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Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

nytimesdimitrishostakovich

Between Fanaticism and Terror: Hitler, Stalin and The Noise of Time

By Claudia Moscovici

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by Gustaw Herling, a Polish prisoner in the Soviet Union:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76). The similarities between these two evil dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of Soviet society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority.

Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, describes the arbitrary nature of Stalin’s Great Terror with exquisite literary skill and historical insight in his new biographical novel about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (New York and London: Knopf, 2016). Tellingly, the title phrase is borrowed from Osip Mandelstam’s memoirs, who himself died in a transit camp during the Great Terror in 1938. In personalizing the plight of millions by focusing on the tribulations of a single life—particularly that of a famous man—Barnes illustrates that nobody was immune to Stalin’s subjugating power. Even the great Soviet General and Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the composer’s patron, fell victim to Stalin’s paranoia in the purge of the military of June 1937.

By some miracle or good fortune, Shostakovich’s life is spared by Stalin. But the composer’s reputation isn’t; rising and falling with the vicissitudes of the Soviet regime, which the narrator calls “the Power”. In 1936, Shostakovich suffers a humiliating reprimand for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, deemed by Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper and propaganda mouthpiece, to be representative of the “fidgety, neurotic music” of the bourgeoisie. Although later Stalin himself calls the composer at home and undoes some of the damage to his reputation, Shostakovich, along with millions of others, lives in constant fear of the dictator’s arbitrary—and often fatal–displays of power.

Success and failure have a way of boiling down to the same thing in totalitarian regimes, which subsume artistic merit to ideological whims. Even after Stalin’s death, during Nikita Khrushchev’s milder regime, when the composer is pressured to join the Communist Party in order to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers, Shostakovich feels almost as pained and humiliated as he did when he was vilified by Stalin’s acolytes in Pravda. In channeling the character of Shostakovich so compellingly and revealing with a keen sense of irony the arbitrary nature of Soviet totalitarianism, Barnes depicts its nature as well as those who had suffered its effects first-hand: authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia Ginzburg.

By way of contrast to Stalin’s arbitrary purges, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred of Jews, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These speculations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any obvious sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that would later dominate his life.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His preformed better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of the frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They surmise that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the [art] dealers were Jews” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWI seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler’s life. But even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power and wield death and destruction throughout Europe. Hitler was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent a considerable period of time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked soldiers the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that prefigured the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, manifested in pogroms. Only the former, he predicted, could efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (See Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

 

“The art of leadership as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

 

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent was to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in most European countries–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. His choice wasn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it was primarily the product of an insatiable and malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”

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North Korea’s State of Terror: Review of Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

northkoreascmp

 

For those informed about the dire situation of the vast majority of people living in North Korea, it’s tough to laugh along with The Interview (2014), a newly released and controversial American comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. This mediocre film, in which two journalists travel to Pyongyang and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un, has perhaps only one virtue: the publicity it generated brought some much-needed international attention to the plight of the North Korean people.

In reality, however, the situation in North Korea is far from amusing. Most of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live the kinds of lives imagined by George Orwell in his worst fictionalized nightmare, 1984. Divided by castes determined by their “patriotic” ranking; forced into jobs chosen by the government then burdened by indoctrination sessions after work for hours each day; fearing being turned in by friends, colleagues and family members for the slightest negative political remark and being sent to prison or labor camps, North Koreans live in a state of terror reminiscent of Orwell’s communist dystopia.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2009), journalist Barbara Demick offers a penetrating look into this nearly impermeable country. Even from hundreds of miles away, she begins her account, North Korea resembles a black hole: “If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity” (3). Demick follows the lives of six defectors from North Korea over the course of 15 years, offering an overview of the country’s history and a glimpse of its all-pervasive political repression through the optic of beautifully narrated personal interest stories.

Generations of North Koreans have never truly known freedom. In 1910, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea. During WWII, Koreans were subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their Japanese oppressors. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in the infamous Japanese “comfort houses,” where they were repeatedly gang raped. Countless Koreans were incarcerated in prison camps, tortured and murdered. When the war ended, Korea was divided into two parts: the North became Communist, falling under the influence of China and the Soviet Union, while the South was controlled by the United States. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25 1950, it launched the superpowers into the Korean War, a “proxy” military struggle for influence on Korean territory. When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the country reverted to boundaries very close to the original division between North and South Korea. The 2.5 mile buffer area between the two sides, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is, despite its name, the most militarized zone in the world.

Under the totalitarian leader Kim Il Sung, while still accepting Soviet aid, North Korea distanced itself politically from China and the Soviet Union by pursuing “Juche”, an ideology of self-reliance. Most of the country’s resources become channeled into its military, as North Korea observes a “Songun” or militaristic policy. The military absorbs over a third of the population, including nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s sealed North Korea’s economic fate. Deprived of Soviet aid, the country sank into poverty, unemployment and widespread famine. As Demick documents, once Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over control of the country after his father’s death in 1994, North Korea’s isolation became absolute and the political repression intensified. Nowadays starvation is a commonplace phenomenon. The North Koreans even have a name for the tens of thousands of starving children who resort to begging in the street to survive: “little swallows”.

While the vast majority of the population of North Korea lives in darkness and squalor, their leader enjoys extreme luxury and wealth. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Pyongyang’s Hunger Games”, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee state that Kim Jung-Un is said to have squandered $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012, “including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year Mr. Kim also spent 1.3 billion dollars on his ballistic missile program” (March 7, 2014).

Demick’s account personalizes the politics of North Korea by showing how it affects ordinary citizens. She tells the story of Mi-Ran, a young woman who was a teacher by profession. Mi-Ran fell in love like anyone living in a free country. Well, not like exactly like anyone else since, as Demick explains,
“the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses” (80). Mi-Ran may have felt the same emotions for the young man she cared about as do people living in free societies, but she couldn’t be with him because her political dossier was tainted by the fact that her father was a South Korean POW. The young woman may have experienced empathy like most human beings do in normal circumstances, but her situation was far from ordinary. In a country ravaged by hunger, she watched as her students wasted away from starvation, eventually disappearing without a trace from the classroom, one by one. Barely having enough food to survive herself, Mi-Ran couldn’t help them. Her empathy eventually gave way to indifference, a common survival tactic: “What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring” (130). Mi-Ran regained her humanity and put the political situation of her country in proper perspective only once she immigrated to South Korea.

Even Mrs. Song, a model patriotic citizen, eventually overcome the fear and the brainwashing instilled by her government. Each of the defectors interviewed by Demick eventually saw North Korea for what it is: a totalitarian country ruled by a voracious despot, whose personality cult may be so over-the-top as to become an object of satire for those living in freedom, but who transforms the lives of the people of North Korea into a tragic nightmare.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors

 

Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors

by Claudia Moscovici

Totalitarianism isn’t an easy phenomenon to grasp. One of the most difficult things to understand is how could hundreds of millions of people all over Europe and the Soviet Union have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust and the mass purges to take place. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt offers one of the best explanations for these mass horrors. “Mass” is the key word here. Arendt’s explanation consists of describing this modern social entity called “the masses,” which she distinguishes from the mob (itself capable of spurts of violence, such as during pogroms) as well as from classes (based on economic self-interest). The masses are a quintessentially totalitarian phenomenon.  Arendt posits that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime.

The masses versus the classes

Unlike social classes, Arendt explains, the masses are amorphous and easily swayed. They’re moved by superficial rhetoric and empty fervor rather than united by a common identity or shared economic interests. According to Arendt, “The term masses applies only when we deal with people who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 311). Of course, this political and social apathy isn’t enough to lend support to totalitarian movements. An additional, and crucial, factor comes into play. The apathetic masses must come under the spell of charismatic evil leaders, like Hitler and Stalin, who gain control over society and kill in them the last vestige of human decency and individualism. If “the masses” don’t exist in sufficient numbers in a given society, then totalitarian rulers create them. This was the main purpose, Arendt contends, of Stalin’s relentless purges, which destroyed any real class identity and ideological conviction. Even the nuclear family and bonds of love deteriorated, as friends feared friends and parents lived under the reasonable fear that their own children could at any moment turn them in for “deviationism” from the party line.

Social groups versus atomized individuals

The masses are vast in number but isolated in nature. Totalitarian society creates an immense collection of atomized individuals. There’s no other way to command an absolute obedience to the regime: even when the government’s policies change radically, demanding one thing of its followers one day and the opposite the next. This unconditional loyalty, Arendt argues, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 323-4) This false sense of belonging can’t be based on any real social identity, since totalitarian movements are arbitrary in their demands, fickle in their objectives and changeable in their actions. Perhaps their only stable feature is the ruthlessness of their punishments: the constant reign of terror.

Fanaticism versus idealism

The masses are fanatical rather than ideological (adhering to a firm set of political or economic principles) or idealist (aspiring, utopically, to moral or political perfection). Far more extreme than a mob, upon which fanaticism has a short-lived hold, the masses can be under the spell of a charismatic evil leader even when it’s no longer in their self-interest. How is this self-defeating attitude possible? Arendt explains: “identification with the movement and total conformism seem to have destroyed the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or fear of death.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 308)

The philistine versus the bourgeois

Totalitarian movements transform ordinary human beings into philistines. Arendt describes the philistine as a bourgeois who is isolated from his class. The philistine focuses so much on his own narrow needs that he views victims as “others” rather than as fellow human beings. “Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and the private morality or people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives,” Arendt claims. “After a few years of power and systematic co-ordination, the Nazis could rightly announce: “The only person who is still a private individual in Germany is somebody who is asleep.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 338-9) Decades after its publication, The Origins of Totalitarianism remains the most rigorous and systematic explanation—and offers the most elegant political philosophy–for how such mass horrors could have occurred in the 20th century. The book also serves as a necessary reminder that they can happen again for as long as humanity can be dehumanized by totalitarian regimes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why the Jews?

arendt-hannah-the-origins-of-totalitarianism1Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Part I): Why the Jews?

by Claudia Moscovici

Hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement and ranked by Le Monde as one of the 100 best books of 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), sketches a political philosophy of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. In her discussion of the rise of the Nazi movement in particular, Arendt refutes previous explanations of the dissemination of anti-Semitism and its vicious culmination in the Holocaust.

She dismisses explanations of anti-Semitism that she considers “ahistorical,” which do not take into account how prejudices and discrimination against the Jews, occurring throughout the centuries, turned into the center of racist ideology for the Nazi movements.  To understand the historical difference between previous anti-Semitic tendencies and actions—even ones as severe and deadly as pogroms—and the Nazi extermination camps, Arendt describes the unique nature of totalitarian power.

In the first part of the book, Arendt refutes common misconceptions of anti-Semitism. Her arguments focus upon a central question: Why the Jews? How and why did the Jewish people throughout Europe come to be targeted for discrimination, abuse, mass deportation and extermination?

1. The rise in nationalism did not cause a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

One common answer to this question explains the radical rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in terms of the rise in nationalist sentiments and its “xenophobic outbursts”. Arendt contends that just the opposite is true: modern anti-Semitism grew as nationalism declined throughout Europe. Nazi ideology, while making use of nationalist sentiments in its rhetoric, actually emphasized the international character of “race”. Hitler never hid the fact that his aim was to ensure the supremacy of the “Aryan” race in Europe and, if possible, throughout the world by subjugating and even eliminating “inferior races”. He turned prevalent feelings of national fervor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia into a transnational racial war.

