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Blog posts of '2020' 'September'

Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 3) - 23 September 2020

The Romanian version was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 615 / September 2020 

More about Mike Phillips

Ramona Mitrica: 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? Tell me more about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world.

 Mike Phillips: “We are an island of Latinity in a sea of Slavs.” The first time I heard this I was walking around the Military Museum in Bucharest, guided by a government official. We seemed to be the only visitors in the place, and the pictures and tableaux gave it a creepy, almost ghostly feel. This was more than twenty years ago, so my memory of the event is more of a dominant impression, but leaving the building felt like emerging from a dark tunnel into the light. On the other hand, this nationalistic version of identity had begun to intensify my curiosity about the place and its people. Don’t get me wrong. When I heard this for the first time, my reaction was amusement, followed by a species of sympathy. I had just walked past several tableaux representing one battlefield or another, a blood-soaked and agonizing history of wars and defensive slaughter. In the circumstances, some sort of nationalistic passion seemed to be the necessary source and the inevitable consequence.

At the same time, I had spent most of my life listening to crazy and distorted versions of history, designed to excite and exploit minor ethnic distinctions. My own history, the history of my family and friends was littered with a myriad of injustices, oppressions and cruelty. I understood too well the self defensive impulse behind the statement. But, in order to participate in the culture of my own world I had been obliged to put all that behind me. There was more to it than simply rejecting the ideology of nationalism.

The truth was that I didn’t think of myself as the product of a single unbroken line. In my ancestry and in my immediate family there were Africans, Europeans, Indians, and Chinese. My great grandmother’s father fled over the border from slavery in Brazil. My great grandmother’s mother arrived from Barbados in the household of a creole family. My grandmother’s sister moved to New York in 1923, and lived there until her death. If we belonged somewhere it was anywhere in the world that we chose, and my ideal world was one in which you were able to make those choices, irrespective of how and where you were born. In comparison I had little or no sympathy at all for a belief system where the traditional residence of someone’s ancestors in a specific place could serve as a guarantor of identity.

Yet, there was something disturbingly complacent about the Romanians’ assumption that everything they saw somehow belonged to them. It was a fine distinction. I thought of myself as “belonging” to London. Its streets and buildings were effortlessly familiar, assured by endless memories, but I never thought of them as “belonging” to me or mine. I suppose it’s all about the broad concept of “ownership”. In my cultural tradition the idea of “owning” things was morally corrupt, a notion which we fought, almost by instinct. Beyond that, the idea of “owning” a culture didn’t make sense, if only because “our” culture was assembled from wave after wave of varying, sometimes contradictory beliefs, all of which we had learnt to assimilate into our identity. By contrast, calling oneself an “island of Latinity in an ocean of Slavs” seemed less like a description of identity and more like an invitation to battle.

Variations of this thought were running through my mind during my first days in Bucharest, but I was also experiencing more and different impressions which stood in contrast to my first. For instance, another impression which sticks in the memory was my participation in a major book fair which took place at the National Theatre in the centre of Bucharest. A crowded, happy event, where I was greeted by a man, carrying a trumpet and wearing a headdress which looked like a cockerel. Bună ziua. Halfway through the day I stood at a window looking out onto a boulevard (Bulevardul Magheru) which was lined with bookstalls, and crowded with people, who were looking at the books, and even (to my surprise) buying them. My surprise was due to the fact that I had attended events like this in countries all over the world without ever seeing such enthusiasm. It was, I guessed, something to do with the country’s emergence from its recent dictatorship. Everyone I talked to seemed curious and interested. Who are you? Where do you come from? What made you come here?

We were going to the theatre festival in Sibiu. At this point the festival was five or six years old, and from what I’d heard it was the work of a small provincial theatre, in Transylvania. For me, this was an extremely exciting idea. Every Romanian I’d met so far had talked about their peasant roots, plants and flowers remembered from their childhoods on a farm, grandparents tending sheep and buffalo. A small town in Transylvania, I guessed, would bring me closer to the roots of their culture.

In hindsight, this was a ridiculous notion. As it happened, the festival was an extraordinary mixture of elements. I had been looking forward to encountering the soul of the country in Transylvania. Instead, I was encountering groups of writers and performers from all over the world, all of them, it seemed, inspired by images rather than words. For example, one of the plays I remember from those early years was a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The performance took place in a nearby castle which we reached by climbing a winding stone staircase. We walked in long lines, and by the time I reached the top I was almost staggering, out of breath. The giant doors were open and, in the hall, we sat in rows, facing each other.

