Crime fiction is new to Romania, but growing steadily. We spoke to Romanian writer, translator and publisher Bogdan Hrib at the London Book Fair, the first time that one of the small band of crime writers from the country has appeared there.
‘There are around seven of us in Romania who have published more than one book, then there are more debut crime novelists and some who have been published by local presses, so there are about a dozen altogether,’ he said.
Romania has its own long literary tradition combined with a troubled history, not least during the difficult years of the Ceausescu regime that came to a sudden end in 1989 in a swift revolution that Bogdan Hrib spent photographing under hazardous conditions. Although a civil engineer by training, he has been a photojournalist for much of his working life alongside writing and publishing books, including his present tasks of translating Barry Forshaw’s Euro Crime into Romanian for Tritonic, the publishing house that he is closely involved with running; as well as translating Ian Rankin’s Hide and Seek for another publisher.
‘It’s difficult stuff to translate and that John Rebus is crazy,’ he said, commenting that there are idioms that have to be transliterated from Edinburgh slang to Romanian, such as the term for a police officer as a pig makes little sense in translation.
‘In Romania they’re called turkeys. Then at one point there was a reference to a a red herring, which doesn’t work either and so in Romanian the nearest equivalent is a painted crow,’ he said. ‘So that fitted in with the turkey reference.’
He explained that Romania has no long tradition of crime fiction, in spite of the reading public’s appetite for it, and there are still very few translations of Romanian crime writers into English, although he, George Arion and Oana Mujea each had books published in English by Profusion. The reception was not as enthusiastic as had been hoped and the publisher has since decided to concentrate on literary rather than crime fiction, although Bogdan Hrib appreciates the efforts Profusion made to publish Romanian works in translation without grants or subsidies to support the process.
‘There was no school of crime fiction between the wars as there was in Britain and the US,’ he said. ‘So this is new. We have a lot of translated crime fiction available, especially US-style thrillers and including Nordic crime such as Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Camilla Läckberg and Liza Marklund, who are all very popular in Romania, but it seems that Romanian readers don’t trust the quality of Romanian writers. They expect quality to come from abroad.’
‘In the Ceausescu era there were thriller stories published that were basically political propaganda, always featuring the good militiaman – the police were known as the militia – who foiled plots by American spies to bring down communism. They weren’t very good,’ he added with wry understatement.
The writers who broke the mould to escape from the propaganda format were George Arion, who used a journalist as his protagonist and Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu, who wrote about a Marple-like figure, both walking a tightrope as writers during the Ceausescu years, their work scrutinised by the censors for hints of sedition.
Romanian crime fiction has long since escaped the long shadow of the good militiaman and younger Romanian crime writers are (still) George Arion, and Bogdan Hrib, Bogdan Teodorescu (political thrillers), novelist and playwright Lucia Verona, Monica Ramirez who writes thrillers in English about a female spy, Oana Mujea who has three novels to her name, one of them in English (Anatomical Clues), and Stelian Turlea, author of more then twenty books including a number of crime/social commentary fiction.
‘Then there are the newcomers, Antoaneta Gales who writes as Tony Mott, who has written romance but who now has a crime fiction debut, and Adina Speteanu who has been writing a crime fiction novel but now seems to be moving more to a horror style, so maybe we’re losing her,’ he smiled.
‘It’s positive that Romanian publishers are now publishing more Romanian writers in general, but critics still shy away from coming out and saying that “this is a good crime story,” as if crime fiction is still not to be taken seriously – it’s seen as something that’s disposable,’ he said. ‘Things are going in the right direction, but not fast.’
So if you’re feeling brave and can be tempted to try something a little different, look up one of these.
Kill the General, Bogdan Hrib ISBN 978-0956867605
Attack in the Library, George Arion ISBN 978-0956867612
Anatomical Clues, Oana Mujea ISBN 978-0956867629