Postage and Packing Free - This collection of short stories includes Petrescu’s 1989 debut Summer Garden, Eclipse, a modern take on the biblical story of Cain and Abel and Friday Afternoon, where an epidemic has dire consequences.
Publication date: 25 November 2011
Hardback 230 x 150mm full colour
The stories gathered here were originally published in Petrescu’s first three collections: ‘The Crystal Globe’, ‘Chance’ and ‘At the Bar’ in The Summer Garden (1989); ‘The Door’, ‘The Joke’, ‘Black Encephalitis’, ‘Diary of a Flat-dweller’ and ‘Rubato’ in Eclipse (1993); and the remaining stories in One Friday Afternoon (1997).
The reader coming to Petrescu’s writing for the first time will find a body of stories in which a sometimes dizzying diversity of narrative strategy, perspective and style is brought to bear on a range of themes in which the fundamental tragic issues of failure, guilt and death are never far away. Sharply observed social and psychological realism (more than one critic has described Petrescu as writing with a scalpel – an obvious conceit, given his medical background, but nevertheless an apt one) blend seamlessly with forays into the surreal and fantastic. A playful and infectious delight in the joy of writing, an ironic detachment and an absurd sense of humour overlie a profound sense of anguish at the tragedy of human existence. The world of Petrescu’s stories is a dark one, full of disappointed hopes, minds driven to insanity, bodies subjected to torture, disease, decay and dissection. The dispassionate technical vocabulary of the doctor’s surgery and the anatomy room is a characteristic part of the texture of his writing. But equally characteristic are the many references to favourite pieces of music, which at times, most obviously but not only in ‘Jazz’, almost amount to a soundtrack to the stories. And there is love too, affirmed at times in surprising ways, as in the conclusion of ‘Wedding Photographs’, as well as in the lyricism of ‘October Letter’.
Though some of Petrescu’s earlier stories, those that draw most directly on his experience as a country doctor, have been seen as original contributions to the rich Romanian tradition of literature about village life, the dominant setting in One Friday Afternoon is Bucharest, the city where the author has spent most of his life. Names of districts, streets, parks and Metro stations anchor the events in the environment of the Romanian capital. The characters, like most urban Romanians, live in blocks of flats, each with its paid caretaker, its management committee and residents’ meetings. Thin walls and ceilings transmit sound easily from one flat to another, amplifying the sense of forced proximity. The exclusively intellectual community in ‘Diary of a Flat-dweller’ is unusual. More commonly (as we see in the ‘The Crystal Globe’ or ‘Flash’), habits and prejudices moulded by a tradition of city dwelling share space uneasily with the very different cultural norms of the only half-urbanised rural population brought in from the countryside by the hurried industrialisation of the communist period.
The range and distinctive character of Petrescu’s writing are already apparent in the three stories from his first collection that are included in the present volume. ‘The Crystal Globe’ consists almost entirely of an extended interior monologue, constantly drifting from the gradual recollection of the significant details of a life apparently now ending in personal and professional failure into passages of dreamlike fantasy of sometimes lyrical intensity. The protagonist, like several of Petrescu’s principal characters, is an individual of exceptional talents whose early promise has ended in frustration and despair, in this case starting from his refusal to comply with the demands of ideological conformity (the vagueness of the setting in time and place, and as regards what precisely the university authorities find wrong with his teaching, are reminders that the story was published before the fall of the communist regime). In ‘Chance’ and ‘At the Bar’, on the other hand, quite unexceptional characters, limited in their vision and in their capacity to articulate their experiences, are confronted with extraordinary situations. In these two stories, Petrescu makes use of one of his characteristic storytelling techniques, presenting the reader with a continuous stream of direct speech, mixed with occasional interventions from an external narrator, in which one voice follows another, without any form of quotation marks and often leaving the reader to guess at the identity of the speakers. Petrescu’s remarkable ability to capture vernacular speech, with all its rough edges, ambiguities and suggestive power (an aspect of his writing that unfortunately can only be hinted at in translation), recalls a Romanian tradition going back to the great nineteenth-century dramatist Ion Luca Caragiale, whose satires of social and political life still resonate in the Romanian language. It should come as no surprise that the post-revolution sequel to ‘At the Bar’, ‘Springtime at the Bar’ (not included in this selection), in which a similar group of drinkers discuss the events of the first months of 1990 in the nation and the village, was subsequently adapted by the author into an award-winning play.
‘The Door’, from Eclipse, like ‘The Crystal Globe’, deals with the lonely transition from life to death, this time in the understated manner of a sketch from hospital life. In ‘Black Encephalitis’ (written in the 1980s, though not published until 1993), the solemnly sustained parody of a clinical description and the tragicomic case study offer an original slant on the theme of the gifted and idealistic individual at odds with his surroundings, and raise disturbing questions about a society in which illness can be redefined as normality. In ‘The Joke’, another story that subsequently developed into a play, Petrescu reworks the biblical story of Cain and Abel, shifting from playful evocation of the narrator’s unique family background to the menace of an absurd trial and its dark conclusion.
Other stories, particularly those from the third volume, One Friday Afternoon, take the form of monologues, in which a succession of narrators tell their life stories, revisit memories, or record extraordinary experiences. The title story of Petrescu’s third collection, ‘One Friday Afternoon’, looks back into dark memories of the communist past, and the unacknowledged guilt that continues to haunt Romania. (It is difficult to read of the ‘seaside’ to which the narrator’s father is said to have sent his victims without recalling the labour camps on the Danube-Black Sea Canal, where tens of thousands of political prisoners were sent, many of them to their deaths, in the early years of the communist regime.) Elsewhere, the setting is the ‘transitional’ world of post-communist Romania, perhaps most strikingly evoked through its television. The daily two hours of largely propaganda broadcasting on a single state channel, to which Romanians had become accustomed in the 1980s, rapidly gave way in the 1990s to a plurality of voices from state and private broadcasters, and a massive influx of foreign TV channels distributed by cable networks. It is from television that the female speaker in ‘Where are You, Eleonora?’ has stocked her vivid imagination, and from the horrifying bombardment of television, more than from her disability itself, that the bedridden woman in ‘Playing Jesus’ needs to be released.
The attentive reader will notice that Petrescu’s characters have a tendency to migrate between stories; several of them make more than one appearance in One Friday Afternoon, for example. It has, indeed, been suggested that the sequence of stories in this third collection might be read as a single work, a jazz-like progression through a succession of themes and improvisations. And in fact such cross-referencing of characters (and also objects: the hammer, the piano…) occurs frequently enough in Petrescu’s work to give at times the feeling that we are reading fragments of one large open-ended and many-voiced novel – a multi-faceted human tragicomedy. And yet seen from another perspective, many of the stories have themselves something of the character of tightly compressed novels – novels reduced to their essence, as it were. (In a recent magazine interview, Petrescu playfully recommends the short story as good value for money in a time of economic crisis, on the grounds that a well-written book of short stories will offer the essence, free of literary ballast, of 10 or 15 novels.) In offering this translation from a representative selection of Razvan Petrescu’s short fiction, it is my pleasure to introduce English-speaking readers to one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Romanian literature – indeed some would say Romania’s finest living writer of short stories – and to invite them to share in a reading experience that may be challenging and at times disturbing, but will, I hope, also prove to be highly entertaining and rewarding.
ASPRO Prize for Best Prose Book of the Year; Prize for Prose awarded by the Writers’ Union - Bucharest Association of Writers, Small Changes in Attitude, anthology, Editura All, 2003. Radio Romania Prize for Fiction, 2008
'If you read his work, you will laugh out loud, but also at yourself, and, consequently, at the irrepressible laughter. The first book of genuine artistic realism whose subjects are situated after December 1989'. Bogdan Ghiu, poet