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polirom

Ioan T. Morar


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Novel, Fiction LTD series, Polirom, 2016, 480 pages

Copyright: Polirom

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In 1980s Romania, the members of a choral group specialising in church hymns seek to throw off the yoke of unsatisfying religious denominations in an attempt to discover true faith. Originally Baptists, they join the Pentecostal and then the Adventist church, and finally they convert to Judaism. They manage to emigrate to Israel, where each gets by as best he can. But not even here do Jac, Corneliu and Beni, the group’s three leaders and last remaining members, find spiritual peace : Beni embraces a messianic doctrine, becoming a rabbi, while Jac and Corneliu return to Romania in the 1990s, where they lay the foundations of a Judaeo Christian cult, “The Feast of Tents,” convinced of one thing after long years of wandering : “It doesn’t matter whether we wander or not. God will find us wherever we seek Him.”



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Excerpt from

This lengthy confession has been set down for a single person, who will never read it. Because he is dead.
Not one serpent nurtured in the bosom, as the Scriptures say, but two. Fear and pride. Trying to look back and understand, I can’t even say clearly what drove me to collaborate with the Securitate : fear or pride ? The fear that somebody else might denounce me or the feeling that I was the best and that I ought to head the church music group or, at least informally, the group of young people around Jac ? Whom, at least in the final years, after I arrived in Israel, I came to admire. But that did not prevent me, in the beginning, from dreaming of taking his place, of weakening his position as the Teacher. (It was I who gave Jac that name, I slipped it into a conversation, I said that having a background in Pedagogy, he was clearly fated to be our teacher. Beni picked up on it and proposed it as if he had come up with it. That happened a number of times : he would pick up on an idea, especially if it came from me, and immediately poach it, without any sense of doing something wrong, of doing something inappropriate. This often made my task of influencing the Group easier, since ideas circulated there in a self effacing kind of way, without bearing the signature of an author.)

 

At the time I believe that there existed two eternal entities : God and Communism. I collaborated with both—I divided my life between faith in the Church and denunciations to the Securitate. I would have liked eventually to rid myself of the second of the two. But I couldn’t.
I was naïve enough to think that I would be able to write a couple of informer’s reports at the most, to have a dig at a couple of people, without their knowledge, and that after that I would be able to shake the “comrades’” hands, bow out, and go about my own business. That I would be able to see what it was like, and that that would be that. No, I wasn’t able to turn back, neither here, nor later, after I arrived in Israel. Although over there it was already different, more complicated. I can’t say for sure what it was that pushed me to do it, but I do know that it was from fear and pride that I didn’t turn back. The two serpents nurtured in my bosom.
Apart from those two weaknesses that turned me into a snitch (what a horrible word), there was also the inexplicable feeling of power that snitching gave me in those times. The power I had over others without their knowing it. The hidden power that I preserved as my most terrible secret. It really was my most terrible secret. I felt powerful because I was able to say whatever I liked about them, about the group of which I was a member, even about my own family, and what I said would be used against them.


That feeling was compounded by my complete freedom of opinion. I could say what I liked ; in conversation I was free to bring up whatever entered my head. Snitching is easier if it is backed up by provocation. My freedom of opinion took shelter, in the event that the “comrades” should ask me about it, under the mission to provoke the others. It was my duty to think and speak freely in order to prevent others from doing so. “This is how we defend the country from hostile thought.”
I know that it was not the purest feeling of power, but I didn’t posses any other “human” power. No, I’m not trying to justify myself, but merely to record feelings I had for a long time and which, to make my life easier, I even cultivated. I suffered when I realised that somebody else in our group collaborated with the Securitate. And that he had a hidden, secret power over me. I strove to find out who it was, but he played a hard game, just as I think I myself played a hard game and that nobody suspected me. Although I never discovered anybody, I still don’t think that the existence of another informer was merely an impression.

