Dumitru Tsepeneag’s “Pigeon Post”

Reviewed by Stefanie Sobelle

Image of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s “Pigeon Post”

The term "pigeon post" refers to the use of homing pigeons to deliver messages. Perhaps the best known was the French Pigeon Post of the Franco-Prussian War in the late nineteenth century, which allowed messages to travel into Paris across Prussian lines, representing a fluidity between an otherwise rigid divide of East and West. The sometimes difficult task of crossing borders and disseminating information informs the underlying tension of Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag's novel Pigeon Post, translated by Jane Kuntz. Tsepeneag was forced into exile by Ceau┼čescu in 1975, living in France until the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the same year as the first publication of Pigeon Post. "I am a human by necessity, and a Frenchman only by chance," Tsepeneag's narrator says, quoting Montesquieu. Tsepeneag has written in both Romanian and his adopted French; Pigeon Post, composed in the latter, examines a narrator's attempt to combat writer's block by assembling a complex pastiche of letters, observations, and found words—messages that expose the alienation of a writer in exile. The writer's efforts to compose a novel in turn become the plot of the novel itself.

Communication, Tsepeneag suggests, is a collaborative process. "I couldn't write a novel unless I had domestic help," quips the narrator, "I've always dreamt of a writing workshop modeled on that of the painter's atelier of olden times: with helpers and apprentices." The narrator makes good on this dream in his composition, recruiting three friends to contribute recollections that he can cobble into his text as a way of pushing past his own lack of inspiration. But these friends (who may or may not be imaginary) are hardly docile helpers; instead, they each have their own opinion of and agenda for the project, against which the narrator must constantly reassert his own intentions. In this vein, but outside of the narrative itself, another member of this atelier is likewise created in the English version of the novel—the translator, whose role in the present edition is masterfully handled by Jane Kuntz. Kuntz has worked with Dalkey on a variety of titles, including novels by Olivier Rolin and Lydie Salvayre. Preserving the pace and nuance of Pigeon Post—chock-full of word play and literary allusions—can have been no simple task.

These various forms of collaboration are the narrator's method for alleviating the burden of writing in a foreign language in a state of exile; it quickly becomes clear that this is not simply another meta-novel about writer's block but rather a beautiful exercise in the search for self. As the narrator mines his friends' memories for anecdotes, his crisis becomes less about writing and more about identity—less about telling stories, and more about collecting and reconstituting them. At the end of Pigeon Post, the narrator discovers that he is a character in his own novel, and that a chess player, another character who has been a looming presence all along, is his author. The reader realizes that the creation of this alternate self occurred on the first page and was the mechanism that allowed Tsepeneag to begin to write at all, "disguising one's self in order to withstand the permanent slippage from within to without." This transformation is at once personal and political, imitating the very confusion of identity Tsepeneag himself has experienced.

Tsepeneag was the founder of Onirism, a literary movement stemming from Surrealism that opposed the Communist regime. Onirism "relies on making and constructing," asserts Tsepeneag in the Review of Contemporary Fiction: "The author is no longer the owner of an established meaning; he is simply a writer, the product of his own product. The text is an environment of transformation, a privileged space for metamorphoses." Tsepeneag's pen name when writing Pigeon Post was Ed Pastenague ("Ed Stingray"), and each of the friends he solicits for help has some derivation of that name—Edmund, Edgar, Edward. As the author has said in an interview, "step by step, the narrator took possession of the text." The validity of these characters—whether they are "real" or "imaginary" friends within the world of the novel—is less important than the way their shadowy existence draws attention to the narrator's use of story to make up for his fundamentally solitary life. He constructs a life for himself as the story. As for the narrator, so for the author with whom he reunites at the end of the novel: to gain a voice, he begins to write.

Stefanie Sobelle writes about contemporary fiction for Words without Borders, Bookforum, and a variety of other publications. She is a contributor at Words without Borders and teaches twentieth-century literature at Sarah Lawrence College.