Thoughts About A Possible History Of Gaster's Presence In Romanian Literature

In White Moor by Ion Creangă, the Rabelais-tinged philosophy of Gaster (the Belly), (Mikhail Bakhtin) represents one of the tests the main character has to pass in order to marry the daughter of the Red Emperor. As in any fairy-tale, be it in its cultivated variant, nothing is accidental. The hero is accompanied in his quest by bizarre companions, Eat-All and Drink-All, who never get their fill. One of the tests consists in wolfing down a huge amount of nutrients and beverage over a short amount of time. So, White Moor resorts to his friends who, tale-like, finish off the food and drink in a jiffy, and seem somewhat content to have gotten their friend out of trouble. Mihail Sadoveanu is another writer for whom Gaster takes pride of place. In most of his creation we find rich feasts, where lots of wine flow, and even descriptions of specific culinary recipes. In his Literary History, George Călinescu, one of the most important inter-war critics, maliciously quotes works teeming with such manducatory events. In The Jderi Brothers, The Sign of Cancer or The Time of Prince Duca, The Hawks and Ancuţa's Inn or the Stories from the Valea Frumoasă copious banquets are a fixture. More, a character of Ancuţa's Inn is sincerely amazed – not without a trace of national pride – how someone can be a "Persian." In other words, how someone can ignore the consummate taste of broiled chicken, of polenta or borsch. At the other end of the stick are the personages in Zaharia Stancu's Barefoot, limited to the condition of starvation. The author underlines in a sort of oversimplifying Manichaeism the huge difference between the evil ones, "the village sourpuss," filthy rich and sated, and the good folks, the villagers of Omida, needy, hungry but kind-hearted. In an episode "the barefoot" rebel and kill bailiff Filip Pisică after which they round off the gesture rather filling it to satiation, to paroxysm. Not only that they kill the bailiff by opening up his body with the plough cutter but they also stuff polenta and a casserole of beans in his stomach. Gaster's philosophy represented a counterpoise to the excesses of medieval asceticism and was included in a Renaissance education programme where everything appeared, naturally, in a gigantic vision, in line with the characters and imagination of Rabelais. In the Romanian variant it features a "joie de vivre" that at times is limited to the mere ingestion of food. What saves it is the delicious language, characters and irony, ingredients that are not rare to Romanian literature. In The Levant, one of the raciest and most representative texts of contemporary Romanian literature, Mircea Cărtărescu rewrites, as it was noted with good reason, through a formidable tour de force, the history of Romanian literature from it origins to the present. A reader with a wild imagination, the author reinterprets in a vast epic poem-parody all the major creations of the national literature, with meta-textual insertions in the good "old" postmodern tradition. Thus, we have direct hints at classic works like The Gypsiad, an ironical epic written in the early 19th century by the erudite Latinist Ion Budai-Deleanu. It is not only the structure of The Levant that mimics the forerunner's model. Also, one of the most interesting scenes from The Gypsiad is recomposed formidably: namely the story of the incredible trip to hell and heaven. If the descent into the inferno is in no way spectacular, the visit to heaven is expressed in gastronomic terms: rivers of milk, springs of butter, shores of polenta, cakes, and bread. Thus Eden is no longer the place where the righteous find due happiness but a spot where the needs of the belly get full satisfaction. One could not find "a holier and more just arrangement/Than eat and drink to your heart's content." In The Levant, Wallachia is synonymous with utopian bliss, with a genuine cornucopia, which evidences the obvious irony given that the text was written in the late '80s when the scarcity of food in Romania was notorious: But more proud than all states in this sphereIs Wallachia felix, Wallachia dearIts houses are, naturally, made of steakWith doors cut smoothly like cheese holesWith ponds of garlic sauce and cakeAnd banks of mince-filled cabbage rolls.

by Simona Brânzaru