Two shots ring out. Two men down. And then, after the screaming, the silence. ‘Time seemed to freeze for a moment…for just one minute, the world seemed to stand still.’ Resilience, by Bogdan Hrib, is full of paradoxes. It’s a thriller that requires deep personal investment by its characters and its readers. But whether it’s fake news pumped out on an industrial scale, or bluff and counter-bluff from an analogue age, it’s easy to feel slightly removed. It’s full on and up close, but, perhaps a result of the sweltering heat of a Bucharest summer, languid and relaxed at the same time.
Resilience is set in Romania, the UK and Moldova. I suspect that it has made more of a splash in Romania, where Hrib is better known. And in Romania they know more about us than we know about them. Brexit is there understood as a force that is simply destabilising and a cause to be promoted by those who wish Britain, and democracy, down. They talk about the fake news epidemic in Poland, the UK and most recently in Romania. While the truly deluded in the UK thought our departure would cause the sudden collapse of the European Union, in Central Europe the geopolitical fault lines face east. In her book Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum describes those who play with populist themes as ranging from ‘nativist ideologues to high-minded political essayists; some of them write sophisticated books, others launch viral conspiracy theories’. Hrib’s captains of chaos are venal, power-hungry and funded out of Russia.
Hrib’s book with its tale of a plot to destabilise the Romanian government in favour of a ‘Greater Moldova’ is obviously itself fiction. But the fragility of the Balkans is clear to see and occasionally recognised on this island: on the day I read Resilience, the breakaway state of Transnistria had found its way into The Guardian’s sports coverage.
Resilience comes from Corylus Books, an independent publishing house which seeks to bring overlooked translated fiction to English-language readers; the idea being to introduce us to unheard voices. Certainly, it has whetted my appetite for more fiction from Romania. The style of the novel is that delicious combination of the familiar and the other. Familiar are the scenes in London and Newcastle, of course, but the cafe scenes in Bucharest are more than relatable. There’s a world-weariness about it all, too, involving slightly sarcastic asides and a real sense of the limit to which one can be pushed. The translator, Marina Sofia, has spoken about the need to tone down the constant ruminations on coffee, but I loved those that remain. Throughout there is a a celebration of the mundane which contrasts sharply with the geopolitical to and fro.
Hrib goes out of his way to present everyone as extraordinarily ordinary. That goes for the main antagonist, whose motivations for trying to break up his own country are not too dissimilar, as the song told us, from Rasputin’s: lusting and hunger for power. When it’s all going wrong, he howls at his lover: ‘I’ve lost everything! The money, the status! Everything!’ The philosopher king he is not, and as such he is ideal for our age. His virtual henchman is more of a caricature: ‘he looked at his reflection in the giant computer screen – with his chin resting on his clenched fist he looked mysterious, cynical, strategic’. But this extends to the main protagonist, Stelian Munteanu. What I liked most about Munteanu is that he is obviously competent at his job but a real muddler at life. He gets tired and irritable and he makes mistakes. I for one have had enough of the grizzled PI who needs neither sleep nor post-being-beaten-up recovery time. This man, who forgets his painkillers, can’t get the right aubergines and whose on-page charisma is caused precisely by his lack of presence, is another man for our times.
Resilience is the latest in a series but (again, paradoxically) part of its appeal is its freshness. It’s a cold shower for UK readers to understand how our project of national humiliation is seen, but all this is presented in a thriller in which the brightest people take relatively minor roles and the leads are somehow dimmer. Sometimes history is the accident of unintended consequences, sometimes history itself happens by accident and sometimes history is made by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Hrib’s characters may or may not make history; they certainly do not know what they’re doing. But the rumbles of the geopolitical faultlines continue none the less. Whether or not we can sit relaxed and complacent is up to us.
Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy and to Ewa Sherman for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.