A young aristocrat is discovered lying in the snow, mortally wounded. He takes a while to die, uttering something mysterious as he expires. Nearby another man is also found. He is not injured, only confused, certain only that his name is Dan. He is briefly suspected of the shooting. His mildness helps confirm his innocence, while his strange footwear suggests he has come from afar. Life moves on, very quickly.
Romanian author Ioana Parvulescu, a professor of literature, is also a historian with a minute grasp of Bucharest's past. Her reconstruction of the elegant city as it was in the 19th century is so vivid that it emerges as one of the central characters in a feel good novel busy with everyday life as lived by a large cast of singular individuals. It all takes place with seasonal aplomb during the final 13 days of 1897.
There is also a generous amount of snow: “there were still twelve days till the end of the year . . . the whiteness, which stretched from one end of the city to the other, from the Cotroceni Palace to the Obor district . . . was melting in the afternoon sun.
“The icicles looked as if they were coated in oil and were beginning to drip onto the heads of the passers-by. The streets were quite busy, as they always were on the days before Christmas.”
Into the chaos stumbles little Nicu the messenger boy and he really does trip in the snow. He is eight years old and as lively as he should be at his age – free to run around a bustling metropolis mixing with grown ups who, with one dastardly exception, are kindly to him.
Heart of novel
The boy is also careworn by the troubles of his mother, a washerwoman who suffers from mental illness. His life is precarious and much sadder since the death of his grandmother. But Nicu, the heart of the novel, is reliable and is trusted to run errands.
His friendship with Jacques, the sickly son of the hardworking Dr Margulis, involves Nicu with the doctor’s family. Julia the grown daughter with a slightly complicated romantic situation knows she can call upon Nicu to deliver a message.
All the characters, if not quite connected, run parallel to each other. Nicu’s daily chores bring him to the quaintly atmospheric newspaper office, and Parvulescu revels in recalling the glory days of journalism.
The office, dominated by two very different brothers, is busy and the staff is engaged, eccentric and dedicated. Various stories are doing the rounds. It is a different world, the world of yesteryear.
Hapless mystery man Dan is given a job on the paper as he claims to be a journalist and, having been presented with a test story, proves his competence. Dan is a present-day journalist who has somehow stepped back in time. Exactly how is not explained but no one should apply a literal reading to this incidental, episodic narrative.
Parvulescu writes sufficient non-fiction to enjoy setting out to bend some rules when spinning a Dickensian Christmas yarn which mixes up romance, loneliness, mystery and harsh reality, all within a subtle historical frame.
Dan’s plight causes him to open his eyes and begin to live. He looks about him and notices: “ . . . carriages to which were harnessed pairs of glossy horses, an ox cart creaking under a gigantic barrel, hansoms, irritable coachmen . . . the people were seemingly all dressed in the same fashion, one matching the other. The ladies wore hats swathed in scarves tied beneath the chin; their waists were unnaturally slender and their heavy garments reached to the ground. The men all had bowler hats and canes.”
The scene is unlike anything Dan has ever witnessed, yet Parvulescu’s message, while not rigidly polemical, is clear. Dan feels happier. “It was as if I found myself in the world of a young and active God, having lived in an increasingly ruinous world that had lost its God or which had been lost by God.”
Life Begins on Friday was first published in Romania in 2009. Parvulescu has also written two books about Bucharest and could obviously draw a detailed street map. In ways the novel is a return to the city's past, and a time where even at moments of stress, such as duels, and unsolved crimes, people were expected to mind their manners.
The barbers want to go on strike, not for more money but for additional working days on which to provide their much needed service.
The prose is descriptive and the tone formal yet conversation. Translator Alistair Ian Blyth skilfully negotiates the shifts between first and third person, and contrasting voices.
The bewilderment which shapes Dan's observations are juxtaposed with the private musings of Julia as she reads Thackeray's Vanity Fair and fears she does not resemble Becky and is "more like that silly Amelia, and I shall end up loving some rascal all my life."
It is interesting that as Julia is reading the book in 1897, the Victorian writer’s novel was then only 50 years old. Thackeray had been dead a mere 34 years, having died suddenly on Christmas Eve in 1863.
Parvulescu’s engaging characterisation drives a narrative of loose ends which is far more about human responses to events, major and routine, than to story. Several of the characters appear to have both public and intensely private selves.
Among the most interesting is Costache Boerescu, the Chief of Public Security, “a man always in a hurry, his short legs rapidly scything the air”. He does his work while quietly nursing his passion, an unrequited love. He can also sing very well.
When old man Cercel, the newspaper porter, experiences a stabbing pain, we fear for him knowing what his death could mean for his devoted young follower, Nicu. As for that boy, caught between his child’s imagination and the adult world he inhabits, he represents all that is hopeful. Symbolically he buys a white dove as a Christmas present for Jacques.
Only Nicu falls in love with the bird, whose name is Speckles. He wants to keep her but she stops eating and brokenheartedly he brings her back to Cercel who, although he works at a newspaper office, has more interest in animals than in the news or in mankind in general.
Old world charm, a sense of period and the very human individuals who populate it makes this novel a rare delight to be enjoyed, whether or not it is snowing outside.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on my Tongue (Dalkey Archive), is out now.