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from the January 2015 issue

Grin and Bear It: Transformative New Romanian Fiction

Haz de necaz is Romanian for “grin and bear it”—more or less. Literally translated, the words mean making fun of trouble. But what does making fun of trouble mean—mocking affliction or transforming it into something lighter? A bit of both, though the expression mainly speaks to an ability to encourage oneself or others through a display of good cheer, playfulness or jokes, all directed toward a lightening of spirit. In practice, the very Romanian expression—“Come on, let’s make fun of trouble”—boils down to “Hey, let’s make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” not by denying predicaments but by finding the fun in them. To make haz de necaz is to transform tribulation (or one’s stance toward it) through the play of wit. Or, to risk an Elizabethan word, haz de necaz amounts to making sport of trouble. The texts in this mini-feature sport persistently with woe.

Tatiana Niculescu Bran is best known to English-language audiences as the author on whose nonfiction novel Cristian Mungiu based his award-winning film Beyond the Hills. (A translation from the novel may be read here in a past issue of WWB.) This month she contributes “The Agent,” a tale of real estate and magic in which Marina, the out-of-work estate agent of the title, makes up her mind to turn “ruin into a passing dilemma” by playing with the first client to come along. Since the client seems “old-timey,” Marina decides to conduct their opening discussion in an old-fashioned teashop. She immediately decides to use “Western marketing tricks” to lure Mr. Hagiu into a sale. The customer wants a residence that will evoke the long-vanished ethos of a provincial, pre-war county seat. Marina doesn’t know where to find an old, evocative house or apartment in the capital that’s in good shape, in the area of the client’s choice and ready for sale in jig time, so she makes up her mind to create an evocative space in a perfectly ordinary flat—a little sleight of hand involving, inter alia, the scent of cozonac (think of it as a Romanian babka). Marina can’t afford a cleaner, so she makes further haz de necaz by scrubbing the apartment herself. All this display of imagination in an effort to make sport of trouble on her own behalf culminates in an unexpected spiritual lightening that accompanies the apartment purge. Not only that: the client plays back, and miraculously. It won’t hurt to mention that his name, Ilie Hagiu, means Elijah the Pilgrim, and that when Marina plays her most daring marketing trick Mr. Hagiu draws a miraculous pilgrimage out of thin air that makes light of all problems, to say the least.

Perhaps less spiritual but equally magical, Mircea Horia Simionescu (b.1928) is a novelist, journalist, and essayist now understood as a precursor of Romanian postmodernism. He became an editor at the Communist Party’s daily newspaper, Scântea (the Spark) in 1950, worked for the Central Committee of the Communist Party and in the Council for Culture and Socialist Education from 1969 through 1971 before becoming the director of the Romanian Opera (1971–1973)—none of which was likely to inspire the coded literary protests that characterize much of the now undecipherable writing of the period. Instead, as critic and novelist Dumitru Radu Popa has written, Simionescu created and creates "dense writing that purely and simply manifests freedom of spirit that defies all those 'isms' that embellish themselves with the enunciation of a cause greater than the poor needs natural to human beings. “Wise guy writer” and “nimble spirit” as Nicolae Oprea describes him in the Dictionary of Romanian Writers, Simionescu sported with the climate of literary censorship under which he wrote for twenty-three years by charming readers with his own brand of spiritual lightness of being. 

Introducing the current selection, Simionescu's very able translator, Sean Cotter, writes: 

A hidden gem of Romanian literature, unknown abroad . . . Mircea Horia Simionescu’s Onomasticon offers English-language readers a festival of delight. An invented dictionary of first names, its entries vacillate between brief descriptions (a gnomic utterance, an image, or sometimes only a street address) and long, more-or-less realistic narratives inspired (however distantly) by the name.

The political/social context in which this writing was born matters in its way, but people who love Simionescu are fans of it’s inexplicable ability to lift the reader into another state in the compass of a single sentence. Somewhere in Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar describes a (felt) inability to produce writing worth a damn in the absence of a certain “swing,” a rhythm established somewhere in mind and brain.  Writers will recognize that “swing” as another name for inspiration Simionescu’s texts get to this crux non-stop, and that’s the marvel in them.

Playing on the graveyard scene from Hamlet, Razvan Petrescu’s “The Ditch” takes another tack. Shakespeare’s gravedigger-clowns—those bumpkins from Hamlet—make sport of universal misfortune by mocking death. Petrescu’s ditch diggers are both contemporary people and classic bumpkins and they could be the gravediggers’ Romanian brothers.  So it’s normal (in the absurd world of Petrescu’s fiction) that they should find a skull buried in a ditch and that one of them should declaim from Hamlet in English: “Alas, poor Yorick!” Here, though, the parallel between Shakespeare and Petrescu ends. Having mocked the vanity of life with the melancholy prince, the Romanian characters experience a curious spiritual lightening—the true end of making haz de necaz, and a result consistent with Petrescu’s writerly stance.

Petrescu (b. 1956), who studied medicine and gave up his profession to write fiction is, as Sandra Cordos writes, “a writer who feels enormously and sees monstrously, “a neuroromantic” by his own definition, disappointed and, at the same time, with a lively interest in an absurd world that makes no sense, but which attains . . . every so often . . . moments of unbearable beauty.” For him, life is black comedy saved by wit.

It should be clear by now that though all people make light of misfortune, making haz de necaz is a characteristically Romanian preoccupation. It has been said that Romania’s history of invasion and its geographic location has taught people to ease desperate predicaments with humor. And it is certainly historically true that Romanians used to live at the intersection of three mutually hostile empires (the Russian, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian) and that today they live at the edge of Europe and worry about vulnerability to Russia. Historically, Romanians have survived Roman conquest and abandonment by Rome, countless wars, division into provinces dominated by separate foreign powers, Communist terror in a profiteer state where spies were kings, as well as the savaged economy of the post-Communist years, and they are still ticking. All this has produced a culture marked by reliance on tightly bonded families and extended family groups together with close circles of friends whose main function is to make haz de necaz. On the social plane this can amount to tricking and “playing” the group’s way into survival in a pattern of deadly serious games. Inside the group, making haz de necaz runs the gamut from cheering up to wild hilarity. Joking is endemic and marked by fantasy and black humor. In a country where it seems that anything can happen, magic realism thrives, and wordplay and joking are always at the service of lightening the mood. It seems important to note in closing,  then, that the magical (call them surreal)  transformations that belong to making sport of  trouble have a root in  common with one of art’s basic functions, which is to limit and control the unbearable by (re)ordering and giving form, in this case in the direction of humor. 

© 2014 Jean Harris. All rights reserved. 

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