Tag Archives: Moldova

The Price of Freedom

The novel “The Price of Freedom” by the French-speaking author Matéo Maximoff recounts the life of a group of Roma in Moldova in the first half of the 19th century, at a time when this ethnic group was still living as slaves in what is today Romania. As the title of the book already indicates, the struggle for the freedom of the Roma – as shown by the example of the characters in the novel – is the central theme of the book.

Young Istvan, the main character of the book, works as a clerk and librarian in the court of the rich landowner Andrei. He owes this position, which is unusual for a Rom, to the fact that Andrei, who is ruling his estate as a mostly benevolent patriarch, recognized the intelligence of the young Istvan early on and promoted him. Istvan grew up together with Andrei’s sons of about the same age and thus, compared to the situation of his family and the other Roma who work for Andrei, achieved a “privileged” position. This, however, has no legal effect on his status as a slave and personal property of the landowner; as a slave, he is always at the mercy of his owner. This special position isolates him both from his own community, where on the one hand he is respected but also viewed with suspicion, and also from the community of free people with which he lives on a daily basis.

Another outsider in this environment is Yon, who is not only the landlord’s energetic right-hand man, but also his illegitimate son – a secret that is known to Istvan. Yon’s competent and energetic work distinguishes him from the legitimate sons of the landowner. While the Roma fear him as the powerful and sometimes ruthless representative of Andrei – he can impose severe punishment at any time -, Yon knows very well that he can never achieve a position that would be in line with his great energy and ambition; this position will be reserved for Andrei’s legitimate sons. The two outsiders Istvan and Yon have an occasionally conflict-ridden relationship, but one that is also based on mutual respect. Since they have known each other since childhood, a strange friendship, characterized at the same time by rivalry, has developed over the course of time. The role that both have to play as outstanding representatives of their respective social groups is simply too contradictory to get along without the tensions that become more and more apparent as the book progresses.

Maximoff chooses a clever introduction to his story: the book starts with the big market day in springtime. During this occasion, slaves are also sold and bought. Yon buys a group of Roma, including Lena, a girl that he obviously intends to turn into his lover. To protect Lena from Yon’s stalking, Istvan, who got Andrei’s blessing for this, gets engaged to Lena – which not only annoys Yon very much, but also fills Istvan’s lover Rayka with great jealousy. She had hoped that her relationship with Istvan would lead to marriage and sees her prospects threatened. Rayka’s jealousy is at the beginning of a fateful and dramatic chain of actions that culminate in the flight of Istvan, his family and a few other Roma; an escape that is of course not simply accepted by Andrei and his people, who suspect that Istvan murdered one of Andrei’s sons.

During their flight, the Roma group around Istvan faces an outlawed group of Roma who live in the remote mountains and who have realized their dream of a free life without oppressors. After initial reluctance, they accept Istvan and his group because of his honesty, courage and cleverness and let them join their community.

In the looming “showdown” between Yon – supported by the military, which is involved in the search for those who have fled – and Istvan and his Roma, a fight with great severity and brutality takes place, which will lead as a result to many victims on both sides. But violence is not the last word in this novel. In 1855, the political leader of the country, Alexander Ghika finally abolishes slavery in all of Romania (Moldova and Wallachia). And the story of Istvan comes to a resolution during a later court case that ties all the loose ends of the story together, giving it a last surprising twist. I don’t want to reveal more here in order not to spoil this very exciting story unnecessarily for readers.

I liked the book. It introduces the reader to the life of the Roma in the 19th century and I find it very embarrassing that although the slavery of the African Americans in the south of the USA is well known and explored, while at the same time, the fact that the Roma in Moldova and Wallachia were living in very similar conditions during the same period, is largely unknown in Europe and elsewhere. The book is shedding light on the plight of the Roma, and the reader has to be grateful to the author for this. The story itself is told with a lot of tempo and a feeling for dialogue, and even if not all characters are drawn without clichés, this story is definitely worth reading. It is also interesting that the author at least in passing mentions the fall in prices on the market for slaves; this is another parallel to slavery in the American South. Slavery disappeared in the end because it couldn’t survive in the changing economic and technical conditions.  

