The Old Man and the Bureaucrats, by Mircea Eliade, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 128 pages, $7.95.
The newly released paperback edition of The Old Man and the Bureaucrats, one of Mircea Eliade's finest novels, underlines the timeless quality of his work. The Romanian-born novelist and scholar, whose interest in the cultural and psychological roots of religion was rivaled only by his fascination with secular human passion, has combined insight into the nature of folklore and mythology with uncanny understanding of communism and bureaucracy. Eliade's reputation as the consummate historian of ancient religions is accordingly incomplete, his novels having had too limited an audience. Yet they reverberate with symbol, yearning, and repudiation of the triviality and "linearity" of historical time. Eliade illustrates in his stories a need for transcendence, for ritual, for meaning, and for beauty.
What begins simply as a tale of an old teacher stopping in to visit a former pupil who had just moved into the neighborhood thus turns easily into a modern-day epic tale. Like Scheherazade narrating the Arabian Nights tales, Eliade creates a Persian carpet of stories, truth, and reality woven into a pattern of events whose outcome is in fact subordinate to the characters. Their lives intertwine, references return for further clarification, the very notion of time becomes almost irrelevant, as the teacher recounts the existence of another world: before the first and second world wars, before two sets of totalitarian rule obliterated fantasy and nostalgia—alternately, Nazi and communist.
But the ingrate pupil—now the head of the Romanian secret police—forbids his former teacher to reminisce, denying ever having attended even primary school, in line with his concocted story of deprived childhood, fabricated biographies being the stock in trade of the nomenklatura. Yet the police detain the old man, asking him to write what he knows, as police—particularly, though by no means exclusively, the communist variety—are wont to do. The teacher agrees gladly, telling stories with a classic Romanian folktale flavor and a powerful admixture of mythology.
His stories are of demigods and mortals touched by miracle: the statuesque Oana, the beautiful young woman who, until she finds the husband the gods have destined for her, obsessively weds man and beast after she is first raped, yet preserves a childlike innocence; the Romanian peasant women in awe of Oana, believing her to have cast a spell on their husbands; the young man, a colleague of the secret police chief, in love with a woman alternately young and old, seemingly at will; the beautiful Arghira whose eyesight was restored by miraculous water; and more.
Rather than dismissing the teacher as a liar, dreamer, or worse, an artist—in short, an enemy of the people—the police, and even high-ranking members of the party hierarchy, continue the interrogation, intrigued by several events of political significance: for example, the defection of one young man to the Soviet Union and the total disappearance of another, a rabbi's son, into a cellar. Added to the mystery is the existence of a treasure, in almost fairy-tale fashion, that is allegedly discovered by a party member, who is subsequently found out. So the dichotomy is not clear-cut: the bureaucrats are part of the fantastic story, even if their role is merely that of Ali Baba's thieves.
The story ends with mystery, as it had begun. But it becomes clear that no ending matters, that no ending is possible. Accordingly, the story follows a respected antirealist tradition in Eastern European literature directly contrary to so-called socialist realism. Its Jungian approach—the archetypical themes of the human dream—is elegant yet earthy, the obvious result of Eliade's familiarity with the delicate, honest stories of mountain peasants. If the bureaucrats in Romania will never let this novel be published in its original musical language, at least English-speaking audiences will surely benefit and enjoy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".