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A Memoir by Norman Manea
by David Herman
Soon after leaving Romania in the late 1940s, Paul Celan wrote to a friend of the "too short season which was ours..." It is a good epitaph for the all too brief explosion of artistic and literary talent in Romania in the first half of the 20th century, set against a darkening background of rising anti-Semitism, invasion and dictatorship.
There were two generations. The first were born in the years before the First World War and included Tristan Tzara (né Sami Rosenstein), the father of Dadaism, the Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger, the screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger (born in Hungary but briefly a Romanian citizen in the 1920s), Mircea Eliade, Ionesco, E.M. Cioran and Saul Steinberg. None of them remained in Romania by the end of the Second World War.
The second generation were born between the wars and included Celan, Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld and Norman Manea. They were formed by three experiences: the rise of Romanian anti-Semitism in the 1930s, the Holocaust and exile. All four were Jews and were sent to concentration camps or labour camps. They all lost members of their families in the Holocaust and then, all four, left Romania: Wiesel to France, and then America, Appelfeld to Palestine, Celan to Vienna and then Paris, and Manea to Germany and then the U.S. Manger once described himself as "born in a train between two stations." Displacement and flight have been central to the lives of all these Romanian writers.
What is immediately striking about all these writers is their diversity: from Dada and the plays of Ionesco to the aphorisms of Cioran and the screenplays of Pressburger, from Night and Celan's Todesfuge to Manger's Yiddish poems, peopled with Purim players and wedding jesters. This extraordinary group of writers ended up in different countries and wrote their greatest work in different languages: Cioran and Ionesco in French, Pressburger in English, Celan in German, Manger in Yiddish, Appelfeld in Hebrew.
Only Manea has continued to write in Romanian. He stands out in other ways too. Born in 1936, he was the youngest, and the last, of the great Romanian-Jewish writers. He was the only one to stay on in Romania after the fall of the monarchy in December 1947 and the only one to experience Romanian Communism. The last to leave, he was also the last to establish a reputation in the English-speaking world, decades after the others. He wasn't translated into English until the early 1990s, his breakthrough years both in Britain and the United States. In 1992 came On Clowns: The Dictators and the Artists, a book of essays, and a book of stories, October, Eight O'Clock . The following year a book of novellas, Compulsory Happiness, was translated and then, in 1995, the novel, Black Envelope . He has also had stories and essays published in most of the leading American literary magazines, including Paris Review , The New Republic, Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books and Salmagundi.
Manea's memoir, The Hooligan's Return , revolves around his return to Romania on a twelve-day visit in 1997. It is a powerful set of meditations on the vanished world of pre-war Jewish Bukovina, the deportations and executions of the Nazi years, the experience of Communist Romania and then almost twenty years of exile. It is not a straightforward memoir or in any way a sentimental evocation of the past. It is full of absences and evasions, leaving strange and important gaps, but, above all, it is a powerful and complicated set of reflections on home and homelessness.
The word "home" echoes through the book. This is hardly surprising. Manea was forced out of his home when his family was deported to the camps in Transnistria in 1941. He was just five years old. They didn't return to Romania until 1945 and then didn't return to their home town for another two years. Then in 1986, aged fifty, Manea went into exile for a second time, eventually settling in the U.S. Consuls and visas, what George Steiner once called "the dark arts of bureaucracy," loom large.
Manea's homelessness, however, is not just a story of exile. Even in his years in post-war Romania he was always on the move. "As I moved from one rented room to another," he writes, "my suitcase was the only space I could really call my own." When he and his wife find an apartment, they are forced to share with a family of gypsies ("The smell of roast sausages and the sounds of the accordion dominated our shared home, from dawn till late at night"). Even after he leaves Romania there are problems with his apartment and the authorities. Someone else moves in, despite the fact that Manea is still paying for the apartment, and when Manea takes him to court, the authorities find against him, insist he pay the court costs and the expense of redecorating the apartment because socialist law stipulates that whenever someone left the country "for good," they had to leave the apartment to the state in perfect condition.
Finding a home, in the most literal sense, is a problem for Manea throughout the book. Elsewhere, though, his homelessness takes deeper and more complicated forms. Where is home for an alien, marginalised outsider, for "someone like me ... who doesn't belong anywhere"? Again and again, Manea represents himself in these terms, as an "alien," "an intruder," "a foreigner, as he was everywhere and always." Sometimes, when he speaks, he hears "an alien voice" - his. When he is being interviewed, he leans into a microphone "and I hear a voice that sounds like mine, but the words are those of a stranger."
This is what Manea means by the "hooligan" in the book's title: "A hooligan? Did that mean marginal, non-aligned, excluded?" A few pages later he asks, "What is a hooligan? A rootless, non-aligned, nondefined vagabond? An exile?" If a hooligan, then, is someone without roots, who belongs nowhere, then to what can he return? The Hooligan's Return is about a return - the return to his homeland, to his home town, to the grave where his mother is buried. But it is also about the impossibility of such a return, about the illusion of home.
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 150-151.
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