Norman Manea’s life began where so many others ended. At just five years old he was interned along with his family in a concentration camp in Ukraine; four years later they emerged with their lives intact only to begin anew in different kind of prison: Stalinist Romania. By 1965, when Nicolae Ceaușescu became General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Norman Manea was quickly emerging as one of the occupied country’s most promising young writers: he would publish his first novel, Captives, in 1970. That novel has just been made available to English-language readers for the first time by the venerable folks at New Directions. Called “an enduring work of literature” by the Chicago Tribune, it is a furiously complex novel by a remarkably protean writer. It offers readers an immersive experience in the oppressive universe of Soviet Romania—“in the black corridors of a destiny without Sabbath,” as the narrator has it. It is a universe that abounds in a past it cannot address, in which memories “burst forth from their shroud of ashen fog,” and will not be forgotten. Though Norman Manea worries in the course of this interview that the novel is not really suited for an American audience, the experience of navigating the complex narrative of Captives, seamlessly rendered into English by Jean Harris, is a deeply rewarding one.
Today, though he is a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature and championed by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa and Orhan Pamuk, Norman Manea lives a fairly quiet life writing and teaching at Bard College. I recently visited Mr. Manea in his Upper West Side apartment and spoke to him for a little over an hour about the recent translation of Captives, his complicated relationship to Romania, his ambivalent feelings about America, and, more ominously, the human propensity for violence and destruction. It was a lot to take in before noon, but I found that despite his pessimistic forecast, Norman Manea nevertheless projected warmth, kindness, and a knowing charm.
Morten Høi Jensen You arrived here in the late ’80s on a student visa, is that right?
Norman Manea I came here in ’88 with a Fulbright grant.
MHJ And you were in Berlin before that?
NM I was in Berlin, yes. I had a grant there also. I didn’t know what to do, and I was offered a grant by the Catholic University in Washington. I was there for a year, then we came to New York. My wife found a job at a restoration company, but I didn’t have anything. Then, by chance, Bard College discovered me. That’s the story.
MHJ And you’ve been teaching there every since.
NM Yes, it’s a long time. I’m an old horse.
MHJ I understand that you went to Romania last year—what was it like going back?
NM The first time I went to Romania after ’89 was eleven years after I left. And then eleven years after that the situation there had changed culturally and my own situation improved—I wasn’t attacked so much in the press and so on. After Romania joined the European Union [in 2007] the language in the press became a bit more civilized. So I was offered some honorary degrees and invited to some conferences.
MHJ Saul Bellow once advised you against going back, is that right?
NM Yes. He understood my problems. The first time I went back because my president [of Bard College] Leon Botstein pushed me to accompany him to some concerts he had in Bucharest. I felt a bit more protected being with him. At the time I was quite tense because my name was everywhere—the “traitor,” the “American,” the “CIA agent,” everything was there in the papers. I didn’t feel like going back. So that first return was quite complicated. With the following one—this was in 2008—the press had started to be more moderate. They tried to recuperate me; they even proposed me for the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s a kind of game. But this is how it happens with exiles.
MHJ So you were already in the United States during the revolution in 1989. What was your experience like from afar?
NM I was very emotional. I participated in my own way. I watched the trial of Ceaușescu and was extremely disgusted by it because it was a kind of Stalinist trial against a Stalinist guy. And a lot of things that happened in Romania happened under the table. A lot of manipulation was going on, it’s a Byzantine tradition. I don’t want to insult my homeland but this is the reality. I despised it; I was almost ready to go back. I called some friends who were also in exile in Germany and said, “Look, let’s go back. Ceaușescu is no longer there.” But they were wiser than me, they said, let’s wait, you never know what’s there. And indeed the first years were very chaotic, very dark, very complicated. A discussion of these forty years of a Byzantine type of socialism did not happen. Perhaps that is for a new generation, though I doubt the new generation would be interested in this crazy past. The new generation has it’s own problems. I don’t know what will happen. It depends very much on the environment, on the general international situation. It’s a pity because the country is beautiful. It’s a hedonistic country. There’s a saying there that we don’t have saints, we have poets.
MHJ I interviewed Mircea Cărtărescu a year and a half ago, and he said coming to America for the first time in 1990 was like jumping out of an airplane. It was a massive cultural shock to him.
NM I know Mircea Cărtărescu, he came here to Iowa City with a grant. I proposed his name because he was one of the important and very promising names of the new generation of writers in Romania. They called them the “blue jeans” generation. I was closer to them than to my own generation because I felt a kind of kinship with them. I didn’t feel any different when I came to America. In my case it was even more complicated because I was older. The new generation always felt a kind of attraction to America—it was the spirit of the times, not just blue jeans but rock ’n’ roll and all these kinds of things. It was a bit late for me to get into that. But I liked them. They were very cultivated, all of them, and very talented. But for me to come here it was extremely difficult. I didn’t know any English, I felt like I was from the moon. I didn’t want to come here. I did my best to remain in Paris or even in Germany, which would have been easier from a linguistic point of view. I arrived here a deaf-mute. Now, after so many years, I can say that I was lucky. I’ll never be a real American, but then I don’t know what that is anyway. This is the good side of the country—that you don’t know exactly what being an American means. That’s an important part of this country, its incoherence.
