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Panait Istrati: Les Chardons du Baragan (The Thistles of the Baragan)

The novel is set in the remote and inhospitable region of Romania known as Bărăgan. The Wikipedia article quotes from this book: No trees grow here, and it’s so far from one water well to the next that you can die of thirst half-way. The inhabitant of Bărăgan constantly hopes that one day someone will come and teach him how to live better in the Bărăgan, in this dreadful wilderness where water is hidden in the deepest bowels of the earth and where nothing grows except thistles. They cover the land in less than a week. It’s the only thing the Bărăgan will tolerate, except for the sheep who lust after these thistles and devour them greedily. Come winter, the shepherd abandons this God forsaken land and returns home. Then the Bărăgan dons its white fur coat and lays to rest for six months. Nothing lives here any more. That’s the Bărăgan.

As the quote and the title both mention, thistles are essentially what grows here. When the bitter winds blow in from Russia the thistles are blown into the air and fly everywhere. It is not a great place to live.

Our narrator is Mataké. This is one of those annoying books where we only learn his name half way through the book and then only by chance, when another character uses it. He lives in the Bărăgan with his parents. His father is not a macho man, preferring to play his flute but his mother is happy with him. Their main source of food when the novel opens is carp which they fish from the river. The father is hopeless at fishing so it is left to mother and son while the father prepares and sells the fish. However, in their area there is not much market so often the fish go to waste.

The resourceful mother has an idea. She scrimps and saves for a year and then buys a horse and cart. She will carry on fishing while father and son head off into the Bărăgan to sell the fish further afield. It turns out to be a disastrous idea.

Father and son set off but in the great expanse of the Bărăgan there are no villages,indeed no people. Moreover, neither horse nor cart are up to it. They do meet a man to whom they sell half their load but at a substantially reduced price. Eventually, both horse and cart give up, the former dying and the latter losing three of its wheels.

The pair head for the nearest town where they buy a saw and axe and make a living cutting wood. It gets worse.They bump into an old friend in the town who gives them the bad news that the mother has died. They set off back home but when they are greeted by the dog, well away from home,the father realises that neither he nor the dog want to be home. He quickly sells the timber of the house and they set off into the Bărăgan.

They find work at a farm but conditions are not good there. However, the father decides to stay so Mataké and five other boys sneak off. We follow their difficult adventures crossing the Bărăgan, with only two of the boys making it – Bărăgan and his friend. Yonel. They come to a railway and sneak on board. When they arrive somewhere, they go to a café and the first person they meet is Yonel’s brother, Costaké. He is an apprentice to a cartwright and takes the two boys along to join him. Things are tight there as everywhere else. We follow their adventures, including both romantic complications for a couple of the characters and economic difficulties for both of them.

The year is now 1906. Having read Zaharia Stancu‘s Desculț (Barefoot), I was well aware that that we were coming up to Romanian Peasants’ Revolt and that is indeed what happens. We follow, in some detail, their revolt, preceded by the cruelty of the local boyar and the fate of our heroes.

The key feature of this novel is the inhospitality of the Bărăgan and the sufferings of those living there. The key leitmotif is thistles and see them throughout the novel, blowing around or quickly growing and covering the land. However, we also know that Istrati, like Stancu, was very sympathetic to the plight of the peasants and he really shows what they suffer from the boyars, the climatic conditions and the inhospitable land. His portrait of the Bărăgan is magnificent – its huge size, difficult climate and, above all, the thistles.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Bernard Grasset
First published in English by Vanguard Press in 1930
Translated by Jacques Le Clercq;