Home > 2000, 21st Century, Danish Literature, Grøndahl Jens Christian, Novel, TBR20 > Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl (2004) Translated from the Danish by Alain Gnaedig.

Raconter n’est pas seulement conserver des souvenirs mais aussi en éliminer. Narration doesn’t only preserve memories, it also eliminates some.

Grondahl_Piazza_BucarestPiazza Bucarest won the Prix Jean Monnet de Littérature européenne in 2007. The list of the prize winners seems interesting to explore and it rewards a work of European fiction that was translated into French. I can understand why it won this prize: it’s set in Denmark, Italy and Romania and in a way deals with a page of European history, the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Scott is a photographer from New York who settled in Denmark. In 1988, he flies to Bucarest for a reportage. It is before the fall of the Caucescu regime and he decides to marry his guide, Elena, to help her flee Romania. Their marriage doesn’t last and she eventually leaves him. Scott is devastated by her departure, so when, years later, he receives a letter addressed to Elena at their old home, he asks the narrator to find her and bring it to her.

The narrator shares a special bond with Scott as Scott used to be married to Vicky, the narrator’s mother. Vicky was quite young when the narrator was born and Scott is six years younger than her: the age difference between Scott and the narrator isn’t big. The two men are rather close.

Scott is a quiet man who ended up in Denmark by chance. He was on a trip in Europe in 1966 when he received his papers to go to Vietnam. He decided to stay in Denmark and marrying Vicky helped him out. He’s not very forthcoming and Elena never really confided in him. The narrator will be the first to hear the story of her life when he finds her in Italy.

I wasn’t enthralled by this novel although it has literary merits. Scott is too contemplative, too passive, I wanted to shake him up. The narrator is a writer, like Grøndahl and sometimes I’m tired of novels where the main protagonist is a novelist. Elena’s story is banal but in an unusual environment. I don’t want to reveal too much about her as discovering her past is part of the interest of the novel.

The narrator tries to reconstruct Scott’s feelings for Elena and the ins and outs of their failed marriage. He’s following leads from former conversations with Scott, time spent with Elena. He tries to guess what happened even knowing how futile it is. No one can understand someone else’s marriage or love relationship.

This European trip to find Elena is an opportunity for him to mull over Scott and Elena who have one thing in common: they both left their country and family behind. It is a reflection about freedom, exile and literature. Elena is ready to make a lot of sacrifice for the freedom of the West. Is it worth it? Is it as freeing in real life as it is on paper? Grøndahl gives us a tentative answer.

La liberté ne donne aucun sens mais des possibilités, cependant, elle nous offre, entre autres, le choix de les saisir ou non. Liberty does not give any meaning to life but it opens opportunities. However, among other things, it gives us the choice to seize them or not.

And how do you live in your new country? How do you adapt to it? What kind of relationship do you keep with the country you left? Elena doesn’t elaborate and the narrator contemplates her position, tries to imagine hers and Scott’s situation. Elena may not voice her thoughts about exile but she’s not as quiet about the place of literature:

Elle [Elena] répliqua qu’elle n’était pas écrivain, mais que si jamais il lui prenait l’idée d’accabler le monde avec un livre de plus, ce serait parce qu’elle aurait un message, une interprétation radicalement nouvelle de la place de l’homme et de l’Histoire, et non pour convier les lecteurs à admirer à quel point j’étais doué pour remuer les tourments de mon nombril avec une cuillère à thé. She [Elena] said that she wasn’t a writer but that, if it ever occurred to her to burden the world with another book, it would be because she has a message, a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History and not to invite the readers to admire to what extent I was gifted to stir my navel’s turmoil with a teaspoon.

That’s the crux of the literary matter, right? Elena is too ambitious. Who wouldn’t find writing daunting if your book had to bring a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History? Phew! That’s quite a challenge. Who’s up for that? And there’s a wide range of possibilities for books between explaining the grand scheme of the universe to readers and observing one’s navel under a microscope.

