Few Words about Contemporary Romanian Literature, Carmen Musat, Editor in Chief "Observator Cultural"
Since the beginning of the 1990, Romanian literature has undergone many structural changes. Few of the most renowned writers before the fall of the communist regime passed the test of writing in liberty, as one of the most frequent devices used by many of them – novelists or playwrights – was the so called “writing between the lines” that allowed an author to refer indirectly, through allusions and parables, to the social and political reality. That is why many of the novels written before 1990 can hardly be read and understand nowadays, since the context they depended on no longer exists. Yet novelists like Gabriela Adamesteanu, Norman Manea, Radu Cosasu, Mircea Horia Simionescu, Radu Petrescu and Costache Olareanu, as well as some of those who published their first books at the beginning of 1980 – such as Mircea Nedelciu, Gheorghe Craciun, Mircea Cartarescu, Cristian Teodorescu, Petru Cimpoesu or Petre Barbu succeeded in maintaining themselves in the public attention and continued publishing some of their major books after 1990.
In the early 1990, Romanian society was eager to discover new forms of expression and rejected fiction in the first instance, especially that fiction that formerly was praised for its political allusions. This was due to an overwhelming need to retrieve its forgotten (as well as forbidden) past and to recover a kind of discourse that was more direct and authentic. Publishing houses started editing titles and authors that were taboo under the communist regime and, at the same time, they were deep interested in all kinds of autobiographical texts, be it secret diaries never published before or comprehensive memories whose authors underwent dramatic changes of destiny (some of the most impressive authors were well known writers or politicians in between the two world wars who refused to collaborate with communist authorities and either defected Romania or became political prisoners under the communist regime). Many such titles had an obvious documentary value and it helped to reconstruct the atmosphere of terror and the prison-like daily reality in communist Romania. And, what is of most significance for contemporary literature, this kind of texts functioned as a sui generis literary school for those writers who published in the mid of the last decade.
One of the many heated debates concerning Romanian literature, started in the beginning of the eighties, pointed to an emerging new wave of young writers with a highly theoretical conscience, determined to turn their faces back to surrounding reality. They refused to disguise the sordid aspects of communist reality into parable and preferred to carry on the lesson of their declared masters, the prose writers belonging to the Targoviste group (Mircea Horia Simionescu, Radu Petrescu, Costache Olareanu, Tudor Topa) and the 19th century prose writer and playwright Ion Luca Caragiale. Therefore they were preoccupied to set a subjective mirror to reality, looking deep down inside in order to convey a convincing version of a reality perceived through all their pores. And it was irony and gravity that merged into their literature, be it a novel or an anthology of short stories. Though isolated within the communist East-European block, these writers discovered on their own new literary forms that endowed us to speak about an emerging postmodernist generation in spite of the absence of postmodernity. Authors like Gheorghe Craciun, Mircea Cartarescu, Mircea Nedelciu, Stefan Agopian, Bedros Horansangian, Adriana Bittel, Ioan Grosan, Ioan Lacusta, Stelian Tanase, Cristian Teodorescu, Razvan Petrescu, Petru Cimpoesu, Petre Barbu and others published some of their important books until 1989, but they consolidated their positions within the aesthetic canon only in the last seventeen years.
I do not intend to say that there are no differences between the authors mentioned above. Some of these differences were obvious from the very beginning others became clear during the last years. While two of the most prominent figures of this generation already died (Mircea Nedelciu and Gheorghe Craciun), leaving behind significant works (some of them translated into French, like Craciun’s Composition aux paralleles inegales, traduction de Odille Serre, Edition Maurice Nadeau, 2001), the others are still active and generating expectations.
Nevertheless a new generation of prose writers made its appearance on the Romanian cultural scene in the early 2000. It would be unrealistic to say that no significant new name appeared before that moment, enough to mention that during the last decade many new books appeared at small publishing houses with no promotion and visibility whatsoever. Since 2003 some of these authors and their books were republished together with many unknown others at Polirom Publishing house, one of the most important in Romania. This was the starting point for what some of the literary critics used to call “the Polirom phenomenon” – a great number of Romanian authors, most of them very young, were encouraged to publish and their books were aggressively promoted due to an intelligent strategy meant to arise the interest for Romanian fiction. Polirom initiated two main collections: “Ego. Prose” – for newcomers and “Fiction Ltd.”, mostly for republished editions. Filip Florian, Florin Lazarescu, Dan Lungu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Simona Popescu, Anamaria Sandu, Razvan Radulescu, Florina Ilis, Ion Manolescu, Petre Barbu (and the list is far from being complete) are among the most innovative and subtle novelists either discovered or just supported by the above mentioned publishing house.
It became obviously clear that literature needs promotion and advertising since there is a public in the mood for reading in spite of all those pessimistic expectations pointing to young generation’s lack of interest for literature. The real problem was what kind of literature contemporary readers are willing to read?
Post-Communist Romanian Fiction: Realism and After
It is necessary to underline the connection between the cultural context as well as the political one so as to understand what we can make of the content of contemporary Romanian fiction. Before the end of 1989, the political context exerted strong pressure upon arts and culture and a writer’s task was often very difficult. Although there are important literary works that appeared in an age of extreme censorship – and I have to mention here Gabriela Adamesteanu’s Lost Morning (translated into French by Alain Paruit and published in 2005 by Gallimard), the works of the so called Targoviste School (that is Mircea Horia Simionescu, Radu Petrescu, Costache Olareanu, Tudor Topa etc.), Radu Cosasu’s Survivals, Norman Manea’s The Black Envelope and October, Eight O’Clock, few novels and short stories written by the young at the time writers of the “’80 generation” and few others such as Constantin Toiu’s Wild Vine Gallery and George Balaita’s The World in Two Days, or Poor Bodies by Sonia Larian – Romanian writers could not write about the reality of the communist era in an open and direct way. I should say that realism was perceived, at that time, as a subversive discourse. That is why, soon after 1990, the great novel of the communist epoch was still to be expected. Contemporary literature has to cope with the unsolved problem of realism: there is a past-oriented trend in prose fiction today, focused upon the way history destroyed and marred human destinies, visible in novels like Pupa russa (2004) by Gheorghe Craciun (which conveys perhaps the most powerful image of the daily inferno experienced by human beings doomed to perpetual captivity and manipulation). Petre Barbu’s novel, Unconcern (2004) ventures on the deep impact that lack of liberty has upon human mentality and demeanor years after the fall of the communist regime, while a salingerian novel like The Baiut Boys (2006), written by Matei and Filip Florian, retrieves a typical communist childhood from a child’s perspective merging innocence and ideology in a breathtaking discourse. Gabriela Adamesteanu’s Encounter, published in 2003, tells the story of an old Romanian exile who returns to his homeland after more than twenty years of absence. The novel is an avowal of missed identity, speaking about the impossibility of retrieving past selves and about the failure of memory to rebuild former relationships; in this novel Adamesteanu meets Milan Kundera whose Ignorance deals with the same aspects of absence, memory, forgetting and history. Skidding, Ion Manolescu’s most recent novel is a typical postmodern work verging on the edge of realism and fantasy and featuring a multifaceted ironic and delusive narrator who skids along different times and egos. Florina Ilis was considered a revelation for Romanian fiction. Her novels Children Crusade and Five Colored Clouds on the Eastern Sky published in the last two years won both the appreciation of literary critics and that of readers. Children Crusade conveys the theme of violent change and transition while Five Colored Clouds on the Eastern Sky deals with the power of imagination to provoke destiny. Florina Ilis is a very good storyteller and she knows very well how to invent fictional worlds and to master them with a firm hand.
Norman Manea’s and Radu Cosasu’s works break with the ongoing traditions of the Romanian fiction by exploring a sense of disruption engendered both by ethnic an political reasons. The Return of the Hooligan and The Survivals are works that put forth the self’s vulnerability and dependence upon the framing of others in a world in which history gambles with human destinies and disrupts repeatedly them.
Then there is the social-oriented fiction, originating in the realistic discourse tinged with postmodernist devices. Dan Lungu with his Hen Paradise or I Am a Communist Old Hag, or Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Florin Lazarescu, Cosmin Manolache and last but not least Sorin Stoica (who died last year, at the age of 27) whose works were hi-fi records of daily language and actions of common people.
Another trend in recent Romanian fiction is that of fantasy. Romanian writers seem to be fascinated by the enormous and seductive power of fantasy endowed by them with a very pregnant social dimension. Novels like Teodosie the Little by Razvan Radulescu, Small Fingers by Filip Florian (to be published in 2008 in America) or Christina Domestica and the Soul Hunters by Petru Cimpoesu put forth possible worlds that are free from the conventions and restraints of both the real world and the realistic narrative. Yet these worlds cannot be understood in isolation from the actual world and for a prose writer this is a very significant way of conveying a universal dimension to a very particular social and political reality not to mention the human destinies implied. The works of such writers seem to be inflections of the social conditions of contemporary hybrid and confused society in which we live. These novels parody grand narratives and are characterized by hybridity and historical conscience.
