Many people speak of the Banat region, of which Timișoara is the capital, as an area connected with civilization rather than culture, with material rather than spiritual values. The writer who put this region on the literary map and created the notion of a great Banat literature was Sorin Titel (1935–1985), our most important novelist, short-story writer and essayist, and one of the outstanding personalities of his era. Alongside poets Șerban Foarță, Petre Stoica and Anghel Dumbrăveanu, and critics Livius Ciocârlie and Cornel Ungureanu, he belonged to the sixties generation around which the literature of Timișoara started to flourish. Șerban Foarță wrote, with Andrei Ujică – the outstanding film director who started his career as a prose writer – the best-known lyrics ever written for a Romanian rock band: ‘Lyrics for Phoenix’ (1976). By contrast, Petre Stoica’s great lyrical achievements, hidden beneath his cloak of man of the people, chronicling the daily and the domestic, place him among the finest poets of his generation.
Nevertheless, in spite of the great talent of the sixties generation, the most powerful group of writers from Banat came out of the 1980s, a time of darkness, communism and oppression. It is no coincidence that the author Herta Müller, who was born in Timiș County and became a recognised literary figure of the underground in Timișoara in the eighties, was later awarded the Nobel Prize (in 2009). Her generation came from a remarkable environment, one in which the eminent professors of Timișoara University’s Faculty of Letters (Eugen Todoran, G.I. Tohăneanu, Livius Ciocârlie, Marcel Cornis-Pope, Simion Mioc, Iosif Cheie Pantea, Vasile Tudor Crețu and others) could boast that their students were among the most talented ‘young wolves’ of Romanian literature.
The literary underground had considerable importance too at this time. The self-taught poet, Ion Monoran (‘Mono’), worked as a stoker in the basement of a typically communist block of flats – literally underground. ‘The whole Mediterranean Sea must have flown through these pipes’, he wrote. Monoran played a significant role in the 1989 revolution, which kicked off in Timișoara: on the 16th of December he stopped the trams in one of the city’s central squares, to encourage and strengthen the protests. After his death in 1993, he became something of a legend. One of the literary VIPs of the communist period once berated him for his eagerness: ‘What is it with you? Do you want to trample all over literature with your boots?’ But Mono became part of literature. And, ever rebellious, he did not take off his boots – that would have been too much like entering a sacred temple. His writing style is reminiscent of that of his German contemporaries, down to earth, direct and autobiographical. Indeed Vânt potrivit până la tare (‘Moderate to Strong Wind’, 1982), the anthology of German poets from Romania, is among the most influential poetry collections of the decade.
Eugen Bunaru is another noteworthy poet of this Optzeciști (‘eighties’) generation. He does not take poetry onto the street; he is not colloquial and prosaic, nor does he use virulent language or messages. Instead, he moves the street into his poems and in his own unmistakeable manner: footsteps ‘are lost in their own labyrinth’ or they ‘listen to the silence’. Footprints are ‘like tiny insects / crushed underfoot’. Steps, footprints, streets – these are some of the ‘knots’ found in Bunaru’s poems.
Among the major representatives of 1980s Timișoara prose are Daniel Vighi, Viorel Marineasa and Mircea Pora – all featured in this magazine. Vighi started by writing short stories, but then turned to novels and more substantial projects, like the Corso Trilogy (2016), one of the most complex works about Timișoara ever written. In Viorel Marineasa’s short stories and novels, socio-historical fiction gains a new and original aesthetic dimension, while Mircea Pora writes the most poetic prose of the three. This does not detract from the strong narrative elements of his work, however. In fact, few writers can produce such an ideal combination of different registers: humour, social criticism, and oneirism – the literary movement defined by dreams, imagination and hallucinations that countered the realism and surrealism of the establishment. All this, we need to remind ourselves, occurring under one of the most oppressive communist regimes in the world.
The paradigm shift that characterised the Optzeciști generation has been rightfully recognised: American culture became the predominant model, to the detriment of Romania’s traditional links with French. In Timișoara, the shift occurred through translations from American poetry by the poet Petru Ilieșu and Professor Marcel Cornis-Pope, a trailblazer in Romanian studies of English and American literature, and through Mircea Mihăieș’s studies about Faulkner and Joyce, which were to follow.
German-language culture also played a major role, through Petre Stoica’s translations of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, to take one example, through the activity of Aktionsgruppe Banat (the German-speaking literary resistance movement created in the Banat region), and through Herta Müller, who emigrated to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1987. It is also worth mentioning that the first great novel of Timișoara, The City Lost in Mist, was written by a Hungarian: Méliusz József.
In the 1990s, after the Romanian Revolution, two categories of authors made their debut: those of the Optzeciști generation who had been unable to publish under communism: poets Ion Monoran, Gheorghe Pruncuț, Adrian Derlea etc; and those belonging to the new, post-1989 generation of authors.
Rodica Draghincescu is a leading light of this new generation. Vehement and reflective, erotic and political, her poetry now enjoys European recognition. Adrian Bodnaru and Robert Şerban are other notable voices, both of them also well known as editors and / or publishers.
After the 1989 revolution, Timișoara’s literary output excelled, through the series and collections of poems published by publishers Marineasa in the 1990s and Brumar after 2000. Up to June 1990 and the Mineriad, when democratic protests in Bucharest were brutally repressed, Orizont, Timișoara’s main cultural periodical, enjoyed a print run of more than 50,000 thousand copies. After the Mineriad, the magazine’s circulation fell by half. In 1990, the newly installed post-Ceaușescu government’s crackdown on the free press and the economic decline of the country caused similar drops incirculation in cultural publications across the country.
