. Embury hurries back to England and is later killed in action while Eugenia plans to join him and wishes to say goodbye to her ill father. She is too late. She gives birth to a son, who has subsequently died, and is now bringing up his daughter, Jojo. Jojo and Petrus are having an affair.
Another interesting sideline is the dromedary, bought by a local who, when first let loose, rapes a cow. As the farmers of the region do not want cows with humps, the unfortunate dromedary is castrated to the chagrin of its owner. We also learn how Eugenia transported fifty-two cats when she moved. These and other side stories are completely irrelevant to the main story which seems to come and go.
We learn of the colonel coroner who fears an attack and insists on an armed guard, the unfortunate soldier, Andrey Butylkin, who has to guard the colonel – he falls asleep – and has nightmares about all the bones he has had to move. He is later found sleeping in the wood by Brother Onufrie. We learn of the journalist Caterina and her murky affair. All of these people have agendas which colour what exactly is happening, whose the bones are and why they are there.
Brother Onufrie is somewhat more relevant. We had met him early on, as he is supervising the repair of a monastery nearby with a team of volunteers. He comes to see the bones and gives the his blessing and absolution. He will appear in the papers, thanks to Caterina, and, as a result he gains a reputation as a holy man.
More particularly, we learn his back story. He was a foundling and had to defend himself while young, which he did. One day, it is raining heavily so he stops off at a monastery to shelter. He ends up staying. He has trouble with the discipline early on but eventually adapts and eventually becomes a monk. However, when the communists take over, the monks are rounded up and shipped off to a labour camp.
Brother Onufrie manages to escape and manages to find a wilderness with a cave, where he hides. He stays there for sixteen years, having no human company except for a man, an anti-Communist revolutionary, who is also hiding. They never meet but exchange letters and learn of one another. The army comes and Brother Onufrie manages to hide but the other man seems to have disappeared, Three years later, he leaves a letter saying there is an amnesty. Onufrie comes out and works various jobs will the fall of communism when he returns to the monastery and is now rebuilding it.
Back to the main plot which, as I said, keeps disappearing from view, a team of five now arrives from Argentina to examine the bones. Of course, we get not just their back story but Argentina’s back story, including the generals take over, the Falklands War and, most importantly, football. We learn of Argentina’s first World Cup win and of a young player in the position of reserve player, sobbing as he was not playing. He was not a reserve player; indeed was not even selected as he was thought too young. He would later go to to cheat his way to a later victory.
The five would be very much scarred by the dictatorship and the desaparecidos, which would result in their being very mistrustful of anyone in uniform. It was they who found out about the issue that led to the title of this book, namely that all the bones that had been examined were missing their little fingers while the bones that had not been examined had their little fingers, suggesting that the digital extraction had taken place recently. All is resolved regarding both the little fingers and the provenance of the bones.
While this was certainly an interesting book, it was somewhat bitty. All the side stories, which you might have thought would lead to something, did not and faded away without having any relevance to the main plot. Indeed,as mentioned the main plot often disappears for quite a while, only really re-emerging near the end. The same applies to several of the key characters. Yes, it gives a portrait of post-communist Romania and the various agendas people have but a good deal of editing would have helped.
First published in 2005 by Polirom
First published in English in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth