Saturday, September 11, 2010

Panait Istrati in English

Panait (or Panaït) Istrati, once well known to European readers for his tales and short novels of vagabondage and adventure, fell out of favor with his Marxist champions--among them Henri Barbusse, the well known author of the World War I novel Under Fire and the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland--after he published an early denunciation of the Bolshevik regime. At one point during the sixteen-month stay in the Soviet Union in the late nineteen-twenties that would lead to Istrati's denunciation, Russia Unveiled (written with Victor Serge and Boris Sourvarine), and his ultimate isolation, a Soviet official responded to one of Istrati's observations with the old saw "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." "I see the broken eggs," legend has Istrati responding, "but where's this omelette of yours?"

Barbusse and others (including the Peruvians César Vallejo and, to some extent, the essayist José Carlos Mariátegui) subsequently vilified Istrati, calling him, often in the pages of L'Humanité, the daily paper of the French Communist Party, then aligned with Stalin, a "bourgeois turncoat" and worse. Istrati, sick and friendless, was forced to leave France for his native Romania, where, still relatively young, he died in a Bucharest sanatorium.

But in the few years between his return to Romania and his death, Istrati, now highly disillusioned, managed to write several more books. It is translations of several of these darker tales (beginning with The Sponge Diver) that Fario has begun making available for eReaders). Likewise newly translated--and for the first time--are the tale "Bakâr" and the short novels Mediterranean (Sunrise) and The Thüringer House, the latter the tale of a young servant, Adrien Zograffi, who comes of age both politically and sexually in a bourgeois household headed by rich grain merchants. Here, Adrien describes Lina, a frequent visitor to the Thüringer kitchen and childhood friend of Anna, the mistress of the house, she herself a former maid who had married her employer:
Lina was beaten and loved by someone she didn’t love because, leaving her Aleco one day, she had married a rich tavern-keeper from outside the city who satisfied all her whims but was very strict when it came to love. He spent all day at his counter, but he kept an eye on his wife’s windows and had a shotgun by his side. And as soon as he saw a man in the street who seemed to be looking too hard at those windows, he would raise the rifle and simply take a shot at him, though he aimed only for his legs and his weapon was loaded only with dust shot. Then, going back to the accomplice, he would grab her by the hair and drag her across the courtyard to the wine storeroom, where he would lock her up, without food or bed, for twenty-four hours. It was inevitable. But just as inevitable and regular, despite the thousands of precautions of her husband, was the revenge taken by Lina, who would suddenly disappear for an entire week, abandon herself to mad debauchery with lovers, and return one fine morning at dawn, escorted by a gypsy musician playing a slide trombone loud enough to bring all the suburb-dwellers out into the street. Lina was oblivious. Serious, slightly drunk, a geranium bloom over her ear and a cigarette in her lips, she would move forward like a queen, trailed by the gypsy, who, his eyes popping out of his head, was blowing hard enough on his trombone to raise the dead.
“No, Madame Charlotte, it’s not the same,” she said sadly.
Of all Anna’s friends, Lina was the only one who envied her nothing, apart from her beauty.

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