Sophie van Llewyn is the author of Bottled Goods (Fairlight Books), a novella-in-flash longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Her prose has also appeared in The Guardian, Ambit, Litro and the New Delta Review, among others. She grew up in Tulcea, in south-east Romania, close to the Danube Delta.
Set in the 1970s in communist Romania, Bottled Goods tells the story of Alina, who is regarded with suspicion by the secret services after her brother-in-law defects to the west. Alina turns to her aunt Theresa for assistance, a secret practitioner of old folk magic. Writing with a fairytale cadence, the author shows that there is hope beyond the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Sophie van Llewyn kindly responded to some questions I sent her via email.
ESK I’m curious. When not writing, you work as an anaesthesiologist. Has this in any way influenced your outlook? I can imagine you’ve had interesting conversations as people fall out of consciousness before surgery.
SvL Being an anaesthesiologist has influenced my outlook, but not as you think. I generally prefer to keep my conversations before surgery light and funny (people tend to be terrified before a surgery, so humour helps them relax a bit). What has influenced the way I see the world were the (patients') brushes with death that I witnessed. This is a fight doctors lose sometimes, no matter if they do everything right. It really puts things into perspective.
ESK Bottled Goods is based on your godparents’ story. Can you sum up the true inspiration for your novella-in-flash?
SvL In the communist era, controls at the border were very thorough, especially for people who intended to go to the West, even on vacation. The regime wanted to prevent its citizens from defecting, and sometimes Border Security took their cars apart in search for hidden cash or foreign currency. Upon leaving the territory of Romania, only a certain amount of cash was allowed per person. What started ‘Bottled Goods’ was this image of a hungry woman who had been detained for a day at the border. She had hidden something in a perfume bottle—something very precious that she was trying to smuggle across.
ESK What was the communist position on local folk magic and folklore in Romania at the time?
SvL This is a very interesting question. While communism persecuted the practice of religion, folklore was promoted and used in the interest of propaganda. In Romania, religion and folklore were hard to separate, so some bits of folklore were ‘written out’ altogether—like Christmas carols. On the other hand, folk tales went on to be printed in manuals and magazines. It had come to the point that folklore was even counterfeited to serve propagandistic purposes.
Think about this paradox: while in communism large gatherings in villages to dance the ‘hora’ ( a dance involving many people spinning in a circle) were forbidden, the communist age also meant the birth of the professional folk dancer.
ESK Bottled Goods has a fairytale-like quality and you employ magical realism. This contrasts with the bleak, oppressive political regime: ‘Alina writes to Father Frost, ’Please make me a child again. A teenager. A student. A girl who hasn’t lost her father yet or her romantic views concerning the world, poverty, kindness, a parent’s love.’’ In many ways this seems to be about a return to that sense of wonder lost in the regime?
SvL I think it has much more to do with Alina’s despair at finding herself in a situation where she sees no way out. It’s a fundamentally human feature to be able to hope, even in the most desperate moments. Alina has to turn to the magical: the last resort. But in a world so densely populated by folk beliefs like Romania, trusting magic to deliver a solution doesn’t take much of a leap of faith.
ESK What is your connection to Romanian folklore and folk magic? What research did you do?
SvL I hardly had to do any research, really! Folklore and folk beliefs are still such an important part of the contemporary Romanian’s life. Perhaps not in the sense that Romanians would necessarily believe in the existence of Saint Friday, let’s say (who is a character out of the folk tales), but they do believe in the evil eye, for instance.
A person/child touched by the evil eye would feel very tired and have strong headaches. The evil eye (‘deochiul’) could be inflicted on someone (children are especially vulnerable) by making too much fuss about a positive quality—like repeating that a child is beautiful, or good, or smart. Children were guarded by red strings tied around their wrists, or by wearing a red item of clothing. I remember my grandmother also suspected a few times that I had been touched by the evil eye, and she recited a counter-evil eye. I have to specify that my grandmother was an educated woman, who had worked as a clerk, and lived in the city her entire life! Superstitions are just something Romanians heed and fear much more than the people in Western Europe.
ESK Can you speak a little about the folkloric elements in Bottled Goods? For example, Saint Friday, ‘shrinking people’, and Father Frost.
SvL ‘Father Frost’ (Moș Gerilă) is actually Father Christmas, but communists couldn’t acknowledge the existence of Christmas, a religious holiday, so they had to ‘rebaptise’ him. He brought gifts to the children on 30th December — the day when the last King of Romania, King Michael, abdicated, and Romania became a republic.
Saint Wednesday, Saint Friday and Saint Sunday were characters from Romanian folk tales. They usually helped heroes by granting them magic objects that help them in their quests. But sometimes, Saint Friday (and only Saint Friday) would come around women’s houses and try to prevent them from doing housework.
ESK Aunt Theresa and Alina use magic as a form of self-empowerment; magic is the pursuit for freedom—both personal and political. Is that what magic is for you in Bottled Goods?
SvL Magic is there to say that there are other forces at work in our world than the political. Think about it: even the most powerful states are powerless when confronted to natural catastrophes like floods, hurricanes or earthquakes.
As terrible as it was, the communist regime wasn’t for all eternity. And it was escapable, just as Alina’s story proves.
ESK Where can we read/learn more about Romanian folklore and folk magic?
SvL Petre Ispirescu’s Folk Tales from Romania have been translated into English, and they’re the most emblematic. They would be the folk tales every Romanian child grows up with — his and Ion Creangă’s.