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  • Cosmopolitan Exiles
  • Liana Vrajitoru Andreason (bio)
Hotel Europa. Dumitru Tsepeneag; Patrick Camiller, trans. Dalkey Archive Press. 450 pages; paper, $16.95.

"Exiles! Exiles on Planet Earth!" exclaims the writer in this post-Iron-Curtain narrative extravaganza. After the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, thousands of Romanians seeped into the countries once decreed forbidden lands; as their own country tried to decide whether or not they had a revolution and whether or not their new government was corrupt, the wave of Romanian exiles shocked the world with "their desire to go anywhere, just to get away."

With its cast of wanderers and crooks at the dawn of a borderless European Union, the novel is unsettled, picaresque, and postmodern. Because of its journey motif and its constant flow of characters and places, its ambiguity of identity and reversal of fortune, it is not a book about one particular thing; instead, it mimics the search for a reality to fill the vacuum created at the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, though as it happens, reality cannot decide what it wants to be. The narrative itself cannot decide whether it is about Ion, the freshly exiled student in search of adventure and of an elusive woman, or about the novelist himself while he is trying to offer comfort to his increasingly lost character as the act of writing is constantly interrupted by characters in his own life. Ion and the narrator-author look for each other and peek at each other through cracks in the wall between fiction and reality as they both move toward an increasingly apocalyptic resolution.

The parallel paths of the narrator-author and of the character are not just randomly convergent: they cross in a chiasmic mirroring of each other. As the last Eastern European dictator, Ceausescu, meets his inexorable end, the narrator-author returns to Romania after having been forced into exile to learn from his friends about the last throws of the communist era. As he struggles to find his lost roots and some grounding in a world where he's not quite at home anymore, his character goes in an opposite direction: he leaves Romania, disenchanted with the growing pains of democracy that involve power-grabbing ex-communists taking control of the country and angry miners beating up students in Bucharest's public squares. As the author struggles to find order in chaos and keep his fictional creation under some control (disrupted by multiple distractions such as phone calls from Marianne or their philosopher Siamese cat), Ion, his character, rejects order and refuses to find new roots in any new environment. He cannot find a place even in the most enticing circles where sex, easy money, and drugs seem to flow freely. As soon as he earns money in some bewildering circumstances, he loses it in equally incomprehensible ways. Therefore, he finds himself traveling from Hungary to Austria, from Germany to France without reaching an understanding of his purpose in the new European world. Toward the end of the novel, he is robbed penniless and travels with a wheelchair-beggar, yet this is the point in his life when he seems most engaged in philosophical reflection.

This novel, however, does offer one important answer to both the narrator-author's and the character's searches for identity, and that answer is as unsettling as the search: for anyone who leaves behind his or her roots, the reward is to become less obstinate in the judgment and prejudice against other nationalities (since nationalism was the foundation of pre-Unionized Europe), but the price to pay is a forever boundary-less, uncontained self. In the world of gamblers and tricksters, it isn't the underground Western Europe that Ion encounters outside Romania, but the Other Europe, the Europe of old and new exiles. It is quite fitting that everywhere he turns, he meets not only many other Romanians, but also Turks, Gypsies, Moldovans, Lebanese, Russians, Hungarians, and various other exiles like him. They seem to have found a way to exist alongside and not within or against mainstream Western Europe; they create an ephemeral other world of removed and ghostly identities coexisting with those who...


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