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A Romanian reckoning

The Hooligan's Return A Memoir Norman Manea Translated from the Romanian by Angela Jianu Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 386 pp., $30

August 08, 2004|Jaroslaw Anders | Jaroslaw Anders is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C., who writes about Eastern and Central Europe.

"Bucharest, in the spring of 1986, had reached levels of degradation for which even sarcasm was no longer sufficient," remembers the Romanian writer Norman Manea of his last year in his country. "Not even the chimeras could survive in the underground labyrinth of Byzantine socialism. Everything seemed about to fall into decrepitude and die, including the chimeras. Facing the inevitable, a writer could either become a character in fiction or disappear altogether."

This was a decade when most of communist Europe was falling into disuse. Poland was kept in suspended animation after the suppression of Solidarity, Czechoslovakia and East Germany suffered from moral paralysis, and even the Hungarian experiment in "managerial socialism" was failing to deliver on its promise. And yet Romania was a case in itself: bankrupt, bleak, overrun by the infamous secret police, the Securitate, and ruled by a mad dictator who razed whole swaths of the once-charming capital to build hideous office-temples to himself. Manea, one of Romania's foremost writers, had his own set of problems. The censors mutilated his novel "The Black Envelope," and his public statements against an officially condoned brand of anti-Semitism resulted in threats from the secret police and the anger of some of his fellow writers. Faced with the role of a writer entangled in political games, he chose "disappearance" and emigration. The author was 50 and practically unknown outside his country.

"The Hooligan's Return" is a personal, lyrical, ironic, poignant account of a life that brought Manea from his native Bukovina to New York, where he now lives, and to Bard College, where he teaches. The reckoning is prompted by a visit -- the only one, so far -- that he paid his country 10 years later on the insistence of his American boss, Bard President Leon Botstein. His reluctance to go back despite the fall of communism was caused partly by the familiar emigre sense of personal discontinuity. "I was not prepared," he explains, "for a reunion with the self I had been, or for a translation of the one I had become." But the author was also aware that his battles with his country, his literary colleagues and his own personal demons had not ended with the fall of the Ceausescu regime. "I had grown tired of scrutinizing the homeland's contradictions," he writes. "I was afraid of the knot of entanglements from which I had not yet extricated myself."

And yet he decided to go to Romania and face his past armed only with a Bard College notebook as his shield. The result is an unusual collage of recollections, journal entries, dreams and confessions that seem to circle around a silence zone surrounding a horrific experience from the author's early childhood. In October 1941, when Manea was 5, he was deported with his middle-class Jewish family from Bukovina to a labor camp in Transnistria, which had been occupied during World War II by the pro-Nazi Romanian regime of Marshal Ion Atonescu. Transnistria is one of the largest and least known Holocaust killing fields, where almost every town and village housed some kind of prison, concentration camp, labor camp or death camp filled with members of the Romanian and Ukrainian Jewish populations. Manea and his parents survived their four-year ordeal, but Transnistria claimed his two grandparents.

Manea never reveals what he saw and experienced in the camp, but he calls it his initiation, his second birth, which would present him with a world that continued to call into question his sense of selfhood and his right of belonging. Years later, during his visit to his native land, feeling again an indefinite menace and estrangement, he wondered whether Transnistria had not "taught me as a child to reject the outer world, to resist being born, to delay the escape from the nurturing placenta?"

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