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A Romanian master's fantastical visions

A nightmare vision of oppression from one of the country's most eminent novelists has finally reached Britain. It’s been long overdue
May 4, 2021

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Hemingway said in 1954 when he received the Nobel Prize. The writer “grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

For Romanian author Mircea Crtrescu, a self-confessed solipsist, facing the eternity of his own thoughts is not a problem. In 2012, at the age of 56, he said that, “I have only expressed the tenth part of what’s in my mind.” The first 33 years of his life were spent in the shadow of Nicolae Ceauescu’s communist regime and his entrenched Securitate, or secret police. Citizens were urged to spy on their neighbours as well as friends. At its highest number, there were 500,000 informants in a population of 22m. With society under such tight surveillance, the very ability to think freely was under threat. With external outlets for expression limited, many intellectuals, Crtrescu included, turned inward.

Crtrescu has won and been nominated for an impressive number of awards, among them the Berlin Prize for Literature, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Formentor. With 25 books translated into 23 languages, he is one of the most prominent and prolific writers in post-communist Romania. And yet his only work published in the UK until now is Why We Love Women, a collection of stories that initially graced the pages of Elle Romania.

Nostalgia was written before the 1989 Romanian revolution, but is available for the first time in the UK from May. Originally published in censored form in 1989, a full edition was released across Europe in 1993. In 2005, the book was translated for US publication by Julian Semilian, the same version used for the Penguin edition.

Crtrescu was born in Bucharest in 1956, an only child, and grew up in a household without books. He quickly became a devoted library visitor and went on to study at the University of Bucharest, tutored by some of Romania’s pre-eminent literary critics. Crtrescu was initially a poet, publishing his first collection aged 24. Following this, he worked at the Writers’ Union of Romania, then as an editor of a well-known Romanian magazine and as a lecturer at his old university.

Crtrescu began publishing after the Onirist literary movement, founded by Dumitru epeneag and Leonid Dimov in 1964, had left its mark on Bucharest. The movement took its name from “Oneiroid Syndrome,” a condition of dreamlike intrusions experienced in a waking state. epeneag and Dimov wove together the threads of surrealist movements, attempting to create a unified method to evade the Securitate, both in their refusal to work within imposed socialist realism and in their underlying critique of the authorities (as evident in Nostalgia). Unfortunately, they were thwarted and the word “Onirism”
was banned.

Yet their legacy is certainly felt in Nostalgia. Heavily influenced by surrealism and magic realism, the world of the novel feels subtly coded. There are motifs that are embossed across Crtrescu’s oeuvre: the spider, spinning a distorted web of memory; the corridor, cluttered with miscellany; and the butterfly, the body of which is the template for his ground-breaking trilogy, Orbitor. Nostalgia lays the foundation for his later work, which teems with these images like omens or secret messages. Though deliberately ambiguous, these messages relate both to Crtrescu’s life and Romanian history; he creates his own kind of personal mythology.

Masquerading as a collection of stories, each of the five chapters in Nostalgia are interlaced, with re-emerging storylines and characters creating a powerful sense of the uncanny. The author has described his work as a “fractalic and holographic novel, in which each part reflects all others.” This philosophy of unity is core to Crtrescu’s work. In the prologue, “The Roulette Player,” a writer at the end of his tether narrates a story about his death-defying acquaintance. The writer hopes that his friend’s unbelievable continuing existence in fact proves that they are both fictional, and therefore immortal.

Later, in “REM,” it is revealed that the secondary narrator of this chapter in fact wrote “The Roulette Player,” and we are invited to turn back to the start. Reminiscent of Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist,” the narrator yearns to play Russian roulette after seeing “the human brain, the only veritably divine substance, the alchemical gold which contains everything, scattered on the walls.” His money drained by bets, the narrator has a morbid fascination with the game.

Crtrescu’s Bucharest is one of smoky basements and winding crannies, snow-dusted streets, the “burning reds and greens” of billboards, and half-completed apartments from which “the rusty remains of a fire escape [hang] like rags.” The apartment blocks in Nostalgia have an added significance: Ceauescu redeveloped Romanian architecture in the “socialist style.” Inspired by a visit to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the dictator inaugurated what became the most expensive administrative building in the world (with heating and electricity costing $6m plus per year). The Romanian parliament, Palatul Parlamentului, which was only completed after his downfall, involved demolishing some of Bucharest’s historic quarters.

An apartment block provides the backdrop to the second chapter, “Mentardy.” A group of resident boys have their games interrupted when a new child with otherworldly powers moves in. The story oscillates between grey realism, descriptions of poorly maintained flats, the “sewage ditches” behind the apartments where the children play, and bursts of colour—notes of the fantastical.

There are some expertly perceptive descriptions of childhood in Nostalgia. In “The Twins” (similar to Crtrescu’s later novel, Travesti, not yet translated into English), the narrator recalls walking with his parents when he was small, the huge moon ahead moving “forward in rhythm with my steps, oscillating up and down to the beat of my little shoes on the violet cobblestones.” This recollection is a tangent to the main story, in which a teenager falls obsessively in love with his classmate.

There is a density to Crtrescu’s narratives which mimics memory itself—the seemingly random detours and tail ends give the illusion of disorder, but every detail is carefully chosen. In these twisting, wriggling stories, time is warped. Critic Carla Baricz has noted that time and space are reimagined in Crtrescu’s work to compensate for the crushing of historical and personal dimensions during the communist regime. Crtrescu also captures how the experience of oppression and trauma can seem to stretch time.

“REM,” the concluding chapter, follows a group of girls whose innocent games get out of hand when other-dimensional forces interfere. During a memorable game involving a thermometer, the girls watch from a distance as the world gets more feverish degree by degree. The prose style shifts to something like Beat poetry: “we saw a priest beating an old woman and a house whose roof was patched in newspapers and a hearse dripping a trace of blood and a guitarist torn by a Gila monster.” While western influences were officially rebuked by the authorities, writers like Allen Ginsberg, JD Salinger and Jack Kerouac could be sourced in clandestine ways and were quietly elevated by Crtrescu’s contemporaries.

Near the end of the story, we are confronted by Crtrescu himself. The narrator finds him pounding away at his typewriter, looking wan. He shows her the manuscript for “REM.” This incident feels as unsettling for us as for the girl handed her own story to read.

In the same way that dreams and reality are merged within Crtrescu’s stories, so is fiction and autobiography. Crtrescu commented in 2018 that he doesn’t distinguish between them, “for I feel I have never really lived my life, but have constructed it.” After we meet Crtrescu in “REM,” we suspect that he has been present in other stories all along: as the brown-haired narrator of “The Twins,” for example, or as the Romanian language teacher in “Mentardy” (Crtrescu was also a Romanian teacher). Through satirising the egotistical author and creating characters ironically disgusted by “literary prose” and “artifice,” Crtrescu tries to shake off the shackles of fiction altogether and make us believe his dreamworld is a reality.

Romanian history rumbles through Nostalgia. In “The Roulette Player” a sudden earthquake disrupts the story. This perhaps refers to the 1977 earthquake that badly affected the historic Uranus district of Bucharest; rather than restoring the area, Ceauescu later used the disaster as an excuse to build his Palatul Parlamentului.

The book’s epilogue, “The Architect,” is a thinly veiled portrait of the dictator himself. The story unfolds chronologically, moving from triviality towards insanity. Emil Popescu is an architect who becomes obsessed with his car horn, seeking one which can be modified “after the state of his soul, his talent, his taste.” Eventually, the man becomes a monster: his body “had long burst out of its clothes and literally filled, the way the snail fills up its shell, the entire back of the car, even overflowing a little out of the windows… two bouquets of fingers issued directly out of his torso, each comprising an assemblage of complexly articulated twiglike filaments.”

People worldwide become consumed by the car-horn’s music, to the point where they are oblivious to anything but the architect’s recitals. The monopolisation of attention and airwaves has clear parallels to the monotonal communist media and Ceauescu’s attempt to create his own cult of personality.

With his grandiose style and tangle of references, Crtrescu consciously situates himself as the successor in a line of great canonical writers, with nods to Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Borges and Cortázar. It is strange that his best fiction has not reached the UK before now. He has spoken of the difficulty of being published abroad, saying “my country is not only obscure, but also many times looked down upon for its poverty and its perceived low level of culture.”

From a British-Romanian perspective, there is little doubt that, in the UK, Romanian culture is neglected. The work of Mihail Sebastian, the Romanian-Jewish novelist and playwright who lived through the spread of fascism in Romania prior to the war, has also recently been rediscovered by Penguin Classics. The publisher has also indicated that more of Crtrescu’s work will be made available in the next few years. In the meantime Nostalgia—fiendishly clever, devilishly humorous and stunningly ambitious—is well worth a read.