I really liked this book up to the last story. That one robbed it of a 5 star rating. But bear with me, we’ll get there. Twenty-one short essays about women – women who were unforgettable for different reason, some, because of their beauty, others because of what they did (or didn’t do), or the way they came back into the author’s life after a long time. Stories of lust, love, eroticism, betrayal, tragedy, all plucked from the folds of memory, dusted and printed on the page, ready to be smiled upon, frowned upon and even shed a tear upon. I smiled reading about Carturescu’s self-professed awkwardness and I can very well imagine the strange, thin youth who used to go around quoting favorite authors to the dismay of acquaintances and girls in particular. I kept smiling when he talked about finding a room filled with old books in a dilapidated building, and spending hours of pleasure immersed in reading, sealed away from the world until one day the room along with its treasure was gone.
It’s hard to describe with accuracy the tone of some of the stories. Imbued with the air of a long gone era – some of them take place during the communist regime that ended in 1989 – I found myself laughing at some of the expressions I found nearly impossible to translate. I wonder what the English translation of this book is like. Although Cartarescu is older than I am (he was born in 1956 and is still living), he talks about a Bucharest that doesn’t seem that old – a dilapidated house, a subway station, the gray apartment buildings rising tall and ugly (they’re still there), a black and white photograph (my parents still have those, where people look like ghosts printed on hard pieces of paper with jagged border all around), a big market that still exists where Gypsies are on the prowl for wallets belonging to inattentive customers. This is probably the main reason why I felt such a connection with these stories – he writes about the familiar, things and people I can readily imagine and accept because at some point I’ve seen/met them.
There are some stories that are not that personal – Zaraza is one of them. This is one of my favorites because it’s a tale of a love story so intense and dramatic I couldn’t help but be moved and immensely saddened by it. According to the author, this is a true story that happened in 1944 when Bucharest was caught in the grip of war and the nightlife was luxurious, loud and tumultuous. Two famous singers vied for public attention, Cristian Vasile si Zavaidoc. They were rivals and both under the protection of local gangs. Because they were so popular nobody would touch them, although Zavaidoc wished his rival’s death and even asked a local gangster to kill him. But the man liked Cristian Vasile’s music and refused to kill him. He killed his lover instead, the famous Gypsy woman Zaraza. Her death was the end of Cristian Vasile’s life as a singer. After she was cremated, he stole her ashes and ate them one spoon at a time, then tried to kill himself by drinking a toxic substance. He survived, lost his voice and kept on living, a broken man who made his living as a stagehand in a theatre, nearly voiceless and forgotten.
Probably his most famous song which bears the name of his beloved has survived and you can listen to it here:
The last essay in the book is an ode to women everywhere. Carturescu sees women as candid beings, sensual, sometimes difficult to understand but always great to be loved. He also shows a somewhat archaic understanding of women by claiming they don’t do things I’m sure most of them are familiar with. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube reading of that last essay. I found minute 4.20 particularly funny.
I enjoyed these stories/essays. They kept me alert, the writing is smooth and lyrical and sensual, with a pinch of the bizarre, and Cartarescu’s flair for the dramatic stands out. This is certainly a great book and one I recommend. You can find the English translation by following this link.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in February-March 2016