A Romanian Novelist

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July 1, 2011 · Posted in Commentary 

By Leslie Evans

Eugen Uricaru (left) with Leslie Evans

We sit quietly under the arbor in my backyard. “You are familiar with the Cathars, of course,” he says. “Yes,” I reply, “French offshoots of the Bulgarian Bogomils, who renounced the material world and its god.” This esoteric discussion had been prompted by my giving him a copy of my memoir, Outsider’s Reverie , in which he had reached the chapter recounting my youthful fascination with the ancient Gnostics, otherworldly progenitors of the medieval sects of which we were speaking. He seems interested and intrigued, to have found an unexpected commonality.

My guest was Eugen Uricaru, a distinguished Romanian novelist. He and his wife Lucia, a university professor, were staying with us for three weeks to attend their daughter Ioana’s PhD graduation at USC. Ioana Uricaru, a rising Romanian filmmaker, has lived with my wife Jennifer and me for the last three years, enlivening our lives with her sharp tongue, encyclopedic knowledge of films, and her finely tuned political sensibilities.

When she discovered that Jennifer and I had both spent much of our lives as Marxist activists Ioana was incredulous. Having grown up in one of the more bizarre and repressive Communist dictatorships she asked, “You did this voluntarily?” Happily her bitter experiences with the Marxist left didn’t make a right winger out of her. Ioana actively supported Obama in 2008 and has little use for the  Republicans.

Ioana has her own listing in the Internet Movie Database . Photos of her are also fairly widely circulated on the Internet through her film work. She directed one of the stories in Christian Mungiu’s 2009 comedy, Tales from the Golden Age , which was entered the Cannes Film Festival, and her short film Stopover was shown in this year’s Sundance film festival. Ioana often watches films with us, but laments our indiscriminate tastes, refusing to join us for the many Lifetime and Hallmark films we settle in with, and as for CSI Miami, she dismisses aging red haired lead investigator David Caruso as “Boiled Carrot.”

Eugen was born in 1946, making him four years younger than me. White haired and, like me, a bit plump, he apologizes for his poor English, but makes himself understood perfectly well on a wide range of subjects. In his youth he was an ardent Communist. He supported Nicolae Ceausescu when he first became head of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965, as those were years of unusual liberalization. Controls over literature were loosened, overtures were made to the West, Romania was the only country in the world to recognize both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Romania was the first Communist country to join the International Monetary Fund.

Then in 1971 everything went bad. Ceausescu made a state visit to China, still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. On his return he lurched into totalitarian madness. Eugen Uricaru became an oppositionist, founding the journal Echinox . The years from then until the popular revolution overthrew Ceausescu in 1989 were difficult ones for Eugen and Lucia and their two children. Then came the turnaround. Eugen became the Romanian Cultural Attache in Athens, then Deputy Director of the Academy of Romania in Rome, and finally Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2003-2005. Author of 15 novels, he was elected president of the national Union of Writers, 2001-2005. Today he heads the national copyright organization that protects writers’ revenues. On the side he wrote a popular screenplay, translated an opera from the Italian, and has translated works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Russian.

I ask him what he thinks now of politics, in particular of Marxism and the left. “The right wing is sterile,” he begins. “They look only to the past, create nothing new, and lack humanity. The left looks to the future, explores new trends and has founts of creativity and compassion. But there is a catch, here. The left in power always becomes right wing. Its strength is as a cultural movement or current. Becoming the government ruins it.”

I think about that. At first it seems simplistic. If the left is to abjure governing, then the government will always be in the hands of the right, or at best some kind of centrists. But then I consider further. There is clearly a bifurcation between the left as a movement that champions opposition to racism, greater equality, freedom of speech, full rights for women and gays, and, in contrast, the many governments that proclaim themselves leftist, and that in fact emerged from indisputable Marxist movements, that have more in common with fascism, at least of the Italian variety, than with the platforms leftists support while in opposition. Some kind of terrible rupture has taken place and Eugen Uricaru’s formulation captures it fairly well.

I also suddenly understand why this man has an interest in the Cathars, dualists who believed there was a complete incompatibility between love and power; the material world and those who hold power in it are incapable of love, those who love would be irretrievably corrupted if they assumed material power. It’s another way of stating what he has said to me about leftism.

“Have any of your novels been translated into English?” I ask. “I would love to read them.” “No,” he replies, “only into German, Polish, Greek, Hungarian, and Russian. But one was just published in 2009 in French, ‘Ils arrivent, les barbares !’ ‘They are here, the barbarians.’ It’s about collaborators with the German occupation in Romania during World War I.”

I venture that I know a bit of French, and later that day he presents me with a copy.

During their visit they go to Las Vegas (”More vulgar than I could have imagined.”), Catalina (”Very charming”), Hollywood (”Not as much there as we would have expected.”) and various other sights. Widely traveled in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, this was the first time that either Eugen or Lucia had visited the United States.

The Book

I settle down with my gift, “ Ils arrivent, les barbares!” and my ancient battered Cassell’s French dictionary. The book is published by Les Editions Noir sur Blanc , which is working on a translation of another of Eugen Uricaru’s novels. Ils arrivent, les barbares! can also be bought from Amazon UK . I found myself looking up words on every page, deciphering as much as reading. Ioana joked with me that this was my Rosetta stone, the dimly understood French as the bridge between my monolingual English and the Romanian of the original.

I found myself in a time and place that were previously unknown to me. Romania, a small country easily tossed about by the Great Powers, sat out the first two years of the First World War as a neutral, then, on August 27, 1916, entered the war on the Allied side, hoping to recapture Transylvania, the majority Romanian land to its northwest controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A German army led by General August von Mackensen invaded Romania from Bulgaria in the south five days later. Russian support promised to Romania quickly evaporated and the German-Austrian-Turkish invasion rapidly crushed the Romanian army. On December 6 Bucharest, the capital, fell to the Germans. The Romanian army and the royal family were not destroyed but retreated into Moldavia, the Romanian province that made up the country’s northeast quadrant. They held out there until the war ended in 1918.

Eugen Uricaru’s novel follows the fates of five central characters from November 1916 through the early days after the capture of Bucharest at the year’s end. The tale opens in the disordered Bucharest bohemian mansion of Leonidas Soroceanu, an elderly comic actor who was once famous on the Romanian stage. He has brought his young nephew Ermil from his home in the quiet provincial town of Ramnic (today Ramnicu Valcea) to find him a job as a journalist and get him started on a career. Ermil watches out the window as exhausted Romanian soldiers and cartloads of the wounded stream by day after day. Ermil is more than half in love with his cousin Sophie Vasiliu, a few years his elder, who remains behind in Ramnic in her parents’ home. She is also, by a different sister, a niece of Uncle Leonidas.

We learn that Leonidas is something of a mystic, interested in Theosophy and the writings of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. In his youth he ran away with a gypsy circus run by a mysterious man who called himself Merlin. There Leonidas fell in love with the beautiful Grazia. He followed the circus throughout Europe doing odd jobs just to be near her. Grazia, however, finally refused to allow him to go with her when the circus took ship for America, and his life has been absorbed with her memory for more than thirty years. We learn late in the book that he thinks he sees Grazia in his niece Sophie and secretly imagines himself as her lover despite the more than forty years difference in their ages.

The story next turns to Romanian light cavalry officer Lieutenant Luca Demian. Sent alone on horseback to field headquarters for orders, on his return he finds his entire unit, a thousand men and horses, machine-gunned to death by German gunners hidden in foliage on a ridge. This shocking scene is the first inkling that the Germans have penetrated this far into Romanian territory. Riding on alone he encounters a mounted German officer. The two fight with sabers and, while Lieutenant Demian kills his foe, he suffers a grave head wound.

Next onstage is Tanase Berzea, a somber former military man in his sixties who has worked for thirty-five years in the cloisters of the central state ministry in Bucharest. Excluded from the inner circles of power, he longs to be named a minister but has been frozen in the subordinate technical administrative position of director of the ministry staff. We meet him as the city is preparing to fall to the Germans. He is called into the prime minister’s office, who tells him that secret war contingency plans had from the outbreak of hostilities called for abandoning Bucharest and making a stand on the north bank of the Siret River at the Moldavian border. The royal family and the top government officials are leaving for Moldavia. Berzea is ordered to remain behind, to pack and ship the nation’s archives and to destroy what can’t be sent. Then, the prime minister tells him, he is to take the responsibility to be the government’s representative in Bucharest to the German authorities, but with the exile government retaining complete deniability for any of his actions.

Strangely, Berzea accepts this doomed proposition, and, at least briefly, feels an ecstatic sense of freedom. He thinks himself finally in charge, a real minister at last. He will rally the remaining government functionaries to act as a buffer between the citizens and the German army. He drafts a manifesto proclaiming that Romania is occupied but not destroyed and all state employees should remain at their posts.

Berzea spends two weeks overseeing packing the dusty archives, working on his manifesto, and, after a while, day dreaming about his vacation two years earlier in Constanza, a seaside resort city on the Black Sea. There, while out walking, he met a beautiful young woman, none other than our Sophie Vasiliu, and stranger still, Berzea, like Leonidas Soroceanu, was also in the distant past a lover of Grazia, just before she joined Merlin’s circus. And, like Leonidas, he sees Sophie as a virtual reincarnation of Grazia, his attraction half to the living woman and half to the ghost of the past. He and Sophie meet innocently for walks a half dozen times, during which he tries to remember everything he can of his life with Grazia, which he retails to Sophie at great length. In the end, however, he confesses to her that he has been shifting his affections from the long-lost Grazia to the very present Sophie. She acknowledges his interest but that is all.

We now turn to the lovely Sophie Vasiliu back at her parents home in Ramnic. The house is on the outskirts of town, on the edge of a square facing what had been a Romanian army barracks and is now a stores depot for the Germans, including corrals and a slaughterhouse for cattle, sheep, and pigs. One day in crossing the square she is caught in the midst of a herd of horned cattle and risks being gored. She is saved by a German officer on horseback. He is Rolf Timmerman, in civilian life a veterinarian, who imagines himself a great humanist and above such petty things as nationalist hatreds. Timmerman trades on Sophie’s obligation to him to pay frequent unwanted visits to her home. He defends his conduct with the argument that he is only collecting food to be sent to the hungry people of Germany. Sophie replies that he is an unwelcome conqueror who is stealing food from hungry Romanians to send out of the country.

Then one afternoon Sophie hears a noise in a shed on her property and finds inside our injured Romanian Lieutenant Luca Demian. She brings him into the house. Then, both fearing his discovery by Timmerman and desperately looking for a doctor to tend his wounds, she hits on the scheme of passing him off as her civilian cousin and persuades Timmerman to use his veterinary skills to treat the patient.

This works well enough while Demian is comatose, but eventually he revives — and flees. Now the rather dense German figures out that he has been had. He has Sophie and her parents arrested. We see them being taken away by soldiers, who burn their house behind them.

Now there comes a strange interlude in which we follow the adventures of Lieutenant Luca Demian. He determines to return to the fight against the Germans, not by rejoining the Romanian army on the Siret but right in the area around Ramnic. He finds and impresses a half dozen lost Romanian soldiers, shooting one of them dead when his orders are questioned. They take up living in a den of bushes in a swamp, venturing out to steal food and to kill an occasional cart driver moving provisions for the Germans. When they encounter a real German patrol one of his men is killed and two wounded, with devastating impact on the little band’s morale.

This leads Demian to undertake an entirely mad mission: he and his squad will capture the village of Gherani and ambush the Germans who come to take it back. Ragged and dirty, but well armed, they march in and take over the town hall. The incredulous mayor, Niculae Branea,  just wants them to go away before the Germans find out about it. He regards Demian as a lunatic, while Demian denounces Branea as a traitor. It seems the place is too small for the Germans to bother with. They have never entered the village, instead delegating a Romanian merchant to make regular visits there to requisition supplies, an arrangement that both sides find entirely satisfactory.

Lieutenant Demian dragoons local farmers to dig trenches on the Gherani side of a small river, planning to hide his men and jump up shooting as the Germans cross the bridge to the town. When the collaborator merchant shows up, Demian locks him up in the town hall. Somehow word gets to the Germans and they send a detachment. But instead of walking into the ambush on the bridge they halt on the far side of the river and bombard the town with artillery, leveling the entire place. The luckless Romanian soldiers don’t get in so much as a shot. The scene closes as Lieutenant Demian and the now outlawed Mayor Branea make a run for the swamp. At least thus far collaborating has looked the better part of valor.

The last part of the novel focuses on Leonidas Soroceanu, his nephew Ermil, and the minister-collaborator Tanase Berzea. Leonidas takes Ermil to Berzea’s office in the capital building. We see Berzea falling further and further under the thumb of the German authorities, who issue daily orders over his signature, requisitioning supplies, making more and more restrictive prohibitions, and finally ordering taking of hostages and reprisals against resistance. The sinister Colonel Hentsch explains to him that it is much easier to maintain order if they have a native front man to screen their rule.

Berzea becomes more and more remote, while his old friend Leonidas seems to be wrapped in a fantasy cloud in which Tanase Berzea is an important figure who can protect them and find a promising position for Ermil on one of the German-censored newspapers. He insists that nothing much has really changed by the occupation and everything will work out well despite the war. As they leave, Leonidas and Ermil enter a nightmarish scene of deserted streets, vandalized houses, and wild dog packs. A madman leads them in circles for hours. They are alone on an empty boulevard when no less than General Mackensen himself passes through in an automobile with a large contingent of horse mounted troops. Called General Death by the Romanians, one of his officers rides to curbside and kicks old Leonidas in the jaw with his steel spur, inflicting a suppurating wound.

Undaunted, Leonidas meets that evening with Berzea, who presses on him a secret personal mission. It seems that neither man knows of the other’s past with the captivating Grazia, much less that each imagines they see Grazia returned in Sophie Vasiliu. Leonidas is stunned when Berzea urges him to return to Ramnic and persuade Sophie to move to Bucharest so that Berzea can pursue his courtship. Leonidas, agrees, not revealing that he is her uncle. He secretly plans to press his own suit on the young woman.

Leonidas sets out, but through various mishaps ends up on foot. As he nears Ramnic he is arrested by the Germans, who are looking for hostages to execute in reprisal for the depredations of Luca Demian. The old actor has documents from Berzea stating he is on an official government mission, but these mean little to the occupiers. He is thrown in a dank cellar with a dozen prisoners, including Niculae Branea, the former mayor of Gherani village, a huge powerful man who by now is outspoken in his anger against the German occupation. Called out for an interrogation, Leonidas tries to save his skin by denouncing Branea as a terrorist. The officer in charge finally relents and signs a safe passage for Leonidas, ordering Branea to be shot.

Then, in a tragicomic denouement, as the firing squad takes the Gherani mayor and four others to the execution ground Branea makes a successful run for the forest. The moronic sergeant in charge, feeling his orders require him to produce five bodies, waylays the happy Leonidas and shoots him with the others.

The final chapter takes us back to Leonidas’s mansion in Bucharest, where Ermil waits in vain for his uncle’s return. Two young women who we have not previously met, Raissa and Myriam, rent a room on the top floor. Ermil out of curiosity and boredom decides to rifle through their things. He is discovered, and after a tense exchange becomes Raissa’s lover. Her roommate, and sometime gay lover, Myriam, is a nurse at the nearby German military hospital. Ermil finally decides to ask Raissa to go with him and try to return to Ramnic. As he is waiting to tell her his plan a German ambulance arrives. Myriam has died of typhus and Raissa has the disease. The narrative breaks off at this point.

If with the capture of Gherani we saw the futility of ill-considered resistance, by now the soul-chilling price of collaboration has also been revealed, and the pitfalls of willful ignorance in the mode of Uncle Leonidas.

The novel leaves numerous threads to the reader’s imagination. Were Sophie and her parents shot by the Germans after they were led away? What became of Lieutenant Luca Demian and Mayor Niculae Branea? Does Tanase Berzea ever find out what happened to his emissary? To Sophie? To Grazia? Does Ermil find his way to Ramnic, or end with a job on a German-controlled newspaper in the capital? Does Raissa recover, and if so, does she remain with Ermil? The characters strut and fret their hour upon the stage then disappear into the fog of war. Though I have to say that, like Leonidas and Tanase, I would have wished to see Sophie again.

So where does that leave us? First, Ils arrivent, les barbares! was written in 1981, during the depths of Ceausescu’s Kim Il Sung period. It has been said of the historical novels of Howard Fast that you can hear in them the tramp of modern armies. This is surely no less true of this work by Eugen Uricaru. In working his way through the possible responses to a foreign occupation, the German one of 1916-18 must certainly bring to mind the Soviet occupation after World War II, and even the Ceausescu dictatorship in its various incarnations, which was the child of the Soviet military investment of the country. The novel brings to mind also the many Chinese dissidents of the 1950s and 1960s who impugned the mad excesses of Mao by writing stories about honest officials who risked their lives to criticize evil emperors of the Tang and Song dynasties.

So how did Eugen Uricaru’s characters respond? The Germans of that period, while evil are not the overwhelming evil of the Nazis, as, by and large were not the occupations Romania suffered under Soviet tutelage, bad as they were. Luca Demian met the occupiers head on with a pitiful military force that simply got many innocent people killed. The author I think does not see this as a reasonable course. Sophie rebels in a far smaller way, seeking to save a single victim of the occupation, and becomes in turn a victim of military retaliation.

Tanase Berzea becomes ensnared by good intentions. Seeking to mediate between the victors and the vanquished he is inexorably reduced to a cat’s-paw of the cynical Colonel Hentsch, held responsible in the public eye for every privation and execution carried out by the occupation forces over his signature.

Leonidas Soroceanu insulates himself from unpleasantness by wishful thinking, escaping into an airbrushed parallel universe where nothing really bad is going on. When the threat of death finally confronts him he has no moral armor or compass to guide him and in an act of base cowardice tries to direct the executioner’s bullets to an innocent man in his place. In an irony of fate the bullet he sought to deflect finds him anyway.

Finally we have Ermil, who essentially has stood aside entirely. He suffers a terrible loss but is not personally harmed. His future is left unknown.

Reviewing the courses chosen by his protagonists it would seem that there are not good choices for the victims, though some at least escape being hopelessly morally compromised.

If there are any good Romanian translators out there they should consider contacting Eugen Uricaru with the aim of introducing his work to the English-speaking audience.

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