Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/32 posted by hidden europe on

Romania's poetic tradition is remarkably distinguished, and yet rarely acknowledged outside its country of origin. But even for those disinclined to learn Romanian, there is some fine work waiting to be found in translation - from Mihai Eminescu to Marin Sorescu.

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Dear fellow travellers

When Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union at the start of next month, they will bring an admixture of rich cultural traditions to the EU. A new alphabet for starters, for Bulgaria is the first member of the EU where the Cyrillic script comes as standard fare. True, there are linguistic minorities that use Cyrillic in existing EU states, but Bulgaria is the first member of the club that routinely uses this alphabet for its principal language. And both Bulgaria and Romania will bring to the EU their own distinctive literary and religious heritage.

Romania's poetic tradition is remarkably distinguished, and yet rarely acknowledged outside its country of origin. But even for those disinclined to learn Romanian, there is some fine work waiting to be found in translation - from Mihai Eminescu to Marin Sorescu.

Today, 8 December, is the tenth anniversary of Sorescu's death. In his verse Marin Sorescu captured that most quintessential of Romanian virtues - the ability to laugh in the face of adversity. Romanians even have a word for it - râsu-plânsu. It means laughter-sorrow.

Periprava (Romania)

Râsu-plânsu is a key ingredient of life in Periprava, a tiny community in northeast Romania that seems to be at the very end of the earth. The slow boat from the nearest road head at Tulcea chugs through the backwaters of the Danube delta - a magnificent landscape of reeds, islands and forests. At this time of year the sky is full of thousands of red-breasted geese. The journey to Periprava takes five hours, with a stop en route at Chilia Veche, a strange sort of place that was for years a suburb of Kiliya. But nowadays Kiliya, on the north bank of the river, is in Ukraine. Chilia Veche, on the south bank, is in Romania and finds itself strangely isolated from Kiliya - and the rest of the world.

Periprava is also close by the border with Ukraine. This time last year everyone was busy on a mass slaughter of birds after Periprava was declared infected by avian flu. Then last spring there were floods, so the village has seen better days. Strange, this eerie world of the delta where, on 1 January, some villages will find themselves in the European Union, and others will look across to the EU from the wrong side of the fence. In the next issue of hidden europe we shall visit the Union's two new members, Romania and Bulgaria, and shall report from Rezovo, a Bulgarian version of Periprava. Not quite so remote, but still a place that will find itself on the outer edge of the EU - for the border with Turkey is just metres away.

Periprava is one of those places where life isn't easy. Marin Sorescu, dedicated his last volume of poetry 'to all who suffer'. It is an anthology for Periprava and all those places and peoples that find themselves unhappily on the edge of life. These are communities where a dash of râsu-plânsu makes life bearable.

Marin Sorescu

In the collection of poetry written in the final weeks of his life, as he lay on his deathbed, Sorescu mischievously contemplated his own imminent death. When Sorecu died ten years ago today, Romania lost one of her most remarkable voices - one whose life and work deserves to be celebrated across all Europe. Here is one of Sorescu's last poems, A Ladder to the Sky, in English translation, written just a month before his death:

A spider's thread
Hangs from the ceiling,
Directly over my bed.

Every day I keep track of
How much closer it descends.
"Look," I say to myself,
"I'm being sent a ladder to the sky,
Lowered from above."

I've grown dreadfully thin,
A mere ghost of what I used to be,
Yet I think my body
Is too heavy still
For this delicate ladder.

"Soul, you go ahead.
Shhh! Shhh!"

'A Ladder to the Sky' by Marin Sorescu, translated by Adam J Sorkin and Lidia Vianu, is one of almost one hundred poems in Sorescu's valedictory volume of verse, 'The Bridge', published by Bloodaxe Books (www.bloodaxebooks.com). Our thanks to the publisher for allowing us to include this poem. This edition of 'The Bridge' won the 2005 Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation. For details of the 2007 prize competition, which is administered by The Poetry Society, see www.poetrysociety.org.uk.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.