This review originally appeared in 3:AM Magazine.
Romanian novelist Dumitru Tsepeneag would seem to be among those post-communist East European writers whose fiction, as if in leaving the legacy of socialist realism as far behind as possible embraces its perceived opposite, could be described as “postmodern.” Along with such other writers as Magdalena Tulli (Poland) and Georgi Gospidinov (Bulgaria). Tsepeneag, at least in those works of his that have been translated into English, foregrounds the artifice of fiction in a particularly explicit way that is reminiscent of such American metafictionists as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Gilbert Sorrentino. Books like Tulli’s Flaw and Gospidinov’s Natural Novel, and the latest of Tsepeneag’s novels to be translated, The Bulgarian Truck, are overtly self-reflexive works, stories centered on their own creation, unabashedly leaving traditional conceptions of narrative realism far behind.
These Eastern European writers also bypass realism in their relative lack of interest in the specificity of setting. Their fictions are not obviously marked “Polish” or “Bulgarian” in the details of its depicted milieu, and are only just “European” enough to be attached to a particular place at all. Gospidinov’s Natural Novel contains numerous references to American literature and culture, while much of Tsepeneag’s The Bulgarian Truck takes place through email messages, which locates the narrative in a vaguely “global” realm of mass electronic communication. Paradoxically, the postmodernist techniques in the work of these writers make them more accessible to international readers (in the U.S. postmodern fiction is frequently accused of indifference to the needs of readers), even as the texts have a deracinating effect, emptying out the local cultural characteristics that would otherwise make this fiction distinctive for readers drawn to translated fiction precisely to “experience” another culture.
The case of Tsepeneag specifically is a little more complicated, however, as his career began before postmodernism could be called a transnational phenomenon (when, in fact, it was almost exclusively a phenomenon of American fiction), and he was part of an anti-realist group, the Onirists, which was essentially an extension of late modernism. The Onirists were inspired by the Surrealists, but they rejected its Freudian content in favor of pure dreamlike imagery. Tsepeneag has said that his fiction does not imitate or mirror dreams, but creates them, using the dream as a structural principle. His best-known work of this type is no doubt Vain Art of the Fugue, originally appearing in 1973 and published in translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2007. This novel united Tsepeneag’s interest in dreams as a literary device with his interest in music, both of which as arts of “succession” provide the novel with its metaphorical, rather than narrative, formal scheme.
Vain Art of the Fugue proceeds through repetition and transformation, an initial mundane episode (a man catching a bus) repeated in slightly altered versions, akin to the way a musical fugue repeats and varies an introductory theme. The novel does thus evoke a dreamlike state (a “fugue state”), and the musical analogy gives it coherence while also serving to demonstrate that “telling a story” is not the only way to give fiction coherence—or perhaps that it is possible to tell a story without appearing to do so. One might say that the “story” in Vain Art of the Fugue is the story of the novel’s potentially infinite iterations of image and scene that the act of repetition and variation produces. It might be taken as a novel about its own creation, but not because it directly calls attention to the process of its own fabrication: rather, that process is innovative enough that readers must comprehensively reconsider their assumptions about what the “creation” of a work of fiction entails. Speaking for myself, it is also the most singular and most compelling translated novel I have read in the last decade.
After making Tsepeneag available in English for the first time with Vain Art of the Fugue, Dalkey Archive published more of his works, both among those written in French after Tsepeneag was denounced by the Romanian government and established himself as an exile in Paris (The Necessary Marriage, Pigeon Post) and those written in Romanian (Waiting, Hotel Europa). Waiting and The Necessary Marriage are from Tsepeneag’s earlier, oniric-derived period, while Pigeon Post and Hotel Europa are more straightforwardly metafictional and can be regarded as the most immediate points of departure for The Bulgarian Truck. All three of these novels feature writer protagonists who are literally composing a novel—in each case, the novel we are reading—inventing his characters and their stories as he goes, taking us along with him. The oniric dream-structure isn’t abandoned but instead is re-situated in the circumstances of the novelist “dreaming” his fiction.
The structural assumptions governing The Bulgarian Truck are immediately indicated in the novel’s subtitle, which announces it as “A Building Site Beneath the Open Sky.” Certainly an unorthodox conception of form, this trope explicitly identifies the novel as a construction, the process of which (“beneath the open sky”) will be the focus of the reader’s attention. The strategy allows Tsepeneag to spin off several subplots to accompany the picaresque “main” story of a Bulgarian truck driver (subplots involving the narrator himself), even while presenting them all as parts of the fiction under construction. Every time the reader starts to take one of the narratives as the “real” story or begins to wonder how firm the connections between the episodes related and the author’s own life might be, metafictional reminders that all of these accounts are components of the novel being assembled necessarily intrude.
The narrator transparently declares himself to be Dumitru Tsepeneag, although of course we can’t be sure if this is actually the author or, for the purposes of this novel, just another character. (Ultimately, if we are to accept that The Bulgarian Truck is a novel, we must further accept that the narrator is indeed a character.) In some instances, it seems clear enough that the novel autobiographically alludes to the circumstances of Tsepeneag’s life—e.g., exile in France, his close relationship with the Romanian poet Leonid Dimov—as well as people associated with Tsepeneag—his translators, for example. But we would certainly be misreading The Bulgarian Truck if we regarded its self-reflexive premise as the pretext for tantalizing us with the intimate detail, some potentially scandalous, of the author’s personal life. Similar to the way John Barth uses his own situation as writer and the particularities of his domestic life (suitably disguised) to anchor his own stories about storytelling, Tsepeneag invokes an autobiographical context as the most effective way to develop his vision of novel-writing as dream.
The Bulgarian Truck begins by introducing us to the narrator’s wife, Marianne, who is visiting a friend in New York City and about whom the narrator tells us: “she gets angry quickly, because she loses her temper over about anything. Of course, her temper tantrums are a pose. She’s spoiled and knows she can get her own way. You might even say I’m the one to blame for always having let her get her own way.” When finally we do begin to hear from Marianne herself—the narrator writes her to describe “the new way of composing a novel that I have in mind”—she certainly confirms this description of her, but eventually it becomes clear that Marianne is a device, the means by which the narrator begins to call his novel into being and through which he can consider and refine his “new way of composing a novel,” as she serves as the narrator’s critic—a harsh one indeed.
Your poor unfortunate reader. He’ll get the impression that he’s always reading the same text. That he’s going round in circles… . . .He’ll think that you’ve forgotten what you’ve already written and that’s why you have written it again. Or that you were in a hurry and bungled the job. The reader isn’t going to think of music. . .He bought a novel. He paid money for a book because he likes literature, not music. Understand? Why put him out? If he wants music, he’ll listen to music. . . .
As the narrator’s effort to write his novel expands to include Tsvetan, the Bulgarian truck driver, a stripper named Beatrice who is destined to cross paths with Tsvetan, and Milena, a Slovakian writer with whom the narrator begins an affair, Marianne’s role begins to fade. We are told she has gone to the hospital—possibly a recurrence of a strange chronic disease which causes her to both grow and shrink—and we hear from her no more. At one point, before Marianne’s presence is no longer required, during a phone conversation she reports running into the narrator’s translator, who reminds her of her appearance in a previous book he translated. The narrator further reminds her: “You are in Hotel Europa, I yell into the receiver. He translated that one too.” Marianne is not a character Tsepeneag has drawn from life (certainly not directly) but has recycled from a previous fiction as a foil in the current fiction, with whose assistance the narrator can reinforce his “building site beneath the open sky.”
So too are Tsvetan and Beatrice recycled from other of Tsepeneag’s works, as we are informed by the translator of The Bulgarian Truck in his preface. “Milena” is a not so cryptic allusion to Franz Kafka’s lover of the same name (although the narrator’s “letters to Milena” are delivered via the internet in emails rather than by post). That Milena is also an invented character is further signified when the narrator begins calling her “Mailena,” as if he has forgotten the name he has assigned her. However much Tsepeneag invites us to read his life into his work, he is reading (and writing) his other work into the work, in a way that is again reminiscent of Barth in his novel Letters, an epistolary novel featuring correspondence between “John Barth” and characters from his preceding books. Perhaps it could be said that Barth’s self-reflexive strategy is to “bare the device” in order to rebuild an aesthetic whole from the structural elements thus exposed, while Tsepeneag is satisfied to leave his “building site” incomplete, visible under the “open sky” for the reader’s contemplation. Still, for readers familiar with Barth’s novel, the notion of a kind of self-reflexive intertextuality cannot seem a particularly radical innovation.
Tsepeneag’s metafictional strategy is additionally focused on translation as an always-looming concern for the Eastern European writer, in a way it likely is not for writers in English or one of the more globally-dominant West European languages. Such a writer is less likely to be translated in the first place, making it probable that his work will remain obscure in an otherwise increasingly internationalized literary culture. Even if the work is translated, the unfamiliar cultural context that produced it might be puzzling to some international readers. Tsepeneag surely became even more acutely aware of this dilemma as a Romanian writer who, after being exiled from his country, began writing in French, and then, after the revolution deposing the Ceausescu regime, returned to writing in Romanian. This dilemma is perhaps most poignantly expressed in The Bulgarian Truck in the subplot devoted to the narrator’s French translator, Alain, who is dying from cancer. The narrator witnesses Alain wasting away, as if he is watching his lifeline to readers and publishers wither as well
If postmodernism has become a universally-available alternative to realism (socialist or otherwise), it is not surprising that writers from countries and cultures more removed from the centers of literary culture would find it a strategic literary technique more likely to give them access to that culture (even as a Parisian, the narrator of The Bulgarian Truck feels isolated, excluded from more widespread success). But its postmodern affinities also paradoxically lend a novel like The Bulgarian Truck a somewhat belated quality, potentially prompting the judgment from Western readers, at least, that the “new way of composing a novel” isn’t really so new. While a very good book, although also oddly conventional, it is a skillful assembly of metafictional materials that once were among the most advanced, but which have now have become rather familiar and a little worn.