Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2004, 2010 (2nd edition), 240 pages
In Bucharest, the conflicts between various religious sects erupt not only in personal conflicts, but also in street fighting broadcast live on television. Each of the characters we encounter in this novel has a theory, a fanatically held belief. The novel is an unexpected portrait of Romanian society in the nineties, a humorous invitation to view it from an unusual angle.
The storyteller is I. Even back then you knew the end of history and you saw, just as a bird peering down from the upper air sees the ants and the torrent coming at the anthill as the ants sun themselves, everything that was to come, from the moment he entered Bucharest to the last gasp of his prophecies. When he entered the city, no one expected him to cover himself in glory, and he did not come riding on a donkey, beneath olive branches, although the expectation that was floating in the air had long been foreordained to him. We were all expecting a miracle. Do you remember the 1990s, with all their mysteries and untold history? Behold the time has now come to write their true chronicle. For a long time it was said that on his arrival he had no face, that not until later did his visage coalesce in contact with the city air or rather in contact with itself, an unheard-of coagulation of being. It was said that he had been born in the Transylvanian village of Weissdorf, which nowadays no longer exists and is no longer marked on the maps, from a Saxon father and a Serbian mother, and that from the very first moment she raised him in her arms the midwife had been astonished by the mark that covered his chest and which at first sight seemed merely an ugly deformity, a birthmark. And so they believed until the day when someone saw the babe with his chest bared and said:
It made no sense, did it? It would have been no different from the delirium of any one of the raving madmen in the ward, had it not been for the crystal clarity of the diction, the correct and clear pronunciation, as though what must be said had not yet been said and now the chosen moment had come, the hour when the air would whirl with words around him, restorative words, healing spells, binding formulas, most of which had never before been heard, spoken, thought.
The first person the professor convinced was his nephew, Emanuel. The truth is that Emanuel was a young man of sincere patriotic sentiments, in whom the theory of the antiquity of the Romanian language found fertile ground, just as a seed borne on the wind might find mellow and fruitful soil. Emanuel’s education had been highly complex, including not only good marks at school, but also plentiful listening to the radio and watching the television. Emanuel had been left with a sensibility bordering on the traumatised since the times when he had listened intensively to the propaganda spectacles of the Flame Cenacle on the radio, which were broadcast every Thursday evening and which he attended twenty-six times, not only in Piteºti, but also in Titu, Costeºti, Gãieºti, Topoloveni, Leordeni, Bragadiru, Vedea and various other venues. For him, the impression had been so profound that the magical slogan The First of December Unites Us would lave him in tears, and the lines And nonetheless a love exists, / And nonetheless a curse exists, even when hummed softly, would provoke in him brief erections, as fleeting as summer rains, concluding spasmodically, leaving him drained and breathless.
The fact that the theory was true ought to have brought thousands of patients to the two discoverers’ door. However, events took an unexpected turn. One evening, after the aforementioned lecture, Professor Diaconescu received a visit from Vespasian Moisa. In the professor’s office, a discussion on religious and historical topics took place. After not so much as an hour, the professor telephoned the doctor and urgently summoned him. His voice quavered, it was the voice of one who had seen the world’s abysses close to, the ultimate things of wisdom, beyond which all truths are equal and before which imposture and endeavour are all one. He was shocked. He was beyond the boundary; he was in the land of fable.
“The country Bogdan Suceavă reconstructs in America is a pocket homeland, with its mechanisms on view, predictable in evil, self-destruction and theoretical remorse. A fatal model around which springs up a sad book, full of sarcasm, ambitious, rounded (almost geometrically so) and self-generating, like a well-oiled mechanism that endlessly produces fiction.”
“The novel is very good, extremely interesting in its ingenious and complex subject, carefully constructed, consistent in its narrative – Bogdan Suceavă is an authentic storyteller – and admirably written, with verve and style. An intelligent and substantial challenge to his contemporaries.”
“Regarding the recently published novel by talented young prose writer Bogdan Suceava, Coming from an Off Key Time, it might be said that it paints a portrait of a kind of utterly insane world. The mathematician and author, who started his career over the ocean, in the United States, has all the qualities needed to write devastating satirical prose, against which no god or idol can resist. After reading Bogdan Suceavă’s book, beyond its remarkably fluent and coherent narrative, you have the feeling that the world we live in is not only insane but also frivolous.”
“Ambitious and exotic, Bogdan Sueavă’s novel conquers by its spectacular verve and by the humour of its situations, by the aestheticising/ironic precision of its style, by the conjuring-trick volutes of its imagination, and by the intellectuality of its reflection upon the mystic lunacies of Romanian society in transition. Coming from an Off Key Time is part of the heavy artillery of the new wave of prose writers.”
“It can easily be observed that, in Bogdan Suceavă’s novel, parody feels at home. The blank, neutral tone and wilfully descriptive style of the narrator, articulating a pince-sans-rire kind of irony, thicken the clownish side of the book. However, beyond this the book has a grain of gravitas, a discreet plea for social normality and essential stakes at the level of personal life. Coming from an Off Key Time is a surprising, excellent novel of Transition, reducing with intelligence and humour the fissure between alienation and alleviation.”
Dr Paul Cernat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at the University of Bucharest. His field of expertise is Romanian literature. Observatorul cultural is currently one of the most prestigious Romanian literary reviews, with nationwide circulation. It is published by the Cultura XXI foundation.
Millenarian Comedies at the Gates of the Orient
Last year, Bogdan Suceava published a spectacular novel in Polirom’s "Ego. Proza" series: Coming From An Off Key Time. After a first reading, I was a little disconcerted: albeit very well written and with a high IQ, the text seemed to me a little too much of a lampoon and somewhat one-sided: an amusing “deconstruction” of millenarian and Romanian-centric psychoses from before and after 1989. On a more thorough (and more recent) second reading, the book reveals itself into a new light: a satiric apocalypse in which a subtle poetic aura coexists with the de-constructive power of the storyline. Although this is his first novel, the author (born in 1969) is not at all a literary novice. Holding a PhD in Mathematics from Michigan State University, East Lansing (2002), now Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton, USA, he has over the last decade published several books besides this novel, including short stories and poems, some of them in electronic format. A polemical spirit, impetuous and “heretical”, in recent years he has passionately immersed himself in Romania’s intellectual controversies.
Unlike other writers/mathematicians in exile (such as Constantin Virgil Negoita), Bogdan Suceava does not resort to the novel in order to transpose his theories into fiction, but rather, with rigor and passion, he prefers to elaborate upon his psycho-political obsessions within an epic framework that resonates with echoes of Borges, Milorad Pavic and Bulgakov. His affinities are not with the young and restless wolves of Romanian’s “auto-fiction” school of writers, but rather with the iconoclastic prose of Petre Barbu (The Last Shudder of the Iron-Guard Submarine), Daniel Banulescu’s “demonic” grotesque (The Seven Kings Of Bucharest), Ioan Petru Culianu’s allegoric scenarios (his cryptic stories about Jormania), and Andrei Codrescu’s Messi@h. The literature of Bucharest mythologies – beginning with the highly symbolical and lyrical nostalgias of Mateiu Caragiale and Mircea Eliade and ending with the post-1989 “apocalyptic” wave – has been transformed into a theatrical prop and grafted onto phantasmagorical political fiction. The monsters of native imagery enter the ring with great pomp and ruthlessly wrestle each other in a carnival of radicalized vanities.
The Lunacies of Bucharest – Sects, Deliriums, Prophets
Sacrilegious sects, false prophets and delirium-prone loonies, paranoid con-artists, adepts of conspiracy theories, deranged disciples, millenarian radicalism, phony Dacian occultism and Protochronism à la Napoleon Savescu and Pavel Corut, the Cathedral of Our Salvation, [all allusions to contemporary religious movements – Translator’s note], Maglavit and the New Jerusalem (the only ones missing from this list are the “yogis" of the MISA group founded by Gregorian Bivolaru...), Orthodox hierarchs and versatile Catholics, sombre professors hallucinating about nationalist absolutism, and ridiculous Secret Service officers swarm within the pages of the book. It is a world in the throes of an identity crisis, whose anxious search for a miracle, salvation, redemption, is rewarded with a surplus of phony prophets. The apocalyptic scenarios unravelled within the novel reveal a veritable bestiary, an insectarium of ludicrous monstrosities, farcical characters and pathetic marionettes all aspiring to reach the Absolute and Perfection. The stakes here are not scholarly, symbolic or existential, but rather radical and iconoclastic. The novel is a satire that targets the national apocalyptical imagery; Bogdan Suceava’s vision is absolutely satirical, even when the satirist finds himself seduced by the decadent pleasures of watching the spectacle of nationalistic phantasmagoria. After all, at the Gates of the Orient people always end up making light of things after having believed in them at first. However, beyond the iconoclastic verve, one can detect a residue that is hard to define, a poetic mystery that confers upon this book a wicked charm.
Vespasians vs. Stephenites, the Sublime vs. the Ridiculous
Moisa’s disciples’ main rivals in the “battle to conquer Bucharest” are the pragmatic and combative members of the Stephenite sect, who take their name from their leader, who claims to be the reincarnation of St Stefan the Great. Implacable foes of Moisa’s contemplative followers (wrongfully accused of being Satanists), the Stephenites seek to emulate the “vigorous” heroism of the historic figure who inspires them, beating to a pulp and driving out of the city all Turkish traders, modern descendants of the janissaries and Ottoman invaders. The derision is unstoppable: whereas the Moisa camp lists among its many miracles a cure for baldness, the Stephenite camp worships the image of national football team coach Mircea Lucescu, who has “avenged” the entire nation by winning a soccer game against the Turkish team on home turf. The sect phenomenon will be investigated – without success – by the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) (at this point the narrative becomes a detective yarn, and presents us with the “Bulgakovian” metamorphosis of an agent into a paranormal ginger tomcat by means of a KGB technique).
The media scandal generated by the growing ranks of sect members is described in the brisk tone typical of sensational journalism nowadays. Then, the action moves to an ecclesiastical setting, reaching its climax with Vespasian Moisa’s abduction by the Stephenites. Abandoning, for strategic reasons, the initial plan to execute the “teacher” by the traditional method of impalement on a stake, they content themselves with his symbolic obliteration, urinating on him to expose his imposture. In a surprising turn of events, Moisa’s disciples, while trying to prevent the ruin of their “teacher’s” image, decide to kill him as a means of prevention. From this moment on, the grotesque situation acquires a lyrical gravitas. In death, the two identities that defined Moisa at birth part ways (a remarkable scene, which must be counted among the most accomplished moments of the book). While Moisa’s imposture is questionable, the so-called Voevoda Stephen turns out to be a genuine impostor. After his exposure, the Stephenites are abandoned by the narrator at a burlesque and embarrassing moment. The subsequent emergence of a new “chosen one” – Marian Tihomir, who arrives from “an off-key time”, from the parallel world of perfect vibrations – brings the novel to close that is marked by a baroque apotheosis, a somewhat calculated effect. A “second coming”? An upside-down camera, broadcasting live a tricolour sky – red, yellow and blue – seems to suggest that the story continues on a higher plane – beyond-reality.
(Paul CERNAT , Observatorul cultural, Nr. 295, November 17, 2005 - November 23, 2005)
Dr Sanda Cordos is Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania where she is head of the Department of Romanian Literature and Literary Theory. Vatra is a monthly review published in Tirgu-Mures by the Romanian Writers’ Union in partnership with Mures Local Council and with financial support from the Ministry of Culture.
Saviours and the Abandoned
Up until now, the literary biography of prose writer Bogdan Suceava (who, it should be pointed out, has also written poetry and, more prominently, journalism) has taken the shape of an apprenticeship. Experimenting with various narrative formulas and genres, the writer has gained in literary confidence and quality with each of the books he has published (Fear of Twilight, short stories, 1990; Under the Sign of Orion, novel, 1992; The Empire of Belated Generals and Other tales, novellas, 2002; Grandfather has reverted to French, short stories, 2003) and has now reached a point of synthesis (including a textual synthesis, by revisiting previously explored narrative strategies and characters), an artistic pinnacle of mastery (in the strongest sense of the word), in the novel Coming from an Off-key Time (Jassy, Polirom, 2004).
The novel might be considered as illustrative of a trend that Bogdan Suceava has tried to outline in a number of articles, a trend called political fiction (a formulation sufficiently similar to the political novel practiced by the majority of Romanian prose writers in the 1970s and 80s in order to warrant an interesting comparison of their themes), which would include Petre Barbu, Radu Aldulescu, Razvan Radulescu, Dan Lungu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, and Radu Pavel Gheo, and which is “not only our connection, as writers, to the world of politics (it would be simplistic for us to think this), but rather a question of the inclusion in current literary imagery of spaces where an imagery that is political in nature usually operates”, including (with even higher stakes) spaces in which “explorations of reality go beyond the frontiers of reality” (When are we talking about political fiction? in Observator cultural, no. 256, 18-24 January 2005). Coming from an Off-key Time represents just such an exploration. Written from the viewpoint of a mysterious narrator/witness (on a number of occasions he uses I and we, revealing a closeness if not belonging to the world of the characters), the novel promises “the authentic chronicle” of Bucharest in “the nineties, with all their mysteries and untold stories”. It is a chronicle that situates itself under the motto and, moreover, in the tradition of The Rakes of the Old Court (which inspired many great books of post-war Romanian prose, an object of homage and a catalyst that has yet to be fully researched), electing, like Mateiu Caragiale’s novel, to explore a world that is “formless and empty, sprung from the splendour of ruin”, inhabited by characters from the “penumbra”, in which ambitions, energy and ideas seethe, because “we do not flourish when we come upon money, food or drink, but when we come upon ideas!” From this fascinating city, plunged into tumult and an unwonted mix of ideas, albeit almost devoid of the discipline of reason, the narrator chooses to tell us three tales in particular.
The first centres on Vespasian Moisa, a vagrant of unknown and mythical origins, whose breast is marked with the map of Bucharest, interpreted, from the moment of his birth, as being “the map of the second Jerusalem, a sign begotten, not made, a sign from the Lord and which demands worship”. This mysterious character is joined at first by history teacher Diaconescu and physician Apolodor Arghir, both worthies of the city of Piteşti. The theories of the former (according to which the Romanian language, supposed to be seven thousand years old, holds the “combination to the safe of the universe”) and the later’s obsession with finding a cure for baldness give rise to a sensational discovery: “In the end, they decided to analyse one of the fundamental mythological motifs of the Romanian people, a myth that might date back to around the year 5000 B.C. The mandrake myth, to be exact. In fact, this was to be the unexpected care for chelie (baldness), insofar as the syllable che when added to the syllables li and e, then transformed according to a law of decryption on which the two had worked for almost three years, produced the secret name of mandrake. Baldness, which is to say mandragora. A broth of mandrake, to which they added sodium hydroxide, dried goatskin, Coca Cola and butter, had spectacular effects, transforming any baldy into a person with a respectable endowment of hair.” The number of Vespasian’s disciples gradually increases (“dozens and then hundreds of people who had nothing else began to seek him”), all of them finding shelter, under the name News of the Lord, in a villa in Lahovary Square, donated by Vasile Gheorghe, the general manager of an international trading company. Here, thanks above all to Arghir (who, among other things, engages in extensive correspondence with the Romanian Patriarchate, the Soros Foundation, the Army General Staff, and the Ministry of Culture, an outstanding, and by no means singular, echo of the comic plays of Ion Luca Caragiale), News of the Lord organises, is visited in secret by leading political and scientific figures, and sets out, in the words of its strategist, to conquer Bucharest.
The same aim also motivates a group of young people (most of them students) led by Darius Georgescu, who establish their headquarters in an unfinished apartment block, on which they unfold a banner reading Government. Obsessed with solving Romania’s moral crisis and attaining the “great and magnificent truth of the Romanian people”, the rulers at the edge of the capital seek to revive an authentic role model: “The absolute man of Romanian-ness was Stephen the Great, and this is precisely the model that must be followed”. By lucky coincidence, a Moldavian run over by a truck awakes from a coma believing he is the reincarnation of the mediaeval prince. For a few weeks (until he receives another blow to the head and becomes Ioan the Terrible, Prince of Moldavia), he joins and leads the group of young people, who are proud to have found a leader in their incarnated ideal and thus to be soldiers “in the army of free men.”
