Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada

Grigorcea, Dana (2011), Baba Rada: Das Leben ist vergänglich wie die Kopfhaare, KaMeRu Verlag
ISBN 978-3-906739-67-0

dg_babarada-202x300I will say this. We all have blind spots for texts if they hit our sweet spot very precisely. I mentioned that in my review of the most recent John Irving novel. In those situations, we (or at least I) can just throw up our hands and say: hey, I like it. Is it good? I don’t know. Sometimes there are texts that come close to checking all the boxes, but don’t hit the sweet spot quite that exactly, so that you’re left with a vague unease. Jim Jarmusch’s most recent movie Only Lovers Left Alive is, for me, that kind of movie. On the one hand, it’s exactly the kind of movie that would appeal to me (take from that what you will), but I have enough of a distance, however tiny, to have some msigivings about the way it’s constructed (and Hiddleston’s acting). Dana Grigorcea’s debut novel Baba Rada has a very similar effect on me. Despite the author’s name and the book’s main title, both of which are obviously Romanian, the book itself is written in German. It’s a very unsubtle German, but suffused with a clearly understood sense of what it can mean to be poetic while writing prose. Make no mistake: this is prose clearly intended to be “poetic” – but Grigorcea pulls it off most of the time, using the inversions, odd subjects and unusual choices of verbs and adjectives to build atmosphere. That’s relevant because for much of the novel that’s the main task of the prose: building atmosphere. The plot happens almost imperceptibly. People die, marry, cheat, in what’s ultimately a fairly short a mount of time, but somehow we don’t feel hurried through a plot. Instead we see episodes bloom in each short chapter, as if staged. Into these short episodes and the overall plot Grigorcea puts ample servings of politics, history, and questions of gender, nation and travel. It’s far from a perfect book, but it’s the debut novel of a very young woman, and the potential here is immense. And as a book, even without the potential, it’s an absolutely lovely book, and if you are a translator looking for your next project, why not take a look at this book, which you should translate at your earliest convenience.

In the next weeks, I will review two or three or more novels written by immigrants (judging from the half written reviews on my desktop), but this is the only one written by a Romanian. Dana Grigorcea was born in Romania, where she studied German and Dutch languages and literature. At the age of 23 (she’s 35 now) she moved first to Belgium, then to Austria, where she finished her M.A.. Eventually she settled in Switzerland where she published her debut novel with a small Swiss publisher. As a Romanian writing in German, she’s part of a long tradition, but at the same time, she’s also part of a much younger tradition. Let me explain. For decades, German literature has been enriched by writers from Romania. Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer on the one hand, and more recent authors like Herta Müller and Oskar Pastior on the other. The commonality between Celan and Müller is that neither of them is ethnically Romanian. Both of them grew up speaking German. Paul Celan in the Jewish community of Czernowitz and Müller in the German community of the Banat. It’s been that way for a while until a more recent wave of writers from Romania arrived on the literary scene. Of the ones I read and remember, there’s Catalin Dorian Florescu, born in Timișoara, there’s Aglaja Veteranyi, born in Bucharest and finally there’s Dana Grigorcea. Interestingly, all three eventually settled in Switzerland. Florescu and Veteranyi are/were extraordinary writers and Grigorcea looks to continue this new tradition. But in a way, tracing this lineage is misleading. All of the writers in this paragraph wrote (or are still writng) in German primarily, and all of them do or did an exceptional job. Except for one odd mannierism in Grigorcea’s novel, there’s really no reason to tie any of them to their country of origin except in how it influences their choice of subject matter etc. If anything, these writers are better prose writers than their contemporaries (well, I have some misgivings re: Florescu), regardless of where they were born or which language they spoke in school.

Baba Rada is a strange little book. Split into tiny chapters, each of which has a title that’s a kind of summary of the events about to transpire, it tells us the story of an older woman/grandmother, whose life somewhere in the south of Romania, is about to be thoroughly shaken when an acquaintance (as well as the father of her grandchild) drops off a “terrorist”, and is subsequently murdered himself. The unfolding story involves her daughter, Baba Rada’s hopes for the future, the terrorist and Baba Rada’s long amorous history. Much more important than the story are the numerous small descriptions that Grigorcea peppers her book with, the odd characters and the shards of memory and dream that keep surfacing. Violence barely makes a dent in Baba Rada’s life, which is the life of a survivor. She knows how to deal with hardships and has acquired the reputation of a hard-nosed, quick-witted and sharp-tongued woman around the village. Some chapters are written from her perspective, some are not. Those that are not, invariably contain a phrase to the effect that “if Baba Rada had heard of this, she would have had something sharp to say.” If this description makes you infer a certain oral quality to the work, you’re both right and wrong. Yes, the book is clearly supposed to be spoken loud by at least two speakers. This is a story told, not a story written. This effect is buttressed by the limpid quality of the stories told. Digressions, strange details, angry remarks and sometimes seemingly superfluous characterizations abound. Early on, a female character is introduced through a long, evocative description, only to be unceremoniously murdered off stage two short chapters later. It’s equally important that we add a character to our mental map of the landscape as it is what eventually happens to said character. A minor male character remembers a long period of his life in less than three small pages, yet the author offers us two full paragraphs within that small bit of text to emblematically describe just one, admittedly brief, sexual act. Why? Because Grigorcea’s writing is so dense and evocative that these two paragraphs are enough for us to understand the great love between the two lovers of the scene, as well as the sense of tragic passion, and commitment to art, that pervades the whole book.

