The Morometes, Marin Preda’s signature book, makes a remarkable contribution to 20th-century Romanian literature, redefining the tools of the rural fiction genre. Masterfully crafted, The Morometes explores the radical transformation of the southern Romanian village before and after World War II. Preda boldly tackles the violent upheaval of the traditional rural way of life and the powerful forces that bring about its demise in a story of epic proportion and universal meaning.
The first volume of The Morometes begins with a concise exposition. The reader is in the Danubian plain, several years before the world conflagration, when the inhabitants believe that life unfolds peacefully in age-old cycles, clouded by no “major conflicts”; they also trust that time is “infinitely patient” and people are benevolent. By the end of the volume, this outlook is completely subverted: “three years later the second world war would break out. Time no longer had patience.” Illustrating the finesse of Preda’s narrative technique, this counterpoint structure brings out the volume’s key question: What is happening within the patriarchal village society that causes “time” to precipitate and leaves the village life open to the ravages of history?
Volume 1 shows destructive forces erupting from within the traditional patriarchal family. The central family that the novel chronicles over both volumes is that of Ilie Moromete, whose constituency is introduced from the first page: overarching patriarch Ilie Moromete; Catrina, his wife; three sons from an earlier marriage; three children from his current marriage: two daughters and the youngest son, Niculae. Also mentioned in the first page are the family’s habits after a day’s work in the fields. While father and children are resting, the mother tends alone to the remaining chores of the evening: an important detail considering that after 15 years of marriage, Catrina has yet to become co-owner of the house. Women’s property rights and women’s control over their own lives are key problems in the novel’s social investigation.
The power dynamics within Moromete’s family are revealed early in the crucial dinner scene. The conflict appears here in a nutshell: The three older brothers wish to build their fortunes by using part of the family’s capital: the sheep. The two daughters protest having to relinquish their claim over the sheep and thus lose an opportunity to enhance their dowry, while Niculae’s desire to go to school holds no ground against his siblings’ material goals. Catrina’s stepsons question her authority, feeding her fears of destitution should Moromete die. Overseeing all this is Ilie Moromete, whose duty as sole decision maker is to keep the family financially secure. While assuring its subsistence for the summer and balancing its ambitions, he must also pay the impending property tax and the loan used to buy the sheep. Only a cosmic element would help: Moromete has to cut down and sell the locust tree from their backyard. As the family’s axis mundi, this tree represents stability and equilibrium. Without it the family is vulnerable to the malevolence in the world.
A funeral unfolds in the background as the tree is felled, underscoring the event’s fatal potential and also turning it into a ritual sacrifice. In his autobiography, Life as a Prey (1977), Preda explains the real-life substance of this incident and its profound implications for the birth of this novel; it was—as Preda calls it—the “magic gate” toward the universe he had known at home and wished to make known to the world. In 1949 he would pass through this gate and write a first draft of The Morometes I, which he would rework and publish in 1955.
The threats of disintegration and decay that loom over Moromete’s household at the outset are eventually realized. His sons flee to the city with the family’s livestock, shaking the stability of the household. Other families undergo similar fragmentation as patriarchal authority comes under siege in a community where everyone’s life path had been stable before and given. As “time” precipitates, social stability is shown to be an illusion.
Prominent in this destabilizing process is the agency of women. Moromete’s sister, disenfranchised by her brother, orchestrates his sons’ flight. Her rancor forecasts Catrina’s dissatisfaction, shown in volume 2, where she separates from her husband. The narrator’s stance on women’s challenging attitudes and actions is ambiguous, however, fluctuating according to the point of view. Where patriarchs anchor the narrative perspective, women’s liberating furies appear as transgressive acts against a naturally established social order. In the second volume, women’s behavior, as well as the conflict between generations, continues to be noted, alongside external transformations in the village world.
Preda’s subtle technique for noting social change consists in the juxtaposition of individual identity and determination versus age-old social traditions and the conventions they subvert. Deviations from traditional rituals buttressing an oppressive social order are presented as acts of liberation. Throughout the novel, women unleash tremendous force in their self-liberation from patriarchal oppression. For example, Polina defies her rich but avaricious father, eloping during the ritual dance of ca˘lus¸ul, a spectacle of sheer masculine strength that signifies man’s mastery over nature. After her marriage, Polina challenges her father’s decision to disinherit her and eventually secures her portion of the family property. Preda thus convincingly modifies the type of passive female character that had acquired canonical status in earlier rural fiction. In this sense, The Morometes redefines the ideas of the rural fiction genre that in Romanian literature boasts names such as Liviu Rebreanu and Mihail Sadoveanu.
In the second volume, the conflict moves on to the political scene, where in 1949 communism replaces liberalism and capitalism, imposing its collectivist and egalitarian principles of social organization. Niculae, the knowledge-thirsty child in the first volume, comes center stage in the second, now as an adult with communist ideals. Unable to navigate the hard realities of agricultural collectivization—forced land redistribution, inflexible work schedules, corruption—he is purged from the Communist Party. Rejected by the new “religion of the good,” Niculae returns to his father’s liberal humanist ideals. At the end of the second volume, Ilie Moromete dies, having maintained to the end his independent spirit.
The prominent hero throughout both volumes, Ilie Moromete has entered the popular imagination as an archetype: He is the larger-than-life, midcentury village patriarch, the epitome of the contemplative peasant gifted with great wisdom and irony, an independent spirit who rides the waves of history by total faith in reason and in the goodness of the human spirit. The driving force behind The Morometes, Ilie also remains Preda’s greatest homage to his father. Niculae’s interior dialogue with his father at the end of the second volume is a page of rare lyricism that reconfirms the father-son unbreakable relationship within and beyond the book.
If The Morometes is the novel of the father, The Delirium, published in 1975, will be the novel of himself— the author—and will also fill in the historical gap between the settings of The Morometes I and II. In The Delirium, Preda pursues a character very much like he himself was during World War II: a youth from Siliștea Gumești who makes his destiny in Bucharest just as political forces are unleashed in the world conflagration. The Delirium’s phenomenal success (the novel sold 200,000 copies in the first three months after publication) consecrates the entire trilogy as a highly accomplished literary artifact and an invaluable document of historical and ethnographic investigation.
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