Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Pushed Into a Kind of Nightmare"

The Black Envelope by Norman Manea

“I never wished to be a ‘political’ writer, and I hope I wasn’t only that, even when I was forced to write about a nightmarish politicized reality.”

The opacity of parts of The Black Envelope may be attributable to the reality about which Norman Manea writes--the reality, or rather the unreality, of the Ceausescu years, the farcical (one is tempted to say 'Kafkaesque,' but the dictatorships installed in Eastern Europe after World War II lacked the wit of Kafka's fictional world) injustices, petty indignities, and unremitting terror of an arbitrary political system.  I remember the stories that were circulating in the early 1990's, right after  Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad, stories about Ceausescu's mad version of "democratic socialism," his discredited claims that, unlike his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a die-hard Stalinist, he, Ceausescu, had brought justice, peace, and democracy to Romania. The reality was that Ceausescu's secret police maintained rigid controls over political and artistic speech and tolerated no dissent or opposition. Opponents of the regime were arrested, tortured, and executed in a manner that had become commonplace in Eastern Europe, especially beginning with the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Manea has been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner; his books are, if not overtly political, a reflection of a life engaged, or perhaps victimized, by the tragedies of his country.  As a Romanian Jew, Manea was deported, along with most other Romanian Jews, to a concentration camp at Transnistria, in the Ukraine, when he five years old.  After his repatriation in 1945, Manea attended school and university, trained as a hydro-engineer, and began  to write fiction in the early 70's.  All of  his books were banned and he was forced into exile in 1986. 


Manea describes his own youthful deportation as being "pushed into a kind of nightmare," into a terrible Russian winter during which his grandparents and many of his family's friends and neighbors died and his father was reduced to believing that life was no longer worth living.  In his autobiographical statements and his memoir-novel The Hooligan's Return, Manea attributes to his 'iron-willed' mother his own and his father's survival. 

 In The Black Envelope, Tolea, a high school teacher, who has apparently lost his job for an ill-defined sexual transgression, seeks to unravel the story of his father's mysterious death, but not with much diligence.  In fact, the novel is a patchwork of enigmatic and truncated scenes--a loosely constructed amalgam of fragmented action and broken bits of internal monologue--including an account of Tolea's ill-fated job as a hotel clerk, his encounters with characters from across the social spectrum of 1980's Bucharest, and  his mockery of a corrupt society which he seeks to escape through ironic critique and dreamy disengagement.  The novel is populated with black marketers, sycophants, political operatives, fools and fiends--in other words, part of The Black Envelope's  purpose is to offer a  'General Prologue' to the sordid tales of Communist Romania's dupes and crooks. It struck me halfway through the novel that Tolea's musings, which are often disjointed and difficult to follow, have the feeling of an interrogation--they circle implicit questions and offer only evasive answers.  It is as if the book were written to fool the censors--as it was.

It also struck me that one could write such a book today, about this country, my beloved America--increasingly a sham "peoples' republic" dominated by dupes and crooks, lobbyists and PACS, with a government controlled by a corrupt ruling class, with its ideals perverted by greed and with propaganda having replaced reasoned civil discourse.  Of course, I'm exaggerating, but The Black Envelope felt especially poignant as its sordid tales of moral corruption unfolded against the background of Congressional 'debates' about the budget, gun control, and sequestration--a  newspeak term if ever there were one.  It is unfair to Manea's history of suffering and persecution to make this comparison, but one cannot help but do so; this is the power of incisive political fiction--it evokes sympathetic comparisons to one's own situation.

I spent two months slowly making my way through The Black Envelope--it is, to say the least, a challenging book, not one that I could say I "liked" in the way I often like a book--it is full of malaise and bitterness, a rather hopeless vision of a lost era in a benighted country.  But Manea is a great writer, a passionate intellectual witness to his own and his country's tragedy, and perhaps to ours as well.

The Black Envelope is translated by Patrick Camiller and published by Yale University Press in their Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
There is a fine interview with Manea, produced by Bard College, available here

George Ovitt (4/28/13)

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