On belatedly discovering this slim but stunning bilingual selection of verse by the Romanian writer Magda Cârneci, my first thought was that its title – A Deafening Silence – might well be borrowed to describe the reception of Romanian writing in the UK. Romania has one of the richest, most varied literary traditions in contemporary Europe, yet little of it is accessible in English.
Mention Romanian writing and even well-educated British readers still think of mid-twentieth century Francophone exiles such as Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran or Tristan Tzara. This publication by Shearsman, ranging across two decades of Magda Cârneci’s poetry, is a small but audacious step out of that deafening silence. It is sadly telling that I only found out about it now, three years after its appearance: it deserves to be better known.
As well as being one of its leading contemporary poets, Cârneci is a significant figure on Romania’s broader cultural scene, former president of PEN Club Romania, a member of the European Cultural Parliament, and a notable art historian. Her first collections were published under the pen name Magdalena Ghica, which she used until 1989. That the year ended with the Romanian revolution is significant. Cârneci is part of that influential literary generation – including wonderful female poets such as Mariana Marin, Carmen Firan and Denisa Comănescu – that emerged on the Romanian literary scene in the last years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s rule.
These poets and writers, known collectively as ‘the eighties generation’, grew up in a world of shoddily built apartment blocks so cold in winter that water froze in the taps and in the lavatories, in rooms lit by twenty-watt light bulbs, with a single television channel showing two hours of programming a day. Food shortages were all pervasive, and an abortion ban produced armies of abandoned children. Ceauşescu’s Romania may not have been North Korea but, rivalled perhaps only by Albania, it was as close to it as Europe had. It offered limited freedom of movement and even more limited freedom of speech, unless you count Orwellian doublethink as one of its forms.
In fact, I thought of doublethink as I read this superb collection – my first but, I hope, not my last encounter with Cârneci’s work in English – a repurposed, poetic doublethink, here representing an ability to create a poem with several, often contradictory, meanings. Like paintings by Francis Bacon, Cârneci’s poems are both abstract and densely populated. They are full of humanity but not of individual humans. They are infused with strong sensory imagery, swelling to bursting with skin and flesh, with ‘the scream of broken organs, / brains, hearts, fingers, / the groan of living cells, / the sobs of the living, the dead, the unborn’ (‘fugue for unknown instruments’). Blood comes in drops, trickles and streams: it is one of the most frequently repeated words in the book.
Cârneci’s is a modernist, neo-avant-garde, urban and intellectual sensibility, yet there is something in her verse that is mythical and ancient. The eighties generation was called the ‘blue jeans generation’, but there is little of that ‘denim moment’ in her verse: it is not anchored in place and time. Rather, she revisits the metaphysics of creation and its violence again and again.
Silent waters keep resurfacing, they are here on the first and on the last page of the book, but they are never peaceful. Cârneci’s verse is full of foreboding, of increasing surface tension. Poems start with stillness then, like musical compositions, gradually gather force to erupt in violent crescendos: ‘an immense cataract of blood / a huge wave of love’ (‘fugue for unknown instruments’) or ‘the stuttering / of an enormous song waiting to start’ (‘now we’).
How do you write poetry when speech is dangerous but silence has become unbearable? Cârneci starts by naming human pain, both as it was, on a vast, tectonic scale in the Romania of the 1980s, and as it now recurs elsewhere in the world. The more you read, the clearer it becomes that A Deafening Silence conveys the inevitability of 1989.
Reviewed by Vesna Goldsworthy
A DEAFENING SILENCE
By Magda Cârneci
Translated by Adam Sorkin, Mădăkina Bănucu and the Author
Published by Shearsman Books (2017)
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Vesna Goldsworthy, professor in creative writing at the universities of Exeter and East Anglia, is a bestselling and prize-winning writer, academic and broadcaster whose books have been translated into a dozen languages and serialised by the BBC. She was born in 1961 in Belgrade and writes in English, her third language. Four of her books have been translated into Romanian, and her most recent, a novel entitled Monsieur Ka and published by Humanitas as Monsieur Karenin in 2019, was a bestseller. Vesna is proud that Denisa Comănescu, her Romanian editor, is one of the ‘poets of the eighties’.