Review – Bogdan Suceavă – Coming from an Off-Key Time (trans. Alistair Ian Blyth)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

Do you remember the 1990s, with all their mysteries and untold history? Behold the time has now come to write their true chronicle

To this day, the origins of the Teacher from The Tidings of the Lord sect in Romania during the 1990s remain murky and unclear. Anecdotal evidence concerning his birth in the small town of Weissdorf is inconclusive and resists research, though it is said that the midwife who delivered the child, upon noticing that the birthmark on his chest resembled a comprehensive and detailed map of Bucharest, prophesied, “this is the sign of the end of all times or the sign of all times together.” Be that as it may, the first documents confirming the existence of Vespasian Moisa are utterly banal in detail, being a run-of-the-mill hospital discharge sheet.

Romanian author Bogdan Suceavă’s novel Coming From an Off-Key Time takes up the narrative thread of Romania as it lurches out of its lengthy romance with Nicolae Ceauşescu. The story begins immediately after the “off-key” time when the newly dictator-less nation was without a constitution and unsure where to place its feet as the future beckoned. These were not the halcyon days of peace and prosperity perhaps expected by the Romanian people; instead, it was a time when the nation as a whole was forced to turn inward to rediscover itself, to reevaluate what it meant to be Romanian, what the people stood for and were against, and how exactly they were to present themselves to an outside world which knew little of their concerns, hopes, and failures.

In Suceavă’s book, it’s 1992 and Bucharest is experiencing a flurry of religious activity, as self-proclaimed prophets take to the street to (they believe) shed light on Romania and its future. The Romanian Intelligence Service, long accustomed to such figures, is concerned primarily with Vespasian Moisa, a man more charismatic than most of the prophets, more capable, closer to rapture, and willing to eschew comfort, money, and bribes to ensure that his message is heard. Moisa’s initial influence stems from two main advantages he has over the other prophets springing up like so many weeds – firstly, he is quite convincing in his claim that the Romanian language has, coded within it, the secrets of the fundamental meaning of the world; and secondly The Tidings of the Lord Sect has, and is willing to provide for no cost, a complete, permanent and side-effect free cure for baldness.

. . . the sermon hit [the captain sent to spy on the sect] with full force. For him, the fact that his hair was thinning was something more concrete than the Apocalypse. Therefore, the only thing in the world that would have been capable of exciting him was the decoding of the cures concealed in matter, exemplified by the issue of baldness. Let the preachers frighten others with the Apocalypse. It’s baldness that’s nigh.

It was no joke.

Baldness is irreversible.

This entirely successful attempt at humour highlights two of the dominant themes of Suceavă’s novel: that ordinary people, when confronted by equally appealing harbingers of doom, will side with the one that offers the most immediate, material comfort; and that comedy may be found in even the most trying and serious of times. Coming From an Off-Key Time is a novel unafraid to laugh at and with the chaotic and confusing events of 1990s Romania, when it seemed that everything was possible but nothing was actually occurring, and that the dreams nurtured during the dictatorship of the freedom and possibility of a post-Ceauşescu time were in fact ephemeral and unattainable. As the novel progresses, Suceavă gently increases the number and intensity of absurd moments and characters, culminating in perhaps the novel’s most entertaining diversion: the lengthy story behind the Romanian Intelligence Service’s most effective spy, a soldier-turned-cat who had the misfortune to find himself on the receiving end of one of the KGB’s secret weapons. For the most part, the cat-as-spy is received with aplomb and good cheer, with the upper brass of the spy agency recognising his effective qualities as an inside “man” while simultaneously ignoring the absurdity of being briefed by a cat.