A remarkable phenomenon of these times was the involvement of Timișoara’s writers in drafting the country’s most important post-revolutionary political document: the Proclamation of Timișoara, whose famous ‘Point 8’ requested that ‘the electoral law should deny former party activists and Secret Police officers the right to be nominated as candidates on any list for the first three running legislatures’. Viorel Marineasa, Vasile Popovici, Lucian Vasile Szabo, George Șerban and Daniel Vighi were among the authors of the Proclamation.
The end of the 1990s and the first years of the new millennium were influenced by the activity of the Third Europe College, based in Timișoara, which explored the Banat’s Mitteleuropa identity, and its multilingualism and multiculturalism (a consequence of its unique geographical location), and became a centre of intellectual development. Among its defining figures were Adriana Babeți, Livius Ciocârlie, Mircea Mihăieș, Cornel Ungureanu and Smaranda Vultur.
Another important literary establishment to gain importance over the years is the Pavel Dan Literary Society. Founded in 1958, it is the longest running society of its kind in Romania. It is based at the Timișoara Students’ House and since 1996 its coordinator has been Eugen Bunaru.
Of the prose writers, who shone after 1990, Radu Pavel Gheo is one of the leading lights. His most important novels are Noapte bună, copii (‘Good Night, Children’, 2010) and Disco Titanic (2016). Blending realism and elements of the fantastic, they deal with the drama of those who grew up under communism. But women too have gained great prominence in the past few years. Daniela Rațiu cultivates a caustic poetic discourse. Her poems written in the second person, for instance, mock such demeaning epithets as ‘darling’. Another poet, Moni Stănilă, has shifted from religious to markedly political poetry in which the post-Soviet and new Western environments collide. Both Rațiu and Stănilă are also emerging novelists, which draws attention to another feature of this contemporary generation: authors who write both prose and poetry. While most of these started as poets, their prose seems to have influenced their poetry, making it more realistic and narrative. The reverse process – lyricised prose – is quite rare, however.
Other important writers of this new millennium include Alexandru Potcoavă, who started as a poet, only to shift to prose and narrative poetry. His most important novel, Viața și întoarcerea unui Halle (‘The Life and Return of a Halle’, 2019), is an expressive work in which the plot animates history – and vice versa. Another writer of this generation is Bogdan Munteanu. The biographical portrait plays a special part in his writing, and humour is one of his key ingredients. Two Serbian poets and fiction writers have also made their names in our region and beyond: Borko Ilin and Goran Mrakić. Ilin is particularly attracted to the landscape of the Banat plain – the puszta – while Mrakić is concerned with urban mythology and folklore, dealing with topics rarely explored by contemporary prose, such as the world of football supporters. The most relevant names in poetry after 2010 are Aleksandar Stoikovici and Marius Ștefan Aldea, as well as Mariana Gunță, who died this year at the age of only twenty-five – far too young.
Literary life has been revitalised in Timișoara over the last decade: open, public readings of prose and poetry have turned into social-literary experiments and two new literary festivals have been launched, as has the independent bookshop Two Owls, a true cultural hotspot.
Through the ‘Sorin Titel’ Timiș County Library, Timișoara has become The Capital of Public Readings. We have tried to turn what started as an experiment in literary performance into one of the institution’s key activities. The ConCentrica event and the urban picnic known as The Reading Blanket are among the most original and largest reading events in Romania. As a public library, our goal is to bring those people who have not traditionally engaged in art and culture closer to the world of books and to each other. We promote reading both as a means of community cohesion and as a private, individual activity. The library’s readings are socially comprehensive and totally democratic, featuring security guards and prisoners, sports players and the elderly, students and teachers, as well as folk musicians and singers. The public are both observers and protagonists, creating a mini Romania in their diversity and broad representation.
The city’s two new festivals both began in 2012: LitVest (which takes place in September and which I run) and Timișoara International Literature Festival (which follows in October and is run by fellow writer Robert Șerban). As these festivals have grown, the literary bohème of Timișoara has expanded its boundaries, its centre of gravity gradually shifting towards villages such as Socolari, in the neighbouring Caraș-Severin County, which the visual artists of Timișoara have brought back to life, renovating the houses and organising cultural events in this marvellous natural setting. We have also reached beyond Romania to invite international authors to come to Timișoara to participate in these festivals, several of whom are writing for this magazine.
All this new activity has been crucial for the city in obtaining its status as European Capital of Culture in 2021 (however, because of the pandemic, the year will most likely be 2023). The Romanian Riveter has been created to celebrate this new status and to showcase the writing of Timișoara and the Banat, with an additional short coda of writing from the rest of Romania. We’ve had to be selective – for reasons of space – and some of those we invited to participate were not able to accept our invitation. We’ve chosen mainly living Timișoara writers and haven’t been able to include many of the older or deceased writers, or the Timișoara diaspora living in the West, even though without them our local and national literary history would be incomplete. They are maybe for another magazine.
Our specially commissioned translations into English included in this magazine will give many readers an unparalleled first view of the diversity of Timișoara’s literary spectrum, introducing both its newcomers and its established names, and offering a glimpse into the past, present and future of the best writing from our great city.
Manager of the ‘Sorin Titel’ Timiș County Library
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.