One of a Kind – a story

Julian Barnes

I always had this theory about Romania. Well, not a proper theory: more an observation, I suppose. Have you ever realised how, in various fields, Romania has managed to produce one – but only one – significant artist? It’s as if the race only has enough strength for one of anything, like those plants which channel all their energy into a single bloom. So: one great sculptor – Brancusi. One playwright – lonesco. One composer – Enescu. One cartoonist – Steinberg. Even one great popular myth – Dracula.

I once mentioned this theory at a literary party to a Romanian writer in exile. Marian Tiriac was a sallow, plump, combative man, with whom I had got off on the wrong foot by referring to the question of ‘dissidents’. It’s always an awkward word to use with East European exiles, as I should have realised. Some of them take the high political line of ‘It is the Government who are the dissidents’; others the personal, practical one of ‘I am not a dissident; I am a writer.’ I had idly asked Tiriac whether there were any dissidents in Romania. He swished the remnants of some publisher’s white wine round in the bottom of his glass, as aggressively as he could without losing any of it, and replied: ‘There are no dissidents in Romania. There are merely a few people who are unavailable for comment to the foreign press. In any case, they live some way from Bucharest. The roads aren’t too good up near the Hungarian border; nor are your journalists very inquisitive.’

He said it with irony, but also with a sort of funny pride, as if I didn’t have the right to an opinion – or even a question – on the subject of his homeland. Not wishing to give in, but also not wishing to irritate him further, I then brought up my Romanian Theory, which I did with due English meekness and hesitancy and pleading of ignorance. Tiriac smiled at me genially enough, and reached for another stuffed olive.

‘You forget poetry,’ he said. ‘Eminescu.’ It was a name I had vaguely encountered, so I gave a nod of disgraced recognition. ‘And tennis – Nastase.’ Another nod; was he sending me up? ‘And party leadership – Ceausescu.’ Now he was.

‘What about novelists?’ I persisted. ‘Is there one I should have heard of?’

‘No,’ he replied, with a doleful shake of the head. ‘There are none. We have no novelists.’

I forgot this conversation for almost a year, when I was invited to attend a conference of young writers in Bucharest. The occasion was as pleasant as it was pointless – I listened to dozens of vague if well-intentioned speeches about the duty of the writer towards mankind, and about the power of the written word to shape men’s souls – but at least it got me to a country I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. There were banquets with plum brandy, and an excursion to the Danube delta where we strained our eyes for distant flights of pelican, and parties at which local officials asked you serious questions about the craft of writing – questions which made you feel slightly ashamed, as if you ought to take your vocation more earnestly than you did.

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