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Review: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian, translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Romanian writer’s remarkable second novel is well served by a graceful, eloquent translation

As well as attending lectures and weighing the wisdom offered by the professors, Jewish students in 1920s Romania, such as the narrator of Mihail Sebastian’s philosophical second novel, must accept their daily beatings, along with relentless verbal abuse. It lends a surreal fatalistic edge to their lives as well as to this eerily prophetic work.

When For Two Thousand Years was first published, in 1934, much attention was focused on the viciously anti-Semitic foreword written for the first edition by Sebastian’s mentor, the philosopher Nae Ionescu. Mihail Sebastian was attacked from both sides; some denounced him for being anti-Semitic, while others saw him as a Zionist. His great mistake was his apparent passivity which was interpreted as acceptance bordering on ambivalence. Even before Hitler initiated the slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population, Romania had begun the process of murdering more than 300,000 of its own Jews.

The novel’s central character is a young loner destined to remain an outsider. Even his friends consider Jews a threat to the Romanian spirit. He is a dreamer more content with observing than taking action. Irish writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh brings grace and eloquence to the engaging first-person voice as well as an understanding of the culture. It is a brilliant translation of a most unusual novel in which Ó Ceallaigh conveys the laconic personality of the narrator, an apprentice thinker firmly rooted in European intellectualism, whose thoughts drift between the profound and the ordinary.

Landmark publication

Sebastian’s journals recalling the years 1935-1944 were heralded as a landmark publication on finally appearing in Romania in 1996, only three years before a US edition was available. For Two Thousand Years is similar in tone and consolidates Arthur Miller’s comment about Sebastian’s candour. Considering the seriousness of his subject and his awareness of religious persecution he also had an impressive lightness of touch, evident in plays such as Holiday Game (1938), Nameless Star or The Star Without a Name (1944) and The Last Hour (1945). Ó Ceallaigh is sensitive to a profound humanity which had its share of whimsy. Sebastian’s young man likes women and is not immune to having a good time.

In the opening sections describing the student life of the 1920s, the narrator is a youth besotted by one of his professors, a character named Ghita Blidaru, based on Nae Ionescu. The narrator initially does not seem to feel particularly Jewish, but he does have an affinity for the Danube, he thinks about his grandparents, enjoys browsing in book stores, believes that the only real victories we win are against ourselves and confides his musings in his notebook.

His hero-worship of Blidaru infiltrates his mind: “I will understand later, when I’m older, what kind of thinker Blidaru is. But I already know he is a great artist.”

The sense of certainty, however vague, makes the narrator sympathetic, particularly in his panic when attempting to converse with his hero: “I walked nervously beside him, eager to cut through his small talk to interject the questions I want to ask, the things I don’t clearly understand but which seem so compelling . . .” Every attempt he makes to formulate a coherent sentence ends in failure. Yet Blidaru, who appears to have a parallel response to the world, advises the student to become an architect, which he does.

The line between fiction and conversational autobiography simply dissolves as the narrator delves ever deeper into his understanding of Jewishness and the novel, with historical hindsight, becomes a meditation increasingly interspersed with dialogue and astute polemic.

Compelling character

One of the most compelling characters is Abraham Sulitzer, an elderly bookseller whom the narrator first notices on a train. Later they meet again and the narrator, still seeking answers, visits the old man’s home. “He shows me an entire library, full of surprises. A Yiddish translation of Cervantes, Molière, Shakespeare. And nearer to us, Galsworthy,Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Thomas Hardy. I’m amazed, he is triumphant.” For the narrator Yiddish appears to be “A culture in dialect? European culture in dialect. Why? For whom?” Sulitzer’s outrage is obvious: “Dialect! Broken German! A ghetto language: that’s what Yiddish is to you. If I told you it was a language, neither a beautiful or ugly one, but a living one, through which people have suffered and sung for hundreds of years . . . dialect indeed! It’s a living language with nerves and blood.”

Time passes and the narrator has become an architect. A village is uprooted to facilitate a project involving the oil business. The locals are distressed by the destruction of their plum trees. Meanwhile an entire culture is facing destruction.

Sebastian was born Iosif Hechter, in 1907. The highly cerebral life of this admittedly unconventional novelist of memory and sensation reveals the originality of his thinking. A busy writer, he also worked intermittently as a lawyer. He was friendly with philosopher and historian Mircea Eliade, whose autobiographical novel Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent will be published for the first time in April. Eliade’s support of the fascist Iron Guard would dismay Sebastian and increase his sense of isolation in anti-Semitic Romania.

For Two Thousand Years is a book of truths which ultimately adopts a rhetorical stance. “Yet I wish you could recognize at least that the essence of anti-Semitism is neither of a religious, political nor an economic nature,” says the narrator, in the course of a long conversation with a colleague. “I believe it is purely metaphysical in nature . . . The Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested. That’s his role in the world. Why? I don’t know. His curse. His fate . . . I don’t say this out of pride or defiance. On the contrary, I say it with sadness, weariness and bitterness . . . If we could be exterminated, that would be very good. It would be simple, in any case. But this isn’t possible either . . .”

He is always reasonable; as is the narrative.

Having survived the Holocaust, Mihail Sebastian, while crossing a Bucharest street on May 29th 1945, to give a lecture on Balzac, was killed by a truck. He was 37.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent