In Exile From Exile

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JANUARY 19, 2004

In Exile From Exile

The Hooligan's Return: A Memoir

By Norman Manea

Translated by Angela Jianu

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 385 pp., $30)

Click here to purchase the book."To learn that we have said or done a foolish thing, that is
nothing," wrote Montaigne. "We must learn that we are nothing but
fools, a far broader and more important lesson." It is a lesson
that many an autobiographer has been all too ready to embrace. In
the staging of dramas in which frailty and foolishness are
relentlessly depicted, the lighting tends to be very carefully
arranged. The assumption informing autobiography has long been that
it is at once a constructed narrative and a "truthful" engagement
with a nature or a disposition more or less equally compounded of
darkness and light. In the telling of life stories, it is assumed,
resistances will be overcome, and there will be at least some
therapeutic benefit in the uncovering of material previously
suppressed, forgotten, or ignored. The opportunities for self-
congratulation afforded by the construction of life stories are
considerable, and rare are the memoirists who can resist them.

Exiles, whose life stories have to do with the experience of
migration and loss, are perhaps more susceptible than others to the
varieties of self- approval opened up by memoir-writing. Such
persons have been so numerous in the last hundred years as almost
to seem commonplace today. No one who reads can fail to be familiar
with the works of writers who have reflected on the subject of
exile, though often it is exile as a "metaphysical condition" or a
noble effort to compensate for what has been "lost in translation"
that is front and center, rather than exile as occasion for
posturing or delusion. Joseph Brodsky recommended that the writer
in exile whole-heartedly embrace "the metaphysical dimension," for
"to ignore it or dodge it is to cheat yourself out of the meaning
of what has happened to you ... to ossify into an uncomprehending
victim." At the same time, he warned, the writer in exile, because
he has suffered, usually at the hands of a political tyranny, is
apt to regard himself as a "certified martyr," "unchecked by
anyone," whose potential insignificance in the place to which he
has emigrated can only be countered by the steady assertion of his
privileged status as exemplary sufferer and witness.

Since the writer in exile will usually feel marginal in his new
place of residence, he is likely, Brodsky argues, to become "a
retrospective and retroactive being," ignoring, for the most part,
his present reality, recycling "the familiar material of his past,"
and gravitating to the elegiac. The dangers here are obvious. They
include what Brodsky called "the repetitiveness of nostalgia," the
slowing down of the writer's "stylistic evolution," and even an
insidious cynicism. "The good old stuff served him well at least
once: it earned him exile. And exile, after all, is a kind of
success.... Why not push the good old stuff around a bit more?"

No memoirist with whom I am familiar would seem to understand more
sharply than Norman Manea the dangers anatomized by Brodsky. Again
and again in The Hooligan's Return, Manea recoils from flattery,
from sympathy, from praise. Persistently he sniffs around in his
own sentences for traces of clich, illusion, self-promotion. For
every modest self-assertion there are numerous passages of caustic
self-mockery. Everywhere Manea interrogates his own tendency to
become what he despises: an emblem, an embodiment, a "marketable"
victim-figure or avenger. He knows how seductive it is to push the
good old stuff around, to collude in the cozy mythmaking that
trivializes suffering. No witness to the several barbarisms of the
past century has so persistently instructed his reader in the
process by which "Thursday's atrocities have become grist for the
mottoes on Friday's T-shirts." Does he cultivate, now and again,
what he calls "the Judaic taste for catastrophe"? Is he addicted,
just a little, to the extremity that helps a man to seem
interesting to himself? If so, there is also a pronounced distaste
for the "whinings and jeremiads of the victim" and a sly contempt
for the "fatigue of being oneself."

Norman Manea was born in a small Romanian market town in Bukovina in
1936. His father was a baker's son, his mother a bookseller's
daughter. The Jews of the province, as Manea reports, "spoke
Romanian as well as German, and enjoyed uninterrupted contact with
the Romanian population." In the sugar factory where Manea's father
worked, there also worked "Czech, German, and Italian 'foreigners'"
in what had seemed an increasingly cosmopolitan community. The
deportation order issued in 1941 by the Romanian fascist authorities
sent the Jews of Bukovina to the Transnistria concentration camp in
the Ukraine and put an end to the illusions inspired by the long
experiment in cosmopolitanism.

Though several elderly members of the family interned with them in
the Transnistria camp did not survive the war years, Manea and his
parents emerged in 1945 and soon struggled to make a life for
themselves in communist Romania. In 1949, Manea became a communist
youth leader--the episodes of the memoir devoted to this period in
his life are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking-- but soon he
went through a period of disaffection, eventually became an
engineer, published several books, and by 1974, with the help of a
psychiatric exemption, became a full-time writer. His eight novels
and numerous other works gradually made him a significant literary
voice in his country, but he also became a suspicious figure in
Ceausescu's anti-Semitic, authoritarian universe, though he was not
a defiantly dissident writer nor an openly subversive anti-
communist. In 1986 he left the country with his wife and two years
later settled in New York City.

Manea's fiction and essays (four books are available here in English
translation) clearly issue from a man who knows gentleness and
affection but is too ironic and too suspicious to settle for
"healing" or "closure," or to ignore the specific gravity of his
own nature. The Hooligan's Return begins in 1997 with a visit to a
landmark deli in Manhattan, where the writer discusses with his
friend Philip Roth his decision to visit Romania after an absence
of nine years. Like other such exchanges in a book that moves in
surprising and briefly disorienting leaps and bounds from
melancholy to whimsy, from the sardonic to the lyrical, the
exchange with Roth is fragmentary, suggestive, playful,
inconclusive. But in that opening episode of a long book we see at
once the tenor and the abiding strategy of Manea's imagination,
which encompasses a great many moods and events and projections.
Nothing stands still for long in this narrative: back and forth and
away the narrative persistently swings, so that the long journey to
Transnistria in 1941 is intertwined with the repatriation journey
of 1945 and the later trips to the west and back again to the
homeland in 1997. In Manea, the flow of language is by turns
murmurous and single-minded, remembrance and reflection, time
present and time past so entirely interfused that the one seems
invariably the face of the other.

There is not much of the "certified martyr" in Manea. He did, after
all, survive the serial ordeals to which he was subjected, and if
survival did often seem to him a dubious privilege, he did live
long enough to observe the demise of fascist and communist
Romania--and also to bury some of the glamorous lies associated
with extra-territoriality. Like Kafka, he is "claimed ... by the
dark fogs of Eastern Europe," but he is loath to appropriate the
"certifiable" despair of Kafka's "I am allowed no moment of calm, I
cannot take anything for granted, everything has to be fought
for...." Yes, he declares, he recognizes himself in those words,
though one must beware of affiliations, precisely because they are
so tempting; those whose boats are leaky are preternaturally
susceptible to resonantly downward-drifting accents.

Manea's resistance to posture and myth takes many forms. More often
than not it arrives with an inflection, a voice, the sharp accent
of a friend disinclined, in Manea's version, to let the writer get
away with anything. Am I a nuisance? Manea wonders. Yes, "quite a
nuisance occasionally," Roth concedes. And do I not resemble, as I
have long seemed to myself, that familiar character of Augustus the
Fool, "the pariah, the loser, the one who always gets kicked in the
ass, to the audience's delight"? Sorry, another friend replies, but
you are, poor thing, a "respectable" writer in residence, "honored
with prizes and an endowed chair ... In the East European circus,
the clown returning from America is a victor, a star." The friend
is tolerant, amused. He laughs at the writer's penchant for
self-dramatization and certifiable martyrdom. Try as he may, Manea
cannot successfully make himself into the figure for whom he would
like to mobilize a dreary, all-purpose compassion.

