Gabriela Adameșteanu: Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning)
Our heroine is Vica Delcă, a seventy-year old Romanian woman who lives in Bucharest (but not the centre) under the Communist regime. Based on the various dates, it seems to be 1975. She is married to a useless husband. He was dashing when she married him but now he sits in front of the television and expects his wife to wait on him. They are poor, living on a meagre pension and whatever Vica can hustle from others.
Vica likes to go out, partially to escape her husband. She can never talk to her husband and says Your husband should know you from the waist down. She likes to talk to people so goes out to see people. They have no children – she did not want any. They have survived the hardships of Romania from World War I to the present day.
Her father was a bit of a hustler. However, he was called up to fight for Romania in August 1916, leaving his wife and children. Sadly, before he returned, the mother died, leaving the eleven-year old Vica in charge of her younger siblings. Three died. Vica just about managed to make ends meet, with the money her father left, some work and help from her grandmother and neighbours. She well remembers the zeppelins dropping bombs on Bucharest. Since then she has always been hard-working, never afraid to put her hand to anything.
Her father returned and resumed his life but, eventually, he remarried and moved out. Vica and her siblings declined to follow. He had another family, to whom he left his money when he died. Before he died, he gave Vica some money and inadvertently overpaid her. She kept the money and used it to set up a shop. The shop is still in their house but has long since been closed by the Communists. In its heyday, it did very well, selling such things as wine, cheese, salami and sausage. She did all the work with useless husband only occasionally intervening when there was a drunk around. However, now she is broke and will eat anything she can get her hands on. She calls herself a garbage bin.
Her regular journeys around Bucharest – she takes the tram – mainly involve visiting two people. The first is her sister-in-law. She had been very fond of Ilie, her youngest brother and had brought him up. He has now died. The sister-in-law lives with Gelu, her son and works in an office. She now and then gives Vica some money, though her brother had always been more generous. She is not impressed with her nephew.
The other person she visits is Ivona Ioaniu. Ivona – she normally refers to her as Mrs Ioaniu or even just Ioaniu – regularly gives her money. Vica had worked for Ivona’s sister Margot as a dressmaker and kept in touch with the family, particularly Ivona and her mother, Sofia. Sofia and Margot are now both dead.
The Ioaniu family are interesting as they represent the fate suffered by Romanian families over the years. Sofia had first been married to a well-off man. They had a fine house and spoke French. Ivona had been known as Yvonne. Later, under the Communists, speaking French would be an indication of being bourgeois, hence the name change.
Husband Number 1 died. Ivona was very close to him and,,even after fifty years, still misses him. Husband Number 2 was a military man and became a general. Once the Communists took over, he became persona non grata and they waited for the Securitate to come and take him away, which they did. He died in prison. Sofia was not even notified. Times were hard for them. Ivona had to leave college and Sofia struggled to get a pension, though she finally managed to do so.
Ivona did marry – a man called Niki, a serial philanderer. Sofia could not stand him. The couple had one son – Tudor – who is now living abroad. They do not seem to be too sure where but probably the United States. Margot also had a hard time. Her husband Alexandru was about to be arrested so fled the country – without Margot. She hid a later boyfriend from the Communists in her flat. He was found and arrested and so was she. She spent five years in prison and died soon after her release. Margot’s daughter is now also abroad. Margot and the General are not the only people imprisoned by the Communists we hear about.
The family were able to keep their large house but had two lodgers foisted on them. The day they finally left was a cause for a big celebration. Vica continued to visit and got on well with mother and daughter, not least because Ivona gives her some money. Vica’s perspective is that she is doing Ivona a favour by visiting her, as otherwise she would be lonely. However, when we get Ivona’s perspective, we realise that she considers Vica a nuisance – the old bag, she calls her – and receives her and gives her money out of charity. In the end she is just a poor old woman whose property was confiscated by the regime and for whom the future can bring nothing but troubles.
In the second part, we jump back to the period just before World War I. We have seen how important this was in Romania’s history in earlier Romanian novels such as Camil Petrescu‘s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War]. Romania remained neutral for the first two years of the war, with King Carol, a German by birth, wanting Romania to join on the Axis side, while most of the politicians wanted it to join on the Allied side. When King Carol died in September 1914 – his death is mentioned in this book – his successor, King Ferdinand favoured the Allies. Romania hesitated. One false move is enough for our little country to disappear from the map of Europe, says Professor Mironescu, Sofia’s husband (though in this part she is known as Sophie). The government dragged its feet till the Allies bullied it into joining on their side in August 1916.
Initially the war did not go well for Romania. It was totally unprepared as we learn from Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War], with insufficient armaments and an army that no experience of war and did not know how to fight one. It was overwhelmed by the Germans and had to withdraw.
In this book, there is a lot of discussion about whether Romania should join or not. The key issue for Romania was getting hold of Transylvania, then part of Hungary. We follow the hesitation of the Prime Minster. Romanians clearly do not, like most countries, trust their politicians. Is there still a politician whom ten people would swear is honest and thinks only of the nation? asks Titi Ialomiţeanu, a friend of the Mironescus and who flirts with Sophie, though she is then pregnant with Ivona. In a monologue he also criticises Professor Mironescu as being politically naive. Only the professor can still believe in something, not realising that the age of this scholar in his ivory tower is well and truly over. What we know is that the Professor is ill and will die in a few years.
The war comes and, while many have fled, as the Germans approach. the Professor is too ill to travel. We see how they put up with the war, including the bombing of Bucharest, the difficulty in obtaining fuel and food and, inevitably, rumours and counter-rumours.
However, the book is called Wasted Morning, so we are back to Vica’s morning where she learns more about World War II and its aftermath from Ivona, including the disappearance of Margot’s husband, as he flees to the United States to escape arrest and Margot’s arrest.
The book was hailed in Romania as it gives a wonderful panorama of the country and its various problems from the the beginning of World War I to the present-day, i.e. 1975. For non-Romanians, some of the political details might be a bit obscure, as personalities are discussed, but the character of Vica is superb – cynical and outspoken, but long-suffering, not afraid of work, greedy but prepared to get involved where necessary, with a useless husband, few resources and an ability to just keep soldiering on, whatever the weather and whatever the political situation. We also see varying perspectives as different characters give their varying views on the other characters. We also learn a lot about how Romania has coped (and, in some cases has not coped) over the years. Presumably, Adameșteanu could not criticise the current regime so, at least directly, she does not but she certainly shows that the country has suffered for a long time.
First published in 1983 by Cartea Românească
First published in English in 2011 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Patrick Camiller