We had planned to do so much this weekend, not least watching the Arsenal lose at home to Blackburn in the cup, but then while drinking our Saturday morning coffee we noticed on Twitter that the Kindle version of Mike Ormsby’s Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania was currently free. We downloaded it immediately and subsequently couldn’t put it down. It is – for those of you who want the money shot in the first paragraph – one of the best books about Romania we have read in a while.
Published in 2008 (simultaneously in English and Romanian, as Grand Bazar) we were first tipped off about the book by regular contributor Geronimo, in this comment of late last year. We are amazed it had been off our radar until then. We should clearly get out more.
A collection of stories (58, if we counted correctly) the book covers just about every topic you would imagine (from the hazards of being a pedestrian in Bucharest to post office bureaucracy) as well as plenty you might not (attending a funeral, car alarms). Each is presented as a stand alone story, with each acting as an irresistible invitation to the next. And even if you don’t think much of one story, no problem: there will be another one along in a moment. Perhaps the pick of them is the faithful description of taking a budget flight from Baneasa Airport, or the very last story: a fond look at Cismigiu Park. Though it would be very easy to dip in and out of the book, you will not: you will read it, as we did this weekend, in one or two sittings.
What Ormsby does by taking this short story approach is to avoid ever making the book about himself. Indeed, by book’s end we know very little about Ormsby; this is exactly the point: Romania is the protagonist of the book, not Mike Ormsby. Some other writers (with less talent but bigger egos) who have tried to write books about Romania could learn a lot by reading Never Mind the Balkans.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Ormsby’s book has been compared a lot with William Blacker’s wistful Along the Enchanted Way, which we reviewed here. (And do note that we certainly do not place Blacker in the less talent/bigger ego bracket. As we have said and written many times before we may disapprove of Blacker’s politics but adore his storytelling).
Both Blacker’s and Ormsby’s books are based on years of experience of living in Romania (Blacker in a rural setting, Ormsby in a – primarily – urban environment) and the two books are marvellously written with a keen eye for the many peccadilloes of Romanian life.
Yet while Blacker’s privileged background and reactionary politics infect every page of Enchanted Way, Ormsby (who might well be a Lord, a Baron or a Duke, we do not know and we do not care) takes a far more everyman approach. Where Blacker detests progress and cravenly expresses his desire for the Romanian peasantry to know its place and remain in the dark ages in perpetuity, you get the impression reading Ormsby’s book that he actually wants to see Romania move forward. He understands that the hopes and dreams of most Romanians are much the same as anybody else’s. He certainly doesn’t condemn them for wearing jeans or shopping at supermarkets. It is refreshing to find a foreigner write about Romania from this perspective, of an equal, and not from the supercilious, I know better than you approach taken by others.
And that, for us, was perhaps the most pleasing thing about this book. Ormsby observes Romania and reports – in tight, sharp, waffle-free and often witty prose – what he sees. Nothing more. He doesn’t judge and he certainly doesn’t claim to know any better.
There aren’t many books about Romania we genuinely wish we had written ourselves, but this is one of them. Read it immediately.