An Invasion of Penguins, a Pied Piper, and Ceausescu’s Daughter
A review in Transitions
10 August 2011
Robert Murray Davis
A collection of East European Contemporary Writing.
New Europe Writers. Editors; Andrew Fincham, John a’Beckett, James G Coon
Previous New Europe Writers anthologies have focused on Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague, and, like Bucharest Tales, each chooses material by writers, native and otherwise, that “captures the vitality and variety of this dynamic place and time.” In this volume, while most of the writers are Romanian, a few are from elsewhere, and 15 are native speakers of English. Of those contributors who give their ages, most are 40 and over. Age is significant in this context because these writers were at or near adulthood when the Ceausescus fell, and one of the obvious questions about an anthology of this type is how heavily memories of the former regime and perceptions of the transition to imperfect democracy (redundant, of course) weigh upon the contents. Answers vary, of course, from what one might expect (mostly in the fiction) to less than one might fear (mostly in the poetry). It seems unreasonable to expect either the experience or the memory of a national trauma to fade in two decades. After all, William Faulkner wrote, and quite well, about the American Civil War more than 60 years after it ended, not to speak of Tolstoy and Napoleon.
Some of the liveliest stories in the collection use fantasy to explore the Romanian condition. In Florin Bican’s “Penguins” a crowd gathers around a huddle of the birds who have unaccountably appeared in the middle of Bucharest and wonders what they mean, who put them there, whether they are good to eat, whether they will overrun the city like “free-rangin’ dogs,” (politically more correct than “stray”), whether the authorities should be informed. In the event, nothing is done, and the story shifts to a future when “Those who can still remember Bucharest before the penguins (and a dwindling tribe they are), talk about a peaceful city with welcoming streets and friendly people. A city where you could go out whenever you pleased and were free to roam to your heart’s content.” Even the once ubiquitous graffiti, “FUCK THE PENGUINS,” has faded. Like good fantasy, this can be interpreted variously.
More pointed is Carmen Firan’s “The Farce,” in which a New Age healer conjures up the image of the long-toppled statue of Stalin in Palace Square, quelling a near-riot between opposing factions and causing general consternation. The illusion or miracle happens in a place in which “Freedom had come at a price as we all tried to imitate the Western World, including its clichés and alienation” and in which the illusionist can thrive because “Everyone was ready to believe anything.” Only the countryside, where inflation and corruption are more immediate problems, is unaffected.
Mike Ormsby’s “Democracy” describes, with only slight exaggeration, the kind of committee meeting that almost everyone has endured – the irrelevancies and digressions, the self-serving motions, the incomprehension about things that have been explained a dozen times, and the dismissal of obscene graffiti with “That’s democracy.”
James G. Coon’s “Cenotaph” is more like a Brothers Grimm tale than a short story. The burghers of the town of Barbu congratulate themselves on the success of their coffin-building industry – too great a success, since not enough people are dying in order to fill them. The solution is to declare every citizen a National Hero entitled to a coffin and a biography, paid for by the word, creating a society in which “every man, woman, and child … has an equal right to claim special privileges and receive Absolutely Nothing at Enormous Expense.” But a Pied Piper-like stranger arrives and nails to the symbolic Coffin his Hobby Horse Manifesto enjoining the populace to be free, enjoy themselves, and make hobby horses instead of coffins, ushering in “a great wave of creativity and optimism” that spreads over the former Warsaw Pact nations. But in a generic shift, the story enters the more or less real world as an editor finishes the manuscript and says that it is too ridiculous to print. The author, unrepentant, insists that “this new generation, marinated in a treacly slurry of processed advertising and homogenized multitasking and cocooned in a half-baked meringue of manufactured outrage, was itself desperately in need of a fresh injection of sheer lunacy.”
In several other stories, lunacy is hard to come by. In Helena Drysdale’s “Ana, Camil, Niculina, and Me” some old friends reunite after the transition. The narrator sees that her friends are far more prosperous and comfortable, but there is a kind of “regret for the closeness and intensity of the old days.” The couple’s daughter, moved to Berlin, is all but lost to them, and that is a common condition. “To be left in Romania was to be left behind.” The father likens their condition to that of a broken rope: “you re-tie it, and there’s always a knot. The rope’s never the same again.”
That kind of break is at the center of Ormsby’s “Mother Tongue,” in which a husband and two children depart for America, leaving the wife behind, less and less able to communicate in Romanian with her children, exiled in the place of her birth. Saviana Stanescu’s “Stolen Taste” works from the opposite direction. A woman, returned to Bucharest with her American husband, has an unsettling encounter with a Gypsy who later steals her husband’s wallet and is locked inside a room in a shiny new bank. She remembers a childhood visit to a palm-reader who warned her “never trap anything or let yourself be trapped.” She releases the thief and realizes that “she’s got to get out too. Before she becomes one with the calm reliable civilized walls of her own perfect American dream trap.” Since Stanescu’s biographical sketch says that she was “ ‘reborn’ in New York,” there seems to be a disconnect somewhere.
Several of the less political pieces are more directly about Bucharest. Simona Popescu’s “Open Sesame” looks at the Lipscani historical quarter from the 1930s until the present, noting what has happened to the architecture and people of the district. In the 1950s, “the city began to be slaughtered”; in the hungry 1980s the area “buzzed with much activity,” though the stalls and goods had deteriorated sadly; in the 1990s, things were even worse. But after the millennium, “The streets had come back to life.” The author concludes that the area will continue to surprise and enchant her in its variety, so much so that she doesn’t care whether it is pretty or ugly. In Mircea Cartarescu’s poem “Where the Lemon Trees Bloom,” the speaker waits for a bus, observing cheerfully the variety of the life flowing around him before despairing of writing anything but “letters, dumb and useless” and then shifting mood again while reading a book about classical art and concluding “Bucharest is and is not.”
