Book Review: Dracula Is Dead, by Jim Rosapepe and Shiela Kast
Two Americans – a diplomat and a journalist – tell of Romania’s new dynamic while keeping the old legends alive
Dracula Is Dead – Or Is He?
As a Romanian national, reading a book on Romania written by two Americans is definitely not a daily experience. And admittedly, Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy has a bit of déjà vu in it, tackling lightly the usual clichés on Romania. So I approached the book with skepticism; what can two foreigners tell me about my own country that I am not already familiar with?
But then I got hooked and could not put it down for a couple of hours – out of curiosity, intrigue and, well, surprise.
The former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, Jim Rosapepe, together with his wife, acclaimed U.S. journalist Sheilah Kast, provide us with a journal on their experiences in Romania, organized in chapters following the geography of the country. This is a very insightful approach, something only connoisseurs would take, a vivid proof to me that the two authors know what they are talking about.
Romania may be a unit as a nation, but it is a concert as a country. The authors explore Transylvania, Wallachia, Moldavia and Dobrogea following a local logic, while keeping an insight as good as it gets coming from a foreigner visiting these lands. Their narrative ranges from ordinary happenings (town meetings, car service, local traditions, odd etiquette) to extraordinary experiences, which the regular tourist or Romanian citizen would rarely have (dinner with the Central Bank Governor, lunch with the Royal family, dancing on a live show on the national television).
Legends and facts are intermingled. While the thesis of the book is that legends such as Dracula are, finally, dead compared with the exciting reality of Romania, the authors do not quite live up to this. But either because of some intended naiveté, or because of perhaps an implicit need to retell these legends to the readers, more than anything else they end up bringing the established legends right back to the forefront.
Or at least that is what the reader will remember best - a collection of "Did you know that..." facts on Romania.
The book is typically American, utterly optimistic, which is understandable given the diplomatic position the authors enjoyed while in this country, and the probable duty that comes with it afterwards – to increase confidence in the American connection to Bucharest. Yet, the book is valuable in its variety of observations and experiences.
It could be judged for its superficiality, but only because of its proposed underlying argument - that Romania is the New Italy, which they fail to prove except for the many cultural similarities as the spontaneity of the people and the language. Romanian is a romance language, the one closest to the Latin that was spoken by the Roman soldiers who were there two millennia ago. The Romanians think of themselves as Latins. They talk about themselves being an island of Latin in a sea of Slavs.
Were it called "The Wonderful Experiences of Sheila and Jim in the Former Communist Country called Romania," one could raise few objections.
Yet, even then those complaints must be tied primarily to the limited discussion of the two largest minorities in Romania, the Hungarians and the Roma (the former still better represented in the book than the latter), compared to the extensive coverage of stories about the Jewish minority in this country, the too brief and not so conclusive argumentation about the "economic success" of the country.
To their defense, the authors admit from the start that the book is based on experiences of Americans looking and interacting with other Americans living in Romania – so one cannot expect the objectivity of an evening news broadcast, much less a sociologist or historian. Leaving that aside, and ignoring the kitchy title and subtitle, the reading is captivating, easy to go with and digest on a lazy afternoon, when a curious mind does not need to put too much effort.
But as night will fall, do not fall asleep carelessly, as indeed, Dracula is not dead... Just ask any Romanian.
Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy
By Jim Rosapepe and Shiela Kast
Bancroft Press, 2009
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