By the late 1980s, government surveillance had become an accepted part of life in Romania. The Securitate, President Nicolae Ceaușescu’s secret police, tapped civilian telephones, bugged civilian homes, and had a permanent desk at virtually every business establishment in the country. This didn’t happen in response to a guerilla insurgency or a growth in terrorism. Ceaușescu and his cronies were simply paranoid. At the height of his regime, one in thirty Romanians was on the Securitate’s payroll. Anyone was potentially guilty, anyone potentially a spy.
A young translator named Herta Müller, for example, attracted the Securitate’s attention because her debut collection of short stories featured “tendentious distortions of realities in the country, particularly in the village environment.” Soon after its release, she was arbitrarily fired from her government job. After that, her best friend was strong-armed into spying on her. When that didn’t work—Müller found a duplicated set of her own house keys in her friend’s suitcase—her apartment was bugged. Such activities were often followed by violent government intervention, but Müller’s fledgling literary success served as her shield. Realizing that she wasn’t safe in Romania, she fled to Berlin in 1987. She has lived there ever since.
In a 2009 essay that reflected on her experiences with the Securitate, Müller wrote, “For me, each journey to Romania is a journey into another time, in which I never knew which events in my life were coincidence and which were staged.” What she’s describing here is a toxic existential condition, one shared by innumerable exiles from police states. It is also shared by the fictional Professor Manu Traian, a long-time Romanian exile based in Italy, and the protagonist of Gabriela Adameşteanu’s novel The Encounter, newly translated by Alistair Ian Blyth.
Adameşteanu is one of Romania’s foremost post-war literary figures: a writer known both for her books and for her opposition to Ceaușescu’s regime. (Unlike Herta Müller and Norman Manea, other major authors of her generation, Adameşteanu never left Romania; she stayed and worked at Group for Social Dialogue, an influential dissident NGO.) With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that she possesses the two basic skills of a political novelist: an ability to conjure the numbing nightmare that is history, and a desire to wake us up from it. As readers, our role is to observe how she combines these skills.
In Wasted Morning, her best-known novel (and the only other translated into English) Adameşteanu reconstructs seven decades of Romanian history by detailing one day in the charming, gossipy consciousness of Vica Delca, a seventy-year old working-class woman born soon after the Second World War. This is achieved through a modernist interweaving of past and present, as well as of memory and desire, into a single, seamless story. Vica will be talking to her upper-class employer, for instance, when her thoughts and memories spiral away to reflect on the communist purges and counter-purges that so affected her employer’s parents. Adameşteanu deploys a similar technique in The Encounter. Only this time, history is channeled through the alternating perspectives of a timeworn marriage.
The Encounter opens with a terrifying scene: an unnamed man, addressed here in what can be called the "close second tense" is traveling on a train when he hears soldiers approaching: “You burst out of the apartment and break into a run, behind you, you hear the soldiers’ boots, your pajamas are unbuttoned and your half-shaven face is lathered in foam. At speed you bump into the walls and their shiny, smoky, dark windows . . . and the strange faces gaze at you tensely, you are running, running, running!"
But before you prepare yourself for a noir thriller, know that none of this is real. It is late 1989, and our protagonist has fallen asleep in the most peaceful of circumstances: beside his wife Christa in the family car. Internally, however, Manu is far away—suffering a nightmare about the Romanian Securitate. Or rather nightmares within nightmares about the Securitate. Manu runs down the train followed by the soldiers. Just as they catch him, he wakes up, only to find himself on a new train, chased by a new set of soldiers. This cycle of psychic border crossings makes for an opening chapter of gripping and hallucinatory prose writing, a sort of vortex through which we descend into Manu’s paranoid consciousness.
I say "paranoid" because Manu doesn’t actually have much first-hand knowledge about Ceaușescu’s Romania. Indeed, he hasn’t been back home in decades. A working-class boy born in the 1920s in the rural town of Cărbunești, Manu tenaciously earned himself a place at Bucharest’s best lycée, and then went onto paid graduate positions in Italy and France. But the communists took over Romania when he was away, and with growing unease (the country had never been kind to him anyway) he delayed and delayed his return. Years became decades. The exchange student became an exile. And then the sort of exile that never returns home.
