The Rebel And The Freak

Most of the characters of Romanian fiction are outcasts and misfits and they duly suffer from it. This is not surprising, given the high speed of change experienced in the past two hundred years of Romanian history. When circumstances alter in such a rapid way, the individual is challenged to keep up with the change, rather than to trigger it. In stable societies, one appreciates the rebel, who attempts to bring forth, at his risk and peril, something new; while in dynamic ones adjustment is more valued. Consequently, one seldom encounters rebels and freaks in Romanian literature. The fewer, the more interesting they are. Rogulski, the hero of Nicolae Breban's novel, Don Juan, is a contemporary version of the famous prototype. He is not merely updated, but modernized. The character belongs to modernity because he has an ambitious ideological project, with specific ends and means, which he systematically pursues. Don Juan, as depicted by Molière and others, was a libertine in both senses of the word: he was a freethinker and a dissolute. In a time when moral values where founded on religious beliefs, he opposed them, claiming the autonomy of the self, based on the free exercise of Reason. Apparently, the wronged husbands, the frustrated creditors and the mass of God-fearing conformists were his enemies. However, he dimly realized that the feminine mystery was more challenging to his worldview than either society or religion. The eternal delight of femininity appeals to something obscure and innate that lies somewhere beyond the realm of reason. Thus, he has a love-hate relationship with women. He pursues them relentlessly only to prove to himself over and over again that the rational strategy of seduction can always overwhelm the vague uncertainties of the soul. Rogulski, the modern Don Juan, is a relaxed, unobtrusive person, not in the least concerned with his looks. Tall, long-legged, with the puffy cheeks and circled eyes of one who is keen on alcohol, he sprawls carelessly wherever he may be sitting. He dresses casually, paying no attention to clothes. He is also indifferent to body-care; he does not keep very clean, so that he is by no means what we now call a "metrosexual". His peculiar physical feature is a "scratching" little laugh, which carries a touch of superiority. Socially, he is not quite an outcast, but a marginal. He teaches history and literature in high school, having resigned from a more prominent academic position. One can easily see that he does not belong to the middle class that was little by little coming into its own. In the late 1960's, the authoritative communist régime in Romania had become more permissive, so that people enjoyed some relaxation and tried to make their life as comfortable as possible. Rogulski is confronted by chance with such people that almost managed to adjust to the circumstances and to lead a pleasant life "under cover", that is in more or less closed circles. They are rational and reasonable, give lip service to the dominant ideology and pay more attention to the quality of their private lives than to general ideas or the ways of the world. Rogulski decides to undermine this self-complacency and uses the power of his seduction, in order to bring some chaos into this little, well-ordered community. His prey is Tonia, the well-behaved wife of a determined yuppie. He unveils his strategy from the start: "the most efficient flatteries that win a sensible, young woman are the most outrageous clichés." The risk he takes is but a trick he employs: "the woman should not realize from the start how powerful I am." Tonia is aware that Rogulski's approach has a political dimension: he attempts not only to possess her body, but also to make her mind submit to an ideological pressure. When his insistence seems to fail, he turns to Tonia's best friend, Cici, apparently a self-centered person, beautiful, self-confident and utterly rational. The latter falls instantly for Rogulski, because of whom she inadvertently uses violence, which is bound to carry her beyond reason and beyond hope. Relieved that his lust had been redirected to her friend, Tonia begins to find some interest in Rogulski's conversation. He never tarries when talking about the courage it takes to change, to accept and to create the new, about the mystery of faith and the limits of reason. According to his discourse, Rogulski is the opposite of the classic Don Juan. He is not the rational libertine who defies the mystery of life and religion, but the initiated who wants to give the philistines some trouble. This does not fail to blur Tonia's limited and sound vision of the world, inculcating doubt where certainty used to dwell. The outcome is predictable: the woman comes, humble and meek, to submit to the magic power of the man's imagination. Rogulski is the rebel who defies not the political order, but the rational one. He has a counterpart in the freak that does not defy anything, but circumvents everything. The most delightful freak in Romanian fiction is Olgutza, a character from At Medeleni, a saga-novel by Ionel Teodoreanu. The book is a mixture between Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Thomas Mann's The Buddenbrooks. The first part describes Medeleni as a sort of Combray, with tiny brush strokes, which magically recreate the charm of the lifestyle in a Romanian mansion in the countryside, at the beginning of the 20th century. The next two parts deal with the social and sentimental involvements of the children who once knew paradise and lost it, in order to grow up in a changing world. Among the characters in the novel, Olgutza is the most enticing. Briefly stated, she has the vivacity of Tolstoy's Natasha Rostova, the determination of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara, and the sophistication of Victor Margueritte's La garçonne. However, she cannot be totally grasped from the references listed above. As a young child, Olgutza is frustrated because she was not born a boy. She dresses as one, is keen on riding and hunting, later on she would take up fencing lessons. She is high-spirited, very intelligent, witty, and has a keen sense of humor. She has a gift for the repartee and brings continuous amusement to the whole family. She has guts and, whenever necessary, she stands up fearlessly. Once, she surprised her family by taking up her courage in order to defy an old and bullying aunt. The latter recognized the chip off the old block and, instead of repelling her, left her a fortune. It is often said that intelligent men are somewhat effeminate and intelligent women are rather masculine. The explanation is that intelligence is devoid of sex. As a typical androgyne, Olgutza is attracted either by very feminine girlfriends, or by full-blooded males. She brings into the family the flourishing Rodica, and forms, with the tender Monica, a couple similar, save manipulativeness, to Becky and Amelia from Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Surprisingly enough, she would not make a brilliant career. Although well-read, she is more of a critic than of a constructor. Olgutza despises the fashionable literature of the time, Parnassianism, Symbolism, the psychological stuff that deals with refined sensations and sentimental vapors. She prefers Rudyard Kipling to Paul Bourget, as a more meaningful, solid and reliable author. Her vocation is to stimulate others rather than to assert herself. She acts as a friend for her father, as a sponsor to Monica, and as a confident and a muse to her brother, Dan. It would be he who would write the story of their life and the memorial of their world. Olgutza's charm inevitably turns on Mircea, a sedate, young bookworm, to some extent her male mirror-image, but eventually she falls in love with the black sheep of the family, her distant uncle, Vania (this rings very Chekhov-like!), a rebel and adventurer, twenty years her elder. It is interesting to note that, in his prime, the man had been in love with another freak, Ioana Palla. She is the more mature counterpart of Olgutza. Independent and self-willed, eager for unusual experiences and sexually ambiguous, the woman would end as an open lesbian. Ioana Palla suspects the likeness between Olgutza and herself and resents it. That is why she talks about her disparagingly, calling her a simpleton and an enfant terrible. Vania, in his turn, dimly realizes the resemblance between the two women, which impels him to break with Olgutza, to avoid plunging twice into the same river. However, in her own turn, Olgutza decides to put an end to her love and to her life too: due to her incurable disease, she commits suicide. As a freak, Olgutza is both proud and unhappy. She cannot find the comfort of approval, although she basks in the admiration of others. Her innermost goal was to devote herself to a worthwhile cause and, although she sometimes imagined to have found it, eventually she fails. What if a real rebel, like Rogulski, had met a splendid freak, like Olgutza? Probably nothing would have happened, because rebels dislike freaks as half-way rebels. They prefer to exert their power upon plain and right-minded persons, whom they attempt to lead astray. In their turn, freaks are easily seduced by the outward signs of rebellion, which genuine rebels lack. The rebel avoids the freak; the freak is insensitive to the rebel. They cross each other like ships in the night.

by Adrian Mihalache