THE SHIBBOLETH REPORT
An excerpt from the English version of Viaţa pe fugă – a novel
They chose Rosie O’Grady’s for dinner. Despite heavy traffic, they arrived quickly in Fred’s two-seater car, a Lamborghini that Amy gave him on his birthday. Broadway shone with all its lights on in the crowd’s commotion. Near Rosie O’Grady’s, the flags of Carnegie Hall were waving. Angela would have preferred to go across the street, but Fred did not like it.
A few couples revolved on the restaurant’s dance floor to a live orchestra’s ballroom repertoire. As always, Fred ordered an abundant menu: caviar, shrimp cocktail, lobster, steaks, baked potatoes with butter and mayonnaise, Italian salads, ice cream, wine, brandy and fruit. He insisted at length on the thickness of the steaks, the cooking time and the length of the lobster. It was one of his pleasures, to tease the waiters to exasperation. Although the wine was perfect, Fred snorted. He even complained to the restaurant’s manager.
“Don’t let them know that you really like something,” he explained, prudently leaning over the table. “Next time they will not be as perfect as today.” He was serious, and Angela took his words as a new lesson about that world in which she had lived for only a short period of time. She tried though, to tell him that what he did to the coffee waitress was not right. That girl who had brought them coffee left with tears in her eyes. Fred accused her of being sloppy, screwing up the right proportions of his mixture made of regular coffee, decaf, and half-and-half—half whole milk and half cream.
“Ce soir tu parles un mauvais anglais. Concentrez-toi!” Fred reprimanded Angela’s interference in his affairs. He did not like to be contradicted. Worst, sometimes he displayed an immense pleasure in humiliating her, even tormenting her, as a kind of revenge for his sexual inhibition.
Angela felt the fatigue of the foreign language, of the foreign personality. The loss of her mother tongue—a concrete part of her body, a very tangible organ—meant not only a biological injury but also great pain and frustration. How wonderful it would have been to rest in her Romanian for at least a few minutes! But it was, of course, impossible. Here she was in one of Manhattan’s restaurants, in the heart of New York City, where she had fled to escape fear, hatred and intolerance. And she was still waiting for the right moment to get revenge. Meanwhile, she was desperately building the new “language organ.” How much time will would pass before it crossed the threshold of her being, becoming second nature? How long would it take? Years? Decades? The mother tongue, her working tool, made bilingualism heartbreaking. In her workplace or talking with Fred it was as if she wore an artificial heart. Would she ever have a true English “heart”? The difference between what she was as a human being and the poor language with which she was forced to express herself gave birth to the most grueling of fatigues: the fatigue of being silenced, the fatigue of not being able to communicate, the fatigue of not fully understanding what was said, the fatigue of not being understood, the fatigue of paying close attention to every spoken English sentence, and the fatigue of all these fatigues together.
Fred devoured big chunks from all the dishes in front of him, enough to feed an entire family. He muttered something, seeing Angela’s still-full plates, and called the waiter. Everything that was left on the table had to go into the doggy bag. It wasn’t about wasting food, but about wasting money. Money was not to be thrown away! Over the next days Fred would discard that food, but right now he staged his show of power.
However, Fred’s request was humiliating to the new immigrant at his table. In the impoverished world she came from, Fred’s demand would be classified as lack of elegance, and the crazy abundance of what he had ordered for dinner, as pure waste. Angela refrained from saying anything. She was just trying to understand. When the waiter left the bill on the table, she fought back her tears. It was almost the same amount of money she received for forty hours of hard work per week.
Living in anonymity after years of public life had been a relief at the beginning. In time, however, the loss of identity brought a new depression, so different from the ones she had experienced before. Friends, her articles’ admirers, phone calls, the freshly printed morning newspaper in which she had read with mixed fear and curiosity her own articles, were dearly missed. As if that were not enough, she had moved into new venues for testing the strength of her mental state. One of them was the relationship with Fred, a completely platonic one and highly tormented, because he poured out on her the venom stored during years of loneliness and frustration. But in this way she learned, as in an intensive training course, not only the art of living in America, but also the art of being American.
“I explained to my neighbor Marcel, the one who lives on the top floor of my apartment building, that if I had as a companion an American-born lady with your education and beauty, it would cost me a lot of money.” Fred sipped from his second coffee, adding up something in his head. “To tell you the truth, being with you means huge savings.”
Diary. July 1992
Manhattan during the night; the pyramidal skyscrapers’ penthouses displaying full gardens seem to me a new Babylon. I am thinking of ziggurats and Semiramis’ hanging gardens. Fred blew me off, saying that there are no pyramids here, just rectangles of concrete; however, I think differently. I think that each civilization at its peak moves to the pyramid, the most stable shape and structure in the universe. Some civilizations have buried their dead in them. We live in them. Is there a hidden meaning? What connects them all?
At midnight we admired Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge. Then we went to the South Street Seaport (the threatening ocean licking the overcivilized shores, the enchantingly lit fish market, boats, museum, and cafés). The shore at Pier 17—old ships, petrified fir trees. Next, we went to Chinatown—so animated that I was shocked. Around one o’clock in the morning we ate something tasty, with hot peppers, in a basement restaurant, full of local Chinese people and European tourists. From here we crossed to Little Italy. Everything was written in Italian, even the street names, just as they had been in Chinese in Chinatown. Here nobody cares. In Romania or any other country in Eastern Europe, something like this would bring civil war.
During evenings, children and the elderly gather in my neighborhood park in Queens. A Russian woman, about eighty years old, urged me to go back to Romania. “America is not a paradise,” she told me. A Polish beautician decided to go back home for good after twenty years in America. She sold everything. She complained of loneliness, of the fact that Americans do not accept new immigrants into their circles, about the linguistic handicap, the hard work to keep her job, high taxes, and the difficulty of having a family. “Everything here is about gain, about business, and shallow smiles all around. What a fucking world,” she said. “Only after the hard work in this world leaves you in shambles do you realize that.” I remembered Spengler’s theory of the West’s decadence and those pages where he talks about the fellah population – the residue of the world city as a feature of a declining civilization. Many others, on the contrary, consider America a paradise: those with masters’ degrees and PhDs who work in big companies and universities. The idea of America depends on the workplace, the human group you relate with, and how much money you make.
I wanted to see a striptease show around midnight, after I met and ate with some friends at Golden Garden, a Korean restaurant near my place. At Gallagher’s women in bikinis were dancing on a table. All around a bunch of horny men quietly sipped from their drinks. It was very civilized, even the erotic complicity between dancers and customers. I was thinking of the first and third centuries in Alexandria, and of the naked dancers from Byzantium’s circuses described by Procopius of Caesarea writing in his History about Theodora, the Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, a former stripper. No one is now allowed to touch them. In fact, although I feel the degradation of the human race in these Sodoms and Gomorrahs of the twentieth century, the fact that there are people who entertain themselves with such performances shows that they satisfy a human need. Voyeurism? Is it so expensive here for a man to have his own woman?
Manhattan: the inner city as permanent temptation. Temptation = Dissolution? The energy to resist lures is huge. The general philosophy of life: live intensely, more carnally, go as deep as possible; carpe diem; creatures feel eternal, and each one wants new pleasures. I remember those years of living in desperation and fear back home, fighting not to be transformed into an animal by hunger and terrifying cold during winters in an apartment with no heat when outside it was minus 25 Celsius or minus 13 Fahrenheit. To read, to write, had been my only way of staying sane. My people were living at the poorest level of life, like bacteria; and the frustration of not having the freedom to decide for ourselves, rather than others for us, had deeply crushed our souls.
Paradise and the myth of Paradise. A confusion hovers in my mind between Hell and Heaven. Sartre measured hell by the “other” or “otherness.” Had national hells created this Babylon—a necessary planetary dream?
I hallucinate as I walk on the streets, I hear people speaking Romanian. Sometimes I even “see” people dear to me. Today I ran after a man who looked like Lawrence! Last night, on my way home, I sat down, as tired as any homeless person, on the steps of the subway station at Lexington Avenue.
Mirela Roznoveanu is a literary critic, writer, and journalist who has published novels, literary criticism, essays, and poetry. She was a noted dissident journalist during the turbulent period in Romania during the late eighties.
On the 10th of April 1947 Mirela Roznoveanu was born (birth name: Roznovschi) – literary critic and prose writer; after the refusal, in 1973, to attend the Communist Academy « Stefan Gheorghiu » she is fired in 1974 from the literary and cultural magazine « Tomis » in Constanta; in 1975 she moved to Bucharest where she intensely contributed on cultural issues with the Romanian Television, without being employed; between 1978 and 1989 she worked for the scientific and cultural magazine « Magazin », published by the newspaper « Romania Libera »; in April 1989, during the process of the journalists from the Bacanu Group, she is investigated by the Securitate and disciplinary moved as a » health worker « ; her books and writing is banned; in December 1989 she is part of a group of journalists who takes over the newspaper « Romania libera » from the hands of the Communist government, making it the first independent and anti-communist newspaper in Romania :
In 1991, she moved to the U.S. where she has continued her writing career. She is a tenured, full time faculty member of the NYU School of Law where she is the Associate Curator: International and Foreign Law Librarian.
On December 2000, Mirela Roznoveanu was honored by outgoing President of Romania Emil Constantinescu, for exceptional contributions from abroad in the service of Romanian culture and democracy. Mirela has been named an Officer of the National Order for Faithful Service.
Her book The Civilization of the Novel: A History of Fiction Writing from Ramayana to Don Quixote received the 2008 Award of the Romanian Society of Comparative Literature and the 2008 Award of the Romanian Academy.
Personal home page: https://files.nyu.edu/mr24/public/index.html
Interview: Mirela Roznoveanu’s Four Decades of Professional Writing: A Dialog with Vladimir Wertsman for Multicultural Review:
Modern Readings, essays, Bucharest, Cartea Românească Publishing House, 1978
D.R.Popescu. Critical monograph, Bucharest, Albatros Publishing House, 1983
The Civilization of the Novel: A History of Fiction Writing from Ramayana to Don Quixote. An essay on comparative literature, Albatros Publishing House, vol.I -1983, Bucharest, Cartea Românească Publishing House vol. II – 1991
Always in Autumn, novel, Bucharest, Cartea Românească Publishing House, 1988
Life on the Run, novel, Bucharest, Sirius Publishing House, 1997; Apprehending the World, poetry, Bucharest, Luceafărul Foundation Publishing House, 1998
Platonia, novel, Bucharest, Cartea Românească Publishing House, 1999
The Time of the Chosen, novel, Bucharest, Univers Publishing House, 1999
Toward a Cyberlegal Culture, essays, New York, Transnational Publishers (2001, 2002)
Born again–in Exile, poetry, New York, iUniverse, 2004
The Life Manager and Other Stories, novellas, New York, iUniverse, 2004
The Poems and the Poet. A multimedia companion to Born Again — in Exile. Eastern Shore Productions, 2007;
Elegies from New York City, New York, Koja Press, 2008
The Civilization of the Novel: A History of Fiction Writing from Ramayana to Don Quixote. An essay on comparative literature,Cartex Publishing House,2008. 2nd edition