The Romanian Riveter: Reading Timişoara by George Szirtes

poetry is what’s left of life
after you’ve lived it through
Robert Şerban – What’s left of life

My first visit to Romania was in 1993. We were already in Budapest and took a train to Cluj-Napoca, where my mother had spent her childhood. The train was filthy and the door to the with rubbish, public transport was patched with ill-matched paint, buildings looked dilapidated and the river was bright orange. I had never before seen so toilet was off its hinges. A very pristine young woman was reading an old history of France opposite us in the compartment. There was a long delay at the border and when we eventually arrived at Cluj, the station smelled of urine. My long lost, elderly uncle, Feri, was there and we took a taxi centre. I had read and heard a lot about the terrible times under Ceauşescu but Cluj still shocked me. The shops were mostly bare, the streets were cluttered many people with amputations. Cluj looked like a European third-world city, a barely working, demoralised dystopia. Uncle Feri was a darling, but we stayed only for a few days and the return trip by minibus (because the trains were on strike) was a long and tiresome affair through an equally dystopian, despoiled landscape.

Pretty soon I was back again, courtesy of a British Council tour of Romania involving a number of other British writers. This then led to further invitations, primarily to the Days and Nights of Poetry at Neptun but also to Bucharest, and more recently to Timişoara. I met a great many Romanian poets in such places, mostly extraordinary women such as Grete Tartler, Liliana Ursu, Ioana Ieronim, Denisa Comănescu and many others. Romanian poetry, from that evidence, appeared to me to be chiefly female territory. The result for my personal work was a set of sonnets titled Romanian Brown that appeared in 1998.

The impression I gained from my meetings and readings was of Romanian writing as something more elemental and magical, less urban, altogether less ‘Western’ than the Hungarian work I was familiar with. Whether this impression was based on anything substantial I cannot say. It was not that the writers – and they were exclusively poets – were not modern. There was little that was formal or traditional (not a word I much like when applied to poetry), in the sense of regularly patterned verse. There was, perhaps, a deeper appeal to nature and a kind of ferocity, but the poems were clearly and recognisably modernist in approach. It was just that their material was taking them into different territory, or that they had started from different territory.

What was lacking – like anywhere in Central or Eastern Europe – was writing that dealt directly with political themes. Before 1989 it was simply not allowed. Instead there was poetry veiled and coded in ways that had become familiar to those who read between Cold War lines. The Romanian regime had been harsher, stricter and more punitive than many others, so the codes might have had to lie deeper. The Securitate was estimated to employ at the very least 15% of the population and Uncle Feri was scared to talk in the street.

Hungarian-Romanian tensions were very high under Ceauşescu and the issues underlying them look likely to remain unresolved for a good while. The fascinating thing about the revolution of 1989, which we saw unfold on our TV screens, was that it was sparked by László Tőkés, a Hungarian clergyman in Timişoara (Temesvár in Hungarian).

This is principally a Romanian-language Timişoara magazine of both poetry and prose, though not all the authors live in the city now. And things have changed. The poets I read and met back then all grew into maturity under Ceauşescu. How much and in what way have things changed, it’s hard to know. We can look at it in terms of continuity, from the oldest – Mircea Pora and Viorel Marineasa – to the tragically youngest, Mariana Gunță, who died just this year at the age of twenty-five and was born the year after our first visit to Romania; but that won’t yield an entirely satisfactory answer.

The range of voices in this magazine runs from episodic realism in prose and poetry (Alex Colțan, Goran Mrakić, Bogdan Munteanu, Ana Puşcaşu, Viorel Marineasa with Daniel Vighi, as well as Mircea Pora, who covers several generations of one family in his visit to a cemetery), through politically loaded realism-turned-fantasy (Alexandru Potcoavă), through Bukowsky and Ginsberg-inspired beat verse with an ironic curl of the lip (Borco Ilin, Petru Ilieşu and Tudor Crețu), hard-bitten, darkly witty lyric poetry (Eugen Bunaru, Robert Şerban), a touch of post-modernism (Moni Stănilă) and work about the Covid-19 pandemic (Daniela Rațiu, Rodica Draghincescu).

These are very broad-brush terms and are intended only as a rough map of the contemporary terrain. All the writers mentioned above work beyond those map descriptions and expand beyond them in that they may cover several areas at once or start from somewhere else. Şerban Foarţă’s poems are a kind of playful engagement with female presence. William Totok’s poem harks back to the age of political imprisonment. Marius Aldea’s poem ‘neluta’ starts out like the kind of fable adapted from folk tales that Vasko Popa might have written, but is in fact an account of a real figure in rural life.

One might distinguish further. Bogdan Munteanu’s story about male friendship has a Salinger-like quality, Ana Puşcaşu’s realism concerns an entire way of life, and Viorel Marineasa’s collaboration with Daniel Vighi recounts the harsh lives of a specific family under Ceauşescu. The executed figure of the dead Ceauşescu is the point of the story by Goran Mrakić which is set in Belgrade.

The ghost of Ceauşescu has not vanished from the scene. He is, in some respects, like the figure of Mao in Chinese writing. Stories of the Cultural Revolution are still emerging, rather gingerly, from its child victims.

What is notable here is that there is very little of nature or of the atavistic in the collection. This is, after all, work produced by citizens of a specific city although, in so far as all cities resemble each other in some ways while differing in others, much of the work, at least in subject matter, does not conjure Timişoara in particular. The Transylvanian-Hungarian side of its history is entirely missing for all kinds of understandable reasons and the conditions of life under Ceauşescu differed only in degree from life under Husak, Honecker or Hoxha.

What all the writers offer here is energy, ambition and imagination. This is a strong selection of writing with its own particular flavour, a flavour I recognise from my own background, but also as the world we live in right now, where similar shadows hang over all of us.

By George Szirtes

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian Riveter

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