Moldova: nail-biting stuff

November 24, 2012

One of the nicest things about doing this project has been the way it’s brought me into contact with people all over the world. Nothing cheers me up more at 6.30am on a Monday morning than logging into my stats and seeing the number of visitors who’ve clicked on to the blog from all parts of the planet.

This has also been invaluable when it comes to finding books from hard-to-reach places, so when malinkasstudio visited my site and left a comment in which she described herself as ‘a proud Moldovan’, I seized the opportunity to ask her what I should read from her country. Malinkasstudio confirmed my suspicions that there wasn’t much Moldovan literature in translation out there – in fact she smilingly said that she would probably be one of the first writers from the small Eastern European state to make it into English. However, she was pleased to see that I already had a book by her favourite author, Ion Drutse, on the list. She wasn’t sure which short stories the collection Moldavian Autumn contained, but if it had  ‘Frunze de dor’ (an un-translatable phrase which she said would mean something like ‘Leaves of missing somebody’) and ‘The Last Month of Autumn’ she was sure I would like it.

That was enough of a recommendation for me. I tracked down a rather pricey copy of the 2001 translation on the internet, ordered it and sat back to wait for the book to arrive.

And waited. And waited. And, yes, waited some more. In fact six weeks went by without the collection appearing, by which time the bookseller and I concluded it must have got lost in the post. So, I tracked down another, slightly pricier copy and ordered that. A few days later I got a message from the vendor: unaccountably the book was missing from his warehouse. He was sorry, but he’d have to cancel my order.

Time was marching on. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t manage to get my hands on a copy before the end of the year, particularly given the long delivery times quoted by many of the rare book dealers on the net.

However, alongside the listings for Moldavian Autumn, I’d also seen another book in English translation by Drutse: The Story of An Ant. There was no information about it, beyond the fact that it contained illustrations. Intrigued by the title and anxious to have some kind of Moldovan reading matter in my life, I ordered that instead.

A slender pamphlet arrived through the post, containing two fable-like animal stories by Ion Drutse. The first, ‘Duck Hunters’, portrays the development of a touching friendship between an old farmer’s housekeeper and a chick hatched from a stolen duck egg. The second story, which shares the title of the book, follows an ant’s epic quest to find some food in a harsh, giant-sized world.

Although ostensibly simple, the stories contain subtle portraits of the motivations driving their characters. From the descriptions of farmer Uncle Trofim, a ‘deeply disappointed old man’, whose sense of identity is bound up with his dwindling flock of ducks and the zama his housekeeper makes from them, to the savage attack launched by the farmyard geese on the pampered favourite, Drutse’s sense of the needs and desires of his subjects underpins the narratives. The first story also contains a powerful explanation of the reason we often feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals that tend to be pets: ‘You can’t make zama out of something that rejoices your soul’, as the old woman puts it.

Striking imagery and quirky details help make the stories live. While trouble sticks to Uncle Trofim ‘like a burr’ and the sitting goose laughs at the odd-shaped duck egg hidden in her clutch, the ant’s view of the obstacles in her way – from a massive pair of ploughman’s feet to a dozing muskrat (‘There’s no lazybones like a muskrat in this world and any ant would have stopped and told the rat about it’) – keep us gripped by her quest. In addition, the impressionistic illustrations, which vary markedly in tone between the two stories, help enrich the reading experience.

That said, the text does have some problems. The translation is erratic at times with pronouns and tenses leaping merrily all over the shop. One or two words also seem to have got mangled in the process – the description of how ‘before the frost came, the goslings changed their pubes into feathers’, for example, can’t be quite right.

In addition, the structure of the stories is a little unusual. While the first story seems to shift focus from Uncle Trofim to the old woman, as though Drutse only makes up his mind who his main character is half-way through, the second story ends so abruptly that it seems the author has lost patience with it and is eager to move on to something else.

Reading them, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t seeing Drutse at his best, particularly given malinkasstudio’s enthusiasm for him. However, the quirky touches and striking imagery made me intrigued to try more of his work. If anyone out there has a copy of Moldavian Autumn that I can beg, buy or borrow I’d love to hear from you – maybe I can read it next year!

The Story of An Ant by Ion Drutse, translated from the Moldovan by Iraida Kotrutse, illustrated by Nina Danilenko (Kishinev Literatura Artistika, 1988)

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