A Sad Country Full of Humor Romanian poet George Bacovia observed that Romania is a sad country, but one full of humor.


Writer Mircea Tuglea says that all Romanians are in the “same ciorba, as we say in Romanian: the same soup.” (Photo: John Feffer)

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

Constanta, the Romanian city on the Black Sea coast, is perhaps best known for being the place of Ovid’s exile in the first century AD when it was known as the Roman port of Tomis. The poet, having fallen afoul of Emperor Augustus for some mysterious offense, found himself at age 50 on the edge of the Roman Empire in a place where no one spoke Latin. This was no doubt a sad country for Ovid, a poet of sly good humor judging from his famous Art of Love. When I visited Constanta last year, I paid my respects to Ovid’s statue, which stands outside the history and archaeology museum in a square full of rubble fromconstruction projects in various stages of non-completion.

Also in front of Ovid’s statue, I met up with Mircea Tuglea, a writer, translator, literary critic, and teacher who lives with his family in Constanta. We spent a good part of the day together, as he discoursed on various sad topics but always with a joke or ironic aside thrown in to lighten things up. At the end of our conversation, he quoted the Romanian poet George Bacovia’s apercu that Romania is a sad country, but one full of humor. Anyone who has seen an Ionesco play or the film 12:08 East of Bucharest can testify to the truth of Bacovia’s insight.

Tuglea was 15 years old when the revolution broke out in 1989. His father, an officer in the army, warned him not to go outside and certainly not to travel to Bucharest. But he was a teenager. He went outside. And with several of his friends, he traveled from his hometown in eastern Romania to Bucharest.

“We heard and saw on television about Ceausescu’s escape and about the revolution,” he told me over lunch at a dockside seafood restaurant in Constanta. “Well, we were very excited, in a kind of stupid way, so together with a group of my friends we went by train and in a few hours we were in Bucharest to ‘defend’ the revolution and ‘help’ the Army. But, of course, we had no weapons to ‘defend’ anything. Many other people got weapons and started to shoot each other. There were probably a lot of collateral casualties as a result of this situation of fully loaded weapons in the hands of very young people, without military training, who tried to ‘help’ the Army and to defend our ‘revolution.’ Fortunately, we weren’t killed, and we didn’t kill anybody.”

His experience of 1989 and its aftermath led him to conclude that the revolution was really a non-revolution. “December 1989 was a big set-up,” he said in response to my questions about all the enduring mysteries of that period. “That’s why nobody is really interested in clearing up the mysteries. This set-up was in fact a coup d’état in order to get rid of Ceausescu and install a new power, a neo-Communist one. And that’s why nobody can tell, 20 years after, what really happened.”

We talked about his work on two of the most well known Romanian writers: Paul Celan and Emil Cioran. He provided me a brief tour of contemporary Romanian cultural figures like Herta Muller and Paul Goma. He explained why Romania didn’t experience an explosion of suppressed samizdat literature after 1989.

But in the end, as we turned to eat our ciorba, the Romanian soup we’d ordered, the talk returned to politics. “Most people are tired of waiting, tired of elections,” he said. “We have lower and lower rates of participation in elections because the general feeling is that all the politicians are the same. Liberals, Social Democrats, mixed together, are the same. They’re all in the same ciorba, as we say in Romanian: the same soup.”

“But can the soup be changed?” I asked.

“The obvious answer is that ciorba can be changed only by eating it,” he concluded. “That means it can be changed only when this generation has grown up. But what we will put in its place? With the ever lower states of consciousness about ourselves and about life, culture and civilization, it’s most likely that the new generation will not be able to put in place anything besides our traditionally known humor.”

The Interview 

Tell me why you went to Bucharest in December 1989 when you were only 15 years old.

I was living at that time in a small town, Tecuci, in the eastern part of Romania. We heard and saw on television about Ceausescu’s escape and about the revolution. Well, we were very excited, in a kind of stupid way, so together with a group of my friends we went by train and in a few hours we were in Bucharest to “defend” the revolution and “help” the Army. But, of course, we had no weapons to “defend” anything. Many other people got weapons and started to shoot each other. There were probably a lot of collateral casualties as a result of this situation of fully loaded weapons in the hands of very young people, without military training, who tried to “help” the Army and to defend our “revolution.” Fortunately, we weren’t killed, and we didn’t kill anybody.

Fortunately you didn’t get any weapons.

Yes. But we were feeling very frightened. And enthusiastic – like I said, probably in a very stupid way. Those were the feelings for the first days and weeks after December 1989. Then it was a very big disappointment once this enthusiasm was gone. Once all the conflicts began, we were very far from the enthusiasm of the first days.

When you first arrived in Bucharest with your group of friends, where did you go?

We went by foot because the streets in Bucharest were full of people, and we followed one of the groups to the Piata Romana. And then to University Square. We spent one night there: in Piata Romana and in University Square: a night without sleeping, eating very little, and drinking water given to us by people on the street.. It was a very mild winter, with no snow and the temperature above zero.. The weather was with us, the Army was with us, the gods were with us: everything was with us. In fact, nobody was with us, as we learned later.

Did you see anything when you were there that was surprising to you?

Many people were actually drunk. One of them was with us in our group on the train. He followed us to Piata Romana. He had a big bottle of wine. We drank a little, but he was drunk already, and continued to drink all night. At a certain moment he became very sad and started to cry. He told us he was going to the other side of the square to shoot at the terrorists. But, of course, like all of us, he had no weapons. He went to the other side together with his bottle and then we didn’t see him again. He didn’t come back. He probably fell asleep somewhere.

There were also many street poets. They composed a lot of political slogans. The only one I remember is “Ceausescu and Lenuta: your boat has sunk: Ceausescu si Lenuta / vi s-a rasturnat barcuta.” Lenuta was the diminutive for Elena, the wife of Ceausescu. It rhymes in Romanian. At the very end, there was a very sympathetic understanding between the Army and the people on the street. The army said they were with us, and everyone tried to help the soldiers by giving them bread, cigarettes, water, and so on. And the Army soldiers said: “Yeah, now we’re gonna kill some terrorists…” Of course they didn’t kill any…

What I didn’t like in those days was the so-called “trial” of the dictator, of Ceausescu. It was not a trial, but simply a murder. And it was all done on Christmas Day, a day that’s too symbolic to be chosen for a trial day. The whole trial was completed in a single day, along with the execution. Even at that moment, it was clear to me that it wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. And it was clear to many people that the trial was done in a hurry without respecting any juridical principles. During the trial, the prosecutor said that 60,000 people were killed in December 1989. But in fact, during those days only a little more than 1,000 people were killed. There’s a huge difference between these numbers. Of course, it wasn’t a question of numbers to determine that it was a mass murder, but for a fair trial it’s always a question of numbers.

Another thing that was annoying during the trial: we couldn’t see the whole thing on television. It was simply cut. Only a few days later, some people from French television got the whole tape and broadcast it. So the whole trial was first seen on French television, not on Romanian television. And that says a lot about the freedom of expression and liberty here at the beginning of the so-called Romanian democracy.

When you were in Bucharest did you see any violence? Was there any shooting while you were there?

Yes, there were shootings, all the time, but we didn’t see terrorists, only dead or bleeding people on the street. We heard the shots and saw the flashing bullets. In the night, there was flashing all time. And my impression now is that this shooting was between the army and civilians, and there were no actual terrorists. There was a lot of confusion between civilians who got weapons and the military who tried to defend something and believed that the civilians were terrorists.

And they never found any terrorists? I expected to come back 20 years later, and people would say, “Oh yes, we now have precise information about all this“.

In my opinion there is only one explanation. December 1989 was a big set-up. That’s why nobody is really interested in clearing up the mysteries. This set-up was in fact a coup d’état in order to get rid of Ceausescu and install a new power, a neo-Communist one. And that’s why nobody can tell, 20 years after, what really happened.

So, after December 1989, you came back to Constanta and…

No, in 1989 I was living in Tecuci, as I’ve already mentioned, and I went to school in Constanta.

Was that unusual to go so far away from your hometown to go to school?

The explanation is that my father worked here in Constanta. He was in the Army. And this city had many more possibilities for young people like me, including better high schools. We decided that of the two cities, this was where I could find a class in a high school for literature. I was very interested in literature, and I wanted to study literature. That’s why I came here together with my father. I lived many years in a kind of barracks.

Army barracks or school barracks?

Army, together with my father and my brother. And I ate together with him in the canteen for officers. He was an officer, you know. I think that at that time he was lieutenant colonel. He specialized in tanks. But at that moment he didn’t work any more on tanks because Ceausescu wanted to turn the tanks into some kind of construction vehicles, able to create earthworks for roads. So, he was working on that transformation. But it was never technically possible, or at least not for that military unit alone. My father was in charge of the design department. Maybe, it was just another big absurd dream of Ceausescu’s.

How long did you father work on that?

Two or three years together with whole military unit, and especially with the design department.

How did your father react in December 1989?

He was in Constanta at work, and he called us and said, “Stay at home, don’t go anywhere! Stay at home. Don’t go outside. And, especially, don’t go to Bucharest!” But, of course we went outside and we went to Bucharest. We did exactly what he told us not to.

How did you become interested in literature?

Well, I don’t know what to say. I am (or I was) a poet and perhaps that’s the reason I don’t have any clear or complete explanation. When I was young, I was very good at mathematics, but I wasn’t able to retain the scientific formulas. I’m not a man of science. I don’t believe things can be exact. Everything is subjective. For me it’s one way, for you another. Things have multiple faces. That’s why I don’t believe in a clear and complete explanation of the world.

Were there poets that you read when you were young that inspired you?

Yes and no. Perhaps you know the Romanian “national” poet Mihai Eminescu. Everyone has heard of him in Romania. But abroad is exactly the opposite, almost nobody has heard about him. He is important. Aside from his poetry he practically created, or invented, a Romanian literary language. Also, there’s the so-called second national poet of Romania of the post-war period, Nichita Stanescu. Everyone during their school years heard and read the poems of Nichita Stanescu, but he wasn’t an influence for me. He’s a very metaphysical poet, in the good sense of the term, but I don’t write metaphysical literature. I understand him, but I don’t think that he could understand me.

My studies after university have been directed toward poetry. I wrote two books about the lyrics of Paul Celan. You heard of him, yes? I believe he’s one of the biggest poets of the last century. He was born in Romania between the wars, in Bukovina. His conception of poetry is very similar to Nichita Stanescu’s. Celan wrote about “Genichte” (from Gedichte), which was translated into English as “Noems” (from Poems). And Nichita Stanescu wrote four years later about “Nowords” (Necuvinte). Noems, nowords… it’s very similar. Nichita is a very optimistic poet, Celan a very pessimistic poet. That’s the difference, but the poets are quite similar. Celan is not very well known in Romania because he wrote in German, was Jewish, and we have a certain guilt about him – about all Romanian Jews – because he was interned in a labor camp, here in Romania during the war. To write about him is to admit our guilt. We don’t have a real culture of guilt. We only feel, in a very diffuse way, this guilt. Instead, we have a very strong culture of laughter.

What are the books you’ve written?

I wrote two books about Celan. The first book was Paul Celan and the Romanian Avant-Garde, and the second book, which is coming out next week, is called The Lyrics of Celan and Contemporary Thought. He was very well known among the philosophers. Heidegger, for instance, wrote a poem for Celan.

I didn’t know that Heidegger wrote any poetry.

