Exile, Hooliganism, and Norman Manea’s “The Hooligan’s Return”

By Carla BariczFebruary 2, 2014

The Hooligan's Return by Norman Manea

“What is a hooligan? A rootless, nonaligned, nondefined vagabond? An exile? Or is it what the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language says it is:‘The name of an Irish family in South East London conspicuous for ruffianism’?”

 — Norman Manea, The Hooligan’s Return

THIS PAST YEAR marked the important but largely overlooked 10th anniversary of the publication of Norman Manea’s The Hooligan’s Return. The Margellos World Republic of Letters — a Yale University Press series dedicated to “identify[ing] works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers […]” — has reissued the literary memoir, along with translations of Manea’s other major works. YUP’s reprint and return to Manea’s oeuvre signals just how representative his writing has become over the last decade — as Holocaust literature, as anti-totalitarian literature, as Eastern European and Jewish literature. The many prizes Manea has received, including France’s 2006 Prix Médicis Etranger for The Hooligan’s Return, similarly point to the growing awareness of the significance of his work. This month, unsurprisingly, the Romanian Writer’s Union has nominated him for the Nobel Prize. Manea’s writing constantly pushes back against the literary concepts under which it is read and discussed, returning obsessively to the horrors of the 20th century, and to the linguistic heritage that defines them.

What makes The Hooligan’s Return such a unique and celebrated memoir is that it rejects its own form in a way that invokes the complexities of the genre. The book does not read like biography. The “facts” act only as anchoring points to a larger theme: Manea’s relationship to his mother tongue, and the way a writer, especially one in exile, invents him/herself out of language. Indeed, the memoir is as much about the necessity and the cost of retelling personal narratives as it is about the past it evokes. The narrative structure of The Hooligan’s Return seeks various answers to this dilemma. Often,for example, it provides parallel retellings of stories, purposefully depicting the failure inherent in attempting to give a definitive shape to one’s life.   

One of the stories Manea retells  is that of the so-called “Donna Alba” – a “fragile brunette [who] pulsated with a supple, blade-like intelligence,” the hostess of a literary salon and wife of Paul Georgescu, Communist censor, defiant Trotskyite, admirer of Proust and Tolstoy, and writer of experimental novels. Donna Alba’s story is told twice. She is recalled in a nightmarish conversation that the narrator has with the ghost of her dead husband, and then again as an elderly widowed figure, as she opens the door of her shabby apartment and invites the narrator in for some cake. Both Proustian moments short-circuit. Ultimately, and the edges of memories refuse to align. 

For Manea, The Hooligan’s Return, in its deliberate inability to recall “the facts” from memory, becomesthe story of the creation of one’s own sense of self: the book is a response to a troubled history of anti-Semitism in Romania — a response to Adorno’s, “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and to what Manea calls the communist “wooden tongue. The slogans, the clichés, the threats, the duplicity, the conventions, the lies big and small, smooth and rough, colored and colorless, odorless, insipid lies everywhere […].”In plainer terms, Manea’s memoir becomes aworking through of his fraught linguistic relationship to his homeland, fascist, communist, and democratic. 

What is not so commonly known is the historical context of the term “hooliganism,” to which Maneawas responding with his “memoir.” The book also functions as a justification against the accusations that were leveled against Manea in the early nineties, in a Romanian anti-Semitic, nationalist smear-campaign. He was called everything from “traitor,” to “the dwarf from Jerusalem,” to “an American agent.” 

What is the individual to do when faced with forms of collective hatred and prejudice? What is the responsibility of the individual in the face of authoritarian forms of nationalism? Manea’s spectacular memoir, in all its experimentalism, with all of its tremendous sense of  loss, is an attempt to answer these questions. 


In 1935, the year before Manea was born, Mircea Eliade published his bildungsroman The Hooligans, part of an unfinished trilogy, as a sequel to his novel The Return from Paradise. The book is steeped in death. It begins with the suicide of Paul, the protagonist of The Return from Paradise, and ends with the suicide of Paul’s mother, Mrs. Anicet. These and other suicides are only part of the destruction that haunts The Hooligans. Dissolution, dissipation, and futility pervade the work. A young philosophy major who attends the courses of Nae Ionescu — a charismatic Romanian professor known for his right-wing politics and his ardent anti-Semitism — destroys her mother’s paintings as soon as her mother paints them. An actress is raped by her admirer, who cannot reconcile his vision of the donna angelicata with his beloved’s infatuation with his coarse, lecherous friend. A provincial writer attempts to write a novel, Collapse into Clay, “the faithful mirror of the young generation of intellectuals whom life has sacrificed,” but cannot finish it. When he eventually does, against all odds, its first reader tosses it away, deeming it lacking in talent. A woman prostitutes herself and gives her money to a young composer, who uses it to sustain himself, while sleeping with a wealthy, upper-class teenager. There are many other examples. In this narrative, as the omniscient narrator puts it: “souls are decomposing, they are being ground in misery […].”

