‘For, on Saturday evening, after he counted at least three stars in the sky, Schmiel would pour slivovitz in a little glass, to the brim, ready to pour it over the corner of the table, that the week, the coming week, might be full. Rifka, his wife, would light two candles, which she gave to one of the smaller of their sons, to hold them up as high as he could, that the week, the coming week, might be luminous. … And Schmiel would sing ‘Hamavdil’, the old hymn of bidding the Sabbath farewell, whose words he didn’t really understand, but which he had heard sung exactly the same way by his father, who had heard them from his grandfather, who had heard them from his great-grandfather, and so on. And the whole family, Rifka and the sons and daughters, would hum along.
After the final strains of the hymn died away, the spell was broken and everything returned to normal.’
(From Ludovic Bruckstein’s With an Unopened Umbrella in the Pouring Rain, forthcoming from Istros Books, 2021)
In his 1954 seminal work on the history of religion, The Myth of the Eternal Return, the Romanian scholar and writer Mircea Eliade explains how ritual unfolds in a consecrated space at a sacred time, conferring meaning through repetition and by imitating the archetype once performed by ancestors. This repetition of the ‘exemplary event’, as he calls it, suspends profane time and confers sacred time upon the act.
As I was editing the extract above, from the first and title story of Ludovic Bruckstein’s collection, I was immediately reminded of Eliade’s words; the author eloquently sums up Eliade’s theory in the final words ‘the spell was broken and everything returned to normal’. Indeed, throughout this collection and in The Trap, his previous novella published by Istros, Bruckstein uses the trope of repetition to reveal the long history of customs and a particular way of life in the Carpathian region of Maramureș where his work is set, as well as to imprint on the reader the never-ending horrors and deprivation of war. Most of the thirteen stories of the book start their closing para- graphs with the words ‘At dawn one day in May 1944 …’, or variations on that theme, followed by a description of the incarceration of the local Jewish population in the ghetto, then their journey on the ‘freight cars with planks and barbed wire nailed over the ventilation windows’, before their arrival at their final destination, Auschwitz.
Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) and the younger Ludovic Bruckstein (1920–1988) were compatriots in that they both emerged from the newly united country of Romania, which was formed after the First World War from the ruined empires of the previous era. However, their destinies would be very different: whereas the first escaped the communist post-war period and went on to become a respected researcher and writer with an international reputation, the latter was assigned to eventual obscurity by the vagaries of war and politics. Having survived the Nazi occupation and the camps, Bruckstein managed to build a successful career as a playwright and author in the now communist Romania, only to be wiped from the slate of national literature when he immigrated to Israel with his family in the 1970s.
Since my very first visit to Romania and during the many subsequent ones (at a rough count, I have been to the country more than twenty times over as many years) it was Mircea Eliade, along with the nineteenth century national poet, Mihai Eminescu, who were my first introductions to the literature. Then came an acquaintance with the ‘émigré writers’ of the mid- twentieth century: Norman Manea, Eugène Ionescu, Emil Cioran and, more recently, the Nobel Laureate Herta Müller. Publishing the early fictional work of Mircea Eliade – Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, written when he was just seventeen, and Gaudeamus, the follow-up student novel, have been highlights of Istros Books’ nine-year publishing history, as well as a personal achievement after spending two years searching for the rights holder.
The subtle, beautiful work of Ludovic Bruckstein came to me with less fanfare, through the loving commitment of his son to revive these lost works, and through the talent and good sense of one of the very best translators from Romanian to English working today – Alistair Ian Blyth.
Alistair has also brought to Istros Books the work of contemporary historian and novelist, Ioana Pârvulescu, whose charming, lyrical historical novel Life Begins on Friday (reviewed in this magazine) won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013 and was published in English in 2016. We celebrated the publication, I remember, on the eve of the Brexit results in the elegant surroundings of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square, London, while the rain poured down outside, as if in protest.
Perhaps Istros Books has not been the biggest publisher of Romanian literature into English – the University of Plymouth Press won an International Enterprise award for its 20 Romanian Writers Series, which ran from 2008 to 2013 – but I hope we are one of the most committed. When I founded the company in 2011, one of the first publications was a small collection of poems by the Romanian writer and civil-society activist, Octavian Paler. His short Definition of an Impossible Alternative just about sums up why I do what I do, and why so many small independent publishers do what they do, and indeed writers too: not for financial profit (although that would always be welcome), not for fame, but for the sake of great literature in itself.
Definition of an Impossible Alternative
The fire has no other choice:
either to remain itself
or turn to ash.
By Susan Curtis
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.