It would be tempting to take into consideration the preference of many of the young writers for a very personal and intimate narrative that borrows the traits of the French autofiction. Serge Doubrovsky used the term for the first time in order to designate a very particular type of narrative that we may call the fiction of the self; mixing imaginary and real this narrative is focused upon the life and thoughts of the self. Ionut Chiva, Adrian Schiop, Dragos Bucurenci, Adrian Buz, Ioana Baetica and so on are only few of the young prose writers who are interested in fictionally exploring their own lives.
There are many fans of poetry in nowadays Romania, and this is obvious when it comes to consider the great number of poetry books issued by some of the most important publishing houses. Authors such as Nichita Stănescu, Ana Blandiana, Marin Sorescu or Mircea Dinescu in the past (that is before the fall of the communist regime) were very popular among readers and the aura of their popularity gave them a very special status in the eyes of their contemporaries. Due to this aura Ana Blandiana and Mircea Dinescu openly opposed the communist regime, while other names began to gain visibility in the last decade of the communist era and the first one after December 1989. The so called “postmodernist generation of the eighties” – very active in prose writing, poetry, in literary criticism and theory as well – was deeply influenced by American poetry and many of the poets who published their first book before 1989 confirmed, after 1990, the expectations of literary critics and of common readers as well.
I should say that there are few main directions in contemporary Romanian poetry, both originating in postmodernism: the ironic, parodic and narrative trend (from Mircea Ivănescu to Mircea Cărtărescu and Florin Iaru) and an inner looking poetry in which the self and its successive transformations are the most important dimension. Or, to put it slightly differently: there is an external-oriented poetry, looking straight into a grotesque and disappointing reality on the one hand (Alexandru Muşina, Cristian Popescu, Andrei Bodiu, Robert Şerban, Mihail Gălăţanu), and a self-centered poetry, that do not ignore the external background, but lacks the parodic component (and I should mention here Mariana Marin, Marta Petreu, Ion Mureşan, Ioan Moldovan, Ion Stratan, Ioana Ieronim, Nora Iuga, Simona Popescu, Iustin Panţa, Ioan Es. Pop, Liviu Ioan Stoiciu, Angela Marinescu, Ioana Nicolaie, Doina Ioanid). Many of them tell a story in their poems, hence the narrative dimension of such poetry, although each and every poet has a distinctive voice. Mariana Marin’s and Simona Popescu’s poems have a pregnant protester dimension; they rail against the oppressive reality of a totalitarian regime that maims both personal identities and poetic expression.
Then there are the “bookish” poets who play upon intertextuality and language, in different manners – Şerban Foarţă, Emil Brumaru, Octavian Soviany. They recicle other literary works, invent new words and force language in a very creative way.
Gellu Naum, one of the last European surrealists died only few years ago (in 2001) and left behind few disciples whose poems verge on surrealistic themes and vision (Dan Stanciu, Iulian Tănase). A special mention for the youngest generation of poets who came on the cultural scene around 2000, vehemently contesting their predecessors and announcing the rebirth of poetry from personal biographies and revolt. Among them Marius Ianuş, Claudiu Komartin, Razvan Ţupa, Ruxandra Novac, Elena Vlădăreanu, Andra Rotaru etc.
Culture in Today Romanian Press
We often complain about people’s lack of interest in culture nowadays; yet in Romania there are many cultural reviews, while the most important newspapers have at least one cultural page (few of them – such as Cotidianul and Adevarul – have once a week a very vivid cultural supplement, focused on media & culture – Cotidianul, and on the interference of religion, arts and human sciences – Adevarul).
There is an obvious diversity among Romanian cultural reviews: while Romania literara (Nicolae Manolescu senior editor), the oldest publications of this type, has a literary profile and a sort of timeless appearance, Dilema veche is a very dynamic magazine, with a multifarious offer and many short articles, tackling political, social, cultural and educational subjects. Founded by Andrei Pleşu and gathering some of the best known intellectuals in Romania, Dilema veche (Mircea Vasilescu editor in chief) launched in the last ten years some of the most interesting and heated debates (such as “Romanian intellectual face to non-action”, “Why do Romanian intellectuals quarrel?”). Since last year the team from the weekly Dilema veche is editing a new publication, a monthly one, called Dilemateca, having as a prototype the French literary review, Lire. Dilemateca summons up many literary critics from all generations to survey and comment the editorial offer.
