Post-Communist Literature or How to Cure Baldness
Coming from an Off-Key Time
By Bogdan Suceava
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Northwestern University Press, 2011
Among the post-communist novels from Eastern Europe, Bogdan Suceava’s Coming from an Off-Key Time is undoubtedly one of the most original. Published for the first time in Romania in 2004, this is the first of Suceava’s five novels to be translated into English. The apocalyptic feeling conveyed through a style that echoes in places that of Romanian old chronicles (which go back to the 17th century when certain chroniclers began to document the life and events at their king’s court), and the contemporary reality embodied in the characters’ colloquial dialogues are deftly translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, who is the foremost translator of Romanian fiction into English.
The narrator tells us that this is a chronicle of Bucharest, Romania’s capital, which captures the madness of the period following the fall of Ceaușescu’s regime in 1989. Because the communist regime had suppressed religious freedom, the fall of communism was accompanied in Romania by a huge surge in “spiritual movements” that often took the form of nationalist-mystical sects. Coming from an Off-Key Time presents a fascinating image of this period in a way that is both hilarious and serious.
Using a technique common to certain Russian novelists, such as Gogol, the narrator often adopts the voice of the community—“we”—which gives the story more credibility insofar as the narrator doesn’t distance himself from what he calls the protagonists’ madness. There is, however, a “voice of reason” in the novel, and this is…the Intelligence Service. Not that Suceava presents its members as faultless—some of them are re-shuffled members of the former Secret Police—but these are the only characters who are attempting to analyze the significance of this trend in “spiritualization” and to interpret it in relation to the society as a whole.
The novel follows closely two sects: The Tidings of the Lord, whose leader is Vespasian Moisa, a man born with the map of Bucharest on his chest; and the Stephanists, who believe that Stephen the Great is the true Christ, and whose leader is a reincarnation of the famous historical character (Stephen the Great ruled in the 15th century in the province of Moldavia, winning forty-six of forty-eight battles against the Turks, and was canonized by the Romanian Orthodox church in the early nineties). Of the two, the sect led by Vespasian Moisa is by far the more interesting, not least because one of its founding members, Diaconescu, a professor of history, believes that Romanian language is seven thousand years old, and as such, is a chosen language that conceals a code able to reach the vibrations of the world, and thus, to decipher them: “In the world there exist vibrations left over from the time of the creation, and we can reach these vibrations via a suitable code. And this code, which unshackles and clarifies everything, proves to be the Romanian language.”
But wait, this is not all! The physician Arghir, another founding member of the sect, not only shares Professor Diaconescu’s theory about the Romanian language but believes that this code contains the cure to all illnesses. And the proof is that Dr. Arghir, who had been completely bald, now has a big afro. Yes, Romanian language encloses in itself the cure to baldness. That is, if you know how to decode it. The decoding of the Romanian name for baldness, chelie, “produced the secret name of mandrake. […] A broth of mandrake, to which they added sodium hydroxide, dried goatskin, Coca Cola, and butter, had spectacular effects, transforming any baldy into a person with a respectable endowment of hair.” And since baldness is irreversible and so many men are afflicted by it, the undercover captain (alas, himself bald) sent by the Intelligence Services to spy on the sect cannot resist the appeal of the cure and defects to the enemy.
If you are tempted to think that the above is simply the result of an overactive imagination, you may be surprised to find out that both Professor Diaconescu and Dr. Arghir are based on real persons, and that their “theories” are only somewhat exaggerated. In an exchange of emails I had with the author, he confirmed the real existence of the two characters, all the while acknowledging the slight exaggeration—but, as we know from Thomas Bernhard, exaggeration is the best way of telling the truth. In fact, as a Colonel from the Intelligence Services puts it, exaggeration may be the sign under which the world generally operates:
[…] the history of mankind has known all kinds of exaggerations. All these excesses are nothing new. […] What is highly specific to this place and historical moment is the fact that all the excesses are taking place simultaneously, and our great misfortune is that our task is to keep track of them and to anticipate when these mobs are going to take to the streets.
American readers may not recognize all the allusions in the novel, many of them to famous Romanian writers—the poets Mihai Eminescu and Nichita Stanescu, or Mateiu Caragiale, quoted in the novel’s epigraph, an early 20th century writer whose fin-de-siècle novel about Bucharest depicted the capital’s “unbridled madness” and the “various species of folly” one could find there—but some will probably recognize the reference to Bulgakov in the presence of a talking cat. The tomcat works (undercover!) for the Romanian Intelligence Services by collecting information about Moisa. The tomcat is endowed with human qualities because…well, he had been, in fact, a real spy, but as a consequence of having been experimented on by the KGB, was transformed into a feline.
There are other sects with an episodic presence in the novel, some of them nationalist, like those mentioned above, others, with a more “universal” message: the Satanists, the Diogenists—who live inside barrels posted in front of the City Hall—and the followers of the Son of the Archangel Michael. Often, they would enter in conflict, and then a TV camera would appear to record the conflict—a normal occurrence in any country with a free media. What is a less normal occurrence is the fight between the female newscasters on TV described in all its juicy details: hair pulling, etc. This occurrence is, again, barely an exaggeration of the Romanian reality, where a few years ago, during a televised discussion, a political candidate was compared to a bidet by her interlocutor, who concluded his comparison by throwing a glass of water in the “bidet’s” face and by deploring the rudeness of the political climate in the country—all in one breath.
Some readers may be slightly disconcerted because Coming from an Off-Key Time moves between several aesthetic visions, from realism to magical realism to political satire. Like other Eastern European writers, Romanian writers are very aware of their marginal position in the world and thus more open to various influences than Western writers tend to be. In Suceava’s novel one can detect at times South American influences (Mario Vargas Llosa in particular), at other times, Russian influences, and—for those familiar with Romanian literature—many famous voices from Romanian modernism. Born in 1969, Suceava is, obviously, indebted to the writers that his generation used to read in Romania. From this point of view he has remained very attached to his roots, in spite of the fact that after coming of age during communism and witnessing the anti-communist revolution, he immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineties. He now teaches mathematics at CSU Fullerton, but continues to write in Romanian, and most of his readers are in Romania, where he is regarded as one of the most interesting writers of his generation.
Although Coming from an Off-Key Time is very captivating and suspenseful, the ending almost doesn’t matter. By the time we get there, we are under the impression that we’ve taken a ride in a house of distorted mirrors, and what ending can beat the fun of such a ride?
Daniela Hurezanu writes essays and reviews for Rain Taxi, The Chattahoochee Review, American Book Review, Women’s Review of Books, Three Percent and Words without Borders. Her translation of Raymond Queneau’s EyeSeas was published by Black Widow Press in 2008.