What is a hooligan, according to Eliade? One of his characters, Dragu, a young thinker and writer, perhaps the sanest of the group, believes that

there is only one fervent debut in life and that is the hooligan’s experience. To disrespect everything, to believe only in yourself, in your own youth, in your biology, if you like. […] To be able to forget the truth, to have so much life in yourself that there is no more room for truths and their intimidations. 

For Alexander, a young private in the Romanian army with right-wing leanings, hooliganism means being “a free man, a dignified man, a new man, if you’d like.” By the end of the novel, he will come to define this “new man” as the man who will refuse to die

a stupid bourgeoisie death, a death of old age or of sickness. Our death, the death of today’s youth, will be completely different […]. We will die together, millions of young people, we will all die drawn close together, and no one will feel alone in that moment…Don’t you see how beautifully the youth are preparing to die in every country? What are the millions of battalions of assault, the legions and the arms of today, if not masses of young people drawn close together, drawn primarily by the destiny that awaits them, one death. Never has the world better prepared young people for a collective death.

While Eliade’s terrifying novel doesn’t explicitly condone Alexander’s viewpoint of rebirth through the transcendent experience of collective death, it nevertheless gives him the final word on the matter. Of all the hooligans, Alexander is the only one who has any interest in shaping the political future of Romania.

One might argue that Mircea Eliade was simply anticipating the fall of the monarchy of King Carol II (February 1938 - September 1940) and the rise of fascism. But, in 1935, Mircea Eliade had not yet become the distinguished scholar of religions with an endowed chair at the University of Chicago and hundreds of publications to his name. He was a young journalist who had just begun to be known as a successful novelist. Furthermore, at the time when The Hooligans was written, he had become a convert to the Iron Guard movement: an ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic, fascist party that promoted ardent belief in the Eastern Orthodox Church and a united greater Romania purged of minorities and undesirables. Eliade became associated with the movement through his mentor Nae Ionescu, the only contemporary figure named in The Hooligans. As the influential historian of philosophy, Marta Petreu, describes him: 

[Nae Ionescu] prepared and influenced a number of young intellectuals, guiding them towards a Christian-Orthodox legionary ideology. […] In the articles of the young legionary intellectuals one can find all the ingredients of this doctrine: attacks against the democratic state and against liberalism, the assertion of militant nationalism, the rejection of the West, the idea of the legionary dictatorship, a perpetual national revolution (following the model of the perpetual fascist revolution), the exaltation of Orthodox Christianity, etc. 

The hooliganism of Eliade’s character Alexander — his obsession with collective death and its “euphoria of power” — comes uncomfortably close to Eliade’s own hooliganism.

In his 1934 article “Against the Right and against the Left,” Eliade wrote that “the communists who burn churches are the hooligans and the barbarians — just like the fascists who drive away the Jews. Both trample down fellow human feeling, the intimate belief to which every individual has a right.” (Credința [Belief], Nr. 59). But by 1937, his ideas had changed:

We didn’t lift a finger while we watched the Jewish element strengthening in the towns of Transylvania, we have seen the Hungarization of the city of Deva, the manner in which the Oaș Country has been run-down, the colonization of Maramureș by Jewish ploughers, the manner in which the forest of Maramureș and Bukovina have passed into Jewish and Hungarian hands, etc. etc. […] I know very well that the Jews will shout that I am an anti-Semite and the democrats that I am a hooligan or a fascist. […] I am not a bit annoyed when I hear the Jews shouting: ‘anti-Semitism,’ ‘fascism’, ‘Hitlerism […]

Eliade’s beliefs had changed with the evolution of the term. By the mid 1930s, he understood a “hooligan” to be a supporter of the extreme right, “or a fascist.”

What does all of this have to do with Norman Manea? Eliade never acknowledged his connection to the Iron Guard movement or expressed regret about the anti-Semitic articles he published in his youth. In 1990, the year after the communist dictatorship fell in Romania, Manea published a piece entitled “Felix Culpa” in The New Republic, in which he outlined Eliade’s involvement with the movement and argued for a more balanced account of Eliade’s past, one that took Eliade’s own Autobiography with a grain of salt and positioned his “hooliganism” in its proper historical context. His article led to a series of threats and to an anti-Semitic, nationalist backlash against him in the Romanian press. 

