Capturing the Meanderings of Memory

By Benjamin Balint

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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Benjamin Balint is the assistant editor of Commentary magazine.

The Hooligan’s Return: A Memoir

By Norman Manea

Translated by Angela Jianu

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 385 pages, $30.

* * *

In one of Norman Manea’s novellas, “The Interrogation,” the main character, a young woman imprisoned in an unnamed place for an unnamed political crime, utters only two words: “Fine, but…” Yet a subtle portrait of her emerges, indirectly but vividly, from her unnamed interrogator, whose exhausting, nightlong monologues are intended to intimidate her with how much he knows of her case.

The same artful indirectness and elegant blurriness animate Manea’s unconventional memoir, “The Hooligan’s Return,” in which the protagonist, like many of his fictional counterparts, discloses himself by using other people’s words, by bringing us with him, half-asleep, to meet his “nocturnal interlocutors” and by employing a style — glancing, oblique, episodic and allusive — that seeks to capture something of the meanderings of memory. He knows, in setting down his autobiography, that “the audience is hungry for details, not for metaphors,” and he happily leaves it hungry.

Manea’s surrealistic style is forged by — and perfectly matched to — its subject: the life of a Jewish writer under Romanian communism. This book, full of talk, opens with his chats with American colleagues about whether to return to his native country for the first time since his emigration a decade earlier and closes with a sort of diary of his 12-day visit, describing his conversations there with the old friends — poets and professors — he left behind. But at its center, the book gradually and unchronologically reveals a few details of an eventful life. It takes us from Manea’s birth in 1936 into a family in which “the air was heavy with… speeches about [Nicolae] Titulescu and Jabotinsky, Hitler, Trotsky, and the Baal Shem Tov” through his deportation at age 5 by Marshal Antonescu’s fascists to a labor camp in Transnistria for the duration of World War II — his “Initiation” — to his 1988 arrival in the United States, a “Paradise,” a “new Afterlife,” a “World Beyond.”

Between initiation and rebirth, however, it is the absurd “Red Circus” of socialist reality that most deeply imprinted itself on Manea, who appears in this largely third-person evocation of it like one of the fearful subjects beyond the Iron Curtain who people his fiction. “In the underground labyrinth of Byzantine socialism,” he remarks, “a writer could either become a character in fiction or disappear altogether.”

Disappearance and escape, of course, tempted Manea greatly. It is true that as an adolescent, he embraced communism. (To mourn Stalin’s death, he says, he placed an armband “at the very place where my ancestors would wear one of the two phylacteries.”) But the adult Manea skillfully conjures up the atmosphere of the social order Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime imposed on him: oppressively dark (a world “of everyday somnambulism”), arbitrary (“law was the plaything of power”), suspicious (“the roster of informants came to resemble a census of the population”) and false (“the slogans, the clichés, the threats, the duplicity, the conventions, the lies big and small, smooth and rough, colored and colorless, odorless, insipid lies, everywhere”).

Manea’s father was wrongly imprisoned, his mother forced to work in a cannery, and he himself driven to seek refuge from false speech in the theorems of engineering: “The single Party imposed a single language, official, canonic, without nuance… an impersonal, remote style… a restricted, monotonous language that only served to undermine people’s confidence in words.” There are signs that Manea never fully regained this confidence, but when he began to write, his own literary idiom sought nuance and unrestricted color even as it retained the evasiveness taught to it by years of wary socialist survival.

Indeed, it was because of writing that, despite the dreariness of existence in Bukovina and then in Bucharest, Manea didn’t disappear. For a long time, “content with the local brand of discontentment,” he stayed, kept in place not by the bonds of religion or nationalism, but by the Romanian language, which alone promised “real citizenship, and real belonging.”

Manea’s obsession with belonging — he speaks of being acutely aware of “the fatigue of belonging,” of both “the perils of uprootedness… [and] the hazards of rootedness” — forms the central and most troubling theme of this book. Most basically, it underlies Manea’s anxious reluctance to belong to the Jewish community. As a boy, he saw in his family “a restricted world, trapped by its own fears and frustrations, a ghetto suffering from the disease of its past.” And to explain his lifelong refusal to let himself “be reclaimed and chained by the clan,” Manea, obviously beset by a few fears himself, points to the lessons of his past:

After my juvenile fling with the Communist madness, I had come to hate anything that had to do with “we,” with collective identity, which seemed to me suspect, an oppressive simplification.

Less philosophically, Manea also points to his distance from his mother — “the claw,” as he calls her — who exercised over her only son a “tyranny of affection” and who “felt no need to define her ‘belonging.’ She lived it purely and simply…. ‘We are we and they are they,’ she would say.” Manea, in contrast, seems eternally beset by fierce ambivalence: “I am an embarrassed inhabitant of my own biography.”

In a certain sense, Manea is an embarrassed inhabitant of his autobiography, too. He is desperate to avoid “the tell-all confessions of television talk shows or the self-revelations of group therapy.” He declares himself mindful of “how boring the sound of East European self-pity can be,” of the ways in which “public commemorations have transformed horrors into clichés.”

Returning from his trip to Romania but still, unfortunately, fleeing from belonging, Manea tells himself “how enriching the experience of exile has been, how intense and instructive.” We should not refuse “the honor of being an exile,” he advises. “After all, what other possessions do we have, apart from exile?”

Quite a few, I would say. Manea’s book — and his life — show that art can emerge from the complicated evasion of belonging. But the enrichments of unembarrassed existence, I think, pertain to a higher art.

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