By Cecilia Ştefănescu
Translated from the Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer
Istros Books, 2013
Reviewed by Alta Ifland
From its first sentence, Ştefănescu’s novel Sun Alley is so clearly defined by the author’s style that most readers will likely decide right away if they will savor the book word by word or drop it right then: “If that darkness had suddenly burst like a bubble, it would have spilled its odourless juice and spread all over the walls of the concrete cube, melting the white shadows that constantly circled the bed and furrowed the room.” As for myself, although I enjoyed the sensory, tactile atmosphere, initially I was somewhat turned off by the elaborate writing. I am not a fan of minimalism—and if you are, this novel is not for you—but, while I love long, Proustian sentences, I do appreciate a certain restraint when it comes to adjectives. Luckily, I was patient enough, and my patience was rewarded: Sun Alley turned out to be a surprisingly well-crafted, well-translated novel in which first love, marriage, adultery, and, above all, childhood and adolescence make up an enigmatic, dreamlike universe.
When the story begins, Emilia and Sorin (Emi and Sal) are two twelve-year-old playmates living in the same neighborhood in Bucharest during the late 1980s. For the Romanian reader, the world of Emi and Sal has a magic reminiscent of the world of Mircea Cărtărescu’s (Romania’s leading novelist) Nostalgia. As in Nostalgia, in Sun Alley a group of prepubescent children made of mostly boys spend entire afternoons participating in the kind of mischief specific to kids before the era of the computer and electronic gadgets. For this reviewer, the best part of the novel is the episode when the two friends elope in order to avoid Sal’s moving away to another neighborhood with his parents and end up hiding in an old man’s shed until the police and Sal’s parents catch up with them. The scene captures the essence of childhood (the fantasy of running away) and brings forth the flavors (the stench too!) of a typical Bucharest summer.
The novel opens with a crisis in this idyllic universe. Sal discovers something rather unusual that he wants to share with his best friend, Emi: the corpse of a young woman in his friend Harry’s basement. After he cuts off her ring finger, he brings the ring as a present to Emi. The episode is described as if it were a dream, yet the encounter with Emi that follows is realistic. I initially thought that this was an unnecessary episode until, toward the end of the novel, Emi (as an adult) recounts the event. This remembrance too is dreamlike, so the reader is not sure whether that day Emi was raped by Harry, while Sal was lying unconscious at his door (during which time he, presumably, imagined the scene with the corpse), or whether the rape too is a phantasm. Or could it be that the rape really occurred, and the corpse in the basement was Emi? Logically speaking, Emi couldn’t be the corpse because after the scene in the basement, she continues to live—but it may be that the author doesn’t want us to read this novel in a logical way. The most fascinating aspect of this book is that it doesn’t conform to any expectations of the literary subgenres we are used to: neither realism, nor surrealism, nor magic realism. The publisher classifies it under the umbrella of “magic realism,” but I think it’s simply a work of fiction that refuses to appropriate the real under the logical/illogical or realist/non realist dichotomy; it is neither one nor the other. This may seem frustrating for some readers, who won’t get any clear answers at the end of the novel.
Admittedly, the novel is at times confusing. During an outing in the park with Emi, Sal sees an adult couple, and the focus of the novel suddenly shifts to the story of the two adults. Who are these two, and what happened to Emi and Sal? It takes a while for the reader to realize that the two adults are Emi and Sal, many years later. It is also up to the reader to decide whether the two adults, who are both married to someone else, and are having an adulterous relationship, truly exist, or whether it all happens in the visionary mind of Sal-the-child.
Sun Alley is an original novel, written imperfectly, but it is worth reading. The book was published in Romania when Ştefănescu was in her early thirties, so perhaps we can forgive its imperfections and look forward to reading other works of hers in English translation.