By: Grethel Delgado
As a child, Norman Manea, of Jewish origin, experienced the traumas of a concentration camp (Transnistria, in present-day Ukraine) and communism in Romania, until he was able to settle in the United States. With his book "Exiled Shadow" (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2022), Manea unravels these painful experiences from intriguing angles. As the editorial note indicates, this psychological and intellectual novel is "a collage that interweaves the life of a Holocaust survivor, his subsequent existence in a communist dictatorship, and exile in America, with his obsessions as a literature enthusiast."
The narrative discourse, it adds, unfolds on various levels, "dominated by his passion for books and the intense intimacy with his stepsister, with whom he shared the horror of the camp. The friendship between the protagonist - the Misanthropic Nomad - and Günther, a Romanian of German ethnicity, exiled in Berlin, obsessed with the Holocaust and German guilt, marks a retrospective of the dramatic events of the 20th century, nationalism, fascism, communism, and exile."
The book, translated from Romanian by Marian Ochoa de Eribe, emphasizes the metaphor of the shadow as a "carrier of identity" and a constant element that reinforces the sense of the exile as a stranger. But above all, it delves into the relevance of literature as an essential defining point of that cherished identity. It's worth noting that Manea, this "melancholic and ironic nomad," quotes the German classic Adelbert von Chamisso, author of "The Man Who Sold His Shadow."
The reader will be able to delve into an unusual historical breakdown not only of the geographical movement that exile implies, what Bertolt Brecht called the "frenetic dialectic of change," but also of those psychological tremors that take place in the exiled body. Furthermore, it is a peculiar novel that leans towards philosophical essay, but washed with lines of thought that might seem disordered or arbitrary. However, these introspective games only serve to reflect the fragmentation of a wandering, nomadic soul, much like the character himself infers.
There is a longing for the first place, for that land from which the character departs, and it's an echo that repeats in the distance: "Here, in the place where I suffered and loved, I learned to speak, to write, and above all, to read; here I saw the sea. The dispatcher of destiny does not allow me to have any DNA other than that of the transients."
As the author later explains, "the concentration camp wounded me deeply, then communism worsened the wound. So, I no longer had trust in reality. I replaced it with books." This rejection of the past is clear when the protagonist, once in the United States ("the America of the exiles"), is told by someone, "I have always been concerned about the community." To which he responds, "Com-mu-ni-ty? I have lived forty years in a state that called itself communist. I can no longer hear that word."
And he delves into his identity: "I am a nobody, a scholar without a degree; not even a talented poet, nothing; I have nothing, not even a homeland that even the poorest man has. I have no shadow..." As he says at another moment about the shadow, "we all lose our shadow." He elaborates on another occasion: "The shadow seems like a metaphor for homeland, language, roots, or anything related to belonging."
His analyses of the Holocaust are piercing, especially because he points to the human wound beyond the intricacies of terror and politics. When recalling an essay by Alan Berger about Elie Wiesel, titled "The Writer as Witness In and About Exile," he cites an extreme image of uprooting: "The Jews were exiled from existence. Expelled from history and time, the Jewish people have faced extinction for the 'crime' of being born... The Holocaust is the ultimate form of exile." You can find the book at this link.