Damn you Norman Manea!

A lovely fall morning. Not quite cold enough to call brisk. A few degrees colder and it’d be perfect. I’m waiting for the commuter bus. I pull The Hooligan’s Return: A Memoir out of my bag. It’s a departure for me. Lately I’ve been feasting on lightweight stuff — speculative fiction, pseudo-marketing/social science stuff (The Tipping Point, The Long Tail, Applebee’s America). I plunge in. It’s a delight to return to a more literary form of writing even if it reduces my pages read per hour. Suddenly my head jerks upward, the commuter bus is slowing down. The slowing down is what breaks me out of the narrative. I love the civility and stability of this place — the driver knows me. There are no stops. He picks me up anywhere I stand along the route. Never would have happened in Oakland. And it’s the last bus along my route so it’s a good thing. I board, find a seat, and decide to listen to the radio on my MP3 player (which I don’t usually do). The Current is in full A.M. mode. Much to bluegrassy/alt-country-ey for me. I switch to music mode and decide to go with Allison Moyet’s “Raindancing” album — throaty, English synth-pop at its’ finest.

I’m vaguely aware of who Norman Manea is. But I can’t remember how much I once knew. It’s been much too long. And so enter this almost blind, a veil over the expectations that might inform this reading experience, and as the pages go by, the dread about going back to Romania; the execution of Culianu; the talk about clowns and poets and novelists, of dissidence, of Celan; the Iron Guard; the Securitate; Chagall’s “Martyr.” 30 pages in I have to stop. “Sleep like Breathing” is playing. I put it on endless repeat. The commuter bus is about halfway to Minneapolis.

Damn you Norman Manea.

I’m not one to swear. But this, this is almost unprecedented. Kafka, Bulgakov, Tolstoy all cut in a different way. This is too close.

There is a welling, a welling I intellectually know I can’t indulge in. This is not the sentimental (yet tenderly noble) stirrings caused by the noble, world-saving sacrifices in Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille or even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This is different. This is the beginning of tears of frustration and pain and bitter laughter and regret and hope and simple maudlin indulgence, a seizing up and yet loosing of my intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties.

I being to write. But as usual, I refuse to document. I have a cheap PDA where I could awkwardly stylus some notes. I could turn off the music and use the voice recorder on the MP3 player. But I can’t. I won’t. I know I’ll lose most of it. Probably the best of it. But I write this post in a state of pseudo-frenzy, the moment refusing to pass, because I’m gripped and also clutching even as I want to push away.

Here’s the problem: I have no right. My claims are pathetic, made even more so by how I have squandered what was given me. I vowed to never go back as a tourist; and have made no plans to go back. I vowed to keep up with the language, and am left with fragments. I brought back the voluminous Istoria of Literatura Romana. Its’ cheap pages yellow on my bookshelf. Oh, there are good excuses. Who was going to hire a Romanian specialist whose experience with the country and language comes from an LDS mission? Especially with so many well-educated sons and daughters of intellectual expatriates running around. And who are my peers in this? With Mormon literature and speculative fiction, I have many to potentially connect with. And as Manea seems to suggest, it gets real complicated this idea of Romanian literature and authenticity and audience and prophets in your own country (a country that is not your own).

And, oh, crap. Is Manea the Romanian writer who died, ummmmm, sometime in the past 5 years. The glimmer of a NY Times obit displayed on a computer screen flicks across my mind as I write this. Quick check of Wikipedia — no he isn’t. So who was it?

Let me be clear: this is not about some sense of shame over my missionary service. I remain absolutely certain that my call to Romania was inspired. That I was meant to be there. And that what I did there — the acting more as an ambassador to the public and mentor of new members than as a thundering proselytizer — was of value not just to me, not just to the LDS Church, but also to Romania. Because we were new, I had the luxury of not worrying so much about difficult preconceptions. Everyone was at least curious. And I was very, very good at negotiating this whole American religion, fascination with the West, but we’re Orthodox, thing. Not worrying about how it was done, but rather focusing on the promise of how it could be done in Romania. This could be right for you and here are some interesting aspects of our theology and praxis but you have to find out for yourself and it’s not a path to emigration, it’s about you building it here as a Romanian.

Yes, I know the arguments about Mormonism and colonizing and the lumping in with Western cultural imperialism. But were you there? Did you experience the still-intoxicating albeit dying fumes of revolution? Did you try and fight off the despair as it became clear that all it got them was a flood of the worst of Western commercialism and addictive products and that the oligarchs were still in charge. Broken trust everywhere. Clawing for resources. This community wasn’t for everyone, but it was a community.

So no, there’s no shame there. I shouldn’t say no shame — there was the refusal to document. Three semi-literary recordings in two years and list of hazelnut chocolate products (the depths we sunk to when there wasn’t any Nutella). Distance. I needed distance, I thought (and that’s what Manea sought for — and he paid the penalty). What remains will be what’s important or what can be worked, is workable. And the details can be transmuted because, well, because otherwise it’s too much hard work and just too much (mult pre mult). Of course, the details are what make the work.

Distance. Time. It’s been 15 years. Remember the plan to translate Caragiale’s “O Scrisoare Pierdute” and place it in late-19th century Utah? Remember all the other story starts? Or even just chronicling the few images and narratives that do remain. Lost icons. The green flashes of a Tramvei. The gypsy baby. I can’t remember what all else. But, hey. At least I did this, right? Right?

The commuter bus stops. I disembark (what did we say on crowded Romanian buses and streetcars to signal that? I can’t remember. Oh, that’s right, we ask them if they are going to descend. Coboratsi?). I cross the street to catch the downtown bus to work. The stop is in front of a public housing unit (Manea talks about the New York non-Stalinist Stalinist apartment building he lives in — I just confirmed his wording now and the number of pages from the beginning to where my bookmark are seem pathetically thin. Did all this happen in those few pages?). The bus is arriving. I move quickly to get on it. I’m behind a professional-looking woman and her young blond daughter. She is wearing a Disney Princesses coat. The daughter sense my presence and turns to look up at me as I approach. A sliver of shock pierces this state I’m in. In spite of the fact that she is blond, her face is very Eastern Eurpean-looking. She perhaps no more than a year older than my daughter who also has curly hair (although hers is honey blond). I’m not sure what it is. Probably something to do with orphanages, the cascade of little ones I interacted with, bundling themselves into whatever it is that has gripped me. Saying, don’t forget us! Looking back now, I don’t really know what that was all about. Her expression was one of, what, puzzlement, bemusement. Whatever.

Okay, time for a joke. It’s the only Romanian joke I know: The Secretary of State runs in to the Oval Office. “Mr. President, there is a national emergency. The Russians have painted half of the moon red! We must stop them at once!” The President meets this news with indifference. The Secretary of Defense comes running in and says, “Mr. President, the Russiance have painted three-quarters of the moon red now. We must respond quickly and forecefully!” Again, the President refuses to jump into action. Finally, the Vice President runs in and says, “Mr. President, the moon is now completely red. What are we going to do?” The President smiles, and says, “Here’s what we do. We give NASA a lot of white paint and have them paint the words Coca-Cola on it.” Bah, it sounded better in Romanian. And in Romania. In 1992.

I’m no hooligan. The two records of hooligani songs I bought came back with me warped and scratched. Unplayable.

I have no claims. I squandered any claims I could have made. So why hold this feeling? And why try to recreate it now as I write this. (It was better before — angrier and more poetic, but those words are lost now). I keep wanting to explain. Something about the colonizer being colonized and how everything doubles back on itself and how ludicrous literary effort is — and yet, what sparked all this? 30 pages. Damn you, Norman Manea.

Allison Moyet:

Every word’s so…
Every word’s so fragile

David Freeman and Moyet:

Inside passion that feels like chasing rain


When the slowness of the day is gone
Leaving shadow-like feelings to depend upon

Seems a bit overwrought and schmaltzy now. But I suppose that’s not out of character. Look. I’m not after pity or understanding. This is not a step forward. Not some catharsis. It’s crystallization. So now what? What do I read on the way home? And if I return, is it courage or just probing the wound?

14 thoughts on “Damn you Norman Manea!”

  1. William, I’d like to read The Hooligan’s Return now, but I’ve got a feeling I’d be disappointed, because it couldn’t be as good as this post. Fantastic.

  2. Your post touched me. I remember the angst I felt in being unable to express the thoughts that came to me after reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire as a high school student and, again, after embracing a culture, longing to contribute, then guiltily letting it recede into memory as my life moved on. You have put words to those emotions. Great writing!

  3. Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille — my daughter’s physic’s teacher is a Brust fan too. Funny, she was the only one in his class who got his Brust comment. Was he surprised after a month when he realized who she was.

    Bless your heart though, there are so many places for each of us, and never enough time.

  4. Wow. A touch of blog noire. An intriguing read, especially since I didn’t go on a mission and these kinds of renderings of feeling/insight are like a foreign language to me.

    Is there a name for this lingering and ever unfolding post-mission shift in Weltanschauung? Ought to be.

  5. wow, and there is the soul of everything, everything about Uzbek, that I thought and felt and planned, in 1990, and 1993, and 2001. Even the comic book adaptation of Kojojash.

  6. Do you mean the public housing building on 3rd and Hennepin, right across from the library?

    (I really enjoyed reading this post).

  7. That’s in our ward. I’ve taught a few discussions with the Elders in that building. We live about 1/2 mile from there over on 4th Ave N and 1st St.

  8. I got goose bumps reading your comments. I am a Romanian emigree who lived in Romania in Communist and a few post-Communist years, and witnessed the uprising in 89. I was serving in the Army at that time in Bucharest (compulsory service at that time), and I can tell you that was an experience I wish I had the talent to write a story about…a total Twilight Zone experience!

  9. Thanks, Florian. And, seriously, don’t worry about talent — just write the story. I’m sure it’s a story worth trying to capture.

  10. The fall of Communism in Romania had opened Pandora’s box and all evil poured out. Prosperity? Yes, for a few privileged ones. Freedom? Yes, freedom to say and do anything, in a lawless society. Happiness? No time to think about it, had to make a living. Tolerance? Romania turned into a dog eats dog society, a pot spilling over anti-Semitism, hatred and racism, mostly against Gypsies. Democracy? People had no idea what democracy really means (and probably still don’t). I wonder if democracy can be “exported” to any culture”¦.

    The other not so funny thing is that during Communist times Romanians seemed to be more united. Ironically, we were all brother in arms, albeit in a Kafkian society.

  11. I’m a romanian lds living in Romania right now… Wow, I wish we could still get missionaries that actually read more than 2 books in their life time, probably a generation gap… I don’t know how you can’t indulge in Kafka and Bulgakov and shocks me that you can compare them to Harry Potter… Even though it’s been 15 years “We’re orthodox” thing is still on. Probably at first glance nothing changed, but the youth now is far more understandable and westernised than 10 years ago, I know I finished high-school 2 years ago and in college here. Good post though. Romania is still an ashen world almost bleak, but steady in probably in like 50 years people will be more open minded than before….

  12. Stefan:

    Thanks for your comment. Yeah, it probably is a generation gap. It could also be that us early missionaries were a unique group (and not all had the literary experience I did). Or maybe that’s just a self-indulgent sense of exceptionalism on my part.

    To be completely clear — I do more than indulge in Kafka, Bulgakov and Tolstoy. I breathe them. But I think that Manea hit me in the particular moment captured above because the actual content was closer to me and my direct experience.

    The Harry Potter comparison was one of comparing the sentimental “look at Harry sacrifice himself” reading experience with the much deeper, more harrowing experience of reading Manea.

    You write “Romania is still an ashen world.” A quick anecdote: I saved my best white shirt for baptisms (that I performed) and mission conferences. I wore it less than 20 times in two years. I took it home with me, left the rest of my dress shirts there save the one I wore on the plane. I went to put it on the following Sunday. My mom told me I couldn’t wear it because it was grey. I said, no it isn’t — this is my best white shirt. The one I preserved. She had me compare it to one of my dad’s white shirts. She was right.

    The thing is, in spite of the ashes, there was quite a lot about Romania I found beautiful.

  13. You’re welcome.
    You were struck by Manea because you experienced it, even a little. It shocks and appals unlike other books that you’re just a third undisclosed party that it watching from a distance without any attachments to the places and people.
    I was refering to ashen more metaphorically, well I tried to explain it as good as I can I can’t really write something that flows… yet.
    Probably is getting better…

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