Unveiled: The Critic’s Grace and his Magic Garden. Books, Booze, and Baklava
The taxi ride takes forty minutes. It proceeds as expected from our hotel in downtown Bucharest, but once we reach the city outskirts traffic slows down to a crawl. “That’s the Berceni Crossing,” announces the cab driver, indicating the huge construction site lacking safety fences, with heavy machinery abandoned everywhere — it is 1 pm on Saturday –, pedestrians hurrying in different directions, and two pairs of tram rails butting up against piles of up-turned dirt. “They broke ground six years ago, but I don’t think they’ll ever finish.”
As we wait for the traffic to advance, I see on the sidewalk a man in a bright yellow protection jacket with a bucket and a trowel in his hands. A low metal rail supported on short rusty posts separates the sidewalk from a slope specked by wilted grass. Each post rests on a rectangular concrete base. Gray blocks of flats rise in the distance. The man stops in front of one of the posts and starts filling the cracks in the concrete with grout. He leans over and moves his trowel slowly, grout dripping on the sidewalk, each stroke followed by a long pause, eyes scrutinizing the imperfections with contemplative and longing care. Then he looks left and right and quickly sits on the railing, eager for a well-deserved rest. Our car moves and I lose sight of that lonely weekend worker.
At the intersection with the ‘Bucharest beltway,’ we cross a two-lane road filled bumper-to-bumper with vehicles. Our right of way notwithstanding, given the intensity of the traffic, getting to the other side is not for the faint of heart. I close my eyes hoping the cabby knows what he is doing. Once beyond, we drive the remaining few kilometers without a problem and take a right immediately after a convenience store bearing the conspicuous but charming name of Forget me not (Nu mă uita, in Romanian). We find ourselves on a narrow and bumpy strip of asphalt without sidewalks. Houses with red-shingled roofs, mostly new, stand hidden behind tall metal and concrete fences. Abundant vegetation, some in need of pruning, confers upon these homes and their gardens a magical and disdainful feel of privacy, clearly distinguishing them from the street that belongs to nobody and is best described, to quote a travel guide to Romania, as “post communist grime.” Litter and left over construction materials are piled against the walls. Tired dogs sleep in the sun. Pedestrians with shopping bags throw curious glances at us.
Our car stops in front of a tall double gate. Behind the iron fence stands a two-story brick house. A few concrete steps lead up to the front door. A dog barks tied to his chain by a garden shed. The imposing silhouette of our host, Alex Ștefănescu, appears in the doorway.
Alex is one of the best-known Romanian literary critics. His beautiful writing style, direct and clear, abounds in heart-warming humor and reflects the confidence of profound knowledge that has turned him into a highly regarded and much beloved cultural personality. I first met Alex in 2011, when he helped me launch and promote my novel The Visitor (Vizitatorul in Romanian). Since then, we kept in touch by email and postings on Facebook. When he heard that my wife, Vio, and I would be visiting Bucharest in October, Alex was gracious enough to invite us to an early dinner at his house in the country. We were delighted. We wanted to see him again, meet his wife Domnița (often found in fairy tales, the name means little princess), and talk about literature.
“Come here, come in,” Alex says from afar. “The dog is a pussycat. So glad to see you both.” He steps forward, gives Vio a bear hug, and shakes my hand. “I missed you,” he says. “I’ll show you around, but let me start with my garden. I’m very fond of it.”
Long and narrow, the garden is perpendicular to the street, and extends well beyond the length of the house. Fruit bearing trees grow everywhere. Gray stone slabs form a path to a gazebo not far from the water fountain. Inside are a grill and a large wooden table with many chairs. “We entertain here in the summer,” Alex says, and I hear in my mind the happy voices and laughter of his visitors, no doubt important personalities from the Romanian cultural establishment. We admire his vegetable patch, his flowerbeds and his greenhouse. It is a beautiful fall day, cool air surrounding us with the fresh smell of earth and moisture. I duck to avoid the low branches of an apple tree heavy with ripe fruit. In the plum tree nearby, the plums have their dark purple skin covered by a whitish dust, like the burn of a premature morning frost.
Inside the house we meet Domnița. She is busy by the stove in the kitchen, to the right of the main hallway. A narrow staircase leads to the second floor. When she sees us, she comes over and we shake hands. In her dark blue dress and white apron tied at her waist, she looks friendly and comfortable. Vio hands her the small gifts we brought. “Thank you so much,” she says with a warm smile. We follow her into a spacious room, with windows opening to the garden. A long dining table stands by the windows and a custom built bookcase occupies the entire wall to our left, floor to ceiling. The colorful book spines create a subdued geometric play in the afternoon light, filling the space with an old world aura, appropriate for a man of letters. At the far end, I see a small desk and a large comfortable chair, and I imagine Alex taking his rightful place there, several tomes open in front of him, reading, thinking and covering his notebook pages in quick and secure longhand.
Our meal starts with a glass of heady palinca, the traditional drink that burns your throat and whets your appetite. Alex disappears in the kitchen and returns with a loaf of home baked bread, warm from the oven, a pot of thick vegetable soup, butter, and sour cream. “This soup is very tasty,” observes Vio. “I made it for you myself,” boasts Alex. “All ingredients are fresh, from our garden.” “Alex,” I say, “I like your library.” “Oh, these are only my Romanian books — my everyday bread.” He points to the hundreds if not thousands of volumes on his shelves. “We have many more upstairs.”
Domnița brings several salads (roasted eggplant, tomatoes with olive oil, and sautéed mushrooms), and a plate of stuffed grape leaves (sarmale). Alex pours a nice, white Pelin wine. We all pace ourselves, knowing full well that more food is coming.
Domnița has recently taken a leave of absence from the small publishing house she owns (Mașina de scris, or The Typewriter in English). We talk about the difficult business of selling books in Romania and in the US, and I compliment her on the exhaustive historical treaty she wrote and published several years ago about the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and the years that followed (11 Years of Romanian History).
I tell Alex that I couldn’t find his latest publication, A Secret Journal (Jurnal secret) in the bookstores. He gets up and brings me a copy. He signs it. We talk about his upcoming monograph of Mihai Eminescu (the 19th century Romanian national poet). He hands me five booklets, each containing a review of one or several important poems by Eminescu, among them the most famous and celebrated Romanian poem, Luceafărul (The Evening Star). “We are publishing these booklets first, to get the public ready; to open their appetite, so to speak,” he says. I tell him I would like to take all of them with me. He agrees. (I read them later, on the return leg of our trip. The volume dedicated to Luceafărul is like reading poetry about a poem. “Shakespeare’s fame competes with that of Hamlet,” Alex starts his study. “Cervantes competes with don Quijote. Only a genius can create a character who becomes more famous than the author. Eminescu’s fame competes with Luceafărul, the celestial protagonist of his poem.” Alex ascertains that the poem reads as if it had always existed hidden in the Romanian language, and the poet had uncovered it, like the sculptor who reveals the face concealed inside the marble with the magic of his chisel.)
Alex is also the Editor in Chief of Luceafărul, a prestigious literary weekly named after this most beautiful poem. “I made my literary debut in Luceafărul in 1969,” I say. “You beat me by three years!” he exclaims. I bring up my novella, Smoke, demurely mentioning that in 1999 director Lucian Pintilie suggested we collaborate for a movie made after the novella. At the time, he could not get funding, but his interest, in and of itself, was gratifying. Alex asks to read the novella, and I promise to send it to him. “I could also mail you a copy of No Portrait in the Gilded Frame, my new novel. It came out in the States three months ago,” I add. “But only if you’re interested.” “I’m a literary critic,” Alex answers. “Of course I’m interested. I have to be interested in everything that is linked to Romanian literature.”
The main course arrives: mititei (small garlicky grilled sausages), along with roasted chicken wings, roasted peppers, more bread and wine. For dessert, Domnița serves vanilla ice cream and homemade baklava with walnuts picked that morning in their garden. I eat at least four pieces and finally stop, embarrassed. With dessert comes coffee and I switch back to palinca. The world around me turns mellow and happy.
When it’s time to go, unable to get a cab, Alex offers to drive us to the metro station, a few kilometers inside the beltway. We hug Domnita good-bye, and promise to stay in touch. The drive takes no time. The station is clean and functional, a few people standing here and there. Alex buys our tokens and waits with us until the train arrives. We embrace, enter the modern looking train car and sit by the window. As we depart, I catch one final glimpse of Alex, waiving: a gentle giant disappearing in the distance.