By Daniel Deleanu
Matei Vişniec is a playwright, poet and prose writer who has been living mostly in France since 1987. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Bucharest, and was one of the founding members of the famed Cenaclul de Luni (the Monday Literary Circle), chaired by the illustrious critic and ex-politician Nicolae Manolescu. Vişniec, who writes in both Romanian and French, has been hailed by the critics from countless countries as one of the greatest living playwrights, whose dramatic creations have been continuously performed, since 1992, at Avignon, where every year Europe’s greatest theatre festival takes place. His plays have been staged by some of the most reputed theatres around the world, thus making Vişniec the best-known Romanian playwright after Eugène Ionesco.
Vişniec latest novel, Un secol de ceaţă (A Century of Fog), was published in 2021 by the Jassy publisher Polirom, in a beautiful hardbound edition incorporated in the collection “Fiction Ltd.” (A rather uninspired name – after all, why would one wish to read something which is “limited,” in any possible sense of the word? Perhaps a more inspired, unless downright inspirational, name for the collection would have been “Fiction Unlimited.”) According to the author, the novel belongs to the “historical fiction” genre, “even though all data that lie at its basis are real,” being thereby inspired by true events that occurred to members of his family and himself during his “East-West cultural sway.” Vişniec then adds that, while the semblance of some of the characters in the novel to real persons is coincidental, “hundreds of people in the flesh mirror themselves in its pages.” Similarly, since “Hitler’s shadow and Stalin’s shadow linger athwart a number of chapters […] the second part of the book has been purposefully titled ‘Răul are întotdeauna un frate geamăn’ (‘Evil Always Has a Twin Brother’).”
The author confesses that by writing this book, he tried to understand “why people do not learn anything from the errors of the past and especially why they repeat these errors.” (But Hegel spoke of the circularity of history, didn’t he?) Vişniec’s novel is thus loosely structured around his personal experiences during a totalitarian regime which deleteriously impacted not only his own life, but also the lives of those close to him, just as it also left its ineluctable mark on society at large. The characters are often grotesque, whether they are culprits or victims. Retrospections are subsequently intertwined with introspections, and the narration at times turns Dostoyevskian through its existential iridescences that verge on the absurd and transform into an unspoken trauma, since the evil mentioned above transcends the realm of the political. This, however, does not imply that the political is unimportant in the thematic configuration of the novel – on the contrary, it is of great significance, once it is the major force which is responsible for the failed normalcy everyone is waiting for, and this abnormality inexorably gravitates towards the societal disaster depicted, not without a tinge of humour, by the novelist.
Vişniec’s protagonists unceasingly unwrite the facts of their own stories, as if history were no longer part of reality. By rejecting any metahistorical references, they still create alternatives to various events but cannot confess to lying, even if deceit is part and parcel of their lives. To say that their existences are contaminated by the ubiquitous two-facedness of the world they live in would thereby be an understatement. All the while, they manage to maintain coherence in an incoherent socio-political milieu through the distinctiveness of their words and deeds, which start to progressively entangle their peers in an increasing emotional disturbance. In this way, they metamorphose into absent figures who must obey to an interest – political, social, economic, etc. – which is not their own. The novel’s acute anti-realism and repudiation of any single set of facts accentuate its fundamental insight, namely that freedom, the thing that people yearn for the most in Vişniec’s novel, is achievable, but for the time being, it is obscured by a veil of thick fog. The leitmotif of the all-permeating fog is in actuality an unwieldy, and yet weighty, symbol standing for the political inconspicuousness that dominated Romania for nearly half a century, and is depicted with gainly irony by Vişniec, as one can learn from this memorable passage: “The railway-station master, one Arcadie Sclipa, came to me in person to let me know that he had a problem with Stalin’s portrait, which had been hanging for years above the door to the platform. I asked him what was going on, and he retorted, ‘Better come see for yourself.’ […] When we approached the station, we came across folks who were clearly inebriated. Some of them were even carrying half-full vodka bottles, demijohns, children’s sand buckets, cups and pitchers, even real buckets… The closer we came to the station, the more pungent the smell of vodka grew – it stank as if it were an alcohol distillery. And when we’d reached the platform, we saw a big line of people, mostly men, waiting for their turn to get something. They were all laughing and joking around, singing and giggling. Arcadie Sclipa dragged me after him through the fog, he had some unknown reference points, a personal compass which guided him through the fog… He took me to a spot right beneath Stalin’s portrait, which was indistinguishable though, being entirely covered in fog. What was visible, nonetheless, was a stream of vodka that was flowing from above, as if from a tanker truck whose taps had been turned on by someone. There were hundreds of people waiting in that line to fill their bottles, demijohns, cups and buckets with vodka. A certain Costache, who’d been the station’s switchman for more than 20 years, was maintaining the order, and when they were pushing or skipping their place, he chided them: ‘Easy, easy, there’s plenty for everyone.’ I couldn’t believe my eyes what I’d seen, and in fact that’s why I didn’t even mention it in my report. Yet, I asked Arcadie Scora, ‘Where’s this vodka coming from?’ And Arcadie Sclipa replied, ‘From him.’ […] Refraining from adding anything, he took two shot glasses out his pocket and gave me one. I think that the vodka was flowing from Stalin’s portrait, just as tears from an icon… Or perhaps we were on the verge of turning insane… So, imitating Arcadie, I placed the glass under the stream. When it was full to the brim, we clinked glasses. ‘Cheers!’ I said. ‘Cheers and be merry!’ replied Arcadie Sclipa. Then we drank, downing our glasses in one gulp. The vodka was excellent.”
The implied audience of the amazing passage quoted above should prove thus that Vişniec is not only telling a personal story here: he, in point of fact, narrates the story of an entire people whose character arc gains a collective dimension. Vişniec, from his perspective, reminds us of Dante who, on the brink of hell, speaks about his life as nostra vita.
Matei Vişniec is a meticulous author who is acutely aware of the possibilities of fiction, even though he is primarily a playwright and poet. His inspiration and ingenuity are worthy of praise, and so is also his tackling of the absurd, especially when it becomes the measuring rod of a socio-political system with a committal relation to facts, as this novel undoubtedly is. With its fundamentally determined reference to real-life particulars, Un secol de ceaţă (A Century of Fog) meets readers’ expectations from this type of history-anchored fiction which avoids falling into the trap of historicism and remains a piece of literary writing with irrefutable aesthetic merits. To put it otherwise, Matei Vişniec’s new novel sunders purely historical narratives from imagined ones without being disconnected from reality and especially without minimalizing the importance of the fact that fiction – even history-moored fiction – is and should always remain an art. Vişniec, of course, knows this prerogative very well and subsequently he proves, once more, that he is not only a great playwright but also master storyteller.
About the author:
Daniel Deleanu is a Romanian-Canadian writer and academic who sways between Toronto and his native town of Sibiu.
He has published articles, reviews and critical studies in cultural journals and academic journals from Romania and abroad (USA, Canada and Great Britain).
He has also published more than 1,300 academic books (critical studies of universal and comparative literature, studies of philosophy of literature, theory of literature, etc.) in English language, most of them in Canada.