Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

34 thoughts on “Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

  1. As you know, FictionFan, Marina is a buddy of mine, too, and I’m not in the least surprised that the translation was so good. The story sounds excellent, too, and I’ve been wanting to read it since Corylus brought it out. I’m very glad to hear that it worked well for you, and I hope that there’ll be a lot more where that one came from. Just goes to show you how important translation really is!

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    • A good translation makes such a difference, especially when it’s a book from a country the reader doesn’t know well. I think you’ll enjoy this one, Margot – it’s a really different take on crime, but totally believable and very relevant to a lot of what’s going on with violence and race and politics around the world at the moment…

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  2. I may add this to my list of books in translation, as I’ve never read any Romanian literature as yet. Many thanks to Marina Sophia as well, as the work of translaters should never be underestimated.

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    • It was my first fictional trip to Romania too and I really enjoyed learning more about the culture and the difficulties of becoming a Western-style democracy. And I must say, because it’s quite a complicated story, the translation was even more important than usual. An excellent start to the Corylus venture!

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    • Ha! It sure does! It felt so like current America, only the President wasn’t quite as stupid! 😉 I’d be hard put to give this one a specific genre – it is crime based and a sort of a thriller, but it really is much more about political corruption than either of those. Great stuff!

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  3. Congrats to Marina on this one — not particularly something I’d find very restful to spend time with during this turbulent period, but I can see where it might be awfully good. Your enjoyment of it certainly comes through!

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    • I felt it was only fair to mention the strong political content – I love that sort of thing but I know it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea! I’ll try and get you with the next one… 😉

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  4. Although I’m not usually drawn to stories in political contexts, there’s lots in this book which sounds gripping, especially the Romanian and Roma backgrounds. Once the book is published in paper format, I’ll put in a purchase request at the library and see if my good luck (or apt choices 😉) holds.

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    • I think the paper publication has been held up by the coronavirus – printers on lockdown! But hopefully as we’re opening up now, it’ll be available in the not too distant future. I found the whole Roma/Romanian thing fascinating – I knew about the Roma, but only vaguely, and this really points the finger not just at Romania but at the whole of Europe for the way we’ve treated them over the centuries.

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  5. Congratulations to Marina Sofia; it sounds like she has done a fantastic job 😊 Such a brave and exciting venture! It’s not my sort of book unfortunately but others in her catalogue may well be so I’ll keep an eye on what’s coming out from Corylus.

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    • It is exciting! We tend to get translated fiction from the same few countries all the time – it’ll be interesting to get an insight into a few different ones. I’ll be reading another Corylus one soon, so maybe that will turn out to be more your kind of thing – I don’t know myself yet what it’ll be like…

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  6. Despite ALL the characters, you’re right that this book sounds intriguing. I haven’t come across many books about the Roma people and their culture, so I’m always interested in learning more about them. Plus, this book sounds (sadly) extremely relevant at the moment!

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    • I’ve only read one other, but it was by an American – Scott Turow – so it was interesting to get the viewpoint of an actual Romanian this time. The book was terrifyingly like what’s happening in America right now, and to a lesser extent in a lot of western democracies…

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  7. This sounds really interesting, even if crime thrillers are not generally my thing. My grandmother came to Canada from Romania when she was 18 so I’ve always been fascinated by the country. When I visited the Czech Republic, I was really surprised to hear some pretty harsh racism against the Roma people; it definitely seems more complicated than the fanciful version we hear about in North America.

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    • Oh, I didn’t know about your connection to Romania! You may find this interesting then, because it’s much more about the political culture than about the crime, which is really just a catalyst for what follows. The Roma have always been badly treated, not just in Romania but throughout Europe, but somehow their mistreatment has never had the same coverage or recognition as that of other ethnic groups. This book was very good at showing how hypocritical Europe can be when it demands standards from newer members that the older members themselves don’t live up to…

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      • A few years ago I read Bury Me Standing, a book all about the Roma, and it was fascinating about their history and culture and delved into some of the mistreatment they’ve received at the hands of the rest of Europe. A lot of the attitudes toward the Roma remind me of the way people think about and have treated the Indigenous peoples in North America.

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        • Yes, their treatment also reminds me of how the Jews have been treated – unwelcome in every country and demonised. Unfortunately, while there have been big moves to change that attitude towards Jews, the Roma are still often treated that way. One of the points the author was making in this book was that European countries would criticise Romania for its treatment of the Roma, while continuing to discriminate against them themselves.

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          • That’s a good comparison. And from my understanding, the Roma were also rounded up and exterminated in camps during World War 2. I didn’t even learn that “gypsy” was an offensive name until I was an adult.

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            • I know, and I’m still never sure whether “gypsy” is always offensive or if it depends on whether it’s being used as an insult. I know that around the fairs in this country, you still get fortune-tellers calling themselves “Gypsy Rose” and suchlike, and I assume they’re Roma travellers since that’s always been the tradition. But it’s all so complicated… a minefield!

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            • Yes, I’ve seen stuff like that at fairs here too and would assume they’re probably not Roma though I guess you never know. It’s still not uncommon for children to dress up as a “gypsy” for Halloween or the like.

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