Eastertide Reality Check

You think you have it hard just because you’re collecting rejections from the best literary agents in the country?

You haven’t a clue.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in taking roadblocks to publication much too seriously, so I thought I would share a major reality check I came across a few weeks ago in a book that Older Son read for a Balkan politics seminar.

The title is Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, by Robert D. Kaplan.

It is not a paranormal.

However, it’s scarier in parts than any ghost story you will ever read… and also inspiring. It chronicles the author’s travels throughout the Balkans two decades ago, from Istanbul to Greece, on a mission to learn what everyday life was like in that history- and blood-drenched part of the world.

The pages that reduced me to tears are excerpted below, with the kind permission of the author. Robert D. Kaplan is now a National Correspondent for The Atlantic and a Senior Fellow of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He currently is writing a book the Indian Ocean region and its importance for the future of energy supplies, national security and global primacy.

… There was much to be seen [in Romania].  After Poland, Romania is the largest and most populous country in the Soviet Union’s former Eastern European empire. The Carpathian Mountains meander through the heart of the country, dividing the interior into several distinct regions.  As a result, rural Romania is far more diverse and visually spectacular than Poland (or any other country in Eastern Europe) and far less explored. I wanted to know how five years of Nazism followed by four and a half decades of Stalinism had affected this landscape and the people who inhabited it.

So one morning before dawn, in the spring of 1990, I left [Bucharest] and began walking to the train station. [He travels to Tulcea, gateway to the Danube Delta. After leaving the train station, he found] a rank of tall tenement buildings, blocking any view of the riverfront from the turn-off-the-century houses, the mosques, and the churches. The cement faces of these tenements had been spray-painted a sickening brownish red. Outside the windows on each floor sat flower pots, but for some reason there was nothing cheerful about them. Studying the view, I realized why. These pots, though obviously meant for flowers—the bright tulips and roses that Romanians have a passion for—had been filled instead with vegetables, notably onions and garlic: things the building’s inhabitants evidently could not find in local shops.

I entered one of the hallways of a tenement. The staircases were made of bare concrete, the doors of plywood. Every aspect of the construction was cheap and crude. Monumental spears and arches of unfinished cement occupied the pavement between the buildings, which looked less vandalized than American slums and were certainly less dangerous. But while slums in America are often sad mistakes born of landlord abuse and tenant neglect, there seemed nothing mistaken or accidental about the  buildings I saw in Tulcea.

Walking down a side street away from the waterfront, I noticed a plaque that translated as “artists’ union.” Intrigued, I pulled open the sheet-metal door, climbed the staircase, and knocked. The door creaked open. In the crack stood a man wearing a smock over an old suit and tie. His eyes nervously asked me, “Who are you?” I asked if he knew French. He nodded. I told him I was an American writer traveling through Romania. The door opened wider.

His name was Stefan Stirbu, a fifty-one-year-old artist who had had an exhibition in 1974 in Memphis, and another in 1977 in Pittsburgh. He boiled a glass of tea for me, then proudly took out of hiding the American-produced exhibition catalogs and review clips—their slick graphics and smooth paper so unlike the grainy artwork and recycled paper used in Romanian books and newspapers. After 1977, Stirbu was not allowed to leave the country. He slowly became a prisoner in this small room in Tulcea with its soot-blackened windows. He looked at the review clips every day, to remind himself that a world still existed outside and that he had twice been there.

“In the early 1980s, obtaining the proper cloth, paint, and other materials became difficult, then almost impossible. And there was no heating at all in winter.”

After the revolution, materials were a little easier to come by, so Stirbu began painting again. He painted religious icons in deep, bright colors in a naive, peasant style, all of which told the same story: how Communism attempted, but failed in the end, to destroy the Romanian family. In recent weeks, he had made dozens of these icons—about one a day. I bought one. It depicts a wooden cross stamped with the hammer and sickle, on which a peasant couple is crucified. But in an adjacent scene of resurrection, the couple stands triumphant, holding images of their farm and flock.

“Religion sustained me in the 1980s, and after the revolution, religion was all I wanted to paint about.”

He offered me a cot in  his studio. I could stay there as long as I wanted, he said. He told me that I was the first Westerner he had spoken to since 1977. I didn’t doubt him. Ceausescu had forbidden Romanians to speak to foreigners without afterward reporting their conversation to the Securitatae. Allowing a foreigner inside your home without prior permission had been punished by a prison sentence.

Saying goodbye took a good deal of diplomacy. It being soon after Easter, I left him with the Romanian words:

Hristos a inviat [Christ has risen].”

Adevarat a inviat [Truly He has risen],” came the reply.

It appeared my lightly taken decision to stop at his door for a few moments had ended a dark era in this artist’s life.

* * *

Postscript: The events recounted in Mr. Kaplan’s book took place during the Easter season 20 years ago. I’m hoping things have improved in Tulcea since then. Mr. Stirbu apparently kept working: as recently as two years ago he (or a colleague) posted images of several of his pictures on a blog (click here) along with what looks like an exhibition schedule, including one in 2003.

My Romanian is a little rusty absolutely non-existent, but it looks to me as if the last lines of his profile (Ordinul Naţional “Pentru Merit“ în grad de Cavaler pentru realizări artistice şi pentru promovarea culturii) indicate that he received a national Order of Merit in 2000, perhaps for contributions to the cultural life of Romania.

A translation, further information about Stefan Stirbu, and news about Tulcea today, are welcome in the comments.

© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

This entry was posted in Seasonal, The Examined Life, The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Eastertide Reality Check

  1. I have no comment except to say that this post touched me deeply.

    Like

  2. Z says:

    What beautiful, iconic work—I set the loaves and fishes as my wall paper…

    Z

    Like

  3. MaryWitzl says:

    That really is moving, Anne — (how could I have missed it?)

    I teach and work with a lot of people from the former Soviet bloc — Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Belarussians, etc. The younger ones are so different from the older ones — it gives you an idea how much harder their lives have been.

    I like to remind myself frequently what a privilege it is to be able to pursue a dream freely.

    Like

  4. cristina nani says:

    stefan stirbu is my uncle and ițm also a painter,without any honouristical prices,but i feel so good and happy to know that his work is apreciated worldwide…thank you,cristina nani

    Like

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