Yes, especially when we was young, but occasionally also later. Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer: all wrote about Celan – maybe because his poetry has ontological implications. I wrote this book within the framework of a project of the Romanian Academy called Cultural Identities in Global Processes. It was a huge project with almost 150 researchers from literature, philosophy, architecture, painting, history, and so on.

You did your university in Bucharest?

No, I graduated from the faculty of letters here in Constanta. It was a good university back then. Now it’s getting worse and worse, like the whole education system.

Why was it good back then compared to today?

There are two explanations. The teachers were old fashioned, with a good command of culture and knowledge. But right now the teachers are the products of an educational system that has been continuously falling apart over the last 20 years. As a result the students have a weaker and weaker understanding of culture. And their teachers do as well. Right now we have students at university who are not able to write correctly in Romanian or think independently. They can’t interpret a text, and, as a result, they can’t understand culture, civilization, and even their own lives as well.

This is not something specific only to Romania. But in Romania it’s more obvious because the educational system is very bureaucratic, destructively bureaucratic, I might say. We have, ironically, a very large private education system, particularly in higher education, with a lot of private universities. We are possibly the champions of this in Europe. But almost every private university, and increasingly state universities as well, are so-called “diploma mills.” You don’t go actually to get a university education. You pay, legally or under the table, and you get a diploma. That’s why the education is falling and falling.

That’s depressing. So you finished university and then what did you decide to do?

Then I got a scholarship in Vienna for two years. I was appointed by my teacher for Romanian literature, also a poet, Marin Mincu, who was at the time the dean of the Faculty of Letters. He received the Herder Prize in 1996. With this prize, he was required to appoint a student of his to study at the University of Vienna. And he appointed me. I was his favorite student. Some might say that I’d been “made” by him, which is of course wrong. But I am deeply grateful to him, to his Italian academic connections and his former pupils who allowed me, now, to write a postscript for one of the Cioran books, which will be published shortly in Italy. At that moment, I’d already published a book of poetry called Proezia, which was a combination of poetry and prose, and which gained the national Poesis prize for a debut in 1996. And I studied for two years comparative literature and German language and literature at the University of Vienna. But I never finished the studies because I stayed only two years in Vienna.

Did you want to stay longer or…?

Yes, but it was because of a love affair, and my scholarship money was ending – so, no money for staying, not even for daily meals, and certainly no money for love affairs. It was a big failure for me (you will find something about this in my novel). But failure is sometimes good because it can push you to go forward, to make another step. It’s like we say in Romanian, a kick in the ass is a big step forward.

So where did that kick send you?

Back here to Constanta where I completed a Masters on the philosophy of Cioran or, really, the Romanian foundations of his philosophy, which is called “Three Ways in which You Can Still be Romanian.” You know, Cioran was very upset about his Romanian roots. In Paris, he never spoke (or write) in Romanian.

Just French?

Exclusively. Even with his family. He never wrote in Romanian, only in French, in letters to his parents and so on. But he has Romanian roots, and they’re obvious in some cases. Then I did my doctoral and post-doctoral studies on Celan. And now I can’t hardly imagine what should I do for my post-post-doctorate – maybe a study of Gherasim Luca, the other suprarealist poet who was born in Romania and who died in Paris?

When did you finish post-doctoral study?

This year. It was this project of the Romanian Academy, which is ending next week In Bucharest, when I will finally see my research published. In the meantime I wrote also two books of poetry. I’m writing a novel, of course. Everyone is writing a novel here. It’s like a national hobby. And, for money, I’m also translator. In fact, I own a translation office.

For the translation office, is it you and other people, besides your wife? She also speaks other languages?

Yes, she’s a translator of Italian and French. She’s a much better translator than I am. I am a translator for English but especially for legal or technical texts, and sometimes I prefer not to translate by myself some very challenging texts, or large translation projects, but to review the translations instead. On the other side, I am also a literary German translator, which is for me far more important. I translated some of Celan’s poems and those of other German contemporary poets. Maybe, one day, I wilI gather them into a book.. That’s why I said to you that I’m formerly known as a writer.

It sounds like you have a lot of writing projects.

Yes, but all of them depend on time and money. I can’t waste my time writing novels – well, it’s not a waste of time, but you can’t tell that to your accountant. I have to receive a scholarship, something in order to have time to write and to go outside the country to a new place. It’s strange, but it’s like I’m not able to write while being in Romania – life here is sad, but humorous, and that takes all our time. Right now I am waiting to hear from a writer-in-residence program in Austria. Perhaps there will be other scholarships. But I’m tired of doing research projects. I want to write something of my own, not research about some other poet. I’d like for other people to do research on my work. Of course, I’m just dreaming.

Have you thought about becoming a professor?

I was a teacher for seven years in the best high school here in Constanta. I taught Romanian literature and also put together a literary magazine. We had a literary circle called the Literary Square. That’s how I met Florin Poenaru. He participated in Literary Square.

But you stopped teaching?

Yes, because you couldn’t earn very much money. If you teach in Romania, you have to earn some “dirty money” by teaching privately on the side. Sometimes you’re teaching privately the same students that you have in class. That’s neither very good nor very legal… But I refused to do that. Right now, I’m in discussions with the University in Silistra, Bulgaria, to teach Romanian language and literature in the next academic year. It’s an irony that I can’t teach in Romanian universities, but only abroad, and that my articles are being published first in foreign languages, isn’t it?

So tell me about the kind of literary life after 1989. Did a lot of writers leave the country? And did a lot of writers come back to the country?

A lot of writers came back. A lot of writers left the country.

From exile? Into exile?

Yes, that’s something strange about Romanian literature. Many people expected that Romanian writers, both here in Romania and also in exile, would have unpublished novels because of the political system. They expected after 1989 an explosion of this kind of samizdat texts. But there was none.

Because no one had any…?

There was no samizdat literature in Romania. Here, during the years of dictatorship, it was “resistance by culture.” That meant that we didn’t make politics, we made culture. We wrote novels without politics but full of “culture.” And that was an explanation for the absence of a real opposition here against the system. But to me, that was proof of cowardice, not of culture. To be a coward is not a cultural attitude. And this attitude was also widespread among the writers in exile. It was like a Pavlovian reflex. The writers in exile, with one or two exceptions, didn’t write much about politics.

One of those exceptions was Paul Goma, and he is not yet accepted in Romania. He doesn’t even have Romanian citizenship. It’s absurd. He’s Romanian. And he’s also minimalized as an insignificant writer. On the contrary, he’s a charming writer who writes about hard things – his use of the Moldavian dialect is simply amazing. And he had the courage to talk about things in Romania. The other writers didn’t.

What about the Nobel Prize winner?

Herta Müller? She wrote in German. It is questionable if she is a Romanian writer.

Did she write in German even when she was here in Romania?

Yes. But almost all her novels are about Romania. So, after all, she is a Romanian writer. She is also less known here because she doesn’t have high status, or a high exposure to the media. Here it’s all about status. Have you heard of Monica Lovinescu? She was on Radio Free Europe. She talked about East-thetics. It’s not about aesthetics here but instead East-thetics. That means, in my opinion, that the Romanian intelligentsia hides behind aesthetics and, as a result, has no (or almost no) ethics – or a special understanding of ethics. That is what Herta Müller has – ethics. This is why she is not a Romanian writer. But this is also why she is a Romanian writer – because she has understanding of this special Romanian understanding of ethics…

One aspect of Romanian culture that has become popular in the West is Romanian film. Why has there been such an explosion of interest in Romanian film? Of course the films are good, but that is only one part of the explanation.

Because these movies are fair. They’re not very aesthetic. Of course they’re too straightforward for many of us here in Romania because they say things directly without metaphors – or they let metaphors be constructed from them.

So the movie, for instance, about the abortion – Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Was it controversial in Romania?

Yes, because a lot of people said, “it’s not quite like that. They were hard times, but not quite so miserable.” It’s, as I said, a metaphor to be constructed. 432 (months, weeks, days) – it’s as if it’s waiting to be (re)constructed. What’s next, 1hour, seconds? Also, the film Behind the Hills by the same director about the girl believed to be possessed by the demons who died in a monastery tied up in chains? Apparently, a case of Middle Ages practices. But what is Behind the Hills? What is behind?

When did it take place?

A few years ago.

I’m sure that offended a lot of people. Religious people, conservatives…

The case by itself, no. But the film and its politics, yes. That’s another, ironical, case of ethics understanding. Behind the Hills, the movie’s title, wants only to question what is behind this type of understanding, behind the hills of our understanding.

Is this the most important place where this engagement with the past are taking place? In film and reaction to film?

It’s the most visible place. These discussions are taking place also in parliament. For instance, the president read in parliament the report on the crimes of Communism in Romania.

I interviewed Vladimir Tismaneanu, the president of the commission who made this report. What did you think about it?

Yes, he is an important political thinker, unfortunately too rightist, at least for my tastes. Nevertheless, I read him constantly. Again, ironically, he descends from the so-called “red aristocracy“ – and wrote some quite relevant “memories“ of the 1950s-1960s period of Romanian Communism – as a direct witness. The report about the crimes of Communism is just a statement. I don’t see people in prison for what they did during Communism. Instead, I see right now generals of the Securitate with huge pensions and without any legal problems. We should see these people in prison, not in parliament as they have been.

Do you think that that’s a majority opinion or only a minority opinion?

I think that’s a majority opinion. And every time a very well-known figure is convicted and goes to prison, this silent majority opinion can be seen. There are no mass rallies in the street against the conviction. Some well-known political figures, as well as important figures in sport, especially in football, are in prison now. And almost nobody says that it is unfair. We, the silent majority, all know that this conviction is right, even far milder than deserved. Somehow, despite the legal bureaucracy, our common sense says that it’s right.

These are all convictions for current or recent wrongdoing: corruption, money laundering. But you were also talking of convicting people of crimes committed before 1989.

No, I think it’s the same problem. Once you have a legal system you have to implement it. If you make a formal statement about crimes during Communism, then you have to have assassins. Crimes without assassins, “revolution” without terrorists, corruption without corrupt people: that’s hard to understand. No wonder that our culture has been labeled as having form but no substance.

It was difficult even for Germany. They charged only a couple of guards for shooting people at the Wall. And Honecker died before they could put him on trial.

I know it’s difficult, but there is no one convicted and in prison for crimes during Communism in Romania. No one. I understand that it’s difficult. But there is no interest at the higher levels of politics in this kind of action because all of them are members of the former Communist system. It’s the only reasonable explanation. And the only “legal” action, in fact, was the killing of Ceausescu’s, on December 25, 1989. With such a crime at its foundation, it’s no wonder that the legal system in Romania simply doesn’t work. All the above-mentioned cases, which ended in convictions, were highly covered in the media, so there was some pressure on justice. For average people, the trials would be a nightmare, or they would be convicted immediately. For instance, the mother of a known writer in Romania, aged 80+, was convicted a few years ago with a heavy fine for the accidental cultivation of…hemp. This time, it’s substance without form…

Is there anybody who is calling for that in Romania, publically? For trials?

Most people are tired of waiting, tired of elections. We have lower and lower rates of participation in elections because the general feeling is that all the politicians are the same. Liberals, Social Democrats, mixed together, are the same. They’re all in the same ciorba, as we say in Romanian: the same soup.

How can we change the ciorba?

The obvious answer is that ciorba can be changed only by eating it. That means it can be changed only when this generation has grown up. But what we will put in its place? With the ever lower states of consciousness about ourselves and about life, culture and civilization, it’s most likely that the new generation will not be able to put in place anything besides our traditionally known humor. As Bacovia, one of our poets, said, we are, after all, a “sad country, but full of humor.“

Constanta, May 26, 2013

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