I can’t help thinking Grøndahl is a bit self-deprecatory here and the narrator’s books are actually his. I haven’t read any of his other novels but this one rather fits the description. If Grøndahl had literary cousins, I think they would be Modiano, Noteboom, Kundera and possibly Marias. His cousins would be European, not American. In my opinion, this is a trend in European literature. While these novels are often beautifully written, full of marvelous exploration of the fleetingness of life, of memories, they also often leave me unsatisfied. I don’t like to generalize but the characters are often in the same social circles as the writer: journalists, writers, university teachers, artists. No corporate executives, shop owners or plumbers in these books. They dig deep in the characters’ psyche or angst and they feel a bit disconnected with real life. I had this impression with Piazza Bucarest and with Dimanches d’août by Modiano. They are good books, ones that give you a long list of artistic quotes but whose plot is fuzzy a few weeks after you’ve read them. Does that ring a bell to you?

Have you read Grøndahl and what do you think about this last quote?


  1. September 13, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    I was excited when I saw this was a Danish book but that petered out as the review went on. I don’t think I’d like this one much.


    • September 13, 2015 at 7:44 pm

      Out of the three Danish book I’ve read, the best one is the Fleming and it’s not available in English, sorry.
      I wouldn’t pick Piazza Bucarest for you.


  2. September 13, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    A lot of writers in the U.S. who publish with small presses or self-publish have narrators who are writers who are always broke, never getting a big book deal, and drinking themselves to death, in my opinion. I, too, dislike such stories. My observation is a generalization, though.


    • September 26, 2015 at 7:32 am

      I guess it’s hard to follow the “write-about-what-you-know” recommandation and not write about a writer. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 14, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Very interesting comments in your closing paragraph, Emma. I can see why this book didn’t work for you – it does sound a little heavy on the introspection. Even though I really love Marais’ work, I’m not sure how I’d get on with Piazza Bucarest. The quotes, especially the second one, aren’t grabbing me right now. Ah, well…


    • September 26, 2015 at 7:37 am

      Sorry for being so late answering your comment. I’ve had a hard time going back to my computer after work these last weeks.

      I like introspection when it avoids stirring one’s “navel’s turmoil with a teaspoon.”

      That’s what I didn’t like in Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me: the character was always splitting hair, torturing himself over tiny little details that are nothing in the grand scheme of thing. While you do that, the train of your life leaves the station without you.


  4. September 17, 2015 at 10:59 am

    My reaction was much as Guy’s. I have to admit, I rarely find novels with novelist protagonists interesting. They can be, but all too often they have a certain claustrophobic lack of a sense of life, a lack of corporate executives or shopkeepers or plumbers or whatever. Novels about novelists and novelists’ milieus.

    There are a great many novels which while beautifully written at the level of the sentence are ultimately lacking at the level of the book. Perfectly crafted, but lifeless.


    • September 26, 2015 at 7:51 am

      Very sorry for the delay to answer your comment.

      This lack of “sense of life” is what bothers me. They become elitist, in a sense, without meaning to be.

      And sometimes writers write a story set in the corporate world and you feel that they’ve never set a foot in an office. In La délicatesse by Foenkinos (not a fantastic literary achievement but an honest novel), it is clear that the author’s idea of how an office is run and what people do in support staff is fuzzy at least, right old fashioned at times.

      But some books with writer protagonists are very good, like novels by John Fante, Philip Roth, Philippe Djian, or Hunger by Hamsun.

      Fante has a healthy sense of humour. Roth broadens the perspective of the novel to an analysis of society. Djian’s characters happen to be writers but it’s not the core of the story, they could be something else. And Hamsun, well, Hunger was so much more than about a struggling writer, even if the character’s choice of profession causes his financial difficulties.

      And they’re not in what you call “novelists’ milieus” and they avoid the pitfall of examining their navel too closely.


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