Observing Terror: A Conversation with Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Translator of “For Two Thousand Years”
By Scott TimbergJune 14, 2018
“Never has the savagery of which human beings are capable been recorded with such insight, style, gracefulness, and, amazingly, humor,” Irish novelist John Banville wrote of Sebastian’s journals, published in English in 2000. He calls For Two Thousand Years “equally fascinating, and equally shocking.”
I corresponded with Philip Ó Ceallaigh, an Irishman living in Romania, who both translated the book and fought for years to get it published in the English-speaking world.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Give us a sense of the setting here, a Romanian university town between the wars. It’s not an environment most Americans have much sense of, but it’s familiar in some ways.
PHILIP Ó CEALLAIGH: The story opens in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, in 1923. The date is significant — the Romanian government had adopted a new constitution that extended citizenship to minorities, including Jews. Romania came out of World War I much enlarged; for the first time, all Romanians were included within the borders of an ethnic state. But a third of the population were minorities, and the major powers made their recognition of the state contingent on this matter of minority rights. The result was outrage, and the Jews took the brunt of the anger. The book opens with Jewish students, the narrator being one, being beaten by their fellow students in an attempt to exclude them from the university. This student movement would evolve over the following decade into a fascist movement — independent of German fascism and in some respects different from it. But yes, what a way to step out into the world … a provincial arrives in the capital, ready to construct his life, and is met by his fellow students with fists and cudgels and hatred …
Part of what makes this book gripping is its protagonist and narrator. In some ways, he’s an everyman caught up in larger historical forces. But he’s also a somewhat ornery individualist, uninterested in the glories of victimhood and allergic to what he calls “Jewish fellow-feeling.” How do you understand him and his sense of himself?
He certainly starts out that way. His reaction to nationalism is that he doesn’t want to react to it. This was the age of nationalism, and his compatriots were telling him he wasn’t Romanian. Well, he wasn’t anything else. He didn’t have another country or another language. He didn’t speak Yiddish, he was an assimilated, secular Jew. He is a Jew, absolutely, but what he rebels against is the attempt to define him by this alone, reductively. None of us have a single identity. It all depends on what’s going on around us at any particular minute.
I think Sebastian has a vocation though, as a writer, as an individual consciousness looking out on the world, and this overrides everything. This gives him the power to transcend his personal suffering. It would be absurd to stop at a sense of the victimhood of being a Jew when it is a sense of victimhood that drives the nationalists. He wants to understand the phenomenon itself.
And his achievement in doing so is this book. Yes, he’s an individualist, and a free and tolerant and safe country would have allowed him to be a different writer, eventually. But this does not occur, and by the end of the book he realizes that he is a Jew, because the massive failure of the imagination that is fascism and nationalism cannot conceive of him and the hundreds of thousands of his fellow Jewish Romanians as anything other than a threat.
It’s interesting that both you — the translator for this book — and one of its earliest and most assertive champions — the novelist John Banville — are Irish. The story is, in some ways, a universal one. But is there something that makes this tale of Eastern European anti-Semitism resonate especially powerfully for Irish readers and writers?
Not really. Ireland was spared the war, the genocide, the destruction. It was a neutral country during the war, and floats on its own, off in the Atlantic. It’s been spared most of the drama and horror of the 20th century. I’m not an “Irish” writer in the sense that I’m not preoccupied with Ireland. My own fiction is much more engaged with Eastern Europe, or using Eastern Europe, sneakily, as an abstract space where I can play with my own obsessions and preoccupations. I haven’t lived for any length of time in Ireland since I left when I was 21.
Banville isn’t an especially “Irish” Irish writer, as it happens — he doesn’t exploit Ireland as a location or the Irish idiom. I’d imagine he finds more restriction there than freedom; this is a tactical choice. In Ireland, he’s considered a “European” writer, as I am — more categories! In fact, Banville knew of Sebastian from reading Sebastian’s journals (1935–’44), published in 2000 in English, which is of an even greater scope than For Two Thousand Years, and is an even more important document, but which forms an inevitable unity with For Two Thousand Years. Sebastian’s journals were read by both a lot of writers — Philip Roth championed them — and historians, at the time. But it’s a tome, a brick of a book, and certainly wasn’t a best seller.
What drew you to the Mihail Sebastian’s story personally and made you want to do the hard work of translating it?
It was 2005 when I read the book. I hadn’t heard of Sebastian, or his journals, which had been published in Romanian in 1996. For Two Thousand Years had caused a stir when it was first published, but had disappeared under communism. The edition that I had was a nondescript paperback brought out by a small Jewish publishing house in the ’90s. So it was chance really, but as soon as I began to read I was pulled along by this solitary, lucid, pure voice, into his world.
His determination was to be the calm, brave center from which the ideological madness swirling around him could be observed and registered. This was a big part of it, an attraction to the author as a person, a desire to get closer to him and the text through the act of translation. The other aspect was that the book opened Romania up for me, in terms of understanding what had happened to the country, and I began to learn of the fascist period and the participation of the Romanian state in the Holocaust. These were taboo subjects under communism, and especially Romanian communism, which was a form of nationalist Stalinism. It wasn’t that the Holocaust was denied — there was nothing to deny. It didn’t appear in books. The question of where nearly 800,000 Romanian Jews had disappeared to — 300,000 of them murdered — was not broached.
The Romanian Holocaust was only acknowledged by the Romanian state in 2004, as the country was getting in shape to join the EU. For Two Thousand Years always struck me as an awkward book — it’s not even a novel, it has no particular charm in terms of structure. It almost seems to succeed in spite of its — aesthetic — defects, through the sincerity of its author, and through its engagement with the real.
I translated it over three years, from 2006 to 2009. For a couple of years I tried to find a publisher — all kinds, in various English-speaking countries. There was no interest. I put it away in my drawer and left it there for years. Then, in 2014, Penguin Modern Classics in Britain contacted me. An editor there had read an essay I’d written about Sebastian and asked to see the translation. It was a big, big success, as the Donald would say, and Other Press in New York took it up for the United States.
You have your own reputation as a writer. But why does translation matter to you, what attracted you to the profession, and who are some of your heroes in the field?
I’m not a professional translator. When I do translate, I take care of the sentences as though they were my own.
In the English-speaking world, not much gets through in translation. But you go to Romania or Israel or Japan and most of their books are translations, and the best writers in these countries are often also the best translators — not always, but often. Haruki Murakami doesn’t think translating Raymond Carver is beneath him. The whole translation thing from Eastern European languages is a bit odd, because some of the most important writers of the 20th century were suppressed in their own countries. I think of Isaac Babel’s 1920 diary only coming out relatively recently, having only appeared in Russian under Gorbachev — or nobody having heard of Andrei Platonov until Joseph Brodsky championed him in the ’70s or ’80s. Then he was translated by Robert Chandler, who also translated — translates, because material is still coming out — the books Vasily Grossman wrote in the ’40s and ’50s.
Sebastian fits into this category of suppression in the home country and then a delay until someone comes along and translates it.
One subtext in the book that I find fascinating is the narrator’s relationship with symbol. Its opening line — “I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things” — reminds me of Baudelaire. And a fascist professor of his writes a piece that argues, “We’ve lost the ground beneath our feet. It’s not only the gold standard that has been lost, but any fixed relationship between our symbols and ourselves.” Do you get a sense in the novel — and perhaps in this historical period in general — of what we might call symbolic incoherence?
Lets’s just call it incoherence, for short, and accept that it is a constant in modern life … or what Eliade himself later would call “The Terror of History” — in other words, if everything that happens is both bad and senseless and confusing, how can we manage? Modern man is in the fix where we know what a symbol is, and that it is an arbitrary thing. We have none of the assurance of primitive man, for whom it is the thing. I think Sebastian’s strength, during his period, is that he observed this terror, this insecurity, in the people around him — the tendency to relieve this pressure through theorizing and surrendering to ideologies. In the end, I don’t think he was scared of symbols, as in childhood, but of people who mistook their symbolic projections for the real world. And we might include even the — apparently — temperate Blidaru here, who believes in national — let’s say racial — essentialism — basically a “blood and soil” fascist.
And what is this blood and soil chant, which the Charlottesville numbskulls took up, knowing (something) of its pedigree, but a search for simplicity. It seems straightforward — a race rooted in a place — elementary. It seems free of abstractions, but is in fact one of the most outrageous fictions of all. It is just as inapplicable to Romania — a place of intense mixing, over many centuries — as it is to the United States. But the 1930s were a moment when such a fiction, such a dream, seemed real, because the dominant ideology was nationalism — one place, one people.
Suddenly there was literacy and mass circulation newspapers, radio, distances made shorter by rail travel, and for the first time people could really cohere around this experiment of being a “nation,” as they understood it then, in a racial sense.
Part of what’s disturbing in the novel is that the crowd of intellectuals the narrator runs with turn into, in some cases, fascists or Jew haters. These include characters based on religious scholar Mircea Eliade, who later became quite celebrated in the United States, and philosopher Emil Cioran. Another character is based on Eugène Ionesco, the playwright known as a key figure in the Theater of the Absurd, who did not fall into fascism. How typical were those who did fall into fascism among Eastern European artists and intellectuals in those strange days?
I haven’t recognized anyone based on Ionesco, but feel free to disagree. The Parlea character always struck me as a Cioran, but somebody suggested to me that he has elements of Eliade too. All the non-Jews, pretty much, rolled over in the face of fascism, some more enthusiastically than others. Ionesco didn’t, but his mother was Jewish, something he didn’t advertise and I’m not even sure Sebastian knew. I think of Rhinoceros as the same story as both Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and his journal — the former being the 10-minute nightmare, the latter being the detailed slow-motion version over two decades.
By now there is a full subgenre of books about the creeping of fascism and extreme racism into reasonably ordinary lives — not recountings of the death camps or killing fields, but things like The Diary of Anne Frank, which Philip Roth has compared to Sebastian’s journals and Joachim Fest’s Not I. How does For Two Thousand Years differ from other books of this type? What new elements or tone does it bring to the field?
Roth was comparing Sebastian’s journal to that of Anne Frank in terms of importance rather than substance; the two books have little in common. What makes For Two Thousand Years striking is the same thing that makes his journal striking — it is an account of life lived among the intellectuals who accepted — some of them slowly — the rationales of fascism and racism. Sebastian was one of them.
He could forgive them. For a time, he could continue to converse with them until quite an advanced point (sometimes until it was they who cut him off) because he could see how he might so easily have gone their way had he been in their shoes — it was an acceptable path and so easy to take. We are so used to seeing fascism, Nazism, and racism represented in popular culture, especially in TV and film, in terms of people filled with hatred. It’s easier to consign the phenomenon to sadists and psychopaths than to acknowledge that terrible things were done by intellectuals and moralists.
The creeping bigotry and ethnic hatred we see in this novel has taken on uncanny parallels with some of what’s happening in far-right politics in the United States and Europe.
Does this book — written by a man in his 20s, seven decades ago — speak to our time? Does it have a lesson for contemporary readers besides, you know, that fascism is bad?
It should undermine any complacency we feel. Liberal democracy is fundamentally unstable, and there is no reason why it should endure. We can be radical in looking for solutions to the failures of what we can lazily call “the system,” but unless there is a basic respect for the aspect of the system that allows us to debate and resolve problems peacefully, it will fall apart.
Most intellectuals of the 1930s couldn’t have conceived of the collapse of Europe in the middle of the 20th century — to the degree to which it occurred under Hitler and Stalin, and when they went to war with each other — because they were optimists. In Europe, we’re only putting the pieces back together. I don’t think we have got to grips with what happened in the 20th century. There is a lazy insistence today, from the right and the left, that everything today is so very bad, and the victim narratives that populism plays with exploit this. There is less of an appreciation for how much worse it can in fact get, and fast, when politics becomes about nationalism, about ideas of national pride and greatness, and about race — in other words, about the emotional. We all get tired being civilized, and want to get drunk. The temptation to let go in politics is not so very different.
This is the Steve Bannon way, “let’s break shit.” That’s why he admires Lenin. But he’s also someone who talks a lot about history. When he does, it becomes plain that he’s a windbag, that he really doesn’t have a clue, but, as a rhetorical device, talking history is a big part of his game. He thinks he knows, so he sounds like he knows, which will do if you don’t know what he’s saying but like what he’s telling you.
The value of looking at the 1930s is our being informed — so that we can see Steve Bannon coming. If you’re one of the voters with the least money, education, and medical care, and someone tells you that the most important thing in life is nationalism (with a wink at race) and that the media (which used to be called “the Jewish press”) is a conspiracy, then you can say, “This routine sounds kinda familiar…”
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.
Photograph of Philip Ó Ceallaigh by Johannes Kruse.
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