Daily Archives: 14 July 2008

Baciu on Writing a “Double Autobiography”

From Mira, by Stefan Baciu (Editura Mele, 1979), pp. v-vii (my translation):

Here is a book that I never in my whole life would have thought to write, or if I had ever thought to write it, I would have imagined something completely different from that which was imposed by the cruel circumstances I lived through from August 1977.

It was a warm night in Assisi, in Italy, where we had gone on a kind of pilgrimage, arriving from Cascia, which we had visited so that Mira could thank Santa Rita, the patron saint of impossible tasks, when I was awakened by the cries of pain from Mira, who always took great care not to “disturb” me. In the course of the events I relate in this book, it will be seen what began to happen from that night in Assisi, and if I refer back to it, it is only to express my conviction that her illness began from that time—and that place, even though four full months plodded by until, in Honolulu, the worst came to pass in all its horror.

No matter how paradoxical it may seem at first glance, this book is very much autobiographical, because from the moment we first got to know each other, in Bucharest in 1941, our lives have united to such an extant that I am unable to separate them.

I write these words after finishing the last page of a work of daily labor over a period of five months, at my worktable in Honolulu, in the house in which we lived from 1967, where Mira installed me in the quietest and most picturesque corner, so that I would have, in her words, “the one place where no one disturbs you.” Inasmuch as I have published since 1946 books written directly in German, Portuguese, and Spanish, I found after I had started this task, that the words I had committed to paper wrote themselves in Romanian, and of course I asked, “Why?”

I did not have to look far for the answer, because it arrived on its own: the pages that follow were written alone, dictated by Mira, with whom I always spoke Romanian, even when we were trying one or two days a week to speak Portuguese, which was—and is—second only to Romanian for us.

I began to write this “double autobiography” at the beginning of August 1978, and only a few days after I had begun to work, I realized that a month had passed since Mira left me, and I wanted her to remain with me—forever. If I had tried to write these words in Spanish or in Portuguese, many of the thoughts and deeds that I was transcribing would not have been written, or would have been written differently, for the good reason that Mira would not have dictated them to me thus, in those languages.

Throughout the final years, every time we talked about my work projects, Mira would tell me, and repeat with insistence, that my “mission” was to write my memoirs, which at her suggestion I entitled (for the years in Romania, 1918–1946) “Dust on the Drum,” a title inspired by my bohemian jeunesse at the Mercury, hearing the words of my “Uncle” Nicu Theodoru-Chibrit, a mythological figure, today, from a past even more mythological. During the summers, when I stayed alone in Honolulu instead of accompanying her on pilgrimages through Greece, Italy, and France, I would fill notebook after notebook of “Dust on the Drum,” work that served as a kind of extenuating circumstance every time she criticized my absence.

Books of memories and books of poetry, such pages cannot be written except in the language in which they were lived, dreamed, and endured. It falls on me to be the stenographer of our love and tragedy, just as I’ve reached 60, on the date Mira would enjoy so much, without being able to foresee that we would not be destined to spend that day together, and that I, “exiled alone on the other shore” in the words of my old friend, the symbolist poet Eugeniu Sperantia, would be forced, even on this day, to be the chronicler of my own misfortune.

Our life together was fundamentally, as they told me so often, 37 years of happiness, even if that happiness was overshadowed more than a few times by hurt and sometimes by illness. If I weigh it here and now, at the end of this ill-fated 1978, I find that sickness and pain were way stations on a long journey, too short, nonetheless, that started on a boulevard in Bucharest and ended on a bed in a convalescent hospital on an island in the Sandwich Archipelago.

Often, when we used to travel by train or by car from Bucharest to Brasov, passing through Câmpina, I thought that we should get off to see the “castle” of Hasdeu, where the bearded savant, the poet full of spirit and the pamphleteer full of vigor, buried his pain, seeking a pathway to the stars. Oh, how many times these days have I envied Hasdeu for his castle in Câmpina, where I know that he “spoke” with his Julia! Sitting on the terrace of our house in Honolulu, from which for so many tens and hundreds of hours we watched together the unparalleled sunsets over the Pacific, a fascinating and winning spectacle, I wish I could, like Hasdeu, talk with Her. It was for that reason that, more than once, I climbed the steps at night that lead from her room onto the terrace, expecting to meet her sitting in her armchair. to see her, or to hear her talk to me! It was not to happen!

It was still two days before Christmas when I visited the cemetery in Makiki where Mira sleeps the eternal sleep alongside the “Nightingale of the Pacific,” Lena Machado. I fastened onto a tropical plant, using a safety pin, the little parchment on which were depicted two wanderers with fur hats and sheepskin cloaks holding up a star, in order to fulfill the wish of her cousin, Ligia, and I thought that the day, or night, may nevertheless come when Mira will come talk with me or tell me something.

Until then, I can do nothing but await these secret dictations, which—alas—are about to end, as the year ends. Nothing remains in her life, in our life, not an episode that will not be relayed with full sincerity and honesty.

Starting life, against her innermost desires, as a pharmacist, Mira was by nature gifted with an extraordinary literary and artistic sensitivity, which sooner or later revealed itself, line by line, in poetry and in prose, in critical research and in teaching. Already near the end of her earthly cycle, she exploded with a richness that amazed everyone, in painting with a force that I regarded, and still regard, as sleepwalking. It lasted just eight months, from April to November 1978.

I do not know if these pages constitute a biography, a love story, or an adventure novel, but I know that they contain not a line, not a word that is not absolutely, precisely the truth. I had for almost four decades the privilege of knowing her and loving her and sharing with her day by day, night by night, moment by moment, bread and water, tears and pain, smiles and happiness. I was, in Bucharest, in Râmnicu Vâlcea, in Brasov, the escort who accompanied her on the most unexpected trails, to Bern and to Lugano, in Senegal and in Honduras, up the Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro and the Grand Canyon of Kauai.

Her disappearance has left me a widower and an orphan and I know that from now on, however life turns out, neither the bread nor the water nor the pain nor the tears will any longer—ever—be the same, that the days without Her will not have the same color or the same flavor.

I cannot entitle this book anything but “Mira,” even though a more fitting title might be found in the German “als wärs ein Stück von mir,” from the ballad of Uhland about “the good comrade” who, struck down by a bullet on the battlefield, falls at the feet of the one who survives “as if it were a piece of myself.” However, those words were borrowed earlier by a German memorialist, the playwright Karl Zuckmayer. On top of that, how would a title in German really sit with Mira, who, wherever and however she might present herself, was always Mira from Râmnicu Vâlcea or “the lass from the Olt” [River], as she wrote me on a photograph on the day she was naturalized as a citizen of the United States?

Of all the books that I have written in 45 years, this one is the most painful and the loftiest, because apart from being Mira’s book, it is at the same time, her life and mine, our life.

Honolulu, 24 December 1978, the first Christmas without Her

NOTES: My ‘cries of pain’ renders vaietele de durere (vai ‘alas, woe’, as in oy vey); ‘arrived on its own’ renders a venit de la sine; ‘bohemian jeunesse’ renders juneţea boemă (usu. junime); ‘Dust on the Drum’ renders Praful de pe tobă; ‘uncle’ renders nea (= nene); ‘more than a few times’ renders nu rareori (lit. ‘not rarely’); ‘way stations’ renders staţii pasagere; Câmpina was formerly a customs point between Transylvania and Wallachia; Hasdeu was a spiritist/spiritualist, as well as a noted historian and philologist; ‘the eternal sleep’ renders somnul de veci (lit. ‘sleep of centuries’); ‘with fur hats and sheepskin cloaks’ renders cu căciula şi suman (the traditional dress of Romanian shepherds); ‘in teaching’ renders în docenţă; ‘however life turns out’ renders oricum ar fi să fie viaţa; ‘the lass from the Olt’ renders lelea de pe Olt (the meaning of lele ranges from ‘sister, aunt’ to ‘libertine, whore’).

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