Andrei Mladin, the journalist protagonist of this enchanting novel, discovers the body of “uncle” Valentin in the library in his apartment. Terrified that he will be accused of killing the old man, he manages to carry the body seven floors down into the basement despite his eagle-eyed neighbour, Miss Margareta. He remembers the days before his terrible discovery: he has interviewed a famous violinist, Mihaela Comnoiu, and, much to his surprise, she has become romantically interested in him as a result. Mladin attended a party with Mihaela, but passed out, presumed drunk. He soon discovers that Valentin and Marian Sulcer, a handsome actor and love-rival, took him home in a taxi. But he can’t remember anything else.
Most of the book is taken up with Mladin’s attempts to find out what is going on, trying to remain one step ahead of the police in the process. Although this plot is briskly told, the main delight of this book is its social context: it was written at a time when the ghastly Ceaușescus were in power and the state controlled everything. Arion’s book is a brilliantly ironic satire on this system. Somehow he managed to get the script past the authorities to publication; the result is a constantly funny narrative that never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously or producing political polemic. The plot unfolds, accompanied by Mladin’s thoughts and sayings by his grandfather (all ending with “end quote” as a reference to the style of the Ceausescus’ pronouncements), all these small pieces forming a mosaic of this bizarrely horrible society – in which most people in this novel exist by being eccentric or behaving against type.
The novel succeeds because it is determinedly light-hearted and irreverent. The crime plot is presented in the same style, so one does not feel that the characters themselves really gel as people, rather that they are present as means to an end. I found it very easy to guess the perpetrator without any clues, because of the allegorical nature of the book. Even so, this does not detract from the pleasure of reading it (and part of the solution was a surprise).
Attack in the Library can be read as a “straight” novel, but it comes with an excellent introduction by one of the translators, Mike Phillips, which describes both the political background to the book as well as the decisions he and his fellow-translators made while preparing the (footnoted) English-language version. Even the picture on the cover is explained. This introduction is available online. It would be marvellous if the publishers of other translated novels would take the lead provided here, and include an essay by the translator(s) as a routine part of foreign-language editions.
I purchased the Kindle edition of this book.
Attack in the Library at the publisher’s website, with various recommendations.
Euro Crime blog post about this and other Romanian crime fiction published by Profusion.