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Ion Sadoveanu: Sfârşit de veac în Bucureşti [Fin-de-siècle in Bucharest]

I translated the title as fin-de-siècle in Bucharest firstly because, for English speakers, fin-de-siècle evokes the end of the 19th century, though it generally evokes the idea of Paris, with all its gaiety (in the old sense of the word), rather than stuffy, bourgeois Bucharest. However, for the purists, the Romanian title does simply mean end of the century. One theme of Romanian literature is, to continue using French words, the theme of the arriviste or parvenu, i.e. the person (usually male) who climbs his way up the social and economic ladder, often by dishonest and devious means. This is the theme of this book.

Our hero is Iancou Urmatecou. When we first meet him, he is already well-off. He owns a fine house, of which he is very proud and is married to Mitza (whom he perpetually bullies). They have a daughter, Amelica, who is nineteen. We gradually learn about his antecedents. According to one of his enemies, he was the son of a butcher (he never denies this). He gets a job at the local courts, where he is very efficient, as he has a prodigious memory and is very organised. It is there that he meets Baron Barbou. Baron Barbou is rich and owns a variety of lands but does not manage his holdings well. He is continually having to litigate. When Iancou helps him with a case, he is very impressed and eventually he offers him a job managing his estates. The Baron likes someone who is organised and can take quick decisions and this seems to be the case with Iancou. Iancou does well in the job, not just because he is efficient but because he is cheating the Baron. He has agreements with local moneylenders, so that he is not seemed to profit but, of course, shares the proceeds with the money lenders. We follow, in some detail, Iancou’s activities but we also follow the story of his family. His wife’s brother, Lefterica, works for him. Lefterica is married to Jurubitza and she has affairs with at least three people during the book, including Iancou, who is far from a faithful husband. Again, we get considerable detail on Lefterica and Jurubitza.

Iancou and Mitza are, of course, very proud of their daughter but have learned that she is not the daughter they hoped for. She does not like studying. Unlike her father, she does not enjoy nature. Nor does she enjoy music. Indeed, virtually all she likes doing is performing basic domestic duties in the house. When a local called Papillon spends all of his money on an expensive piano from France and is then unable to pay for it, Iancou buys it for Amelica but she plays it only a couple of times, before getting bored with it. As this is a good bourgeois novel, Amelica’s marriage prospects are a key theme.

The Baron has a son, Barbou B. Barbou, but known as Bubi. Bubi has been living in Vienna but he returns to Bucharest and is soon interested in his father’s affairs. This is not good news for Iancou, though he manages to turn it to his advantage. Bubi wants to build a glass factory and has to sell some of his father’s land to finance it. The latter part of the book is devoted more to Bubi’s financial and amorous exploits but there are other characters who figure quite a lot. Dorodan was the Baron’s adviser before Iancou appeared on the scene and he has had his suspicions about Iancou. Various people die in odd circumstances, with Iancou seemingly implicated, though there is no proof. But Iancou seems to carry one. The Baron is named Minister of Justice and appoints Iancou to a high position, a position he fully exploits.

This is a long novel – well over 500 hundred pages – and Sadoveanu tells a fairly detailed story of Iancou, his relatives and associates. Above all, he tells the story of a rogue, one whom we cannot really admire but who seems to be a survivor and who is a fascinating character. Don’t be fooled by the title – Bucharest is not Paris by any stretch of the imagination – but the bourgeois there are probably not too different from any other European bourgeoisie and Sadoveanu tells their story well.

Publishing history

First published in 1942 by Socec
No English translation
Published in French as Fin-de-siècle à Bucarest by La Nef de Paris in 1955
Translated by J. Dobrogeanu-Gherea
Published in German as Jahrhundertwende in Bukarest by Buchverlag Der Morgen in 1964
Translated by Elga Oprescu