The Encounter by Gabriela Adamesteanu review: search for an elusive home
A subtle but daring novel tells of a Romanian emigrant who can never return
History half-remembered: a soldier guards what used to be the palace of president Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest, Romania. Photograph: Kevin Weaver/Getty
Gabriela Adamesteanu, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Dalkey Archive Press
Yet again, as always, he finds himself on a speeding train and an official is approaching, demanding a ticket, identity papers, some proof of an existence that will be acceptable. A familiar sense of panic swells up: “The eyes of the people in the compartment are fixed on you: are they looking? Are they not looking?” None of it matters because it will come back to haunt him; the same old dream in all its variations, always the same fear.
Romanian Gabriela Adamesteanu’s daring, allusive novel reads as a series of dreams merged with vivid memories. At its centre is Prof Traian Manu, an academic who left his native country many years earlier, before the door of communism slammed shut. In his dreams he has returned many times, only no one ever remembers him: “It is me, your son, brother, nephew, uncle, son-in-law. “
Protest away, but no one recognises him, and the logic confronting him has echoes of Lewis Carroll: “How good it would be if it were you, but it cannot be you! If it were you, you would not be here, with us, you would be far away! If it were you, you would be on the Other Side! You would be as if dead!”
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Even when he joins them sitting around a table, always a table, they all whisper among themselves and ask: “Whose son do you say you are?” Manu is doomed to be an outcast, yet he left by choice and realises that however much he tries, he can never return home, because home is no more. Even his long-dead mother asks him: “What do you want, stranger?”
Whatever about the prevailing images of train carriages, the actual reality is even more confined. He is a passenger in a car being driven by a tense, angry woman, his wife, a woman preoccupied by her horrors, her guilt and a wartime past.
It is a subtle prism of a novel that speeds along, much as the nightmare trains. The scene is constantly changing and Manu, the central character, is very passive, little more than a passenger. The surest key to grasping Adamesteanu’s several meanings rests in an image of shrouded mirrors. No one is really sure of anything, least of all how much time has passed or how the characters have changed. There is also Manu’s love of Homer’s Odyssey, his favourite poem and greatest comfort in life. Adamesteanu makes effective use of this in bringing Manu alive, as he is a quiet personality and far from being a man of action, although, ironically, he does preoccupy the authorities who provide much of the humour in a novel that shifts intriguingly – and unexpectedly – between personal tragedy and black comedy.
“What I have just discovered,” wrote Romanian master Mircea Eliade, “is that the chance to become a new Ulysses is given any exile whatsoever (precisely because he has been condemned by the gods, that is, by the ‘powers’ that decide historical, earthly destinies) But to realise this, the exile must be capable of penetrating the hidden meaning of his wanderings . . .”
Adamesteanu quotes this as an epigraph that also shapes the narrative. The Encounter was first published in Romania as recently as 2013 and Alistair Ian Blyth’s symphonic translation conveys the various tone shifts of the several narrative viewpoints engaged with piecing together the story as the novel balances the melancholic with the farcical.
The mild-mannered professor is caught up in his thoughts, aware of his position in returning to his homeland: “ . . . I’m a foreign citizen, I enjoy the protection of my adopted country, and what’s more, my former colleague Alexandru Stan, who I mentioned, has a good deal of influence. And I can vouch for him: after all, we’ve known each other since the age of 20, since we went abroad to study . . .” Only Stan did return. This proves crucial.
Set in the dying days of the Ceausescu regime, the cracks are already obvious, yet still the Securitate is intent on sending out agents to gather often false information. A case is being constructed against Manu. The evidence is flimsy: “I met Manu around the year 1944. He was studying at the Sorbonne . . . I had no relations with him of any kind. I know nothing about his political activities. I do not know the persons with whom he was in contact in Romania or abroad apart from his colleague Stan Alexandru, with whom he came to the legation to extend his visa. He said he wanted to go to America. It is thereby evident that he was engaging in actions hostile to our people’s democratic government.”
While Manu is at a remove from the world from which he came and is dominating not only the high-speed exchanges of the confused officials – one of whom waits until he is alone in his office so he can “put his feet up on the desk, like an American” – the members of his extended family offer their extremely contrasting versions of Manu’s personal history. For this, Adamesteanu, who enjoys playing voices and tone shifts, summons a chorus-like communal voice that contradicts every fact. This confusion proves curiously helpful in establishing a very real sense of a society in upheaval.
The plight of young Daniel, a most perceptive onlooker whose future at the university is derailed following the death of one of his friends during a late-night party, has echoes of Nobel literature laureate Herta Müller’s far darker and more surreal The Land of Green Plums (1993; translated by Michael Hofmann). Adamesteanu possesses a lighter touch than Muller, her humour is more benign, yet still sufficiently barbed to make a point.
During the exchanges between Manu and his fraught wife, Christa, the widow of her dead sister’s former fiance, it is easy to recall Saul Bellow’s late middle-period novel The Dean’s December (1982) in the edgy marital banter that is convincingly, at times touchingly, handled. Bellow was a colleague of Eliade at the University of Chicago. Manu is an Everyman figure, alert to the ways of men and also to how a life takes shape: “Beneath the weary gentleness of his gaze, there is expectation, disquiet. His pupils flicker for an instant, uncertainly, and then his face relaxes: he hastens to laugh. ‘I am afraid that half a century may have passed since I left there to begin my life here! And when you go back, it is always as if in a dream: the same houses, the same streets except they are smaller, shrunken.’”
Adamesteanu’s kindly wanderer, an academic, not a warrior, is no less heroic for being one and is also sympathetic. The mirrors may be shrouded, yet the various reflections of lives and experiences are there to be seen, catching the light as so many truths slowly emerge from fragments of memory and half-remembered, never-forgotten facts.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent