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Norman Manea: Plicul negru (The Black Envelope)

Manea published this book in Romania in 1986, the year he left Romania and emigrated to the United States and thee years before the fall and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The novel is set during the early 1980s, when Ceaușescu was determined to pay off the national debt and Romanians suffered, as much of the national agricultural produce was exported for this purpose, leaving the Romanians cold, starving, often unemployed and with only minimal television. Not surprisingly, Manea has a a very cynical view of the world. We see this at the beginning of the novel. Picturesque Bucharest, feminine and sprightly—just like the petit Paris of old. If only there were not this poverty and gasping all around, and this clumsy, artificial happiness.

Our hero is Anatol Dominic Vancea Voinov. Manea uses all for of his names together, any one of the individual ones (sometimes preceded by Mr.), various combinations of selections of these names, his nickname and Tolea (the most frequently used). He also calls him The Professor, professore, the Detective, The Inspector and probably some other names I have forgotten. In short, the novel is chaotic. There is a plot, based on Tolea’s life, but it winds in and out of the events and people and the situation in Romania so that, at times, the reader can get a bit lost. This is part of the attraction of the book, as it is clearly intended to show the chaotic nature of life in Romania.

Tolea, as I shall call him, has had a chequered life. His father had killed himself on receiving the eponymous black envelope. He received it shortly after he and Tolea had a row and killed himself shortly afterwards. Tolea spends much of the book trying to find what what was written in the letter in the envelope and who sent it. Tolea had been a successful student and had become a successful high school teacher. However, before that, he had hit an old lady with his bicycle by accident and had lost a case for damages, which cost his father a lot of money. As a teacher he had a coterie of admirers and was clearly a local intellectual leader. However, he had been fired because of his delicate relations — extremely delicate, I can tell you — with some teenage boys. Since then he had been assisted by two key characters in this book – Dr. Marga, a friend of his father, who is head of a psychiatric hospital, and Matei Gafton, who gives Tolea a room in his house. Marga helps him get a job at the Tranzit Hotel as a receptionist. The hotel is indeed, a hotel but used primarily for sexual assignments. Tolea tends to look down on his colleagues.

Tolea is something of a rebel. Indeed, they are watching him. We get regular reports from the various spies about Tolea and others, though, inevitably the spies are themselves spied upon. When there is talk of downsizing at the Tranzit Hotel, instead of staying to fight for his job, Tolea goes off on holiday. He spends much of his time wandering around Bucharest, sometimes in a daydream, sometimes trying to track who sent the famous black envelope to his father. He enjoys Bucharest but Manea spares no details of the grim poverty facing the people, particularly after the earthquake of 1977 (which was reported on French radio but not reported on Romanian radio for a long time).

Some of this surveillance seems to be coordinated by the mysterious Association, an association that nominally assists the deaf. It is run by the malevolent Comrade Orest Popescu, whom we never actually meet, though we hear a lot about him, mainly from Irina. Irina had trained to be an architect but had been expelled from her course just before taking her final exams. She had worked at various odd jobs – technical drawing, then as a shop-window dresser and as a nursery-school teacher. She had been sort of the circle associated with Tolea when he was a high schoolteacher. The couple seem to meet at odd intervals throughout their lives, have passionate sex and then go their own ways. Irina had managed to finally qualify as an architect and worked as one but, like Tolea and many others, there was a file on her and she lost two jobs. Finally, Comrade Popescu rescued her but, naturally, wanted something in return.

The other two main characters are Dr. Marga and Matei Gafton. Marga’s institute is undoubtedly a microcosm for the madness of Romanian society with Marga, the lunatic who acts the healer of lunatics. However, he also appears to be somehow involved in the story of the Tolea’s father and the black envelope. Matei Gafton, a former journalist, spends his time investigating and researching, complaining about things going wrong and trying to find out about the situation in Romania during the war.

What makes or breaks this novel, depending on your views on reading chaotic novels, is Tolea and, in particular, his ramblings, both physical and mental. This is a man who daydreams, who wanders around, who does not entirely live in the real world. We cannot always be sure if what is happening to him is really happening or is only happening in his febrile imagination. Whether it is real or imagined, it is certainly colourful and definitely makes for fascinating if not always coherent reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1986 by Cartea Românească
First English translation in 1995 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Translated by Patrick Camiller