This is a daring book not only because it skillfully combines three different genres (crime, fantasy and historical non-fiction), but mainly because it tackles very different themes from most contemporary Romanian prose, which tends to focus on communism or the pitfalls of the post-communist transition. Set in Bucharest at the end of the 19th century, the novel is a beautiful account of a bygone era, which many Romanians now think of with nostalgia.
Set in the time when cosmopolitan and European Bucharest was known as ‘Little Paris’, a well-structured, intricate plot unfolds as it follows the appearance of a mysterious stranger, Dan Kretu, found lying unconscious on the outskirts of the city, and the death of a young aristocrat, originally found wounded in the same place as Dan Kretu. These two characters open two of the main themes of the book: fantasy and time travel, and the detective story, seemingly inspired by Agatha Christie. History is also a central theme, providing a fascinating, well-documented background of stories, characters and events, depicting everyday life in Bucharest.
With such a wide selection of themes and ideas, as readers we are faced with the delightful dilemma of either playing philosopher, and reflecting on time and time travel, or playing detective, trying to solve an intriguing crime, or even playing historian, immersing ourselves in a world of journalists, thieves, police and aristocrats, and a wealth of duels, famous crimes, social reforms and political debates.
The language is well-suited to 19th century Bucharest and is sprinkled with an appealing variety of French, German and English words; with humour, metaphors, philosophical truths (Perhaps all that was and will be is now, in the present) and comforting lines (If only you could stock up on laughter for when things go badly for you).
I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, especially the dreamy Dan Kretu (who might be the reader himself), the sharp detective Costache (who reminded me of Hercule Poirot), the lovely newspaper boy Nicu (likened by many to Gavroche), or the insightful Iulia Margulis, whose mature understanding and journal-writing reminded me of Elizabeth Bennet from ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
The novel’s ending leaves a lot to the imagination, as well as many unsolved clues. Why, for one, do Iulia Margulis and Dan Kretu look so alike? Is theirs a story of time travel, reincarnation and shared past lives?
The characters often make predictions and one of my favorites is about the future of Romania, which takes place during a conversation between the journalists Pavel Mirto and Mr. Procopiu. Romania is seen as an orchestra that is still rehearsing, but at the concert, the melody will come together flawlessly. Or, it’s seen as a game of billiards, where every move has a hidden aim and everything moves closer and closer, as part of a cosmic mechanism.
So, the prediction is that Romania might eventually fulfill its destiny. Timely words, as the country currently undergoes a true citizen’s revolution, with mass, peaceful demonstrations calling for justice, the rule of law and good governance. Described by the Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu as a quest to reinvent ourselves as a nation, these protests might just be the beginning of a deep social and political process to win Romania its historic game of billiards.
I felt sad when I got to the end of Life begins on Friday: it’s such a well-written and enjoyable read, with a surprising ending and a thrilling plot that made me wish to see it also made into a film or TV series. It was first published in Romanian in 2013, awarded the European Union Prize for Literature, then published in English in 2016.
Reviewed by Cristina Muresan
Life begins on Friday
By Ioana Pârvulescu
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth
Published by Istros Books
Cristina Muresan is a Romanian writer from Transylvania, based in London. In 2015 she published Angel Dust, a book of poetry and short stories. She is also a blogger and holds a PhD in International Relations. Read her blog here.
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