The Bare-Footed Leper: An Interview with Romanian writer Vlad Zografi
I was born in a non-free country dominated by an ideology in which nobody believed. There was almost no hope for change. In think that in a normal country I would have studied philosophy: studying philosophy in Romania in the 1980s was something quite different from studying philosophy in Göttingen, Heidelberg, Cambridge, Oxford, or Harvard. At that time, in my country philosophy was a one-hundred percent ideology. I needed not to get involved in the “system”, I wanted to be more or less “clean”. On the other hand, I was a good mathematician though awfully poor equipped for science. I heard about quantum mechanics and I needed to understand the limits of our knowledge. It was a sort of philosophical problem I was facing so perhaps I decided to study physics for a challenge. But, after all, these are details: I just wanted to write, even philosophy was nothing but an intellectual game. When I was sixteen, I started to read Dostoevsky, then other Russian writers. And I knew not that I wanted to be a writer but that I already was a writer even without writing. Strangely enough, but it’s true. And then I started to write short stories. They were the traces of my experiences and my thoughts, something like the traces a snail leaves behind - an organic path. So I didn’t actually abandon physics to become a writer – I have always been a writer.
Now it is quite difficult to say to what extent my scientific experience influenced me. After all you must earn a living for which you may be a taxi driver, a professor, a burglar, or a beggar. I happened to be a physicist for some years. I don’t think that being a writer is a profession – it’s just a sort of paradoxical human behavior vis-a-vis a sheet of paper or a computer screen. Anyway, at each moment in your life you are supposed to be the product of all your past experiences – so there must be a scientific influence. But I cannot decouple it from all the other influences. I am much more interested in human nature than in a nature’s nature. I don’t like science fiction. So, if there is a scientific influence, it must be extremely subtle, so subtle that I cannot put my finger on it.
The system-resistant role of theatre you are speaking about has nothing to do with my idea of writing for theatre. I don’t think I am writing a metaphorical or philosophical theatre. My writing is inspired by something very concrete – that is, my obsessions. I am writing for theatre because I live in a very theatrical way. I myself am the theatre I am writing for. It is my view. And it is vivid. Everything I see is a tragic farce. I feel it intensely. You might say that theatre is a sort of experimental literature: it is supposed to be performed so it has an objective dimension. Theatre is a counterpoint construction, like music. Unfortunately, I don’t play music so the only thing I can do is to play theatre. I like contrasts: they have something to do with the genetic code of our world. Everything is paradoxical, and I think that theatre can express all those paradoxes better than other literary genres. On the other hand, I know that writing theatre means that you depend on a lot of things concerning a stage performance. If you are not an author of what you call “entertaining theatre”, it’s very difficult. Bad luck! But what can I do? I cannot falsify my nature. My nature dictates me to write plays. Once again: bad luck!
You cannot write if you don’t read first, and some authors influence you more than others. Beckett is an extremely important writer, and, indeed, he influenced me. Now, maybe it’s not Beckett himself but his world that is a wider source. I know that in America Beckett is better known than other writers. They belong to a European tradition of thinking that is sceptical about the world, as it is ordinarily perceived. This tradition has avoided the influence of what we call psychological realism. Simply because psychological realism is a naive lie, it represents the world in a schematic way. Human nature is much wider. Beckett realized this as did other writers, such as Kafka, Jarry, Bulgakov, Platonov, Harms, Ionesco, Witkiewicz, Gombrowicz, Borges, Casares, Marquez. But Shakespeare did it as well. And Cervantes. And Rabelais. And the ancient Greeks. And some Romanian writers completely unknown in America. I think I belong to this vast family.
But “influence” is a tricky word. You are influenced in a sense that some worlds are widely open to you. Nevertheless, you follow your own way – what a splendid cliché! I think what I have in common with Beckett is a certain perspective, but I’m afraid it is a genetic fact.
I don’t want to speak about theatre directors. Let me explain why. When I write a play, I have in my mind a stage, characters, movement, lights, colors, sounds. Yes, I believe I have some imagination, which is my only advantage. But maybe “imagination” is the wrong word for I have the ability to visualize and experience everything. I perform the play in my mind. And I write down the words my characters are pronouncing. I obey. It’s simple. Of course, the starting point is my obsessions but the characters in my mind possess certain independence – they are quite convincing to me. And the geometry of the situations is not a common one. So I must say that the first performance takes place in my head. I admit this statement may be judged as autistic. It doesn’t bother me. The problem is that the performance in my head is very vivid.
Now, when you see on the stage the play you wrote, you should not compare it to your internal performance. I made this mistake when I first saw a play of mine on the stage. Frankly speaking, the theatre director had some very good ideas, better than mine. I was influenced by them as I am more or less influenced by all the performances I see. But we have a problem here: the play as a literary work belongs to the writer, while the performance belongs entirely to the theatre director. Of course, they interfere but it is better not to speak too much with the director. She or he must feel entirely free. Otherwise, you risk making it a destructive interference. If you leave the theatre director free, you might have a chance to discover interesting things.
I admit I would like to create performances in a certain way but there are a lot of technical difficulties. In the best of all worlds, I would have a theatre of my own in order to act in the plays written by others, or maybe even in my own plays. I have some ideas – not very commercial ones, I’m afraid. Sometimes I “see” performances. Anyway, I do not live in the best of all worlds.
My target audience is always mankind. I write about extremely general things, such as the fact that human existence surprises us, the fact that we hope, the fact that we die, the fact that we love, the fact that we are condemned to torture and to be tortured. It’s very simple. The audience is not supposed to know quantum mechanics or sophisticated sociological theories. I wrote Kiss Me because I felt I was a bare-footed leper myself, and indeed everybody is a bare-footed leper. A disease is penetrating your life, but your life itself is a disease. I wanted this play to involve the audience: the main idea is to get the feeling that somebody penetrates your intimacy. I admit it is difficult to create a strong impression. You must get the feeling you are touched by a leper. You must not identify yourself with him, but join him, be melted in the same nature, in the same human reality. Because life is like this.
The English translation of this monologue was fortunate to have been handled by Ileana Orlich, a professor of literature at Arizona State University, and she belongs to both Romanian and American cultures. She is best placed for this kind of translation. It feels like the monologue was originally written in English. The same holds true for the other two plays she translated and which were published in the book Kiss Me: Peter and Oedipus at Delphi. I owe her a lot.
Romania is a country where people are not used to strongly believe in ideas. I once met a French philosopher who was speaking about general features of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe. When he was asked if there was any particular feature of Romanian Communism, he answered something like this: “Yes, in Romania nobody really believed in Communism.” This was not the case in other countries. There is a certain Romanian scepticism – and there are good aspects and bad aspects of this reality. In a way, I feel very lucky being Romanian: no preconceptions, having immunity to all ideologies, a detached perspective, a good humour, a very critical eye, sometimes maybe a cynical one. This partly explains why the literary avant-garde has some of its important roots in Romania. On the other hand, we have problems with our civil attitudes. During the Communist regime, generally, Romanians were versatile, but we haven’t got many dissidents. This lack of a civil spirit influenced a lot the post-Communist society but it would be too far-fetched to speak about a “dissident culture”. We have the culture of surviving but without long-term oriented ideas. And that’s our main difficulty.
Now the problem with the shoes is quite simple. I myself have big and difficult feet. I think I have an extra bone. It’s a problem to find good shoes. When a pair of shoes is destroyed, I experience a tragedy – I must buy other shoes, which might take days or weeks. And it is very important to have shoes, otherwise you can’t walk. And it is very important to walk, otherwise you can’t buy bread and wine and you don’t meet people. And it seems to me quite important to eat, drink and meet people. For me, the shoes image is not a metaphor, it is utterly concrete, it’s an everyday life problem. Generally, I don’t use metaphors, everything is concrete.
Yes, it is a borderline situation. The audience should be pushed towards more than identifying with the leper – rather towards sharing his condition. I create this kind of situation in other plays too. I think we live in societies that grow ever more autistic. The computer is an autistic way of living. And theatre might be the best solution to avoid this autism. But one should do it in a very subtle and intelligent way – you don’t need to throw tomatoes or eggs. The idea is that the audience should participate in something very important, something that has to do with its survival.
It was an extraordinary chance. I didn’t believe it would happen during my lifetime. I think that all of us have an inherent feeling of freedom, something that is deep inside us. I remember each morning I woke up I experienced a sort of perplexity: I was leaving a normal world and then I was supposed to enter a distorted one – a world governed by lies. In 1989 I kept writing short stories though there was no chance to be published. You may write for yourself and for a couple of friends, but sometimes you need to express yourself on a wider scale to really express yourself. You need to say the truth – your truth – loudly. It is an experience completely unknown to people who live in normal countries. On the other hand, by a sort of miracle, I think I’ve always had an undistorted perspective. I had no problems adapting to a free society – I was at home then. And, of course, I could publish.
Apparently, there are no ghosts. People are not interested in our recent past; they just want a better life, something that is not obvious. Many of them, among them many intellectuals, left the country. As a writer, I cannot see it as a choice. In which language should I write? My English is quite poor, so is my French, and my German is even worse. I definitely belong to the Romanian language - so I’ll stay here in Romania till the end. But many of my friends left the country, which is very sad. The economic situation is quite bad and now the political situation suddenly became incredibly bad. At the beginning of this summer, there was a sort of coup d’état organized by the “ghosts” you were speaking about. The almost democratic society was not able to create good economic conditions, but we should not forget the economic crisis that haunted the entire world. Now, the political forces with deep roots in the Communist regime and with nationalistic speeches go in a direction that might be extremely dangerous. We risk being expelled from the civilized world. Nevertheless, we belong to the European Union and to the NATO so this is where the opportunity for our “health” is. We find ourselves in a critical moment. So, you see, the past is still present. Unfortunately.
I am not a challenger – I am just a snail. The things I write are my organic trace, as I told you. Writing is a form of existence. But existence challenges you to face the impenetrable mystery of a daily tragic farce. I would like to understand things that cannot be understood. I am not pragmatic. All realistic goals seem to me lousy and ineffective. I want to survive my paradoxes. And I want to express them. I want to have time to express them. I want time. I need time because I want to learn how to die. I want to learn how to die without dying. But maybe it’s better to die at a certain moment. I’m not sure.
Before publishing for theatre, I destroyed about a dozen plays and a huge novel of 500 pages. So I’m quite good at destroying. The first plays I published were successful: Peter was performed at the best Romanian theatre in 1997, and the theatre gave several performances in Europe. Kiss Me also belongs to that period. Then between 1998 and 2005 I ceased to write. But in the autumn of 2005 I started once again writing – and this is my second period. It sounds very funny to speak about myself in these terms as if I were a literary critic! I am now in my second period, and I haven’t got enough time to write for I work as an editor – that’s my main problem. Looking back, I find the first period plays too explicit. On the other hand, my second period plays had no success. The inherent irony of life!
I had a great opportunity: two years ago I received a stipend in Switzerland. I lived in a small town called Zug, near a beautiful lake (also called Zug) and a beautiful mountain (also called Zug), in the Canton of Zug, of course. It was paradise. In six months I wrote four plays that I consider the best thing I ever did. Last year I published them in a book called All Your Minds (the title of one of the plays). These plays might be difficult to perform, I admit. They have a very powerful fantastic dimension: in Zug I used to speak with birds, cats, and sometimes with fishes (but I’m not sure about the fishes, maybe I overestimate my abilities). One of these plays is The Planet Mars. It is about a man who successfully escapes the irreversibility of time: he explores a tree of erotic possibilities with a lot of women. No consequences. He is out of time. But the problem is that our consciousness, our being is the fruit of irreversibility. We are all the children of death. So the man I was talking about becomes “nothing” in a certain way: he becomes a baby. This is the play I would choose to save but I think I would choose to save the whole book All Your Minds because the four plays are connected.
So what’s coming next?
While leaving Zug at the end of January 2011, I had another play in mind but I don’t want to speak about it because I never had time to write it. I need two completely free months. Meantime I wrote an essay. I never thought of writing an essay, I just had some ideas about theatre and literature. It happened that I wrote a letter to Oliver Sacks, the well-known American author (I am his editor in Romania), because I contemplated a lot about his books and I had some ideas concerning them. I was very surprised to receive a letter from Oliver Sacks – and it was a warm one. He said I should write an essay. So, finally, I did it. I was very lucky: I finished the book two weeks before the coup d’état, otherwise it could have been lost forever under the dramatic conditions we’ve had here in Romania for the last two months. Now I must find a title to publish the book in autumn or winter. This essay is supposed to be something like “How do I see the world” from a theatrical and literary perspective.