Category Archives: literature

Baciu’s Early Exile Network

From Mira, by Ştefan Baciu (Honolulu: Editura Mele, 1979 [also Bucuresti: Editura Albatros, 1998], p. iii (my translation):

I dedicate this “Double Autobiography” to our Brazilian friends, departed but always present:

and to those in Hispanic America, just as present:

and to the memory of our friends:

    Grigore Cugler/“Apunake” (d. in Lima)
    Mircea Popescu (d. in Rome)
    Horia Tănăsescu (d. in San Francisco)
    Ion Oană-Potecaşu (d. in São Paulo)
    N. I. Herescu (d. in Zurich)
    Alexandru Busuioceanu (d. in Madrid)
    Aron Cotruş (d. in California)

It is perhaps not too surprising that the Romanian exiles are not well represented in Wikipedia. Baciu himself has a longer biography in Spanish Wikipedia than in either Romanian or English. Exiles tend to fall between the cracks. Who feels responsible for documenting their lives, people in their countries of exile or the ones they left behind? In the case of literary exiles, it depends who reads their work. I believe that Baciu devoted half of his own separate volume of memoirs (Praful de pe toba) to sketches of his old mentors and colleagues precisely in order to ensure that they would not be entirely forgotten.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who just passed away, spent time in both domestic internal and foreign exile. The English translations of his early classics like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, and August 1914 had a major influence on my understanding of what the Soviet system was all about, an understanding that was reinforced and enriched by my year in Romania in 1983-84. (I did not read The Gulag Archipelago, but have blogged passages of several books about Gulags more recently.) Solzhenitsyn is not regarded quite the same way in his country of exile as in his country of origin, and his obsessions also evolved differently at home and abroad. He lived more than two lives, perhaps even as many as nine.

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Filed under biography, Brazil, Latin America, literature, migration, North America, Romania, Russia, USSR

Baciu’s Memories of Brasov: Birth, Baptism, Spitz Palota

From Praful de pe Tobă: Memorii 1918-1946, by Stefan Baciu (Editura Mele, 1980), pp. 4-5 (my translation):

I was born in Brasov on 29 October 1918, in the last days in which the Austro-Hungarian monarchy gave up its ghost, in other words, at the end of the era that Emil Cioran called “the Time of Franz Joseph.” My birthday was the day Czechoslovakia was declared independent, so the Republic of Czechoslovakia and I are of the same age. Father had just returned from the front and Mother was still living in her parents’ house, located in the center of the city, maybe 500 meters from the Council House. The house in which my grandparents were living—and I know it still exists in 1980—was an old building, with a stairway I remember as dark, at the corner of two streets, Michael Weiss and Prundul Florilor (Rosenanger), but their rooms were upstairs, with windows overlooking both streets. I heard that Michael Weiss was changed—horribile dictu—into Red Army. Of Prundul Florilor I know nothing, but I would not object, nor would I be all that surprised, if some day, even a day certain, this street might bear my name.

I was baptized with the name Ştefan Aurel in the orthodox church in the “Fortress” (Council Plaza) by Father Nicolae Furnică on 19 January 1919, as evidenced in Vol. III, page 75, no. 4 of the Baptismal Registry, my godparents being Dr. Nicolae Popovici and wife, professor at Andrei Şaguna High School, later at the Theological Academy of Arad. (A detail: their daughter Lucia, with whom I used to play as a child, and whom I have never seen since, married Nicolae Aloman, who published a few fragments of very interesting prose in the first series of Biletelor de Papagal [Of the Parrot Tickets?], which fact was later communicated to me by Lucia Aloman in a few letters during the 1930s.)

Soon after my birth, my parents moved into rooms on a street that begins right at the Council Plaza, reaching as far as the Promenade, strada Vămii [Customs Street]. The house was the second or third on the left as you headed toward the Promenade. You couldn’t see it from the street, as it was a large building at the back of a paved courtyard, reached by way of a long corridor or gang. It was named, solemnly, Spitz Palace (Spitz Palota) after the name of the owner (Spitz-bácsi), a gentleman who seemed to me very old (how old could he have been?), with white mustaches and a bowler hat [gambetă]. The apartments opened onto long balconies on the right, perhaps three stories high, overlooking the courtyard. The building also had an exit at the back, which gave onto the Graft Valley, through a gloomy corridor, along which were aligned some cellars that seemed immense to me, in which they stored wood for the winter, which used to be cut with a machine that made a monotonous sound by Mr. Stroescu, from the Gypsy quarter.

From Spitz Palace, I remember the concierge Borescu, typographer in the workshop of the Hungarian newspaper Brassoi Lapok, which had a boy of about my age, Puiu, with whom I used to play in the courtyard. Puiu used to suffer massive beatings from time to time with a belt that Mr. Borescu used to pull from his waist, yelling as loud as his mouth could bear while his father would administer the beating: “Father, daddy, mother, mommy, grandma, dear mama!” Then one day he fell sick, I think from tubercular meningitis. I see from our balcony the black umbrella under which they used to lay Puiu in the sun, stretched on blankets, until one day the umbrella no longer appeared, and I found that Puiu had died. He was the first death of my childhood.

On the same floor as us, in rooms overlooking Customs Street, used to live Wilhelm and Emilie Schreiber, a pair of sad and withdrawn millionaires (I think their only child had died while still a baby), the co-owners of the factory Scherg. “Onkel Willi” used to come and go from the factory by carriage, which seemed to me fabulous, and “Tante Emilie” would sometimes play on the piano melodies as melancholic as she was, looking after the flowers in the pots on the terrace, which in their absence I used to water with an immense watering can, receiving as recompense a book with a dedication written in impeccable gothic calligraphy, which I can still see. At Easter, I used to go “watering” (darf ich spritzen?), receiving from her the first chocolate eggs and mandarin oranges, which had been brought the day before, in large packages, from the Hessheimer grocery.

NOTE: Baciu’s adjective describing the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, chezarocrăiască, gave me a lot of trouble. I couldn’t find it anywhere until I tried its masculine singular form, which is more commonly rendered as cezaro-crăiesc, equivalent to German kaiserlich-königlich, lit. ‘imperial-royal’, respectively describing the Austrian and Hungarian thrones. As an educated Transylvanian, Baciu’s Romanian is sometimes Germanified. For instance, he says that in high school his friends called themselves ştudenţi, with a German sh, and not studenţi as in standard Romanian. That may be why he rendered cezar ‘caesar, emperor’ as chezar ‘Kaiser’. The Romanian translation of königlich in this construction comes from crai, a Slavic term for ‘prince’ that is nowadays especially common in fairy tales (basme), as is its feminine equivalent crăiasă ‘princess’.

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Baciu’s Memories of Brasov: Introduction

From Praful de pe Tobă: Memorii 1918-1946, by Stefan Baciu (Editura Mele, 1980), pp. 3-4 (my translation):

From the Bank of Flowers to the Sandwich Archipelago

I write this autobiographical sketch in my study in Honolulu, in a spot on the globe where I would never have been able to imagine that I would live thirty years ago, when I was living in what the Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva would call “the Romania of my birth.”

At this moment as I look outside, I hear a parrot sitting on a branch of the lemon tree in front of my window, while on the facing hillside one can see two Chinese cemeteries, their gravestones low and gray, hardly visible in the grass. Only occasionally, at the odd burial or religious ceremony, can one hear crackles and pops of devices designed to drive away bad spirits. In back of the hill rises a volcano long extinct—called Punchbowl in English, Puowaina in Hawaiian—in the crater of which lie the heroes fallen in battles in the Pacific, the Punchbowl National Cemetery. To the left and right of the cemetery stretch the infinite waters of the Pacific.

From below, in Pauoa Valley, where children play baseball and football, one hears the shouts of those leaping into the swimming pool, but the houses are all lost in the gardens of abundant greenery, especially in this year full of heavy and frequent rainfall.

I note these summary facts of a possible autobiography of tomorrow, not to rediscover my old self of yesterday and the day before, of Brasov, Bucharest, Bern, Rio de Janeiro and Seattle, because that I can do more easily through poetry.

I want, on the one hand, to fix certain guideposts for a possible autobiography sometime later, and—more importantly—I do it in order to avoid errors, omissions, misunderstandings or interpretations to which might be subjected the life of a man whose life unfolded over the last decades (1946–1980), in such countries and regions, in such terrains and latitudes, that any confusions could be explained as due primarily to lack of information.

In a world in which even some “experts” say that Mexico lies in “South America,” and in which it is seldom realized that the city of Honolulu is situated on the island of Oahu, it would not be remarkable some time in the future (and perhaps not all that long into the future) for legends to arise that I wish to prevent, at least to the extent I am able.

NOTE: I’ve translated Prundul Florilor, the former name of a street in Brasov, as ‘Bank of Flowers’, since the primary meaning for prund seems to be ‘gravel’ or ‘gravelly bank of a river’. But the German name for the same street in Brasov was Rosenanger ‘Rosemeadow’ (or ‘Rosedale’?). Better suggestions are welcome.

UPDATE: By coincidence, the Brasov country library has just started hosting a literary exhibit entitled Ştefan Baciu între Ulise şi Don Quijote.

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Gorky: ‘We need more camps like Solovetsky’

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 192-194:

In August 1933, a ‘brigade’ of 120 leading Soviet writers went on a boat tour of the White Sea Canal organized by Semyon Firin, the OGPU commander of the labour camps at the canal. The idea of the trip had its origins in a meeting that took place in Maksim Gorky‘s Moscow house in October 1932, at which a number of the country’s leading writers discussed the tasks of literature with several Politburo members, including Stalin, and other Party functionaries. In one of the earliest statements of the Socialist Realist doctrine, Gorky called for a heroic literature to match the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plans, and Stalin, who compared the Soviet writers to ‘engineers of the human soul’, proposed a tour of the canal to inspire them. Everything was organized by OGPU. ‘From the minute we became the guests of the Chekists, complete Communism began for us,’ the writer Aleksandr Avdeyenko later commented ironically. ‘We were given food and drink on demand. We paid nothing. Smoked sausage, cheeses, caviar, fruit, chocolate, wines and cognac – all was in plentiful supply. And this was a year of famine.’…

The writers had different reasons for colluding in this legitimation of the Gulag. No doubt there were some who believed in the Stalinist ideal of perekovka, the remoulding of the human soul through penal labour….

Gorky was also a believer. He never visited the White Sea Canal. But this was no obstacle to his glowing praise of it in the book commissioned by OGPU (just as ignorance was no obstacle to foreign socialists, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who also praised the canal as ‘a great engineering feat … a triumph in human regeneration’ in 1935). Having spent the 1920s in the West, Gorky had returned to the Soviet Union on the first of several summer trips in 1928 and had settled there for good in 1931. The ‘great Soviet writer’ was showered with honours; he was given as his residence the famous Riabushinsky mansion in Moscow; two large dachas; private servants (who turned out to be OGPU spies); and supplies of special foods from the same police department that catered for Stalin. So perhaps it is not surprising that Gorky failed to see the immense human suffering that lay behind the ‘grand achievements’ of the Five Year Plan. In the summer of 1929, Gorky had visited the Solovetsky labour camp. The writer was so impressed by what he was shown by his OGPU guides that he wrote an article in which he claimed that many of the prisoners had been reformed by their labour in the camp and loved their work so much that they wanted to remain on the island after the completion of their sentences. ‘The conclusion is obvious to me,’ Gorky wrote: ‘we need more camps like Solovetsky.’

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Naipaul on Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the Guardian V. S. Naipaul looks back on his evolution as a writer.

I had no great love for [Trinidad], no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.

So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.

But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn’t know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow.

The practice of fiction couldn’t help me. Fiction is best done from within and out of great knowledge. In the larger world I was an outsider; I didn’t know enough and would never know enough. After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.

via Arts & Letters Daily

When I finished high school I wanted to be a writer, and I studied journalism when I first started college (before dropping out). But I had already discovered that I couldn’t write very convincing dialogue, and my journalism professor told me I wrote in a very “scientific” style. So I ended up writing analytical essays, academic arguments, and—much later—travelogues. My youngest brother is the fiction-writer in the family, as was our maternal grandmother, who alternated between school-teaching and (mostly religious) writing.

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Pamuk on the Assassination of Writers

Ka took some consolation in imagining that his poems might be translated into German and published in Akzent magazine, but it was still perfectly clear to him that should this article in the [eastern Anatolian] Border City Gazette prove to be the death of him, the published translations would mean nothing….

The many writers killed in recent years by Islamist bullets paraded before his eyes: first the old preacher-turned-atheist who had tried to point out “inconsistencies” in the Koran (they’d shot him from behind, in the head); behind him came the righteous columnist whose love of positivism had led him to refer in a number of columns to girls wearing head scarves as “cockroaches” (they’d strafed him and his chauffer one morning as he drove to work); then there was the investigative journalist who had tenaciously sought to uncover the links between the Turkish Islamist movement and Iran (when he turned on the ignition, he and his car went sailing into the sky). Even as he recalled these victims with tender sorrow, he knew they’d been naïve. As a rule the Istanbul press, like the Western press, had little interest in these fervent columnists and even less in journalists apt to get shot in the head for similar reasons on a backstreet of some remote Anatolian city. But Ka reserved his bile for a society that so easily forgot its writers and poets: For this reason he thought the smartest thing to do was retreat into a corner and try to find some happiness.

SOURCE: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2004), pp. 296-297

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Pamuk on Political Means, Personal Ends

“The question is this: Speaking as the Communist modernizing secularist democratic patriot I now am, what should I put first, the enlightenment or the will of the people? If I believe first and foremost in the European enlightenment, I am obliged to see the Islamists as my enemies and support this military coup. If, however, my first commitment is to the will of the people—if, in other words, I’ve become an unadulterated democrat—I have no choice but to go ahead and sign that statement [condemning the coup]. Which of the things I’ve said is true?”

“Take the side of the oppressed and go sign that statement,” said Ka.

“It’s not enough to be oppressed, you must also be in the right. Most oppressed people are in the wrong to an almost ridiculous degree. What shall I believe in?”

“Ka doesn’t believe in anything,” said Ipek.

“Everyone believes in something,” said Turgut Bey. “Please, tell me what you think.”

Ka did his best to convince Turgut Bey that if he signed the statement he would be doing his bit to help Kars move toward democracy. Sensing a strong possibility that Ipek might not want to go to Frankfurt with him, he started to worry that he might fail to convince Turgut Bey to leave the hotel [to go sign the statement]. To express beliefs without conviction was liberating. As he nattered on about the statement, about issues of democracy, human rights, and many other things that were news to none of them, he saw a light shining in Ipek’s eyes that told him she didn’t believe a thing he was saying. But it wasn’t a shaming, moralistic light he saw; quite the contrary, it was a gleam of sexual provocation. Her eyes said, I know you’re spouting all these lies because you want me.

So it was that, just minutes after discovering the importance of melodramatic sensibilities, Ka decided he’d discovered a second great truth that had eluded him all his life: There are women who can’t resist a man who believes in nothing but love. Overcome with excitement at this new discovery, he launched into a further monologue about human rights, freedom of thought, democracy, and related subjects. And as he mouthed the wild simplifications of so many well-intentioned but shameless and slightly addled Western intellectuals and the platitudes repeated verbatim by their Turkish imitators, he thrilled to the knowledge that he might soon be making love to Ipek [once her father was away signing the statement] and all the while stared straight into her eyes to see the reflection of his own excitement.

SOURCE: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2004), pp. 242-243

Also see Danny Yee’s review of Snow.

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