Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore
A Little History: It isn’t essential to know that the country of Moldova used to be part of Romania, but it helps. Ukraine also borders the two. Part of Moldova has since broken away and is now the (unacknowledged) country of Transnistria, populated mostly by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.
A Little Historical Novel: Moldova sucks. That’s the first thing, says this narrator, that a Moldovan will tell you–right before he tries to pay you 4,000 Euro to smuggle him into Italy so he can live “the good life”. Why, you might wonder, don’t Moldovans stay home and try to make Moldova into a better place? Well, for one thing, according to Our Hero, no Moldovan has a high opinion of his fellow “knuckle-headed knuckle-draggers” without culture. They’re lazy, sneaky, lying cowards. Beaten down by decades of Soviet collective farming, and consumed with resentment, the citizens of Moldova, in particular the village of Larga, just want to get to Italy.
Where, they imagine, the women can clean house for rich Italians with villas. If they’re lucky, the homeowners will marry them. The men will work as day laborers, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. They’ll be paid a thousand Euros per month. Even the President of Moldova is scheming of illegally immigrating so he can open a pizzeria in Rome. (Moldova is the poorest country in Europe.) He wears hand-me-down clothes from the President of Azer-Baijan and falls asleep in the middle of giving his own speeches.
The irony is that Moldova, of course, used to be part of the Roman Empire, which once came marching to them. Now all they want is to go to Rome. This little sarcastic, sardonic, witty novel is full of irony. It is savagely funny. Although it is full of violence and death, I understood it to be allegorical and was not attached to the characters–it all seems removed from them somehow. Which allowed me to enjoy the humor without getting too upset or outraged by the violence.
(Completely unlike the recent non-fiction books on this blog set in Lithuania and Sierra Leone.)
And a Tractor Named Joe
O.K., that isn’t really the tractor’s name. It has several incarnations, one as a plane and one as a submarine. It even, at one point, receives a Christian burial. All in the service of getting its master to Italy.
“Old Man Tudor and Serafim returned in the evening, tired and angry…Serafim kicked a can of Coca-Cola that had just been tossed from the window of a speeding car.
“Under the Soviets, things were bad, too, it’s just that you’re young and you don’t remember anything,” said the old man, pedaling harder and barely opening his eyes. “But I remember. Dirt, poverty, and a whole lot of lousy nothingness have always been here.”
“I’ve got to go to Italy,” Serafim said.
“Itay, Italy, you keep chirping,” said Tudor, getting angry. “Better you tell me this: Have you heard about Maria hanging herself?”
“First they’ve got to take her down.”
“What? They haven’t taken her down yet?”
“She’s been hanging on the acacia tree for three weeks,” the old man said sadly. “Her husband doesn’t want to take her down. Her swaying body has a soothing effect on him, he says.”
“Tfu,” spit Serafim. “Inhuman.”
“We’re all human,” admitted Tudor. “We’re all people. We’re all little persons. He should be pitied. The man’s lost his tractor.”
What’s So Funny?
Moldovan author Lorchenkov undercuts his characters and their scheming with a deft and professional hand. This is one of the finest comic novels I’ve ever read, but I can’t tell you all the details–there are a few surprises 75% of the way through that will blow doors off the barn.
Some of the humor is situational–all the plots the villagers use to try to get to Italy and how they’re rarely successful. Plus the sheer ridiculousness of the last days of the Communist Party’s chokehold on the village. (Beneath the laughter there are tears and some murderous intentions for past wrongs–one young man can’t let go of his rage at the Commune Chairman for sending his grandparents and parents to Siberia decades before.)
Some humor comes from comic characters like the “asocial element” Petra Ivantsok, who is a professional pickpocket in Larga. When he goes to pieces from the beatings the villagers give him for stealing valuables from trolley passengers, he files for a pension from the Communist Party, and gets one. When they discover their mistake, rather than admit they were wrong, they increase it. (The other “village idiot,” Dygalo, who moonlights as an agronomist with a PhD in Agricultural Sciences, is so injured by hearing about this that he dies.)
This book was good to the last drop, and I have no doubt that I’ll be reading it again.
Rating: Five Italian textbooks with the covers torn off!