Becoming Postmodern: A Romanian Literature Survey

Becoming Postmodern: A Romanian Literature Survey

Florin Popescu

Florin Popescu introduces Western readers to a national literature whose modern humor and archaic spirituality affront postmodern sensibilities

‘…and we dare complain that our values never enter the international circuit. Well how can they appear there if before your time comes a Proust and you’re merely imitating? Every time a great writer appears in the world, Romanians immediately cease their own explorations and begin imitating. Culture is a natural force and as such it attracts towards its gravitational field those who are weak, who are devoid of hope. To escape this omen, young cultures such as ours have to make a giant effort in order to become independent, namely starting with a violent will to be polemic towards the dominating values of the west. The final aim, the burden of all generations is to transport European art and culture our way, to the East, or at least to split it in half.’

‘It’s not possible, Petrica,’ I replied. ‘Culture is a natural phenomenon whose forces cannot be abated by mere will.’

‘You’re fooling yourself,’said he without a moment’s reflection, suggesting he’d pondered this before, ‘Russian literature is a polemic literature, and in vain did the West attempt to ignore it: it conquered the world and now the French are gazing at the Russian soul with amazement, whose depths so mined by Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy gave them butterflies in their stomach, because they felt Russian, just as the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of a Tolstoy felt French, whose language they spoke, even in moments of intimacy…. And the Russian attack on European Literature,’ he rushed to clarify, ‘was premeditated, antagonistic, and therefore “unnatural,” though it was perfectly natural in the way it uncovered other truths about man.’

‘Petrica, even your idea of migration of culture towards the East is unoriginal. It belongs to Spengler, only he claims it for Germany. And don’t forget that the great Tolstoy, before he got to crystallize his own reflections on the causes of war, had read Proudhon, whose idea that war was of divine origin Tolstoy appropriated with enthusiasm. If I remember correctly, he met Proudhon in 1861 in Brussels, with whom he most conversed at length, and from whom he even borrowed the title War and Peace. It seems he liked him so much he didn’t even hesitate to plagiarize. This French writer suffered, in his own turn, from the influence of Joseph de Maûtre, who shows himself an enemy of the French Revolution in Du Pape and Soirees de Saint-Petersbourg. Intellectual innovations were not brought by Tolstoy to the French, I mean outside of the fact of his overwhelming genius. Or you might say, this genius was perfectly natural, without being a consequence of a spirit which was polemic, premeditated and antagonistic.’

I thought I had defeated Petrica in this argument, but he merely showed a spontaneous smile of superiority, waiting for Matilda to change the table settings….

‘The polemic spirit must be oriented towards the foreign, dominant cultures, even while appropriating from them some ideas, as I don’t deny that Tolstoy did. That’s quite it, the whole world knows nowadays of Tolstoy, while that minor French figure Proudhon is all but forgotten. That’s exactly what I’m saying…’

- Marin Preda, The Most Beloved Earthling, Volume 1

Describing or even introducing ‘postmodern’ Romanian literature to the western reader is a difficult and delicate task. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with all three facets of postmodernism in the west: academic, literary, and artistic. They share mostly a name and a common region of space and time. Romanian culture is an entity congruent but quite removed in both these dimensionalities. It is different in locality, as both the post-communist (a more apt title for a direct discussion of contemporary literature in Eastern Europe) sphere and the middle eastern, orthodox, and orientalist tendencies separate it via a murky chasm from the intellectual space of the industrial west of the information age. Making this unnerving journey might serve the western intellectual with not only the pleasure of discovering a foreign, ‘exotic’ culture modern in the academic sense yet archaic in the spiritual sense. The novels, journals and philosophic essays lay beyond, largely unexplored and untranslated - despite the mystery and mysticism often contained within these books’ covers, there also shines therein a wit and universality expressed by any educated writer devoted to teasing the omnipresent questions of consciousness. The authors, again, are modern in the sense of being well versed in the Western, Russian, and Oriental cultural legacies as well as competently aware of Romanian history and the work of their intellectual contemporaries, but archaic in the sense of living in an ancient spiritual order, ‘a mioritic space’ of church and village which perseveres in Romania and remains respected and admired despite being doused in the malodorous breath of forced industrialization.

cultural history, in brief

Although possessing ancient roots, Romania is a relatively young state and culture, with a written literary tradition in the familiar vernacular extending no further than the poetry of the 17th century, a few centuries after the tumultuous migrations of Slavs, Huns, and other sculptors of the current Europe. The beginning of literature and scholarship forged a modern language based on surviving Latin structure and a variety of imported words. As perhaps an explanation of the current mystic flavor of Romanian thought, this written literature was predated by a rich collection of peasant stories, folk songs, and Orthodox church litanies going very far back in historical time. A particular story, ‘Youth without old age and life without death,’ intimates the existentialist, time immemorial predisposition of the folk tradition. Furthermore, a complex village cosmogony of zombies and evil spirits has served to haunt modern Romania with a pesky ghost cast by a spiritualist English writer of the last century, so irremediably embedded into the Westerner’s perception of the country: the dark silhouette and wings of the ‘Count’ Dracula, actually a king or Voivod of the province of Wallachia (one of the three main regions comprising Romania, the other two being the ancient Moldavia bordering Ukraine, and the vast plateau and hills of Transylvania which was until 1918 under Hungarian occupation). Vlad ‘Dracul’ Tepes was a sadistic despot of Transylvanian-Romanian origin who merely serves to illustrate the greatest calamity of the country’s history whose effects survive today, his only real claim to immortality: he is actually a historical ‘hero’ of the constant violence affronting Romania in its conflicts with the Turks and Tatars during the late middle ages. The cafe philosopher Petre Tsutsea remarks on this hypnotic personality: ‘Man, without this guy the history of the Romanians would be a meadow with grazing lambs!’ In fact, the virility of Romanian history cherished by such right-wing philosophers is better attributed to the various occupying and attacking forces, all perpetuated by peoples with different customs and certainly very different languages. Wallachia’s (as Romania is often referred to in documents of the period) mocking and often violent defiance of the invaders led ultimately to a struggle to build a unique national consciousness among Romanian scholars and writers. Unlike the Slavic nations of the region, Romania’s powerful cousins, if any could be found among the former Great Powers, were very far away. A young, angry nation lusting for a flourish who found itself quite alone. In Tsutsea’s irreverent dictums, another characteristic facet of the national literary instinct reveals itself: for uniqueness’ sake, it is common to mix deeply held beliefs written in academic style with directness and even playful vulgarity, whose substance may often offend the liberal sensibility of the Western progressive.

romanian classic literature primer

Another slap in the face to postmodern sensibilities is the resilient moral conservatism of Romanian thought. In the latter 19th century, when Romanian scholars and writers undertook the task of collecting folk tales and tales of provincial life - thereby setting the foundations of a language and culture - we again see a need to extrapolate the human condition back towards the hidden, infinite pre-Christian past, termed ‘mioritic’ by philosopher Lucian Blaga. Such a condition survives, tenuously, in rural Romania today. Yet in urban culture, along with the rise of the bourgeoisie we see a sudden replay of earlier developments in the west, expressed in social satire (a Moliere and Voltaire of his time in Caragiale who satirized not only money, old and new, but inter-ethnic relations, the mixed inheritance of a new regional power, now finally independent of Russia and Turkey). Rationalism short lived, suddenly leaps the romanticism of Eminescu, the national poet of inestimable influence even in the decidedly anti-romantic late 20th century. This influence especially strong in philosophy - is blurred somewhat by the almost cult-like devotion to this brilliant tragic figure encouraged by the former Communist regime, but it is part and parcel of the ‘old’ versus ‘new’ struggle that regulates the development of culture into a smooth expansion.

the modern era

With the dawn of a new century and long overdue reforms such as the emanicipation of serfs, appears the most influential and prolific national writer, Mihail Sadoveanu, adding to the roman de province depth, drama, and an elegant literary style which, again, provides another pillar of written culture. In the period between the great wars, after the first of which Romania regains Transylvania and industrializes, reneging the old Tsarist model for a constitutional monarchy, a great explosion of thought and writing centers around the new, liberal, passionate, explosive Bucharest, a regional Berlin of the time, with some differences of course, but also some grave similarities. The first pivotal similarity is the influence of philosophy on every facet of artistic endeavor. Beginning with the system and school founded by Lucian Blaga and reaching a turbulent apotheosis in the Romanian counterpoint to Heidegger, the charismatic philosopher and professor Nae Ionescu, the writings of the ancient Greeks and Germans pervade most serious thought and saturate it with a passion that soon turns deadly. Ionescu and his protegees (of whom Western readers might recognize émigrés such as the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, the nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran, and the playwright Eugene Ionesco) turn towards extreme nationalism infused with religiosity, a homegrown fascism known as the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’, which attracted many other politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary men and women.

Perhaps the first glimpse of postmodernism (in the sense of literature peering outside of history but remains trapped by it) is the journal of the writer Mihai Sebastian, a student of Ionescu’s and friend of nearly all his protégées, begun soon after he published a poignant and much hated essay by the title of ‘How I Became a Hooligan’, in reply to a sudden coldness from his former mentor and his tenuous friends. Needless to say, Sebastian is a Romanian Jew. The journal chronicles a sad interior space and, with astute political and military foresight, the events of the rise of fascism, Romania’s ambidextrous role in the war (fighting alongside Germany and then switching to the emerging victors, the Russians), Germany’s rise and fall, and Anti-Semitic persecution. This last he survived, as did most Jews in Romania, writing and teaching, only to be killed in a car accident shortly before V-day, a very unique fate but one that echoes perhaps that of Bruno Schultz. A recluse Sebastian was not - he enjoyed the company of women and intellectuals, he enjoyed success. He was dismayed by the course of history and desperately hopeful about the future. He provides an antithesis to the recently published (in Romania) Ernst Junger, another WWII diary-smith who wrote from inside a German uniform, with all the paradoxical human similarities that can entail: two eyes, two hands, a penis and the bleeding heart of an Rilkean aesthete and personal moralist. Junger, the stout duty-bound Prussian, and Sebastian, the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jew, were two very different people who could have had a friendly and very interesting conversation. Tragically, their contemporaries could not.

This and other novels of the period, from all the countries involved in this global calamity, share with the postmodern novel we’re familiar with a ‘doom anxiety’ perhaps diluted by postwar optimism or shell-shock we’ve experienced in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Needless to mention, the danger was greater then, a hurricane that almost landed, the suffering inestimably more intense - yet it passed leaving an ambiguous cloud overhead, to softly allude to global warming. The postmodernist sources of ennui: commercialism, post-colonialism, inter-ethnic strife, and class division classify this intellectual movement to non-Western thinkers as an ‘Occidental crisis of conscience,’ almost innocent in its hypocrisy (humanism of the bourgeoisie). No discussion of Eastern Europe is complete without examining the great spectre of ‘red hell’ that cut short postwar optimism and not only provided a challenge but an inspiration to peer beyond mere politics and economics.

Romania’s communist era literature is not at all dulled by socialist realist conformity. It is greatly punctuated in Doestoevskyan existentialism and metaphoric protest writing. The first might not be so expected, had the influence of Russian writing not been customarily embedded into the liberal education of a Romanian writer. The existentialist paradigm that is the greatest mind game of this century was further exacerbated in the Romanian writer because of the Christian ‘mioritic’ background already mentioned, and because the problem of death in an atheist state offering few material or intellectual comforts for the short duration of a frustrated life is greatly magnified. Sartre and Camus were bothered by boredom, which continues to be the dominant problem of the West. One thinks differently when evil is a crow perched immutably on one’s shoulder, pecking at the eyes once in a while.

Arguably the greatest writer of this period is Marin Preda. Beginning his literary career early in his life just before the socialist era and ending just before its demise, which came, almost naturally, slightly after his own tragic end, he sought a truly universal characterization of Man and a ‘new religion’ based on humanistic principles which mollify his anguish and replace God with the Other. Never straying far from Christian ethics, he nevertheless added to his characters a need to question, to create, to write, to outreach the sticky tentacles of environment, of inhumanity, of inheritance. A prerequisite to all these aspirations is the ability to love. The so-called Predian man appears again and again in different guises: the peasant patriarch Nicolae Morometi in The Morometii who rebels against the eternity of nature and the finality of Man. ” Man is divinity chained by the power of his surroundings,” the rebellious condemned prisoner Victor Petrini declares he philosophizes and recounts a difficult life, defending the need to preserve love in the new ‘era of the criminals’ in his other highly popular novel, The Most Beloved Earthling. This confessional oeuvre, in which the ‘hero’ defends the crime for which he’s imprisoned for life, recalls The Immoralist by Andre Gide or perhaps The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela but only tangentially. This long novel tortures itself by exploring much more than existantialist moralisms: passion, justice, love, friendship, communism, nationalism, and oppression. The quotation from the beginning of the novel, included here, is principally an argument about the cultural identity crisis. It touches on a dispute, deleted in the English translation, about the value of popular early-century poet Tudor Arghezi, who despite his simple eloquence and concentration of national essence, is dismissed by Victor as a loveable country bard, not to be emulated.

Another issue on modern values central to the novel and not apparent from this paragraph is played by Matilda, who is not at all a housekeeper. She is the woman the two men, husband Petrica and acquaintance Petrini, are aiming to impress by their intellectual sabre-rattling: intelligent, powerful, vengeful, unscrupulous, careerist, and irresistible to the young academic Petrini, who steals her from his best friend and marries her despite the skepticism of his parents. This ‘new woman’ represents, it wouldn’t be a stretch to venture, the West, and the new social order dreamt up in the slums of England a century before. Matilda is of Russian heritage (the occupying power of the time). Though a party member, she keeps a nice house and a servant (Milovan Djilas’ “New Class”). Her position of nomenklatura bourgeois undermines the fact that both Communism and Capitalism are equal threats to the old social order. Both Victor, the idealistic intellectual, and Matilda, the social climber, make bad parents, untrusting spouses, and cruel lovers by the simple mechanism of selfishness, which transcends official ideology. Petrini is arrested, made slave in the mines, kills a guard and is never caught, is released through the influence of Matilda’s lover, and in the most entertaining portion of the book, tramps around the city with the rat patrol, a rag-tag collection of misfits and undesirables whom he prefers to any of the newly compromised intellectuals and their petty bosses. Throughout the rest of Petrini’s saga, the picture of communism offered by this book published during Ceausescu’s regime is remarkably acrid, yet never quite eulogizing old values, religion or the West either. Loved or hated, Preda is the most often discussed modern writer in Romania. The Most Beloved Earthling is a self-consciously philosophical novel, yet it manages to give the reader much pleasure. It preaches a lot, in phrases like ” the universe, it’s us,” yet its principal message is essentially a question.

Other similarly intense writers of traditional prose of the communist period stand out: the outspoken Goma, Radu Petrescu, the modern poets Nichita Stanescu and Ana Blandiana. Another type of novel also helped reprieve readers (more than usual in a developing country, due partly to the lack of other means of entertainment) of the daily frustration of poverty and the aching yoke of despotism: the allegorical novel, a creature made of wit, anger, and metaphoric beauty common to all totalitarian subjects. In the direction of the intricate and laborious we find the journal [???], Viziunea Vizuinii (The Vision of the Burrow,Marin Sorescu, 1981), which features non-linear narrative, riddles, poetry, drawings, schemata, and the like. In the direction of the ironic we find books such as the prodigiously inventive Titus Bostan the Builders of the World, a provincial novel by Petre Varlan, which features the Gulliveresque travels of a frustrated assistant soccer coach from his remote village across time and space to Elyseus, where he bribes his way to Zeus’s ear with wine, garlic, and sausage, only to be banished to Hades as a result of his anti-Olympian diatribes published in Paradise’s own sports gazette, his corruption of his own afterlife trial therein, culminating in an epoch-making soccer match between the Olympian gods and the Titans and monsters of hell. What great prose was due to follow the ‘revolution’ and its preceding output of ‘trial by fire’ art?

The first wave of books to be read and devoured was the previously censored (e.g. the philosophy of Steinhardt, Noica, and Tutea). A wave of semi-documentary accounts of the revolution appeared, some of which were translated to satisfy popular Western demand. Also, boastful emigre or refugee accounts were translated back into Romanian. The quality of such output is vacillating, and with time is becoming more vigorous, as the facts of the event, the secrets of the old regime, and the harsh realities of national re-adjustment are inevitably surfacing. One source of quality writing is always present: the philosophical journal (the older philosophers mentioned above and some new voices, such as Livius Ciocarlie). Then, of course, there is fiction, some about the communist era, some about the current situation. Among the more daring fiction, there is Viorel Marineasa Unelte, Arme, Instrumente, a short story collection featuring a series of stylistic tricks, such as an intriguing montage style from multiple narrators, stories in one way or another about the moral insecurity of pre-postcommunism. Another source of entertaining and vital writing began to resurface in the form of the lampooning gazette (drawing on a constant and increasing annual surplus of irony), literary journal, criticism, and political debate in the written media. Romanians love to read almost as much as they love to argue.

A further complication also arose through all the necessary debate: attacks against writers like Preda, deceased before the revolution, for having been atheists and successful under the regime, tempered by perhaps excessive eulogy for other thinkers persecuted by the regime for a variety of heresies, the more uncommon of which is the writer Paul Goma’s uncompromising letter of protest of the 1970’s. This attack has the dubious benefit of adding to the critical scholarship on important writers like Preda. In an intense political climate, the reader is just beginning to distance personal and political reality from the universality of art, while at the same time, literature is both written and interpreted as a maker of culture and national identity, with all the inescapable ties to value making and politics that entails. Also inescapable is the fact that publishing is dominated still by writers who were mature and active before the revolution - this lack of innocence is actually a great theme of some “post-revolutionary” writing). History spares no one, and can hardly produce great critical minds that can distance themselves from events less than a decade past. This is not a place where Baudrillard’s dictum about the arrival of the end of history holds (not to speak of Nietzsche’s antecedent dictum of similar refrain). While shepherds continue to roam hilltops in an almost photographic semblance to the last century, history will continue, feverishly even. When these shepherds begin to chat with their local sheep cloner over satellite linked cellular phones we can in turn begin to look for and analyze a Romanian postmodern novel.

Accelerating this process, a sudden force of inspiration for these novices has spread throughout the country. Supervised by the philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu, a publishing house named Humanitas has begun publishing and distributing not only new and old Romanian literature of quality, but also a series of impressive translations. The behaviorists among the readers may extrapolate the flavor of postmodern writing to come by a list of names appearing on Romanian bookshelves: Furet, Scholem, Todorov, Berberova, Koyre, Prygogine. Against the onslaught of sensationalist fiction, of Hollywood action movie posters, crisscrossing media waves of political bickering, a web of culture, albeit more expensive, is a welcome sight, a shield if you will. For any Romanian reader living in the West, however, the rich Humanitas catalogue is little relief - most serious fiction is spread among small publishing houses, served in small volumes - it is exceedingly difficult to build a representative collection in the West (access) as it is in Romania (cost). There is, of course, a great social and cultural benefit from the a book’s odyssey from nightstand to nightstand, by lending and borrowing. All in all, fiction publishing is prodigious, while distribution is haphazard. We are in the Balkans after all.

A reader’s list of Romanian fiction of any type would be far too short - almost none of the authors mentioned have been translated into English, only a few mentioned. The machine that processes thought in one language and spits it out in another is a mysterious combination of cogs. The flow of ideas is impeded by many different obstacles, human, financial, accidental, but a few rules help out anyone interested in finding out more. It helps to be living in the West in order to be published in it: consider Mircea Eliade, Emile Cioran, and in a more modern sense, the recently assassinated Ioan Culianu, whose killer eluded University of Chicago police and left us with the former professor’s works, including mystery fiction prophesying his own murder, and the monstrously scholarly and very interesting Magic and Eros in the Renaissance. It also helps to make movies from novels, as in Lucian Pintilie’s recent films (The Oak, Unforgettable Summer, and his latest, which is an adaptation from the novel Too Late by Razvan Popescu). It helps to have friends in the West. It also helps to write what the West wants to read. It is unfortunate that the mysticist element in Romanian writing was suppressed while it may have a had a healthy market in the West, although the type of credence in extra-natural forces and human destiny was and remains very much different than the Me-First orgiastic tendencies of a mantra-humming Ginsberg. While most writing is neither heavily mysticist nor mysoginist, translation is still difficult, language problems aside, because of the egg-like development of Romanian culture, its former isolation. These books contain many references to elements specific to this culture, such as the one omitted from the paragraph by Preda. This barrier can be cracked, however. The quality of a translation is often measured by the richness of its footnotes.

Though it is possible to publish such works, as shown by much Czech fiction, wildly popular due to its brilliance and its fit to Western tastes (a sexy smart read), the traffic of ideas is definitely tilted in the opposite direction. Poststructuralism is getting its chance to impress Easterners as we speak, a voice among many, though respected because it has a French accent. It is ironic, paradoxical even, that a liberal minded philosophy proclaiming primary equality among all modes of expression is dominant due to its powerful source, while another (Eastern) which takes ideas as anything but equal is quite easily suppressed, not just by the greater public’s resistance to all things difficult, but by the educated readerships’ tastes and education. How could this scenario not be written, if isolated voices from the ‘Ass of Europe’ (as the Balkans have been called), and from the Ass of the Balkans (as Romania has been sardonically referred to) are to pretend to compete with a group of intellectuals sitting right on the coronary artery of the continent, measuring its pulse and injecting medicine as needed? The current academic domination of the United States and France in literary and cultural matters is perhaps in some healthy jeopardy, from wherever the ‘belles-lettres’ are prized, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, perhaps most notably Latin America. The global politics of culture are an important prelude to the globalization of the economy, and no child’s play at that. Personally I hope that national identities will benefit from exchanges without name-calling and also without the plaintive ‘me too’ egalitarianism pervading American liberal thought of today. The first step of this exchange ought to be translation and distribution of stories from different tongues. Perhaps then we will see people all over the globe terrorized not merely by an anaesthesized bite on the neck of some celluloid vampire leading to neon-lit immortality but by the pesky existentialist anguish of a Cioran-ula. See you on the internet, anyone?