After the Soviet occupation of Romania and the establishment of communism, the Secret Police (an organization developed from the Securitate in 1948, a kind of Romanian NKVD), committed many attrocities against the Romanian people. To offer just one example among many, they began a whole-scale oppression of religious institutions and individuals, particularly those affiliated with the Greek Catholic church. Having instituted an atheist empire in Eastern Europe, Stalin couldn’t tolerate a religion deferent to the pope in Rome in a neighboring country.
However, religion couldn’t be stomped out completely in Romania. Greek Catholics were tortured and forced to convert to the Romanian Orthodox Church, an institution that was already controlled by the Romanian Workers’ Party and the Securitate. Those who refused to submit spent many years in the communist prison camps in Sighet, Gherla, Jilava. Many were forced into into slave labor, to construct the infamous Canal of Death, called so because thousands of people died in unspeakably harsh conditions.
Dumitru Radu Popa’s new novel, written in Romanian under the title Sfinti, Vinturi si Alte Intimplari (Saints, Winds and Other Happenings), narrates these historical events in a personalized fashion, from the perspective of a family caught in the unforgiving gusts of history. Of course, this is not a history textbook, but a work of fiction, embellished by the author’s rich imagination. Although the novel has elements of realism–including the dialogue, which reads as spoken and natural, and the poignant descriptions of human suffering–it also incorporates elements of magical realism.
In literature, magical realism is associated with the works of Nobel-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) play with myth and fantasy in their representations of reality. The critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” In Marquez’s fiction, the depiction of everyday human lives takes on allegorical, and even mythic, proportions. Trespassing the boundaries between reality and imagination, magical realism taps into myth and fantasy to offer a deeper version of reality.
This is precisely the effect D.R. Popa achieves in his newest novel. The author states in our recent interview: “We’re not talking about a realist story, since I’m missing many historical elements which I was obliged to invent under the form of magical realism. So certain natural forces contribute to the plot, just as certain imaginary, symbolic characters give an epic dimension to the historical fiction.” (interview of December 17, 2011)
Hence, the twisted tale of Judge Anton Pasca (Uncle Toni), who pretends to be crazy to save himself and his family; the prolonged sufferings of the Catholic nuns Vianeea and Cornelia (based on the author’s aunt); the tragic death of Bubi (based on his uncle) and the illness and death of Professor Iosif Lewandowsky (inspired by his grandfather) all seem to be the products of a greater destiny, epitomized by symbolic charcters (such as the Nightman and Forrest Girl), not just names in the pages of a fragile human history that risks being forgotten or erased.
In the realist tradition, fiction is grounded in fact. In Dumitru Radu Popa’s magical realism, however, we see the opposite process at work. History is raised to a higher plane by a spell-binding tale that offers a passionate testimonial of survival through faith.
The author informs us that Romanian edition of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings (Sfinti, vanturi si alte intimplari) will be launched at the Libraria Bastilia (Piata Romana, Bucharest) on September 14, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. (http://www.curteaveche.ro/Sfinti_vanturi_si_alte_intamplari-3-1472).
Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon