In the summer of 1977, seventeen-year-old Mona Manoliu falls in love with Mihai, a green-eyed boy who lives in Brasov, the romantic mountain city where she spends her summers. But under the Ceausescu dictatorship, paranoia infects everyone; soon Mona begins to suspect that Mihai is part of the secret police. As food shortages worsen and her loved ones begin to disappear, Mona realizes that she too must leave. Over the next twenty years, she struggles to bury her longing for the past, yet she eventually finds herself compelled to return, determined to learn the truth about her one great love.
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Domnica Radulescu was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1983. She holds a Ph.D in French and Italian Literature from the University of Chicago, and is currently a Professor of Romance Languages and Chair of the Women's Studies program at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. She has written and edited books and scholarly articles on European and Eastern European literature, and has also worked in theater for two decades, directing plays by Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Fernando Arrabal, and Jean Tardieu. She is a recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright grants. Train to Trieste is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Orange Moons I have left the Black Sea, my skin golden and salty, and my tangled hair brighter from the sun, to take the train that crosses the land by the violet-blue waters and the sunflower fields near Bucharest, then cuts through mountains into resin-pungent forest.
I am seventeen. Every summer my parents and I leave the hot streets of Bucharest to spend two weeks on the beaches of the Black Sea, after which we spend two months of summer in my aunt’s house in Brasov, the city at the foot of the Carpathians. I always rush to the mountains, hungry for the cool, fragrant air and sparkling sunrises.
This time I have come only with my mother. The night I arrive from the Black Sea, I want to go out for a stroll around the neighborhood right away. My aunt Nina, my mother’s sister, tells me I should rest first and not go off like that, all heated up and sweaty. She always gives her advice in a timid, soft way, as if worried she might upset you, unlike my mother, who blurts out her judgments in shrill tones, demanding that you listen.
My younger cousins Miruna and Riri want me to stay and play with them. Miruna, who is almost ten years old now and has the bluest eyes I have ever seen, starts crying, and she says I never play with them anymore and that she hates me. Riri, only five, with dark eyes like blackberries, throws a wooden toy box at my head. I tell them I’ll play with them later. The only one who doesn’t care what I do is my uncle Ion, who is snoring loudly on the sofa in the kitchen, too exhausted from work to even go to bed.
I need to cool off my sunburned body in the fresh mountain air, and I fly down the marble staircase, out into the fresh night, before either my mother or her sister can say another word. By June, I desperately want to leave Bucharest, with its tired crowds and heated pavements, its French-style heavy gray buildings, and its slow-moving trolleybuses. The detour by the Black Sea is like a short leap into a fairy tale. The sight of the emerald-violet sea sparkling in the morning as I look at it through the perfect white columns at the edge of the beach always transports me to the times of Ovid, once exiled on these shores. I like to think of myself as a naiad walking dreamily on the burning sands and gliding slowly into the waters filled with lacy algae and pearly shells. By the end of the second week, my body aches from the sun and from the Bucharest crowds filling every square meter of the beaches with their improvised tents and colored sheets. That’s when I start longing for pine trees and cool shade.
Up here I finally feel at home, not in a fairy tale, not in a place I want to run away from, but in a place where my body feels whole and where my heart has a steady beat. There are children’s voices coming from behind the thick stone walls that line the streets. Blood-red poppies and orange marigolds grow in little beds along the sidewalks. Right around the corner there is a large open market, and I can hear faint echoes of peasants’ voices advertising tomatoes and radishes, watermelons and spring potatoes. The summer open market is the only place where you can still buy food without a huge line. In Romania, we eat better in the summer.
I run into my childhood friend Cristina. Her two chestnut braids are wrapped around her head, and she gives me the news breathlessly, without any word of introduction or a hello, as if she had been expecting to meet me in the street tonight.
“Did you hear about Mariana? Mihai killed her,” Cristina says. “The two of them went on a three-day trip at the end of April. They were coming down the Rock of the Prince, trying to get back to their tent before dark. He was walking behind her, and he accidentally kicked loose a rock. It hit her in the head and killed her, just like that.”
