Sunday, June 12, 2016

Incognito

'Incognito' is an appropriate title for a novel (at least in the English speaking world) barely anyone has heard of, let alone read! It is by the Romanian author, Petru Dumitru, who defected from Romania in the 1960s, settling first in Germany and finally in France, where he died in 2002.

I read it first at university having seen it quoted in Bishop John Robinson's 'An Exploration into God' - a sequel (if theological texts can be described this way) to his famous (or notorious) 60s tract, 'Honest to God'!

It struck me then, and remembering it now, as one of the most significant (and accomplished) novels of the last century. It tracks the life of a privileged family in pre-World War II Romania through the war and out the other side into a new Communist world.

On its surface, it is an exemplary novel of social realism that skewers the true reality of the emergent 'Socialist' society where the cynical and the manipulative have out manoeuvred the idealistic believers (think Stalin versus Trotsky - though in Trotsky's case idealism was no inoculation against an addiction to violence). Its account of party political antics, literally deadly in their seriousness, are the most compelling I have read.

But below the surface is a parallel account of a very particular person.

You follow Sebastian's, one of the family member's, trajectory from idle bourgeois to capable soldier to idealistic party member to critic to...

Saint. A very particular saint in an age without God (or where God is apparently silent). You follow Sebastian's emergence as confronted by power, his fall, imprisonment, he discovers, in his confinement, an overriding obligation of conscience - namely to love the world. It is a love that may or may not be anchored in anything beyond itself - either in God or nature - but there it is, emerging at precisely the moment when everything appears lost, degraded.  'All' you have to do is step into love and will it towards your fellow human beings. The account of this is probably one of the most accomplished descriptions of a conversion that I know (and of a 'mystical' experience).

This, of course, creates consternation in his world. First because there is no ideology involved, nothing to believe, merely a practice of love. Second because how do you identify and condemn such freedom from the party's point of view if not formulated as an 'opposition'?

As Dostoyevsky discovered, it is notoriously difficult to write about a saint but Dumtriu beautifully does so because essentially Sebastian's perspective emerges fully from his experience and makes no claim on the beliefs of the reader only their witnessing and assent or dissent.

Love or not is a simple, if challenging, choice.

Meanwhile, 'Incognito' languishes unread in English at least (though it remains in print in French) which is a deep and abiding pity.

Once I met a fellow reader and we fell into an entranced conversation that felt timeless!

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