Zaharia Stancu: Desculț (Barefoot)
This is said to be one of the best novels in the Romanian peasant genre, i.e. one that focusses on the stories of the peasantry. The situation in Romania was fairly feudal, as the peasants were beholden to the boyars (the rich landowners) and the kulaks (the rich farmers). In addition to all the problems that occurred, they also had to deal with incursions from Hungarian and Turkish bandits.
Our narrator, Darie, is twelve years old when we first meet him. His family has Turkish blood in it. When the Turkish bandit, Daud Mohammed, raided the village, most of the girls killed themselves as they knew what would happen to them. However, Darie’s great-great-grandmother, Zarinca Buiac, boldly stood up to Daud and he was so impressed, he took her off. Not long after, he returned and converted both to Christianity and to being a Romanian farmer. This is one of the many colourful stories Aunt Utupar tells Darie.
Aunt Utupar is well aware of the difficult situation they all live in. No matter how hard we struggle and fiercely we toil we never seem to be able to shake off our poverty. The boyars fight with tooth and nail to preserve their riches and their power. One day the people will have to crack their teeth for them. They have tried before, e.g. the Wallachian uprising of 1821 but life is still hard.
Much of the book might be best described as scenes from peasant life in rural Romania in the early twentieth century. We get Darie’s stories, Aunt Utupar’s stories and the narrator’s account.
Darie’s mother is on her second marriage. She married Radu Ochian when she was sixteen. He died of colic when she was seventeen, leaving her with two children, Evanghelina and Ion. His father is also on his second marriage and he has two children, Gheorghe, who is in Bucharest, and Rita. Alexe died. All live in a small house. Many more children will follow.
The colourful stories include both an uncle and aunt who predicted the time and date of their own deaths and were right; the man who kills a bandit and then finds the remains of his body next year, eaten by animals but with a belt containing gold coins he had not seen before; a Cossack who visited the village and who disguised himself as a Turk, went to the nearest Turkish village and killed several people before escaping; Darie’s cousin Dita who mucks around with boys; his grandfather who had seven wives, each of whom died giving birth to their second child. The priests do not behave well. We learn of the evil and greedy priest who has two sons destined to become priests, both of whom drink, chase women and steal. Then there is a priest who is approached during a famine by a woman with children to ask if he will give her one the many buns he has. He refuses. The buns are for his horses.
Darie has a very good memory and loves telling tales. I hear tales mostly in winter when people gather in our house to husk corn. He was present at the famous wedding between Maricica and Stanica. A great feast is held and then, in accordance with custom, the couple head to the bedroom and everyone waits outside to hear what happens. Maricica has been looking apprehensive and we soon learn why. There is no blood. She is not a virgin. She admits this but not who the man was. Stanica beats her up and then drags her back to her parents’ house. For some reason, the parents are not at the wedding. Her father also beats her but then he asks Stanica what he wants as compensation. Negotiations are bitter and protracted.
If the priests are bad the boyars are worse. The local boyar has lost his vines to a disease. He buys some more, disease-resistant ones from France. The peasants are required to assist him clear the land and plant them. They state that that is not in their contract. The response is that gendarmes are called out and beat the peasants and arrest and imprison the ring-leaders. When it comes time to pick the grapes, they are called out again and required to wear muzzles so that they will not eat the grapes.
Boyars, kulaks and Turks are not the only problems. One year there is a drought and the wheat does not grow so several have to sell off land to buy food. Naturally the boyars and kulaks take advantage of this, buying the land at cheap rates. It gets worse as the winter is bitterly cold and, in the spring, there is flooding. The flooding is so serious that some people are trapped in their houses and may drown. The peasants ask permission to use the wood the boyar has stored to make a boat. They are refused. They end up dismantling their beds to make rafts and rescue the stranded people.
More and more there is talk of revolt against the boyars, as has apparently happened in Moldovia. The peasants need land. The barefooted are starving for land. The hunger screams inside them. No one hears the scream or if he does he draws down his cap over his ears and walks on. Gradually, news of a revolt, which will become the 1907 Romanian Peasants’ Revolt, reaches their ears. They sees fires in the distance and friends and visiting relatives report on events elsewhere.
It inevitably starts in the village we are reading about. There are no boyars in the village but there is the publican who lends money at extortionate rates. He manages to talk his way out of it and then barricades himself and his family in his house. Though there are no boyars in the village, they have to work for four different ones, so off they set off, joined by other villages. It is violent and bloody but gets much worse when the army arrive. Revenge is brutal and cruel. Darie’s father and brother Ion are sent to prison. Then, suddenly it is all over, almost as though nothing happened. Father and brother are back and life carries on as before.
We continue with their difficult life. Darie’s mother has her eleventh child – three died young – and takes a lot of time to recover. Darie goes to school (voluntarily) and takes up reading. It is planned to send him to a free school, where he would train to be an army officer but he has injured his foot and they will not take anyone injured. He struggles to find any employment and he eventually finds work as a tanner’s apprenticeship, before moving on to other jobs.
World War I arrives which rather messes up his plans to continue with his studies. We see the horrors of World War I as the Germans raid villages, stealing all the food and leaving the peasants to starve. As one man says Poor people never wanted a war with the Hungarians, with the Germans, with the Turks, or with the Bulgarians. They claimed that only the boyars wanted the war but the peasants pay the price for it.
This book can best be described as Scenes of the Horrific Life of Peasants in Romania. Stancu, in following Darie, his family and his village, shows us that it is the peasants that are continually the victims, whether of the boyars and their staff, the kulaks, the local moneylenders, the government, wars, bandits, the weather and, in the case of the women, the multiple child births and child deaths. There is no real plot, apart from, briefly, the 1907 Revolt and a little bit about World War I. Darie struggles to make something of himself – though he tries – because of his damaged foot, but whether he succeeds is left very much open at the end. In other words, he is only a hook for Stancu to hang his thesis about the many sufferings of the peasants. Stancu certainly makes his point. We can begin to understand by the end why communism was seen as a way out though we know that the solution turned out to be as bad as if not worse than the problem.
First published in 1948 by Editura de Stat
First published in 1951 in English by Fore Publications
Translated by P.M., revised by Jack Lindsay