'Life Begins on Friday', Ioana Pârvulescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth (Istros Books)
I really did not want this book to end. All these fascinating characters with their different lives in Bucharest intertwining in various ways, are greatly sympathetic. The story centres around a Budapest newspaper, Universul, near the end of the 19th century. Two strange events happen, involving one badly-wounded young man and the sudden appearance of another, who seems to have lost his memory. These events touch all the characters, the newspapermen, the chief of police, the doctor, and a couple of young people full of the trepidation and excitement that accompanies the possibility of love.
So there are mysteries here, some solved, some not, and perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of all involves our beliefs and experience regarding time and our relationship with it. There is certainly the sense of another dimension pervading this book, a benevolent sense of presence. The title suggests a definite, clearly-defined time and this is how we can pinpoint beginnings and endings, which is important for us in our scheduled world. But there is also our 'sense of time'. And maybe hinted at, in the way of the best stories, beyond our sense or perception of time, there is time itself?
We might even feel a little envious of the characters, as they go about their daily routines. There does not seem to be a sense of urgency; there's time for example in the newspaper office for conversations and jokes. In the doctor's surgery, he has time to talk to his patients at length and discusses the latest news, the marvels of the new rays that can see inside people's bodies, and he is so interested in one particular patient, Dan Kretzu, that he invites him to his home for dinner, where he is liked by all the family. But then everyone is curious about this newcomer, this stranger who appears to have lost his memory or at any rate is unwilling, if not unable, to answer personal questions about himself or his past.
Speculation becomes rife. Some think he could be a criminal with something to hide, a foreigner (but he speaks the language well), others that he suffers from a psychological infirmity. In Dan's words: 'It was as if I were under a protective wing. A good feeling, one of love for all that I saw tightened my throat...Might I be dreaming?...I did not need to pinch myself to be sure that all I was seeing was real. Reality has an unmistakable consistency'. And later he asks Dr Margulis: 'Doctor, is it possible for a healthy man to have the feeling that he is living in two different worlds at the same time?'.
But whatever they might have speculated, all the characters feel a fondness for him, once they meet this person with his detached, almost lost air, his gauche manners, his peculiar, rather shabby clothes. But offsetting his generally awkward demeanour, there is his clear ability as a journalist and his rare, but winning, smiles. As Iulia, the doctor's daughter, writes: 'Dan Cretzu smiled for the first time and...I saw a face more luminous and sweeter than I could ever remember seeing before'.
And though we might also admire the characters' good manners and smile at their touching wonder at new technology, in other ways this past world is less appealing – the rigidity of the social structure, the few possibilities for women in the working world, the poverty, for some. But the most delightful character, Nicu, the messenger boy, shows a clarity of mind and a keenness of spirit, despite his difficult home situation, so you know that he will thrive and probably shine, in his trajectory through life. He personifies Mercury, the impish messenger, the youthful and inventive spirit that links and communicates with all the characters.
Then there's the weather – the cold, the deep snowfalls, the thick mist – which envelopes the story. The characters, though sometimes affected by it, take it in their stride, a hazard to be overcome, uncomplaining.
What is striking is the kindness of all the main characters. While they all have their own individual characteristics, weaknesses as well as strengths, they all seem capable of love for someone or something – even if it's for a dead wife (General Ion Algiu, former prefect of police) who misses his wife, spoils his dog, and hides his fondness for his friend, Costache. There are some peripheral no-gooders, like Fane (alias the Ringster) and Sandu (known as the Muzzle) who robs young Nicu, the newspaper boy, but mostly, people genuinely care for others, wish each other well. There's gossip, but it comes more from curiosity, not malice. And there is humour too. Dan Kretzu's first job at Universul is to send out a questionnaire to readers, 'Why do people fast?', and to list their responses.
Ioana Pârvulescu is also a writer of non-fiction, specialising in cultural history, so she is well-acquainted through her research, into the way people lived a century ago, the latest advances in science, the details of what people wore, how they travelled, their manners and customs, those delicate stitches in the social fabric, the correct way to kiss a lady's hand, when to wear a hat and when to doff it. This latter omission caused consternation in the Universul office, when Dan Kretzu forgot to take his hat off. The others were too polite to mention it, until one of them diplomatically offered to hang his hat up for him.
Grounded in solid knowledge of the history and culture of the time, this novel, told from the point of view of different characters, has a luxurious feel to it, the images unrolling like a film, it floats a little above the hard-edged solidity of the world we know. Yet we experience the same feelings as the characters – amazement, delight, curiosity, anticipation, dread, loss and love. We may live in more pressured times with more technology, but we too have our thoughts and imaginations, we too find time to think, reflect, contemplate and daydream.
One of the characters, Iulia Margulis (whose journal gives the novel its title) reflects on a morning of thick fog. She imagines what it would be like if foggy days were the norm and clear days the exception. 'What joy people would feel just to be able to see, what a miracle the transparent, colourless air would seem to them. As it is, nobody delights in the air and they do not even realise what an extraordinary thing it is to be able to see far into the distance, all the way to the horizon.'
'Life Begins on Friday', which won the European Union Prize for Literature, is a beautifully-crafted, clever, intriguing and warm-hearted novel. And the good news is that Ioana Pârvulescu has written a sequel to this book. Now I just have to wait impatiently until it is translated into English.