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Paunescu's Way

Word wizard, politician, star performer--Adrian Paunescu is a man for all regimes. by Dumitru Balaci 19 March 2003 BUCHAREST, Romania--One day some 20 years ago, a crowd nearly blocked one of Bucharest's main boulevards. They were queuing to buy a just-published volume of poetry.

Legend has it that the gathering attracted the notice of Nicolae Ceausescu as his official motorcade swung past. After all, Romania was a country where spontaneous large gatherings of people never occurred, and if they did it probably meant trouble.

Last January, when the same poet’s latest book hit the market, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and other ministers paused from their weekly cabinet meeting to attend the official launch in the same packed downtown bookshop.

The book was Liber sa sufar (Free to Suffer); its author, Adrian Paunescu. Beyond these bare facts stands the unmissable figure of the man himself--nearly two meters tall and rotund, owner of a thundering voice and a prodigious memory he can access instantly to deliver his own and other poets’ verse, or his own and other people’s past words.

No less imposing than the man himself are the feelings of attraction or repulsion he elicits. In talking to him, one must take care to prevent being tumbled over by the force of his arguments.

PAUNESCU THEN ...
They come in a deep voice, complemented by mastery of the Romanian language, which he never uses parsimoniously, but always lushly, parentheses opening inside parentheses, his thoughts winding and unwinding in long phrases couched in textbook-perfect grammar.

A poet of uncontested talent, some say.

Too popular with the crowds, sniff others.

A political animal, say yet others.

REAL LOVE, REAL SCORN

As copies of his new book flew out of the shops (5,000 in just two weeks, a record for post-communist Romania), the poet did a number of television interviews where he dropped a few bombshells that can hardly have hurt his sales. The lost love whom he mourned in many poems was alive and well, he revealed. The 59-year old poet, married to his second wife, with three children and already a great-grandfather, had written these poems to soothe the grief he felt after his mistress of seven years deserted him.

The public's wonder at this came not from the mismatched ages and status in a passionate extramarital affair, but the poet's readiness to strip his soul to the bone, comments Eugen Simion, president of the Romanian Academy.

“Unlike us, the others, who try to cover up our failures, he brings his into the light with his customary eloquence. I read the book in a single night. It is a book of powerful feeling, frustrated feeling. It is a strange book by someone suffering for love, love that overcame a man almost 60,” Simion says.

As always, Paunescu did not distill facts in his poems, but bluntly put them in rhymed verse on paper.

Thus we read in Free to Suffer that his lover (whose identity he has not revealed) went from being his "Black Queen" to a commoner who discarded him because he refused to marry her and father her children.

Paunescu's scorn for her was unstinting. On live television, he said, “If the critics who reviewed my book knew who she was, they would say in amazement: 'How could that woman inspire such poetry? It's unthinkable!' "

When it comes to love, not taking defeat lightly is his trademark, some would say, pointing to the way he piled spite on his first wife, the poet Constanta Buzea, after their divorce. This aspect of his literary personality is prominent in the 117 poems dedicated to his latest lost love. Here is "Incurable Love":

There is no way you can get away from my seal.
I was forever reconstructing you
In a few thousand clutches of lovemaking,
When I always stayed inside you.
Like an account in the bank,
You are registered,
You are marked,
You are sealed.

And even if the seed,
In its holy vulgarity,
Was flushed away with the water,
Your brain was left with the mental form,
You will be under the yoke of criteria,
You will feel me in your flesh and in your brains
There, obsessing.

And even if you want to forget me,
You will forget me in my own way.
And even when toiling against me
You will be obsessed with grammar,
You will labor to achieve style.
You will keep on fighting always with my weapons.

You will open parentheses,
You will digress in a scholarly way
And only when that one (the next man who I don't care about)
Smacks you on the mouth,
You will find the strength to rue
In the same way that was built inside you
According to my mold, during these years,
And you will cry, humiliated, for times
And for gestures of a lost love
Forever.
Incurable love.

--Translated by Dumitru Balaci with permission of the author.

THE COMEBACK KID

However far he may have fallen at different times in his life, Paunescu's real trademark has always been the comeback.

... AND NOW
His political career shows how: Passionately involved in politics since communist times and a controversial figure too in the post-communist era, Adrian Paunescu managed to jump parties and now serves as a senator in Nastase's ruling Social Democratic Party.

As for his poetry, literary critics of various generations agree that for all its changes, it will endure and join the canon of Romanian literature.

