In the poor and remote province of Maramureş in the northern Carpathians, cut off by bad mountain roads from the rest of Romania to the south, the ancient body measures persist. Anything approaching six feet long – a plank of wood or a table – is a râf, the span of a man’s arms; a cot is a cubit, from elbow to fingertip; a țol – about an inch – is the length of the last joint of the thumb; and a palmă is a hand’s breadth, the distance between the outstretched tips of the thumb and fingers of one hand.
Sitting in a cafe or in people’s kitchens over a cup of coffee or a glass of palincă, the same palmă gesture recurs: the fingers held out over the table, tensed, overstretched, the most that a hand can cover. The palmă isn’t much, but it isn’t nothing, something you can imagine mattering more in a moment of passion or fear than it would before or after.
The word can turn metaphorical, so that a palmă de pământ, a hand’s breadth of land, can stand for those little patches, the slim border zones between holdings, pieces of land whose ownership is uncertain, which are also sometimes called ‘battlegrounds’, luptă terenuri, literally ‘fighting lands’. Every year in Maramureş neighbours kill each other for these contested slips of territory. At times in this mountain province there have been forty such violent attacks in twelve months, and week after week, much as road accidents are described in other parts of the world, the local press reports another man – always a man – ucis pentru o palmă de pământ: killed for a hand’s breadth of land.
After the act, the murderers usually give themselves up, shocked at what they have done, going back into their kitchens to wait for the police to arrive and, when the case comes to trial, pleading guilty, as if something had burst up within them for which they were not responsible.
I have wondered if this is a glimpse into antiquity, beyond the agreements of modernity; an archetype of the failure of human relations, or at least an eruption of the underlying facts of rivalry, loathing, violence and hatred? It is certainly behaviour as old as any record of human life. In the Iliad, Homer compared the Greeks and Trojans fighting across a blood-spattered wall to ‘two men, with measuring-rods in hand, tussling over the landmark stones in a common field’, and Patrick Kavanagh, remembering an incident at home in Ireland in 1938, when the neighbours were suddenly at war over ‘half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land’:
heard the Duffeys shouting ‘Damn your soul’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones.’
Kavanagh called his little fourteen-line poem, in which the rhymes never quite rhyme, ‘Epic’ because:
Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row.
We – I – now live almost entirely insulated from these competitive realities. Our rivalries are expressed in remarks at home, after a party when the guests have gone, or in non-replies to emails or phone messages. In that way our relationships are made and unmade almost at will. Physical neighbourhood – the ever-present neighbour-touch of poor farming life – is not like that, and seems older and more elemental. In Maramureş it is, for example, the practice to bury large stones along your boundary, only parts of which appear at the surface. They are difficult to move and it would be even more difficult to conceal the marks of their having been moved, but they also work as a kind of psychic fact. Their dark and buried bulk, powerfully present in their hiddenness, known but unseen, have threat crouched within them, the silent but implicitly violent distinction between what is yours and what is mine.
This is an old practice but there is something slightly more complicated in play than the survival of ancient behaviour into modern life. The hand’s breadth murders in modern Maramureş are something more disturbing than that, signs of modern dysfunction and dispossession, of traditional systems failing, of the modern substitutes proving inadequate, of naked, unregulated behaviour leaving in its wake decades of pain and grief, widowed women and orphaned children.
I was in Maramureş with the photographer Gus Palmer and Romanian journalist Teofil (or ‘Teo’) Ivanciuc.We went looking together for the stories behind these murders. The first piece of land we found for which a man had died was a palmă of 1,800 square metres, or 0.44 acres.
It is about fifteen yards wide and about one hundred yards deep, next to the long fast road that runs through the village of Săcălăşeni in north-western Maramureş. The village is now a dormitory suburb for the provincial capital Baia Mare just to the north, with fewer than thirty cows where even ten years ago there used to be seven hundred. An air of lifelessness hangs over it, with no one about in the daytime. On the patch of murder-land, which has been uncared for since the killing, you have to push through a thick pelt of buttercups and foxtail grasses to reach the willows that are now springing up along the boundary fences.
Just along the road, the dead man’s brother, Ciprian Radu, is living in a small house at the side of an unused yard – no animals, no muck. This is the house where his brother was killed three years ago. It is a weekday mid-morning. Ciprian is welcoming but he has been drinking and his handsome, high-cheekboned face is flushed and puffy. There is a smell of drink in the air and both maleness and poverty seep from the walls. A soft-porn calendar hangs in one corner of the living room, a tapestry of da Vinci’s The Last Supper is up behind the sofa, there is a crumpled paper icon of Christ pinned by the door and, on the television, people in traditional Maramureş costumes perform songs for a bare-shouldered hostess while colours flicker on the set.
In April 2012 the three Radus – Ciprian, his elder brother Calin, a big man aged thirty-five, and their younger brother Petru, twenty-eight, anxious and flighty – were here in their grandmother’s house. It was a holiday, one week after Easter, in the middle of the day and they were drinking: palincă, the plum brandy which features in most of these stories. Calin, over eighteen stone, had just been left by his wife. He was unhappy as she had kept the children. Petru was getting overwrought. ‘He had a nervous disease,’ Ciprian says. And so Calin rang for an ambulance to take him to hospital. ‘But Petru could be aggressive when he was drunk.’