A dentist and a prince—along with a remarkably articulate cat—navigate the complex politics of late-19th-century Romania.
It says something about the complexity of central European statecraft that the latest novel by Florian (Little Fingers, 2009, etc.) has a 10-page appendix explaining the Austro-Prussian War, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and other historical details relevant to the book’s setting. But though Bucharest endured plenty of turmoil between 1866 and 1881, this book concentrates on more intimate concerns. Central to the story are Karl, a Prussian lieutenant who’s been granted the throne of Romania, and his dentist, Joseph, a free spirit who quickly settles into an ad hoc German community in the new city. Florian writes in a fablelike style, and many of his observations deal with the unstable melting pot of the new world Karl and Joseph enter: Early on the dentist is bemused that he’s on “an Austro-Hungarian vessel, with a Czech captain, between the Romanian and Bulgarian banks of the Danube, both buffeted by winds from Istanbul.” So unlikely connections become a running theme in the novel, as Joseph falls for and later marries a nanny and Karl consorts with a blind prostitute. Florian’s style can be demanding: He writes dense, lengthy paragraphs that sometimes shift in and out of dream states, and dialogue is practically absent. Indeed, the closest the book gets to being conversational are the messages Joseph’s cat leaves on the furniture—they’re just scratches to mere mortals, but they turn out to be high-styled epistles praising human kindness. Such moments lighten the mood considerably, and would have been more welcome in the closing pages; as Bucharest destabilizes, the story becomes ploddingly descriptive about legislative and diplomatic parrying.
A genial tale about fate and romance that sometimes gets overly tangled in political history.