In Norman Manea’s introduction to the first English translation of his first book, Captives, the acclaimed Romanian writer gives the reader some vital context: the novel, written and published in the Socialist Republic of Romania in 1970, was created in rebellion, as a challenge to the propaganda-art championed by the Party at the time. The book’s characters, decided Manea, wouldn’t heroically embody the values of the age; they’d be “vulnerable, weak, and defeated.” The narrative wouldn’t advance toward some ideal of social progress; it’d be “spiraling,” minimalist,” and “larval.” The book’s form and content would be deliberately unstable and obtuse.
If you’re brave enough to attempt to read this novel, this is all very important to keep in mind.
Navigating the narrative threads of Captives is a bit like trying to make it through a hedge-maze while blindfolded, drunk, and asleep. Single events are rendered multiple times in completely contradictory ways. The speaker of certain passages, or even the nature of what it is you’re actually reading—direct narration? fuzzy recollection? forged correspondence?—is unclear more often than not. At least one character may or may not be a fictional construct created by another. It’s that kind of book.
So what, exactly, is the novel about? This much can be gathered: it centers on three characters, each of whom is experiencing stasis and disillusionment in the present while his or her thoughts circle into the past. One of these characters, Monica Smântănescu, is an elementary-school piano teacher, who in her loneliness and listlessness gets involved in abusive relationships. Another, Dona, struggles to live with the memory of her father, Captain Bogdan Zubcu, a World War II general who committed suicide after being accused of war crimes. The third is an engineer (in her afterward, Jean Harris, the book’s translator, seems comfortable calling him the novel’s “narrator,” so I’ll just follow suit), who is losing his sanity after a life attempting to assimilate in an un-free society. I wish I could simply say that the book’s three sections (titled “She,” “You,” and “I”) are narrated in the third, second, and first person, respectively, and that they focus on the teacher, the daughter, and the engineer, respectively, but the novel constantly diverges from its own ostensible structure—violates its own rules.
It’s the narrator who carries the book’s core thematic weight, though this doesn’t start becoming apparent until the final sections. In fact, one of the remarkable things about Captives is how few of its main topical concerns actually get directly acknowledged. The novel’s setting (post–World War II Romania), Stalin, and even socialism itself are rarely, if ever, mentioned by name. Part of this may have been a tactic to sneak controversial content by the censors, but it also forces the reader to adopt the characters’ detached, aimless subjectivity. In the third section, the narrator takes the reader through a sweeping flashback of his childhood. From a young age, he shows an interest in the political world, and gets involved with the Party’s youth groups, eager to make a name for himself among his classmates. Slowly but surely, he starts feeling pressure to expose some of his peers as having dissident opinions, particularly a good friend, Sebastian Caba (who we know will later work as his superior in an engineering firm). The shame of contorting himself to serve his party takes a psychological toll on him, and induces violent, confused thoughts: “I’d grant the coward one last chance before cutting off his head, and tomorrow I’d crow and cackle over his corpse, like a coward.” In a more conventional novel, this plot line would lead to a dramatic confrontation or an epiphany; in Captives, it just kind of stews. But it also finally exposes the book’s ultimate concern: the ways the oppressive political system confuses and weighs on the characters' interior lives.
The book’s real hero, however, is Jean Harris, its translator. I don’t read Romanian, but I imagine that many of the book’s linguistic tricks would appear impossible to render in English. There are many long stretches, for example, where actions are described with barely any reference to a subject or agent. Creating this effect in English requires a mind-warping mixture of sentence fragments, high abstraction, and clever usages of the passive voice, and Harris pulls it off. Here is how a character (the narrator, it turns out) is described climbing up a staircase:
The high iron gate strikes its latch; the narrow, serpentine, spiral staircase devours itself. Hand on the cold metal balustrade, the climber coils within himself. One flight up. Again, the steps rotate uniformly again in the shape of a fan: a point flowing at an even rate along the radius of a circle. Rotating evenly, slowly around the circumference, dizzied by the curved trajectories, the climber’s body turns in on itself toward a painfully closed center.
The novel’s unique, lyrical prose is always engaging, even as it verges into borderline nonsense (“The machines for beating time throb in the back of the neck, but tomorrow is a holiday, Saturday.”) Nearly every page contains idiosyncratic and surprising turns of phrase; the cacophonous arrival of children on a school day is described as “the assault of the little cannibals”; an office worker mindlessly going through his life is said to live “as though skipping a rope made of days.” Autumn leaves fly beside the narrator “like the dead feathers of yesterday’s birds.”
Literature that sets out to make moral or political statements can have the same trouble that hard science-fiction does: its characters can feel like little more than vehicles for getting at some bigger, philosophical idea. But despite its overtly moral/political agenda, Captives never falls into this trap, and that’s due to its focus on the moment-to-moment emotional lives of its characters. In Dona’s section, as she moves through the banalities of her quotidian life—“The agony of endless weeks: liquefied gestures, milky mornings, dispensing with objects, people”—nearly everything she encounters triggers memories of the personal tragedy in her past, and forces her to ruminate on how her trauma has fractured her life. It contains some of the book’s most moving passages, and proves Manea’s talents aren’t merely cerebral.
Manea’s implicit suggestion in Captives—the book’s thesis statement, if it has one—is that the constant fear, paranoia, confusion, mendacity, etc. of living in a totalitarian regime is so all-encompassing that it strips its inhabitants of consistent subjectivity itself; its characters can’t even have coherent experiences, let alone process and come to terms with their lives. It’s a book that could only have emerged out of the totalitarian society that is its subject. It’s hard to imagine that many readers will manage to work all the way through it; it may be more honest and ingenious than it is readable. Take it or leave it, this is—no kidding—the literature of oppression.