I have just written a post about Proust and his biographers, who attempt to render this classic 20th-century writer palatable and relevant to 21st-century readers. Proust stands the test of time partly because he delves into the depths of our dreams, desires, fears and all the hidden regions of our subconscious, which seem to have their own logic and are perennial. He also puts a writer’s magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.
Today I’d 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 law–as well as his keen artistic sensibility–to 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 which–Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions–has been recently translated into English (Outskirts Press, 2011) and the second of which, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square), I’m 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 characters’ 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 Popa’s ironic touches are incisive and honest, without ever becoming brutal. They are similar in tone to Chekhov’s fiction, which depicts human beings as they are–flaws and all–without hating us for our foibles and fallibility.
Dumitru Radu Popa’s newest novel, Traversind Washington Square (Crossing Washington Square) is, in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s La Recherche. On the surface this is the story–or, more like it, fantasy–of 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, I’m 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 Building–a perfect edifice made to reduce everything to the absence of worries and metaphysical torments–I 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 horse—as useless as it is traditional in the municipal annals of the institution—with 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 “Smoke? Smoke?”, 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 demeanors—always the same ones!—walking 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 they’re 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 altered… 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 can’t recall exactly which year, month or day since in such cases one no longer knows how many grains make a pile… 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 was—the 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 ground—it 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 I’d 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: “Cave! Remember, I go over each detail and each discrepancy of the landscape, but this doesn’t mean anything!” Perhaps not quite as dramatic and rhetorical, but in any case, something similar.
I’m 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 it’s one thing to notice that, with the same naiveté—so delectable!—that leads adolescents to see in a thirty year old a “finished man”, 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 “old age”, 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 Orwell‘s 1984) is now better described, by Popa’s 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 readers’ interest and emotions. Several stylistic elements–including love story, philosophical dialogue and political intrigue–all work together to create an irresistible fiction. I’m including below an excerpt of the English translation of Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, which appeared online in Levurelitteraire.com, Numero 2, below:
“Come on, Plato. Let’s go home. Iphigenia’s waiting for you.”
“I can’t right now, woman! Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m playing backgammon with Homer? And he’s got some luck today. It’s like he stepped in you know what: I clearly mean … or maybe he just didn’t wash his hands after you know what.”
“Stop being such an ass, Plato! You’re only saying that because you’re losing. If you smell anything here it’s not me. It must be Idomeneo’s shad; he’s dried them out like hell and they’re so hard they’re going to break my dentures…”
“Shad always needs dill,” 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 Iphigenia’s emissary who is standing by the door with her hand to her mouth.
“Aha! There you are! This is the end of you! Briseis, hand me one of Idomeneo’s dry shad. I’ll tenderize it with this pot… too bad I don’t have a bust of Cicero…”
“Well, Cicero is out buying new tires,” Menny tried to intervene but he was quickly stifled as usually happens to those in his position.
“Iphigenia 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 we’re all going to go to St. Basil’s Church. Herostratus is coming too, you know, the one who just opened that big grocery near Ditmars.”
“Oh alright, I’m coming. Just let me finish up with this coward. Homer’s coming to church too with Aphrodite and Hecuba. But we have plenty of time, my clothes aren’t even ready. The guys at the cleaners on Hoyt Avenue said five o’clock. Catharsis, you know the place. It’s the best one, doesn’t even compare with those lousy Chinese at French Cleaners.”
“Aha, did you hear that? Catharsis!” 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.
“Since when do you understand Greek?” asked his associate. He was much younger, thin, with prominent cheekbones and an unusually conspicuous Adam’s apple, so that the shadow he cast on the wall looked like nothing as much as a cartoon from the Sunday funnies.
“Shut up and listen! Or are you playing the fool? You don’t need to speak Greek to know he said Catharsis: those Greek dry cleaners where that big cheese, your godfather, sended his clothes. Don’t you remember from the file? It seems that he used to bring in his clothes with blood stains every night. He’d pick them up clean in the morning, but the stains always returned in the exact same spots. Totally absurd!”
“It’s not absurd at all! There’s clearly some dough involved, if only we could find its traces… But I don’t think it’s here… Anyway, I was just saying,” whinged the other, code name Lazar. “I’ve seen backgammon before and I don’t really like this Greek food, either. I’ve gotten more used to Chinese, especially since it’s also cheaper!”
“We’re not talking about what you may or may not like!,” chastised a resentful Munteanu. “We have to start somewhere…”
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 weren’t too much aware. Then, as if he had changed his mind, he returned and prodded his companion, “Listen… my English is, how should I say, kind of passive. I understand, but I can’t really express myself clearly.”
“I see,” answered Lazar, with a touch of irony that did not escape the attention of the older man. “It’s like with those engineers. They look intelligent enough but, when they try to express themselves, just can’t be done!”
He winked jokingly as to erase any misunderstanding, and then went up to the ad-hoc Agora where English wasn’t 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! “It would not hurt him to be a bit more careful!”
After a short moment of confusion, the steady clicking of the dice resumed.
“Do you speak Romanian?” 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.
“Yeah I do speak Romanian? Isn’t that clear? So what? It’s none of your business!” growled Colonel Munteanu who would have preferred that his young apprentice hurried up and talked to those Greeks about Catharsis.
“Well it may not be a big deal,” said the dirty window watcher, “but anyway, if you want any information about… how should I put it… the Romanian community here, you’d do best to ask me.”
The guy was somehow “clean-cut”, he didn’t look like a beggar, and the colonel signaled to Blossom, alias Lazar, as if to say “Hold on a second! Let’s see what this guy has to say.” 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.
“Pour, Blossom!” 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 wasn’t stupid by any means, and was not intimidated by the colonel’s authoritarian bearing.
“Now it’s your turn to pour, you know what I mean! And you’d better tell us everything exactly as it happened if you want to get out of here alive,” declared the colonel harshly, despite his apprentice’s generous gaze meant to convey something along the lines of: “Why don’t you just leave him alone? Maybe he’s just some poor fool who knows nothing of our business. What if he speaks Romanian, does that mean we have to harass him? We’d be better off going after the big wigs.”
“First of all, I’d like to introduce myself,” said the man. “I am, together with my associates, in charge of everything that happens in Romanian business here… I hope you understand what I mean: a deal, some legal matter, or when someone needs to keep their mouth shut…”
And here he made a deft gesture with his hand miming the path of a zipper that starts at the left-most corner of one’s mouth and ends over the tightly closed lips of the right-most corner.
“As for other things,” he added, “like, for example, the Greek dry cleaners, Catharsis, I’m still the right person to ask. They are the best, if that’s what you’re 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 can’t wear it anymore. My associates had to bid on e-bay to try to get me a similar one… But if you really want to talk about all these we should probably go to Melon Head’s pub. It’s the only place around here with real food. Plus I’m getting special treatment…
“Yes, yes!” ventured code name Lazar. “Let’s go there!”
In the meantime, Munteanu’s 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 institution’s money. What’s more to be said, he was simply tired and… 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, “I see, I’m 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.”
Meg gave him an amused look. Bob’s 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.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry not to be more helpful. But knowing you’re such a good driver, I thought my inability to read those maps would only irritate you further more!” She was lying shamelessly, of course. We know how carefully she planned every detail of the trip – and please note that we didn’t even mention it at the time so that we won’t bore the reader – 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?
“Ok, Ok,” replied Bob satisfied. “It doesn’t matter now anyway, I’ve already merged onto the Maddox Turnpike. But I’m very curious what book has caught your attention so much that last night you fell asleep with the light on.”
Meg had begun reading the book the day before the trip, but she had not realized that she fell asleep reading the night before.
“It’s a book,” she answered, “recommended as summer reading by the company that sent me the tourist information. I don’t know how interesting you’d find it… the beginning is pretty boring and it doesn’t have anything to do with the title. But what can you do, that’s how literature is nowadays.”
“Got it!” snorted Bob. “Really Meg, this is so typical of you, and probably that’s why I love you so much. You take everything so seriously, like you didn’t know that everything is just a trick to make you buy things.”
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: “I think it’s a very good book, but don’t ask me why.”
“That sounds a little ominous,” 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.
“I mean that it’s strange. It’s a translation and the action is multilayered. I’m just a few pages into it, but I’m sure it will go on like this. It’s the author’s style…”
“Or the translator’s,” answered Bob sharply. “What’s left of the author’s style when you’re talking about a translation?”
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? “Yeah, maybe that’s it! It seems that the translation is very good, that’s probably why the book is so easy to read…”
“And from whence came this author to enlighten us with his multilayered book?” asked Bob his voice dripping with irony.
“The cover says he’s Romanian, but I didn’t want to read too much. You know how it is. The blurb gives away the whole story and there’s no joy left in reading the book.”
“Oh that’s just what we needed,” exhaled Bob. “For Romanians to come and teach us!”
“It’s not about teaching,” answered Meg, “it’s just a novel, something made up. But maybe not completely…”
“I bet it was translated from the Russian,” posited Bob.
“You think?” exclaimed a puzzled Meg. “I would have thought that they spoke Hungarian over there. I remember reading something in The New York Times Magazine…”
“Nonsense! This Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union,” replied Bob completely sure of himself. “There was some big scandal with their KGB about ten years ago, I remember well… It’s translated from Russian, I’m sure. Check it out! It’s gotta say somewhere in there.”
“Probably,” acknowledged Meg, but was unable to completely stifle a stray thought of how much Bob knew about geography and geopolitics. “Ah, here it is!” she went on. “Oh well. It says right here that it was translated from Romanian!” And all of a sudden she grew much less worried about her familiarity with Bob’s knowledge. “It’s obvious! Since the author is Romanian, of course the book was also written in Romanian!”
“Didn’t I tell you!” answered Bob triumphantly.
“No,” Meg said dryly. “You were just explaining how it was translated from the Russian.”
“But I told you that Romania used to be part of the Soviet Union, that’s 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 languages…”
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. “Anyway, I like this book! I don’t care if it’s translated from Russian, Hungarian, or Romanian. I’ll read about that afterwards!”
Hearing her say afterwards in that tone, Bob’s 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 they’ll lead…
“After I finish the novel, I mean,” she clarified ready to resume her reading.
“Hmm… Ok,” muttered Bob. “And what did you say was the title of this very special book?”
Meg ignored the sarcasm in his question. “I Haven’t said yet! In translation it’s Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions, but I don’t think the title is very important. So far there haven’t even been any characters named Sabrina, just a couple of Romanian spies and (you’ll be shocked when I tell you!) a couple just like us that are getting ready to go on vacation. But I think I’m going to skip over the sections about them.”
Turning towards Walhalla Circle, Bob added, “Sounds 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: that’s a name that could come from anywhere! And to make it worse, she doesn’t even come up in the beginning of the book…”
Meg totally ignored the rest of the diatribe, returning to her book and picking up exactly where she had left off.
Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon