Claudia Moscovici

Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

I have just written a post about Proust and his biographers, who attempt to render this classic 20th-century writer palatable and relevant to 21st-century readers. Proust stands the test of time partly because he delves into the depths of our dreams, desires, fears and all the hidden regions of our subconscious, which seem to have their own logic and are perennial. He also puts a writer’s magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy  and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.

Today I’d like to present the works of a Romanian-American fiction writer and literary critic, Dumitru Radu Popa, who continues the genre of psychological fiction in our times. Psychological fiction is, in many respects, timeless. As much as our social and political institutions may change, arguably the basics of human nature remain more or less the same. However, the challenge for a fiction writer remains to render basic human fears, emotions, obsessions and desires interesting and engaging for a contemporary audience. Dumitru Radu Popa relies upon his broad cultural training in literature, philosophy, philology and law–as well as his keen artistic sensibility–to accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in the United States.

 

As a writer, literary critic and intellectual, Dumitru Radu Popa has been well-known since the 1970’s. His works in Romanian include a book of literary criticism about Saint-Exupery, several collections of short stories (Calatoria, 1982; Fisura, 1985 and Panic Syndrome! 1997), the anthologies Skenzemon! (2005) and Lady V. and Other Stories (2006) as well as two novels, one of which–Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions–has been recently translated into English (Outskirts Press, 2011) and the second of which, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square), I’m currently translating into English.

One of my favorite books, Lady V. and Other Stories harks back to the talent of exquisite, well-crafted psychological fiction  reminiscent of the modernist style of Henry James and Marcel Proust. This beautifully written  collection of short stories is universal in its appeal. It is subtle, even exquisite in the way physical descriptions and details (of gestures and movements) speak volumes about the characters’ states of mind and feelings. The narrative, fluid and delicate in style, places itself in the tradition of literary fiction without being in any way arcane or pretentious. Moreover, Dumitru Radu Popa’s ironic touches are incisive and honest, without ever becoming brutal. They are  similar in tone to Chekhov’s fiction, which depicts human beings as they are–flaws and all–without hating us for our foibles and fallibility.

Dumitru Radu Popa’s newest novel, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square) is, in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s La Recherche. On the surface this is the story–or, more like it, fantasy–of an illicit love affair between a professor and his graduate student. When one delves deeper into the text, however, one discovers a meditation on the nature of time, about how the ingrained memories of childhood infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults as well as lyrical analysis of human mortality itself. To give you a feel for the narrative, I’m including below the first chapter of this intriguing novel.

Crossing Washington Square, by Dumitru Radu Popa

(Tr. Claudia Moscovici)

Swedish Hood

I.

Like every morning, crossing Washington Square from University Place towards 4th Street, losing myself in the anonymity of the red building, with the brick facade, of the Philosophy Building–a perfect edifice made to reduce everything to the absence of worries and metaphysical torments–I thought that time materialized, gaining a consistency difficult to pinpoint yet lacking, at core, any ambiguity.  It could be the beggar on the other side of the fence, exhibiting malodorous wounds or urinating, through his pants, on the bench where he slept all night, covered by newspapers, with a stitched together rag, or sometimes even with a torn American flag, left by God knows what Puerto Rican parade that transformed for an evening the whole neighborhood into a deplorable trash bin:  beer cans and Pepsi tumbling with an irritating noise; left-over junk food; packages and trampled cigarettes.

Or perhaps it could be the policeman with a Hispanic name, moving back and forth, on his electric scooter or astride a horse—as useless as it is traditional in the municipal annals of the institution—with a tattered leather agenda peeking from his back pocket, indifferent to the industrious marijuana vendors, who, unperturbed, accost you with the question, whistled through their teeth “Smoke? Smoke?”, but always ready to give a blistering ticket for a car parked unknowingly or carelessly in an illegal spot. Or it could be people with somber demeanors—always the same ones!—walking their dogs on the grass, with a resigned air to their daily punishment, so freely accepted. Not to mention the joggers that gallop with a regular stride, sweating in their plastic jogging suits, old or young, almost all of them with a walkman on their ears, breathing in deeply the most polluted air in New York, yet convinced, in spite of that, that they’re ameliorating their health, as if health, like time itself in a way, had become, all of a sudden, something tangible, perfectly quantifiable and, consequently, susceptible to being altered… Or, finally, it could be the hyper-realist anomaly of the landscape: the minuscule Arch of Triumph, mounted upon Fifth Avenue, the most famous street in New York,  a dwarf or an aborted child of its richer cousin from Etoile de la Paris, which the Japanese tourists, like stuffed pheasants, photograph from summer to winter, from all angles, so as not to miss its specificity.

Yes, indeed! Bucharest was dying, or was already dead within me, slowly and gradually, I can’t recall exactly which year, month or day since in such cases one no longer knows how many grains make a pile… And all this bazaar (to say bizarre would be too facile), surrounding me, neither friend nor foe, but pure and simple like a fact. All this probably gave time its material consistency, especially crossing the square, every weekday, today being no different from every other day.

Yet time, this unflappable and intangible flow from nothing to nothing, or from nowhere to nowhere, however it was—the beggar, the policeman, the jogger, the derisory Arch of Triumph, perhaps even the empty, abandoned cigarette packs, and the left-over junk food on the ground—it all seemed to me, in the final analysis, an immense embodiment of the urgency with a raised right hand, the pointer finger itself an exclamation point trying to deny access to the impersonally soothing building where I’d spend the next eight hours of the day in the library, in an office, or in classrooms. And the message of this exclamation could have been something like: “Cave! Remember, I go over each detail and each discrepancy of the landscape, but this doesn’t mean anything!” Perhaps not quite as dramatic and rhetorical, but in any case, something similar.

I’m speaking now of the mixed sensations, not even clear to me: someone with more common sense could have easily concluded that, in fact, I was doing nothing more than becoming aware that I was getting old. But it’s one thing to notice that, with the same naiveté—so delectable!—that leads adolescents to see in a thirty year old a “finished man”, and another to approach 50: then, probably, the only chance of avoiding a psychic depression is contemplating time, as if this could somehow save the individual from a personal acceptance of this flow that leads to the ugly words “old age”,  ascribing it all to an immanent and incontestable general paradigm.

As mentioned, recently Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, a political thriller and love story, was published in English translation by Outskirts Press. This novel, like the author himself, straddles two worlds. Part of the plot takes place in post-revolutionary Romania, while the other is set in the United States. Far from being an idyllic place of newly gained democratic freedom, the Romania depicted in the novel is filled with practical problems and mutual suspicions. Although the Securitate (or Romanian Secret Police) has been officially abolished, spying still continues as usual: without, however, the same devastating impact as during the communist era. The oppression that used to be the subject of dystopic fiction (such as Orwell‘s 1984) is now better described, by Popa’s novel, in an ironic and cynical vein. In the confusing post-revolutionary political context, the love between Sabrina and Vlad faces many challenges. Yet this is also the plot element that gives the novel a very human touch and captures the readers’ interest and emotions. Several stylistic elements–including love story, philosophical dialogue and political intrigue–all work together to create an irresistible fiction. I’m including below an excerpt of the English translation of  Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, which appeared online in Levurelitteraire.com, Numero 2, below:

“Come on, Plato.  Let’s go home.  Iphigenia’s waiting for you.”

“I can’t right now, woman!  Leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’m playing backgammon with Homer?  And he’s got some luck today.  It’s like he stepped in you know what: I clearly mean … or maybe he just didn’t wash his hands after you know what.”

“Stop being such an ass, Plato!  You’re only saying that because you’re losing.  If you smell anything here it’s not me.  It must be Idomeneo’s shad; he’s dried them out like hell and they’re so hard they’re going to break my dentures…”

“Shad always needs dill,” blubbered one of the old man onlookers known as Menny, though his paperwork clearly stated that his name was Menelaus Kakanis.

The roll of the dice drew a cry of joy from Plato while he utterly ignores Iphigenia’s emissary who is standing by the door with her hand to her mouth.

“Aha!  There you are!  This is the end of you!  Briseis, hand me one of Idomeneo’s dry shad.  I’ll tenderize it with this pot… too bad I don’t have a bust of Cicero…”

“Well, Cicero is out buying new tires,” Menny tried to intervene but he was quickly stifled as usually happens to those in his position.

“Iphigenia said to come home right away to wash up and get ready for Aristotle, Penelope and Orpheus, not to mention his cross-eyed sister Cassandra, who are coming over tonight.  And then we’re all going to go to St. Basil’s Church.  Herostratus is coming too, you know, the one who just opened that big grocery near Ditmars.”

“Oh alright, I’m coming.  Just let me finish up with this coward.  Homer’s coming to church too with Aphrodite and Hecuba.  But we have plenty of time, my clothes aren’t even ready.  The guys at the cleaners on Hoyt Avenue said five o’clock.  Catharsis, you know the place.  It’s the best one, doesn’t even compare with those lousy Chinese at French Cleaners.”

“Aha, did you hear that? Catharsis!” said in Romanian a guy with the beginnings of a belly, maybe even a full gut, who spoke while holding a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.

It was bright as day, Colonel Munteanu.

He and his companion had sat at a table in the back, near the bathrooms that smelled strongly of disinfectant, and this combination of chlorine and dried fish was enough to turn your stomach.

“Since when do you understand Greek?” asked his associate.  He was much younger, thin, with prominent cheekbones and an unusually conspicuous Adam’s apple, so that the shadow he cast on the wall looked like nothing as much as a cartoon from the Sunday funnies.

“Shut up and listen!  Or are you playing the fool?  You don’t need to speak Greek to know he said Catharsis: those Greek dry cleaners where that big cheese, your godfather, sended his clothes.  Don’t you remember from the file?  It seems that he used to bring in his clothes with blood stains every night.  He’d pick them up clean in the morning, but the stains always returned in the exact same spots.  Totally absurd!”

“It’s not absurd at all! There’s clearly some dough involved, if only we could find its traces…  But I don’t think it’s here…  Anyway, I was just saying,” whinged the other, code name Lazar. “I’ve seen backgammon before and I don’t really like this Greek food, either.  I’ve gotten more used to Chinese, especially since it’s also cheaper!”

“We’re not talking about what you may or may not like!,” chastised a resentful Munteanu.  “We have to start somewhere…”

With these words he approached, somewhat shyly, the table of the more or less ancient Greeks who lived in the picturesque neighborhood of Astoria, with all of their glorious history of which, it seemed, they weren’t too much aware.  Then, as if he had changed his mind, he returned and prodded his companion, “Listen… my English is, how should I say, kind of passive.  I understand, but I can’t really express myself clearly.”

“I see,” answered Lazar, with a touch of irony that did not escape the attention of the older man.  “It’s like with those engineers.  They look intelligent enough but, when they try to express themselves, just can’t be done!”

He winked jokingly as to erase any misunderstanding, and then went up to the ad-hoc Agora where English wasn’t anything to emulate Shakespeare or Milton.  Munteanu, aka the Sphinx, did not appreciate the joke and threw a suspicious look at the young man as he was walking away.  He found his apprentice a little too full of himself, especially in front of a superior!  “It would not hurt him to be a bit more careful!”

After a short moment of confusion, the steady clicking of the dice resumed.

“Do you speak Romanian?” all of a sudden a man asked the colonel. He had been sitting near the greasy window, so dirty that the man could not have really been looking through it, but rather into himself, lost in God knows what thoughts.

Sure, people come to taverns to socialize, but also to possibly come to terms with themselves.  Or maybe just to eavesdrop on others.

“Yeah I do speak Romanian?  Isn’t that clear?  So what?  It’s none of your business!” growled Colonel Munteanu who would have preferred that his young apprentice hurried up and talked to those Greeks about Catharsis.

“Well it may not be a big deal,” said the dirty window watcher, “but anyway, if you want any information about… how should I put it… the Romanian community here, you’d do best to ask me.”

The guy was somehow “clean-cut”, he didn’t look like a beggar, and the colonel signaled to Blossom, alias Lazar, as if to say “Hold on a second!  Let’s see what this guy has to say.”  So the latter gave up any attempt to speak about the Iliad, the Odyssey and any other epic that might have grown in the tavern, and came back to the table.

“Pour, Blossom!” the colonel said gesturing toward a bottle and the young man immediately obliged pouring out two full glasses of ouzo for his table mates, but only a drop for himself, because he could not stand this perfumed liquor with oily texture.

Silence fell over the room again so that the only sound was the jangling of the dice, a background possibly replacing the typical chorus of ancient Greek tragedy.  Everything was as ridiculous and derivative as the illuminatiliving in this small community in Astoria, Queens.

The man who had joined them at the table was massive, with a bald spot that threatened to spread shortly from his forehead to the rest of his head which still spotted some remnants of stringy, greasy hair that had resisted the miraculous cures promised by all sorts of shampoos and conditioners.  However, below this, there were a pair of lively eyes; he wasn’t stupid by any means, and was not intimidated by the colonel’s authoritarian bearing.

“Now it’s your turn to pour, you know what I mean!  And you’d better tell us everything exactly as it happened if you want to get out of here alive,” declared the colonel harshly, despite his apprentice’s generous gaze meant to convey something along the lines of: “Why don’t you just leave him alone?  Maybe he’s just some poor fool who knows nothing of our business.  What if he speaks Romanian, does that mean we have to harass him?  We’d be better off going after the big wigs.”

“First of all, I’d like to introduce myself,” said the man.  “I am, together with my associates, in charge of everything that happens in Romanian business here… I hope you understand what I mean: a deal, some legal matter, or when someone needs to keep their mouth shut…”

And here he made a deft gesture with his hand miming the path of a zipper that starts at the left-most corner of one’s mouth and ends over the tightly closed lips of the right-most corner.

“As for other things,” he added, “like, for example, the Greek dry cleaners, Catharsis, I’m still the right person to ask.  They are the best, if that’s what you’re interested in, by the way.  When I gave my hat to those morons at French Cleaners, the place it is run by the Chinese you know, they shrunk it so bad that I can’t wear it anymore.  My associates had to bid on e-bay to try to get me a similar one…  But if you really want to talk about all these we should probably go to Melon Head’s pub.  It’s the only place around here with real food.  Plus I’m getting special treatment…

“Yes, yes!” ventured code name Lazar.  “Let’s go there!”

In the meantime, Munteanu’s mood had been growing worse. The source of his anger was, on one hand, the arrogance of his young subordinate who had begun to give himself airs and to make decisions without even consulting him; and on the other hand, the fact that they were about to leave behind informants that could turn out to be essential to this whole mess that the guys in Bucharest had handed him. Just imagine: people who disappear in dreams, send their clothes to cleaners that make it so that the blood stains reappear the next day. Or, even worse, the task to follow an individual who had run to the other side with the institution’s money.  What’s more to be said, he was simply tired and… overwhelmed by the situation!

                                                           II        

Once closed the trunk of the giant Chrysler that she hated so much (and whose  disappearance after their vacation, or rather their stop in Los Angeles, she had every reason to look forward to!), Meg sat down in the passenger seat, buckled her seatbelt, and, even before Bob started the car, opened the book she was holding on her knees.    Throwing the car in reverse, Bob could not help but grumble, “I see, I’m going to be doing all the driving for days on end, but you could at least help me navigate until we get out of the city.”

Meg gave him an amused look.  Bob’s personality tics no longer bothered her nor made her suspicious as they had when the two were first married.  She understood that his inability to take control during their intimate moments had nothing to do with an overwhelming wish to show her, right then, some important paper they had received from the bank; or with a sudden migraine that sent him running to the bathroom where he tarried long enough for her to fall asleep.  No!  It was a physiological problem, a pretty ordinary one for a couple their age. Sensitive and understanding, she always gave him the impression that everything was alright, that he himself controlled the situation, as, in his mind, it had to be for things to be truly alright.  It should be said, however, that Bob too was an active participant in this game, often feigning distress or misunderstandings, as if to test her, to prove to himself that she had figured out what was going on and had no objections.  This unspoken agreement, a delicate chess game that kept everything in balance, made their life together not only bearable, but downright happyto the extent that this word can be applied to those who are married.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry not to be more helpful.  But knowing you’re such a good driver, I thought my inability to read those maps would only irritate you further more!”  She was lying shamelessly, of course.  We know how carefully she planned every detail of the trip – and please note that we didn’t even mention it at the time so that we won’t bore the reader – not only every stop and hotel, but also every road and exit that would save them the most time and gas.  Despite all of these, she lied graciously and suddenly they found themselves in a shared good mood: he would grumble and drive; she would continue her reading uninterrupted.  What could be a better omen for a long trip than such a beginning?

