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Philip O’Ceallaigh

‘Places where things don’t work are necessarily more spontaneous … you find yourself feeding off that kind of stimulation.’

I decided I wanted to write. I wanted to simplify my life, win a little independence, to find a place that was messed up enough that I could live cheap. I would’ve preferred if it wasn’t messed up but yeah, basically economic reasons. For $5500 I was able to buy a one room apartment in a neighbourhood called Titan, out toward the edge of the city. I didn’t have to worry about money as much, and I was able to write my first book. It took about four to six years. I’m from Waterford in the south east of Ireland and grew up in the country. I’ve come and gone a bit, but basically Romania has been my base since 2000.  

With time the writing became the only thing that was really a constant. I kept writing one story after another. All I could do was keep writing and keep hoping. I was very conscious that I was learning a craft and that it would take time and I never felt that I was possessed of some tremendous talent. Bukowski, writing about a life I could relate to, which was a life of frustrations, problems with money, instability, inspired me to be a writer who could make something out of simple things, the daily struggle with life. I wanted to escape work, and writing, when going well, it resembles play rather than work. You give yourself up to something unconscious and something happens. It’s nearly magical.  

The first few years I edited a business magazine. Very repetitive, just correcting English, but kept enough money coming in. I had a transitional period when I was translating a lot of stuff, including Romanian films, one of which, 4,3,2, won the Palme D’Or in Cannes. That was interesting, to be able to see these new films coming through, to see this totally unexpected burst of creativity and storytelling about the country, about the country’s present and its past.  

The films made in the 90s and the kind of literature Romania was producing then never seemed to me to connect with daily reality. I went around for a good few years scratching my head trying to figure out why this was, why Romanians couldn’t represent their own country in writing or in film. I’m talking about the 90s, the early 2000s. Now, of course, there are a lot of different directors telling a lot of different stories and you really do see the past debated, as you saw in 4,3,2. That’s something that wasn’t there at all in the 1990s and I think it’s only beginning in literature now.  

Cărtărescu? In my opinion he’d be an example of the kind of literature that was allowed to appear in the 1980s. His first book of prose was published in 1989 and it’s a work of fantasy. All the stories are set in Bucharest but you wouldn’t recognise the suffering that the city was undergoing. I’m talking about having to queue for food, being cold in the winter, having to deal with the secret police prying, the backstreet abortions because there’s no reproductive freedom. These things were not registered in Romanian literature in the 1980s of course but this somehow carried through into the 1990s, this inability to register ordinary experience. Now I’m not saying that writing has to be about social problems, political problems, but to ignore all these things is extraordinary because it creates a sense of unreality in the prose.

The breakdown in storytelling under communism is still felt today. The recovery started first in film. The Death of Mr Lăzărescu – you know that film? I remember the shock.