In the Gift of the Gatsbys

Just outside the Government’s headquarters in Chisinau, capital city of Moldova, there’s a billboard advertising a ballet based on The Great Gatsby. No irony is intended, I think, but it struck me as spookily appropriate that Scott-Fitzgerald’s great American tragedy should find a home in Chisinau.

Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s in New York and Long Island during the early years of Prohibition. Gatsby, an enormously wealthy businessman and war veteran, is young, urbane, generous, extravagant, philanthropic, and charming, the aloof centre of a mad whirl of cocktail parties, decadence and soulless excess, the man everyone wants to know or be. He’s the embodiment of the American Dream, a rich and powerful man who has come from nowhere to possess nearly everything. Of course, somewhere not far behind or beneath this tasteful façade lurks bootlegging, violence and organised crime, but the surface, at his vast Long Island mansion, is unruffled. He is a man to look up to, to be grateful to, and to respect.

At the outset of the novel Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, an apparently unattainable married woman, with whom, years earlier, he had had an affair. As the story develops their affair is rekindled, and when Daisy accidentally knocks down and kills her husband Tom’s mistress, Gatsby takes the blame and is then stalked and shot by the woman’s husband. One senses that, in the end, he’s almost grateful for annihilation. It puts an end to the ennui, as well as the heartache for a woman he can’t fully possess.

Cut to Moldova in 2015. so like 1920s New York. In Moldova, one of the new, liberated, capitalist democracies that have emerged from the ruins of the Soviet empire, everything is now possible , that is, as long as you possess sufficient courage, ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence, and as long as you’re not too morally squeamish. You can rise high in the ranks of government and society, however you might have made your fortune, and whomever you’ve exploited, as long as you’re disbursing the right favours at the right time and in the right places.

Take Ilan Shor, a young Moldovan businessman who’s recently admitted giving Vlad Filat, the country’s former Prime Minister a million dollars in bribes. He’s off the hook, I believe, in return for  the hooking of the bigger fish, and, as Mayor of Orhei, he’s become, in any case, invulnerable  (It is an inexplicable feature of many of Europe’s new democracies that politicians are immune from prosecution. )

He’s not as fascinating as Gatsby, but he’s probably equally as much ‘image’ as Gatsby, rather than reality. In Orhei Ilan Shor is loved by his constituents, not for his alleged criminal daring, but for the greatness of his heart and his unselfish concern for his constituents, above all for the largesse he’s bestowed on the region. It’s alleged that he won the election with 62% of the vote at least partly because of gifts of basic household commodities distributed to impoverished voters (see The Great Moldovan Bank Robbery). Never mind that the money and gifts he’s giving away might never have been rightly his own, his people still love him, as if he’s really a man of simple generosity, not of inordinate and immoral greed.

How splendid it would be if the tycoons and political leaders who dominate Moldovan society were to fall from grace. They needn’t fall as gracefully, as tragically and sympathetically as the balletic Gatsby in the image above. But I do not suggest they should be shot. Rather, they deserve a fair trail and several decades in jail if they’re finally convicted.

Breakfast in Heaven

Despite the entreaties of the breakfast cereal manufacturers, a plate of sweet mush is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good breakfast. My own demands are simple – a good strong cup of tea (the more proletarian the better) with milk and no sugar – preferably not Darjeeling. As proletarian teas go (‘builders’ tea, as it’s often called) you can’t beat Fortnum and Mason’s Breakfast Blend, though Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend comes a close second  if there isn’t a branch of Fortnum and Mason to hand (we are not blessed with a branch in the Czech Republic). Typhoo or Lipton Yellow Label will do at a pinch. Drink Sir Winston at your peril.

Bacon and eggs, a dangerous pleasure in any case, is a figment of the English Tourist Board. Croissants are pretentious.

Tea will do, and sometimes an apple.

But to get the day off to the best possible start you need a harp.

Harps are rare, and are generally to be found only in the concert hall or in the breakfast rooms of good hotels.

I am in Chisinau, proud capital of Moldova, enjoying a pot of strong black tea and the gentle sound of a harp. Both are a welcome distraction from the wrinkled mushrooms I unwisely selected as a low-calorie option from the buffet (I shall have to eat them since I don’t like waste).

hotel harp

The harp is a difficult instrument. Well played it sounds gentle and calm, but if you look carefully there’s panic beneath the surface and some furious footwork going on below. Pedals are needed to lift or lower the strings a tone or two. And you must also be handy with a spanner so that you can constantly adjust the tuning of the strings, which slacken as you pluck them, and drift too easily out of tune.

The playing of this, presumably Moldovan, harpist is good, but the best I’ve ever heard was in the mid 1990s in Moscow when two harpists played together from the gallery of a breakfast room at another international-style hotel. From a distance they looked like twins, and I don’t doubt they were playing truant from the one of the great Moscow orchestras. They were the highlight of my day every day for two weeks, my time otherwise devoted to the enforcement of SunSystems in an ungrateful environment.

angleharp

Harps are also played by angels in heaven and I look forward, if my good deeds outweigh my sins,  to an eternity of gentle plucking as I consume bowls of breakfast, lunch and dinner manna (which I suspect will taste like Corn Flakes). In Hell they make do with children who are just starting to play the trumpet, or groups of Andean flute tooters, or Jazz. Reasons to be good.

The harp is holy, and pure, and if you’re blessed with it at breakfast you begin the day with energy, holiness, joy, generosity and optimism. If you’re not at a hotel and your budget doesn’t run to a domestic harpist then at the very least you can choose the harp option on your iPhone alarm. There is no better way of waking up unnaturally.

The Great Moldovan Bank Robbery

I’m in Moldova for a few days. It’s Saturday evening and it’s dark and wet, and the road from the capital, Chisinau, to the southern regional town of Cahul is shrouded in fog, and often more pothole than road. It’s not the best time of year to visit this small landlocked country on the eastern edge of Europe, but needs must. Even if it’s the poorest country in Europe it’s not the most unfriendly or unwelcoming. Far from it. The greatest danger to life and limb lies is the abundance of tuica, the local spirit.

moldova2

Moldova possesses few natural resources other than its rich agricultural land and a reputation for fine wines. Tourist attractions are sadly thin on the ground (two rock monasteries and a small waterfall), and its topography, though pleasant, is unspectacular. Road and rail networks are poor, so it’s not easy to get around the country.

moldova3

Though unassertive, the country has endured the misfortune of lying in the path of greater powers; it’s been a trampling ground for centuries. In more recent years it has become a pawn in the geopolitical games of East and West, its sizeable Russian-speaking minority tugging generally eastwards (with encouragement from the Kremlin), and its Romanian majority generally westwards (with encouragement from Brussels). A sizeable eastern chunk of the country, Transnistria, has already seceded and hosts a small number of Russian troops.

Although a country of fewer than three million it’s a patchwork of ethnicities, Romanian, Russian, Gagauz (Christian Turkic), Bulgarian and others, each with different natural loyalties, traditions and sometimes languages. Populations have been forcibly imposed and removed over the last century, at the whim of foreign dictators such as Stalin.

But not content with rape and pillage by others, Moldova also consumes itself. Economic progress has been considerable in the last ten years but has recently been derailed by one huge high-level bank robbery. It’s alleged that former Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, and businessman Ilan Shor, together with other bureaucrats and politicians, recently stole nearly one billion USD from the country’s banking sector through carefully misplaced loans. This amounts to 12.5 percent of the country’s GDP. So it’s no wonder the mood is depressed. And although these villains may yet get their comeuppance, their prosecution is probably politically motivated, instigated by the next set of gangsters.

If you talk to Moldovans of a certain age you will hear repeatedly that things were better in Soviet days, declining only after Gorbachev initiated his ‘disastrous’ reforms. For once, and for the moment, I am inclined to agree. There was corruption of a kind in the old days, and abuse of power, but on an altogether different scale.

It is hard to understand how anyone in power or otherwise, and especially those elected to further the good of a needy people, can steal so much from a population that can barely get by. Sadly, at the moment, this is a country where you simply do what you can get away with, where morality in public life is of no consequence at all.

Many Moldovans have left the country. As much as 25 per cent of the country’s GDP is made up of remittances from abroad. And yet, there is a ray of hope. Many of the young educated professional people I have spoken to here still believe that the gangster culture of the country will eventually give way to a more benign culture, and that democratic, responsible ideals will yet triumph. After all, most of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe emerged eventually from just such moral and economic chaos.