Mere effort of the mind produced an earthquake

Sun Alley

Sun Alley
by Cecilia Ştefanescu
translated from Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer

I seem to have had this reading experience a few times this year: I get to the end of the book and I’m still not sure whether or not I liked it. I can say that the writing was, for the most part, great, but I have real reservations. I’m fairly sure it’s the books and not me, but who knows?!

Cecilia Ştefanescu is a bestselling writer in Romania but pretty much unknown over here. I have always had an inexplicable yearning to go to Romania (I even started learning Romanian, briefly) but haven’t yet made it there, so I thought reading a Romanian book might be a start. I’m not sure I have learned anything particular about Romania from this book, aside from that I’m impressed such an unashamedly literary work was a bestseller there.

“After the whirlpool drags you for an angstrom or so, you remain nailed because the attraction of the fractions is so strong. Each growing part, in ceaseless expansion, hangs down with the weight of death. You go back in your mind to see your point of departure, but once the image has vanished, its memory disappears as well. You are suspended between spaces, and time flows disproportionately.”

This novel starts as the story of a boy and girl (their age isn’t given but I guessed about 12), Sal and Emi, who are hiding their fledgling romance from friends and family. On his way to visit Emi one afternoon, Sal discovers a dead body. What does this mean? Is it somehow symbolic of the rest of his life? And where do this adult couple who keep popping up fit into Sal and Emi’s story?

It’s odd, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this certainly requires some work of its reader – all is not always clear. The writing is beautiful but the melancholic tone, disjointed timeline and slow pace took me a while to get into. And figuring out that you can’t take it all at face value took me even longer.

“The loneliness felt in dreams was tremendous, more dreadful than all he had been through in Harry’s basement, uglier than the mole-crickets crawling undisturbed in his grandmother’s house, more shocking than Emi’s long silences she hoped to impress him with. That loneliness contained something overwhelming that would crush him, as if the mere effort of the mind produced an earthquake that crumbled down the whole stone-made edifice of his enforced and self-inflicted enclosure.”

Effectively, the novel is told from Sal’s point of view, though it isn’t first person, and like all individual perspectives, his is not entirely reliable. He’s clearly aware that he’s different from other children, but not in what way he’s different. One early clue is that he makes friends by telling good stories. Despite this perspective, I never really felt I got to know or understand Sal, or indeed Emi. What was the attraction of this strange boy who holds himself apart one day, then throws himself into the boys club the next day? And why do Sal’s parents disapprove so strongly of Emi?

I definitely want to read more Romanian literature but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to Ştefanescu.

Intrarea soarelui published 2008 by Editura Polirom.
This translation published 2013 by Istros Books.

Source: Waterstones.