Paunescu made his literary debut in 1960.

“At first, his poetry was hermetic and very good,” the young critic Daniel Cristea Enache says.

“But then he took a step back from modernity and turned to a more popular kind of poetry. Little by little Paunescu started to make his poems accessible to the public, even more than would have been advisable. His poems became accessible to the many, became song lyrics, and were recited in poetry shows. Hence his success with the general public, because it appreciates the poems it understands and can recite.”

For a dozen years beginning in 1973, Paunescu was that large public's host at the Flacara literary clubs. These were actually huge-scale poetry and music shows where young people gathered at stadiums for performances that sometimes lasted 12 hours from early afternoon into the wee hours of the next morning.

In opening up to his public, Paunescu also wrote and recited poems many received as sheer propaganda for the regime and its head, Nicolae Ceausescu.

The unrepentant poet, however, blasts any suggestions to this effect.

“This lie regarding me is starting to annoy me like a dance on scars," he says.

"I was a dialectic poet, one that said yes to some things and no to others, and I still say yes or no today to the same things as yesterday.”

The list of things he approved of, according to Paunescu, comprised national sovereignty; development of the national culture; and even Nicolae Ceausescu, as defender of Romania’s stance and its divergence from Moscow's approved line.

What he was always against, Paunescu says, was tyranny, and he berates those who suggest the contrary as “people without intellectual curiosity and the minimum common sense to refer to my lyrics and not take for granted the words others have chewed."

And he plunges into reciting one of his poems that he says explains what he means:

“Nothing is done, when nothing stands up against it, nothing is done when nothing contests it. No matter how high the power ascends, hails keep it up, but so do the protests.”

Indeed, even naming opposition by its name was something of a brave feat in those times, let alone printing it.

Paunescu says he criticized Ceausescu and communism themselves in his poems, and only malevolent intent can portray him otherwise, and then only by taking his lyrics out of context.

Yes, he praised “the Leader” (the buzz-word for Ceausescu), but lower down in the same poem, Paunescu says he set a condition for that praise: “the Leader who built factories and published books, not prisons for his people.”

GRAINS OF DISSENT

The youngsters who came in droves to pack the stadiums for cultural events led by Paunescu weren't there merely to listen to his sometimes fawning lyrics about the great Leader of the Party.

People who attended the Flacara shows say they gave Romania's youth a chance to experience what their Western counterparts had known since the late '60s: performances combining mostly folk-inspired music and poetry where the audience could taste the fruits of at least temporary freedom from social control. Flacara shows not infrequently made the backdrop to early encounters with booze and sex. It's said that panties were the most common article swept up in the litter after Paunescu's shows.

“Let’s not mix up written poems with the Flacara literary club,” says Ileana Carstea-Simion, a diction teacher and professor who mentored generations of young people aspiring to the Academy of Performing Arts, who recalls that students embraced Paunescu’s poems when they had to learn them for their entrance exams.

They did so “because the young relate more easily to the truth, and Paunescu’s poems always were truthful about the feelings and thoughts he expressed,” she says.

As for the Flacara performances, Carstea-Simion says that “maybe during the first quarter of the show they were meant to extol the regime, but the other three quarters of the time they were dedicated to poems one can label only as protests against the regime. That is why people packed the stadiums. No one dragged them there."

“Besides, this was part of a strategy we all deployed,” she says.

“We were deliberately sowing little grains of dissent into a package that looked like approval of the regime. This was the artists’ way of deceiving the official censorship.”

Paunescu himself thinks those packed stadiums were the best thing he ever accomplished, because they promoted freedom of the spirit and freedom of thought.

Romanian Academy President Eugen Simion believes Paunescu the poet is inseparable from Paunescu the activist.

“Paunescu changed his style and turned to a socially engaged poetry to become, as critic Serban Cioculescu once said, the most important social poet since Tudor Arghezi. I also deeply appreciate his involvement with social issues. Before 1989, when he was in a position to be able to help people, he really did that, even if it was just an impoverished guy he didn't know or a writer in time of need. At any rate, you cannot overlook him. He will stay in the history of Romanian literature with all that he has done, good and bad.”

A social poet and a contested poet, Paunescu has always displayed that mix of good and bad.

As he himself puts it--still the dialectician--he stands “either too high, or too low.”
Dumitru Balaci is a TOL correspondent based in Bucharest.
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