Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two Thousand Years reads like a memoir at times, and then occasionally like a diary. This is a remarkable, closely autobiographical book that begins and ends in antisemitism from 1923 until the early 30s. Hailed as a seminal novel that charts the rise of fascism, for this reader the novel is shocking in its portrayal of the national acceptance of antisemitism which is captured in raw moments, casual encounters and even from close friends.
When the book begins, the unnamed narrator is attending university in Bucharest, studying law. Well … trying to attend, at least, as to attend almost certainly guarantees a beating. The heavily anti-Semitic student body asks for names and then beatings follow.
This morning I went to the class on Roman law. No one said a word to me. I took notes feverishly, in order not to have to lift my eyes from my desk. Halfway through the lecture, a ball of paper falls on the bench, beside me. I don’t look at it, don’t open it. Someone shouts my name loudly from behind. I don’t turn my head. My neighbor to the left watches me carefully, without a word. I can’t endure his gaze and I look up.
He barks the command. He stands up, making space for me to get by, and waits. I feel a tense silence around me. Nobody breathes. Any gesture from me and this silence will explode.
No. I slide out of the desk and slip towards the door between the two rows of onlookers. It all happens decorously, ritually. Someone by the door lashes out with his fist, but it is a glancing blow. A late punch, my friend.
For Two Thousand Years is divided into six sections and follows the narrator’s university career as he switches from law to architecture, and then the book follows the narrator’s career. Throughout the novel, the narrator, a gentle man, wrestles with questions of what it means to be a Jew. He’s tugged by the two rival camps of Zionism and Marxism which are manifested mainly through friendships with two other young Jewish students. Winkler wants to leave Romania and travel to Palestine while the wild S. T. Haim, in whom being a Jew is subordinated to Marxism, finds Zionism absurd.
The idea of a Palestinian Jewish state, created through an act of national will–what an absurdity! And at the same time, what savagery! Don’t you see the machinations of the English in this whole business, a capitalist venture, which the massacred native Arabs and the Jewish proletariat of the colony will pay for, their very blood exploited in the name of the national idea. Great Britain needs a right-hand man to guard the Suez Canal, so it’s invented this myth of a ‘Jewish homeland.’ ‘Homeland’ is too nice a word. No doubt some Quaker or Puritan came up with it. But millions of sentimental Jews have taken it at face value.
Contrasting with these two extremes is the marvelous Maurice Buret, a character who appears later in the book, and who, according to the narrator, operates in “the total moral vacuum in which he lives.” The term “two thousand years,”of Jewish history is debated when the narrator meets an elderly Jewish bookseller on a train who argues for the beauty of Yiddish and the “folklore of the ghetto.” While the narrator argues that Jews naturally assimilate into various cultures and that Yiddish “however beautiful it may be” is a “precarious thing” with which “to bind a culture,” the bookseller has a different opinion:
Have you forgotten that, luckily, there are still anti-Semites. And, thank God, that there are pogroms from time to time? However much you’re assimilated in a hundred years, you’ll be set back ten times as much by a single day’s pogrom. And then the poor ghetto will be ready to take you back in.
The narrator is an astute observer and chronicler of human nature, and his descriptions breathe life into characters, who in the hands of a less nimble writer, would appear as cardboard cut-outs–embodiments of political ideals.
Throughout the novel, as the years pass, we follow the narrator through his friendships, his admiration for an anti-Semitic professor who persuades him to change his field of study, love affairs and even, eventually, work contracts. Through all of this there’s the threat of violence, of revolution, of massacre, a “great historical conflagration,” faint rumblings like the foreshocks of a major seismic event–an event that we readers know will occur. “Death to the Yids” is called in the streets so casually, that no one even pays attention anymore:
At the corner, towards Boulevard Elisabeta, was a group of boys selling newspapers. “Mysteries of Cahul! Death to the Yids.!”
I have no idea why I stopped. I usually walk calmly by, because it’s an old, familiar cry. This time I stopped in surprise, as if I had for the first time understood what these words actually meant. It’s strange. These people are talking about death, and about mine specifically. And I walk casually by them, thinking of other things, only half-hearing.
Yet with such deeply rooted antisemitism defining society for so long, even we are shocked when the narrator is calmly told by a friend, who asserts that he’s not antisemitic, but simply Romanian, that he wants to “eliminate several hundred thousand” Jews. His wish was soon to come true.
Mihail Sebastian’s real name was Iosif Mendel Hechter (1907-1945). He was killed crossing the street on the way to teach a class on Balzac.
Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh