The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick

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The Madonna on the Moon by Rolf Bauerdick

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Its length, woolliness and unusual subject surely make this novel hard to recommend universally.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 416 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9781848875043

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Things are certainly strange in the small rural town of Baia Luna; all the stereotypes one would suspect in a newly-Communist mountain village are turned on their head. People vocally feel free to dismiss the Soviet changes and technology, but secretly at the dead of night enter the fields to try and hear the sounds of Sputnik blipping its orbit overhead. Gypsy men willingly get baptised into the ways and religions of their gajo neighbours. The most forceful character is a teenager called Fritz, best friend of narrator Pavel, and son to an ethnic German photographer. Part of Fritz's power seems to rest on him knowing a lot more than others about the village schoolteacher – enough, perhaps, for her to disappear overnight?

I wouldn't suggest you turned to this novel expecting something completely crisp. After several instances of a kind of Ostalgie, a wilful and fond look back at Communist days from the elderly Pavel's framing narrative, there is an admission that those times in this fictionalised version of Romania could only be seen as grey. And the beginning chapters here, with a dullness and far too many confusing characters to be introduced thusly, do really leave a grey feel. The book doesn't intend for that whatsoever, in fact it's evidently trying to be a ribald comedy, with unfortunate events and seductions, and a most unusual idea festering in some of the villagers entwining the fate of the Virgin Madonna with the Soviet/Kennedy space race.

I'll admit the comedy made me laugh once, but before then I was actually getting a little more intrigued by the dark (grey, again) events regarding disappearances and deaths in the town and the residents' histories. Only a little more intrigued, mind – I really didn't take to this book nearly as successfully as I wanted. It certainly to me felt sorely in need of a good editor. Deep within the brazen levity that, to repeat, failed with me, is a kind of thriller, but one that resides alongside a belated look back at the Communist days that could have been written any time in the last thirty years. Why it got to be put to print now, and in such a fashion, I don't know. On one hand is a rich and sincere look at the ups and downs of collectivisation, bureaucracy and the rampant racism and ethnic battles still featuring in central Europe soon after the War, on the other you have a cod-Romania (Stalinstadt, etc) that came out of something too basely comedic.

The bigger split by far is the fact that the schizophrenic mix of two plots – the past dark greyness with its impact on modern political life, and the Mary-on-the-moon farce – does not create much coherence, and the levity and bawdiness intended to be on top only goes to make it even harder to get a handle on. Add to that that you can pick any number as a percentage and it could be argued it could be cropped by that proportion, and you have something of some interest, above and beyond its in-jokiness about twentieth-century European life, but a lot that makes it too difficult to read, and ultimately too woolly to really recommend.

I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.

I felt at times this was Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai being directed by Emir Kusturica. You might also enjoy The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro.

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