It’s November 1957, and the dark shadow of Communism begins to expand over Eastern Europe, the Soviets beat the Americans to the space race as they send the Sputnik 1 to orbit the planet, and the Cold War is at its peak. However, you wouldn’t know that this was happening if you lived in the small village of Baia Luna, a tranquil locale (in the fictitious nation of Transmontania) tha,t perhaps due to its location within the Carpathian Mountains seems, to exist in an alternate universe. None of the villagers in Baia Luna (less than 300, if anyone’s counting) are concerned with politics and world news, they are more preoccupied with matters pertaining to religion and the lady that might live in the moon.
German journalist and photographer Rolf Bauerdick, who is known for his photographs of statues of saints found throughout his journeys in Latin America and Europe, makes his literary debut with The Madonna on the Moon, an enchanting novel in which he allows his fascination with the myth of the miraculous Madonna to serve as a distinctive way to explore the particulars of Communist influence in Europe. Through the eyes of the gypsies (or Roman people) Bauerdick has proven he is a rather keen portraitist, with his pictures of Roman people (in both Romanian and Hungary) living right on the edges of society. His images capture the same quiet despair that the photographs of Dorthea Lange did during the Great Depression. Yet besides being able to capture misery and poverty, Bauerdick shows profound admiration for these people’s survival instincts, and his pictures display their vitality and ability to continue existing in a world that has never truly welcomed them.
The novel’s official plot suggests that this will be a novel about gypsies, but looking closer into it, you discover that Bauerdick uses the Roma people only as one of the several filters necessary to understand the complicated history of Romania. The epic novel, which spans for almost five decades begins, not coincidentally, on the year of the author’s birth and ends at some point during the 2000s, time by which Romania had endured the horrors imposed by Nicolae Ceaușescu and had been a quiet witness to events that shaped the rest of the world.
In his novel, at least if we think of Baia Luna as a representation of the real Romania, Bauerdick suggests that perhaps the people’s spiritual fervor and devotion aided them in preserving some of the will needed in order to avoid disappearing completely. The Madonna on the Moon follows several stories, but relies on one narrator, a young man by the name of Pavel Botev, through which we learn about the way in which the Roma people have been discriminated through history, and we come to know more about the colorful characters in the village.
Throughout the novel, the author interweaves several plots that range from a murder mystery (who murdered the village priest, Johannes Baptiste?) to a curious vanishing (what happened to the strange teacher, Angela Barbulescu? And what did her even stranger conversation with Pavel had to do with it?) to a stolen treasure kind of mystery (the town’s statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly goes missing). If these amalgam of genres didn’t seem wide enough, the author also adds touches of the coming of age novel and also displays a real passion for historical fiction.
Even if it seems like his book is trying to cover too much, Brauerdick never really spreads himself thin, and other than the too-neat-for-their-own-good resolutions, every turn of the page delivers pure pleasure. The author’s humor comes to light in the way he describes otherwise innocuous characters and his darker view of the world arise in moments of such violence that you can’t believe they came from the same person. Brauerdick’s tone is often darkly funny but shows no condescension to these people he’s actually come to cherish in real life.
Being familiar with Brauerdick’s journalistic work isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but it might add a richer layer to experience, because it’s impossible to see his portraits and not imagine they are the same villagers who inhabit Baia Luna. Also curious is the way in which the author tends to show an obsession with the moon. Besides the village’s name, he also includes a myth that suggests that after her ascension to heaven, the Virgin Mary found a permanent home on Earth’s only natural satellite (the villagers’ concerns with Sputnik 1 running into the Virgin are an endlessly pleasurable to read).
The Madonna on the Moon makes for a successful literary debut that promises great things from Brauerdick. The book has already been awarded with the 2012 European Book Prize and with this fantastic translation by David Dollenmayer it should also make a splash in this part of the world.