TRAIN TO TRIESTE by Domnica Radulescu
“But for one beautiful summer, itвЂ™s linden trees and vodka made from fermented plums and stars and mountains and raspberries . . . Drink in the gorgeous scenery, the Carpathians, Bucharest, the dark forests. Suspend all cynicism and believe in the possibility of this love story.”
Review by Jana L. Perskie (NOV 16, 2009)
Domnica Radulescu’ semi-autobiographical debut novel, Train to Trieste, is a fascinating page turner, full of contrasts. She describes, with nostalgia and much love, her homeland, Romania, with its physical beauty, it’s mountains, plains, rivers, forests, and extraordinary seaside resorts and homes on the Black Sea. She writes of “one beautiful summer,” with its “linden trees and vodka made from fermented plums and stars and mountains and raspberries….” The scenery is “gorgeous,” the Carpathian Mountains are dark and mysterious – a perfect place for our protagonist, seventeen year-old Mona Manoliu, to fall in love. It is the summer of 1977.
His name is Mihai, “a green eyed, charismatic, mountain boy” grieving for the loss of his first love who died in a tragic accident. Mona meets him when summering with her family in the foothills of the Carpathians. She is immediately drawn to him and her compassion and love comforts Mihai. Soon the young couple are inseparable. Their sensuality and passion are palpable. They become lovers. At summers end Mona returns to the family home in Bucharest and makes plans to see Mihai the following summer.
Contrasting with this beauty and romance, is the brutal government of Nicolae Andruta Ceausescu, President of Romania from 1974 to 1979. Against the exquisite backdrop of his country, Ceausescu, with his narcissistic cult of personality, actually carries a sceptre in public. Opposition is ruthlessly suppressed by the hated secret police, the Securitate. Intellectuals and artists are cautioned not to overstep the mark of “permissible” free expression. But freedom of speech is severely limited and the media is controlled. It is even illegal to own a typewriter without an official license. Mona lives in fear that her intellectual father’s typewriter will be discovered. He is a poetry professor, a dissident, and is watched by the Securitate, as is she.
At the beginning of the 1980s Ceausescu introduced an austerity program in order to pay off Romania’s foreign debt, causing hunger, deprivation, long food lines where, when one reaches the end, there is nothing more to buy. The standard of living plunges and while most Romanians are starving, cold and living without electricity, Ceau?escu and his family continue to be surrounded by comfort and privilege. It is estimated that at least 15,000 Romanians died per year as a result of the austerity program and tens of thousands of lives were ruined during Ceausescu’s reign. There is much paranoia amongst the people. After all, one’s best friend could turn out to be a spy.
After an old woman whispers ugly rumors in Mona’s ear, she fears that her love, Mihai, might be a spy, especially when she sees him in a black leather jacket. The secret police wear black leather jackets. Friends and relatives disappear and/or die under suspicious circumstances.
When her father is directly threatened and her own life is in danger, Mona’s parents encourage her to flee the country, and leave Mihai, her family and homeland behind. Alone and terrified, Mona chooses the “Train to Trieste,” one of the well known escape routes. The train, on its way to Rome, stops briefly in Trieste, where Mona reflects on her past and her unknown future. She finally reaches the US and goes to Chicago, where she begins a new life. But she cannot forget her passion for Romania and Mihai, and her love for her parents. Her story spins out over the years, and ends with a surprising conclusion.
Author Domnica Radulescu, like the heroine of her novel, escaped from Romania in the early 1980s, studied literature at the University of Chicago, and is an extremely talented writer. She vividly expresses the horrors of life under the Ceausescus, and contrasts the repressive regime against the backdrop of the landscape’s physical beauty, and the happy times that Mona, her family, and her lover spend together. She writes of Mona’s fear, her intensely sensual feelings of love, as well as her conflicting emotions about Mihai. Should she love him, fear him, or both? Pleasure is contrasted with melancholy and pain.
I enjoyed Train to Trieste. It is not often that one gets to read a book set in Ceausescus’s Romania. Refreshingly, there is not a word written about Transylvania and Dracula! However, Ceausescus’ is an apt substitute.
Unfortunately, there are portions of the narrative which are slow and almost boring. The author is unable to sustain the tension and excitement of the storyline about the misery of the Romanian people and an intense but brief love affair. Instances of Mona’s life in Chicago are interesting and, at times, quite humorous. But there are repetitive passages which affect the novel’s pace. Otherwise, I would have rated it with 5 stars. I do recommend Train to Trieste, however. Although it may not be a novel for everyone, overall it is makes for a well written and unusual read.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 20 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Vintage; 1 edition (August 11, 2009)|
|REVIEWER:||Jana L. Perskie|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Domnica Radulescu|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
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- Train to Trieste (August 2008)
- Andre Malraux: The “Farfelu” As Expression of the Feminine and the Erotic (1994)
- Sisters of Medea: The Tragic Heroine Across Cultures (2002)