I first came across Norman Manea’s name in 1991 when I read an essay of his in The New Republic on the concealed fascist past of Mircea Eliade, the widely known Romanian scholar of comparative religion and the author of such authoritative works as Shamanism and A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The revelation was not exactly news to me. In 1972, with my friend Vasko Popa, a Serbian poet of Romanian origin, I met the philosopher Émile Cioran in Paris. We spent the afternoon chatting in his attic apartment and walking in the Luxembourg Gardens. In the evening we were joined by Mircea Eliade and all four of us went to dinner. The conversation was partly in Romanian, partly in English for my benefit, so I have hardly any idea what all their talk was about. Afterward, I was astonished to learn from Popa that both Cioran and Eliade had been fascists in their youth.
Vasko was a lifelong Communist, a true believer, so I must have looked surprised. He went on to explain that Cioran had repudiated his fascist past while Eliade was in all probability still a secret sympathizer. I remember asking him why he was friendly with people like that, whereupon, visibly miffed, he told me that even if he were to give me an answer, I would not understand it. I let it go at that and would not learn the seamy details of Eliade’s past until I read Manea’s article in The New Republic.
Manea wrote it five years after going into exile. He received a scholarship in West Berlin in 1986 that allowed him to go abroad, and he decided not to return to Romania. He made his way to the United States in 1988. A widely translated and published writer of fiction and an essayist, he was neither an active dissident at home nor one of the regime’s officially approved authors. After his article appeared, he was attacked in Romania for denigrating the image of his native country, where, after the overthrow of Ceausåüescu, Eliade and Cioran had become anti-Communist heroes. An equally absurd attack in the Los Angeles Times accused him of being sympathetic to Eliade and the fascist Romanian intellectuals of the 1930s.
The main point of his piece, that a critical examination of the past is the best defense against any totalitarian ideology, was simply ignored. No ethnic group in the world wants to hear about its evil deeds, and Romanians are no exception. In the Balkans, people inclined to criticize local behavior are routinely thought of as renegades in the pay of some foreign power. Ten years ago an aunt of mine in Belgrade went around saying that she had heard from a reliable source that Charlie was getting huge amounts of money in America to write anti-Serbian poems. It’s considered the height of bad manners to remind one’s compatriots of moral cowardice. Especially …