Table of Contents.
A Conspiracy of Silence.
& Shadows of the Carpathians."
An Anthology of Romanian Thought -
selected and introduced by Constantin
Postface: A Conspiracy of Silence.
I am a person who likes simple words. It is true, I had realised before
this journey that there was much evil and injustice in the world that
I had now left, but I had believed I could shake the foundations if
I called things by their proper name. I knew such an enterprise meant
returning to absolute naiveté. This naiveté I considered
as a primal vision purified of the slag of centuries of hoary lies
about the world."
Paul Celan (1920-1970)
( "Edgard Jene and The Dream About The Dream")
("Collected Prose", Carcanet, 1986)
One day, during a regular trip to that learned Institution off Londons
Kings Road, which remains "John Sandoes Book shop"
I was asked by one of its luminaries a simple, if justifiable question:
"Is Gregor von Rezzori Romanian?"
I knew that "Grisha" was born in Bucovina, sometime before the
Great War, when that Romanian province belonged, for over a century, to
the now defunct Habsburg Empire. The answer was not simple because the
author wrote in German and now, I thought he lived as an exile in Germany,
where I knew he was deemed to be one of the greatest contemporary German
writers. However, such detail needed not become a signal factor in assigning
the authors appurtenance, as scores of Romanian writers, like Cioran
and Ionesco, lived as exiles in France and wrote in French. I knew the
problem to be more complicated as the vexed matter of change in frontiers
of an authors place of birth, especially in the troubled lands of
Eastern Europe, would not satisfy an intelligent inquirer, even less so
in "Sandoes Bookshop". Moreover in provinces such as Bucovina,
which lay at the frontiers of the Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Turkish
Empires, there was, inevitably, a mosaic of ethnic groups Romanians,
Austrians, Ruthenians, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians all with their individuality,
but also with their intercourse, which blurred, to a degree, the distinctions:
I knew von Rezzori to speak all these languages, which destined him to
become a citizen of the world, an "international", like those
prized sportsmen who today played rugger for the teams of other countries.
I hesitated for a while and to gain time I ventured to make what I thought
to be a safe statement:
"He lives in Germany!?"
"No, he died in Tuscany, two years ago. His Italian widow came here
to see us, recently."
This was not a game of one-upmanship just a friendly "away
from home" rehearsal of a kind that one often heard in the ethereal
but homely surroundings of this learned shop, where the owners were blessed
with an abstruse yet stimulating knowledge. I was not surprised that my
friend knew more than I did about the subject, but I was still taken aback
this was not a confrontation, for I was a regular of his shop and
it was not the style of this charming place. I pondered for a while longer
whilst trawling from the recesses of my mind for any evidence that might
emerge from the "Snows of Yesteryears", some detail that I might
cling to for an answer. Then I said, perhaps a little mischievously:
"Ah, you see? He may have written in German, but he must be Romanian,
as his wet nurse was a Romanian peasant." By that I meant, inter
allia, that Rezzori was nurtured, in his formative years, by the Romanian
psyche, so to my mind we had a good claim to the idea of the writers
Romanianness. Besides, such affinities were apparent from the authors
admissions in his autobiographies and novels.
It was a quiet afternoon, with one of those rare moments when there was
no other client in the shop, as we were engaged in this thought-provoking
repartee, so out came the next salvo:
"But, is Paul Celan Romanian?"
My general attitude is never one to hide my ignorance if I were not to
know the answer, perhaps because, and rather immodestly, I dare say, I
am rather proud of what I do know. This is true especially on a Culture
such as that of Eastern Europe, which suffered so much confusion and misunderstandings
and is unjustly so sketchily known in England. But you see? This was not
true in John Sandoes! Here the situation was different and the balance
of erudition fell in their favour, in a nice way. So I said demurely:
"No, never heard of Paul Celan who is he?"
"He is a poet and he comes from Czernowitz , like von Rezzori,"
I was informed without a blink.
"I must read him! You see, he must be one of those exiled poets.
If I had not heard of him this is because, in Romania, we were never taught
at school about any of our fellow countrymen, from the Diaspora, who made
their name abroad. The Communist censorship controlled all information:
it always made sure that such books, written by Romanians living in the
West, not only could not be found in bookshops or in the school curricula,
but not even their name could be mentioned in bibliographies. It was a
complete embargo of ideas. It was death by silence, it was a conspiracy
Gradually I warmed to the subject and poured:
"This ideological censorship perpetrated by the Communists would
have put to shame even the Catholic Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Names
such as those of Mircea Eliade, or Emil Cioran were whispered in a hushed
voice, lest one would be overheard and thrown in prison for "seditious
propaganda". Ionescos "Rhinoceros" was staged in
Poland, but not in Romania. Even the works of those Romanian scientists
who chose freedom were banned from public libraries. Literature of any
kind, even scientific literature, was regarded as belonging to an "ideological
domain" It remained the preserve of the Communist Party, of the one-party
system, which dictated what staple diet was good for internal consumption.
You see, I have been over here for many years and I still have a lot to
catch up with the "ABC" rudiments of my culture and I
had not yet reached the letter "c" for Celan."
I was neither defensive nor ashamed of myself: I was just angry at the
injustice of that cultural genocide practised during forty years of Marxist
régime in Romania. Curiously this practice had not completely disappeared
since the so-called "Revolution", which was the coup de palais
of December 1989, which put down the tyrant and his wife!
Suddenly I remembered that innocuous event, which took place in Eastbourne,
several years ago, when the local branch of the "English-speaking
Union" had invited the Cultural Attaché of the Romanian Embassy
in London to address an audience of retired Civil servants and decent
country squires. His disquisition on "Romanian Culture" was
supposed to be informative. After his uninspired, uninspiring rambles,
redolent of the style of the defunct Communist Party rallies, the Attaché
took questions from the floor:
"Would he care to name" he was asked- "a Romanian
author of international repute, that could be read in English?" Quite
a legitimate question, I would have thought.
"Well, you see? There is one," he answered, after much thought
"He is a 19th century playwright by the name of Ion Luca Caragiale.
problem is that he is too subtle to do him justice in translation: he
fact, untranslatable and it is a pity!"
I was as startled as the rest of the audience was at this odd response.
I knew of Caragiale since my school days in Bucharest, at the time of
Stalins purges and of the national-communism of Gheorghiu-Dej. Caragiale
was the darling of the régime because he lampooned the "decadence"
of the Romanian upper and middle classes of modern Romania, at the end
of the 19th century, when the country was a young kingdom. Caragiale was
in prose for the Romanians what Gilbert and Sullivan was in rime and song
for the British. He was one of the few classics of Romanian literature
who could be "adopted" and "used" in his entirety
by a Marxist régime, for its propaganda purposes. All other of
Caragiales contemporaries were either conveniently forgotten, or
selectively censored to be repackaged as "progressive writers":
"True they were capitalists, but they were progressive for their
time", this would be the excuse. We knew there were, of course other
"progressive writers" who professed a more balanced view of
society. But because their style was more nuanced, not sufficiently critical
of the former pre-Communist régime, they did not mesh with the
Communist Government propaganda and they did not make it to the book stores
and schools. Such books were under lock and key in the dungeons of public
libraries, under the label of "fondul special" (the "special
fund"), which was open only under the strictest criteria to a handful
of approved "researchers" , regarded by the régime as
"reliable" enough to sing the praise of the one-party system.
19th century playwright by the name of Ion Luca Caragiale. The problem
is that he is too subtle to do him justice in translation: he is, in fact,
untranslatable and it is a pity!"
Great as he may have been, as a teenager, I soon got sick of this staple
diet of Caragiale, marketed as the "unique genius" that Romania
had ever produced! I wanted to find out more about the "other"
Romanian writers like Ionesco, and Eliade who were published abroad and
smuggled into the country at great risk. Now, some 30 years on, I was
jerked into reality, as the name Caragiale popped up again in the words
of this comrade from the Embassy. Thank God that this happened only in
the back water of Eastbourne and that the audience was insignificant,
otherwise the word might have spread like a foot and mouth virus to cause
As it happened, it only reinforced the prejudice, albeit within a small
group of English people, that Romanias contribution, beyond Dracula
and the orphanages was indeed insignificant. Witnessing this performance
it was no longer surprising to come across such ill-conceived prejudices
as that of Julian Barness ("One of a Kind") suggestion
that all that Romania could produce was a single genius in any one field
Brancusi in Sculpture, Ionesco in Drama, Nastase in Tennis, Hadji
in Football, Ceausescu in dictators
Quite a neat seditious little
theory, enough to make the blood of any Romanian curdle! And yet, we Romanians
we were our own worst enemies, at least if one were to judge our record
by the performance of this official emissary.
For me what I heard from the lips of this "nouveau communist"
was untrue and outright farcical. I wanted to shout to the audience the
long array of Romanian poets and novelists who lived in the West and did
write in other languages or were translated in German, English, Spanish
or French. There were scores of them, some being lionised in Paris, given
literary accolades and much coveted Literary Prizes, others compared to
the great and the good of International Pantheon of literature; "the
Gorky of the Balkans" , "the best German poet since Rilke"
, " the most elegant 20th Century French writer in the tradition
of Baudelaire and Valéry"
Since I chose Britain as my adoptive country, especially in my innocent
days of scholarship at Newcastle and later on at Cambridge I was brutally
aware of the ignorance of Romanian values in the West. After all why should
it matter? We were only a small country on the map of world culture and
for that reason we experienced the same complex as the other small European
nations - Portugal, Belgium or Finland.
In my early years of exile, fired by a youthful naiveté, steeled
by an tinge of arrogance, I was convinced that I could repair such injustice,
that I could change the world and become an unofficial "Open University"
of Romania I felt I had a "Messianic" message to impart
to the rest of the world and set up urgently to the task of writing articles,
translating Romanian poetry in English, even organising exhibitions and
festivals, to put the record straight. My research at Cambridge focused
on the Carpathian earthquakes and made the subject of an article in Nature
or the "Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society".
I was busy publishing Romanian poems in "Encounter". In the
"Cambridge Review" I debated the "Romanian myth in the
sculpture of Brancusi". I cajoled George Steiner in chairing an evening
of Romanian poetry at Churchill College. I played panpipe music, the Romanian
shepherds lament, in the Chapel of Peterhouse. I trotted about the
country addressing the WI in obscure provincial towns.
Other Romanian writers were pioneers of a new style: the Dada, the Lettrism,
the Theatre of the Absurd
These exiles were part of the literary
aristocracy of Paris, whose salons were frequented by Proust, Valéry,
Apolinaire or Colette all those enchantresses, who delighted, for
decades, the refined Parisian society, the conductrix of good taste
Countess Anna de Noailles, née Princess Brancovan, Princess Marthe
Bibesco, Hélène Vacaresco. All these were aristocrats by
vocation and by blood This is what our Romanian aparatchik did
not want to spell out and was trying instead to cover up. Besides, for
the Communists, these writers who chose Western Europe as their haven
still represented the embarrassment of a deep chasm between "them
and us" The "errand children" of Romania were not
yet ready to be accepted to the bosom of their country of origin, even
after Ceausescu was put down. The Romanian Diaspora was still on trial.
We still had a long tortuous road ahead of us, for our minds to meet.
It was not going to be easy bridging this spiritual gulf between the uprooted
and the deep rooted, between the dispossessed and the repossessed, or,
shall I say, the possessed of insidious propaganda - the brainwashed,
the complacent and the political opportunists.
I never got tired of my "missionary" initiative, but I soon
realised that the echoes were meagre compared to the effort that I put
in this pathos. Soon after, like every other graduate, I was absorbed
in my profession, in the less glamorous field of geophysics, or as the
French had it encapsulated so well, I had to "waste my life by earning
it". Still, my initiation in the contribution which the exiled Romanians
had made, grew ever more with every book or work of art I had acquired
during this trail of exploration.
So, many years later, when listening to that Romanian Cultural Attaché
addressing his unsuspecting audience in Eastbourne, I was shocked by the
malevolent manner in which he dispatched his subject. In spite of this
reaction I decided giving up my vocation of a "good soldier Schweick"
and say nothing, not to muddy the waters of an otherwise sunny afternoon
of the English Riviera. I was content to label this sorry diplomat a "rhinoceros",
a "relic" of our troubled past. Still I was surprised to hear
, later on, that he was promoted to become an Ambassador in a Western
"Good work Comrade! Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose!"
whispered in my ear my cynical "other self".
"His dutiful, zealous iconoclasm, his personal cultural revolution,
his damage to Romanias cultural heritage were all adequately recompensed
by his masters, both overt and covert: Ceausescus shadow was cast
large, well after his demise, it was functioning very well, according
to the same tenets of "cultural demonology."
The age of wisdom, but perhaps not the wisdom of the age, made me, at
long last, discover the bliss of being reconciled with inequities that
one cannot change. But was I?
Many more years after the Eastbourne episode, as I returned from John
Sandoes bookshop in Chelsea, I was in reflective mood:
"How come that I did not know about Paul Celan, after all these years?
It was no longer the Communists fault, it was MY fault."
I trawled the internet, I scurried the bookshops. Even Waterstones had
two books by Celan: I was surprised by my find.
Still, John Sandoe had quite a different dimension:
"I must put the record straight!"
I fell again in the same old trap in which I fell before so often, a trap
which I promised to avoid: that is the hole in which all Romanians find
themselves when they live in the West, a hole from the depths of which
"Look at us, we are famous, but nobody really knows about it! If
they do they think that we are foreign!"
As they do go about explaining their seminal contribution, their splendid
but ignored contribution, Romanians are experiencing that schizophrenic
sentiment an inferiority complex overprinted by an indelible conviction
of belonging to an illusory important nation.
By assembling this compilation of thoughts and shadows from the Carpathian
space, I hope that I could make peace, at least to a modest degree, with
this dichotomy which confronts the Diaspora.
London, July 2001