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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Looking for Kochetov

no copyright infringement intended

There is a Romanian expression (a bit slang), a ţi se pune pata.

Pată means stain. You suddenly get obsessed about something or about somebody. There is apparently no reason, no history, nothing to explain it. Like a stain on your brain, and it stays there, you cannot get free of it any more.

Some years ago I got such a stain on my brain, for a book. A book by Kochetov.

Not another author. Just Kochetov. This is weird, you'd say. Well, were it the only weird thing in my life, I would have been almost okay with everything!

It is hard to find in the whole history of Soviet literature somebody more Stalinist than Kochetov. Other authors were more or less nuanced in their political views, tried more or less to take distances. Not Kochetov. He remained a staunched Stalinist to the end, long time after Stalin had died.

Then why Kochetov? Behind the apparent irrationality of an obsession there is always a rationale. I don't know. Maybe a desire to understand more an epoch, or to judge it with today's understanding. Or to understand it in my own terms. Or maybe a nostalgic regret for all these years that have passed over me and are gone for good. I don't know.

A book written by this Kochetov in 1952, The Zhurbin Family, enjoyed a certain fame on this part of the terrestrial globe. It was translated in Romanian, in 1953. I didn't have the chance to read it. By then I was just a kid in the first grade. Once, in a summer school camp I saw the book at another boy and I had it for an afternoon. I was able to read the first two chapters, and that was all.

And then, everybody forgot about the Zhurbins. Other books, other authors, other heroes came and left. Other historical epochs, other problems, other ways to understand life and to react to it.

Well, suddenly some years ago, the memory of the book came to my mind and I felt an irresistible impulse to read it.

In order to read it, firstly I had to find a copy. Easy to say.

I visited all antiquarians in Bucharest. Nobody knew about it. Kochetov who? I asked then the bouquinistes. No one knew about it. Kochetov who? I kept asking.

It happened that last year I was in the States for two weeks or so, and from these two weeks I spent in New York exactly one evening and the following morning.

An evening and a morning in New York, that's not too much. During the evening, among other things I walked on Bedford Street, the hipsters' place in Brooklyn, and I entered a bookstore there. I remembered the place very well: in 2009 I had bought there The Wild Party, a fabulous 1928 edition illustrated by Reginald Marsh. Maybe one day I will talk here about it.

So I entered the store with some joyful curiosity. The bookseller announced me just in that moment that the program was ending, so everybody had to get out. It was already nine o' clock.

I didn't like his tone, but he was right. What to say? Actually there was something to say. I asked him about the book of Kochetov. Koche.. who? Never heard about. That offered me the opportunity to exclaim, how is that possible? I left then the store putting a dignified mask over my usual look. Not far from the bookstore, on the Berry Street, just a couple of blocks away, I found a splendid place with German beer, grilled wursts and a nice jazz band: the Radegast Hall and Biergarten. That made me forget about Kochetov and his Zhurbins for the rest of the evening.

Several days after that, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my son, walking on one of the streets near Harvard Square. He wanted to show me some really beautiful mansions that were ranged one after the other on Brattle Street. One of them was famous. It had served as headquarters for General Washington during the Siege of Boston, and much later in 1837 became Longfellow's mansion. The whole street looked very classy. I remembered something I had read some years earlier: the name of the street in the very old times had been the King's Highway. Really royal, indeed!

We continued our walk on other streets nearby, talking at random about different things. We passed the Divinity School, and I told my son that the Niebuhrs had taught there (actually I was wrong: Reinhold had taught at New York, and H. Richard at Yale). I had read one of H.Richard Niebuhr's books, Christ and Culture and I talked about it with such enthusiasm that my son ordered it on the spot, using his cell (he gave me later that evening, when we were at his home, another one of Niebuhr's books, The Social Sources of Denominationalism; I read it when back in Bucharest).

As we were talking we approached an antiquarian situated very close to the university. The bookseller here was nice, however the temptation was too big, and I asked him about the Soviet author and his book. I even added that I would be okay with an English translation, though it would be more preferable if he had a Romanian edition. Of course he didn't know anything about and I realized what a shameless stupid arsehole I was. Fortunately I found another book (this one by Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go) and I bought it, praising the chance to find that book in that place. And I was right: a day before I had bought a dvd with a Chinese movie by Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, The Go Master, having only Spanish subtitles, so the book was a helpful companion to the film (the subjects of the book and the movie were different, however the epoch and the heroes were the same). Well, as I said, the bookseller was very nice, and I should add the name of the bookstore, as it is the oldest foreign book dealer in US (and the fourth oldest overall): Schoenhof's Foreign Books.

Back in Bucharest I went on asking the bouquinistes about the Zhurbins. Nobody knew anything about the book or about the author. Only one said, yeah, I remember, some twenty years ago I used to have some copies; I was offering them almost for free, otherwise nobody would have bought it. You've come twenty years too late my friend!

There are more places in Bucharest where these street book sellers can be found. One is at the University. Another place is in front of the Obor marquet. There are other places as well, but these two places are my favorites. I always spend a bit of time to browse what they have. It's like browsing diverse epochs, the titles of the books, the illustrations on their covers, they speak a lot about the mentality of the period in which they were published, and sometimes it's about periods that I lived.

And the books at the bouquinistes or antiquarians speak also in some subtle way about the culture of the city, the present and the past, the popular culture especially. You know a place also on the books you find there. Be it Bucharest, be it Istanbul, be it New York, or Paris, or London. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the great Taiwanese director, made his movie about Paris (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge) starting from a book speaking about the city (with a wonderful title, by the way, Paris to the Moon).

They have, these guys, sometimes other books even much older. Once I found something that was really unique: a Balzac edition, a Romanian translation printed with Slavonic characters, published sometime in the first half of the 19th century.

Well, one week ago, I got a call from one of these bouquinistes: are you still interested in the Zhurbins? I found a copy for you.



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