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Interview with author Augustin Buzura

An interview with author Augustin Buzura by Magdalena Popa Buluc

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Magdalena Popa Buluc in dialogue with Romanian Academy member and writer Augustin Buzura:
“Nowadays, in our country, the interest in handcuffs is greater than any interest in books”

Interview by Magdalena Popa Buluc originally published in Cotidianul newspaper, Friday 22 February 2013. English translation by Profusion International

Augustin Buzura wearing the Academician’s robes

The Romanian scale of values, in many fields, has been turned upside down by the noise and the fury of the last two decades, a quarter century in two years’ time. There have been attempts, using every kind of strategy, to destroy the profound and the highest values in literature. Above all there have been campaigns to minimise the status of great dissident writers, like Augustin Buzura, who was harassed by official censorship for all his novels, but who was considered to be the author of some of the most prominent books of the 1970s and 1980s - “The Absentees” (Absenţii, 1970), “Pride” (Orgolii, 1974), “The Faces of Silence” (Feţele tăcerii, 1974), “Voices of the Night” (Vocile nopţii, 1980), “Notepad” (Bloc notes, 1981), “Refuges” (Refugii, 1984), “The Road of the Ashes” (Drumul cenuşii, 1988).

The aesthetic crisis was, and still is, underpinned by a grave moral crisis. In his more recent books, the great writer, essayist, journalist, screenwriter, medical doctor and moralist, Augustin Buzura, x-rays this crisis.  In the process he uses his exceptional polemical ability, together with a nuanced and savage observation, to create a broad panoramic perspective, illuminated by the magnifying power of an electron microscope.

Talking to Augustin Buzura, master of Romanian prose from the second half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st, it is impossible not to agree that he is right, and impossible not to start reflecting on his words. There is a great passion for truth, a hunger for reality and lucidity, in those places where the pygmies live only to block – like the Lilliputians – the great Gulliver.

In 1999, Augustin Buzura published a book with a hallucinatory and hope-giving title, “Requiem for Fools and Beasts” (Recviem pentru nebuni şi bestii).  He reminds us, through the colour spectrum of his analyses, of Goya’s “Caprices” that depicted the decay of values, betrayal with human faces, and the sleep of reason which gives birth to the monsters of today.

There is no trace of the revanchist or the resentful in these analyses and fragments of memoirs which I had the joy and the opportunity to listen to and record for the first time.

With the destructive power of termites working for the downfall of a house, the false and mediocre appraisers of Romanian literature pushed plagiarists or pastiche-lovers, writers who stand no chance, towards the “Nobel Prize”.  Meanwhile the literatures of the world march towards that great confluence with consecrated, strong values, which are credible throughout the length of time and throughout the breadth of human condition covered in their pages. Except for Romania no country in South-east Europe sabotaged its own values to such extent as to ignore them and treat them with so much contempt. Instead of aesthetic and moral competitions, the battles were fought for the right to hold chairs, titles and functions in various institutions.

Augustin Buzura, the Transylvanian visionary, has the courage to name the usurpers and fakers of values, with a critical spirit and talent for prose which is unique in Romanian literature. The Romanian Athenaeum should open its gates for conferences and meetings of this great writer with the Romanian audience, reprising the grand tradition of the Athenaeum’s conferences. We are not made better if there are fewer of us, proclaiming ourselves the sole sources of water in the desert of values. Augustin Buzura, an extremely wronged man, like other great writers who are present or are excluded from literary histories, has a stronger and more credible voice than that of the occasional demolition men. Let us read and listen to Augustin Buzura, the great Gusti, as his friends call him. For us, it is a privilege to be among his contemporaries.

“At this moment, Romania is a country without projects”

In his garden, for the five o'clock

Your most recent published volume, “Neither Alive, Nor Dead” (Nici vii, nici morţi), “may illustrate the best the credo of the journalist who opposes truth to any rhetoric”, unmasking “the political masquerades of the moment”. Does it signify, perhaps, the state of somnolence in which we live?

I should say we live in confusion, in a great confusion – which can somehow be explained, as the consequence of our country’s history after the last war. The revolution, instead of clarifying matters, leads us deeper into the fog [of misunderstanding]. Where have the true values of the nation disappeared to? I do not know. Instead of making us unite around some projects, as happened in other countries with which we shared the same fate and the same larger life before 1989, our intellectuals gave us evidence of the crassest mediocrity. Instead of raising the level of political discussions, they lowered it, allowing themselves to be contaminated by the empty discourse of the politicians to whom they subordinated themselves. At this moment, Romania is a country without projects, meaning that it has no direction and no perspective.

It was you again who confessed that “books are no longer of interest (...), for me, the moral crisis seems to be even more brutal than the economic crisis”.

I said this before: we are in a terrible moral crisis from which I cannot tell when we’ll be able to escape. Beyond this, if we believe the people who studied our psychology -, we are a gregarious people. To such a shepherd, such sheep. Do you realise what a vacuum of good our governments did us by leaving two things which are essential to society – education and healthcare – on the last level [of attention]. Doctors live between the suffering of not doing a thing and the fear of doing something, between helping others and exposing themselves to the risk of ruining their careers. This was the case not a long time ago at the Emergency Hospital “Floreasca”, where professor Brădişteanu was informed about who he was allowed to treat or not to treat. In the old days, prosecutors and militiamen were present during abortions. In today’s world, to ensure the good running of the medical act, gendarmes can be substituted for militiamen. Unfortunately, only people whose days are not numbered can live in Romania, and we are all at the mercy of the Almighty. Numerous, too, are the sufferings of culture. And when we talk about culture, politicians do everything in their power to reform it, which means to minimise it. Obviously, all this happens with the support of prominent intellectuals. You cannot have great expectations from a people who are not physically, morally and intellectually healthy. The hungry cannot defend democracy and freedom. Romania is a humiliated country, and three quarters of its inhabitants are reduced to the condition of being subhuman. Our great national problems have become what do we eat today, what will we wear from day to day, how will we pay our bills.

You are a writer who is obsessed with the space where you live, but in the same time you are a spectator of the multitude of catastrophes you see, “where the handcuffs of history are heard more and more often”. You said: “The country was ruled and is still ruled from the glass of the TV set, justice was pronounced from it, destinies were broken there, and false biographies were drawn upon it, the country becoming a heaven for dunces and cronies [Hăitaș – literally – beaters for the hunt]”. You are indeed one of the true dissidents. How is the spiritual night into which we are sliding deeper each day possible, in this day and age?

Being of an age which is quite advanced – 75 years – , I’ve known all the eras [of Romania], starting with King Carol II, continuing with Horthy, in Northern Transylvania that was ceded to the Hungarians by the Vienna Diktat, then the communists – with Gheorghiu-Dej and all the others. I was marked by all these stages through which I lived, and our lack of perspective seems even more terrifying to me. Nobody proposes anything, politicians accuse one the others of being thieves, of stealing. The sinister Securitate disappeared but, for a change, its manners are perpetuated. I was horribly impressed by a “detail” which says everything about this epoch: this summer, after the Referendum [regarding the impeachment of President Traian Basescu], many people were made to swear by prosecutors about the way they voted, with the Bible laid down on the roof of a car. The only thing which seemed sadder than this was, years ago, a [political] demonstration of the actors. After everything they did for our country to be recognised abroad, you saw them lining Magheru Boulevard, bent by the indignity of the situation in which they were finding themselves. I hope the young people who are now the leadership of the country will understand that they need to start changing things in education, in healthcare, in culture and the sports. Only through this they will succeed to put the country on its own feet. Otherwise, they have no chance. History will condemn them. You cannot expect much from a people who are uncivilised, uncultured, ill and hungry. And, as I said to you before, the gravest thing at this present moment is the loss of dignity. The chase for “firmans”, (constitutional decrees) confirmations from Brussels, shows a lamentable manner of thinking about politics, and of manifesting your respect towards those who voted for you.

“The humility towards the West, humility in which we live today, unsettles me”

With his family, Lara, the grand-daughter, his wife, Maria-Olimpia, Ada, his daughter, Daniela Zeca-Buzura, his daughter-in-law, and Cristian

Did we become more European before being Romanians?

