The Madonna on the Moon fails to keep visionary promise
By Rolf Bauerdick, translated by David Dollenmayer. Knopf, 402 pp, hardcover
Oh, the promise! Rolf Bauer-dick’s The Madonna on the Moon kicks off by creating a strange and utterly believable world: a rural settlement in a fictionalized version of Communist Romania, circa 1957. Baia Luna is at once out of time and in transition: Sputnik is winging overhead but horse-drawn carts are still on the roads. The Catholic church remains the village’s focal point, but local party zealots are arguing for collectivization and the first television is about to arrive.
It’s a setting ripe for magic realism, and at first Bauerdick doesn’t disappoint, limning a tragic accident 22 years earlier that forged an unbreakable bond between the Botevs, village barkeeps, and the Gabors, Roma horse-traders and mystics. Gabor patriarch Dimitru is best friends with Botev elder Ilja, but ancient tribal barriers persist, and the budding romance between their 15-year-old grandchildren, Buba and Pavel, is conducted in clandestine fashion. Other secrets hover over Baia Luna, too, most notably the mysterious past of a future suicide, the ravaged, alcoholic schoolteacher Angela Barbulescu.
Teenage sexual awakening, quaint Romanian hillbillies, racial tension, political turmoil, and an ever-flowing supply of zuika, the local moonshine: Bauerdick knows how to grab the reader’s attention. But after this riveting start, The Madonna on the Moon meanders through long stretches of explication. There’s a hazy subplot involving Dimitru Botev’s telescope-assisted vision of the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, “brighter than a thousand suns”, enthroned on the moon; like most matters of religious belief, this detour into Mariology is largely incomprehensible. There’s more of interest in Pavel and Buba’s long-simmering plan to avenge Barbulescu’s seduction, impregnation, and betrayal by the Communist apparatchik Stephan Stephanescu, but Bauerdick’s timing is off: the plot takes too long to boil.
In the original German, The Madonna on the Moon won the 2012 European Book Prize for best novel, which suggests that David Dollenmayer’s English translation might have something to do with these longueurs. The bigger problem, however, is that Bauerdick, a former theology student turned journalist turned first-time novelist, hasn’t quite integrated his two core themes: the persistence of faith in a godless world, and the bittersweet complexities of being human.