If the rest of the world were paying attention, we might note that Romania is having an artistic renaissance. Highest of profile has been the Romanian new wave in film, with acclaimed movies from Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) gaining the attention and praise of international audiences. But Romanian arts are flourishing in other genres as well, including the visual and literary arts. Herta Müller, a German-Romanian writer known for setting her work in a violent and dark Communist Romania, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature and has influenced a generation of writers who seek to connect the social and political history of their country with the contemporary democracy it is still struggling to become. Add to this mix Bogdan Suceavă’s Miruna, A Tale, a novel small in size but rich and dense in content, a singular amalgamation of folklore and history, fantasy, absurdity, and stark realism that urges us as readers to consider the careful balancing of fact and fiction in the stories we tell.
In intimate, thoughtful, and frequently self-reflective prose, Trajan, the first-person narrator, reimagines the stories his grandfather, Niculae Berca, used to tell him and his sister Miruna when they were young, just shortly before his death. Trajan notes that at the time he “comprehended nothing at all. I looked at Grandfather and knew nothing about his illness, or where he came from, or the story of his life, and I wasn’t really prepared to find out.” But Niculae is undeterred by the possibility that his grandchildren aren’t prepared for his stories and, despite his wife’s chastising, forges ahead. Miruna, who as a child frequently interrupted her grandfather’s retelling to get more specific details, has a preternatural interest in these tales, perhaps explained by the revelation that she has inherited her grandfather’s gift of second sight “such that an entire world passed into her, and she became heir to a separate realm.” The setting for these tales is Evil Vale, a place nestled in the Făgăraş Mountains, and the village where Trajan and Miruna go to visit their grandfather.
Niculae’s stories are unlike anything the brother and sister have ever heard; they are enthralled. Though their grandfather’s narratives unravel like fairy tales, Niculae presents them as truth, a historical rendering of their ancestry beginning with their great grandfather and Niculae’s father, Constantine Berca. In them is an old woman who lived to be 150 and cast a spell to protect Evil Vale from the Black Death, fairies or “fays” who toy with human fate, and a captain of bandits returned from the dead. Constantine himself possesses gifts, creating a horned club that when aimed at wild animals turns them to stone, and successfully farming the only sandy and dry plot of land on an otherwise fecund landscape.
Woven into the vivid and lively fabric of these tales are key figures and moments in history, including the first and second World Wars. During his breaks between telling tales, Niculae peruses the Spark, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and tells his grandchildren how, when he was a child, he used to read out loud and by lamplight to his family a newspaper that took two days to reach the village. The juxtaposition between Niculae’s village folklore and actual historical events captures what he considers to be the essence of his philosophy of storytelling: “a well-tempered blend of tales carries the entire world on its back and ultimately explains the world to us from the inside out.” Indeed, this is precisely what Niculae’s stories achieve, capturing the spirit of Balkan village life and its folkloric tradition, while acknowledging its porousness as the modern world outside inevitably encroaches on and determines its fate.
It’s not until Trajan is an adult that he realizes that his grandfather had never made a distinction between the stories he told and the stories written in newspapers: “His months of reading had left his mind with a growing suspicion that newspapers are a muddle that mingle truth with rumor.” Earlier in the book the narrator observes, “In the world of fairy tales, everything is muddled.” The repetition of the word muddle in both of these examples is no coincidence, but is instead the author’s own reflection on history, or rather, the retelling of history, an idea that seems especially pointed when as readers we consider the impact Ceauşescu’s communist dictatorship had on the Romanian psyche. Not only did Ceauşescu re-create Romanian history, oftentimes placing himself at the center of its achievements, the legend of the Romanian Revolution (or “revolution”) is one that has been reimagined and altered over time so that today it is for some who actually lived through it unrecognizable. What Suceavă suggests in his narrative is that, as time passes, factual accounts become increasingly layered and embellished, so that moments in history are revisited with the grandiosity of myth or fairy tale or Balkan legend.
As an American, I frequently experienced pangs of envy at the deep tradition to which Miruna, A Tale is clearly connected. This translation is accompanied by notes that provide information not only about the historical events alluded to in the narrative, but also about the Romanian folkloric and mythical references that influenced it. The closest the United States has ever come to serious folklore is Johnny Appleseed, and our connections to history are scant at best. We are not a people accustomed to reflecting backward, preferring instead forward momentum. But as Suceavă’s novel suggests, a culture and a people are made up of the stories they tell, stories that are inevitably and deeply rooted in the past. While the author suggests in his afterword that the villages and cultural traditions from which this novel was inspired have disappeared, I would argue not entirely. Miruna, the character, is the inheritor of her grandfather’s tales; as long as she lives so too do the stories. Likewise, Miruna, the novel, captures these people and their lives like beetles in amber, and hopefully, for just as long.
About the Reviewer
Lenore Myka was a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania from 1994-1996. Her short-story collection, King of the Gypsies, was the winner of the 2014 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and will be published by BkMk Press in 2015. Her fiction has been selected as a notable short story by Best American Short Stories and Best American Non-Required Reading. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Massachusetts Review, among others.