Little Fingers, Filip Florian (trans. Alistair Ian Blyth). Harcourt. 208pp, $24.00.
In the early 1990s, Filip Florian was working as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe in Bucharest when human bones were unearthed at a construction site in the city. Universally presumed to be relics from Communist crimes, the bones turned out to be centuries-old casualties of the bubonic plague. The public disappointment in the face of this revelation raised complex issues of how history can be repurposed—even, uncomfortably, by those who have suffered.
Florian pursues these themes in Little Fingers, a slim debut novel of untamed imagination in which a mass grave is discovered during an excavation in the Carpathians. (The little fingers of the title refer to a military official who hordes the pinky finger bones recovered from the grave like tiny charms.) The darkly lovely narratives that unfold from this premise are not concerned with providing satisfying answers for why the bones are there; rather, they act as instruments in the art of storytelling. Essentially, Little Fingers is a series of peregrinations on a theme, loosely related variations from which no single truth can be derived—even in the face of the “truth.”
Florian reveals the crucial facts in the first few pages. Although the archeologist in charge of the dig dates the bones to 1800, the local police chief nonetheless closes the site until the grave can be explained. Exhumation is turned over to the police and military, which approach the bones as a matter of inventory, or perhaps as a puzzle where “the reassembled skeletons would stand all in a row, dozens, perhaps hundreds, each perfectly reconstructed, with not a single element missing and in no case with a humerus or even a metacarpus positioned anywhere other than in its proper place.”
The police chief’s need to neatly and painstakingly categorize is buffoonish in its bureaucracy, but it also underlines a common belief that the unearthed bones can be identified, reclaimed by families, and given a proper burial. This belief—which is shared by everyone from the town’s former political prisoners to the journalists arriving from Bucharest to the so-called belated anti-Communists—reveals a shared hope that the bones will offer a way to acknowledge past wrongs and put the Communist past to rest. With the archeologists still claiming that the bones are centuries old, an Argentine forensics team is called in to deliver a verdict.
It is here, while the town waits for the Argentines to arrive, that the narrative truly begins—and the question of the mass grave quickly disappears from view. Rather than keep pace with the Argentines’ findings, Florian neatly turns away from the matter of the bones to instead focus on the lives of several of the townspeople.
This passage through the town is centered around Petrus, one of the archeologists. After failing to find an explanation for the bones in the library, he instead turns to the human archive comprised of the town’s older citizens, mining a rich mythology of wildly sketched characters. For example, he meets Dumitru M., the oldest person in town. An owner of a tile and fire-clay factory under the king and a crane operator under the Communists, Dumitru is now a skillful pigeon hunter, preparing them with bay leaves and white wine sauce, or caraway, tarragon, and cream.
Stories then give way seamlessly to other stories, disabling all sense of their expected narrative relevance. We’re told the story of Stanca, a maid who was “good at the ring dance” until she ended up in the wild, pregnant and searching for a distant relative. Living in the marshes, she milked wild cows, caught crayfish and catfish, hunted wild ducks—wild ducks with their blue-black tufts—and ate the ducks’ livers raw. Stanca gave birth to Onufrie, the blue-black tufted monk, whose tuft grows eight inches every four hours, but which is also docked by the monk every four hours. Onufrie with his scarred index finger, whom a docile bear once followed like a common dog, who escaped from the mouth of a mineshaft as a political prisoner, who came upon a dead goat, and from its ribs fashioned knitting needles that he used to and spin his own blue-black tufts into yarn.
By including so many of the townspeople’s ornate tales, Florian runs the risk of aimlessness, but he manages his book well: the reader becomes agitated, yearning to relate what seem like digressions directly back to the premise of the mass gave, or at least to see one of these characters to step forth as witness to a history that they obviously couldn’t have seen. Thus Florian makes polemical readers out of us, challenging us to find value in a fantastically constructed tale rather and forcing us to discern the ways in which a single person’s story can sometimes reveal a history in the sort of human terms that historical records often cannot.
With the Argentines’ arrival comes fraught resolution: although they quickly determine that the grave’s remains date back a few hundred years, they deliberate over how to deliver a conclusion that, with grim regret, will only disappoint a town ready to erect a monument. The Argentines remark to each other what a “different kind of junta” this is with its proletarian garb and labor camps—a striking parallel that manages to both address and evade, to speak of Romania’s past without actually speaking about it. “In both hemispheres, the people quickly forgot. Compassion and rage . . . had faded, withered, then died under the weight of rent, inflation, soap operas and talk shows, family life, victories and defeats in the stadiums. Today and tomorrow counted more than yesterday and the day before, and the politicians referred above all to the day after tomorrow.”
Although the implications may run deep, Florian isn’t interested in treating Little Fingers as a critical examination of the past. He does, however, pay due acknowledgment to how fiercely the past can hold a society in its grip. Florian may lose himself occasionally in a writing style that is florid in details, at times even baroque in its language, but this only wins in presenting his narrative as just one version among many of a history that is comprised of many smaller stories and partial truths.
In this way, Little Fingers playfully frees literature from the burden of taking history’s witness stand. It’s not a book about deriving a tidy truth, but it is a book about what is worth telling—even if what’s worth telling is the story of a spider crossing the floor of a hotel room with the “courage of an Iberian seafarer.” The book reminds readers of how good writing should appeal to our imaginations, give us inexhaustible meanings to grapple with, and link us, with a modicum of humility, to the world around us. Little Fingers taunts readers who seek reason, who treat books as bodies of evidence that can be repurposed to conform to their own foregone conclusions, and who, above all, read to connect to their own worlds to the private monuments we wish to construct rather than the world in which the work was written.
Annie Janusch is a translator of German to English.
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