Contemporary Romanian Literature: A Brief Overview

This is a guest post by Meropi Papagheorghe, with only minor editing by yours truly. A Swedish translation of the post can be found here.

For a long time, the image of Romanian literature abroad had only a slight connection to the literary scene in Romania itself, with a string of famous exile writers not writing in Romanian at all. There is a long tradition of Romanian writers from Ionesco, Eliade and Cioran, to Marthe Bibesco, Ilarie Voronca, and Panait Istrati as well as contemporary author Dumitru Tsepeneag who published a great part if not all of their work in French. Similarly, in 2009 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Herta Müller, a Romanian born ethnic German writing about Communist Romania, but only in German, like Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer before her, and, more recently, Aglaja Veteranyi.

In the past decade things have been changing, with Romanian language authors being considered frontrunners for the highest of literary awards. Most prominently among these writers stands Mircea Cărtărescu. Cărtărescu’s masterwork, the Orbitor trilogy, spanning almost 1500 pages, is partly a magical-realist autobiography and partly a nightmarish look at the history of Romania through a metafictional, kaleidoscopic lens. It has been translated already into several European languages and met with staggering acclaim. However, Cărtărescu’s newly found success made him the subject of a ridiculous and slanderous campaign in 2012, led by the former opposition. The scandal had them stubbornly claiming that Cărtarescu’s international recognition was due to his being undeservedly promoted abroad using public funds because he allegedly catered to the former administration’s interests. He is very well known in Romania, but for all the wrong reasons. The book of his that is most famous in Romania is a slight short story collection titled De ce iubim femeile, published in between the middle and final volumes of his trilogy. Along with a few other journalistic publications which make up his post-Orbitor career, the collection speaks very little of his literary skill. The works which won him the reputation of being Nobel-worthy remain largely unread by the disinterested Romanian public, putting the author in vulnerable position as a public figure. It will come as no surprise if the new novel he announced to be working on (the first ‘serious’ literary work since Orbitor) will be met with more of the same toxic mix of hostility and ignorance upon its publication in Romania.

This hostility towards successful Romanian writers in their home country and the insistent politicizing of their work is also in many ways reminiscent of the plight of last century’s generation of exile and dissident writers whose names were diligently written off by the Communist regime. One such obscured writer is Norman Manea, whose clear emergence on the Romanian literary scene came only after the collapse of the regime, despite his success abroad. Aside from Cărtărescu, Manea is the only other author who could be considered a Nobel contender (although one could say that the stylistically similar Imre Kertesz won “his” Nobel prize already). He is the most widely translated Romanian writer to date and much of his work explores the harsh realities of Communist Romania. Older than Cărtărescu, his prose bears the unmistakable mark of writing under a totalitarian regime. Like many other writers of his time, the eyes of the censor are always part of the implicit audience of his books. New readers should probably pick up his best known work, the novelistic memoir Întoarcerea huliganului, which is much lighter in tone than the rest of his essays and fiction. He is a writer animated by his conscience, a political writer who never really wanted to be one. However, he is still not very well known domestically, a position that arguably guards him from attacks.

In spite of this disheartening political climate, contemporary Romanian literature seems to have found a coherent voice and is steadily thriving, with many new exciting names clamoring to be read. Over the past decade significant efforts have been made towards increasing the visibility of contemporary Romanian writers abroad and securing them the kind of recognition denied to them in a country where they are usually not judged by their talent or simply ignored. The year 2004 marked an important moment with the launching of the Ego. Proză and Fiction Ltd. series (the first having been designed exclusively for promoting débutante writers), both hosted by Polirom, one of Romania’s leading publishers. Grouping together a number of little known contemporary authors and offering them a space of their own to grow proved to be a successful move for Polirom. Among them were Filip Florian, Dan Lungu, Florina Ilis and Lucian Dan Teodorovici, all three of whom have in the mean time been translated into other European languages to very positive reviews. Alongside Polirom, Cartea Românească, one of the oldest brand names on the market, devoted to promoting Romanian literature for almost a century now, also helped consolidate the current generation of Romanian authors. The two houses merged in 2005.

While the many writers that rose from the lines Ego.Proză differ greatly, there seems to be a unifying preoccupation with personal memory and the clash between the country’s communist past and its post-communist present. Novels such as Teodorovici’s Matei Brunul and Filip Florian’s debut Degete mici reflect directly on what the former regime created and left behind. The first explores a subdued identity crisis of a former political prisoner plagued by puzzling recollections, while the second follows the uncovering of a communist mass grave and its impact on the local community surrounding the site. On a grander scale, there is also Horia Ursu’s Asediul Vienei which deals with the changes undergone by the much fought over multi-ethnic region of Transylvania in the aftermath of the Second World War. Narrowing down the scope, one of Dan Lungu’s best known novels, Sunt o babă comunistă, offers the perspective of a regime nostalgic whose best years belong to a past she is expected to hate, and T.O. Bobe’s Cum mi-am petrecut vacanța de vară pieces together an account of a post-communist childhood as seen through the eyes of a fourth grader, complete with spelling mistakes and naïve but disarming observations. In a similar vein and channelling to some extent William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Florina Ilis’ novel Cruciada copiilor presents a fresco of contemporary Romanian society following a group of school pupils over the course of an overlong train ride to the sea side. At the same time, the communist childhood is a theme not at all foreign to contemporary Romanian authors, perhaps most famously tackled by Cărtărescu. Following in his footsteps is Simona Popescu’s autobiographical novel Exuvii, which evokes subtle moments of awareness and loosely pieces together a coming of age story in poetic prose. The autobiographical element is also strongly present in Vasile Ernu’s work, a Soviet-born ethnic Romanian whose debut Născut in URSS dwells on the contrast between two communist spaces. Another example is Filip Florian’s Băiuțeii. Written together with his brother Matei Florian, it offers a vivid, nostalgic picture of a working class Bucharest district in the 70’s and 80’s, alternating between the voices of the two authors.

Filip Florian also tackles another direction in Romanian fiction with his 2008 effort Zilele regelui, a historical novel set in the Kingdom of Romania in 1866. There are several other novelists writing in this genre, such as Ștefan Agopian who also approaches the 19th century in his novel Tache de catifea, only from a magic-realist point of view. Most noteworthy however (and not necessarily just for literary reasons) is Varujan Vosganian, who used to be most well known domestically and abroad for his long political career that culminated in his short stint as Secretary of Economy from 2007-2008. In 2009 he published his first (and so far his only) novel, Cartea șoaptelor, which became a surprise success. The book is a significant literary achievement dealing with the Armenian genocide. Unlike Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Vosganian deals with this topic from a more oblique angle by assembling a tapestry of stories illustrating the plight of the Armenian people in the past century. Cartea șoaptelor has recently been translated into various European languages. Another book that needs to be mentioned here is Florina Ilis’s most recent novel Viețile paralele, a biography of Romania’s national poet Mihai Eminescu covering both his life and his legend and spanning over 150 years of Romanian history. It creatively mixes authentic documents with fictional speculation, painting a transcendent portrait of the writer.

Critically acclaimed but overlooked by its target audience, Romanian contemporary fiction has experienced a creative boom in recent years and is counting on international recognition to drag it out of the niche it has been cornered in at home. The styles of the writers range from the gorgeous hallucinatory realism of Cărtărescu to the sparse, careful prose of Teodorovici and Florian and the supple humor of Dan Lungu. This summer marked the translation of numerous Romanian authors into all kinds of European languages and one can only hope it will only pave the ground for more such endeavors. The writers mentioned above are some of the many living and writing in Romania today who deserve having their work widely read and translated.

One thought on “Contemporary Romanian Literature: A Brief Overview

  1. Thanks for this informative, invaluable and timely post. Between the time I read it last week and today, I finished Patrick Leigh Fermor’s final book, The Broken Road, which has me obsessing over all things Romanian. Orbitor is on order in French, since like works I’m hunting down by some of the earlier Romanian authors Leigh Fermor mentions (i.e. Marthe Bibesco), it’s not translated into English – but it’s coming soon, apparently, from Archipelago Books. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this post frequently.

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