Novel, "Ego Prose" serie, Polirom, 2007, 201 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Written in searialised form, with short and lively scenes, Ioan Groşan’s novel is an extraordinary “historical” tale, in which, however, modern inserts make an important contribution to the flavour of the narrative and to the extraordinary humour to be found throughout the book. The action proper extends over the 17th Century, and the characters and fictive events are described using archaic language. However, besides the contribution it makes to the book’s atmosphere, this archaic idiom is ‘exploded’ by a series of literary references, allusions to Romanian and international literature, and the presence of neologisms that cause the reader to laugh out loud.
The story centres on a handful of characters : on the one hand, there is the Voievode Barzovius, accompanied by Eagle the Spatharius and the rhapsode Broanteş, who is on his way to Istanbul to try and regain the throne he has lost in Moldavia. On the other hand, we have the “reverend” monks Methodius and Jovanutz, whose secret mission is to reach Rome and beg the Pope for an alliance with Moldavia, with the aim of annihilating the Ottoman armies. On the way, a whole host of other characters appear, all of them with their own zany stories, who create episodes that heighten the atmosphere and enhance the novelty.
Anachronistically, the Voievode Barzovius and his companions arrive at the sultan’s court, where they are greeted by the “odalisque on duty”. Moreover, we find the sultan in his own fitness salon, doing push‑ups in preparation for an erotic massage. Methodius and Jovanutz, on the other hand, finally get to see the Pope, and the scene in which Methodius recounts the meeting is, like many other episodes, a classic example of (self‑)irony : “The Pope asked us where Moldavia was. And ? And we told him. And what did he say ? When he heard where it was, he said that he wasn’t going to get involved at this point in time, but that he’d keep in touch…” The humorous and ironic dialogue is one of the book’s strong points. This is a seventeenth century where a character can, for example, get away with saying : “Hada way wi’ye, lad, I see ye like maieutics, divent ye ?” The comical situations are similarly punctuated by witty ripostes. For example, on returning from Istanbul and disembarking on what he thinks is Romanian soil, the Voivode Barzovius throws himself into the mud and kisses the ground. The wise Eagle the Spatharius realises that the ship has landed “a bit further up” than it should have, which is to say on Russian soil, and acidly concludes : “Your Highness, I think your kiss was somewhat misplaced”. The story is sometimes interrupted by direct addresses to the reader, but also by letters the author has supposedly received from readers during the course of the serialisation. One example is a letter from Aurica Antofie, a “pensioner by trade”, who, after making a show of her historical knowledge, demands that the author should cease confusing honest people and fooling them into thinking the story presents historical facts : he should either disclose his “sources” or make a public admission that the whole thing is a fantasy.
Happily, the novel A Hundred Years at the Gates of the Orient has found itself readers who have no need of such detailed explanations : readers who are content with a historical fiction in which narrative acrobatics, playfulness, humour and literary sleight of hand create a total entertainment that captures their attention from the very first to the very last word.