The author, Matéo Maximoff, was born in Spain to a Kalderash Rom father from Russia – hence the Slavic family name – and a Manouche Sinto mother from France (she was a cousin of Django Reinhardt). At the age of eighteen or nineteen – his exact birthday is unknown – he moved to France with his family during the Spanish Civil War. Maximoff was the first one of his clan who had learned to read and write early on. While he was in prison – three people were killed in an argument within his clan, whereupon the police arrested indiscriminately everyone from his family – he began to write his first novel, which was later to be followed by ten more. After the end of World War II, Maximoff, who survived internment in a Nazi concentration camp himself but had lost many family members, began his successful career as the first Roma writer ever. Over several decades he was also an activist and fighter for the equality of his ethnic group in France. He also translated big parts of the Bible into the Kalderash Romanes language.

I read the book in the German translation that was published in 1955. It seems that none of his books are in print at this moment, neither in the French original, nor in English or German translation.

There is a very interesting award-winning Romanian film that also deals with Roma slavery: Aferim!. I can highly recommend the film; you can watch a trailer here.

Matéo Maximoff: Le prix de la liberté. Wallada, 1996; Der Preis der Freiheit. Morgarten Verlag Conzett & Huber, Zurich 1955 (tr. Bernhard Jolles)

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-21. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moldauisches Heft (2): Gottsuche

Gottsuche Die beiden Zeugen Jehovas und ihr Stand mit dem „Wachturm“ neben der Haltestelle, an der ich morgens auf den Bus warte, gehören zum Straßenbild in Chisinau wie die Trolleybusse und das Denkmal von Stefan cel Mare. Bei der Vorbeifahrt an verschiedenen Kirchen bekreuzigt sich jedes Mal ein Teil der Fahrgäste in der orthodoxen Art („rechts vor links“). Auf dem Nachhauseweg passiere ich später im Park die Falun-Gong-Leute, die dort ihr Lager aufgeschlagen haben, weiche unterwegs den beiden adrett gekleideten lächelnden jungen Männern aus Amerika aus, die gerne Passanten zum wahren mormonischen Glauben konvertieren möchten, bleibe kurz am Schaufenster der Buchhandlung stehen, wo mir Osho und der Papst auf Buchdeckeln entgegensehen. Vom Turm der nahegelegenen Kirche schlägt es zur vollen Stunde, als ich zuhause ankomme. Während ich in der Küche Kaffee zubereite, sehe ich vom Fenster aus, dass die Hare-Krishna-Jünger heute fünf Minuten später als üblich singend vorbeiziehen. So viel Suche nach Gott an einem Ort, den dieser offenbar längst verlassen hat. 
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moldauisches Heft (1): Bücher und Menschen

Bücher und Menschen

K. und ich sitzen dicht neben dem kleinen altertümlichen Ofen, der auf Hochtouren läuft, aber gerade nur so viel Wärme abgibt, dass man es eben noch so aushalten kann im winterlich kalten Studio des Malers und Dichters D. P. in Chisinau. Uns gegenüber sitzt D., der gerade in einen Katalog eines bulgarischen Malers vertieft ist, den er zu dessen Lebzeiten gekannt hat; zwischen uns ein Tisch auf dem sich Malutensilien, diverse Brillen, Medikamentenschachteln, ein Teller mit Früchten und drei noch halbvolle Gläser mit moldauischem Cognac ein Stelldichein geben. D. strahlt. Der Besuch und das Interesse an seinen Gemälden tun ihm gut und er blüht förmlich auf. Besonders gegenüber der jungen Frau zeigt er sich aufmerksam und charmant und ich wundere mich nicht, dass sehr viele seiner im Studio befindlichen Werke Porträts meist junger Frauen und Mädchen sind. Trotz seiner 74 Jahre flirtet er ein wenig mit K., die es mit gutem Humor aufnimmt. Zur aufgekratzten Stimmung trägt auch bei, dass ich ein Bild gekauft habe, ein stimmungsvolles, schön komponiertes Stillleben mit Früchten und einer Karaffe, welches mir sofort auffiel. D. hat große Probleme mit den Augen und der ausgemachte Kaufpreis hilft, die notwendige Operation zu bezahlen.

– ‚Ich komme aus einer Familie, in der es Bücher gab und in der gelesen wurde‘, sagt D. nachdem er den Katalog zur Seite gelegt hat. – ‚Das war ganz und gar nicht alltäglich in unserem Dorf im Budzhak, dem heute zur Ukraine gehörenden Teil Bessarabiens. Die Liebe zur bulgarischen Sprache habe ich von meiner Mutter, das Verständnis für den Reichtum der Muttersprache und dafür, dass Sprache mehr sein kann als nur ein bloßes Verständigungsmittel; das Wissen, dass man wirklich in der Sprache wohnen und zuhause sein kann habe ich von ihr. Die Liebe zu und der Respekt vor Büchern kommt dagegen vom Vater und Großvater. Zu Anfang des letzten Jahrhunderts hat Großvater angefangen, eine private Bibliothek zusammenzutragen. Darin gab es Bücher in verschiedenen Sprachen, Bulgarisch, Russisch, Rumänisch…viele davon müssen teuer gewesen sein; es waren aufwendig gedruckte und gebundene Bände darunter, viele mit Illustrationen. Er liebte besonders Werke zu religiösen Themen. Auch mein Vater kaufte später Bücher für diese private Bibliothek. Als dann die Rumänen kamen, füllte er eine große hölzerne Truhe mit Büchern in russischer Sprache, die er dann irgendwo vergrub. Wer russische Bücher im Haus hatte, galt den Rumänen als gefährlich, als Verräter, und hatte mit schweren Konsequenzen zu rechnen; mancher verlor sein Leben wegen ein paar russischer Erbauungsbücher im Haus. Später kamen dann die Russen zurück, und wieder wurde eine große hölzerne Truhe gefüllt, diesmal mit Büchern in rumänischer Sprache. Nun wurde nämlich jeder mit rumänischen Büchern im Haus als Verräter angesehen und schwer bestraft, in die Verbannung geschickt oder erschossen. Niemand weiß heute mehr, wo die Truhen vergraben sind; vielleicht hat jemand sein Haus dort gebaut, wo sie liegen, nicht ahnend, was für ein Schatz und was für eine Geschichte dort verborgen ist.‘

Über das Buchenland, die Bukowina, und seine Hauptstadt Czernowitz sagte Paul Celan, dass dort einst Bücher und Menschen lebten; doch dasselbe gilt wohl auch für das benachbarte, am gleichen Meridian gelegene Bessarabien.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

Since I am right now living and working in the Republic of Moldova, it will come probably not as a surprise to you, dear readers, when I am trying to get my hands on any books written by Moldovan authors that are translated in a language that I am able to read. There are indeed a few quite interesting authors whose translated books I will feature here in the future. 

Today I am writing a few lines about a rather humorous book by the British comedian Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. At the beginning is an eccentric wager: Tony is betting with a friend (after they watched the Moldovan football team in TV losing against England) that he can beat every member of the Moldovan National team in tennis. (It should be mentioned that a short time before his Moldovan adventure he won a bet that included his traveling around Ireland – with a fridge!)

“All I knew about Moldova was the names of eleven men printed on the inside back page of my newspaper. None of them sounded to me sounded like they were any good at tennis…” 

So, the bizarre quest is simply: tracking down the country’s football team, challenging them one by one to play tennis with him – and win! (Maybe I should mention that the loser of the bet is supposed to sing the Moldovan National anthem on a crowded street in London – with his pants down…) 

What follows is the hilarious report of Tony’s adventures mainly in Moldova, with a visit in Northern Ireland (where the football team has a match that would give Tony the opportunity to challenge some players he hadn’t met yet.) and an exciting trip to Nazareth where things seem to go wrong for Tony… 

The guiding principle of the book, the tracking down of eleven football players reminded me of course a bit of The Twelve Chairs. There is plenty of action, unexpected turns of fate, meetings with the Moldovan underworld, gypsies, and every day challenges such as power cuts, huge manholes in the almost unlit streets of the capital Chisinau, adventures in the public transport, but also encounters with plenty of helpful people, especially his guest family with which Tony created a bond of friendship for life. 