Both the peaceful cult and the bellicose followers of Stephan the Great are under surveillance by a department of the Romanian Intelligence Service, headed by Colonel Focşaneanu, who in exasperation observes: “No one ever foresaw that in Romania so many idiotic ideas could arise simultaneously. It is beyond belief. We don’t have the men to monitor them, let alone to take action. […] We have more loony Romanians than restive Hungarians. How am I supposed to allocate enough resources for every single loony idea that comes up?” It is among the loony Romanians – those locked up in the loony bin – that the Colonel himself will soon find himself, after he confesses to the General that their top mole in News of the Lord (after the conversion of another undercover agent) has preserved “the same dedication and spirit of self-sacrifice for his country” even after having been turned into a tomcat by the KGB.
The three narrative levels achieve a spectacular show, a carnival of follies, and lunacy is one of the major themes of the novel. Critical to its aesthetic success is the sober voice of the narrator and the richly nuanced observation (which this inevitably summary description is unable to capture), as well as the way in which the characters play a dual role: that of unrelenting witness of others’ delirium and that of (albeit unwitting) protagonist of their own. All three levels converge at a fatal point, which provides a tragic dimension and, at the same time, depth to a novel that brims with humour. While the ideas put forward are motley, the ideal that runs through each of these cults is that of salvation (the second major theme of the book). The means they employ, however, different, and they will end up clashing with each other. Constructed as an enigmatic character (more from the viewpoint of the other characters than in close-ups), Vespasian Moisa is a messianic figure, and the “entourage of unique characters around the Teacher” consists of as many apostolic embodiments.
With all the freedom fiction grants, the novel retraces, as transparently as can be, an evangelical path, which – using very subtly crafted biblical motifs, episodes and dialogue – begins with the calling and investiture of the disciples, goes on to the entrance into Jerusalem, and concludes with the ascent to Golgotha (albeit one at the urban periphery), after one the disciples, Diaconescu, betrays Moisa to the “soldiers” of Stephen. Subjected to a summary and distracted trial before the Patriarchal Vicar, Manoil Snagoveanu, Vespasian is beaten, humiliated and sentenced to death by the Stephenites, “in the name of the Romanian people and in accordance with the teachings handed down to us by our forefathers”. The crucifixion itself remains incomplete (‘“It’s pointless impaling him”, said Negru. “We can piss on him. That,” as he explained, standing by Vespasian Moisa’s tortured body, “is the kind of political coup we need’”), as the executioners remember that there is an important football match on television, which, for patriotic reasons, they cannot miss. A few hours later, in the presence of the Troubadour (the youngest and best-loved disciple) and his girlfriend, Vespasian Moisa seems to ascend to heaven, and before the cock crows, Deacon Macarius “finishes cleaning his corner of the world”, removing before dawn the last traces of blood from the square in front of the Patriarchate. In the last chapter (written as an epilogue), an enigmatic young man makes his appearance in Bucharest, about whom it is believed that he can “transform this city into a second Jerusalem, into a city where our ultimate hopes, our highest hopes, our noblest hopes will be fulfilled.”
A nostalgic chronicle of Bucharest, subtly gliding between the eccentric and the exceptional, between the clownish and the metaphysical, the apocryphal gospel of a world with far too many saviours, but incapable of redemption, wracked by ideas and blindly seeking a shepherd more than freedom, distilling “the off-key time of our wounded, raw, heightened senses” into an impeccable literary construct (resting on solid cultural foundations and displaying genuine strength in the exploration of a reality beyond the frontiers of the real), Coming from an Off-key Time is a remarkable novel (not merely in the tradition but also in the company of The Rakes of the Old Court), which fully establishes Bogdan Suceava as a prose writer.
(Sanda CORDOS, Vatra, no. 5/2006 )