A busy, lightly absurdist coming-of-age tale driven by the confusions of communism, religion and the space race.
Bauerdick doesn’t say in which country his debut novel is set, but the small town tucked near a Carpathian mountainside is plainly Romanian. The story opens in 1957, as young narrator Pavel observes his family and neighbors dispute the meaning of the second Sputnik launch. Communism thus far has been a distant drumbeat in the town of Baia Luna, but its threats soon draw closer: The local priest is found murdered, and Pavel’s teacher is discovered hanged. What ensues is largely a detective story, led by Pavel, involving the sexual peccadillos of Communist Party functionaries, complete with sordid photos and anguished diary entries. He won’t grasp the full extent of the drama till communism’s fall three decades later, but the story is leavened by a subplot involving Pavel’s grandfather’s determination to understand the fate of the Virgin Mary. In numerous set pieces, he argues with a local Gypsy about whether the holy mother ascended to the moon and whether the U.S. and Soviet space missions are really just efforts to prove (or disprove) her existence. As the men hunker down over Bibles and telescopes, Bauerdick reveals the bubble of ignorance that surrounded those living under communism, and he explores the push and pull between faith and growing totalitarianism. Bauerdick, via Dollenmayer’s translation, is a plainspoken writer, not given to metaphorical language or lyrical turns of phrase, and some plot turns feel baggy and overwritten. However, the novel captures the way communism slowly ground down its subjects, yet it doesn't feel like a falsely inflated epic, and the comic passages involving Pavel’s grandfather give the story a likable, quirky tone.
Though the prose doesn’t set off sparks, Baeurdick finds an off-kilter way to explore a dour period in history.