A good part of the humour of the book is based on the clash of culture between an over-optimistic Englishman and a local population who seem to be a bit reserved and not particularly surprised about Tony’s plan. In a country where almost everyone is focused on surviving the next day, that is probably not surprising. (The book was published in 2000, but things have not changed a lot and Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe.) 

Usually, I am a bit reserved regarding the genre “Humorous Travel Books”. Too frequently, the humour in the book is of a condescending and disrespectful nature; the content of this kind of books can be described as “Foreigner from a wealthy Western country travels to a poor country about which he doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to learn anything, with the sole purpose to poke fun at the hapless and primitive natives, in order to entertain other prejudiced and obnoxious foreigners from wealthy Western countries.” The travel prose of AA Gill and some other hacks belongs to that category. I don’t like that at all.

Fortunately, Tony Hawks is a different kind of person. His humour is self-depreciating, and he is genuinely interested in getting to know and understand the Moldovans. He is even questioning if he is doing the right thing with his bizarre adventure, which seems to him rather frivolous as time is passing, considering the living conditions of everyone around him. 

Of course I am not telling you here if Tony was successful and was really able to beat all players. You have to read it by yourself, and I can assure you, it is a very entertaining book. And since there not many books about Moldova, it is still a must-read for anyone who travels there. 

50% of the royalties of this book go into a fund that supports a local children’s health centre in Chisinau, the Tony Hawks Centre. Tony is still traveling regularly to Moldova and is doing additional fundraising for the good cause. If you want to learn more about the Tony Hawks Centre, or about Voinicel, another NGO in Chisinau that supports children with special needs and their parents, visit their respective websites. And maybe you consider also if you can make a donation – it is for a good cause! 

Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Ebury Press 2007 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Visiting a painter’s studio

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the painter Dmitrie Peicev (Димитър Пейчев) in his studio in Chisinau. Peicev was born 1943 in Burgugi, a Bulgarian village in the Budzhak region, the part of Bessarabia that belongs now to Ukraine (Odesa oblast). He received his artistic education in Chisinau and Moscow. The influence of the French impressionists, Courbet and of his teacher (and father-in-law) Mihai Grecu is visible in many of his paintings, although Peicev has his own distinctive style.

Peicev is also a poet. He has published three collections of poetry in his native language in Bulgaria. A fourth collection is in preparation. Many of his poems circle around childhood memories from his beloved Budzhak.

It was supposed to be a friendly, short visit; but we ended up (supported by some Moldovan wine) to discuss for about six hours a big variety of topics from the world of art, poetry, and life in general. For me it was particularly interesting to learn about the life of the Bulgarian minority in the region and their history and culture. And of course it was an opportunity to see quite a number of his artworks, mainly from recent years; portraits, landscapes, still lives.

Although the artist, a very humble person, who didn’t say anything bad about anyone during our meeting, has done a lot of efforts to keep his Bulgarian identity and to keep the Bulgarian community in the region together, I had the feeling that his experiences in Bulgaria were a bit mixed (to say it friendly). While he has some close friends in Bulgaria and spoke very fondly of his visits there, he is not very well known in Bulgaria, and a big exhibition tour years ago ended in a disaster for the artist: most of his 80 paintings exhibited there were stolen, and his experiences with Bulgarian art galleries (and the customs) were not of the kind that make him very eager to exhibit again in Bulgaria. Still, I hope that one day we will see a big exhibition of his artworks in Bulgaria.

The friendly artist suggested to paint my portrait; although vanity is usually not one of my sins, I am considering it…

I truly enjoyed to meet such an interesting person! My special thanks goes to my friend Kate Baklitskaya, who not only introduced me to the artist, but who was also brave enough to listen for the biggest part of the visit to our conversation in Bulgarian.

Some works of Dmitrie Peicev:

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
© Dmitrie Peicev and National Museum of Art Moldova, Chisinau, 2010-2017