img
polirom

Bogdan Suceava


Excerpt from

Critics about

Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2004, 2010 (2nd edition), 240 pages

Copyright: Polirom

Translation rights sold to: Paseka (Czech Republic), Paradox (Bulgaria), Noran (Hungary), Northwestern University Press (USA), Ginkgo Editeur (France)

Book presentation

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.



TopBack

Excerpt from

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:
“Holy Virgin Mother of God, do you know what that mark is?”
The truth is that the peasants of that village which time forgot had never travelled far and their minds did not dwell on things which lay beyond the bounds of the village. Seeing the child’s bare chest and tracing the mark imprinted on the translucent skin, that old man, more travelled than the others, said:
“The middle line here is Victory Avenue, then Gheorghiu-Dej Boulevard, Victory Plaza, the Titan district, this circle is the ring road, and this semicircle is Barracks Road, here is Herãstrãu Lake, and these are the streets of the Linden quarter.”

 


When his chest wrinkled up, the map would shift, forming alternations, successions, slippages and expanses, corresponding not to a single time, but to a limitless series of images, whose beginning and end were obscure. Things could just as well be narrated from end to beginning, and this is what that peasant saw, although he was unschooled and lacking in any prophetic gift, for he said, fearfully:
“I’ve never heard the like before. I don’t know what kind of a birthmark this is, but it looks like what you’d never even imagine.”
In fact, others said that it was not like that at all. It was impossible for a map of Bucharest to appear on the skin of a baby whose mother was Serbian and who had been born in the village of Evil Vale, below Nehoiu Mountain, to a family of sheep breeders who of old used to take their flocks as far as Stara Zagora and then back again every spring, but who today take them up to the Gemenea sheepfold, where the only white bears in the Carpathian Mountains had once been sighted. An old midwife is supposed to have delivered the child and to have recognised the birthmark when she washed him, a clump of blood and fortune and breath, saying:
“This is the sign of the end of all times or the sign of all times together.”
And she was also to say, prophesying from the very start something that an entire nation has been awaiting for centuries:
“It is a map of the second Jerusalem, a sign begotten, not made, a sign from the Lord and which demands worship.”
For which reason she spat on the babe thrice, to guard against the evil eye, she lifted him into the air towards the dwellings of the four winds and then proffered him to the sun.
It is not known whether the tale was concocted afterwards, when his room was being trodden night after night by thousands of phantasms and he had begun to drape his mirrors with white cloths and to pray aloud. But that was another time.
Later, they said something else about him: that he had been the only man under the sun to be born twice. The two lives glimmered far from each other and at the same time, but in neither was his body whole, or solid, but merely a mist, so that you would have been able to see through it, just as there are many transparent children throughout Wallachia. And the famed entrance into Bucharest, of which some rumours told, would have been no more than the meeting of the two lives, the intertwining of the two bodies, the weaving of two hearts into one, the superimposition of sign upon sign on two chests. This process cannot have been painless, and all we know – having read the documents, the records of some of the witnesses, the newspapers from the time, and according to the things we too recall – is that on the evening of 4 November 1992 an ambulance with vehicle registration number 17-B-1504 brought an emaciated, feverish young man to the emergency section of the Municipal Hospital, and that in the first moments he was not accorded any importance. We have no X-rays which might have recorded what was happening to his body at that moment, nor any illusions that the first medical observations were correct or sufficiently attentive. They did not know what they were looking at. They had that unique, admirable, wonderful phenomenon beneath their eyes and they did not know what they were looking at. It is human nature to suppose that every being with two hands, two eyes and a chest is necessarily a man. However, the chemical reality is surpassed by the meta-chemical, by virtue of which each one of us is different, although the prejudice is widespread that we are all made up of the same stuff. His fever rose endlessly – and it was only when it reached 44°C that a nurse observed that his eyes were shining much too brightly and his lips were murmuring and his veins were boiling, as though a Transylvanian and a Wallachian destiny were being mingled, as though the heavens were boiling with the loam. She heard him say something and this is what she thought it was:
“Follow me with angel cohorts, to the new birth, in time.”

 

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.
“Hmm, yes,” said Dr Pamfilie, who happened to be on duty, “there is nothing out of the ordinary wrong with him, he has a fever typical for those they’ve been bringing in off the streets lately, the glue-sniffers who sleep in the sewers, everything’s normal. Give him an aspirin. Allow him to leave.”
On his hospital discharge sheet the name Vespasian Moisa could be read, inscribed by a careless hand. It is the first document about him, because before it there is nothing. No birth certificate, no school report, no vaccination record, absolutely nothing.
It is here that the story of beginnings concludes, and also our documentation, for the facts become as fine as Bible paper, as spider webs, as thoughts of love. We pick up the thread of history a month later, in Piteºti, at a lecture which professor of history Diaconescu, one of the town’s worthies, was about to deliver to an almost empty auditorium. It was winter. At that time, the professor was nearing the final horizon of the theory that had been his life’s work. He had first expounded it at a history conference in 1985, where he had garnered merely shrugs and smiles, then he had worked on it together with renowned physician Apolodor Arghir, constructing arguments for the details or rather technical components of the medical side of the theory. In the first instance, the professor had had no success of any kind when expounding his ideas, perhaps also because dictatorial oppression quelled in its swaddling clothes the energy of many superb ideas, the enthusiasm of many inventors and creators, as well as the elegant proofs of many savants, mathematicians, logicians, philosophers and scientists. Professor Diaconescu drank coffee without sugar, he was a vegetarian, he wore sandals without socks in order to ensure continuous aeration of the foot (however hard it was for him, he remained true to this principle even in winter) and talked much about Sartre, one of his favourite references. At the political level, he was an unconditional admirer of Gandhi. After the professor’s lecture, the young man who presented himself as Vespasian Moisa asked him:
“Have you thought of writing a book about all this?”
The professor felt awkward, sitting there, in front of an empty hall, in the presence of five or six members of the naturist club.
“My dear man,” answered the professor with an absent smile, “neither literature nor theory can influence history.”
He was very much in the right: all the pages to which he had put the finishing touches were invariably marred by a literary note. In essence, his theory had nothing literary about it, but the lyrical air that absolutely all his texts acquired gave them a confused character, which captivated for a moment, but no more than a moment, the reader or audience. And this is what it was all about. According to the classic theories of the 1950s and 60s, the Gaeto-Dacians are supposed to have arrived north of the Danube around the year 3000 B.C. In the 1970s, an idea began to be accredited according to which the Gaeto-Dacians had arrived together with the first waves of Indo-Europeans, probably a thousand years earlier. Professor Diaconescu was more categorical: he confidently put forward the year 5000 B.C., and elaborated vehement arguments using heterogeneous passages from ancient writers such as Dio Cassius, Herodotus, and Apuleius, as well as mawkish Transylvanian idyllic poets George Coºbuc and Octavian Goga, as well as others. Once this part of the theory had been completely demonstrated, the professor argued that even back then the Gaeto-Dacians spoke the same Romanian as we speak today, which made the language more than seven thousand years old and transformed our everyday idiom into the oldest living tongue on the planet. Of course, as the professor argued polemically, there is a theory that Romanian is a descendent of Latin. It is a widespread theory, and in some cases it is even studied in school… Maybe, of course, but that aspect of succession ought to be a question much older than the year 5000 B.C., which is to say, it doesn’t even concern us today. The essential fact is that the Romanian language is an extremely ancient idiom and that it must be read and interpreted in terms of a code. We can speak of a true understanding of the Romanian language only after deciphering the initial and highly secret meaning codified in the syllables and letters of every word. As the Romanian language has a phonetic orthography, decipherment does not depend on writing: an analogous truth would have been arrived at even if texts written in Slavonic script had been analysed. Beyond the words of Romanian, the professor was convinced, there lies a code that not even the wisest initiates have ever deciphered. He liked to say that the Romanian language is the combination to the safe of the universe; it is a means of access at mankind’s fingertips, for discovery and understanding – as though God had slipped the house key under the mat.

 

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 professor expounded his partial conclusions to Emanuel in the spring of 1989. This took place in the professor’s room one evening, in the spring of 1989, while through the open window streamed the noise-saturated air of the most congested road in north Piteºti:
“Let us imagine that the Romanian language were written using ideograms, no different from Japanese,” said the professor, launching into his argument with dishevelled hair and wagging finger. “Let us imagine that each ideogram corresponded to a syllable. Each syllable would have not only a phonetic value, but also a secondary signification, codified by the passage of millennia, one that might contain the hidden remedy for the restoration of the respective thing to its initial meaning, in the case of its deterioration over seven thousand years.”
The professor had easily managed to decipher the fact that so or sol meant “sun”, and it followed that the word solitudine (solitude) could be translated “one born under a solitary sun”. Ridiche (radish) meant something odd: “pe mine mie redã-mã” (“render me unto myself”). His nephew Emanuel was enthused, although he kept asking all kinds of stupid details:
“How do we know that the Gaeto-Dacians had the word solitude?”
“I have no doubt,” said the professor, nodding, his eyes closed, as though in a trance. “The two languages are, at this level of vocabulary, identical. It is something that has been felt since the late eighteenth century, since the time of philologist Samuil Micu. The old man scented it, without a doubt!”
Then the professor added:
“But what does all this mean?”
For it seemed to him that his theory was merely part of a much broader, much deeper whole.
The Romanian language must be milked of meanings, as he also used to say. The verbs must be liquefied, the root of the meanings unravelled, the steam of its boiling appraised, the space between its substantives wrung, for there the Lord God, He Who Is, fearful be His name, has placed the key to redemptive meanings. If you follow that key, you can collect the cures for which mankind has forever struggled. It is incredible how clear and how simple it all is. All ideas of genius were, he believed, simple, were natural, could be communicated straightforwardly. For example, Einstein: everything is relative, damn it. That’s not a complicated idea, is it? Emanuel nodded and agreed that no, it wasn’t.
Dr Apolodor Arghir was passionate about the idea that he might discover at least one of those golden cures. He wasn’t a man to dream his whole life about finding a cure for cancer, leukaemia or diabetes, but a man with his feet on the ground, with down-to-earth thoughts and desires: a tall man, with a rotund face, with large, blue eyes, who walked with a slight stoop, thrusting before him a gleaming bald pate, wholly vindicated of hair. Dr Arghir dreamed of discovering a definitive cure for baldness, which he had come to regard, in its totality, as toxic both for physician and patient. He had lost all interest in professional reviews, treatises and conferences, and had begun more and more to believe in the traditional, natural medicine that had been practised before poet and folklorist Vasile Alecsandri frequented anatomy courses in Paris in the 1830s. It was during the period when Dr Arghir was appointed communist party secretary at Piteºti Municipal Hospital, immediately after receiving official acceptance of his application to purchase a navy-blue Dacia motorcar with a Canada dashboard. The conference he organised at the Municipal Hospital on that occasion was entitled New Research with a View to Curing Cancer and was open to healers from all over the world, regardless of their academic qualifications or the political regime of their country of origin. The conference was a grand affair, reported by Reuters and TASS. To the symposium also came witchdoctor Ougadou Li Gamba Wazaba Mimou, whose son was studying dentistry in Bucharest on a grant from the Democratic Republic of Zaire, and who performed a dance to extirpate tumours which shocked and enthused the audience, inducing fainting fits and ecchymoses. He was accompanied to Piteºti by a troupe of twelve bongo-players, who shook the hospital building to its foundations. The scars can still be seen today.
For a time, until he met Professor Diaconescu, Dr Arghir tried various experimental forms of treating the sick through music (his experience with the witchdoctor from Zaire had set him seriously thinking). He ascribed these inclinations to his being related, through a common ancestor, whose documentary attestation he considered to have been recorded around the year 1770 in a document recovered with difficulty from a village in the Caucasus, to great musicians of Armenian origin, including Charles Aznavour. He had begun to think about whether the only cure for cancer could be Bach. His patients, many in desperate medical situations, signed the form agreeing to experimental treatment and began sessions of listening to music and drinking medicinal tea. It is said that Dr Arghir gave up this project during the spring in which news of his irreducible infirmity spread through town: he was completely tone deaf. He could no more treat people by music than a mole could explain the colour harmonies in a Picasso portrait or the texture of a sunset seen from the beach at Costineºti. The rumour became public following the confession of a music teacher, the doctor’s mistress, who had for a long time tried, during moments of reclusion, to motivate her lover with Ravel’s Bolero, without ever receiving anything but an ambiguous response. Inasmuch as she considered that it was not a case of a colourless, odourless, insipid impotence that was amplifying with the pitiless passing of time, she continued a series of experiments whose subject was dear Apolodor, ultimately reaching the conclusion that he had no musical ear. In that period, extremely inauspicious both for his sentimental life and for his research, Dr Arghir became close to the professor when the rumours about his musical mistress reached the ears of his wife. They spend long afternoons together, talking and smoking, hair-splitting and analysing potential analogies between the theory of the antiquity of the codified idiom and the immutable truths of medicine. They took their comparisons as far as the level of modern studies. 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. Dr Arghir’s public appearances after treatment were so surprising that not even the Securitate officer who had written reports on him for more than ten years recognised him any longer. A black, frizzy, gleaming Afro now covered what had long been the most celebrated bald pate in the city.

