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A writer in the Cold War

Richard Wagner pleads for a fresh look at the novels of right-wing Romanian writer Vintila Horia, who died in 1992 in literary disgrace.

In December 2006 a group of Romanian intellectuals submitted a petition to the Culture Ministry in Bucharest requesting the rehabilitation of the writer Vintila Horia. Among the signatories of the petition were poet Ana Blandiana, the Paris-based writer and dissident Paul Goma, literary critic and editor Monica Lovinescu, and Ion Caramitru, an actor and cultural policy maker.

Who is Vintila Horia? In 1960 the Prix Goncourt jury selected him to receive the Prize for "God Is Born in Exile," his novel about Ovid (published well before Christoph Ransmayr's "The Last World" - review). Horia's book was translated into 14 languages, including German, and ultimately appeared in Germany as a Goldmann paperback. But the Prix Goncourt was never actually awarded to Horia. Shortly after the jury's selection was announced, the newspaper L'Humanité, mouthpiece of France's Communist Party, launched a campaign against the Romanian author, who wrote in Romanian, French and Spanish.

Horia was born in 1915. In his youth during the 1930s he published articles in periodicals of Romania's extreme right wing. He was one of the spokesmen for the generation whose feverish existentialism extolled the political madness of the period. Subsequent discussion both within and outside of Romania has shown how a dark mixture of death cult, Orthodox Christianity and ethnocracy gripped an entire generation. Segments of that discussion have been the biographies of E.M. Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Constantin Noica, Romanian authors who later either came to international prominence or attained guru status in their own country.

As a young author, Vintila Horia's writings appeared in the same publications as those of these other, better-known figures. During the Second World War, under the pro-Hitler regime of Ion Antonescu, he worked as cultural and press attaché in Romanian embassies in Rome and Vienna. Mircea Eliade filled the same post, first in London and then, after Romania's entry into the war on the Axis side, in Lisbon. That sort of activity should not be seen solely from an ideological perspective, however. It also helped save members of the country's intellectual elite from being sent into front-line combat. Those who had influential patrons in government were granted "survival niches" in the diplomatic service.

Following Romania's about-face in August 1944, Horia was interned by the Nazis. His advocates tend to exaggerate the significance of this detail. They also point to the fact that he was never a card-carrying member of the pro-fascist Iron Guard – something of an academic matter, considering the tone of his political articles from the 1930s. There were a number of extreme right-wing groups active in Romania back then, distinguished from one another more by internal rivalries than by differences in programme.

Like Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco and many others, Horia remained in the West after the end of the war. He lived in Spain, and for a while in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soviet-occupied Romania could no longer provide a home for these intellectuals. In the first post-occupation governments, the Communists secured the interior and justice ministries for themselves, and thus were able to make an early start in the persecution of their rivals, enemies and potential enemies, as well as in settling old scores (an aspect of the situation which should not be under-estimated).

As early as 1946, show-trials were held which followed the Stalinist pattern of torture and farce. In one such trial, Vintila Horia was sentenced in absentia to life in prison. The justification for the sentence was that he had facilitated the penetration of fascist ideas into Romania and had made the case for those ideas to be realized under the leadership of the German embassy in Bucharest. For Stalinists, of course, everything was espionage and denunciation. The sentence against Horia has not been rescinded to this day.

The intellectual struggle during the Cold War was one of the great proxy wars in a divided world. It was, so to speak, a Vietnam of the Gutenberg Galaxy. One need only recall the denial of the existence of the Soviet gulag system, and its down-playing by left-wing intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre. And there was the "Congress for Cultural Freedom," whose anti-Communist protagonists were repeatedly accused of having received money from the CIA.

The scandal surrounding the 1960 Prix Goncourt should also be seen against that background. Witnesses from the period report that, during a publisher's party – Horia's novel had been published by Fayard in France – the author was lured into a side room, where a representative of the Romanian embassy in Paris awaited him. Apparently the official's purpose was to blackmail Horia into issuing positive remarks about the Soviet-satellite Bucharest regime.

