Toward the end of the 1990s, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was touted by Western observers as the dawn of a new age, the end of history as some stated. The liberalization of the Iron Curtain and former soviet states would result in the “universalization of Western Liberal democracy,” as Francis Fukuyama famously put it. Then the 21st century happened: September 11th, global wars on terror, and a global financial meltdown fueled by the paroxysm of imploding liberal democracies in Europe: Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Poland. The end of history became entirely something else. In the midst of this political backdrop comes Norman Manea’s beguiling novel “The Lair.” If this novel is difficult to follow, at times incoherent, it is only because modern life in the 21st century itself is incoherent. “The Lair” traces the lives of Romanian emigres as they wrestle with their recent pasts and contend with the bankruptcy of the present age of globalization. This is a novel about alienation and disillusionment in the first decade of the 21st century.
The narrative follows the stories of professor Augustin Gora, Peter Gaspar and Ludmila Gora—Gora’s ex-wife and Gaspar’s lover. When Gaspar emigrates to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship with Lu, Gora reaches out hoping to reconnect with the enigmatic Lu. These emigres, who escaped Ceausescu’s dictatorship, watch from afar as the liberalization following Ceausescu’s death implodes into a corrupt and crony capitalism In Romania. From the end of Ceausescu’s regime up until the attacks of September 11th, Manea charts the drama of a community of exiles following the transitory period between the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s.
The central drama of the novel follows Gaspar’s reckoning with historian Cosmin Dima’s undenounced Fascism. Dima, based on Mircea Eliade, is a renowned historian beloved in Romania and the United States, and whose problematic proximity to fascism went largely ignored in his life, especially by the community of Émigré’s he helped, including Gora himself.
Urged on by Gora, one of Dima’s disciples himself, Gaspar writes a scathing review of the late Dima’s memoirs, unearthing his fascist past. When Peter receives an obscure death threat in the mail, he goes into hiding with the help of University faculty. What follows is a meditation on personal history and the condition of exile, as well as searing explorations of loss and political disillusionment.
Manea’s meditations on the Odyssean travail as the condition of exile is reminiscent of St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s exploration of exile, although in a different context. Walcott reads the experience of transitioning to the New world as a psychic experience of loss, lived as the experience of forgetting. But Walcott’s theme here is inverted: what happens when forgetting is the only context of survival? Manea’s characters are continuously inhabiting a past they cannot shake—the fear, paranoia, and distrust that characterized live under Ceausescu’s regime incorporates itself in the relations between characters. At one juncture, he describes the exile as a snail, carrying their home with them.
The characters present is the disorientating speed of New York, at times as if they are lost in a boundless sea of speed, a disorientation that works its way into the structure of the text itself; The sentences are short, nouns are elided, the fundamental structure doesn’t give much time for processing what’s happening—a maddening tactic, but of course fully intended. One gets lost just as the characters do. The narrator jumps between past and present at a dizzying speed, without ever distinguishing between one or the other.
If life under totalitarianism is a brutal nightmare, the sweeping capitalism which conquered it has a similarly inhuman mask. This is, in some ways, the central idea at the heart of the narrative. The brutality of both systems is enabled by the systematic inhumanity of the modern project itself, diminutive to any individual or human scale: “Exploitation to the point of blood. If the boss wants you’re done in two minutes’ notice. You lose your medical coverage, then your house, car, everything. So then you are careful not to lose things. You work like a slave and slavery becomes dear to you. Where I come from, when you say something about the government, you’d say ‘the motherfucking government.’ Here they say God Bless America! The mania of work. You work like an animal, to the half-hour before they take you to the cemetery,” (263).
There is no mincing words: neither Gora nor Gaspar, despite their disillusionment with the West, feel longing to return to Romania, the brutality and paranoia of Ceasesucu’s dictatorship seeping into their American lives.
But in the absence of yearning for place, impossible under their memories of Ceausescu’s Romania, Gora and Peter Gaspar find a surrogate for longing, for nostalgia, in Lu. The beating heart of the novel, whom both characters obsessively yearn for, and whose memory anchors them to the past, itself blending into the present. Her appearances throughout occurring always through the lens of the past, itself written in the present tense.
Structurally, the novel disavows linear chronology, juxtaposing the Romanian past and the beginning of the character’s drama, with the disillusionment of the present amidst the inhumanity of the American system.
The Lair refers to Gora’s library, a human sanctuary against the cold and brutal inhumanity of late stage capitalism. Following the attacks of September 11th, Gora locates the impetus for destruction within the symbols of globalization system of inhumanity: “propaganda and agitation for the unification of the world under a single banner! All will be admitted equally, the converts of the new, singularly valid religion. Let them accept that singular religion. Jesus addressed only his own place and tribe, without ambitions to convert anyone; he was candid and holy like the legendary idiot Mishkin and like Alyosha Karamazov and their brothers from other legends. Globalized modernity redeems itself from Paul,” (249). Manea’s gifts as a storyteller are prodigious, and there is almost too much to unpack within this taut work. “The Lair,” belongs in that tradition of European literature of ideas that runs from Dostoyevsky to Thomas Mann. Truly, a gift.