This was a special occasion. Festival director Constantin Chiriac had been lobbying the European Union for years and this year they had sent a representative, a small giggling Italian who was sitting opposite me, flanked by Chiriac and the mayor, Klaus Iohannis. We waited and waited. I didn’t feel as disturbed as I might have, if only because attending these grand performances had always been an adventure. A couple of years before this I had gone to see Rusalka in the Astra Park just outside Sibiu. It was cold and it rained. The audience sat in a crescent by the lakeside, shivering, covered in blankets. The cast was posed on a platform floating on the lake. As the performance progressed however, the waters began to rise, choking the sputtering principals as they slipped in and out of the rising waves. As for the chorus my heart went out to them because they were standing there for a couple of hours, singing against the driving sleet, obviously freezing and in agony. Eventually, they abandoned the performance, because the cast of the show was going through the worst of it. The audience was having a tough time as well, but I was fine. A friend had wrapped me in his leather jacket and kept on warming me up with shots of vodka, so I ended the evening slightly inebriated and shaking with laughter.

But Rusalka wasn’t the strangest adventure. Another time, another show. This was a show which took place in a college near the theatre. It was announced for half past eight, but when we got there we were told that the play wouldn’t start until midnight. At round about mid night we were admitted, but then we were kept standing in the hallway for another hour and a half. At the end of that time, we were told that fifty people could enter for the first half of the performance. We were seated on the stage until the interval, when we were allowed to disperse into the auditorium. By then I was half asleep, but I lasted until about half past three, when I left. Afterwards I heard that it had gone on until five.

All this sounds extreme, but it was what I came to half expect in Sibiu, so waiting for the Japanese Shakespeare to begin I possessed my soul in patience, and watched the Italian opposite me, while the crew began its preparations, closing the doors and arranging the set. Suddenly the doors banged open, and the Japanese cast began marching in, costumed, holding up their banners, and moving in rhythm. It was a beautiful performance, and although I had been bothered about following the plot, I needn’t have bothered. Everything was clear, and I went to bed that night feeling more or less satisfied about what I had seen. The shock didn’t come until the next morning. When I went down to breakfast, there was a strange atmosphere, men who looked like police in plain clothes were standing around, and police cars driving in the square. In the street I met someone I knew and they told me that the Italian had been found dead in his bed that morning. Later on that day I reminded Chiriac of the superstition surrounding the play in the English theatre. “This one’s the curse of Sibiu,” he said.

All of this however, was about a moment of change. At the beginning of the century I was looking at a celebration of old European literary and dramatic traditions – Chekov, Shakespeare, Goethe – all of it overlaid by spirited transitions of Latin poetry and drama – Ovid, Horace, et al. It was as if the theatre I had grown up with hardly existed. In fact, when I thought about theatre, I was thinking about the one where playwrights like Pinter prowled and growled, about social and political commentary, and about words, words, words. By contrast Chiriac’s theatre began and ended with the spectacle. In that context I was repeatedly struck by the local importance of directors when it came to delivering a specific vision. In the circumstances it was easy to read the influence of the puppet theatre with all its cultural and political intent. At another level there was something teasingly familiar about organisations where everything depended on the ruthless orders of one man.

This was a strand of thought that coloured most of my early experiences in Romania. Don’t forget I’m talking about twenty years ago. Chatting with Silviu Purcarete about his life in France I got the sense that there were distinct similarities between our different roles as artists living a conceptual exile. The differences, though, were crucial. On my first visit to the country I had been, in a way, sidetracked by Sibiu and Transylvania.

In another year I had learnt more and now I was preparing to be part of a translation team working on a book by George Arion. We met in the cellar of a café in Bucharest, where George was sitting holding court, like a Romanian version of Hemingway. By the time we left I was a fan of George’s and his hero Andrei Mladin. Something about his comic and satirical approach to his material was comfortable and familiar, and so was the energy of his urban narrative. He wrote about the way that people lived while including sly references to the dictatorship under which he had been writing – “the entire basement is filled with water. They brought a pump to clear it, but it will take another hour to replace the burst pipe. And during the repairs there is no water running in the bathrooms. Today of all days, when I wanted to do the laundry ---- Did they find anything in the basement? ---- Only rats. You should see them climbing on the walls and screeching like mad… I almost pity them. And there are several cats on the prowl, grabbing the ones who manage to get out.”

It wasn’t hard to work out that, like my American, English, and French compatriots, the imagery was one which aimed at describing the condition of his society. Here was an authentic modern voice, speaking in terms which linked him with the same world in which the rest of us lived. Another version of the culture I was beginning to know.

End of third installment

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