His work has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, and Swedish. Heinrich Boll remarked: 'Without any doubt, of all contemporary writers, Norman Manea is the one who most deserves being known around the world.' Now, for the first time, some of his work has appeared in Britain. Bravo.
October Eight O'Clock is a sequence of short stories that we might just as easily think of as a novel. They relate, in more or less chronological order, intense scenes from the life of a boy who grew up in a prison camp, became for a short time a fervent Communist pioneer, and then spent his adult life struggling to identify and keep at bay a natural but near-suicidal despair.
It is a most unusual work, not least because it combines two strands of literature that have often seemed quite different: the Holocaust journal and the totalitarian memoir. Manea weaves these two archetypal modern experiences into a seamless description of personal sorrow and privation. His work has none of Primo Levi's tender, grieving wisdom. His concern is not to describe what happened, or to bear witness to anything in particular. That life is meaningless is his premise, not his conclusion; the stories have crushed out anything the least bit documentary and attempt simply to reproduce the sensations provoked by our century's trademark horrors.
A mother returns to her son bearing the family's food for the week - a few potatoes, a handful of beans and flour - and produces from nowhere a magical garment: a brightly coloured sweater . . . The family stare at a single sugar lump hanging from the ceiling, and try to imagine that their tea is sweet . . . The boy is stung by a bee, and thinks he has been shot . . . He listens scornfully to his Rabbi, and dreams of the Communist Manifesto . . . He visits the seaside for the first time, and is nearly swept away and drowned . . . He wanders around a block of flats presided over by a smarmy superintendent.
The episodes roll past, determined not to rise to a climax or approach anything like an ending. Manea refuses to write with what most English writers would blithely assume to be general knowledge. He never says: 'Spring came in a burst of cherry blossom and bright daffodils waving their merry heads in the warm swallow-dancing breeze.' Instead, he says: 'All around, on the other side of the fence, flowers were blooming. Spring had come, you could hear birds. He had no way of recognising them, he could not name them, no one had found the time to talk to him about flowers and birds.'
Always, there is something pained and baffled about the language, even in English. For some reason, six translators have worked on these stories, but they have done a fine, coherent job of manufacturing a shocked grammar.
Quite often, Manea's fractured style is a matter of mere lists: 'April dust in his nostrils, starched linen, morning, voices, flames, the rainbow, the clatter of promises, the sun blinding you on the swing.' But even here there is a striking and effective sense that none of these things are linked. The consciousness of the boy in these stories has been so badly wounded he can only make sense of one thing at a time, and the grammar of his sentences has been wrenched apart, leaving nouns tilting unsteadily on their feet. The routine verbal apparatus of cause and effect has been chucked away. Everything that happens takes place only once, and has little bearing on what comes next.
There are no horrifying events in these stories. Manea does not attempt to elicit our sympathy by emphasising how bad things were. Occasionally he lands on a maxim and tries it out for size. 'You can't know what you haven't witnessed . . . A man shielded from the cold feels free to think he's smart.' But for the most part the leading role in the prose is played by the gaps between the sentences. These give a palpable impression of the emptiness that surrounds the small human events they have momentarily trapped. Here, for instance, is the moment when the boy-survivor catches his first glimpse of the ocean in which he will shortly attempt to drown:
'One Sunday they allowed us an excursion by train. It was a cold, breezy day. When we got off at the station the wind blew even harder, wetter, coming at us from all directions in the picturesque seaside town we were seeing for the first time. In the damp cold we walked along the streets of the centre. The town limits didn't seem far away. After descending a number of winding lanes, we came to a stop.
'That was when I saw the sea. It displayed before me its magnificent rebellion, its immense crash. I felt that I had been given something that could not be taken away, no matter how poor and dejected I might be. I was eighteen. I don't think I'll ever recapture that vibrancy again. I became speechless.'
In small doses, this kind of style is hard to take. Over a longer stretch it is both stirring and impressive. Not much of the literature about survival has so bold a stab at creating a blighted language. If at times we miss the largesse of a more good-natured writer, this is partly because even a flash of benign tolerance might permit us the consolation of believing horrendous experiences to be in some sense character-forming.
Manea is not having any truck with that. When the boy emerges from the camps, he is scornful of his family's desire to pick up where they left off, as if the intervening nightmare were just a forgettable hiccup.
His parents summon a Rabbi to instil a bit of Jewish culture in the boy, but he sees it as a mere trap: 'After all they had lived through, suddenly he was seeing them from a great distance. They seemed childish, ridiculous. They did not even believe in the ceremony for which they were preparing him. It was just the need for yet another sign that all was normal. Nothing else but the rush to accumulate proof, to have relatives and friends confirm that yes, everything was in order, that life had reaccepted them, that it was just like before, that they were the same as before.'
There is not much generosity here. But who are we, eavesdroppers from a world in which a glimpse of mum and dad kissing in the bath is sometimes reckoned enough to turn a man into a murderous head case, to be impatient with those who have suffered less everyday traumas, with those whose lives have given them so very few reasons to be cheerful?