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Ruxandra Cesereanu: Angelus (Angelus)

Ruxandra Cesereanu has written poetry, novels, essays and stories and made films but she is sadly almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. As far as I am aware, this is her only work translated into English and a strange work it is, part fable, part satire, part philosophical rumination.

It starts with three angels arriving in Metropolis, the capital of a country known only as Homeland, presumably based in part on Romania but with clear differences. Two are spotted immediately and arrested, the third is arrested the next day. They make no attempt to hide or resist arrest. They are recognised because of their unusual appearance – garbed in jeans and tunics, as well as blue capes, in fact not so much blue as azure, and their long, curly chestnut hair was tied in a ponytail.

There are many problems for their arresting officers, but the first one is that they are mute. Moreover, as they did not descend from the sky but suddenly appeared, it is not clear who they are. Terrorists? Extraterrestrials? Spies? Or something else?

Further problems include the fact that they do not seem to need to eat or drink. Eventually, using sign language, they are able to communicate. Apparently, they have no idea why they are there or why they have been sent to Metropolis, rather than anywhere else. It seems that they will be told at a later date.

A physical examination reveals that they appear more or less human. One has only one kidney but it is large and seems to manage to function correctly. They had unnaturally developed cerebra, but that it is not entirely unknown among the populace of Metropolis.

Initially, we follow the reaction of various people and groups in Metropolis. The President, an atheist, hesitates but then makes a pompous and vague speech, saying nothing, as we might expect from a political leader. There is a demonstration but it is firmly though not too violently suppressed. The leading capitalist, nicknamed El Leader Maximo, so-called because he he resembled, albeit very slightly, a dictator from a faraway land in another continent, presumably Castro, also makes a speech, to which the Chief of Police comments that he would either end up in the nuthouse or as the next president of the country.

Various groups add their opinions. The scientists give their conflicting opinions. Maybe the angels came from the energy released from black holes (Stephen Hawking is referenced, albeit not by name). The leading toy manufacturer wants to make toy angels and the leading perfumer a Trois Anges scent. The Patriarch talks about the nature of angels while the theologians go into even more depth, with one subsequently being taken off to an asylum. Even the Devil-in-Chief gets in his views.

All of these and many more have their views and Cesereanu mocks every one of them. We continue in this way for more than half the book, as theologians get into dispute with one another, as do politicians, financiers, businessmen, entertainers, linguists, ordinary people and a host of mysterious characters such as the Hunter of Shadows, a vampire hunter. Nor is it just real people, but we have God, the Devil, the odd semi-mythological person and cyborgs putting in their point of view.

It soon becomes clear that Cesereanu is not only mocking all these different strata of society but that these people wish to use the angels for their own purposes, whether it is to promote their political agenda or to promote their commercial product, to promote their religious view or promote their world view.

It has been accepted that they are angels but that, in itself raises questions. How do we know they are angels? They have no wings and seem to have more or less human anatomy and physiology. They do not need to eat or drink. They cannot or, at least do not seem to perform any sort of miracle.

Can you be proud of angels that are not angels? Can you make an absolute of the suspicion that some ordinary people might be angels? Can a nation believe in its angels (three in number) even if they are not in fact angels? These are some of the questions raised.

Moreover, if they are angels, what exactly are angels? Everyone, of course, has their own point of view on this but it is not clear what is the right view or, indeed, if there is a right view.

However, the key issue is what to do with them. Clearly they cannot be kept locked up all the time, as they seem harmless. The government plans to release them into the community, albeit with one bodyguard per angel. There is a complex competition to select the bodyguards and winners are not what we might expect of a bodyguard.

Inevitably their release changes things but, again, it is not so much their action but the action of various categories of people reacting to them and their release that brings about the changes that do take place. It is not only the characters that seem to change but the author goes off on strange speculations about physics and metaphysics

It has been suggested that this novel is a response to Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita). I can see why someone might say so though I am not entirely convinced. However, like Bulgakov’s novels, it is certainly about the unleashing of strange forces, it is both a satire and fable/parable and it discusses serious spiritual and philosophical values.

I have mentioned on various occasions that I generally do not enjoy the navel-gazing novels that seem to be particularly in vogue at this time but much prefer a novel that has a thoroughly original and, preferable, complex story, that is totally unpredictable, that discusses a realm of interesting ideas, that delves into the dark recesses of the human (and, at times, extra-human) mind and raises as many questions as it answers. If you share my view, you will thoroughly enjoy this novel. You will get lost. You will wonder what is going on but you will also smile, you will be surprised, you will have much food for thought and, above all, you will have a first-class read.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Humanitas
First published in English by Lavender Ink in 2015
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth