Linda Leith in conversation with Jennifer Quist, whose third novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, is published this month. LLP also published its award-winning precedessors, Love Letters of the Angels of Death (2013) and Sistering (2015).
Living ElsewhereKenneth Radu
21 April 2021
I stood in the central hall of Ceaucescu’s palace, chilled to the bone. Built to overwhelm and intimidate, this granite and marble monument to human ego and pretension, a cavernous tomb in the centre of Bucharest, crushed my spirit. Despite its current use as the seat of government and a couple of art museums, I had had enough and just wanted to get away––flee would be a more accurate term––and enjoy a glass of plum brandy or two. I needed heat in the marrow. My sister, with whom I was travelling, knew a quiet place off the Calea Victoriei, the city’s main boulevard, an intimate café unknown to general tourists, and which served tuica, the very strong Romanian brandy, and German beer. In her autobiographical novel, A Cemetery for Bees (2021, Linda Leith Publishing), Alina Dumitrescu reminds readers that brandy was a rare and useful commodity during Ceaucescu’s regime:
Uncle Sasha had a copper still made for his plum brandy. He sells it on the black market, and he’s never been caught. Brandy is a rare commodity these days, useful to bribe the police, or pay the doctor or even the priest.
As I read episode after episode of her life, I could not help but recall vignettes of my own. My mother, for example, beheaded chickens and the occasional goose in the back yard of our house on the outskirts of town. After fluttering about the tree trunk like mad dancers, spurting drops of blood out of their neck, a nervous reaction to sudden death, the fowl collapsed. I was allowed to pick up the heads with dead eyes staring out of bony skulls and bury them. This seemed a necessary thing to do, and I even wove wreaths out of wild grape vines to place on their graves. As children we bury things, moved as much by magical thinking as compassion: objects, toys, pets, bugs, birds, and in the case of Dumitrescu’s narrator, bees:
I often find them on the ground, dead from exhaustion during the fierce days of the harvest. Their bodies lie there, feet outstretched, eyes closed, their stingers harmless.
I place chamomile flowers next to the bees, one per grave, and I make little matchstick crosses. In the corners of the cemetery I plant clover. Three leaves only, there’s no luck for my bees. I stand back to admire my handiwork. It’s beautiful; the aesthetics of mourning. I have my back to the yard, completely absorbed by my secret avocation. I even filched a teaspoon to use as a spade to dig the tiny graves.
Bees also served a useful purpose around her childhood home because they kept the nosy police, the Securitate, from intruding in the household too frequently. My mother’s chickens, however, unlike Juno’s cackling geese in ancient Rome, failed to keep anyone from our door.
Dumitrescu’s memories, like everyone else’s, drift away from ordinary narrative logic and depend upon the vividness and vivacity of the telling to engage a reader’s attention. She chose to write her book as a series of quasi-poetic vignettes rather than a conventionally plotted novel. Whether it’s autobiographical fiction or memoir, or a combination of both, A Cemetery for Bees collapses plot, prolonged descriptions and characterization in order to focus almost exclusively on the feelings and hopes of the narrator at specific moments or events in her journey from a childhood and youth in Ceaucescu’s Romania to her new home in Quebec.
Written at times in poetic prose, which is always risky, for it can sink a narrative by the numbing weight of pretension or preciosity, Dumitrescu has grounded her memories and stories in concrete daily life enriched by an eye for memorable detail. Adeptly translated from the French by Katia Grubisic, who is also a poet, much of the book moves with vigour and pathos without wallowing or navel-gazing. At its best, the translation is crisp and energetic, the poetry arising from acute specificity, evident in that wonderful passage about the burial of the bees.
Because it is free from a sequential plot, in a sense one can begin the book anywhere, just like the recollection of memories – which is something I noticed when re-reading it in this fashion. I remember exploring more than one graveyard in Romania. Unlike the cemetery in the author’s village, which included Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Jews—Protestants were not included—only Orthodox Christians were buried in the graveyard of my father’s ancestral village. Death sometimes leads to comedy, and Dumistrescu’s writing is occasionally laced with a delicious dark humour.
My village had everything: an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, a Protestant church, a synagogue. The burial grounds were a bit more complicated. The Jewish cemetery, fine. The Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries, yes. But where did Protestants bury their dead? We weren’t allowed to have a cemetery, so we died as little as possible, we didn’t want to bother anyone. When you couldn’t stand it anymore, you died anyway, just a little.
