The Romanian Riveter: The Porous Borders of Romanian Literature: Timișoara by Andreea Scridon

When Romanians think of the city of Timișoara, the first thing that comes to mind is the revolution. The first rumbles of this historic event took place in this multicultural city, which has always had a proud history of turning its face towards the rising sun – perceived to be the West. In the bitter winter of 1989, which would soon represent a monumental, destiny-disrupting shift in Romanian history, the following slogan spread through the country like wildfire: ‘Today Timișoara, tomorrow the whole country!’ In Romania, this demonstration of bravery and emancipation was always accredited to the city’s geographical proximity to Western Europe.

More precisely, Timișoara is the Romanian capital of the Banat, a region that sits at a crossroads between Central and Eastern Europe. I say ‘Romanian’ as a nod to the region’s multicultural status, which is a result of centuries of imperial processes – Austro-Hungarian primarily, as well as Ottoman. After 1920, the Banat was divided among Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary, and the Romanian Banat’s current ethnocultural balance is mainly composed of Romanians, Swabians, Hungarians and Serbians. This multicultural status has promoted a continuous process of exchange, creating a tolerant, cosmopolitan attitude in the city often attributed to a spirit of European Enlightenment brought in with the Habsburgs.

This said, the region is not a utopia. Like anywhere else, the Banat, and Timișoara itself, were, and are, characterised by hierarchies. An overall sense of peaceful cohabitation is historically verifiable, however, and the firmly entrenched local identity is characterised by a sense of diversity.

The word ‘border’ is intrinsic to defining cultural history itself, almost always signifying great changes: just compare the concept of a cosmopolitan, free Europe with the very phrase ‘Iron Curtain’. Serbian writer Miloš Crnjanski called Timișoara ‘Little Vienna’, and indeed the city’s international mosaic has long been a way of life, although clearly incompatible with the communist system. This is well demonstrated in this magazine by literary works such as Viorel Marineasa and Daniel Vighi’s haunting story ‘Draft of a Requiem’, in which resistance is a matter of ancestral honour and inheritance. Though the pair write in prose, it is a prose akin to the tradition of ‘dialectal’ poetry in the Banat region: concepts are archaic and filial, although the impact of the piece on us as readers is moving rather than old-fashioned.

Within this context of multicultural hierarchies, Goran Mrakić’s ‘Ceaușescu in the Snow’ uses vivid dialogue and bitter irony to deal directly with the repercussions of Europe’s bloodiest revolution of the modern era, while Alex Potcoavă’s short story ‘The Foundation’, also ironic, presents an anecdotal case of the city’s rebellious spirit. In it, microscopic and mundane details of life cohabit with global and universal themes, highlighting the absurdity of our modern world. Mircea Pora’s ‘The Walk’ pushes against formal stylistic boundaries with a stream-of-consciousness evocative of Mrs Dalloway or Molly Bloom, but remains tethered in a bucolic, local atmosphere, also with a nod to the author’s Serbian heritage. Bogdan Munteanu’s short story ‘The Overcoat’ is wonderfully colloquial, with its cheeky, absurd humour. Its dry banality is juxtaposed with the fantastic as love and friendship, as in real life, fail to explain themselves.

Even the frontiers of time become porous at the fringes of Central Europe, where the ghosts of former empires continue to echo in the local architecture, cuisine, the medley of languages heard in the streets, and, of course, in the local literature. As such, stylistic choices like magic realism and literary reverie are popular with Timișoara’s prose writers, as well as with Romanian writers in general. In this magazine, Alexandru Colțan’s richly colourful ‘Whispers’ is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s depictions of a fundamentally unknowable universe. As if we were children being read a fairy-tale, we pass through invisible borders into metaphysical spaces, such as the highly symbolic ‘river of remembrance’. Whispering itself is a metaphor for the paranoia of the repressive regime that scarred our families and society for decades: conversations were held in hushed tones for fear that the Romanian Secret Police, lurking everywhere, might overhear something that could be deemed inflammatory. Now, in these new times of freedom, once again, Eastern European writers have the opportunity to be the voice of their people, unrestricted in all ways, also by ideology.

Geography is another constant in the literature of Timișoara: the city’s manicured public gardens, the ever-churning Bega River and the flat plain of the Banat, stretching out to the horizon, give a sense of airy liberty, or, if we were inclined to pessimism, of futility and debilitating heat.

Given this inheritance of idealism and civic engagement, it will come as no surprise that quintessential examples of political dissidents connected to Timișoara and the Banat include Herta Müller, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, and Ana Blandiana, contender for the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature. As well as the other writers mentioned here, this magazine and the awarding of the status of 2021 European Capital of Culture to the Timișoara region mean we can focus on several important authors who fully deserve to be translated into English. Names to remember here are Sorin Titel, a novelist from the 1980s famous for Woman, Behold Thy Son, as brilliant as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in its narrative drive and intertextuality, managing to roll William Faulkner, Thomas Mann and Julio Cortázar into one imaginative landscape. Read Sorin Titel’s morbidly trenchant short story ‘Jacob’s Death’ in a special translation for The Romanian Riveter. The trope of the whisper reappears as the titular character, imprisoned by death, whispering his son’s name. The room in which Jacob is effectively imprisoned is hauntingly grim, suggestive of the age-old subjugation that Romanians consider their sinister dowry. The looming sense of lurking danger rises to fever pitch in this story as we approach the border between life and death.

Another contemporary author to introduce you to is Radu Pavel Gheo. His pre-and post-revolutionary bildungsromans speak directly and deeply to the generation that experienced both the bad and the good times, before and after 1989. These two conflicting traditions of cosmopolitanism and communism run through the literature of this city on the banks of the Bega River, so often informed by its history, and so often autobiographical. A literature also frequently characterised by a remarkable clarity of expression. As a result, some of these notable works of ‘autofiction’ have reached the big screen, including Tudor Giurgiu’s Parking and Stere Gulea’s I Am an Old Communist Hag. Timișoara’s authors have been able to create a distinctive imaginary space precisely because of their unique location straddling Central and Eastern Europe, which has given life to, and showcased, so many different realities and historical events.

Andreea Scridon

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian Riveter

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