The Romanian Riveter: Crime Fiction in Romania – Past and Present by Marina Sofia

In Romania, crime fiction was initially regarded as an imported and frequently mediocre genre. It was introduced in the late nineteenth century, under the direct influence of French sensationalist novels such as Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. With a few exceptions, the Romanian versions were pastiches of popular consumer literature from abroad. These included The Mysteries of Bucharest by G. Baronzi or More Mysteries from Bucharest by I. Bujoreanu (both published in 1862), or spy novels such as The Crime on Calea Moşilor by T. Alexi (1887). However, while this literary genre proved popular in translation, readers did not seem to like it as much when it was transposed into Romanian society, perhaps because the police in those days was regarded either with suspicion or as incompetent. 

In the early twentieth century, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, Romanian literature flourished and was experimenting with new forms. However, it appears that love stories or historical fiction were more popular than crime. Some of the more venerable Romanian authors did write a novel or two where a crime was committed, but these were never recognisable as detective fiction. Mihail Sadoveanu’s Baltagul (1930), for example, is a revenge thriller based on a Romanian folk ballad, set in a rural area that is more reminiscent of the American Western, and Victor Eftimiu’s The Star-Patterned Kimono (1932) is a parody of the genre, full of disguises, shock reveals and satirical twists. Liviu Rebreanu’s last novel, Both of Them (1940), is perhaps the closest thing to a police procedural: the death of a wealthy elderly couple is investigated by an ambitious young prosecutor, but the killer’s confession destroys his incredibly detailed and plausible theory about the murders.

With the advent of communism, literature, and especially crime fiction, became a propaganda tool. How could crime exist in ‘a socialist society making decisive and progressive steps towards the glorious golden future of communism’? (This phrase was repeated verbatim dozens of times in every text in every field of endeavour.) Clearly it could only be committed to be evildoers from abroad, trying to destabilise Romanian society, so our heroic security forces and policemen (called ‘militiamen’ during that period) had to use all their ingenuity to prevent criminals from entering our territory and corrupting our population or stealing our industrial secrets.

From the 1960s onwards, another form of villain starts to appear in these stories: pre-war landowners or those working in unregulated professions that were considered more dangerous and incompatible with socialist ideals (entertainers, those running restaurants or hotels on behalf of the state, small entrepreneurs and craftsmen). The good guys are almost always the police or security officers, with the occasional investigative journalist or university professor. The professor is nearly always involved in top-secret scientific research or else is about to uncover a significant archaeological treasure.

Unlike sci-fi literature, which offered the possibility of envisaging alternative future societies or even criticising the current one, under the pretext that it was on a different planet), crime fiction seemed firmly wedded to state ideology. So it won’t come as a surprise that after the fall of communism at the end of 1989, the entire crime genre was discredited and therefore collapsed. Policemen and spies were among the most hated and distrusted members of society in the troubled years that followed. Only two crime writers of the communist period managed to maintain their reputation and even have their books reissued after 1989: George Arion and Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu. This is probably because neither of these two authors featured police detectives as their main protagonists. Arion uses the somewhat maverick and sarcastic journalist Andrei Mladin, while Ojog-Braşoveanu has strong female protagonists, who could almost be described as anti-heroines.

After the dust settled, however, Romanian publishers began to realise that crime fiction is popular with readers, even though it is often regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and continues to be disparaged and or labelled as second-rate. Foreign bestselling crime authors are regularly and promptly translated, but it’s proving more difficult for native Romanian authors to make a name for themselves. Yet there is some interesting and varied crime writing going on, covering pretty much all the imaginable sub-categories. I could mention the spy novels of Pavel Coruț (himself a former intelligence officer), the messy international conspiracies and post-modern psychological thrillers set in the US by E.O. Chirovici, gangster novels by Stelian Ţurlea, crime with a supernatural or fantasy element by Daniel Timariu or Lucian Dragoş Bogdan, crime with a social edge by Teodora Matei and Petru Berteanu, and political thrillers by Bogdan Teodorescu or Bogdan Hrib. Many of these authors have long moved past the merely derivative and are creating exciting and original works, which remain largely unknown outside the borders of the country. Bogdan Teodorescu’s novel Sword about a serial killer targeting ethnic Roma was translated into French in 2016 and published to great critical acclaim there, but the English-language market has remained largely closed to all but a handful of very high-brow Romanian literary writers.

Corylus Book aims to change all that. It is a new venture aiming to publish in English exciting voices from lesser-known languages and was born during one of those late-night discussions at a crime-fiction festival when the four founders were lamenting the absence of translations from lesser-known cultures.

The four people behind the company have very different backgrounds – academia, publishing, translation and literary events – as well as an assortment of language skills. What brought us together was a deep love of fiction – particularly crime fiction, and even more particularly, crime fiction with a social dimension – and a strong interest in books from countries that have so far been under-represented in English. Two of us are Romanian and the other two British, so Romanian crime novels seemed like a logical place to start. 

In late 2019 we decided to take the plunge and although the timing was not fortuitous (we were supposed to launch at the London Book Fair in March 2020 and have our authors participating at Newcastle Noir and other crime festivals over the summer), we are quite proud of the four books we have published so far. Three of them are by Romanian authors, and we intend to keep on publishing translations from this country, even though we are expanding to other territories, such as Iceland, Spain and potentially Greece and the rest of the Balkans. 

We have excellent connections with Tritonic Press in Bucharest, which publishes a wide selection of crime-fiction titles in the Romanian marketplace. Given such a wide choice, we picked bestselling titles that we felt would translate well into another culture, but also offer a window onto Romanian society and daily life. It was important for us to have women writers, as they tend to be less translated generally, so our first two authors were women – Anamaria Ionescu and Teodora Matei. The third title was Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, a book I had wanted to translate (and had pitched repeatedly to publishers) since 2016, when I heard him speak about it and about political manipulation at the Quais du Polar crime fiction festival in Lyon. This books seems to become more and more topical, almost unbearably so, not just in Romania, but anywhere where politicians and the media work together to influence and manipulate public opinion. You can read a review of it here.

By Marina Sofia

Find out more about Corylus Books on their website, corylusbooks.com and social media: facebook.com/CorylusBooks; Twitter: @CorylusB; Instagram: @corylusbooks.

Read The Romanian Riveter here.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian Riveter

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