During the times of The Deceased [NOTE – common expression denoting former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu], we were terrorised by proletarian internationalism. After the revolution, the same people who were proletarian internationalists, well organised by [political analyst] Brucan, have automatically become great Europeans, forgetting they belonged to a people who raised them up, insured their instruction, free education and the chance to even study abroad. The humility towards the West, humility in which we live today, unsettles me. During the times of Stalin and those who followed him, the greatest accusation that could be thrown at you was: “you are anti-Soviet”, “anticommunist”. Now, once again some activists, with more or less learning [than those before], accuse you of being anti-American, anti-West. There are a number of nonentities who maintain this balance. I took part, immediately after the post-revolutionary period, in the Innsbruck meeting where the issue of Romania joining the Council of Europe was presented. During that meeting, this personality, otherwise important in our country, asked those present for Romania not to be received into that body. The lady Swedish ambassador intervened here, and she asked,  flabbergasted: “How can set yourself up against your own country?”. The same line, if you remember, was heard recently in Brussels: “How can you be against your own country and lie?”. But talking about small peoples, I remember here the Finns who stood up to the Russians, no matter how big and strong the latter were.  They won that confrontation, but more than that, they won the respect of the entire world. I have reached a certain age now, and I fight its drawbacks as well as I can, I know that entire worlds and universes disappear, that everything that exists is fated to die, but it is sad that before being killed by the Unavoidable, you are defeated by stupidity, injustice and aggression.

As a Transylvanian, I knew only too well the Vienna Diktat, and I wondered many times how was it that the hands of those who accepted it did not wither, because they left the country without a part of Transylvania, without a part of Moldavia, without a part of Bucovina, without the Cadrilater [NOTE - land in the southern province of Dobrudja, along the Black Sea coast, nowadays part of Bulgaria]. For some years now, the only important thing to our people is what other people do, and what other people say about us. It’s a life that has been dramatised to the maximum. An encouragement from the International Monetary Fund, a smile from the Grand Firefly, the opinions of some ladies from Brussels – they all weigh heavier than the opinion and the vote of an entire people.

This is what happened then, what is your opinion on what is happening now?

I worked for a long time with a professor who knew Transylvania and the Middle Ages better than anyone else: academician David Prodan, one of the great Romanian historians, and he said to me: “From 1866 onwards, it became very hard to discuss history with the Hungarians”. And this is without mentioning the [Treaty of] Trianon. Autonomy is just a first step in their great and utopian project. The truth is that the Hungarians know their coalition partners very well [in the Romanian government], and their awful hunger for wealth, as well as their irresponsibility.

What can we negotiate while two steps away from Romania, both in Szeged, and in Debreţin, there is no hotel and no TV station in the Romanian language, alongside all those in Arabic and Russian?

You should add that, in the “Romanian” lyceum in Gyula, it is only the Romanian language that is taught in Romanian, while all the other subjects are taught in Hungarian. It would be a catastrophe if we should apply the Hungarian recipe to the Hungarians in Romania. The fact is that we do not have a state policy for defending our language, our civilisation and our cultural values. We could learn from the Hungarians the steadfastness with which they defend their language and culture. But, in a country like ours, about which no one knows for sure if it still exists – given that it ended up selling not only its riches, but also its past, history, traditions and language for some banal votes – it is hard to hope for something good.

The Hungarians go so far as to sell earth for those who want to be buried in the earth of their country, in Hungary. While for us, some are upset even by the national anthem. Not to mention the national day: summers are too hot, and winters too cold to celebrate it [NOTE – during communist times, it was 23 August; after the revolution it is 1 December]. In general, we must find a neutral day which would not mean anything to anyone. As for the Hungarians in Romania, I remember the late Fănuş Neagu was once asked in jest, before the revolution, what he would like to be. He replied: “a Hungarian from Romania”. Using the same logic, it is probable now, that after all this democracy, he wouldn’t even want to speak Romanian.

“I write exactly what I feel and I have a terrible need to make peace with myself”

With his daughter, Ada

You are the founder of the “Romanian Cultural Foundation”, and also of the “Romanian Cultural Institute”. What were your ambitions at the time you established them?

The same ambitions that any man normally has when he wants, and [also] does all he can, for his country and his culture to be known and respected in the world. Before the revolution I wrote several articles which maintained, with examples from all our great classics, that our country does nothing for the propagation of its values. Consequently, I was called several times in front of the Central Committee [of the Romanian Communist Party] in order to be questioned and to assume responsibility. Even more, I was asked to criticise [Radio] “Free Europe”, which had commented favourably on my texts. After the revolution, there were several proposals for me to run for Parliament, or to run various institutions; I refused saying that my interest was to write. I am obsessed by the people and the space where I live, I write exactly what I feel and I have a terrible need to make peace with myself. But, when I was reminded that I now had the chance to do what I was proposing in the articles I mentioned, I did not hesitate for a second. I was convinced that I would succeed in making the institution stand on its own feet within one year. Therefore, I greatly wanted to build, to prove we were not only a country of eternal beginnings.

But, returning to the starting point of the Romanian Cultural Foundation, how did you begin?

At that time, I was part of an international intellectual group – “Gulliver” – , which was based in Amsterdam, together with some huge names who were proposing a dialogue between East and West.

Isn’t this the group founded by Günter Grass, in which Vaclav Havel had also been a member?

Yes, the same. Regarding myself, I proposed, for example, the establishment of an important publishing house in Vienna. Because, and I will tell you something sad: the greater part of those personalities did not know the reality of our parts of the world, of the East. In short, wanting very much for Romanian literature and culture in general to circulate and be known in the world, I agreed to establish the “Romanian Cultural Foundation”, hoping that my colleagues from “Gulliver” would, of course, support me. Which is what they did. The tenth anniversary of the group was celebrated in Sinaia. At the same time, I asked for assistance from the Swedish Institute. After that I went to the American Congress Library, where I was shocked to see what books they had on Romania: several volumes, some of them written by American researchers, and some by émigré historians. At that particular time, a history of Transylvania published in Budapest was promoted with great success everywhere. It took many years until the reputed historian, academician Ioan-Aurel Pop, would write another History of Transylvania, which was probably closer to the truth. And, in parallel, a synthesis of the history of the Romanians which enjoyed a very good welcome in the US academia. The Centre for Transylvanian Studies, a creation of Silviu Dragomir, re-established under the aegis of the “Romanian Cultural Foundation” and the leadership of the late academician David Prodan, then under Prof Liviu Maior, fully proved its usefulness. Unfortunately, my successors at the leadership of the “Romanian Cultural Institute” got rid of it immediately. A language “good only for swearing” and “a country like an arse” were not up to the level of our East European neighbours.

With his grandson, Cristian

Which was the greatest success you had with the “Romanian Cultural Foundation” besides the innumerable high level conferences around the globe?
I presented our culture in many capitals of the world: Beijing, Tokyo, Madrid, Seoul, Jerusalem, Budapest, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm etc
. In parallel, there were other international programmes going on in the country – in Bucharest, Cluj, Baia Mare, Constanţa etc. Besides the international programmes, there were other types of activity regarding the development of cultural relations with the Romanians living around the borders of the country and from the diaspora, educational programmes, Romanian language courses, professional development courses, cultural-artistic events, scholarships, the buying and distribution of books, music cassettes, films, CDs. I created a publishing house and numerous publications in order to be able to enter a dialogue with other cultures, because it wasn’t only us wanting to be translated into other languages, foreign writers also wanted to be translated into Romanian. But, in line with our good traditions, the same successors got rid of these publications as well.

An impressive event was the one in Washington, in 1999. Up to that time, the most important Romanian presence in America had been the visit of Queen Maria in 1926. The “Romanian Cultural Foundation” took upon itself the mission to represent Romania, the guest of honour at the “Smithsonian Folk Festival”, with a programme under the title of “Romania – Open Doors”. We are talking here about our participation in the best known festival of folk traditions in the world, which was a pretext and an occasion to present our country and culture in the most concrete and complex mode possible, with all the characteristics of an authentic civilisation, rural and urban, traditional and modern, from wooden buildings to music, dance, IT, gastronomy, art books, or other information materials in English and in electronic form. The Romanian stand, situated in the centre of the American capital, on the National Mall, had more than 1,100,000 visitors, and 40,000,000 people became acquainted with Romania through the mass-media.  Among the 500 articles published in the press about the festival, 98 eulogised our participation. A thousand important American politicians came to know us, for example vice-president Al Gore, and the TV stations broadcast the entire event. All this “fun” came at a cost of over $1,125,000, and the fatherland had sent me there with $360,000, the idea being that I would find the rest myself. I was going crazy, I borrowed as much as I could, but I managed to pay my debts. The important thing is, however, that in the end the success was greater than the trouble.

And, as a reward, in some years’ time you were called and announced that you had been dismissed, in a none too elegant manner. At least for the sake of history, tell me how this happened.

I owe my sudden departure to the presidential counsellor at the time, Andrei Pleşu. It was his way of expressing his gratitude. I cannot suspect President Traian Băsescu of having read my works, or having known anything about what had happened to me before the revolution. Thus, the only thing with which I can reproach the President is his lack of kindness. I had asked him to approve a two-week unpaid holiday, so that I could leave the next day for a surgical intervention in Vienna. If I hadn’t gone, I would have lost the appointment and it was a question of life and death. This was in 2005. I told him I wanted to come back and conduct the handover of the institution myself, since it is usually said about the person who leaves either that he stole, or that he left something in a mess. He replied to me dryly “It is not approved”.

My colleague Angela Martin, the vice-president of the ICR,  a person who bore the brunt of the publishing house and the international programmes, handed over in good condition everything we had realised, with great pains, during fifteen years. When it was founded, the ICR had 5 cultural institutes abroad and, after one year, when I left the Institute, I left it with 16. Anyway, Andrei Marga is at the leadership of the Institute nowadays, and he has a CV that satisfies the exigencies of such a mission. For the time being, all the guns of the detractors are pointing at him. I wonder what the “democratic press” would write if, for example, Andrei Marga should organise and sponsor, as my successors did, the Festival of Romanian aspic?

“Leaving medicine, I felt more attached to it, I loved it even more”

On the shores of the Black Sea, in front of the Writers’ House in Neptun

I would like us to look back without anger, to turn back in time by asking you: what made you love books as a child?

I was lucky. During my childhood I went through some miraculous events that changed my life. Behind our house, in a village in Maramureş, was the priest’s house; he was a man with unusual powers. A saint. He conducted services both for the Orthodox, and the Greek-Catholic. His grace from God and his prestige were humongous. In October 1944, when the fate of the war was decided, fearing the reprisals of the [Hungarian] Horthy troops, we had run together with all the neighbours into a nearby forest. Our fear was completely justified. All the horrors of Ip and Trăsnea – children being pulled out of their mothers’ bellies with the bayonet – and in equal measure those from Huedin, where the chief priest [protopop] had been blown up with a pump until he died, were everybody’s obsessions. We had a single radio apparatus on batteries and we were waiting impatiently for the Romanians to come. We also had a single flag, hidden under straw in a cart, and we were hoping to be able to bring it into the light. Instead of the much expected Romanian army, the Soviets arrived. And I cannot forget an image of horror – when a soldier that had entered our house saw my mother’s [religious] icons, he erased them all with bursts of his automatic gun. That is when the village priest was also put against the wall. And that is when we experienced the first true miracle: out of the blue came this man who, talking with the soldiers in their own language, saved the priest from death. As a sign of gratitude, the priest offered him a little house and assured him he would care for him for all his life.

But who was that man?

His name was Uray Iuliu. Some said he was Hungarian, some that he was a Pole, but with the exception of the priest nobody found out his story. The fact is that he started to be in charge of my education. I went to his house and he taught me how to put together insectaria, and herbaria, but he also read to me from Horace, in Neapolitan dialect, and from Ovid. He was a man who was interested in the movements of the stars and he often unveiled their secrets to me. I did “classes” with him, French, Italian... A short time after this came the house searches run by the Securitate, and they were taking the folks out to the Canal [labour camps], they were burning books... My father was a worker at the “Phoenix” lead works, nowadays defunct, and because of these “healthy origins” he was less suspect, so the priest came and brought all his books to our place, and hid them in the barn. He had an amazing library: all the Transylvanian magazines – “Luceafărul” (The Evenstar), “Cosinzeana”, “Ziarul ştiinţelor şi al călătoriilor” (the Journal of Sciences and Travels), “Viaţa ilustrată” (Illustrated Life), “Telegraful Român” (the Romanian Telegraph), “Tribuna” (the Tribunal) of [author Ioan] Slavici, as well as the entire collection of “Biblioteca pentru toţi” (Everyman’s Library). This is how I read Rebreanu, Agârbiceanu, Goga, at the right time, and the priest Alexandru Ciura, who was writing about the miners in the Apuseni Mountains...

But what made you head afterwards in the direction of medicine?

