A Pocket Anthology of Romanian Literature
Introduction by Carmen Firan
What a stupid illusion:
by Carmen Firan
What is the difference between amnesia and forgetfulness? On first glance, they both seem to be a state of mind where the past is erased with all its sweet and sour memories. Sometimes one might happen to forget unimportant moments in one’s life, or sometimes one can chose to forget unpleasant events so they never return. Amnesia comes after a trauma; it is a temporary blockage. Someday the memory might return as unexpectedly as it disappeared.
Full of farce, history lives in amnesia. There are lessons never to be learned; others, to be forgotten on purpose. We can talk about a real cultural movement in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall: forgettism, a sort of self-defense mechanism to deny the prolonged drama and to avoid facing a traumatic past.
In America, the present administration’s possible collusion with the Russian government is particularly ironic after the end of the Cold War, which claimed countless lives for decades. The ghosts of nationalism, intolerance and populism fly over the Western World with the same old threats and perils. After all, history is written by the conquerors. Leaders in power pretend to suffer from amnesia and then turn the tables as they wish. When they come to power, not only can they rewrite history, but they can make up alternative facts, bastardizing reality in order to serve their interests. We Romanians lived this under a dictatorship, and we live it again now in the free world. We’ve pulled down walls in order to raise new ones. Amnesia works perfectly. Creators are challenged one more time, ideas are put down, creative sterility ensues. People have allowed the tyranny of passions within to blind them to the tyranny of government without.
In the dark decades of the communist regime, writers were more than writers. They had to play the roles of historians, psychologists, shrinks for walled-in people who had no freedom of speech, whom the secret police watched and political censors scrutinized. Underground cultural and social movements in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic seem to have been forgotten. Romania itself is troubled by leaders trying to influence the justice system in order to mask their corruption. Writers and political figures who were dissident under the communist regimes are now ignored or dismissed in their own countries. I believe that literature should keep pace with reality and reflect its turbulence, and that writers have a duty to take on the voice of anguished people struggling to escape history and to understand themselves. This means that, in order to understand themselves and their audience, writers must dig deep into the layers of history that make up their cultures, dismissing nothing and absorbing all till their cup overflows with wisdom and they earn the right to become spokespersons for their nations.
Unfortunately, the surreal and amnesia walk side by side these days in many European countries. Does time itself have the power to transcend the traumas we were forced to live through, and to open a new blank page, or is time a Möbius strip on which generations will write forgotten stories all over again, ad infinitum?
Romanian literature in the 20th century left its mark on the avant-garde movement that spread throughout Europe, creating a many-branched cultural movement in a time of war that fought formalism, literary cliches and style correctness, and that developed a base for surrealism in arts and letters. Part of this movement, Romanian-born absurdist Urmuz, Tristan Tzara (credited with the founding of Dada in WWI), Paul Celan (a Jewish Romanian whose parents died in the camps; Celan escaped), and B. Fondane (who died in Auschwitz) are names with international resonance.
Soon after Communism settled on Eastern Europe, many Romanian writers were arrested or forced out of literary life. A long era of resistance began along with a complicated relationship between writers and political censorship, though a number of authors thrived under the new ideology. After the socialist-realist phase (1948–1965), when Stalinization of literature dominated the scene, during the “obsessive decade” (1965–1980) and “postmodernism” (1980–1990), a tacit pact was established between authorities and writers: as long as writers didn't explicitly attack the dictatorship and threaten to destabilize society, communist officials would respect their creative freedom.
A cultural "opening," between 1965 and 1971, when young Ceauşescu seemed to be one of the open-minded leaders of East-European communism, was followed by a decade where society was shut down, closed, once more. An intellectual repression was reinstituted that further complicated the relationship between politics and literature. Writers started inserting subversive messages into their works, poets used metaphors and between-the-lines statements, and a phenomenon called “resistance through culture” emerged. Some writers compromised with official propaganda in exchange for a passport or a social position, others fought censorship, trying to negotiate the publication of their books with minimum compromise; some coped with the system in more personal ways, some were banned and put on the "black list,” others chose exile. A cultural conspiracy, also encountered in other East European countries, occurred where political censors played a fake game for the officials with certain cases and helped subversive authors to get published.
After the fall of Communism and with it the long night of absurdities that had lasted for decades, literary life went back to normal. Postmodernist poetry and fantastic prose regained their place, autobiographies and diaries banned during the dictatorship were finally published; authors in exile were welcomed back into Romanian literature and previously forbidden work came to light; and a large number of Romanian writers were translated and published abroad.
The Romanian writers whose works are compiled in this pocket anthology have various things in common, ranging from their strong, clean voices in their own country during the communist age to their intent to protect the memory of people through an original vision of history and awareness of present times. Their writing addresses universal human dilemmas, opposing forgettism through their talent and scope.
The selection is a very short, hopefully intense, sample of Romanian literature that acts as a focused radiography.
All four writers share an obsession with time from a different point of view, offering materials to sustain the implication of amnesia as a politic of memory: through ideas (Steinhard), a metaphysical and vegetal memory of the cosmos (Stănescu), on resistance through cultural matrix (Cărtărescu), and rejection of the present and the absurdity of dreams (Bacovia). These four consciousnesses deal with amnesia after the traumatic era of dictatorship in their particular ways: Cărtărescu recalls in a Proustian manner the universe of childhood; Steinhardt fights the denial of the spiritual world in communism and looks for a personal path in understanding the divine; Stănescu creates a sphere of “unwords” to shelter dreamers; and Bacovia is the poet of cold and sadness as metaphors for this dark period in history. Their works go both ways, preventing the forgetting of the past and helping to recover in post-traumatic times.
(Translations by Paul Boboc & Sean Cotter. Please see Contributors for bios of pocket writers, translators and visual artists.)