2. The Jews were not randomly selected as Nazism’s main target and victims

Arendt goes on to refute another common misconception: namely, that the Nazi movement could have selected any other group as the main target of its hatred and abuse. After all, it did include other groups in its categories of “undesirables,” including the mentally handicapped, Gypsies and even the Poles (or the Slavs in general, whom Hitler planned to enslave if he had won the war).  But nobody can deny that the isolation and extermination of the Jews was Hitler’s—and, consequently, the Nazi movement’s—primary obsession. The Nazis pursued the mass deportations and extermination of Jews even at the cost of an economic loss and even after the battle of Stalingrad, when they began to lose the war. This is not, however, because the Jews are perpetual scapegoats and victims. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well,” Arendt points out. “It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done that might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5) So then why were the Jews targeted as the Nazi regimes primary enemies and targets?

3. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis not because of their vast influence, as was claimed by fascist movements, but because of their statelessness and powerlessness

Nazi propaganda held the Jews responsible for everything that went wrong—economic crises, Germany’s humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles, unemployment, etc. This implied that the Jews were a unified people that had an incredible political power. Hitler described his war against the Jews as a self-defense against a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. Yet, Arendt maintains, the opposite holds true. “Anti-Semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 4) Arendt plausibly argues that Jewish wealth without political power and social influence began to be seen as parasitical in nature. It stirred envy rather than respect and contempt rather than compassion: at least in people already inclined to finding scapegoats for their troubles.

4. Totalitarianism subjugates perfectly obedient people

No doubt, there’s a personal, quirky and irrational component to Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish people, which became part and parcel of his insatiable drive for power. Hitler justified his desire for total control not only of the German people, but also of Europe and eventually the world, in terms of “saving” the Aryan race from imminent contamination and eventual destruction by the Jews. Yet he targeted Jewish victims who not only had no desire to take over the world, but also who didn’t have the means to do it. In general, Arendt argues, the victims of totalitarian terror are selected because of their helplessness and innocence, not because of their power and culpability. The assault upon the Jewish people, she goes on to illustrate, was only the first step in a reign of terror of unprecedented proportions that would aim at nothing short of the destruction of ethical values and of human identity itself.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com

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Evil Leaders: Book Review of Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

 

Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (Vintage Books, NY, 1993) offers a monumental social and psychological biography of two of the most evil dictators in human history as well as an epic sketch of an era. Although the author specializes in Hitler, his grasp of Stalin is equally impressive. It rivals, in fact, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007) in its thoroughness and depth.

As the title suggests, Bullock alternates chapters on Hitler with those on Stalin.  He reveals how each dictator relied on his powers of manipulation, deception and opportunism to rise to power. They spread totalitarian regimes meant to wipe out the human spirit and large parts of humanity itself across the world.  The book also explains how Hitler and Stalin initially operated within the systems which they later (mis)used for their own selfish and nefarious goals. Whatever their rhetoric and ideology, both psychopathic tyrants ultimately craved power for its own sake, at the expense of everyone else, even the causes (and allies) they initially claimed to support.

Primo Levi famously advances the same thesis as Hannah Arendt expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, 2006): “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” There is no doubt that the Holocaust throughout Europe or the terror in the Soviet Union weren’t brought about by Hitler and Stalin alone. Without coopting tens of thousands of soldiers, functionaries and “regular people” throughout the world, these two evil leaders wouldn’t have succeeded in their genocidal goals, nor could they have implemented totalitarian regimes. Yet the obverse clause is equally true. Without the leadership of psychopathic, power-driven and malicious individuals like Hitler and Stalin the genocides wouldn’t have happened either. The Holocaust wouldn’t have existed without someone like Hitler: namely a highly influential and charismatic psychopathic leader rising to power at a ripe moment in history.

Although Stalin claimed to have an allegiance to the communist party and Hitler to the Aryan race, history proved that their true allegiance was to their own empowerment. As Bullock demonstrates, Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would reveal.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969)

What makes such human suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the leaders in charge. The collusion and indifference of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without evil leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives gives us a detailed, compelling and extremely informative historical and psychological portrait of two of the most powerful faces of evil in human history. He describes in great detail their rise to power and deadly influence. Hitler and Stalin is an indispensable book for all those who want to understand how totalitarian regimes function and the role psychopathic dictators play in changing the course of history.

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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My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

Claudia Moscovici: Novelist, Non-Fiction Author & Art Critic PDF Print E-mail
March 11th, 2012
Interview of Claudia Moscovici on CelebrityDialgoue.com
Claudia Moscovici is an American Romanian Novelist, non-fiction author and art critic. Her latest novel “The Seducer” is a psychological story of a married woman trapped in the love of an unassuming psychopath. Claudia is the author of “Velvet Totalitarianism,” a critically acclaimed novel about a Romanian family’s survival in an oppressive communist regime due to the strength of their love.

CelebrityDialogue: What is the basic plot of your latest novel “The Seducer”?Claudia: “The Seducer,” my new psychological thriller, shows both the hypnotic appeal and the deadly danger of psychopathic seduction. This novel traces the downfall of a married woman, Ana, who, feeling trapped in a lackluster marriage, has a torrid affair with Michael, a man who initially seems to be her soul mate and her dream come true. Although initially torn between love for her family and her passion for Michael, Ana eventually gives in to her lover’s pressure and asks her husband for divorce. That’s when Michael’s “mask of sanity” unpeels to reveal the monstrously selfish psychopath underneath. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” my novel shows that true love can be found in our ordinary lives and relationships rather than in flimsy fantasies masquerading as great passions.
CelebrityDialogue: What inspired you to write this novel?

Claudia: I have always been a big fan of nineteenth-century fiction that focuses on the theme of seduction: I’m thinking of classic novels like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. I also read with great interest the libertine novel tradition of the eighteenth-century: my favorite in this genre being Laclos’ epistolary novel, “Dangerous Liaisons”. I think in his depiction of Valmont, Laclos gets the seducer profile exactly right: he is a dangerous psychopath—essentially a social predator who plays games with the lives of others, having malicious fun at their expense– rather than a libertine maverick (as in Casanova) or a tragic romantic hero (as in Tolstoy). I did four years of psychology research of the most dangerous personality disorders—psychopathy and narcissism—to create a realistic and up-to-date psychological profile of the seducer in my new novel by the same name.
CelebrityDialogue: Would you like to introduce our readers to a non-fiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons”, that you wrote in 2011?

Claudia: Although the theme of psychopathy comes up mostly when we hear about (psychopathic) serial killers, it is actually much more commonplace and pervasive, in both fact and fiction. What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the incapacity to love. In other words, these men are psychopaths. Unfortunately, most psychopaths don’t advertise themselves as heartless social predators. They come across as charming, intelligent, friendly, generous, romantic and kind. Through their believable “mask of sanity,” they lure many of us into their dangerous nets. My nonfiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons,” explains clearly, for a general audience, what psychopaths are, why they act the way they do, how they attract us and whom they tend to target. Above all, this book helps victims find the strength to end their toxic relationships with psychopaths and move on, stronger and wiser, with the rest of their lives.

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CelebrityDialogue: What exactly is psychopathic seduction?

Claudia: Psychopathic seduction happens when someone is seduced (targeted, lured with false promises or under false premises, deceived, manipulated, isolated and brainwashed) by a psychopathic social predator. Psychopaths are far more common than one thinks. Experts estimate that between 1 and 4 percent of the population is psychopathic. This means that there are millions of psychopaths in the United States alone. The influence of these very dangerous individuals extends far beyond this percentage however. Psychopaths are generally very sociable, highly promiscuous and con countless people: sexually, emotionally and/or financially. They poison tens of millions of lives in this country and far more, of course, internationally.

Claudia Moscovici The Seducer

CelebrityDialogue: Your novel “Velvet Totalitarianism” is about a Romanian family’s survival against communist regime. Since you have Romanian roots, did any true life events prompt you to write this novel?

Claudia: “Velvet Totalitarianism”, which was recently launched in Romanian translation (“Intre Doua Lumi,” Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), is inspired in part by events in Romanian history as well as by elements from my life and my parents’ lives: including my father’s defection to the U.S., our dealings with the Securitate and our immigration. Nevertheless, I fictionalized both the historical and the biographical elements to give the novel a tighter and more dramatic structure.
CelebrityDialogue: You must have felt proud when this novel was published in Romanian language?

Claudia: I was delighted that “Velvet Totalitarianism” was published in Romania, both because it was written about the history and struggles of the Romanian people and because I have a sentimental attachment and cultural ties to my native country. I was especially happy to see how well-received the novel in translation (“Intre Doua Lumi”) was by the mainstream media in Romania, where it was featured not only in literary and culture magazines such as Scrisul Romanesc and Viata Romaneasca, but also in Forbes.ro, women’s glossy magazines (such as Revista Avantaje), and general interest blogs like Catchy.ro and VIP.net. Since I aspire to being a public writer and intellectual, I wish to reach a wide community of readers, internationally.
CelebrityDialogue: Which are your other major published works?

Claudia: I have published several scholarly books, but I’d consider “major” works only those books that I wrote for a general audience. These include my art criticism book “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, on the Romantic tradition in art and literature and its postromantic survival; my novels “Velvet Totalitarianism” and “The Seducer”, and my psychology book about psychopaths and dangerous relationships, “Dangerous Liaisons”.
CelebrityDialogue: You are the co-founder of” Postromanticism”. For those who may not know, please shed some light on this movement.

Claudia: I believe that art movements are not only diachronic, emerging one after the other, as they tend to be taught in art history, but also synchronic, in that each new art movement borrows from many aesthetic traditions of the past. Postromanticism, the international art movement I co-launched in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, is no exception. It is inspired by several traditions in art history, including Neoclassicism, Romanticism and art nouveau. Postromanticism places emphasis upon beauty, sensuality and passion in contemporary art. You can see samples of postromantic art on my website, http://postromanticism.com.
CelebrityDialogue: Since you write about love, beauty and passion, what does love mean to you in real life? Were you able to find love in your life?

Claudia: Being a novelist and art/literary critic, for many years I looked mostly at fantasy—since, after all, that’s what art and fiction are–to describe love as a romantic ideal rather than as a daily lived reality. But for the past few years, particularly after studying personality disorders, I have come to appreciate much more the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of real love. To me, love implies mutual commitment, supporting one another through thick and thin, fidelity and caring about one another: everything that the wedding vows promise and that my wonderful and supportive husband, Dan Troyka, has offered me in real life for over 20 years, since we met and fell in love in college.
CelebrityDialogue: What are you working on these days?

Claudia: Since my interests are in several fields—fiction, art and psychology—I always work at several projects simultaneously. This “multitasking” keeps me from becoming bored with any one subject or stuck in a rut creatively. Right now I’m researching the psychology of cults, which will be the subject of my third novel, “The Cult”. Since cult leaders are often charismatic psychopaths, this novel will incorporate a lot of the research I’ve already done to write “The Seducer” and “Dangerous Liaisons”. In addition, I have just finished writing the preface for an exciting new science fiction novel called “The Cube”, written in the tradition of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “1984”, which will be published by my publisher in a few months. At the same time, I’m working closely with the Romanian-born movie producer Bernard Salzman, whom you’ve already interviewed in Celebrity Dialogue, on the screenplay for my first novel, “Velvet Totalitarianism”. Hopefully this will be an American-Romanian production, since a large part of the plot takes place in Romania. I also continue with my art criticism and am preparing for the launch of “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, translated by the writer and critic Dumitru Radu Popa, in Romania next fall. It’s a Latin country so I’m hoping for a warm reception of postromanticism, the art of passion!
CelebrityDialogue: Thank you so much Claudia. It was a pleasure.

Claudia: Thank you for this interview, the pleasure was mine.

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Dan Troyka Claudia Moscovici, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nat Karody The Cube

Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa

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)

Swedish Hood

I.

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!

                                                           II        

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

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, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Crossing Washington Square, D. R. Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa, Dumitru Radu Popa's fiction, fiction, Henry James, Lady V. and Other Stories, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Marcel Proust, Outskirts Press, psychological fiction, Romanian Contemporary Fiction by Dumitru Radu Popa, Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions