By Daniel Deleanu
O noapte în vama veche (A Night at Vama Veche, Bucharest: Integral Press) is a novel published under the mysterious name of a certain “Melinda Mițulescu.” I say “mysterious” since there is zilch information about the author(ess) of the novel on the fourth cover of the book. Yet, after I’ve put into gear my dilettanto sleuth’s slapdash competences, acquired diligently while reading (by far too much!) gumshoe literature, I patiently googled Melinda Mițulescu, and the only reference I could find was a response given, no less than ten years ago, to a reader’s comment by an editor from the Romanian glamour magazine Tabu, seemingly bearing the same nom de plume. Since the Editorial Director of Tabu apparently is Dan-Silviu Boerofs ago fro the Roanian gline.s)escu, who is also the book’s prefacer, combined with fact that he is referred to in the novel in a rather (self-)mocking fashion, which no sane author would have dared address his literary benefactor, there are reasons to believe that the de facto author of the book is no one else but he. But whether the prominent critic and former editor-in-chief of Playboy Romania is truly the one who has penned the book is perhaps less significant, given the fact that the novel has its standalone merits, which certainly weigh much more on the axiological scale than its accurate authorship.
Writing about the experience of spending a night at Vama Veche, a Romanian seaside resort town which has gained the reputation of a quasi-hippy locality with a free-spirited atmosphere resembling somehow the San Francisco of the late 1960s, is virtually impossible to capture in a short novel as this, and yet Melinda Mițulescu rises to this gargantuan challenge, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a place that, despite its fictionalization, thrives on its real-life reputation. And this effort becomes even more worthy of admiration once we notice that the original story concocted by Mițulescu overflows with raw humanity, despite its many attempts at a crude humour which is not always utterly effective. Mițulescu’s odd characters live on the edge, whether they are well off or just struggling to make the monthly rent. All of them, regardless of their material status, eventually become “Beautiful Losers,” as Leonard Cohen has titled one of his novels, and life seems to show little leniency for those who cheat while playing its existential poker game. However, regardless of the setbacks they have to experience, the urban antiheroes imagined by the author(ess) lose neither hope nor their sense of pride at any time, and this trait saves them from turning into some deplorable idiots. To put it otherwise, the impenitent characters in O noapte în vama veche (A Night at Vama Veche) impress the reader through their unapologetic determination to survive in a society whose sole measuring rod of one’s worth is their monetary gains, and consequently the idea of utilizing in this regard a moral compass is blatantly obsolete.
Shattered dreams seem to have disrupted the lives of these peculiar, and yet not ignoble, characters. Diana is an attractive young woman with silicon boobs and vain aspirations who has been launched into a modelling career and a subsequent Playboy pictorial by the fake love story that has purportedly taken place between her and a gay fashion designer who refuses to come out lest the faux romance with his protégée be discovered. The four male characters who lionize Diana are in no way more fulfilled. Codrin, though wealthy, is irritated by the inanity and frivolity of his spouse, another femme fatale with shallow existential perspectives. Tase, a man out of work, “with a beer belly,” a nagging wife and four scions, whom he suspects are not his, experiences a midlife crisis which will take him, just as the other characters, to Vama Veche. Victor, a rock lover who refuses to accept his age and thus to settle down and make something out of his life, is another man in a constant fight with himself, and hence a perpetual failure who is afraid to grab life’s bull by the horns. Last, but not least, Carlos is a Puerto Rican who came to Romania to find a job and make a better living for himself, but whose enterprises in reality prove to be unadulterated duds. But the conflicts faced by these five peculiar characters are not entirely with the outside world: they in actuality confront their inner demons, whom they set free at Vama Veche, only to exorcise them again at the end of the novel, when the impromptu vacation is over and they have to reassume their everyday personas.
At the very root of these characters’ successful buildup is perhaps the way they speak. Thus, the author(ess) allows his/her characters to express themselves in their own voices, i.e. to use colloquial lexes along plenty of slang. This stylistic artifice makes them sound brutally honest and subsequently very real, tangible almost. They, as such, successfully convey their existential struggles, of which the most important is the effort each of them, regardless of how fat their wallet is, makes in order to be understood as a human being. By using an unfiltered lingo, these characters cause the reader to struggle along with them and in this way become empathic.
The novel is efficaciously touched by the miracle-working wing of the Latin-American angel of magic realism, who blesses Melinda Mițulescu with inspiration, as one can see for oneself by reading this remarkable passage: “She began to run, and she was running so fast that, at one point, she hovered on the pathway, which was full of rocks and thistles, and started to fly over the crimson field. The cool wind blew her long hair, and her hands could reach the wheatears. It was as though she were patting the back of a huge yellow cat purring gently, crouched on the seashore. ‘Come, Diana,’ Tase said to her, holding her hand in his, and gawking at her with his intense green eyes. But hey, this was not Tase, but her childhood friend, Florin, who had gifted her a particoloured beaded bracelet along his heart when she was fourteen. He was so cute, with his dishevelled black hair and those green eyes who kept looking at her intensely, too intensely, when they were dancing to Robbie William’s song at that discotheque at the end of the park, in their small and polluted town” (pp. 76-77).
Although the author(ess), like most of his/her literary peers, seems to be quite indifferent towards the figures of speech, they, however, are not lacking. In fact, at times, the tropes are not only present, but outright striking. Thus, Tase has a “stroboscope in his chest” (p. 78), which is a metaphor of rare beauty that evinces the state of mind not only of this particular character, but of the entire group that makes the trip to Vama Veche, which becomes here the topos of a redemptive “pagan” festival, a primal saturnalia that liberates, but which can only be lived once, or at least at a certain interval of time, otherwise its cathartic function would be voided.
As far as humour is concerned, it is not always malfunctioning; on the contrary, sometimes, especially when it is infused with a satirical spirit, it may turn to hilarity, as proven by this excerpt which contains some remarkably witty sentences: “‘Tase, do you still have the money your wife gave you to buy her tampons…? I beg you, buy me a beer ’cause I’m dying of thirst. And, please [my bold; word in English in the original text], get me a cigarette too,’ Diana ordered in a queenly tone of voice” (p. 79). And, in a similar vein, here is another passage that makes a bold statement about the satirical nature of the novel: “Weeping was out of the question, for she’d just taken a few Botox jabs in the forehead and the area of her eyes. That, she thought to herself, is after all something that any decent woman past thirty would do. And, anyway, Diana never wept – to her, tears were nothing else save an easy way to impress some stupid guys who tried to make it up to her by buying her an original Vuitton purse or a high-end watch” (p. 16).
Melinda Mițulescu’s novel is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a candid literary fresco of contemporary Romanian society, and for this reason alone it should gain more attention not only from “ordinary” readers, but also from the critics, who, unfortunately, have undeservedly panned it.
About the author:
Daniel Deleanu is a Romanian-Canadian writer and academic who sways between Toronto and his native town of Sibiu.
He has published articles, reviews and critical studies in cultural journals and academic journals from Romania and abroad (USA, Canada and Great Britain).
He has also published more than 1,300 academic books (critical studies of universal and comparative literature, studies of philosophy of literature, theory of literature, etc.) in English language, most of them in Canada.