THE MADONNA ON THE MOON. By Rolf Bauerdick. Knopf. 400 pages. $27.95.
Although the author’s note states that “the novel is set in a fictitious country,” there can be no doubt that the country is Romania under its Communist regime.
Author Rolf Bauerdick describes how the country’s dictator and his wife were shot by a firing squad in the early pages of the book.
The historical background of the country is integral to the novel, as the author, often in biting prose, weaves into his story the many absurdities of the political system, with its overreaching power and regulation that it calls “progress.”
The story is set in the tiny mountain village of Baia Luna, with just 250 inhabitants, some illiterate and most unfamiliar with the outside world.
It is November 1957 and Sputnik II, with a dog named Laika inside, is flying in space to the wonderment of the people. Pavel Botev, 15, helps out at the local tavern-shop, owned by his grandfather, Ilja, where the village men congregate as they discuss the latest events.
Dimitru, one of the town’s gypsies, announces: “Sputnik is the beginning of the end.”
Unsettling events are occurring. Pavel’s schoolteacher, Angela Barbulesco (Barbu), who often entertained her students with stories of her once-glamorous life among the party elite in “the Paris of the East,” has disappeared. Then it is discovered that the villagers’ revered statue of the Madonna has been stolen.
Dimitru is convinced that the real Virgin Mary actually lives on the moon and sets out to prove it with the assistance of a telescope.
Pavel’s gypsy sweetheart, Buba has been sent away to far-off relatives. As the story, narrated by an older Pavel looking back upon his youth, moves along its complicated path through the years, Bauerdick weaves folklore into the realities of party politics.
Henchmen eventually arrive at the hamlet of Baia Luna to appropriate land that had been in families for generations in order to impose collective farming, or kolkhoz.
“They had no choice,” Pavel says. “Fear had done its work.”
Pavel’s life moves along sluggishly (an allegory possibly for the progress of the country). In one scene, Bauerdick portrays the farce of the totalitarian system as he describes Pavel’s and Ilja’s trip to the city to replenish the stores for the tavern and shop, a task usually accomplished with ease.
However, all has changed. Now licenses must be obtained for everything. When Ilja protests the bureaucracy, the official tells him: “But there’s got to be order, and the law’s the law. Otherwise everybody could do his own private wheeling and dealing. And then we’d have capitalism like the Yanks, where everyone does whatever they want.”
They sit and wait, a sign admonishing them: DO NOT KNOCK. ENTER WHEN CALLED. Soon the door opens and a woman says, “Well, why didn’t you knock?”
The author does not flinch when describing brutality and corruption during what we understand to be Nicolae Ceaucescu’s infamous reign in Romania.
There is much more to the story, and Bauerdick’s canvas is large. We follow this entertaining and unique cast of characters through to 1989 when Communism finally collapsed.
“Today, as I look back over my life, the Age of Gold seems like the rise and fall of a distant star, a sun that gives light and warmth for a while, expands into a huge red giant, and finally collapses under it the weight of its own mass,” Pavel says, regretting the years of his devoured youth.
The author has given us a unique view of a culture that was worlds apart from the experiences of others during that era. The novel is well-written, though the ending feels hurriedly put together and a bit too neatly tied up.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.