Great books about Romania in English No. 4: Along the Enchanted Way

Along the Enchanted Way
By William Blacker

Apparently, in 1997, planes bound for Romania departed from the great media and financial centres of the western world carrying a sinister cargo: slick advertising executives hell bent on selling Romania’s dirt poor yet blissfully happy peasants all sorts of evil goods (such as – God forbid – shampoo) that they ‘neither needed nor wanted.’

Just a few months after their arrival, two country boys – who had hardly ever left their home village of Breb, in Maramures, northwestern Romania – set off for the nearest town to try their luck. They had been seduced by the sinister, slick advertising they had seen on their newly acquired television, which disgracefully and with wanton abandon showed them that there was in fact more to human existence than grinding out a living as a subsistence farmer.

Tragically, the boys died not long afterwards.

Despite not knowing how to swim, one hot afternoon they had joined their new work mates at a lake. Underestimating its depth they jumped in. Both drowned.

The story of the two boys (like every other vignette in this book: and there are many) is told in William Blacker’s startling matter-of-fact style, one of the many reasons that the pages rattle along and why – despite its reactionary politics – it is such a good read.

Yet Blacker is wrong to look to modern society as the cause of the two boys’ deaths (‘the modern world had made short work of them,’ he writes). To Blacker, the slick advertising executives – and the televisions that carried the images they created – were guilty for having seduced the boys with enticing images of modern life. If only they had been left alone in their blissful rural ignorance they would still be alive today.

A fair point? Perhaps. Perhaps they would still be alive, just as those people killed while fleeing over the Berlin Wall might still be alive had they not known how terrific life in West Germany was. After all, it was the same kind of logic that was used by the East German authorities, who spent fortunes trying to prevent East Germans watching West German television and seeing for themselves that there was more to life than a long shift at the local tractor factory.

Yet just as the East German communists couldn’t prevent their people craving more than they had, so conservatives have been unable to stop the march of progress into the Maramures and the other remote parts of Romania. Cruel, hard, medieval lifestyles are at last on their way out. Running water, inside toilets, double glazing, shampoo and jeans (with which Blacker appears to have a particular problem) are on their way in. Given the choice between back-breaking work and anything else, most Romanian peasants have taken the anything else.

Unfortunately, there remain far too many who have yet to be given the choice, and who remain tied to the land in much the same way serfs were hundreds of years ago. In not condemning this feudalism (in fact he in many ways romanticises it) Blacker commits an error, yet a forgivable one. He appears to be genuine when he writes that the people of Breb, despite the alcoholism, the domestic violence, the lack of health care, the belief in superstition, the back-breaking work and the outside toilets are ‘the happiest people I have ever met.’

It is not a sin to be naive. So as much as we want to dislike this book, we can’t.

That we in fact thoroughly recommend it is ample testament to Blacker’s many gifts as a writer and storyteller. We hope he will write more.

And we say that knowing that there is little about this book progressives will find appealing. Privileged beyond most people’s wildest dreams, Blacker was brought up in one of England’s finest country houses, and educated at its best and most expensive public school, Eton.

After ‘trying to live in London’ and having a rather nice time in Italy, the restless Blacker heads for Romania – a place he had visited briefly in 1990 – to seek out the medieval world he had caught a glimpse of on that earlier trip. He lives the life of the peasant for a few years, raises money to repair Saxon churches (admirable), falls in love with a Gypsy and ends up getting her sister pregnant. He then decides he has had enough of the peasant life and leaves, rather suddenly.

Why he leaves is not important. The point is he can. He has that choice, whereas those around him do not.

Blacker now (according to this interview with Sebastian Cresswell-Turner – yes, really) spends most of his time either in Chelsea or Yorkshire, or ‘putting the finishing touches on his medieval tower in Tuscany,’ living the kind of life that most people – leave alone Romanian peasants – could only dream of. Good luck to him.

In his spare time, however, he writes articles berating Romanian peasants for building ‘hideous and incongruous’ new houses.

