Captives deserves to stand on the same shelf with Joyce’s Ulysses, Döblin’s Berlin, Alexanderplatz, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Kafka’s The Trial and a volume of stories by Yokomitsu Riichi. This, as the reader can understand, is both a statement of unrestrained praise and a warning, especially as some of these titles are relatively easy reading compared to this book. Manea’s debut and masterpiece is indeed not a novel that opens up lightly, but when it does, it will not let you go, not for a long time.
The author himself has remarked that the book may sound today like a message from another era, meaning that the depressed atmosphere of Stalinist Romania is now a world happily in the past. But this appraisal is true also in another sense: first published, as if by miracle, in 1970, the novel also comes from a distant time in which authors could trust their readers and be confident that they would only be judged on artistic terms, and not by the degree of challenge their texts posed. These times are now long gone, and quite possibly none of the aforementioned classics of modern prose would nowadays make it further than the desk of an assistant acquisitions editor of any reputable publishing house. This is why the publication of Manea’s novel is a miracle in our times, and this rare gem should receive all the critical attention it so richly deserves.
We get to discover the events that make up this ‘story’ – a word that should be used with caution here – little by little. We need to put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves, and even so we never know which of the multiple available versions of the events we should prefer, as most probably there is no correct one among the perspectives from which things are told, over and over again. Sometimes the narrative glides over the surface and we only get to see the objects present, without any distinction to show which of these matters and why. Sometimes we have no idea about the spatial coordinates of the story, but only get to share the narrator’s random impressions, and these, too, can jump back and forth in time without warning. Motifs repeat themselves from unexpected angles, details fall into place, only to be dislodged again. But the reasons why anyone does what they do are always deeply, deeply human, even if the deeds themselves are not. Only towards the end of the book, when a threatening clarity starts to emerge from within the kaleidoscopic polyphony, do we get a chance to see what has taken place, and even then we cannot really be sure.
The book is divided into three parts, ‘She’, ‘You’ and ‘I’, the latter making up approximately one half of it. ‘She’ is a teacher of French and music, and an avid reader of personal ads, which constantly entangle her in unsatisfactory liaisons. ‘You’ refers to the daughter of an officer, who has committed suicide, because he cannot live with his wartime memories; and ‘I’ is the nameless main narrator, an engineer working in a factory, once a young man of great promise, but now quite unable to sort out his own problems. As people, they are all broken, each in their own way – by the regime, by the times, by the circumstances, and by other people who do not hesitate to take advantage of any small edge that gives them at least a little bit of power over their peers.
It is a book that masterfully combines a high modernist literary achievement with a devastating diagnosis of totalitarianism – not, as we are accustomed to think of it, a political order imposed on individuals fully conscious and thinking about the world as we normally do, but as a debilitating state of mind that slowly, yet inescapably develops even in the most intelligent or ethically committed person, who has remained long enough in its suffocating embrace. Needless to say, we should consider ourselves very lucky that we can only feel this embrace when we read books like this.
Reviewed by Rein Raud
By Norman Manea
Translated by Jean Harris
Published by New Directions (2014)
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Rein Raud is an Estonian writer and academic. Three of his novels have been published in English, most recently The Death of the Perfect Sentence (Vagabond Voices, 2017).
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