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Norman Manea: Vizuina (The Lair)

This is primarily a novel about exile – Manea himself had to leave Romania and now lives in the United States – but it is about other related subjects. It is also, above all, about trying to cope in a world where logic has gone out of the window and things do not make sense and trying, though not always succeeding, to adapt to this illogical world.

Our hero is Peter Gașpar. We first meet him long after he has arrived in the United States but still struggling with life, in this case trying to get and pay for a cab. Gradually, we learn of his history. He had published a story called Mynheer, back in Romania (though we know it is Romania, the word Romania is never used but is rather called The Homeland or the old country). It caused some ripples among the socialist literati. He did not publish anything else. His father had been married and they had a daughter. The three of them had hidden from the Hungarian authorities (who controlled Romania during the war) but, when found, had been sent to Auschwitz. His wife and daughter were immediately gassed but David managed to survive and survived the war.

David met Eva after the war in the triage hospital and they married soon afterwards. The return home was difficult and Peter was born en route, in Belgrade. Back home, David was determined to forget what happened – his way of adapting to an illogical world – and went back to his job as a watchmaker. However, husband and wife did not entirely agree with what would happen to Peter. He’s going to live in another world, and we, with him, said David but Eva retorted He was born to marked parents. The New World contains the Old World, the past will live in him, as well. This dichotomy is one of the key themes of this novel.

Peter did not know about his father’s previous marriage. Under the Communist regime, David was sent to study for one year and then became a prosecutor. He was later dismissed. When Peter goes to the United States, he is helped by his cousin Ludmila (Lu), who was married to Professor Gora. When Gora got his passport, Ludmila refused to accompany him. He was devastated. Professor Gora had left Romania before the fall of Ceausescu and had a good job as a professor and spoke English well. Peter struggled with English (particularly the New York subway names). Indeed, he struggles with life in the United States and we follow his struggles, and the various jobs he did, including working as a chauffeur for a Romanian gangster, till his erratic driving indirectly gets him a job as an assistant professor.

As Peter looks to Gora for help, there is also a further element in the Romanian exile hierarchy in the United States. At the top is Cosmin Dima. He is long since dead by the time Peter comes to New York. He is clearly based on Mircea Eliade, the distinguished Romanian writer on the history of religion, myth, philosophy and other topics. His presence is felt throughout this book. Firstly, Gora, Peter and another exile linked to them, Mihnea Palade (who later changes his name to Portland), all revere Dima. However, there is some criticism of him, particularly his alleged association with the Fascists before and during the war. Peter is called on to review his memoirs and this takes up a large part of the book, as Peter hesitates and then is criticised for it. Palade is murdered, possibly by the Romanian Secret Service and Peter receives a death threat, which is investigated in some detail by the FBI and local US police.

While we learn a lot about Dima (“What did he think about democracy?” “Corrupt, vulgar. Infantile. Demagogic. Chaotic. Stupid. Decadent. Hypocritical.”), about Palade and Gora, the focus is on Peter. He struggle with his life in the US. He is described as The refugee. The oddball. The weirdo. He connects, but he doesn’t connect. Communicates, but doesn’t communicate. Though he is not the narrator – the I-narrator remains pretty well hidden – we see much of the story through him and both he and the actual I-narrator are unreliable narrators.

The novel is about many things. It is about ambiguities, a term Palade uses to describe his various Romanian friends. It is about an illogical and often unjust world. Indeed, the literary guides referred to are, appropriately enough, Borges and Kafka. Borges is quoted as saying I know something that the Greeks didn’t know — uncertainty. When Peter receives the death threat, it starts with the phrase Next time I kill you, a phrase which Peter eventually seems to recognise and then recalls that it comes from a Borges story. But the novel is also how we cannot escape our past and, in some cases, the past of our parents. Our graves are there, in the past. More lasting than we are, Dima comments, referring to Romania. But Peter has a nightmare about Romania and thinks The nightmare doesn’t belong to me, has nothing to do with me, it’s my parents.

Eliada/Dima wrote extensively about labyrinths (as did Borges) and Manea also uses this as an image for the complexity of the modern world. In short, the world is complex, illogical, difficult to cope with and it is hard to find one’s place in it, particularly if one is an exile and particularly if one comes from a country that has been ruled by a variety of despots: the Romanian Fascists, the Nazis and the particularly despotic Romanian Communists.

This review can only touch on some of the key points of this very complex novels. Homosexuality in the Russian novel and 9/11, how to become a senator in the United States and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, Cambodian art and people called Larry, heart disease and old age are only a few of the many issues it touches on. It is very complex but, at the same time, addresses its key points well and in some detail. Exile is not fun and exile from a country with a bitter past like Romania brings its own problems, however, glad the exile may be to get away. Manea shows this with great skill.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Polirom
First English translation in 2012 by Yale University Press