Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2011, 696 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
At the centre of this intellectual thriller, which fuses the real and the virtual in an alternative interpretation of Romanian history from the inter-war period to the present day, is a paradoxical book: although it promises the secret of eternal love, its pages are impregnated with a fast-acting poison. Brought from Java to Romania as part of a plot to assassinate King Carol II, the book passes down through the decades, becoming the focal point of various strange conflicting interests: from the Legionary Movement (the far-right mystic revolutionaries of 1930s Romania) to Cold War secret services, American academics with esoteric obsessions, and treasure hunters from post-communist Romania in search of Ceausescu’s secret bank accounts.
The plot unfolds on two temporal and geographical levels. In the present (the 1990s), Nicu Stoica, a poet from Bucharest, visits the fictional American city of Shebango at the invitation of his friend Dinu Dima. A longtime émigré to the United States, Dima is the curator of the book collection left to Shebango University by late celebrity professor Tidid Diomed Caraiani, who was of Romanian origin. Except that Dima strangely does not turn up, leaving Nicu, a character as if out of a Woody Allen film, to wander through a world he cannot understand, guided only by mysterious messages in the “Minoan” alphabet that the two friends invented together as students and which is intelligible only to them.
The second level is set in the Romania of the 1930s and focuses on three friends, the Macedonian-Romanian T. D. Cariani, the Jewish Puiu Leibovici, and the Armenian Kevork Lapsarian. It is Lapsarian who tells the story of three lives that are at first bound together in friendship before being dramatically sundered. As a refugee in Palestine, Puiu gets involved in paramilitary Zionist organisations and after remaining crippled becomes a famous mystic philosopher. Cariani, after a journey to Java (it is he who brings the famous poison book to Romania and long thereafter recovers it for his personal library) becomes a teacher at Shebango University. After studying philosophy in Germany, Kevork returns to Romania, where he is imprisoned in communist labour camps and later becomes a factory worker.
Unfinished stories and the passions impact upon the present and finding the poison book once more becomes a matter of life and death. The solution to shadowy mysteries connected to the history of Romanian fascism and communist totalitarianism comes to depend solely on the confused and bumbling Nicu Stoica. Armed only with his knowledge of the “Minoan” alphabet, he is drawn into a desperate struggle not only to find his missing friend, but also to save the lives of his wife and children left behind in Romania.
The meeting was held in secret at a cottage in the open-air Museum of the Romanian Village, which the disciples of Gusti were working on in those days. Obviously, the people who enabled such secret and illegal gatherings were those among the nation’s young sociologists who nurtured fervent Legionary beliefs and sincere admiration for the Captain. We went in a group of around twelve, boys and girls, and there we discovered the Great Inspirer. When we arrived, he was sitting on a tree stump with his back to us, busy doing something. When we came closer, we saw that he was cracking walnuts. He seems to have liked walnuts a great deal. Or else they held some spiritual meaning for him. If I’m not mistaken, he had planted a number of walnut trees in the countryside, which then became objects of veneration. But maybe I’m mistaken. You see, on the subject of the Legion and its armed wing, the Iron Guard, I have never done any systematic research. Obviously, under communism I didn’t have access to any reliable sources. But in general, after all the beatings meted out to me in Securitate basements, and after all the declarations in which I was made to inculpate myself to such an extent that you would have thought I was second only to the Iron Guard’s Nicadori and Decemviri death squads, I’ve come to realise that I can no longer tell fact from fiction.
In spite of all that, I can assure you that I did meet the Captain that evening. In the faint, flickering light his face looked like wax: long, bony, so white and so cleanly shaven that it acquired chimeric, hieratic hues. Like wax? When I saw him with my own eyes, I think that this is what went through my mind. But now, as I describe him, I would sooner say like porcelain. There was something feminine, vulnerable about it. His large eyes suggested a kind of innocence. How can I put it? An impenetrable, decisive innocence, which had taken cognisance of the world’s infinite abjection, which knew how far pain and suffering could go, but which remained, in a distinct, unmistakable way, innocence.
