Filip Florian

“Filip Florian is the latest discovery from the emerging literary land of Romania”—wrote the Austrian magazine Falter in 2008. Florian, born in 1968 in Bucharest, where he still resides today, decided in 1999 to take a chance on being a writer. Before then, the trained geologist worked for nearly a decade as a journalist, including for Deutsche Welle. His fellow countrymen regard him as a veritable grandson of Bohumil Hrabal. Indeed, Florian reveres a magical, fantastical realism—all for the sake of developing a finely honed feel for a world tormented by dictatorships and the aftereffects of totalitarian oppression. Even with his debut Kleine Finger (published in German in 2008), first published in 2005 and awarded several prizes, Filip Florian proved to be an equally confident and artful narrator. The novel—sensitively translated into German by Georg Aescht—ostensibly masquerades as an archaeological thriller: during excavations in a small Carpathian town, a mass grave is discovered in the ruins of a Roman fortress. Initially the Securitate is suspected, and thus a communist-era crime: with a number of skeletons, the bones of the little fingers are missing. Only Florian’s protagonist Petrus, a headstrong archaeologist and thus specialist for digging up buried-truths, does not believe the local police chief’s theory. Like his creator, the author Filip Florian, Petrus distrusts overly entrenched versions of history. Simply because of this mistrust—in the author’s case, it also applies to narrative forms for dealing with history and thus their possible instrumentalization—Florian hits literary gold. Petrus’s investigative manner is unorthodox: he is not interested in excessively proper research based on alleged facts from the archive and thus a guaranteed conventional narrative. Instead, Petrus, alias Florian, takes the reader on adventurous tangents and through all sorts of excesses, reflecting the life stories of all the bizarre figures who cross his path: odd saints, unhappy lovers, more or less successful crusaders of fortune. Florian boldly shifts perspectives and narrative layers, constantly breaking up the continuity of space and time. And yet, the supposed tangents lead right to the center of the novel: on the one hand, they conjure a historical panorama of Romania’s different spheres of life, encompassing the Imperial and Royal (k.u.k.) military administration-era as well as war, fascism, and the post-communist present. At the same time, all figures are in some way damaged by the dictatorship. Florian depicts their outward and inner wounds, but always via clever devices: on the cruelty of a dictatorship, for instance, he makes a detour through Argentine anthropologists who have already investigated the fate of the disappeared under the junta, and who now join the investigation to lend their support. The odd saint—a former victim of the Securitate—reconstructs his own version of the Bible carved on tree bark. In so doing, he forms the counterpart to the deliberate repression of history that accompanied the transition to democracy in many former Eastern Bloc countries. In turn, his seemingly meaningless act is a metaphor for the kind of literature Filip Florian understands: the medium of a collectively shared memory and thus the only true vade mecum for a society that is as shaken to its foundations as truth itself. Could it be narrated in any other way than fragmented? That the story cannot be easily interpreted—and thus the shared memory, which means the historical dialogue—is a prerequisite for a successful society: Florian’s third novel Alle Eulen (published in German in 2016) also concerns this on a subcutaneous level. Criticism of the system and situational comedy blend together here in a way as pleasing as the fates of two very different people who become friends. One is eleven years old and the offspring of the revolution of 1989; the other is a retiree who looks back on a life all about totalitarianism. Together they roam—the novel is set in early 2000—the forests of the Carpathian Mountains. The novel’s enormous literary sensuality makes it captivating: even the smallest nuances of a minutely articulated perception find their place. Nature itself is a refuge and a mystery all at once. Right in the middle: the owls whose language the two friends learn. It is the language of those who have the gift of seeing in the dark. From them eventually comes solace. A solace—which is also characteristic of Filip Florian’s “inconsolable” books—telling us that transforming reality is possible. His work has long since broadened the horizon of Romanian literature. One may be curious to see the German-language translation of his (second) novel Die Tage des Königs: Against the background of the Austro-Prussian War, Florian expands his purview here to the political and social intrigues in Bucharest in 1866, at a time when the-then multiethnic population set out to forge a modern state.

Original German version: Claudia Kramatschek

English translation: Erik Smith