Suceavă courts religious language most prominently during lengthy sections of exposition outlining the higher conceits of the sect, its goals, and its desired outcomes. At times the language hews too closely to the slightly mad diction of the fervent prophet and spills into awkward mawkishness, but for the most part the skewering of high-flown pronouncements and unselfconsciously grandiose statements is spot on. As one character tells another with utter sincerity:

In the world there exist vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations via a suitable code. And this code, which unshackles and clarifies everything, proves to be the Romanian language. For, if you will allow me, we have not said the Romanian people are a chosen people, but that the Romanian language is a chosen language, a miraculous language, which contains all kinds of key poetic lines. These poetic lines have healing powers, and whenever they occur in everyday speech, who knows where, who knows when, they come to convince, to possess a huge power of persuasion over, those who listen to them.

The rise of Vespasian Moisa’s sect is handled largely through the reports, letters, and conversations of Romania’s elite, as well as eye-witness reports of Moisa and conversations between high-ranking members of the sect. Suceavă wisely keeps Moisa in the background, making him the object of the narrative, rather than its primary narrator. By doing so, the shroud of mystery cloaking the character remains intact, leaving the reader with the uncertainty as to whether the man is a fraud or the real deal. The novel increasingly pitches Moisa as a Christ-like figure, and toward its end the other characters openly discuss the possibility that he may in fact represent the second coming of Christ. The birthmark of Bucharest on his chest also suggests that he represents the Romanians—their chance to speak, coalesced into a man. By making Moisa the observed rather than the observer, the largeness and greatness of the character is preserved, which makes the ultimately tragic and inevitable ending of the story suitably grand in scope and thematically wide-ranging.

But the clergy will have none of this, believing him a fraud and a danger. In a lengthy speech, a high-ranking official declares that:

I must confess that nowadays many things in Romania are in disarray. Among them, things connected to the faith and to those who serve the faith, whether priests or laymen. Matters are complicated. What I find the most disturbing is the huge quantity of madness that holds sway at every social level, at every stratum of this constantly changing world. Yes, there is a strange madness that manifests itself everywhere, and which is all the more strange given that it brings together groups of people with fixed ideas in common, with mental illness in common. Sometimes, by the very nature of the situation, of their trade, such people are brought together within an institution, working together for the common good. When has history seen such a storm, such a dangerous tide of mental maladies?

Quite naturally the media, the military, the government, the clergy and academia, dislike The Tidings of the Lord, and they all, without much success, attempt to influence the sect as it rises to astronomic heights of popularity. A rival though less popular sect, the Stephenists, who claim to follow Stephen the Great (a 15th-century Moldavian hero, venerated in Romania and also, it seems, recently reincarnated), falls under the sway of the warring factions, but the competition goes nowhere. Vespasian Moisa is the Romanian people, and he will be heard.

But power, when confronted, fights back, and it fights dirty and ruthlessly, and to the death:

They gathered around the body. They were all looking at him, as if they were expecting some miracle. He seemed insensate, like a vegetable. Then, Darius looked more closely and saw that the famed Vespasian Moisa was nothing more than a man stooped from birth, who bored on the skin of his chest a hideous scar, like a burn, an ugly welt made of crests and shadows, which in the dim streetlights looked like the skin of a fig. He took aim and began to relieve himself on him. The steam rose from the skin of the prone man. Someone began to laugh. A second jet of urine was heard. Then a third. Soon, there was no longer any room around the supine body.

Coming From an Off-Key Time has the feeling of the compressed creativity of the Romanian psyche bursting forth from its cocoon of so many years where what could not be written about was an important consideration at the forefront of every writer’s mind. Suceavă is endlessly, exhaustively inventive, spinning a myriad of increasingly absurd stories while simultaneously focusing upon the inevitable march of the main narrative thread as Vaspasian Moisa plunges headlong toward the one and only outcome available to a religious prophet popular with the vast majority of the people and not at all friendly to entrenched authority.

The madness of the ’90s becomes the madness of the people, the government, and religion, as bombs explode, people die, martyrs are created, institutions die and institutions grow strong— Bogdan Suceavă has captured this chaos on the page, compressing and transferring an impressive quantity of Romania’s present and its lengthy and complicated past into a narrative that remains cohesive and effective, and should resonate as much with those unfamiliar with Romania and its culture as it did with the Romanian public when first published in 2004.

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