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Petru Dumitriu: Incognito (Incognito)

Our narrator is a Romanian government official. This is in the 1950s when the situation in Romania was grim. He had been in trouble but had been rehabilitated and is now on his way back up the ranks. We know, because he tells us, that he hates the job and the compromises he has to make but he has no choice if he is to survive. He and his wife, Isolde, have requested exit permits to visit the West but it is clear that they do not intend to come back.

At the beginning of this novel, he is summoned by his boss and told that he has to investigate a man called Sebastian Ionesco. Ionesco had been a high-ranking official but had fallen out of favour and now is a mere store-keeper. However, he has two brothers, Erasmus and Christian, in high positions. Our narrator has to find fictitious but plausible reasons for bringing charges against this man. Given his past transgressions and his request for exit visas, he knows he has no choice but, he tells us early on, he plans to let Ionesco know and does so by having a quiet word with Sebastian’s sister, Valentine.

His early investigations reveal that Sebastian was fired for not reducing staff numbers. He also learns that his parents have disowned him. Out narrator is joined by Major Irod, a security service officer, and they interview Sebastian, who gives all the proper party-line responses but Irod is convinced he is hiding something. He encourages our narrator to have a private chat with him, which he does. This is is to avoid what Irod calls taking measures on the State level, a euphemism for arrest and torture. Irod is not necessarily against this but he is aware that Sebastian’s powerful family connections limit him somewhat.

Our narrator is also aware of what is going on with Sebastian’s family, as he has spoken to all of them. One or two of them are mildly critical. Erasmus, for example, says that his brother has mystical ideas.

When our narrator visits Sebastian, he finds that Sebastian admits to these mystical ideas but, in particular, gives our narrator a large document which is, essentially, his confession/autobiography.

The next part of this book is the text of that document. We start with the family, when Sebastian was young but not too young. The six of them – father, mother, brothers Philip, Erasmus and Christian and sister Valentine -are in a summer home. It all seems, initially, somewhat idyllic. The year is 1941 and the war seems quite remote.

However, beneath the surface, there is clearly more than meets the eye. Death is abundant – servants brutally killing a grass snake, dead fish, dead mussels. Sebastian even finds a human corpse in the Danube. Sex is not surprisingly also rampant. There is a certain amount of homoerotic banter between the brothers, though Sebastian is not a willing participant. He has a girlfriend, Sabine, but he also catches Valentine and Philip having sex. He himself admits to occasionally having sexual fantasies about both his mother and sister.

Relations between the family are not entirely smooth. Mother and father argue. The mother says of Sebastian Poor Sebastian who really isn’t all I could have wished him to be. Both Erasmus and Sebastian, who share a bedroom, are thoroughly fed up. Erasmus says It’s one big bowl of shit. Sebastian is so fed up that he runs away and joins up. (The Romanians were on the same side as the Germans at this point.) He will never see Philip again, as he is killed when the house is destroyed as the Germans retreat towards the end of the war.

We follow Sebastian’s war time career as a tank commander. He is a very good shot and manages to kill a lot of Russians till he is finally captured when he is no longer a tank commander but an infantryman. Being a prisoner of war is very hard but he is offered a way out – join the communists and fight the Germans, which he does. He is persuaded by a visit from the very real Ana Pauker, who has appeared once before in a book on my website. As a good Communist he is able to join the security services after the war.

Things are not good after the war in Romania as the country is occupied by the Russians till the 1950s. They are armed and the Romanians are not and they steal and rape at will, with total impunity. The communists did not fully take over till 1947, so there are disputes between the various factions. Sebastian is a good communist. However, once they do take over, he, like others, gradually becomes disillusioned. He sees this when enforced collectivisation is introduced and is horrified by the treatment of the peasants. He is joined in this by his friend Mitu, a man he will later have to arrest and, later still, will come across again in dire circumstances.

Sebastian quits the security service – something that does not, of course, go down well and works for a state enterprise. When he refuses to sign a large number of redundancy documents, things really go downhill for him.

It is his brother, Christian, who remains, officially, a good communist, who says People want nothing but a quiet evening at home with family and a few friends and adds What maddens me is the conviction those chaps have that they are always in the right.

Sebastian had met Sabine again, his girl friend from before the war. Initially he had kept away, assuming she was married but they got back together when he found she was divorced. It is she who says to him you might try to do good whatever you are doing, good according to your own conscience not according to party directives.

We follow Sebastian’s gradual descent, descent in that the state punishes him brutally. However, at the same time, he finds something that both narrator and Major Irod, as well as his close friends and family fail to fully understand, at least initially, and that can best be described as a spiritual approach to life. God is certainly part of it but there is more than God. It is a whole true Christian approach to life which is, of course, total anathema to the Romanian regime.

When he comes out of this round of prison, he visits his various friends and family and most of them admire him for what he has done but they all feel that they are not prepared to make that compromise. More than one say that he is a saint. However, all agree that the Romania of that era cannot accept a man like him.

He fought for both sides in the war, worked as a security officer where he was undoubtedly responsible for many people suffering and then resigns over making people redundant, hardly a major crime compared to the three previous phases of his life. However, shooting people from a tank or even a gun from a distance and signing papers condemning people is somewhat remote. When it comes to the redundancies, what tips him over the edge is a man coming to him pleading that he needs just one more year to get his pension and begs Sebastian to help. Sebastian promises to try though he and we know that he will not. Only here does it become really personal.

This is a superb novel showing the horrors of Romania in the late 1940s/1950s. Of course, it did not get any better for a long while. The compromises people were called to make, which many did, at the risk of paying a heavy price if they made one slip, were part and parcel of everyday life. We see this on numerous occasions throughout the book. Dumitriu himself managed to get out and lived much of his life in France. It seems that the narrator, like Dumitriu, may also be able to get out. Sebastian does not but his spiritual approach puts him above such concerns. He has found a way.

Publishing history

First published 1962 (in French) by Seuil
First published in English by Collins in 1964
Translated by Norman Denny