Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tony Judt and Dumitru Tsepeneag

Hotel Europa by Dumitru Tsepeneag

It is now nearly four years since we lost the inimitable Tony Judt, the finest historian of Europe of our generation.  His magisterial Postwar: Europe Since 1945 stands as the most incisive work of historical scholarship and humane erudition produced in recent memory. Judt wore his learning lightly, wrote lucidly, judged according to clear and rational standards of historical conduct, and remained remarkably untainted by the ideological distortions that have diminished the writings of so many contemporary historians.  What reader of the New York Review of Books or of the London Review hasn't marveled at Judt's ability to distill a career ("Goodbye to All That? Leszek Kolakowski and the Marxist Legacy"), demolish the "useful idiots" of the early 2000's ("The Silence of the Lambs: On the Strange Death of Liberal America"), or cut to the heart of a complex contemporary political question ("The Country That Wouldn't Grow Up")?  Well, plenty of them. Because he refused to climb on board any bandwagon and was equally critical of all parties guilty of self-serving mendacity and gross stupidity, Judt had plenty of enemies--those blindly loyal to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories, supporters of the intransigence of the PLO under Arafat, unreconstructed Marxists, the editors of the New York Times who supported W. Bush's war in Iraq, those who adored Pope John Paul ("A Pope of Ideas?" one of the most devastating essays ever written about the pretensions of papal power), and anyone hoodwinked by the fatuousness of Thomas Friedman.  Even when I didn't agree with Judt's viewpoint on some question it was difficult not to be charmed and persuaded by his prose, his deep and humane learning, and his ethical sincerity.

All of which is a long prologue to the tale of Hotel Europa by Dumitru Tsepeneag, surely a household name in the literary precincts of our republic (!).  Hotel Europa (a bit of a joke I think: Bucharest is closer to Istanbul than to Paris) was published in Romanian in 1996, not long after the political events it depicts, translated by Patrick Camiller, and issued by Dalkey in 2010, by which time the sclerotic memories of Romania's descent into chaos (from somewhat greater chaos) had already fallen into the black hole of forgetfulness that the zombies of the informationless age inhabit.  This is one thing among many I loved about Tony Judt--he knew everything worth knowing, he thought it was important to know everything, and he appeared never to forget what he knew. Even in his dying from ALS, he dictated a book to his secretary (Ill Fares the Land) that puts every other book about our nation's predicament to shame. And what are some of the things Judt hadn't forgotten?  The unspeakable crimes of Ceaușescu for one thing: the torture centers, the extra-judicial murders, the violence against dissenters, the lies he told to hoodwink three or four American presidents (Ceaușescu was a critic of the Soviet leadership during the Cold War and thus an ally of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and others).  Despite his brutality--for example, in an effort to increase the "pure Romanian population," beginning in 1966 both birth control and abortion were prohibited in Romania, a draconian measure which resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 women--in spite of such Stalinist madness, Ceaușescu was granted IMF loans that he repaid on the backs of the poorest people in Europe, MFN trade status, membership in GATT, a state visit to London, and fawning attention by Western politicians who should have known better. 

Dumitru Tsepeneag, pictured above and to the left, is among the most popular writers in Romania and highly regarded in his adopted nation of France.  In the 1960's he was among the founders of the Oniric group of Surrealists--indeed his books have a strong surrealist strain: they are dreamlike, fracturing space and time, dispersing with chronology and causality, jumping from fiction to (purported) fact, from autobiography to novelistic invention.  Tsepeneag had his Romanian citizenship revoked by Ceaușescu's government in 1975 and in that year emigrated to Paris. At first he published in Romanian, and then, as he puts it, his publisher asked him to write in French to save money on translation. His most popular novel thus far, The Vain Art of the Fugue was his first to appear in his adopted language--it's a good place to start with this difficult writer.

Hotel Europa tells the story of the 1990 revolution in Romania through the eyes of both the narrator (who is trying to get away from Paris and his French wife in order to write the book that we are reading) and a group of students victimized by the riots of that year.  The novel is full of mordant playfulness--witty exchanges on the forever twinned subjects of  politics and sex, not unlike those that fill Hopscotch, replace traditional plot lines.  Who, for example, is Ion, whose principle role appears to be the mouthpiece of the author, but a most uncooperative one?

"Ion [the novel's main character, a student] might accuse me [the novelist] of speaking more about myself in this novel than him, despite the fact that he's the main character. Of course it would be easy for me to reply that he doesn't decide who the main character is. . . But that, I admit, would be unworthy of an author who hates appearing to his readers as a god or a father in relation to his characters. . . "  

Although he wrote a generation earlier, I often thought of Tsepeneag's countryman Eugene Ionesco as I read Hotel Europa.  The two exiles had a lot in common, including residence in Paris, a love-hate relationship with their country of birth, and the adoption of the French language.  I remember my first reading of Ionesco's brilliant absurdist play The Chairs, a farce not unlike Waiting for Godot (but darker)--Tsepeneag doesn't unhinge reality in quite the way that Ionesco did, but the comparison is apt. Both writers, coming from a country where, as Tony Judt pointed out, there has been an "obsession with identity," confront the facts of displacement and a lack of rootedness. Tsepeneag's books (of the two I've read) place his characters in predicaments that consistently undercut their sense of gravity.  No one belongs; no set of circumstances feels fixed beyond the moment, and political violence sweeps up everyone--"all that is solid melts into air"--even under communism.   

Back to Tony Judt: "'Some countries,' according to E.M. Cioran, looking back across Romania's twentieth century, 'are blessed with a sort of grace: everything works for them, even their misfortunes and catastrophes. There are others for whom nothing succeeds and whose very triumphs are but failures. When they try to assert themselves and take a step forward, some external fate intervenes to break their momentum and return them to their starting point.'"  This is from Judt's essay "Romania Between History and Europe," included in the collection Reappraisals, published in 2008.

There is an interview with Dumitru Tsepeneag, in French, here

Hotel Europa is published by Dalkey Archive.

George Ovitt 2/22/14

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