Centre for Romanian Studies

Centre for Romanian Studies header image 1

Voices and Shadows of the Carpathians

April 7th, 2005 · No Comments · Books, Diaspora, PEOPLE, quotations, Reviews, Translations

Site Index

Table of Contents.

A Conspiracy of Silence.

“Voices & Shadows of the Carpathians”
An Anthology of Romanian Thought –
selected and introduced by Constantin Roman

Postface: A Conspiracy of Silence.

Paul Celan, born in Bucovina, died in Paris - allegedly the greatest 20th century German-speaking Poet

Paul Celan, born in Bucovina, died in Paris -"the best German poet since Rilke"

“Now, I am a person who likes simple words. It is true, I had realised before this journey that there was much evil and injustice in the world that I had now left, but I had believed I could shake the foundations if I called things by their proper name. I knew such an enterprise meant returning to absolute naiveté. This naiveté I considered as a primal vision purified of the slag of centuries of hoary lies about the world.”

Paul Celan (1920-1970)
( “Edgard Jene and The Dream About The Dream”)
(“Collected Prose”, Carcanet, 1986)

One day, during a regular trip to that learned Institution off London’s King’s Road, which remains “John Sandoe’s Book shop” I was asked by one of its luminaries a simple, if justifiable question:

Gregor von Rezzori, Romanian novelist of German expression, born in Bucovina

Gregor von Rezzori, Romanian novelist of German expression, born in Bucovina

“Is Gregor von Rezzori Romanian?”

I knew that “Grisha” was born in Bucovina, sometime before the Great War, when that Romanian province belonged, for over a century, to the now defunct Habsburg Empire. The answer was not simple because the author wrote in German and now, I thought he lived as an exile in Germany, where I knew he was deemed to be one of the greatest contemporary German writers. However, such detail needed not become a signal factor in assigning the author’s appurtenance, as scores of Romanian writers, like Cioran and Ionesco, lived as exiles in France and wrote in French. I knew the problem to be more complicated as the vexed matter of change in frontiers of an author’s place of birth, especially in the troubled lands of Eastern Europe, would not satisfy an intelligent inquirer, even less so in “Sandoe’s Bookshop”. Moreover in provinces such as Bucovina, which lay at the frontiers of the Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Turkish Empires, there was, inevitably, a mosaic of ethnic groups – Romanians, Austrians, Ruthenians, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians all with their individuality, but also with their intercourse, which blurred, to a degree, the distinctions: I knew von Rezzori to speak all these languages, which destined him to become a citizen of the world, an “international”, like those prized sportsmen who today played rugger for the teams of other countries. I hesitated for a while and to gain time I ventured to make what I thought to be a safe statement:

“He lives in Germany!?”

“No, he died in Tuscany, two years ago. His Italian widow came here to see us, recently.”

This was not a game of one-upmanship – just a friendly “away from home” rehearsal of a kind that one often heard in the ethereal but homely surroundings of this learned shop, where the owners were blessed with an abstruse yet stimulating knowledge. I was not surprised that my friend knew more than I did about the subject, but I was still taken aback – this was not a confrontation, for I was a regular of his shop and it was not the style of this charming place. I pondered for a while longer whilst trawling from the recesses of my mind for any evidence that might emerge from the “Snows of Yesteryears”, some detail that I might cling to for an answer. Then I said, perhaps a little mischievously:

“Ah, you see? He may have written in German, but he must be Romanian, as his wet nurse was a Romanian peasant.”

By that I meant, inter allia, that Rezzori was nurtured, in his formative years, by the Romanian psyche, so to my mind we had a good claim to the idea of the writer’s Romanianness. Besides, such affinities were apparent from the author’s admissions in his autobiographies and novels.

It was a quiet afternoon, with one of those rare moments when there was no other client in the shop, as we were engaged in this thought-provoking repartee, so out came the next salvo:

“But, is Paul Celan Romanian?”

My general attitude is never one to hide my ignorance if I were not to know the answer, perhaps because, and rather immodestly, I dare say, I am rather proud of what I do know. This is true especially on a Culture such as that of Eastern Europe, which suffered so much confusion and misunderstandings and is unjustly so sketchily known in England. But you see? This was not true in John Sandoe’s! Here the situation was different and the balance of erudition fell in their favour, in a nice way. So I said demurely:

“No, never heard of Paul Celan – who is he?”

“He is a poet and he comes from Czernowitz’ , like von Rezzori,” I was informed without a blink.

“I must read him! You see, he must be one of those exiled poets. If I had not heard of him this is because, in Romania, we were never taught at school about any of our fellow countrymen, from the Diaspora, who made their name abroad. The Communist censorship controlled all information: it always made sure that such books, written by Romanians living in the West, not only could not be found in bookshops or in the school curricula, but not even their name could be mentioned in bibliographies. It was a complete embargo of ideas. It was death by silence, it was a conspiracy of silence.”

Gradually I warmed to the subject and poured:

Emil Cioran, French Philosopher, born in Transylvania: he helped fellow-exile Celan to find an academic post in Paris. The Communist conspiracy of silence made it a punishable offence to mention any of the Romanian exiles living in the West: Celan like von Rezzori, Ionesco, Cioran, or Eliade were hardly known in their own country- Romania!

Emil Cioran, French Philosopher, born in Transylvania: he helped fellow-exile Celan to find an academic post in Paris. The Communist conspiracy of silence made it a punishable offence to mention any of the Romanian exiles living in the West: Celan like von Rezzori, Ionesco, Cioran, or Eliade were hardly known in their own country- Romania!

“This ideological censorship perpetrated by the Communists would have put to shame even the Catholic Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Names such as those of Mircea Eliade, or Emil Cioran were whispered in a hushed voice, lest one would be overheard and thrown in prison for “seditious propaganda”. Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” was staged in Poland, but not in Romania. Even the works of those Romanian scientists who chose freedom were banned from public libraries. Literature of any kind, even scientific literature, was regarded as belonging to an “ideological domain” It remained the preserve of the Communist Party, of the one-party system, which dictated what staple diet was good for internal consumption.

You see, I have been over here for many years and I still have a lot to catch up with – the “ABC” rudiments of my culture and I had not yet reached the letter “c” for Celan.”

I was neither defensive nor ashamed of myself: I was just angry at the injustice of that cultural genocide practised during forty years of Marxist régime in Romania. Curiously this practice had not completely disappeared since the so-called “Revolution”, which was the coup de palais of December 1989, which put down the tyrant and his wife!

Suddenly I remembered that innocuous event, which took place in Eastbourne, several years ago, when the local branch of the “English-speaking Union” had invited the Cultural Attaché of the Romanian Embassy in London to address an audience of retired Civil servants and decent country squires. His disquisition on “Romanian Culture” was supposed to be informative. After his uninspired, uninspiring rambles, redolent of the style of the defunct Communist Party rallies, the Attaché took questions from the floor:

Caragiale, a 19th c  playwright, one of the handful of pre WWII writers approved by the Communist regime in Romania

Caragiale, a 19th c playwright, one of the handful of pre WWII writers approved by the Communist regime in Romania

“Would he care to name” – he was asked- “a Romanian author of international repute, that could be read in English?”

Quite a legitimate question, I would have thought.

“Well, you see? There is one,” he answered, after much thought –

“He is a 19th century playwright by the name of Ion Luca Caragiale. The
problem is that he is too subtle to do him justice in translation: he is, in
fact, untranslatable and it is a pity!”


I was as startled as the rest of the audience was at this odd response. I knew of Caragiale since my school days in Bucharest, at the time of Stalin’s purges and of the national-communism of Gheorghiu-Dej. Caragiale was the darling of the régime because he lampooned the “decadence” of the Romanian upper and middle classes of modern Romania, at the end of the 19th century, when the country was a young kingdom. Caragiale was in prose for the Romanians what Gilbert and Sullivan was in rime and song for the British. He was one of the few classics of Romanian literature who could be “adopted” and “used” in his entirety by a Marxist régime, for its propaganda purposes. All other of Caragiale’s contemporaries were either conveniently forgotten, or selectively censored to be repackaged as “progressive writers”:

“True they were capitalists, but they were progressive for their time”, this would be the excuse. We knew there were, of course other “progressive writers” who professed a more balanced view of society. But because their style was more nuanced, not sufficiently critical of the former pre-Communist régime, they did not mesh with the Communist Government propaganda and they did not make it to the book stores and schools. Such books were under lock and key in the dungeons of public libraries, under the label of “fondul special” (the “special fund”), which was open only under the strictest criteria to a handful of approved “researchers” , regarded by the régime as “reliable” enough to sing the praise of the one-party system. 19th century playwright by the name of Ion Luca Caragiale. The problem is that he is too subtle to do him justice in translation: he is, in fact, untranslatable and it is a pity!”

Great as he may have been, as a teenager, I soon got sick of this staple diet of Caragiale, marketed as the “unique genius” that Romania had ever produced! I wanted to find out more about the “other” Romanian writers like Ionesco, and Eliade who were published abroad and smuggled into the country at great risk. Now, some 30 years on, I was jerked into reality, as the name Caragiale popped up again in the words of this comrade from the Embassy. Thank God that this happened only in the back water of Eastbourne and that the audience was insignificant, otherwise the word might have spread like a foot and mouth virus to cause irreversible damage.

As it happened, it only reinforced the prejudice, albeit within a small group of English people, that Romania’s contribution, beyond Dracula and the orphanages was indeed insignificant. Witnessing this performance it was no longer surprising to come across such ill-conceived prejudices as that of Julian Barnes’s (“One of a Kind”) suggestion that all that Romania could produce was a single genius in any one field – Brancusi in Sculpture, Ionesco in Drama, Nastase in Tennis, Hadji in Football, Ceausescu in dictators… Quite a neat seditious little theory, enough to make the blood of any Romanian curdle! And yet, we Romanians we were our own worst enemies, at least if one were to judge our record by the performance of this official emissary.

For me what I heard from the lips of this “nouveau communist” was untrue and outright farcical. I wanted to shout to the audience the long array of Romanian poets and novelists who lived in the West and did write in other languages or were translated in German, English, Spanish or French. There were scores of them, some being lionised in Paris, given literary accolades and much coveted Literary Prizes, others compared to the great and the good of International Pantheon of literature:

“the Gorky of the Balkans” ,

“the best German poet since Rilke” ,

” the most elegant 20th Century French writer in the tradition of Baudelaire and Valéry”…

Since I chose Britain as my adoptive country, especially in my innocent days of scholarship at Newcastle and later on at Cambridge I was brutally aware of the ignorance of Romanian values in the West. After all why should it matter? We were only a small country on the map of world culture and for that reason we experienced the same complex as the other small European nations – Portugal, Belgium or Finland.
In my early years of exile, fired by a youthful naiveté, steeled by an tinge of arrogance, I was convinced that I could repair such injustice, that I could change the world and become an unofficial “Open University” of Romania – I felt I had a “Messianic” message to impart to the rest of the world and set up urgently to the task of writing articles, translating Romanian poetry in English, even organising exhibitions and festivals, to put the record straight. My research at Cambridge focused on the Carpathian earthquakes and made the subject of an article in ‘Nature’ or the “Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society”. I was busy publishing Romanian poems in “Encounter”. In the “Cambridge Review” I debated the “Romanian myth in the sculpture of Brancusi”. I cajoled George Steiner in chairing an evening of Romanian poetry at Churchill College. I played panpipe music, the Romanian shepherd’s lament, in the Chapel of Peterhouse. I trotted about the country addressing the WI in obscure provincial towns.
Other Romanian writers were pioneers of a new style: the Dada, the Lettrism, the Theatre of the Absurd… These exiles were part of the literary aristocracy of Paris, whose salons were frequented by Proust, Valéry, Apolinaire or Colette– all those enchantresses, who delighted, for decades, the refined Parisian society, the conductrix of good taste – Countess Anna de Noailles, née Princess Brancovan, Princess Marthe Bibesco, Hélène Vacaresco. All these were aristocrats by vocation and by blood – This is what our Romanian aparatchik did not want to spell out and was trying instead to cover up. Besides, for the Communists, these writers who chose Western Europe as their haven –still represented the embarrassment of a deep chasm between “them and us” – The “errand children” of Romania were not yet ready to be accepted to the bosom of their country of origin, even after Ceausescu was put down. The Romanian Diaspora was still on trial. We still had a long tortuous road ahead of us, for our minds to meet. It was not going to be easy bridging this spiritual gulf between the uprooted and the deep rooted, between the dispossessed and the repossessed, or, shall I say, the possessed of insidious propaganda – the brainwashed, the complacent and the political opportunists.

I never got tired of my “missionary” initiative, but I soon realised that the echoes were meagre compared to the effort that I put in this pathos. Soon after, like every other graduate, I was absorbed in my profession, in the less glamorous field of geophysics, or as the French had it encapsulated so well, I had to “waste my life by earning it”. Still, my initiation in the contribution which the exiled Romanians had made, grew ever more with every book or work of art I had acquired during this trail of exploration.

So, many years later, when listening to that Romanian Cultural Attaché addressing his unsuspecting audience in Eastbourne, I was shocked by the malevolent manner in which he dispatched his subject. In spite of this reaction I decided giving up my vocation of a “good soldier Schweick” and say nothing, not to muddy the waters of an otherwise sunny afternoon of the English Riviera. I was content to label this sorry diplomat a “rhinoceros”, a “relic” of our troubled past. Still I was surprised to hear , later on, that he was promoted to become an Ambassador in a Western democracy:

“Good work Comrade! Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!” whispered in my ear my cynical “other self”.

I thought:

“His dutiful, zealous iconoclasm, his personal cultural revolution, his damage to Romania’s cultural heritage were all adequately recompensed by his masters, both overt and covert: Ceausescu’s shadow was cast large, well after his demise, it was functioning very well, according to the same tenets of “cultural demonology.”

The age of wisdom, but perhaps not the wisdom of the age, made me, at long last, discover the bliss of being reconciled with inequities that one cannot change. But was I?

Many more years after the Eastbourne episode, as I returned from John Sandoe’s bookshop in Chelsea, I was in reflective mood:

“How come that I did not know about Paul Celan, after all these years? It was no longer the Communists fault, it was MY fault.”

I trawled the internet, I scurried the bookshops. Even Waterstones had two books by Celan: I was surprised by my find.

Still, John Sandoe had quite a different dimension:

“I must put the record straight!”

I fell again in the same old trap in which I fell before so often, a trap which I promised to avoid: that is the hole in which all Romanians find themselves when they live in the West, a hole from the depths of which they cry:

“Look at us, we are famous, but nobody really knows about it! If they do they think that we are foreign!”

As they do go about explaining their seminal contribution, their splendid but ignored contribution, Romanians are experiencing that schizophrenic sentiment –an inferiority complex overprinted by an indelible conviction of belonging to an illusory important nation.

By assembling this compilation of thoughts and shadows from the Carpathian space, I hope that I could make peace, at least to a modest degree, with this dichotomy which confronts the Diaspora.


For more information on:

“Voices and Shadows of the Carpathians” see –


Tags: ····

No Comments so far ↓

Like gas stations in rural Texas after 10 pm, comments are closed.