My debut book was about Mircea Eliade: a symbol dictionary applied to his work.
It was 1997 and I was walking all over Bucharest, The Ghost in the Mill only a manuscript at that time, trying to convince some editor to publish my book. People craved books – the communist dictatorship had just ended. The publishing houses were translating volumes left and right, launching books just as often, especially non-fiction, confessions, philosophical studies, history, esoteric tomes etc. I had contributed myself to this need of western literature by working at Humanitas. Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco, Gome – these were the best-sellers of the ‘90s. Plus sci-fi books.
One day I entered the Coresi Publishing House, located somewhere in the center of the city. Of course, this time was no different, I didn’t even get a chance to take the Ghost’s manuscript out of my bag. “A Romanian novel?! Nobody’s buying local literature!” the editor barked at me. “If you had anything about Eliade, then yes, I’d publish it immediately. Anything.”
That’s how the Eliade *Dictionary* was born, in record time and written directly on a PC, one that maybe not many people can still recall, a 286. (Yes, you read that correctly: 2). I could have written something simple, I could have blabbed about a random subject, but I realized that only few Romanians actually knew at that time everything that Eliade had written, how his work looked *in integrum*, so I chose to write a dictionary. And we’re talking about Eliade! My novel could wait.
The book was published around the Bookfest of 1997, which at the time was held at the National Theatre. Then people started contacting me. It was selling so well that I had almost forgotten about the pain of not having published The Ghost in the Mill.
Dictionary of Symbols in Mircea Eliade's Work was a book that reached many places around the entire world. A Mexican of whom I have never heard before asked for my permission to translate it and publish it in a daily paper. (https://www.jornada.com.mx/2003/11/23/sem-rusti.html).
The University of Turin was the first that purchased it for its library and thanks to this dictionary I met professors Marco Cugno and Roberto Merlo.
After less than a year, the typographers pirated it. It was sold at Obor, gleaming from the cigarettes stands, but it was really a terrible version, with a red title blinding you from the recycled paper. This 1998 edition is the pirated version. I think it was the most well-spread, as I’ve learned that most people believe this is the year of the princeps edition.
I confess it made me feel good, seeing it so often, especially as I was passing daily by Obor to buy cheap cigarettes.
Others started copying it during the same year. I kept discovering articles signed by fancy people, which consistently included pages from this dictionary. Then my students, the post-graduates, started plagiarizing it. I’ve found it on various sites, compiled, partially or entirely copied. Some even wrote books by elaborating on a few items it comprised.
At some point, somebody photocopied it and uploaded it to SCRIBD . That’s the pirated version, from 1998. I admit, the work of this person impressed me, so I didn’t object, nor did I become upset as they haven’t asked for permission. Either way, it had meanwhile become a book plagiarized to the highest levels, despite the fact that it had been reedited a few times.
For me, this *Dictionary* held a purely literary value, as it represented a way of saying good-bye to Eliade. My first published novel, The Little Red Man, a fiction book of course, had nothing to do with the prose that fascinated me and which brought to a halt the careers of many Romanian writers. And every writer from my generation knows what I mean.
Despite being a novel about the internet, The Little Red Man springs from the fiber of Eliade’s prose, hiding in each of its pages my desire not to write like him.
“I had reached a city. On both sides of the road there were houses, gardens, people walking around. The van stopped and I didn’t give it another thought, I got off and passed by the driver, watching out of the corner of my eye. There was no one in the cabin.”
The Little Red Man
At that time I was considering a sort of deconstructive narrative. We’re talking about a period of minimalism, people were rejecting stories, the classic narratives. That was when I wrote Zogru (2006), a story made of narrative additions, about an immortal spirit, but the essence of this Zogru held an Eliadesque foundation: it is a sort of synthesis, not so much of Romanian fantasy, but of the attitude towards fiction. I rejoiced when a newspaper in Santiago de Chille compared this novel to Chagall’s painting. My character possesses the same naivety I felt when I first met Eliade’s characters.
"It happened after a ten-year break which he had spent submerged at Earth’s core, for whenever he ventured beyond the Danube, he was thrown into a pocket of the world, a place where he would always wake up like after a good night's sleep, cradled by the familiar prattle of the gloles. The return to life was like a rebirth: he felt strong and able to make plans. Curiously enough, the first thing he did this time was to check on the descendants of Scabby Ionita, whom he had left in Bucharest ten years before. And, of course, they were still there. Iancu Ionașcu had become a scribe, and his children were employed by the Divan or working for the princely chancellery. Among them there was one who reminded him of Scabby and Butcher, but who also has some of Painter's artistic enthusiasm. He was named Gligore and was a clerk at a princely kalem, where he kept records of the taxes that the prince himself, Alexandru Moruzi, had set.”
In The Ghost in the Mill(2008), I often returned to Eliade's fantastic prose related to communism, for example, the mystical symbols of the *Nineteen Roses* or the mystical-literal evasions from *On Mântuleasa Street*. But I refrained from touching upon that area. I focused on the duplicitous nature of the communist world, on mental unification. Max's face represents the key to the fantastic construction of this novel:
“And then, his pain, flaring up like lava, rose up to the sky through the white, floating corn, like a ghost. He saw it slip through the cobbled alley up to Sile, which continued to weep by holding on to the fence with both hands. And then, like a floating spirit, it flew off by following the same rhythm as a travelling flake, over the frozen road, around the women standing just as still in the mist of the autumn’s end. From among the fig bushes, you could see his desperate, cornered, helpless soul, turned into a bile balloon, sneezing liquid through the broken glass, through the red walls in the still living womb of the mill, so that he could meet his other, happy, warm side, which has been waiting there for 40 years.”
The Ghost in the Mill
It was only in The checkered shirt (2010) that I had the courage to face him, to return to Eliade's Bucharest, the way I saw it and the way I had already presented it to my thousands of students, infected by my obsession.
“It was a thin and poisonous emanation that grew from the fabric of the shirt, wrapping it in a misty terror. The shirt was soaked in fear, anxiety, and there was a sadness gleaming through its checks.
Lori quickly pulled out the shirt, more to check her intuition, and she immediately felt relieved. However, looking at the creased cloth between her fingers, she seemed to notice that within the crossed lines, on the red, gray and white channels, the streams of horror continued to run freely. She couldn’t help it. She needed to check once again. She put on the shirt again, with slow gestures, and she was immediately overwhelmed by the heavy smoke of depression. They were the thoughts of her cousin, a feeling once experienced, a blatant misery that may have gone up at the last moment from Iulică’s soul or from the trenches of death.”
The checkered shirt
When I wrote The Book of Perilous Dishes (2017), Eliade was nowhere in sight. Nothing now relates to him. And yet, here and there I still let slip a nod to him, as I did in the paragraphs below:
"Lipscani Square was, as usual, packed, but from my little uncle’s gig I got a different view of people, smaller and gentler. Between shops and gardens there were winding streets. I tried each one. None of them was Murta but the watchman had heard of it: ‘It’s somewhere round here, young lady. It can’t be far. Maybe next to Frenchmen’s Street.’
At the mention of Frenchmen, the brocade-laden voice of Dubois came into my mind. Around the Consulate there was a web of streets, numerous and short, with so many shortcuts and little cul-de-sacs that my every attempt seemed in vain.
Not far off was the Dâmbovița. Whichever way I took, sooner or later I would arrive at the edge of the river, facing a crowded bridge. What was I to do? I stopped. A captain of the city guard saw how lost I looked. ‘How can I help you?’ he asked. I blurted out what I was looking for. The house, the street, its red tower, and the cat.
‘You’ve put it down on paper? No?’ said the captain in amazement.
This topped it all! How could I have set out, alone, in search of some houses, relying on the memories of unknown people with a tendency to be forgetful!
‘Have you any idea how quickly these people forget? They don’t even know what they ate yesterday, let alone your houses from… how many years back did you say?’
The man gave a disappointed whistle, then held out a sheet of paper that had been in his pocket for a long time. ‘Very well, look, write here on the carriage window and I’ll deal with it!’
‘I always have something to write with on me,’ I boasted, searching through my pockets for my penholder and inkpot.
It just took a minute to set down word for word everything dictated to me by the man, who already seemed like an uncle to me. It was a short text in which I requested that somebody tell me where my houses were.
‘Who do I address it to?’ I asked, respectfully.
‘To Captain Mârcă! Write this: “To His Excellency Captain Mârcă under the bridge”!’
‘Do you know the captain?’
‘I am the very same!’ he announced joyfully.
The man had something grandiose about him. Clearly he liked being Captain Mârcă. He took the paper, and my careful handwriting was still visible as he went down under the bridge, where only now did I notice there was a sort of hut. Before disappearing into the hovel, the captain scrunched the paper into a ball and threw it into the middle of the river.
So this was Captain Mârcă under the bridge. Whoever had a wish wrote it on a piece of paper. That was the way it went. The waters of the Dâmbovița had probably swallowed up so many letters that they had turned blue from the ink.
The Book of Perilous Dishes
Out of all my books, The Phanariot Manuscript does contain eliadesque tones, although it doesn’t belong to the fantastic register. However, Bucharest evenings, the somnolent time and its illusions do indeed come from there.
Trans: Bianca Zbarcea
Dictionary of Symbols in the Work of Mircea Eliade,
Coresi Publishing House, 1997
Comme Doina Ruști le précise, dans le conte populaire : « la jeunesse éternelle symbolise le refus de l’être d’entrer sous la pression de l’histoire et d
exister entre des limites. Si, dans les mentalités d’autres peuples, l’accès à l’immortalité est déterminé par des épreuves héroïques et spirituelles, dans la vision roumaine, il ny a qu’une voie: le refus de descendre dans le temps fragmentaire; C’est pour cela que le prince ne veut pas venir au monde pour vieillir, il rejette l’évolution et la fuite du temps non au profit de la jeunesse comme état de grâce, mais au profit de l’harmonie du paradis » (Ruști, D.,2001 : 163).
Rodica Maria Fofiu, Université « Lucian Blaga », Sibiu.