In the early 1960s, the Communists in Bucharest pardoned prominent right-wing extremists from the intra-war years, released them from prison and commissioned them to write articles for the propaganda journal "Glasul Patriei" ("Voice of the Fatherland"), which was aimed at readers abroad. This happened, for example, to Nichifor Crainic, once the mentor of the youthful Vintila Horia. (So much for the anti-fascism of the Romanian Stalinists!) In pursuing this policy, one of the aims of the Bucharest regime was to gain control of the Romanian diaspora in order to counter critical reporting on Stalinist Romania abroad and to control image-building in the Western media.

One means to that end was to manipulate intellectuals who had become prominent in the West and therefore exerted a certain influence both on diasporic communities and on the media in their host countries. So the Bucharest regime collected material against them, and by raising the charge of fascism – easily demonstrated by pointing to their youthful activities – it gained control of most intellectuals. Even people like Cioran and Eliade became prisoners of their own biographies. The campaign launched by L'Humanité in 1960 made use of the same materials against Vintila Horia that had been used against him in the Stalinist trial of 1946. What followed was a wave of public indignation in Paris. In view of the revealed facts, no one felt in a position to defend him. Horia relinquished the Prix Goncourt and became persona non grata in French literary and cultural circles. Those of his subsequent novels which were published in France were seldom if ever reviewed.

Unquestionably, in the 1930s Horia published essays such as "The Fascist Miracle," and he had to answer for them. But what had his historical novels of the 1960s to do with that – books rich with ideas, with protagonists like Ovid, Boethius or Plato, works which deal with the grand theme of exile as a form of existence? It is as if one were to ignore "Being and Time" because Heidegger was close to the Nazis, or to refuse to print Louis Ferdinand Céline's "Journey to the End of Night" because of his "Bagatelles for a Massacre" and his role in Vichy France.

Did Vintila Horia have more to answer for than Céline, more than Eliade or Cioran? He had an exchange of letters with Eliade, but as late as the 1970s Cioran reportedly avoided contact with him for fear of public opinion. In the postwar years Horia wrote decidedly anti-Communist articles, in contrast to his prominent compatriots who largely avoided going head-to-head with the Bucharest criminals – because they were vulnerable to blackmail, and they knew it.

The record of one of the Stalinist trials of 1959, hence one year prior to the Prix Goncourt affair, notes the following about a foreword written by Horia to an anthology of poems which was circulating in Bucharest in manuscript form. The Securitate document states that the foreword constituted "a manifesto inciting the writers in the People's Republic of Romania not to subordinate their works to the People's Democratic regime." It was this that bothered the Bucharest rulers about Vintila Horia, not his fascist past.

Following his excommunication by the Paris cultural elite, Horia returned to Madrid in Franco's Spain. There he became a prominent novelist, publicist, critic and founder of periodicals. He died in Madrid in 1992. Politically he was right-wing and anti-Communist, critical of liberalism and the Enlightenment, in the tradition of Rivarol. His historical novels, which often use their material as a platform for historical-philosophical reflection, link contemporary lives and fates with events far in the past. His Ovid novel deals with the condition of the exiled writer in the era of the Cold War, but also in the time of the Roman Europe and the threats it faced. In "Pursue Boethius!" the biography of the 6th-century Neoplatonist and bridge-builder to Scholasticism is interwoven with the life of a 20th-century individual. "The Seventh Letter" takes off from a similarly named work by Plato in order to reflect on tyranny and utopia.

Without ignoring his involvement in totalitarianism, Vintila Horia as novelist is worth rediscovering. This will not be a simple task, since it demands a feeling for the obsessions of literature and for the dialectic of intellectual engagement in the 20th century, particularly under Cold War conditions. Finally, the case of Horia is an illuminating example of the difficulties in establishing a new literary canon following the end of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.


The article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on April 2, 2007

Born in 1952 in the Banat region of Romania, Richard Wagner is a writer living in Berlin. His book "Der deutsche Horizont. Vom Schicksal eines guten Landes" ("The German horizon: On the Fate of a Good Country") was published by Aufbau in 2006.

Translation: Myron Gubitz

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