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.

The last morning of the trip was designated free time, and I strolled round the city with an Italian writer of experimental verse. We looked into small, dark churches, silent except for the crackling of beeswax candles and the shuffling of old people. We visited the Art Museum of the Socialist Republic of Romania, where we saw a Van Eyck portrait of an olive-skinned burgher in a blue headdress; the nameplate had been worn away by reverent fingers, as if this, the finest painting in the gallery, had become an icon to be touched no less usefully than the sculpted feet of Mary. Finally, we strolled along the Calea Victoriei and looked into the shops. On a corner of the Palatul Republicii, opposite the Headquarters of the Central Committee, we found a bookshop. One of the windows was devoted to a single work, a novel by someone called Nicolai Petrescu; we stared at the pyramid of copies for a while, wondering if we had met the author in the previous seven days. A small photograph at the corner of the display – showing a plump, white-bearded man with rimless spectacles – confirmed that we hadn’t. Since this appeared to be one of the main bookshops in the country, and Petrescu, presumably, one of its more important writers, it struck us as slightly odd that he hadn’t been wheeled out for some free plum brandy along with all the others.

My companion and I looked briefly into the Western languages section of the shop – which suggested that, if you’re foreign, it’s best to be dead as well if you plan to sell in Bucharest – and moved on. Later that day we were driven to Otopeni airport and flew home.

I didn’t see Marian Tiriac for some months afterwards, but when I did I offered to give him my impressions of the country he hadn’t seen in thirty years of exile. He seemed discouragingly unexcited by the idea, and informed me that since he would certainly never return, he made a point of not finding out what had become of the place. During his first few years of exile, he had been bitter and nostalgic, and had kept up a plaintive correspondence with many friends; but this had made things worse rather than better, and he had now severed all contact.

‘Well, in any case,’ I went on, ‘you weren’t telling me the truth. There are novelists in Romania.’

‘Oh, perhaps. You mean Rebreanu. Or maybe Sadoveanu. I’m afraid they’re only thesis material nowadays. They are not the Brancusi and Nastase you seek.’

‘No, I wasn’t saying that.’ I hardly could have been, since I hadn’t recognised either of the names. ‘I just meant there were a few around. A few we met.’ I mentioned three or four. He shook his head.

‘You must remember, I do not have much interest in these things nowadays.’

‘And there was someone else – we saw a lot of copies of something of his in a window. Petrescu; Nicolai Petrescu.’

‘Ah,’ he said sharply. ‘Ah, Nicolai; you saw Nicolai. They are still selling his book? And how is he?’

I explained that we hadn’t actually met him. I described the bookshop in Calea Victoriei, the window display, and the small picture in the corner. I said that as far as one could tell from a photo, the writer seemed to be well.

‘And did he have anything in his button-hole? A little decoration of some sort?’

‘You mean a flower?’

‘Of course not. A decoration. A badge.’

I said I couldn’t remember. Tiriac settled himself further down into the sofa, and balanced his glass on the arm.

‘I will tell you about Nicolai Petrescu if you like.’ I did like. ‘But you must not necessarily believe everything I say because I knew him very well. You must – what is that expression in shooting? – you must aim off. You must aim off for truth, I think.

‘Nicolai and I are about the same age – our middle fifties. We were both just young enough to miss the war, for which we used to give many thanks. Fighting for the Germans against the Russians, and then changing ends and fighting for the Russians against the Germans was not particularly pleasant by all accounts. The bullets could come from either direction, or even both at the same time. But we missed much of that, fortunately.

‘We were about eighteen or so when what the present administration likes to refer to as “the national anti-fascist and anti-imperialist insurrection” took place. Two men and a dog and a home-made flag, plus the fraternal Russian Army – that’s what that means. The Russians came in, drove out the Germans, and looked around for the local Communists. The only trouble was, they couldn’t find any. Do you know how big the Communist Party was in Romania in 1944? Two football teams. So, the Russians stayed around for a bit, helping to build socialism – or at least party membership – until they thought it was more or less safe to go. They sort of went in 1947. Sort of.

‘Nicolai and I were at polytechnic together at that time. We were – how shall I put it? – good middle-class boys. We weren’t fascists or anything; we just weren’t from the working class. What’s more, we both wanted to be writers. You see the problem?’

I nodded. I thought how much better he had aged than Petrescu. Tiriac looked to be in his mid-forties; Petrescu could have been over sixty from his photo.

‘I suppose, when it comes down to it, it’s a question of temperament more than talent, which way a writer goes. In that sort of place, anyway. We talked about it a lot. Not when we went along to the Writers’ Union, of course; but between the two of us. I’m – well, you could say I was idealistic if you wanted to, but maybe it’s just that I’m despairing by temperament. I only thought of the difficulties; I only thought of what they wouldn’t let you write, not of what they would. I took a rather hard line on everything in those days; I believed – well, perhaps I still do – that if you can’t write exactly what you want to, then you shouldn’t write anything. Silence or exile, you could say. Well, I chose exile. I lost my language, and with it half my talent. So I still have a lot to be despairing about.

‘Nicolai, well, he was of a different temperament. No – not a collaborator at all. He was a nice man; he was my friend. He was very intelligent, I remember, and just as despairing as me, but somehow more cynical in his mind. Perhaps I don’t mean cynical – perhaps I just mean he had a sense of humour. I chose exile; he chose cunning.

‘You know what they call wedding-cake architecture?’ I nodded. I’d seen quite enough of it on my few brief trips to Eastern Europe. ‘Well, the very worst examples you can see – outside Russia, I mean – the biggest, the nastiest, the ones in the most overpowering positions in the cities, are the ones which were imposed by Stalin. Gifts of the Soviet people, they were called, to Warsaw, or wherever. Monstrosities they are. People walk past on the opposite side of the road and have a quiet spit just when they come level with them. The street-cleaners are more busy opposite these wedding-cake monstrosities than anywhere else in the whole city.

‘Nicolai one day conceived this plan to write what he called the wedding-cake novel. We’d been at a particularly foul and depressing meeting of the Writers’ Union, and went for a walk afterwards in Cismigiu park, and I remember Nicolai turning to me as we reached the edge of the lake and saying: “If that’s what they want, then that is what I shall give them.” I might have pushed him in the lake, except that I saw he was smiling at me, very broadly. And then he began to explain his idea.

‘The wedding-cake novel was also to be a sort of Trojan Horse. Leave it outside the city and let them wheel it in: that way they’ll be even more pleased. So Nicolai started working on his book. It was, of course, an epic: epically historical, epically sentimental, epically improving, epically realistic. And at the same time he began to speak at meetings of the Writers’ Union. “I have this problem, comrades ...” he would begin, and he would refer to his novel, and explain some difficulty he had come across – the problem of realistically conveying the point of view of fascist anti-patriots, for instance, or the question of handling sexual experience without offending the intrinsic good taste of the bookbuying steel-worker in Ploesti. That sort of thing. He would act troubled, and then slowly allow the clodheads and buffoons of the Union to guide him into their way of thinking, to lead him towards the light. “I have this problem, comrades ...” Every time I heard him say it, I thought: they’ll see through him this time, surely. But then irony is not a mode with which the committee were too familiar.

‘And so Nicolai continued with his book, and by suggesting all these problems he was having with it, managed to create within the Union a certain apprehension. You can imagine how it is – they don’t want anyone to rock the boat. If one writer steps out of line, it places everyone else in jeopardy. Nicolai was very good at playing on this fear, and the fact that he never brought any of his book along to read worried them a bit too. He kept saying that he needed to do another draft to correct a few final errors. “I have this problem, comrades ...”

‘He showed me bits of it, though he had to be careful, because I was getting into disfavour by now. Too despairing, they said of me. The few scraps of work I offered to publish were held to be insufficiently uplifting to the human spirit. Uplifting ... ha. As if writing were a brassière and the human spirit were a pair of bosoms.

‘Nicolai was a very good writer. The parts he let me see were wonderful. I mean, they were entirely awful as well, but they were wonderful too. They weren’t satirical – he didn’t want to do it that way. What he did was to put on a false heart and then write from the bottom of it. This false heart was intensely patriotic, sentimental and documentary. There was a lot about how little food people had, and much reference to Romanian history and the sturdiness of the national character. The history, of course, had to be vetted by the Union. “Comrades – I have another little problem ...” I can see him now.’

Tiriac gave a chuckle as he thought of his friend, a sad chuckle. I could see how easily he appeared despairing, even when he was amused.

‘And then?’

‘And then he finished it, and he called it, naturally, The Wedding Cake. He couldn’t resist the title, and he put in a long passage of facile symbolism about a wedding-cake, just to back it up. He wanted the book to be like one of Stalin’s presents to his slave nations. He wanted it to stand there, grand and half-admired at first, but always unignorable. And then gradually, just by standing there, it would begin to make people wonder about it. And the longer it stood there and the more it had been praised, the more it would end by shaming and embarrassing those who had revered it.

‘I asked him what he would do after it was published; if his plan worked. “I shall do nothing,” he said. “I shan’t write another word. That will make the joke clearer as the years go by.” “But they might try and make you,” I said to him, “they don’t let people not work, you know.” “Well, maybe I’ll be too famous by then. Besides, I shall tell them I have put all my heart and all my soul into The Wedding Cake. ‘If you want to read a second book by me,’ I shall say, ‘read the first one again.’ And then I shall sit back and try and look as distinguished as possible.”

‘I left the country in 1951, when Nicolai still had some way to go with his book; he had about thirty-five strands of narrative, and they all had to be tied off in neat granny knots. We never wrote to one another after I left, because it would have been difficult for him. Instead I wrote to ... unimportant people. My mother, a few harmless friends. As you know, I haven’t ever been back; I haven’t heard any news for almost a quarter of a century. But in one of her letters to me before she died, my mother told me that The Wedding Cake had been published with enormous success. She had not read the book – her eyesight was poor and she didn’t want to make it worse – but she wrote and told me about it. “And to think,” she said, “if you had stayed, my Marian, you might have been the success that Nicolai now is.” ’

He turned back towards me, and took another swig of wine. He seemed depressed by his story. Then he smiled.

‘Actually, if I’d known, I’d have got you to bring me a copy of The Wedding Cake,’ he said. ‘It might have been – what? – good for a laugh.’

‘I’m not sure I saw a copy.’

‘ ...? But you told me ... in the window.’

‘No, the book I saw in the window just had a woman’s name for a title. Emanuella, Maria, something like that, with a picture of a girl in a headscarf.’ I asked him the Romanian for wedding-cake; he told me. ‘Well, I don’t remember that one. But there must have been six or seven other titles by Petrescu inside, and I didn’t look at them very carefully. Perhaps it was there.’

Then we both paused, and looked at one another, and held the pause. I could imagine some of what he was thinking.

‘Well,’ he finally said. ‘There you have it. Another piece of evidence for your Romanian theory. Another single bloom. One great ironist – Petrescu.’

‘Of course,’ I replied quickly, and gave him my most agreeing smile.