Romanian à clef
A new novel tracks a woman's journey from Ceausescu to Chicago.
Though Train to Trieste (Knopf, $23.95) is Domnica Radulescu’s first book of fiction, by all rights it should be her second. When she left her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, in 1983 to seek asylum in the U.S., the publication of a book of her short stories was canceled—as an émigré, she was considered an enemy of the state. Now, a quarter century later, her first novel is hitting the shelves.
She’s reluctant to draw comparisons between her own story and that of the book, though both are in some sense stories of exile. She was a college student in 1983 when she and her parents, both professors, decided to leave Romania. Living under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu grew increasingly difficult, and Radulescu had an American friend, a Spanish teacher at New Trier High School (they’d met when the woman was vacationing on the Romanian shore), who was willing to sponsor their asylum. After a detour in Italy, they headed to Chicago.
When driving through the Loop for the first time, “I thought I was inside a postcard,” she says from her home in Lexington, Virginia. “It looked artificial, but deliciously artificial.” Instantly at home in the city, she completed her undergrad years at Loyola and stayed on to do her master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Though even now she finds overstocked American grocery stores disconcerting after years of Romanian bread lines, she reveled from the start in Chicagoans’ ability to thrive under the iron fist of frigid winters. “I love the solidarity of people in the streets, making it through the winter,” she says. “It makes me feel so alive!”
Radulescu’s first image of what would become Train to Trieste was that of a girl sitting in a train compartment, looking out the window at the country she’s leaving behind. This girl became Mona, an impulsive Bucharest teen who escapes Romania under circumstances more urgent than Radulescu’s.
In the book’s first handful of richly poetic pages, she falls in love with Mihai, a boy from the mountains. He’s just lost his longtime girlfriend to a violent accident, and Mona’s drawn to the rawness of his grieving. Her youth in Romania is a flurry of sensual pleasures, despite the fear and want endemic to life under a Stalinist regime.
“There’s something so extraordinary about people in these situations,” Radulescu says. “Sometimes people live even more intensely than in freedom.”
Though Mona grapples with secret police and with scarcity, her evocations of the pleasures of youth and love are indomitably joyous, almost synesthetic in their sensuality.
Radulescu returned to Romania for the first time in 1998, nearly a decade after Ceausescu was overthrown and executed during the Romanian Revolution of 1989. The files the Romanian government kept during the dictatorship had by then been opened, and stories were coming out of lovers informing on each other, of children informing on their parents. Radulescu wove this possibility of betrayal into the fabric of Mona and Mihai’s story. Mona’s paranoia begins when she sees Mihai wearing a leather jacket identical to those of the Romanian secret police. Fearful of what he might be involved in, she translates a little bribe money and a lot of luck into a one-way ticket to Chicago.
Mona’s story spins out over years, as she builds an American life that’s forever overshadowed by the one she left behind. Fittingly, the novel ends in Romania, on her first trip back. Radulescu beautifully evokes the timelessness of spaces, as Mona’s middle-aged self attempts to fit into landscapes she moved in as a young woman. The book’s final pages raise as many questions as they answer, but Radulescu is happy to leave something to the imagination.
“I’m wary of sentimental and romantic endings,” she says. “A lot of Hollywood movies end a few minutes too late.”
Radulescu reads from Train to Trieste Wednesday 20.