Răzvan Petrescu: a Collage Round Table by way of Introduction

Răzvan Petrescu | June 01, 2009


            Someone once told me, the word Romanian speaks less to nationality than it does to career. Job description: on a daily basis the candidate must juggle ridicule and despair, cynicism and familial gallows humor and avidity for life. You can’t live here without hearing countless citizens recite: “Beautiful country. Too bad it’s populated.” The basic question for foreigners is, “what the hell are you doing here?” That’s the existential question, and the sine qua non of successful Romanian-ness involves addressing it to one’s self six times a day. History is the nightmare from which no one can wake, politics yields overwhelming reasons for disgust, there’s a cultural escape valve that issues in the absurd, and on top of that the ambience turns up a daily circus where friendships are warmer than anyplace else—which brings us, naturally, to Razvan Petrescu.
            Doctor turned writer, Petrescu has a bibliography that includes award-winning theater writing, short fiction, and, most recentlyFoxtrot XX, an assemblage that defies classification while it enacts the absurdity of Twentieth Century Romania, which amounts to the absurdity of life, writ large—what else?
            JH: Why Foxtrot?
            RP: After many hours of atrocious thought, I hit on the Foxtrot because it’s danced to a rapid, syncopated beat, on top of which it’s one of those slow-slow-fast-fast dances, which suits the way I write, and also because although the foxtrot came out in 1914, for me it’s a dance that defines almost the entire century, or anyhow its last decade, which I talk about in the text. And I picked it because it’s a couple’s dance. In the book I have a host of dance partners, and I step on their feet.” Razvan PETRESCU in and interview with Bogdan ROMANIUC, June 21-27, 2008, in Suplimentul de cultura.
            JH: Ouch! Sounds funny.
            MC:More than funny. Petrescu is comparable any old time to the Romanian greats—Caragiale, Sadoveanu or Preda—on account of his acute sense of observation. This writer is a stylist whose texts are loaded with personality, and they slide easily into the parodic and absurd.Marius CHIVU, June 11 2008, in Adevarul literar si artistic
            JH: What’s the modus operandi here? How do you create that “dying fall at the end of a phrase?”
            RP: As regards the finale of some of my phrases, they fall into the absurd because everything is absurd. That must be the sense of life. Think how absurd it is that we tie our shoelaces. Or that we unlace them. You have to wonder if things aren’t somehow ridiculous in toto. It’s a matter of ridiculousness with a tragic finish.Razvan PETRESCU in an interview with Marius CHIVU, Septembrie 2008, inDilemateca
            JH: I gather that in spite of the journalistic nuances and the high level of parody, this is writing that issues from a very personal point of view.
            DCM: It’s an ego-fictional centrifuge with an incontinent narrative. The author’s self-irony seems to disguise disappointed narcissism. Dan C. MIHAILESCU, July 1, 2008, in “Omul care aduce cartea,” on PRO TV
            JH: Aren’t we all subject to similar disappointments? Don’t we read to have our secrets expressed for us? But auto-fiction goes beyond that. What kind of writer do we have here, in the end?
            SC: A writer who feels enormously and sees monstrously, “a neuroromantic” by his own definition, disappointed and, at the same time, with a lively interest in an absurd world that makes no sense, but which “attains…every so often…moments of unbearable beauty.” Sanda CORDOS, September 2008, in Dilemateca
            MM: Răzvan Petrescu is from the category of those rare authors for whom writing is joy and deperation in equal measure, who changes, and discovers himself and grows by writing. At the age of 33, in still turbulent times, he decided to give up medicine, a secure profession for which he was extremely well prepared, and to remain a simple builder of castles in the air. Knowing him to be an incorrigible bohemian, I should have reproached him for this desertion. Only, rereading his work, I realize yet again that it wasn’t he who made the choice. He was chosen. [We are talking here about the] fatality of vocation...Mircea MARTIN, introducing Eclipsa / The Eclipse Bucharest: Cartea Românească, 1993
JH: Let’s talk about the short fiction. How would you characterize it?
ES : The stories in The Summer Garden / Grădina de varăI are remarkable for their psychological observation [which shows up as the]… capacity to organize a [particular] confession or to nail down a collective tableaux...The language is...to the point, without wasted words. What’s essential here is the study of human nature in a state of psychic and moral crisis. This acuity brings Razvan Petrescu close to the family of “analysts.” Eugen SIMION, în România literară nr. 23, 1989
TU: …Răzvan Petrescu has a participative attitude. He gets close to his characters, affectionately, a little sadly, with understanding and...compassion, like a doctor faced with the sick people he’s called to treat....the realistic description is cinematic, with faithful renditions of the characters’ gestures, words, thoughts. [In my opinion] Waltz!is the most successful story in the collection—the ... interior monologue of a lonely woman who recalls her existential failure. The writer catches the psychology of lonely people tyrannized by capricious memory, impossible to control.Tudorel URIAN, “Amfiteatru”, nr. 9, 1989
JH: What else can we say about Petrescu’s technique?
MP: Petrescu...is an adept of a more traditional kind of realism in registers that pass from… naturalistic reminiscences to a fiction of manners influenced by Anglo-saxon writing with a certain humor either of the Jerome K. Jerome type or...more concretely by way of Chandler, [including] “objective realism” ...with its preference for sarcastic satire and psychological sketch... Marian PAPAHAGI, “Tribuna,” July, 1989
NM : In Springtime at the Dive / Primăvara la bufet everyone in the joint has something to say. The identities of the voices are secondary. What matters is how a social and moral universe constitutes itself from this verbal material—as happens with Caragiale and Preda, uncontested masters....It’s a matter of permanent stylistic variation, a continuous change of registers, as if this prose has more speeds, ordinarily unknown in realist fiction...The success, the gain out of all this is that in the zone of realist prose the transcription of spoken language...leads to an irresistibly comic vocabulary...Beyond this the parables are also remarkable. Black encephalitis/ Encefalita neagră is Borgesian. Death of a guinea pig / Moartea unui cobai is Swiftean,. The Farse/Farsa is Cain and Abel in modern dress...[All in all] this writing is a jewel. Nicolae MANOLESCU, România literară, nr. 11, 1993
JH: I gather that all this technique is in the service of creating a portrait of Romania as fantastically anxious—both as a communist and then post-communist world.
AB: The majority of Răzvan Petrescu’s heroes live at the limit, on the edge, in a kind of doubtful zone, worn out, tense because they have born or are about to bear [some kind of] transformation—and this in spite of respective social status or profession… [Here] the short story At the Dive /La buffet is exemplary…in that it attains the focus of an entire novel [in ten pages] with maximum intensity [and] economy of means. [I can’t think of another ten pages that] could so convincingly trace a collective portrait of a group that gathers to disband… irradiated by an exterior evil, but by an inner evil as well, so that it plunges finally into the most brutal reality [but also into] the most poetic irreality. The fantastic and the use of imagination are the only paths toward the reanimation of a world in agony, and the best solutions are literary therapy… Adriana BABEŢI “Orizont”, nr. 32, 1989

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