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Ioana Pârvulescu: Viața începe vineri (Life Begins On Friday)

Petre is a coachman in Bucharest. It is shortly before Christmas in 1897 and the ground is covered with snow. He is driving along when he sees a man lying in the snow. He goes to rescue him. The man is clearly disorientated and has no idea where he is or why he is in the snow. Petre decides to take him to the police. He drives a bit further and finds another man lying in the snow. This man has been shot. Petre suspects the first man may have shot him, though the man fervently denies it. Petre takes both men to the police. The injured man is taken to a clinic and examined by Dr Leon Margulis while the other man is arrested. He claims to be Dan Kretzu/Crețu and seems to be unshaven, very unusual for men at that time. He is examined Dy Dr Margulis and investigated by the Chief of Public Security, Costache Boerescu. As he does not seem to have committed any offence, he is released, though the strange metal box he has is taken from him.

In addition to the above, there are other key characters in this book. Iulia is the twenty-one year old daughter of Dr Margulis and his wife, Agatha. She has a younger brother, Jacques. At the very beginning of the book, she has started keeping a notebook. As she started it on Friday she comments Life Begins On Friday. Nicu is an eight-year old schoolboy. He lives with his mother, a mentally ill washerwoman. It is he who looks after his mother, despite still being at school, though the schools are currently closed because of a typhus epidemic. He is good friends with Jacques and always welcome at the Margulis household. They give him food and clothing. He also works as a messenger boy, primarily for the Universul newspaper, but he does odd jobs for others.

We also meet the staff of the Universul newspaper. The director of the Indépendance Roumaine, George Lahovary, has recently been killed in a duel by the director of a rival newspaper, Epoca and the Universul newspaper is campaigning to have duels banned.

Dan Kretzu is clearly still very much disorientated. Nicu sees him wandering around and comments on his unusual coloured boots. Dan is looking for somewhere to stay and finally goes to a church. Epiharia, a very religious woman, is there and finds him a small house used by painters. It is unoccupied and very cold but better than nothing. The next day, Nicu takes him to the Universul. Dan is a journalist so the paper offers him a job as a journalist which he takes.

We follow the investigation into the two men found in the snow as Costache Boerescu is on the case. He gradually tracks down the identity of the man who had been shot, who had by now died, muttering a few words just before death. Costache proceeds with the case, with a little help from his friends.

There are various running plot lines. It would seem a missing wallet is the key. We know that Petre lifted a wallet from the dead man. We know that someone has placed an ad in the the Universul asking for the wallet to be returned and offering a generous reward, so generous that Nicu spends time looking for it. Who and why? And is there more than one wallet?

Several characters buy lottery tickets. All, of course, expect to win and have grandiose plans for the winnings they will receive.

There is also the missing box that Dan had on him that the police confiscated and has now disappeared. We know that Fane, a professional criminal, had managed to steal it. But what is its significance and why do we know he has it and the police do not seem to?

What makes this book so fascinating is that we follow a host of other characters who seem totally irrelevant to the main plot but, somehow, become involved. There is Alexandru Livezeanu, who is attracted to Iulia (the feeling is mutual) but may be involved in the plot. There is Otto, the German immigrant who shares a room with Dan and who reveals to him the mystery of the missing and highly valuable icon, which may also be relevant. There is Mrs Movileanu, wife of a philandering lawyer, eager to divorce him but with no means of her own. There is General Algiu, Costache Boerescu’s friend and former prefect of police. All these – and others – sidle into the plot as though they are just passing by but then assume a greater importance as the book progresses.

We, of course, have several questions. Who are these two men? One is dead and the other does not seem to know who he is and, more than once, states this, e.g. I’m not from anywhere. Why were they both lying in the snow? Who shot the dead man? Are they connected and, if so, how and why? Dan seems foreign but apparently is not. Is he from another country, mentally disturbed or…?

By giving us this rich portrait of these various charatcers, we also get a portrait of Bucharest as it was at the end of 1897. T
From the wanderings of Nicu, Dan,Costache and others, we get a good idea of Bucharest, with the author updating us on details (such as name changes of streets) at the end.

The great Mircea Cărtărescu sums up his views in an afterword: It is a singular book, which with intelligence and talent defies the current directions of Romanian prose. It has nothing to do with the problematics of the communist regime, the Ceaușescu period and the Securitate, or with the violent, pornographic sound and fury of punk anarchism, or with postmodern re-visitation of historicized artistic styles, or with the minimalistic depiction of everyday life. It is not an ideological text, does not fight on any front, and does not claim to hold any indubitable truth.

I can only heartily concur with Cărtărescu. Unlike most Romanian novels I have read, it is not grim. Yes there is the duel and the death of the man who is shot but they are nothing compared to the standard Romanian fare of arrest, torture and so on at the hands of the Romanian authorities. However, above all it is a first-class story as Pârvulescu gives us lots of red herrings, has us guessing to the end and gives a wonderfully colourful portrait of Bucharest and its inhabitants.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Humanitas
First published in English by Istros Press in 2016
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth