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.
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?