Auntie Frosea is a retiree in the capital city of Chișinău, Moldova, during the late 1980s. While lugging grocery bags full of squash and potatoes back to her dowdy apartment and angry husband, she passes a billboard that reads, “Perestroika! Glasnost! Democratization!” Gorbachev is in power, and another woman Frosea talks to, a former soldier, believes he is an agent of the United States. Her only escape from the bleak gray days is a Brazilian soap opera called Isaura the Slave Girl! When Auntie Frosea compares her life to Isaura’s, she realizes she cannot complain, but further thinking about the differences between her reality and the Brazilian girl’s life causes her to emotionally spiral: “There was, it’s true, one minor problem: the seemingly never-ending soap operas would occasionally come to a real conclusion, and for a few days Auntie Frosea would feel adrift. But a new serial would always begin in time and Auntie Frosea would recover her spirits and her optimism. Everything was fine!” It’s hilarious, yes—and also heart-breaking.
This story comes from the Moldovan writer Iulian Ciocan’s novel The Realm of Sasha Kozak, the second in his trilogy about Moldova past, present, and future. “Auntie Frosea” appeared in Dalkey Archive’s anthology Best European Fiction 2011, and ever since I first read it, it has stuck in my brain. For one, I am not sure I’d known Moldova—a former part of the Soviet Union where Romanian is the spoken language, on what Ciocan refers to as “the Latin periphery of empire”—even existed. But the plight of Frosea and the bleak humor, absurdity, and empathy with which Ciocan rendered it made me want to know so much more about this country, its literature, and Ciocan’s work in particular.
Thankfully, in May of this year, the first part of the trilogy was translated into English by Alistair Ian Blyth, a rather prolific translator of the literature of both Romania and Moldova. Before Brezhnev Died showcases Ciocan’s mastery of the many voices of his native land and their particular struggles. In this novel of interconnected stories, we meet a child named Iulian, providing an element of autobiography; the disrespected, recently pensioned war veteran Polikarp Feofanovich; a young country man named Grisha Furdui, looking for work and staying with his cousin; and more characters who intersect in Chișinău.
But my favorite chapter in the book is when the adult author Iulian interjects into the narrative in “An Elucidation,” to reply to another writer who accused him of continuing the tradition of socialist realism rather than moving on into the present of Moldova’s “interminable post-communist transition period.” Ciocan defends the study of his ghosts and his Soviet childhood by positing that you have to show the “amusing, bizarre, absurd side” of tragic events. “There was not a single Soviet everyday,” he writes, “the same for a Russian, a Moldavian, a Tungus, for the center and the periphery, for every social stratum.…This is why there is a risk of a limited, distorted perception of everyday life in the Soviet Union, so long as you yourself do not confess to what you experienced.”
It is the polyphonic nature of Ciocan’s writing, his ability to traverse diverse experiences of his fellow countrypeople, that makes it both empathetic and cutting, and it is this same “risk of a limited, distorted perception” that makes translation such a significant art form. It sounds trite, I know, but while unable to travel, I am holding these views into others’ lives in even deeper regard.
Ciocan told an interviewer for Global Voices this year, “My ninth novel will soon get published abroad, but, believe me, many Moldovan writers cannot even dream of such a thing. I have never had a good literary agent, so it’s not easy to interest foreign publishers. In stark contrast to this, all my translators are excellent and have often helped me to find my way to the publishers.” This made me want to talk to his English translator, Blyth. He was at home in Bucharest, six hours ahead of me in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
—Alicia Kennedy for Guernica
Guernica: What drew you to learning Romanian and deciding to translate its literature and philosophy?
Alistair Ian Blyth: Well, I studied Latin at university. This was in the early ’90s, just after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. After I graduated, though, I was interested in going to Eastern Europe, and I chose Romania because I thought the language would be easier to learn, knowing Latin, as it’s the only Romance language in Eastern Europe. And so after I graduated, I went to Romania and I taught English there for a while. I was interested in learning the language so I could read the literature.
Guernica: How did you get started working in translation specifically?
