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Gib Mihăescu: Donna Alba

Our hero is Mihai Aspru. He tells us that he came into life with his left foot leading and that he continued to lead with his left foot, for example when going to war (World War 1) and when leaving the war, despite being instructed to lead with his right foot.

While still a child, he decides to leave home, without telling his parents. We know his father, a local doctor, at his mother’s instigation, tries to track him down but does not succeed. He had 38 lei in his pocket (which seems to be the equivalent of around $300), some of which he stole from his father. He took three books – Gogol, Gorky and Mihail Sadoveanu (he does not say which titles). He travels around, visiting, for example Odessa. As he wanted to work his way on a ship, he got forged documents as he would otherwise have been too young. It is on the ships that he learns French. In 1915 he tries to join the French army but they discover his forged documents and he is arrested. He manages to escape and heads back to Romania, going to Iași.

Finally he goes home where he is welcomed by his mother but less so by his father. He joins up as does his father as a military doctor. Though our hero sees action, he comes out unharmed. However, his father dies of typhus after three months. When he goes home and confirms to his mother what she had only heard as a rumour, she has a heart attack and dies soon afterwards. He sells the family home and heads off to Bucharest to complete his education. He struggles with his education but finally he gets his high school diploma.

One day, while about to take his exam, he is waiting at the school gates with others, as he has arrived early. They are looking at the women and making comments. Suddenly a very beautiful and elegant woman passes by. She seems to smile at him. He is mesmerised. She is Alba Radu Şerban née Ypsilant, wife of a distinguished lawyer, though he does not know this till much later.

He is unable to concentrate on his exams and asks to leave the exam room early, to look for her. He sees her getting into a car and driving off. He comes back to the street to look for her but has no success.

He finally passes his exams and then studies law and becomes a lawyer. He is always interested in the forgery cases, because of his own history, particularly those cases where the plaintiff is found not guilty. However, his mind is always on Donna Alba.

He is particularly impressed with one lawyer, an aristocrat called Georges Radu Şerban. He is a brilliant lawyer and a very personable man. Romania is going through one of its periodical agricultural reforms at the time and Şerban is defending some of his class whose land is being expropriated.

Our hero continues to look out for Donna Alba and, one day, he sees her going into a house in a car. The name on the house is that of Georges Radu Şerban. He soon learns that Alba is married to Şerban and he cannot hope to compete with his wealth, charm and elegance, to win the woman of his dreams. Nevertheless, he applies to Şerban for a job and is taken on as an assistant.

There is another assistant there, Raoul Ypsilant, a cousin of Alba, The two men get on well. However, it seems that the family had fallen on hard times, hence Raoul’s job and, at least in part, why Alba married a much older man. He also discovers that Şerban had killed Tudor Buzescu, a rich man, in a duel three years previously. It seems that there was some dispute at a club that led to it but it also seems that there was more to it than that, not least because Tudor and Şerban’s father had had a lawsuit which Tudor’s father won.

Our hero does his own research. He digs up records on the case. He also follows Alba and her mother, Esmeralda, and is surprised when they visit a low-down tavern and meet a seemingly elegant man there. Things get even more complicated when Mihai gets to know various others involved. He gets to know the man Alba met. He also meets a dancer called Olga Petrovna, who looks very much like Alba. Others he meets include Irma Caraczony, a Hungarian woman with whom he has a brief fling, not least to find out more, and Aurica Botez, the neighbour of the mysterious man Alba met. He gradually finds out that there is a messy business of blackmail, all of which gets out of hand, even as Mihai does get closer to Alba.

Mihai is, throughout the book, driven by one motive, to get closer to Alba and, eventually to win her over. He will do what it takes to do so. It is a long book, with a long and complex plot, as various people seem to have some involvement in it, directly and indirectly, while our hero is gradually getting more and more caught up in what is a decidedly shady business. We have known from the beginning of the book that he has a streak of irresponsibility and we have known from early on that he has one aim in life – to win Donna Alba, however unrealistic that may seem.

Mihăescu tells his story very well, gradually unravelling the complicated history of the Ypsilant, Şerban and Buzescu families, and how they are linked to one another with, inevitably, sex and money being the key drivers. While Mihai has one aim in life, he is nevertheless a fascinating character. How far will he go to achieve his aim of getting Alba? Is there more to him than just his obsession with Alba? And will he come out all right at the end or is he liable to fall flat on his face in his pursuit of love? Mihăescu keeps us guessing to the end, making for an excellent read – if you can read German, Hungarian or Romanian as, sadly, it is not available in any other language.

Publishing history

First published in 1935 by Cultura româneascà
No English translation
First published in German as Donna Alba in 1971 by Kriterion
Translated by Paul Schuster
Also available in Hungarian