Haunted in Bucharest: fathoming my mother’s homeland by talking to its writers
By Paul MandelbaumSeptember 9, 2012
Woman Reading by Alexandru Ciucurencu
THE BUNKER beneath Nicolae Ceausescu’s “People’s Palace” — an enormous edifice the Communist dictator never got to occupy before some of those people, on Christmas Day 1989, stood him before a firing squad — receives excellent cell reception. Even down here, in this cold dark cavern, the voice on the phone sounds strangely near, virtually inside my head.
I hear my name spoken in a throaty, Middle-European accent, vocal qualities once associated with my mother but in this case belonging to Simona Kessler, Romania’s first and for years sole literary agent. She agrees to schedule an interview, though not tomorrow morning, as she has a prior commitment regarding “orphaned books.” As we pick a day and time, I duck away from the Palace tour and huddle in a discreet corner of the basement to explain why I’ve been whispering.
“Well, enjoy that horrible building!” she signs off merrily, as the group begins to trudge back upstairs.
Following our sternly beautiful guide through the soulless complex, built overtop one of the capital city’s once-vibrant historic neighborhoods, feels like wandering through a less than benign dream.
“If you have any questions,” the guide proposes, “ask them now.”
I am full of questions, if not the kind she means. Was it wise coming here? Why have I? Not just to this “horrible building,” but to Bucharest in the first place? I wanted to see the country where my mother was born. And to research a piece about the “local literary scene.” However, I am quickly finding such an assignment impossible without setting off vast fields of long-buried landmines — historical, political, and all too personal.
Through the years, Romania has stood in the crosshairs of multiple empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Soviet) and experienced a level of turmoil a pampered American like myself can hardly imagine.
“We’re not in Updike territory. We’re not in the territory of bored people out in the suburbs wondering where their lives went. People were driven insane by Communism and more insane by its disappearance.”
The speaker of these lines, several days before my Palace visit, is Jean Harris, an American translator of Romanian writing and one of its passionate champions. She moved to this country of 20 million with her Romanian husband just eight years ago and first taught herself the language by studying fairy tales.
We’re meeting for dinner this evening in mid-May at my hotel, Casa Capsa, chosen not for convenience so much as its storied past. Early in the previous century, a prominent feud escalated, says Harris, when one of the involved parties rode into the building on horseback to beat the other with a whip. In the 1930s, Capsa’s restaurant functioned as Bucharest’s version of the Algonquin Round Table. By the Communist 1960s, all the waiters were assumed to be police and all the tables bugged. Now, despite some refurbishment and the passing of two decades since the ’89 revolution, the place gives off a desultory vibe, which may explain why the dining room is mostly deserted, or maybe it’s the other way around. A waiter soundlessly crosses the carpet to take our order.
After recommending I try the ciorba de perisoare, a rich meatball soup, Harris expands on her central point about Romanian literature — it’s about “struggle, a big, tough struggle” — that outsiders need to appreciate. “And it’s been a struggle for a long time.”
Recently she translated a complex essay by Norman Manea, who stands among the country’s most renowned authors-in-exile, titled “Beyond the Mountains,” in which he imagines an afterlife meeting between the Jewish-Romanian poets Benjamin Fondane and Paul Celan. Fondane, arrested in France during WWII, famously declined release from Auschwitz because, Manea writes, he “could not let go of his sister’s and mother’s hands, even to save himself.” Celan, after his mother perished in one of the labor camps Romania set up in its acquired territory east of the Dniester river, went on to write the iconic Holocaust poem “Todesfugue/Death Fugue” before eventually, wracked with survivor’s guilt, drowning himself in the Seine. Though the two poets never crossed paths in Romania, Paris or anywhere else, their experience so profoundly overlapped that Manea envisions how in posterity they might yet achieve the sort of conversation described by Martin Buber as the fundamental human need of every I to address a Thou. “Posterity does not exist outside … the act of addressing,” Manea writes. “Neither life nor Poetry exists, outside the meeting.”
In an uncanny coincidence, he happens to be visiting Bucharest at this very moment. Uncanny not just because of the possibility that we ourselves might meet for an interview, but because his memoir The Hooligan’s Return (2003) illustrated so vividly his discomfort with setting foot in Romania again. This was the country that had shipped him as a boy of five, along with his family, to one of those camps across the Dniester, and then, after repatriating him and his parents after the war (his maternal grandparents did not survive), stuffed him as well as the entire citizenry into the decades-long straightjacket of post-war Communism. In addition, his early published work singled him out for state condemnation.
Finally in 1986, at age 50, he secured a fellowship in the West. Once freed and in exile in Germany and then the U.S., he waited nearly 11 years — long past the revolution — before finding the strength to make his first visit back. Up until the last moment, he asked his newfound American friends for advice; Philip Roth encouraged him to go, saying it would “cure you, finally”; Saul Bellow argued, “You have enough to torture yourself with here.” When I’d read the memoir a few months earlier, The Hooligan’s Return floored me, not only for its artistry and candor, but also for the eerie sense of kinship I somehow felt.
“I told him about your mother, and he wants to meet you,” says Harris, and the two halves of that sentence, combined in such a way, disorient me; what family details had I shared with her in just a couple brief emails?
“He’s staying here at the hotel,” she adds.
“This hotel?” The dining room remains empty except for us.
The northern city of Cernauti has since been annexed by Ukraine, but between the two world wars it formed the cosmopolitan post-Hapsburg hub of Romania’s Bucovina region, a “Little Vienna.” There my mother, Rachelle Selzer, was born in 1923 and spent the years until age 10 in relative peace and quiet, living among other Jews as well as gentiles, picnicking along the banks of the Prut River, and attending a local private school where she posed with her classmates for an annual group portrait — even though her parents had entered the country illegally.
They’d snuck in from Russia — this was a few years before her birth — on the night my grandfather busted out of jail. He was serving the start of a 10-year sentence for bribing a peasant to smuggle bootleg grain from one town to another; to escape, he had his newlywed bride pay a guard to look the other way while he scaled the wall. Guided by another smuggler, the couple snuck through Bessarabia into Romania, clutching what few possessions they could carry.
Upon their arrival in Cernauti, he soon arranged to buy a marriage certificate claiming Romanian citizenship as well as an honorable discharge from the army, then began to scratch out a living on the black market. The family squeezed, even after my mother’s arrival, into an efficiency apartment. Her parents’ bed stood inches from the front door, and yet somehow this arrangement still allowed for a live-in maid.
Though not very tall, my grandfather cut a handsome, imposing figure, nearly military in its rigor. On their walks, he would instruct his young daughter to stand straight, breathe deeply, and turn her toes in. It was no secret he’d wanted a son and that his wife had miscarried several.
My mother wished to make him proud. The mind of a two-and-a-half year old, though, can be distractible. One evening, she wondered what it might feel like to pee in the middle of the apartment floor and wash her hair in it.
My mother and her parents in Cernauti
Livid with incomprehension, her father demanded an apology. She refused — didn’t comprehend herself what she’d done wrong — so he ordered her to stand in a corner until she complied. Hours passed, a bare light bulb dangling overhead. Her parents went to bed. At one point, the maid tried to speed this process along by leading the toddler over to them, coaxing her to apologize. My mother stood at their bedside, sobbing, but wouldn’t speak. My grandfather ordered her back into the corner.
Sometime after midnight, she finally gave in and falsified some remorse, thus ending this early round in their lifelong battle of wills. For many years after, saying I was sorry was very difficult, she recalls on a recording I made in 1994, even when I had good reason sometimes to be sorry. I made those recordings believing one day I would write about her. But I didn’t realize eighteen years would pass before I could bring myself to listen to them, in preparation for this trip to Romania.
Soon after my arrival in Bucharest, the poet Ioana Ieronim generously offers to show me the Press House — formerly called the House of Sparks, after the main Communist newspaper, and just as often in those days, under people’s breath, the House of Lies. Built by forced labor in the 1950s, it looms on the edge of town, a communications citadel that toward the end of the Ceausescu era contained all of Romania’s 20-some publishers. The pedestal out front once bore a statue of Lenin, which has since been replaced by another statue meant to pretend the original melted. All one can see are Lenin’s shoes and his dripping pants legs; the effect is clever and disturbing, though some of its artistic intent becomes muddled by the general disrepair of the pedestal itself, crumbling from neglect and tagged with graffiti.
“This building was meant to be the stamp of communism. You saw it from very far and when you came into the city,” says Ieronim, as we head toward the entrance. A slight hitch in her step from a long-ago car accident somehow manages to convey the opposite of frailty. Before going on to become a cultural diplomat, Ieronim worked here at the Sparks compound for eighteen years in its encyclopedia division. Daily she would cross the city on buses so crowded with passengers hanging from the sides that she once witnessed an oncoming vehicle shear one of her fellow commuters in half.
The shortage of adequate transportation, she claims, having since read several KBG reports on the subject, masked a deliberate attempt to make workers late in order to impose arbitrary punishments. Also deliberate, she contends, were the infamous shortages of food and staples, another mode of control; her only sanity during the long hours of queuing came from the books she’d brought to read.
So today, she is less than patient when the guard, a bleary-eyed functionary, refuses us entry into the main building. Ieronim is not a woman who suffers fools. Twice already on our strolls around the city, her response to a disrespectful development project or incompetent gallery arrangement has been to declare those in charge “should be murdered.” Now she stares at the press building guard with her hawk-like eyes, her face framed by a shock of yellow-blond hair, and accuses him of operating under a “Ceausescu mentality.”
Flustered, the little man fumes but insists his hands are tied because a government ministry — in charge of veterinary science and food safety — occupies part of the building now.
Ioana Ieronime: “Whole worlds are disappearing.”
We enter one of the adjacent wings, past workers taking their cigarette break next to a no-smoking sign, to get a sense of the dark internal hallways, each office door covered with security bars. Even now, with the small measure of lighting since added, the hallway remains oppressive.
Ieronim recalls hustling through the dark from one office to another, when she overheard a conversation common for the times: an editor instructing her young novelist how to change his manuscript. “‘Why is this character of yours so pessimistic?’” the editor wanted to know. “‘Why doesn’t he see something beautiful in his life?’” It’s not so very hard to imagine an American editor, spurred by a marketplace hungry for stories of redemption, giving a similar note. But this particular criticism reflected the pressure Communist censors put on publishers to curb depictions of daily misery. Though officially Romania employed no censors, their office was widely presumed to connect directly to the press room via pneumatic tube.
In 1984, about to publish her poetry volume Egloga (Eclogue), “My editor implored me to say it took place 25 years before,” to distance any whiff of negativity from the current regime. “So I added one line,” she concedes. But when she read the proofs, she had second thoughts and removed it, which went unnoticed until the very last minute. Her editor became distraught. Elderly and infirm, with his wife also bedridden from a serious illness, he felt terrified for his livelihood.
“‘Do you want me to starve?’” he implored her.
“I was fond of this guy. He was maybe one of the best editors we had in the country.” At this point, all that could be added without reconfiguring the entire book — having been set, as was still the custom, in hot type — was a line at the tail end claiming everything happened long ago.
“You had to do it for him,” she says, her sudden use of second-person suggesting a lingering distaste over the episode. “The later editions don’t have it,” she adds.
In 1987, she encountered more blatant political editing; so many poems were removed from her manuscript, she was asked to supply new ones so her book wouldn’t appear suspiciously slim. “It’s a form of rape to be censored,” says Ieronim, who decided to abandon publishing and write solely for herself. Paradoxically this would someday lead to her best-known work, Triumful paparudei (Fool’s Triumph, 1992, later re-translated as The Triumph of the Water Witch, 2000), a nostalgic indictment of the harm collectivism inflicted on village life in her native Transylvania.
Her current work also addresses the defacing of culture, this time focused on fires set at the library building near Revolution Square during the demonstrations of December 1989. We head downtown to the site, near the balcony where Ceausescu lost control of the crowd.
It makes no sense, she maintains, that ordinary demonstrators torched the library. Ceausescu had already fled the capital by helicopter by the time the first fire broke out, strategically, in the manuscript room. Three times, she says, the building was set ablaze. Twice firefighters put it out; the third time they gave up. Librarians, her husband of the time among them, tried in vain to save the books. A couple days later, the rubble still smoldering, she walked among volumes turned to ash, not from flame, she speculates, but from temperature, suggesting the use of “some vicious explosive” unavailable to civilians. The overthrow of Ceausescu has since, at least in part, been reconsidered a veiled coup, and Ieronim imagines the library fires as the handiwork of someone in the military or secret police wishing to distract the world with a telegenic, revolutionary blaze.
Meanwhile, across the street in the Museum of Romanian Art, thugs roamed the collection putting bullets into the heads of paintings and sculptures, perhaps to further a similar narrative. The works have since been restored, but their brutal defacement should have been documented, publicized, and commemorated, says Ieronim.
“Nobody knows,” she insists. “Whole worlds are disappearing, and I have to put them on paper.”
In Cernauti, there also lived a cousin whom my young mother found dashing. He enjoyed double-breasted suits, wide-brimmed hats tilted rakishly over one eye, and gambling. When his debts rose to a certain unmanageable level, he reminded my grandparents of their illegal status and began to blackmail them. For a while, they paid him off, but the demands only grew, so to get out from under his thumb, they fled south in 1933, when my mother was ten, to the anonymity of Bucharest.
In the capital city, known then as the “Paris of the East,” they found an apartment, which my grandfather paid for in his customary ways. He would hang around jewelry shops or the stock exchange, striking deals. He had a gift for chatting people up, and though no one would mistake his Romanian for native-born, he had decent language skills and some salesmanship. He also found a railway attendant willing to smuggle black-market dollars and gold on the sleeper train to France, where they would fetch a better price. Through these amalgamated industries, my grandfather was able to keep the family clothed and fed. He even bought my mother a couple dolls, which she would scold or spank after his example, though his punishment of choice remained the silent treatment, which he could dispense for weeks at a time, and which my headstrong mother soon learned to reciprocate.
Anti-Semitism emerged as more of a problem here in the capital. Ultra-nationalist “Legionnaires,” while striving to gain a political foothold, roved the streets of Bucharest, beating up Jews at random. At her public school, my mother found swastikas carved in the desks, so her parents enrolled her in a Catholic school, hoping the nuns would maintain civility. Though the other girls sniggered on her first day when she was asked to stand and announce her alien name, she got through the years there unmolested and even rose to the top of her mandatory religious studies class, learning more about the New Testament than she had ever known about the Old.
Around town, however, religious attacks continued. And eventually, the railway attendant figured he could make more from my grandfather by blackmailing him. Suddenly the time to leave seemed ripe, urgent even. The furniture could stay behind.
Like Fondane, Celan, and many others before and since, my family decided, six years after their arrival, to exchange the “Paris of the East” for that other Paris. On the overnight train, they quaked at every border, especially Germany’s, as police examined their fake papers. Through the long ride, to allay her motion sickness, my 16-year-old mother sucked on a cache of salted herring tails.
One night early in my stay, I look up from an email I’m composing in the lobby of Casa Capsa and see a silent figure climb the curving marble stairs. Wisps of white hair plume from his head, resembling the portrait on book covers I’ve seen stacked in store windows all around town. Norman Manea, I firmly suspect.
In what is perhaps his best-known essay, “Happy Guilt,” published in The New Republic a few years after he emigrated, Manea analyzed the unfortunate sympathy his countryman Mircea Eliade had shown the fascist Legionnaires back in the 1930s. Eliade, who went on to head the history of religion department at the University of Chicago, where he was a professor until his death in 1986, ranks among the titans of Romanian intellectual life. Manea’s criticism sparked resentment in some quarters, even accusations of treason. Just a few months earlier, Eliade’s own literary executor, having also expressed reservations about his mentor’s past, was mysteriously shot to death in Chicago. None of this sat very well with Manea as he contemplated his 1997 visit, his first after fleeing Romania more than a decade earlier.
And yet here he is, returned once more.
The international literary figure continues to move slowly up the stairs. And while I could easily catch up and introduce myself, he looks ready for bed. I remain seated and watch him ascend out of sight.
One afternoon, Jean Harris takes me to see Stelian Tanase, who in addition to being a respected novelist, earned his PhD in political science while serving a term in Parliament. His legislative stint happened right after the revolution when “there wasn’t a real political class,” he explains, and so it prevailed upon “the intellectuals to involve themselves.”
Four years, however, proved enough of that.
“I didn’t like to lose my time to talk about nothing.” The country refused to embrace Western norms as rapidly as he’d wished. Even now, he says, via Harris’s translating efforts, “the battle for a European Romania has not been won. It will take another generation.”
After his phone rings, he excuses himself and begins to pace the living room of his attractively restored suburban house on the city’s west side. Even before the call, he’d been fidgeting around the kitchen, demonstrating a little nervousness about the interview. I imagine he prefers the role of questioner — as TV talk show host and university teacher — than responder, given his history with interrogation. He speaks tersely to the caller, as obliquely as possible, he will explain after hanging up, because the phone line is tapped.
Truly — even today?
During the eighties, he says, the government spied on him “because I was a novelist. Now, because I’m on TV.”
Tanase bases his certainty on a recent incident when police stopped him outside his home and demanded to know what he was carrying. The package contained a copy of his TV show Bucharest: Strictly Secret, which he’d dubbed for a visitor from abroad who had called to request it. The police, he deduces, must have heard “strictly secret” on the phone and leapt into action. “With the change of regime, the culture of spying survived.”
He knows more about this culture than most, having included in his novel Playback (1995) a damning portrait of the Securitate, Romania’s infamous secret police. Disbanded after the revolution — officially at any rate — in its heyday, the Securitate managed to enlist or coerce enough informants to disable the entire population with paranoia. Even as recently as three years ago, the Romanian-German Nobel laureate Herta Müller claimed to be shadowed by secret police during her visit to Bucharest.
Tanase initially tried to publish Playback a year after his first novel Luxul melancoliei (The Luxury of Melancholy, 1982) had managed to squeeze through a thaw in the censors. But that thaw was short-lived, and the editor who’d helped shepherd a number of transgressive titles soon got fired for his troubles. His replacement, Gabriela Adamesteanu, an esteemed author in her own right, knew well the censorship issues of the day. Her own novel Dimineata pierduta (Wasted Morning, 1984) was about to appear. A grimly gorgeous epic set in part during the Communist 1970s, the book finally appeared in English just last year, including a number of references to the Securitate and censorship absent from the original edition.
In writing Playback, however, Tanase had strayed so far beyond the pale, no amount of editorial adjustment could make it pass muster. Adamesteanu sympathized, he recalls, but there was nothing she could do.
His career seemed over, but not the repercussions.
“Once you submit a book,” he explains, “you cannot just take it back. It was in the system and went all the way to the top.”
In a rare display of the system’s machinery, Tanase got called in to meet the vice-president of the Board of Socialist Education, “the big supreme boss,” not to discuss possible changes to the book — the situation had degraded well beyond that — but more likely, he says, to measure “how dangerous I was.”
As a consequence, Tanase lost his teaching job and had to scrounge a living as a pianist in jazz clubs around town. The police kept track of him with fervor and developed a thick file that, after all such archives were made available following the revolution, Tanase chose to publish in full. In a later English-language version titled At Home There’s Only Speaking in a Whisper (2007), he intersperses file excerpts with his own journals from the same late eighties period. The resulting back and forth between the dehumanizing language of the Securitate and Tanase’s private confessions creates an unsettling hall of mirrors.
In point of psychological profile, Tanase Stelian is characterized by a strongly volitional structure, inclined to seek independence and autonomy; others have actually reproached him (as he himself confesses) with obvious egotism. Intellectually, he is a well-educated and informed element, with solid readings, especially in modern philosophers, and extremely interested in contemporary trends of ideas of western orientation.
Meanwhile, Tanase writes:
There is this burlesque, bad comedy-like side of the way I’m being watched. The policemen’s disguises, the hideaways, the bushes into which two young men vanish hastily when taken unawares. The comedy may end up with a corpse. Mine….
I’m living a secluded life. I haven’t answered the phone (neither of them) for a week, and it’s ringing continually. I couldn’t say I’m feeling bad. On the contrary. Making plans once again. The editors will not agree to publish it. So what? The important thing is that I finish it, that I beget it….
The “it” Tanase yearns to beget is his next novel Corpuri de iluminat (Dark Bodies, 1990), about a jazzman struggling to survive the late eighties and to keep hold of his restless lover, Pia, a philosophy student brimming with the kind of mordant wit I’ve come more and more to associate with Romania. “‘Let’s kill ourselves while we’re happy,’” she urges, as the only sensible alternative to the lovers’ uncertain future.
During this period, Tanase well understood he was being followed, his phone bugged, and his apartment clandestinely searched. But he did not know until after reading his file that one of the Securitate’s main informants had been his best friend. The revelation shocked him deeply.
“This was someone with whom life was shared. Who knew everything about me.” When Tanase confronted him, on live TV, the friend claimed he’d informed in order “to show the Securitate that I was not so dangerous as they thought.” After that, the author broke off their relationship, the betrayal adding to his already jaded outlook.
In his 2008 novel Maestro, o melodrama (Maestro: a Melodrama), he paints a dark portrait of Bucharest Man, his coinage for a particular sort of shallow, un-industrious, and malevolent personality disorder.
Bucharest Man is superstitious, blabbermouth, rumormonger, mocking, wary, skeptical. I’ve run out of labels, although I’d really like to add some more, like: lousy, mean, incapable of applying himself, thief, the kind of guy who gets away with things.
Bucharest Man suffers from a fatalistic resignation, yet remains itching for a fight. Does Tanase ever view himself in this jaundiced light?
“Da!” He answers me directly for the first time today, and with a radiant smile. “I’m a Bucharest person and writer.” Because the city is unknown to the world, he contends, outsiders don’t know what that means, and his writing addresses the problem over and over. “This city,” he swears, “is inhabited by a monster.”
Not even the community of writers is immune, bogged down instead with rivalries and quarrels, he says. “Which would be fine if they were important disputes, but they’re quarrels about survival — who gets a prize, who gets a scholarship.”
I have noticed how people here seem less hesitant than Americans to refer to a colleague as “crazy,” “envious,” or a “charlatan.”
Tanase’s novel-in-progress, Câinii lui Pavlov (Pavlov’s Dogs), carries his misanthropy — though misanthropy lacks the self-awareness and dark pleasure of that earlier “Da!” — still further, when a man whose dog gets hit by a car must then contend with his busybody neighbors, who gab about anything and everything without offering the least solace. It seems relevant that during our afternoon together Tanase appears most relaxed in the company of his German shepherd, Jimmy.
But does human connection remain impossible in this vision? I ask him. Is there no hope at all?
“Ah.” He winks at Jean Harris. “An optimist.”
My question, he insists, lies “outside the culture. The people who ask that question buy an airplane ticket and go to the West.”
My mother and her parents made it safely to Paris and moved into a modest hotel. Though they planned to stay only a short while before continuing on to the U.S., they were still in France when the Nazi’s arrived within the year.
In response to the invasion, the small lycée she’d been attending relocated to the Brittany shore, a period my mother recalls as the fondest of her youth, in part because she’d made good friends with girls from Sweden, Holland, and Mexico; the quartet called themselves the “Musketeers.”
After initial panic over the occupation calmed somewhat, Lycée Victor Duruy returned to the capital the following year. By now my grandfather had secured a furnished, high-ceilinged apartment on the Boulevard de Strasbourg, vacated by a family of compatriots who’d fled to the unoccupied south. They feared Paris police could any day begin the sort of wide-scale arrest of Romanian Jews, similar to the one already enacted against Poles — though the family’s elderly matriarch insisted on staying behind in her own apartment nearby.
For his part, my grandfather’s judgment about the impending danger may have been clouded by the attractive blonde wife of one of his clients. Almost certainly he was having an affair with her. The night he brought the couple home for dinner passed with excruciating awkwardness, my mother would later recall.
She had just turned eighteen and, though aware of the adult subtext around the dinner table, she remained naïve about the deteriorating political situation. When alone in the apartment, she would distract herself by performing the Dance of the Seven Veils before its dramatic full-wall mirror. But the summer of 1942 brought an end to everyone’s diversions.
A pair of my grandfather’s business associates claimed the police had confiscated currency they were trying to exchange for him. Suspicious of being conned, he refused their demand to relinquish two rather large diamonds he’d been given as collateral — diamonds my mother would later refer to as “cursed” when she passed them on to me, her only child.
One day, she came home around lunchtime to find her distraught mother waiting in the street. Someone had denounced my grandfather to the police, who’d come to arrest him a few hours earlier. Was it the rebuffed business partners who’d complained? Or the cuckolded husband? My grandfather did not lack for enemies.
Together the two women raced to the police préfecture on the Île de la Cité to see him. On the way, my grandmother blurted out that he’d been so terrified during his arrest, he had urinated in his trousers. This my mother regretted learning. The image diminished him, her father after all. And she probably did not enjoy remembering her own childhood banishment for wetting the floor.
Recently, she and her father had been fighting over something new, and he’d refused to speak to her. Weeks had passed without a word between them. At police headquarters, though, he broke his silence, imploring her to save his life.
Ask the Germans to intercede, he begged. Tell them I’ve been wrongfully arrested.
He addressed his daughter and not, notably, his wife, whose passivity rendered her unfit for such a mission. Or perhaps, it pains me to consider, his attractive teenage daughter seemed more likely to command an officer’s attention. Regardless, to think the Nazis could ever be persuaded to help him struck my mother as the most desperate of delusions, one with no hope of success.
He seemed to know it, too. As he was dragged away, clutching the care package they had brought, he looked back at his wife and daughter until the last possible moment.
The gendarmes then roughly shoved both women out the door.
My mother set out to find the Nazi commandant. She had agreed, crazy and dangerous as it sounded, to honor her father’s request. Though she would not fully conceive the enormity of his bleak fate for some time, she understood his fear of being killed was not exaggerated.
Along the Seine — the same river that years later would put an end to Paul Celan’s survivor’s guilt — she strode three kilometers to the Place de la Concorde, practicing her father’s plea along the way. In a mansion requisitioned by the Nazis, she passed the front guards, asked for the commandant’s office, and was pointed toward the foyer’s marble staircase.
Above, in a small, partitioned office overlooking the public square, she found two officers, one seated at a desk, the other standing. She stepped into the middle of the room, between them. The seated officer interrupted his paperwork and looked up with Aryan blue eyes and inquired about her business. She began to make her father’s case, somewhat incoherently despite her practice, when the German interrupted her.
Fräulein, he admonished gently, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll turn right around and leave.
My mother did not have to be told twice. She retreated from the room, quick-stepped back down the marble staircase, then bolted outside, dizzy with fear but also, as she regarded the beautiful Place de la Concorde spread before her, an incomparable relief.
I had done my duty, my crazy duty, her recorded voice echoes in my ear. I had cleansed myself of potential guilt that would have haunted me the rest of my life, and I was still alive. It was the greatest feeling in the world.
On my first weekend in Bucharest, Ioana Ieronim shows me the Writers’ Union Building on Victory Avenue. A once beautiful, late-nineteenth century mansion built for a petroleum magnate, the Communists appropriated it after World War II, branded it as collectivized property number 14224, and eventually bequeathed it to the Union. Since the revolution, descendants of the previous owners have been suing to reclaim it and I’m told have already won in court, which is not the same as taking possession. One of my interviewees predicts the Union will stay put until the very last moment before they’re evicted. “It’s the Romanian way!”
People lose their minds here trying to reclaim private property, says Ieronim, even in today’s more Western environment. What makes the process so vexing has to do with something deep in the shattered Romanian psyche, she says. Under Communism, people’s “sense of property and responsibility was destroyed so deeply you won’t find it. Even a sense of cause and effect,” she says, “destroyed. Genetically.”
In the front garden, a tumorous tree bursts through the stucco wall. Two baroque lanterns rust with abandon outside the doorway. Inside, she points out the cracked ceiling. There’s a dining room somewhere that serves a reasonably priced lunch to Union members, but in the evening becomes an expensive private Italian restaurant. “Do you hear many paradoxes?” she asks me. “I think you do.”
Our next stop is the Museum of Romanian Literature, to meet her friend Magda Carneci, here to participate in a symposium on the eighties generation. Romania likes to categorize writers by the decade they first published. Supposedly the sixties writers were full of brio, the seventies generation, to which Ieronim belongs, grew more morose and intellectual. The eighties authors discovered deconstruction, which they claimed, at their previous symposium, to have been a uniquely brave form of dissent.
Today’s gathering comprises about forty people in concentric circles. At a front table sit two facilitators; despite them, the conversation quickly grows raucous. As the eighties writers gesticulate and talk over one another, I recall something Jean Harris told me about Romanians over the age of 40. “They’re all beating their wings against a cage that no longer exists.”
So, after the symposium, I seek out a couple of the younger faces in the crowd. One, a thirty-something poet named Daniel Marin shakes his head with bemusement over the behavior of his elders. “They act like teenagers.”
His friend Amelia Stanescu, 37, opines, “During Ceausescu we had writers write against Ceausescu, but now it’s enough politics. We have liberty now to write about anything. To write about yourself.” To enter, in other words, even “Updike territory,” should the mood strike.
When I later read some of Marin’s poems online, I am struck by the determined innocence of their voice. There’s no Tanasian anguish between the lovers in his poem “The Little Prince,” but rather an attempt to crawl into a blissful, almost childlike cocoon, from which the two can “take turns watching on the spyglass” the grown-ups outside.
Shortly after his arrest, my grandfather was transferred to Drancy, the same transit camp the Romanian poet Fondane would later pass through, and then, also like Fondane, on to Auschwitz, where the poet gallantly declined rescue, and where both men were murdered all the same.
While still at Drancy, my grandfather sent home a postcard asking for bug ointment and a few other provisions, which my mother and grandmother immediately sent, with little confidence anything would reach him. The postcard remained his last words to them. I believe they already understood at this point the hopelessness of his situation, or if not quite yet, then within the following days, when the wide-scale roundup of Romanian Jews began.
The two of them were out one morning, checking on the older woman left behind by that other, more prescient, Romanian family, when there came a knock on the woman’s door. Two plainclothes French police told her to pack a suitcase and come with them. Hysterical, she nonetheless complied, while my mother and her mother looked on, petrified. The cops had a list, surely Rachelle and Mariasia Selzer were on it; why weren’t they being asked to show their papers?
For whatever reason, the cops left them alone. And then, as the old woman was being led away, one of the officers turned to my mother and, of all things, shook her hand. Good luck, he told her, as though to imply she’d just been granted some secret opportunity.
As soon as the detectives left, my mother and grandmother raced home, only to find the front door to their apartment bolted shut from the outside. The cops had just come from there. Had the women been home a few minutes earlier, they would surely have been arrested and sent on their way to Drancy and then Auschwitz.
This dark irony surely exacerbated the guilt my grandmother must have been feeling. She found my mother’s comparative detachment upsetting and, more than once in the coming months, accused her of being an unfeeling monster. My mother had in fact put her grief on hold; not only because she still felt deeply conflicted about the man with whom she’d been locked in constant battle, but also and more urgently because, in his sudden absence, all the responsibility for getting through the war now seemed to rest on her shoulders. Starting with the locked apartment: how to break in and retrieve their most important belongings?
With the exception of the two diamonds and cash, kept at all times in my grandmother’s bra, everything remained inside. I don’t know whether anyone tried to dissuade her from this rash plan, but my 18-year-old mother climbed out a hallway window and proceeded to shimmy along the ledge high above an interior courtyard. After entering the apartment through an open window, she shuttled those items deemed most essential, including two large leather suitcases filled with stock certificates for a Romanian oil company — her father must have acquired them during his trades.
With the greatest valuables secured, she and her mother moved into the building’s attic, paying off the superintendent for the privilege. My mother tried to find a “runner” to smuggle them south, but when that plan fell through, obtaining new identity papers became the next priority, since their current names were now listed for arrest.
A school friend had a grandfather with contacts in the French Resistance, and the elderly man offered to make all the arrangements — for a fee. He may or may not have wanted money; what he clearly did want from my mother was an unspecified sexual favor.
“I am truly sorry that your mother will not be with you,” the novelist Doina Rusti writes. “But, you know, she is already here.”
Is she? Is my mother spending her afterlife in Romania? I am not so sure. And yet I greatly appreciate the tenderness of that sentiment, conveyed by Rusti after I first make email contact to explain my trip and to ask if we can meet. From the eclectic anthology Bucharest Tales (2011), I’ve read a translated excerpt of hers about Bill Clinton’s 1997 visit to the city. He spoke here before a crowd of thousands in a public square right across form the author’s apartment.
“The visit was a messianic event for Romanians,” she recalls, with some translating help from her husband Béla, over dinner one night in the city’s bustling Lipscani neighborhood. “We thought after that the poverty would be gone. All of America would come — that he was a kind of savior.”
Things haven’t quite worked out this way; Romania is still relatively poor, democracy tenuous, and corruption said to be rife. But she recounts the Clinton story, I am learning, with a style peculiar to the Romanian character: a leavening of bitterness with humor for which there exists an idiomatic phrase: haz de necaz, or making fun out of trouble.
She recalls the day before the speech, when Romanian police pounded on her door as a courtesy to inform her, should she step within a meter of her own window, government agents stationed atop the Intercontinental Hotel would shoot her.
So, the day of the event, she carefully measured one meter, and stood watch from that exact distance. On the stage, a beautiful Romanian student had been selected to receive an academic prize. “People asked themselves with joy,” Rusti recalls, “if the girl was a prize for Bill Clinton.” Then Clinton rose to deliver his own speech, but before he did, he handed a small note to someone else on stage.
At this point Rusti became obsessed not with the speech but the note, and not the words on the note, whatever they might have been, so much as the paper, because she still lived in a country with crappy paper. Though the market for office supplies has since opened up, in the late nineties they remained an exotic luxury from the West.
“She was amazed when she found those sticky notes,” confirms Béla, recalling her discovery of Post-its.
As we peruse the menu, my ears perk up when one of them mentions mititei, oblong pork meatballs that were a favorite of my mother’s, but since I am being treated this evening at my hosts’ insistence, I leave the decision making to them, and soon we’ve moved on to other, far healthier options.
Rusti, who has published six novels, is best know for Lizoanca la 11 ani (Lizoanca at the Age of Eleven) a ripped-from-the-headline’s story about a Romanian girl accused of giving her entire village syphilis. After its 2009 publication, “people started to recognize me on the street,” though she’d rather be known, she says, for her novels that deal with the years of communist rule.
A case of beating her wings against an absent cage? Maybe so, but when Rusti looks me in the eye and says, “My father was killed by the Communists,” it makes no difference whether the cage still exists.
He worked as an accountant, assigned to the collectivized farm in the southern village where Rusti was born, when one day he discovered a discrepancy in the harvest ledgers. For advice, he asked his own father, who told him to report it to the president of the collective, which he did the next day. That night, he died in a ditch, the result of “falling off his bicycle” — so maintained the police, who stood guard until morning to prevent anyone from moving the body.
“My grandmother didn’t accept it,” says Rusti, 11 at the time. “‘Don’t think we are stupid,’” she told one of the cops before smearing, for emphasis, a handful of mud across his uniform.
Her grandmother arranged that forty doctors throughout the region should come perform an autopsy, says Rusti, to ensure a group opinion so large it could not be questioned or bribed away. They all signed a report testifying her father had been beaten to death. Despite the unanimity of medical opinion, courts took four years to reach a verdict of murder. The culprit’s identity remained a separate issue, and remained unanswered.
Nearly a decade passed before her grandmother obtained an audience with Ceausescu to beg his influence. Shortly afterward, the family received a visit at home by a young Securitate officer, who insisted on speaking only with Rusti’s grandfather. In a rare show of deference, her grandmother retreated to a far corner of the house, but the young girl lingered to eavesdrop.
“Mister Rusti, we need your discretion,” the officer began. “You must help us because our country has many enemies.”
“Who killed my son?” asked the grandfather, promising nothing.
The officer shared this much: “A government minister was selling grain under the table. He ordered the killing.”
Rusti’s grandfather asked for a name but was told only that the following issue of Spark would announce an official’s dismissal, and that this man was the responsible party.
“The next day we are waiting for the journal with our souls in our mouths.” As promised, there appeared an article about a dismissed official. But was he indeed the murderer? “We don’t know if this is true,” explains Rusti, “because they lied a lot.”
For years, she harbored the story, until opting to tell it in her 2004 novel Omuletul rosu (The Little Red Man) — including the presumed culprit’s real name. Right up until publication she agonized over whether to include it, praying for a sign that she was making a just decision. None came, the name stayed in, the book appeared, and still no sign — until a couple months later, she says, when the man’s 20-year old nephew died in a motorcycle accident.
It’s unclear to me what that last detail signifies, but her awareness of the man’s extended family underscores how haunted she remains by her father’s death, and by her own imperfect attempt to avenge it.
My 19-year-old mother, who’d granted her first kiss but a year earlier, prepared to meet the old lech in charge of her fate, donning a bathing suit underneath her clothes. For good measure she asked her boyfriend Oleg, a White Russian refugee who’d been hired initially as her language tutor, to hide in the man’s stairwell in case things got out of control. I doubt she mentioned a word of this plan to her mother, who would have been unable to stop her anyway.
The lech invited her in, presented the two identity cards, made-to-order as promised. But before handing them over, he asked her to sit in the chair next to his and hold his hand — just that, his left hand — while he masturbated himself with his right, my mother weeping throughout.
When it was over, she left his apartment as Denise Dufour, daughter of Maria Dufour, French citizens.
Adina Rosetti radiates a sunny disposition, so sunny our translator this morning, Anca Fronescu, presumed when the two first met that she couldn’t possibly be Romanian.
Born Stefanescu (Rosetti is her married name), the 33-year-old novelist recalls enjoying “a kind of magical childhood,” living at her grandparents’ country house in Braila, near the Danube Delta. “It happens quite a lot in Romania to give the child to the grandparents,” until school age, when it became time to rejoin her working parents in their Bucharest Communist-era apartment.
We’ve met this morning at a downtown coffee shop, where Rosetti describes her day job at Romanian Elle writing about cultural figures and what she calls “how to be happy” articles.
The latter “don’t really help women very much,” she confesses, because they put a lot of pressure on readers to have it all. “It’s imported from the West, this new lifestyle.”
Rosetti drew on this dynamic for her debut novel, Deadline, in which a 29-year-old accountant becomes so overworked by her multinational employer she dies of heart failure — based on a true event widely reported in the local press.
During the boom years of the early 2000s, “everyone was throwing themselves into work,” recalls Rosetti. Young people, especially from the provinces, saw a job with a multinational as “deliverance, and they were willing to do whatever it takes to advance.”
Another of the novel’s characters, a young blogger, rouses flash mobs to demand a slower, saner work pace. He calls for a new revolution, a third way. But instead the demonstrators start to make friends and joke around, and the revolution loses steam. At the book’s end, one of the characters shrugs off the movement’s failure and says, in an expression typical of the culture’s fatalism, “We did our best.”
What Rosetti’s blogger failed to achieve, the ensuing global recession has brought instead.
“I wrote the book before the recession. When it hit, a lot of people thought, ‘Good. Things were going mad. We’ll be more modest and happier, because we really don’t need that much.’” But that silver lining quickly disappeared when government reaction exacerbated the pain, she says, closing factories and spiking unemployment.
“There’s a theory that the recession was punishment for chasing the materialism of the West,” says Rosetti. “But that’s not fair. We had only five years of wellness and enjoying consumerism, after fifty years of oppression. We were hiding for fifty years and now here we are getting punched. Welcome to the jungle!
“And the political system hasn’t come up to our expectations. There is a mood of darkness and despair,” she concludes, which Fronescu duly translates. But then the two women, unable to sustain the moment’s seriousness another moment, burst into laughter — a spontaneous display of haz de necaz, making fun out of trouble.
Rosetti smiles angelically. “This is why in my book the revolution doesn’t succeed.”
Fortified with their new identities, my mother and grandmother moved from the attic above Boulevard de Strasbourg to a hotel with no heat, in the suburb of Ris-Orangis. My mother, who continued to make all these arrangements, chose not to lie to the hotel manager. The new identity documents, should anyone study them carefully enough, would not hold up, but they were good enough to give the manager plausible deniability — so went my mother’s persuasive argument.
This also formed her game plan when applying to teach at a private girls school in Paris. During her interview, she confessed to being Jewish, in hiding, and willing to work cheap, all of which suited the headmistress just fine. Not even my mother’s total unsuitability as a teacher seemed to be a problem until one night, when she and a student stayed out past the German-imposed curfew, and she was fired soon after.
Having inherited her father’s restlessness, she found it impossible to stay cooped up in Ris-Orangis all the time. So, several times a week — no doubt to the distress of her mother’s incipient ulcer — she took the train into Paris. One afternoon, while passing some time at a café on Boulevard Saint-Michel, she watched a French patrol wagon pull in front. A police crew entered, ordered all the doors locked, then began pointing to patrons at random, checking papers in the search for irregularities. Certain unlucky customers were invited to headquarters for further questioning and possible annihilation. Knowing her papers would not withstand even a simple address check, my mother rose from her seat and, affecting as much nonchalance as possible, walked downstairs to a payphone. She called a friend, explained the situation, in case her mother needed to learn someday why she never came home, then returned to her table and continued to tough it out, as the police kept pointing to faces in the crowd.
But not hers. For whatever reason, they passed over her and left. Her hands and scalp were drenched with sweat. And yet, despite such a close call, she chose to return to Paris many times after that. The risks seemed entirely worth it.
Simona Kessler, the agent, has prepared a tray of sweets. Having also looked me up online, she refers cordially to one of my fictional characters, which of course immediately endears me to her.
We sit on the sofa of her home office, near Bucharest’s embassy neighborhood, surrounded by the many titles she represents. In two decades, she’s executed 7,000 contracts and formed exclusive relationships with many of the West’s leading publishers.
She took the leap into agenting shortly after the revolution, when she realized the state-run publisher where she’d held a steady job as an art-books editor would sink in the newly capitalist economy. Better to take her chances in an untested field.
“When I heard she wanted to become an agent,” recalls one author, “I laughed. We didn’t know what an agent is for, what good is an agent.”
Bear in mind, agenting in Bucharest did not mean the same thing as agenting in New York. Here the job entailed negotiating the Romanian language sub-rights for books published elsewhere, a job description that has changed very little in the intervening years; she’s taken on only one local author.
Anticipating the obvious question, she brings it up herself: “Why just one Romania client?”
Certainly she’s had many requests, she says, writers weeping on her couch, begging her, “take me on, or I’ll kill myself.” And while she likes the idea of nurturing Romanian talent, a role publishers here embrace all too little, she fears it would “just eat me up. Being an agent of authors is a very complicated job. It’s doing therapy, being a mother. Authors are difficult characters,” particularly Romanian ones, she adds.
“Most Romanian authors consider their work a statue in bronze. No one can change a comma, neither the publisher nor an agent, because it’s ‘literature.’”
On the other hand, she says, Romanian publishers believe they’re doing local authors “a big favor” just by publishing them. “So royalty statements and accounting are not matters to be discussed.”
Third, even if she could change the attitude of Romanian publishers and the attitude of Romanian authors, there would still remain an even bigger attitude problem: “The doors of U.S., U.K., and even German [publishers] are usually closed to Romanian authors.” Even at the height of interest in the newly opened East, when one German publisher asked Kessler to put forward a broad selection of possible candidates, nothing came of it.
The one Romanian client she does represent came about by chance. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, a few years back, an editor from Harcourt, dying to hear something fresh, urged her to pitch something. Having recently read Filip Florian’s novel Little Fingers, she turned to the editor, cocked her head coquettishly, and began: “Well, there was a little town, and they found a mass grave…”
That was basically the pitch, except for comparing Florian’s style as a cross between Garcia-Marquez and Ionescu. The head-cock seemed important too; it said, Don’t you want to know why? Don’t you want to know what happened next? It didn’t hurt that at the time the editor’s boss, Drenka Willen — who’d shepherded some of Europe’s most significant authors to the U.S. market — had just been rehired by Harcourt and that her tastes seemed particularly consonant with Florian’s book.
So far, Kessler’s represented Florian pro bono. “It’s a patriotic gesture. Something I am doing for the soul,” she says, adding, “if he makes a shitload in royalties with his next book, then we shall see.”
Despite feeling unable to take on more of them, Kessler says, “we have very good authors. And the IRC translation project is fantastic,” she adds, referring to the government’s efforts to train translators and underwrite their work. But “20 years is not enough yet to get to a normal way of appreciating and promoting local talent.”
I express the hope that Romania can reach such a place before running afoul of the new digital paradigm. But Kessler seems surprisingly sanguine about electronic books and the survival of bricks-and-mortar stores here. Romanian chains are still relatively new, only recently replacing the old centralized state system, and so they haven’t over-expanded like elsewhere, even though technically, she admits, the largest of them is currently insolvent. Still, she doesn’t think traditional publishing is under imminent threat from e-books, if only for the simple reason that Romanian consumers only buy an average of two books a year to begin with, in addition to which most people can’t afford e-readers.
“Have some more mille-feuille,” she says of the pastries my mother more colloquially used to call Napoleons. They’re delicious. Kessler asks what foreign language rights my two novels have sold, the answer to which is none.
She makes a small tsk-tsk sound.
“No books since 2005?” she asks, checking on-line. Another tsk.
She draws me out about the 2005 title, about a young woman who has lost both parents to suicide. “She needs to learn a new way to live, one that will let her avoid their fate,” I say, neglecting to convey that the book is largely funny.
Regardless, Kessler has already looked up my agent and is leaving her a voice mail asking to have a look, pro-bono, in case there might be a suitable local market.
Had I been more on the ball, I might have proposed waiting until this piece appeared before blurring the boundaries of journalism and commerce. I wonder if that is her motive — a feint towards a foreign rights deal to sweeten my portrait of her. But perhaps it is simply a polite gesture of goodwill, from which nothing is expected to transpire.
After she hangs up, she asks, “Are you tired? Or sad.”
I’m both, but admit only to fatigue, even though there’s something invitingly maternal about her, and also something of the therapist, a profession that would eventually become my own mother’s.
She wants to show me her copy of Jung’s Red Book. She has two copies on the shelf, comps for her role in negotiating the translation rights. It’s a formidable volume, almost medieval in its heft and impracticality. I ask if she’s read the whole thing, but she insists that would lead to madness. Finish the mille-feuille, she urges, but I’m already sugar-buzzed. I thank her for her time and hospitality.
“I treat people the way they deserve.” She cocks her head in a way meant perhaps to disarm all the subtext swirling beneath that motto. Am I being bribed, bullied, flattered — possibly none or all of the above? I am sure of only two things: I’ve allowed myself to be corrupted before even leaving the house, and Simona Kessler must be a very good agent indeed.
The Americans liberated Paris, and in her appreciation, my mother, now 20, became a USO hostess, dancing the jitterbug and eating donuts with GIs in one of those same mansions the Nazi’s had requisitioned on the Place de la Concorde — possibly the very building she had braved two summers earlier. I suspect my grandmother must have felt baffled by her daughter’s ability to return to such a cursed place and that my mother did not try to explain herself.
They applied to emigrate to America, but were told by the U.S. Embassy it had already filled its tiny quota reserved for Romanians and there would likely be a ten year wait. To my mother, who’d grown attached to Paris after the Nazis’ departure, this was no great loss, but my grandmother hadn’t seen her stateside brothers in ages. So, when the embassy called out of the blue sometime later, offering to let the two women come as Russians, since Cernauti now fell under Soviet control, my grandmother sorely wanted to go. But my mother, like her father before her, could drive a bargain. She would first undertake a solo recon mission to New York and Los Angeles to see if either city passed muster.
First impressions were not favorable. Only after an intense lobbying campaign from the U.S. relatives — how can you deny your mother, who has suffered so much? — did she reluctantly agree to settle in New York. Her mother arrived soon after, with the suitcases stuffed with petroleum stocks — already worthless after the nationalization of Romania’s oil fields, but hope sprang eternal — as well as the two diamonds in her bra. For the next few years, she and my mother lived near family in the Bronx, while my mother answered phones for a trucking company.
By then she had met and beguiled my father, although his folks spurned the match. For one thing, they disapproved of her being Romanian. I’m not sure how my father’s father, born in Bucharest himself, justified that objection, but my parents proceeded without his blessing, using one of the cursed diamonds for a wedding ring.
Throughout all this, my grandmother continued to suffer from her ulcer. By the time she finally went in for surgery, the problem had degenerated into terminal stomach cancer and she was given three months to live. She moved in with my newly married parents, and once again my mother found herself in charge. Her heart had softened with time, however, and instead of looking after her mother out of duty, as she had during the war, she cared for her in those last few months out of love.
There’s an aura, nearly religious, about the poet and novelist Marin Malaicu-Hondrari — most obviously his soulful, gaunt gaze, the Christ-like hair and beard, but also his humility and his relation to literature, which surpasses worldly appreciation, conveying devotion, salvation.
“I find it incredible that someone like me who lives in a small town gets to represent Romania abroad,” he tells me and our translator, again Anca Fronescu, one afternoon at the café behind the Museum of the Romanian Peasant.
When not participating in international literary festivals, he lives in on his family’s small farm in Sângeorz-Bai, a Transylvanian hamlet of 10,000. A Bible once served as the household’s only book.
After first discovering as a boy, in the local library, the Greek legends of Olympus, he developed an obsession with adventure books that lasted until he was sixteen, at which point he stumbled across Kafka. “After that I never read another adventure book ever.”
Without the benefit of a university, he proceeded to read across literature, with a special love of Spanish, whose language he had to learn a decade ago as an émigré looking for work. During his days in Cordoba, he took any employment from chauffeuring to olive picking, while at night he immersed himself in Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, as well as Mario Vargas Llosa, whose works he now translates.
His parents lived long enough to see him publish his first book of poetry, The Woman’s Flight over the Man, in 2004, though he’s unsure how much it registered, given his mother’s near inability to read. One can only imagine how they might have responded to the obsessive poet “Dan,” a character in the author’s 2010 novel Aproprierea (Closeness), who expresses a devotion to Sylvia Plath so fierce he masturbates to her image in the family outhouse.
In any event, they would have preferred their son “work the land” like his siblings instead of becoming an author. “I’m the only one who went crazy,” he says, though for a while he and his wife did try to make a go of the small farm, growing tomatoes and potatoes.
I make a naïve comment about my own desire to grow tomatoes, to which he points out, rightly so, that growing food out of choice is not the same as growing it from necessity. Yes, I suddenly remember, we’re not in Updike territory.
“But then,” he adds, “the tomatoes taste the same.”
I’m grateful for that diplomacy but, truth be told, remain intimidated by his struggle as well as whatever he means by “crazy,” which I assume to be nobler than my own brand. Nonetheless, we manage to reconnect over the vagaries of publishing (he has yet to see a penny from Closeness, even though it’s enjoyed a second printing) and the more essential importance of the writing act itself. He believes he could live anywhere as long as he was allowed to write.
“No matter how beautiful a place, if you’re not at peace with yourself, it doesn’t matter,” he has learned, to which I can only agree. He adds: “And if you live in a horrible place but get to write, then it’s fine.”
When I turned six, my father took a job in suburban Maryland, the deepest hinterlands, or so my mother felt, even though the nation’s capital could be reached in half an hour. She, who had gone stir crazy on the outskirts of Paris, who had to be talked into New York, now had to adjust to Silver Spring, Maryland, where people knew next to nothing about Europe.
Indeed, my school friends used to marvel at her irreverent, world-weary humor (this made me proud) as well as her strange accent, inaudible to me in our closeness. Only as I grew older did I began to hear it and filed that detail with the other cultural quirks that separated her from other mothers, who used their mixing bowels to make chocolate chip cookies and not, almost certainly, to soak calves brains overnight to help “loosen their veins.”
Food remained a vital Romanian touchstone for my mother, in particular mititei, those ground pork meatballs, charred over intense smoke. She spoke of them often and tried, always with disappointing results, to recreate the experience on our backyard barbecue and later, after my parents’ divorce and with even less success, on the small hibachi she stored on her apartment balcony. She could never make enough smoke, for one thing, to match the taste she remembered.
An uncomfortable moment.
A young Romanian woman whom I’ve taken to lunch brings up former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent election loss. She has some things to get off her chest, which ultimately boil down to a firm dislike of his “background.” Here our language gap runs into a rut, and for several moments she keeps repeating the word Tigan, before finally deciding on an English equivalent: “Gypsy!”
Apparently she doesn’t like Sarkozy because he’s a “Gypsy,” a disturbing overshare, and one I’m not even sure is accurate. Didn’t Sarkozy recently deport whole encampments of Roma? (The group’s preferred term does not inspire many Romanians, who fear outsiders will confuse the two groups.) And isn’t Sarkozy’s actual “background” part Jewish?
Amongst the copious graffiti I notice around town: several swastikas. Some stand plain and unadorned, others have been crossed out, and one, at least, has been transformed, by virtue of a simple dot on top, into a stick figure, running.
My mother revisited Europe many times — with my father and me, while they were still married, or with a friend, after the divorce. But she’d never returned to Romania, which still lay behind the Iron Curtain. Finally, a few years after the ’89 revolution, we talked about going together, the two of us. She even bought a coffee-table book with enticing pictures of the countryside to get in the mood. I began to look into arrangements, but soon the idea had to be put on hold because she wasn’t feeling well enough.
I had noticed during our last several visits she would pant toward the end of our walks. More disconcerting still: the clever, playful mind I’d always valued was beginning to fog. Suddenly, and in very quick succession, she suffered two heart attacks and a stroke, all individually “minor,” but the blockages they signified in her 71-year-old arteries were not.
Though I’d been living in the Midwest, I happened to be nearby that spring of 1995, on an extended freelance assignment, and grateful to help her during this crisis, even as I found myself wishing for the existence of a sibling or two to share the responsibility. While she rested in a local suburban hospital, I delivered her angiogram to a specialist at Georgetown University, hoping he would take her case. He consented, but warned it would not be an easy operation.
Though Filip Florian (Simona Kessler’s only Romanian author) comes from an old Bucharest family, his heart lies in the mountains, in the small town where his great-grandfather built a house before WWII. Such a village forms the setting for his first novel, Degete Mici (2005)/Little Fingers (2009), which revolves around the discovery of a mass grave, though this proves partly a device to enable Florian to write about village life.
“These villages have disappeared in the West two hundred years ago,” he says, one rainy afternoon, in the covered outdoor café once again behind the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. It’s a popular spot with smokers, a feature Florian exploits to full advantage. Furthermore, his wife, who works inside as an anthropologist, can easily meet him when she gets off work.
Though only 44, Florian wears certain marks of time: his bare scalp, his skin slightly tanned from smoke, and, perhaps most striking, his glasses, which emphasize his eyes to such a degree they resemble those of a soulful mantis. I mean no disrespect; I am perhaps emulating the author’s own relish for blurring the boundaries between the animal and human — a tendency he finds ample inspiration for in the countryside.
As a writer, he says, “I love very much the strange details of the villages. Every woman and man is convinced about the magic of everyday things.”
Magic does not mean enchantment in the popular American sense, and is often invoked, Florian says, toward such pathetic ends as praying for God to “kill the dog of my neighbor. And the neighbor is saying the same thing. God is an ally of everybody against the others.”
Priests, while forbidden by the Romanian Orthodox Church from miring themselves in such pettiness, nonetheless manage a brisk side business casting spells, he adds.
His most recent novel, Zilele regelui (2008)/The Days of the King (2011), moves its focus to the capital in 1866, when Bucharest remains very much a frontier town. Florian savors its rutted roads, the antiquated forms of currency and passport, the chivalry shown even toward brothels, and describes it all with a painterly eye — a compliment once given to Updike — and a voluptuary’s gratitude, while venturing less out of his way than other Romanian novelists to advance an idea.
“I think in this moment, Romanian prose has four or five important directions,” he says. “One is an attraction for atmosphere and detail. I’m not a politician; I’m not an essayist. I prefer descriptions, and if the description is perfect, it will create a fictional island.”
That doesn’t mean his work is unaware of present reality. When the narrator of Days of the King claims that in Romanian politics “theft was the order of the day,” he seems to be speaking pointedly to a current concern.
“It was an interesting discovery,” Florian confirms. “In politics things are the same. Probably it’s our national style: it’s impossible to make politics without complicity between senators and rich men.”
He expresses guarded optimism about the new prime minister, who took over in January after protests forced his predecessor to step down, but the current president leaves Florian cold.
“Honestly, I don’t like this moment” in Bucharest’s evolution. The mood is one of conflict and competition. And the city’s distractions make it “impossible to write.”
These count among his reasons for avoiding community organizations such as the Writers’ Union. “I prefer to stay outside the literary world, because I think there are many discussions about literature and one percent of these writers is continuing to write books. The real problems of writing are inside me, and I prefer to talk with me about the problem of writing.”
His novel-in-progress opens with an old man’s memory of the American bombing of Bucharest during April 1944. Most Romanians don’t hold this event against the U.S., says Florian; they view it as targeted against the Germans, a “friendly bombing,” he adds with a mild, ironic smile.
More recently, the country’s thorough rejection of communism has contributed to a widespread and ingenuous approval of America, capable of withstanding the recent allegation that CIA operatives had maintained a “black site” in a small house on the outskirts of Bucharest. The “CIA can kill without problem here,” Florian maintains. If tomorrow the U.S. were to declare a new war, possibly on Iran, “95 percent of Romanians will say, Excellent. Bravo, America.”
His great-grandfather, the one who built the country house, harbored an irrational faith in America all through and beyond the war, says Florian. “A pathological optimism of 35 years that the Americans will be here tomorrow.”
I mention my Bucharest-born paternal grandfather’s own staunch Americanism, and how it translated into a strong preference for a non-Romanian daughter-in-law, which in turn leads Florian to share a parable from his own family. When his aunt and her husband emigrated to Germany, they met with such prejudice they quickly determined to raise their daughter as “a perfect German girl,” with no trace of their own cultural heritage.
One day, he recounts, the teenage girl, in her first major fight with her parents, lashed out: “I am a German! You are a Romanian!”
The moment devastated her mother, says Florian, and yet it dramatized “a very ironic answer to the life.”
This sounds like a novelistic response, to the sure, but possibly a broader one as well; connoisseurship of irony seems embedded in the Romanian soul.
Late at night in Casa Capsa’s deserted lobby, the man with plumes of white hair sits in a wing chair, reading his newspaper. This time, I find the nerve to introduce myself.
“Do you own this hotel?” asks Manea, for it is indeed he. His quip goes over my head at first, until I realize he must have noticed me lurking in the lobby before, working on the hotel’s computer.
I gush a bit about his 1994 quartet of novellas Compulsory Happiness.
It’s a little darker than most Americans can appreciate, he tells me. “But then you’re not the typical American reader.” I’m flattered by this, though unsure if he’s basing the assessment on Jean Harris’s report or just being polite.
He graciously agrees to meet tomorrow morning in the hotel’s breakfast room. As we part for the evening, he says, “It was destiny that brought us together.”
My mother survived her heart surgery and slowly began to recover. A period of rehab in a nursing facility would be needed; there was one in particular she insisted on, so I badgered the hospital social services department until they agreed to make the transfer.
Her friends visited — thank God she had friends — and I corralled seven of them to commit to different days of the week, establishing an ongoing routine of support for after rehab, when I had to leave town. I had accepted a new job — even farther away than my current Midwestern address — this time in California. To be honest, the job was hardly prestigious, well-paying, or even full-time, but my previous one had left a humiliating taste I was anxious to replace. I dreaded the thought of having to renege.
My mother continued to improve, but slowly and not without setbacks, and my impending departure no longer felt so very distant. One day, she broached the subject by asking if I would be flying to Los Angeles.
I had planned to drive, I told her, because everyone needs a car in L.A.
Concern clouded her eyes — she was no longer the fearless Musketeer of her youth — and I hastened to reassure her. “If there’s an emergency, I’ll store the car in a garage and fly back from wherever I am.”
This reply seemed less than satisfactory and threatened to confirm just how unreasonable my plans truly were. I felt anxious to talk about something else and probably suggested we revisit the subject later. Much as I preferred not to dwell on it or have her dwell on it either, I’m sure we both continued to do so privately.
That night, an artery deep in her brainstem ruptured, sending her into a coma — a 10-day transit camp before her final destination.
I’ve often wondered about the moments leading to this massive stroke: had she tossed and turned with insomnia, or panicked in the throes of a nightmare? About death maybe, or just dying alone?
In The Hooligan’s Return, Norman Manea remains haunted by many things. The war years and Communist aftermath, of course, but also his exile in the West and the sting of being denounced as a traitor for his Eliade essay. Beyond all this, there drifts throughout his memoir the ghost of his mother. By the time he can finally arrange to get out of Romania, at age 50, Janeta Manea is infirm and nearly blind. “I would like you to promise me that, in case I die and you’re not here, you’ll come back for the funeral,” she asks. This is not a promise Manea feels he can in good conscience make.
Perhaps he already foresees that his continued publication, first from Germany then his more permanent base in New York, will almost guarantee he’d never be allowed to leave Romania again should he come back — which is why his father, Marcu, will wait a full month before notifying him of his mother’s death.
A year later, Ceausescu is overthrown. After which Marcu Manea emigrates to Israel, and the author visits him there. But Romania remains fraught with psychic danger.
When he eventually does return, spending a week or so in Bucharest, Manea then flies north to Bucovina province, where he seeks out the family friends who helped care for his mother in her dying days. And toward the book’s final pages, he at last visits the gravesite, “nine years too late.”
This morning at Casa Capsa, after our chance encounter in the lobby the night before, he and I meet for breakfast. Torrential rain beats against the atrium’s glass panes. As we serve ourselves from the buffet, I express my surprise to find him in Bucharest and ask if he’s returned additional times since the difficult 1997 trip. This is his third visit, the country having become more welcoming. “We are vulnerable to nicenesses,” he explains.
We sit at a small table, where I ask him to recall his first taste of freedom as a writer.
“Of course, I wrote immediately some text about the society as a free man. I felt joyful and even exuberant that I can say what I was not able to say for a long time. And second, I did feel a responsibility in choosing the words. Because usually in this type of situation, you take the stand of an avenger, a prosecutor of the state from which you escaped. And that tone is fatal for a writer. So, the responsibility in this case is to keep your calm and detachment and to understand the causes, the type of conflicts that such a society imposes. And this was not easy.”
Neither easy for people nor for countries, he continues. In Romania, shortly after the revolution, “the political pendulum moved very rapidly to the extreme right. Romania went into a kind of crazy anti-Communist and childish propaganda, which was very similar to the Communist one only it was the reverse.”
I ask him who’s in charge now, which elicits a mild chuckle.
“An American ambassador asked me the same question. It’s difficult to say, because I don’t know who’s in charge. But the habit, is related to a kind of coded type of behavior in government. What is happening under the table is more important than what is happening on the table. And this is traditional for the Balkan and Slavic area. I’m not saying the West is paradise. But here it is another habit.”
In his sweatshirt and glasses, sleepily enjoying his morning bowl of cereal, he could be, just for a moment, my father in his time-share on the Maryland shore.
“Who is in charge?” he continues. “It’s not just one force as it was under Communism (and even then there were some parallel institutions). If you want a simple answer, I would say the power of the Party is now replaced by the power of money, which is even more insidious. People who served the Party had privileges that could be taken back. You had to prove again and again that you were trustworthy. But with money you have almost total power. You buy prestige and influence, and that’s it. Capitalism entered here with a very cynical face — British nineteenth-century capitalism in its first cynical phase. It’s based on competition, but the competition is manipulated. Big factories were sold for a ridiculous price by not-honest criteria. So it was a Byzantine way of changing the situation. The EU imposed some criteria, rightly so. The country has to obey some rules, even though it’s late in the game.”
A waiter arrives with two coffees, his hands shaky, the coffee spilling over into the saucers. I don’t recall any such show of nerves on the mornings I’ve breakfasted here alone, so I can only assume it has everything to do with the eminent guest sitting across from me, even though his manner could not be more mild.
“I hope the country will be able to promote meritocracy,” he says, now that the waiter has gone, “and that elections will finally be more honest and that this can bring to the fore the talented people of the country. Because the country has a lot of talent. If you meet Romanian students in the U.S., the great many are obviously brilliant. So you ask why are these kids so full of talent and the country still not going in the right direction. But this will happen.”
Tentatively, I propose: “If they return.”
That is true, he admits; they are not returning. “Because they feel they cannot advance. This is a disaster for the country.”
Outside, thunder grumbles against the buildings.
Since we are talking of departures, I ask if he ever regrets his own.
“I did not want to come to the U.S.,” he stresses. “Destiny picked me and destiny was more clever than I was. It is a kind of honor to be forced into exile. I call it a privileged trauma.”
We have neared the topic I care most about, even though I’m not yet sufficiently conscious of it to find the words. And besides — what to ask? Is he at peace finally about his mother? Did writing about her help? Such questions border on impertinence, as does even the most tenuous comparison between us they might imply.
Growing food out of choice is not the same as growing it from necessity, and there exists a world of difference between leaving a place that’s become politically unbearable and moving to California to start a part-time job.
Though the guilt, quite possibly, tastes the same.
Before a group of young, enthusiastic disciples, poet Florin Bican recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” — in Romanian, which adds a layer of surrealism to my ear. The students have gathered for the Cultural Institute’s Translation Project, a two-month intensive “boot camp,” as Bican describes it, where they learn how to adapt contemporary Romanian literature to their “home” languages. Three men and seven women — from Spain, Italy, Ukraine, Germany, Turkey, and Serbia — have moved into Mogosoaia Palace, 10 kilometers outside Bucharest, for training “as literary terrorists.” Their mission, he says, is “to terrorize publishers into taking these translated works.” Terrorize, he has surely come to understand, is a more quotable word than “hound.”
Anca Fronescu, the amiable go-between for two of my earlier interviews, went through the program three years ago, having applied as an expatriate living in Holland, and now happily calls herself “one of Florin’s kids.” The experience was her “bridge back to Romania.” As for her subsequent record as a literary terrorist, she considers herself “a shy one,” having yet to bend any publishers to her will. But she and Jean Harris are in the process of establishing a new website promoting Romanian authors, called On the Map, that should help the overall cause — which in any case has been showing increasing signs of life, says Bican; in the past few years, IRC project alums have managed to place about 90 books. On this temperate May morning, it would be impossible to predict that, within a month, the Cultural Institute will undergo a major political shakeup, casting the translation project into limbo. For now at least, the boot camp is a pleasure to watch.
Today the group continues to dissect and analyze the opening pages of Daniel Banulescu’s 1994 novel Te pup in fund, Conducator iubit! (I Kiss your Arse, Beloved Leader!). It’s painstaking work; the next half hour will advance a mere six lines. In the scene under review — the group’s conversation vacillating between Romanian and English, mostly for my benefit — a burglar claims to possess an exonerating videotape, but the police officer he needs to convince literally refuses to touch it.
Bican urges the class to capture the officer’s disdainful hand gesture without resorting to word-for-word translation, which could sound verbose and confusing. He climbs out of his chair to pantomime what he wants to convey, and the students call out suggestions.
Soon, we come to an idiomatic construction: “Ma pis eu pe casetle tale…” Or: “I piss on your tape.” Bican imagines this might seem overly literal in another language, or possibly outside a foreign cultural frame of reference. But the class quickly finds common ground. The woman on my right proposes a Ukrainian expression that, adapted to the situation, means, “I shit on your tape.”
In Serbia, volunteers the woman from Belgrade, it would not be uncommon to say, “I piss and shit on your tape.”
“Fuck your tape!” I propose, which gets a warm response. It feels nice to be welcomed into their fellowship.
After the morning session, Bican and I set out for lunch. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” he’d asked me the day before on the phone, and I assured him I’m flexible. We stop by the spare but cozy bungalow that’s his for the duration of the workshop. Usually he lives in town with his 20-year-old son, ever since the boy’s mother passed away; 20 is too young to be left on his own, says the poet.
Conversations here so quickly get real. Trying to catch up, I nod in sympathy, unsure what to say, nor what to make of the unexpected book I spy on his bedstead: Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?
As we stroll toward the restaurant, Bican describes the Romanian eye for absurdity, shared well beyond just authors, he says, confirming my earlier suspicion. “There’s a special brand of irony here. And the irony seems to be in direct ratio with the gravity of the situation.” He recalls the devastating earthquake that hit Bucharest in 1977, killing more than a thousand. “Two days later, I started hearing the first earthquake jokes.”
Apparently it’s never too soon for haz de necaz. Making fun out of trouble. Bitterness with laughter, which should not be confused with bitter laughter. “A sad country with humor,” was how Norman Manea described the paradox to me.
In the U.S. we’re taught to keep laughter and bitterness separate, and in certain totalitarian enclaves, such as Disneyland, to suppress our bitterness altogether — a Western form of Compulsory Happiness. Permission to embrace such opposing impulses should count among Romania’s cultural exports to the world.
On the road leading from Mogosoaia Palace, we pass three women picking fruit from a tree. I ask the eldest, in my limited vocabulary, if I might take her picture. She consents. But only after I mention my mother’s native standing does her demeanor soften. Most people warm up a little, which is why I’ve been telling them, but no one has ever stopped what they were doing to throw their arms around me. She squeezes my neck and begins to cover my cheeks with kisses.
“My brother!” she says, though I’m near exactly the right age to be her son. “My brother!” She continues kissing me, holding my face in her hands, and exclaiming over the felicity of our meeting, as Bican translates. She and I pose for a picture: my expression melts into a dumbfounded grin; her own, so animated a moment before, locks with the formality of a pre-War European family portrait.
Just two hours earlier, on the way to Mogosoaia Palace, I had also mentioned, to the burly teamster driving the Cultural Center’s van, that my mother was born in Romania. We were passing through the middle of nowhere — not the soulful decrepit city, nor the legendary beautiful countryside, but a drab suburb, past a warehouse that could easily have stood for the Romanian equivalent of Lowe’s. My mother was born here, I told him, and the teamster nodded with a small measure of newfound interest, when suddenly I felt the squeeze of looming tears and had to look away.
Yet now, in the old woman’s embrace, I am joyful, as though my mother and I have been granted a brief reunion and it’s clear she bears me no ill will. The moment feels like a gift, and I’m loath for us to part, afraid that as soon as we do, this feeling will vanish. Even after we say goodbye, I continue to linger, taking one last picture, then another. She has already climbed back up her ladder, from where she blows a final kiss down to me.
Florin Bican has been waiting patiently.
“It’s nice when that happens,” he says, as though he’s seen it before.
I follow him further up the road, and already my euphoria has begun to drift away, errant as a cloud of smoke I see up ahead.
“You’re not a vegetarian?” he double checks. Fortunately, I’m not, because the Butcher’s menu is limited.
On the immense grill out front lies row upon row of mititei — plump meat grenades, oozing grease onto the greedily flaring coals, juicier and deadlier than anything I could have imagined. Smoke billows everywhere, so thick and dark, this must surely be the real thing, the essence my mother clung to all those years in America. The essence she tried in vain to share with me. Droplets of fat explode as they fall into the flames, and I prepare to taste the childhood memory my mother left behind.
Paul Mandelbaum teaches the literature of Los Angeles at Emerson College’s L.A. Center. His books include the novels Garrett in Wedlock and Adriane on the Edge and the anthology 12 Short Stories and Their Making.
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