BEF 2011/16 – Auntie Frosea [Moldova]

23/04/2011

Iulian Ciocan’s story Auntie Frosea opens with the eponymous character rushing home under the heavy load of overfilled shopping bags. She is not alone in her haste as the streets empty of people: mothers dragging behind them tired children, motorists speeding away and out of sight. “From the window of a block of apartments, an elated housewife shouted down to her husband, beating carpets in the yard, to drop everything…” “The only sound [from Auntie Frosea’s apartment block] was the squeaking of a swing from which a little had leaped but a minute before, impelled by an irresistible desire.” “What kept you woman? “Isaura’s started!” That last is Auntie Frosea’s husband, and the Isaura he refers to is a Latin American soap opera, “the first…ever to be broadcast on Soviet television”.

“Isaura the Slave Girl” is a typically interminable television drama about a girl enslaved to the lecherous landowner Leoncio, but whose heart belongs to a free man, Tobias. While she sympathises with Isaura, Auntie Frosea has more in common with the cook, Januaria, and shares her weary resignation to a life of toil in the kitchen. Auntie Frosea is unable to see this connection, though, perhaps because Januaria is black, or, more probably, because she naturally identifies with the heroine of the soap.

[Januaria] used to tell Isaura to be patient, because one day all would be well. What strange advice! What inexplicable resignation!  Auntie Frosea was puzzled. How could this woman be so reconciled to her fate?

And yet Auntie Frosea is herself reconciled to such a fate. Married to an abusive boor, barely keeping their heads above the dark waters of bankruptcy, Auntie Frosea is enslaved domestically, financially, and she works hard to convince herself otherwise.

And so Auntie Frosea was content. When she thought about the lives of Isaura, Maria, and Leticia, and then about the lives of the female characters in the other Latin America soap operas, Auntie Frosea saw the truth: she was outrageously lucky.

It is the task of realist fiction to convince us of its reality. Life and art are to be mirrored. In one season of the popular Australian soap “Packed to the Rafters,” the death of a favourite character revealed the emotional investment of viewers when news reports of the episode were forced to append the contact details of grief counseling services. They suffered from what might be called Auntie Frosea syndrome:

She could not and would not distinguish the actor from the character he played.

This inability or unwillingness to separate fiction from reality is necessary if the serials she enjoys are to provide Auntie Frosea with the “comfort in commiserat[ion],” with the solidarity of suffering that see her through her hard life. It is with profound irony that she holds her servile, quotidian reality at a distance by closing that same distance in the live of other people, denies them their fictitious nature, and like Leoncio, demands an intimacy they won’t willingly give. It is necessary that the actors of the soap opera have no external reality from the characters they portray, that they have no homes to go to, that there are no sets, no cameras, no lights but the sun and the moon.

But then Auntie Frosea’s fancy is righted, reality is restored to the fantasy, and the result is potentially catastrophic. The intimacy of the illusion is lost and the thunderbolt of her revelation splits character from actor.

How could slavery exist in such a paradise [South America]? How could man exploit his fellow man in the midst of such beauty?… After much cogitation, Auntie Frosea saw the light: Isaura and all the other slave girls belonged to a bygone world… Auntie Frosea had lived with the certainty that Isaura was her contemporary, that the slave girl’s sufferings had some sort of relevance for the present day.

That last comment bears closer scrutiny. That suffering is irrelevant if in the past, that is, it only has relevance while it exists shows the extent to which Auntie Frosea’s suffering defines her. If suffering is past then so is Auntie Frosea. Without Isaura’s presence as a contemporary, and divorced as the actor now is from the character in Auntie Frosea’s eyes, there is nothing to hold back the latter’s suffering, nothing to deceive her into believing she is “outrageously lucky”.

In Auntie Frosea, Iulian Ciocan comments ably on fiction’s ability to move us, and of our readiness to be deceived, or willingness to believe in its being more than fiction. Much to her dismay, Auntie Frosea loses to the crushing banality of the spectator the closeness of vicarious participant and is left struggling to manage alone her proverbially gregarious misery.

‘Auntie Frosea’ is translated from Moldovan by Alistair Ian Blyth.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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One Response to “BEF 2011/16 – Auntie Frosea [Moldova]”

  1. harry elliot Says:

    So what’s left in the wake of an exploded myth? What can we learn from the aftermath? Not having read the story, I wouldn’t speculate, but it’s always fun watching people slouch back to reality.


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