Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. (2008). Not available in English. Translated from the Romanian by Jean-Louis Courriol.

Le problème, ce n’est pas cette affaire, c’est la politisation de l’affaire. C’est que Ràdoulescou, soutenu par Nénisor Vasilé, veut transformer une banale enquête policière en un conflit ethnique risquant d’affecter ma crédibilité à l’étranger et de me déstabiliser à l’intérieur. The problem doesn’t come from this case but from its politicization. The problem is that Ràdulescu, helped by Nénisor Vasilé, wants to change a mundane criminal investigation into an ethnical conflict that might threaten my credibility abroad and destabilize me at home.

And that’s Spada in a nutshell. We’re in Romania in 2008, one year after Romania joined the European Union and the speaker in this quote is the president of the country.  There’s a killer loose in the streets of Bucarest. He kills with precision, flawlessly and the police have not a clue about who he could be. The only thing they know is that all the victims are from Roma minority and all have a police record. They are criminals of all sorts, young thugs, pushy debt collectors, pimps, drug dealers and whatnots. The population of Bucarest doesn’t mourn their deaths. The police are hopeless, due to a shocking lack of means and motivation. The press takes up the case and it’s all over the place.

Spada is not focused on the resolution of the crimes and finding out who the murderer is. Spada is focused on the political treatment of it. The current president is under pressure from all parts. The elections for presidency come in a few months, he has to save face in front of the European Union leaders, the opposition sees it as an opportunity to improve their image and the leaders of minorities take advantage of it to further their cause.

Spada shows how all sides of the political game want to benefit from these unsolved murders and how the politicians in power maneuver to save face, to nip in the bud all potential consequences of this on their upcoming political campaign. The opposition impersonated by Ràdulescu sees in this debacle a way to promote their candidates and press on the inefficiency of the president. Spada also zooms on the leaders of the minorities in Romania, Roma and Hungarian communities and shows how they’re ready to use the situation at their own advantage and puff up to gain more political influence. Spada puts in broad daylight how the leading political parties manipulate the extreme right party to stir up trouble, to create some panic and steer the voters towards them. Spada also demonstrate how difficult the exercise is for the president, tacking between his home strategy and his need to respect some political correctness not to upset leaders from the West.

All the tactics, secret meetings and plans show a country where corruption is massive, a country where methods from the Communist era are not forgotten. We’re only 20 years after the fall of Caucescu. It’s a lot and not that much at the same time.

Spada brilliantly pictures how easy it is to manipulate people. We see how a population is quick to believe the worst of the Roma minority, how fast immoral politicians can turn a people against the ones they treat as second-class citizens, the ones that are “others”, “not like them”. Unfortunately, you don’t need a strong wind to fan the flames of fear and hatred. People naturally shy away from complex realities and they are always drawn to simple messages, even if simplistic thinking leads to violence and exclusion.

If I had read Spada in 2015, I would have looked at it like a novel set in a country with a rather young democracy, a country that has still work to do to get rid of the old guard and old fashioned ingrained methods. But I read it in 2018, after the Brexit referendum was launched for selfish political reasons, after the appalling pro-Brexit campaign and all the hatred that emerged afterwards. I read it after the election of a racist president in the US, after the extreme right parties have had frightening breakthroughs all over Europe. Hatred, the fear of “others”, of alterity and its use for base political tactics is what Spada is all about. As concerned Western citizens, we have to read this.

Marina Sofia tells me that Spada means dagger in Romanian. It’s the weapon used by the killer. It’s also the instrument used by the politicians and their cliques to slash the clothes of a fragile but oh so necessary democracy.

Highly recommended. Translation tragedy, unfortunately.

PS : Explanations about the French cover of the book. In French, a panier de crabes (literally a basket of crabs) is what you call in English a vipers’ nest. That’s a good image for the president’s entourage and the whole political/press small world described in this book. But in my opinion, it’s also a perfect drawing to picture the cancer of corruption and the lust for power of all the players of this dirty game.

  1. March 25, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    An excellent review of a book that has sadly become even more topical than at the time it was published – the cancer of manipulation, corruption, personal gain seems to have spread all over. Sometimes I think that it wasn’t the Western world and capitalism which triumphed over Communism, but that the whole world has become ‘Balkanized’. Worrying developments indeed. I wonder how come publishers in the UK/US haven’t cottoned onto this one – perhaps a little too close to home?


    • March 25, 2018 at 5:55 pm

      Thank you.

      It’s been a disturbing and disheatening read because it felt oh so real. *sigh* I’m worried too because everywhere in the Western world, people close themselves to others.

      I wonder why it’s not more widely translated. This seems a great book to be published by Other Press, don’t you think?


  2. March 25, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    Glad you put that this isn’t translated at the top.


    • March 25, 2018 at 5:56 pm

      That’s what I usually do and then repeat it at the end of the post.
      You would like this one and I’m sorry it’s not available in English.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. March 26, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    That really is a translation tragedy. I was glad too that you mentioned it wasn’t available in English at the top as I’d probably have gone straight from this review to purchasing it.

    Romania has had some interesting films out for a while now (I particularly liked Police, Adjective which is good really since almost nobody else seems to have seen it). I wonder if this is a one-off or if there’s an interesting literary scene too?


    • March 27, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      I really hope it gets translated into English.
      I know nothing about Romania’s literary scene. We should ask Marina Sofia, I suppose she follows up what’s happening there.


  4. March 26, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    Oh, I didn’t know this one – either the book or the publishing house. Glad you recommended it, it sounds quite unique. I wonder how it was received in Romanian circles. I’m sure there’s enough material in Hungary for a similar book, unfortunately (all the dirt is coming out at the moment, what with the elections in just under 2 weeks).


    • March 27, 2018 at 9:48 pm

      I’d never heard of this publisher either. This book fell into my lap at Quais du Polar last year and I’m so glad I read it;

      I also wonder how it was received in Romania. It’s not exactly nice to the press and the politicians there, not to speak of how he describes the population’s prompt way to attack the Roma community.

      I’m sure there’s material in Hungary just as there is in France. You should have listened to these bloody stupid politician reactions to the terrorist attack near Carcassonne. The right and extreme right just exploit people’s fears and feed them with pretend solutions that are not even constitutional. But who cares about intellectual honesty? The damage is done, another tear is made in our democracy’s armor.


  5. March 29, 2018 at 11:57 am

    A passionate and well argued review! The problem I think is how do we the liberal, book reading minority persuade the non reading majority that they are being manipulated. In the past there were principled politicians (a few!) not afraid to indicate the way forward. Where are they now? Corben maybe?


    • April 1, 2018 at 8:32 pm

      I know, we’re preaching to the choir at the moment.
      I suppose that TV shows like Borgen or House of Card help the awareness of the public.


  6. January 11, 2019 at 8:05 pm

    I’d forgotten this one. Looking again it really is a translation tragedy. I’d love to read this.


    • January 13, 2019 at 11:06 am

      I know. Bogdan Teodorescu will be at Quais du Polar in March. I’ll ask if a translation is on the way.


  1. January 6, 2019 at 11:06 pm
  2. February 13, 2020 at 8:17 am
  3. August 22, 2020 at 9:39 pm

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