The Romanian

October 10, 2006 at 4:28 pm | Posted in books | 12 Comments

I know I’m supposed to be finishing Madame Bovary, but less than twenty-four hours after reading the brilliant litpark interview with Bruce Benderson, I found my way to an English-language bookstore and purchased a copy of his memoir, The Romanian. To those who know me well, this should come as no great surprise: it’s the story of a torrid (if mostly one-sided) homosexual love affair, carried out in a succession of exotic locales, and tempered by the regular ingestion of opiates in various forms. Basically, if there is a blue print to all of my favorite books, this story follows it to the letter (indeed, those who have read drafts of my own novel will notice certain common themes).

But ultimately, despite the mechanics of the plot, this book was not really about homosexual love, or sex, or even the age-old exotification of eastern flesh. For me, it was about the grim realities of the free market, placed in sharp contrast to the (admittedly also grim) repressions of communism and fascism.

In 1999, Bruce Benderson went to Budapest to research an article, and came home with a remarkably persistent obsession with a Romanian rent-boy named Romulus. Over the next few months, Benderson returned to Eastern Europe again and again to pursue a kind of relationship with the object of his affections.

On the surface, The Romanian reads as a love story, and for the first three quarters of this 400 page saga, the author conveys an almost frightening depth of denial of the true nature of his relationship with Romulus. Again and again, he refers to Romulus as his “lover”, to their relationship as a “love affair.” Although money is mentioned regularly, after their first encounter Benderson almost never makes explicit references to paying for sex. Instead, he draws the reader into his fantasy world, in which he graciously donates cash to his young heterosexual friend out of pure generosity of spirit, and in turn, Romulus donates his body out of… what, exactly? Admiration for Benderson’s intellect and sophistication?

As you can see, the reader never succumbs to the fantasy as fully as Benderson seems to have. Parts of the book I read almost cringing, all too aware of economic deprivation which has forced Romulus into this sham-affair. Aside from an assortment of other petty crimes, Romulus has no obvious way to support himself in this new, post-communist world he inhabits. We in the West are used to thinking of communist governments as the ultimate evil, but in one poignant passage, Romulus’ brother explains, “My father don’t like capitalism, Bruce. He old-fashioned. Saying under Ceausescu he not worry, everything paid for. Now he only make maybe sixty dollar a month as construction worker.”

Perhaps it is true, as Benderson sometimes allows himself to believe, that Romulus genuinely likes and respects him, views him as a true friend. But if it’s not true, would Romulus be able to tell him without compromising his very livelihood?

The whole thing reminded me repeatedly of Lolita, in which the reader can’t help but be seduced by witty, captivating, sophisticated Humbert, and yet is nevertheless always revoltingly aware of Lolita’s predicament. She is often sweet and affectionate with her step-father, which seems to give him some kind of license. But given the terrible power inequity of their relationship, what choice does she have? Anyone who knows what it is to adore someone past the point of all reason must be sympathetic to Benderson’s situation. And yet, how can we forget Romulus’?

Romulus, for his part, seems to live in a fantasy world of his own. He sells his body in exchange for American dollars, but also for American dreams — he hopes his relationship with Benderson will eventually culminate in a visa, and the right to emigrate to the United States. He yearns for the freedom of the west, but what exactly is this freedom? The freedom to buy and sell at will, to possess dream objects — shoes, fancy cars, sound systems — just as he himself is a dream object possessed by Benderson.

And ultimately, Benderson suggests, one winds up enslaved anew by the desire for these possessions, as he is by his lust for Romulus. In the free market, everything and everyone has a price, but acquisition doesn’t equal love.

As a theme, this may come across as a bit demoralizing. But it only makes the climax of the book all the more thrilling, when both Benderson and Romulus finally admit to themselves and each other the true nature of their “affair”. Benderson builds to an exhilarating crescendo by recounting the tale of Dragomir, a beautiful boy who is imprisoned by various doting masters, offered every possible luxury, but winds up revolting against his gilded cage.

And just as Benderson seems ready to acknowledge the degree to which his own relationship mirrors this story, Romulus steps forward and, throwing Benderson’s money to the floor, declares at last, “I am not your slave!”

It’s a beautiful moment, filled with hope for a possible future in which money and will not define the relationships of humans to objects or to each other.



  1. You went to an English bookstore in Paris? Are you crazy? my friend. ENGLISH books section ROCKS. Often these books are half the price of WH or Brentanos or Gali-whatever on Rivoli.

    AND. Books are shipped for F.R.E.E.

    I’m sorry… I thought you should know. You are still a newcomer and all… 🙂

  2. It’s true, the last time I was here for any significant amount of time, the web was still a twinkle in someone’s eye. In this case, however, I only paid a little bit more by going to the store… perhaps it was worth the price to make sure I had the book in my hot little hands as soon as possible.

    But thank you for the recommendation, I’ll definitely do that next time.

  3. Sorry for my zeal. When I found 5 years ago, I thought I had found the promise land. At the time a measly paperback (pocket) was 15 Euros at WHSmith and online it was 6.50… I think that the Paris bookstores have wised up and lowered their prices since.

    The only one I still even think about going to now is Shakespeare and Co. Latin quarter! Notre Dame! James Joyce!