Things, however, are about to change—as they should when a novel opens. After almost half a century of resistance, Manu has caved in and accepted an invitation to lecture in Bucharest. Christa is now driving him to a hotel where they’ll spend a night before he catches his plane. There we will learn if his nightmares are justified.
Like all couples do, Christa and Manu are bickering. Manu has his mind on visiting Romania, whereas Christa still disapproves of the trip. Their conversations are ferociously unsentimental and vividly realized, a real tour de force of domestic drama. What’s more, they are inextricably wound up with the historico-political forces that animate Manu’s journey.
When, for example, Christa informs Manu he was speaking Romanian in his sleep, he begins to wonder: “How long it had been since he had spoken Romanian when he made love to a woman? How long had it been since he had stopped speaking Romanian altogether? Forty-five years? Less, more? What might Crista have heard him say?” This train of thought returns him to an old uncertainty, the sense that he doesn’t belong with Christa because of his outsider status in Western Europe; she herself is a German emigrant who lost her entire family to the Second World War. In a more wrenching turn, Manu is overwhelmed by a momentary suspicion—we always suppress such thoughts—that he might never have loved Christa, but simply wanted the legitimacy she offered: “[Christa had] singled him out on the very first day she [saw him]…And he had listened, flattered, as if being given the news that he was to be promoted: had he confused Christa’s perseverance with devotion, had he confused love with his desire for legitimacy in his adopted country?”
What makes this brief surge of memory so unbearably poignant is that it is withheld—and forever will be withheld—from Christa. The couple might be sitting beside one another in a car, but their internal lives seem countries apart. As Christa reflects later, “It is plain that despite the moments of weakness when she confessed to him, Traian has not really grown close to her.”
The quotations included thus far should give a sense of the virtuosic range of narrative techniques that Adameşteanu employs in The Encounter. Instead of abiding by the standard realist conventions of "he thought" and "she thought," she acrobatically, and often without warning, shifts between the first, second, and third person; as well as between the past, present, and future tenses. The net result is a reconfiguration of the word "free indirect." There is no "authorial voice" in her book. Only a battle between consciousnesses that express themselves in a dizzying variety of ways. This dynamism—which Michael Hofmann has identified as the biggest challenge for the prose translator to recreate—has been replicated expertly in Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation. A veteran translator of Romanian literature, Blyth renders unfailingly lively versions of Adameşteanu’s sentences, deftly imbuing them with narrative thrust.
But despite her acrobatic style, Adameşteanu can’t always bring her characters to life. Christa, for one, is more of a conduit for history than a real person. Her internal life isn’t intimately or urgently felt. The problem, I think, is that she lacks a stake in the book. Though she has a terrible backstory—losing her entire family to the war—it has little to do with The Encounter’s unfolding events.
Manu’s backstory, by contrast, does. And this charges his every thought and feeling with meaning. It also allows for a more nuanced exploration of his interiority. Female novelists are seldom praised for writing vivid male characters; perhaps because they’ve been doing it well for so long. (The reverse, of course, is not true.) Yet Adameşteanu must be singled out for creating Manu Traian. Part heroic exile, part sentimental old fool, part scholarly genius, part insensitive patriarch—Manu is a marvelously realized character, someone at once irreducible to words yet vividly understood. Adameşteanu is eminently comfortable describing his intellectual side (Manu, amongst other things, is a casual scholar of Greek and Latin) but she is also careful to attend to the physical realities of his ageing body, with all its aches, itches, and desires. In this, he is equal to Vica Delca, Adameşteanu’s other great creation.
