The Chicken Voyeur

Grasping for the knowable in a Romanian dreamscape

In the 1960s and '70s, the Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag was at the center of Bucharest's group of oneiric poets and writers, whose dream-fueled experiments were a literary assault upon the state-sanctioned literature of the Ceausescu regime. Forced into exile in France in 1975, Tsepeneag has written in both French and Romanian since, but Vain Art of the Fugue is only his second work to be translated into English. Tsepeneag himself has called it a "difficult book," and those looking for a conventional narrative will have a hard time finding one in the hallucinatory shuffle of time, events, and character that compose the story.

In a city that resembles Bucharest, a man runs to catch a train—or is it a bus?—or is it actually a boy playing with a toy train? He bears flowers for a woman named Magda or Maria, or sometimes simply M.; she is his lover, or wife, or perhaps the teacher he adored as a child. Through the window, he glimpses a bicyclist carrying panniers of fish and loaves of bread; sometimes these objects are borne by other passengers. He makes love to Magda (or Maria) with a chicken as witness. There's a train accident; the bus swerves; the man is killed; the man survives. The endless refraction of images and words is both disorienting and weirdly affecting, the way dreams are.

Details

Vain Art of the Fugue
By Dumitru Tsepeneag, translated by Patrick Camiller
Dalkey Archive Press, 140 pp., $12.95

But the narrative also radiates the ominous dark sheen of half-recalled trauma, perhaps induced by torture. The train compartment could be a prison cell, the interplay of memory and character a by-product of sleeplessness or drugs. Zeno's second paradox provides a key to the temporal confusion, but the surreal, fragmented tale escapes the imposition of any single meaning. Dumitru Tsepeneag fishes in Time's stream, but whether he lands a carp or a child is ultimately less important than the dislocation he induces: the sense that memory, time, and consciousness are both mutable and, ultimately, unknowable.

 
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