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Bruce Benderson: The Romanian

Bruce Benderson: The Romanian

UK 2006, 366 pp., brochure, € 19.95
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I was deeply impressed by reading »The Romanian« on a train from Vienna to Munich. I could hardly put it away and felt very sorry when I had to stop, having reached my destination. The novel has already won the French »Prix de flore« in 2004. And this autobiographical book may win even more. The American author is sent to Europe in order to investigate the sex scene there - in particular that of the Eastern European countries. In doing so he meets a handsome, rather mysterious young guy from Romania on the Corso in Budapest, Romulus. They start a hot affair right away which is soon transcending the temporal limits of regular one-night stands. Especially the author is surprised by this. He wonders what makes Romulus fall for him: an obviously economic interest for the wealthy guy from a rich country who can make this life of a miserable man from a poor country very comfortable (sleeping in hotel beds of paradisiacal proportions, for example - especially if he's used to sleeping in irregular beds - or, if in any bed at all). Maybe Romulus is just interested in the exoticism of the author (coming from so far away, from a completely different cultural background). He can open up a whole new world to Romulus (especially if the author is taking him to the States). Or is it just the sex? But what can a 50-plus-something-year-old gay guy give to a young guy in his 20s who's just in full bloom and could attract much younger guys. And is he homosexual at all? Why's he then also hanging around with those girls who think he's their boyfriend and who are calling him on the phone whenever he meets the author? Is he being paid for having sex with them? Why does Romulus call the author »uncle« when he speaks to him on the phone? What about his Romanian »friends«? Is he planning anything criminal? Has he got any intentions of robbing the author or of extorting money from him? (These are the worst nightmares of the author's mother) The author can, at no time, free himself from all of these doubts. On the contrary, they seem to intensify the attraction towards Romulus - even if the guy's always watching TV and behaves like a regular hetero macho. But when the author returns to the US he starts making plans to take Romulus to America. He begins to understand what it means to come from a poor country (to a richer one) - never to be welcome as an illegal alien, being considered as a kind of a problem, not to be accepted for what you are, being seen as scum. He gets to understand there's a new kind of racism at work here - just in the centre of Europe in a time when the nations of the continent have begun to grow closer. And - when the author's idea of getting Romulus to the US doesn't work out - he also starts to read all the books he can find about Romania and the history of the country in order to prepare himself for an extended stay in Bucharest - together with Romulus. He doesn't let himself be distracted from his plans by his ailing, extremely sceptical mother. It's the late 1990s. And - although the author thinks he's well prepared (he even sees parallels between himself and a young Windsor princess who - in the 19th century - was married to a Romanian prince who would later become the King of Romania) - he's overwhelmed by a cultural shock when both of them come to Bucharest for the first time. It seems as if homosexuality ranged anywhere between Satanism and vampirism in the minds of most Romanians. Some Romanians would, of course, perform homosexual acts. But they would, under no circumstance whatsoever, admit that. Organizing for the interests of homosexual people would at that point of time be a very far-fetched, if not a dangerous, idea. Romanian law concerning homosexuals still had to be altered in order to make the country ready for the accession to the European Union in 2007 (and people's minds still have a long way to go). But the author acclimatizes while time is going by. And he starts to appreciate the irregular relationship with his reluctant »heterosexual« Romanian »husband«, giving the wealthy tourist who thinks he can get and do everything for money. He gets accustomed to the Romanian form of machismo. And he realizes that - from the beginning - he has fallen victim to his own preconceived notions and prejudices. Even though some occasions may resemble situations he may already have heard of they turn out to be totally different in the end. And even his mother's worst premonitions don't come true. Bruce Benderson's new novel operates on many levels. The shifts between these levels are always kept on a realistic mode. Although the language used is often imaginative and poetic - the whole novel (due to its topics and the way they are being treated) is very down-to-earth and realistic. The author spans the novel's historical background from the 19th-century monarchy via times of collaboration with the Nazis and of the Ceaucescu regime to modern post-Communist Romania with its traditional strains on one hand and its EU-propelled modernization on the other. He even weaves some historical anecdotes, hearsay, and gossip into the text. The tour de force through the whole of Romanian history shows how the historical burden influenced Romanians so that they have become what they are today. Benderson gets especially impressive when he parallels his own arrival in Romania (as the lover of a Romanian macho) with that of the English princess Marie who married the Romanian Crown Prince Ferdinand in 1893. The parallelization is never commonplace or far-fetched. It always adds a lot of truth to the story. The fusion of fictional and non-fictional elements of the novel is very well done. Adding to the purely informational insight (which is rather extraordinary for a literary text) these historical elements in the text are anything but alien elements. They fit the purpose very well. This autobiographical novel cannot be recommended too enthusiastic. More than any gay novel from the US that I have read in last years, it would fully deserve a German translation. (Jürgen empfiehlt, Frühlings Katalog 2007)
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