First, a classic communist joke:
“Why is Slaka like America?”
“Because in America you can criticise America, and in Slaka you can criticise America too.”
OK. So it goes without saying that this novel (from which we pinched the joke) by one of Britain’s finest 20th century writers, is not about Romania per se. ‘Romania’ is never mentioned, neither is Bucharest, nor Brasov, nor any other city in the country.
Yet Slaka, reading between the lines, is most definitely 1980s Romania. Though the country’s capital, also Slaka, is perhaps more Sofia (or Bratislava?) than Bucharest, the language issues Bradbury touches on in the novel (sudden changes of official spellings, etc.) are far more resonant of Romania, especially the country’s attempts to have the official UN spelling revert to Romania from Rumania in the mid-1970s. Indeed, while many of the names of the book’s Slakan characters are more Slav than Latin, the fictional Slakan language (or what we learn of it, at least) bears more than a passing resemblance to Romanian.
Prefaced by the disclaimer ‘This is a novel, and what it says it not true,’ Rates of Exchange follows a British linguistics lecturer, Dr. Angus Petworth, on his first ever visit behind the Iron Curtain, to Slaka.
His arrival, the paranoia of his hosts, the changing moods of his ever-present interpreter and guide, the secret trysts with attractive female novelists, his increasingly desperate attempts to phone home and the fall-off-the-chair-laughing diversion into second-division British diplomatic circles are brilliantly written vignettes that can only be based on real events.
These may or may not of course have happened in Romania – Slaka ultimately borrows a little from every country once behind the Iron Curtain – but anyone who visited before (or even immediately after) 1989’s revolution will immediately recognise much of communist-era Romania in Bradbury’s book.
Especially good are the descriptions of the hotels: dark wood everywhere, omnipresent men in long coats reading newspapers, peroxide-blondes smoking at lobby bars, terrible service and Byzantine bureaucracy.
It is a work of comic genius and a must for anyone fascinated by what the visitor experience in Romania was like before the end of communism.
Indeed, so popular was the book on its publication in 1983 that a follow-up, Why Come to Slaka? – a spoof guide and phrase book – was published in 1986.
And you thought Molvania was an original idea?