“Ok, Ok,” replied Bob satisfied.  “It doesn’t matter now anyway, I’ve already merged onto the Maddox Turnpike.  But I’m very curious what book has caught your attention so much that last night you fell asleep with the light on.”

Meg had begun reading the book the day before the trip, but she had not realized that she fell asleep reading the night before.

“It’s a book,” she answered, “recommended as summer reading by the company that sent me the tourist information.  I don’t know how interesting you’d find it… the beginning is pretty boring and it doesn’t have anything to do with the title.  But what can you do, that’s how literature is nowadays.”

“Got it!” snorted Bob.  “Really Meg, this is so typical of you, and probably that’s why I love you so much.  You take everything so seriously, like you didn’t know that everything is just a trick to make you buy things.”

But before Bob had a chance to really get going on with the critique of government manipulation, the IRS, and everything else, Meg cut him off: “I think it’s a very good book, but don’t ask me why.”

“That sounds a little ominous,” murmured Bob, sticking his left hand out the window, middle finger upraised, in the direction of the blue Chevy he had just passed.

Meg did not want to leave him completely in the dark, nor did she want him to think that she was talking nonsense.

“I mean that it’s strange.  It’s a translation and the action is multilayered.  I’m just a few pages into it, but I’m sure it will go on like this.  It’s the author’s style…”

“Or the translator’s,” answered Bob sharply.  “What’s left of the author’s style when you’re talking about a translation?”

This threw Meg off a bit.  She suddenly became suspicious. What did Bob know about books?  But she stopped frowning and rephrased the question. Did she really know everything about Bob?  “Yeah, maybe that’s it!  It seems that the translation is very good, that’s probably why the book is so easy to read…”

“And from whence came this author to enlighten us with his multilayered book?” asked Bob his voice dripping with irony.

“The cover says he’s Romanian, but I didn’t want to read too much.  You know how it is.  The blurb gives away the whole story and there’s no joy left in reading the book.”

“Oh that’s just what we needed,” exhaled Bob.  “For Romanians to come and teach us!”

“It’s not about teaching,” answered Meg, “it’s just a novel, something made up.  But maybe not completely…”

“I bet it was translated from the Russian,” posited Bob.

“You think?” exclaimed a puzzled Meg.  “I would have thought that they spoke Hungarian over there.  I remember reading something in The New York Times Magazine…”

“Nonsense!  This Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union,” replied Bob completely sure of himself.  “There was some big scandal with their KGB about ten years ago, I remember well…  It’s translated from Russian, I’m sure.  Check it out!  It’s gotta say somewhere in there.”

“Probably,” acknowledged Meg, but was unable to completely stifle a stray thought of how much Bob knew about geography and geopolitics.  “Ah, here it is!” she went on.  “Oh well.  It says right here that it was translated from Romanian!”  And all of a sudden she grew much less worried about her familiarity with Bob’s knowledge.  “It’s obvious!  Since the author is Romanian, of course the book was also written in Romanian!”

“Didn’t I tell you!” answered Bob triumphantly.

“No,” Meg said dryly.  “You were just explaining how it was translated from the Russian.”

“But I told you that Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union, that’s why I thought it was Russian.  Of course, after the Berlin Wall fell, all those little countries that were held together by the KGB started reusing their own languages…”

Meg wanted to mention something about the fact that all those countries did not go off in their own direction after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but only several years later, and Romania was not even among them. But she decided not to insist.  “Anyway, I like this book!  I don’t care if it’s translated from Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian.  I’ll read about that afterwards!”

Hearing her say afterwards in that tone, Bob’s eyes shot open and he almost lost control of the steering wheel, a move that frightened Meg.  She reminded herself she should stand to be a little more careful not to let herself get so riled up with these conversations because you never know where they’ll lead…

“After I finish the novel, I mean,” she clarified ready to resume her reading.

“Hmm… Ok,” muttered Bob. “And what did you say was the title of this very special book?”

Meg ignored the sarcasm in his question. “I Haven’t said yet!  In translation it’s Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, but I don’t think the title is very important.  So far there haven’t even been any characters named Sabrina, just a couple of Romanian spies and (you’ll be shocked when I tell you!) a couple just like us that are getting ready to go on vacation.  But I think I’m going to skip over the sections about them.”

