If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Bucharest as you feel/see it?
Bucharest, perhaps more than any other city in the former Eastern Bloc, became the playground of a megalomaniac with limited imagination and a passion for functionality and hyperbole. The Ceauşescu regime sought to literally erase everything that belonged to the past to make way for the glorious socialist vision in which we would work and work happily ever after. As a result of those decades of reconstruction, little of the exquisite medieval city is now left in place. Some of the later nineteenth-century residential quarters have survived, many having been dutifully occupied by high-ranking party members in the seventies and eighties who didn’t even contemplate mingling with the lumpen proletariat housed in matchbox flats. Such buildings had previously belonged to old families who were deemed enemies of the state and unceremoniously evicted. I did a lot of growing up in Bucharest during my student years, living first in a run-down university home in the center (I found out later it had been a brothel between the two world wars), then in a shared room in a high-rise in the eastern part of the city, then in a rented studio back in the center, with a large red dot above the entrance. All buildings in Bucharest marked this way were (and are) sure to become a pile of rubble in the eventuality of an earthquake above 5.5 on the Richter scale.
So Bucharest is a floating metropolis for me, a wreckage from the turbulent history of a part of the world that refused to go down for good, instead reinventing itself time after time, chaotically panicking, haplessly surrendering to Communist planning or— nowadays, after the revolution in ’89 —to the rampant capitalist architecture that, truth be told, proves to be in keeping with the megalomaniacal vision of our ex-dictator.
I feel a combination of nostalgia and nausea every time I visit Bucharest. I love this city against my own better judgement somehow, and I always wonder what it did to me—living there for as long as I did.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
The most heartbreaking memory of Bucharest I have is not actually my own. My father once described to me witnessing an old church, hoisted up in its entirety onto a platform, being wheeled along one of the main arteries to some more convenient location out of sight. Many churches were simply pulled down to make space for the Communist architecture, but a few survived by relocation. Can you imagine? What did we do, as a nation, with the inconvenient past? Wheel it out of sight, literally. Then it becomes that much easier to rewrite history.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The House of the People, built in neoclassical totalitarian style by the Ceauşescu regime, is, apart from the most expensive public building ever to have been built, the heaviest building in the world. It was meant to be bigger than the Pentagon, or that was the initial aspiration of its architects. They would have fulfilled it, too, had the fall of the Berlin Wall not happened when it did. The irony of it is that the building sinks a few centimeters every year. It’s simply too big for the surface of the earth to sustain it. If you’re tempted to venture inside, take note: the huge central halls with Carrara marble floors have been redone several times, each time in a slightly different color, because Ceauşescu wasn’t completely convinced on his first inspection and ordered that everything be torn down and rebuilt. I once met a plumber who told me that his father worked on the construction of the House of the People in the early eighties. He salvaged, as he did so, as much unwanted marble as he needed to tile the entirety of his two-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Bucharest. Ceilings and all.
Couple this shameful detail of the city with a proud one: the National Art Museum, housed in the former Royal Palace, displays a few of Corneliu Baba’s paintings, including part of a series entitled Mad King, reminiscent in style of Goya and Rembrandt. Hold these two details together if you can, should you ever find yourself in Bucharest.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Mateiu Caragiale’s short novel Dandies of the Old Court would give you a fascinating account of life in the city between the wars, on the edge of the old continent. Decadent, baroque, and beautifully written. Marin Preda, although not born in Bucharest, lived most of his life in the capital—his novels are among the few books during the Communist era that managed to uphold both an impressive literary standard and a consistent critique of the regime. Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, set in Bucharest in the seventies, would be a good introduction to the atmosphere in Preda’s narratives. Then there’s Gellu Naum, one of the founders of the surrealist movement, and, among my contemporaries, Ştefan Agopian, Octavian Soviany, and Oana Ninu.
Is there a place here you return to often?
I often go to Curtea Veche (the Old Court), which survived the Communist era and has now been restored, providing a small sample of how the city once looked. I marvel every time at the number of shop windows here displaying wedding dresses. In the bitter halogen lights after closing time, they look ghostly, and one wonders whether they will one day take off of their own accord, like huge white birds migrating to happiness elsewhere. I learned how to waltz there one afternoon, on the flat roof of one of the buildings, and another time, from a window, I tried to describe a New Year’s Eve fireworks display to a blind friend.
“Bucharest gave me my first taste of exile.”
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Capşa Restaurant, situated on Victoria Street, right around the corner from the university, was, for decades, the meeting place of all manner of artists and writers living and working in the city. Mântuleasa Street, where one of Mircea Eliade’s eponymous short stories takes place, is beautiful, especially in the autumn, its architecture reminiscent of decades long gone. And again, the above-mentioned Old Court, where, before the war, many a literary party went on into the small hours.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The open markets displaying all possible fruits and vegetables are always intriguing for me. Farmers bring their produce from the countryside, and there it sits—mountains of watermelons, rivers of grape, barrels of pickled cabbages—an image of safety and sanity just a short walk away from the main roads chockablock with traffic and noise. In spite of the money changing hands, they seem to me intensely spiritual places, like churches that cannot be uprooted because they would only grow back time and time again.
Where does passion live here?
Bucharest has a strong civil society. Over the last two decades, young people have organized all kinds of public demonstrations: to protest corruption in politics, to raise awareness of climate change, and to expose the illegal logging in the Carpathian Mountains, to name just a few. So passion is there, in the minds and hearts of a generation that isn’t about to accept the status quo without subjecting it to serious scrutiny and for whom freedom of expression is a sacred right.
What is the title of one of your works about Bucharest and what inspired it exactly?
One of the five parts of my novel Immigrants follows a young human rights PhD student at UCL back to his home in Bucharest. There, he negotiates his sexuality (he’s openly gay) and intellectual pursuits (he’s researching the “black sites” organized illegally by the Americans on Romanian territory) against the backdrop of a city that informed his identity as he was growing up but now proves unable to sustain it.
My most recent novel, Shrapnel, ends in Bucharest, with the main character, an ex-Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, struggling with PTSD and returning his medal of bravery in combat to the Romanian president. He wanders through the city aimlessly—psychogeographically, one might say—projecting flashback memories of the war zone onto the city, guiding his pain through the traffic, the asperities of reality, and the complete anonymity surrounding him.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bucharest does an outside exist?”
For me, the sense of an “outside” of Bucharest is paradoxically embedded within the city itself. I’ve always felt like an outsider living there, and Bucharest gave me my first taste of exile—a rehearsal of my future emigrant status. If we are to believe John Berger’s words—that the cruelest form of exile is that felt within your own culture—then Bucharest was the playground of such an experience for me.
Ioana Morpurgo was born in 1980 in Romania and studied at Bucharest University and Exeter University in the UK. She is the author of three novels: Record Slip (Polirom, 2004), The Immigrants (Polirom, 2011), and Shrapnel (Polirom, 2017). Her articles on literary and sociocultural topics have appeared in the New Internationalist, Contemporary Review, Lichtungen, Buchkultur, and Observator Cultural, and her short prose and essays in various anthologies. She lives in Dorset.
Published Apr 5, 2021 Copyright 2021 Nathalie Handal