This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website. I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.
The abilities of Alexei the Bessarabian, the narrator’s house guest and some kind of a magician, is never properly explained. He has both access to Western medicines and multivitamins, and stranger, more exotic powers such as the ability to make things vanish and reappear. He has visions and premonitions, and likes to show his magical abilities off to children. But is he real, or a fake?
The environment of post-Communist Romania,
…was a genuine paradise for Alexei. Everyone was ready to believe anything. He soon became famous in Bucharest for his healing powers. He came highly recommended, and many people called upon him for assistance, paying very well for his services.
The narrator, a newspaperman of some kind, knows, appreciates and tolerates Alexei, but doesn’t really have much time for his antics. No, the dream of freedom has swept him up and shackled him in new and unexpected ways. His wife has become a devoted feminist who likes to quote “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus”. His children want to leave Romania and go to America – not for them the tired old ways of Europe.
Carmen Firan’s The Farce is really about two main ideas, and their gradual unfolding comprises the story. The first idea is Alexei and his magic, and how the Romanian people are willing to accept his exoticism without question post-Ceaușescu. The second idea is that of Romania’s history following Ceaușescu’s fall, and how the sudden change in the makeup of the nation caused the people great shock. These two ideas are told in not quite alternating paragraphs, and offer an interesting comparison. The question is raised – are the people better off now that Ceaușescu and Communism is gone? The answer is given – yes, but now what are they supposed to do? Sometimes being provided an answer is problematic as you then need to find a new question. The Farce is about the struggle for the Romanian people to find a new question by which to define themselves.
A central feature of the story is an enormous statue of Lenin which, during the Communist period, stood imposingly in Bucharest, Lenin’s hand pointing East. Following the Revolution the statue is taken down and cast aside, to the point where “dogs urinate on it and children climb on it”; in one memorable scene a pornographic actress simulates fornication on the statue, declaring to her fans that she is “doing it on Lenin”.
The alternating paragraphs of Alexei’s mysticism and powers, and Romania’s recent history, converge together at a point, and that point is Lenin’s statue – or, rather, the place where the statue once stood. A politician, taking advantage of the public’s growing feeling toward the exotic and the superstitious, is speaking beside the empty pedestal when Alexei, goaded on by the narrator’s children, agrees to perform a magic trick. And then – for a few seconds – the statue of Lenin suddenly reappears, the hand pointing East. Pandemonium.
Firan is, I believe, making a comment about the power of belief and, just as important, the use and importance of belief. Irrespective of whether Communism was a good or bad thing for Romania (or anywhere), it at least gave the people something to believe in – whether it was the belief that Communism was ideal for the nation, or that it needed to be swept away. Either way, a person had something to believe in, to strive for, to take comfort and solace in. With that gone, and with nothing as firm to replace it – what happens? People must believe in something, and sometimes what they choose to believe in instead is foolishness (magic, astrology, alcohol, drugs, witches, video games).
In the closing paragraph of the story we learn that, after a time, the people forget about the reappearance of the statue, and life goes on. Or, they don’t exactly forget, but it becomes yet another strange occurrence in a time which is experiencing many wondrous and odd events. The mystery of it remains, and the mystery, too, of Alexei remains. Nothing is explained, and there are no answers. Does history end with the fall of Communism? No. But something ends, something important, perhaps, something akin to the schism of Christianity, which saw a gradual unburdening of belief in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. And, like the growing absence of religious belief, something has to replace this sense of certainty, else people are lost, lonely, and overly sensitive to charlatans. The Farce shows us one such possibility, believable, that might afflict a people who need something new to believe in. Magic, the occult, mysteries and unexplained events; they retain their grip on the psyche, and while they don’t provide answers as such, they sometimes quieten the questioning of the heart. For a little while, at least.
The Farce by Carmen Firan is a short story from Bucharest Tales. It is unclear from the book whether the novel, also named The Farce, came out of the short story, or whether the story was excerpted from it. I have reviewed this piece as a complete whole.