Turning towards Walhalla Circle, Bob added, “Sounds like some great summer reading! Not that American literature is any better, but at least it has clear titles: Tom Sawyer is a story about Tom Sawyer.  Sabrina: that’s a name that could come from anywhere!  And to make it worse, she doesn’t even come up in the beginning of the book…”

Meg totally ignored the rest of the diatribe, returning to her book and picking up exactly where she had left off.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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October 5, 2011 Posted by | book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Crossing Washington Square, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa's fiction, fiction, Henry James, Lady V. and Other Stories, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Marcel Proust, Outskirts Press, psychological fiction, Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa, Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

The Multimedia Launch of Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi) in Romania

I’m happy to report that my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, was launched in Romanian translation (by Mihnea Gafita) under the title Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011). The presentation will include my talk about the book as well as a book trailer produced by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video produced by Andy (Soundland) Platon (see the below). This was the first multimedia launch, in which a book trailer and music video accompanied the presentations of the novel.

The political commentator Adrian Cioroianu, the literary critic Alex Stefanescu and the film producer Stere Gulea introduced my novel in light of their respective fields. The book launch took place at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest (ICR Bucuresti) on September 21, 2011 at 18:00 p.m. (Aleea Alexandru nr. 38, sector 1, 011824, Bucuresti, România).  

This novel is being made into a movie by the Romanian-American cinematographer Bernard Salzman (http://bernardsalzman.com/)

I’m pasting below the Advance Praise for my novel as well as Diana Evantia Barca‘s article about it in Catchy.ro and Anca Lapusneanu‘s article about it (and intellectual freedom) in Revista VIP.

Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet ColossusHistory and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems.

– Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | Adrian Cioroianu, Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism, Alex Stefanescu, Anca Lapusneanu, Andy Soundland Platon, Bernard Salzman, Bernard Salzman Intre Doua Lumi, Bernard Salzman Velvet Totalitarianism, book launch of Intre Doua Lumi, book review, catchy.ro, Claudia Moscovici, Claudia Moscovici si Libertatea Intelectuala, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing, curteaveche.ro, Diana Evantia Barca, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, ICR Bucharest, ICR Bucuresti, Intre Doua Lumi, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Mihaela Carlan, Mihnea Gafita, Revista VIP Velvet Totalitarianism, Romanian Cultural Institute, Stere Gulea, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

 

 

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com


June 3, 2011 Posted by | Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, book review, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Iran, Islamic dress code, literary criticism, literature, Lolita, Majeed Benteeha, Majeed Benteeha photography, Nicolae Ceausescu, Photographer Majeed Beenteeha, photography, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Romania, Romanian orphanages, sensual photography, sociopath, sociopathy, Surrealism, the veil, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

The Role of Cultural Memory: Writing Velvet Totalitarianism

 

My first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, took me about ten years to write. It took me so long partly because I wrote this book while also teaching literature and philosophy, writing scholarly books and raising a family. It took me a long time to write it also because I had to do a lot of historical research for it. When one works for so long on one book, the interrelated questions of motivation and intended audience become all the more relevant. As I was writing Velvet Totalitarianism, I asked myself often: why write historical fiction about the Cold War, an era which is now relegated mostly to history books? Why is the history of Romanian communism so important to me and whom do I hope to touch in writing fiction about it? An anecdote brought these questions into sharper focus.

Friends of my parents, who have a son who’s not much younger than myself, told us that their son recalls only one thing about life under the Ceausescu regime in the mid 1980’s, when he was not yet a teenager. Now in his thirties, the young man remembers that as a child he frequently had to go to bed wearing his hat and coat during the winter, because there was no heat or hot water in their apartment. But he can’t recall much else about the hardships the Romanian people endured during the Ceausescu dictatorship. He knows only indirectly, from older family members and from history books, the childhood memories which I can still recall quite vividly, and which I wanted to depict for others in my writing. Conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically — not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.” Although Velvet Totalitarianism focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

It’s one thing to read about the institutions and events that characterized life in totalitarian Romania and quite another to have lived through them. For my family and I, the events I describe in this novel are real. Like everyone else, we were subject to constant state indoctrination. Like practically everyone else except for the very privileged, we waited in long lines for meager supplies of food and consumer goods. Since my father traveled abroad, our apartment was bugged — we discovered hidden microphones underneath his desk and inside the heating units — and the Securitate followed my parents’ movements. My father worked at the Mathematics Institute. His boss was Nicolae Ceausescu’s daughter, Zoe Ceausescu, who actually went against some of her father’s policies by allowing him to go to scholarly conferences abroad. This rare privilege was essential to a mathematician’s — or, for that matter, any intellectual’s — career. Nobody can thrive intellectually without a free exchange of information and an awareness of the latest international discoveries in one’s field. In spite of Zoe Ceausescu’s umbrage, however, my father was accused by the Securitate of being an Israeli spy upon his return from a conference in Jerusalem. He was told that he’d no longer be allowed out of the country.

