Return to Romania by Quentin Bates

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I’ve wanted to make a return visit to Romania for years. Forty of them, to be precise. As a spotty teenager, I was somehow able to jump on a school trip that somehow took a whole group of spotty teens to Bucharest and Sinaia for a week, and ever since, at the back of my mind has the thought that I’d like to take another look at Romania and see what has changed. After all, back then it was a greyish totalitarian regime under which ordinary Romanians were too nervous to even make eye contact with a gaggle of English schoolkids.

Now I’ve done it. My friend Bogdan Hrib, who writes, edits and publishes book at Tritonic, asked me to take part in a modest crime fiction festival at Târgu Mureș, deep in Translyvania. It came with a request for something of mine that could be translated for the festival, so I’m delighted that my novella Summerchill has been published in Romanian as Neliniștea Verii.

The translation was done by Lucia Verona (who also translates Shakespeare into Romanian) and Bogdan in between all the other stuff he does, and I have to assume that it’s a fine piece of work on their part. At any rate, it seems to have sold a good few copies, judging by the gratifyingly impressive number I was asked to sign over the few days spent there.

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Criminal types on the road to Târgu Mureș, with Teodora Matei and Anamaria Ionescu

Târgu Mureș isn’t the easiest place to reach. It’s a five-(or more)-hour drive from the aiport at Bucharest, past Sinaia and Brasov, through some breathtaking scenery, and up into the Carpathian mountains. It’s no surprise the invading Turks a century or two ago decided to keep to the plains as they pushed towards Vienna, rather than making a serious effort to tackle the Carpathian crags.

It’s a fascinating place, with a mixed population and signs in both Romanian and Hungarian, the onion domes of orthodox churches, majestically ornate 19th century architecture next door to the far more austere style of the post-War era, mysterious gateways leading to hidden courtyards, the occasional reminder of the Ceausescu years that nobody remembers with any shred of affection, and under the trees by a crossroads, a sobering memorial to the city’s Jewish population, shipped to death camps towards the end of the Second World War.

Târgu Mureș is a warm, friendly and cheerful place, even though its 20th century history has taken in some horrific events and plenty of tough times.

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Storm clouds gather over Transylvania

The festival itself, hosted by the local university, was both hugely enjoyable and deeply frustrating. I’ve read a few Romanian crime novels in the past – some by Bogdan Hrib, one by George Arion and another by Oana Stoica-Mujea.

But that’s it. That publisher decided not to continue with any more Romanian crime fiction. So that’s all there is in English.

The fun part was meeting a whole bunch of Romanian writers and finding out that they’re pretty much the same as most other crime writers. There’s the same wry sense of humour, the same fondness for a decent meal washed down with the local produce, which in this part of the world means palincă, the plum or damson schnapps that exists in various forms across Eastern and Central Europe.

I’ve met some fascinating and magnificently hospitable people, shared plenty of fine meals and some good times – but the frustration lies in being faced with a table full of books by these people and not being able to read any of it.

So little has made its way into English, and the stuff that has I’ve already read.

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Romanian crime writers Lucian Dragoş Bogdan, Teodora Matei, Silvia Chindea and Anamaria Ionescu with their own books and one by some English guy

Now I want to read the books by my Romanian mates, Anamaria Ionescu, Silvia Chindea, Petru Berteanu, Daniel Timariu, Michael Haulica, ‪Teodora Matei, Lucian Dragoş Bogdan, Lucia Verona, Danut Ungureanu, and probably a few others.

One of the subjects for discussion at the festival was the next big thing – essentially what’s next once Nordic Noir’s apparently irrestisible growth begins to slow. I’ve had a few thoughts on this of my own, and as a writer of Nordic crime fiction, I’m not entirely happy with the idea that Nordic Noir could drop into the background. On the other hand, eastern and central Europe are dismally under-represented in the foreign crime fiction available in English.

So is Balkan Noir a candidate? There’s no shortage of writers, there’s a colourful backdrop to work with, and there’s a long history of turmoil and intrigue to call on there. It looks like a thoroughly fertile hunting ground for the next big thing in crime fiction. So bring on the Balkan Noir, please.

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Danut, Lucian, Bogdan, Teodora, Silvia, Anamaria, Michael and Daniel

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