After reading any of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s works, the one foregone conclusion that a reader understands is that he is undoubtedly a writer of remarkable innovation and skill. This is evident in his work Vain Art of the Fugue and Pigeon Post, both highly original yet very different. In Hotel Europa, his latest novel, we are overcome by both, fooled by both, lulled by both and ultimately fatigued by both. It’s as if he’s fighting with his own originality and nobody wins. With Hotel Europa Tsepeneag returns to the theme of Pigeon Post in which the character is the author who is trying to write a novel. At turns comic, Pigeon Post flitted between two fictional worlds that the author presents to the reader. In Hotel Europa, the combining of the author and narrator creates a two-headed literary monster. It is impossible to choose between the two because they castrate each other, leaving the reader frustrated that there was no winner. The novel is laced with autobiographical elements and also a surreal intertextuality: he tells a story, tells his own story, comments on both and knots both together so it is impossible at times to tell whose story it is. And there may be legitimacy to the claim that “life in a Communist country does much to mask the individual.” Although this is not solely a historical novel, the historical events are handled in a realistic and direct manner, infused with a keen sensitivity.
So here we are presented with the story of a Romanian writer working a novel about Romanian students adapting to life after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. This seems fertile ground for Tsepeneag because in 1975, Tsepeneag, who was living in France at the time, had his citizenship revoked by Ceausescu. After being exiled, Tsepeneag chose to remain in France and soon began writing in both French and Romanian. The Communist regime clearly impacted the author who infuses the whole novel, successfully, with blatant paranoia. This may also be why France figures prominently and is presented with a bit more benevolence than Romania. In the novel, his wife, Marianne is a Francaise who challenges him and also worries about him. Then the author-narrator escapes to Brittany so that he can work on his novel uninterrupted as if France provides a nurturing matriarchal presence.
The novel that the author is writing focuses primarily on Ion and his various friends. Ion is a Romanian student living and reacting to the turmoil that Romania undergoes in the late eighties who, naturally, questions the world around him with all the mistrust youth can muster:
Ion knew there were all kinds of rumors about the events in Timisoara, but he was not very trusting by nature he told himself that general alarmism and excitement of those days did not yet justify speaking of what might, pompously, be called a “revolution.” “A heap of mashed potato doesn’t just explode all of a sudden!” he like to repeat to anyone who would listen.
. . . Maybe Mihai is already there, in one of the groups discussing Timisoara and the tens of thousands killed.
This is immediately followed by Tsepeneag’s intrusive narrator who comments on what he just wrote:
Even the Paris papers, and especially French television, were quite alarmist: they quoted figures that now seem off the wall, but at the time, in the heat of the moment, we’d all lost our critical faculties. Logical thinking only served to make the horrors more plausible. The climax came when the TV news showed pictures of bodies dug up in Timisoara: the abnormally pale infant on its mother’s sallow belly, the corpses, all sewn up with wire, or so it seemed to me . . . Really harrowing.
It’s true that Marianne, more Cartesian than the general run of the French journalists, was skeptical from the beginning.
But the conceit of author as intrusive narrator doesn’t quite work here. As soon as the reader becomes involved in any way with the story of Ion, he is pulled out by the real life events of the author. This could be done to pitch-perfect effect if there was more delineation between the fiction of that the author is creating and the fiction that the narrator is creating. It becomes bothersome because there is nowhere for the reader to ground herself, except by planting one foot in each world hoping that one will prove solid and real, the story in which she should be invested. One could surely draw parallels between this disjointed dream/nightmare effect of the narrative with the political upheaval in Romania and much of Eastern Europe during that era. But it doesn’t come through clearly enough and that struggle gets lost in the overpowering oscillation between author and narrator. And although this may be the point, at some point the reader has to be indulged, not merely the writer’s creativity.
When Tsepeneag allows the narrator to become philosophical about the story he is writing, it is in one way a relief to the reader because we glimpse a bit of what he is trying to do, but simultaneously distracting and wishing the book were either a novel or a writing guide, not both:
Maybe I should give Ion a little lecture about the function of the narrator, the mysterious intermediary between myself and him, between him and the reader, that voice which fills (or whose task it is to fill) the acoustic space of the novel, and without which you might think that nothing could exist. No, he’s not the author. The author is like the Holy Spirit: full of ideas but invisible, inaudible. He pulls all the strings, it’s true, but whose strings? I mean, he needs characters even if they are miserable puppets . . . And all those creatures, who aren’t human beings—that’s why they’re called characters!—need a voice in order to exist, in order to express themselves. That’s what the narrator is: a voice! A voice that seeps through all the interstices of an unstable, evanescent construction built out of words and meanings. As in a dream, the narrator’s voice cannot be located; it gives the feeling that it can burst out anywhere—unreal and ubiquitous. Of course, from time to time we seem to hear the voice of the characters. But that’s an illusion. In reality, it’s just the narrator: he dubs in all parts, not only their speech but also their thoughts. Concealed somewhere among the props, he’s the one who thinks aloud.
This provides an explanation to what he is doing, but unfortunately, it takes almost five hundred pages to let this idea play out. And aren’t readers of fiction cognizant of this fact going in it? I respect the idea of presenting both worlds created by the writer as being funneled through the narrator who is undeniably, the writer. The reality is that this novel is too splintered and although we may get his point, we don’t enjoy it. It becomes a convoluted fiction of what a writer is. At times, I was enamored with his prose and his everyman meets highbrow style is accessible. At other times, I was so frustrated with his melding of worlds and his obsession with delivering this to the reader with realizing that it was working against itself. Sometimes a writer has to abandon his own creative designs for the sake of the work, not in spite of it.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .