The Bulgarian Truck by Dumitru Tsepeneag review: A dazzling maze
Rarely has a postmodernist work been handled so engagingly as by this Romanian master
The Bulgarian Truck
Dumitru Tsepeneag, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Dalkey Archive Press
Conventional story doesn’t interest the narrator of Romanian master Dumitru Tsepeneag’s dazzling picaresque maze. Structure, he claims, is his passion. That may be so, yet this playful and deadly serious yarn is about how threads of stories, offbeat and terrifyingly lucid, wander in and out of the waking subconscious. If there is a central thesis – and there may be several – it could be that the most potent reality exists in our dreams.
Rarely has a “now you see, now you may not or possibly you never did” confection been quite as skilfully handled as by the perplexed narrator of The Bulgarian Truck, a writer struggling not only to complete his latest work but to satisfy his most demanding reader: his wife, Marianne, a character with problems of her own. “When Marianne first noticed that she was getting shorter, she didn’t tell me right away . . . And when she did tell me, I couldn’t believe it at first: I had never heard of such a phenomenon before. I had read about it, but that was literature rather than reality. At the literary level, I have no cause for complaint, because I can say it allowed me to write two novels and finish the trilogy that began with Hotel Europa. Readers (like the doctors?) probably thought it was a metaphor. Some of them. Others were annoyed by it and tossed the book aside . . . Or at least I imagine they did. I can’t even know what is going on in my characters’ minds with any degree of precision, let alone my readers . . .”
There are abundant tricks, semi-plots, tonal shifts, clues, references to age and, as expected, generous echoes of Tsepeneag’s previous work, all brilliantly translated by the Romanian-based Briton Alistair Ian Blyth, who conveys the humour and light-heartedly serious intent and, above all, the bold authorial confidence.
The narrator reminds Marianne, who is obviously as petulant as she is perceptive, that she appears in Hotel Europa (1995, translation 2010). That, too, is a novel in which a writer is attempting to write a book which becomes the novel. Interestingly, the earlier Marianne was far more encouraging to him and not quite as exasperated as she appears to have become. For all the gags and the cerebral quality of his vision, Tsepeneag, who was born in 1937 and was stripped of his citizenship by personal order of Romania’s former leader Nicolae Ceausescu, is never dull or merely clever. He is a majestic survivor and a pioneering member of the Romanian Oneiricist group, the dream-based literary movement that, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, pushed Romanian surrealism away from Freud and into a witty wonderland all of its own.
On initially leaving Romania, Tsepeneag wrote in French but later returned to writing in his native language. Tsepeneag has also translated the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget and other leading French writers into Romanian. In his lightness of touch and gleeful panache, Tsepeneag is a cross between the great American Robert Coover and Jean Echenoz, a French original who also blends self-effacing humour with erudition and stylistic daring. There is also a sense that Theatre of the Absurd playwright Eugene Ionesco is infusing Tsepeneag’s imaginings with a flair for comic timing and narrative pauses that are almost as telling as the many digressions.
Early in The Bulgarian Truck, which could be read as a summation of his literary life, Tsepeneag allows his alter-ego writer- narrator to ponder on the contentious issue of translation while waiting for a response from his wife. She is in New York, so it may take time.
“And then what will I do? If I wait that long, I’ll lose my urge to write, and then I’ll start playing chess instead, or worse still, I’ll start translating something . . . I love to translate, to luxuriate in two languages that I can speak almost equally well, but translation, whatever they may say, is a waste of time for a writer, and at my age I’ll end up bitterly regretting any waste of time, in the final moments before I commit suicide or when I’m confined to a wheelchair without either the will or the strength to kill myself . . .”
He refers to writing as “a mute, hesitating monologue, a monologue which keeps stopping . . .” While his thoughts deal with the barrage of images and situations teeming in his mind and the characters he is preparing for their respective dramas, he deliberates between the various means of release, the traditional style of writing with a pen and the new, domineering, artificial freedom of the computer, which confers the liberty to invent, and to delete, at will.
With the computer comes the email, and this proves increasingly useful when the narrator begins to stage-manage the closing chapters of a passionate, and probably fictitious, affair he has been conducting with a young, more successful Slovak writer, Milena or Mailena – the second spelling of her name is not a slip but is as deliberate as is everything else in the book.
Tsepeneag, for all his apparent random cunning, is exact; nothing is left to chance, not even the most minor detail, although he does provide the reader with sufficient ambiguity to sustain the thrill of a classic postmodernist text at its most engaging.
Juxtaposed with the author-narrator and his concerns about being old is Tsvetan, the strapping, macho driver of the admittedly battered Bulgarian truck. He broods his way along the roads and highways of Europe, picking up smitten women. His sexual adventures are offered as the stuff of the faltering work in progress. Among his conquests is Daisy, who abandons her car in order to be able to accompany him. However, their romance ends abruptly when he says he is attending a truck race in France, alone. Daisy, though despairing, does not plan on killing herself with a forgotten umbrella, but these things happen. Tsepeneag does indeed possess a singular belief in the power of plot devices.
Tsvetan’s antics run parallel with the saga of the lovely Beatrice, a child with an obsession about collecting snails and hedgehogs. She grows up and becomes a lapdancer. She is peculiarly passive, yet active and willing. Their stories merge eventually.
But not before Tsepeneag has speculated at length about the messy business of writing fiction. He looks at the dangers of emailing and the damage it will do to fiction writing and reading as people talk via the internet: “They will make friends, they will fall in love emailing from Montreal to Melbourne . . . They don’t need to see others face to face. Nor do they need to believe in their words. The whole world will turn into a bubble of sentimental fiction.”
As a feat of literary choreography, The Bulgarian Truck will entertain on several levels. Aside from the technical ease, there is the humour. It is very funny and visual, down to the image of a hapless piglet left in a hotel bathtub. Yet, miles of pleasure aside, this is no simplistic comedy. It is an exciting masterclass in the art of juggling story in tandem with characters, impulse, subtle pathos and literary theory. Most importantly, Tsepeneag not only makes it all work; he makes us believe it.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent