The story of this historical adventure novel by Matéo Maximoff takes place in the context of the slavery of Roma in Romania, which is documented back to the fourteenth century and persisted until its gradual abolition between 1855 and 1864 (Achim 2004, Bogdal 2014, Necula 2012).
The novel, which features the hero Isvan, is based on known information about the life of Maximoff’s great-grandfather, which has passed down from one generation to another within the family. A member of the Kalderash, he and his group immediately emigrated to Russia after being liberated from slavery in Romania in 1855. Shortly before the Russian Revolution, parts of the family then emigrated to southern and southeastern Europe.
In the tradition of divano, Kalderash families preserved the memories of meaningful experiences by sharing and discussing the narratives. The recourse to memories transmitted from generation to generation is a recurring feature of Maximoff’s novels.
In the first part of the novel – ‘Les esclaves’ – a drama of jealousy, intrigue and violence unfolds around the beautiful Romnja Lena. The exceptionally educated protagonist Isvan, the devious warden Yon and the decadent, unscrupulous Dimitrio, son of the voivod, are pitted against one another in a life or death struggle.
Unjustly sentenced to death, Isvan has to flee in the end. In the second part of the novel – ̒Les hors-la-loiʾ – he joins a group of ̒outlawsʾ who have created a secret parallel world in the mountains, from where they fight as partisans in order to free the enslaved Roma.
In the third part – ̒Le prix de la libertéʾ – Isvan’s heroism fully manifests itself, and his intelligence and his courage make him the moral and physical leader of the resistance movement.
In spectacular combat scenes, the fellow combatants of Isvan are characterised by courage and loyalty until martyrdom. The role of women as fighters at the side of the men is in stark contrast with that of the subordinate, female victim depicted in the first part of the novel.
The female figures generally surprise in their complexity, displaying unexpected qualities and motives. But it is not only the women who cannot be categorised simply as either good or bad. The same applies to the hero himself. Isvan displays a human fallibility in his brutal dealings with women, while in the first third of the novel his adversary Yon unexpectedly exposes himself as lonely and vulnerable, resulting in a brief moment of brotherhood between the two arch-enemies. This hybrid nature of the characters is another feature running through Maximoff’s entire body of work.
Through the structure and style of the narrative – in particular, by changes of perspective, leaps in time and density of dialogue – a high degree of tension is built up until the surprising end of the novel unfolds.
In the excerpt presented here – which comprises the entire first chapter and the first section of the second chapter – the terms ‘Rom’ and ‘Tzigane’ serve to indicate divergent perspectives; Tziganes is used on the slave market by the slave owners and traders, while Roms is deployed in scenes at the camps of the Roma and in their own conversations. In course of the novel, however, both terms are used interchangeably – as are gadjo and roumain– and as an autonym by the protagonists. Sometimes they even appear in alternation within one and the same sentence.
Achim, Viorel. 2004. »The Roma in Romanian History«, Budapest/New York: Central European University Press. [online: https://books.openedition.org/ceup/1532]
Bogdal, Klaus. 2014 . »Europa erfindet die Zigeuner. Eine Geschichte von Faszination und Verachtung«. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Hancock, Ian. 1987. »The Pariah Sydrome: An account of gypsy slavery and persecution«. Ann Arbor: Karoma.
Necula, Ciprian. 2012. »The cost of Roma slavery«. In: Perspective Politice, Vol. 5, Nr. 2 (2012), pp. 33–45.