The proliferation of graves in this book (in addition to those of the bees) is not surprising, given the horror stories of the Ceaucescu regime—the villages destroyed, people forced off their land and into apartment blocks to run the factories, the thousands of children housed in unspeakable orphanages. In one section, Dumitrescu describes the Vrancea earthquake in March, 1977:
Part of the historic centre of Bucharest was destroyed. In its place, for months and months, stood an esplanade of dread and death. The cloying smell of decomposing bodies is impossible to forget.
Ceaucescu finished what the earthquake began, and cleared the remaining buildings for his monstrous palace. The narrator’s brother assured her that earthquakes didn’t occur in Canada. On the day she arrived in Quebec with her young child, the Saguenay experienced un tremblement de terre.
Dumitrescu entitles one section of the work Panopticon, the name given to a prison tower where guards supposedly can watch the movements of the prisoners and spy into their very cells. Here, it’s a mnemonic device, a perspective from which she can write about “the restless, all-seeing eye” at the very top of the tower in the village. As if reciting a poem, she repeats a key phrase, “my village had everything” and through the all-seeing eye, presents the sights and sounds, characters and textures of her childhood home.
Because one is watched by the authorities, one acts accordingly in Ceaucescu’s Romania. The narrator’s childhood is lived in a world of secret police, spying, denunciations, hidden radios to hear news of the outside, crippling bureaucracy, arbitrary imprisonment, food shortages, and above all, pretense. To survive one has to pretend.
In the city of Sighetu Marmatiei stands an extraordinary memorial wall on the grounds of the Sighet prison where thousands of students, teachers, artists and writers were incarcerated for vocal opposition to a communist government protected by the Russians who “liberated” Romania after World War II. I ran my hand along the names inscribed on this wall, startled to discover more than one Radu, no relation I’m sure, as it is a common name, but I experienced a mild shock.
Ceaucescu’s later regime created another kind of prison. And, yet, despite privations and violations, a passionate attachment to the country can exist from which it’s difficult to break free. One of the most remarkable moments in this book, and there are many scattered throughout the vignettes, concerns a woman who was allowed to leave the country to attend an international Youth conference:
A lady who has travelled tells us that on the outside, during a Communist Youth conference, she was able to get powdered milk, Bayer aspirin, chocolate, and coffee. No one had to stand in line. Yet after this glimpse of heaven she still returned home. She couldn’t abandon her graves.
Cemeteries notwithstanding, this is not a depressing work; however difficult or oppressive the times, the narrator is not defeated by politics. She always has escape on her mind, real or imaginary, from the limitations of her life, a freedom that can only be found elsewhere, perhaps in Paris where she notes that many Romanian artists like Enescu and Brancusi thrived. The French language itself leads her into a new kind of cultural freedom as well. To say that Dumitrescu is a francophile is an understatement. In the latter part of this fictional memoir, her prose becomes more poetic as she describes her determined and heroic efforts to perfect her command of French, and by doing so become closer to an ideal version of herself. Perhaps this part of her story is overextended, but that may be the result of the intense relationship between French and the narrator’s identity. As deeply aware of the sound and sense of words as any poet, self-conscious about speaking a foreign tongue, she confesses: I commit crimes of dissonance, crimes against French.
She also repeats the familiar experience of immigrants whose children born in a new country do not speak their parents’ mother tongue. Consequently, the tone of the writing becomes heavy, losing the light touch of the childhood and other scenes, as if the author is gritting her teeth to convey her emotional pain over this profound cultural loss, expressed through the effective use of poetic imagery of tree roots and sap.
Already my children have lost the language, or at least they speak very little. Only prayers and hymns, and the language of anger. What are their dreams made of? What word means nostalgia to them? What colour is the colour of fear, a cry, the smell of wood? Before the memories dry up I should dip a quill in my blood. My anagrammatic childhood, my aerial roots. My life elsewhere is like a tree’s sap diverted, a destiny unfulfilled. My life elsewhere, so poor, below the threshold of what is translatable.
Despite this shift in tone and the cultural agonies of the narrator, Alina Dumitrescu’s A Cemetery for Bees is neither oppressive nor despairing. The last several sections of the book are divided according to the number of days it took God to create the universe. Each day essentially a memory of the narrator moving through frustrations, travails, and yes, the joys in unfamiliar territory and perfecting a beloved language. In the end, the narrator has done what she must do to until she can pause long enough to rest before rising to live a new day in Quebec.
A Cemetery for Bees by Alina Dumitrescu
2021, Linda Leith Publishing
Kenneth Radu has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. A two-time recipient of the Quebec Writers' Federation award for English-language fiction, his latest book, Net Worth, is published by DC Books Canada. He has recently completed the manuscript of a new collection of linked stories tentatively scheduled for publication in 2022.