 

Perhaps, given his extraordinary intuition, in which I didn’t believe for a long time, Jac will have realised that something was not quite right about me. But I think that at the most he might have suspected that I passed on information to the Baptist church I had come from, to some person on the committee who was fiercely opposed to our heresy, the heresy of the Group Jac headed. My mother was the cousin of brother Tolea, a fundamentalist and mainstay of the church’s committee, the one who demanded most loudly that we be expelled for our heretical behaviour. It is true that I couldn’t avoid seeing him when he came to visit his cousin at our house. But I didn’t tell him anything much about what we did, where we met or under which theological doctrine we had taken shelter. And he didn’t pump me for information either—it was obvious that he didn’t like having to talk to a heretic, to somebody who had been expelled from the church.

 

I was coming out of the university secretariat, where I had picked up a certificate. I was in my penultimate year of the Engineering Materials course. I had stopped to fold up the certificate and place it in the inside pocket of my jacket, so as not to lose it.
From the corner of my eye I noticed a man was looking at me insistently. To judge by his age, he wasn’t a student. Nor was he a teacher, because I knew them all—I hadn’t bunked off a single lecture, afraid that I might lose my scholarship otherwise. The elegantly dressed man grabbed me by the forearm, delicately I might say, and said : “Do you have a free moment ?”
All my warning lights immediately came on. My intuition was a step ahead of me. The stranger had not even had a chance to say anything yet, and already I was on the defensive, ready to throw him off by pretending to be stupid, to wriggle out of it no matter which direction the encounter might take. He obviously wasn’t in the black market, he didn’t have the face, and in any case, people don’t wait for you in front of the university secretariat when they want to sell you black market goods. It was clear he was setting a trap for me. I didn’t know for sure, but it couldn’t possibly be anything else.


“I’ve got a free moment, we’re living in a free country, aren’t we ?” I answered vaguely. “All my moments are free until this afternoon, when I’ve got lectures.”
“Let’s meet for a coffee in half an hour at the Flora. I’ll be waiting for you there. It’s in your interests to come. I’m paying, don’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried about the fact that I might have to pay ; I always had a reserve of fifty lei stowed in a compartment of my wallet. I was worried about the fact that the sudden and unexpected invitation to have a coffee meant the moment I had been waiting for and afraid of had finally arrived. Up until then I had been left to gambol freely, without anybody asking what I was up to, without anybody asking about my religious beliefs or my uncle who emigrated to America. Or about the group surrounding Jac, which I had joined three years previously and with which I spent my weekends in Arad and the surrounding churches. Probably that was it. Up until then I hadn’t experienced the slightest persecution. The man in front of me now, with his indecipherable gaze, was probably a messenger of the persecution.
The moment has come to drink a bitter coffee at the Flora, I told myself, trying to take heart.


The café wasn’t full. The stranger had chosen a secluded table and was reading Science and Technics as he waited for me. Or rather he was pretending to read, waiting to catch me as I entered. My fear had reported for duty, it helped me to anticipate his moves, to keep a step ahead of him. Would I have to crack jokes ? To show or conceal that I was frightened ? To throw him off by pretending to be stupid ? Sometimes stupidity saves lives.
“You’re punctual. I like punctual people. Take a seat,” he said, as I was sitting down, having anticipated his invitation to sit. He probably had a number of standard lines. Lines that I would have to defuse.
“Yes, I’m punctual and keep my word.”
“I know that,” he counterattacked. “I know a lot of things. But let me introduce myself : I’m engineer Oproiu... the name won’t be familiar to you.”
“How could it not be familiar ? I read Cinema, I watch Ecaterina Oproiu’s television programme. Are you related ?” I said, pretending to be so stupid as really to believe that all the people called Oproiu were relatives.


He wasn’t expecting that. I sensed it irritated him slightly—I wasn’t the one who was meant to be asking the questions. It was obvious : I was one up on him already.
“Are you an engineer ? We’ll be colleagues in a few months. I’ll be getting a degree in engineering. Mechanical engineering. What’s your specialist field ?”
He gave a rather annoyed cough, straightened his tie, signalled the waitress to come over, and ordered two coffees and two lemonades.
“I ordered you a lemonade, because you don’t drink alcohol, isn’t that right ?” he said attempting to regain the initiative, demonstrating that he knew all about me and my habits. “Just wine, once a month,” he went on. “With the others, on Sunday afternoon.”
“Yes, you know a few things about me. Is that why you asked me here, because of my religion ?”
Although I was trying to seem self confident, I could feel the fear raising hedgehog bristles all along my back. I was already in the trap, and there was no escape—I knew that as soon as he said I didn’t drink.


