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￭ In our image and our likeness
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2011-10-19 | |
Today Iâd like to present the works of a Romanian-American fiction writer and literary critic, Dumitru Radu Popa, who continues the genre of psychological fiction in our times. Psychological fiction is, in many respects, timeless. As much as our social and political institutions may change, arguably the basics of human nature remain more or less the same. However, the challenge for a fiction writer remains to render basic human fears, emotions, obsessions and desires interesting and engaging for a contemporary audience. Dumitru Radu Popa relies upon his broad cultural training in literature, philosophy, philology and lawâas well as his keen artistic sensibilityâto accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in the United States.
As a writer, literary critic and intellectual, Dumitru Radu Popa has been well-known since the 1970′s. His works in Romanian include a book of literary criticism about Saint-Exupery, several collections of short stories (Calatoria, 1982; Fisura, 1985 and Panic Syndrome! 1997), the anthologies Skenzemon! (2005) and Lady V. and Other Stories (2006) as well as two novels, one of whichâSabrina and Other Good Suspicionsâhas been recently translated into English (Outskirts Press, 2011) and the second of which, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square), Iâm currently translating into English.
One of my favorite books, Lady V. and Other Stories harks back to the talent of exquisite, well-crafted psychological fiction reminiscent of the modernist style of Henry James and Marcel Proust. This beautifully written collection of short stories is universal in its appeal. It is subtle, even exquisite in the way physical descriptions and details (of gestures and movements) speak volumes about the charactersâ states of mind and feelings. The narrative, fluid and delicate in style, places itself in the tradition of literary fiction without being in any way arcane or pretentious. Moreover, Dumitru Radu Popaâs ironic touches are incisive and honest, without ever becoming brutal. They are similar in tone to Chekhovâs fiction, which depicts human beings as they areâflaws and allâwithout hating us for our foibles and fallibility.
Crossing Washington Square, NYC
Dumitru Radu Popaâs newest novel, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square) is, in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proustâs La Recherche. On the surface this is the storyâor, more like it, fantasyâof an illicit love affair between a professor and his graduate student. When one delves deeper into the text, however, one discovers a meditation on the nature of time, about how the ingrained memories of childhood infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults as well as lyrical analysis of human mortality itself. To give you a feel for the narrative, Iâm including below the first chapter of this intriguing novel.
Crossing Washington Square, by Dumitru Radu Popa
(Tr. Claudia Moscovici)
Like every morning, crossing Washington Square from University Place towards 4th Street, losing myself in the anonymity of the red building, with the brick facade, of the Philosophy Buildingâa perfect edifice made to reduce everything to the absence of worries and metaphysical tormentsâI thought that time materialized, gaining a consistency difficult to pinpoint yet lacking, at core, any ambiguity. It could be the beggar on the other side of the fence, exhibiting malodorous wounds or urinating, through his pants, on the bench where he slept all night, covered by newspapers, with a stitched together rag, or sometimes even with a torn American flag, left by God knows what Puerto Rican parade that transformed for an evening the whole neighborhood into a deplorable trash bin: beer cans and Pepsi tumbling with an irritating noise; left-over junk food; packages and trampled cigarettes.
Or perhaps it could be the policeman with a Hispanic name, moving back and forth, on his electric scooter or astride a horseâas useless as it is traditional in the municipal annals of the institutionâwith a tattered leather agenda peeking from his back pocket, indifferent to the industrious marijuana vendors, who, unperturbed, accost you with the question, whistled through their teeth âSmoke? Smoke?â, but always ready to give a blistering ticket for a car parked unknowingly or carelessly in an illegal spot. Or it could be people with somber demeanorsâalways the same ones!âwalking their dogs on the grass, with a resigned air to their daily punishment, so freely accepted. Not to mention the joggers that gallop with a regular stride, sweating in their plastic jogging suits, old or young, almost all of them with a walkman on their ears, breathing in deeply the most polluted air in New York, yet convinced, in spite of that, that theyâre ameliorating their health, as if health, like time itself in a way, had become, all of a sudden, something tangible, perfectly quantifiable and, consequently, susceptible to being alteredâŠ Or, finally, it could be the hyper-realist anomaly of the landscape: the minuscule Arch of Triumph, mounted upon Fifth Avenue, the most famous street in New York, a dwarf or an aborted child of its richer cousin from Etoile de la Paris, which the Japanese tourists, like stuffed pheasants, photograph from summer to winter, from all angles, so as not to miss its specificity.
