City of Man's Desire
Conversation with a Writer: Cornelia Golna, or: The Birth of a Novel
– by Liliana Alexandrescu
My friendship with Cornelia Golna began in 1979, the day we met. Of the many occasions when we saw each other after that, there is one image that has always remained vivid in my mind. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we were strolling through the Vondel Park, in the middle of Amsterdam, behind the pram carrying Cornelia's baby daughter Laura. The day was pleasantly mild (was it in the spring or fall?), so we found a café and sat down to a cup of tea. It was there, for the first time, that she told me about her grandfather, who for obscure political reasons was murdered in a woods at the edge of a city in Macedonia in the year 1908. Afterward, she unraveled the tangled web of her family history for me, evoking characters in strange attire, half European, half Eastern, with flint rifles and fezzes, with indestructible bonds of loyalty and implacable enmities, with stories of love and revenge, which took place in isolated mountain towns or in the colorful hustle-and-bustle of Constantinople, the capital of the patchwork that once was the Ottoman Empire... Now, years later, her own fascination with this multifaceted world has resulted in a novel, City of Man's Desire, reason enough to ask her how she came to write it.
Liliana Alexandrescu: For me, the emergence of City of Man's Desire was a long and fascinating journey through the "thousand-and-one nights" of its creation, during which you acted as my guide and my personal Sheherezade...
Cornelia Golna: I would never have described myself as a Sheherezade, nor my novel as a tale out of the Thousand and One Nights, though it is true that at times it touches upon fantastic elements and toys with the preternatural. The inspiration for my novel, City of Man's Desire, however, is firmly entrenched in history. From the beginning, my ambition was to try to recreate the world in which my father was born. I was always fascinated by the idea that he was born in the Ottoman Empire, a world of diverse cultures and religions.
Yes, it seems like the distant past, yet it is part of recent history... less than one hundred years ago. The events that took place then still have repercussions today, and not only in the area involved. In which part of the empire was your father born?
My father was born in the Ottoman province of Macedonia, part of which is now Greek Macedonia. (I found a site on the Internet listing immigrants to America from the beginning of the twentieth century, among whom my uncle - my father's oldest brother –who stated his place of origin as Neveska, Turkey. Today that village - it is now called Nymphaion - is in Greece.) The year was 1908. As you know, it was also the year my grandfather was assassinated in the course of the "Macedonian Struggle," a kind of guerilla war, which pitted the various ethnic and religious groups in the province against their Turkish rulers and against one another. My grandfather's death has always been shrouded in mystery. My father never found out why he was killed, nor who was behind it, and I am none the wiser. Though my father and grandfather do not really figure in the book, they were my inspiration for writing it.
You live in the Netherlands, you wrote your novel in English, and we, from the moment we met, have spoken Romanian together. In this way, we spontaneously created a personal linguistic zone for ourselves, which reflects our shared origin. Although we both live in the Netherlands, in a cultural context different from the one in which either of us grew up, we have a common history, which regularly resurfaces. Where do you place yourself within this multi-linguistic mosaic? Who are you?
My background has always sounded intriguing to people. Or odd, perhaps. More than anything, I am American because I was raised in the United States. But inside me I have four countries vying for attention. As to my loyalties, that depends on the situation - for example, in July 2004, as the Greek national team swept to victory in the European Football Championship games, I felt the tug of Hellas pulling at my heartstrings. In a nutshell, I was born in Bucharest, Romania, of a Romanian mother and a Greek father. My parents managed to leave that country, thus avoiding my father's imprisonment by the communists, when I was 6 months old. They struggled to survive in post-civil war Greece for four years until they were able to immigrate to America, where I grew up and was educated.
I'd like to return now to the moment when certain circumstances (which, with regard to your arrival on this earth, you could call Fate) combined to bring your father to Romania. Why Romania of all places? Why not France or Germany or straight to America, where so many others went at that time?
My grandfather's death had major implications for the family, financially and socially. In 1930, with $20 in his pocket, my father set off for Romania to seek his fortune. In contrast to how many people see Romania today, in those years that country functioned as a kind of America in the eastern part of Europe, and there were many like my father who went there for the economic opportunities it offered. The fact that my father was Aromanian and thus spoke a language closely related to Romanian, also played a role for him. He met my mother in 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War. They married in 1944, as the Americans were bombing Bucharest. The end of the war brought with it the Russian army and communist rule. For my father, it meant the loss of the business he had built up in Romania. He was declared an enemy of the people and barely escaped imprisonment. In 1951, I was born, seven years after my parents married - they had thought they would never have children. It was at this time that my father decided that he had to leave Romania. As he no longer had a valid Greek passport, he used an army-enlistment document, showing that he had served in the Greek army, to prove he was a Greek citizen. This was accepted, and in August of that year, with a laissez-passer good for one trip out of the country and without the right of return, we left from Constanta on a cargo boat carrying grain to Greece. Greece was facing difficulties of its own, having been under German occupation throughout the war and then suffering a civil war immediately thereafter. We arrived in the aftermath of this civil war and stayed until 1955, when we were able to immigrate to America.
Tell us something about yourself - the decisive moments in your life that made you who you are.
When I reached the age of 26, it was my turn to go out into the world and seek my fortune. Following in my father's footsteps, but in reverse, with $1000 in my pocket, I left America for Europe. My plan, though vague, was to get to Romania eventually, to see the land of my birth. My first stop was Barcelona, in Spain, where I stayed a year, supporting myself by teaching English. This was in 1977, a year after Generalissimo Francisco Franco's death, and I had the privilege of experiencing at first hand what it meant to live in a country just coming out of forty years of dictatorship. It was a time of euphoria. The exuberance was often contagious as people gathered spontaneously, dancing and demonstrating in the streets to celebrate their newfound freedom.
While there (sometimes life is as weird as fiction) I discovered I had an uncle, a vague family relation from my mother's side, in Madrid. He put me in touch with the Romanian Embassy and helped me arrange a scholarship to study in Bucharest.
So, like your father a half-century earlier, you arrived in Romania. Can you describe your spiritual "re-acquaintance," at the distance of a generation, with your country of origin, in the well-known historical and political conditions of those years?
For me, Romania was a revelation, a country in a time capsule, familiar and strange at the same time. It was as if I had landed in a world frozen in time, a way of life that had disappeared in the West but had been preserved there, in the isolation created by the Iron Curtain. People around me spoke a language I could understand perfectly but had to relearn to use. They retained an Old-World gentility, courteous manners, grand hospitality (despite economic difficulties). Communism had acted like a blanket, a mist, if you will, over another world, a world in which people lived their real lives. In this world, I found traces of an earlier world - that of my parents. Of course, there were family and friends, people of their generation, who remembered them and talked of the old days. But it was more than that - the old center of Bucharest, the limited traffic, pedestrians filling the streets. The brasseries where you could sit with friends before a portion of mititei and beer, the restaurants with orchestras playing old romanţe.
For a long time after I left, it was the political system, the totalitarian aspects of Romanian existence that haunted me: the limitations on people's freedoms, the propaganda, the lack of information and contact with the outside world, economic hardships, lack of modern conveniences, etc. These things intimidated me. Life in Romania was totally different from the life I had known in America, or Spain, for that matter. But later other aspects resurfaced: there was the mystery, the layers of civilization that lay below the surface, the evidence of an earlier world. It is this contact with the past that has remained with me most, this urge to look below the surface - the urge of a frustrated archaeologist. I can say that my first year in Romania has been, until now, the most profound experience of my life.
And how did you come to Holland?
I met my husband, Jan Willem Bos, while in Bucharest - he was doing research for his thesis on Romanian literature. We came to Amsterdam, where we stayed a year, and then went on to the States. Two years later we returned to Romania, where Jan Willem taught Dutch at the University of Bucharest. During that period too our daughter was born. Our second stay was more hardship than enlightenment, as the country disintegrated around us under Ceausescu's policies. Finally we returned to Holland in 1984, where we have been living and working ever since.
This odyssey brought you in the end to a safe place, where you settled, raised a family, wrote a book. I have that book now in my hands. It is the result of many years of reflection, of searching, of admirable perseverance. It is, as any original act, also a magical act! Now, looking at the work before you, how do you view the result of your efforts? How did you weave your experiences, your past emotions, into it?
I remember, as a child I was very impressed by the idea that my father had been born in the Ottoman Empire, a subject of the Turkish sultan. For a long time, that was my only point of contact with the Ottoman world, that and the platitudes: the fabled cruelty of the Turkish rulers who for five hundred years had stood in the way of progress and oppressed the people. On a personal level, there were other platitudes that seemed to contradict the first. A Turk, said my father, once he became your friend, was your friend for life. There was no double-dealing, no cheating. My father often spoke of a bey, an Ottoman lord, who had had business dealings with my grandfather and who had been the most honorable and loyal of men. After my grandfather was assassinated, this particular Turk, the bey, brought several sacks of flour and other food stuffs to my grandmother's house to help her out, and he spoke of his profound sorrow at the loss of his friend. I have already mentioned that my family belongs to a small group of people known as the Aromanians, or Vlachs, Orthodox Christians like the Greeks, but speakers of a Romance dialect. With them we enter the complex, entangled world of the Balkans, more specifically, the ethnic cocktail that was Macedonia. My great-grandmother, though illiterate, was said to have spoken Albanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and a smattering of Greek, in addition to her mother tongue. As I grew older, this polyglot, multicultural world of the Ottoman Empire intrigued me more and more. It is odd to think, but less than a century ago, the Ottoman Empire was largely intact. True, Greece and Serbia had broken away, and the Romanian principalities were no longer its vassals, but Thrace, Macedonia, and present day Albania were Ottoman provinces. The Middle East was an integral part of the empire. Besides Turkey itself, it encompassed present day Iraq, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Jordan; Egypt still nominally recognized the Sultan's sovereignty and Libya too was Ottoman.
Now I understand why you chose Constantinople as the setting of your story.
Indeed. It was the heart of the empire - its capital and most important city. For the empire's inhabitants, Constantinople - present-day Istanbul - was known simply as "The City." (According to linguists, the name Istanbul itself is derived from the Greek, Eis tan poli, which means "to the city.") And it had been a capital - of two empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman - for almost 2000 years. More than that, it was a multi-ethnic, multicultural city and had been for hundreds of years. I wondered what it must be like to live in such an ancient, multi-faceted place. The entire empire was a mixture of cultures and languages. Constantinople was a microcosm, the empire in miniature.
1908 was the year of the Young Turk Revolution - a pivotal event in Ottoman history it seemed to me, for though it was meant to save the empire by modernizing it, it carried within it the seeds of its destruction. Many elements (discontent with the workings of the empire, poverty, inequality, nationalistic longing, autocracy, Western interference in internal affairs, etc) combined to bring it about, but the revolution itself marked the moment when the fabric of the empire began to tear - when the traditions on which it was based were consciously put aside to make way for a society based on a Western style legal system. I wanted to explore this moment, plunge my characters into this contradictory world, examine their attitudes, follow their reactions to what was happening around them, how it affected their personal lives and relationships.
Your novel begins in a house in the Greek quarter of Constantinople and ends on the deck of a ship sailing up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea and Romania. Your characters walk along the streets and through the marketplaces of the Ottoman capital, they go to coffeehouses, to a ball, or take part in a revolution; some of them, driven by intellectual passion or greed, scramble along mountain paths in search of hidden treasure. The reader follows them, intrigued, and thus is manipulated by the author. But how do you feel about your heroes; do you identify with one or more of them? With Theodora perhaps, subjected to a true rite of passage from day-dreaming adolescence to womanhood? Or maybe with John Townsend, obsessed by his inner vision of an imaginary Byzantium/Istanbul?