“You’re in too much of a hurry, jumping the gun, comrade student. Wait for her to bring our drinks . . .”
Our drinks came very quickly. Maybe they had been readied in advance. The coffee was almost cold. Engineer Oproiu took out a sum of money readied in advance, without counting it, and then he told the waitress to bring a stamped receipt.
“You’re claiming it on expenses ?” I asked and saw him smile for the first time. Maybe he liked the fact that I realised what was going on.
“No, it’s for my collection,” said he, trying to appear relaxed. “I like people who are observant.”
I put sugar in my coffee (although I usually drink it without) and looked more closely at the face of the man who had invited me there. From time to time his face was gloomy, but apart from that he tried to be jovial, forcing a smile. He had hidden sins—of that I was sure. Later, I prayed for his grave sins, sins which, in part, meanwhile became my own grave sins. That face of his looked familiar, I was sure I had seen it somewhere before, but I didn’t wrack my brains to remember, because I had to focus on the conversation, to keep one step ahead of him, not to let him gain the upper hand.


He told me that he knew a lot of things about me. He even knew things that few people knew, the rehearsals with Jac in particular. Somebody had informed on me. He knew that I had chosen the profession of railway engineer because “it was in demand abroad.” That’s what I had said about three years ago, when I joined the Group, but I had also said it in other church circles. I was clear : I was getting ready to go abroad, I wanted to leave, to flee, to betray my country.
“You know, there’s a punishment for betraying your country.”


But if I betrayed the country’s enemies, then I was a patriot. Aha, the proposal was coming. He also knew that my uncle had sent me a hundred dollars and that I’d spent it on cigarettes from the Astoria Shop, from Ionica Soaita. Cigarettes which “the black market racketeers of the said Horse” (the moniker by which I knew Radu Bisorca) had sold me in return for a commission. That, he explained, was known as trafficking in foreign currency.
Then there were my relations with foreigners, the postcards from Uncle Gelu in the land of Uncle Sam. And my meeting with the American who came to a rehearsal and brought us each a pocket Bible. If all those charges were brought before a court, I would never finish university. I would never have an engineering degree that was “in demand abroad.” I would be sent to prison. “And your father has a heart condition.”


Yes, he had come prepared. But gave me until the next day to think about whether I would collaborate. We would meet at the same table. After that, he had to go to Arad.
“Are you seeing other people while you’re here or did you come all this way just to see me ?”
“That’s a good question. I came to see other people separately. This time I came just to see you.”
I remembered where I’d seen him before : about four years earlier I’d sat almost face to face with him on the balcony at Hope, when a black pastor from the United States had come to preach. His eyes had roamed around the church, as if he was looking for somebody, maybe it was the first time he had been there and he wanted to get a sense of the place. When the congregation sang together, he didn’t join in, he didn’t know the words, although he tried to give the impression he was murmuring along. He was trying to blend into the background. Now, after our meeting at the Flora, his presence in church, his embarrassed behaviour, his searching eyes, like a beast of prey’s, were explained to me. He had been doing his job, while we had been attending a service.


The next day, after another free coffee and glass of lemonade at the Flora, I signed the agreement. Thereafter, to the organs of state, I was “source Luther.”

 

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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Critics about

The Feast of Tents is a confession about a derisory paradise redecorated with the innocence of indecisive rebels. A dense, labyrinthine novel, in which the mirage of religious belief outdoes the mirage of history.” 

(Marius MIHET)

“In the plot of the novel, the character Beni, like the other two main characters, has multiple connections with what is often pejoratively called the world of the ‘penitents,’ which is to say protestant and neo protestant communities. Of the three, Beni is the only one who is able to see, in a full and subtly outlined way, the deeper meaning of the concept of penitence, which occurs frequently in the Bible. For Beni, penitence is a metanoia, a change of mind. And the discreet trace it leaves on his story is an extraordinary textualisation of this fundamental human experience.” 

(Cristian PATRASCONIU)

“Adapting a real case and imagining a parable of identity, Ioan T. Morar has written a novel that is very current, and which, without making a big show of hard theoretical concepts, debates essential questions in its subtext.” 

(Cristina CHEVERESAN)

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