Life Begins on Friday
"The people of Bucharest were having a bad day. It had snowed , there were still twelve days till the end of the year, and twelve hours till the end of the day."
This is a feel good novel busy with everyday life as lived by a large cast of singular individuals. It all takes place with seasonal aplomb during the final 13 days of 1897.
A young aristocrat is discovered lying in the snow, mortally wounded. He takes a while to die, uttering something mysterious as he expires. Nearby another man is also found. He is not injured, only confused, certain only that his name is Dan. He is briefly suspected of the shooting. His mildness helps confirm his innocence, while his strange footwear suggests he has come from afar. Life moves on, very quickly.
There is also a generous amount of snow: “there were still twelve days till the end of the year . . . the whiteness, which stretched from one end of the city to the other, from the Cotroceni Palace to the Obor district . . . was melting in the afternoon sun.
“The icicles looked as if they were coated in oil and were beginning to drip onto the heads of the passers-by. The streets were quite busy, as they always were on the days before Christmas.”
Into the chaos stumbles little Nicu the messenger boy and he really does trip in the snow. He is eight years old and as lively as he should be at his age – free to run around a bustling metropolis mixing with grown ups who, with one dastardly exception, are kindly to him. The boy is also bothered with the troubles of his mother, a washerwoman who suffers from mental illness. His life is precarious and much sadder since the death of his grandmother. But Nicu, the heart of the novel, is reliable and is trusted to run errands. He has many friendships, including those with the family of Dr Margulis, that lead him into complicated and interesting escapades.
All the characters, if not quite connected, run parallel to each other. Nicu’s daily chores bring him to the quaintly atmospheric newspaper office, and Parvulescu revels in recalling the glory days of journalism. The office, dominated by two very different brothers, is busy and the staff is engaged, eccentric and dedicated. Various stories are doing the rounds. It is a different world, the world of yesteryear.
Hapless mystery man Dan is given a job on the paper as he claims to be a journalist and, having been presented with a test story, proves his competence. Dan is a present-day journalist who has somehow stepped back in time. Exactly how is not explained but no one should apply a literal reading to this incidental, episodic narrative. Dan’s plight causes him to open his eyes and begin to live. He looks about him and notices: “ . . . carriages to which were harnessed pairs of glossy horses, an ox cart creaking under a gigantic barrel, hansoms, irritable coachmen . . . the people were seemingly all dressed in the same fashion, one matching the other. The ladies wore hats swathed in scarves tied beneath the chin; their waists were unnaturally slender and their heavy garments reached to the ground. The men all had bowler hats and canes.” Dan feels happier. “It was as if I found myself in the world of a young and active God, having lived in an increasingly ruinous world that had lost its God or which had been lost by God.”
Life Begins on Friday was first published in Romania in 2009. Within the pages of this delightful and surprising novel these stories and others are interwoven with each other - while the most significant character of all turns out to be the city of Bucharest itself. The prose is descriptive and the tone formal yet conversation. Translator Alistair Ian Blyth skillfully negotiates the shifts between first and third person, and contrasting voices. Parvulescu’s engaging characterization drives a narrative of loose ends which is far more about human responses to events, major and routine, than to story. Old world charm, a sense of period and the very human individuals who populate it makes this novel a rare delight to be enjoyed, whether or not it is snowing outside.