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Book Review: “The Romanian” by Bruce Benderson (Prix de Flore)

April 2nd, 2010 · No Comments · Books, PEOPLE, Reviews

"The Romanian" by Bruce Benderson (Prix de Flore)

"The Romanian" by Bruce Benderson (Prix de Flore)

Book Review: “The Romanian Story of an Obsession” by Bruce Benderson (Prix de Flore)

  • ISBN-10: 1905005180
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905005185
  • 384 pages
  • PUBLISHER: Snowbooks (2006)

Benderson is a winner of the prestigious French literary Prize “Le Prix de Flore”, whose name is given after the famous Literary Cafe on Boulevard St Germain, Paris 6e. He is a fifty-something New Yorker, known in France for his English translations of French literature.
This book, as suggested by the title is about a particular young Romanian whom the author meets accidentally in the streets of Budapest (Hungary) and with whom he strikes a close friendship. They travel together to Romania – first to Transylvania (Sibiu, Maramures), Bucharest and then Constanta, on the Black Sea. This allows the reader a glimpse of Romanian society and mentality during the first decade of the 21st century.
The narrative is interspersed with historical and literary references of interwar Romania of Queen Marie, King Carol and Madame Lupescu, but also of characters from the novels of Panait Istrati and occasionally forays into the author’s domestic life, in New York, with his aged mother. These digressions make the story a little disjointed.

Not all Romanian readers will enjoy this book, which grates by its candid and often opinionated outsider’s perspective. In spite of this, “The Romanian” is an eye-opener on recent history of a society in turmoil, which finds it hard to adapt after 40 years of communist dictatorship: who wouldn’t?

There are also the occasional hilarious interlude, such as the one at the Romanian Cultural Centre in New York. Here, the Institute’s Director, Carmen Firan is a former protege of ex-President Ion Iliescu and Benderson describes her as “an intellectual”(sic) – a matter of opinion on which the jury is still out. Benderson also mentions a meeting organized in NY where Firan’s choice guest is a certain Nina Cassian. In Romania, Cassian is still remembered as an ex-communist sycophant but in spite of it, in New York the subject is repackaged as a “dissident” (and how!).

Cassian was a poet who, during four long decades of communism enjoyed unashamedly, the spoils of the dictatorship. During her extended honeymoon with the Romanian Communist censorship Cassian published several dozens  of volumes of her grotesque poetry, before she absconded to USA, in the late 1980s. Bruce finds her in NY where she is hailed as a linchpin of Romanian culture…. now we know where are the real sympathies of the Romanian Cultural Centre: well – birds of a feather!

A literary critic of “Le Monde” who is quoted on the front cover of this book states that:

“what astonishes and intrigues is Benderson’s way of recounting in the sweetest possible voice, things which are considered shocking… ”

If the French are “shocked”, then the Romanians would certainly be outraged, not by the lack of prudery, as by the fresco of the Romanian society of motley pimps, hustlers, prostitutes, bureaucrats, hangers-on, desperate people and the whole gamut of poor destitute of all ages, social background and ethnic origin, neither of whom come out too well, in the end: TOUGH!

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