Incognito Essay - Critical Essays

Petru Dumitriu


Until 1960, when he escaped to the West, Petru Dumitriu was head of the State Literary Society of Romania; he was not only the most powerful man in the literary apparatus of Romania but was also regarded as his country’s leading writer on artistic grounds. Since his escape, he has become recognized at least in Europe, as one of those few writers whose talents so far transcend the conventions of nationality as to make them something on the order of writers to the world at large. It is obvious in any case that Dumitriu’s stature as an artist raises him above any poet or novelist in the history of Romanian literature.

INCOGNITO, like all the novels of Dumitriu that have been translated into English previously, was written in French. Given the historical sympathy between France and Romania and the natural desire of a writer to reach as wide an audience as possible, Dumitriu’s adoption of this language was natural. Racially, culturally, and linguistically, Romania is a Latin island in the midst of an Asiatic—Slavonic and Magyar—sea, and it is significant that his characters speak, when they speak of literature, not of Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy but of the poets of France, Italy, and Spain, while the first “foreign” author quoted in INCOGNITO itself is Tacitus, in whose Histories the narrator, apparently intended to stand for Dumitriu himself, finds remorseless parallels with the state of Romania in 1960.

It is almost as if, indeed, centuries later in the Romanian microcosm, the Roman Empire had at last found a creative artist capable of capturing the whole sweep of its decadence and downfall, its decline, and the subsequent reign of the Eastern barbarians. INCOGNITO should not be read alone but in its proper sequence among the body of Dumitriu’s work, that work which, written for the most part within a five-year period, attempts to render the essence of Romanian history from the nineteenth century to the time of Dumitriu’s own escape to the West. In particular, INCOGNITO should be read as the companion piece to MEETING AT THE LAST JUDGMENT, to which it stands in much the same relationship as the PURGATORIO to the INFERNO.

Focused upon a smaller patch of time than Incognito and directed at depicting the character of a particular level in the Romanian governmental hierarchy, MEETING AT THE LAST JUDGMENT describes a Hell on earth, Romania as a colony in the Soviet bloc, and its inhabitants, the damned, many of them disillusioned, many of them still believing in the Marxist-Leninist cause, all of them in greater or lesser degree responsible for the creation of a country where life is genuinely intolerable, all of them thus genuinely damned. Their suffering, as it should be in Hell, is not physical but psychological, for the soul is where Dumitriu’s interest lies: the country and social level in which they live, particularly as high functionaries in the imperial apparatus, make such things as love, friendship, loyalty, self-respect, or charity impossible for them. Their Romania is ruled instead by brutality, greed, lust, jealous hatred, duplicity, and subanimal ambition, and one by one they take their turns as victims of this Romania they have made.

In such a country, the mere maintenance of sanity is an achievement; the maintenance of any other human characteristics becomes something of a miracle, a miracle which seems to testify in Dumitriu’s eyes to the essential truth, despite all of his own evidence to the contrary, in a conception of man as a creature at least capable of his own salvation, if not of any very much higher nobility. Consequently, though he is by no means an “optimistic” writer, one feels at the end of MEETING AT THE LAST JUDGMENT, as Dumitriu describes in a few quick pages the narrator’s escape with his wife—Dumitriu’s child was allowed to join her parents in 1964, having been held hostage for four years—a sudden sense of exaltation.

INCOGNITO may be read as a kind of gloss on this exaltation. All the characters in the book have already appeared in MEETING AT THE LAST JUDGMENT, the difference being that whereas in the previous novel they are seen in their basest, most abject, and most superficial aspect, in INCOGNITO readers see into the secret nobility of their real selves, where it exists, or into the fear of self that creates a Judas.

The central figure of INCOGNITO, Sebastian Ionesco,...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)