Sunday, January 22, 2012

Panait Istrati's Haiduks in English

It is Romania in the time of the Ottoman occupation. A band of insurgents--the haiduks--has taken up arms against the Turk. Led by the lovely Floarea Codrilor, the haiduks do battle not only with the armies of mercenaries sent by the Sublime Porte, the bashi-bazouks, but also with debased Romanian aristocrats, the boyars and gospodars who would betray their native land to the foreign occupier.

Each of the leading haiduks of Floarea's band recounts the events that prompted his (or her) decision to drop out of civilization and become an outlaw. Here is Movila the Vataf recalling the panicked flight of his countrymen (and women) before hordes of Turks set on pillage, rape, and destruction:

After six hours of travel, at our first long stop, we found ourselves on the heights of Calugareni, overlooking the Danube. The night, dark, like our destiny, was falling heavily. Each cart had lit its lantern. . . . Each creature was seeking support. . . . Even the dogs sought less angry looks. A woman kicked hers away. The wretched animal backed off a ways into the night, stopped, looked around humbly, not understanding anything. The priest saw this scene and, like me, was saddened:

"Why drive it away, my daughter?"

"Because I don't have anything for it, anything at all, not even an ear of corn."

"But it’s not asking you for food. . . . It wants to follow you. . . . Do you have a hard enough heart to refuse it this comfort?"

At this reproach, the woman started crying. I took the priest aside and told him of my plans to become a haiduk:

"I am going to avenge my father, my brothers, my sisters. . . . And still other victims."

"Who will be punished?"

"All of them. Regardless of who they are: Romanians, Greeks, or Turks, all of those who are unjust, cruel, and greedy."

The old man said nothing to me. He held himself tall and erect in the dark night: his eyes were on the Danube, on his church, his village, and his long beard was streaming in the wind. He turned his head slowly toward the lanterns attached to the carts and went lost in thought. Just then, flames, barely visible at first, then more and more widespread, appeared on the horizon. I touched his shoulder:

"Look, Father: Putineiu and Stanesti are burning."

"The marvelous storytelling talent," notes José Carlos Mariátegui, "that Panait Istrati revealed as of his earliest books is confirmed in The Haiduks. The figures of the haiduks, especially those of Floarea Codrilor, Élie the Sage, and Spilca the Monk, are drawn with surreal vigor on the rustic backdrop of the mountains of Romania and their primitive villages."


  1. This sounds like an interesting story. If I were more literary I would read it, especially in light of my Armenian ancestry, but I'm turned off by most literature at the moment. However, I'm currently enjoying the controversy over the genocide bill passed in France and denounced by Erdogan. Sooner or later the Turks will have to acknowledge what they did.

    I see that Eric has returned to WLF. I think what he's trying to do, really, is drum up interest in obscure regional authors so that he will eventually get more translating work - not a realistic plan in my opinion.

    1. It's not the highest of high literature, but it's a nice little novel, for those who like novels. I, for my part, have a slight aversion to current events, political ones, at least, so I was only dimly aware of the latest spat between France and Turkey.

      I'm not sure I agree with your explanation of Eric's return. I haven't been following his latest posts very closely, but I had the impression they were fairly general, not really even about work he might translate. I also think Eric is lucid enough to realize the plan you ascribe to him is completely unrealistic. Publishers aren't interested in translations. I should know.


  2. I didn't mean that that was what Eric was all about. He also seems to like to instruct others, rant, and let off steam. Perhaps he wanted it to be a translator hangout, but that hasn't seemed to work. It's sort of an odd place for him to be, because he obviously doesn't fit in well with most of the under-30 posters. Harry Watson has abandoned the site, and he complemented Eric somewhat, I think. Eric might be better off with his own blog, especially if he could attract more translators.

    I can understand why you don't follow the news. Politics in particular is depressing when you realize that these are the people who run our governments.

    Good luck with your translating and/or day job. We're having a relatively mild winter here in Middlebury, and I've only used the snow blower once.

    1. It's been mild here in the south of France, too. But then it almost always is.