Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Reviewed by Sakura Gooneratne
I’ve been beaten and the world doesn’t stand still for such things.
Published in 1934 when he was only 27, Mihail Sebastian’s novel, For Two Thousand Years, reads like a diary providing a sharp, introspective snapshot of life as a Romanian Jew in the interwar years.
Sebastian’s unnamed protagonist is a university student at the beginning of the novel; intellectual, serious and trying very hard not to fit into what he sees as the role of a Jewish martyr. He would rather be an observer, avoiding fights and going to lectures quietly. He doesn’t want to set a heroic example. And yet he cannot escape his fellow students, especially Marcel Winder who has had the most number of beatings, the fiery Marxist S.T. Haim and the calm Zionist Winkler, who question their right to live and learn as anti-Semitism sweeps across Bucharest in 1923.
Five years on, having switched from law to architecture on the advice of Ghiţă Blidaru, the celebrated economics professor, our serious young man is working for a wealthy American industrialist in a small town far from Bucharest. He is working with his colleague Marin Drontu under the supervision of the Master, Mircea Vieru, an intense contrarian and Blidaru’s rival. Some of his colleagues were once the very students who dished out beatings to him and his friends.
I’m not sorry about what happened. I’m sorry about how it ended: in indifference, in forgetting … Smashing windows is fine. Any act of violence is good. ‘Down with the Yids’ is idiotic agreed. But what does it matter? The point is to shake the country up a bit. Begin with the Jews – if there’s no other way. But finish higher up, with a general conflagration with an all-consuming earthquake. That was our ambition back then, our real aspiration.
What is shocking about these scenes is how matter of fact it all is, how casual the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in many European cities. All of that is said unabashedly and taken without offense. Some even lament the loss of the fiery exchanges during their student life. Others are still awaiting the revolution that failed to materialise.
In the later chapters, our young man is now posted to Paris, a bubble far removed politically from the rest of Europe. There he frequents La Coupole, and once again he encounters and rejects the casual anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of daily life. He is reacquainted with some of his university friends, friends who are still carrying the fire burning in their hearts, still talking of revolution, still planning on emigrating. When S.T. Haim is arrested for being a Communist, it brings to sharp relief the dangers of ideology, the lengths people will go to for what they believe. How abstract thought can lead to incarceration.
When he returns to Romania as economic depression kicks in and anti-Semitism flares up again, he suddenly attains an awareness that has been long absent.
At the corner, towards Boulevard Elisabeta, was a group of boys selling newspapers. ‘Mysteries of Cahul! Death to the Yids!’
I have no idea why I stopped. I usually walk calmly by, because it’s an old almost familiar cry. This time I stopped in surprise, as if I had for the first time understood what these words actually meant. It’s strange. These people are talking about death, and about mine specifically. And I walk casually by them, thinking of other things, only half-hearing.
All the way through this novel, he tries to understand and, in some instances, make excuses for his anti-Semitic experiences and rarely feels any hatred or bitterness towards his antagonists. This is puzzling considering how rigorously he questions everything, especially his identity and place in society. One of the best things about Sebastian’s narrative style is that he writes in the way you would think, asking question after question. He is unafraid to ask those questions you cannot ask others. His protagonist reveals everything, including his flaws, his cowardice, his shame, things many of us can identify with.
But when his closest friends and colleagues begin to voice what has long remained shut in their breasts, it is then that he, and we, are struck for the first time with the vehemence anti-Semitism entails and what this means.
On his first and last argument with his closest friend Marin Drontu, he says,
I went pale. There was nothing I could do; everything between the two of us – memories, friendship, our professional relationship – turned to nothing. I had a powerful sense that the man standing before me had become a total stranger. He had become so distant, so foreign and inaccessible, that responding to him would have seemed as mad to me as conversing with a block of stone.
And when he finally engages in dialogue with the Master upon the completion of his first house for Blidaru, they come to the realisation that debate is futile. Anti-Semitism will use whatever platform is relevant at the time. In the 1300s it was religion, in the 1930s, economics. He cannot quite cut off ties with his friends, this is something he has been cultivating all his life, and yet he, and we, are left with an overwhelming sadness that these beliefs can never be overcome. To show how casually educated people were talking about needing a final solution once and for all is frightening now that we know where it led.
Beautifully translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, For Two Thousand Years is exquisite, at times deeply melancholic but brimming with the absurdity of life and of those that people it. It is an intense meditation on Jewish and Romanian identity, on what makes you a part of a country and its heritage. But somehow Sebastian manages to scatter his work with light comic touches that lifts the heavy mood and there are moments far from politics and philosophy when love and girls are discussed and you recall the protagonist’s youth.
I’ve received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.
Sebastian succeeds in pulling together an engaging account of a young man’s journey towards self-realisation, all the while documenting the daily incongruities, both funny and touching, of the political spectrum in early 20th century Europe but never letting us forget the violence and fear experienced by the Jewish people just brimming under the surface. That he manages to create a novel that is both very personal yet also a reflection on the national identity and treatment of the Jewish people is truly astounding. Published for the first time in English, For Two Thousand Years is a touching and important novel that deftly chronicles one of the darkest passages in European history.
Sakura blogs at Chasing Bawa
Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years (London, 2016). 978-0241189610, 240pp., paperback.
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