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Gellu Naum: Zenobia (Zenobia )

Gellu Naum was a Surrealist poet and this, his only novel, is distinctly a Surrealist poet’s novel. It is full of strange images, odd events and peculiar behaviour by its protagonist. Our main character is called Gellu Naum. We first meet him on a cold winter’s night in the country when he calls on Mr Sima. Mr Sima invites him in for tea which he reluctantly accepts (he generally seems ungracious to offers of kindness). Mr Sima has four other guests. Dragoş is seemingly dead (he is not) and is lying stiffly on a table. Jason is an obnoxious man. There is a young woman whom our hero immediately falls in love with – his love is reciprocated – and whom he names Zenobia. We never learn her real name. Jason had rescued her in the swamps but had been reluctant to take her along and, even now, kicks her. He had been accompanied by Petru, who persuades him to take her and who is also in love with her.

Gellu and Zenobia now set off together taking Dragoş with them, while Petru wends his miserable, lovelorn way back home and Jason also sets off. We will meet both Petru and Jason again. The three live together in a burrow like moles. They seem to eat very little – virtually nothing in the case of Dragoş. The winter is bitterly cold and they can hear the wolves howling. They get a visit from Mr Sima who brings them some food and clothing. We don’t have anything, we make love and that’s all, Gellu tells him. Sima tells them that he is going to die soon.

Death, in good Surrealist fashion, will permeate this novel. He admits that he often writes about corpses but does not know why. While in Bucharest he will bump into any number of dead people in the streets. Indeed, in some cases, he is not sure whether they are dead or not but it does not seem to matter to him.

Spring arrives and Gellu sets out to explore. He comes across various artefacts from old civilisations, such as the Boian culture. Connecting with the past will also be a theme of this book. We get various references to the classical past. For example he will later meet Empedocles as a child and Dragoş will go off with this child. He will also see Bach playing on his dulcimer wearing striped pyjamas. There are other examples.

Gellu travels around the swamp but then returns to tell Zenobia that he is at heart an urbanite and wishes to return to Bucharest, where he came from so off they set, all three. The problem with Bucharest, when they arrive, is that it is cold and wet, they have no food, no shelter and no money. Gellu bumps into Maria, an old friend who is an artist. She offers them her studio as a temporary residence. In his unusual ungrateful manner, he says that he cannot stand her paintings so she offers to turn them facing the wall. The three of them stay there for a while and Zenobia finds some money in the clothing given to her by Mr. Sima.

They settle in as he wanders the streets of Bucharest, bumping into old friends, some alive, some dead and old girlfriends as well. He has various adventures, such as taking a random train out of Bucharest and then walking back. He and Zenobia settle into a routine but a loving one. They exchanged few words – we understood the meaning, from beyond words. He says of her For me Zenobia represented the untrammelled marvellous and
that she helped me to re-establish, step-by-step, a partially forgotten, partially prefigured nature.

He writes what he calls pohems and pohetry but he also regresses to his past, remembering his early days there. He meets people – I saw a lot of dead people. I got along pretty well with them – but is critical of some of them. Of Ioachim and his friends he says that they were a bunch of robots voluntarily frozen in their professional mechanism .

However, he struggles with his personal issues. Why am I building traps for myself? Why am I torturing myself so much? Eventually, he says to Zenobia, it is time to return to the swamps.

What makes this novel so fascinating are the strange images and strange behaviours of Gellu and Zenobia. Surrealist-type images abound, from butterflies and moths, to dark rooms and corpses. There seems to be no more than a casual boundary between life and death. Dragoş, for example, seems to live in a permanent state of suspended animation but can come alive, e.g. playing paper aeroplanes with the Empedocles child. The couple seem to barely eat all winter.

Naum’s wife, the artist Lyggia Naum, is said to be the inspiration for Zenobia and, even though he can go off on his own, he is clearly devoted to her and always returns and misses her when she occasionally goes off. He has friends, often dead rather than alive, but can be distant or even rude to them, preferring his own company and that of Zenobia. One interesting point is that he introduces numerous little news items. Many of them, though by no means all, are about the strange behaviour of animals. I checked one two and they seemed to be real (e.g. the heaviest woman ever in Britain) and not imaginary. They seemed to have no purpose, i.e. they are not linked in any way to the story.

Whether this works for you depends very much on how prepared you are to move from a fairly conventional approach to a decidedly surrealist one. It is very original, very imaginative and a fascinating addition to the Romanian canon.

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by Editura Cartea Românească
First published in 1995 in English by Northwestern University Press
Translated by James Brook and Sasha Vlad