Gyorgy Dragoman – The White King

07Mar09

Dragoman’s The White King is a coming-of-age tale, based in a communist Romania, under the Ceausescu rule. 

11 year old Djata, the book’s protagonist, lives alone with his mother, after his father has gone away on ‘business’. While his father had told him that he will be back within a couple of weeks, months have passed with no word. 

However, as the book goes on, we learn that his father has not actually gone away on ‘business’, but he’s a prisoner, and is forced to do manual work on the Danube. However, Djata still clings to hope, that his father will be back soon, and they can continue making plans together. 

While this is the main theme of the book, interwoven are many chapters and episodes, about the boy’s life, growing up in a communist state. Occasionally reminding the reader of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the truants and events described in this book range for terrifying to humorous. Each of the eighteen chapters holds as a short-story of its own, linking to the main story in bits and bobs. It tells of the sadistic football coach, contractors forcing schoolboys to carry out their task, child-gang ‘wars’ and bullying. It illustrates the child-like innocence of Djata as he plucks a bunch of tulips for his mother, the brattishness as he steals the white king, in a game of chess against a robot, to ensure he doesn’t lose; the gang war that takes place, for the sake of a ball, and the risks the boys take, to ensure they don’t get into trouble in school as a consequence of their own mischief. Of course, in the midst of all this is Djata’s complex relationship with his family – his grandfather who once had a political career, but has now fallen from grace due to his son’s capture; his mother who pines for his father and wishes for him to come home; and the strained relationship between the only two adults in his life. 

This is an insight into childhood in Romania in the 1980s, and how violence breeds violence. It makes the reader wonder whether childhood in that time and age can actually be called that? And, it brings a smile, as it reminds us that no matter what, children will always be children. 

7/10 for me.

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