The Encounter: Synopsis

Gabriela Adameşteanu | February 01, 2009
Critic: Jean Harris

 

Pushed around by unarmed border guards and ticket takers who demand his ticket in several languages, a middle aged man goes through a nightmare of hiding and getting away until he manages to cross a  frontier guarded by soldiers and dogs. He’s made it back to his native village. There he finds his whole family gathered at a huge table, as if for a wedding, a baptism or a wake, but no one recognizes him, not even his mother. The relatives take him for a madman escaped from an asylum or a Securitate informer and send him away. 

            It’s August 1968.  Director of the European Institute for Mediterranean Environmental Research, aged sixty, Traian Manu wakes from his dream of exile in a car driven by his wife, Christa, on the highway between Naples and Rome, their destination. Romanian, Manu will fly to Bucharest next day. He hasn’t set foot in his country for decades on end. Never having lived under a totalitarian regime, he is totally unprepared for the conference he’s scheduled to lead. Overwhelmed by heat that pours through the car window, Manu dozes. Christa wakes him.

            The Italian landscape slips by. Christa urges Manu to give up the trip. It’s too late to pull out now though. Manu considers himself not only bound but also protected, by his international status and a friendship with a former colleague, Alexandru Stan, who has recently visited Italy, expressly to invite him to the Romanian conference.

            Stan is a Securitate agent, in point of fact, and as Manu travels toward Rome, Stan presents a Securitate Colonel with informative notes on his own recent machinations in Italy, and thereby hangs a tale. The Romanians have designs on Manu, both for the sake of his scientific prestige and because they see him as a possible aid in infiltrating émigré circles abroad.

            Meanwhile, back in the car, Christa assails her husband with sad, cautionary memories of her youth in Nazi Germany. Still, she understands the nostalgia that drives Manu’s will to return, even though his closest relatives are dead. “What you’re looking for,” she maintains “now exists only in your mind.” For herself, Christa has no intention of ever setting foot again in a totalitarian state. Only, Manu is remembering his love for a young pianist in Romania long ago. He would have liked to teach classics at the University back then. Even now, passages from the Odyssey come and go through his mind.

            That was long ago. Friends, relatives and Securitate agents wait at the Bucharest airport. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell them apart. Manu’s chief warders are his old friend, Stan, and who else? his cousin Victor. Having lived in the West, Manu doesn’t catch on. Latching onto Victor, he doesn’t distinguish among a crowd of distant relatives possessed of the fixed, erroneous idea that Manu should repay ­them  (the unknown descendants of relatives he once knew) for the help the family gave him in his youth. Sadly, he never connects with Daniel, the “Telemachus” of the story.

            Adventures or misadventures later, Manu lands in Italy worn out and ill at ease. He will never know about Securitate’s designs on himself, on his nephew Daniel, or those former colleagues who have attempted to contact him in sincere and needy ways. While the officers of the secret service gloat, Manu retraces his journey with Christa by car. Exhausted by the tiring period abroad, by unwonted volumes of prohibited food and drink, by contradictory emotions, annoyed by the continuous requests of those back in Romania and worn down his inability to help them, Manu suffers the dissolution of his memory, the loss of faces he’s born in mind for fifty years. He seems to doze. His long-dead mother appears, and remorse dogs his sleep. Christa calls her husband from the driver’s seat. There’s a gas station. They can stop a while, drink a tea. Christa calls Manu again, but with his head against the window, Manu makes a rattling noise. He won’t wake again. The failed encounter will not be repeated or repaired.

 

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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