Interview with Romanian Novelist Dumitru Tsepeneag

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Dumitru Tsepeneag (also known as Ed Pastenague) is one of the most important and accomplished living Romanian authors. Working between Bucharest and Paris, he is renowned as one of the main theoreticians of the literary Oniric group. Our conversation, hosted by the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York on a cold November afternoon, began with a retracing of Tsepeneag’s literary beginnings in the dissident milieu of mid-1960s Bucharest, to his forced exile in Paris in the mid-1970s, to his eventual return to his native country after the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Tsepeneag chronicles this turbulent period as he experienced it, together with the development of his own writing and nonconformist political views.

With more and more of his novels being translated into English and French in the past decade, Tsepeneag reflects on how different audiences across Europe and the United States have related to his novels—and presents his views on the urgent problems in contemporary literature and society. —Corina Apostol

CA: This interview is for literary audiences in the United States who are perhaps not very familiar with the context in Romania in which you matured. Could you speak briefly about your native context?

DT: In 1948, the Communist Party was established in Romania, and all other parties were outlawed. This began a harsh period of absolute censorship, where one could only publish things that were to the Party’s liking. Many people (peasants who opposed collectivization, political dissidents) were sent to jail then—it seems like over a million were locked up, out of a population of 22 million. This lasted until 1963 or ’64, when the politics changed, and Romania began to distance itself from the Soviet Union.

It was then that I began to publish—up to that year I had written things which I could only store in my drawers at home.

CA: I would like to talk about the Oniric group, as it grew out of this turbulent period which you just described. The name stems from oneiros, or dream. I read that your source of inspiration was surrealist painting and that you drew on surrealism in a unique way…

DT: In the mid-1960s, we began to form as a real literary group and even proposed our own theories—which was not very well looked upon by the censors.

And indeed—we began by analyzing surrealist painting. But actually, for me, most of what is considered surrealist painting is not properly surrealist—it does not conform to André Breton’s automatic writing strategy. For me, a surrealist painter is Jackson Pollock. René Magritte, on the other hand, doesn’t stray away from representation—his are fantastic images, but they are, at the level of representation, mimesis. With Salvador Dali it is a bit different—his works contradict representation. He is the link between surrealism (as practiced by René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Giorgio de Chirico) and oniricism.

And here is where I draw the line between the surreal and the oniric. At the basis of textbook surrealism is automatic writing—the surrealists were heavily influenced by Dadaism, and Dada was a movement about creating a shock, after which there was not much to be done. The Oniric group, however, rejected these strategies, and so began to re-imagine surrealist painting.

CA: How were you introduced to surrealism and modern painting while in Romania? What effect did it have on you?

DT: Actually, one of the greatest surrealist painters was Victor Brauner, a Romanian. I was also in touch with Gellu Naum [founder of the Romanian Surrealist group in 1941] who was good friends with Brauner. And then, in the 1960s one could study the modern artists, and I became influenced by Kafka and German expressionism.

But the Oniric group was influenced by more than just painting. Although Horatio’s “ut pictura poesis” (“as is painting so is poetry”) was very applicable to our poetry, when I began writing a novel in 1970, I realized that painting was no longer a sufficient model.  As text grows larger, it needs something else.  And I realized that Gotthold Lessing was right when he divided the arts into those that are simultaneously perceived and those successively perceived. Literature and poetry are successively perceived, but painting is simultaneously perceived. And it was time for “ut musica poesis” (“as is music so is poetry”).

That’s when I started writing “Vain Art of the Fugue,” which in 2007 was also published in English thanks to John O’Brien and Dalkey Archive Press. That was when I changed the model for my writing. Yet my writing remained “visual.” Today, I am still not interested in drawing psychological portraits for my characters, or in having subject matter. I compose, and slowly a narrative is born with characters that are phantomatic, onirical. I am mostly interested in the movement inside the text.

CA: What happened to the Oniric group after you were forced into exile in 1975?

DT: Unfortunately, the group scattered. Some members left for Austria, Germany, France. Only Leonid Dimov stayed. Before I left, however, things had begun to precipitate—we’d begun to have a more political edge. We published Paul Goma, the famous dissident writer, who had been jailed for protesting against the government.

