In a small, post-Communist Romanian mountain town, schoolchildren discover a mass grave near an archeological dig. It hides, everyone assumes, the work of party chiefs and their firing squads. Military prosecutors “refuse to accept the evidence,” according to a daily newspaper—unlike Major Maxim, the local police chief, who is more than willing to accept the fame associated with such a morbid investigation.
Military prosecutors, archeologists, and townspeople converge on the site of an ancient Roman fort, once interesting in itself but now taking a backseat to the bones being unearthed. Petrus, our sometime-narrator, has a vague connection to the town through his Auntie Paulina, a resident, and whiles away the summer researching its history in the library, visiting the site, and listening to the strange and meandering stories of Paulina and assorted acquaintances. He is ostensibly an archeologist himself, but seems much more concerned with the archeology of the living souls in the place, losing himself in time and narrating the same way he lives:
Her stories did not bother me at all. I was not one of the protagonists, I merely listened, a witness to occurrences imagined or experienced by others. I had deliberately lost my watch in the laundry basket. I used to put my hands over my ears whenever some radio announcer gave the exact time.”
Petrus may have a bit too much chronophobia, though, and the first section of Little Fingers, with its introduction to the locals and their eccentric ways, is somewhat confusing and over-long. It’s too hard to say what matters and what doesn’t—is that camel going to be important later?—and the reader’s place in the town feels vague for too long. Verbal gymnastics are a major culprit here. Whether the original Romanian or the translation is at fault is impossible to say, but a patient, not to say indulgent, read is required. When things do start coming together, Petrus and the town recede and the story of Father Onufrie takes their place. But the priest, even with his decades hiding from Communists and spiritually aiding a lone partisan, is remote and reclusive, and the return to the present is a long time coming.
In spite of those wronged but hopeful people waiting by the mass grave, anticipating some sort of prosecution and memorial to their oppressed and fallen countrymen, the most affecting part of the novel does not deal with Romania’s unfortunate history at all. A team of forensic anthropologists from Argentina is called in to examine the grave, on account of their grim expertise in this area. Strangely, Florian is more moving when describing los desaparecidos, the Argentinians’ “chronic national illness,” than he is recounting his own country’s past.
The story of a country reflected in soccer wins and losses, disappearing citizens, and finally a commission dedicated to investigating those disappearances skirts tedium in a paragraph that spans some dozen pages. But the work of “those investigators who ever groped for bodily remains and caused the disappeared to reappear along with their names and coffins,” all “around a triangle that measured 1,727,000 square miles and which had been christened the Land of Silver,” has been made devastatingly serious in these last frenetic pages. No matter how many mass graves are found, the Argentinians cannot be cured of los desaparecidos and their disease uncovers the sadness beneath the surface of a village half the world away.
Reviewed by Nicole Perrin
Posted in Reviews