MARCH 11, 2015
TO CONVEY the cruel circus of Communist-era Romania as it was still unfolding required truly novel modes of storytelling if one was to make it past the country’s powerful censors. To that end, Norman Manea crafted his 1970 debut novel, Captives, with lots of head fakes and literary sleight of hand. Still, it’s hard to imagine how it ever saw the light of print, so radically subversive is the narrative’s DNA. Now finally, these many years later, a first English translation has appeared, timed to the 25th anniversary of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s overthrow.
As part of its vigorous encryption, the story divides into a three-part round, each section named for a specific character, or at least that character’s corresponding pronoun, though even this inadequately describes the conceit’s slippery perspective. It’s as though the instructions to an elaborate resistance mission have been scattered, lest the author of any one passage meet with arrest and interrogation. Determined not to give up the whole of its story without a fight, the book retells the same handful of narratives from its many refracting angles until eventually a fuller picture emerges.
What that picture is remains no easy question to answer, but if one were to try: A boy, scarred by the memory of losing his sister in the sort of World War II internment camp that once held the author, comes to zealously adopt the communist ideology of his liberators. As an ardent Young Pioneer in school, “ready to denounce his parents for any deviation,” he leads a show trial that nearly ruins the prospects of a classmate but instead sets in motion the ongoing disintegration of the pseudo-hero’s personality.
On the way to visit his father — in prison once again because the family’s political patron has been forced from leadership — he meets a lovelorn piano teacher whose youthful voice he conflates with that of his dead sister. This encounter leads to a relationship of sufficient frustration that the pseudo-hero obsesses about killing her. She, for her part, obsesses about being killed. Or, quite possibly, he’s doing the obsessing for everyone involved. “Nothing’s for certain,” he narrates at one point, asserting the novel’s most salient truth, which the author provides in refutation of a social order built with “no room for doubt.”
In any case, the particulars of plot are less important than the diligence with which Manea has taken them apart, like a complex radio, and then reassembled them. Though the knobs may not all end up where they began, the finished product works and even plays a strangely beautiful music, plus, it’s fascinating to watch him operate. Beyond his practical need, back in the day, to dodge censors, Manea’s disjointed aesthetic creates an apt reflection of the psychic turmoil imposed by his homeland’s years of oppression and systemic assault on the ego. A great many rules were made in Communist Romania not to be followed so much as to create opportunities for failure and prosecution and to achieve a state of social paralysis, the populace rendered captive to its own nervous breakdown. For instance, the piano teacher. Her extracurricular duties include maintaining, to the standards of party bosses, a waiting area where high-ranking parents come to pick up their children from school. But no sooner does her superior instruct her to eliminate most of the magazines, condemning them as a bourgeois excess, than the next superior up the ladder decries the lack of adequate reading material.
“You know,” stammers the beleaguered piano teacher in response:
— We thought to display only the latest issue. The others should already be familiar, of course.
— Familiar? What foolishness! As if I have the time, as if I have the time to read magazines. As if I were the wife of who knows what minister of the old guard with nothing to occupy my time.
Frightening as Captives’ party bosses can be, they pale in comparison to the terrifying new generation of children, so ready to turn against family and other hierarchies of the “old guard.” In a chilling sequence, our pseudo-hero takes it upon himself to report his anatomy teacher, a former fascist prone to ramble in class about the good old days. In no time, the teacher’s put on notice and now stands before his students in molten terror, begging their indulgence over every assignment.
The book is at times panoramic, at others miniaturist in its critique of a dysfunctional society prone to “five-year plans of delusion” and “collective autism,” one that require its citizens to undergo “obedience training,” or, when such milder correctives fail, years of hard labor in the salt mines. “Imagination is on the wane,” the text decries of that dark age, “humiliated by hallucinatory reality.” Any meeting of seditious minds must be arranged via the personal ads, through an argot so peculiar, one imagines the author has exaggerated its absurdity for the reader’s pleasure:
The bitch with red fur might signal the attack on the banks. The Wangard tire warns that dissidents are now being tracked. Spanish is the watchword for silence at any price. Exchange of letters: a signal that the money will reach its recipient. Middle-aged woman: the action will begin in the building with two floors.
Humor, after all, is a form of subversion and a particularly Romanian one at that. But perhaps the novel’s most radical blasphemy against the regime, and one of Manea’s literary hallmarks, is a willingness to show compassion for yesterday’s oppressor. That former fascist, for instance, now terrorized before his anatomy students. Even a suspected war criminal named Captain Zubca, who may have presided over the sort of camp that had imprisoned our pseudo-hero as a child, is permitted, in Manea’s vision, his own suffering humanity. After returning from the war, Zubca feels such guilt that he ventures suicide not once but twice; after his attempt at hanging is thwarted by his doting daughter, he opts for the more foolproof method of flinging himself into an industrial blast furnace.
As so eloquently suggested by the title of Manea’s later collection of novellas — Compulsory Happiness — Captives champions the freedom to declare one’s misery and the struggle to acknowledge a society in terrible pain. In his preface (bookended by translator Jean Harris’s illuminating afterword), Manea graciously downplays the novel as a product of its place and time. Maybe so, and one can only hope. But as Moscow once again casts a lengthening shadow across the region, the relevance of Captives’ dark and ingenious portrait endures.