Today I shall do something that I do not normally do, I shall introduce two different sorts of novels with a common link, although a very different style of writing.
The authors are respectively Paul Bailey and Olen Steinhauer, the link is Romania.
The Prince’s Boy, by Paul Bailey, is a romantic novel about a young boy who arrives in Paris from Bucharest in May 1927. Sent by his rich and generous father into the care of an older cousin Eduard, Dinu Grigorescu has an idyllic garret in Montmartre, an allowance and three months to enjoy himself. Written by Dinu at the end of an eventful life, this fictional memoir tells the story of a great love affair, while at the same time covering the great and grievous changes that overtook his native country up to and including the Second World War.
After encountering the love of his life in a male brothel, Dinu has to return to Romania, only to find his father has remarried a jaunty, flirtatious widow with a daughter Elizaveta. Preparing to dislike her on sight, Dinu soon discovers an ally, a friend and confidante in Amalia.
Eventually, of course, his father discovers the nature of his son’s sexual orientation and is hideously unsympathetic, recommending a marriage of convenience in order that the family name will not be besmirched.
In some ways fortunate, the social history of Romania – its gradual and blatant anti-Semitic stance – forces Dinu to recognise that his time there is at an end, he returns to Paris as the research assistant to a Jewish professor who he much admires, and at the same time rejoins his lover.
This poignant love story captures all the wonder of sex, its exploratory nature and innocence – the gradual and powerful awakening of lust and love. Together with Dinu and Eduard we visit many distinguished Parisian cafés, consuming with them delicious meals and wines, followed by cognac. Through his friendships, Dinu discovers Proust, learns about opera and the theatre and becomes more discerning – by the end of his life he is a well regarded critic and journalist living in England.
A short but beautifully constructed and written novel.
Olen Steinhauer writes police procedural thrillers (I said they were different genres) set in an Eastern bloc country that is not named but that has all the hallmarks of Romania. It is not Romania, nor Hungary, nor Poland but a small state somewhere near that region. In the first book The Bridge of Sighs, the lead character is a rookie in the People’s Militia called Emil Brod. When he first appears at work he is given the silent treatment since everyone is under the impression he is spying on them. The state Security Officer, a standard assignment in every militia outfit is Bruno Sev.
Finally Emil is given a case…his handling of this case, which turns out to have some political implications breaks the ice and finally the team accept him as one of their own, having been misinformed about his background – it is perhaps a pity that it takes three bullets to the chest and abdomen to persuade them that he is simply a policeman, but there it is…
This fictional Eastern bloc country is still suffering from the ravages of the Second World War, the Germans have been through with their bombs and the Russians with their tanks chasing the Germans back to Berlin. Several parts of The Capital are still in ruins, many houses though inhabited are without proper amenities, like running water and only parts of the city are being rebuilt. Further out the houses are larger, less damaged and reserved for party officials.
Part of the investigation takes Emil out of this country into Berlin, seeking some Gestapo files – of course nothing goes smoothly, but an interesting detail is that the Berlin Blockade is in full swing, so the air is full of the sounds of British and American aircraft delivering supplies to the beleaguered citizens. [I knew someone who flew those planes, so this insight into the constant sound of incoming loaded planes was rather interesting.]
The second novel, The Confession, (no image) is still with the same team in the same city, but the central character is different, though many of the characters are the same as the ones we have met before. In the third and fourth novels Bruno Sev is the central character and we are well into the Cold War.
These are interesting books because the importance of time and place, the secrets and complications of state and politics ground the fictional stories in a context of reality.