Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2014, 576 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Constantine Dunca, one of the leading boyars of Wallachia, leads a peaceful and secluded life at his manor in Nucet. He is not married, he does not have children, but he sets great store by the good name of his family. Although he disdains his relatives because of their taste for the new western fashions, he does not allow them to overstep the bounds of decency and does all in his power to protect them from scandals. When the boyar holds a reunion, his nephews, along with a few friends, arrive from Bucharest to stay at Nucet. But the tranquillity is shattered when the estate overseer dies in what seems to have been a hunting accident. One of the guests is determined to discover the facts and begins to investigate. While misunderstandings erupt among those close to the boyar, a number of mysterious characters make their entrance, who seem to have some connection with what has happened, and suspicions and machinations lead to astonishing discoveries. The new and old clash in this novel of nineteenth-century family life in a country under the influence of three rival empires.
When he decided – not very often – to leave his estate near Bucharest and visit the city, old man Balteanu did so with two aims: to scold his son Grigore for the lack of ambition he evinced and to discover the latest political news. On this occasion, his main aim remained unaccomplished. The only person at home was Madam Lucsita and he was informed that Grigore had left the house that morning and was not expected back until nightfall. She did not know where he had gone or what he was doing. The former court treasurer noted for the fiftieth time, but with the same surprise as ever, the placidity with which his daughter-in-law seemed to view the presence or absence of her husband. He found Lucsita hard to understand in general and felt that he had nothing in common with her. He remained long enough only to admire how much Grigorita had grown, but as conversation with a child of five was not apt to hold his attention for very long, he soon found himself back in the street, without knowing whither he should head or how he should fill the time he had allocated to reprimanding his only son.
And so it came as no surprise when not much later he found himself seated in the landau of Serban Dunca, the high boyar of the Prince’s bedchamber, debating the day’s politics with him and Manea, the princely cupbearer. Normally, he would not have lingered with these two boyars longer than to exchange a few pleasantries, but on this occasion he had sent his own carriage home and so he prepared to accomplish the second aim of his journey, despite such unsatisfactory company. He knew Dunca to be a progressive and Manea a vacillator, and neither of the two attitudes aroused any enthusiasm in him. But they were good sources of information, especially Dunca, given his habit of spending a good part of the day riding up and down Mogosoaia Avenue in his equipage and stopping every two paces to speak with one or another.
Old man Balteanu thus learned news of the ferment that surrounded the appointment of the two future rulers of the principalities, about Kiseleff’s return from Jassy and how the first person he visited, as far as was known, had been Mihai Ghika, the brother of the spatharius; how it had been discovered – by means rather unclear – that General Starov, the inspector of the two principalities’ militias, had been heard resolutely to claim that neither Ghiculescu, it did not matter which of them it might be, had the slightest chance of obtaining the rulership. He learned how many audiences Kiseleff had granted Grigore and Alexandru Filipescu in recent days, how Barbu Stirbey had been seen leaving the general’s residence at a disgustingly early hour of the morning, and many other things of the same kind. The court treasurer took part in the discussion with great animation, uttering exclamations and asking questions, and did not observe that, among all the rest, consul Ruckmann had not even been mentioned.
“And you will see, gentlemen,” said Dunca the boyar of the princely bedchamber with great animation, “how firstly they have led us by the nose with the election of the ruler, whom we shall not elect, but who will be appointed – only this once, it is to be understood – and after that we shall find ourselves with some Filipescu or other as ruler –”
“More Russian than the Russians,” added Balteanu, with a sour smile.
He had personal reasons not to hold the boyars of that family very dearly. He looked at Manea and his smile grew even sourer. One of the reasons he found no pleasure in conversing with the man was that when politics was discussed, Manea always gave the distinct impression that he could barely refrain from looking over his shoulder all the time to see who might be listening.
“And in Moldavia, too,” said Manea, “Mihalache Sturdza will undoubtedly be the man. They say that he has Vogoride in his pocket...”
Balteanu could barely refrain from shrugging. This was the sort of news that Manea contributed to discussions of this kind: things that even the market vendors knew, but which he repeated with the air that he was revealing great mysteries thitherto known to none. He was even in the habit, as in the present discussion, of letting others do the talking – and with Dunca present, he did not even need to take very great pains – and interjecting only commonplaces of that kind. Balteanu had for some time suspected that he went around trying to worm information about of people, but he soon realised that the man did so merely from innate timidity and a desire not to compromise himself (but not so strong a desire as to rein in his curiosity, however). He wondered whether in fact he ever held a personal opinion.
All of a sudden he found himself being addressed directly.
“Yesterday I met your son,” said Manea, “at Walbaum’s bookshop –”
“You met Grigore?” asked Balteanu, and straight away cursed himself for his stupidity: as if he had a dozen sons!
Next to him, Dunca burst out laughing.
“Don’t be surprised,” he explained to Manea with feigned kindness. “Grigore Balteanu at a bookshop! The next thing you know, we shall see him among some nuns or counting rosary beads...”
Balteanu smiled his sour smile. He had the impression that if he stayed much longer with those two, his expression of dissatisfaction would be left permanently stamped on his face.
“Whereas your Serbanel is famed around town as a bookman and scholar,” he growled.
But Serban Dunca was impervious to such jibes. He gave Balteanu a hearty slap on the back and laughed loudly.
“You have me there, fair and square. Serbanel does not so much as open a book from one year to the next. He occasionally reads a gazette, but that is all. But what good would book learning be to an officer, pray tell? It is not from books that you learn how to lead a cavalry charge or how to train raw recruits. Nor would he have the time for it, between training and guard duties... not like your Grigore... and on the subject of people who have time, what has your son been doing? Radu is his name, is it not?”
Caught between the paternal desire to talk about his only son and his indignation at hearing him mentioned with such nonchalance, Manea gave a tortured smile.
“Didn’t you say that you wanted to get him a place in the ministry of the interior?” asked Balteanu.
They both looked intently at the unfortunate princely cupbearer, who seemed not to be able to find his words. Finally, in rather broken sentences, he succeeded in informing his interlocutors that his son had turned down the post offered to him.
“He didn’t want it, eh?” muttered Dunca. “What wonderful times we are living in. If my son had refused to do something I told him to do –”
Balteanu thought to himself that, from what he knew of the young lieutenant, obedience to his father’s will was not his most prominent quality, but it did not seem appropriate to pursue the subject.
Dunca continued: “What then is his occupation? Does he dabble in this... in this progressive politics?”
Manea paled slightly.
“Not exactly –” he mumbled.
“Doesn’t he?” interrupted Dunca. “I see and hear him every time I meet him, after all! Be it in the ladies’ salons, be it in some coffeehouse, be it on the street, Radu Manea is always speechifying! And every speech is about either the country’s freedom and independence or about the villainies of the high boyars... what is that new word?” he asked, turning to Balteanu.
“Oligarchy,” he supplied, helpfully.
“That’s right,” said Dunca, and then, turning back to Manea: “People will wonder whether that was all he learned in Paris!”
Stammering, Manea hastened to protest.
Dunca, raising one eyebrow to Balteanu, continued relentlessly: “Do you realise what people will think? A young man of noble blood who talks like a liberal, like a revolutionary... what is his father waiting for, that he allows him such recklessness? And does it all stop at words, even? Might he be one of those who are hatching revolution? With the Russians in the country, with the Turks not far away, it is very dangerous for people to think suchlike –”
Manea, by now completely white in the face, defended himself with both hands: “But it is not like that at all! He is young... he talks much... but he would not get mixed up in... he would never –”
Serban Dunca, watching him with a sarcastic grin, allowed him to get ever more tangled in lame explanations. Balteanu was no longer even listening. He had seen Grigore across the street, lolling on the cushions of an elegant carriage, in animated conversation with a Russian officer and a younger man in civilian clothes, whom he recognised as Alexandru Receanu. So that was why he was forced to waste time in town, so that his son could consort with Russians and their good friends! Glowering, he asked that the landau pull over.
The cupbearer, who read his thoughts without great difficulty, made only a formal protest at Balteanu’s intention to leave them. Shrugging to himself, he let him leave, after which he turned back to Manea, whom he had no intention of allowing to get off so easily; it was still two hours to dinner, hours that he had to fill somehow.
“And how do you know what he is mixed up in? Do you know everything he does? From what I can see, he is not very obedient to you –”
Manea heaved a deep sigh.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Through her psychological portraits Ligia Ruscu preserves the charm of the period in itself, while at the same time choosing a language that will resonate with today’s reader. And she wins over the reader through a story that renders history fresh and exciting. She gives the reader the period decorated as elegantly as can be, in a fluid narrative of such vitality as one rarely finds these days. A detective novel that is both political and sentimental, seasoned with a little of everything, and above all with genuine talent.”
(Marius MIHET, Romania literara)
“I was impressed by the author’s talent at immersing herself in the age, at combining two genres, the historical and the crime novel, in a final product that I read with a pleasure I have not had from a debut novel in a long time. As Marius Mihet also remarks, it is of a naturalness that even the so-called big novelists are unable to capture in their tenth novel. Another quality that struck me was the concealment of a third type of novel beneath the caftan folds of the aforementioned two types: a feminist novel. Sofia Scriban is like that and is constructed as such without overdoing it or being strident. Stylistically, Ligia Ruscu’s novel is a success. The structure is impeccable. The plot is addictive.”
(Bogdan-Alexandru STANESCU, Observator cultural)
“Rarely does a debut novelist handle dialogue so well, lending it the consistency to forge relations between characters, as Ligia Ruscu does. The novel paves the way for a new writer, of genuine talent, capable of coherent structure, immune to the clumsy mistakes of literary novices.”
(Ovidiu PECICAN, Apostrof)