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Mihail Sadoveanu: Baltagul (The Hatchet)

Nechifor Lipan is a sheep farmer in Mağura Tarcăului in rural Romania. The setting is probably the early part of the twentieth century, as trains are mentioned. He has gone to Dorna to fetch his son Gheorghită, who has spent the winter in the lowlands, and also to buy sedge, which they use to make shelters. His wife, Vitoria, is worried about him as he normally returns after twenty days have passed and forty days have now passed and there is no sign of him and no word from him. Vitoria receives a letter from Gheorghită, who has not seen his father, saying that he needs money to pay the shepherds. Vitoria gets hints that something might have happened to him. An old woman who gives prophecies, for example, says that he has gone off to have a good time. Other people suggest that this is the case but Vitoria does not believe it to be so. Gheorghită returns home and accompanies his mother to Piatra to see the prefect. On the way they stop at the monastery where Vitoria prays to St Ann, who has interceded for her before. When they get to Piatra, Vitoria is told that she must write a petition to get the authorities to investigate. She starts to do so and then realises that it would be a waste of money as she is now convinced that her husband is dead.

The rest of the novel tells of her journey with Gheorghită to find what happened to her husband. We follow her journey with the Jewish merchant, David, who helps her. She questions everyone she meets and several saw him as he went on his way. Her discussions with the blacksmith, priests, a sheep dealer and even at a wedding give her further clues as to the fate of her husband. She shows herself to be an astute detective, pretending at one point that Nechifor owes her money rather than saying that he is her husband. The story is called The Hatchet as she gets a new one made for Gheorghită to take with him and, of course, this hatchet becomes key to the story. Vitoria gets her answer in the end. The story is apparently based on an old legend but Sadoveanu’s updating is very well told and the character of Vitoria very effective.

Publishing history

First published in 1930 by Cartea Româneasca
First English translation in 1955 by Book Publishing House, Bucharest
Translated by Eugenia Farca