Edited by the Group for Social Dialogue (a non-governmental organization) since early 1990, Revista 22 (its title hints to the 22nd of December 1989, when Ceauşescu flew away from Bucharest) is mainly a political and social review, full of political commentaries and interviews with politicians, as well as social feature reports and theoretical synthesis concerning politics. This review was constantly perceived as a platform for all of those who opposed the leftist government of the Social Democrat Party. After Gabriela Adameşteanu resigned from Revista 22, Rodica Palade took over the role of editor in chief. Many prominent essayists made their first appearance in Revista 22. In the last 2 years, Gabriela Adameşteanu edited a monthly supplement called Bucurestiul cultural that focuses especially on the cultural events hosted in Bucharest,
Idei in dialog (Horia Roman Patapievici editor in chief) is a recent publication that tends to reproduce the structure and appearance of The New York Review of Books. Most of the articles published here are quite long, concerning very different domains such as politics, anthropology, history, classic literature, translations, and even a chronicle of the major events taking place on contemporary cultural scene (be it national or international) signed by Dan C. Mihăilescu, one of the best known literary critic in Romania due to his ability to entice readers in his few minutes TV show, “The man that brings the book”.
Last but not least, there is Observator cultural (Carmen Muşat editor in chief), a weekly magazine of information and cultural analysis launched at the end of February 2000. Observator cultural opened its pages to contributors from outside Romania like Michel Crépu, Luiza Palanciuc (France/ Israel), Jean Harris (United States), Richard Wagner (Deutschland), Alexandru Hancu (Great Britain), Emilia David Drogoreanu, Monica Joita (Italy). With a very flexible structure, Observator cultural comments upon the most interesting books and performances, upon art exhibitions, movies and concerts, as well as upon politics, educational strategies, urban reconfiguration and architecture and so on and so forth. The most significant aspect about Observator cultural is that it ambitions to discuss about Romanian cultural life connecting it with major cultural developments in Europe and the United States, and to comment upon these events in real time, interviewing some of the most representative personalities of the moment (no matter if they are writers, politicians, artists, journalists etc.).
Many other cultural reviews are published in Cluj (Apostroph, Echinox, Steaua), Iasi (Timpul, Convorbiri literare), Targu Mures (Vatra), Sibiu (Euphorion), Craiova (Mozaicul), most of them with a long tradition behind. These are monthly publication and most of them do not have a national distribution.
Cultural institutions and the role of intellectuals in edifying them
Cultural reviews constantly publish critical essays concerning the new tendencies in Romanian literature nowadays. Although literary critics no longer have the aura and authority they used to have during the communist regime, their role is still important. Paul Cernat, Luminiţa Marcu, Marius Chivu, Simona Sora, Bianca Burţa, Florina Pîrjol, Daniel Cristea Enache, Andrei Terian, Bogdan Creţu, Carmen Muşat are among the most active literary critics today. Many of those who comment upon recent books are teaching in universities and there is a permanent flux between universities and cultural press that confers consistency to internal cultural debates.
Although very dynamic and up-to-date, Romanian culture still lacks those instruments that are most necessary for understanding its evolution and profile such as cultural dictionaries, encyclopedias, anthologies. That is why after 1990, those who entered into universities as teachers had to answer a double challenge: they had to fulfill not only their didactic careers, but to engage on this greater project of filling not only the bibliographical gaps but the institutional ones as well. Many of the writers, theoreticians and literary critics of the so called “postmodern generation of the eighties” were involved, after 1990, in creating brand new institutions or in reshaping old ones – universities, publishing houses, publications, or cultural foundations and NGO-s (nongovernmental organizations). The new generation of intellectuals that emerged onto the public scene soon after 1990, together with those who defied the communist regime before 1989, played a major role not only in culture, but on the political and social scene too. In 1990 everything had to be rebuilt in Romania – a democracy as well as a free culture. Nonetheless, during the years passed since that moment, many writers confirmed their value not only due to their cultural actions but also to their books. Many names could be mentioned here and the list is unavoidable incomplete: Gheorghe Crăciun, Andrei Pleşu, Gabriel Liiceanu, Mircea Martin, Mircea Nedelciu, Gabriela Adameşteanu, Caius Dobrescu, Călin Vlasie, Ion Bogdan Lefter, Horia Roman Patapievici, Adriana Babeţi, Cornel Ungureanu, Mircea Mihăieş, Corin Braga, Ştefan Borbely, Marta Petreu and many others still.
To conclude this eyebird survey of contemporary Romanian cultural scene, I should say that dynamism and openness toward a cultural dialogue with other cultures are its main traits.