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Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraților (Forest of the Hanged)

This book is dedicated to Rebreanu’s brother Emil. The brothers were Romanian but the part of Romania in which they were born and grew up was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The brothers spoke Hungarian. Indeed, Liviu wrote poetry in Hungarian. When World War I broke out, Emil enlisted on the side of the Austro-Hungarians. He distinguished himself in battle. However, in 1916, Romania joined the war on the side of the Allies. When the two sides met in the war, Emil decided his loyalty was with Romania rather than Austro-Hungary. He tried to join the Romanians, carrying the battle plans to the enemy with him. He was caught, tried, condemned and hanged. This book, as we shall see, was very much influenced by Emil’s story.

Indeed, the book opens with a hanging. A Czech sub-lieutenant, called Svoboda (the Czech word for freedom), fighting for the Austro-Hungarians, has done what Emil did – fled with battle plans – and had been caught. He is to be hanged. We follow the whole messy business, which is badly organised and is distressing for several of the participants. One of the participants is our hero, Lieutenant Apostol Bologa, a Romanian fighting for Austro-Hungary.

Bologa was the only child of Iosif and Maria Bologa. Iosif was a Romanian nationalist and hero. He was the youngest person to be tried at the Memorandum Trial (At Hermannstadt, in July 1893, a Pan-Romanian Congress drew up a memorandum of the grievances of the Romanians in Transylvania. The Austrian Premier had twenty of the leaders tried and imprisoned on a charge of treason.) He went to prison for two years, Apostol being born while he was in prison. Initially, his mother spoils her son and also brings him up in a religious way. The returning Iosif is having none of it, so Maria continues her spoiling and religion in secret. The young Apostol has a vision, seeing God, which his mother takes as a sign. However, gradually, over the years, he will turn away from religion to his mother’s chagrin.

He is sent away to school, remembering the words of his father. While there, his father dies of a heart attack. He will manage to get himself a scholarship to study philosophy – clearly the work of the devil according to his mother’s priest – and learns Hungarian and German in a few months. He gets engaged to Marta, a woman his mother does not approve of and then decides to join the Austro-Hungarian army, not least to impress his fiancée. His mother is also opposed. You want to fight for the Hungarians who fight us? she says. He doesn’t but he does want to impress his fiancée. She is impressed.

He trained for two months at the artillery school, after which he was sent to the front. Then he was made an officer, and was twice wounded, the first time slightly, but the second time so badly that he had two months in hospital and one month’s sick-leave at home; he was decorated three times and promoted to lieutenant, all in two years.

Initially, he seems to have been in favour of the hanging and is, indeed, challenged on this by a fellow officer. Interestingly, the various officers are ethnically mixed. One is a Jew, the captain is a Czech, the doctor is German, Cervenco is a Ruthenian, another Hungarian and Bologa is Romanian. In discussing the hanging, they have mixed views, some of which would seem to be to be bordering on treachery but they nevertheless talk freely to one another. The newly arrived captain, the Czech, is an interesting case. He had a certain sympathy with Svoboda, not least because he had almost been in the same situation. He and three fellow Czechs had planned to do the same thing but he had backed out at the last minute. The others were caught and hanged. He was transferred as a suspect.

They are now fighting the Russians and the Russians seem to manage to annoy them with a searchlight, which they cannot destroy. The General promises a medal to the first who does. Then Bologa learns that they are to be replaced by a unit from Italy and his unit will be moved. They are to fight the Romanians, newly entered into the war. He is horrified and talks of deserting. He then has an idea. If he destroys the searchlight, he can talk to the general and request a transfer. The plan works, except that the general refuses to give him a transfer. As he is about to desert to the the Russian lines, the Russians launch an unexpected attack. Bologa is badly injured.

He spends a long time recovering and when he returns to limited active duty – managing the ammunition – he clearly is not well. He still feels concern for the fact that he is fighting his own people but, as he is not on the front line, he seems less inclined to desert. He meets up with the Czech captain, who is concerned that he will still desert. He also falls for his landlord’s daughter, Ilona, a most unsuitable match according to everyone, despite the fact that he is still engaged to Marta. Indeed, it is his love for Ilona that distracts him from his plans to desert.

Ilona’s father, like Romanians in other books about World War I, is highly critical of the war. If only the Lord would make the authorities sufficiently merciful and intelligent to sheathe their swords and save us from being completely destroyed! It’s all very well for them; they are safe over there and give orders, while over here men suffer, are being tortured, and die.

However, Bologa collapses and he is sent back home to recuperate for a month, where he has to face Marta and his mother. However, he is summoned back three days early as there is clearly something happening. On the journey back, they drive through a forest where there are several bodies hanging, as the General suspects them of spying. Any civilian caught near the lines is immediately suspected of spying and hanged.

What makes this book is how Rebreanu gets into what Bologa himself would call his soul and we might call his troubled mental state. He is a man of contradictions. Initially, he is afraid of his father, first meeting him as a young boy when the father returns from prison. However, he soon grows to admire and respect his father, and is devastated when he dies. He always remembers his father’s words: Always remember that you are a Romanian.

He also has an ambiguous relationship with God. He has a vision as a child and becomes religious to the joy of his mother and disgust of his father. However, he gradually moves away from God and stops believing in him. However, fairly late in the book, he will have another vision and again return to God.

His relationship with the opposite sex is also complicated. He falls for Marta, a woman his mother considers quite unsuitable and is so keen to impress her that he makes the fateful decision to join the army solely to impress her. However, while away, he rarely writes to her. He then falls for Ilona, another woman considered unsuitable. On returning home, he breaks off with Marta but does not tell her or anyone else why, leading to consternation all round. It is a small town and everyone knows everyone else, so there is soon speculation. Bologa, however, does feel very guilty.

His main conflict, of course, is the fact that he is loyally serving the Austro-Hungarian Empire but then finds he has to fight his own people. Clearly this happened not infrequently in World War I and Rebreanu cites numerous fictional instances of it. It causes Bologa a lot of concern.

All these conflicts, his serious wounding and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder lead to a man with a very troubled mind. It is clear to us and, perhaps even to himself, that, by the end of the book, he is man with what can only be described as borderline insanity. Rebreanu superbly portrays this troubled state of his, no doubt based, at least in part, on his own brother.

I thought that this was a first-class novel and that Rebreanu gives us a superb portrait of Bologa but also the other characters – Bologa’s father a man devoted to his cause, his mother who seeks solace in God and her son, the General who is struggling with what he sees as spies and traitors in his midst, the Czech captain who sympathises with Bologa and his fellow officers who have varying views on the issue. It is considered as one of the best Romanian novels and rightly so.

Publishing history

First published in 1922 by Cartea Româneasca
First published in English by Duffield in 1930
Translated by A. V. Wise