THE DAYS OF THE KING by Filip Florian

Book Quote:

“Having burnt their lips and their peace of mind on a soup of Brussels sprouts, the four – General Nicolae Golescu, minister of the interior and of foreign affairs under Bibescu Voda, member of the 1848 revolutionary committee, the provisional government, and the first Princely Lieutenancy; Lascar Catargiu, with his wolflike senses, honed until then only in appointments as prefect and en famille; Colonel Nicolae Haralamb, landowner, son of a court victualler from Craiova; and Ion Ghika, bizarre Turkophile revolutionary of 1848, longtime Bey of Samos – were now so prudent that they would have blown even on a bowl of yoghurt before tasting it.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster  AUG 16, 2011)

It’s 1886, and the dentist Joseph Strauss follows Karl Ludwig of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen from Prussia to Bucharest, where the latter is crowned King Carol I of Romania. Carol’s relationship with Joseph strays beyond the dental boundaries and they develop a certain camaraderie, particularly when Joseph arranges for the services of a blind prostitute to be made available (in strictest secret) to the politically beleaguered king. It is precisely the intimate nature of the knowledge Joseph carries which eventually leads to the king’s deliberate distancing of himself from the dentist. However, when the three-year-old Princess Maria dies of scarlet fever, and no further heirs seem forthcoming, Joseph wonders whether the King ought to be informed that the blind whore now has a son with a suspiciously aristocratic nose.

Filip Florian is a highly regarded Romanian author, and his first novel, Little Fingers  won numerous awards.

Now, how can I put this. I have an off-hand familiarity with the Continental predilection for convoluted language in both fiction and non-fiction. The ability to twist thirteen sentences into one contortionist-like knot and still somehow come out grammatically on top is often regarded as a sign of intellectual and linguistic brilliance. It’s little wonder in that case that Florian’s work has won high regard.

Sentences in this novel are frequently one and a half pages long (well, on Kindle at least). Subject is violently sundered from object, blown apart by sub-structures and interjections to make the reader’s mind dark with confusion. Why use one adjective when you could use twenty three, interspersed with thirteen sub-clauses and twelve asides? There is certainly nothing wrong with the translator’s (and I suspect Florian’s) grammar or vocabulary. After parsing the first two sentences out, though, I found it far too wearisome to follow the exact meaning of the text, and had to rely on intuition and guessing to struggle on, or risk going mad.

One advantage to these verbal acrobatics was, admittedly, the revival of several infrequently-used adjectives. It was refreshing to see some of the recesses of the rich English language being taken out and dusted off: I hadn’t used “nacreous” in quite a while and as for “canicular,” never. (“Having the quality of mother-of-pearl” and, in this application, “referring to the dog-days” respectively, in case you were wondering.)

The off-putting garb of tortured sentence structure which Florian of necessity wears is, however, doubly unfortunate because there is a highly talented writer lurking under there. Somewhere. It’s noticeable when the narrative narrows down to a point of excitement, or when rapid action takes place. He can’t help allowing sentences out in short breaths, and suddenly the scene springs to life. The characters start gasping for breath, their gags and restraints momentarily loosened. Unfortunately the action inevitably comes to an end. Then it’s time for either narrative, or asides, or observations and descriptions – all of which would be interesting and vivid were they cut up and served decently rather than being thrown at one’s face like a giant custard tart. Techniques of delivering backstory through dialogue or implication are obviously frowned on in Romania.

Much as I’d like to, I can’t say I would recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t know the sort of things Continental writing can get up to in its spare time. I am left wondering whether Florian will consider aiming his writing more at an English-speaking audience, but I’d guess that’s (sadly) unlikely. It’s a bit much to ask a nation to change its accepted linguistic style so that we can enjoy a few more decent translations. In the meantime poor Mr Florian might be doomed to languish in the obscure corners of the English translation pond.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (August 16, 2011)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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August 17, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Facing History, Romania, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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