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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Kafka's House by Gabriela Popa


Ten-year-old Silvia Marcu lives in the magical world of fairy tales, sheltered from the traumatic events Romania goes through during the sixties. As the events of 1968 unfold, she is assailed by questions no one, not even her parents, can answer. With imagination and candor, Silvia embarks on a miraculous journey that reveals that the ordinary people around us hold the key to our most puzzling questions...

My Review: 
I love stories that take place in Europe.  Having lived in Poland and the Czech Republic, both countries with communist pasts, I always find it interesting to hear different takes on the subject.  InKafka's House, we see life in Romania in the 60s through the eyes of an imaginative young girl.  It's a charming read, but also enlightening.

There are a few little errors in grammar, mostly tense problems.  There's also some odd word choice here and there, like "colleague" instead of "classmate," which probably comes from the Romanian coleg.  None of this, however, interferes with the enjoyment of the book.  In fact, it adds a bit of foreign flavor. A few phrases sound too modern, or too adult for the generally well-written kid's point of view, but overall it's a very good writing.

Parts of Kafka's House remind me of Little House on the Prairie or Anne of Green Gables, with a young main character full of wonder and intelligence, seeking to understand her world—which is different than ours.

I love the interesting fairy tales and folk tales worked beautifully into the story.  The tragedies are touchingly told, and the part about the hole in the street is about more than just a hole in the street.  There's a bit of repetition throughout, but not bad.  Though I'd liked to have seen a little more about the political events toward the end, I learned a lot about the culture, and it made me want to research the history.  This is one of the best things a book about that past can do.

Kafka's House is not an action-packed shoot-em-up, but it doesn't have to be.  The individual characters and the interesting glimpse into a different culture are well worth the read.

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Now, for an interview with the author:

Q:  How much of Kafka's House comes directly from your own childhood, growing up in Romania during the Communist era?

All of Kafka’s House is inspired by events that took place during my childhood.  The book is an amalgam of experiences shared with those close to me: parents, friends, classmates, neighbors, teachers. As I grew up, my childhood stayed with me in a natural way.  I have forgotten lots of things along the way while growing up, but I have always recalled with clarity things that happened when I was 5 years old.  As I grew up, those memories became actually stronger.  As an adult I often go back to that mysterious childhood (most of it perhaps by now fully fictionalized), to the little girl I once was and to the stories only she can tell. 

Q:  The ending of Kafka's House leaves us hanging a little, especially about Ana.  Did you do that to reflect the uncertainty and distrust of the times?

Ana is the main reason I had to write the book.  To me, she represents the conflicted obsessions of those times: the need to love and be loved vs. the reality that no one can be trusted.  It’s what scarcity, abuse and paranoia do to a society.   When they do it, people sell their souls for petty, trivial reasons.  So I wanted Ana to be a wild card, the prototypical Romanian of the time whose actions and intentions could only be guessed or speculated about, but never truly known. 

Q:  I loved the fairy tales and folk tales in your novel.  Are those based on stories you heard or read when you were younger?

Yes, those were stories I heard or read as a child or teenager.  “The drunk and the tailor” was one tale that my maternal grandmother used to tell me when I was  about four or five years old.  She was a deeply religious person and believed it to be true to the letter.  “Rat’s daughter” I read from a torn apart book, no cover, no author, that I salvaged from a pile of old books.  The story seemed bizarre and unreal, and fascinated me. I brought that crumpled  book home and a few weeks later I wanted to read it again but I could never find it, in my own house!  It was gone.  One of my parents must’ve thrown it out but they never acknowledged.  I ceased worrying about it and comforted myself with the thought that the book’s mission had been to simply puzzle me with one peculiar story.  Books do such things to people sometime.   

Q:  Could you recommend any other novels set in Romania?

Sure.  Here are two of my favorites writers.  Norman Manea, with “The Black Envelope” and also with his brilliant memoir, “The Hooligan’s return”.  And Herta Müller with “The Land of Green plums.”

Q:  What are you writing now?

I have resumed work on a novel I started many years ago.  Right now it is a very rough draft, so I am afraid there is not a lot I can share about it at this time.  But stay tuned…

Q:  How can people contact you?

The easiest way is via my facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/gabriela.popa.1481


Gabriela Popa was born and raised in Romania where she worked as a scientist in cancer research. In 1992 she won a research fellowship that allowed her to come to US to continue her work in cancer.
She enjoys creativity in all its forms, be it in science, literature or other fields. Reading is one of the great passions of her life, as it allows her to discover exciting new writers, their lives and their books.
A bilingual writer, Gabriela loves writing in Romanian but welcomes the challenge and thrill of writing in English. She is fascinated by the healing role that love, humor and imagination have always played in people's lives, irrespective of time, nationality or geography.

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