A political exile returns to his homeland behind the former Iron Curtain.
And finds things as strange as ever. Essayist/novelist Manea (The Black Envelope, 1995, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as a hooligan: mild-mannered and essentially apolitical, he exhibits in these pages an aesthete’s sense of the world and of literature—and an ironic sense at that. Yet “hooligan” is what he and fellow apostates from the Romanian workers’ paradise were branded by the apparatchiks, a term of abuse made a little more pointed by the 1991 murder in Chicago of his compatriot and fellow intellectual Ioan Petru Culianu, a strange case that opened long-closed dossiers on such matters as mythology scholar Mircea Eliade’s involvement in fascist politics during WWII. A veteran of the Transnistrian camps to which Romanian Jews were deported in those days, Manea opens this memoir with an account of his reluctance to return to his homeland and look some of those matters straight in the eye. “I came out relatively clean from the dictatorship,” he writes. “I didn’t get my hands dirty.” On the streets of Bucharest and in the villages of Bukovina, however, he encounters plenty of people with dirty hands and examines them with the same scholarly detachment (which is not to say disengagement) that he casts upon his own memories of Red Pioneers’ summer camps, furtive affairs, open secrets, quotidian betrayals, and other aspects of life under totalitarianism. He may have escaped from all that, Manea writes, but the new, ostensibly democratic Romanian government keeps tabs on him and his fellow exiles all the same. Arch, literary, and self-effacing, Manea revisits the scenes of his youth, encounters “miraculous apparitions” from the past, and contents himself with the knowledge that his true home now lies elsewhere: “Yes, the Upper West Side, in Manhattan.”
Milder than fellow exile Andrei Codrescu’s The Hole in the Flag (1991), but an affecting exploration of past and present all the same.