Bogdan Suceavă: Miruna, o poveste (Miruna, A Tale)
Bogdan Suceavă spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in a remote area of Romania. It is this that is the basis of this novel. The narrator, Trajan, and his sister, Miruna, are living with their grandparents in a village called Evil Vale. The area is so remote that collectivisation has not been possible there. Much of the novel takes the form of stories told by their grandfather, Niculae Berca. Many of the stories concern his father, Constantine. All of them are coloured by the folk myths and legends of rural Romania and are full of strange creatures, magic and a host of larger than life characters, all living in and around Evil Vale. Niculae has several children and grandchildren but it seems that he has chosen Trajan and Miruna to tell his stories to. Grandfather himself is something of a larger than life character – his likeness could have been exhibited in a museum, like the kind found in dioramas, as if a member of a lost tribe or an exotic people.
Life is different in Evil Vale – the only place where you could see time passing, where it was never entirely frozen. Though, except at the very end, Miruna does not play a much greater role than Trajan, it is she who eventually came to conceive the world in the form of a fairy tale, living for years in a world full of the fantastical, which gave her the air of being a child prodigy, one of those who know something of history and geography before they even start attending school and who therefore influences her brother’s view of the world. Though he is suspicious of newspapers, which he thinks are full of lies, he starts by telling them stories from the papers but soon moves onto telling them stories about Constantine. Constantine had fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 (which the Romanians called the Romanian War of Independence as one of the consequences of the war was Romanian independence). One of the rewards for the soldiers who fought in that war, according to rumour, was that each one would be given some land, which was taken from the large landholdings of the monasteries. Till that time, few ordinary people had owned any land. He did receive a deed to some land on Old Knoll, a gigantic squashed sphere of a hill on the way to the village of Ne’er-Do-Well. He did not know the land but, when he saw it, he realised that it was remote and rocky and not ideally suited to agriculture. However, before going there he bought a fantastic old clock in town, an extravagance which would be later commented on. There was a ramshackle old hovel but, apart from that, the land looked barren and had not been worked for many years.
The source of all information in the village was Old Mother Fira. There were no newspapers in the rural areas in those days, though Constantine would be the first to subscribe to one, some time later. Fira allegedly lived till the age of one hundred and fifty and was still alive when Trajan and Miruna came to the village. To a great extent it is through her reports that we hear about Constantine. Constantine worked very hard. The first winter was very harsh and, as a result, there were a lot of wolves, which the locals really feared. Constantine, however, seemed to have no problem with them and slaughtered many, so much so that he had a huge pile of dead wolves at the bottom of his land, as Fira reported. Indeed his ferocity and his mastery of the wolves led people to believe that he was half-man, half-beast. He also dealt with lynxes, whom he cudgelled and who became afraid of him. Meanwhile, he had developed his land but, thanks in part to Fira, people were still wary of him. However, when the plague arrived, she made a spell which kept it away from the village. Constantine spoke highly of her and she then became his supporter. Her spells, however, did not sit well with the Father Dimitrie, the local priest, who said they were the work of the devil. One of the running themes is his attempt to stop witchcraft in the village.
Constantine’s life is told in some detail by his son but Niculae’s accounts colour everything with myths and magic, from Constantine’s getting water from a well that the local water diviner said did not exist, to his courting and winning of Domnica who eventually became his wife. Oarță Aman, the local bandit, is something of a character and we hear stories of him, including how the Germans try, unsuccessfully to find him during the war when, in fact, he is probably long since dead. Even when feeling guilty about the role he played in Fira’s magic leads him to go off wandering Constantine gets involved in magic, inadvertently finding himself going through magic tunnels and ending up in Greece. We hear of the forecast of the imminent apocalypse as the year 1900 approaches, with one of Fira’s rival definitely forecasting the end of the world. We also learn of why and how Father Dimitrie builds a new church, why the King, who never set foot outside Bucharest as he was horrified by the poverty of his people, decides to do something for Evil Vale and about the historian who wants to change name of the village and the German occupation during the war. The magic does not end with Constantine. Miruna is bewitched by a snake and has a strange dream the night Niculae dies.
In an afterword, Suceavă says he was influenced by reading The Hobbit though, apart obviously from the remote village and the magic, the book seems quite different from The Hobbit. It is a wonderful account of life in rural Romania seen through the eyes of a child and an old man who still very much believe in magic, old myths and legends and their power. It very much shows that there is a life and a spirit in Romania well away from the main urban centres. Suceavă may be a mathematician by trade but he shows that he has a lively imagination.
I will make one comment on the translation. The translator, who is English, may have translated this book well. I know no Romanian so I am not competent to judge. However, his use of two horrible US solecisms which are more and more creeping into usage in the UK makes me doubt this. These are different than and, on more than one occasion, the construction Grandfather Berca was telling Miruna and I. Any translator who cannot write his own language correctly leaves me wondering how good a translator he is.
First published in 2007 by Curtea Veche
First English translation in 2014 by Twisted Spoon Press
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth