This deep dive into Romanian books, music, and movies offers an insight into the country’s recent history and culture. We’ve done away with Dracula; if goosebumps and thrill are what you’re after, we suggest getting stuck into a dream memoir by one of Romania’s foremost writers, Mircea Cărtărescu, that includes, among other things, run-ins with the secret police and zombie armies. The list is peppered with homegrown talent and stories through which you can journey from the streets of Bucharest to the Black Sea coast.
Despite its power, range, and vivacity, Romanian literature is yet to be widely translated into English. One notable exception, however, is Mircea Cărtărescu, who is considered one of Romania’s leading novelists. Blending dream-memoir with a fictional walking tour of Bucharest, Blinding, published in 2013 with a new translation by Sean Cotter, takes the reader on a mystical trip that begins with the protagonist’s childhood and family history, and involves a slew of characters including a traveling circus, the secret police, zombie armies, American fighter pilots, and the (curiously) underground jazz scene of New Orleans. While Cărtărescu’s writing is rich with universal truths, the book makes you feel like you are walking through the capital with his depictions of Bucharest and visceral portrayals of the country’s historical events.
Nobel Prize winning writer Herta Müller, of German descent, was born in Romania in 1953 and migrated to Berlin after the fall of communism. Her 1994 autobiographical novel centres on a group of young German students living through the worst years of the communist party’s reign of terror. Translated by Michael Hoffman in 1999, the novel offers unique insight into the life and dreams of a German minority in 1980s Transylvania and the multi-ethnic make-up of the region.
This noughties poetry collection by Ruxandra Novac is often dubbed as ‘miserabilist’ — though ‘post-punk’ or ‘grunge’ might be a sexier spin on her writing, which is set against the harsh socio-economic realities of the post-1989 transition to capitalism, and is dark and confessional in tone. The Bucharest you encounter is dystopian yet magnetic: “Viewed in the bruised light of sunset/ Bucureşti seems a dead rat/ [...]/ I’m done waiting for who knows what/ I don’t want to live to 30/ I don’t want to live here at all/ I want pornography and hygiene/ in the middle of a nuclear desert./ And I want money and acid tabs/ What I want in fact is money./ And money. And money.” Despite having published only one book of poetry in 2003, Novac is regarded as the defining voices of her generation; the fact that the book was reprinted in 2019 is evidence of its lasting power.
If you enjoy Novac, you might also consider reading her peers Elena Vladareanu, Dan Sociu, Radu Vancu, Adela Greceanu, as well as a wider selection of contemporary Romanian poetry in translation, here.
Romania’s communist past — which sits at the heart of the early Romanian New Wave films — is still an open wound and a divisive subject in Romania. Perhaps the most famous (but also the grittiest) New Wave offering is Cristian Mungiu’s Palme D’Or winning 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. Released in 2007, it tells the story of a young woman undertaking an illegal abortion in the late 1980s. Of the New Wave directors, Mungiu seems to be the one most interested in women’s experiences. The film gives a glimpse into life under socialist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who forbade both contraception and abortion in order to boost demographics (which resulted in a surge in the number of both domestic abortions and abandoned children in orphanages). If you’re heading to Bucharest, you might spot some of the locations in the film, such as the Hotel Astoria near the Northern Train Station.
California Dreamin’ (2007) is based on a 1999 incident that occurred during Nato’s intervention in Kosovo, when a train carrying a new radar system was blocked in the small central Romanian village of Capalnita for a few days. It is also a comedy and a humorous take on the meeting between the trapped and disdainful American troops, and the local community hopeful about, and enthralled by, the Americans’ arrival. Crucially, the film reveals the social tapestry of rural Romania, and the hopes that many Romanians nourished about the prosperity and freedom America would bring to the country, and the end to the poverty and totalitarianism brought about by Soviet and Russian powers. The word ‘endless’ in the film title is a reference to the 27-year-old director Cristian Nemescu, who died in a car crash before he could edit this debut.
Scarred Hearts (2017) is perhaps the most stylised film to hit the screens in Romania. Set in a sanatorium on the Black Sea coast, the film centres around Max Blecher, an early 20th century Jewish-Romanian author who suffered from a lethal bone disease that led to his early death at just 29-years-old. Inspired by Blecher’s eponymous 1937 novel, director Radu Jude’s adaptation makes for a witty and even joyful film about youth — despite the tragic subject matter. It is a touching tribute to a key Romanian literary figure that shows the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania, a subject that continues to divide Romanians on the left and the centre-right. Jude has made a career of engaging with sensitive and taboo histories since Aferim!, his black-and-white film about 19th century Roma slavery, a theme that rarely makes it into mainstream public discourse.
Fusing traditional Romani rhythms and electronic music, Shukar Collective brings together Ursari Romani musicians and electronic producers from different generations. Conceived by film director Paul Țanicui, Shukar have released two albums to date: Urban Gypsy (2005) and Rromatek (2007). The result is a deeply moving modern twist on the rich and longstanding tradition of Romani music, which has been a crucial component of Romanian party life since the middle ages. Unfortunately Shukar Collective have since disbanded but you can check out their sister-project, Balkan Taksim, who perform regularly at Bucharest’s Control Club.
Monica Mădaș is a musician, puppeteer, and visual artist. Unlike other Romanian artists reviving authentic old folklore for young audiences, who mix it with Western pop, rock, and hip hop, Mădaș blends it with the Persian, Turkish or Armenian traditions. The song “There is no light anywhere” is based on what is believed to be one of Romania’s oldest poems. Mădaș is part of an international project called Roots Revival, which was started in 2013 with the intention of encouraging musicians from different cultural backgrounds to help support folk music in the region of Maramures (where Mădaș is from) by responding to the tradition in their own contemporary style. You can listen to one of their full concerts here, inspired by Maria Tănase (dubbed as the Romanian Édith Piaf).
Kazi Ploae (“Fall, Rain” in Romanian) are a unique presence in the Romanian hip hop scene, not least for incorporating traditional melodies, chimes, trumpets, but also peppering their socio-political lyrics with references to Balzac and Baudelaire. Hip hop in Romania has always helped expose issues such as violence, poverty, and power, and Kazi Ploae builds on this momentum with a spirit of resistance and rebellion. “Politics is a disease, I observe its symptoms,” is a line from Vezi-ți de treabă (or Mind your own business in English), “And until the herds get it, voting urns close.”