It would be no exaggeration to say that Romanian novelist Norman Manea is one of the most celebrated contemporary Eastern European writers in the Western literary world. His impressive collection of cultural and literary awards currently includes the MacArthur Fellowship (U.S.), the Nonino International Literary Prize (Italy), the Prix Médicis Etranger (France), and the Nelly Sachs prize (Germany). He has been made a member of the Berlin Academy of Art and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the French government has named him Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The most recent of Manea’s international accolades comes from the UK, where he is being received this month as an honorary member of their Royal Society of Literature. This newest recognition comes in conjunction with the release of the English edition of the author’s most recent novel, The Lair, translated by poet, translator, photographer, and filmmaker Oana Sânziana Marian, as part of Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
The national literary prizes and honorary titles are a telling indication of Manea’s talent for bringing something both fresh and universal to the well-worn émigré’s tale of exile and renewal, assimilation and resistance, a tale the author himself embodies. Manea fled his homeland in the early 1980s when his democratic political voice became a threat to the nation’s totalitarian regime under the auspices of the Cold War. In The Lair, he demonstrates his willingness to take considerable creative risk – in linguistic style, character development, and plot structure – to capture émigré life in all its complexity and disorientation. The novel follows the intersecting stories of three Romanian intellectuals residing in the United States. Professor Augustin Gora is already settled in America, working to gain asylum while on a cold-war-era Fulbright scholarship, when his former wife, Lu, and her cousin and lover, Peter Gaşpar, the child of Nazi death camp survivors, seek refuge in New York. Another former lover of Lu’s – an anonymous first-person narrator, also makes a sudden appearance part way through the novel.
The story shifts with an almost manic tempo across the years and across the globe, circling the watershed created for its characters by Eastern European Communism and September 11, 2001. At times this tempo serves to bring the reader into the pulsing lethargy of daily life for its characters, particularly Gaşpar. But Manea also uses it to recreate the thrilling and terrifying sensation of falling between the cracks of different cultural and political orientations. It is the way in which his characters are pulled into these unpredictable and seemingly random recesses that give the story its undeniable vitality, something the novel appears to nod to reflexively near its opening as Lu and Peter Gaşpar amuse themselves in the tiny, miserable hotel room where they live by scanning the phone book for familiar names. “Finding the rabbit hole – that was their game. They could try and guess from where the next rabbit would jump, so to speak.”
One of the author’s overarching achievements is his ability to keep his stories hovering in that No Man’s (or is it Everyman’s?) Land from which the émigré is able to critique both the old world he has left and the new world he has entered with an incisive eye. The novel feels grounded and groundless simultaneously – a tone that storytellers who have been displaced from their national or culture “homeland” often attempt to strike, but seldom manage to make ring true the way The Lair does. Perhaps it is Manea’s own choices as an émigré that provide him with the materials for achieving what he does. For example, the author has spent almost three decades abroad from his native country, mostly in the United States, where he is currently Frances Flournoy Professor of European Culture and writer-in-residence at Bard College in upstate New York. Yet despite the acute eye for irony and hypocrisy in America culture he has developed from his considerable first-hand experience, Manea continues to compose all of his work in his native language. He appears to feel there is something to be gained, not lost, by struggling through the rich linguistic and cultural fabric of translation, an idea that The Lair certainly works to confirm.