Robert Fox reviews Along the Enchanted Way, a brilliant chronicle of life in northern Romania by William Blacker
By Robert Fox
Published: 13 Jan 2010
A dozen or so years ago, William Blacker ran off to live with the gipsies of northern Romania. That may not have been his original intention, but that is how it ended up. Wandering over the Carpathians into northern Transylvania he entered an enchanted world. Most travel was on horseback or by cart and sled, or feet clad in traditional laced boots, unchanged in design for centuries.
This chronicle of life in northern Romania, a place mercifully free of cars and television until very recently, is a jewel. It is a portrait of a complete world, with its glorious landscapes, its squabbling villagers – and above all the gipsies, whose main activities seem to be singing, fighting and procreation, and not necessarily in that order.
Meeting William Blacker today seems like a polite first encounter with his celebrated fictitious namesake, William Boot, the nature correspondent of The Daily Beast mistakenly dispatched to cover the Abyssinian war in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. It is said that Waugh modelled Boot on the late, great W F (William) Deedes, whom he met in Addis Ababa.
The three Williams have much in common. Underneath they are men of steel, with a devastating reporter’s eye and pen. Blacker not only sets the scene but he sets it in its historical context with easy elegance. And what a context it is. The peoples of northern Romania have been ripped up, transported, tortured and persecuted by a succession of invaders and brutal home-grown dictators like the ghastly Ceaus¸escus, the Macbeths of the Communist East Bloc.
When Blacker arrives, the oldest residents, the Saxons, are fast disappearing. This German colony was established about five centuries ago. With the end of Communism, many just went, and others died, leaving their massive fortified farmsteads and churches all but empty, though full of treasures such as wonderful carved altar pieces, which have been swallowed up in the antiques roadshow rackets of Mafiosi art dealers.
Left behind are the glorious survivors, the gipsies, into whose lives our hero falls head over heels. The adventures with the sloe‑eyed temptresses, the beautiful sisters Natalia and Natashka, are among the most wondrous episodes.
Enchantment is the key word, a quality this little masterpiece shares with the writings about the same region by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Carlo Levi’s extraordinarily powerful Christ Stopped at Eboli – another sojourn in Europe’s wild places, full of witchcraft and superstition, marinated by incanto – the enchantment of spells. One wonders whether this might be the book of a lifetime, with all its youthful vigour. Every page and paragraph says Blacker is a natural-born writer and teller of great tales.
Along the Enchanted Way: a Romanian Story
by William Blacker
305pp, John Murray, £20
Buy now for £18 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) 0844 871 1515 from Telegraph Books