Cover photo for The Lair
IN 1987, WHEN I WAS the editor of the American literary journal TriQuarterly, I received in the mail the typescript of a short story from a writer whose name I did not yet know. Titled “The Sweater,” this brief, memorable piece is a startling reminder of the deftness with which a vivid tragic imagination can create, even in a small space, an unforgettable narrative meditation by only alluding in a muted way to off-stage scenes of the most inhuman oppression. The story is quiet; it depicts one family's disaster at the edges of an immense political and historical calamity. The story also depicts the wondering, wounded, disoriented spirit of the child who survives. In “The Sweater,” ordinary human beings with too little to eat, under constant mortal threat, and beset by physical exhaustion and illness, are sustained by a heroic mother. Their cultural matrix, on the other hand, has been destroyed, dissolved in the acid of a relentless, systematic, general persecution. “The Sweater” was the first short story Norman Manea published in the United States, and it contains, at least by implication, many of this writer's characteristic preoccupations, including the person who is effaced or even erased by history, brutalized by bureaucratic inhumanity, and distorted by the unreality of individual identity within the extreme prison-reality of dictators and their agents.
After Manea came to the United States, I learned from him of the tiny room in Manhattan in which he and his wife Cella were living for a while, trying to adjust to the milder, but nevertheless deeply unsettling, nightmare of exile and the difficulties of surviving in Manhattan with neither work nor network. Norman told me on the telephone that their room was scarcely bigger than their bed, and their neighborhood was frightening at night and dispiriting by day. But soon, his literary brilliance, his new friends, and his successes in the United States brought him far better and more peaceful lodgings, academic distinction, and a great broadening of the international recognition of his writing.
The movement of imagination in his work has continued to be that same restless motion which (in deportation, migration, exile, and the mobility of thought itself) searches ceaselessly among places, ideas, hopes, and survivals for an angle of vision, a connection, a way of making artistic and intellectual sense of disruptions and suffering. This is very evident in Manea's autobiographical work of nonfiction, The Hooligan's Return, which narrates a journey back to and through Romania in 1997. Movement itself — physical, mental, emotional — is the subject of this book. Manea shows that only a kind of thought that goes out and returns, that establishes and cancels; that contradicts itself and then rethinks; that asserts and also questions its own assertions; can imagine the extraordinary, baffling complexity of life, above all in a society as distorted as that of Romania from the 1930s to the present.
Kafka is reported to have said about the poet Georg Trakl's suicide in 1914: “He had too much imagination, so he could not endure the war, which arose above all from a monstrous lack of imagination.” I understand Kafka to mean that Trakl was unable not to imagine what was really happening, both outwardly and in people's inner lives. Meanwhile, the puny imaginations, the incurious fantasies of personal power an...read more