The Honor of Exile

The Romanian sculptor Brancusi once said that when the artist is no longer a child, he is dead. I still don't know how much of an artist I have become, but I grasp what Brancusi was saying. I can grasp - even at my age - my childish enduring self. Writing is a childish profession, even when it becomes excessively serious, as children often are.

My long road of immaturity began more than half a century ago. It was July 1945, a few months after I returned from a concentration camp called Transnistria. I lived that paradisiacal summer in a little Moldavian town, overwhelmed by the miraculous banality of a normal, secure environment. The particular afternoon was perfect, sunny and quiet, the room's semi-obscurity hospitable. I was alone in the universe, listening to a voice that was and wasn't mine. My partner was a book of Romanian fairy tales with a hard green cover, which I had been given a few days before when I turned the solemn age of 9.

ttp protests

Free Trade in Chains

Chatham House’s Paola Subacchi examines the causes and consequences of today’s anti-globalization backlash, guided by insights from Stephen Roach, Dani Rodrik, Joseph Stiglitz, and other Project Syndicate commentators.

That is when the wonder of words, the magic of literature started for me. Illness and therapy began at the same time. Soon, too soon, I wanted myself to be part of that family of word wizards, those secret relatives of mine. It was a way of searching for ``something else'' beyond the triviality of everyday life, and also of searching for my real self among the many individuals who inhabited me.

I must confess that I also tried, several times, to get rid of that inner self, to find a surrogate capable of representing me better on the social scene. I studied engineering, not only because I wanted a profession that might protect me from the daily political demagogy, but also because I hoped it would protect me from that essential self I had discovered on an unforgettable post-war July afternoon. Yet the need for something drastically different and higher than the framed daily routine of an engineer and a citizen of the socialist paradise did not diminish. In that doubled estrangement, reading and writing proved to be, again and again, a saving disease.

Finally, I was able to hear my own voice in my own book, which also had, as it happened, a green cover. In the world-circus the poet looks like an Augustus the Fool, ill-equipped for everyday life in which his fellow men offer and receive their share of edible reality. Yet his weakness may be seen as an unconventional and devious strength, his solitude a deeper kind of solidarity, his imagination a shortcut to reality.

Inevitably, in the bright public square, Augustus the Fool, the poet, faces the Clown of Power. All human tragicomedy may be seen, occasionally, in this encounter, in the history of Circus as History. Nonetheless, the totalitarian experience remains incomparable in its pathology, in its masks and mendacity. An artist who has lived under tyranny (and even one who hasn't) cannot ignore the barrier that separates the two roles.

For a writer, the exile par excellence - always a ``suspect,'' as Thomas Mann said - language is his placenta. More than for any other ``alien'' in his country, language is for a writer not only an achievement, but a spiritual home. Through language he feels rich and stable; and when he is fully in charge of his wealth, he gains his citizenship, a sense of belonging. Language is always home and homeland for a writer. To be exiled from this last refuge represents the most brutal decentering of his being, a burning that reaches all the way to the core of creativity.

I postponed the decision to leave Romania because I was childish enough to fool myself that I didn't live in a country, that I lived only in a language. Eventually, I took the language, the home, with me, as a snail does. It still is my childish refuge, my place of survival.

Topics such as totalitarianism or exile may say a lot about my life and my writing, but however important, they don't in themselves tell about a piece of literature. Even in collective tragedies and extreme situations, the writer is searching, through his own vision, strategy, and style, for the destiny of the individual, for the human specificity of weakness and resilience and dreams, for the ambiguities and limits and surprises of individuality caught in the social deadlock.

I hope that even in the dark frame of such topics the light of the human soul and mind, its contradictions and potential, the ceaseless questions about love and death, about commitment and cowardice, about solitude and solidarity, about the tragicomedy of humans reveal, for better or worse, the imprint of the author. I was, in fact, more preoccupied with the ``gray zone'' in which I saw a kind of rainbow zone of truth, allowing me to search beyond undifferentiated darkness for individual features, and thus to introduce in the apparent uniformity of the extreme situation unsettling nuances.

As liberating as it was, going from internal exile into exile itself was a no easy experience. I have learned, however, in the more than ten years that have passed since I felt that burning, to honor exile, doing so in the name of all that is challenge and epiphany, of all the doubts and the lifelong apprenticeship it implies, for its emptiness and richness, for the unfettering of myself and the clash within myself.

The stranger consciously or unconsciously is always a potential or partial exile and all real writers are perpetual exiles from this world, even when, like Proust, they hardly leave their rooms. More and more, exile is an emblem of our time. Everywhere, people face the contradiction between centrifugal, cosmopolitan modernity and the centripetal need (or at least nostalgia) for belonging.

11,287 commentaries shared. Help us keep sharing.

Learn more

It is impossible to predict what place, if any, literature will have in the future. I don't dare to believe, as Dostoevsky did, that beauty can save our world. But we may hope that it can play a role in consoling and redeeming our loneliness. We may hope that its promise of beauty, its challenge of truth, its redefinition of goodness, its unpredictable playfulness will be difficult to abandon even in uncertain and dangerous times.

The artist remains, no matter how childish it may seem, a secret laborer of love. He daily reinvents the premises of the difficult search; he honors his reader, a stranger similar and dissimilar, with the gift of an exacting love. Thus he can continue his never-ending adventure and humanize his shipwreck wherever he may be.