It’s All about the Stories: A Few Words on Romanian Letters
Several times over the last few years I’ve been invited to talk about Romanian fiction for North American audiences. This is when I noticed that most of the titles I wanted to discuss were virtually unknown to English-speaking readers, yet they are often standard for Romanian connoisseurs. Some of these titles, at least for readers from an older generation like me, used to be standard reading for high-school students. This is no longer the case, and how this happened is difficult to convey to North American audiences, and can be uncomfortable for Romanians to discuss. These books, by a number of truly gifted writers who were attracted to controversial areas of politics, deal with episodes from 20th century Romanian history and society that shouldn’t be avoided.
The result of this is that for quite a few decades an entire literature was nearly completely overlooked for translation into English. The Western Canon does not include a section on Romanian literature, but several Romanians are listed there, most notably for their work in other languages, e.g. Eugène Ionesco, who is recognized as a French writer. Before WWII, Romanian culture was quite intertwined with the traditions of French literature. Romanian writers read fluently in French and many inspirational literary influences can be traced back to France or its literary culture. The poet Vasile Alecsandri (1821-1890) was educated in Paris and used to write his private correspondence in French; a generation later the poet Alexandru Macedonski (1854-1920) harbored dreams of reaching literary success in Paris with his poems written in French. Contrary to this, the literary and editorial connections with the English-speaking world were not nearly as extensive.
After WWII and the arrival of the Soviet Red Army (which would leave in 1958), the Romanian regime in Bucharest tried to control every aspect of the country’s arts. Literature was seen as a suitable propaganda tool and wielding political control over literature was strategically important. The English publishing industry could have found very little interest in works published in a single-Party controlled literary environment. So, until 1989, this meant that several important moments of Romanian literary modernism did not make their way into English in due course. It’s sad that Liviu Rebreanu’s (1885-1944) works did not circulate in English when the author was alive; his realistic style stood a fair chance to be understood and appreciated in the interbellum period. I am thinking mainly of the novels The Revolt (1932) and Forest of the Hanged (1922).
The next to come to mind is the Romanian-born Panait Istrati who traveled to the West and, thanks to Romain Rolland’s support became, surprisingly, a French-language writer after WWI. Istrati was not the only Romanian to attract attention in France in those years. Many Romanian artists, most notably Constantin Brâncuși and Tristan Tzara, attracted a lot of attention through their highly inspiring and seminal works. Istrati brought forth tales from a remote world, somehow exotic, full of hopeless characters whose tragedies were so well written, in a precise and careful prose, that one might wonder where Istrati studied writing. Essentially, life taught him more than his years in school. Istrati’s tales describe a world full of despair and lacking social perspectives. He reflected a lot on how much suffering the impoverished Romanian society inflicted on some of his characters. Was it possible that a social miracle could be brought by communism? Was that a solution? When he was young, he was attracted by this perspective. Istrati traveled to the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s, and his experience is now recorded in an amazing confession, the volume Russia unveiled: 1927-1930. He was one of the first Western writers (alongside Arthur Koestler and André Gide) who wrote about the true realities of the Soviet Union, about the abuses of Stalin’s administration and the violence of his faithful servants. Istrati was profoundly honest and he did not hesitate to describe what his inquiries revealed about the communist system, instead of finding circumstantial excuses for each of the disappointing reports, as some other authors preferred to do. Alongside his novels, like Kyra My Sister, or Uncle Anghel, his pages on the USSR are still of interest today. When his confessions appeared, some French communists argued that Istrati must have had a hidden reason to publish his dark reports on Stalin’s USSR. One of the rumors they circulated was that Istrati was an agent of the Romanian secret service, and that must have been his genuine motivation. These rumors created a series of problems for him, and in the end he left France and returned to Romania. He died in 1935 from tuberculosis, in Bucharest. In his last period, he was alone and still under surveillance by the Romanian secret service.
Turning now to a writer whose works were written after WWII, Petru Dumitriu (1924-2002). Dumitriu is the author of the most ambitious epic project in all of Romanian literature, The Family Chronicle, a three-volume powerful family saga starting at the middle of the 19th century and pursuing several generations of Romanian landowners up until the 1950s. This work is an impressive tour de force, and each chapter is a well-paced stand-alone drama. One of these chapters, “The Salad,” about the very brutal interethnic tensions between ethnic Bulgarians and the Romanian army in the Eastern Balkans, lead to the script of the movie An Unforgettable Summer, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and directed by Lucian Pintilie. In “The Salad,” a Romanian officer receives orders to execute innocent civilians in retaliation for a guerrilla attack over a Romanian military outpost. However, his conscience does not let him do it. Do his hesitations save their lives? Does his empathy for his civilian hostages have anything to do with his cosmopolitan views? How do the other Romanian officers react when one of them does not blindly obey a criminal order?
The array of problems in just this one chapter gives a good image of the depth of problems treated in Dumitriu’s writing. He is a profound writer, carefully searching for the most intense moment of drama in a character’s evolution. He knows where to look, he gradually sets the stage. And this impressive exercise of high-quality fiction is performed many times throughout the three volumes of the Family Chronicle. The work was published in 1957, when the author was 33, and enjoyed incredible success in Romania at that time. To everyone’s surprise Dumitriu left Romania in 1960, using the opportunity provided by a visit to Berlin, and crossed over to the Western side of the town. In the following decades he lived a thorough drama of exile; he could not settle in France, as he originally intended, but in Germany. Over the next decades Petru Dumitriu wrote in French while living in Germany, which couldn’t have been easy, although he was published by top French publishing houses. Some of his novels from the German period made it into English, but he never attained the same kind of international success that he had in Romania in his youth. He returned to Romania only in 1996 and, surprisingly, he expressed political views closer to the Romanian political left in office during that transition period. Isn’t this a paradox for someone who left communist Romania in 1960? Petru Dumitriu was a complicated character himself, quite contradictory, and these contradictions make him very interesting.
Romanian letters are full of contradictory, if not outright controversial authors. Perhaps the most controversial of this historical period was Eugen Barbu (1924-1993), who at some point in the 1970s tried to be both a writer and an elected representative in the communist parliament. His first meaningful work is titled Groapa. It’s a collection of short pieces that together become something like a novel, although the author never described it so. Groapa depicts the history of marginal characters from one of Bucharest’s ill-fated slums. The title is quite difficult to translate. If literary Groapa could be translated as “the hole”, this is not a slang expression, but in fact indicates one of old Bucharest’s garbage dumps, a toxic place. However, people live there, children grow up there, and it’s a corner of a marginalized world where every crime that can be imagined actually takes place. In Barbu’s novel we see thefts, we see love crimes, we even see an abattoir worker tragically stabbed by a bull. The brutal language of the periphery is polished and elevated to poetical expression. It’s a dark world, incorporating the writer’s critique of Romania’s pre-WWII social realities. When it was published, at the end of the 1950s, its publication converted into political capital on the communist political chessboard, and Eugen Barbu didn’t hesitate to play his game as his interest best suited. He landed contracts as a translator, as a script writer. Today we can appreciate that not all of his works are of the same high quality. Some attempts are actually quite weak. But Groapa is still of interest today for the superb language of illiterate marginal characters struggling to survive on the rim of a garbage dump. It’s the work of a writer yet uncorrupted by his later (political) success, a writer who doesn’t show yet his prejudices and bigotry, as he had the opportunity to do plenty of in his later years.
Barbu published another interesting novel in 1981, Dunces’ Week, about a revolutionary sent to Venice to purchase weapons. However, instead of doing the dedicated deed with the money, the envoy, Hrisant, falls in love with a mysterious lady, Herula Lucrezia Vimercatti, and spends a fortune trying to impress her. It is quite an expensive affair, taking place in the sumptuous baroque décor of Venice. When all the revolutionary money is gone, he returns to Bucharest without any weapons and expects to be executed by the vengeful revolutionary organization he has betrayed. However, in the mean time a revolution has taken place and Hristant’s former cause was actually defeated. The story takes place in the historical context of the 1820s, when the Balkanic nations rose up against the ruling Ottoman power. Perhaps the revolutionaries Hrisant was in touch with are all dead, so the trace of that treasure was lost. At first, days pass, then weeks, then years. No revenge is delivered. Hrisant is not prepared to live so long without his due punishment. He spends his days in total darkness, remembering episodes of his obsessive love story in Venice. His servants leave him. He is consumed by his love, and all he has is his past. I think this story ages well. One can feel in it some influences from William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the local color adds some charm to the tale.
How was it possible that the author who wrote such inspired pages simultaneously expressed anti-Semitic views? How was it possible that the author of such fascinating work used the political context of the communist power to attack and check-mate some of his literary rivals before 1989? Eugen Barbu may have been an author with an interesting although qualitatively diverse heritage, but he wasn’t someone I would have had the pleasure to meet and chat with.
My goal here has been to describe a few of the problems and tensions one faces when looking across the tradition of Romanian fiction. It’s not that there are no interesting stories, quite the contrary. The problem is not in the paucity of good literature, but in how intricate the political context surrounding the writing and the work.
Fortunately, there are many gifted writers at work today. Perhaps the most interesting realistic novels coming out of Romania after 1989 are Radu Aldulescu’s (he’s born in 1959) Sonata for Accordeon, and the more complex but rewarding (for the reader!) The Wake-going Woman’s Lover. A writer whose work I deeply admire is Răzvan Rădulescu (born in 1969). He has so far published only one novel, The Life and Deeds of Elijah Cazane, and in recent decades he turned his attention to script writing. Much of the so-called Romanian new wave represents movies based on his work as script writer. He collaborated, among other works, on the scripts of Goods and Money (2001, in collaboration with director Cristi Puiu), Niki Ardelean, Colonel in Reserve (2001, in collaboration with Cristi Puiu), The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005, in collaboration with Cristi Puiu), The Paper will be Blue (2005, (in collaboration with Alexandru Baicu and Radu Muntean). This last title is my favorite; it describes one of the many tragedies that took place during the Romanian revolution, in December 1989. Last but not least, I deeply admire Florina Ilis’ work, especially her novels The Children’s Crusade (2005) and Parallel Lives (2012), and I am hoping her work will attract the interest of North American publishers. I mention here a few of my preferences. A more extensive panorama of contemporary Romanian literature can be found at www.romanianwriters.ro/.
Perhaps today is one of the best moments for Romanian literature. Before 1900, Romania was a poor nation, and it is quite difficult to imagine the appropriate atmosphere and inspiring environment for major novels. After 1920, the historical context was entirely different, but another serious challenge presented itself: the extreme ideologies that on one hand destroyed lives, and on the other hand attracted gifted people into their service. The 20th century left its tragic traces upon the heritage of Romanian letters. With all the economic challenges we see today, it’s one of the best moments for Romanian books. If only we’ll have a few more years of peace and writing, how nice would that be.