This is a difficult question. A writer has to crawl into the minds of all her characters, to understand them and their motivations, to follow their actions. This doesn't mean, of course, that she identifies with them all. I suppose the character closest to me is Theodora, the girl around whom the story takes place. She is loosely based on me, but a much younger me, who has yet to discover the world. She is certainly not my alter ego. Another character might be the American, John Townsend, a man in search of something to give meaning to his life. But I think he is more of a dreamer than I ever was. Elizabeth, Theodora's mother, has something of me too in that she, as a Romanian, lives not in her own country but that of her husband and is not always at ease in his world. Probably, in my attempts to portray my characters, unintentionally I left a bit of myself in each of them.
The motto at the beginning of the novel: "We wake from one dream into another dream," a quote from Emerson, alerts us at its onset that City of Man's Desire, in its form of narrative fresco, like Tolstoy's War and Peace, is a meditation on history, above which hangs the ephemeral shadow of all that is fleeting. Nothing is as it seems: Constantinople is not the indestructible city of peace, and the characters often find themselves chasing after illusions. But the book reminds me too of a Bildungsroman, Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre for example, in that the protagonists change, evolve through a series of trials, failures or small personal triumphs, and reach a new stage in their lives, a new point of departure. But now, setting aside the classical prototypes (Tolstoy, Goethe), I'd like to ask you where within modern trends of American fiction you would place your novel. Does it fit in with American immigrant literature?
There are a great number of novels written by and about Americans of various ethnic origins, The Joy-Luck Club, by Chinese-American Amy Tan for example, and Middlesex, by the Greek-American Jeffrey Eugenides. I think most of these books deal with adaptation: trying, among other things, to reconcile the New World with the Old. I touch on problems concerning the confrontation of East and West, though I don't link them specifically to America. Somehow I became caught up in the effects of Western influences on an Eastern culture. This aspect appears now and then in the novel - more in terms of attitudes toward the East, and the attempts of a more traditional culture to adapt to Western forms. Inasmuch as I am concerned with how people try to reconcile opposing world views, I do fit into the American immigrant literature genre.
Your novel reminds me of Elia Kazan's film, America, America, which also takes place in the Ottoman Empire.
I think there is a fundamental difference between this film and my book. The film, though it takes place largely in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul, has its eye clearly set on America - the land of hope, of freedom, of opportunity. America, the ultimate goal of the protagonist, is finally reached, and it lives up to his expectations. My view - if not that of my novel specifically, my life in any case - fits in better with that of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos in his film, Ulysses' Gaze. This is a film about a man, a Greek, who immigrated to America but returns to Europe, to northern Greece - Macedonia specifically - and starts on a journey to rediscover a world that ended around the beginning of the twentieth century, the world of the Balkans, when it was still intact, before it was torn apart by war and hate and national ambitions. He is haunted by this world. In the process he relives his own past. His search takes him throughout the Balkans, through Albania, war-torn Yugoslavia, as far as Romania, where his Greek family had settled and lived until after the Second World War. They leave around 1950, the same time my family did. For some reason, this world has me too in its grip. And maybe in a way, I was even more audacious than Angelopoulos - I tried to recreate it.
To illustrate this and give an impression of the way in which you evoke a moment and an atmosphere as direct experience, I'd like to quote a passage from Chapter 38 - not the radiant image of the sun-drenched metropolis of the opening chapter but an image of the city before dawn, still asleep but haunted by a premonition of the dangers of the coming day, menaced by yet another army, another invasion: "The predawn mist spread itself over the city. It rolled downstream along the Bosphorus and spilled over the still waters of the Golden Horn. Blending with the silence of the hour, it settled over empty streets and darkened houses. Over stone walls, hidden courtyards and gardens. Over public fountains. Over mosques, churches, synagogues. Over jutting ridges and forgotten valleys, over cemeteries and abandoned lots. Over stray dogs and beggars, over hovels and mansions. Over proud monuments and sorry ruins. Over the past and the present, spreading itself evenly, filling all nooks and corners with its soothing stillness, favoring no one, ignoring no one. It concealed the city as it had always done, shielding it as it slowly came to life after a night of dreams and nightmares, giving it time to revive and take on a new day."