Intellectuals in a Ditch: the Phantasmagoria Carry On

Translated and adapted by Jean Harris from Eugen Negrici’s “Magic Realism: the Triumph of Imagination and Fantasy” from Literatura romana sub comunism – Proza / Romanian Literature Under Communism, Fiction (Bucharest: Editura Fundatiei Pro, 2003)

Ştefan Agopian | March 01, 2009
Translated by: Jean Harris


Ştefan Agopian’s novels and short fiction mark an extreme point in Romanian literature’s  emancipation from realism. Two items to note: we are talking here about a literature’s gradual escape from the dogmatic social realism that plagued the 1950’s, of course, but also about Romanian writing’s evolution away from the rigors of realism all together.

            For Romanian writers, long obsessed with the rediscovery of a creative atmosphere the least bit like that of the interwar years[1] , the return to [post-Stalinist] “normality” gave rise to something like the reinvention of  fiction’s alphabet, an activity not unlike the reinvention of the wheel. What mattered first was regaining the right to turn out realist prose with narrative techniques and traditional typologies with social or psychological themes but without dangerous political implications—a modest but “realistic” objective, so to speak. The older interdictions and recommendations were “courageously” trespassed—after a transitional interval. “Major themes” were no longer a creative desideratum…and literature scrambled out from under the “tyranny of the typical” and passed on to the exceptional, the marginal, the unprecedented.

            The mid 60’s saw the first timid attempts to “transfigure” the real. Realistic prose was published, but with a symbolic dimension here, intrusions of the fantastic there, elements of myth and parable…In the mid-70’s, the School of Târgovişte replaced mimesis with poiesis . [With writers like Mircea Horea Simionescu, whom readers of OTP will recognize as a member of this school] literature would be turned back on itself and into itself, in large measure by giving up representation. The Târgovişte writers would carry playfulness, auto-reflexivity and parody pretty far.       

            Holding the ground his predecessors had won… Ştefan Agopian entered this literary scene all the while giving free reign to creative fantasy, with the result that he suddenly  brought into being a consequential and plausible irreality that was not sensible to any realistic determination whatsoever…. It is as if Agopian’s novels appeared, voila! alive:  in full possession of artistic liberty….

            To turn to Manualul întîmplărilor / A Guide to Random Events, each of the six stories in the collection has two protagonists: Ioan Marin, aka Ioan the Geographer, and Zadic the Armenian. Ioan Marin is a former master from the Colţea Tower School in the center of Bucharest. He has big dreams of seeing Albion (he uses the word Englitera ,an older Romanian name for England). Zadic, meanwhile, maintains that he’s roved around the entire world and has practiced countless trades, “dog” not least among them. Ioan and Zadic are a couple of tramps, two filthy drunks who schlep through a dirty existence in filthy surroundings—talking like books the whole time, with learned references all over the place. And this includes “upon arising” from a drunk in a ditch. Should we mention, they’re covered with scabby frogs?

            In scenes in which they are hunted by flies, starving dogs, rats and spies, our heroes chat on … with erudition, no less…Other characters intervene: the dog Magog, who betrays an encyclopedic culture and deals effortlessly with the most high fallutin’ intellectual debates, “Big Bird” Ulysses, avid for movement and struggle, a Cacodemon drawn as if from an 18th Century parody of a medieval bestiary, not to mention an angel whose version of tidying up includes shooing frolicsome ghosts—in the direction  of any night but here. There are other angels, too, some fat as doves, others: angel-dwarfs, and, of course, Malfeior, the snoring angel. The gang includes the stymphalides drawn from the birds of Hercules’ sixth labor, but with cool redesign features that allow these human dragon flies to fit (reluctantly) into a bottle that works as proto-light bulb in a pinch, all very pissy and naggy and perfectly charming. There’s a charming, warlike devil, too, companion of occupying armies, [von] Clausewitzes, and the list goes on. The phantasmagoria carry on quite naturally, with a kind of elegant camaraderie.

            In fact, everything becomes natural in this synthesis-book about “Balcania” at the beginning of the 19th Century in the year of our Lord, and, in consequence nothing can astonish the essential laziness of the heroes. A philosophy of life without illusions and a way of being that presupposes complicity with any form of decomposition melts all differences between right and wrong, dream and wake, present and future, miraculous and real, day and night, major and  minor, truth and falsehood, satanic and domestic, life and death. Absolute squalor makes room for bookish refinement that pops up in unbelievable places: barrels, ditches, lazarettos (i.e. hospices for plague), among frogs, flies, stinking remains of food and filthy rags.

            No one startles at the sudden appearance of demons or angles, no one is frightened by the human speech of dogs, by rats transformed into sustenance, or signs of bubonic plague on the body. The psychology of the heroes is strikingly similar to that of criminals condemned to the salt mines who follow with slight curiosity the joyful (and methodical) assault of lice on their own bodies.

            The power of words imposes a world right away, a universe in which space and time submit to other laws, where opposites coincide, and where “staying, and waiting and talking is all that can [possibly] happen.” This is a world without foolish hopes, incapable of producing anything new and where everything speaks of wanton inutility, with sympathetic and likeable detachment. 

[1] Translator’s note:  Romania was a prosperous nation with a liberal constitution at that time.


About this issue

This July, The Observer Translation Project leaves its usual format to present a special CRISIS ISSUE. Things are tough all over. Hard Times suddenly feels like the book of the moment. The global economic crisis impacts life as we know it, and viewed from Bucharest the effects reverberate in domains that include geo-politics and publishing in Romania and abroad, with the crisis at The Observer Translation Project as an instance of a universal phenomenon. read more...

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