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Dangerous Acquaintances

Incognito

by Petru Dumitriu
Macmillan, 471 pp., $5.95

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 a proper measure of self-loathing, the narrator then comes upon Sebastian’s autobiography. This document, written as an act of penance and self-discovery during his time of disgrace, occupies the bulk of Incognito, and traces the development of Sebastian from his youth on a flamboyant country estate to his manhood as a Communist official who breaks from the party, suffers a stay in concentration camp, and emerges as a Christian, bearing in his person the message of love.

Though M. Dumitriu meant the Sebastian story to form the major interest of his novel, it is not, to my taste, nearly as fresh or well-handled as the interludes set in time present, which describe the intrigues set off in the party leadership by the problem of how to cope with Sebastian. Here M. Dumitriu has managed to write something quite original. He has portrayed the inner workings of a totalitarian regime in which ideology plays almost no role, though its slogans are manipulated with cynical rigidity, and in which limited internal shifts and maneuvers of power occupy the party leadership completely. I tend to doubt that even in a country like Roumania, where the Communists never struck any roots among the people and their regime was simply imposed by Russian bayonets, it is possible for a ruling stratum to divest itself as completely of ideological justifications as M. Dumitriu suggests. But perhaps I am naive about this; perhaps many of the older Communists in eastern Europe have by now lost all faith.

In any case, M. Dumitriu’s bold simplification permits him to present an extremely arresting picture of a wearied and sated ruling class which holds on to power because it does not know what else to do and because it fears the consequences of losing it. These Communist leaders, a few reading Nietzsche and Camus in private and others surrendering themselves totally to the nervous pleasures of intrigue, are sodden men, like aging sensualists who have had their fill of conquest and pleasure but can find no way to stop. So they play out their leaden rituals: hewing to the line, chastising deviations, punishing dissenters, cleansing the ranks, overfulfilling norms. And they do it all with an aimless zeal which reminds one of Laclos’s portrait of personal intrigue in the French court.

Sebastian’s story is more conventional. It ends with his refusal of political rebellion, which he believes would signify a mere inverse acceptance of Communist norms, and then with his choice of living silently and lovingly, as God’s witness. His fate remains uncertain: he leaves the city, to blend into the suffering people. A saint does not keep a street address.

Novelistically, Incognito moves from substance to sermon. M. Dumitriu is so entirely at one with Sebastian, so utterly devoted to his message, that he does not stop to provide him with some humanizing doubts. When Sebastian returns from the concentration camp, he enters a series of talks with old political friends; these conversations are well composed, and at times Sebastian even “loses” the argument; but what is here fatal to the life of the novel, to say nothing of the message it carries, is that win or lose Sebastian is never shaken in his faith. At no point does it occur to him, or to M. Dumitriu, that his religious passion, like his earlier ones, might prove disappointing.

That a society which prohibits any public dissent may force an honest man to the desperate course of making himself an example of decency, even if that means hunger and death, seems to me a serious idea and one that deserves to be respected. It is an idea which can be found in most fiction dealing with totalitarian society, most impressively in Silone’s Bread and Wine. For Silone’s hero, however, the assumption of a tentative and heretical faith is only the beginning of his moral and intellectual struggle, while for M. Dumitriu’s it seems the end. Unavoidably Sebastian ceases to exist as a recognizable character, dissolving into his pieties and engendering the suspicion that one has been imposed upon, even if by a writer who is transparently sincere.

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