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Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president-elect, viewed from abroad

IohannisTheEconomist

A victory for Iohannis, a step forward for democracy and minority rights in Romania: Klaus Iohannis viewed from abroad

by  Claudia Moscovici

I have not seen the Romanian public so enthusiastic and optimistic about a political event since the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. On November 16, 2014 the Romanian center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, won the presidential election. His victory over Victor Ponta came as a welcome surprise for many Romanian voters. Ponta was ahead during most of the presidential campaign and had won the first round, on the November 2nd election. Many Romanians view Iohannis’ victory as a step forward for democracy. What are some of the factors that led to Iohannis’ unexpected victory and how is it perceived by the press abroad?

Reuters recently briefly covered the Romanian election with some ambivalence. In an article published on November 16, Matthias Williams claims, “Analysts had said that victory for Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Iohannis’ win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.” Despite these misgivings, in next sentence the author expresses the other side of the coin, which coincides with what I’ve been reading in the Romanian press: namely, that Romanians had grown increasingly critical of the Ponta regime and were ready for a change: “Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest to voice their anger at Ponta’s government on Sunday night and demand his resignation.” Williams brings up one of the main issues at stake, which is the country’s growing disenchantment with political corruption: “Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.” (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/16/romania-election-idUSL6N0T608D20141116)

Young voters, the educated elite and Romanian citizens abroad (the diaspora) voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of Klaus Iohannis. Romanians would like to build a country with less political corruption, more transparency in the government, a thriving economy and a more democratic voting process in the country and especially for Romanians living abroad. In fact, the difficulties in voting for oversea Romanian citizens, which got international media coverage, drew widespread sympathy for Iohannis, both within and outside Romania. “Overseas voters, “ Williams notes, “played a key role in swinging the vote at the last presidential election in 2009. Romania’s large and growing diaspora is widely seen as anti-Ponta, and many voiced their anger when long queues and bureaucratic hurdles prevented them from voting in the first round. The uproar triggered the foreign minister’s resignation, sparked protests in cities across Romania and may have helped galvanize the anti-Ponta vote.” In Paris and Munich people lined up for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to vote. In Munich, some people showed the cameras their toothbrushes, to indicate they’d be willing to spend the night there if that’s what it took.

For many Romanians, Klaus Iohannis represents a change for the better. Although much of his political platform remains to be seen, in the eyes of his supporters he stands for political accessibility, honesty and good character. A former physics teacher and current mayor (of Sibiu) of German origin, Iohannis also represents a victory for ethnic Romanians. Ethnic Germans living in Romania were brought into the international limelight a few years ago, when novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Despite the fact that ethnic Germans have been living in Romania for hundreds of years, they still face some prejudice and obstacles. In fact, As Alison Mutler points out in The Associated Press article of November 17, Victor Ponta tried to play the nationalist card by depicting Iohannis as a cultural outsider. This strategy backfired. Mutler notes, “His win was also the failure of the nationalist card played by Ponta, who mocked his rival’s minority German ethnicity and the fact that he is a Lutheran and not a member of the powerful Orthodox Church.” Iohannis supporters, The Economist reports on November 17th, 2014, “greeted the mayor of Sibiu with cries of ‘Danke Schön’. He will become the first member of an ethnic minority, and the first non-Orthodox Christian, to serve as president in Romania’s post-communist history.” (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/11/romanias-elections-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/Transylvaniansurprise)

This unprecedented win represents not only a victory for democracy in Romania, but also a step forward for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Germans, or Rumaniendeutsche, were numerous in the country before the end of WWII, numbering almost eight hundred thousand. Most of them immigrated to Germany (or were evicted from the country) shortly after WWII, when Romania became Communist. By 2011, their numbers fell to less than 40,000. A second wave, over 100,000 ethnic Germans, immigrated to Germany following the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. Although still perceived as “foreigners” by some native Romanians, ethnic Germans have lived in Romania—mostly in the region Transylvania—for centuries. The majority belong to the ‘Saxons’, who are descendants of Germans who settled in Transylvania during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Iohannis, who states that his family has lived in Romania for over 700 years, is most likely a descendent of this ethnic group. The second group, the Swabians, are descended from Southern Germans who settled in the Banat region during the eighteenth-century. The third group, the “Lander” Germans, came to Northern Transylvania during the eighteenth century. While ethnic minorities may still face some prejudice in Romania, the country has made great strides over the past ten years in representing ethnic minorities.

“Conditions for minorities in Romania today have been significantly improved through reforms pushed through in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU. An accession treaty signed in early 2005 resulted in Romania’s full membership in 2007. … Minorities are currently represented in both chambers of parliament.” (for more information on Minorities in Romania, see Minority Rights, (http://www.minorityrights.org/3521/romania/romania-overview.html).

CurteaVecheKlausIohannis

Romanians have a lot of hope for the country under the new government. They hope for a healthier economy and more job opportunities. They would like to see the continuing integration of Romania into the European community, less political corruption, and a more democratic—and easier–process of voting, especially for the diaspora. Iohannis has expressed his commitment to fulfilling these hopes, so the country has reason for optimism. He has also shown his accessibility to the public—and graciousness–during a recent book signing of his autobiography, Pas cu Pas (Step by Step), published by Curtea Veche Publishing, where he spent hours with fans, signing over 3000 autographs. This presidency wouldn’t be the first time a member of a minority group has paved the way for the majority. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, ethnic Germans in Romania, Klaus Iohannis, literature salon, Pas cu Pas Editura Curtea Veche, presidential election in Romania, Romania, Romanian diaspora, Victor Ponta, viewed from abroad

Chance by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Chance, by Razvan Petrescu

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

The hollow noise of the spades got lost in the sound of the rain. The three

men worked without verve, quietly, sloshing through the mud. The ditch deepened

and they disappeared, little by little, in its midst. From the street one could

only see the flaps of their hats, soaked by the rain. Shovelfuls of black earth

were constantly hoisted in the air, deepening the hole in the ground. The smaller

bits of earth would roll unto the asphalt. After awhile, the conductor appeared.

From adistance it resembled the stomach of an enormous fish, buried there since

God knows when. The crack could be seen clearly, stretching for approximately

half a meter. What a hole… Go see if we have what we need, in the car. Don’t

forget the bolts. Laur hoisted himself out of the hole and started walking

to the truck. The windshield was shinny, covered by round raindrops. He opened

the trunk and started looking through the tool box. After a few  seconds, he

checked his watch. Boys, it’s time that we grab something to eat. It’s ten after

three. The other two raised their heads. What time did you say? Three? Well I’ll

be darned, we were so busy we lost track of time… Then leave all that and

let’s get the lunch bags. They’re under the bench. Laur leaned down, felt them,

smelled them, his mouth started watering. He returned with the lunch bags

underarm and sat down on the rim. Did you bring the bottle? Of course! Here it

is. He sniffed it. Sighed. What stupid drizzle. It’s okay, it will stop.

Begonie rubs his numb hands. After a few minutes, the rain stopped. Their wet

windbreakers were stuck to their backs. With impatient gestures they opened the

newspapers in which their food was wrapped. The noise of wet, torn paper.

Cracked and dirty fingers, avid, grabbing. Where’s the onion? Aha! It’s damn

spicy! Be quiet and take some cheese. It soothes your heart, doesn’t it? The food

disappeared fast, leaving greasy traces in their beards. Little long stains that

shone dimly. Come on man, hurry up. Trandafir removed the bottlecap with his

teeth, took a gulp and handed the bottle to the others. Their veiny necks moved

up and down, like pistons. Now it’s raining on the inside, even harder, Begonie

laughed. Cheers! From time to time a car would pass by fast by the three men

perched on the little mound of earth. They stared blankly ahead and chewed their

food. Wrinkled, jaundiced faces, stained around the mouth. The sky was purple.

It had darkened gradually, like the cheek of a giant dead man. Goddamned life!

Trandafir swore looking up. Who the heck wants to work in this kind of weather?

The team with similar names; men with the names of flowers. This lucky bouquet

that smells like… Listen, forget the poetry and tell me where you put

the hammer. Because I don’t see it. It’s there in the ditch. Don’t worry, nobody

will steal it. You’d better take a swig too. That’s right. Thin vapors emerge

from their clothes, their lips, the earth. Tell me, will we finish it in two

hours? Begonie glanced for a few moments at his muddy shoes, sighed, then let

wind loudly. Eh, we finish or not, today? I don’t know, Laur, my man, since

even my mother-in-law doesn’t have a crack like this. But we may get to the

bottom of it, before the evening. The wind started to blow. The greasy papers

slowly floated around the leftover bread, cheese, bacon and onion rimes. Is the

flask empty? There’s a bit more, here! Trandafir threw his head back and gulped,

noisily, the last drop of vodka. He smacked his lips, pleased. It’s good! Now

all that’s missing is a whore, to… On this wetness, that’s all you need! A wet

whore. To screw her holding an umbrella over your head… You could hear a growl

and a giggle. Wait a minute. I want to tell you something. You boys, with your

worries. Yes, boss, yes. Laur, hit him over the head with something. Good. And

what I wanted to tell you, is that she had an ass like you’ve never seen in your

sorry  life. Why sorry? Because. You didn’t see it. A booty all the way to

here.Your pants fell down on their own when she moved it. She rumbled like a

heater. I don’t even remember  how I took my clothes off… Listen, didn’t she

faint when she smelled your stick? What, you think that she didn’t? Laur grinned

showing his teeth covered in the cheap material. What can I say, Trandafir, you’re right.

But since you were born you polluted the air. As if you smelled like lilacs. You

smell like a corpse, if you want the truth. I’m wasting my breath anyway. You’re

an expert on women like I am on foreign languages. They continued to fight for a

few more minutes, then they hit each other, then, after awhile, they fell

silent. They glanced at the solitary tree that was sketched on the corner of the

street. It grew thin, cutting a complicated line against the violet afternoon

sky. A heavy truck passed by very close  and splattered them with drops of mud.

Mother fucker! Hand me a cigarette! Laur removed a wrinkled package, half-wet.

He lit up a cigarette cupping his hand, then handed the pack to the others. They

smoked in silence, coughing from time to time and spitting phlegm. Man, it’s

damn cold. I’m frozen solid. That’s it, I’m splitting. Begonie got up, threw the

package and jumped out of the hole. He grabbed the shovel and stuck it deeply

under the pipe. There was a dry noise, followed by a rumble. Afterwards,

nothing. What are you doing there, Boss? Quiet. Wouldn’t you know it, this one

broke a bone.  Hey! Answer me, man, for once! Begonie raised his head over the

rim of the trench. He smiled from ear to ear. Trandafir and Laur looked at him

quizzingly. Why are you smiling? I heard something crack in there. What was it?

Begonie winked. Come down in here, I have to show you something pretty amazing.

The two of them jumped in without needing other explanations. Eh? What do you

say? Isn’t it wonderful? He lifted it up, twirling it on his finger. Laur and

Trandafir stared at the blackened skull, then burst into laughter. How did this

get here? Maybe it’s your grandmother. She escaped from the cemetery.  Watch out

that she doesn’t bite your finger. Let’s take it to the museum. Dead for the

canal. Maybe she’ll give us some vodka. Another burst of laughter and they got

out of the trench. They laughed with tears, grabbing their stomachs. The mud

blinked gently. After they were done, they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves

and quieted down abruptly, exhausted. Begonie pushed his hat back, scratched his

crotch and said between his teeth, “Boys, I’ve got to tell ya, I have to pee.

So, if nobody’s opposed… He grinned and set the cranium down. He urinated at

length until the liquid started reversing through the eye holes. The other two

watched without a sound, with an awkward smile. Begonie zipped up his pants.

That’s it, let’s get back to work, he said in a raspy voice. Or else we’ll be

here until night. They began to work again.  The sounds rose, spreading

rhythmically on the street. It was quiet in the neighborhood. People gathered in

living rooms, among kitchen utensils. Slippers, little shoes, coats and

umbrellas drying on the racks, few words. Here’s the soup. The sun rose slowly

behind the apartment buildings, golden, humid. Laur, leave that hammer alone,

for God’s sake. Do you hear me? Begonie straightened up, irritated. Where are

you? Hammer! he screamed at the top of his lungs. Trandafir also stopped

working; blew his nose with his fingers and glanced around. Raindrops fell to

the ground, trembled on tree branches, sparkling from time to time. Laur gently

lifted the skull and wiped it carefully. It was so light… Alas! In the palm of

his hands unknown words grew, racing faster and faster towards his temples.

Alas! “Poor Yorik. I knew him… He hath borne me on his back a thousand

times….” What the hell are you talking about? Are you nuts? “Those lips that I

have kissed I know not how oft…” Trandafir and Begonie exchanged glances. Man,

speak like a human being. What’s come over you? Laure, throw that thing away and

stop joking around! All of the sudden the sounds disappeared and he quieted

down. “WHERE BE YOUR GIBES NOW? YOUR GAMBOLS? YOUR SONGS?”

All of the sudden the  sounds disappeared and he quieted down.

With an awkward motion he put the skull  on the  ground and closed his eyes.

Maybe it’s the weather! He got up and wiped his face with his hand, with a tired gesture.

He felt the sweat drying on his temple. He spit to the side, then turned and looked at his comrades.

With the words stuck in their throats, Trandafir and Begonie remained motionless.

(short story from the volume "Rubato”, by Razvan Petrescu, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) 
Republished on Literatura de Azi: http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/şansa#sthash.Skg9TqNA.dpuf

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Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction

rubato1

Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-class Romanian Fiction

by Claudia Moscovici

Despite charting very unfamiliar territories in fiction, the writer Razvan Petrescu is quite familiar—and famous—in his native country, Romania. A versatile and award-winning author, Petrescu is an essayist, fiction writer and playwright. Among his numerous literary prizes, he won the award Book of the Year at the National Salon of Books in Cluj; a fiction award for The Farce (Farsa, Editura Unitext, 1994) from the Association of Writers in Bucharest (Asociatia Scriitorilor din Bucuresti); the award UNITER for the best play of the year, Spring at the Buffet (Primavara la buffet, Editura Expansion, 1995), and the Prose Prize given by Radio Romania Cultural. Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, Spanish and will be soon translated into English as well.

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Traddutore Traditore

I have to admit, however, that I don’t envy the translators’ job, which I’m sure is very challenging. They say that poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, but in my opinion fiction that is unique in content and employs stylistically many dialects—such as the writing of Ion Luca Caragiale, Romain Gary and Razvan Petrescu–is the most difficult kind of literature to translate. And yet, that is usually also the most noteworthy and ingenious fiction. My main goal in this review is to convey the fact that Razvan Petrescu is a world-class author to an international audience, which may not be familiar with the Romanian language or with Romanian literature. How will I go about doing that? In mathematics or geography, you pinpoint a location, however remote or difficult to find, in terms of known coordinates. There’s no equivalent precise guide in the arts and humanities, however. The best I can do to offer such coordinates is to explain the relatively unfamiliar in terms of the relatively familiar: canonized authors that everyone knows; psychological fiction; universal themes and philosophical currents. The book I’ll be discussing here is Rubato (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), which is a collection of several of Razvan Petrescu’s prize-winning short fiction, published from 1989 to 2003. Rubato is like an album of the author’s best hits, if you will, but it is also far more than that: it’s world-class fiction, comparable, I believe, to the works of legendary writers like Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unique, uncategorizable fiction

Most fiction writers can be integrated rather easily into a genre, a movement or a style: be it  realism, fantasy, horror, or magical realism. There are a few writers, however, who are so quirky in style and unique in content that they’re almost impossible to categorize in terms of any neat and familiar literary labels. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are two of my favorite authors among those. How do you attach a label to Kafka’s psychological realism of the subconscious and dream; to what do you compare Borges’ mathematical paradoxes translated into a puzzling fiction? I think Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato fits into this uncategorizable category of fiction. Which is why I believe that the best way to describe it to those who haven’t read it yet is in terms of equally innovative and quirky authors, such as Kafka and Borges. What Rubato shares with, for instance, Kafka’s The Castle (1926) is a psychological realism that goes far beyond—and beneath—the layers of our conscious reality.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

The psychological realism of the subconscious

If Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or The Trial (1925) feel so real to us it’s not because they are actually realist in either content or style. It’s because these works focus so well on our unconscious fears—of powerlessness and alienation in a modern, bureaucratic society—that they bring them to the surface of our awareness. In reading the works of Kafka, we face our  misgivings and fears, confront them and even laugh at them, since they appear absurd. Yet we no longer minimize them and are unable to shove them back  under the rug, into the unconscious, to dismiss them. That’s why the works of Kafka remain so eerie and unsettling to us. Despite their sense of the absurd and humor, they’re as far removed as possible from superficial farce. The same phenomenon is at work when you read Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato. This slice of life tale depicts a psychiatrist’s “normal” day at work, which is full of abnormalities. 

photo Vadim Stein

photo Vadim Stein

All sorts of patients come in and out of his office, including a security officer/spy, a prostitute suffering from venereal diseases and a woman with psychopathic tendencies, who likes to torture and kill birds. Though they are all quite severely disturbed, the readers can’t help but laugh when reading their plights. The security officer has stinky feet and a very shallow conscience; the prostitute takes her clothes off and asks the psychiatrist to cure her venereal diseases; while the sadistic woman that likes to torture birds is beat at her own game (cruelty), as the psychiatrist admits to being more weird than her (and better at “befriending” and then killing birds as well). The name of the game for each of the characters is a complete detachment from the elements that render us human (empathy, caring, emotion, deep and meaningful connections to others). Despite this serious psychological deficiency, the tone of the narrative is so realistic in its style—the dialect and mannerisms of speech of each character constitute in themselves masterpieces of modern fiction—that the reader too becomes somewhat detached and laughs at them. Yet in laughing at them we also laugh at ourselves. Razvan Petrescu captures the most disturbing elements of the human condition through a series of hallucinatory characters, dialogues and diatribes that simultaneously appear absurd and  implausible yet also seem more real than our daily, conscious reality. How does he do that? Through what may be called “laughter through tears,” that authors like Ion Luca Caragiale, Anton Chekhov and Shalom Aleichem are best known for. 

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Laughter through tears: Neither satire nor irony

The kind of narrative that establishes layers of psychological distance among the narrator, characters and readers in literature is usually described as “satire” or “irony”. But like Anton Chekkov, Ion Luca Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem’s fiction, Rubato provides neither: or rather, it offers much more than that.  Irony and satire are rhetorical stances that assume a position of superiority towards the characters and their actions from the narrator and/or author and readers. Authors that rely heavily on irony often ridicule the characters’ weaknesses and follies. I see no evidence of any narrative sense of superiority or authorial arrogance in Rubato. When we laugh at its characters, we realize we’re also laughing at ourselves. Hence the sense of unease that accompanies Rubato’s keen and pervasive sense of humor, which brings to light our phobias, perverse desires, abnormality and insecurities.

Even more disturbingly, Rubato constantly reminds us of the fragility of human life and of our mortality. Scenes of death and decay pervade Razvan Petrescu’s fiction. No matter how theatrical and comical the depictions of illness and death may be, unlike the scenes we see on the daily news, they still touch and disturb us psychologically. With a sense of indulgence and even love for humanity—and placing himself on the same plane as his characters and readers–the author opens up, like a doctor, the worst of our human qualities and examines them closely, one by one. We greet this complex process with mixed emotions–laughter, horror, revulsion and indulgence–because in these narratives, like in a hallway of mirrors, we see reflections of our inner lives.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

Love, misogyny and women

In a recent interview with Esquire Magazine (Romania), Razvan Petrescu described himself—tongue-in-cheek, of course–as a “misogynist womanizer.” I’ve never in my life met a misogynist who admits to hating yet needing women. Misogynists tend to hide their contempt for women under the pretext of loving them (a technique common for psychopathic seducers) or of respecting certain women (such as mothers or the “virtuous” few) and hating all the rest. There’s  no trace of such underlying misogyny in any of Petrescu’s works. What we find in Rubato, for instance, is a compelling depiction of fear of the object of desire. This fear is a far cry from Arthur Schopenhauer or Henry de Montherlant’s flagrant and self-righteous misogyny. Many gorgeous, sexy women populate Petrescu’s fiction. Their erotic power is attenuated by humor; their emotional appeal is neutralized by fear.

In the short story The Door (Usa), for instance, a mother and a daughter exchange worried whispers about their husband/father, who is dying on a hospital bed in an adjacent room. The doctor, about to go to a surgery and utterly indifferent to his patient’s plight, attempts to persuade the two women to take the moribund patient back home. There’s nothing he can do for him at the hospital anymore. Rather than worrying about the poor state of health of the patient, the two women debate in hushed voices the cost of transporting the ill man home. The patient overhears the whole conversation through a slightly cracked door. He expires, in a scene as vivid but more concise than Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), knowing that he’s neither appreciated nor loved by his wife and his daughter.  Razvan Petrescu’s fictional world is filled with such uncaring women, indifferent doctors, loveless marriages and spoiled children. They show the following thought experiment in action: When cynicism is pushed as far as it can go, it becomes psychological realism.

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Cynicism versus nihilism

There’s no doubt that Razvan Petrescu’s fiction is pervaded by an underlying sense of cynicism. Not nihilism, but cynicism. Nihilism, or the questioning and negation of human ideals and values, may be great for philosophy—think Nietzsche—but it can be awfully boring and preachy when we encounter it in fiction. Who needs a dissertation on the meaninglessness of life and human values from some uppity character delivering lectures from up high, on a pedestal? Cynicism, on the other hand, tends to be a very welcome perspective in fiction. It avoids both the unforgivable naiveté of idealism and the arrogance of nihilism. Of course, in modern usage, cynicism has little to do with the original Greek Cynics, who believed that the purpose of life was to live a virtuous and modest life, deprived of unnecessary luxuries: in other words, a life in accordance to Nature. Perhaps modern Cynicism uses as its frame of reference only the most comical and extreme of the Cynics—Diogenes of Sinope—who rejected his society, begged to survive, and lived in a stone jar in the marketplace. Either way you look at it, cynicism offers a critical perspective of the human condition and of our societies with enough humor and sense of the absurd that even humanists can take it.  Written in a dramatic, hallucinatory and utterly engaging polyphony of dialects (and characterizations); confronting our deepest fears and flaws with a disarming honesty and contagious cynicism; probing psychologically the limits of our humanity and moral values, Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato is a masterpiece of world (not just Romanian) literature.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

Below is the interview with Virginia Costeschi, published in Romanian on BookMag, on the link below:

Virginia Costeschi: You are a complex writer; you have nonfiction books, a poem volume, and novels. You teach, you started the postromanticism movement. How do you manage this creative diversity?

Claudia Moscovici: If judged by scholarly standards of specialization, I’m seen as having wide-ranging  and diverse interests: in art, poetry, philosophy and literature, exactly as you state. My daughter, however, who plans to study chemistry in college, tells me my interests are very narrow. All of them fall under “arts and humanities” (as opposed to mathematics, science, or business for example, fields about which I know very little). I think both perspectives are correct. My daughter is right because the arts and humanities are separated only artificially. Art, history and literature have so much to do with one another and are actually very close. Yet it’s also true that the domains became very specialized during the 20th century, so my interests are diverse, from this perspective. Personally, I much prefer the Enlightenment model, of the philosophes and the salonnieres, where the various branches of arts and letters are seen as inseparable. Because in my eyes, they still are.

V.C.: What is postromanticism about and why did you initiate it?

C.M.: Postromanticism is, as we call it, “the art of passion.” It’s the aesthetic movement that values sensuality, beauty and passion in contemporary art, which I started in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto. Since then, dozens of very well-regarded international artists have joined this art movement. We hope to bring it to my native Romania, when my book about it, Romanticism and Postromanticism, which has been translated by the writer and critic D. R. Popa, will be launched by Editura Curtea Veche. My main motivation for launching this art movement was a positive one. I wanted to highlight what I saw as very positive aesthetic values in contemporary art. However, I was also motivated by a critical spirit. I thought that art today that is inspired by the Romantic and Realist movements was systematically excluded from museums of contemporary art and insufficiently reviewed by reputable art critics. I wanted to put my training in philosophy (aesthetics) and art to use in correcting, as much as I could, this glaring omission.

V.C.: Which internal resorts determined you to choose literature and writing?

C.M.: My main motivation in becoming a writer was the fact that I adored reading literature. My favorites were the great nineteenth century French writers, such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. I also admired the marvels an immigrant writer—Nabokov—could do with the English language. I think their tradition of writing, more or less realist in style and with incredibly rich characterizations, continues today in writers of mainstream “literary fiction” such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Wally Lamb and Jonathan Franzen. I couldn’t resist the internal drive to turn my love of reading into a love of writing, particularly about the historical and psychological themes that obsess me most.

V.C.: Why did you write Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a comic epic about Greek immigrants in Middlesex. I wanted to write such an epic about Romania and Romanian immigrants in Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi. Communism was, of course, a very dark period in Romanian history. Yet even during this very difficult period people loved, laughed and smiled. I wanted to capture both the darkness and oppression and the lighter aspects of the communist era. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi shows several facets of the totalitarian experience: the love of family and romantic entanglements; the secret police (Securitate), spying and political oppression, as well as the sometimes comical challenges of being an immigrant. Besides, comedy is not always lighter than tragedy. It can be, as it is for Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem, “laughter through tears.”

V.C.: How did you choose the characters in Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: In a sense they chose me by being on my mind for a long time. Leaving my country and family was something we needed to do for political reasons. But it was very difficult emotionally. I loved my country and my family and was well-integrated with my friends and teachers at school. Fundamentally, I felt Romanian in upbringing and culture, which I still consider myself today despite the fact I have some difficulty speaking and writing the language.  When I left Romania at the age of 11, I told myself that even if I couldn’t see most of my family and my country—for who knows how many years–I would one day write about them. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi represents my effort to preserve the past and keep it alive, through fiction, for both myself and others.

V.C.: Irina, the girl that leaves Romania for United States seems an alter ego of the author in Velvet Totalitarianism. Is it right?

C.M.: Yes, many aspects of Irina are autobiographical. However, many are not. To write about some of the historical and political aspects of Romanian communism, as well as the spy plot, I had to read a lot of books on the subject, and create fictional characters that brought those aspects to life. So a lot of Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi is based on real life, yet at the same time everything is altered and fictionalized, to fit harmoniously into the novel (as fiction).

V.C.: How was your meeting with a totally different society, customs, social rules, life style?

C.M.: It was a culture shock. Because I’m an emotional person and a nostalgic by nature, immigrating to the United States and leaving most of my family and all of my friends in Romania was very difficult. I also didn’t speak English, so I had to learn it very quickly if my goal was to get good grades and go to a good university (which I definitely wanted to). But ultimately my adaptation was a survival mode, and in a way, superficial. I still feel mostly Romanian culturally. If you look at my Facebook friends, about 90 percent or so are of Romanian origin. And even though I hadn’t seen my native country for 30 years, when I came for the launch of Intre Doua Lumi in the fall of 2011, I felt completely at home (only Bucharest was so much more modernized and beautiful, of course, than it was when I left the country). I think that human beings adapt to new cultures to survive and accomplish their goals in life. But it doesn’t change much who we really are, on the inside. Inside, I’m Romanian more so than American.

V.C.: Velvet Totalitarianism seems a very difficult book to write, I guess. You have alternate temporal planes, many characters (some of them very complex and profound), love stories, traitors, a dictatorship and a very vivid description of the communist Romania.

C.M.: Yes, you’re right, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi was difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I didn’t have enough time. It took me ten years to finally finish this novel because I was a full-time academic and a mom, which left me very little free time for writing fiction. Second, I had to integrate a lot of historical and political information about the Ceausescu era, the Securitate, the CIA, the Romanian orphanages and the revolution of 1989, but in a way that reads like fiction rather than like a political science or history textbook. The fictional characters couldn’t be illustrations or mouth-pieces of history, they had to come to life in their own right. The biggest challenge was tying the two parts of the plot—the spy thriller/love story between Radu and Ioana and the Irina and Paul love story—together. The novel includes two separate plot-lines in it. In  a movie, the director would probably need to choose one or the other. But in the novel they were tied together.

V.C.: The characters in the book have any correspondent in reality? Did you use real life stories to describe the so-called procedure of leaving the country, a dissident’s life or Romanian Security Service?

C.M. Almost every aspect of the novel is inspired either by my family’s experiences in communist Romania or by historical research. However, I fictionalized all of it. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi  is not really historical fiction. It’s more a family epic, a love story, a thriller, all rolled into one novel.

V. C.: How did you see the last two decades of Romania? Before 1989, there was a cultural résistance, how does it look now?

C. M.: Some cultural resistance existed in Romania before 1989, but it was little compared to countries like Poland. I think the internal dissidents gained a lot of momentum from the other anti-communist revolutions which preceded the one in Romania. This doesn’t take anything away from their courage. The time was ripe, politically, for the revolution.

V.C.: You also have a prolific online activity. Please give us some details about all your blogs – Literaturesalon, Postromanticism, and Psychopathyawareness.

C.M.: Blogs offer one of the best and most immediate ways for an author to communicate with readers. If you want the communication to be both ways, you have a comments section. If that turns out to be too time-consuming, you just post articles. There’s so much flexibility in blogs. It’s also a system of writing which is very democratic, in that it isn’t based on what professional connections you have. Anyone can write and can build a readership based on the relevance and effectiveness of his or her writing. I love this democratic nature of blogging and the freedom it gives writers.

V. C.: How do you see the Romanian national book market?

C. M.: Although I’m Romanian culturally, I’m also Americanized. So I see the Romanian book market through American eyes. I love the fact that there are so many thriving book review blogs, such as BookMag. To me, that’s the direction of books, internationally. I love the fact the major Romanian publishers are also publishing ebooks, which is going to happen more and more, also internationally. I was very impressed by the fact that the publisher of Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, was extremely progressive in terms of a multimedia campaign, with a book trailer by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video trailer by Andy Platon. For the next book launch, of postromanticism, I’d love to integrate dance. Book launches, to my mind, should be celebrations: a form of artistic entertainment that doesn’t take away from intellectual content, but enhances it. On the negative side, I was disappointed to find out that The New York Review of Books left Romania after only a few years. Culture is international, no matter how much you respect the individuality and traditions of your own country. Reputable international collaborations, such as with Hachette Publishing Group, Conde Nast (and others) are very valuable in Romania. They’re a big asset to the country. Once lost, it’s more difficult to bring them back. I’d love to see more, rather than less, of such cultural collaborations: something like The Huffington Post Romania (as there already is Le Huffington Post in France) and Oprah’s Book Club in Romania. If there’s any way I can help make such cultural collaborations possible, you can count me in.

V.C.: Please tell us about The Seducer, your latest literary work and when it will be translated in Romania.

C.M.: The Seducer takes the structure and plot line of one of my favorite classic novels, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and makes it contemporary by changing Vronsky’s psychological profile to that of a psychopathic seducer: a social and sexual predator, in other words. I think in reality very often serial seducers are extremely dangerous men (usually men, but they can be female, as in the case of “black widows”). For such individuals seduction isn’t about love, or even about sex in itself. It’s a hunt; a game. The women they seduce, trap and hurt are their prey. Such dangerous seducers initially disguise themselves as madly in love; as caring, wonderful people. They wear “a mask of sanity,” as it’s called in psychology. Psychopaths are not insane, just calculated, cold and evil. They lack empathy and a conscience.  Research shows that this deficiency is mostly neurological, not based on their upbringing. What they want from their prey differs, but the common denominator is power. Psychopaths are driven by a desire to possess and control others: be it an entire nation as for Stalin, or a few women, as in my new novel, The Seducer. I just gave a copy of The Seducer to Editura Curtea Veche this week. I don’t know when or if it will be translated into Romanian, but hope that it will be, since I believe this theme will resonate a lot with Romanian readers. I don’t think there are many women who haven’t been burned by psychopaths at some point in their lives. Usually they don’t know what burned them, however. This novel will reveal aspects of their own lives in a classic literary structure, inspired by Tolstoy. This theme and novel are all the more relevant now that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is being made into a movie, starring Keira Knightley.

V.C.: We have a national reading campaign, and we would like to have your message for Romanian students about reading, literature and their contribution to one’s success in life.

C.M.: I’d like to say to Romanian students that reading—literature and the arts in general—stimulates their imagination in a way that few other activities ever will. All of the media that entertains them–youtube, TV, movies, videogames—will never rival books in engaging their imagination. The more realist the media—such as movies—the less work our own minds do to process the information; to interpret it. In reading books we not only learn about the subjects they depict, we help create them. We imagine them with our mind’s eyes. In being readers, we are therefore also co-writers in some way. And that experience is unique, valuable and timeless, no matter how much the future of publishing will change.

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Filed under Andy Platon, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, BookMag, Claudia Moscovici, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, contemporary fiction, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, The Seducer, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, The Seducer: A Novel, Velvet Totalitarianism

Review of Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

Saints, Winds and Other Happenings by D. R. Popa

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

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Editura Curtea Veche, historical fiction, Love in the Time of Cholera, magical realism, Romanian fiction, Saints Winds and Other Happenings, vanturi si alte intimplari

The Multimedia Launch of Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi) in Romania

I’m happy to report that my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, was launched in Romanian translation (by Mihnea Gafita) under the title Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011). The presentation will include my talk about the book as well as a book trailer produced by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video produced by Andy (Soundland) Platon (see the below). This was the first multimedia launch, in which a book trailer and music video accompanied the presentations of the novel.

The political commentator Adrian Cioroianu, the literary critic Alex Stefanescu and the film producer Stere Gulea introduced my novel in light of their respective fields. The book launch took place at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest (ICR Bucuresti) on September 21, 2011 at 18:00 p.m. (Aleea Alexandru nr. 38, sector 1, 011824, Bucuresti, România).  

This novel is being made into a movie by the Romanian-American cinematographer Bernard Salzman (http://bernardsalzman.com/)

I’m pasting below the Advance Praise for my novel as well as Diana Evantia Barca‘s article about it in Catchy.ro and Anca Lapusneanu‘s article about it (and intellectual freedom) in Revista VIP.

Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet ColossusHistory and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems.

– Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.


http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

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