Yes, indeed! Bucharest was dying, or was already dead within me, slowly and gradually, I canât recall exactly which year, month or day since in such cases one no longer knows how many grains make a pileâŠ And all this bazaar (to say bizarre would be too facile), surrounding me, neither friend nor foe, but pure and simple like a fact. All this probably gave time its material consistency, especially crossing the square, every weekday, today being no different from every other day.
Yet time, this unflappable and intangible flow from nothing to nothing, or from nowhere to nowhere, however it wasâthe beggar, the policeman, the jogger, the derisory Arch of Triumph, perhaps even the empty, abandoned cigarette packs, and the left-over junk food on the groundâit all seemed to me, in the final analysis, an immense embodiment of the urgency with a raised right hand, the pointer finger itself an exclamation point trying to deny access to the impersonally soothing building where Iâd spend the next eight hours of the day in the library, in an office, or in classrooms. And the message of this exclamation could have been something like: âCave! Remember, I go over each detail and each discrepancy of the landscape, but this doesnât mean anything!â Perhaps not quite as dramatic and rhetorical, but in any case, something similar.
Iâm speaking now of the mixed sensations, not even clear to me: someone with more common sense could have easily concluded that, in fact, I was doing nothing more than becoming aware that I was getting old. But itâs one thing to notice that, with the same naivetĂ©âso delectable!âthat leads adolescents to see in a thirty year old a âfinished manâ, and another to approach 50: then, probably, the only chance of avoiding a psychic depression is contemplating time, as if this could somehow save the individual from a personal acceptance of this flow that leads to the ugly words âold ageâ, ascribing it all to an immanent and incontestable general paradigm.
As mentioned, recently Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, a political thriller and love story, was published in English translation by Outskirts Press. This novel, like the author himself, straddles two worlds. Part of the plot takes place in post-revolutionary Romania, while the other is set in the United States. Far from being an idyllic place of newly gained democratic freedom, the Romania depicted in the novel is filled with practical problems and mutual suspicions. Although the Securitate (or Romanian Secret Police) has been officially abolished, spying still continues as usual: without, however, the same devastating impact as during the communist era. The oppression that used to be the subject of dystopic fiction (such as Orwellâs 1984) is now better described, by Popaâs novel, in an ironic and cynical vein. In the confusing post-revolutionary political context, the love between Sabrina and Vlad faces many challenges. Yet this is also the plot element that gives the novel a very human touch and captures the readersâ interest and emotions. Several stylistic elementsâincluding love story, philosophical dialogue and political intrigueâall work together to create an irresistible fiction. Iâm including below an excerpt of the English translation of Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, which appeared online in Levurelitteraire.com, Numero 2, below:
âCome on, Plato. Letâs go home. Iphigeniaâs waiting for you.â
âI canât right now, woman! Leave me alone. Canât you see Iâm playing backgammon with Homer? And heâs got some luck today. Itâs like he stepped in you know what: I clearly mean âŠ or maybe he just didnât wash his hands after you know what.â
âStop being such an ass, Plato! Youâre only saying that because youâre losing. If you smell anything here itâs not me. It must be Idomeneoâs shad; heâs dried them out like hell and theyâre so hard theyâre going to break my denturesâŠâ
âShad always needs dill,â blubbered one of the old man onlookers known as Menny, though his paperwork clearly stated that his name was Menelaus Kakanis.
The roll of the dice drew a cry of joy from Plato while he utterly ignores Iphigeniaâs emissary who is standing by the door with her hand to her mouth.
âAha! There you are! This is the end of you! Briseis, hand me one of Idomeneoâs dry shad. Iâll tenderize it with this potâŠ too bad I donât have a bust of CiceroâŠâ
âWell, Cicero is out buying new tires,â Menny tried to intervene but he was quickly stifled as usually happens to those in his position.
âIphigenia said to come home right away to wash up and get ready for Aristotle, Penelope and Orpheus, not to mention his cross-eyed sister Cassandra, who are coming over tonight. And then weâre all going to go to St. Basilâs Church. Herostratus is coming too, you know, the one who just opened that big grocery near Ditmars.â
âOh alright, Iâm coming. Just let me finish up with this coward. Homerâs coming to church too with Aphrodite and Hecuba. But we have plenty of time, my clothes arenât even ready. The guys at the cleaners on Hoyt Avenue said five oâclock. Catharsis, you know the place. Itâs the best one, doesnât even compare with those lousy Chinese at French Cleaners.â
âAha, did you hear that? Catharsis!â said in Romanian a guy with the beginnings of a belly, maybe even a full gut, who spoke while holding a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
It was bright as day, Colonel Munteanu.
He and his companion had sat at a table in the back, near the bathrooms that smelled strongly of disinfectant, and this combination of chlorine and dried fish was enough to turn your stomach.
âSince when do you understand Greek?â asked his associate. He was much younger, thin, with prominent cheekbones and an unusually conspicuous Adamâs apple, so that the shadow he cast on the wall looked like nothing as much as a cartoon from the Sunday funnies.
âShut up and listen! Or are you playing the fool? You donât need to speak Greek to know he said Catharsis: those Greek dry cleaners where that big cheese, your godfather, sended his clothes. Donât you remember from the file? It seems that he used to bring in his clothes with blood stains every night. Heâd pick them up clean in the morning, but the stains always returned in the exact same spots. Totally absurd!â
âItâs not absurd at all! Thereâs clearly some dough involved, if only we could find its tracesâŠ But I donât think itâs hereâŠ Anyway, I was just saying,â whinged the other, code name Lazar. âIâve seen backgammon before and I donât really like this Greek food, either. Iâve gotten more used to Chinese, especially since itâs also cheaper!â
âWeâre not talking about what you may or may not like!,â chastised a resentful Munteanu. âWe have to start somewhereâŠâ
With these words he approached, somewhat shyly, the table of the more or less ancient Greeks who lived in the picturesque neighborhood of Astoria, with all of their glorious history of which, it seemed, they werenât too much aware. Then, as if he had changed his mind, he returned and prodded his companion, âListenâŠ my English is, how should I say, kind of passive. I understand, but I canât really express myself clearly.â
âI see,â answered Lazar, with a touch of irony that did not escape the attention of the older man. âItâs like with those engineers. They look intelligent enough but, when they try to express themselves, just canât be done!â
He winked jokingly as to erase any misunderstanding, and then went up to the ad-hoc Agora where English wasnât anything to emulate Shakespeare or Milton. Munteanu, aka the Sphinx, did not appreciate the joke and threw a suspicious look at the young man as he was walking away. He found his apprentice a little too full of himself, especially in front of a superior! âIt would not hurt him to be a bit more careful!â
After a short moment of confusion, the steady clicking of the dice resumed.
âDo you speak Romanian?â all of a sudden a man asked the colonel. He had been sitting near the greasy window, so dirty that the man could not have really been looking through it, but rather into himself, lost in God knows what thoughts.
Sure, people come to taverns to socialize, but also to possibly come to terms with themselves. Or maybe just to eavesdrop on others.
âYeah I do speak Romanian? Isnât that clear? So what? Itâs none of your business!â growled Colonel Munteanu who would have preferred that his young apprentice hurried up and talked to those Greeks about Catharsis.
âWell it may not be a big deal,â said the dirty window watcher, âbut anyway, if you want any information aboutâŠ how should I put itâŠ the Romanian community here, youâd do best to ask me.â
The guy was somehow âclean-cutâ, he didnât look like a beggar, and the colonel signaled to Blossom, alias Lazar, as if to say âHold on a second! Letâs see what this guy has to say.â So the latter gave up any attempt to speak about the Iliad, the Odyssey and any other epic that might have grown in the tavern, and came back to the table.
âPour, Blossom!â the colonel said gesturing toward a bottle and the young man immediately obliged pouring out two full glasses of ouzo for his table mates, but only a drop for himself, because he could not stand this perfumed liquor with oily texture.
Silence fell over the room again so that the only sound was the jangling of the dice, a background possibly replacing the typical chorus of ancient Greek tragedy. Everything was as ridiculous and derivative as the illuminatiliving in this small community in Astoria, Queens.
The man who had joined them at the table was massive, with a bald spot that threatened to spread shortly from his forehead to the rest of his head which still spotted some remnants of stringy, greasy hair that had resisted the miraculous cures promised by all sorts of shampoos and conditioners. However, below this, there were a pair of lively eyes; he wasnât stupid by any means, and was not intimidated by the colonelâs authoritarian bearing.
âNow itâs your turn to pour, you know what I mean! And youâd better tell us everything exactly as it happened if you want to get out of here alive,â declared the colonel harshly, despite his apprenticeâs generous gaze meant to convey something along the lines of: âWhy donât you just leave him alone? Maybe heâs just some poor fool who knows nothing of our business. What if he speaks Romanian, does that mean we have to harass him? Weâd be better off going after the big wigs.â
âFirst of all, Iâd like to introduce myself,â said the man. âI am, together with my associates, in charge of everything that happens in Romanian business hereâŠ I hope you understand what I mean: a deal, some legal matter, or when someone needs to keep their mouth shutâŠâ
And here he made a deft gesture with his hand miming the path of a zipper that starts at the left-most corner of oneâs mouth and ends over the tightly closed lips of the right-most corner.
âAs for other things,â he added, âlike, for example, the Greek dry cleaners, Catharsis, Iâm still the right person to ask. They are the best, if thatâs what youâre interested in, by the way. When I gave my hat to those morons at French Cleaners, the place it is run by the Chinese you know, they shrunk it so bad that I canât wear it anymore. My associates had to bid on e-bay to try to get me a similar oneâŠ But if you really want to talk about all these we should probably go to Melon Headâs pub. Itâs the only place around here with real food. Plus Iâm getting special treatmentâŠ
âYes, yes!â ventured code name Lazar. âLetâs go there!â
In the meantime, Munteanuâs mood had been growing worse. The source of his anger was, on one hand, the arrogance of his young subordinate who had begun to give himself airs and to make decisions without even consulting him; and on the other hand, the fact that they were about to leave behind informants that could turn out to be essential to this whole mess that the guys in Bucharest had handed him. Just imagine: people who disappear in dreams, send their clothes to cleaners that make it so that the blood stains reappear the next day. Or, even worse, the task to follow an individual who had run to the other side with the institutionâs money. Whatâs more to be said, he was simply tired andâŠ overwhelmed by the situation!
Once closed the trunk of the giant Chrysler that she hated so much (and whose disappearance after their vacation, or rather their stop in Los Angeles, she had every reason to look forward to!), Meg sat down in the passenger seat, buckled her seatbelt, and, even before Bob started the car, opened the book she was holding on her knees. Throwing the car in reverse, Bob could not help but grumble, âI see, Iâm going to be doing all the driving for days on end, but you could at least help me navigate until we get out of the city.â
Meg gave him an amused look. Bobâs personality tics no longer bothered her nor made her suspicious as they had when the two were first married. She understood that his inability to take control during their intimate moments had nothing to do with an overwhelming wish to show her, right then, some important paper they had received from the bank; or with a sudden migraine that sent him running to the bathroom where he tarried long enough for her to fall asleep. No! It was a physiological problem, a pretty ordinary one for a couple their age. Sensitive and understanding, she always gave him the impression that everything was alright, that he himself controlled the situation, as, in his mind, it had to be for things to be truly alright. It should be said, however, that Bob too was an active participant in this game, often feigning distress or misunderstandings, as if to test her, to prove to himself that she had figured out what was going on and had no objections. This unspoken agreement, a delicate chess game that kept everything in balance, made their life together not only bearable, but downright happyto the extent that this word can be applied to those who are married.
âOh honey, Iâm sorry not to be more helpful. But knowing youâre such a good driver, I thought my inability to read those maps would only irritate you further more!â She was lying shamelessly, of course. We know how carefully she planned every detail of the trip â and please note that we didnât even mention it at the time so that we wonât bore the reader â not only every stop and hotel, but also every road and exit that would save them the most time and gas. Despite all of these, she lied graciously and suddenly they found themselves in a shared good mood: he would grumble and drive; she would continue her reading uninterrupted. What could be a better omen for a long trip than such a beginning?
âOk, Ok,â replied Bob satisfied. âIt doesnât matter now anyway, Iâve already merged onto the Maddox Turnpike. But Iâm very curious what book has caught your attention so much that last night you fell asleep with the light on.â
Meg had begun reading the book the day before the trip, but she had not realized that she fell asleep reading the night before.
âItâs a book,â she answered, ârecommended as summer reading by the company that sent me the tourist information. I donât know how interesting youâd find itâŠ the beginning is pretty boring and it doesnât have anything to do with the title. But what can you do, thatâs how literature is nowadays.â
âGot it!â snorted Bob. âReally Meg, this is so typical of you, and probably thatâs why I love you so much. You take everything so seriously, like you didnât know that everything is just a trick to make you buy things.â
But before Bob had a chance to really get going on with the critique of government manipulation, the IRS, and everything else, Meg cut him off: âI think itâs a very good book, but donât ask me why.â
âThat sounds a little ominous,â murmured Bob, sticking his left hand out the window, middle finger upraised, in the direction of the blue Chevy he had just passed.
Meg did not want to leave him completely in the dark, nor did she want him to think that she was talking nonsense.
âI mean that itâs strange. Itâs a translation and the action is multilayered. Iâm just a few pages into it, but Iâm sure it will go on like this. Itâs the authorâs styleâŠâ
âOr the translatorâs,â answered Bob sharply. âWhatâs left of the authorâs style when youâre talking about a translation?â
This threw Meg off a bit. She suddenly became suspicious. What did Bob know about books? But she stopped frowning and rephrased the question. Did she really know everything about Bob? âYeah, maybe thatâs it! It seems that the translation is very good, thatâs probably why the book is so easy to readâŠâ
âAnd from whence came this author to enlighten us with his multilayered book?â asked Bob his voice dripping with irony.
âThe cover says heâs Romanian, but I didnât want to read too much. You know how it is. The blurb gives away the whole story and thereâs no joy left in reading the book.â
âOh thatâs just what we needed,â exhaled Bob. âFor Romanians to come and teach us!â
âItâs not about teaching,â answered Meg, âitâs just a novel, something made up. But maybe not completelyâŠâ
âI bet it was translated from the Russian,â posited Bob.
âYou think?â exclaimed a puzzled Meg. âI would have thought that they spoke Hungarian over there. I remember reading something in The New York Times MagazineâŠâ
âNonsense! This Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union,â replied Bob completely sure of himself. âThere was some big scandal with their KGB about ten years ago, I remember wellâŠ Itâs translated from Russian, Iâm sure. Check it out! Itâs gotta say somewhere in there.â
âProbably,â acknowledged Meg, but was unable to completely stifle a stray thought of how much Bob knew about geography and geopolitics. âAh, here it is!â she went on. âOh well. It says right here that it was translated from Romanian!â And all of a sudden she grew much less worried about her familiarity with Bobâs knowledge. âItâs obvious! Since the author is Romanian, of course the book was also written in Romanian!â
âDidnât I tell you!â answered Bob triumphantly.
âNo,â Meg said dryly. âYou were just explaining how it was translated from the Russian.â
âBut I told you that Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union, thatâs why I thought it was Russian. Of course, after the Berlin Wall fell, all those little countries that were held together by the KGB started reusing their own languagesâŠâ
Meg wanted to mention something about the fact that all those countries did not go off in their own direction after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but only several years later, and Romania was not even among them. But she decided not to insist. âAnyway, I like this book! I donât care if itâs translated from Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian. Iâll read about that afterwards!â
Hearing her say afterwards in that tone, Bobâs eyes shot open and he almost lost control of the steering wheel, a move that frightened Meg. She reminded herself she should stand to be a little more careful not to let herself get so riled up with these conversations because you never know where theyâll leadâŠ
âAfter I finish the novel, I mean,â she clarified ready to resume her reading.
âHmmâŠ Ok,â muttered Bob. âAnd what did you say was the title of this very special book?â
Meg ignored the sarcasm in his question. âI Havenât said yet! In translation itâs Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, but I donât think the title is very important. So far there havenât even been any characters named Sabrina, just a couple of Romanian spies and (youâll be shocked when I tell you!) a couple just like us that are getting ready to go on vacation. But I think Iâm going to skip over the sections about them.â
Turning towards Walhalla Circle, Bob added, âSounds like some great summer reading! Not that American literature is any better, but at least it has clear titles: Tom Sawyer is a story about Tom Sawyer. Sabrina: thatâs a name that could come from anywhere! And to make it worse, she doesnât even come up in the beginning of the bookâŠâ
Meg totally ignored the rest of the diatribe, returning to her book and picking up exactly where she had left off.
Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com
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