Oniricism itself didn’t bother the censors that much. But by the 1980s, there was a younger generation who had been inspired by oniricism. That is what is great about the history of Romania at the time—despite the hardship we managed to produce an interesting literature. It was just that it couldn’t be published and distributed, so it was forced in the underground.

CA: In your opinion, what is the relevance the oniric movement for contemporary literature?

DT: There are very talented neo-oniricists in Romania (for example Corin Braga who is a literature professor in Cluj). Back home, we have a very interesting literature, extremely varied, in my opinion, and it is normal that the oniric movement continues to manifest itself.

It is my personal wager that oniricism will be more and more integrated into the international cultural patrimony. Oniricism itself is like a big family—and an international one. For example, one can speak of oniricism in Robert Pinget’s work. Whether it comes from expressionism, fantasy or surrealism, one can find oniric streams in all types of art and literatures. I think our merit in Romanian literature was that, in that period when there were no literary currents, when the state tried to impose an uniformization of styles, our oniric group had a voice of its own, which held strongly together for about ten years.

 CA: Let’s turn more to the international context. Some critics of your book “Vain Art of the Fugue,” which was published in English in 2007, find the themes of repetition, eternal wanderings, and loops in time puzzling. To me personally, they speak to the political climate in Romania. How do you imagine people here are interpreting these experiences, and how are they distilled by the audiences in Romania?

DT: It is very complicated because while I was still living in Romania, I was only able to publish a chapter or two of this book, due to the political climate.

In Paris, I published this novel under the title “Arpièges” (1973). “Arpièges” is an invented word: “pièges” means trap in French and “art”— art—so it’s “art with a trap.” This novel unfolds like a game, following a model that needs “returns,” and these “returns” need justifications. So in the novel there are certain words that, when the reader gets to them, return him or her to another moment. These are “trap-words,” which lead to returns, and which, in the end, amount to a certain immobility. And as the title says, “it is in vain the art of fugue.” The novel ends with this immobility—which, of course, has a political subtext to it.

CA:  Please talk a little bit more about this political subtext.

DT: Of course—and actually, this subtext is difficult to understand even for contemporary Romanian readers. This very immobility, this impossibility of running has different valences in the Romanian language: there is the “musical fugue” (“fuga muzicală”) and “running from your country” (“fuga din ţară”).

[Translator’s note: in Romanian the same word “fuga” has these two meanings: a musical genre and the verb “to run.”]

And actually I never wanted to run from my country—this is what I was trying to say in the novel. It is useless to run. I traveled many times to Paris before the Romanian government took away my citizenship and I never requested political asylum. I always chose to return. After 1975, it was all over for me in Romania, I couldn’t return and I couldn’t be published in my country. It was like this for me until the Revolution in 1989.

CA: I recently learned that you criticized the regime that called itself “communist” from a leftist position. And I also learned that you identified with anarchism. Do you feel that a writer should have a socio-political role, or should art just be for art’s sake?

DT: You are right, at that time I was aligned with anarchism. But—I also think that a writer is only a writer when he or she is writing. Outside of that, a writer is just like any other person, and he or she can also be involved in politics. For me these are distinct activities.

At the same time, when everyone was decrying communism, both before and after 1989, and there were generally strong anti-leftist sentiments, I felt differently. I felt that the horizon could never be nationalism, nor a more and more aggressive capitalism—we needed (and need) something else. Maybe that’s why I identify with anarchism.

CA: Recently in Europe and the United States we witnessed mass protests and there are more and more voices that yell “Down with capitalism!” instead of “Down with the government!” which is the usual line.

DT: In this regard, I am very optimistic. There is now a young generation who has returned to leftist thought—even in Romania there are publishing houses which publish philosophers like Giorgio Agamben or Jacques Derrida. These are authors who cannot be called capitalist. Furthermore, they are against capitalism. I myself have translated from Russian Alexandre Kojève, a philosopher who lived in Paris and who reads Hegel from the left, through the lens of Marx and Heidegger. I think for many people it has become evident that we cannot continue in this way. We are heading straight into a wall—“Wall Street”!

CA: You mentioned your work as a translator. Please tell us something about your work as an editor, beginning with the publication “Cahiers de l’est.”