It is hard to believe that he was playacting, although nonetheless the harmony between the embroidered peasant jerkin he wore casually draped over his shoulders and his Gary Cooper-style quiff was somehow too studied. No, he was not playacting; he was theatricality itself. A permanent performance. He was an ornament that contained and manifested nothing except the principle of its own distillation. A strange being, who gave you the impression that he somehow existed in two dimensions. Although he was the source of all the Orthodox exaltation whose ferment we witnessed, fascinated or impotent, for many years, he did not resemble a Byzantine figure in any way, but rather a Gothic design, awkwardly hieratic, subtly disproportional.
The maieutics that unfolded around that rustic table in front of that peasant house carefully recreated by specialists resided in simple questions, which the Captain put to each of us individually. It was obvious that he did not expect conversation from any of us, and less so debate, God forbid. The Captain was known for his visceral horror of doubts. He wanted only to make us feel what he himself named the “unquenchable power of the open soul, the mystery of brotherly faith and love.” One word he liked very much, and one of the few neologisms he tolerated in his archaic, consistently rustic and churchy vocabulary, was “normality”.
As we sat around the table, taking our communion of cheese and breaking bread, which I am inclined to believe was made from potato flour, in the German fashion, Puiu all of a sudden leapt to his feet, like a bright tracer bullet against the night sky. He had probably been preparing to take the limelight for a long while. But even in his case I can’t say how much comedy and how much sincere pathos there was in the tirade we witnessed.
Of what did Puiu speak to the Captain? It was a kind of fervent plea, but one that boiled coldly, to use an expression from the time. It was like a whirlwind of thorns, if I can put it like that. Obviously, I cannot reproduce it in every detail. But the gist was that anti-Semitism was a terrible mistake, both spiritually and tactically. Why should the Movement let itself be drawn into the excesses of a race that had excess in its very bloodstream? Why should they imitate the Germans in their brutal and indiscriminate hatred of the Jews? Why not follow the example of their Latin brothers? For, in Italy, Mussolini was not an anti-Semite and the Fascists were open, or at least had been for a long time, to all political young men who proven capable of the passion and the will to transform themselves and the world around them.
It was as if the moon privileged our table with a stream of its rays. There was a kind of pallor on every face. The Captain was flabbergasted, unable to chew the inadvertently large piece of cheese he had placed in his mouth, probably forgetting that it was already full of walnuts. Almost without pausing for breath Puiu went on, explaining that through acceptance and openness the Movement would not abandon its Christian essence, as had been the case in Italy. Of course, to human logic, it might appear that there could be no reconciliation between Christians and Jews, theologically speaking. But herein reside true strength, uniqueness, and novelty: in acknowledgement of paradox as a wellspring of energy and action. Because only God, in His unbounded providence, can accept both the one and the other, and He probably wants us to be at odds, incapable of understanding or accepting each other, without our ever being able to come together, but also without our ever being able to part. Which means that He wishes us to remain like this, with our souls open to paradox and uncertainty. Let us understand that above and beyond our theologies only He can dispense mercy and salvation. And if this be so, then here, in Romania, the Legion might become the first movement in history to draw its strength from weakness, to unleash the extraordinary forces of sincere self-doubt. Think, said Puiu, of all those Patriarchs of Constantinople, who believed in the birth of a Greco-Ottoman Empire, in which Orthodoxy and Islam might reside together within a process of mutual tension, destined in fact to maintain the life of the spirit, and within the same urge toward greatness, toward the political sublime.
The young men and women had had come there with me barely dared to breathe. As for us, Titi and myself, I mean, our hearts froze. We were expecting to be thrown out and have our backsides kicked, or to be mercilessly torn apart. For, we were known to be friends of Puiu’s, and so his heretical ideas would also have been automatically imputed to us. But miraculously, nothing happened. The Captain did not so much as raise an eyebrow; he did not suddenly twitch his shoulders, beneath the peasant jerkin, to signal his invisible praetorian guards to intervene. In effect, nothing happened. He remained motionless, staring into space, in a kind of dreamy puzzlement. As if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. You might have supposed that Puiu had managed to hypnotise him, or that the Captain’s mind was merely elsewhere. That absorbed in the country’s problems he had simply not been paying attention to anything that Puiu had been saying.
Titi flew into a rage. For the first time in my life I realised that “to foam at the mouth with rage” is more than a metaphor. Titi was literally foaming. He was incapable of articulating a word without his mouth contorting. Maybe he was battling forces even greater than the ones he allowed to come crashing and thundering down on us. His eyes flashed strangely, but at the same time they wandered, unable to focus on anything.
At first I thought that he was merely giving vent to the terror we had all been feeling. I got the impression that he was cursing and vituperating the individuals into whose midst we had crept. But once my ears grew accustomed to the pitch and the disjointedness of his shouts, I understood that the object of his rage was Puiu. How could he do such a thing? Why had he not been able to judge the moment? How had he been incapable of understanding what was going on there? Titi seemed convinced that the Captain’s personality had something diffusive about it, that it had to be studied with patience and understood. “It is clear,” he all but yelled, “that everything the Yid press churns out about this man is filth and slander.” Yes, those were his very words, “the Yid press.” The words were probably deliberate, aimed at hurting Puiu. “The Movement is he, this is clear, not the rabble of semi-illiterates and superstitious, unwashed yokels who have become medical students overnight,” thundered Titi.
The idea that emerged from that seemingly endless tirade was that we had missed the opportunity genuinely to understand the great man.
Puiu and I were left dumbstruck. We walked together a little further and then each went our separate ways, in bewilderment, like sleepwalkers. Later, I was sorry to have missed my sole opportunity of asking him whether he had spoken in earnest there at the table of the Captain, or whether he had been attempting to take our game of pretending to be fanatics to new heights, whether he had prepared his speech long in advance, whether he had weighed up its impact, or whether it had been an inspired outburst. All that I can suppose is that it was the eruption to the surface of the massive sediments left by his readings of Kierkegaard, Martin Buber and the man who was to become my idol and teacher, Professor Himmelbeer.
Later, however, for as long as the two of us were in contact, I never broached the subject. Never. In any case, immediately thereafter, Puiu disappeared from view. He did not answer the telephone and in the end, without any transition, without any interlude or scene of parting, he went to England with his family. It was not until he had settled in and had become a student at the London School of Economics that he sent me a letter. I was in Bergberg by then. Puiu had managed to contact my parents and they had given him my new address. In his letter he mentioned nothing of our parting that night and in the most natural tone he even asked for news of Titi.
I answered, informing him of the latest developments: Titi’s departure to Java. But I told him nothing about what had really happened prior to that, meaning what happened when Titi and I had gone back to the Legionary den. I might say that Titi forced me to go back, but I would be lying. Our game of pretending to be Legionaries had grown to be a habit with me. It was hard for me to break with all those social acquaintances. But I went back with a tense heart, because I knew that the blackest suspicions were hovering over our heads, as comrades and known friends of Puiu, who must have raised a storm of resentment in his wake, of that we had no doubt.
And we were not mistaken. As soon as he set eyes on us, the head of the den began to process us, as the communists were later wont to say, referring to interrogation. He told us that we had aroused the ire of the entire Movement and that, unfortunately for us, the Captain had in the meantime been informed by unassailable sources of the fact that we had introduced a “son of Mammon” into the ranks of students of “pure Romanian sentiment.” In such circumstances, we could only remain in the Movement if we agreed to make a confession in front of all the other comrades, to open up our souls, to repent, and to accept whatever penance the Captain himself would impose upon us.
Although I am now embarrassed to admit it, at the time I had no particular objection to that. You know, in those days, talk of Judeo-Masonic plots was like background music. Maybe you will be able to get some idea of it if you’re familiar with the mood that prevailed later, when people chanted slogans written down for them by the communist unions. After they allowed me to become a welder, I was often given the special honour of carrying the flag at the May Day parade. But for now, we are talking about a different epoch: we are bathed in the crackling light of torches (they don’t make torches like they used to) and my friend Titi has just finished giving his speech about the age-old enemy of the Romanian people, resolutely denouncing our friend Puiu. He didn’t demand that he be condemned to death or anything like that, God forbid. But given the tension that was in the air…
It was as if Titi had taken leave of his senses. I could see him sweating, losing his thread, coming out with nonsense about how we had been misled by means of various contrivances, but in no case money, no, we had not sullied ourselves with anything like that, our intentions had been good, idealistic. Puiu had managed to pull the wool over our eyes with his perverse sophistry; he had caused us to grow distant from what the voice of our blood ought to have told us about solidarity with our true brothers, the Movement’s martyrs.
Anyway, the most dramatic moment was when they made him spit. Yes, yes, they made him spit. You see, in the torchlight, next to the makeshift rostrum for our public confession, there was a drawing. A typical caricature, of the sort to be found everywhere in those days: a hook-nosed Jew with sensual lips and clawing hands… No, no, such caricatures had never bothered me before. They seemed in the natural way of things. But at the time I realised that this was not the image of a generic Jew, but the face of our friend Puiu, grotesquely distorted by hatred. It struck me like an electric shock. It was Puiu! To prove we were worthy of remaining in the ranks, blah, blah, blah, we had to be willing to spit on him and defile his likeness.
I realised that they were going to make me defile poor Puiu, to renounce him, to say all those vile things. And it horrified me. I suddenly felt a void gape deep inside me, rending my innards, the same void I was later to feel during the Malmaison investigations and in the basements of the Securitate at Ploiesti, when they forced me to say all kinds of aberrant things about different people. [...] And then my cousin Krikor came to my aid. Krikor was a few years older than me. He was taller and had a broad chest. He died in a car accident at the age of thirty-two. Well, I spent the holidays with his family in Braila when I was eleven and he was fifteen, and Krikor had amused himself by teaching me to imitate his father’s brother, who lived with them, our uncle Avetik, having one of his fits of le grand mal. Yes, that’s right, you know what I’m talking about. He was epileptic, the poor man.
Yes, you’re right. The innocent cruelty of children. An episode of which in the meantime I had come to be ashamed, an episode I had tried to conceal in the remotest recesses of my memory, in those special safe-deposit boxes for memories that put me in a sordid light, crannies which back then were not nearly as full as they are today. But in that instant the memory spurted into my mind with great clarity, almost causing me to faint. And before I could think about it or reach any conscious decision, I found myself thrashing around on the floor, croaking, rolling my eyes, and foaming at the mouth. It seems that everything I had practised with Krikor for days at a time had been stored in the cells of my body. Rather like riding a bicycle again for the first time in years and years.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Minoan is a story of remarkable intelligence, written using the tools of a professional writer, who holds his readers in the palm of his hand. Not polemically, but passionately and utterly persuasively, Caius Dobrescu has written an admirable book of the highest quality.”
“Minoan is a surprise of a book. I would also say it is by far Caius Dobrescu’s most daring literary experiment.”
“Minoan is the story of a man from the East, a failed intellectual burdened by the still raw memory of communism, who discovers the confusing world of America. Since it has a subject with elements of the sensational, para-literature, and refined, professional writing, the book will attract a number of categories of readers.”
“The major inter-war intellectuals, with their Iron Guard past, and conspiracy theories are the main characters of Minoan. In the garb of a thriller, Dobrescu delivers a blistering attack on conspiracy theories, absurd idolisation of intellectuals, and simplistic fictionalisations.”