In this poem and a number of others, public transport figures not only as a way of getting around the city but of understanding more subtle interconnections, as in Bogdan Suceava’s “Can One Hear the Shape of a Drum?” in which “The whole Bucharest tramway network is like filigree on a huge drum,” resonating with the vibrations of everything and everyone else in the city.
Several stories and poems deal directly with the Communist regime. In “The Seacoasts of Bessarabia” and “Street Sweeper,” Jennifer Robertson presents men who have collaborated with the authorities and, after repenting, are demoted to menial jobs. Another British author, Nick Drake, writes of a disappeared vampire in “Ceausescu’s Daughter’s Bedroom.”
Wider-ranging and more generally cheerful or at least resigned is Suceava’s “A Journey Around the World,” in which Gaffer Gigi, who like many Romanians fought on both sides in World War II, outlasts eight lieutenants in two armies. He weaves his adventures in key battles and his later misfortunes into stories for the villagers, told “with a simplifying certitude and rooted in a life’s experience that would have traumatized any other mortal.” His chief complaint against the socialists was that they forced him to keep too many cows. After all his experience, he concludes that the most important thing he’s discovered is that “Czech women are the most beautiful.” A kind of Everyman, he has survived everything.
Not everyone in other pieces, particularly the poems, takes things this philosophically or for that matter politically. Sorrows, discontents, and personal failures are clearly but not specifically Romanian, a useful reminder that disappointment is part of the human condition. Perhaps this is the most important generalization that can be gleaned from an anthology whose individual pieces are more interesting than any abstractions that can be distilled from them.
Robert Murray Davis is an occasional contributor to Transitions. His most recent book is Born-Again Skeptic & Other Valedictions (Mongrel Empire Press, 2011).
What’s them penguins doin’ here? A little while ago there were no penguins in Bucharest, but now there are many. How they got there isn’t all that important because they are there, and they must be dealt with. A senior citizen offers that the “boffins at the city mall must’ve brought ’em”, which immediately compels the growing crowd to comment critically upon the reckless spending of the Government. First the palm trees, another citizen notes, and now penguins. What won’t they spend their money on!
Florin Bican’s Penguins is a satirical examination of the citizens that make up post-Communist Bucharest. They are presented as archetypal, to the extent where they are named “senior citizen”, “Gypsy”, “worker”, “Grandma”. They are not people but types, they offer not words or statements but commentary based upon their political and economic background. The story itself clusters around the penguins for its entirety; the penguins, on the other hand, do nothing, content to return the increasingly bewildered gaze of the citizens.
Bican’s penguins are an absurd interjection into an ordinary world. They are a destabilising force, their very presence allowing the swelling assembly of men and women to comment openly on the state of their society and economy, both as it stands presently and as it was. The penguins are in effect a stand-in for – whatever the people want. Most importantly, they allow commentary, criticism and the biting honesty of laughter.
Bican’s story reminds in terms of its effects Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Magherita. In that novel, Satan and his lackeys descend upon Moscow to cause havoc and run amok amongst the suffocating bureaucracy of the Soviet state. Bulgakov was able to project his criticism of the State through the obvious absurdity of Satan (and particularly the mischievous and malevolent cat, Behemoth) – essentially hiding in plain sight. Much in the way that nobody notices the magician’s tricks because they are too busy staring at the assistant’s bosom, which has conveniently fallen from the restrictive grasp of her too-tight bodice, Bulgakov was able to distract the censor’s through the use of clever imagery and sharp allegory instead of direct attacks (this brief summary avoids the fact that Bulgakov’s work was, in fact, heavily censored upon publication and was burned by the author himself at least once in fear of discovery and punishment. It also glosses over the important and rather excellent intertwining of mythology with cultural criticism, the technical aspects of the novel, and its startling aesthetic and literary beauty). To return to Bican, the penguins seem similar to Bulgakov’s fantasies because they have allowed him to bypass the necessary constructions required to engage in sophisticated social criticism. Instead, Bican is able to directly and immediately criticise the State, capitalism, communism, the wilfull ignorance of the peasantry and the avarice of the middle-class.
Penguins successfully combines laughter with criticism – the story is very funny. The characters are archetypes taken to their extremes, and they mutter exactly what one would expect, particularly the Gypsy, who defends his theory that they might be good to eat. One particularly memorable phrase has a woman walk off “…through the landscape with her immaculate breastplate of starched boobs.”
The story is narrated from the perspective of an intelligent, clear-eyed but unaffiliated observer, one who seems to sympathise with the intent of each person without succumbing to their cant. There are a few wry asides (mostly concerning crematoriums…), but the narrative as a whole stands on its intent to present the conflicting aspects of Bucharest in their most concentrated form. With the exception of the final two paragraphs, which serve as cutting reminders that change, no matter its form, provides conservatives a time to which they can look fondly back, and progressives with an ideology from which to create their opposition, the story is told entirely in present tense, which further enhances the effect of the closing lines. Penguins is clever and funny, and bold enough to make a story that purports to be about a number of penguins descending upon Bucharest, really about the people contained within and their reactions to unfamiliar circumstances, and the impossibility of pleasing every ideological group, no matter how similar or far apart their platforms.