 

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.
“Our theory,” he told him on the telephone, “is indubitably true and is part of something much more elevated and much closer to the heavens.”
It was harder to convince the doctor: it took almost three hours. Vespasian Moisa unfolded to him a sequence of devastating arguments, which involved subtleties of anatomy and logic, and, springing from the sphere of ideas, the proof which oriental wisdom had pursued for centuries: the existence of the Lord God is proven by the structure of the human body. Near midnight, the professor and the doctor knelt before Vespasian Moisa and said: “You are our Teacher!”
This took place on 26 February 1993 and constitutes the first spectacular conversion to be recorded in the history of the Teacher. In strictly philosophical terms, Diaconescu and Arghir placed their theory in the service of a belief, of a heresy, of a theoretical construct as to whose validity history would decide. The two were the first of a long line of believers convinced beyond any doubt that Vespasian Moisa was a prophet of the Lord God. Their minds did not have an exaggeratedly religious make-up, they were not religious fanatics who could barely wait to be told things about which they were already convinced, in spite of all the excesses of their previous theories. In this sense, we must speak of a spectacular conversion.
Vespasian embraced them, lifted them to their feet and is supposed to have spoken as follows: “You have discovered your truth in the parts of knowledge that have been given to you. But only a man born twice could see the whole, for the whole comes from God in Heaven. I have come. I have brought you it. I am here for you.”
When Vespasian Moisa sent word to them to come to Bucharest, a few months later, at the beginning of the summer of 1993, for the hour to integrate the City had arrived, both professor Diaconescu and physician Arghir dropped everything – hospital and family – and came to Bucharest. And likewise did so many others, because Vespasian was bringing Life, Truth, Freedom. It is complicated to explain, but this is how it all began.


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



TopBack

Critics about

“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.”

(Simona SORA)

“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.”

(Marius CHIVU)

“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.”

(Dan STANCA)

“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.”

(Paul CERNAT)

“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.”

(Daniel CRISTEA-ENACHE)

 

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
The writer wields a sharp pen to draw a cartoonish caricature of native aspirations to distinctiveness, the myriad national psychoses, the clinical hilarity of all “prophecies”, and Romanian “exceptionality”. A plethora of loaded cultural references to nationalistic platitudes spice up the texture of the book. The motto from The Rakes of the Old-Court evokes from the very start the “theatre” for the events that are about to unfold – Bucharest, the city of follies at the Gates of the Orient. The backbone of the novel is a fascination with indigenous “madness”, sociopathic manifestations of national identity, and the proliferation of mystic deliriums that are in and of themselves sensational and artistically expressive. The lampooning demon of the “storyteller” (“The storyteller is I” reads the opening of the book) minutely imitates a formal, stiff, quasi-antiquated style – but behind the brightly painted fence there lurks the lion of demythologizing.

 

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
Central to the story is the ridiculously sublime image of Prophet Vespasian Moisa, an alien devoid of any earthly identity. Rumour has it that he was born twice (a Wallachian birth and a Transylvanian birth) and that the map of Bucharest was inscribed on his chest at the moment of his nativity. As a worker of miracles and custodian of the magical and “musical/harmonic” mysteries of the universe, it is he who takes upon himself the task of redeeming the city of Bucharest. His biography, recounted in a vernacular tone, is captivating in its combination of humble innocence and deceit. Some of the most memorable pages are those describing the calling of the “apostles” by the new Messiah (young, extravagant and confused hippies, borderline lesbian actresses, merchants on the road to Damascus, old beggars oscillating between genius “in their poverty” and dementia), or those recounting the letters of recommendation sent to the Army, the Orthodox Church and ... the Soros Foundation. Characters such as physician Apolodor Arghir (obsessed with his ambition to cure baldness once and for all), the multifaceted hierarch Manoil Snagoveanu and, in particular, Professor Diaconescu from Pitesti, the discoverer of the primordial “universal code” embedded in the Daco-Romanian language, lend a touch of colour and substance to the story. The fact that most of them are based on real life characters is less important, since, it seems, it was not the author’s intention to write an allegory. The philosophical and esoteric speculations about the theory of musical vibrations – full of learned references, from Aristotle, Neo-Platonism, the Renaissance, and Hermeticism all the way to modern physics – are seductive in their scholarly ceremoniousness, which is undermined by biting irony. The comic effects are irresistible, and often made me laugh out loud when reading the novel. Let it be said in passing that slangy vulgarity and trendy hyper-sexuality are almost non-existent in this novel (except for a few spots here and there...), as the appetite for blasphemy is confined mostly to the intellectual plane. Laughter flays all fanaticism with mordant elegance.

 

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.


An Ambitious and Exotic Novel
There are some uneven parts (the detective fiction component and the sensational journalism, which are quite facile in parts) and the satirical dimension is sometimes exaggerated to the point of tendentiousness. But these are minor shortcomings that do not diminish the pleasure of reading the book. Ambitious and exotic, Bogdan Suceava’s novel is captivating in its spectacular verve and the comedy of its situations, in its genuinely artful and biting irony, in its phantasmagorical volutes of the imagination, and in its intellectual reflection upon the mystical “lunacies” exhibited by Romanian society since the fall of the communist regime. Coming From An Off Key Time is one of the pieces-de-resistance published by the new wave of writers.

(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 )

TopBack


© Copyright Polirom 2008. All rights reserved.

Web design & development by: svc & smorkov
Concept by: Florin Lazarescu