A Showcase For Kalodont

Gregor von Rezzori has never been part of Romanian-German literature, a fact regretted even beyond his death. The writer, who was born in 1914 in Czernowitz and died in 1998 in his home in Florence, would have, nonetheless, met some of the conditions for qualification. But, akin to other great Czernowitz-ers, such as Paul Celan, he has eluded us. Again, others, like Alfred Margul-Sperber and Alfred Kittner, who have put down roots in Bucharest, stayed with us, although their work has not been by far infused by Bukovina as has the novel 'An Ermin in Tschernopol' by Gregor von Rezzori. Nit-picking as we are, we have read the 'Maghrebinian Tales' from very early on; as a result, we would have been delighted to discover which country or stretch of land could be identified with this Maghreb of his. A former co-worker from Bucharest TV, Ilja Ehrenkranz, also a Czernowitz-er by birth, would remark on this:"This Gregor von Rezzori is one artful Bukovinan bastard, he garnered the entire anecdotal wisdom of the Balkans and turned it into gold."It has always been due to our dual background that we could read these stories without further need for translation, when, for example, it comes to the 'historical feud between the overly noble families of the Kantakukuruz and the Pungaschij: also, with regard to the 'glorious ruling house of the Karakriminalowitsch', we are not in any need for further explanations. The title of 'Nassr-ed-Ibn-Hodja' University for Friendship amongst Peoples and Western Studies, nonetheless, we consider rather a concession to his crafty Balkan roots. On the other hand, there is only one place in the world where the Kalea Pungashilor (Crooks' Lane) and the Shosséa Hotzilor (Robbers' Road) could be found to cross, albeit, again, we gladly yield this place to the land of Maghreb, this realm 'woven from stories, from one end to the other'.Two anecdotes serve as an example for the frolicking joy with which Rezzori was able to recount them:"The traffic is fleet and flowing. Largely known with regards to that is the typical story of the Jew who got run over. It occurred so fast that the driver was able to shout 'Watch out' only after the wheels had rammed down the unfortunate fellow; upon which the latter asked in full horror: 'Why 'watch out'? Why, in Heaven's name, are you intent on coming back?'Whoever uses the tramcar does not necessarily have to cling to the clusters and umbels of passengers hanging freely from the steps and exhaust pipes of the bus. A tiny baksheesh will convince the conductor to clutch a few caps from the dangling passengers and hurl them into the street. In an attempt to retrieve their headdress, people will usually jump off. Thus, some of the seats become free."In various studies issued occasionally on Gregor von Rezzori, mention is made of these three life stories of his; the most recent is called 'In My Footsteps'; from it, I shall quote about his Bucharest time. Nevertheless, I found that in the novel 'An Ermin in Tschernopol' he captured more of the essence of Bukovinan poetic charm than he did anywhere else, and that in the 'Maghrebinian Tales', more acute observations were made on Bucharest than in his autobiographical texts. Nevertheless, these are remarkable, as well. Gregor von Rezzori, 'In My Footsteps': "I cannot remember, how much I have claimed as my own life in my Bucharest books, and how much I have insinuated into imaginary stories. In this respect, a radical change occurred in me as years went by. For, even though, at that time, I was still inclined to pass off other people's experiences as my own, I have spent the remaining decades of three quarters of life ascribing my own adventures, as well as invented ones, to fictitious characters. Whatever one might say – even to this day, the inspiration of Bucharest has not dried in me yet. All I have to do is close my eyes and the images start waltzing before them."An eight-old year boy, Gregor von Rezzori landed from Czernowitz at the Honterus Secondary School in Brasov (Kronstadt) where he would spend two years. His father, in charge of maintaining the historical monasteries of Bukovina, 'these gems of Mediaeval architecture and ecclesiastical painting', had befriended the chief pastor of Brasov and future Saxon bishop, Victor Glondys; this would have served as a good-enough reason to send the young boy to the Honterus Secondary School. On the literary side, there were no spectacular yields, but, to be fair, I shall quote some of the 'safer' utterances:"The Saxons spoke dialects not derived from the Saxon, but from the Luxemburg tongue. Dialects… not reminiscent of any German mother tongue. These localisms varied so much from place to place that inhabitants of the various regions would communicate in Hungarian or Romanian… Eight hundred years inside the Carpathian arch had turned them into indigenous children, kindred to others on earth."The poetic affection of the poet is, nevertheless, channeled towards the 'Land of the Balkans' that, in addition, could potentially render itself more productive to his creation.In 1932, whilst still in his twenties, Gregor von Rezzori returned swiftly from Vienna. He came to Romania, which from 1919 had boasted of having Bukovina as a part of it. In order to ply his military duty as a one-year volunteer, he had to sit in for a supplementary baccalaureate, which motivated him, in Czernowitz, to communicate only in Romanian and socialize with Romanian friends only. All this seems to have gone quite smoothly, where the school-leaving examination and the acquisition of the Romanian language are concerned. His arrival at the Bucharest Northern Railway Station is described as follows: 'Here is my first impression: droves of baggage porters, ragged beyond description, on the platforms. Nevertheless, they were all speaking the Latin language. A form of vulgar Latin. Against the Ruthenian-colored Volapük of the Bukovina, it sounded downright Ciceronian. The Romanian language is a good four fifths of Romance origin. Christianity, managed through the agency of the industrious Cyril and Methodius, drew a Slavonic element into it. A spoonful of Turkish was added. The core remained Latin.' To the ears of the young man arrived in Bucharest, 'it still sounded like music'.At this point, something must be said about the writer's graphic skills: for several months, in Vienna, he had been sketching vignettes for a sports paper, repeatedly attesting his decorative talent in the process. But this can only be judged in retrospect, as the true testaments to his gifts lie only in the unmistakably personal style of the drawings used to illustrate 'Maghrebinian Tales' in a Balkan, jovial manner. I wonder whether there was a sparkling flame already in that manner in which the young decorator was fitting the showcases of drug stores with products of the Stella factory, more specifically, with the 'Elida soaps, Kalodont tooth creams, Gibbs shaving soaps and the in Bucharest extremely necessary insecticide Flytox'?Gregor von Rezzori lived four years in the Romanian capital city; at a later date, a writer would pay him the compliment that he, 'amongst all the ones who had described prewar Bucharest, is the only one who depicted the world at the outskirts.' As an illustration to this, follows the very quintessence of description:"On that day, the oldest [amongst decorators] took me along, to introduce me to the plight within the city. It consisted in driving around drug stores and perfume shops in a certain part of the city and talking the shop keepers into fitting out their windows with Lever Brother merchandise. The large majority were shops on the outskirts. Their showcases were nothing more than the huts of perioeci, uselessly glaring above the eye level of the poorly whitewashed walls. Once they had given their consent to the facelift, it was first a case of removing one-or-two stones of dead flies, in addition to the products of Nivea , the competition. Next to the Elida soaps, the other products would be arranged in a circle. The decorator, guiding me around perfume and drug stores, did not waste any opportunity to point out just how tiring and time-consuming it was, covering all these drawing pins with azure and golden crepe paper. Moreover, he complained about the inconvenience that, barely had the decoration been finished and the decorator gone his ways, it would soon be desecrated by products and items that did not have anything in the world to do with it, such as ointments against foot perspiration, leech jars, hair removal creams, Mr. Sombart's flytraps, and the like. The decorators would be paid relative to the number of decorated windows."After his departure from Bucharest (1937), Gregor von Rezzori visited Romania repeatedly – in 1980, 1986, as well as after the 'turning point' of December 1989. In addition, his remarkable last evening at the Goethe Institute in Bucharest will be long remembered. But here, we will confine ourselves to recording that mood pervaded by a Southern light. Seldom has it been captured so uniquely by another writer:"Four years in Bucharest, which I look upon with tenderness, even through the mist of my feeble spirit. I had become accustomed to the city, written off by Western Europe as a Balkan metropolis; in spite of this, nearly anyone arriving here from the Western world would experience, if not their happiest, then mostly, their merriest days. I loved Bucharest."It is truly regrettable that we cannot count Gregor von Rezzori as part of Romanian-German literature, the 'fifth German literature'; nevertheless, his books delight us immensely, even if he belongs to 'the first German literature'. from Deutsche in Bukarest (Germans in Bucharest), ADZ Translated from German by Andreea Călugăriţă

by Hans Liebhardt