(Shearsman Books, 2003); pbk, £9.95
The factual stories and prose-poems of The Dance at Mociu chronicle Peter Riley’s travels through Transylvania, Romania with their carefully crafted portrayals of the scenery, people, traditions and above all the music of the region. Through diligent wording and description, Riley brings to life a world we almost certainly have never experienced, and assuming we have not, he indicates – sadly – towards the end of his collection that we now never will. The harsh beauty of this disappearing society is firmly engraved in The Dance at Mociu: evident in every sentence, in every word, in every chosen and indeed deliberately omitted detail.
Peter Riley is no stranger to the beauty of Transylvania. The three sections of the book are actually from separate journeys, allowing the reader a glimpse into how the rural setting changed between each of them. When combined with his unique writing style, comprised of meditations and fragments that seem occasionally almost too personal, the collection creates a wonderfully lyrical experience.
Sorrow and hardship feature prominently, deconstructing the rural haven these descriptions of natural beauty and peace might have otherwise indicated. “The New Widow in the Churchyard” is only one example of this: “wearing the widow’s headscarf that we’d seen so many women wearing in the streets of so many villages, but wearing it anew.” Riley captures the desolation in the picturesque scenery, but distances both himself and the reader by militating against an overtly emotional response. His is a carefully restrained description: “The roofs of these things are made of oak shingles and rear above you like enormous waves.”
The same distance is evident throughout The Dance at Mociu where the reader is prevented from becoming overly-emotionally invested in the story of any given individual. The purpose of this writing is not to invoke pity. However, this is not to say that the reader remains untouched; the emotive aspects of the collection is vastly subtler and more complex than simple empathy for the characters met in the narrative. The conscientious reader will be moved to perceive faults in his or her own society and life, all layered with an acknowledgement and growing awareness that all is not positive in the rural idyll of Transylvania: “we have never seen anybody show anything resembling impatience; I think it is an unknown emotion here.”
Similarly Riley raises questions about “the marks of poverty as delightful and welcome things.” This adds an unexpected dimension to the otherwise rather unvarying nature of the collection. His fresh perspective on topics such as hardship enables the reader to begin a transformative journey, aided by the author’s frequent and constructive questions. “If the result is silence, what is there to study?” Questions of this nature create contemplation that in turn opens a new reading that is more able to embrace the stories not just for what they describe, but rather for what they represent.
Music and dance are central to The Dance at Mociu, as are their modernisation and change. The words “No, they say, the music is free, it is yours anyway because you heard it” will continue to echo long after the collection is finished. Music weaves through the writing – inexplicably intricate and occasionally elusive – yet every word Riley places on the page contributes to the book’s overall melody, impossible to escape or forget.
The Dance at Mociu is not a light read. This painstakingly crafted world raises fundamental questions about society and life, and leaves the reader with a melancholic longing for a world they can now never experience because it has already ceased to exist, not through any sudden, jarring event but through gradual modernisation and change. Now, perhaps, the very Transylvania Peter Riley travelled through lives on only in his own words… making The Dance at Mociu a truly powerful and indispensable piece of literature.