No doubt this individual decision was not really personal. It coincided with Ceausescu’s national policy of closing the Iron Curtain, to further isolate and control the Romanian people. Fortunately, my father obtained permission to attend one last conference, at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. He decided to take a chance and defect to the United States. Since my mother and I were still in Romania, my family struggled to reunite in the United States for nearly two years. Although there were precedents for similar immigrations, we lived under the rational fear that we might never see each other again. My mother was subject to demoralizing Securitate interrogations similar to the ones I describe in Velvet Totalitarianism. Yet, as I also depict in the novel, we never gave up or lost hope. Several congressmen and human rights organizations intervened on our behalf. When I was a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday, we finally joined my father in the United States. “Velvet totalitarianism” is a term that has been used to describe the constraints imposed upon the expression of liberal values in the Canadian and American academia. Just as, conversely, the term “political correctness” has been used to indicate that there’s no real freedom of expression of conservative values in the academia.

Indeed, whether or not America has turned out to be the country of plentitude and freedom that I dreamed about as a child back in Romania is another story. But what remains clear to me is that the systematic state repression we lived through in Romania makes whatever’s being criticized in Western institutions today, by both the right and the left, pale by comparison. The United States certainly lacks the absolute freedom that some of its ideologues may rhapsodize about, but what Romanians experienced was an absolute lack of freedom, which is far worse.

In Velvet Totalitarianism I wanted to leave a trace of the scale of comparison, of the difference I experienced between the lack of absolute freedom here and the lack of any freedom there. As the narrator of my novel states at the end, I’m hoping that this description of daily life in Romania under the Ceausescu regime will convey to my children and to my children’s children — as well as all readers interested in this subject — the lost traces of an era in which ordinary people were forced to lead extraordinary lives.

The anecdote my parents told me about the young Romanian who couldn’t recall much about the Ceausescu era helped convince me that these traces could, indeed, be lost. Due to the (largely positive) political and economic developments during the past 20 years in Eastern Europe and the internationalization of American pop culture, today’s children and young adults in Romania and other former East Bloc countries probably have more in common with their Western counterparts than they do with the family members who endured the hardships of communist regimes. Many of them know more about Facebook and Lady Gaga than about the Ceausescu era or the infamous Romanian orphanages. In writing about the communist epoch in Eastern Europe, both historians and writers of historical fiction are therefore helping preserve cultural memory for future generations of Eastern Europeans as well as for Western readers, both of whom are relatively detached from these experiences. They have not lived through them. They have no recollections that emotionally bond them to this difficult past. In many respects, the stark reality of Communist totalitarianism is as foreign to new generations of Eastern Europeans as it is to most Westerners.

To offer one noteworthy example, if one looks at what’s being published and read about Romania in the U.S., one is immediately struck by the fact that it’s Vlad Tepes’s reign and the horrid yet tantalizing legend of Dracula that readers find most intriguing. Few Americans have heard of Nicolae Ceausescu and yet fewer know about Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Yet there’s hardly a teenager in America who hasn’t heard of the Twilight series; there’s hardly a bookstore in the country that doesn’t sell Anne Rice’s vampire novels or Elizabeth Kostova’s erudite rendition of the Dracula myth, the international best-seller The Historian. Why the Dracula legend has far more international appeal in the West than practically anything else related to Romania is a complex enough question to warrant numerous Ph.D. students, plus the Romanian tourism industry, working on it. Whatever the answers to this question might be, what’s become clear to me is this: for any author who writes about any OTHER aspect of Romanian history than the Vlad Tepes/Dracula legend, the challenge becomes, above all, how to make them matter to those who haven’t lived through those historical events and thus who have no a priori emotional investment in them.