Grigorcea's forthcoming sophomore novel - a sober novel aabout a childhood in Bucharest

Grigorcea’s forthcoming sophomore novel – a sober novel about a childhood in Bucharest

It is admittedly a bit much sometimes. Baba Rada is enormously rich, which isn’t helped by the fact that despite all the hints at orality, the writing is actually highly artificial and self consciously “poetic”, sometimes in an almost saccharine way. Grigorcea makes the rookie mistake of debut novelists and tries to just cram everything into the short span of her books. From a highly literate style to light, humorous phrasings we find everything in the book, except badly written prose. The book might be overwritten in parts, but it’s never underwritten, never sloppy. The author’s attention is always with us. Which makes two odd artifacts more interesting. They concern translation. One is a stylistic quirk that the adept reader of literature written in- and translated into- German will recognize: the typical translation choices of translators to render certain Russian phrases into German. That’s one of the reasons that some reviewers contextualized this novel not with the Romanian culture of its setting, but with the Russian culture of some of its phrases. It’s am intriguing choice which also fits the Baba Rada / Baba Jaga correspondence, and one wonders whether it might not have been intentional. This muddying of the Romanian context is made even stronger by the author’s decision to employ a very strict idea of translation throughout the book. There are not “ethnic” phrases in the book, no token Romanian phrases, titles or terms. If not for the proper names, one would be excused for being confused about its setting. Instead of “mămăligă” (which is a kind of basic Romanian national dish), for example, the book uses “Maisbrei” throughout, which is actually slightly less exact, since Mămăligă is a kind of Maisbrei. The word “Mămăligă” however, literally translates to “Maisbrei”. The author translates everything like this, with imprecise results like this one and some downright strange ones. At one point, Baba Rada mentions her father, “the singer Romeo Fantastisch” – for a German audience, it’s just a name. But in Romania, there’s a exceptionally popular singer called Romeo Fantastik (click here if you dare). Speaking of music, there is the “popular song” that gives the book its subtitle. As far as I can tell, the song (unless it’s an invention by the author) is “Aşa-i viaţa, trecătoare” by Maria Ciobanu (click on this link at your own risk), and if that’s true, the author has intentionally stylized its refrain to be more artificial German. I could probably write another 1000 words on the utterly fascinating way Grigorcea obscures and toys with the Romanian contexts of her story (to give just one more example: at one point she refers to the daughter Ileana as having a “fairy tale princess name”, an odd claim for a German (or English) audience. For Romanians, however, this makes a ton of sense, because it feels like all Romanian fairy tale princesses are called Ileana). The book sometimes reads like translated from Romanian, sometimes it reads like written by a German who has never been to Romania. Linguistically, it’s genuinely exciting.

In a way, it’s fitting that German critics have read this book not just in Russian contexts, but also in German literary traditions. Every single review I found referred to Baba Rada as a “Mother Courage” type character, referring to Bertold Brecht’s epochal play. But it really goes beyond that. Brecht’s play, set in the 30 years’ war, is the story of a female merchant who travels through war ravaged Europe, trying to make her way by hook or by crook. In the process she loses all of her children, but survives herself. The parallels are clear. Like Mother Courage, Baba Rada is a survivor, and like Mother Courage, she sometimes plays fast and loose with her own offspring. But Brecht’s play is intensely didactic, intensely moral, really quite dour, to be honest. The vibrant, evocative novel that Grigorcea wrote seems hard to reconcile with that. Those critics where, not, however, far from the truth. Brecht’s play is in turn based on a classic baroque novel with the (very long) title Trutz Simplex oder Lebensbeschreibung der Ertzbetrügerin und Landstörtzerin Courasche, commonly known just by the name of its protagonist Courasche. It’s a much more intense, much less openly didactic episodic baroque masterpiece. The fitful nature of Grigorcea’s style makes much more sense if compared to the vibrant baroque picarescque novel. And it explains other things as well. Grigorcea’s novel is also, in a subdued but clear way, a criticism of the masculine ways of writing and conducting history. The cipher-like “terrorist”, and the unfulfilling, brutal and strange heterosexual affairs of the book contribute to this. Similarly, Courasche is a picaresque novel that was conceived by its author as a counterweight to his first novel, the more widely known Simplicissimus, a picaresque novel set in the same period, but narrated and led by a male character.