Blyth: I moved to Romania in 1999 permanently. I’ve been here ever since. And first of all, I worked as a teacher of English, but I met writers and I was asked to translate texts into English, and that’s how I got started.
Guernica: The first piece of Moldovan literature that I ever read was Iulian Ciocan’s “Auntie Frosea,” in Best European Fiction 2011. I loved this story so much and I thought about it for so long, and then earlier this year, I wrote a piece about how translation could be used in food media, which is where I work mostly, and mentioned it, which is how I connected with Ciocan on social media and found out about this new translation. Why did you choose that piece for that anthology?
Blyth: Well, in 2010, I translated part of an anthology of Moldovan literature, which was published by the Moldova PEN Club. It was published in English, German, and French—texts by Romanian poets, novelists, essayists as an attempt to make Moldovan literature better known outside Eastern Europe, outside the Romanian-speaking world there. Romanian literature is better known than Moldovan literature.
“Auntie Frosea” was actually one of the texts in the anthology, which was published in a very small print run of five hundred copies, I think it was. I submitted “Auntie Frosea” for the Dalkey Archive Best European Fiction, which obviously was an even better way to make Moldovan literature known more widely throughout the world.
This story, about a pensioner whose escape from the grayness of post-Soviet Moldova is Brazilian soap operas, was eventually translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil; they were interested in it because it was a different perspective on Brazil through Eastern European eyes.
The main character, generally, in Iulian Ciocan’s fiction is a recurring character, the downtrodden housewife lugging heavy shopping bags. She also appears in the tragic story of Dochitza Barbalat, who’s crushed by the fallen crane in Before Brezhnev Died, but “Auntie Frosea” is actually a chapter from his second novel.
He wrote a trilogy of novels, as it were, about Soviet Moldova. The first novel, Before Brezhnev Died; the second novel, which is called In the Realm of Sasha Kazak is the Moldova of the post-Soviet transition period; and the third novel is called In the Morning, the Russians Will Come—it’s set in the future with a future invasion of Moldova, rather like the invasion of Crimea, with the little green men invading Moldova, which is not so far-fetched a scenario, really.
Guernica: Why do you think Ciocan’s work is a significant enough representation of the literature to translate into English?
Blyth: I also translated for Dalkey Archive another Moldovan novel by Emilian Galaicu-Paun called Living Tissue, 10×10, which is also about Moldova in the Soviet period—a very, very, very different kind of novel.
But what I like about Ciocan’s work is the multiple voices, the multiple perspectives. And in Before Brezhnev Died, you have every layer of Moldova and Soviet Moldova—the party bigwig, the collective farm worker, the factory worker living in a communal apartment, the Pioneer [a member of a Soviet youth party], who’s a thinly veiled biographical portrait. He continues this in the other novels as well, so it’s a polyphonic, almost Bakhtinian way of writing the novel.
Guernica: Do you see your role as a translator as also being a sort of literary critic, in terms of creating an external canon of these literatures? Are you the one choosing what you’re translating? And how do you see those choices in terms of how the literatures of these countries are perceived?
Blyth: In some cases, it is the translator who is pushing for a particular author to be published, and I think this was certainly the case with Iulian Ciocan. Other novels I’ve translated, I’ve been approached by the publisher to do them rather than me suggesting them, but I think the cases where it’s me as a translator pushing for a particular writer or novel, then yes, it’s constructing a canon in a small way.
Guernica: What are you working on now?
Blyth: I’m working on a couple of novels for Dalkey Archive Press at the moment. One is by Dan Lungo, a Romanian writer. I previously translated one of his novels, called I’m an Old Commie! Dan Lungo is one of post-communist Romania’s most popular novelists. He uses his training as a sociologist in his work, and this novel is written in the first person using the voice of an old woman, a pensioner from Northern Romania, who embodies the nostalgic attitude of “everything was better under communism.” He very cleverly, but also sympathetically to the character, deconstructs this attitude in a narrative which is both in the present and the past, and you see from the main character’s memories of communism that, in fact, it wasn’t quite how she remembered it.