a u t h o r ’s a f t e r w o r d
I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in Romanian translation when I was ten, having found the book by accident in a bookstore. I was living with my parents then in a small town on the Danubian Plain, where nobody knew much of anything about hobbits. The town had a small bookstore not much larger than our living room. Tolkien’s book was not the usual choice for a Romanian reader of my age, and its translation into Romanian was something new in the 1970s. I was intrigued at first: what sort of creature is a hobbit? Are they dwarves? Are they a different sort of human, smaller? Today I know it was just the wonderful construction of an inspired storyteller based on a theme borrowed from Nordic mythology. I was fascinated by the story and read it with a mixture of awe and surprise. To my disappointment, no other authors were discussing hobbits at all. When I moved to America many years later, I discovered that the word hobbit comes from two Old Saxon words, hol and bytla, and when combined they yield the equivalent of hole-builder. These kinds of details are important because they have much to say about an imaginary world born in a society that still retained traces in its legends of a time long past. I find
it particularly important that Tolkien developed such elements rooted in traditional culture. I used to spend my summer and winter vacations at my grandmother’s country house in the Carpathians. Called Nucșoara, the village lies in a valley surrounded by the white peaks of mountains. My grandmother’s domain was a completely different world. It was the last remnant of the old traditional environment of peasants, a world that today no longer exists but whose landscape surfaces every so often in some breathtaking National Geographic photo spread. Back in the 1970s, I had the chance to meet the old-timers who fought in WW II and listen to them tell their stories. Some of them had never attended school and did not know how to read or write, but could nevertheless remember interesting episodes from real life and relate them with consummate passion and skill. I had the opportunity to know shepherds who lived the life of hermits and, in their mountain isolation, would not talk to another human for days. I spoke with people who would not go to town for years on end and were genuinely convinced that any encroachment by modernity meant a loss of quality of life. It was a society very different from the one I witnessed during the school months, when I would go back to my parents and live a modern urban life, going to school and visiting bookstores. This was my firsthand experience with traditional Balkan society. I heard the stories as a child, and later I compared what I remembered with other accounts from various sources. Perhaps the moment when I understood what I had witnessed as a child was at the beginning of the 1990s when I read Mircea Eliade’s Le mythe de l’éternel retour. This was about an anthropological study conducted by Constantin Brăiloiu in northern Transylvania during
the interwar period. Brăiloiu was interested in studying the various collected versions of a folk ballad about a fay of the mountains who fell in love with a shepherd. Because the shepherd was betrothed to a girl from the village, the fay killed him out of jealousy by pushing him off a cliff. That was the way it went in the ballad. After a detailed investigation and comparing the various versions of the ballad from different villages, Brăiloiu zoomed in on a particular village as the potential source of the original version. He discovered by interviewing the village inhabitants that the core of the ballad was based on a real event, something that had actually happened a few decades earlier. In fact, he was able to identify an old lady whose groom had died many years ago just one day before their wedding was to take place. Enough elements corresponded to believe that this personal tragedy was the very genesis of the ballad. Of course, no supernatural power was involved to push the man off the cliff: the actual death was different, but the human tragedy was the same. This was the episode that Brăiloiu discovered, and when I read about it in Eliade’s book, the idea had a profound impact on me as it was exactly what I had seen with my own eyes. Over the course of centuries, historical facts tend to become transformed into either rumors or ballads or legends. Such an example is the building of Argeș Monastery. Completed around 1517, it was turned into a ballad with legendary characters in the 19th century, which in turn found its way into our school textbooks in the chapter on old literature, and with pretty much the same reverence that the Finns have for their Kalevala. I remember a legend I heard in Nucșoara about the origin of the only dissolution lake in Romania (sinkholes might be rather
common in Florida or in the former Yugoslavia, but are very rare in the Carpathians). This lake happened to be found in the same village of my maternal grandparents where I used to spend my summers. The real-life event took place in the 19th century, and the legend about a curse causing the sinking of a garden was a later invention. I heard someone tell it, and now I’m at a loss to explain how someone could invent such a thing. By the time they were told to me, a great many historical events had already become clouded and were well on their natural path of transforming into full-blown legend: the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire (1877–78); the participation of the village men in those battles; the brief episode of German military units occupying Romania in 1917; the anti-communist guerrilla resistance (1949–58) — all of these were actual historical events whereas the future was concealed by a veil of uncertainty and memory struggled against trauma. The fact that in my childhood I was able to witness on numerous occasions the process whereby real facts are transformed into the rudiments of ballads or the seeds of legends was possible largely to an accident of the local history. Communist agricultural policies wiped out whole villages and traditional society in Romania with them. Romanian villages were “modernized,” and this happened mostly in the 1950s, so by the time I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s the damage had been done. Yet the geographical region where my grandparents lived was of little economic value to the communist vision of agriculture. In most of the rest of Romania, farming land was combined into collective farming enterprises that did no one any good. The Communists, however, could not implement this policy in the mountain villages — the houses were
too sporadic and there were no decent roads and no infrastructure to consolidate into a single large collective farm for several hundred families. So these isolated hamlets were left alone for some decades, a few corners on the map untouched by the communist regime, the last outposts of traditional society. I witnessed the final days of that archaic world. The old folks passed away, and their children scattered to the four corners of the world in search of a better life. I left Romania in 1996. I completed Mirunaâ€™s story in California. Bogdan SuceavÄƒ Irvine, September 2013
Published on Nov 18, 2013
Author Bogdan Suceava's afterword to his novella Miruna, a Tale, translated into English by Alistair Ian Blyth and published by Twisted Spoo...