To be worthy not merely of compassion but of admiration, Manea
believes, the exile needs to see himself not as a victim merely but
as one who struggled, a man never complacent in defeat but moved
always to say no, I will not go gently, I will not speak that lie,
I will not settle into the empty rituals of solidarity. To this
end, he applies to himself--a modest, tentative, sheepish man--the
epithet "hooligan," which has a notable pedigree in
twentieth-century Romanian history. Manea tells us that in Mihail
Sebastian's book, How I Became a Hooligan, which appeared in 1935,
Sebastian affirmed the "'spiritual autonomy' of Jewish suffering,
its 'tragic nerve,' the dispute between a 'tumultuous sensibility'
and a 'merciless critical spirit,' between 'intelligence at its
coolest and passion at its most unbridled.' A hooligan? Did that
mean marginal, nonaligned, excluded.... He defined himself clearly:
'I am not a partisan, I am always a dissident....' What does being
a dissident mean? Someone dissenting even from dissidents?"

But it was not only the Jew Sebastian who staked a claim to the word
"hooligan." The young Mircea Eliade, later famous for his scholarly
books on the history of religion and a distinguished professor for
many years at the University of Chicago, published an early novel
entitled The Hooligans. There hooliganism was associated with
"rebellion unto death ... perfectly and evenly aligned regiments
within a collective myth." This was a hooliganism rather far
removed from the "merciless critical spirit" and "cool autonomy"
extolled as indispensable components of hooliganism by Sebastian.
In fact, at the time he wrote his novel, Eliade was a spokesman for
the fascist Iron Guard, eagerly awaiting, as he wrote in 1938, "a
nationalist Romania, frenzied and chauvinistic, armed and vigorous,
ruthless and vengeful," and prepared to address "the advance of the
... Jews [who] have overrun the villages...." Such observations
seem to Manea "ridiculous and disgusting," and the powerful essay
on Eliade that he wrote for The New Republic in 1991 won for him in
post- communist Romania epithets ranging from "dwarf of Jerusalem"
to "half-man" and "louse."

The word "hooligan" has in our language a somewhat archaic ring, in
part because it has often been applied with tender affection to
naughty children whose transgressions, however habitual, seem to
their parents eminently forgivable. Just so, when Manea applies the
word to himself, he does so with the sense that he is the most
improbable of hooligans, a man ordinarily too mild and dreamy to
represent a genuine danger to the body politic. To read Manea's
stories is often to find oneself in a dreamy domain of Proustian
inwardness. To be sure, Manea's fiction also encompasses political
satire and farce, and his essays often pursue their targets with
unremitting urgency. Still, as one critic has noted, Manea most
often prefers "the horror of the indescribable to the description
of horror," and "the uncanny atmosphere of unreality," along with
the proliferating "coded paradoxes" of his fiction make him seem
anything but a typical polemicist.; Still, there is in Manea's
repertoire a considerable gift for authentic hooliganism.

Still, there is in Manea's repertoire a considerable gift for
authentic hooliganism. He is a compulsive debunker. He leaves
behind him, all through the memoir, a trail of discarded postures
and postulates. Manea clearly fears the contamination of "critical"
hooliganism by a species of glib appropriation captured by several
leading Eastern European writers. In Milan Kundera's The Unbearable
Lightness of Being--to cite a notable example--the character Sabina
leaves Prague for the West in 1968, and discovers in the catalogue
for an exhibition of her paintings "a picture of herself with a
drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a
biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had
suffered, struggled against ... injustice, been forced to abandon
her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle." When
Sabina protests to friends that "my enemy is Kitsch, not Communism,"
she is not understood. Manea would never agree that his enemy in
Romania had been "Kitsch, not Communism," but he does surely
understand Sabina. His determination not to make himself into a
dissident noble rider is drawn from the same loathing of falsehood
that inspires Kundera's character. To be a hooligan, that is, an
oppositional figure who sees through every mask, appeals to Manea so
long as it does not entail the pretense of perfect virtue.

This reluctance in Manea goes beyond the customary acknowledgment
that heroes are likely to have clay feet. He is wary not merely of
ordinary frailty but also of self-deception. And he loathes
puerility, which is the "everyday somnambulism" of the
hear-no-evil-see-no-evil fellow travelers of every established
order. That puerility is perfectly expressed in the title of
Manea's Compulsory Happiness, which is set in the "penal colony" of
"the big lie"; there, in Ceausescu's Romania, citizens "can
continue sucking on their dumb lollipop of hope" and deny to
themselves what is obvious about the lives they lead. In his
memoir, Paradise is the name Manea gives to the great good "daily"
place most well-adjusted ciphers agree to be happy in. The memoir
opens with the words, "The bright spring light, like an emanation
from Paradise, streams through the large picture window wide as the
room itself." By the end of the paragraph, "looking down from his
tenth-floor apartment" at the New York City street below, he must
remind himself again that "In Paradise ... one is better off than
anywhere else." Later, strolling casually past Verdi Square, he
notes that "the placid pigeons of Paradise have come to rest" on the
presiding statue of the Italian composer.

Everywhere Manea confronts the trivial, familiar, comforting
surfaces of ordinary life that tempt him to agree that things could
be worse and that only fools long for a "better" or a "best" that
will never materialize. Everywhere he notes the propensity to
shallowness and accommodation. Try though he may to be grateful for
the air-conditioned Paradise of the United States, he cannot summon
"the joy of liberation." Moved occasionally to register with due
compassion the plight of ordinary persons, all, like himself, unable
to be other than they are, he reminds himself that the "oppressed
masses" are "the not-so-innocent," and that "elementary
polarities"--as between east and west, free and unfree, open and
closed--"often prove to be in fact complementary." So Manea
speculated in On Clowns, and so he would seem still to believe in
his latest report from Paradise.

For Manea, what has always seemed problematic is the very concept of
normality. Normality suggests, after all, that human beings can live
their lives without undue recourse to fantasy and exaggeration,
with some reasonable expectation that the world will be more or
less regular in its rhythms and unfoldings. This sense of things
Manea struggles to achieve, though he does so, for the most part,
without hope. In Romania, he reports, almost anyone would likely
have been invited to serve the government as an informer. A close
friend of Manea had been chosen to inform on the writer, and did so
for several years, meeting each week in "safe" private houses to
deliver meaningless information to a Securitate policeman, later
casually reporting to his friend Norman on these "official visits."
Such an arrangement was routine in a country where there was "one
fully employed police officer for every fifteen citizens," as Manea
wrote in On Clowns, "and for every police officer, fifteen
'volunteer' informers." But can such an arrangement be, or seem,
normal?

But the question of normality cuts in other directions as well.
Early in the memoir, Manea reads on a yellow New York City building
faade, "spelled out in iridescent blue," the words: "DEPRESSION IS
A FLAW IN CHEMISTRY NOT IN CHARACTER." Like so much that passes
through Manea's mind, the words seem at once preposterous and
cautionary, a curiosity and a portent of larger things. Ever alert
to flaws, skeptical about therapies and adjustments, suspicious of
formulas designed to make people feel good about themselves, Manea
routinely recoils from anything soothing or categorically
guilt-reducing. Scarred by the "toxins" he has long ingested, he
betrays in the memoir his long habit of handling what passes for
normality with acidic, ironic distortion. Tempted though he may be
to earnestness, solemnity, uncomplicated fellow feeling, he checks
himself, remembers the advice of Gombrowicz, who "used to relish
sticking out his tongue at himself in an ever-present mirror."

That Manea has no prospect of establishing a "normal," untroubled
relationship with any conceivable idea of normality is clear to us
from the first pages of the memoir. Even his happy memories are
delivered with a compulsive air of ironic distortion. Bucharest
itself, a place where Manea once experienced varieties of carnal
adventure and other intensities, is remembered as a "Gomorrah."
Ordinary events and emotions are transformed into dramatic counters
in an ongoing struggle, so that a "normal" sense of the thing
unfolding before us has no chance against a diction replete with
"revenge," "redemption," "masters of the night," "the ghetto's
eternal fear," "the Christian siren," "the honey trap of
defilement, the taboo, temptation."

The distortion and the irony that are essential aspects of Manea's
imagination are sometimes directed at ephemeral things such as love
affairs, and sometimes at more terrifying events. "Transnistria did
not live up to expectations," he writes, "and could only show a
balance sheet of fifty percent dead." The irony in that sentence is
best appreciated when the sentence is placed next to a passage on
the preceding page of the memoir: "From across the millennia,a
tragic destiny has united the Babylonian captivity with the inferno
of starvation, disease, and death in Transnistria." So wrote the
Christian mayor of Czernowitz, a man named Traian Popovici, who had
tried, until the very last moment, to halt the deportation of Jews.
So the irony here, though Manea does not declare it to be one, is
that Popovici too "did not live up to expectations," that is, did
not behave as a "Christian" official would have been expected to
behave in Czernowitz in 1941. Popovici's language, marked as it is
by an inflationary rhetoric ("across the millennia," "a tragic
destiny," "Babylonian captivity," "inferno of starvation"), is by
no means excessive here- -it expresses in fact the "normal," that
is, the highly charged, fully informed, deeply felt response of a
"normal" person to a catastrophe that most "normal" "Christian"
persons in Czernowitz could not have grasped in anything remotely
like a "normal" way.

Assaulted by versions of orchestrated unreality and by monstrous
deformations of public rhetoric, Manea often doubts his own capacity
to maintain "coherence" and "wholeness." He wants to be free of
illusion, to renounce all misleading affiliations, yet he needs a
place to stand, however much he mistrusts places and cannot long
stand still. Is he a Jew? He is a non- believing Jew; he belongs to
what Jean-Franois Lyotard once called a "non- people of survivors"
whose "sense of communion" depends upon "an endless recalling of
things past." But Manea catches at this definition like a man who
trusts nothing, least of all a key to identity so seductive and so
empty as to connect the communicant to a "non-people." His
Jewishness is a fact, but it does not seem to him an adequate place
to stand.

Throughout the memoir Manea turns to many sources in his search for
coherence. His mind "fills with quotations, as if only the
rhetorical hysteria of other people's words could release [him]
from [him]self" and, we might add, effectively deliver him in the
end to himself. Manea is haunted, if not often by "actual" ghosts,
then by bits and pieces of monologues, dialogues, passages of
half-remembered books, vagrant quips and aperus. "Wasn't it Maurice
Blanchot who said that?" he wonders, or "I might as well have
thought of Prague and of Milena Jesenska, yes, Kafka's Milena," or
"'You are not Cioran,' I tell myself. " Identity-making for Manea
is all about "the verbal collages" that he is forever composing,
shaping and unshaping and re-shaping as he goes, acutely sensitive
to every least exaction of language and mood in each fragment he
snatches at, tempted but never completely taken by the ingratiations
of sentiment.

There is no single figure about whom Manea can say, as Elias Canetti
could say of Karl Kraus, that he was "one of my idols," but neither
does the insatiably appropriative Manea allow any one source to
drive out the others. Manea's passions are so much in flux, his
enthusiasms typically so provisional that he is never entirely
disappointed with those he appropriates. Where Canetti writes of
his need "to liberate" himself from his enthusiasms, Manea's
collage-building is an ongoing progress in which no one influence or
voice can long seem attractive without the countervailing force
exerted by other, often contradictory, voices.

Canetti identifies in Kraus "his truly Biblical quality: his
horror," and though Manea is without Kraus's other qualities of
"arrogance" and "veneration for his gods," he has, surely, in
abundance that "Biblical quality," that capacity for registering
horror that few other writers have so powerfully conveyed. In
Manea, the horror has often to do with his sense that language
lies. What seems truest to him is a language far removed both from
the "daily communal language" and from "literary" language. Though
his mother was not, in any ordinary sense of the term, an eloquent
person, she does seem now and then to Manea to speak truthfully in
what he once calls "the language of the ghetto. " This is a
language "moaning, murmuring, demanding, living, surviving." He
hears it in the nighttime rambles of the mother, elderly,
diminished, in the hospital for an eye operation, hears it in her
"coded laments, incomprehensible requests," in part
incomprehensible because spoken in Yiddish, in words "alien" to
Manea's wife, who lies beside the old woman in her narrow bed. Night
after night she hears "first a murmur, like water, short guttural
signals, followed by an agitated, secret confession, an arcane
lexicon, wailing and reproaches, lyrical, tender refrains, meant
for the ears of initiates only," mixed dialects, "Slavic and
Spanish inflections, biblical sonorities, oozing forth like some
linguistic alluvial mud, carrying with it all the debris gathered
along the way ... her monologue is punctuated by spasmodic sounds
that could be laughter or pain, one cannot tell."
Characteristically rich in color and sonority, the passage enacts
within the texture of its language the drama of Manea's struggle
towards truthfulness and coherence. In her way, the blind mother
produces a true utterance, "oozing forth," as Manea writes, and
"carrying with it" everything she has "gathered," in which the
intermingling of "laughter or pain, " the "wailing" and the
"lyrical," the "agitated" and "tender," bespeak some indisputable
authenticity of feeling that no true writer would fail to envy.

For all of Manea's enormous learning and wit, his political
sophistication and ironic cunning, he seems in the memoir never to
let the mother's voice move very far out of reach. For the horror
quietly conveyed so often in the memoir has much to do with Manea's
fear that the figures who have meant most to him are now receding,
the places and conditions that made them real to themselves
irrecoverable. Neither can Manea reverse the more general process of
corruption, the trivialization of suffering and the reduction of
experience to a free-for- all in which, as Manea writes,
"Everything [is] compatible with everything else. " One version of
that free-for-all is the process by which the exile efficiently
adapts and learns to live comfortably with the loss of the world,
the persons, and the meanings that alone can furnish the ground of
his coherence.

Manea writes as if his rightful place on earth had not yet been
discovered, as if his true place were anywhere, but somewhere else.
He looks back with longing not to a place, but to a sense of place.
This is what was forever denied him. That is why he understands so
well his mother's fondness for the cemetery, beyond anything she
felt for the synagogue: "It was a form of natural, unmediated, but
also transcendental, communication, a way of inserting herself into
history ... the past and the present ... fused. We come out of Egypt
every year as they did, without ever leaving it behind altogether,
we relive other Egypts again and again, their fate is ours, just as
our fate is theirs, forever and ever." This, Manea says, is "a
mystical connection" to the past, and it is not at all to be
confused with the simple longing to be back in the familiar rooms
and streets of one's place of origin that so afflicts many exiles.

If Manea is a kind of hooligan, it is because he does not trust
himself to be what the world wishes him to be: neither an exemplary
little prince nor a grateful survivor, neither a principled
activist nor a modest citizen. The irony on display in Manea's
memoir is so corrosive because it respects no boundaries, is slyly
subversive no matter in which direction it is aimed, and holds
itself to be almost without exception too little and often too
late. Though Manea permits himself more than occasional expressions
of vulnerability and affection, though he seems to us at moments
companionable and tender, he is always on his guard, alert to the
dreaded possibility that he will slip into the posture ridiculed by
Brodsky, of the "certified martyr" or the ineffectual
"retrospective and retroactive being."

This memoir--a genuinely great book, an entire teeming life seized
and made permanent--is the record of a long, as yet unfinished
apprenticeship in hooliganism. For he would learn, this Manea, what
it is and how it is to be, with all one's heart, what he can only
with misgiving claim for himself. Not a hooligan, exactly, but one
who might well be taken for one, a hooligan in waiting, perhaps, or
a would-be hooligan, attempting to have things more ways than one,
and in the process satisfying no one, least of all himself, for
whom "failure is what legitimizes you," and doubleness.

To which the alternative is ... what? The prospect that he might in
fact achieve what is projected is not easy for such a man to
embrace. Manea's apprenticeship is mainly good for making the
prospect of a heroic hooliganism seem ever more improbable. The
would-be hooligan hopefully calls up one or another of the moments
when something he wrote or an interview he gave created a scandal,
made him a palpable enemy of the people, only in turn to be mocked
by his own wicked intelligence, or by a friend: "There's a tank
division general inside you struggling to get out, you know," one
friend says, and "Your liberals are acclaiming your liberal
courage." Elsewhere another friend-in- Manea's-head smiles at him:
"You, a hooligan? That is sheer imposture, borrowed armor." To
which the apprentice can only wryly accede. For the truth of his
own doubleness, of his incurable multiplicity, of the integrity of
his bemused, ironic, incorrigible estrangement and
self-estrangement, he cannot, must not, will not, contradict.

By Robert Boyers

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