|Andrei Codrescu's Mioritic Space|
|Written by Richard Collins|
|Wednesday, 11 October 2006 06:00|
Andrei Codrescu'S Mioritic Space
by Richard Collins
Actually, Codrescu's version differs from the original only at a few points. First, Codrescu describes the shepherds as "three brothers"; in the original, the shepherd protagonist is from Moldavia (considered the "true" Romanian heartland), while the other shepherds are from Vrancea and Transylvania. In his own telling, Codrescu would have us identify the shepherd boy with himself (a Transylvanian Jew), and the others with his Romanian countrymen (Communists) who stole his heritage and inheritance. Second, in Codrescu's version the shepherd boy is also a poet, "a dreamer, whose 'head is always in the stars.'" This allows us, again, to sympathize with the visionary who has a connection to nature against the (dialectical) materialist brothers, for whom the fair Miorita is only property, so much mutton and wool to be sheared, divided and shared; for the poet-shepherd she is the voice of nature, his confidante and chronicler. Third, Codrescu’s poet-shepherd is "married to the moon," while in earlier versions the shepherd boy marries the daughter of a King at the entrance to a mountain (or, gura de rai, literally "the mouth of heaven," but actually a beautiful natural setting, like paradise), the sun and moon acting as godparents. The significance of these variants will become clear later, but what is certain is that Codrescu is making the poem his own, through these variants, for purposes of his thesis about the poet's role in the modern world. In either case, however, there is "no attempt to resist, no counterplot, no new deviousness. Fate unfolds as foretold."
How would such a "nationalist," "escapist" and "fatalistic" tale empower an exiled Romanian writer like Codrescu to create work that displays a power that is active, even activist, both poetically and politically beyond the borders of his native country? I will argue that Blaga's mioritic space not only sustained Codrescu in physical exile but, in forming the basis of his poetic identity within a community of metaphysical exiles, allowed him to return to Romania first in spirit and, eventually, in the flesh. The narrative of escape and return is variously told and retold in his several memoirs -- The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975), In America's Shoes (1983), The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape (1990), and The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution (1991). In each of these, Codrescu returns almost obsessively to the Romania of his youth. While the first two volumes are concerned with Codrescu’s assimilation into American culture (In America’s Shoes concludes with his becoming a U.S. citizen), the latter two volumes, as indicated by their subtitles, form a set of companion volumes that might be called "Escape and Return." In these books, Codrescu more or less consciously sets out to redeem the concept of mioritic space by showing how escape (from the Inside of any limitation or border of imagination, including ideologies such as communism and capitalism) can actually facilitate a return (to an engagement with the reality of the Outside, where the threat of originality resides as a check and challenge to the ideology of the Inside). As Codrescu explains in a "note to the Romanian reader" in the Romanian translation of The Disappearance of the Outside, however, he is actually looking for a "treia cale," a tertium quid, or third path: "Aceasta carte pune fata in fata doua puncte de vedere asupra lumii, si le critica pe amindoua. Se va discerne, fara indoiala, o perspectiva ‘romaneasca’ in efortul de a gasi o ‘a treia cale,’ un act de disperare de inteles, dar si o solutie poetica" (Disparitia 206). ["This book juxtaposes two world views, and critiques both of them. What we discern is, no doubt, a ‘Romanian’ perspective in the effort to discover a ‘third path,’ an act of dispersing meaning, but also a poetic solution."]
When Codrescu left Romania at age nineteen, he by no means left his birthplace behind. Along with "the sensual pleasure of the sounds" of the Romanian language (Hole 86), Codrescu also internalized Romanian literary culture, both ancient and modern. Aside from his claim that he has not stopped telling the tale of Miorita, we may see in his chosen name of Codrescu (he was born Andrei Perlmutter) the trace of another traditional Romanian verse form, the doina, which begins by addressing the forest [codrul] in the absence of other kinship. We might say that by the time Codrescu left Romania, his poetic sensibility (if not his distinctive American voice and style) was already largely formed in part by these traditional poems, but also by the modern Romanian writers. He pays homage to those writers, exiled like himself and well-known in the West, like Eliade, Eugene Ionesco and Emil Cioran, or Tristan Tzara and Urmuz, the founder and presiding spirit of Dada, and to the Romanian surrealists Gherasim Luca and Ion Vinea. Yet in a way, more important than these were "the invisible writers" banned by the state and still virtually unknown in the West, such as Ion Barbu and Matei Caragiale, whose work disclosed to him that the "secret of modern literature, and the reason why it was forbidden, was its autonomy" (Outside 18). Codrescu’s first escape, then, was metaphysical, into the invisible underground of literature. He tells of entering the house of a Dr. M., and finding a new world of books and ideas. "The entrance was unprepossessing and humble, covered with a trellis of dying roses. But the inside!" Inside, he finds the books of "the invisible writers," but above all "the poetry and philosophy of Lucian Blaga," which made him feel "suddenly transported to another world, compared to which the shabby one we lived in was but two-dimensional bleakness [....] Here once more was a sacred realm like Mioritza's, which made no bargains with the profane" (Outside 17-18). Thus Codrescu's first escape was into Romania, into a timeless realm linking the autonomy of modern literature with the community and ecology of the ancient Miorita.
To be effective, escape -- inward or outward -- had to be not merely from an oppressive regime, but from all oppressive authority, and to autonomy and self-determination. So when Codrescu left Romania in 1966, just four years after Blaga was allowed to publish again briefly before his death, one piece of the cultural patrimony that he smuggled into America was Blaga’s notion of "mioritic space." Exile is a great preservative. Cut off from their native soil, cultural customs, rituals, myths and even dialects often develop very differently for exiles than they do for those who remain behind. This applies to art forms and philosophical notions, as well, whose glory may fade in the place of origin, but when transplanted may take on an added splendor. Certainly, for Codrescu in America, mioritic space was not subject to the ideological weather of a changing Romania. What became there a "fatalistic Weltanschauung" reflecting passivity and defeat, in America became Codrescu’s special brand of poetic activism, a poetic project without national boundaries. Perhaps the notion of mioritic space could be preserved and developed only in this way -- by a Romanian writer in exile, whom it in turn sustained.
As he refashioned his identity into that of an American poet, Codrescu cherished Blaga’s interpretation of the ancient poem, transplanting this seed into the soil of American poetry and translating the myth into his new idiom. As a political exile, Codrescu rejects the authority of government and police, but as a latter-day surrealist he also rejects the authority of history and fact, even in the events of his personal history. The "deimiurge" of Codrescu’s creative identity is Lucian Blaga, whose purpose was "the enlargement of mystery." In Blaga’s poetry Codrescu sees "constructs for the transport of seeds" (Yearning xv), and these continue to blossom in Codrescu's poetic myth-making long after his arrival in America.
Several philosophers and ethnographers have linked the "mioritic marriage" of the folk poem with the Transylvanian nunta mortului, or death-wedding. According to Gail Kligman in The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual, Poetics and Popular Culture in Transylvania (1988), "Both of these cultural texts -- the death-wedding and the Miorita -- offer a dramatic resolution to threatening circumstances [....] Temporarily disordered relations between the living and the dead, and between culture and nature, as well as between the sexes, are reordered [....] The Miorita encourages an imaginative, philosophical approach to the comprehension of paradox, notably that of sexuality and mortality united. By the conclusion of each of these symbolic expressive forms, an 'other' is incorporated into the realm of the familiar" (Kligman 245). For the immigrant leaving behind one culture for another, the importance of ritual and myth as a symbolic "resolution to threatening circumstances" should be readily apparent. For the immigrant Romanian writer, the Miorita takes on particular significance since it speaks directly to the business of storytelling.
For Codrescu, Miorita’s wandering "causes geography to spring from myth" as she tells her story to everyone along the way. In the progress of her narrative, Miorita takes the center with her to the circumference, "the moving border of a storytelling nation, a storytelling border whose story is borderless and cosmic," calling into being "a place and a people that she circumscribes with narrative." In the same way, Codrescu takes the center of his origin with him into the "storytelling nation" of metaphysical exile. In exile, however, the necessity for escape is not resolved. On the contrary, the freedom of exile becomes another sort of limiting enclosure to escape from. The only solution, for Codrescu, was to forge a kind of metaphysical passport that would allow him to return to his homeland at will, to come and go, so to speak, through the window of imagination, to the (mioritic) space of his enchained homeland, which is metaphysically exiled from itself. It is not that freedom is illusory, but that the basis of freedom is not to be found in any actual country, but in the "geography of the poetic imagination."