I ask because I interviewed several visual artists from Eastern Europe, and they confessed that they took refuge in your publications, which they considered a patch of “normality” during the dictatorships, when their contact with the outside was curtailed.

This is how the “mail art” movement functioned—as an international network for artists, writers, activists. It was through these networks that they could take “mental trips” during a time when they were stuck in Soviet space.

DT: Indeed, I published several magazines in Paris beginning in the 70s, which also contributed to my expulsion from Romania. The first one, “Cahiers de l’Est,” was not intended as a direct critique of the regime, but it ended up perceived as one since we published dissidents like Paul Goma. In 2000, I edited “Seine et Danube” which was dedicated to publishing writers from countries crossed by the river Danube: French, Germans, Austrians, Romanians, etc. All these publications were attempts at uniting eastern with western writers and putting these cultures in dialogues. Of course, there were many hurdles, including financial struggles, and before 1989, a lot of writers were afraid to publish with us.

And yes, “mail art.” That is how certain books got published, which could not come out because of censorship. You are right—what really hurt me was the isolation in literature. And this isolation began even before World War II. Great Romanian writers, such as Lucian Blaga or Dumitru D. Roşca, who had the opportunity to travel, never thought of publishing internationally. And then there was the isolation during the war, which was also due to extreme right movements, as there was strong nationalism even in literature. And then the communists came, and isolation continued. Even after 1989 we can talk about a certain isolation, as local publishing houses were not putting out any good material after the whole system had collapsed.

CA: Since traveling to Paris, you began writing not only in Romanian but also in French.

DT: I wrote the novel “Le mot sablier” (1994) (“The Hourglass Word”) in both Romanian and French. The novel is composed thus: it begins in Romanian, and then words in French begin to appear more and more, until the end—the last chapter is entirely in French. It is, as the title suggests, like an hourglass: words fall from Romanian into French. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book can be translated into English. In France, they published it entirely in French, using different characters for Romanian and French. But it is not the same thing—only in Romania the edition came out as it was meant to be, in both languages.

CA: We talked about your drawing inspiration from surrealist painting, but you also began to talk about how music inspired you. What is musical in your works?

DT: Like in music, I repeat fragments from previous short stories or parts of the same novel. For example in “The Bulgarian Truck”(2011), I placed numerous scenes that are directly taken from my first stories in the 1960s. Or in “Vain Art of the Fugue,” there is a scene around a fire alarm which I repeated, with some variations in the novel “Hotel Europa” (1996). As I mentioned I am not interested in narration per se, but more in movement.

CA: To end our discussion, I would like to know your thoughts on the future of contemporary literature and more generally, contemporary culture in Romania. Recently, there have been some very drastic and negative changes, which have once again placed Romania in the spotlight of the international community. Namely, the changes of the mission and organization of the Romanian Cultural Institutes, which turned a progressive network supporting contemporary culture into an instrument for upholding Romanian nationalist values.

Many see this as a retrograde backlash against experiment and innovation. The epitome of this is perhaps the recent remark of the newly elected leader of the Romanian Cultural Institutes, Andrei Marga, who declared that the heater is a “national invention” of Romania, which should be promoted through culture.

DT: It is indeed as you say a very serious and unfortunate situation. But I think Romanians can sail through this with humor, something which always gave us the power to endure. How do I see the future? I think right now we are wasting time. Our culture was beginning to flourish again in the 2000s, with the Romanian New Wave in cinema, as well as developments in the visual arts. It seems that the new leadership of the Cultural Institutes is expecting us to put out only folkloric dances. Let there be those, too, but you cannot reduce Romanian culture to national values.

Soon, I think, they will realize that things cannot go on like this. And they will also understand something very important—that they cannot control which Romanian writers, painters or cinema-makers gain international prestige. As I wrote in a recent article, in a week from now, I could pay for anyone to be published in France, but this doesn’t mean that their book will be taken by libraries or praised by critics—it may just end up on a dusty bookshelf.  This is not the way Romanian literature should be promoted. The quality and the relevance of the material should determine what gains international recognition. It is not enough to be in the graces of the Romanian Cultural Institute to be published.

CA: I completely agree, yet I am afraid we are about to enter another period of isolation given these changes…

DT: Unfortunately I think you are right, there will be a year or two of isolation. But only until they realize how things actually work in the international context. I remain an optimist.