MHJ You once said America was the world’s best hotel?
NM It’s true. You’re not bothered, nobody asks you to become anything else. You are left generally in peace, though it’s best not to be in conflict with the authorities because then it’s a nightmare. The bureaucracy, not just the police, is a nightmare. But otherwise it’s good. I am a foreigner here, I have adjusted to very trivial things: I can go down on the street and buy bread, and I can even teach at Bard College with my gypsy English. But it’s too late for me to change deeply inside. The good thing is that this is a country of exiles—you are from a place, I am from a place, a lot of people on the street are from a lot of places. If you take a walk on the street you see the planet, the entire planet. It is very reassuring to be in a modern, centrifugal place that doesn’t really have a center. In fact, it’s better not to discover that it has a center.
MHJ Let’s talk about Captives, your first novel, which has just been translated and published. What is it like to revisit the book after so many years in such a different environment?
NM It’s probably a very big mistake. Well, maybe not a mistake, but a risk. I was very hesitant to republish it. I’ve had this connection to New Directions for more than twenty years, and they wanted to publish the book, but I said, “It’s not for America. It’s an obscure book, a complicated book, a coded book.” Of course, you could ask whether Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was accessible to all readers; it’s also a very closed-in-itself, we might even say coded, book. But he was an American, and I’m not. My book would have to be translated. So I was very hesitant, but in the end I let them publish it because I probably need to be awakened by a shock and a risk and a failure from time to time. Still, my feeling was that it would be a disaster. Up to this point, it has not been a disaster. I’m still waiting. (laughter)
MHJ Waiting for the disaster to happen?
NM Yeah. Because it’s not the most affordable of books. I mean affordable as a contract between the reader and the page. What I wanted to do at the time was to write something that cannot be recovered by the system. They had a special professionalism in manipulating things in order to repossess something which was perhaps even against them. I wanted to push the reader into this kind of closed universe without describing it from the outside, but pushing him or her into this confusing, bleak obscurity in which everybody is looking for a meaning without understanding exactly where it is. This is the universe of captivity. The name Captiveswas already a very unpleasant name for the censor. This was intentional. Whether I succeeded or not is not really for me to say. The book has its own destiny, and now it even has an American destiny.
MHJ You were fortunate to find a great translator in Jean Harris.
NM We were lucky to find a good translator. I had a big ordeal in my first decade here with translators. There were very few Romanian translators at the time. In the end some of my books were translated from French or from German. Of course, I am not myself the easiest author to translate. This is how I am, this is how my mother made me. My first book at Grove Press had seven or eight translators, and even then it was translated in the end by the editor. She was wonderful, she knew French, she knew Italian, she rewrote almost every sentence. But it’s difficult. The destiny of the writer in translation is another form of exile. It’s not an easy destiny.
MHJ Especially not in America.
NM No, especially not here. As you know quite well there’s a very populist approach here, very mercantile. With a certain sense of pragmatism. Which is all very different from my Central Europe, where complications are very praised—too much I would now say, after living here for a couple of decades.
MHJ You write in your introduction to Captives that it was a miracle the book was even published in Romania in 1970. It’s interesting because, as you said, it is a novel written from the inside, with very few direct references to Stalin or the Holocaust or political realities at the time. It’s very oblique in that sense.
NM It’s very oblique. And it was not possible to make references to Stalin or to whomever in 1970 when I published this book. It would have been even more difficult to put it in a political-historical framework. I felt that it was enough to describe it, to go into it. It’s clear that it’s happening, it’s clear that the characters are living in that reality. To enter into Stalin or Lenin or all this stuff was never the goal. The book eventually lost some eighty pages to the censors, but myself and others were still surprised that it was published. Then again, it was not a book for the masses, I would say. It was its own kind of document of a captivity, of an inner exile, of characters who are not necessarily good people.
MHJ Tony Judt once wrote, “The end of communism has brought with it nearly everywhere a beginning of memory.” It reminded me of one of the lines in Captives: “Forgetfulness will be broken. Our dear wounds will reopen.” It almost sounds like a challenge to the authorities at the time.
NM Yeah, because it was impossible to discuss history openly. There was a mutual complicity between the writer and the reader. It was a way of fooling yourself because you hoped that the reader would guess a lot of things that were not said. It was an entire way of reading information in the press. A sentence in the newspaper describing the meeting of the Romanian president with an official from the Soviet Union would say, in a very coded way, what happened during that meeting. Never openly. If it said it was a cordial meeting, it meant that it was a terrible meeting. If they said it was a warm meeting of total understanding and solidarity, then you understood it had more or less gone well. These were the levels of expression. Coded language. And if you followed the debates after ’89 it was still impossible to discuss certain historical events, like the Holocaust.
MHJ Why is that?
