Romania: he ain’t heavy…

Over the last decade, the world’s been going crazy for collaborative novels. Whether it’s ambitious, international ventures such as Penguin’s abortive A Million Penguins blog or lighthearted projects between two or three people, more and more writers are taking advantage of the opportunities the internet offers to work together.

Joining forces with a writer you’ve never met before is one thing, but what about working with someone you’ve known all your life? How would you pick your way through the labyrinth of your relationship to produce something intelligible and entertaining for a reader who’s never met you and knows nothing of the thousand jokes, frustrations and secrets you’ve built up between you over your time on Earth?

It sounds like a minefield to me, so when Bucharest UN Information Centre officer Cristina got in touch through a friend to recommend The Baiut Alley Lads by award-winning author Filip Florian and his younger brother Matei, I had to see how they’d tackled it.

Set in the 1970s and 1980s during the communist era, the novel paints a powerful picture of life in a totalitarian society as seen through children’s eyes. The brothers play versions of themselves in the book, narrating alternative chapters and frequently casting the reader in the role of parent/referee as they correct and challenge each other’s versions of events. ‘What guarantee do I have, as a younger brother, that Filip is not mixing everything up again?’ laments Matei at one point.

This playful combativeness is nowhere more apparent than in the brothers’ accounts of the make-believe worlds they retreat into when reality becomes too grim. In a universe where ‘trolleybuses really could change into bison’ and fantastical events make ‘the world stir from its givenness’, anything can happen and there can be no definitive version of truth. ‘Brothers can write a book together, but they cannot meet the same angels and pixies at the same time’, observes Filip.

This fluidity of truth crashes up against the rigid structures of the regime with surprising and often joyful results. Unconcerned by Communism, except where it touches their own lives, the boys see politics as a matter of whether or not you are allowed to play in goal or buy sweets. Instead of the Homeland and the Party, there are the crosspatch school teacher and the peaked cap of the officer who visits their mother.

Now and then, the free movement of the narrative between imagined, ‘real’, past and present worlds can be disorientating. For a British reader with little knowledge of Romanian history like me, this was compounded by my ignorance of a lot of the events sketched into the background. With my cultural compass of very little use, it was difficult to relax into the flow of the narrative as I was continually straining to catch references on and beyond the edge of my awareness.

This of course was one of the book’s joys too. It opened a closed world and brought the reality of life there home to me. I came away with a huge admiration for the skill of both Florians and a fresh respect for what collaborative art can achieve.

Hmmn. I wonder if either of the brothers Morgan would be up for a joint venture…

The Baiut Alley Lads by Filip & Matei Florian, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (University of Plymouth Press, 2010)