Nicolae Ceausescu
Nicolae Ceausescu; drawing by David Levine

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.1 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 scandalized are those who pretended not to notice anything unusual at the time and who bravely kept quiet when they saw some injustice being committed.

When it comes to killing and uprooting innocent people, the twentieth century makes the efforts of previous centuries appear halfhearted. Never before have so many classes of human beings been regarded as having no intrinsic value and therefore having no right to exist. These ambitious projects for depopulating the planet of some national, ethnic, racial, or religious group would have been impossible without the accompanying idea that bloodshed was permissible for the sake of some version of future happiness. To have a theory of history that will excuse any crime is a promising start, but it’s never enough. What is required is a large number of people to convert ideas into practice, through either their active participation or their passivity.

There’s no better critique of such ideas and people than the account of someone who had firsthand experience of what they mean in reality. If only these lucky survivors would keep their mouths shut, the pogroms of the past could be passed off as a bit of youthful folly, idealism gone wrong, a lone blemish in an otherwise illustrious career. The Hooligan’s Return is Norman Manea’s memoir of such an evil time. He was born in 1936 in a small town in Bukovina, a region in the north of Romania which had been part of Austria-Hungary till 1919. A mixed population of Romanians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews lived alongside one another in relative peace until the onset of World War II.

In October 1941 the entire Jewish population of the province was deported to labor camps in Transnistria, a place that previously did not exist on any map or in any geography book. It was a newly carved region in Ukraine, north of the Black Sea and Odessa that extended as far as the rivers Dniester and Bug. The Romanian army of Marshal Ion Antonescu, which participated in the Nazi attack on Russia, was given the land as spoils of that campaign, and Antonescu soon after set aside the region to be the graveyard for Romanian Jews. The order for expulsion in 1941 required the Jews to hand in immediately to the National Bank all the gold, currency, shares, diamonds, and precious stones they owned and to report on the same day to the train station with their hand luggage. Everything else was to be left behind and was promptly pillaged.


Manea was five years old when he, his parents, and grandparents made the journey in sealed freight-train cars. Back in Romania, Premier Antonescu declared:

Our nation has not known a more favorable moment in its history…. I am in favor of forced migration. I do not care whether we shall go down in history as barbarians. The Roman Empire committed many barbaric acts and yet it was the greatest political establishment the world has ever seen.

Out of 200,000 Romanian Jews who were sent to Transnistria half perished, Manea’s grandparents among them. There were no gas chambers and crematoria; people were either shot, hanged, slaughtered, burned, starved to death, or died as the consequence of infectious diseases and the weakening of the body. Nazis were not involved since Romania was not an occupied country. This was an operation carried out by the local Romanian police and gendarmerie. Antonescu was an ally of the Iron Guard, the extreme right-wing nationalist movement of the 1930s, whose ideological father was Nae Ionescu, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest much admired by Eliade.

The movement blamed Jews for such ills as poverty, syphilis, alcoholism, communism, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, and feminism. In place of democracy, they called for dictatorship, nationalism, the adulation of the Orthodox Church, and a repudiation of liberal values. Tolerance was regarded as impotence; acceptance of death and sacrifice as a regenerative force. A virulent nationalism of this kind, which we have seen rage elsewhere with predictable results, may in the end be better understood by psychiatrists with experience in institutions for the criminally insane than by historians and political scientists. Manea gives an example in his essay on Eliade:

Among the many crimes arranged by the Legion, or Iron Guard, must be mentioned the barbarous ritual murder of two hundred Jews, including children, on January 22, 1941, at the Bucharest slaughterhouse (while the “mystical” murderers sang Christian hymns), an act of ferocity perhaps unique in the history of the Holocaust. Ion Antonescu, their former ally, later dissolved the Iron Guard, but anti-Semitic murders did not cease under his military dictatorship. There were, to name but two, the terrible pogrom in Iasåüi in June 1941, when thousands of Jews were murdered and thousands more put on the “death trains” to die of asphyxiation….”2

In Transnistria, the deportees lived outdoors in rain, mud, and cold. Many lost their minds, while others committed suicide. For Jews left in Bucharest and other parts of Romania there were never-ending restrictions, expropriations of property, and humiliations to contend with. Their citizenship was revoked, their bicycles and household goods confiscated, their children expelled from school. They had to pay higher prices for bread and were forced to shovel snow and dig ditches while newspaper editorials demanded even harsher punishments for them. To give an idea of what the times were like, here is a ditty the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian heard gypsy children shout in the streets of Bucharest in 1941:

The train is leaving Chitila
Taking Stalin off to Palestine.
The train is pulling out of Galatåüi
Full of hanged Jews.3

Elsewhere in his journal, Sebastian observes that practically everyone he meets disapproves of what is happening and feels indignant, while at the same time, as he says, being “a cog in the huge anti-Semitic factory that is the Romanian state.” While saying they were “staggered” and “disgusted” with what was happening, these ordinary citizens, he tells us, acquiesced in the persecution of their neighbors and a good many were actually jubilant about it.

Once Antonescu realized that the Germans were going to lose the war, the treatment of the Jews improved. He calculated that their survival would provide him with an alibi after the war. The Russians retook Transnistria in 1943 and drafted some of the Jewish men into the Red Army. Manea and his parents had to wait until 1945 to be repatriated back to Romania. He was nine years old. He rediscovered food, clothes, school, furniture, books, and games. Like many others at the end of the war, his family assumed that the horrors of the past were behind them and that they would participate with their compatriots in righting the country’s wrongs. The Communists, after all, had executed Antonescu and were gradually taking power with the help of the Red Army, which had liberated the Jews from camps and saved their lives. “From each according to work, to each according to his abilities” sounded like a pretty good slogan.


Manea’s father joined the Party and was appointed to an important position in the local trade organization. Young Manea became the “commander” of the Pioneers, an organization for the students between nine and fourteen who had the best scholastic records. A “Red Commissar,” as he calls himself in his memoir, he presided over a tribunal in high school which had the power to expel students on grounds of antisocialist behavior. The social class and family background of the accused students was exposed and discussed. Speeches were made about the need to be vigilant against deviationists, traitors, and agents of the bourgeoisie and American imperialism. Manea writes:

“If only 5 percent of the criticism leveled against you is correct, you have to internalize [all of] it” was the mantra repeated in the meetings of the early years of socialism. The rule had been enunciated by the great Stalin himself, and nobody would have mustered 5 percent of their courage to challenge it; implicitly, by accepting 95 percent to be untrue, the principle established the supremacy of imposture and false denunciation. It consecrated the intimidation of the individual and the exorcism of the community; it was distinguished by demagogy, routine, surveillance, intimidation, but also stage performance.

(One wonders here what Romanian expression is being translated as “internalize”; it is not a word that seems right for a “mantra.”)

Then something happened to the young revolutionary. He began to sense in himself an unbridgeable gulf between the language he used in public with its canonic certainties and the words he kept to himself. This was a predicament familiar to millions who lived under communism. One either went along with the Party line and accepted the moral and intellectual compromises that this entailed or one refused in the name of one’s conscience—a motive seemingly unknown to most of one’s fellow citizens. With some difficulty, Manea disengaged himself from political militancy. He withdrew into himself. Although he was already drawn to literature, he studied engineering as the safest profession under the circumstances. As the result of what he calls “the wear and tear of everyday somnambulism,” he even spent a brief time in a mental institution. His father was not doing well either. He lost his job and ended up in prison in 1958 for undermining the great socialist achievement, so the accusation went, by receiving meat from a butcher without paying. This ridiculous charge appears to have been the consequence of one of the tactical shifts that from time to time scrambled the ranks of the nomenklatura. While his father was in prison, his mother worked in a canning factory; she had to stoop all day over a huge trough of peppers, potatoes, and cucumbers that she was required to slice by hand.

The Hooligan’s Return is a memoir of a troubled soul. It is fragmented and somewhat repetitive. Manea keeps digressing, circling around an incident as he tries to make sense of it. He scrambles the chronology as well as his narrative strategies and point of view as he tries to make sense of his life. There are passages of lyrical prose and even magic realism. He is most persuasive when he tells his story straight. Surprisingly, many periods of his life are given only hurried summaries. For example, he has little to say about how he became a writer or about Romanian literature and the literary milieu in which he grew up, so the reader is left in the dark about who influenced him and how. Although he argues that his true motherland is the Romanian language, he doesn’t convey what that language is like and what may be lost in translation. He is also a bit skimpy in describing the Ceausåüescu regime and the peculiar habits of a dictator who traveled through his starving country in a motorcade that included a limousine for his favorite dog. For a fuller account of daily life in Romania one has to turn to Manea’s fiction and his fine book of essays, On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist.

All this raises a question about the intended audience of The Hooligan’s Return. Unlike Romanians, American readers need to know more than Manea tells us about the workings of a system in which for every police agent assigned to surveillance there were fifteen “volunteer” informers. “Suspicion and duplicity gradually infiltrated the kitchens and the bedrooms, insinuated themselves into sleep, language, and posture,” he writes. When absolute obedience, self-abasement, and professions of loyalty were required of everyone and being a busybody became a civic duty, it was entirely normal to be paranoid and to strive to become invisible.

Manea broke that rule in 1981. He ceased to be a quiet, compliant citizen and officially became a troublemaker. In an interview published in a provincial literary magazine, he complained about resurgent nationalism and anti-Semitism in Romania. The smear campaign that followed was nasty. He was called “liberaloid,” “Stalinist,” “of another language and of another faith,” “anti-Party,” and so forth. It was frightening, infuriating, and exhausting. I recall being told in the 1990s by writers in Yugoslavia about the sheer weariness of having to listen to such moronic labels for more than fifty years. False denunciations are the grease that keeps the wheels of totalitarian societies rolling. When the system collapses and personal histories have to be speedily laundered, the man who opens his mouth and starts reminding people what someone said or did is in trouble. The message to Manea in 1981 was the same as in 1991, when he published his essay on Eliade. He was a traitor, an alien element, a public enemy.

The memoir begins with Manea’s decision to make a long-postponed trip to Romania in 1997 and concludes with the description of his nine-day stay there. He agonizes about the journey. All the old fears he thought he had left behind return to torment him. His main purpose is to visit his mother’s grave in the town where he was born. Otherwise he has no relatives left in the country; his father is in a nursing home in Jerusalem. He doesn’t travel alone, but with an American friend, a renowned orchestra conductor who is to give a concert in Bucharest. He arrives without advance notice and once there refuses to give interviews. At the airport in Frankfurt before boarding the flight to Romania he wonders whether the ordinary-looking passengers are perhaps really agents of the new mafias or old secret service. Once he arrives, his torments continue. The atmosphere is alien, he’s alien, the pedestrians are alien:

I cross the boulevard over to the Scala cinema. Next to it is the Unic block of apartments where Cella’s mother lived until her death. Everything is the same and yet not the same. Something indefinable but essential has skewed the stage set, something akin to an invisible cataclysm, a magnetic anomaly, the aftermath of an internal hemorrhage. Maybe it is the squalor, but if you look closer, it is not just that. There are signs of unfinished roadwork everywhere, but even this does not seem to point to real change. I stand and stare for much longer than I should. I gaze at the Unic store, then turn around to face the Scala cinema and the pastry shop of the same name, then the Lido Hotel, and the Ambassador Hotel. The estrangement is still incomplete, the wound still not healed, the rupture still active, although now somewhat muted. There is something else at work here, of an objective nature—the traumatizing, alienated reality itself. Gloomy immutability appears as permanence when, in fact, it is just a disease, a perverted wreck.

Death has passed this way, in the footsteps of the dead man now revisiting the landscape of his life in which he can no longer find a place or a sign of himself. After my death, Death visited this place, but was it not already here, was it not that from which I had fled? In 1986, the dictatorship had become Death, owning the landscape and the streets and the pedestrians, and all else besides.

I cross over quickly to the other side of the boulevard, where the former Cina restaurant used to be. I enter a narrow, deserted street. A thin rain begins to fall. I feel something unnatural surrounding me, some unnatural sense within myself. Could this moment and this no-man’s-land be the time and place of an accident, a murder, a mysterious aggression?

This is a powerful description of the exile’s estrangement. I felt the same way on my first visit to Belgrade after twenty years’ absence. For the first couple of days I had no idea who I was. I reeled back and forth between several equally absurd identities, unprepared for a reunion with my childhood. Annoyingly, friends and complete strangers I met were certain they knew who I was. For some, I was unmistakably an American, for others I was still a Serb. Manea may have once regarded himself as a Romanian writer whose ethnicity was a strictly personal matter, but to his fellow countrymen he remained a Jew.

The Hooligan’s Return is an angry book. Manea carries a deep feeling of injury from all the vicious things his compatriots said about him over the years. At times, he sounds as if twenty-two million Romanians think of nothing else but of his betrayal. Somewhat surprisingly, but understandably, he is more forgiving on a visit to his native province and his hometown than he is in Bucharest.

The fates of his mother and father still trouble him. They belonged, as he says movingly, to the vast category of innocents ignored by the chroniclers. Like millions of others, they did not deserve any of the sufferings inflicted on them. As a young man, Manea couldn’t wait to get away from his mother. Her tearful stories, her exaggerations and fears, her claustrophobic world of suspicion and rumor, and their never-ending quarrels drove him from her. Now she haunts him like a ghost, catching up with him even on the streets of New York. She’s old, frail, and blind, as she was in her last years. She walks by him without acknowledging him.

The memories of his father are equally poignant. Manea describes him as someone trapped in his own solitude, a man whose main defenses were silence and secrecy, who went through life unable to free himself from the conventions of dignity. “About suffering, as about joy, he would speak only rarely,” he writes. Unlike his mother, he would never mention Transnistria or recall that he was beaten over the head with a bullwhip by a Romanian officer.

Manea’s memoir ends up by being more powerful as a lament for his parents than as a narrative of Manea’s own exile and quarrel with his compatriots. There was a time, he says, when his own people’s suffering no longer interested him:

After my juvenile fling with the Communist madness, I had come to hate anything that had to do with “we,” with collective identity, which seemed to me suspect, and oppressive simplification. The chasm between “me” and “us” was one I was no longer disposed to cross.

No more. His memoir is a story of the gradual acceptance of that common fate. “Bring me a familiar and accessible God” must surely be every exile’s prayer.

“A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger,” Cioran counsels. The Hooligan’s Return, ably translated from Romanian by Angela Jianu, fulfills that requirement. At the end of the memoir, Manea is like an insomniac who has gotten through a particularly bad night and who knows well there’ll be many more nights like it. The trip home did not restore him. He has remained, as he says, “an embarrassed inhabitant of his own biography.” Rather than a tragic figure, he sees himself as a clown. “Augustus the Fool is the pariah, the loser, the one who always gets kicked in the ass, to the audience’s delight. Augustus the Fool is the exile,” he writes. A friend of his once complained that he was too serious, too ethical, and not playful enough to fit that role. There’s truth in what the friend says, but it doesn’t take into account what makes Manea’s writing powerful. This world of ours, in his view, is a place where the ridiculous reigns supreme over all human life and tortures everyone without respite, and therefore it cannot be ignored because it’s not about to ignore any one of us. If that is so, fools are also martyrs. Words caused them to suffer and words are their salvation. Manea’s strength as a writer comes from his deep solidarity with such people. He has in mind all those, including himself, who were left to play the fool in one of history’s many traveling circuses.

This Issue

October 23, 2003