NM Well, there are three main reasons why. First, because they never wanted to accept that this tragedy happened more or less with the complicity of the Romanian people. Many thought this was a German crime and disaster. Romanians were pure; they had no connection to it. After ’89, when certain documents came to light, it was shown that this was not the case. The Romanians greatly contributed to the Holocaust, sometimes even without direct orders from the Nazis. It was the same in many other places. The second reason is that the suffering of the Communists who were imprisoned during the Nazi occupation was deemed more important than the Holocaust. In Kiev, the official Soviet monument of the Babi Yar massacre did not mention the fact that tens of thousands of Jews had been killed by the Nazis in one or two days. They were commemorated as Soviet citizens. Finally, the third reason is that a comparison between the totalitarian Nazi system and the totalitarian Communist system was unavoidable. However, I don’t agree that they were the same. They are similar, yes, and the results of each ideology were terrible in both cases. But they are not the same because—and I’m sorry to say this—the Nazis were much more honest. They said from the very beginning what they wanted to do and more or less did just that. The Communists came with a wonderful humanistic vision and it was a total lie, a total hypocrisy, and a total demagogy. They even killed some of their own very devoted leaders.
MHJ So there were differences but in the end the results were comparable.
NM Yes. And you see something similar now with the Islamist fanaticism. The world cannot sleep! In ’89 there was euphoria. You heard everywhere talk of the end of ideology, the end of history—what end? If people are alive, there is no end. They have ideas, ideals, ideology, and they fight each other. This will come back again and again. Right after ’89 another wonderful vision of religious totalitarianism appeared. It’s horrible. So I am a skeptic and a pessimist. I have arguments with my wife about this. I tell her that I avoid disappointment by being a pessimist. If you are an optimist you’ll have a lot of disappointment. If you are a pessimist, it’s better. What you see now with all the terrorist attacks around the world is terrible. But I think that if things are repeating themselves, in the end, it means they are necessary. I don’t mean that in a good way. But it means people need war, people need this horror. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the writer Borowski?
MHJ Tadeusz Borowski? The guy who wrote This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen?
NM Exactly. He said something extraordinary in his book: “The greatest failure of the Western education is that they didn’t teach us to give up hope.” It’s cynical, it’s whatever you want to call it. But what is happening, again and again and again, in different parts of the world—what does it show? That human beings are not very wonderful. The Holocaust, of course, was a great tragedy, a horrible Jewish tragedy because it was also the result of centuries of persecution, but in my opinion it was not only a Jewish tragedy, it was a German tragedy. How does a country, which was so cultivated and advanced and civilized, become such a monstrosity? How do all those people follow this leader and consider him a God? In 1953, when Stalin died, I was seventeen years old. You cannot imagine what it was like. It was as if God had died. I myself wrote a poem when I was thirteen to Comrade Stalin. I’m ashamed of it, but I was thirteen years old. I was not the age of Louis Aragon or Pablo Neruda or Paul Éluard. This need for idols, this need to devote yourself to a utopia, shows again and again that people cannot be happy with this pragmatic, banal kind of American consumerist type of life. I don’t know why. It’s not a good thing.
MHJ Is literature something that pushes against that? Something that challenges this drive for simplicity and utopia by encouraging complexity and ambiguity?
NM I do think so, yes. Although as you very well know culture is also under great pressure today. The notion of a bestseller—what does this say? I understand when that notion is applied to shoes, but applying it to a book or a work of art that, at its core, has an ambiguity, a fluidity, a mystery—you simply cannot do that. So as to whether books or culture will survive, I’m not childish enough to give an answer to that. I always liked the answer Eugène Ionesco gave when he was asked if he believed in God. He said, I’m not so intelligent, or so stupid, to have an answer to that question. That answer is applicable in this case too, I think. The only thing I do agree with is something that Kafka said, that art takes you out of the ranks of the killers. This is the only way he saw the role of the writer. Because art provides you with a respite, a moment of isolation, of being outside this chaos and this craziness. You are from a generation of these little devices which suddenly offer this extraordinary possibility—I’m speaking now of the good part of it—of being in contact at any second with anybody in the world. Literature gave you a possibility to know places and psychologies and mentalities and characters without buying an airplane ticket. You go and meet Madame Bovary, you go and meet Raskolnikov—all these very interesting cases that tell you something about the outside world but also, unavoidably, about yourself. Now it’s another rhythm, it’s another speed. You are connected all the time to something to which you are not connected. The alienation and impersonality that characterizes this new life will provoke essential changes in the interiority of human beings.
MHJ Do you think it perpetuates a kind of historical amnesia?
NM Absolutely. Even the disasters, the fact that they are repeated over and over again in such horrible ways, might at a certain point make you immune, insensitive. The biggest danger is indifference—an indifference that is, I think, already perceptible in many parts of the world.
Norman Manea is the Francis Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer-in-residence at Bard College. As a child, Manea was deported to Transnistria by the Romanian fascist government, and in 1986 he went into exile from Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Since arriving in the West he has received many important awards and has been the subject of a New Yorker profile, and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages.