(The Innocents, by Ioana Pârvulescu)
In the midst of all the heartbreaking news about what is happening at the border with Mexico, where children were ripped from their parents’ arms by armed, uniformed men in the name of some thoughtless policy, and where the cruelty perpetuated by ICE reaches depths unimaginable even a few days ago, I experienced an unexpected moment of delight. It came from something simple that many of us do every day — I read a beautiful book. It was pleasant, optimistic, occasionally funny, and full of self-deprecating warmth. (Especially in moments of hardship, it is proper to remember how unimportant we are.) The book transported me to the days of old, in my country of birth, under a real dictatorship, even though the dictatorship was not mentioned in an overt manner in the book.
During the communist regime in Romania, the written word was censured and strictly controlled. Yet in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, my generation grew to appreciate literature as an expression of all the things we could not have. We respected it. Romanian classics and translations of western writers that somehow matched the propaganda interests of the regime (or didnt’t antagonize them) made it into the bookstores, but most of the activity of contemporary local writers was suppressed. That is why, after the regime changed, everybody expected a literary explosion — powerful novels kept hidden in basements and drawers would suddenly see the light of print. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell from far away, the explosion never happened. Books were published, much more than before, yet most were translations. When it came to Romanian authors, they opted for memoirs and collections of essays that focused ceaselessly on the grunge and suffering under Communism.
This book describes the same period of time, but without complaints. The Innocents, by Iona Pârvulescu, was released by Humanitas, one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the country. The author is a professor of literature at the University of Bucharest, and this is her third novel. I was surprised she called it a novel, since I would rather describe it as a collection of vignettes, fused by location and characters. It lacks the typical dramatic arch that we come to expect from a novel, but whatever is missing in plot is more than compensated by the rich and innocent voice of the protagonist, a girl between five and, I believe, nine years old, depending of where you are in the book.
It’s not long: 340 pages, including the prologue, the acknowledgements and the index. It has a simple cover with an inspired design: children’s colorful building blocks form the letters that spell out the title. The back cover includes comments and quotes by the people who played a role in the publication of the book, and by two of the book’s characters. How original is that! It is insightful, and it draws you right in. I liked Vlad’s quote: ‘Innocence is the only way to cause time to become reversible’ — and I loved the opinion of the used books dealer, a minor character, who asserts that ‘in any race the winner is the one who places last.’
Told in first person, most narrative happens in a house on Mayakovsky Street, formerly Saint Ioan, in Brașov, a town about 110 miles north-west of Bucharest, on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains that I hiked methodically as a young man. The house is a character in the book. It has thoughts and feelings, and it has a face. Other characters include the protagonist, her older brother, her two cousins, her mother, father, grandmother and grandfather, an aunt (who looks like Jane Fonda, or at least has her lips), an uncle, a chest of six drawers of which one is locked, neighbors, the used books dealer, a visitor from Belgium, two dogs, a fir tree, an old nearby hotel, a new nearby hotel, a river, the Black Sea, a cat, a bear, a swimming pool, two cows, and countless other animals, people and things. There is no single plot running through it, but as little stories line up like beads on a string, we see the wonders of a world that is far from perfect, yet perfect enough to make us smile, as only a smart little girl comfortable within her own environment can do.
She is too young to know that death exists, that people die, that houses die, that countries die, and while she’s on the verge of finding that out, she doesn’t mind it one bit. She learns that nothing is ever exactly what it appears to be. Her father dies young and the author leaves us wondering if it was cancer, an accident, or a suicide. Maybe a girl of seven doesn’t have the power of reflection to address something like this. Or maybe this book is about something else.
They speak about Esperanto in this book, mixed with German and Hungarian. Brașov is a beautiful and diverse city with a long history (it is called Kronstadt in German, and during the Stalinist period it was referred to as Stalin City). Lenin, Stalin, and even Siberia appear in the stories providing background and depth. America’s lure and influence is represented by Laurel and Hardy, by Simon Templar, by Coca Cola in paper cups and aluminum cans, by the Moon landing and by the description of a voyage, in the late forties, to New York. There are stories of survival in the mountains, and stories about secret tunnels and spies. I was glad to be alive as I immersed myself in all this.
The book left me with a feeling of longing. The ending reflects on a past that is always written in invisible ink (which plays a role in the book) and requires warmth to become legible. It also ponders on how we attempt to swim through the storms of time without drowning, a nod perhaps to a father who had departed prematurely but not before teaching his children to avoid the dangerous currents of the sea.
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