Manea was worried, and he had every reason to be. The following year, in 1991, the assassination of Ioan Petru Culianu — a historian of the Renaissance, professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, and former student of Mircea Eliade — rocked the academy. In Manea’s own words,

in the year before his death, [the same year in which Manea wrote his article], Culianu had condemned the “terrorist fundamentalism” of the Iron Guard, as well as vilifying the Communist secret police, Romanian Communism in general, and the nationalistic trends in Romanian culture.

According to Manea, Culianu’s aggressive journalism and his ironic short stories had hit a nerve in his homeland. Culianu had been unrelenting in his attempts to expose the perfidy of the new “democratic” Romanian government. His moral fables had been bitter and inflammatory. One of his stories, a tale

of post-1989 realities disguised as a fictional review of a fictional book of memoirs by a fictional author, described the false revolution, followed by the false transition to a false democracy, the get-rich-quick schemes of the former Securitate [secret police] agents, the shady murders, the corruption, the demagoguery, the alliance of the former Communists with the Wooden [Iron] Guard, the new extreme-right movement.

Culianu paid for his attempts to speak truth in exile. On a warm May afternoon, he was shot in the back of the head, in the men’s bathroom, on the third floor of Swift Hall, at The University of Chicago. Like Manea, he had wanted to return to Romania to visit family and old friends. Culianu’s murder was never solved. It was rumored, and it is still believed, that members of the former communist secret police were responsible.

Manea subsequently received FBI protection. The Hooligan’s Return opens six years later, with his feelings of doubt: can he return to a country whose language he loves but whose dark past continues to threaten? How can he separate the “ineffable charm and the ineffable feces”? By returning, Manea would be committing himself to hooliganism, as he well knew. He was not referring to Eliade’s fascist hooligans. Rather, his memoir’s title alludes to the strange and sad life of Mihail Sebastian, née Iosif Hechter. Sebastian — a playwright, journalist, novelist, and young intellectual about town — wrote that “I should like to know what anti-Semitic laws could cancel the irrevocable fact that I was born on the Danube and love this land” and who, in 1943, like Manea, had asked himself: “Shall I go back to those people?”


In 1935, the same year Eliade published his novel, Sebastian wrote a pamphlet entitled “How I Became a Hooligan.” The pamphlet was written in response to the outrage that his novel, For Two Thousand Years, had caused the previous year. Eliade and Sebastian had been friends before Eliade had turned to fascism, and Sebastian’s novel, like Eliade’s, had been one of ideas. The question his novel posed was the Jewish question: how can one be both Romanian and Jewish? What does it mean to be Jewish? Sebastian proposed that “the Jews are a tragic people” and that

face to face with existence, Jewishness is a tragic state. Not because of its fraught history, but because of the light that Jewishness casts on its history, through the resonance it gives it. I ask myself if another people with the same history of massacres and conflagration wouldn’t have been weighed and found lighter. 

As Sebastian explained, “it isn’t anti-Semitism that determines the ‘tragic’ in Judaism. It feeds it, but it doesn’t explain it, and it doesn’t provoke it. It remains at the periphery of Jewish suffering, which has its own spiritual autonomy.” Controversial views, indeed. 

In 1931, Sebastian had asked Nae Ionescu for a preface to his novel, but by 1934, when the book was at last complete, Ionescu had become an admirer of the Iron Guard. Ionescu answered his former friend’s renewed requests for a preface with an anti-Semitic rant, conflating Judaism with Judas, Christ’s betrayer, and claiming that the “tragic” element was the Jews’ own fault:

Judas suffers because he is Judas. […] You [Iosif Hechter] suffer because you are a Jew: you would cease to be a Jew the moment you would stop suffering: and you would not be able to escape suffering except by ceasing to be a Jew. […] I, however, can’t do anything for you. Because I know that the Messiah won’t come. The Messiah came, Iosef Hechter, – and you didn’t know him. That is the only thing that you had been asked in return for all the good things that God had in store for you: to keep watch. And you did not keep watch. Or you did not see – because your pride covered your eyes with scales… Iosef Hechter don’t you feel the darkness and the cold enveloping you? 

