‘Ciuleandra’ by Liviu Rebreanu (Review)

The people at small publisher Cadmus Press have been kind enough to send me several works from their range of books from Eastern Europe, and while I haven’t managed to get to them all, I have enjoyed the few I’ve tried, with vicarious journeys to Ukraine, Serbia and Macedonia.  Today’s choice, though, sees us heading in a different direction, with our travels taking us to the Romania of the interwar period to spend some time with a man who has committed a hideous crime.  The question here is one of intent, and how the crime should be punished, if at all – it might surprise you to learn that the answer has a lot to do with tradition, and dancing…

Liviu Rebreanu’s Ciuleandra (translated by Gabi Reigh) isn’t a novel that allows its readers to settle into matters comfortably, starting with an event many books would save as a climax:

He had hurled her onto the sofa, his right knee crushing her breasts.  His fingers pressed down into her soft, pale throat, trying to smother an answer he dreaded to hear.  He could feel her body writhing as if in an ardent embrace, inflaming his fury.
p.3 (Cadmus Press, 2021)

The man carrying out the act of violence is the nobleman Puiu Faranga, and the unfortunate victim is his young wife, Madeleine.  Sure enough, by the end of the first page, she is dead, and as Puiu comes to himself, the realisation of what has happened hits home.

Very soon, his father, Polycarp Faranga, a well-respected judge, discovers what has happened and takes charge.  After informing the chief of police of the crime, he arranges for Puiu to be taken to a sanatorium, where he will be kept and ‘observed’ for some time, before being found unable to stand trial due to temporary insanity.  However, Faranga senior’s plans hit a couple of snags.  The first is the absence of the friendly doctor he expected to be at the sanatorium – the second is the growing suspicion that there’s more to the idea of Puiu’s madness than just a cover-up story…

Rebreanu is apparently a big name in Romania, with many novels written during the interwar period.  Ciuleandra, dating from 1927, is an intriguing psychological story and an examination of a man’s guilt, and how it haunts him.  There’s more than a hint of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment here, albeit without the attempt to flee the scene of the crime first.

The bulk of the novel is set in the sanatorium.  Puiu is technically a patient, a prisoner, but in truth he’s treated like a respected guest.  He’s allowed daily visits, a police guard-cum-servant, newspapers and good food.  To be honest, many readers may struggle with the first part of the story given the comfortable treatment the self-confessed murderer receives, but rest assured that this seemingly easy life soon becomes far more unsettling for the ‘patient’.

There’s a fairly stark contrast with the other part of life at the sanatorium, namely the occasional interviews with the enigmatic Doctor Ursu.  This unknown visitor, covering for the regular doctor, who has been called away, proves to be a major glitch in the judge’s plans as he gives nothing away in his discussions with both father and son.  Instead, he calls Puiu in at irregular intervals, probing away, forcing the murderer to explain himself, and what drove him to kill his wife.

That’s pretty much all there is to the novel, but it works surprisingly well.  Left to his own devices, and with plenty of time to reflect on his actions, Puiu begins to wonder if there really is something wrong with him:

He looked towards the door, alarmed that the guard might have heard him and might consider him truly mad for talking aloud to himself.  He commenced once again his nauseating march around the room, when the thought flew into his mind: “I wonder how many thousands of times I will pace up and down like this before…” (p.70)

Quite apart from Puiu’s paranoia, there’s also something rather suspicious in the nature of Doctor Ursu’s probing.  Of course, it’s his job to find out just what makes Faranga junior tick, but there seems to be something more than a mere professional interest there…

You’re probably wondering by now what the significance of the title is, and you’re right to be curious as it’s the key to the whole novel.  It refers to a folk dance, one Puiu and his father experience on a trip they take into the country while in search of a wife for the son.  As Puiu tells the implacable doctor:

“It starts just like any other dance, very slow, very restrained.  The dancers gather, form a circle, choose their partners, guided by lust, or maybe at random.  Stirred by the heat of those bodies, the music quickens, grows wilder.  The rhythm of the dance catches its frenzy.  The dancers, gripping each other by the waist, build out of their bodies a wall that sways, tilts, writhes and trembles, in thrall to the music.  As the fiddlers warm to their instruments, the melody twitches, spins loose, explodes into chaos. (p.98)

This, of course, is where he first meets his Madeleine, or Mâdâlina, as she was then, and once he remembers this first, fateful dance, it’s a memory he can’t stop reliving, no matter how much he might want to.

From very early on, it’s not hard to tell where Ciuleandra is going, but fortunately that doesn’t matter, as the pleasure of the reading experience is very much in the journey.  Hints of Puiu’s madness are provided by the victim’s own father, with the search for a wife from outside the upper classes driven primarily by a fear of the taint of inbreeding (a fear that appears to have sadly come too late…).  Rebreanu provides a gloomy, psychological tale, in many ways reminiscent of Austrian writers such as Arthur Schnitzler, which shouldn’t come as a surprise – let us not forget that Romania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until early in the twentieth century.

More insights are available in an excellent introductory essay by academic George T. Sipos, one that reveals more information about the writer and his work.  Sipos’ main take on Ciuleandra is of a work exploring the country’s class issues, looking at both the ‘boyar’ (nobility) and the peasants.  Polycarp Faranga’s attempt to join the two groups in the person of a future scion is doomed to failure from the start, and the dance itself acts as a sort of test, casting out the alien blood trying to become part of a group it doesn’t belong to.

It all makes for an enjoyable novel, not least thanks to Reigh’s excellent work.  Ciuleandra is a slow-burning story of a man consumed by his own conscience, with the writer creating an ingenious, and exhausting, form of punishment for his sins.  It’s certainly a book I’d recommend, and I hope I’ve managed to persuade a few of you to at least take a few turns with Puiu and the devilish dance…

6 thoughts on “‘Ciuleandra’ by Liviu Rebreanu (Review)

  1. Another interesting book written by Rebreanu is “Forest of the Hanged”, which describes scenes from the First World War when soldiers from Est Europe but part of the Austro-Hungarian Army had to fight against their own nationals, some of them refusing or trying to desert the army, caught and accused of treason and hanged. He started writing the book after seeing a photo of a forest full of hanged soldiers; at the time he did not know what happened with his brother, Emil Rebreanu, believing he is prisoner somewhere in Russia; found later that he had the same faith.

    Translated from Romanian Wikipedia page:
    “Liviu Rebreanu started writing The Forest of the Hanged about four times, he could not find the rhythm and could not imagine the atmosphere of the front (because he did not participate in the war). On some nights, he seemed to hear some light knocks on the window without finding anyone: “I was furious every night and it was in vain. Instead, as I was writing, in the still silence, I began to feel a light knock on my window, delicate as immaterial fingers. I was opening, searching the darkness. There was no one and nothing … But when these mysterious beatings were repeated nights in a row, insistently – because I am, I repeat, faithful and superstitious – I thought to myself that it can only be the soul of my brother, who demands Christian care, which of course was not granted to him ”.
    His wife did not believe in the supernatural presence of his brother’s spirit, but to dispel the writer’s confusion she suggested that they go together to explore the places where Emil had lived his last days and to find out what had happened then. Convinced, the writer left on May 20, 1920 for a documentary trip to Ghimeș. He visited the last home of Emil Rebreanu de la Făget and the house of the former mayor where his trial had taken place, he spoke with the Romanian priest who had been his friend and who was not allowed to attend the execution and with a peasant girl who kept a few letters from him; he also received from the mayor Emil’s military cap. With the help of the village gravedigger, he discovered Emil Rebreanu’s grave. On October 2, 1921, Liviu Rebreanu was present at the exhumation of his brother’s remains and their burial on the land of the former Old Romanian Kingdom, as had been his last wish.
    Returning to Bucharest, Liviu Rebreanu resumed work on the novel, without being bothered by the knocks on the window, and found a beginning that pleased him. At the time of writing, he became ill with a phlegmon in his throat. One last experience was provided to him in the moments of suffering, when his wife and the playwright Mihail Sorbul were with him. As he fell asleep, the writer moaned terribly and felt a suffocation that resembled the sensation of a man on a leash. He asked for the paper and the pen and described this feeling.
    His wife read the excerpts of the novel written the night before every morning and was moved to tears. Finding out these impressions, Liviu Rebreanu stated: “I am glad, I really wanted the Forest of the Hanged to be not only a book of war, but especially a book of the soul”.


  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful review. I do like Rebreanu’s work very much and he has quite a wide range of subject matter and even style. Ciuleandra is probably one of his most effective books, because it is a novella, so there is no wasted space! And you are spot on with the comparison to Schnitzler, or Odon von Horvath. Rebreanu himself was from Transylvania, although he moved to Bucharest even before WW1 (his brother, however, was not so lucky and got conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight against his fellow Romanians).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll do my best. Rebreanu actually has a crime novel ‘Both of Them’ (Amindoi), which also takes a look at the class system, and I am hoping that at some point Corylus might publish that. Meanwhile, his Forest of the Hanged (if you can find the book, it’s an old translation) is well worth a look.

        Liked by 1 person

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