What would you do if you were 27 years old and you were invited to become the king of some obscure country you have never been to and with a language that you don’t know or understand? Mind you, this does not mean you get to hang around on a throne with the people around you worshiping the ground you walk on, but quite the contrary, most of the people around you aren’t sure if making you king is such a great idea and you have to create a new state almost from scratch while fighting the non-believers that surround you and waste no opportunity to attack you and the institution you stand for. This would be the over simplified version of the task King Karl or Carol I of Romania embarked upon at such a young age, leaving behind the familiarity of military life in Berlin for the unfamiliar new capital of a brand new country somewhere in Eastern Europe. The act itself seems worthy of a novel and Filip Florian did that in The Days of the King (Zilele regelui) using the perspective not of Karl, but of a young dentist from Berlin, Joseph Strauss, who was invited by the king to follow him in the new country, and also that of his poet tomcat Siegfried.
In this country torn apart between great empires and civilizations, Joseph Strauss and Siegfried the cat, but also the king, find a new and peculiar home. It seems like a well documented novel and those interested in a more easy to digest type of history lesson would appreciate it, but as one non-Romanian reviewer on Amazon put it, those that are totally unfamiliar with Romanian history, might find it a bit hard to swallow. The prose is beautifully crafted and the characters endearing, but there is a certain superficiality to them as well, this isn’t a character driven novel by any means, but rather a nostalgic sketch of what looked like a more innocent and hopeful age for Romania, as all beginnings should be. The simplicity and elegance of the writing are indeed rare, at least considering my (limited) experience with recent Romanian prose and I have particularly appreciated the warmth of the auctorial voice, which I find hard to describe and is probably connected to the book itself being something of a hedonistic pursuit of nostalgia.
Still, although I considered the novel a perfect treat and a great “back home” trip read, it left me slightly unsatisfied and wanting more. There’s something very promising and masterful in it, particularly in the clarity and simplicity, but there is so much more that I felt was only superficially dealt with, there is the promise of something great that is not quite there. The characters were not strong enough for it to be a character driven story, but there wasn’t enough of the age there and of the huge forces at play in the end of the century Romania for it to be a historical novel. It felt more like one chapter in what should have been something huge, a War and Peace kind of thing.
The good thing is that it left me wanting to read more Romanian literature. I’ve always felt I know too little about the literature of my own country and during the time when Terorista was writing I had a great source of advice in this respect. Now I found myself looking at the bookstore shelves with no idea what to choose, as I know very little of what’s new and good. Any advice?
Returning to my homeland after a long time makes me go through the same cycle of feelings of attraction and rejection. In my mind, the longer I stay away, the better my country looks and feels like; it becomes my imaginary home, a shelter, the only place where I don’t get lost in translation, where people get my weird sense of humor, where tomatoes taste like tomatoes and last but not least where some of the most important people in my life live. The return is always sad and joyful, as I get to feel the love and familiarity I have long been missing, but I also get to relive the disappointment that led me away from there in the first place; the dirtiness, the hopelessness, the poverty that are intertwined and create a vicious circle we as a nation never seem to get out of. The people I love and admire the most are there, but they feel like tiny islands in a sea of dishonesty and vulgarity, which makes them even more precious to me. But even they, who are my last hope, have lost hope…
I remember feeling a tinge of hostility towards Herta Mueller’s fictional version of Romania, which is depicted as the embodiment of dictatorship and a type of corruption that leaves nothing untouched. Although I am aware that in her fiction the country is no longer the place itself but an epitome of repression, not a real land, but an existential one, I still couldn’t accept this totally somber vision of the society I too spring from, fictional as it may be. The first novel by her that I’ve read was neither in its original German, nor in Romanian, but in English and I remember being bothered by the translation of the title Herztier into The Land of Green Plums. Somehow, the more time passes and the novel itself fades from my memory, I am more and more taken over by this image of Romania as a land of green plums, which might have less too do with the actual book and more with my own projections. A land that keeps tempting me to have a taste of it once more, but then leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth all over again… There is the undeniable beauty, but also the undeniable squalor: