The Encounter: Pathological Memory and the Nostalgia of the Return

Gabriela Adameşteanu | February 01, 2009
Critic: Carmen Muşat
Translated by: Jean Harris


“In those twenty years while Odysseus was away, the people of Ithaca maintained memories enough of him, but they didn’t cause them any longing. When Odysseus suffered longing, however, he remembered almost nothing.”[1]



                        We are in a novel by Gabriela Adameşteanu. We are in the Ceausescu years. We are in the West where a celebrated Romanian scientist who has built a prestigious academic carrier is on the point of returning home after twenty years of wandering—exile. After so much time, Traian Manu is surprised to hear his German-born wife, Christa, say: “No matter how long you live here, your country will always be the one you left. It’s your country, even if you never see it again.” The remarks Christa makes on the road to the airport unleash a process of identity struggle in Manu that causes him to ask, in this passage where the narrator’s voice is closely allied to Manu’s own, “what good are the honors he receives here, the respect of colleagues, recognition by officials, the affection of collaborators and students if in just two words—your country—Christa sends him back, exiles him to that wild and overgrown domain?” Emptying themselves of content, notions like “being at home” and “your country” grow relative and become suddenly problematic. The affliction of uncertain identity that Manu suffers deepens as soon as he begins to consider the problem of return. Misgivings appear and question marks pop up in connection with his own sense of existence. He feels a need to answer questions unuttered for years on end. Having lived far from his birthplace for so long, this exile (who may stand for all others) constructs his unstable equilibrium in a space that he more-or-less conventionally calls “home” –in such a way that the return to his native land is suddenly experienced as a new exile, a new wandering over a difficult territory, a psychologically hard terrain almost impossible to recognize.

                        In this way, The Encounter  does a (contemporary) take on the story of Odysseus’ return, “the founding epic of nostalgia,”  to use Milan Kundera’s phrase. And indeed, it will be well to point to similarities but also the great differences between the approaches of the Czech emigrant author—exiled  in France during the communist years—and the Romanian Adameşteanu, who lived through the communist period here, on the spot. At the level of plot, the narratives have points in common. The differences show up at the conceptual level.

                        Kundera uses  his novel, Ignorance,  to explore a pair of questions. To what extent is an Odyssey possible today, and what relevance might the tale of a return home have in a post-totalitarian world? Adameşteanu, by contrast, takes aim at issues of memory and time. The difference between these approaches to significance makes itself felt on the stylistic plane. While Kundera’s epic is essentially a pretext for an essayistic approach to the themes of exile, memory and identity,  Adameşteanu’s novel constructs fully contoured characeters whose stories weave themselves into fluent narration while avoiding Kundera’s thesisism, to coin a word.

                        Operating through different narrative principles, the Romanian novel endows the “slips” from Manu’s Securitate file with central importance. The file is a character in this novel, and the file of the so-called “fugitive “transforms the Securitate agents into highly individualized characters. If in Kundera’s novel we have to do with a double masculine/feminine perspective on the experience of return from prolonged exile, in The Encounter, Traian Manu returns alone to his place of origin. Single in perspective, the prestigious old professor’s journey is nevertheless ambivalent. In his attempt to recapture the past, moreover, Traian Manu slides inevitably toward his own death.                         Although the encounters with “home folks” are failures in both novels, neither of Kundera’s protagonists—Josef nor Irena—pays with his or her life for having been so bold (or imprudent) as to have even partially attempted to recapture their former states of identity.  In The Encounter, the impossibility of creating an accord between the present and the past is so much the more dramatic given that memory functions differently in the case of the exiled one than it does in the case of those who have stayed at home. There is, therefore, only a pseudo-dialog between the protagonist’s memory and the memories of the group that accompanies him from the moment of his arrival in Romania to the moment of his departure. So long as Manu’s personal memory finds no point of support in the memories of the others, so long must Manu’s memory turn in a void, and it is in this way that Manu’s encounter with his own past fails.    

                        The characeters in Gabriela Adameşteanu’s novels are marked, as a matter of fact, by highly diversified  memory pathologies. The characters extremely tense relation to the present is due, in the main, either to a deficit of memory or, to the contrary, to hypertrophy in that domain. To turn to Wasted Morning for a moment, Professor Mironescu and Ivona are both, in their own ways incapable of adapting themselves to a time that has come unhinged, so that they live with their faces turned permanently toward the past. Unable to live, they can only relive their former lives through the agency of nostalgia. Vica Delcă, by contrast, a character of prodigious memory, is the only true survivor of Wasted Morning, precisely because her attitude toward the past is not nostalgic but archival. In The Encounter, however, unlike any of the characters in the former novel, Trian Manu suffers a memory deficit of a peculiar kind. His memories of his own past in his native country fail in proportion to the growth in the number of his kin.

                        In The Encounter, therefore, the sheets of paper from “the Savant’s” Securitate file and the conversations among  Securitate operatives turn out to “clarify” the roles of the so-called riends and relatives around Manu. Securitate, the terrible institution of communist repression, figures as a form of memory of last resort, for the reader, at least—for  Securitate is all too happy to archive the tiniest details that make up the life of a human being, even though it arrogates to itself the right to manipulate history and recast it. Reading this novel, the reader is left to ask, to what is it possible to return? The answer resides, so it seems, in the acuity of the one travels back.

[1] Translator’s note: For the sake of fidelity to the article under translation, this epigraph relies on the Romanian version which opens the text: Milan Kundera, Ignoranţa, trad. Emanoil Marcu, Editura Humanitas, 2006



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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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