Dana Grigorcea’s literary life came full circle in India in the last week of September. Grigorcea was a high school student in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, when she read the poignant love story of a young French engineer and an Indian girl set in Kolkata in the 1930s. “I fell in love with literature after reading Maitreyi,” says the author, who was in Delhi to participate in the Long Night of LiteratureS recently.
Reading Maitreyi, the fictional account of his own story by Romanian writer Mircea Eliade published in 1933 about the author’s relationship with his Indian employer’s 16-year-old daughter by the same name, apparently left a deep impact on Grigorcea. Mircea Eliade made his character a French engineer while keeping Maitreyi’s identity the same in the novel.
The novel, for the young Romanian, was as much about love as about meeting of divergent cultures. Grigorcea would learn more about cultures and identities as she would step out of Romania, when it is freed from the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauescu, to travel and live in a new united Europe.
“The experience of reading Maitreyi opened my eyes,” says Grigorcea, who wrote her first novel in Berlin, published the English translation of her second in India, and chose to live in Zurich, Switzerland, with her husband Perikles Monioudis, a Swiss writer of Greek descent. “A story, how exotic it could seem to be at the first look, always has the dreams that move everybody,” she adds. Grigorcea had her eureka moment last weekend when she read from her own novel to a packed hall in Kolkata, a literary event she travelled to after participating in the Long Night of LiteratureS in Varanasi and New Delhi.
Home and identity
An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence, Grigorcea’s second novel translated into English by her Indian publisher Seagull Books, is a love story, heist drama, an immigrant tale and a city’s history — all at the same time. Victoria is a bank employee in Zurich, who is visiting her parents in Bucharest while a failed bank robber tries his first success in her bank. “It is about Victoria’s search for home and the history of the great city of Bucharest,” says the author, who grew up in the Romanian city where her great-grandfather was once the mayor. “I wanted to write a story about a generation born in dictatorship, that participated in the revolution and is now free to participate in democracy,” she adds.
At the Long Night of LiteratureS, writings by Grigorcea and her fellow European authors pointed to a Europe troubled by Brexit, the refugee crisis, economic slowdown and rise of populist governments. So much like the world outside of it. While Grigorcea uses contemporary tales to illuminate her search for home and identity, Italian author Matteo Trevisani travels underground in his city, Rome, to understand the complexities of life.
Book of Lightnings, Trevisani’s first novel, shows a young Italian discovering an ancient Rome based on the cult of lightnings, which opens a passage between the world of the dead and the world of the living. “All the truth in Rome lies underground,” says Trevisani, who uses mythology, history and magic to make sense of the world today.
Knowledge and love
Book of Lightnings, the first of a trilogy, emerged from the author’s passion for mythology, philosophy and the history of religions. “These subjects say a lot about ourselves,” adds Trevisani, who studied history of magic as a college student. Published in 2017, Book of Lightnings is followed by Book of Sun, the second part of the trilogy, this year. While his first book searches life underground, his second does so in the outer space. Book of Sun is about a young astronomer searching for her missing alchemist fiance in the outer space, discovering life beyond “our reality” in the process. Trevisani confronts the question, how do we choose between knowledge and love.
In its fifth edition this year, Long Night of LiteratureS brought the writer and the reader close together yet again. Dubbed “speed dating in literature”, the event held at the Cervantes Institute, the cultural arm of the Spanish Embassy in New Delhi, lived up to its name with readings and long discussions. Among those participating were European Union Literature Prize-winning Irish author Jan Carson, whose 2019 novel The Fire Starters explores a dangerous post-Brexit scenario, and Austrian poet and novelist Martin Amanshauser.
The Salzburg-born Amanshauser is an onomastics wonder. His poems have curious titles like, It is unpleasant in the solar system or Trying Out If Email Message Goes Into Spam. It Is Unpleasant In The Solar System, a collection of 140 poems written over two decades, came out this year, evoking mixed reactions. It is easy to understand why. Trying Out If Email Message Goes Into Spam, which is part of the collection, is a menagerie of meaningless lines aimed only to understand if words like communism and bin Laden could pass without damage through an internet server.
The writer is a freelancer