Chance had it that I would live among mentally ill people. The priest I told you about was performing exorcisms. There were epileptics coming from all over the country, their relatives brought them tied to the carts, and they left free, on their own. I was fascinated by their secret, I wanted to know why they were different from us. When my mother and father were leaving for work, they locked me in the house fearing I could be attacked by a madman. Later on, my father wanted me to become a priest, and my mother wanted me to be a veterinarian because the son of the same priest was a professor of comparative anatomy at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bucharest. Again, by chance, both of us would be received at the same time, many years later, in the Romanian Academy. But to return to the question. I went to take the admission exams at the medical school, in Cluj, where we were 12 candidates for each place on the course. During those days, there were real giants of medicine at Cluj university. I could learn from them not just science, but also the most important lessons of kindness and being human. I owe my passion for research to some of my professors, to others I owe, however strange it might sound, my passion for literature. Literature seen from a novel perspective. One of my professors, for example, when he was conducting the exams, didn’t ask you to talk about the malady inscribed on the exam ticket, but about the works of the writer, musician or painter who had suffered from that malady. I, for one, had to talk about Maupassant! As such, each day, with great efforts, I would discover and discover,...

In fact, in the sciences, each discovery is the result of enormous sacrifices.

I didn’t enter medical school from the first try. And by the time I took the second admission exam, I had practiced the strangest professions. Each was useful to me, in its own way. I worked down the mines, I was a woodcutter, the chief of the Alimentary market in Baia Mare, a carer at “Krateyl” circus, a clerk in the register office... I lived as a lodger in the house of lady who had been the former owner of the gold mines. Her husband had died at the Canal [labour camps], and she was living a life like the one in the “Great Expectations”. I learned from her many things that pertain to good manners. For example, how do you walk holding hands with a lady if you have an umbrella: two steps, umbrella down, and again two steps, umbrella down. I learned from her about eating in a “civilised” manner. She would place a book on my head, two other books under my arms, and I would have to control my posture while using the knife and fork in the same time. I had to stand up in the presence of a lady, and she had the custom of entering my room about twenty times a day. Nowadays, unfortunately, I have reached the situation, on the bus or the underground train, when women would stand up in my presence, to offer me their place.

In Washington, on the Mall, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Your life was located under the sign of providential meetings. But what was it that made you head from medicine to literature?

Once in medical school, I then had the chance to be in an extraordinarily good study group. If the weakest in the group received mark 10 simple, not mark 10 with merit, we would all be flunked. I felt the need to write, but did not try to. It was more a random association. I wrote a piece of prose, sent it to the “Tribuna”, it was immediately published and then I started riding on two horses: keeping up with my colleagues, and also writing. I had a theory at the time: you cannot be good in everything you do, but you can be the best at something. I liked psychiatry enormously. We had a woman professor at the Chair [of psychiatry], with whom we conducted extremely difficult experiments. In those days I learned genetics, psychoanalysis – all forbidden back then. We were doing exercises of hypnosis and concentration. I was also frequenting a circle of literary psychopathology, where I was also conducting seminars. But, no matter how strange it might sound, by leaving medicine, I felt more attached to it, I loved it even more. I could now read whatever I wanted, neither the patients, nor the bosses would make me do anything against my will. At the university, I had been passionate about the metabolism of lithium salts, about schizophrenia and psycho-pharmacology, and in particular lysergic acid and psilocybin. I had read much about mescaline, that “miserable miracle”, as Henri Michaud called it.

I remember your novels, such as “Pride” (Orgolii), “Faces of Silence” (Feţele tăcerii), “Report on the State of Loneliness” (Raport asupra singurătăţii), “Requiem for Fools and Beasts” (Recviem pentru nebuni şi bestii), published during the times of Ceauşescu, in which can be found psychiatric methods of investigating human conscience, and in which your passion for literary psychopathology can be seen. For these novels, did you take inspiration from real cases, or was it all only fiction?

To a great extent, they were real, as any novel has a starting point connected to reality. In “Faces of Silence” (Feţele tăcerii), for example, I asked myself what happened to the people who had fought in the mountains. And it was not exactly by chance. Once, as a child, while I was in the pasture with the cows, I had seen a Securitate car. The Securitate men had shot a man in the leg, and they were dragging him behind them, like an animal. I asked myself: what happened to him? Who was that man?... What happened to the people who’d ran away in the mountains of Maramureş and those who had been locked up in Sighet [prison]?

Thinking of psychoanalysis, in some of your novels – “Voices of the Night” (Vocile nopţii), “The Road of the Ahses” (Drumul cenuşii) – there are nuances between grey and black, and mental death comes to the surface like a motif, but also pain. I read a work by a psychoanalyst, Nicolas N. Dracoulides, a student of the Austrian school of psychoanalysis, in which he talks about red, black and white, the constants of Stendhal’s work, connected to specific moments that were recurring in his life, and also appearing in the titles of his works: “The Red and the Black”, “The Red and the White”. They are obsessions about what he lived through as a child. Did you take inspiration, besides literary psychopathology, from psychoanalysis?

Yes and no. But psychoanalysis remained one of my great passions. I have read almost anything of importance in this field. When I chose my graduation paper – “Shakespeare in Psychiatry” –, psychoanalysis was forbidden. I could not quote any author from the bibliography, not even Freud. But anyway, I learned a lot. Taking a character, cutting it out from the book and following his or her psychiatric particularities... Shakespeare was mastered a great part of the knowledge of his day. For example, meteorologists even found out from Shakespeare the direction of the wind at the time of the defeat of the Invincible Armada: North-North-West. Also, he knew about the circulation of the blood, as described by Harvey, but also about the acting mechanism of poisons. Shakespeare had an incredible spirit of observation: he described with precision various mental illnesses before they would receive a name many years later. Ophelia suffered from hebephrenic schizophrenia, Hamlet was psychasthenic, and Lear suffered from senile dementia.

“Romania was far from being a ‘Siberia of the spirit’”

Swedish writer Kjell Espmark, President of the Nobel Committee for Literature between 1998 and 2005, Augustin Buzura, Angela Martin and Adrian Pintea

You are a writer who is obsessed with the space which he inhabits. What are your feelings when you finish a volume? Do you feel the need to go over it again?

I feel a terrible tiredness, because a novel is finished only after a number of rewritings. After it is published, I am afraid to read it again because I can’t remember having ever been satisfied. Sometimes, after finishing a volume, I would just go nowhere in particular. I had no target towards which I would head. I was going to the train station and as I heard “the train is departing from such platform” I was got on it to see, for example, what did [the town of] Titu look like. At other times, I would wander the mines and listen to the people telling me about this and that... I was pushed forward by the need to know and to research. The fault probably lies with my scientific training. You read and you research enormously in order to gain a little certitude – something of the unknown and unsaid which we are always facing.

It is true that great writers were subjected to a continuous and unjust attack by some denigrators, people in a hurry to inflate their own merits and situate themselves on the crest of the last waves of minimalist, textualist, pornographic and so-called post-modernist prose. A campaign of age discrimination, waged in Romanian literature with the violence and ignorance of Calibans, launched the concept of the expired generation. With the devastating behaviour of migratory hordes, the newcomers tried to set preceding values on fire, talking about Eminescu the cadaver in the cupboard, about patriotism as the product of some outdated, anti-European and anti-globalisation mentalities, and about the great classics and moderns as being some obsolete models. What do you think about the literature of today?

There are, in our country, a few great writers who bore the weight of Romanian literature in very difficult conditions, and, on the other hand, there are many glories without any cover. And this without mentioning the TV-writers everybody is quoting without having read them. I do not believe in a literature that circumvents great truths, the great themes of the novel, which have been the same since the genre started. If you are not interested in freedom, in dignity and in everything that makes a man out of a being, there are too few chances your texts will survive.

You were shouting out loud what others didn’t have the courage to speak. You lived, during the years, [through] moments of atrocious censorship. Your generation had to build an oeuvre within the universe they had conceived. You wrote: “If we do not talk, silence will establish its dark dominion”.

The truth is I was feeling up to confronting censorship. And I think I was one of the most censored writers. In those days, however, I was thinking of myself as being very useful and I felt compelled to say, events shout out loud, the things other people did not know or did not dare to shout! The brave and the fighters against communism and censorship appeared only after the revolution, when there were no more risks. What’s more, instead of an oeuvre it was enough to have a [communist] party membership card, a powerful master and some invented wounds they could expose with pathos in front of the fatherland. Even with all the censorship, in some periods – more numerous than people who write about them nowadays know – books that might occupy a place of pride in any other literature were published. Books which, in spite of the times and historical changes, are not obsolete. As for Romania, it was far from being a “Siberia of the spirit”. But if we continue to ignore the spirit, education and science, it may become [such]. I wrote for decades about mental death, about bringing a man to the situation of not knowing dignity and truth, of being a banal herd animal. As it is, I know what I am talking about. I meet again the same questions, pains and fears to which, half a century ago, I believed there were solutions, answers. In these days of ours there is another kind of censorship – the economic kind. If you do not have money, you are eliminated.

“Who is still talking about culture nowadays? Who is still losing their time reading?

With his favourite dog, Sven

This is exactly what I wanted to ask you, since you direct a prestigious literary magazine, “Cultura” (Culture), under private sponsorship [auspicii private], one of the most impressive journalistic exercises in Romanian culture. How do you manage it?

I ask myself every week if I will be able to publish the next issue.

What worries you in present-day society? - given that you affirmed “there exists a national grinder for destroying reputations”, adding: “Writers without books, politicians without ideologies, they have suffocated Romania”.

Communists, anticommunists, philo-Occidentals and philo-Americans, anti-Soviets and philo-Soviets, the autonomous and the independent – we have all become raw materials for the most sinister grinder. We behave like beings without past, without history, without culture, as if we’ve been parachuted into an unknown place and compelled to start everything from scratch. Who is still talking about culture nowadays? Who is still losing time reading? Modernisation is translated in an unceasing changing of the laws, and the interest in handcuffs is infinitely greater than the interest in books. Our contest “Who knows, wins” has as a theme: “Who’s the most servile of the serfs?” It is a matter of indifference what they are: from the Left, from the Right, or the Centre. The question I feel the need to shout out belongs to Mishima: “How is it possible, I wonder, to only want to live, by accepting a world in which the spirit has died?”.

You wrote at some point a terrifying phrase: “In front of death, words withdraw”. All this struggle of yours along the years, with censorship, with [state] structures, with politicians, with the nonentities in the field of culture, did it make you have the obsession of pain, of fear? You’ve actually passed through countless dramatic moments in life, in connection to your health. Where does this inner force that stimulates normality come from, this force of putting aside the thought of illness in order to save yourself? Is there a technique for it? How did you manage to go beyond these moments, to continue the struggle and “resurrect” like the Phoenix?

I believe nothing is happening by chance in life. Many times I wanted to do things in a certain way, and they came out differently. My theory, nowadays, is somehow along the lines of Viktor E. Frankl’s logotherapy. His key question: What reason do you have for not killing yourself?, can be preceded by another one: Why was I punished? As for me, I think illness is a punishment, but it is especially an aid through which divinity draws your attention to the fact that you took the wrong route and that you have to return to your purpose, starting from the idea that we are not born and we do not live without a purpose. And it is this purpose which is the reason that compels you to live. Once you discover it, you are no longer alone. Or defeated.

What are the last books you’ve read?

They are, in the order I read them: Deidre Bair – “Jung – a biography”; Irvin Yalom – “Existential Psychotherapy” and “The Spinoza Problem”; Dalai Lama – “My Spiritual Autobiography”; Viktor E. Frankl – “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

What do you do when you are not writing? It is a foolish question, because I see that on your table there are countless rough copies. How do you purify yourself?

Last week, for example, I lived through a nightmarish moment because I lost more than a quarter of the novel I am writing from my computer, and I had to start it all over again. Can you imagine this? – an extremely difficult business. Before, during the “obsessive decades”, I used to listen to lots of music. When I felt stale in my soul, I listened to Bach for hours on end. Bach was my salvation. When I was feeling dried up, and dry and insufferable, I listened to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Chopin brought solace and changed my mood. At this moment, I can write without any invigorating supplement. But I read for a change, I read very much.

Because we are talking about love, what role did it play in your life?

The writer is his own guinea pig and his discoveries do not belong to him, but to literature. The things he lived are seen in his books. I am convinced that without friendship, love and faith, it is almost impossible to live, or it is possible but it’s not worth it.

What are you dreaming of?

I dream of living another day, and another day, and yet another day... And to write another phrase, and another phrase and yet another phrase... And to be able to read again the things that I wrote.