To begin addressing the question of relevance, I’d like to turn first to the nonfiction book that has inspired my novel most: Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for All Seasons.  For anyone interested in Romania’s political history during the twentieth-century, Professor Tismaneanu’s book is the seminal work on the subject. Clearly written, solidly researched, informative and engaging, Stalinism For All Seasons can be included among the best works of political history, alongside Richard Pipes’ works on Lenin, Robert Conquest’s books on Stalin and Allan Bullock’s studies of Hitler. It covers the evolution of Romanian communism from the early twentieth-century, through Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s Stalinist dictatorship and the latter’s strategic detachment from Moscow following Stalin’s death, to the dreary Ceausescu years of dynastic communism. Without this book, and others like it, younger generations of Romanians would grow increasingly disconnected from the past that deeply affected their families’ lives, and therefore, indirectly, their lives as well.

To write about the history of totalitarianism, be it through nonfiction or fiction, means to undertake the task of preserving for future generations a cultural memory of social change, of trials and tribulations and of unspeakable human suffering. It means to take on the challenge of bringing this past to the attention of those who may not have lived through it, and who will not find it automatically relevant to their lives. It means to somehow make this strange and alien past matter to them, at least enough to awaken their curiosity and open their hearts. It means to pay homage to those who sacrificed, or were sacrificed, by the totalitarian machine. Writing the history of totalitarianism is therefore simultaneously a discovery of the suppressed truth; a eulogy to a difficult cultural past and its countless victims; an homage to the people who endured it and to those who had the courage to fight against it and a cautionary tale to all those who never want to experience it, or to live through it again. In this respect, political history and historical fiction serve similar goals and face similar challenges. They induce people to care about something that is either already behind them and that they may prefer to forget, or about something that they’ve never lived through at all.

By way of contrast to political history, however, historical fiction isn’t as closely bound to accuracy or to any kind of objectivity. Of course, to write my book I consulted literally dozens of scholarly sources. But Velvet totalitarianism is also, above all, a work of mainstream literary fiction, to use one of the labels publishers rely on in this country. By this I mean that, by way of contrast to pulp fiction, the narrative style and the characterizations are as important as the plot and other structural elements of the novel. To make the main characters more multi-dimensional and believable, I relied for inspiration upon memories of my childhood and people in my life, especially my parents. But all the real-life elements of the novel served the function of enhancing and anchoring the fiction. The fictional elements, in my mind, were always primary.

As a work of fiction rather than historiography, Velvet Totalitarianism also faces the principal challenge of entertaining potential readers. When I was writing this novel, I kept in mind the problem of how to present such dreary and disheartening historical information in a way that is informative without becoming didactic, and entertaining without trivializing the difficult past I’m trying to describe. I relied in part upon a literary precedent, a contemporary American novel I love: Jeffrey’s Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eugenides called his novel “a comic epic” (of his Greek-American cultural heritage). He went far beyond (and deeper than) ethnic humor, since his novel relies upon social and historical research, a traditional Aristotelian plot with tragic tension and an interesting twist, and characterizations that are plausible, endearing and humorous (also inspired in part by his family members). That’s what I tried to do in Velvet Totalitarianism as well, only for my Romanian-American heritage, of course.

My novel has been described by critics as historical fiction, a spy thriller and a love story. All three descriptions apply equally well, but if I had to choose only one label, I’d say that Velvet Totalitarianism is a triple love story. First of all, love for two countries: Romania, my country of origin and its people, who have suffered a series of terrible governments and are struggling to emerge from them and establish a tradition of democracy. Simultaneously, love for my host country, the United States, the proverbial melting pot with a distinct identity that offers so many generations of immigrants the opportunity to flourish. Second, love for family, which gives the main characters the resourcefulness and strength to survive totalitarian repression. Third, the romantic love stories of fallible yet endearing characters who show that it’s our combination of faults, neuroses and loyalty to those important to us that make us fully human and enable us to enjoy the beauty of life, to survive its hardships and to overcome its challenges.

Claudia Moscovici

postromanticism.com

September 6, 2010 Posted by | communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Eastern Europe, fiction, historical fiction, literature, love story, mainstream fiction, Romania, spy thriller | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Role of Cultural Memory: Writing Velvet Totalitarianism