Blacker writes in his introduction to Along the Enchanted Way that he felt compelled to visit medieval Romania when he did (and subsequently write his book) because ‘to do so will be impossible in the not too distant future.’

Let’s hope so Willy, let’s hope so.

Other reviews of Along the Enchanted Way:

Czikszereda Musings
The Daily Telegraph
The Spectator
The Sunday Times

You can buy Along the Enchanted Way for 50 lei at Anthony Frost English Bookshop, at any good UK bookshop, or online at Amazon.co.uk.

  • Frej Lorenzen

    Hi,
    I live in Bucharest now, and have been doing so for 2 and a half months, and I don’t want to enter the discussion as I have nothing of value to say, but I want to inform you that; one of the great things of wireless internet is that I can find this kind of debate about this kind of book, which I would never have known existed if I hadn’t searched on google for “English second-hand bookshop”, that is quite amazing. I will definitly find this book, read it, and soon after travel to Maramures to experience what you are talking about, feeling shameful as a priviliged westener, but feeling happy that in my lifetime it is possible for me to broaden my life’s horizon in such a way.
    Truly, it is not a circus to attend, but a privilege to observe. Neither should we preserve it, as if it was zoo, or run it ower like a lawnmower and let it be forgotten.
    Thank you for the opportunity to witness this discussion, as I didn’t even know it existed.

  • Julian Garner

    Prince Charles is not a fool, William Blacker is not patronising (at least in anything I have read by him) neither does he fail to admit the horrors of poverty, corruption, racism, etc. If you think he does, you read the book through (ideologically?) distorted lenses.
    Further: outdoor toilets are not a sine qua non of barbarism; a sink estate family in Manchester is not somehow better off than Maramures farmers because of the proximity of healthcare, nor are they “free to leave” if they chose.
    Reactionary? Don’t be ridiculous. Or is it now “progressive” to celebrate the destruction of a entire culture in the interests of jeans and indoor toilets?
    I’m late to this forum, so probably my comments won’t register. Happily, though, Craig Turp’s generalisations have been effectively shown up for what they are elsewhere.

    • The damage done, globally, by a proximity to healthcare is indeed one of the great untold disasters of the past 100 years.

      As for Charles, at the very least his continued support of homeopathy means we can safely place him in the ‘fool’ bracket.

  • Geronimo

    Found another interesting book. Kyra Kyralina by Panait Istrati. Set in Ottoman days of Braila (and written by a man born not long after the Ottoman days) it describes a world that is extremely interesting and rarely talked about by Romanians these days. I always found the Romanians I knew were keen to play down the Ottoman influence in Romania (and if pushed focus on the Greeks)

  • Katharine

    Oh, and this is mildly unrelated, but the entirety of most Romanian towns smaller than, say, Iasi or Timisoara (think Medias or Csikszereda) apparently fit in the small blocky bit of land that it takes me fifteen minutes to drive around to commute to campus every day.

    I find this funny.

    • Geronimo

      Erm, why is it funny that romanian towns are relatively small?

  • Katharine

    Looking back on it, I find this an odd and quite appropriate indictment of the United States, too.

    The country’s teenage pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world, higher than that of Romania, which comes in second.

    Huger parts of Romania are civilizationally backasswards than the United States in terms of development.

    The United States appears to make up for it in sheer stupidity of most of its populace.

  • Katharine

    About the best I can say about this book is that this Blacker fellow is a twit who appears to have a mental age of approximately twelve if he thinks the quality of the existence of people in Bum F*ck Transylvania is any good.

    If he wants an idyllic retreat, by gum, he can go to one where the people choose to be there.

  • BrasovAndy

    Good non bias article. Read the Enchanted Way last year and really enjoyed it although he’s guilty of over Romanticising Romanian life. Its very true that many of us could leave Romania any time we wanted but the majority of the people do not have that option.

  • Ah! William Blacker! Yes, I know of him!

    What William speaks of is quite true for those of us who have had the privilege to share many months or years amongst the peasants of Maramures. It was (and still is to some degree) a spectacular existence that can’t quite be equaled even elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Of course everyone in the world should have the chance for a better life and access to modernity, however what I personally witnessed in Maramures was an incredible, magical bond that people have with the natural world that is mostly non-existent in the West. To be in touch with nature, the seasons–to be living outside the trappings of modern life is quite something, it is the way we all lived a few hundred years back and there is something to be said for such a way of life with rich traditions and a strong communal bond. Sure, life with wireless internet and the ability to fly to Prague for the weekend is great, but there can often be something missing from such an existence, something to do with the mystery of the world, the rawness of being truly alive in touch with the earth. For those who not experienced such a traditional way of life first hand, it might be hard to appreciate how their could be any value in a rural life compared to a modern one full of brand new cars, IKEA, lattes, jet travel and the like.

    • If people want to live without modern amenities and weekends in Prague, that is fine by me. This is not the point. The point is that Blacker (like you!) were living there by choice. He (and you) could leave any time you felt like it. Deny these people development and you deny them that same choice.

      • I agree with you Craig! Yes, I have always had a hard time reconciling for myself my feelings about rural Romania since I get to enjoy the best of both worlds! When I was first there I even had a refurbished satellite phone with me since there was no mobile service and no one had land line phones either and I was without a car.

    • Geronimo

      Nonsense. You want it to exist so you can enjoy it when you visit on holiday (weeks, months – still a holiday). The people who have to live it really do not want it despite the fact that it amuses privileged tourists so much

      • Yes, an entire existence in Maramures is back-breaking. What I would say is that I did farm with my family and made haystacks and carried food in from the fields etc. But, of course, doing this for 10 months is not anything like doing it for one’s entire life and being stuck in the village. I guess what is interesting is that there is still a place like Maramures in 2010 and this brings up real issues when the rest of the world has progressed so much. In Western Europe, rural life has adapted to the times and there is not so much of a contrast between the two worlds. Romania’s continued poverty and isolation has made a place like Maramures a real novelty in the 21st century and the contrast of their way of life with our own all the more stark.

        What Blacker I think laments is how the changes in Maramures are happening so rapidly. When change happens gradually it is more respectful to everyone.

        • Katharine

          Respectful to whom? The people shelling out the bucks to do it so their bank accounts don’t drain? Because I’d imagine the people who want the development want it to happen as fast as possible.

          • Katharine,

            Ever lived in Romania’s rural parts for a year?

            • Geronimo

              I have. Does that mean I am allowed to disagree with you?

            • Katharine

              No, and I certainly wouldn’t do it by choice either.

              My friend in Drumul Taberei has told me enough horror stories about the more backwoodsy parts of Romania as it is.

            • Katharine

              If I had to live in Romania for a year I’d prefer to live in Bucharest (because I know somebody there – yes, I know it’s mostly a concrete dump except for maybe Lipscani, Baneasa, and the center) or some place such as Brasov or Sibiu.

              • Exactly. However bad Bucharest (or any other city) might be at times you are still never too far away from health care of a certain standard. In isolated Maramures what do you do if your child is running a 40 degree temperature?

                Call in the local witch doctor!

          • Katharine,

            Because Romania is so far behind generally with everything, development is happening at a crazy pace and in a disruptive manner. It never happened in this way in the West.

            • Katharine

              But you were probably quite able to escape if you wanted to.

              I wouldn’t be surprised if the disruptive manner of development is more because of a certain amount of corruption in government and inadequate assistance from the outside in terms of knowing how to implement it than any sort of ‘crazy pace’.

  • Geronimo

    I thought it was a great book. Of course he is a patronising Prince Charles-like fool but his insights into disappearing worlds were fascinating and brilliantly written. The saxon/gypsy bits were great.

    I fully support eccentric, blinkered poshos as long as they tell me interesting stories