Par­adise Found: An Inter­view of Nor­man Manea with Hannes Stein

Nor­man Manea with Hannes Stein
  • Review
By – August 25, 2014

Nor­man Manea was one of Romania’s most promi­nent nov­el­ists and essay­ists when in 1986, at age 50, he left his coun­try behind, first for Berlin, and two years lat­er for the U.S. His dom­i­nant sub­jects then as now — alien­ation, oppres­sion, and discom­fort, wher­ev­er they may be dis­cov­ered” are dis­cussed with Hannes Stein in these wide­ly rang­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Manea’s writ­ing had been cross­ing dan­ger­ous bor­ders under Roma­nia’s total­i­tar­i­an and anti-Semit­ic gov­ern­ment and he had begun strug­gling with whether to leave. Why did you wait so long, asks Stein? I was root­ed in the Roman­ian lan­guage,” Manea answers. Roman­ian cul­ture formed me and deformed me … I felt that I’d lose every­thing as a writer: my roots.” But it could well have been sui­cide to stay. Manea came to the U.S. on a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship at Catholic Uni­versity in Wash­ing­ton and soon there­after to Bard Col­lege, where he has been pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean cul­ture and writer-in-residence. 

Though Manea was known to the liter­ary cognoscen­ti, lit­tle of his work had been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish before 1990. Since then, he has received many lit­er­ary prizes as well as a MacArthur Grant. In 2012 and 2013, Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press pub­lished four books: The Lair, a nov­el; The Hooligan’s Return, a nov­el­is­tic mem­oir; Com­pul­so­ry Hap­pi­ness, four novel­las set dur­ing the Ceaus­es­cu years; and The Fifth Impos­si­bil­i­ty: Essays on Exile and Lan­guage.

Par­adise Found is pri­mar­i­ly com­posed of sev­en­teen dia­logues.” Stein pos­es ques­tions about the Holo­caust, life in Roma­nia and the U.S., Israel, Jew­ish­ness, lit­er­a­ture, writ­ing itself. Manea does not skimp on opin­ions — nor is telling-it-slant” his style. For example: 

On the U.S. The sim­ple man on the street often seems stu­pid, but he isn’t; he has a healthy com­mon sense.” This doesn’t mean that I am nev­er frus­trat­ed by the anti-intel­lec­­tu­al­ism of this coun­try. In Amer­i­ca there are many impor­tant writ­ers and poets [but they] are off some­where in iso­lat­ed hous­es in the woods or at the ocean, in their writ­ing rooms …”

On writ­ing about the Holo­caust. At the be­ginning … I didn’t feel com­fort­able about the pub­lic exhi­bi­tion of suf­fer­ing … Here, pub­lic expo­sure is almost inevitable. Over there, no one would ask you.” In the U.S. the ubiqui­tous hunter is no longer the Par­ty but the wild beast of the scan­dal-seek­ing mass-media.” 

On satire. If you see the oppressor’s impor­tance in an exclu­sive­ly trag­ic mode, then, to a cer­tain extent, you legit­imize it. If you try to see the oppres­sor in a satir­ic light, to trans­form that author­i­ty at least par­tial­ly into some­thing grotesque, or ridicu­lous, then you dimin­ish its impor­tance a bit.” 

Nor­man Manea’s voice in these conversa­tions is engag­ing­ly fresh; he is mod­est, piquant, some­times sar­don­ic, and not with­out irony. Par­adise Found can be enjoyed by those famil­iar with his work and it can serve as a fine intro­duc­tion to those just get­ting started.

Relat­ed content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

Discussion Questions