Mircea Cărtărescu About The Modernity Of Romanian Literature

* It's not easy being a Romanian writer. There is a double misunderstanding regarding the perception of Romanian culture abroad. Before referring to it, I must say that the idea of national writer is itself a misunderstanding. If in sport a sort of benign vanity makes the confrontation between countries enjoyable, it is nevertheless incomprehensible why on Marquez's shirt must be written Columbia, on Pynchon's USA and on Calvino's Italy. My writing was equally influenced by Kafka and by Ion Barbu, by Sabato and by M. H. Simionescu, by T. S. Eliot and M. Ivanescu. My art doesn't spring from a purely European tradition, but from the great European tradition. On my shirt it is not written Romania, but Castalia, as on Goethe's. On the other hand I do not believe in the "spirit of peoples" and in insurmountable cultural rifts. I don't think the Japanese are incomprehensible. I don't think the Aztecs were a kind of aliens. Just as all people are the same in liberalism and in terror, in love and in abjection, so are all writers the same in the light of the intelligence, sensitivity, humanity, cruelty and perversity of their writing. What does that double misunderstanding (responsible for which are not the "occidental ignorants," as it is sometimes written in our press, but especially the Romanians themselves) consist of? Firstly, in the image of Romanian culture, regarded as a traditional, folkloric, agrarian one, with a great untranslatable national poet, with several prose writers of the peasant world, with at most some modern stylizations of local customs. It's not only that I don't believe it to be true, but the idea itself that in our century there might exist such a culture seems to me ludicrous. A feeble literary trend indeed promoted in Romania, at the beginning of the century, such an image. But it had no power in front of the wave of modernism that, since the twenties, became the only language understood by the cultural media in my country. Modernism proper, together with the avant-garde and surrealism represent ninety percent of the literature written in this century in Romania. Proust was worshiped. Papini was deified, Joyce was cultivated and contested passionately, Faulkner was imitated up to disgust. We have a Romanian Kafka (M. Blecher), we have a Romanian Virginia Woolf (Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu) and a Romanian Gide (Camil Petrescu). We also have authors unequalled in the world literature, like our great poet Arghezi. I have no complexes in this matter and no arrogance. Romanian literature is a normal European literature, with authors hyperconscious of their art, very technical, complex, but nevertheless easy to understand and to love. Nothing so exotic that you couldn't understand; however, it has something moving and nostalgic that comes from the Romanian language, this Portuguese of the East… Why are the great books of Romanian modernity not at all known worldwide? The explanation is long and boring. It is enough to say, for now, that it is not because of quality reasons but because of bad cultural management. Romanians typically answer to this situation by a grotesque reaction of frustration. I have seen them very many times ardently leafing through the encyclopedias from abroad in search of the names of "great Romanians" and trembling with fury and humiliation when they realized that not even Eminescu – Romania's Goethe and Schiller in one poet – appeared in them. In vain did I explain to them what a great opportunity that could be: an intact, hidden vein in which strange flowers are patiently waiting, still untouched by light… I assume – for the fun of the game – that you are willing to believe in the natural modernity of this culture. I can, therefore, move on to talk about the second big misunderstanding, more delicate than the first and which must be carefully handled. It is about the situation of an "eastern" country during the communist regime. Also, about what kind of man the "eastern" man (and implicitly the "eastern" author) is. There have accumulated a great deal of clichés here. Perhaps there is none more harmful than the one about an essential difference between the East and the West of Europe, about two types of man shaped by totally different historical experiences. Many Romanians believe in this difference. They started by blaming themselves for the moral disaster of communism ("we are all guilty," one could often hear in the first years after the fall of the former regime) and by inventing the face of a would-be Western man, a kind of god of liberty, democracy and civilization. However, the more the economic, social and cultural frustrations grew, in the mind of these people a paradoxical Dostoievskian reaction took place. The feeling of guilt turned into a kind of a compensatory haughtiness. The values suddenly reversed: you, the ones from the West, earn good money, live comfortably, have everything you desire, but this makes you docile and indifferent. We, on the other hand, have suffered. We have faced the communist beast, we know what living under terror is, we are today the bearers of morality and even of true faith. Look at our deformed bodies, our rotten teeth, listen to us talking with trembling voice. We have traumas, we have what to write and talk about. What we have experienced was true and somehow haloed our suffering faces. We are better than you. Whatever we do, you cannot understand us, because our life experiences are different… With a play upon words, (belonging, actually, to a very respected literary personality of Romanian exile), while Western literature was, after the war, aesthetical, the one from the communist East was east-ethical… The general immorality taken upon oneself at the beginning becomes, magically, a moral standard…
* Excerpts from an article published in Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper at the opening of the Leipzig book fair and in Lettre Internationale, no. 28/winter 1998-1999.

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)