Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128
Spanning the twelve years from 1936 to 1948, which were so tragically decisive for the Romanian people, The Forbidden Forest is, on one level, a chronicle of the sad events of that era. These events are presented as the experiences of a rather large number of interrelated characters whose personal biographies constitute the intricate web of the plot. At another level, the book is a vehicle for examining and testing a variety of philosophies about time, history, fate, and the meaning of life. Beginning and ending on a Midsummer’s Night (also known as St. John’s Eve and the summer solstice), when “the heavens open” and miracles can occur, the novel is pervaded by a subtle atmosphere of the fantastic.
The fantastic element is embodied in two mysteries that obsess the central character, Stefan, throughout the novel: The first is that of doamna (Mrs.) Zissu, whose name has haunted him ever since he overheard it spoken by Vadastra, his neighbor in a cheap hotel with thin walls; the second is that of “the car that ought to have disappeared,” seen in a vision on June 23, 1936, which is connected with Ileana, whom Stefan met that same night in a forest to which he was mysteriously drawn. Scattered throughout the novel are episodes which reveal bits of information about doamna Zissu or in which an automobile figures—episodes marking crucial events in Stefan’s life. Only at the conclusion of the book are the mysteries resolved, when doamna Zissu is disclosed to have been a woman romantically involved with four men, all of whom are significant in Stefan’s life, and when the car materializes as Ileana’s automobile on St. John’s Eve, 1948, in France, becoming the vehicle in which the two will die in a plunge off a mountain road.
There is little action in the first three chapters, which serve mainly to introduce most of the leading characters and their problems. Stefan dearly loves his wife, Ioana, who is going to have a baby, but he has also fallen in love with Ileana, who at first finds him bizarre but later realizes that she loves him in spite of herself. Stefan and Ileana meet only rarely and without prearrangement; their friendship is platonic, except when once, impulsively, he kisses her. Stefan maintains a “secret room” in a hotel to which he retreats to experience “another time,” while painting. He envies the saints for their abilities to transcend time while still living on earth and to love all persons equally. If he could love both Ileana and Ioana simultaneously, he thinks, he would achieve a transcendence of the human condition. Unfortunately, his feelings vacillate and he seems always to love one woman more than the other.
After the appearance of a car in chapter 4, history begins to intrude upon the story. It is 1938 and Stefan is mistakenly arrested as an Iron Guardist (a Christian Fascist) and is interned in a concentration camp. He endures by living in his memories of moments spent with Ileana, whom he now believes he loves. Nevertheless, when released six months later, he finds that he loves Ioana more. Partenie, a writer who resembles Stefan and whom Ioana loved before meeting Stefan, is shot by police while talking with a Guardist who mistook him for Stefan. Stefan, who already blames himself for having taken Ioana away from Partenie, now feels responsible for the writer’s death and becomes deeply depressed. At length, he “receives a message” that enables him to “come out of the labyrinth.” The message is that Ileana’s car is real and that there are openings in the iron shell that imprisons mankind.
In April, 1940, Stefan is sent on a government economic assignment to London, where he again encounters his neighbor, Vadastra, who is in Great Britain on “official business.” Stefan experiences the blitz in which Vadastra apparently perishes—although his body is never found. As diplomatic relations between Great Britain and Romania deteriorate in the winter of 1941, Stefan is sent to Lisbon. Meanwhile, the Iron Guard rebellion of January, 1941, is taking place in Romania, affecting the lives of several of Stefan’s friends. In Lisbon, Stefan becomes involved in a torrid affair with a young Romanian woman, having been attracted to her by her name: Stella Zissu. Stella is not, however, the Zissu woman for whom he is searching, but instead is a combination of Circe and Calypso; he breaks with her after another appearance of a car.
Stefan returns home briefly, then volunteers for duty on the Russian front as a supply officer. That same winter, he is returned to Lisbon, where Ileana now lives as a legation employee. They spend a romantic New Year’s Eve together, consummating their love for the first time. When he learns that Ileana had slept with her fiance, who died in an auto crash, Stefan is angry and leaves the room. Ileana warns him that he will never see her again—and in the morning she is gone.
Stefan returns to the front, in what he will later call a suicide attempt. He survives, but his wife and son die in an American air raid on Easter Day, 1944. Plunged into grief, he is helped back to normalcy by Vadastra’s widow, the saintly Irina, who was also Ioana’s friend.
The Russian Occupation begins in August, 1944, and the war ends the following spring. Stefan’s life is rather uneventful; he continues to work for the Ministry of Economy but believes that since 1936 he has not been living the life for which he was destined. He begins searching for Ileana but can find no trace of her in Romania.
In the summer of 1947, Stefan defects to Paris with a briefcase of government papers. He has fled, he insists, primarily to search for Ileana. He suspects (correctly) that she is in Switzerland, but he is unable to obtain a Swiss visa. The following spring, he acquires from another refugee one of Partenie’s diaries which reveals the identity of doamna Zissu. That same night Vadastra appears, alive, but he refuses to explain anything that has happened to him.
Then, on the eve of the summer solstice, Stefan finds Ileana—standing beside her car in a forest (at a monastery), just as he visualized the scene twelve years earlier. They confess their love, though Ileana is now married to her former psychiatrist. Stefan tells her part of the riddle of doamna Zissu, without disclosing that Ileana’s father was one of doamna Zissu’s lovers. He tries to explain the meaning of the car, to warn her—but she refuses to listen. As the car leaves the highway, Ileana looks at him lovingly—and Stefan knows the bliss which he has sought for so many years.