polaIts use of feminity as structuring the narrative, and frequently undercutting the male authority figures like cops is something that turns up in German emigré literature again and again. It’s so common that it now turns up in a reasonably executed by flat way in the books of deeply mediocre novelists like Katerina Poladjan’s disappointing debut novel In einer Nacht, woanders. Poladjan was born in Russia, and wrote a novel about the tension of living in Germany with roots in Russia. As the book progresses, we find ourselves in a dark swamp of sex, rape, jealousy and incest. Poladjan does not have the literary skill to moderate, to adapt and elevate these topics into a coherently written novel. We are left with the intention and the raw tropes of feminity, loss and sexuality. Grigorcea, by contrast, has created a book that, despite its rookie mistakes and the overdetermined writing, has still room for subtle discussions of politics and alterity. Behind her story is the question of American torture and secret CIA prisons (Romania housed some of them) and how they link up to Romania’s own totalitarian past. It employs the unnamed, dark figure of the terrorist as a figure of alterity that only functions if we read it in extratextual contexts. There are allusions that we don’t understand if we don’t know where he’s likely from, that he’s likely Muslim etc. As for Grigorcea’s use of death, religion and sexuality, I would not be surprised to learn that she has read or studied the work of Michael Taussig, especially Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. The way death and religion are used to destabilize easy signification, the way sacred spaces and discourses of healing, dying and resurrection keep coming up in the narrow frame of the book, it reminds me of Taussig’s powerful classic study. Everything is somehow connected in the book, which would have been a significantly better book if the author had had more patience, given herself more space, more words instead of piling interpretations one on top of the other.

Look. Baba Rada is a dense novel by a clever, talented and erudite author. It’s easy to read too much into these kinds of books, but it’s to this novel’s credit that there’s enough substance for me to make these readings. Overall, there’s just too much in this book. Too many odd characters, too much “poetic” phrasing, just too much that doesn’t get room to breathe. But this is a singular talent and a very good book despite all. Her new novel will be published in August. I, for one, can’t wait.

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3 thoughts on “Dana Grigorcea: Baba Rada

  1. There are a couple of other Romanian writers who seem to have found refuge in Switzerland and are writing in either German or French here. Raluca Antonescu lived first in the German-speaking part, then moved to Geneva and now writes in French. Marius Daniel Popescu lives in Lausanne and writes in French. Catalin Dorian Florescu writes in German and lives in Zurich.
    Adriana Popescu lives and writes in Germany but I think she grew up mostly German speaking, as she was very young when her family emigrated.
    Mind you, I write in English myself, have never been able to write fiction in Romanian (my mother tongue). Maybe it’s too poetic for me? That could explain Grigorcea’s style…

  2. Thank you for the pointers. Florescu I mentioned myself, but the pair of French writing Romanians are new to me. France has its own tradition of Romanian emigrés writing in French, some of which, like the writers in the German tradition, belonging to the canon of great 20th century literature. But Grigorcea and Florescu are the first German language writers we have that approximate that French tradition of ethnically Romanian writers who chose to write much or some of their work in a foreign language. I will link to Grigorcea’s Bachmann reading later today and you’ll see how strongly accented her German (still) is.

    As for her florid style? I was stunned to hear the text she read on Saturday, an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, which is a very precise, calm, unhurried, sober kind of text.

    As for the fact that they all live in Switzerland, it still frankly puzzles me. Do you have an explanation for the Swiss connection? I notice you yourself blog about Swiss literature a lot. I mean there’s Bulgarian emigrés to Switzerland too. Canetti was a Bulgarian emigré of sorts.

  3. Sorry, just saw your reply now, didn’t show up in my timeline, for some reason. I happen to live just outside Geneva temporarily but am normally resident in the UK. I too am baffled by the Swiss connection – other than that Switzerland probably seems like a haven of peace and civilisation when you come from a country that is still struggling… with a lot of things. But it’s very difficult to settle there – purely logistically. The fact that I live on the French side should give you a clue how I feel about it though!

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