Sebastian decided to print the vehemently anti-Semitic preface — which Ionescu had disguised as an analysis of the text’s thematic concerns — with his novel, and let the world judge for itself. The response was explosive. Some accused him of being an assimilationist. Others accused him of anti-Semitism. Some of the press even claimed that he had been trying to increase philo-Semitic sentiment by publishing his book with an anti-Semitic preface. The following year, the embittered Sebastian wrote “How I Became a Hooligan,” his impassioned response: 

I am not a partisan. I have always been a dissident. I only trust the individual, but my trust in him is great. […] I was a fascist when I talked about “Marxists”; I was a “Marxist” when I talked about the fascists. Today I am a reactionary and a Bolshevik. I realize that any attempts at clarification are hopeless. These people only hear what they want to hear; they only see what seems likely to them. […] Useless. I remain a hooligan and a Bolshevik […]. I published the preface, first of all, because I asked for it. […] I commissioned it, it was promised and given to me. And I published it. These were the rules of the game […]. Secondly, [I published it] because I do not recognize in any way the right to censure. It seems odious to me to suppress a written page. […] I will say that, before any other considerations, I published the preface because its publication was … indifferent to me.”

Hooliganism was claimed and reclaimed throughout the 1930s and beyond. For the communists and the communist dictatorship that followed the fascist one, a hooligan became anyone who did not contribute to the glorious future of socialism. All of the unemployed, the homeless, the marginalized, those who refused to follow the law, dissidents, all fell under the category of “hooligan” and could be prosecuted as such. 


These issues continue to be extremely pressing both in Romania and in other parts of the world. Hooliganism is making a comeback. Last November, in a New York Times blog post entitled “Hooligans, Hooligans Everywhere,” Masha Gessen outlined the way in which the Kremlin has begun using “hooliganism” as an umbrella term with which to charge those who are deemed to be “violating the social order.” As it turns out, the ambiguity that the word has accrued over the years has become useful. As Gesssen recounts: 

In the late 1970s, the [Soviet] courts also began punishing dissidents for hooliganism. […] The crime remained on the books after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the early 2000s, it had turned into a wastebasket charge. […] But then politics interfered. Last year, when a political crackdown began with the arrest of the art group Pussy Riot, law enforcement revived the methods of its Soviet predecessor. Charging the members of Pussy Riot with hooliganism was convenient; convicting them was easy. It also allowed the Moscow court to sidestep the fact that Pussy Riot’s supposed crime had been a political protest: The judge concluded that the women performed in a cathedral out of hatred for Russian Orthodox believers.

Ironically, Putin’s links to the Russian Orthodox Church fit one of the Romanian definitions of “hooliganism,” bringing the two readings of the term head to head. The current mutual support of the Russian church and state resembles the support that the “hooligans” of the Iron Guard and the dictatorship of Ion Antonescu enjoyed with the Romanian Orthodox Church in the early forties. Oleg Kashkin effectively summarized the problem in his 2012 article for The Guardian, “Putin’s message: If you’re pro Pussy Riot you’re against the Orthodox church.”

Closer to home, in the United Kingdom, the 1998 Crime and Disorders Act has criminalized “antisocial behavior” — everything from loitering to peacefully protesting the Olympics. These laws are what George Monbiot has called “personalized” legislation that “prevent[s] the untouchables [often the mentally ill and the very poor] from intruding into the lives of others.” The act, up for review and expansion this year, as the “Antisocial Behavior, Crime and Policing Bill,” is expected to receive Royal Assent by the end of the 2014 parliamentary session. The bill essentially criminalizes certain forms of hooliganism. 

“In 1935, the year before I was born, I was the hooligan Sebastian — and so I would be fifty years after and then ten more years after that and another ten and all the years in between,” Manea writes in The Hooligan’s Return. The history of the term “hooligan” is the history of Europe, from anti-Semitism, to militant ring-wing nationalism, to dissidence, to the rough vagabondism of the many intellectuals exiled by totalitarian regimes, to today’s criminalization of ruffianism. It is a term whose varied meanings span extremes of thought. Today, the term encompasses everything from ideological dissidence to protests against the state, to the rebellion of "infidels" against official dogma, religious or otherwise, to the unmasking of official abuses (Snowdenism). To ignore this aspect of Norman Manea’s memoir is to fundamentally misread it, to read a different book altogether. The triumph of this magnificent work is that, while treating one life and one destiny, it manages to speak not only for its writer, but for Mihail Sebastian, for Ioan Culianu, for all the exiled and dead friends, for all the other individual voices, all the “hooligans,” great and small, that the turbulent totalitarian systems of 20th century silenced. They all find a home in Manea’s “snail shell” of language. He carries them with him.


Carla Baricz is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Yale University. She is the translator and assistant editor of Romanian Writers on Writing.

LARB Contributor

Carla Baricz's essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Marginalia Review of Books, Asymptote, Ploughshares Online, World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, as well as in academic journals and foreign language publications. She is the translator and assistant editor of Romanian Writers on Writing. Born in Romania, she earned her PhD in English Literature from Yale University and currently lives in Jerusalem, where she teaches in the English Department at Hebrew University and is a Mandel Fellow at the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Jewish Studies.


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