What does anyone know about Roumania? In political folklore it has figured as a country in which cabinets could once be bought and sold like trinkets at a bazaar: what the idea of nationhood meant for other European countries, corruption did for Roumania. One imagines it, if ever at all, as a peasant land, fertile and backward, poisoned by anti-Semitism, and ruled, before the Communist coup, by a gentry with boyarist tastes and European aspirations. Perched uneasily on top of this semibarbarism was Bucharest, a city that reached decadence before achieving enlightenment, and in which a thin, sickly intelligentsia wavered between contriving a futile nationalism and copying the latest styles of Parisian culture. More recently Roumania won notoriety of another kind: the GPU during the Stalin era, it was said in oppositionist radical circles, would assign the dirtiest jobs to Bucharest dèclassès.
These impressions are drawn from the large stock of unexamined assumptions upon which we all subsist, and it is a little startling to find them substantially confirmed in Incognito, an ambitious novel by a Roumanian writer who for a time was the favorite of the Communist regime and then, through an elaborate ruse, defected to the West. M. Dumitriu presents a totalitarian society somewhat different from any we have encountered in recent fiction, a Byzantine totalitarianism melding Roumanian decadence and Stalinist primitivism. Though not very lovely to contemplate, this mixture offers the novelist strong possibilities. There are brutalities of contrast, such as that between a sleek, heartless pre-war gentry and an unlettered, vindictive post-war bureaucracy. Pre-Communist or Communist, the society is so unsoftened by those liberal amenities we have won for ourselves in the West that dramatic conflict must quickly follow and, what is more important, dramatic conflict must come to seem so stark and apocalyptic as to force attention upon those “ultimate” metaphysical concerns which the novel as a genre can seldom contain but toward which it nevertheless keeps straining.
Incognito is a novel clangorous with political intrigue and ideological ritual, very much a book of and for the historical moment, quite coarse in the quality of its observation, often irritating for its didactic aggressiveness (writers who find God somewhat late in life behave as if no one had ever noticed Him before). Yet, if read with primary attention to the larger rhythms of narrative, it is an interesting and, on occasion, a moving book. It is, at the very least, a novel, and not a string of prose lyrics, or a satiric vaudeville, or an allegory à clef.
Incognito begins with the problem faced by its unnamed narrator, obviously the author himself. He hopes to be sent abroad by the Communist regime during the mid-Fifties, so that he may then try to defect, but in order to get his visa he must accept the assignment of spying upon Sebastian Ionescu, a former high party official who has been expelled for humane deviations and is now suspected of forming a Christian sect. Taking this unsavory assignment with …