Profusion Publishers - Independent British Publishing House, based in London


Kill the General introduced by Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips, editor of the Profusion Crime Series, introduces a thriller that tells us more than we expected about present-day Romania

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Kill the General  constitutes a bridge between several different phases of recent Romanian history, and outlines the differences and continuities between several different generations of Romanians over the last four decades.

By his own account, Bogdan Hrib set out to construct a psychological novel which would, in part, dissect and explore how the traumas of life under a dictatorship had determined individuals’ attitudes and behaviour. In fact, Kill the General goes a long way beyond the merely ‘psychological’ and turns out to be a remarkable panorama encapsulating the pressures of a rapidly changing state, and their effect on individuals.

Hrib began writing his novel in 2010, partly as a response to the current debates across Europe about the after effects of former totalitarian regimes. In the process Kill the General developed as an exciting and suspenseful thriller, as well as a series of reflections about the Romanian way of life (and death) over the last four decades.

It is not only the novel’s suspense, characterisation and intricate plotting which holds it together, however. There is also an acute feeling for the detail of 20th century history, based on the life story of Hrib’s hero, Stelian Munteanu, who, as the novel progresses, inhabits the roles of schoolboy, student, army recruit, and craftsman. Finally, after the Revolution introduces new freedoms he becomes an entrepreneur, travelling in various European capitals – Vienna, Copenhagen, London.

From these vantage points Munteanu offers the reader a privileged view of some important, and sometimes unexpected, historical events – Nixon’s tour of Bucharest, the apocalyptic explosion at Chernobyl, the chaos and street violence which ended the dictatorship.

The real point of this structure, however, is not a simple record of events. The important factor is the way that Stelian locates himself in the historical landscape. Stelian sees and understands no more and no less than would any other person in the same circumstances. This fact lends an outstanding credibility to his accounts, and immerses the reader in the matter of fact and routine reactions of the characters. This is, after all, the way that most of us experience great events, as powerless actors on a stage too enormous to comprehend, overwhelmed or swept along by irresistible currents, or too occupied with our own affairs to notice the world turning. With the knowledge of hindsight, however, Stelian reports on his experiences with a pokerfaced humour which makes them a delight to read. When Chernobyl explodes, for example, the boys in his army unit announce the start of a nuclear war, and after the real nature of the event becomes clear, they eventually locate a Geiger counter and are terrified by the flickering of the needle, because no one knows how to read the instructions which are written in Cyrillic script.

The incident shows the boys veering between adolescent panic and insouciant ignorance, in contrast to the sobering grief of the unit commander. The humour is also punctuated by telling asides – earlier on, during the American President’s visit to the Titan neighbourhood of Bucharest, Stelian sits on his father’s shoulders, screaming ‘OK, Nixon’. He notes that he was not arrested or punished, then remarks – ‘but these were Ceaușescu’s good years.’

The crucial issue of the book, however is about the transitions between the periods before and after the Revolution. We are accustomed to regarding similar changes in politics and society as if they divided a country’s history into two distinct parts – before and after. In Kill the General the moment of revolution is deeply ambiguous, itself a fundamental part of the mysterious process of change and development affecting the Romanian state and the individuals within it. In this process, before and after are phases of the same historical continuum, in which the moment after is merely the period in which the unfinished business from before is carried on, achieved, and finalised.

In this sense, Hrib’s intention, to explore and debate the country’s recent history is beautifully and precisely executed. To read Kill the General is to be inducted into the complexity and excitement at the root of current discussions about the recent history of this ‘unknown’ half of Europe.

Translating Hrib’s complex intentions presents similar difficulties to those outlined in the introduction to George Arion’s Attack in the Library. Written 30 years later, however, Kill the General avoids Attack’s riddling playfulness with linguistic genres. His intention is, in many ways, however, equally challenging.

Kill the General  lampoons ‘official’ language, and illustrates the way that words could become the medium of resistance. For instance, the word ‘pride’ features in many official pronouncements and songs. At the same time, in the soldiers’ parlance, one’s ‘pride’ came to mean penis or prick. So the boys in Stelian’s unit could march off singing about their ‘pride’, deliberately provoking the ineffectual fury of their officers. This is also a clue to Kill the General’s challenging approach to the restrictions imposed by the classical academicians of the language, an approach which raises interesting issues. Swearing, in our Anglo-Saxon inflected English, can be reduced to a single word, e.g. ‘shit’. In the Romanian (and Latinate) tradition, swearing makes use of metaphors, often centred around the idea of abusing one’s mother. Simply to mention someone’s mother, or his mother’s genitals, is to launch a deadly insult. Retaining the metaphor in translation creates formulations which sound foreign to English ears. On the other hand, and more importantly, the metaphor offers readers an intriguing sense of discovery about the way that everyday speech (in particular the military slang of a militaristic society) encapsulates cultural values and beliefs.

Kill the General, therefore, does not only explore the broad sweep of recent Romanian history and its effect on individuals and institutions. In its use of language, the novel also investigates trends within the developing culture and their relationship to the political and social environment.


This first and only rendering of Kill the General  in English, conserves and highlights the subtleties and modulations of Hrib’s Romanian, and communicates the unique and authentic flavour of the author’s vision of his country and his compatriots.


Mike Phillips