Great Books in English about Romania No. 2: Rates of Exchange, by Malcolm Bradbury

Rates of Exchange
By Malcolm Bradbury

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.

Instead, the novel is set in the fictional country of Slaka, which, amazingly, appears not to have a Wikipedia page. (Amazing as the equally fictional island of Sodor has a most informative page).

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?

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  • Mark Baker

    Follow-up to previous post: Purchased Rates of Exchange and found a work of genius! I highly recommend it for anyone familiar with the old Eastern Europe or anyone nostalgic for the Cold War …

  • Mark Baker

    As one of the Lonely Planet authors on Romania, one of my jobs is to scout out books on/about Romania for our readers. Obviously there are not that many (certainly not enough), but two I always recommend are: “Looking for George” by Helena Drysdale; and “Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse” by Philip Ó Ceallaigh. The former is absorbing and tragic (and highly controversial in Romania among the few people who know about it); the second is gritty and very funny in parts. Both worth checking out. Thanks Craig for the Slaka recommendation. I will definitely look for it.

    • Geronimo

      Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse is brilliant – thanks for the tip. At times brutally descriptive, others really quite poetic. Will buy The Pleasant Light of Day as well which also appears to focus on Romania

  • M.
    • Yes, and we’re moving to Ruritania.

  • Fraser

    History Man is a better read

  • Raluca

    Never heard of this book, thanks! On its way to me now.
    One of the reviewers on Amazons identifies it firmly as ‘my country, Bulgaria:)’

    • Oh yes, you can find a bit of every Eastern Bloc country here. As I say, the capital is very much Sofia with a hint of Bratislava. But many other elements are pure Romania. I think…