Those Who Never Die
German, Penguin Random House, Munich, 2021
“Then, of course, there was the river that ran through the forest behind the villa and was sometimes dyed red because of the nearby mill. When this happened, one guest or other could always be relied upon to appear on the balcony and cry with outstretched hand and quivering voice, ‘And all the waters that were in the river turned to blood.’ “
Romania is the country of Dracula, and it’s also where Dana Grigorcea’s novel Those Who Never Die is set. In it, the unnamed first-person narrator describes returning to B., a small Wallachian town where her great-aunt Margot has a villa, after many years away. Now an artist, the narrator once spent many happy summers in the house.
In 1989, when Communism came to an end, the villa was returned to the family – and it has remained a place where people come to be social and celebrate. In B., however, it becomes increasingly clear that not everything has changed for the better since the death of Ceaușescu, former dictator of Romania. The streets are falling into disrepair, the officials are corrupt, lots of people are emigrating, and anybody who wants to use their mobile phone has to climb an ‘internet hill’.
When the narrator’s family tomb has to be opened, they find a recently deceased man inside: what’s striking is that he is impaled on a wooden stake. The police and television crews converge on the grave simultaneously. The media is salivating and the country is hooked.
The discovery reminds everyone of the ferocious Vlad the Impaler, who ruled the Romanian princedom of Wallachia in the fifteenth century, fought against the Ottoman Empire and had a habit of impaling his enemies. Bram Stoker is believed to have used him as the model for his vampire novel, Dracula. Now, as it turns out, the narrator’s family tomb also contains Vlad’s grave: the grave of Dracula himself. She is a descendent of the bloodthirsty ruler, who is still feared and venerated in Romania.
Tourists flock to the crypt, which now has to be guarded. Even the narrator starts earning money from the newcomers. Sabin, the mayor of B. – who has held the office for forty years and is determined to remain in situ – wants to ‘act now’ and use taxpayers’ money to build a ‘Dracula Park’, which will help line his own personal coffers. This is averted, but the power of the new vampires is becoming increasingly apparent. Corrupt politicians embezzle public funds while hungry investors profit from everything. They, too, seem to be undying. The influence of Dracula, the Undead, is growing in Romanian society, permeating all areas of life.
Past and present, legend and reality increasingly mingle during the course of this intricately plotted novel. Dana Grigorcea tells her horror story with tremendous passion for the grotesque, incorporating numerous surprises and entertaining detours. This evocative novel is rich in allusions and carefully researched historical references. And towards the end, it becomes ever clearer that the bitter relevance of this novel extends far beyond Romania.
Text by Martin Zingg
- Die nicht sterben
- Penguin Random House, Munich
- Translation rights
- Gesche Wendebourg, email@example.com
- Publication date
- March 2021
- Swiss Literature Award 2022
Dana Grigorcea, born in 1979 in Bucharest, studied German and Dutch literature in Bucharest and theatre and film directing as well as quality journalism in Krems, Austria. She worked as journalist and has been living in Zurich as freelancing writer since 2013. Her novels and stories won multiple awards, among them the 3sat Prize of the Ingeborg Bachmann awards. Those Who Never Die was on the longlist for the German Book Prize 2021. It was awarded one of the Swiss Literature Prizes 2022.
Photo: Mardiana Sani