This brings into focus one of the curious characteristics of Codrescu's harkening back to his Romanian poetic identity. It is almost entirely devoid of nostalgia, or the Romanian dor. For the modern Greek wanderers Seferis, Elytis and Kazantzakis, the Odyssey serves a centering function similar to the Romanian's Miorita, with this difference: the locus for the Greek writer's homesickness is a geographical nostalgia. Nothing less than a physical return to the landscape will do. For the Alexandrian Cavafy, alienation is inherent in the Greek city on Egyptian soil; return is necessarily ahistorical and metaphorical. In this way, Blaga resembles Cavafy, for as Codrescu has said, "Blaga’s exile consisted in an acute yearning for the very place where he was" (Yearning xvi). But the Greek Odysseus is a hero, almost superhuman, while Miorita and her master are defenseless fatalists -- poets, in short. In the transcendental mythology of the Romanian Miorita, the poet-shepherd marries out of this world, he does not return to the nostos. He is the emigre par excellence, leaving the world without nostalgia, accepting alienation as his fate, and creating a new nostos in the margin between inside and outside. Miorita herself is confined to the border, a marginalized and mobile center, whose center is defined by the circumference, that is from the outside, or from the dual identity conferred by the line separating inside from outside.
Codrescu's memory of the tale of Miorita becomes the point of departure for the narrative of his life, the inscribed line of memory, a memory all the more deeply ingrained for his absence from the Romanian landscape. Near the end of his first autobiography, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975), Codrescu leaves New York for California on an impulse, with his wife Alice who is pregnant with their first child, and a German named Erhard. On the way, they compose a poem together, a collaborative poem that echoes Whitman, called "a song for the Average Joe":
The poem demonizes the furniture of domesticity, humanizes the ultra-American appliances, brings the Outside inside and turns the Inside out, as though Codrescu has struck a pact with his memory of Romania and the immediacy of the American landscape in the same way that the mioritic marriage strikes a pact with nature, sex and death. Here is the internalized guilt of the Old World married to the horror of the Modern, evoked in the image of the Holocaust: "the stove smells like hair" (an ironic image, since the Romanian Jew and his American wife are collaborating on a poem with a German). When the Outside is revealed to be a domestic American interior furnished with appliances of the Old World, the window of escape becomes "unbearably" attractive and beckons to him to jump; this is the interior call of memory, for "The memory of the outside is also a form of interiority: the outside resides in memory" (Outside 198). The play on words in "The sofa does nothing except / Hold a dead yew" suggests a lost identity (a dead you), or a lost heritage (a dead Jew), each associated with the storytelling sheep who preserves identity (a dead ewe), while also conjuring up a lost but remembered tradition in Romanian poetry in which the poet addresses the wood, codrul (a dead yew), in absence of other kinship. All of these rhymes, moreover, echo the name Codrescu (a dead Stiu, his first nom de plume).
Immediately after composing this poem, Alice and Andrei and Erhard cross the Sierra Nevadas into California, which Andrei notes is "as mythical [...] as New York is to the Rumanians, as mythical as Transylvania." As if to identify the myth more specifically as mioritic, they pick up a hitchhiker who takes them to a "moon feast," actually a pagan orgy for "the last virgin moon before they send their man up." Like the mioritic marriage that reconciles man and nature, sexuality and death, time and eternity, this orgy in the name of technology results in a kind of transcendence: "Time had disappeared. They were suspended. California had a feeling of [...] well, postmortem peace" (Life & Times 184-5). This spontaneous pagan ritual abolishes time, just as the death-wedding, in Kligman’s view, abolishes time through a symbolization of the symbol, which is in the telling of the story. "The old story," Codrescu writes of the Miorita, "was a time machine that abolished time," a "mythic" machine "that erased the borders between man and what created him" (Outside 5).
The next and penultimate section of Life and Times contains a revealing passage on translation. In a pyrotechnic display of free association, Codrescu defines translation as "an instinct not an interrogation." After a poetry reading for the inmates at Folsom Prison, "he knew that only one translation was possible: freedom." This instinctual freedom buries itself within in the products of invention, of creation, and of procreation, since "contrary to [the] expectations" of "the political barbed wire of his times, the revolutions, etc., [...] Alice carried inside her a fantastic translation. Codrescu had translated himself already into a version of America. His body had grown larger. His memory was a blur" (Life & Times 189). The coherence of Codrescu’s vision -- if not, indeed, his prophecy -- is extraordinary. For this passage connects his past and future in a "high moment" of autobiographical revelation. Miorita expanded the poetic geography of the Romanian imagination, Blaga sought "the enlargement of mystery," and Codrescu’s "body had grown larger," as though in sympathy with his wife’s procreative translation, who would be born Lucian Codrescu. Fifteen years after the birth of Lucian, that "fantastic translation," Codrescu fulfilled the metaphor by translating the poetry of his own literary father, Lucian Blaga.
Before leaving Bucharest, Codrescu had drunkenly orated to his fellow students how the curves of wandering could never be closed to make circles: "Listen to me, all you carnivorous, hell-bound idiots! Whoever it was who told you about curves becoming circles, lied, and the lie, er, becomes, burp, a lot more trivial when one, er, looks, burp, at Communism, this terrific, er, burp, idea, burp, moving to the beat of a great human, burp sweat puddle...." The speech sputters into incoherence and maudlin sentimentality, ending on a note of lost identity: "I had no father, burp, and no one here did...where is the gold?" (Life & Times 97). Where, in one sense, is his father who gave him the name of Goldmutter? Where, in another sense, is the alchemical transformation of the given thing, identical with itself, into the valuable stuff of created identity?
By the time they get to San Francisco, however, "Everything came in circles," including his pregnant wife Alice. He has a dream, and he is pregnant too, and "inside him there is a big empty bus driven by his father," which stops and picks up various people, "fictions he had created" (Life & Times 188). In the dream, life and literature merge. The empty bus that picks up "created" passengers is an apt figure for the various poetic personae he had created for himself in New York, and for the endless collaborations with others he had practiced, "incessantly, obsessively, losing themselves in the new human combinations they invented" as they "yielded their identities in favor of their creations" (Life & Times 178). The driver of this dream bus is his father, but which father? The father of "where is the gold?" It seems clear that the bus is a literary bus, and the driver is not his biological father, who is lost to him, but his literary father, Lucian Blaga, after whom he will name his own son. Blaga drives the magic bus, Mioritza, into new territory for Codrescu to explore, the boundaries of his Romanian-American poetic landscape.
Thus, the effect of Blaga’s mioritic space for the Romanian writer in exile is to expand the mystery. Codrescu's mioritic space rejects all nationalistic, political or ideological interpretations of it. As it is nurtured in the early picaresque autobiography Life and Times, and developed in the memoir-essay The Disappearance of the Outside, not as a philosophical idea, but as a manifesto for escape, mioritic space describes an autonomous realm of individual and communal freedom. Codrescu's view is not fatalistic in the least, perhaps because he treats Blaga’s idea not as theory but as a survival tactic. The Disappearance of the Outside might have been subtitled a Guidebook to Mioritic Space. Codrescu exchanges the passivity of the poet-shepherd for the traveling clothes of Miorita herself, the boy’s confidante and confederate. More importantly, Miorita is his creation who continues to recreate him with each telling of the tale. Just as poems are the disguise of the poet, so the sheep is the disguise of the shepherd. Thus Codrescu, "the sonofabitch from the woods" becomes a wolf in sheep's clothing, telling the story of the fatalist who allowed himself to be killed only to be immortalized in the story.
The choice between poetics and politics, visionary escape versus realistic engagement, sets up a false dichotomy. For Codrescu it is simply a matter of translating romantic self-absorption and aesthetic detachment into the political arena of the imagination, changing the world not by providing a vision for those without vision (politics, essentially), but by providing a space in which everyone is encouraged to provide his own vision. To do this, one must be willing to give up one life, one land, and to go underground, or abroad. It may be a symbolic death, like Codrescu's, or literal, like the shepherd-boy who must die for the story to be told. The shepherd becomes a poet in sheep's clothing to keep the wolves of coercion and conformity at bay. In short, poetic activism in the form of a metaphysical liberation front, a resistance movement of the imagination.
It might be argued that Codrescu's most significant creation along these lines is his long-running magazine, Exquisite Corpse, a "journal of books and ideas." Named for the surrealist method of artistic collaboration, cadavre exquis, popular with the Romanian surrealists Gherasim Luca, Gellu Naum, Virgil Teodorescu and Paul Paun, Exquisite Corpse is a combination of communal expression and personal signature. Indeed, it is a unique combination of ancient and modern Romanian influences, combining the oral tradition of the Miorita along with the printed tradition of the Dada, Surrealist, and Modernist movements. The oral tale’s power resides in the communal recognition of its value, its repetition denying the value of mere romantic self-absorption, while individual variations on the original text encourage creativity within the formal or narrative boundaries. An underground magazine, Exquisite Corpse welcomes the voices of the dispossessed, and its popularity and perpetuation depends on word-of-mouth advertisement. (Below its copyright notice, for example, is the statement: "We forbid reproduction but authorize memorization"-- appropriate for a magazine with aspirations to oral immortality.) In fact, Exquisite Corpse is more "mioritic" than surrealist in that the collaborative method of the surrealists is put to use less as an example of individual psychic automatism than as a professed "collaboration with culture." In printed form, and for Western eyes, the communal alternative culture of Exquisite Corpse converts the oral tradition of Codrescu’s native Romania into the printed currency of Western intellectual and cultural exchange, and its popularity proves that word-of-mouth still has a value that approximates that of oral culture.
The appearance of Exquisite Corpse in 1983 signaled a new forum for an alternative communal utterance. Its format, in the distinctive shape of a coffin, seemed suitable for an "underground" magazine with the name of a cadaver. On one level, this was an accession to the most popular Western myth about Romania, Dracula. "By naming our baby a 'corpse,’" writes Codrescu, "we had created something that was generically incapable of dying." But the magazine owes its shape less to the portable flowerbed of Transylvanian soil that Dracula dreamed on, than to the Romanian Modernist poet Tudor Arghezi and his "long skinny newspaper," Bilete de Papagal, "whose mixture of muckraking and high tone bohemianism had brought down two governments" (Stiffest 1).
Within this ironic format Codrescu created his own mioritic space, "a moving border of a nation, a storytelling border whose story is borderless and cosmic," each contributor calling into being "a place and a people that she circumscribes with narrative," causing "geography to spring from myth," while containing "within her space-bound body the infinity of the cosmos." In the maiden issue Codrescu declared: "We collaborate with culture" (Stiffest 3). Here, at last, was a suitably metaphysical forum where everyone’s story could be told, and so "a Corpse community came into being" (Stiffest 3). To these writers of the metaphysical diaspora, "The issues were not personal; culture was at stake" (Stiffest 1). Thus the oral and metaphysical concerns of the Romanian folk tale were successfully transplanted into the American grain and given an American texture. Each issue of the magazine is a chorus of voices from the grave by those who, like the poet-shepherd who is translated into the sheep’s tale, have been translated into a state of expressive marginality.
What Exquisite Corpse is, then, is a cultural collaboration, a communal alternative culture, an on-going anthology of metaphysical exiles, a flock of voluble mioritic sheep. In one sense, this has been the real work of Codrescu’s life, creating a community of expression in which everyone is his own Miorita, providing a space for the narrative construction of a communal alternative utterance. In a way, Codrescu’s collaborative method is a postmodern revival of the oral tradition, a hip marriage between the surrealist method and the mioritic myth with the intent of reuniting the estranged brothers of the myth within a narrative universe created in absentia by the exiled young brother, the dreamer with his head in the stars.
In America in the 1980s, Codrescu sensed a sort of metaphysical diaspora, and he was right. After the communal orgy of the Sixties came the retrenchment of the Seventies and Eighties. As he puts it in In America’s Shoes, the crack in the cosmic egg had closed up, cutting off another channel of freedom. In Pe Culmile Disperarii [On the Peaks of Despair], published in 1934, Emil Cioran had described himself as a "metaphysical exile." Codrescu describes America in the 1980s as a place of "metaphorical exiles": "Times of great freedom breed metaphorical exiles, while times of repression breed literal exiles" (Outside 47). There was now a general sense of metaphorical and metaphysical exile, and his magazine became a place where contributors could voice their cultural alienation and their longing for "inner emigration" (William Levy, in Stiffest 123), a place where one might even fashion "a weapon of acute discontinuity" (Robert Kelly, in Stiffest 236). From such a position of armed marginality, it might be possible to erode the center and thereby "short-circuit the imaginary globe," which is, as Codrescu concludes in his manifesto of escape, the poet's "job" (Outside 207).
Exiles like Codrescu, Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie know that poetry and narrative are not just aesthetic pastimes. All art -- but especially art created in exile -- is inherently political because the imagination recognizes no boundaries and allows everyone’s story to be told. The imaginative reconstruction of the world is ultimately a poetic feat beyond politics. Both politics and art have an aesthetic dimension that also engages the arena of social and political action. Neither art nor politics adequates reality, each being a competing medium for visions of what is real. Whereas politics tends to close off avenues of escape and return, however, art tends to open them. Codrescu’s escape from Romania was aesthetic and political, metaphorical as well as metaphysical, through an imagined hole in the flag. His return was simply through the actual hole that he on the outside, along with other Romanians on the inside, had imagined into being.
The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution (1990) was commissioned to take advantage of the events and aftermath of the sensational fall of Ceausescu. Codrescu was rushed to Romania and wrote the book at white heat during and immediately after the December Revolution of 1989, in which he was able to play a small part. But it is more than an "instant book," like those devoted to Patty Hearst, Saddam Hussein or O.J. Simpson, bundled to market while they were still news. Codrescu’s book is an extended, if somewhat hurried, reflection of his entire life as a Romanian in exile. As James McNeill Whistler said at the famous art libel trial of 1878, his paintings were not the product of a few hours labor, pots of paint flung at the canvas, as Ruskin had claimed, but contained "the knowledge of a lifetime."
While the book was generally well received in America, negative reactions to The Hole in the Flag in Romania come from two groups, American scholars or diplomats who fault the book for certain historical and sometimes geographical inaccuracies (since corrected in the paperback edition), and Romanian intellectuals who fault the book for a certain sentimentality in Codrescu’s perception of their country. But The Hole in the Flag does not pose as an authoritative history of the Romanian Revolution. The book was not meant as either politics or journalism. As the subtitle suggests, it is one of Codrescu’s several autobiographies, "A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution." His impressions are of a country that is only partly historical or geographical, and largely, as Codrescu confesses, a mythical creation of his own mind in exile. Codrescu is a poet, first and always, whether delivering a commentary on National Public Radio, taking us on a tour of Bathory’s castle in The Blood Countess (1995), or reporting the Romanian Revolution. He never pretends to stick to the facts, even when they are the "facts" of his life.
The title refers to the space left in the Romanian flag after the Communist Party emblem was cut out, first in protest, then in confirmation of the fall of Ceausescu, but Codrescu sees the hole in the flag with the eyes of a poet. The political gesture is translated into a poetic symbol: an emblem for his escapes and returns. Codrescu had been fond of saying that after he left Romania, he was banned from re-entering the country even through the squares in crossword puzzles, so his return through the hole in the flag has a certain symmetry: "It's through that hole, I thought, that I am returning to my birthplace" (Hole 67). The avenue of his escape was as metaphysical as his return was literal. So when the new Romanian flags began to appear of whole cloth, without the hole as a reminder, Codrescu was troubled. Twenty years after he had escaped, he was now able to return, and his countrymen were already trying to close up that symbolic space. Knowing how fleeting rebellion can be, how short-lived independence, and how fragile memory, Codrescu wondered how they would be reminded of what they had literally and figuratively gone through? Once they closed the aperture of vision, what visible symbol would there be to remind them to keep open the avenue of visionary escape, the mioritic space, which is also the aperture of reconciliation and return?
Codrescu prefaced his anthology of contemporary American poetry, American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late, with a poem by Kay Boyle that begins:
Andrei Codrescu: The Endless Autobiography
Andrei Codrescu, a “Romanian born poet,” a writer, an essayist, a social and cultural critic who left Romania in 1965 and has lived in the U.S. ever since, is a compulsive autobiographer with three written autobiographies and countless autobiographical essays and poems. His autobiographical project, which encompasses The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1978), In America’s Shoes (1983), The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution (1991), two travelogues Road Scholar (1993), and Ay Cuba, A Socio Erotic Journey (1999), and the overtly autobiographical book of philosophical essays occasioned by the fall of communism The Disappearance of the Outside (1990), together with the numerous essays related to his life scattered in his numerous essay collections, poses extremely interesting and challenging questions to the student of the genre.
The present paper focuses on the way in which his physical displacement along East-West divide, i.e. communist Eastern Europe—U.S. informs his autobiographical writings, the significance the genre of autobiography acquired for him at different moments in his life, as well as the implications of Codrescu’s work for the theory of the genre. My paper analyzes the way in which he has explored the genre’s boundless resources, played with its rules and definitions, theorized about it, and put it to various uses. It also demonstrates how Codrescu’s autobiographical project is in constant flux and transformation, how it has changed its initial inherent modernist approach to autobiography and memory to a socially and historically engaged one, via postmodernist practices. I discuss how from a playful postmodern aesthetics, which brings into discussion the constructed nature of memory, identity and history, including his own, Codrescu passes to addressing the historical, political, and bodily repercussions that the reconstruction of events can trigger and their socio-political consequences.While a search on the MLA international bibliography data base returns less then ten articles about his work, the increasing number of anthologies of both poetry and prose which include his poems or essays, Kirby Olson’s insightful study Andrei Codrescu and the Myth of America (2005) as well as his presence on the list of possible Romanian writers nominated to the Nobel prize for literature, signal the growing critical attention Codrescu’s work is likely to trigger in the near future. In spite of this apparent academic neglect, Codrescu is both a well-known and an extremely popular figure to the American public, because of NPR’s show All Things Considered and through his prolific work, which includes more than thirty volumes of poetry, essays, novels, travelogues and autobiographies. In Romania, Codrescu is also a familiar presence in the literary and cultural journals, mostly in Dilema (since 2000), and on the Romanian literary world, being granted the “Ovidius Award” (September 2006), a high literary honor which in previous years went to world famous writers such as Amos Oz or Mario Vargas Llosa.
Codrescu’s story of displacement, from communist Romania to the U.S. is to be grasped in its complexity and specificity within the socio-political moments which framed it. Although voluntary, his exile is to be read, until 1989, as a political one, with all the valences of old-style banishment. Thus his exile entailed most associations of banishment: losing citizenship, being considered an enemy of the state and severing ties with the loved ones. The historical and political changes brought about by the Revolution of 1989 recode his sense of modernist exilic identity within a transnational context of multiple returns, possible relocations and constant movement across earlier forbidden borders. Codrescu’s volumes occasioned by his several returns in the early 1990s to Romania (The Disappearance of the Outside 1990, The Hole in the Flag, 1991), as well as his now constant presence in the Romanian literary and cultural life testify for this recoding and illustrate how he transformed the former East-West divide into a Transatlantic bridge and intercultural dialogue.
A “serial” autobiographer (to quote Gilmore “Endless”), spun the story of his life in The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius, In America’s Shoes, The Hole in the Flag as well as in countless essays and interviews. In this sense he seems to be among the several contemporary writers who have taken the project of self-representation to be open-ended, “susceptible to repletion, extendible, even, perhaps, incapable of completion” (Gilmore The Limits, 196).
At first sight within the tradition of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the U.S. who wrote their autobiographies at the turn of the century (Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, Abraham Cahan), Codrescu departs significantly from them by insistently calling attention and returning to his past, without any attempt of erasure or transformation. Aligning him with contemporary Eastern Europeans autobiographers of Jewish origin like Eva Hoffman does not help much either. Although they both write before the fall of communism about their past and their experience of exile from Poland and Romania respectively, and although their common Jewish origin might be seen as bringing them together, the only common denominator that their autobiographies seem to point to is the ambivalence of the exiled writer as both insider and outsider, which is too general a feature, and which most displaced autobiographers share. While both he and Hoffman wrote and published their initial autobiographies before the fall of Communism, memoir writing, of the most varied typed and persuasions, has become after the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989 a prominent genre in Eastern and Central Europe, attracting a large readership. Such memoirs also benefited from the historical vantage point of their writing and thus combined depictions of communist and post-communist Eastern European societies. Autobiographies such as Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook (1997) written by Susan Suleiman, Hungarian Rhapsodies: Essays on Ethnicity, Identity and Culture (1997) by Richard Teleky or Chernobyl Strawberries (2005) by the British scholar Vesna Goldsworthy could be considered the most emblematic ones; their authors are all similar to Codrescu, in the sense that all of them are academics and teach in American or British academia.
Codrescu’s work, however, does not align with these authors either, or rather only the Hole in the Flag may be said to share something with the work of his Eastern European exiled contemporaries; I would argue, however, that this is so mostly because of the similarities that post-communist societies across the former Soviet bloc share and not because Codrescu, the autobiographer, belongs to this autobiographical turn of Eastern European exiles. Codrescu’s autobiographies which I argue that parallel and follow his experience of displacement, hold a unique status in the present history of the genre. Codrescu’s total awareness and understanding of the ambiguities and inherent contradictions the genre of autobiography entails, as well the valences the genre acquires in the two cultures to which he simultaneously belongs, are artfully revealed in the metacritical commentary on his own autobiographical work “Adding to My Life.” This essay introduces the critical and scholarly essays in the landmark collection Autobiography and Postmodernism (1994) edited by Leigh Gilmore. His masterful grasp and explicit awareness of the genre’s boundless possibilities but also the inherent traps in which one can find oneself caught, turn him both into an insightful practitioner and a penetrating meta-critic of autobiography.
Appropriating it, playing with its written or unwritten rules, understanding also its complicities with the market, and the luring attractions autobiography writing offers in a culture of voyeurs Codrescu writes and publishes his first autobiography at the age of twenty-three, in English, a language he did not know before arriving to the U.S. The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius is written in the third person and is addressed to his mother because “she had been [his] author until he became one himself” (23). Having already published a couple of volumes of poetry, one of them the award-winning License to Carry a Gun (1970), he is invited by his editor George Brazillier, who glimpsed between his verses various hints of stories, to write his autobiography (“Adding” 23). His “wealth of experience” (23) provided by his displacement frame both his excitement and subsequent autobiographical undertake.
"Here I was, twenty-three years old, the possessor of a wealth of experience that had spawned an equal if not greater quantity of mythicizing anecdotes. I had no ax to grind. I’d changed countries and languages at the age of nineteen, a neat break that could provide a thousand books with rudimentary structure." (23)
If the experience of exile, as both origin and pool of resources to appeal to, is a common feature numerous exiled autobiographers share, the explicitly ironic and self-subversive approach is what singles out Codrescu’s project and makes his writing an extremely enjoyable reading. However, he achieves this singularity not by simply ignoring modernist aesthetics but by reconfiguring them within a self-consciously intertextual dimension. While the view of his life as falling into patterns and resembling the perfect text reminds us of Nabokov, Codrescu’s stance is, however, only a self-parodic mimicry of the modernist autobiographical text that haunts his art as an anterior prototype:
"In addition, I had the numbers: born in 1946, became conscious with the Hungarian revolt in 1956, came in the United States in 1966. Initiatory structures in plain view, natural chapter breaks for the taking." (23)
The first volume falls into neatly differentiated periods, following vaguely the above-mentioned ones. His 1975 autobiography, organized in three books dedicated to his childhood, adolescence and immediate period after his emigration from Romania, takes the reader from very early depictions of his infancy to peregrinations in Europe and life in the U.S. As the reader is made aware from the very beginning, by the title of the book and the motto from Dali, his first autobiography abounds in irony of all possible types, incredible sense of humor, as well as surrealistic rendering of his life.
An attentive reader of Codrescu’s autobiographies, interviews and essays immediately notices that distinctions between fact and fiction are almost irrelevant as far as his real life in Romania and his departure to the U.S. are concerned. Many autobiographical details are more often than not rewritten or totally contradicted in his later books, either by inserting copies of official documents, which in themselves tell a different story, or by narrating the same event but giving other versions of it. Without attempting to sort out any hard facts from the autobiographical rendering or to point to the author’s self contradictions, I would say that his many interviews or NPR interventions offer more exact, reliable and complementary details about his early life in Romania, the conditions of his emigration and life in Europe and U.S. than his autobiographies proper.
The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius familiarizes the reader with life under totalitarian regimes in the Romania of the 1950s or 1960s. The portrait of his homeland has nothing in common with, for instance, Nabokov’s glistening portrayal of Russia, and this is not because, as with Brodsky, Codrescu’s childhood was marred by poverty, oppression, or exclusion. Codrescu does cherish his childhood under communist rule; I dare say that he even takes great delight in retrospectively going back to those times and illustrating, from the perspective of a western journalist and academic, the absurdities and paradoxes (the happy coexistence and living together of former Nazis and Jews in Sibiu, for example) which characterized his childhood. The highly ironic and keen eye he reveals in rendering the complex portrait of the period is what captivates both the Western and Romanian/Eastern European reader. Devoid of nostalgia, or curiously enough, of the typical Romanian dor, he offers no sentimental recreation or retrieval of lost times and places in the first two autobiographies, just a dry, humorous and very ironic revisiting of his country. What a Romanian reader cannot help noticing is that his recreation of Romania is just a chic prop, a mere background, for the translation of his self into America’s shoes. His native country is presented through images and details meant to catch the American eye (otherness, Balkanism, sex, etc.).
It is here that we first find out about the complex paradoxes he enjoys and embodies as far as his various identities and his nom de plume are concerned, and we become first acquainted with the implication of his Jewish identity (which for him means sex) and the implicit discrimination he was faced with. His arrival in America and the first adventures there are vividly portrayed in Book three; such animated depiction clearly bears the mark of the surrealist writers he so much admires as well as of the emblematic literary personalities of the 1960s he had the opportunity to meet. Intertextual references to iconic American poets and writers such as Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg (“how much mangoes”) abound and give the measure of Codrescu’s exquisite literary gameship within the literary tradition of his new country.
In America’s Shoes, his second autobiography, written in 1983, continues Codrescu’s autobiographical project and just like the first one, has its origin in the suggestion and invitation by an editor, this time Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to write his autobiography (“Adding” 24). The acknowledgments to the book tell a slightly different story (as we are already familiar with Codrescu) but an even more interesting one in the sense of demonstrating Codrescu’s full engagement and interest in the genre. According to the acknowledgments to In America’s Shoes, where he thanks a dozen of relatives and friends, the book was supposed to be “an autobiography from the point of view of everybody else” (copyright page AS). The project of “autobiography from the point of view of everybody else” points to the very impossibility of such an endeavor and illustrates how Codrescu actually plays with and deconstructs rules, limits or boundaries of the genre.
Written this time as a first person narrative, the book starts with the act of witnessing his being “born again” (AS 1). It thus begins in the solemn moment of Codrescu’s finally acquiring the American citizenship in 1981. The first autobiography began with his imagined life in the maternal utero, and the autobiographer does feel the need of linking the two; in this second one, we are presented a similar image: he “stood in the windowless womb of the Justice Department’s Immigration and naturalization Bureau, waiting to be born American” (AS 1) (my italics). The book starts in 1981, with the depiction of Codrescu becoming an American, and his totally ironic and mockingly subversive rendering of the event; it goes back in time to the late 1960s (slightly overlapping with the first volume from this perspective) and covers in very large strokes the period up to 1978, when his second son was born.
In America’s Shoes, written from the point of view of the naturalized immigrant who is wearing, at least for a while, as the title suggests, America’s shoes, focuses on the elapsed time since the first volume, and it concentrates mostly on his life in the U.S., or better said, life in the American 1970s. The book abounds in portraits of people and description of places. The spirit and general atmosphere of the decade is admirably rendered. Although the reader does get a glimpse of Codrescu’s odd jobs, fragments of his life and self at that times, Codrescu’s second autobiography looks more like a chronicle of the 1970s, and the decade’s vibrant and in constant flux society and cultural life. In this kaleidoscopic whirlwind of people and places, the autobiographer seems more like a minor actor who just happens to be around. The gallery of portraits, ranging from close friends, literary and cultural personalities, fellow poets, simple acquaintances or even casual neighbors is overwhelming. The titles of the chapters in Book two are relevant from this perspective, “T.P.—A Case for Sanity”, “R.S.—or Boys will be Boy”, “J.R. Williams—Hostage of the Lord.” Five out of nine chapters contain the initials of the people he talks about, and one is generically entitled “Friends I Lost to Gurus.” References to literary journals, poetry readings, title of books he avidly read or discussed, which were published at that moment, names of public personalities and artists he came across, fellow poets he associated with could make a student of the 1970s draw a very detailed genealogy of the times. We are also told about the various cults and obsessions of the era, as well as its cherished food stamps and Johnson’s Great Society social program he benefited from.He draws vivid descriptions full of insight and deep understanding; however his ironic tinge never fails to reveal the underlying layers of the places he lived in: the San Francisco neighborhoods, the small town in Central valley they got flooded in (and which echoes a somehow Walden-like atmosphere), or Baltimore with its rows of houses which “stretch perspective to infinity” (193). From this perspective, In America’s Shoes can be seen as a predecessor of his award-winning documentary travelogue, Road Scholar, written another ten years later (1993), where he crosses the continent looking for both the usual and the unusual. In America's Shoes is just an embryonic version of this later travelogue-memoir. Although his focus, as already discussed, is mostly on the U.S., his two countries are in a constant mirroring, either direct or reverse. A logic of supplementarity rather than opposition makes America and Romania come together most of the times: “The Nixon-Mitchell style of impenetrable anti-terrorist architecture resemble exactly the V. I. Stalin style of the 1950s in Eastern Europe” (1).
The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius offered the image of a very rebellious self, trying desperately to become a poet, and the “otherness” of Romania and mostly Transylvania with his hometown Sibiu as the background for the actual enacting of this wish, both in his native country but especially after the emigration to the U.S. In America’s Shoes continues to explore a rebellious self, with a keen sense of irony and penchant for spoofing and satire, but it also adds a new dimension to Codrescu’s autobiographical project, i.e. the meta-critical and meta-autobiographical commentary. This is a complex and multilayered process that he continues to spin later in The Hole and the Flag, as well as in his reflective essays on autobiography. One finds in In America’s Shoes many references to his first autobiography, as well as references to the writing of it. The reader finds out that in writing The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius he “toiled at inventing [his] life” (AS 125); also the same reader is presented with the performative act that the first volume of Codrescu’s autobiography enacts when used as a substitute for Codrescu’s ID, one night when he was stopped by the police:
"I had a copy of my book The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius. There was a larger photo of myself on the jacket. I handed it to the cop. ‘My ID’ I said, ‘two hundred and fifty pages long. All the vital data. Take your time." (AS 159)
While this episode acquired anecdotic currency, as Codrescu kept telling this story in a variety of ways on numerous occasions, interviews or essays, it also reveals obliquely, and in a humorous way, the symbolic significance that autobiography actually has for him. For Codrescu the exile, autobiography is in fact a highly performative act, one in which he comes into being as a writer (the first volume was supposedly addressed to his mother), but also one in which he enacts his translation from the Romanian self into the American one. The meta-autobiographical commentary which follows the moment when the cop takes his book and browses it sheds light on other important aspects about his autobiographical undertake:
"The book the cop was reading had been written precisely because I had never had any ID. I’d put in it everything I though might be of use to the authorities and now I had found my perfect reader. Of course, I’d fooled them all because I wasn't in that book any more than the sun was in the ocean, which is where I had last seen it go. Books are graves, containing corpses of thoughts, the discard rejecta of identity. The writer is a meticulous self-cleaning object, always scraping the grime of certainty from his perception." (AS 160) (My italics)
One notices here Codrescu, the autobiographer, at work at his best. The fragment reveals in a nutshell the author’s take on autobiography writing. First we see once again how the previous autobiographical details he offered in The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius, i.e. that he wrote and addressed the book to his mother, are contradicted and re-written. Such a new turn regarding his intended audience illustrates that his autobiography is to be read as a multiple performative act of coming into being: as a writer, as an exile (thus a translated self) and consequently an American individual. As an American, he is in need of an ID, i.e. the U.S. citizenship that he had been denied a good number of years. From this perspective, we can read Codrescu producing his own ID in the form of a book, namely his autobiography, in the tradition of the self-made American heroes, a tradition to which he indirectly, but not unaware, ironically points to. Autobiography as a performative act is evident in the above quoted fragment, also in the sense of the author performing in front of us, undoing and undermining the autobiographical enterprise as such: “I’d fooled them all because I wasn’t in that book any more than the sun was in the ocean, which is where I had last seen it go.” Such a move can be seen as a typical postmodernist technique—the author flickering in and out of a text at various ontological levels—and it illustrates the characteristic denial of authority and atomization of self-representation which characterize postmodern writings. I would say, however, that it also bears the mark of and dramatizes his displacement and exile identity as throughout the book one follows the inherent tribulations of an exile:
"I came to America in 1966 ... one of a few times in history when a poet and a foreigner could walk straight into the arms of a whole poetic generation in love with its “strangeness” and find the fulfillment of his expectations there. I pity the poor poet of Romania arriving in the xenophobic, uptight, eco-cultural smog of the 1980s." (AS 84)
As we notice Codrescu does not dwell on existential sorrow or anguish because of his exile. Neither does he predicate his identity or autobiographical endeavor on silences, gaps, erasures, and the implied inherent contradiction, as Nabokov did. He decidedly makes out of his exile condition, displaced identity, and a self caught between cultures and times, the very place to inhabit:
"My knack as a poet and as a human is to be wherever “self” is being called into doubt. Of course, self is always and everywhere called into question. But when it is truly demolished, it happens, in something called “history” and then the act is momentous." (AS 188)
Exile as a place where the self is called into doubt becomes thus the very dwelling he cherishes but also explores to its utmost potentiality. Following this line of thought, the genre of autobiography, through its indirect but implicit connection with history, and also the ideal form to explore the self in doubt, to question, to do and undo the self, becomes the place par excellence in which to reside. From this perspective, his laying bare, interrogating and problematizing in different ways the genre of autobiography is more than a symptom or effect of postmodernist writing. Exploring the potentialities of autobiography, experimenting with its form, is Codrescu’s very act of engaging with his exile, his hardly explored Jewish identity, and the new culture that he both embraces and criticizes. Taking up autobiography may be seen from this perspective as a way of engaging with his new American culture, by complying with the confessing for voyeurs’ practice and appeal. In depicting in these first two volumes, the quintessential “otherness” of communist Romania to a thirsty American audience of Dracula images, or haunted Transylvania, performs the Eastern European “exotic” (Huggan) and its consequent aware complicity with the market and his viability from this point of view. The autobiography as a performative act and a performance with and also within the genre characterize Codrescu’s project.
Codrescu’s performative acts are, however, a life-long enterprise. His making and remaking of his identity starts with his renaming and the ironies of his nom de plume, it goes through the poetic personae he acquires, reminiscent of the modernist heteronyms, and continues in the titles of his books. The very titles of his autobiographies, as well as his collections of essay or poems are emblematic: Raised by Puppets to be Killed by Research (1987), Comrade Past, Mr. Present (1991), Road Scholar (1993), Zombification (1995) or The Devil Never Sleeps (2001). They all illustrate the same penchant for doing and undoing the self, assuming new identities and roles, and undermining and playing with the project of self-representation. In the autobiography proper, he offers in a nutshell this life long enterprise:
"So, I make up people, people who blow up and remake whatever needs it. Schizo-pioneers, speaking several languages. And some of them are barefoot Jews, others are booted fascists. As for “I”, that’s only a character too." (AS 188)
In offering such an insight into the inner workshop of the autobiographer and laying bare the life-writing process, he also voices the difficulties one encounters in writing one’s autobiography:
"I felt then as I do now ... like a rag picker who’d come unexpectedly on a huge basket of neatly folded laundry the size, let's say, a skyscraper. I dropped my hooked stick through a side opening in the basket and pulled out a huge sheet. Written on it in tiny script was the story of one minute in the life of. The sheet was always attached to another by a rough knot and the harder I pulled the more sheets came out, forming a shapeless pile that eventually filled the room. Instead of folding them back up, I twisted them and built the hugest rope a prisoner ever made. I let myself down in the underworld and went to hell where my childhood was. I'd never intended to write an autobiography because I have little or no memory. Years and years of my life were missing and what I remembered was sufficient to overwhelm me. I assumed that I was a planet composed of the Continents Childhood, Escape and Sex. The weather on Childhood was Terror & Sweet Sorrow, the weather on Escape was Joy and Exuberance and the weather of Sex was Pleasure, Pain and Poetry. "(AS 125)
Undermining at every step his own endeavor becomes thus an emblematic feature for Codrescu’s autobiography. The meta-autobiographical commentary with Codrescu could thus be summarized as his way of enacting the conflicts of the exiled self. His meta-autobiographical writing enters an intertextual system of meaning, an expansive and expanding network of associations. Codrescu’s work, as well as his comments in interviews, can be read as this growing network of associations, which expands in multiple directions, and produces and reproduces his displaced identity. We notice with him an obsessive exploration of potentialities and opportunities of the exiled self.
In taking up autobiography writing, Codrescu engages the genre not only within American culture and society, but also with the Romanian one, as the The Hole in the Flag illustrates. He can thus be said to engage with the performative act of autobiography writing on both sides of the Atlantic. In so doing, he also takes a leap in time and in cultural turn, from a noticeable modernist intimation to postmodernist playfulness, to approach in his third autobiography concerns which feature prominently on the postcolonial agenda: i.e. questions of representation and representability of historical events, and complicity of narratives to power or historical moments. Such questions are more topical than ever when applied within a post-communist context, as he does in narrating the Romanian Revolution of 1989. In this sense, his “Adding to My Life” both points to this movement, and illustrates it.
The meta-critical and meta-autobiographical exploration of the genre highlighted in this reflective essay bear the traces of the modernist spirit inherited from his heroes in the pantheon of exile, which Codrescu is so imbued: autobiography as art adds to life. This spirit changes into a postmodernist aesthetic of interrogating and problematizing identity and personal memory in a typical ironical way (making the short essay a terribly entertaining reading), to reach the thorny issues of remembering and representation within a post-communist context. The essay discusses the nature of autobiographical memory and the effects one’s writing, Codrescu’s autobiography in this case, might have on his family, friends, or community at large. More precisely, he discusses the way in which his written autobiography changed the memories his mother had about his childhood. The problematic of autobiographical memory with its consequent results starts from an apparent insignificant detail: did he grow up in his grandmother’s house surrounded by chickens or pigs? In the process of writing The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius, he recalled the presence of many chickens in his grandmother’s yard. He asked his mother for confirmation about his early childhood, only to find out that she would contradict important details, i.e., there were no chickens but piglets. Codrescu the autobiographer, in an already familiar manner, “was not about to change anything so dear [to him], so [he] let it slide” (22) and talks about chickens in his autobiography, as he vividly remembered lots of chickens, not pigs. The moment his mother read his published autobiography and the question of the farm animals he lived among was raised again, his mother referred to chickens and did no longer remember any pigs. Codrescu comments:
"A strange power this, changing your mother’s memory cassette. Her memory just crumbled before the printed page—which may explain in a small way, in places where history has been falsified by the authorities, people are hard put to remember their true experiences. It’s chickens for everybody whether they like it or not." (“Adding” 22) (My italics)
In a casual and matter-of-fact way, his reflective essay offers a framework within which his third autobiography, focusing on the exile’s returns to Romania during the Revolution of 1989 and its aftermath, is to be understood. The above-quoted fragment also enacts the move from the boundary blurring between art and life on the grounds of self-representation and the postmodernist inquiry into categories, to a more socio-political anchoring of the autobiographical endeavor. This is the reading I suggest next, in analyzing The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution as Codrescu’s more socially and politically engaged autobiography as performative act.
The Hole in the Flag focuses on a crucial moment in the history of Romania, the Revolution of 1989 and its immediate aftermath. Written in the format of a journey, partly as a memoir and partly as a historical narrative of the fall of communism in Romania, this third autobiography is Codrescu’s cultural and political account of his return.
As the subtitle of the book (“A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution”) makes explicit from the outset, this homecoming is the starting point of his story—his story as an exile and his story of the Romanian revolution. He comes to revisit his country (and himself) during a crucial historical moment, and in this way he witnesses instances of Romanian history in the making, capturing the spirit of the moment with nostalgic commitment, dry irony and sense of humour. The narrative of the revolution, which we follow closely, is mixed within his memoir with personal stories of his past life in Romania.
His personal narrative is anchored this time in the historical discourse of his native country. His exile’s identity is rendered here within the national narrative of Romania and the historical instances he chose to document are vivid examples of how his identity becomes woven into the Romanian narrative history. The brief version of Transylvania’s history that he offers in the chapter dedicated to his hometown of Sibiu is one such emblematic instance:
"My home Transylvania was a disputed territory between Hungary and Romania. Originally it had been the original homeland of all Romanians, but it became part of Romania only after World War I, when another mega empire, the Austro-Hungarian, bit the dust. Later Hitler gave Transylvania to the Hungarians because they were better Nazis, and Stalin gave it back to Romanians to console them for the huge land grab of Bessarabia in Moldavia, an ancient Romanian land that became a Soviet Republic. History had been cruel to this small people situated at the ill-omened crossroads of Europe." (HF 159)
The visit to Sibiu becomes a pretext for informing the reader about the complicated past of his beloved native region, Transylvania. Codrescu writes himself into this past by his birthright to the region, “my home Transylvania,” only to distance himself at the end of the paragraph, probably to reassure the reader that this is an objective account. The Greek muse of memory, Mnemosyne, takes him back to Transylvania, the land of his grandfathers and kin, and he offers the reader in a nutshell a short, simplified, and ironic (but veracious) version of Transylvania’s history.
