Miruna, a Tale

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as “Niculae Berca”). The Evil Vale is located in the region of Wallachia (southern Romania) in the Carpathians, and is described as a place seemingly forgotten by time. In the Author’s Afterword, Bogdan Suceava explains that the remoteness of the place made it possible for its inhabitants to avoid Communist laws and to live according to an archaic way of life that was rare even for the Balkans.

In the world that is the Evil Vale, the news from the rest of the world, which comes by way of newspapers and rumors, gets tangled up, mixing fact and fiction, the real and the surreal, the past and the present. Niculae Berca spends the summer telling stories to his grandchildren, in which the family history is an outgrowth of the country’s history, and the stories of real heroes sound like the folktales whose protagonists are based on mythical characters. Facts are always contaminated by myth (or, one could say, as the author reminds us, that the myth itself is often born of a real event that happened in the distant past). Most of the stories are centered on a local character: the Welldigger; Old Woman Fira—a soothsayer who can predict the future and who, after being converted by Father Dimitire, still keeps her old ways; Father Dimitrie, who lives to be two hundred; the bandit Oarta Aman, who, after terrorizing the entire province of Wallachia, is killed by the king’s army, then comes back as a ghost to frighten and humiliate the German soldiers.

But the most enchanting stories are those involving Constantine Berca, Niculae’s father and the children’s great-grandfather. After shooting a shepherd with a wolf’s face, Constantine Berca, full of remorse, goes into the woods where, under the fays’ spell, he is led to the entrance of a cave connected to the underworld. When he comes out, he finds himself in a country whose language he can’t understand, which turns out to be Greece, and from where, eventually, he returns thanks to a Romanian captain. Constantine is a mythical figure who is both a real grandfather and a sort of archetypal Pater Familias. The family history starts with his arrival from the war against the Turks in the nineteenth century, when, with the money received as a veteran, he buys a Swiss clock—the most expensive item ever owned by a member of the family—and then claims the barren land given to him by the state.

In the telling of these stories that often have a labyrinthine shape and grow from each other, one can identify Borges’s influence; but more than anything, these stories are born of Romania’s lore and the Balkan tradition of storytelling. The framing of the novella—a narrator who narrates the stories heard from another source (often a traveler encountered at an inn during a voyage)—was very common in early twentieth-century Romanian literature, and it represented both a reflection of an oral tradition of storytelling and an influence of Russian literature (it can be found in Tolstoy, Gogol, and Nikolai Leskov, among others). Romania is, by the way, together with Albania and a few other places in the Balkans, one of the rare areas in Europe to have kept to this day a strong oral tradition.

It took the author fifteen years to finish this tale, started in his birthplace, Romania, and ended in California where he lives now. Miruna is one of the most charming books of fiction that have come out in English (for which we have to thank the translator, Alistair Ian Blyth) from Eastern Europe in recent years.

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