For Two Thousand Years
by Mihail Sebastian
translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Publisher: Other Press
“Being persecuted is not just a physical trial. It is one that affects you intellectually. The reality of it slowly deforms you and attacks, above all, your sense of proportion.”
So says the anonymous narrator of the powerful novel For Two Thousand Years as he reflects on his time as a university student in 1920s Romania. But this book belies those words. Even as he and fellow Jewish students are assaulted daily, he seeks to understand himself, his attackers, and his own response to their anti-Semitism. The strength of this book is found in its clear-eyed reporting of conversations the narrator has with friends and colleagues – their candid brutality at times stunning – combined with his thoughtful reflection on what he hears and sees.
Originally published in Romanian in 1934, this novel by Mihail Sebastian has been available in French for some time. It has only now appeared in English in a translation by Philip Ó Ceallaigh, and it couldn’t be more timely. Then, as today, while the perpetrators get most of the attention, silent bystanders also get their due:
“If somebody set themselves up in the middle of the street to demand, let’s say, ‘Death to badgers,’ I think that would suffice to arouse some surprise among those passing by. Now that I think about it, the problem isn’t that three boys can stand at a street corner and cry ‘Death to the Yids.’ But that the cry goes unobserved and unopposed, like the tinkling of a bell on a tram.”
The Nazis haven’t arrived in Romania yet, but anti-Semitism is on the march. Jewish students are attacked and beaten for having the temerity to attend their classes. Professors at best stand quietly by; at times they encourage the perpetrators. Each night the narrator returns to a dormitory where the victims compare wounds and try to imagine the future.
The novel follows this insightful young student into adulthood. The narrator changes his major to architecture, at the encouragement of a nationalist professor he idolizes. He becomes an architect and is hired by an eccentric American tycoon named Ralph Rice. He lives in Paris for a time, and eventually returns to Romania to work on Rice’s oil fields. The drilling kills the local plum trees, which are the heart of the peasant economy and culture. An entire village is moved to make way for oil production. Then the narrator takes on the design and building of a house for the professor he once loved, whose classes he used to be thrown out of by the professor’s young acolytes.
All this drama, though, is backdrop to the narrator’s deeper struggle not just to survive but to understand, and this is the beating heart of the novel that echoes through to today. As he moves through life, he meets with many anti-Semites. He attends their classes. He breaks bread with them, works side-by-side with them. He talks to other Jews with differing responses to the rising crisis. Most of the people he talks with – nationalists, anti-Semites, communists, Zionists, and oblivious foreigners – are types intended to represent a particular point of view. And yet, his conversations with them are fresh and engaging, as are his later reflection on them:
“Don’t allow yourself to indulge your suffering. There’s a great voluptuousness in persecution and feeling yourself wronged is probably one of the proudest of private pleasures…. Think how ridiculous we would be if we were alarmed at every shower of rain that soaked us.”
Mihail Sebastian is the pen name of Iosif Hechter, and this novel is thinly disguised autobiography. The other major work he is known for is the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944. When it was finally published in 1996, it was quickly recognized as an important chronicle of the rise of nazism in Europe. Sebastian’s humanistic observations of the catastrophe as it unfolded can help us understand his time and ours. Having survived the Holocaust, Sebastian was hit by a truck and killed while crossing a Bucharest street in 1945, on his way to give a lecture on Balzac. He was 37 years old. As the prescient young narrator says early in this book, making a failing of Sebastian’s great strength as a chronicler,
“Something tells me that we are unable to live any of life’s moments fully. Not one of them. That we eternally stand at a remove from what is happening. A little above or a little below things, but never at their heart… That the fires we lit to offer up our hearts smouldered out too soon.”
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry, and creates zines. She will be an Artist in Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in summer 2018. More at bronwynmauldin.com.