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Blog posts of '2020' 'August'

Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 2) - 07 August 2020

The Romanian version was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 614 / August 2020 


 I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.

How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author?

 By the time I visited Romania I had already established a career as travelling journalist, mostly in the Caribbean. My travels had actually started with a documentary TV series I made for the BBC, about the history of black life in Britain. One of the episodes took me to Kenya to interview some of the men who had fought for colonial independence, agitating in London and Paris.

After that experience I felt the world opening up in front of me, and looking back on those times, I remember climbing on and off planes in a state of eager impatience, desperate to fill my tape recorder and my notebooks with voices – Bob Marley in Jamaica, the crashing roar of waves on a beach in Barbados, Fidel in Cuba, standing in the dark until three in the morning, listening to his voice, hoarse, impassioned, lyrical. Afterwards we sat drinking mojitos with a couple of Russian reporters until the sun blazed over the horizon. I saw my first Romanians that day, beautiful in their red uniforms, waving and chanting in unison. 1978. 

Those memories are indelible, but the moments which excited me most, however, were unexpected, times which were strange and revealing. In Kingston, Jamaica, during a riot, I found myself with my friend and photographer, Neil, walking through a completely deserted part of the city, following the sound of drums. As the drums grew louder we came out of a side street, and there, sitting around a junction was a small crowd, about a dozen men, dressed in robes, all of them drumming steadily. This was Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, and I performed the interview immediately. I can’t remember what Ras Michael said in the interview, but the photographs were beautiful.

By the time I met Caramitru in Prague, however, every aspect of my travels had changed. I was no longer a newspaper hack, focused on finding a story. Instead, I was on the platform, talking about my work, or discussing our practice with other writers. This was a change which had a number of consequences for how I approached what I was doing. I had moved, from an interest in how the people I met lived and behaved, to a fascination with the systems which shaped and controlled their behaviour. In retrospect, up to that point, I had also accepted the lazy assumption that the different cultures I observed in various different regions were somehow innate, products of some kind of historical tribal identity. I think all this changed, in my own mind, when I was commissioned, by the BBC, to convert my first book into a TV series. I had written Blood Rights, like most first novels, as a way of discussing or describing my experience so far, and my identity offered the book a secure background to the story I was telling. Writing a script was different, if only because its visual elements made radically different demands on the imagination. Scriptwriting opened up a new and instructive opportunity to explore the relationships between individuals and their social setting. An important element, therefore, in my construction of the script, was the delivery of how my protagonist was shaped by his environment and how he, in his turn, shaped it. This was it, a base that produced a multitude of habits and responses, which, for want of better word, people called culture.

When I say this it makes the entire transition sound relatively simple and straightforward, but it wasn’t. In retrospect, I’m also talking about one of those periods in my life when I was beginning to feel drained and exhausted, and I was looking for some kind of direction. My developing interest in Eastern Europe offered me a new pathway.

I began this interview talking about the Anglophone culture I inhabited as a child, and about my transition into the life of a young migrant in London. As I progressed, becoming a student, and working through the various stages of a career, I had thought about the work of my lifetime as understanding and assimilating the culture of country in which I had grown up and where I lived. Ironically, however, while I was aware that this process would involve changes in my own persona, the extent to which my presence was changing the landscape around me came as more of a surprise. In life there are no oneway streets, but my encounter with Romania seemed to offer little or no opportunity for an exchange of experience. Part of the problem was the fact the country existed on the other side of the Cold War barriers. What I knew about the place was filtered through scraps of information about a few artists – Tristan Tzara, Brancusi, along with vaguely remembered clips of news reports about street demonstrations. I climbed on the plane half expecting it to be exactly like Prague or Warsaw.

