Last October my wife and I went on an Eastern European river cruise. Another couple joined us — good friends, American born and bred — and we spent a few days showing them our native Romania. From Bucharest we boarded a bus to Giurgiu, a small town south of the Romanian capital on the Danube, and we sailed up the river for eight days and nights until we reached Budapest.
On the way, we stopped twice in Bulgaria, spent a full day going through the locks at the Iron Gates, anchored for another day in Belgrade (Serbia) on the Sava River, one more time in Croatia, and once in a village in Hungary, just downstream from Budapest. The weather wasn’t the best — mostly cloudy skies, and sometimes a drizzle that combined with a wet and penetrating cold contributed to an impression of general dreariness. I don’t mean to say that the journey wasn’t interesting — it was, and those who, unlike us, had never before encountered the remnants of the Communist Block, found it worth their time — but it wasn’t breathtaking. In fact, it felt more like a well-crafted, educational, black and white movie, where the narrators — our local guides — gave presentations peppered with jokes about Donald Trump and life under Communism.
While on the boat, which was functional and very comfortable, I had plenty of time to reminisce and think. I spent hours on the upper deck wrapped in a blanket, staring at the Danube passing us by as we headed west. It was brown, gold, gray, green, and black — never blue. It was shimmering and cold.
One night they served catfish for dinner, and someone at our table said it could get to be 6 feet long. Its white meat, tender and sweet, flaked off the hollow backbone. I remembered that during my Romanian childhood, catfish — called somn in Romanian, which also means sleep — caught in the Danube Delta was considered a treat: tasty, healthy, and part of an elegant dinner.
The next day, up on the deck of our ship, I imagined a large catfish stealthily following us upstream. I was daydreaming of my new novel, based on the story of two families, my wife’s and mine, and searching for an appropriate metaphor to tie its many characters, time periods, and places together. Immigration and human migration in general is a unifying theme of the book, but I felt I needed something else as well. So for a while I toyed with the fish: sleek and powerful, silent, mysterious like a shadow in the profound depth of one of Europe’s best known rivers. I visualized its slim muscular body, its scales, its black eyes, rapacious mouth, and long barbels, gliding through the pages of my novel as an elusive symbolic image, unrelated and totally unexplained, except, perhaps, by geographical association, because my novel would necessarily begin in Romania, and we were sailing on the Danube.
I thought of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, a Balkan creation involving, among other characters, a tiger that escapes a local zoo during the recent war, and roams freely through abandoned backyards and dense woods. I couldn’t remember the novel exactly, but that tiger, normally a symbol of strength and nimbleness and freedom, released into an environment as foreign to it as the tiger was foreign to the environment, represented to me the perfect oddity of a war that wasn’t supposed to happen.
I thought of Miroslav Penkov’s Stork Mountain, a work of beautifully narrated prose. The action takes place in today’s Bulgaria, but the book is full of references to historical events and miraculous folk stories that are woven within the contemporary action and create the impression of a meaningful and exotic unreality that is, in my opinion, perfect for a place as foreign to the American reader as Bulgaria might be (and Romania, also). ‘Could I emulate it?’ I wondered. Penkov’s short story Buying Lenin (published first in The Southern Review, and republished in the 2008 Best American Short Story anthology, edited by Salman Rushdie) has the same main protagonists as the novel, the author as a young man who comes to America, and the grandfather in Bulgaria, a heroic and unusual figure. It was the love of the young man for the grandfather, and the symbolic use of Lenin as a bizarre prop, that drew me in, and totally won me over.
I thought of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other South American writers who invented magic realism, and of Khaled Hosseini, who also writes about remote and exotic customs and places.
My mind drifted happily as the ship glided along shores covered by forests and mellow pastures, sleepy towns, mountainous roads, bridges, and church steeples. Drizzle fell on my face, and my heavy eyelids closed to allow my scaly friend to continue its underwater journey.
In the end, I didn’t finalize the metaphor for my novel, because on the eighth day of our river cruise, we anchored in Budapest, and my black and white film suddenly exploded in color.
Please comment, recommend and share.