Content warning: violence, death, xenophobia
If you randomly stumbled on this post, you should probably read the overview of my 2022 book challenge first. The rest of this post assumes you’re familiar with the content of that post. Also, the progress tracking page is now live!
As mentioned last week, I have kicked off my book challenge with Forest of the Hanged by Romanian novelist Liviu Rebreanu, originally published in 1922. This satisfies Category 9 of the challenge, a novel of Rebreanu’s that wasn’t assigned in school. In my case, that’s any of them. While Rebreanu’s work is widely read in Romania, I could only find two novels of his that have ever been translated into English, and of those two, one has long been out of print.
Not gonna lie, I went into this book with some trepidation. War novels aren’t my favorite genre to begin with, and I worried that with the time and cultural differences, I might have trouble connecting with the material. I also feared this would be a retread of some of the war novels I was assigned in high school (looking at you, A Farewell To Arms) and didn’t enjoy.
What did I fear? Pages upon pages of how miserable the fighting conditions were, punctuated by implications or even outright statements that war is what makes someone a Real Man. I try to use gender-inclusive language as much as possible, but I stand behind my choice to put this one on the men, especially of that time.
So, would Forest of the Hanged continue in this vein, or would it do something different? First, it’s important to know a few details about Rebreanu’s time and place.
Some historical context
Liviu Rebreanu was born and raised in Transylvania, a region in present-day Romania. At the start of World War I, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Transylvania only became part of Romania after the war, although Romanian people have lived in the region for centuries.
The protagonist, Apostol Bologa (partially inspired by Rebreanu’s brother Emil), is an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I. As is often the case in war stories, the protagonist and other characters consider the question of duty to one’s country. But this book goes one step further by forcing Apostol to ask himself, what is your country? And what do you do when it’s changing hands underneath you in real time?
A word on spoilers
For most books, I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers. But for this one, I’m not, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Rebreanu himself basically drops a massive spoiler in the dedication:
In remembrance of my brother Emil, who was hanged by the Hungarians on the Romanian front in the year 1917. -L. R.Forest of the Hanged, page 5
Clearly, spoiler alerts weren’t a thing in Rebreanu’s time. Also, the book is called Forest of the Hanged. It’s safe to assume a lot of hanging goes on in this book. Which it does. You were warned at the top of the post.
Complaining about spoilers in this book is a bit like complaining about spoilers for Hamilton. The intended audience is likely to be familiar with the broad strokes of the plot, including its ending. Since Rebreanu didn’t have hip-hop at his disposal, how can he keep the story interesting when we know the outcome from the first page?
I should probably start with a brief description of the book’s premise. Apostol Bologa, a Romanian living in Transylvania, joins the Austro-Hungarian Army when World War I breaks out, as Transylvania is Austro-Hungarian territory at that time. Initially he performs well and receives multiple awards for bravery on the Italian and Russian fronts. But things change when Apostol’s unit is moved to the Romanian front and he is asked to fight against his own people.
Potential hot take alert: I’d say that Forest of the Hanged is a character study disguised as a war novel. In a character study, the character’s journey is more important than the events of the plot. And I’m a sucker for a well-executed character study. In fact, if time permits, I’d like to do a deep dive on this novel and its protagonist in a future post, but for now I want to keep this to more of a standard review.
What I liked
I was as surprised as anyone when this book hooked me basically from the first page. Rebreanu can set a mood, y’all. And he does just that in the book’s opening scene. Check out these opening sentences:
Under the ashen autumn sky, which resembled a giant bell of smoked glass, the brand-new gallows reared its head defiantly on the outskirts of the village and stretched its arm with the halter towards the dark plain, dotted here and there with copper-leaved trees. Superintended by a short, dark-skinned corporal and assisted by a peasant with a hairy, red face, two old soldiers were busy digging a grave.”Forest of the Hanged, page 7
These sentences paint a picture, and a grim one. But the book isn’t relentless doom and gloom. Rebreanu is equally effective at showing characters finding moments of peace and happiness.
Rebreanu is also a keen observer of human behavior. He makes the interesting choice (doubly interesting when you remember the protagonist is inspired by his brother) not to make Apostol particularly likeable when we first meet him. When I described his initial behavior to my wife, she said, “In Romanian, we say that person kicks down and licks up.” And we’ve all known people like that, haven’t we?
Another thing I liked is how Rebreanu avoids some of the tropes found in war novels. Anytime a character says anything remotely resembling “war makes you a Real Man,” he’s immediately rebuked by the other characters in the scene. For instance, when Apostol says to a superior officer:
The war snatched me from […] the University, where I had almost lost touch with real life, but […] now I realize that war is the real generator of energy.Forest of the Hanged, page 13
The superior officer replies:
Really? I had always thought that war was a destroyer of energy!Forest of the Hanged, page 13
Later when Apostol is going on and on about how proud he is for doing his duty, which involved sitting on a court-martial that condemned a man to death, his fellow officers basically react like, dude, what’s wrong with you? I like the implication that even amidst the horrors of war, it’s important not to lose touch with your humanity.
What I didn’t like
One concern I had about reading a novel this old was that the language would be too archaic and florid. Having the ebook really helped with the first issue, because I could just highlight a word and my Kindle would look it up for me. Also, the book has pretty good footnotes, which explain a lot of potentially unfamiliar terms.
That said, there are times the language gets rather florid, especially by today’s standards, and they occasionally drag down the pace of the story. While I don’t expect David Mamet-esque dialogue where practically everyone talks over each other, the multiple instances of characters monologuing about in this book eventually got a bit tiresome. I understand that pacing expectations were different back then, so I didn’t get too mad at it, but every once in a while I was like, OK, we get it. Let’s move on.
The beginning and ending sections of Forest of the Hanged are strong enough that I’m mostly willing to overlook a bit of a sagging middle. The characters are convincing and compelling, even when they make terrible choices. If I had to give it a star rating (which I did on Goodreads), I’d give it a solid 4 stars out of 5. Rebreanu has set the bar pretty high for this challenge.
The next book, The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, is also by a Romanian author, Matei Călinescu. This satisfies Category 11, a book that contains a person’s name in the title.
This is Călinescu’s only novel, as he worked mostly as a literary critic. He also ended up leaving Romania a few years after it was published. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are polarized, to say the least. So it could also go under Category 2, a controversial novel, but I’m leaving it here for now. I’m curious to see which side of the fence I end up on.
Have you read Forest of the Hanged? Have you been surprised by a book outside your reading comfort zone? Drop your thoughts in the comments!