Looking back, I can’t really remember much about my first visit. What remains is a kaleidoscope of images, dominated by the giant monument to aviators decorating the centre of Bucharest. Someone had met me at the airport, and driven me to a building, which I learned later on, had been a hangout of the late dictator’s son. Now it had become Uniter. Inside, the place had gloomy lighting, which revealed a decrepit glossiness, gleaming with tarnished surfaces. The woman who met me downstairs led the way up to a large room, half of which seemed to be a bar with a glass ceiling. When she left I sat down, struggling to record and examine my impressions. By this time I had heard a myriad of hints and half expressed sentiments about the dictatorship and its effects, all of which seemed to contribute to my dark and depressed mood. What was I doing here, I kept asking myself.  In a while I fell asleep and dreamt about a man in a black suit and a hat, watching me. I woke up with a start and saw the moon, big and relentlessly bright, shining through the glass ceiling. This was my first night in Bucharest. In the morning I woke up again, went downstairs and saw, to my relief, Caramitru, leaning against his parked car, dressed in jeans and a crisply ironed shirt, reading a newspaper. “We’re going to Sibiu,” he said.

Talking about this now, I just remembered that the night I described was not my first night in Bucharest, but it’s strangely appropriate that my memory skipped the three or four days I spent there. It’s appropriate because, when I think about the trip, my mind focusses on driving through the countryside, through long, silent, sunlit roads, past curious buildings, and stalls piled high with cherries, and looming mountain tops, blue and grey and green. The truth was that I had spent a few days wandering in the city, engaging in difficult half understood conversations with strangers. Some years before this I had crossed over into East Berlin a couple of days after the Wall came down, and I was familiar with a public atmosphere which has gradually changed over the years since then. A general atmosphere of shabbiness, punctuated by the grandiloquent declarations of buildings and streets. Guarded faces and swift suspicious stares as I went past. Angry dogs lurking. Everything has now changed radically, as I said, but at the end of those days I was glad to be leaving, and the beauty of the countryside was like an assault on the senses. I didn’t know where I was, but it didn’t matter.

That statement makes it sound as if I was confused about my location, but, of course, that wasn’t the case. By now I was accustomed to the sense of being a foreign observer, looking in on other people’s lives, trying to figure out who and what they were. This was a habit I had acquired earlier on when I first arrived in England, and it had been confirmed by my later experiences.

But, while this aspect of the relationship with my surroundings remained unchanged, one part of the equation had moved. This was my own identity. I was no longer the boy who walked off the boat into an English fog. Even the memories of my childhood were beginning to fade. This process had consequences. Over the years I had stopped thinking about myself as a transplant, a person from ‘somewhere else.’ Instead when I thought about ‘home’, it was in London. But not quite. I had been shaped and tailored, by my identification with the travails of colonial rebellion, by my experience of being a transplanted ‘outsider’, and by my understanding of nationality in the places to which I had travelled. I thought of myself as a “citizen of the world”, and to some extent I was bored by the passions of nationalism. On the other hand, I had begun to be struck by a different, more defensive, aspect of national identity in Eastern Europe. Speeding through the twilight towards Sibiu, I began to be seduced by the region’s complex interaction between its history and its origins.

End of second installment

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"Report on the State of Loneliness" is a concluding moment in Augustin Buzura’s great series of novels - 02 August 2020

"Report on the State of Loneliness"  - Augustin Buzura’

"Report on the State of Loneliness" - Augustin Buzura

"With my thoughts going to the war or any other absurdity of the times - since everything seemed possible and impossible at the same time - I felt the need to know life on each of its numerous levels. I wanted to take, with thirst and fury, as soon as possible, everything I was sure that, sooner or later, could be useful to me, as if I was able to assemble some reserves of love, beauty and peace.” (Augustin Buzura - Report on the State of Loneliness) 

“Cu gândul la război sau la orice altă absurditate a vremurilor, căci totul părea posibil și imposibil în același timp, simțeam nevoia să cunosc viața pe fiecare din numeroasele ei paliere, să iau cu sete și furie, cât mai repede, tot ce aveam certitudinea că, mai devreme sau mai târziu, mi-ar putea folosi, de parcă mi-aș fi putut face niște rezerve de dragoste, frumusețe și liniște.“ (Augustin Buzura – Raport asupra singurătății)

"Report on the State of Loneliness" is a concluding moment in Augustin Buzura’s great series of novels. The author enters the tenebrous and mysterious labyrinth of life in the most natural manner possible: slamming the secret door open to the wall.  

Translated from the Romanian by Ramona Mitrica, Mike Phillips and Mihai Risnoveanu
Available from Profusion Books, on Kindle and in paperback. 

Book cover: Laura Lazăr and Mihai Risnoveanu
Photo: Laura Lazăr

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