Book of the month: Bogdan Teodorescu

Translators can often be great guides to interesting new books. Once you get into reading literature originally written in languages other than English, the names of the people who bring it into your mother tongue start to surface – shyly at first, from flyleaves and afterwords more often than book covers – in your awareness.

The more you read, the more you get a sense for the sort of projects a particular translator tends to work on. Just as publishing houses and imprints become known for producing certain kinds of books, so individual translators (who often act as scouts and activists, persuading publishers to acquire books they might otherwise not hear of or might hesitate to bring to the English market) often exhibit a certain consistency of track record that makes their name a kind of endorsement.

These days when I receive news of a novel by an author I’ve never heard of, discovering that the English version is by a translator whose work I have enjoyed in the past can often be the deciding factor that makes me turn to the first page.

So when I heard that one of the book bloggers I most respect, Marina Sofia, was working on a translation from her native Romanian, I was intrigued. All the more so when I learned that the novel was the first publication from newly minted Corylus Books, an outfit that, as it states on its website, aims ‘to take a chance on presenting some of the great European crime fiction that wouldn’t normally make its way into English’.

What was it about Bogdan Teodorescu’s Sword, I wondered, that had convinced a prolific and discerning reader and a new publisher to throw their weight behind it?

Difference is certainly one of its selling points. Although the premise of a serial killer leaving a trail of bodies across the Romanian underworld sounds conventional enough and the first chapter dutifully delivers a corpse for the reader to ponder, the similarities between this novel and the crime fiction with which most English speakers will be familiar end there.

Instead of the graphic, action-packed thriller such books usually provide in the anglophone world, the narrative moves through a series of meetings, phone calls and media broadcasts in which politicians, journalists and bureaucrats weigh up the political implications of a murderer targeting the nation’s much-maligned Roma community. Rather than providing a central figure – usually an emotionally damaged detective – to accompany us through the twists and turns of the plot, the novel sweeps us past a large cast of characters, many of whom have very few distinguishing features. And in place of dwelling on the tribulations of the killer’s human victims, the book presents Romania itself as the hostage whose fate hangs in the balance.

There are striking stylistic, pacing and structural differences too. Dialogue makes up the vast majority of the book, with many pages given over to political speeches and debates. Whole chapters go by without more than a handful of sentences of description. Although the actions of the killer are extreme and brutal (and are captured with powerful economy on several occasions), these account for a tiny proportion of the narrative: most scenes concern men in suits arguing with one another.

This makes for a surprising and sometimes challenging read. With the sort of action-based suspense that keeps the pages turning in many anglophone thrillers largely absent, the book has an oddly static feel. Sometimes, it almost seems as though readers have been left with reams of raw, unedited footage to sift through and shape for themselves.

However, for those willing to read in this way, the novel offers other kinds of intrigue. The preoccupations, prejudices and corruption of Romania’s ruling elite are laid bare as the players work the levers of power and try to turn the increasingly alarming events to their advantage. With a satirical directness that few British writers attempt, Teodorescu lampoons the self-serving nature of those ruining his nation. (That said, I was sure I could see Marina Sofia smiling to herself when at one stage she opted for the phrase ‘the nasty party’ – an appellation that has been associated with the UK’s Conservative party since Theresa May uttered it in 2002.)

It’s also fascinating and thought-provoking to see discrimination and racism handled in a rather different manner to the way in which such issues are usually discussed in the anglophone media. In addition, the much more global perspective that drives many of the Romanian politicians’ domestic decisions, most of which are taken with half an eye on how they might be construed in the West, is illuminating. Reading about these things, which are so rarely portrayed in English, feels like gaining privileged access to a world from which we would normally be excluded.

Sword doesn’t deliver what its cover and title may lead many anglophone readers to expect. I am sure there will be people who will be disappointed by this book. For those willing to set their expectations aside, however, the novel offers a surprising, urgent and little-heard story, told in a voice that English speakers may have to learn to listen to properly.

Sword (Spada) by Bogdan Teodorescu, translated from the Romanian by Marina Sofia (Corylus Books, 2020)

Picture: ‘Bucharest Parliament Building-4’ by John6536 on flickr.com

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)