In this issue Damian Kelleher reviews Bogdan Suceavă’s novel Coming From an Off-Key Time, about the upheaval in Romania following the fall of communism in 1989. He writes, “The madness of the ’90s becomes the madness of the people, the government, and religion, as bombs explode, people die, martyrs are created, institutions die and institutions grow strong— Bogdan Suceavă has captured this chaos on the page, compressing and transferring an impressive quantity of Romania’s present and its lengthy and complicated past into a narrative that remains cohesive and effective, and should resonate as much with those unfamiliar with Romania and its culture as it did with the Romanian public when first published in 2004.”
For more on this novel and its author, Kelleher conducted an interview covering Romania, humor in literature, and cats that conduct espionage.
Damian Kelleher: Your novel Coming From an Off-Key Time was published in January by Northwestern University Press. You’ve mentioned before that this novel is the best thing you have ever written and will ever write. Why? What is it about this novel that makes it more important than your other works?
Bogdan Suceavă: Perhaps because I am still under the strong impression that in Romania in 1990-1996 I witnessed the first years in the devolution of a society. I was a freshman at the University of Bucharest when the anti-Communist revolution from 1989 broke out. My years as an undergraduate student happened to start about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the beginning of a great period of change. From the outside it looked like Romania was going through a thorough transformation of the whole society from a one-party government to a democratic society where the political leaders are elected in office by free elections, but actually, from our perspective in Bucharest, it was a very unstable environment.
Romania was without a Constitution between December 22, 1989, and December 8, 1991. In all this time there were serious riots in which workers’ unions either supported the provisional government or fought against it, switching allegiance as their interests dictated best at the time. Not only that, in March 1990 there were inter-ethnic clashes in central Transylvania between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians that threatened the whole society. This was before the civil war broke in Bosnia, so it wasn’t really clear how tragic these events can turn.
DK: How did the political situation in Romania affect you directly?
BS: I saw most of these societal transformations from the streets of Bucharest. I have seen a bloody revolution and I have seen riots. I had high hopes and I failed to find myself a place in that new world. Most probably I will never see something like this again and I can only hope that nobody in Europe will have to witness such a sea of uncertainty. That’s why I felt that turning these experiences into literature could be my best contribution.
I felt the urge to depict in a novel this world as it was falling apart while appearing to the outside world that it was transforming into a stable haven. But it was actually a world without rules, dominated by beliefs in tribal gods and by instincts, where the Orthodox Church played a complicated role, and in many cases encouraged religious extremism. It’s a world where medieval models remained very powerful.
These issues are not specific to Romania alone. Remember how Serbian extremists fought for Kosovo Polje in their pursuit of a medieval idea, and how Hungarian extremists fought for an ideal Hungary that would have, in their minds, the boundaries of a long lost medieval kingdom. In Romania there is also a strong temptation towards some models of medieval glory.
DK: So you used these unsettled feelings as the basis for your novel?
BS: Yes, that was my literary motivation. That feeling of having lost something from long ago inspired quite a few scenes in Coming from an Off-Key Time, since these temptations and ideas resurfaced in the Romanian society after the fall of Communism. I dreamt for years of writing a novel that captured in a relatively short tale (perhaps about 200 pages) the whole local flavor of Bucharest, the colorful world that operates with inconsistent logic and vacuous rules, an eclectic atmosphere where the bohemian youth mixed with old apparatchiks, where fake scholars confuse concepts and ideas, where politicians and religious figures are despicable, and all of them together generate a bizarre political diorama. I can write other stories, but Coming from an Off-Key Time is the novel where I aimed to capture the logic of the world I grew up in.
DK: A key theme in much of your writing is the ability of the characters and, often, the narrator, to laugh at the society around them and their place within it. How important is laughter in literature to you?
BS: Laughing about everything is a very Romanian attitude, perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Romanian world. Most of the people born and educated in Romania have a sixth sense for detecting and elaborating on the ridiculous side of every matter. If we are looking for the literary expression of this attitude, I must say here that the master of us all is the late 19th-century comedy writer Ion Luca Caragiale, whose plays targeted the highly corrupted Romanian political class from the first period of the Kingdom. However, this inclination does not annihilate a fatalist feeling and a pessimistic slant that could be related to latent depression. In several of my works, laughter marks the point where the logic of a society fails, where a culture expresses its serious internal contradictions.
DK: You are now based in the United States, and have been there for a number of years. Has being removed from Romania deepened your appreciation of your country? Are you able to see the state of Romania better now that you are apart from it?
BS: I think that my choice to live in the United States since 1996 meant a lot for my literary work and the consequences have been more complex than I originally thought. I grew up in a world where I had been taught in elementary school and in high school a series of lies, most of them about local history, but not limited just to the remote past. I am talking here about the education system from the communist Romania, thus it’s about the common ground of deliberate misinformation that most people in my generation were forced to take as truth while we were growing up.
We were told and taught impressive lies. They were included in our social sciences and our history and literature textbooks. Additionally, there were many lies by omission. After a few years in the U.S., when I had access to more information, to better libraries and various library databases, I started to read more and more European history. Two of the occurrences concerned me more than the others: (1) the theory that the Romanian nation lived and developed continuously in the geographic territory from around the Carpathian mountains for two thousand years, and (2) Romania’s involvement in World War II, when the Romanian army fought with its full strength on the side of Nazi Germany between the summer of 1941 and August 23, 1944. After this date, Romania switched sides and fought against Nazi Germany until May 1945.
When I was in junior high elementary school, in the 1980s, the first claim was unquestionable and was the fundamental axiom of who we were as Romanians and what we had to do in life. If one grows up with the idea that she/he has to continue a two-thousand-year-old destiny, the government can manipulate and expect any effort from that person. The Romanian government expected work without proper pay, a lot of effort and sacrifices—because all sacrifices are for the good of the nation, aren’t they?
Teaching the new generations to view the world through this two-thousand-year perspective was a key piece in the national communist propaganda and I needed a lot of reading, research, and reflection to take it out of my mind. This vision and its use in education and propaganda made Romanian communism different from Soviet communism or the other versions of the ideology applied in Central and Eastern Europe. My personal cure was long and difficult, it required a lot of effort and was only possible because I had access to information I couldn’t locate in Romania. Thus, it really mattered that I was in the U.S. I read a lot of medieval sources and I had to do some serious library research to convince myself that I had been systematically lied to in school when I grew up.
The second lie mentioned above was even more dangerous, since most of what we learned in school included the Romanian fight against the Nazis. In reality, Romania had a very singular place in World War II. It was the largest neighbour of USSR to harbor a tradition of extreme right-wing ideas, which meant that all it needed was a spark to start a very dangerous fire, a freeway to serial murder based upon ideological grounds—and the international political context from around World War II provided that spark. The Romanian culture in the 1930s was a potential mass murdering machine, relying on the strength of the legend that the Romanian nation has lived for two-thousand years—surrounded by Carpathians and that all the ethnic minorities including Hungarians, Slavs, Jews, or Gypsy, are threatening the Romanian tribe. We were taught that Romania could not develop properly because it was being suffocated by foreigners. This vision was fed by a few writers and artists that helped the extreme right to develop their message.
When Stalin gave an ultimatum in 1940 that Romania should leave the geographical territory that today includes most of the Republic of Moldova, the motivation for crimes was set in place and it was like the fire was set. One year later, Romania joined Nazi Germany in a surprise attack against the USSR. Romania annexed a part of Ukraine, created a new province called Transnistria, and killed a large number of innocent civilians while expanding to the East.
Growing up in the 1980s under Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania, I had never heard a word in school about all these tragedies generated by the Romanian army. Later, when I was in the U.S. studying mathematics in graduate school, I felt that I needed to explain somehow the springs that loaded this medieval machinery implanted in our heads by the Communist education system.
DK: This provided the background for writing Coming from an Off-Key Time?
BS: Yes. I am perfectly aware that I will not make everybody happy with what I say here. But Romanian culture, as well as many other cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, has many intricate innate springs that trigger a medieval way of viewing our neighbour as an enemy. If one is different, then he’s the enemy—this is how the machinery works. Such a state of mind is a perfect ground for crime. With Coming from an Off-Key Time, which is a novel written originally for a Romanian audience, I aimed at our minds: I planned a comedy that would expose us as we are, with all our tribal instincts and our inclination toward placing the tribal interest above any other values, in particular above the value for human life. What I am saying is that I don’t think I could have written this book if I lived in Romania. The awakening took a while and I believe that distance played a part in it. Without this distance, I don’t think I could have written my novel.
DK: In Coming From an Off-Key Time there is a character who was turned into a cat by a secret KGB weapon and is now one of the most effective Romanian Intelligence Service spy. You have written that to understand the humour of the cat is to understand Bucharest. Talk about that.
BS: Before and after 1989, the Romanian secret services conducted extended surveillance on its citizens on a large scale. It’s something that even today the Romanian society has not recovered from its effects. In Bucharest, today, it seems like every week there is another “Watergate” scandal in which we find out about new recordings leaked from the secret service to the mass media. I don’t think there are too many places in this universe where one is watched over the shoulder so much, and where privacy is violated so often.
In my novel I needed to depict this situation in a comic way. It’s an old trick to give an animal human characteristics to generates humor; it’s mentioned in detail in Henri Bergson’t Theory of Laughter. No other animal would better fit the description of a spy that follows one everywhere but a cat. It’s a very dedicated cat, full of patriotic feelings, who reflects all that education from under Ceauşescu, all the machinery of the spying process.
DK: The protagonist of Coming from an Off-Key Time is a tragic figure. His end is at once comic and cruel, and there are echoes of Christ’s death in his passing. Was your intention to compare the Romanian government—who roundly ignored the protagonist even as he gained favour with the public—to the Roman government from two-thousand years ago?
BS: In the novel, Vespasian Moisa is put under trial by a rival sect, not by the government. As he is recovering after the torture, the cat tries to recruit him to serve as informant for the secret services. That yields an implicit analogy between the Roman government from two-thousand years ago and the contemporary Romanian government. Actually, I played a lot with the potential of double level of reading, and I am happy that you noticed it. There are such subtle parallels hidden in the text.
DK: The novel is written in a number of different styles, ranging from the archaic to the modern. What influenced your decision in this area, and how much of this do you feel was transferred (or lost) in translation?
BS: I tried to bring forth in this text the whole Bucharest, that whole mixture of the real and imaginary world, partly grounded in the authentic tradition, partly based on made up claims and political theories, as I have explained above. To create the self-contained environment that the novel needed I had to combine all this rich material in one single substance. The first thirty pages or so are meant to serve as an introduction, where all these divergent pieces of cultural heritage are combined into one single style, delivered by one single voice. The good news is that Alistair Ian Blyth, the translator, is an outstanding specialist in Romanian language and culture and knew very well what he was doing. It is my hope that most of the tongue-in-the-cheek phrases, assisted by the brief but comprehensive notes at the end of the book, retain their meaning. We received great help from the editorial team at Northwestern University Press when we prepared the notes at the end of the book, and while working on this editorial presentation we had in mind English-speaking audiences. We wanted to inform and entertain in the same time. The translator and the copyeditor worked together with myself, which was a great experience. That’s why I hope the novel succeeds for an English-speaking audience: this work stands a fair chance to be completely understood.
DK: You say the novel was written first and foremost for a Romanian audience. Given that English-speaking people in the West are at least somewhat familiar with Communism and its ill-effects, how much can a reader expect to understand in your work? Do they run the risk of losing too much of the meaning?
BS: It may be interesting to see that some English-speaking readers would like to read exactly works that explore this reality. Take for example M.A. Orthofer’s comment for Complete Review, where he wrote that this novel “is an excellent example of what a foreign reader might hope for in a specifically ‘contemporary Romanian novel’: inward-looking (in contrast to so much of the current Eastern European fiction that is fixated on comparisons to the west) and, though modern, strongly rooted in local tradition (literary as well as otherwise).” I loved reading this comment. It’s true that it depends a lot on whether the reader is willing to bed forward and accept a viewpoint developed from another literary tradition. I have already had the chance to discuss with students who read this book at several North American universities (Columbia University or University of Texas at Dallas) and to visit departments with strong programs in Romanian studies (as for example the program at Arizona State University), which has given me a positive feeling about Coming From an Off-Key Time‘s potential to be understood.
DK: Finally, you have mentioned authors from the past such as Jaroslav Hašek and Karel Čapek as being important unknowns to American readers, as well as contemporary writers such as Filip Florian, Lucian Dan Teodorovici and Alta Ifland. I would add to those names Mircea Cărtărescu and Anca Cristofovici as great writers waiting to be discovered in English. Who is writing in Romanian right now that the American reader should get excited about?
BS: I should add here that essential readings for anyone interested in Eastern Europe are the Soviet authors Ilya Ilf and Evgeni Petrov. The most important Romanian author today is Norman Manea, whose novel Hooligan’s Return received several international distinctions. One of my favourite authors is Radu Aldulescu, whose realistic novels express a special sense of tragic. I like very much the social fables and profound metaphors used by Florina Ilis, Petru Cimpoeșu, Liviu Bîrsan and Petre Barbu. Perhaps the most lucid observer of the Romanian world is Răzvan Petrescu, and I’d like to see more of his works translated outside Romania. A very interesting novel of the first wave of the exiles after 1990 was written by Radu Jorgensen over a decade ago, while the author was still living in Sweden. A very original writer with an excellent dramatic instinct is Răzvan Rădulescu, who wrote the scripts of excellent movies like The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu and The Paper Will Be Blue. There is a lot of good quality Romanian prose that still awaits to be discovered by the interested audience outside Romania. Perhaps the new culture of the book, the one generated by the new technological advancements, will allow some space for literature in translation. I am hopeful we’ll find a way toward that.
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