Late one Friday: a little boy waits by the window in an unnamed, desolate place. A phantom, “a shadow, withered and gloomy,” appears out of the “smoky steppes.” It is the boy’s mother walking hurriedly, stumbling, bent under a sack heavy with potatoes, beans, prunes, and other scraps of food she earns knitting in houses of peasants whose language she does not understand. The father’s work—we are not told what it is—pays only a quarter of a loaf of bread a day. If it weren’t for the mother—believing “that we would survive if we held fast to anything that might save us”—they would have “faded very rapidly, right at the beginning.” Only this time, in addition to the food which she lays out as always on the floor in six piles, one for each day of the week to come, she has brought in her sack something miraculous. It is a sweater of many colors, like Joseph’s coat, knitted of yarn ends scavenged in those alien huts. The sweater is bulky. Avidly, the boy imagines its warmth. The colors sparkle,
as if the magician who would save us wanted to demonstrate to us what he could do. The night enveloped us in smoke, cold, and darkness; we heard nothing but explosions, screams, the barks of the guards, crows, and frogs. We had long ago forgotten such glitter.
Who can this object be for? The mother, to keep her from freezing as she trudges across the steppes? The boy? No, he thinks it must be for the father, “he deserved it more than anybody else, since he had lost all hope long ago.” But in fact the sweater is for Mara, the only occupant of the hut the boy names. That is because “she had ended up among us by mistake…. The little girl had nothing to do with the curse on us; she was innocent…. Caught up in the catastrophe, mixed up with us and taken away, she had been brought as far as this.” So they “loved her excessively,” thinking that “she must return alive at all costs.”
So begins “The Sweater,” the first in the important and beautiful collection of stories by Norman Manea entitled October, Eight O’Clock. From the known facts of Mr. Manea’s life, one may infer that the nameless place is a concentration camp, somewhere in Transnistria, a land across the border which then divided Romania from Ukraine; the time is World War II; and the little boy, his family, and the other prisoners in the camp (other than “innocent” Mara, soon to die of typhus) are Romanian Jews deported by the Nazis. But none of these words—Romania, Nazi, German, Jew, the War, typhus—are used, except that once some other boys call the narrator a “kike.”
Years pass. One does not know how many. A later story is called “The Partition.” The boy narrator—who had been one of those children covered with scabies, “with oversized skulls…compressed, stunted, as if an instrument of torture had shrunk them all”—has survived. He is now a middle-aged man, perhaps a trifle paunchy, reclusive, perpetually attired in shabby jeans and turtleneck sweaters which, to his janitor, looks imported. He lives in “an adolescent’s mess in an old man’s room.” The building is also old, well built, with large apartments for rich people. But “they”—we take them to be the Communist authorities—have divided it with “partitions thin as cigarette paper, reallocated living space, redid everything.” The janitor watches his tenants’ every move:
thick-set, punctual, hygienic. Hairy, swarthy. The eyes of a makeshift expert. A conversationalist by profession…. Always attentive, he notes, makes out, identifies your shopping bag, packages, voice, clothes, who you’re with. The rhythm of your steps, any hesitation, the least trace of bad humor, everything is recorded. Such an important building, such different people, in short the community demands its own laws: to know everyone, ward off conflict, to inform correctly, make judicious decisions, have one’s eye on everything.
The nameless narrator watches and listens too. His neighbors
wake up, hurry, leave, rush around like greyhounds; flee from the rat race; their eyes empty, they scatter in the streets toward shops, trams, the bus. Lines for cheese, medication, flashlights, buttons, TV sets. A line here, another there: books, light bulbs, padlocks, shoes, eyeglasses, and so on until nightfall. Twilight eases their exhaustion. Up the staircase of standardized buildings, concrete boxes, the leftover hours pass lazily: armchair, TV, gas heater, ironing, the nightly sarcophagus.
He leaves the city for a resort—an August beach crowded with the recumbent bodies of the vacationing elite of the regime, the paraphernalia of third world chic scattered around them, the sea bringing in “offal, grease, pitchballs, foul-smelling wrack, fruit rinds, rags, empty cans.” As yet, he doesn’t know how to swim. One step too far into the surf, and he comes close to drowning.
An attenuated affair with a woman who has accompanied him comes to an end. This is in a story called “The Turning Point.” In a later story, “Seascape with Birds,” he returns to the same shore in a different season. It seems to him that
The staggering, exhausted bodies should have been brought here, to the deserted edge of the sea, and stretched out on the cold moist autumn sand….
If only the trains carrying them reached here, the few survivors could have descended the high, dusty cliff to the jagged shore. It would have been better had they been forced to watch, for hours on end, the fluid violet horizon, the silky tremor of spring. Transfixed for days, weeks, an entire year, before the same scenery. Had they experienced this feeling of pointlessness, endlessness, they might not have chased after time so greedily….
The boy, the boy at least would have deserved the cold, moist winds, the blaze of mirrors, summer. He should have been brought here long ago, thought the man overcome by indolence and sleep. For years on end, I would have known only the light and the happy sobs of the water, I could have understood why nature means nothing to me…
Thrice and four times blessed were they who perished under the walls of Troy. Between these dreadful parentheses—the sweater and the beach—Mr. Manea evokes with powerful and yet delicate brush strokes, as though in water colors, the nightmare of survival. In “We Might Have Been Four,” one senses that the war has possibly ended, but not the hunger. The family is still in a “hostile village.” They steal a chicken, kill it, pluck its feathers, boil and fry it, gorge “under the spell of the meat’s fragrance almost to the point of oblivion.” It is just before dawn when they return through the forest: the mother and father, the boy, and Finlanda, the boy’s young cousin. The girl wears a dress in which “she seemed to float, to be beyond anyone’s reach.” She has made it of material the father had offered to the mother and the mother refused: she had grown too thin with the war, it would not have looked good on her. Now the boy sees that
the order in which we had come had broken down. Finlanda had moved far off, ever more absent. Not too far behind her, he [the father] too was moving off, as if caught in the leaves and in the russet light of her flowing hair.
I watched them leave everything behind. I wanted to shout after them, I wanted to hate them, but I liked them, they always joked with me…
Whereas the mother, to whom they owe their survival, now “had no patience, she was always sour, anxious.” The theme of betrayal—or is it the stirring of a scandalous spring, an obscene reawakening of senses—returns in the story called “Proust’s Tea.” The boy and the mother are in a railroad waiting room monstrously packed with old people and children. The repatriation trains have been segregated, so that men and young women were dispatched somewhere separately. Although nurses in white uniforms pass through the crowd, distributing tea and biscuits, the rescued cannot understand that they have in fact been saved. The mother
couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening on the train that never arrived. She couldn’t have been allowed on board, she knew all too well that she looked like an old woman, no one would have believed that she was not yet thirty. But then she would have had no reason to want to be on the train for men and young women. Surely she too had seen how they had clung to each other without shame—my father and my cousin—the moment they left the lineup.
Eventually, such things are passed over. “Normal times” return. Families survive, “go everywhere they were invited, as if to make up for lost time and to reassure themselves that they had come back alive, that they could start over again with renewed strength.” Once again, they live in middle-class apartments. They have maids; like in the old days, the maid sleeps in the basement kitchen. At night, she may receive visits of one soldier or another; one night this family’s maid receives instead the now adolescent narrator:
Here are my feverish hands, the curls, the uncovered wetness, open to all promises, summer green darkened in the curled hair, phosphorescent with bacteria. I bite into the heart of her shoulder.
Young boys learn to answer questions such as “Did they beat you?” Driven by their parents and relatives, or by their own anguish, all at once they write poems, pass examinations, excel in mathematics; they are awarded prizes at schools they had never before attended. The narrator is such a boy. He “had made up the lost classes; devoured textbooks, even those others found dull; he swallowed everything; always hungry, concentrated, impelled by his own thirst.”
But, at a certain moment, even that may not be enough. The boy’s identity must be defined—for grownups, the issue need not arise, their identities had been formed and, however tattered, can be reassumed. Such a moment is examined in “The Instructor.” The father and the mother arrange for the boy to be taught Hebrew in preparation for his bar mitzvah. Mr. Manea does not name either the language or the ceremony; the teacher—an old man dressed humbly in black like a petty functionary or a shopkeeper—says to the boy:
You’re about to turn thirteen, to become a man. That’s why I’ve been called. The ceremony is not complicated. The language is old, beautiful. The greatest book of all was written in it. That is why the language has survived to this day.
It is as though the parents tried to attach a limb that has been severed:
suddenly he was seeing them from a great distance. They seemed childish, ridiculous. They did not even believe in the ceremony for which they were preparing him. It was just the need for yet another sign that all was normal. Nothing else but the rush to accumulate proof, to have relatives and neighbors and former friends confirm that, yes, everything was in order that life had reaccepted them, that it was just like before, that they were the same as before.
The narrator does not rebel for long. His parents hold a trump card, the ability to control his movements. In addition to the Torah, he is poring over the Communist Manifesto. What he reads there, he believes and wants to believe. That is his road to an identity and a “normal” new life. A selection is about to be made for a great honor: attendance at a summer camp for Soviet Pioneer Scouts, the elect among secular believers. The boy is chosen and he strikes a bargain with the parents. The ceremony before the scrolls will take place; and despite his parents’ fears about sanitary conditions and a polio epidemic, he will leave for the camp. But, in the course of the camp’s revels—
Flags, trumpets, files of men, gatherings, games, meetings. In the morning, exercises, in the evening, campfires, speeches.
—the boy sees through them. The new faith is false. He is on the way to becoming an underground man.
Mr. Manea is an established Romanian writer, born in 1936 in the Bukovina province of Romania, and now living in New York. The stories under review are his first work of fiction published in the United States. A book of his essays, On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist—an eloquent and explicit account of a writer’s struggle to hang on to his sanity and honor in Ceausescu’s Romania—was also published this year by Grove Weidenfeld.
In October, Eight O’Clock, Mr. Manea set for himself an even harder task. I believe it was to elucidate the meaning of survival: in the case of the narrator, the result of survival being an existence deprived of freedom and hope, bounded by the catastrophes of the Holocaust and the totalitarian state. His refusal to name or situate in time or place either catastrophe is more than a brilliant strategy for dealing with matters so shameful that language should not be capable of expressing them, although such strategies are indispensable. One thinks, at one end of the spectrum, of Art Spiegelman, transforming in Maus I and Maus II the inmates of Auschwitz into little mice dressed in striped pajamas, and, at the other, of Malaparte in Kaputt, whose almost amoral, defeated, scintillating, antihero narrator describes, without mincing words or shrinking from naming any particular of the scene, the great pogrom of Jassy in Moldavia* One hears the unbearable, muffled noise that rifle butts make when they strike the human skull and the rustling of the fields of wheat in Bessarabia where Jewish girls hide so as not to be carried off to German military brothels. The first story, of the killings, is told at the dinner table of Hans Frank, the German governor general of Poland, and the second is told, in Potsdam, to Princess Louise von Hohenzollern, the last Kaiser’s granddaughter. Without the intercession of these conceits, would not the tale halt, as it is said that terror can dry up a mother’s milk?
I believe that the strategy Mr. Manea adopted is also essential to his ability to put, in universal terms, without regard to Jews or Germans, the question whether life in such conditions is worth the effort it takes to live it. The narrator’s and perhaps Mr. Manea’s, answer is given in the last lines of “Proust’s Tea”:
If, later, I lost anything, it was precisely the cruelty of indifference. But only later; and with difficulty. Because, much later, I became what is called…a feeling being.
September 24, 1992