Unbeknown to Manu and Christa, the Securitate has begun preparing for Manu’s visit. Alexandru Stan, the professor who invited Manu to Bucharest, has been coerced into spying on him for the government, and we learn this through the series of intelligence dossiers that Adameşteanu deftly weaves into the text. She does a good job of aping the icy language of bureaucracy. But what’s most frightening about these dossiers is not the brutal efficacy of the Securitate—it’s actually a bumbling organization of bureaucratic fools straight out of Arendt—but the sheer arbitrariness with which they decide that Manu is their enemy. “Manu Traian,” we learn in the first chilling dossier, “betrayed his country [by] going abroad to study in France and Italy.” In other words, he’s guilty for being an exile.
The dossiers make it eminently clear that Manu is an apolitical man, that he presents no threat to the communist hegemony. Yet, the Securitate’s leaders have such a mad, existential hunger for surveillance (which their subordinates are only to happy to feed) that a plan is drawn up to monitor Manu throughout his fortnight-long visit back to Romania. Not only that, the Securitate will even send spies to accost Manu, posing as "long-lost friends" or admiring professors. The vast majority of his visit home will be, to quote Müller, “staged.”
By the end of The Encounter’s first section, we are completely invested in Manu’s fate, and raptly awaiting our chance to see Romania through his eyes. It thus comes as a surprise when Adameşteanu abandons Manu’s consciousness to introduce Daniel, a teenager living in Romania.
Daniel is a rather likable boy. Painfully shy and good-hearted, he suffers under Romania’s patriarchal, provincial, and economically backward society. But "likable" does not equate with "compelling," and we soon wonder about Daniel’s raison d'être as a character. Anticipating our question, Adameşteanu establishes a tenuous connection between him and Manu: Daniel’s recently deceased grandmother Anna Maria was Manu’s ex-girlfriend. As he puts it: “After Nana [Anna Maria] died I thought of Uncle Traian for the first time. I knew from Uncle Victor that he would be coming in the summer. Once I heard him on Radio Free Europe….Then I thought that if he had married Nana and stayed here, I would have been called Daniel Manu.” Though repelled by their provincial ways, Manu is forced to spend most of his trip with Daniel and his family. And here’s the kicker: it’s Daniel, not Manu, who will be narrating the trip.
Filtered through a teenager’s unknowing eyes, Manu’s experiences in Romania are muted, and The Encounter’s hard-won narrative tension weakened by an aimless subplot involving Daniel’s recent expulsion from university. Add to this some tragicomic familial satire and more Securitate hijinks, and suddenly we are faced with a book that’s accruing more and more components, but moving further and further away from its heart. Whereas The Encounter’s first section featured a remarkably cohesive domestic narrative, the middle section is a slapdash combination of political noir (the documents pile up, and we hear from spies that track Manu’s movements), coming-of-age story (Daniel discusses his life in Bucharest), and family melodrama (Daniel’s parents share their woes with Manu).
Adameşteanu gives voice to the local Romanians—both hostile (spies) and cordial (family friends)—who are awaiting Manu’s arrival in Bucharest in a variety of different forms: intelligence dossiers, letters, monologues, and some short third-person narratives. But these sections read more like formal achievements than deeply felt fictions. For all their inventiveness, they lack well-rounded characters. Adameşteanu’s spies are little more than stereotypes, and her local Romanians aren’t fleshed out.
Some of The Encounter’s early thrill is regained in the final section where Manu returns (safely) to Italy to discuss the discomfort and "unreality" of his trip with Christa. But such matters are better experienced than simply discussed. (Isn’t that why we read fiction?) In either case, there are too many narrative balls in the air by then. Unlike the opening, in which Manu and Christa’s conversation was usefully juxtaposed against the Securitate’s plotting, the final section is a shapeless mélange of their car conversation, Daniel’s monologues about Romania, and the idiotic communiqués that the Securitate has drawn up about Manu’s visit. The book ominously closes with Manu having the same nightmare he suffered at its opening. This, presumably, is meant to suggest he’s learnt nothing from his trip. The problem is: neither have we.
I have dedicated a vast majority of this review to The Encounter’s opening section because it seems to me part of a different—and far better—book than those that follow it. Manu and Christa’s conversations, taken in isolation, comprise an excellent novella or half an excellent novel. Perhaps we should simply treasure that—it’s more than most writers produce in a lifetime.