Tag Archives: Bucharest

1934 stroll from the Iron Gate to Istanbul

I am not a member of the Sir Patrick Michael Leigh (“Paddy”) Fermor, DSO, OBE (1915-2011) cult, though I readily stipulate that he had pluck and extensive culture. Decades after his stroll from the Netherlands to Istanbul (which like many Greeks he continued to call “Constantinople”) that took from 8 December 1933 to1 January 1935 and mostly without notes or diaries, he published two books about the trip and worked on a third. The third was put together by Colin Tiburon and Artemis Cooper. It has a baroque style, except for the appended diary of his later first trip to Mount Athos.

I suspect that the 18-19-year-old had not been as virulently anti-Ottoman as the author of The Broken Road was. The Greek nationalist fanaticism and unremitting denigration of Turks mars the book.

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It also has other major problems of organization (wildly digressive) and believability. I do not believe he could have remembered so many details 25-75 years earlier, and his disquisitions on history surely owe much to later reading. I don’t doubt he went where he says he went (much lengthening the trip by swinging from Plovdid in central Bulgaria to the Romanian capital of Bucharest). Nor do I doubt that he cadged off scores of Romanians and Bulgarians, including impoverished peasants as well as Romanian (and, earlier, Hungarian) aristocrats. I find his sense of entitlement to being fed and sheltered very off-putting. His outrage that some Bulgarians would not give him a free ride shows particularly clearly his exploitativeness. (He does sometimes mention unease at others paying for all his meals and drinks, though the reader cannot be sure if he felt this is 1934 or decades later looking at the record of his reliance on the kindness of strangers that exceeded that of Blanche DuBois).

Fermor worked on the manuscript into his 90s. I find the portrait of his 19-year-old self suspect. There is hardly anything about the target of the long walk (with at least one train trip, and lots of rides), not even what is Byzantine in Istanbul, let alone its mosques, Topkapi Palace, and the waterways within its boundaries.

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The parts that most interested me were about his visit to Rustchuk (Russe, Bulgaria on the Danube) and his extended stay (sponging in both cities) in Bucharest. He documented the rabid anti-Semitism of the Romanians (pp. 148-52).

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(interior of Kretzulescu Church in Bucharest, showing typical decoraiton of every inch)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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Internalizing hatred for one’s “kind”

Having read parts of the 1935-44 journal of surviging in Belgrade that Mihail Sebastian (né, Iosif Mendel Hechter, 1907-45) makes it even more difficult to regard his 1934 De două mii de ani, just translated by Philip O Ceallaigh as For Two Thousand Years, as a novel. The narrative voice is the same, and the lack of plot or even much narrative continuity makes 2000 feel more like a journal than a novel.

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It’s not that nothing happens, particularly early on, in 1923 when violence against Jewish students is routine at the University of Bucharest and the narrator is under the spell of a young lecturer on economic history (with a penchant for proto-fascist promotion of Romanian “blood” and the dangers of corruption by Jews), Ghiţă Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu who wrote a rabidly anti-Semitic foreword to the first edition of the book. It is this teacher who convinced the narrator to leave the liberal arts program and become an architect. (This is fiction; Sebastian became a lawyer, not an architect.)

The narrator goes on to help build an oil well/refinery and, after two years of study in Paris, returns to build a villa with a terrace above the Danube. Anti-Semitism is back on the rise in Romania. It is surprising that Sebastian survived the holocaust and WWII—only to be run down by a truck on the way to the first class he was going to teach, on Balzac, in 1945. The diary of fascist times was not published until 1996, when it was “greeted” with renewed bursts of anti-Semitism in Romania.

The novel was not published in English until 2016. (The diary was published in the UK in 2001, in the US in 2012.) Its interest is more for documentation of Romanian fascism and of the psychopathology of self-hatred than as a novel, even a novel of consciousness. It was published in association with the US Holocaust Museum.

I think there is too little Bildung for it to be a Bildgunsroman: rather than growth, it documents flight from very pain-giving reality, following attempts by the narrator(/author) to understand the virulent hatred for Jews.

“I was expecting signs in the street—and there was nothing in the street but confusion, the fog of stupidity, intoxication. So I took refuge in intellectual problems, which cast no light, but gave me consolation.” (109)

“It was difficult to follow the progressive hardening of enity from one day to the next. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded on all sides, and have no idea how or when it happened. Scattered minor occurrences, gestures of no great account, the making of casual little threats. An argument in a gram today, a newspaper article tomorrow, a broken window after that. These things seem random, unconnected, frivolous. Then, one finr morning, you feel unable to breathe.” (209)

… And this was published in 1934. Things were going to get far worse, especially during the Iron Guard pogroms! (The reader knows this, though the author back then did not.)

For me, the most interesting character is an itinerant seller of books in Yiddish, Abraham Sulitzer, who has a passionate speech about Yiddish as a living language (nor a corrupt dialect of German, nor the attempted reincarnation of Hebrew outside synagogues):

“real Yiddish is a living, breathing language. Millions of Jews speak it, millions live through it. For these millions are printed the books uou see, for those million Yiddish is written, translations are made into Yiddish, and Jewish theater ir performed. It is a complete world, a complete people with itw own elite…. There are Yiddish novelists, poets, critics and essayists… The edgy, gritty urban realism of the ghetto and the mysticism of the synagogue unite in this folk-culture of the Jewish neighborhood.” (83)

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The narrator is convinced Jews are assimilating into national cultures, including Romanian. He rejects Zionism and Marxism, each having a representative advocate among his agemates (Sami Winkler and S.T. Haim, respectively). Most of the book is very talky. I doubt I would have read even the first part if I had had something else to read with me, though I finished the book later, at home.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Pirandellian black comedy set in 1959 Romania

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015,) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.

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Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air, Goata]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of the conspirators gets any closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches in the Soviet Union.)

An effective soundtrack was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-notch, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray