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Transcultural (Post)memory in Christian Haller’s Swallowed Music
A Genre Bending Novel
Written in German and intended for a Western readership, Christian Haller’s Swallowed Music (2001)1 expands the boundaries of Western literature by referring to an unknown, often misrepresented area of Eastern Europe. Unlike in other stories about migration, the movement here is not from East to West, but from West to East, and back again. The novel is not written by an Eastern European immigrant who tells the West about his country, but by a Westerner who embraces Romania as a mother country. Reconstructing its past Weltanschauung and making it accessible to the Western mind, the novel acquires the unique ability of describing a complex, multi- layered country. From a terra incognita – an unreadable map of meaning – this country gains specificity, taking shape in its most concrete details.
The work of a Swiss with Romanian affinities, Swallowed Music can be intertextually linked with other fictional pieces about dislocation and migration by Romanian immigrant authors, such as Herta Müller, Domnica Rădulescu, Andrei Codrescu, Gabriela Melinescu and Carmen Bugan – who write in a foreign language targeting their message to a Western audience. All these writings do not promulgate dominant patterns of representation, dichotomic views that perpetuate notions of Western superiority and Eastern inferiority. These writers’ views are more nuanced and their perceptions of Romania – infused by autobiographic experience – explore in depth the cultural and historical factors that have shaped the country’s worldwide image.
In this context, Haller’s Swallowed Music comes as an unexpected, atypical novel: written by a foreigner, it contains insider’s information about Romanian traditions, customs, habits of mind – all described in minute detail, all presented from
1 Die verschluckte Musik, München: Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2001. All the quotations in this article are my translation. Swallowed Music is part of a trilogy, together with The Black Iron (Munich: Luchterhand, 2004) and The Better Times (Munich: Luchterhand, 2006) – two other novels that continue the family saga, focusing on the post-war period.
unexpected angles by someone who has experienced the country first-hand and seen it with a double pair of eyes. In particular, the novel speaks to us about Bucharest, about the transformations in its urban configuration and the social and psychological mutations it undertakes from age to age. Through the technique of distancing, of correlating two spatial points by moving the narrative focus between Romania and Switzerland, the image of contemporary Bucharest is placed into perspective – attaining a transnational dimension. With the eye of an insider-outsider, Haller discovers a palimpsestic city, with a rich, multi-layered history beyond its actual surface defaced by communism. Bucharest changes diachronically as we travel from an old Bucharest, as it was in 1912 (a space where old values were still preserved in an increasingly demented world threatened by imminent war), to a more contemporary, post-1989 Bucharest (a city of most striking contrasts, where unique gems of the interbellic architecture can be identified among communist monstrosities).
Swallowed Music is more than a complex novel of inter-war atmosphere with poignant autobiographic accents. In Jan Morris’s words, this is “a genre bending” book, one which subtly combines fiction and journalism, musical leitmotifs and scientific observations, photographic collage and documentary close-ups (19). The novel is not written in chronological order, but follows the non-linear thread of memory and its fragmented variations, with their hauntingly repetitive and circular movements. This shattering of the initial story into pieces creates the effect of simultaneity, so that the past and the present are skilfully juxtaposed. Each chapter contains references to objects, postcards, photographs, and diaries – that have the function of “chronotopes,” relating distinct spatio-temporal levels and re-creating mentalities of a bygone era (Bakhtin 250).
This emphasis on a bygone era can be detected by comparing the front covers of the German and Romanian editions. One can notice here the publishers’ different perceptions of the novel, as well as their strategies for preparing their readers’ expectations. In both cases, the publishers chose old photographs with a sepia tint, giving a clue to the reader about the novel’s emphasis on the past.
The German edition features a young girl in the 1920s, wearing an impeccable white dress, who adopts the rigid posture imposed by the photographic studio and whose scrutinizing, wondering look seems to reach beyond the frame of the picture; in the background, like a premonitory sign, a stormy sky is dramatically tumbling down. In the Romanian edition, the picture shows a carriage drawn by two white horses on Calea Victoriei in the 1920s or 30s. With its fin de siècle architecture and its trottoirs crowded by elegant people, Calea Victoriei is an emblematic image of Bucharest, le petit Paris, as it used to be called at the time.
In a complementary way, the two images speak about two essential aspects of the novel: its female character (the German edition) and its main setting (the Romanian edition). Both aspects will be discussed in this article, laying stress on the osmosis between self and city and the trauma of separation, on the avatars of an urban space permanently reshaped by memory. Starting from the outside, from public spaces such as boulevards and squares, and moving to more intimate descriptions of private spaces, and even further, to the warm proximity of emotionally loaded objects – Haller makes us see the present through the lens of the past, depicted in nuances of yellow, the colour that captures the multifarious reflections of remembrance.
Postmemory and Traumatic Displacement
In Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch uses the term “postmemory” to designate that special type of remembrance belonging to the children of the Holocaust victims; the post-war generations that have never known
the horrors of the genocide experienced by their parents are still haunted by their parents’ past:
Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created (22).
The second generation cannot fully grasp the enormous impact of the traumatic events on their parents, striving to understand the meaning of past stories and photographs, to bridge the gap between unspeakability and articulation.
As Hirsch observes, “postmemory” can become a useful tool for discussing not only Jewish history, but also “other cultural or collective traumatic events and experiences” (22). The impact of traumatic events transmitted from one generation to another is also evident in the case of those emigrants who forcefully have to leave their country. While the first generation has to pass through the painful uprooting process, the second generation can still feel its consequences, re-experiencing the acute feeling of displacement and the permanent state of in-betweenness.
The nuanced idea of “postmemory” can be applied to Haller’s novel, when discussing the narrator’s perspective and the way he tells the unusual story of his family. Of wealthy German origin, the S. family arrives in Bucharest in 1912, Herr S. (the narrator’s grandfather) being the director of the Lemaître textile factory. After a period of smooth accommodation and prosperous life in Bucharest, they are forced to leave the country, in 1917, during World War I. After two years spent in Switzerland, they return to Greater Romania as to a homeland, only to leave it forever in 1926. The easygoing spiritual richness of the time spent in Bucharest provides the family members with an ideal for their future lifestyle. Emotionally anchored in the Romanian past, they experience an inner exile in Switzerland, where they do not feel different from other emigrants. Notably, the family has to leave Romania twice – the first departure (in 1917) serving as a temporary prefiguration of the other permanent displacement (in 1926).2 Determined by unforeseen socio-political circumstances, both departures are traumatic experiences for the family.
2 During World War I, when Ruth and her parents leave Romania driven away by poverty and hunger, they arrive in Vienna, where the situation is even worse than in Bucharest. Later on, they are forced to spend the winter in a ghetto in Linz, being considered “emigrants from Romania (an enemy country)” (192). Very little is known about the time spent in the ghetto. Ruth, who is only eight years old, does not remember – or refuses to remember – more than childish games, divagating to unessential details. Unable to articulate an unspeakable experience, she proves to be an unreliable source of information
In Switzerland, Herr S. goes bankrupt after investing his fortune in the textile industry at a time when it had no future. The trauma of displacement and the painful loss of social status deeply affect the family members, who feel that their world “is shaking” (9).3 Herr S. retreats in a world of his own, finding refuge in painting, while his wife struggles to keep the family together. In her turn, their teenage girl, Ruth, cannot fathom the abysmal change in her life, longing to bridge the gap between her past and present homes.
In a fragmented narrative that shifts all the time between past and present, the narrator knows only parts from his family’s story. He has to read between the lines of his mother’s recollections, to confront the “holes” in her past created by trauma (LaCapra 41). His own limited (post)memory denies him full access to her story, to “a knowledge so partial that it borders on denial, a revelation so incomplete that it obscures” (Herman 1).
Thus, Hirsch’s idea that the second generation has limited access to the memory of its precursors can be found here, where the unnamed narrator can only partially re-tell his family’s story. Recounting a twice-told story, the narrator guides himself by his mother’s recollections and his grandfather’s photographs. Memory as it comes to the reader is a second-degree memory – or postmemory – as the narrator detects beyond their recollections something deeper, a past way of life which cannot be fully regained.
Born in Switzerland, the narrator learns from early childhood to discern beyond the plain facts of daily reality the sophisticated rhythm of his mother’s thoughts – “the swallowed music” – evoking, invoking again and again the place of her own youth: the capital of Romania as it was between 1912 and 1926.4 Almost seventy years later, in the early 1990s, the narrator travels back to Bucharest to
for the narrator. This is why the narrator tells the story by quoting from a historical document: the report of an Englishwoman, Rahel Silberling. She writes about their daily tasks in the ghetto; she also mentions sharing a room with Rahele Berkowicz and Onkel Medel – a Jewish couple that has close connections with the S. family. In Ruth’s story of detention, there is embedded another tragic story: that of Onkel Medel and his persecution for being a Jew. Remembering the time spent in the ghetto in Linz becomes equivalent with speaking about the Mendel’s painful experience deportation to Bucovina: “we couldn’t understand the horror... we never talked about it” (195). The narrator records only the silence, the gap opened by the abyss of pain, “a darkened place” inaccessible to him (195).
3 In the first scene of the novel, the S. family leaves Romania, in 1926. During their voyage on the River Danube, from Giurgiu to Vienna, each family member remarks that the ship “is shaking,” metaphorically pointing to their own existential fragility (9).
4 Swallowed Music does not simply refer to the obsessive symptoms of a person who has Alzheimer’s and hears a continuous monologue. Situated in her womb, this music is Ruth’s most important possession, her memory of the past. Drawing us inside Ruth’s mind and its repetitive thoughts, this music marks the passage of subjective time, which eludes the irreversible linearity of physical time.
discover the deeper meaning of his family’s story, to initiate a Proustian quest for a lost prenatal time.5
In a desperate fight against the gradual amnesia caused by Ruth’s Alzheimer’s, the narrator wants to go back to a place once loved by his mother and find a gate of communication with her. He explains to another character in the novel:
I did not come here for professional reasons... My mother spent her adolescence here in Bucharest; now she is an old lady, who is ill and not able to travel. I wanted to come back here in her place and find those areas of Bucharest where she spent her youth (56).
His own profession as a palaeontologist becomes emblematic here, as he has to dig beyond layers of significance and to rebuild a lost image starting from a simple element, a relic from his mother’s past.
À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator enters the fictional reality of a place that is continuously reinvented – half-real and half-unreal, half-utopian and half-dystopian – a place of return, which is never the same with the one of departure.
Calea Victoriei: Broadening the Swiss Horizon
In Swallowed Music memory (or postmemory) takes a transcultural turn. As the characters’ lifestyle abruptly changes by crossing the borders from East to West, they desperately try to preserve the memory of the past – to maintain it in material or spiritual forms.
An urban, bourgeois atmosphere is recreated by Ruth in her Swiss home, so that a Biedermeier box becomes a symbolic “shrine,” an enclosed, sacred space where precious memorabilia are displayed. Full of photographs, daguerreotypes, feathers, and jewels, the Biedermeier box is “a little exhibition of one’s soul,” where each object preserves its authenticity (34). In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms, these memorabilia items can be seen as “chronotopes,” having the metonymic function of reconstructing
5 There is a thematic similarity between Haller’s novel and Andreï Makine’s Le Testament Français: both novels can be read as half-autobiographic documents about Bucharest and Paris, as well as textual quests for cultural inheritance. If, in Haller’s novel, the mother brackets the Swiss reality to remember Romania, in Makine’s novel, Charlotte, the grandmother who lives in Siberia, evokes the Parisian lifestyle at the beginning of the century. Reading attentively the faces of these two women, one can sense beyond their physical differences, the infinitesimal lines of inner resemblance. In their daily activities, their gestures mirror one another, as they open photo albums, caress old objects, or read the faded pages of letters.
a past reality in the present environment.6 Similarly, in the grandparents’ home in Basel, another “shrine” exists, on the graceful chest of drawers made of rose wood; the strange, ornate pots, which are “irradiating a warm, protective feeling,” the brandy gourd whose colours suggest “the fading light of torrential rain,” are objects touched by a patina of age, by “a dirt that domesticates... and gives depth” (165-66).
Visual images intersect with olfactory and tactile ones, in order to recreate a whole ambience. By holding an ashtray, the narrator is transported back in time, feeling the lazy comfort of a Romanian home, the sound of muffled steps over Persian carpets, and the sweet smell of Egyptian cigarettes (166). In another instance, Ruth’s repeated gesture of caressing the soft roughness of an old piece of cloth represents a way of “feeling at home through her touching” (135).
This is the world that the narrator’s mother and grandparents once loved, a Romania of the mind, lost and never fully regained. Their hidden sorrow, self- effacement, and retreated life disclose their inability to adapt or be assimilated in the new country. They raise the children (the narrator and his brother) keeping the old traditions and rituals of making tea and coffee, and cooking Romanian recipes. Years later, when arriving in Bucharest, the narrator re-tastes these dishes, discovering the lost flavour of “Southern sensuality” in a bowl of sour soup (ciorbă) or marinated peppers (201).
The narrator’s biculturalism is revealed by his way of negotiating a space for his double belonging through constant movement between the different, but not antithetical, poles of his existential axis. Listening to his mother’s stories, looking at old photographs, the narrator learns from early childhood to think via associations connecting various aspects of his family’s existence by means of an emotional logic.7 This simultaneity of perception enables him to “inhabit one place,” but to “project the reality of another” (Seidel ix).
Inter-war Bucharest is always present in the narrator’s mind, broadening the horizon of the small Swiss village where he lives. Re-shaped under the Swiss sky, Bucharest becomes a city of contrasts, of snowy winters and hot summers, of lazy afternoons spent at leisure, behind the white curtains, while listening to the sellers’
6 Bakhtin observed that the “chronotope” is not restricted to the analysis of the novel and can be applied to other forms of art, so that it can be applied in particular to memorabilia items, which have strong connections with historical and personal events.
7 This way of thinking is conjunctive, rather than disjunctive; it functions according to the pattern “and- and,” rather than “either-or,” thus correlating his present experience with that of his ancestors (Miroiu 11, my translation).
incantations coming from outside: “ardeiridichidelunăcartofi” (83). Ruth remembers a multicultural city, tolerant to foreigners, in which Romanians lived together with Germans, Jews, and Romani. She remembers the family’s usual route in a horse- drawn carriage, along the Dâmboviţa River, to Sf. Gheorghe Square, to Athénée Palace, down on Calea Victoriei, and finally to Herăstrău Park.
Since “roots precede routes,” as James Clifford famously stated (3), the narrator’s sense of belonging to the Romanian cultural space gives meaning and direction to his daily itinerary:
I was carrying inside me a grand street, a royal street, and I let it unroll inside me like a carpet in the middle of the village, among small houses, to the chocolate shop and the Tea-Room, to the centre and inside the school (149).
Going to school becomes a self-centred experience, as the narrator imagines himself walking down Calea Victoriei, the “royal street,“ populating it with luxury hotels, chic cafes, and boutiques. He isolates himself from the others in order to imagine the world that is lying behind the Iron Curtain, translating an Eastern European reality into a Western context. Facing the East in the West,8 he acknowledges his affinities with Romania, and defines himself, just like his mother, as “a true emigrant” (149).
“I have nothing to do with these morons,” Ruth declares, distancing herself from her Swiss neighbours, whom she considers rural and unmannered, in spite of their prosperity (202). Adopting urbanism as a way of living, she criticizes the contemporary Western lifestyle for its individualistic thinking, its lack of refinement and contact with the past. Ruth herself wants to maintain a certain kind of etiquette by transmitting to her children the inter-war good manners. A German neighbour in Bucharest, the stylish Madame Megiesch – “the chocolate mother,” as Ruth used to call her – becomes the model of a true lady (120-21).
In an intriguing way, the narrator spiritually identifies with his mother, while saying very little about his Swiss father, an absent figure in the novel. His mother’s preoccupation with the past transforms him irrevocably into a “strange mutant, incapable of living in the real world” (Makine 195). Hence, the narrator’s double perception of space that makes him an exile, someone who has “the power to live
8 This paraphrases the title of an important collection of articles Facing the East in the West: Images of Eastern Europe in British Literature, Film and Culture (Eds. Barbara Korte, Eva Ulrike Pirker and Sissy Helff. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2010).
here with one’s feet on the ground,” but also there, “miles away in his imagination” (Jankélévitch 253, my translation, my italics).
Bucharest – A Place of Return
In his well-documented book The Vanished Bucharest, the Romanian architect George Leahu reconstructs the image of old Bucharest as it was before communism, indicating that “millions of memories, of recollections, still in our minds and souls, are now nothing but shadows of real things so heartlessly crushed and pushed away by the bulldozer” (120, my translation). Leahu points to the disastrous consequences of communism: a ruthless regime that destroyed the organic growth of a city, disfiguring it. These “shadows of real things” come to life in Haller’s novel, where the characters keep re-memorating them.
In the 1990s, when the narrator arrives in Bucharest, he is helped by two Romanian acquaintances, Sorin Manea (a former dissident) and Monsieur Uricariu9 (a former communist) to explore different facets of the city. He has a feeling of déjà vu: the crowded streets remind him of Bangladesh and the sparsely furnished interiors of Italy after WWII (42, 65). However, his mother’s recollections and his grandfather’s photographs do prevail as authentic perceptions, giving depth to what would have otherwise been a tourist’s superficial impression. “I wasn’t going to find out anything about this city, except a fugitive, exterior impression,” he confesses (100). At the intersection of his family’s memory and his actual experience, Bucharest is not stereotypically presented as a one-dimensional city, an image frozen in time, but as an evolving reality.
Before going to Bucharest, the narrator’s simple act of buying a map and (re)tracing the plan of the city represents a confirmation, a proof of the real existence of the place – of the correspondence between his mother’s recollections and the printed text. The narrator is amazed by the image that is taking shape in his mind “with such a huge power of penetration” and by the “re-memorated feeling” of living in “a past that precedes [his] past” (92). Under the magnifying glass, following his mother’s shaky hand, he repeats an old route, immersing himself in the scorching heat
9 Alias Dragomir in the Romanian edition.
of the Romanian summer, allowing time to stop for a moment on Morilor Street/”Strada Morilor” where his mother spent her youth (91).10
The real map and Ruth’s mental map do not completely overlap, the latter preserving a lost configuration of the city, of its old places – now wiped out, forgotten, or renamed. Faithful to her past and struggling not to lose her memories, while suffering from a merciless illness, Ruth refuses to acknowledge any change and modernization. She advises her son: “You can take the horse drawn tramway, number 1, to Sf. Gheorghe Square;” to which the narrator replies: “Now there is an underground station” (94).11
Through temporal oscillation, urban space is constantly remapped in the novel. Bucharest is no longer a place contained in one map. Beyond its modern, eclectic appearance, lies another city still visible to the naked eye. The ever-changing urban patterns created here through flashback techniques provide a rhizomatic type of map – similar to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of a map having a multiplicity of entries and intermingling lines that “cut across a single structure” and “are susceptible to constant modification” (12). This map – which is permanently readjusted and acquires new dimensions through time – should be seen as a “rhizomatic (‘open’), rather than as a falsely homogeneous (‘closed’) construct” (Huggan 409).
Haller’s rhizomatic mapping of Bucharest makes the reader aware that the present aspect of Bucharest is the result of Ceauşescu’s program of urban planning called “sistematizare” (systematization). It consisted in the demolition and reconstruction of urban space, with the goal of turning Romania into a multilaterally developed socialist society. By employing techniques of de-/re-territorialization that juxtapose past and present images, the novel makes us reconsider urban space. In significant episodes, the narrator walks through contemporary Bucharest and searches for remnants of the past; beyond Casa Poporului – this monstrous construction designed and nearly completed by the Ceauşescu regime, which required demolishing
10 Significantly, Ruth describes a city with a pattern, with a recognizable design that structures the place geometrically, suggesting order and giving it coherence: “The slabs in the garden on Morilor Street had a pattern... little crosses and holes, and this pattern was similar to that on the curtains in the living room and dining room, to that on my mother’s blouses, which she had been wearing since we came to Bucharest... Even the house had a pattern like that, and one day I was to discover these patterns... on every street, on people’s faces” (71).
11 As Ruth gets older, she retreats into her own world, alienating herself from others. Her alienation is evident in her total refusal to acknowledge change in the outside world, in what Jean Améry called “a difficulty of understanding an unknown order to signs” (108).
much of Bucharest’s historic district – the narrator wanders through a maze of blocks of flats, thinking of the vanished churches, houses, and gardens.
Exploring Bucharest becomes the essence of the novel itself, which can be discussed using a whole “rhetoric of walking” (De Certeau 388). In parallel scenes, the walks of the narrator intersect with those of his grandfather, their steps creating “intertwined paths” that “give shape to spaces” and “weave spaces together” (De Certeau 386). The novel thus privileges movement over stasis, journeying over fixation, travel functioning as a form of reconnection with a place of origin, half-lost and half-preserved. Progression in space paradoxically comes to imply regression in time.
In the summer of 1912, the narrator’s grandfather sets foot for the first time in a torrid Bucharest, with the certainty of having found his “Centralpunkt”/“central point,” in a city meant to be a refuge for his “settled, ordered existence, bearing the mark of wealth and nobility” (40, 43). Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, holding in his hand an old postcard, the narrator identifies with his grandfather: “I am standing, exactly after eighty five years, in the same place where my grandfather stood and I feel in the corners of my mouth his smile” (45). In spite of the broken pavement and the coat of dust that covers the city, the narrator recognizes that “yellow light,” that unequalled colour which he has known for a lifetime, “without having seen it before,” like the “echo of a perfume emanated by the word Romania” (47).
The grandfather arrives in Bucharest where the traditions of the Belle Époque are still preserved and where, to quote another character, “one could still live excellently” (46). By emigrating to Romania and choosing it as an adoptive country, the grandfather desperately tries to maintain the principles of an aristocratic lifestyle threatened by the inexorable forces of history: the xenophobic restrictions imposed on foreigners, the growing anti-Semitism, and the beginning of World War I.
In his elaborate photographs where every detail is highly staged, the grandfather – the old fashioned gentleman with the eye of a painter and the mind of an engineer – wants to transfigure reality and reconstruct an epoch that is falling into desuetude. By sending these compositions to his relatives in Cologne, he lays accent
on his aristocratic status.12 His perfectionist manner, betrayed by his incessant re- adjustment of the photographic image, reflects his desire to correct a social reality and to tell the others about his prosperous life in a stable world.13
The grandfather’s photographs – these material images that have survived the passage of time – have a priceless value for the narrator, becoming an integral part of his life story. As Marianne Hirsch notices, “family pictures depend on such a narrative act of adoption that transforms rectangular pieces of cardboard into telling details connecting lives and stories across continents and generations” (xii).
Having an inseparable spatio-temporal dimension, the photographs can also be seen as “chronotopes,” as organizing centres “for the fundamental narrative events of the novel” (Bakhtin 250). In his later walks through the city, the narrator uses these photographs as reference points, which give him a sense of orientation and help him find the house on Morilor Street, “die kleine Villa”/“the little villa” with a garden (32). Situated in the south of Bucharest, the street runs parallel to the Dâmboviţa River, connecting the centre of the city with the periphery. This is a liminal zone, an imprecise boundary between the visible city, delineated by the glamorous route daily taken by the family in a luxurious carriage, and its invisible part, where the gypsies used to live, where the children were not allowed, and where “the end of the world” started (33).
As the narrator later discovers, Morilor Street is also close to the slaughterhouse where in January 1941 a massacre of Jews took place during the National Legionary State which initiated a campaign against the Jews culminating in a pogrom when many Jews were arrested, tortured, and killed. The close proximity of the slaughterhouse makes the narrator juxtapose two traumatic memories: that of the Jew’s massacre and that of his family’s forced departure. Only one or two hints can be found in the novel about the massacre; still, the silence of the other characters, their change of attitude, and their attempt to keep the narrator from going there, all testify to the depth of these unspeakable events.
Photograph in hand, groping his way through a labyrinth of derelict houses, the narrator looks for his mother’s old house, refusing to turn back, to deny the past,
12 In the photograph taken by the grandfather, Ruth, his daughter, is not present. Desiring to capture the geometric order of the house and garden, he forgets about his daughter, who restlessly moves out of the frame. Ruth’s absence in the photograph is symbolic, pointing to her own effacement in the story.
13 Throughout the novel, there are references to the forgotten art of dyeing feathers – another way of carefully (de)composing the present, of masking the harsh reality with illusory dreams.
to forget. His meandering walk and endless peregrination14 in search for a forever- receding place point to his desire to grasp a past image – one that is infinitely deferred and constantly displaced. When the narrator encounters a group of gypsy children who fiercely guard their territory, not allowing him to pass, the photograph becomes his visual passport entitling him to enter this forbidden zone. His impression is that of crossing a threshold and going inside “a dislocated part of memory” (69):
For a moment, I had the impression that I had entered the photograph taken by my grandfather in October 1912,... that I had sneaked inside the icon of our family and I was amazed that something really existed in that place that I had contemplated again and again in the album when I was a child: I was inside my mother’s secret world... I was standing in front of a house which had represented for her a lifestyle and which existed in reality (254).
This miraculous passage from memory to reality (and back to memory) is surprising here, as the narrator seems to enter an imaginary world, stepping behind “this curtain beyond which [his] mother had retreated every so often, leaving [him] only with suppositions” (254).15
Seen together, the photograph and the real image acquire fresh layers of association. The image portrayed in the photograph becomes tangible, each object taking shape as the narrator touches it: the iron fence (that replaced the old wooden one, which was stolen in 1917), the ornaments on the walls (never renovated, now having the consistency of wax, of “lifeless skin” (255)), and the unforgettable colour of the vieux rose stove. Transposed through the colour of old photographs,16 each object seems to gain a life of its own, while simultaneously vanishing back into a past that inflects the present. The actual owners of the house, the Filips, confirm the authentic nature of the photograph, tying the knots of the story and telling the narrator how things changed after Ruth’s departure, how the whole area became derelict, during World War II, when many foreign entrepreneurs left the country.
14 The word’s etymology is significant here, relating the idea of movement to that of discovering a place with a foreign eye: from Latin, peregrinari, from peregrinus, foreigner, from pereger, being abroad: per-, through + ager, land.
15 Rodica Binder remarks that the drawn curtain has “a protective function,” giving Ruth the necessary isolation for her privacy, but also serving as a soft, fluid barrier that “does not allow her memories beyond the windowsill” (Binder 286, my translation).
16 In an interview, Haller talks about the “emotional zones” of his “Romanian biography,” pointing that “the word ‘Romania’ was associated with the word ‘yellow,’ not a bright yellow, but a dark one. Something similar to tobacco. But also something oriental. A diffuse light” (see Vlădăreanu, http://www.ziaruldeiasi.ro/suplimentul-de-cultura, visited on 02.02.2013, my translation).
A recurrent question nags at the narrator, making him doubt the validity of those decisions that change one’s life irrevocably and that produce an unbridgeable fissure:
Then why did they leave, and why did they end up in Switzerland, in this country that is so lucid? I’ll never find out. The truth is that they could never adjust, my grandfather lost his fortune, was forgotten in his room, and the S. family, who was present long ago in this garden, looking so proud in front of the camera, lost itself and the aristocratic life it had here (261).
Returning to Switzerland, the narrator finds out that it is too late “to find Ruth S. in her own past” (24), that she has already lost her memory. In the hospital room, the hidden “radio” inside her womb has stopped broadcasting; there is no music, no news about the S. family. “I only remember having memories,” she confesses (267). The novel has a cyclic structure, as it begins and ends with the same words – “it’s shaking” – suggesting the fragility of the existential condition marked by the passage of time. In the last scene, a glass is shaking in Ruth’s hand on the point of falling and shattering, symbolizing the irreversible loss of memory.
Ultimately, it is the swallowed music, the inner music that the narrator can now hear. He inherits his mother’s spiritual legacy and in his turn tells her story to the others – reminding us that “every piece of writing is in essence a testament,” a precious possession passed on to the reader (Derrida 69).
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Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Binder, Rodica. “Postfaţă: Iubirea şi literatura – Două antidoturi împotriva amneziei/Postface: Love and Literature – Two Antidotes against Amnesia.” Swallowed Music. Trans. Nora Iuga. Iaşi: Polirom, 2004. 283-89.
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