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Review of Radu Ulmeanu’s Chermeza Sinucigasilor

Chermeza Sinucigasilor, a novel by Radu Ulmeanu

Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor (Editura Pleiade, 2009) could be called an epopée of (anti)heroism that depicts the period immediately following the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Romania. The title itself, at least in Romanian, captures the mixture of lyrical abandon and cynical historicism that we find expressed in the novel through an intoxicatingly sensual and poetic style. The word “chermeza” is borrowed from the Dutch kermesse—whose roots are kermis or kerk (church) and mis (mass)– and refers to the mass that celebrates the foundation of a church or parish. Historically, the term also has a sinister connotation, as one of the first kermesse was the medieval parade in Brussels that occurred around 1370, when the town’s Jewish population was burned alive.

Ulmeanu’s novel shows with accuracy and depth the chaotic atmosphere around the Romanian revolution, with its mixture of idealism, hope and the cynical lust for power that kept many of the former Secret Police (Securitate) members and informants  in influential political and cultural positions even after the revolution. The most odious representative of this group is the sociopathic character Dragnea, who takes advantage of his political power to satisfy his perverse desire for hunting and raping young women.

Monica, a high school student who tries to resist the hedonist leanings of her mother and friends, falls victim to Dragnea’s predatory inclinations. Can the romance that develops between her and the main character, the hopelessly idealistic teacher, Grigore, save her? Or will she be another incarnation of Grigore’s first obsessive love—one that borders on idolatry—for the formerly untouchable Marta who has also been profaned by another?

There is, after all, a strong resemblance between the two young women. Both of them lose their virginity in painful and senseless ways to men who take advantage of them. Grigore’s love for both of them takes the form of a Platonic idealism that finds its literary echoes in the Abélard/Héloïse love story: a love that in its exalted form expresses a poetic and emotional ideal; while in its stereotyped form borders on the Madonna/Whore complex that feminists have criticized during the past few decades.

Without a doubt, there’s a strong idealist undercurrent in this novel, similar to the Hegelian dialectic traced by Julien Gracq in Au Chåteau d’Argol (1938). Only for Ulmeanu these philosophical echoes go back to the Platonic roots of idealism, in its dual depiction of love. Plato famously delineated two largely contradictory models of love: in The Symposium, he depicts eros as an abandoned, sensual, daemonic source of inspiration; while in The Republic and most of his other dialogues he depicts agape as a rational  mirror of the perfect, ideal Forms (of beauty, humanity, virtue, etc). In Chermeza Sinucigasilor we find the main character, Grigore, oscillating between these two largely antithetical forms of love. The young teacher is torn between his desincarnated Platonic love for the (formerly) untouchable Marta and his carnal desire for other young women, including Monica.

With psychological subtlety and stylistic finesse, Ulmeanu depicts Monica’s predicament. Harassed by the sociopath who raped her and desperate to find justice and respite; literally still haunted by Doru, her deceased boyfriend and first love who comes  back to her in nightmares and visions; embarrassed by insinuations of her mother’s affairs with her schoolmates; tempted by the libertine sensuality of her girlfriends, Monica seeks a way out of the tangled web which has become her life. In Grigore she hopes to find her salvation: a father-figure and a friend; a mentor and a lover; a kindred spirit and a savior, all in the same man.

In some respects, through her characterization, Ulmeanu picks up the themes from Nabokov’s legendary novel Lolita (1955), not only in subject matter but also in an exquisite literary style.  Last but not least, there are elements of magical realism in Ulmeanu’s complex and beautifully written novel. Discussing 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 to offer a deeper representation of reality, the critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens wheen a highly detaild, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

That something, in Ulmeanu’s novel, is the figure of the vampire. Only in Chermeza Sinucigasilor we don’t encounter the crude vampires of genre fiction, but more subtle, liminal figures, neither dead nor alive, which haunt the characters’ conscience and consciousness. Interweaving historical fiction, magical realism and love story that explores and transgresses the limits of both carnal love and the aspirations to a philosophical and political idealism, Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor, is a contemporary masterpiece.

Excerpt from the novel:

“He reproached Martha something. And, of course, he reproached her exactly what he allowed any other woman. The fact that Marta had slept with another drove him crazy, electrified him, even paralyzing him for a period of time. Afterwards, he distanced himself from her and began to look at their past with an increasingly cold condescendence. More precisely, the cataclysm lingered within, in his subconscious, remaining active underneath, which precluded any overture towards her. He longed to return to her, but Marta no longer offered the demon—or maybe the angel—before which lay prostrate in the past. Any other woman became superior to Marta solely in her latent capacity to re-electrify him; to stir in him a horrible deception; to propell him once more—as he now desired–to the limits of despair.” (Chermeza Sinucigasilor, 18)

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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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Filed under Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, book review, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Iran, Islamic dress code, literary criticism, literature, Lolita, Majeed Benteeha, Majeed Benteeha photography, Nicolae Ceausescu, Photographer Majeed Beenteeha, photography, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Romania, Romanian orphanages, sensual photography, sociopath, sociopathy, Surrealism, the veil, Velvet Totalitarianism