Codrescu writes retrospectively about voivodes or Romanian history (which has been both ironic and absurd, as in the Transylvania excerpt) and anchors his personal self in the historical discourse of the country. In so doing, he offers a personal insight about the writing and rewriting of history in Romania before 1989:
"We learned history from an old teacher who was so afraid of making a mistake he kept his eyes on his new Marxist textbook translated from the Russian and did not lift them at all … Romania according to him was mostly Slavic territory, which everybody knew was a lie. Romania, with o, was a Latin-speaking country inhabited by the descendants of Roman soldiers who married Dacian women … Assimilated Roman soldiers stayed even after the Roman Empire had withdrawn and they inhabited the land of ‘happy Dacia’ for some two thousand years of bloody history, rarely interrupted by happiness. We knew that much, but Russians in order to justify their claims to Bessarabia … began spelling Romania with u, which was a convoluted grammatical argument for the primacy of Slav claims." (HF 163)
Codrescu thus casually documents how the communist regime systematically decimated historical memory, and how history became subject to a command system run by loyalist historians and party bureaucrats. In his book, the production of history in communist Romania is revealed in a matter-of-fact tone, and the crisis of history is exposed in passing, without the pathos and revenge attitude of some contemporary Romanian historians. A similar fleeting but insightful observation about erasing the past is triggered by the debunking of Lenin’s statue. While watching an “enthusiastic crew working for three days to pull Lenin off his pedestal … but [who] was [yet] more stubborn than originally thought,” Codrescu simply remembers how during his school years “things that Communists didn’t like were always thrown into the ‘dustbin of history’”. “Everything interesting,” he writes, “and everybody fun was there: Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Leon Trotsky. Now Lenin joined them” (146). This anecdote vividly illustrates Codrescu’s point: how under communist rule the past was read from the present such that, whenever the present—the leaders, plans and lines of thinking—changed, the past also had to change. So, in communist historiography, as he sarcastically notes, politically uncomfortable subjects or personalities became taboo; they “went to the dustbin of history,” leaving huge gaps in the historical narrative.
In his autobiographical narrative, Codrescu both directly and indirectly tells us that in communist Romania official history became suspect, as ‘official reality’ became unreal. In such circumstances, the narrator seems to imply that personal memory becomes more reliable than the official narrative, which is so often contradicted by experience: “Romania according to him was mostly Slavic territory, which everybody knew was a lie.”
By thinking he had been “placed at the very stage of history” (HF 89), Codrescu shares with other exile autobiographers the inevitable sense that he is a witness to history, and we notice his impulse to testify and show the rest of the world what was happening to him and his homeland during those days of December. He records and documents the revolution with a keen sense of detail, only to question later the facts that turned out to be fabrications (HF 92) and admit that the incisive reporting of the Western journalists, just as much as his own, turned out to be “manipulations by master manipulators” (85): “The so called facts changed as often as the … spokesmen who held press conferences everyday in the hotel and whose chief qualification seemed to be a good knowledge of English” (92-3).
His critique is a subtle and gradual one, embryonic, which would grow much more in his later work. Its implications and ramifications are rendered in many ways. With the keen eye of an experienced journalist and subtle irony, Codrescu wittingly and knowingly plays upon the idea of story in the case of the Romanian revolution, both in the book’s subtitle and in the book itself. He constantly emphasizes the idea of story/stories (and not history). Even when perceiving contemporary Romanian reality, he does not give up a certain feeling that the realities described are part of a tale:
"I heard for the first time the story of what happened, from participants. Or at least from natives. As I was going to discover in the next few days, everyone had been a participant […] The Revolution, I soon found, was a collective story belonging to every single Romanian. Whatever was added to it, from whatever source, was immediately incorporated in the larger tale [...] The tale of Timi?oara was spoken at once by several voices—even the children had many details to add—and there was barely any chronology. "(HF 70)
By pointing to the interplay between personal/collective or shared memory and the importance such memories had in creating history and stories, Codrescu subtly starts first his questioning and then his critique of the stories of revolution. Thus, he once again lays bare the mechanism of history-making, but this time with reference to the revolution proper. We notice how he illustrates the transformation of shared memories into personal memories:
"The story was already familiar to me … Bits of their story came out word for word from TV and newspapers and had already become part of whatever they had seen with their own eyes. It was hard to tell what was theirs, the stories were so intimately interwoven. They had already forgotten that they’d read certain things." (74)
"... the young man from Arad, no more than sixteen years old. He, too, had tales of the revolution." (75)Codrescu spins the narrative thread of the revolution, relives and records those moments, but at the same time his “story of revolution” becomes a critique of all such stories.
In the conundrums of Romania’s recent past, where the state falsified history and manipulated collective memory and where distortion and forged forgetting were daily practice, the relevance of such autobiographical writing lends itself to multiple interpretations and significances. From this perspective, his autobiographical writing comes to fill in the gaps in the historical narrative, supplements (in the Derridean sense, too) the official one and thus subverts it. Codrescu’s autobiography is particularly significant because of the alternative it offers to the official state version of the past. The Hole in the Flag, as autobiographical writing, has a key role in the attempt to bring the past under (Derridean) erasure (a past, as Codrescu documents, which is neither fully there nor fully absent from people’s memories), or the suppressed past, caused by forced forgetting, back to the surface. Codrescu’s book both documents and enacts this move and reaches a crossroads of times and mentalities by focusing on the year 1989, which brought the triumph of “memory as resistance” (Kundera 3) and the resuscitation of banned works, taboo issues, and blacklisted individuals.
As far as the account of the Revolution proper, Codrescu’s account of Romania’s revolution becomes an “individual version of history,” (Stone The American) , channel to history” or simply a “story”; this is highly ironical, given the many “stories” the revolution had, and Codrescu’s witty choice for a book subtitle: he plays upon the idea of “story,” associating it with “tale,” “fabrication,” “artifice,” “staged play,” “script,” or “manipulation.” Codrescu’s “story,” a story among the multiple entangled and intricate stories about December 1989 of which he is trying to make sense, becomes in the act of translation across the ocean, history—history of the revolution, as the American reviews considered it, and as the Library of Congress catalogued it.
I would suggest that The Hole in the Flag echoes, in its generic status, the ambiguities and paradoxes of the historical event it depicts, and is an emergent new form of literature and culture about December 1989 in Romania.
The Epilogue to the 2001 edition of Codrescu’s first two memoirs in a single volume under the title The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius in America’s Shoes, is an autobiographical mise-en-scene focused on the always complicated position of the autobiographer as subject and object of the book. In “And What Happened Afterwards,” the four-page-long essay that closes the book, Codrescu enacts and dramatizes an autobiographer’s inner tribulations and turmoil. He stages them in his already familiar entertaining and humorous way:
"Huh? Who was that guy? What was he trying to do? Shock and dismay and beg everyone to love him? Why did he think he was so interesting? We are embarrassed. We are fifty-some-odd years old … we find these memoir embarrassing in the extreme." (“And What” 352)
The mature writer revisits his autobiographies and briefly comments upon them and the significance of their dedications. He pokes fun at them, “[the memoirs] are cries for attention,” and refers to the younger memoirist in a funny, derisive way: “if retroactive Prozac were available, we’d fly back and put him on.” He vacillates between a highly postmodernist stance, “The reality of a life is refractory to language” (352), playful and all subversive, and a modernist one, that prevents him from writing “alternating” chapters or “whole other memoirs” and makes him safeguard the “young man who wrote these books” (356). Oscillating between those two allegiances, he also acknowledges the ever present autobiographical detail and on-going process of revealing it throughout his work:
"… the reader may be familiar with Codrescu’s books in which, scattered postmodernly, are all the autobiographical details of those years. There seemed to hardly be a need to write any more memoirs, after I became truly busy and was afforded the opportunity to pay luxurious attention to details of life that might have otherwise ended up squished into another breathless narrative." (355) (My italics)
One notices how Codrescu’s “serial” autobiography “raises the specter of endless autobiography” (Gilmore “Endless” 211), one that exceeds, in his case, the confines of both genres and media. He questions the limit of any single text’s self-sufficiency and reveals the autobiographical in countless texts, numerous genres and various media. In so doing, the details of his life which did not end up “squished into another breathless narrative” offer, to an avid Codrescu’s reader, a deterritorialized and avant-la-lettre blog-like commentary, insight and analysis. Pieced out throughout his poetry, novels, essays, NPR commentaries, ABC productions or magazine columns, the autobiographical detail acquires with him a hard currency that he puts to new purposes and delightful ends.
Codrescu’s story of displacement represents the shift from the modernist understanding of exile to the transnational condition and constant movement that the end of the 20th century enabled. His autobiographical project enacts the passage from autobiography writing as personal translation into a foreign language and possible compliance with the American tradition of writing the self (in The Life and Times, or what he calls his “genesis myth” and In America’s Shoes, Codrescu’s “elaborate identity card”) to a more historically and politically anchored form of life-writing (The Hole in the Flag). Moreover, it gives birth to an ever emerging autobiographical representation which builds up an over expanding intertextual system of meaning.
Atlas, James. “Confessing for Voyeurs: The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now.” New York Times Magazine. May 12, 1996, 25-27.
Beck, Hamilton, ed. An Anthology of American Literature and Culture. Chi?in?u: Editura Cartier, 1999.
Codrescu, Andrei. “Adding to My Life.” Autobiography and Postmodernism. Eds. Leigh Gilmore, Kathleen Ashley, and Gerald Peters. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. 21-33.
———. “And What Happened Afterwards.” An Involuntary Genius in America’s Shoes (and what Happened Afterwards). Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 2001. 352-356
———. The Disappearance of the Outside. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990.
———. The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution. New York: Morrow, 1991.
———. In America’s Shoes. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1983.
———. The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius. New York: George Braziller, 1975.
———. “My Revolution without Me. How One Romanian’s didn’t Become Another Hollywood Movie.” American Film (September 1991, 16, 9): 64.
———. The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
———. “Return to Romania: Notes of a Prodigal Son.” The Washington Quarterly 21:1 (1998): 3-20.
———. Zombification: Stories from the NPR. New York: Picador, 1994.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore& London: John Hopkins University Press 1976.
Esbenshade, Richard S. “Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe.” Representations (Winter 1995): 72-96.
Gilmore, Leigh. “Endless Autobiography? Jamaica Kincaid and Serial Autobiography.” Postcolonialism and Autobiography. Eds. Alfred Hornung and Ernspeter Ruhe 1998. 211-231.
———. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma, Testimony, Theory. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York, Penguin Books, 1981.
Stone, Albert, ed. The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
Tism?neanu, Vladimir. “Book Review.” Orbis. Fall 1991, 623.
Watson, Rubie S., ed. Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 1994.
Among Codrescu’s most relevant essay collections in this sense see The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays (1993), Zombification: Stories from the NPR (1994), The Devil Never Sleeps (2000), New Orleans, Mon Amour (2006).
 An Anthology of American Literature and Culture, ed. by Hamilton Beck (1999), Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration, ed. by Louis Mendoza and S. Shakar (2003).
 The list of Codrescu’s works translated into Romanian illustrates the typical trajectory that contemporary exile writers followed in post 1989 Romania. It is the movement away from small editions published by enthusiastic editors with extremely small, hardly competitive and almost anonymous publishing houses (with very limited and poor distribution) in the early 1990s to well established, powerful and representative publishing houses in 2006.
 In this sense, he joins writers like Maya Angelou, Lilian Hellman, Mary McCarthy or Richard Rodriguez and their multivolume autobiographies. Codrescu also shares the rhizomatic and open-ended autobiographical project that Vladimir Nabokov enacted mostly in his fiction, and also the more overt project of “serial” autobiographies that Jamaica Kincaid stands for.
 The memoirs of this more recent period of Eastern European history are particularly important because these texts published abroad—mainly in English, German, and French—in most cases have a structure combining explicitly or implicitly, personal experiences with cultural descriptions and explanations, obviously in response to the problem of the otherness of Eastern Europeans in Western cultures and languages.
See James Atlas, “Confessing for Voyeurs: The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,” New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, 25-27.
 “And if in our age of quasi dwarfs the colossal scandal of being a genius permits us not to be stoned like dogs or to starve to death, it will only be by the Grace of God” (Salvador Dali).
 His autobiographies often contradict each other, and not only in fact. Memories are blurred, images overlap, revelations are transposed. Richard Collins suggests that: “Creating masks to evade an authoritarian regime became [with Codrescu] a habit, helpful in evading all regimes. It was a simple step to the proliferation of poetic personae. Authorities (critics) are notoriously literal-minded. His security was assured by their taking his self-creating myths (armor) at face value” (100, note 19).
 For example, if in the first autobiography he refers to him having left alone Romania, the second one makes clear what he also stated in later interviews, i.e. that he left together with his mother, as he inserts the copy of the INS documents about his case; see In America’s Shoes, 17-21.
 Richard Collins in “Andrei Codrescu’s Mioritic Space” (1998) discusses the Romanian folk poem Miori?a with reference to Codrescu’s work and characterizes his recreation of the past devoid of the Romanian dor (longing).
 In a latter meta-critical essay, “Adding to My Life,” he refers to this as a monstrous idea he went with and writes that: “My third autobiography, covering the ritualistic interval of another ten years, was not going to be written in the first, second or third person, singular or plural” but it was going to be his self and life, as described by his friends. He got to the point of collecting and collating them into single narrative of three hundred pages but then gave up the idea, which “bored” him (29-30).
 It invites comparison with the impossible project Kincaid does undertake in The Autobiography of My Mother (besides her project of open-ended or serial autobiography).
 See Codrescu’s “My Revolution without Me. How One Romanian’s didn’t Become Another Hollywood Movie” (1991), “Adding to My Life” (1994), “Return to Romania: Notes of a Prodigal Son” (1998), and “And What Happened Afterwards,” (2001) 352-366, are the most relevant ones.
 See for instance Road Scholar “Over and over I’ve had to prove my existence to petty clerks and policemen for whom there was only one valid form of ID [driving license he did not have as he did not drive]. Driven to despair, I wrote my first autobiography, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius … for the sole reason of having my picture on the cover. Whenever the banker asked to see ‘some identification,’ I pulled the book … and pointed to the cover” (3).
 Codrescu does refer to himself in Raised by Puppets as a former “Romanian who translated himself into an American”; he does the same in his first autobiography, but in the third person narrative “He had translated himself into American” (154).
 Codrescu documents his renaming and the ironies of his nom de plume both in his autobiographies and in numerous articles and interviews. From the Jewish Permutter, he changed his name to Steiu (identical in meaning to the Jewish Stein), and then once again to the very Romanian one Codrescu, paradoxically enough recalling the Romanian fascist leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu.
 The title refers to the space left in the Romanian flag after the Communist Party emblem was cut out, first in protest and then in confirmation of Ceau?escu’s fall.
 For an excellent analysis of how the past was used and abused under communist regimes, see Rubie S. Watson ed. Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism (1994).
 By collective or shared memories, I mean here memories that are not dependent on the direct experience of the events.
 More interestingly, his questions and queries just alluded to in the book itself—“If I had known then, what I know now, I would have asked my television friends tougher questions” (HF 105) about “[the] amalgam of images [that] was being cooked for the nation’’ (HF 107)—continue in his later work. In Zombification: Stories from NPR, Codrescu considers The Hole in the Flag a “troubled and sad chronicle” of a moment when his “private life merged for a short time with the public drama” (1). In another collection, The Muse is Half Dressed in New Orleans and Other Essays, he acknowledges that “I am glad I wrote the book when I did … because if I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t have written it” (89), while in “How my Secret Twin Saved Me”, an essay from the same book, he discusses his refusal to turn the book into a Hollywood movie, revealing once again his view about the “Revolution” of 1989: “[A] revolution between quotation marks” (205). He disappointingly declares: “I declined [Hollywood offers to turn the book into a script] because […] this Romanian business had ambiguities that called for an immensely complicated and perverse vision […] I prayed for the gods of history (nasty creatures incidentally) to spare Romania from the fate, of let’s say, India, as seen in Gandhi” (Muse 106).
 Richard S. Esbenshade (“Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe,” 1995) discusses the relevance of autobiography and biography in creating a “national identity” in post-war East-Central Europe.
 See Vladimir Tism?neanu and Richard Collins.
 See “Adding to My Life,” 25.
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