We’re not leaving Timişoara – far from it – but I do want to introduce you now to some of the best of the rest of Romanian literature. Back in the summer of 2013, when I arrived in London to take over the role of project manager for the Romanian Cultural Institute in the UK, Nichita Stănescu’s words were ringing in my head. The famous Romanian poet’s witty first impressions of Britain, recorded under the title ‘In Engliterra’, accompanied me as I embarked on a roller-coaster ride without a seatbelt.
How would you describe Romanian literature? What makes it stand out among the many literary traditions? I worked with wonderful British and international colleagues whose friendship and insight helped me along the way. It was a challenging but rewarding time.
Despite being less well known than its other Romance cousins – partly owing to the very few translators that take on its challenges, but also to the general difficulty of entering the impenetrable canons of world literature – Romanian literature should surely be seated at the international literary table. Over the years, it has not only mirrored Romania’s turbulent history – a country disputed by empires and cowed by communist oppression – but has also served as a foundation for the nation’s cultural identity. Since 1989, it has encompassed new writing styles, topics and autofictional experiments, and has offered literary inspiration to many other nations, with some of the most notable Romanian authors living and working abroad. These include the renowned historian of religion Mircea Eliade (who lived and worked as a cultural attaché to the Romanian Legation in London in 1940, later the very address of the Romanian Cultural Institute); existentialist philosopher Emil Cioran; Eugène Ionesco – one of the foremost playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd; Tristan Tzara – founder of the Dada movement; tragic Jewish poets Paul Celan and Benjamin Fondane; Vintilă Horia – winner of the Goncourt Prize; Nina Cassian and Monica Lovinescu – icons of the anti-communist exile; and Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. More recently, some of the top representatives of Romanian émigré literature: writer and professor Norman Manea, poet Andrei Codrescu, and two writers featured in this magazine, the 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Müller and the dramatist Matéi Vişniec.
In terms of the contemporary Romanian literary scene, despite their small number and rather limited distribution, remarkable English translations of Romanian fiction have been released over the years, inviting readers to discover exciting new voices, such as Mircea Cărtărescu, Ioana Pârvulescu (both featured in this edition of The Riveter), Gabriela Adameșteanu, Dan Lungu, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, T. O. Bobe, Răzvan Petrescu, Bogdan Suceavă, Filip and Matei Florian, Ruxandra Cesereanu and Cecilia Ștefănescu, to name but a few. But an even stronger grip on international audiences, I would say, is held by poetry – and this was reflected during my London years by the positive response of UK literary festivals and publishers to Romanian poets and new works. As a popular saying goes, ‘Every Romanian was born a poet’. Throughout its tempestuous history, Romania has developed both an indefatigable spirit and a rich poetic tradition, a combination that has nurtured valuable authors across all generations: from Romania’s ‘national poet’ Mihai Eminescu – one of the great romantics of his time – to Lucian Blaga, the commanding personality of the interbellum period, Herder Prize laureate Marin Sorescu and surrealist Gellu Naum and, more recently, outstanding poets like Ana Blandiana, Magda Cârneci (also featured in The Riveter), Ileana Mălăncioiu, Nora Iuga, Ioana Ieronim, Ion Mureșan or Ioan Es. Pop.
Some of these names might ring a bell; all I trust will appeal to your curiosity and sense of discovery. However, so much more Romanian literature remains to be explored, much of it still unavailable in English. It’s my personal hope that many more titles will be found in translation, making their appearance on British bookshelves and touching readers in unexpected ways. There may be gaps between our two cultures, but let books inhabit them!
By Gabriela Mocan
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.