Cristina breaks into sobs. She was a good friend of Mariana’s and learned about kissing and lovemaking from her, which she would then tell me. I try to picture Mariana. I used to admire her. I envied her raspy voice and the way she blew rings of cigarette smoke. I loved the way she would throw herself carelessly into her boyfriend’s lap, swirling her Gypsy skirts. But mostly I picture her boyfriend, Mihai Simionu. He has green eyes and long lashes, and he would pluck the strings of his guitar and play melancholy songs. Cristina’s news of the accident horrifies me, but somehow I don’t feel sad for Mariana.
Mihai and Mariana are four years older than Cristina and me, and we were fascinated with them and their love. We sometimes followed them and spied on them. I used to watch Mihai from the corner of my eye as he walked holding Mariana’s hand and whistling. Now I picture him walking like that, but there’s no one holding his hand.
Instead of heading toward the boulevard, we turn back to our neighborhood. Cristina doesn’t want to be seen crying by the whole world. We pass a row of neatly lined-up yellow, peach, and blue stone houses toward the park at the end of the street and see Mihai walking circles in the shadows around the wooden bench where he and Mariana used to kiss and sing until late at night. He is unshaven and wears checkered mountain pants, boots, and a wrinkled short-sleeve shirt. Cristina starts crying again at the sight of him, and I tell her to go home and leave me alone with him.
I watch him smoking those unfiltered Romanian cigarettes called Carpati, Carpathians, almost like a cruel joke. I never got it why such stinking cigarettes are named after our most beautiful natural assets. Romanian cigarettes are the worst cigarettes in the world, bitter and sour. Suddenly my heart aches for him as he smokes and walks furiously, hurting from his loss. I go straight to him, cross his path shamelessly so he can’t avoid me. He has to look at me. And he does. He gives his anger a rest and smiles a little, squinting his green eyes in the smoke. I ask if he wants to walk with me. He nods.
The moon is full, hanging low. He has his head down and walks fast. I can’t keep up with him. My face is still burning from the Black Sea sun and from the summer night, from the full moon and his green eyes. I am burning like embers. I am glowing in the dark.
There is no meat in the stores and no toilet paper. Flour, oil, and sugar are rationed. People say it’s about as bad now in 1977 as it was during Stalinism. The worst of it is that there are men in black leather jackets with small eyes who watch at every corner, on every floor of every building, and who listen on every telephone line. They want to know if you are complaining, if you make jokes, if you speak with foreigners, if you plan to leave the country, and where you got your Kent cigarettes. Somehow, many people manage to escape the country. There is news almost daily about so-and-so who left on a tourist trip to Germany and never came back or who went to Yugoslavia and then somehow ended up in Italy. Lucky them, we always say. Smart people, good for them, we also say.
In school, between our organic chemistry classes and our comparative literature or Western philosophy classes, we study the five-year Socialist plans of the cooperative farms and the production of tools and tractors, and about the utopia of Socialist happiness in a not-too-faraway future, where people will give only according to their ability and receive according to their need. We seem to find ourselves in some kind of a transitional moment, when, except for the important Party leaders and secret police who shop at special, secret Party stores, nobody is really that close to getting even the most basic needs met. The grocery stores are empty, and the steel shelves are shiny and clean to the point that you can see your face reflected in elongated shapes in the metal surface of those shelves. If you are lucky, at the most unexpected times of the day there might be a transport of cheese or chicken wings in your neighborhood, with long lines formed instantaneously. The last people in line generally look demoralized: there won’t be anything left on the shelf, they know, by the time their turn comes. They will leave with their empty bags and try to find other lines throughout the city, where they might have the chance of being the first in a line for butter or sardines or toilet paper. The running joke is that Romanians don’t need toilet paper any longer because they have nothing to shit.
This summer I am seventeen, I am bursting into being a woman, and I don’t care about empty stores and sugar and flour rations. My blue eyes are blazing. My long limbs are taut and restless. I have wild wheat-colored hair that flies in all directions and a great hunger in my flesh. All I care about is that this man who is grieving for his dead lover turn his eyes on me, notice my sun-bleached hair, my burning face and shoulders, and play one of his melancholy guitar songs for me. For me alone. The smell of earth and death turning through his heart makes me wild with desire. I want to be there in the center of his heart where it smells like raw earth. I want him to be my first lover: bitter, raging, smelling of unfiltered Romanian cigarettes, and hurting for a dead girl.
This is the year of the big earthquake, and blood and pink flowers seem to bloom all at once out of the cracked earth. The greedy, unforgiving black earth! I wonder if Mariana had any time to think, to worry, to gasp at the thought of her own impending death. I wonder if Mihai was just careless when he kicked that rock downhill or whether there was anything else that Cristina hasn’t told me or that she doesn’t know herself. I know other men were in love with Mariana. I know they all went in big groups on their mountain trips. Maybe Mariana had flirted with Mihai’s best friend, Radu, a little too much, as she sometimes had the habit of doing. Maybe Mihai flew into a jealous rage. Maybe this was a crime of passion. I remember their fiery fights late at night at the edge of the park where all the kids in the neighborhood gathered. Mariana always broke into tears and smoked one cigarette after another and swirled her colored skirts in a move to leave. Then Mihai would grab her violently, and in a second his mood changed from angry to tender and they would start whispering and kissing. I used to watch them with fascination and with an intimation of delicious pain.
As I walk beside Mihai, I am thinking that there never has been such a full orange moon and such a fresh, raw-smelling place in someone’s heart for me to install myself like a greedy queen.
“They shaved off her hair,” he is saying. “She had a big hole in the back of her head. They shaved off her beautiful brown curls to look at the hole in the back of her head. Why did they have to do that?” He crushes his cigarette on the ground and stares in the distance. We walk some more, and the moon is swelling in front of us, orange, round, wicked. I want to take his hand and make him look at me.
I stumble in my flimsy, worn-out sandals. My feet are blistered from the sand and the salt that had gathered in my sandals at the beach. My feet burn with every step as if the earth were boiling. I steady myself by holding on to him and making him stop. His fingers on my arm burn my skin.
“Let’s go get something to drink,” I say. “Today is August fifteenth, Saint Mary of the Assumption. It’s my name day.”
“I thought you were a pagan,” he says. “I am. I just like to drink on my saint’s day. I celebrate my name.”
“Your name is Maria? Your aunt Nina always calls you Mona.”
“My aunt Matilda, my father’s sister, prayed to Virgin Mary during my birth, so I had to have her name, too, for protection. Mona Maria.”
“Mona Maria.” He smiles and says he finds the alliteration amusing. He says it’s like a movie star’s name.
We pass by my aunt’s house. I hear my mother call me from the balcony, saying it’s late and that I have to come home. I shout up to her to leave me alone; I am old enough and I can stay out as long as I want. We keep walking.
Mihai says there’s a liquor store next to the railway station. We walk for a long time without talking. We see a train smoking its way out of the station and a couple kissing at the street corner. I’m jealous of all lovers, dead or alive. I am thirsty and giddy and I fall in love with every step I take at Mihai’s side, as I watch his profile. His thick black eyelashes and sad green eyes. Tonight, on my saint’s name day, I don’t care about sugar and flour rations, so long as the store has vodka, and it always does.
We buy cheap vodka, tuicå, made from fermented plums, and walk back to our neighborhood. But just as we are about to cross the street toward my aunt’s building, I take Mihai’s hand and pull him onto a side street. The darkness smells of my special flower, regina noptii, queen of the night. We drink from the bottle in the middle of the street to celebrate my name saint.
I laugh so hard that tears burst out of my eyes. The moons are multiplying. It’s wonderful to have moons scattered like stars above your head and to smell the queen of the night and to hold the hand of this sad man who is already thinking about how he will kiss me. I am alive. I am here, laughing in front of him, ablaze and golden and seeing many moons in the sky. I lie down on the strip of grass at the edge of the sidewalk, under a line of poplar saplings, next to the iron fence that separates the street from the park in front of my aunt’s building. The neighbor who lives below my aunt’s apartment walks past me carrying a bag of potatoes. She shakes her head and mutters something about “city girls.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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