Absolutely beautiful. The narrator and his sister Miruna listen to their ancient grandfather's stories of his remote Carpathian village and their foreAbsolutely beautiful. The narrator and his sister Miruna listen to their ancient grandfather's stories of his remote Carpathian village and their forebears. If only it had been five times its 140-odd pages, with space to hear about more family members. (It concentrates on the great-grandfather, phrasing his story as if he were a hero of epic myth, and the grandfather himself.) The narrative's eye for detail is as if hearing one articulate villager's contribution to a microhistory like Montaillou, whilst time swirls with enchantments and stories emerge from and fade back into the mists. Hardships and attitudes of the past are not idealised - although there is no domestic violence, and some characters live to be a couple of hundred years old - but the writing is always exquisite. It's hard to know what to quote without pasting half the book, but here is something seasonal:
A harsh winter followed, one of those winters that consumes whole cartloads of wood in the stove, with cruel frosts, with snows that hid all the land and every last trace of the work of human hands, a winter that plunged the world back into its primordial state. In Evil Vale, humans were not yet entirely master. There were only a handful of houses. In winter, wolf tracks dotted the snow in the village itself, wild boars rooted in the gardens not two paces away from folks, and lynxes prowled over the roofs. The villagers understood nature as hostile and inimical to them, and they did not rise up against it, for you would need to drink your brains away to rise against something so overwhelming. They all knew Evil Vale was a place in thrall to the forest, a place where human laws held no sway, where the laws of the wilderness governed.
And this most of all is a world where magic is real, or was until very recently: folk magic of fae worlds and old wives and diviners, where there were more than thirty cunning-folk in a settlement of 2000.
The author is rather impressively polymathic: he is a mathematics professor in the US, having emigrated there in the 1990s, and has also written five novels in Romanian. His afterword shows a delight in folklore of both poet and historian. He goes into his own family history that inspired this: a grandmother who lived in a region too mountainous to have its culture obliterated by collective farming under communism. describes some research in a Mircea Eliade book showing how a fairytale with supernatural elements originated in real events in a Romanian village decades earlier. And the book is the most meticulously footnoted translation of contemporary fiction I've seen. (The extra information left me craving maps and pictures though.) Not many people are so flexible as to be able to set aside one of their major subjects like this: Numbers are in fact of no use to anyone, because nothing ever changes. Evil Vale is always the same. The ages of man are not like the ages of trees, for they are not measured in the same way.
I'd read one previous translation by Alistair Blyth, Mircea Cărtărescu's short story collection Why We Love Women. That barely scraped 3 stars. After seeing the sterling work in Miruna, (and seeing the differing ratings for the two books in Romanian) this is a translator I trust to put across the quality of the original.
The family setting of Miruna could, in lesser hands, have been syrupy. They're a fairly happy family. And it's hinted from the outset that the old man feels he doesn't have much time left and, whilst he still can, wants to pass on his stories to the grandchildren who connect with them best. But it is simply very lovely in as simple and magical a manner as - something that probably comes to mind because of the time of year - Raymond Briggs picture books....more