  4. Hello,

    As the author of the book you’re reviewing, I can’t help but comment on your take. Well-meaning, and even appreciative, as it is, it strikes me as having been written by someone who has never had similar experiences. It’s true, but just too easy, to cast any relationship at ALL within the concept of Capitalist exploitation. The formula could just as well be applied to conventional marriages. The husband earns bucks for the right for sex and comfort from the wife. The wife puts up with sex and does the housework for the right to be supported financially and to have a useful social identity. Do they “love” each other? Maybe, but it’s impossible to know for sure, because the structure they’ve entered is pre-programmed. They may be as deluded in their failure to recognize mutual exploitation as you say Romulus and I were.

    Sounds old-fashioned, I know, but it’s a description of the majority of heterosexual relationships during the last several centuries. AND actually, it’s NOT really a description of them, it’s a description of the MODEL for such relationships. There are many exceptions. And in your review, you analyze only the model behind my story, and not the very exceptional example that resulted.

    Romulus was not a “virgin” to the business of sex for sale when I encountered him. Nothing “forced” him into the love affair. He had the choice of literally hundreds of other clients, many of whom he chose at various times, so comparing him to Lolita, an adolescent girl whose mother has just died, and is in the legal custody of her step-father, is unfair. Also and essentially–and I think this is sorely missing from your analysis– he and I were “made” for each other, and the proof of this is our very intimate and enduring friendship today.

    Finally, if you must insist on a formula of exploitation for what transpired between us, then it’s unfair to see it as one-sided. Are relationships involving the exchange of money always one-sided exploitations? I think not. In fact, in my experience (and this is why I point out that you yourself probably have not had many similar ones), it is quite often the younger, more energetic, more cynical “love object” who exercises more power and does more exploiting.

    If you don’t believe me, then re-watch Dietrich and her pitiful, adoring husband in “The Blue Angel.” One has the power to inflict pain not only when one pays. One also has the power to inflict pain when one earns.

  5. Yo!!!

    Sorry for getting back to you so late. Yes, the woman and I got married a month ago. We were so swamped with classes, my new job, and planning the legal ceremony that we didn’t get a chance to do a drive-in with you. Thus, you need to send me an email address so I can invite you to guest view our legal ceremony pictures in photobucket. Otherwise, I am currently an Executive Assistant for a communications firm that services nonprofits and others.

    Hope all is well with you!!!

  6. Hello there Amy,

    Hey, it was great meeting you and your husband last night at Clotilde’s gathering; I’m sorry I ducked out like that, but I was getting a bit worried about catching up with my boyfriend… Probably a bit silly of me, but he has been pretty fragile over the last few months and I try to be around as much as possible.

    I just finished reading your latest post, by the way, and first of all I found it extremely interesing and thought-provoking — and then I was blown away by the fact that the AUTHOR of the book you read responded to you here on your blog!! How incredible… In a way, it makes for an interesting exchange and I hope you’ll perhaps learn a bit more about the “story behind the story” involving this particular book.

    Oh, and regarding — believe it or not, I haven’t used it here yet myself, which is probably crazy of me, but having worked in a bookshop for a few years, I do appreciate going to check out the books, hold them in my hands, consider the possibilities in person, and even discuss the titles that interest me with the booksellers. I appreciate the whole experience. So mind you, I know I spend more money in the long run, and that probably isn’t very economically intelligent of me, but I do get more out of the experience, too. I may try to get more English books on in the future, but I’ll probably still go back to bookshops as well! I think I would miss them otherwise… For all the obvious reasons!

    I hope we can keep in touch; again, it was good meeting you… Maybe we can get together for a drink or dinner sometime soon?

    And of course I’ll keep popping into your blog to see what’s new with you!

  7. I’ve just finished reading Bruce Benderons’s interview from your link, and I was enthralled… Now I have to read the memoir! Amy, perhaps I can borrow at some point? Otherwise, I’ll pick up a copy of my own in the near future.

    Talk to you soon.

  8. Mr. Benderson,

    You are absolutely right to point out that all relationships contain an element of prostitution to them, especially traditional heterosexual marriage. Indeed, I can see the argument for prostitution as more legitimate than other relationships — at least it is founded on honesty.

    And of course it’s true that in such relationships, power/exploitation is always multi-directional. I had hoped to convey this in my analysis, but I guess I failed: while money and social position can confer a certain amount of power to a person, being devastatingly in love with another person can feel like a prison, especially when one’s feelings are not returned with sufficient ardor.

    I feel bad now that I tacked on such a pat ending to my critique. I had originally meant to discuss in much greater depth all the subtleties and ambiguities of the relationships described in the book, but I worried that I was running long and would bore my audience. Still, that’s no excuse for shoehorning your complex and nuanced story into my own neo-Marxist perspective. I apologize.

  9. Alice –

    I had a feeling someone would step forward to defend brick-and-mortar bookstores! You’re right, there’s a lot to be said for standing in a store with a book in your hand, or consulting with the knowledgeable staff.

  10. Helas… The last time I was at WHSmith and I tried to ask a question in English, I got a blank stare. 🙂 Then I switched to French, but it felt stupid.

    Totally agree that live shopping is better in terms of books but unfortunately I just don’t have the time. Bored dead at work, I have tons of time to virtual shop but trekking to a shop that’s way out of my way? Nope. Cannot deal.

    But that comes from living a life as a commute into Paris “Parisian” (ie, “metro boulot dodo”) and not as an expat. Boo hoo.

    And then there’s the fact that I’m cheap.

    How did Benderson find you?

  11. JChavais – This post was trackbacked from the original interview. I suspect he was surfing around to see what people thought of his interview, and found me that way.

    Or maybe he googles himself! Stranger things have happened.

  12. Very amazing site! I wish I could do something as nice as you did…mary

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