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.