Bryan R. Monte
Walls and Curtains—An Interview with Andrei Codrescu
Andrei Codrescu’s recent work, Walls and Curtains, an audio podcast in thirteen episodes, is the subject of this email interview conducted in October-November 2021.
Bryan R Monte: What was your initial inspiration for Walls and Curtains?
Andrei Codrescu: My stepfather, who was a brute and a ‘train engineer’ in 1950s Romania, ripped my dog, Nemo, from my arms. I have been trying to find my schnauzer, and take revenge on the brute ever since. I have fantasized about having the man torn by horses à la Middle Ages, tortured on the rack and slowly crushed inside an Iron Maiden. The oeuvre I produced since issues from this spring of hatred, revenge, and imaginative dismemberment. This includes my novel, The Blood Countess (1995), translated in 15 languages (just in case he may have been hiding from my wrath in Albania, or Japan or…), the journal I edited, Exquisite Corpse: a Monthly of Life & Letters (corpse.org)—he was the corpse—and many poems and essays since. I conceive of my literary work as a razor in search of my stepfather’s neck.
BRM: How did your original idea or inspiration develop into this episodic story?
AC: My story is based on a true childhood trauma, but the subsequent adventures of two, ten-year-old boys who decide to find Nemo on the other side of The Wall, is inspired by the times and the place. The dog and the boys are real, but everything else is a collage of adventures that follow various walls and curtains in real and imagined zeitgeists.
In Romania in the 1950s, the Communist Party mandated public boredom. The suppression of curiosity was the main activity and product of our Soviet-flavoured republic. Curiosity was a state monopoly. The job of the state was to survey the citizenry for possible interest in the workings of power.
Walls and Curtains is a condensed epic of two boys’ productive adventures intended to break through the hard boredom of optimism to the absurdity of another world. This they (and every citizen of the Soviet Empire), called ‘The West’. The boys imagined this world to be very intelligent and powerfully entertaining. And mysterious: they had no idea where they were going next.
BRM: How long did it take you to write this series?
AC: One Covid year, 2019-2020.
BRM: Were some sections more difficult than others?
AC: I can’t remember. Writing is, for me, a means of forgetting the things of which I am writing. Once written, these things become everybody else’s business. I think 🙂
BRM: Did you plan the episodes of Walls and Curtains in advance or did some develop as it unfolded?
AC: I did not plan any of them—I just sat down and let my trained finger tap my subconscious like a fishing line. Occasionally, I threw back fish that were too small or too familiar. I kept only those things that made me laugh. I believe that if the past isn’t good enough for a laugh, it is better off repressed. Or left to specialists, people like writers of memoirs who went to creative writing programmes.
In Romania, to get back to the larger context, serial literature after 1956 took a full decade to nearly extinguish the mysterious orality of my childhood. Writing Walls and Curtains I awakened an ancient sit-around-the-fire seed that lay at the bottom of my overwritten self like a forgotten pomegranate seed in a garbage bin behind a food market in Queens.
The nearly fatal blow episodic orality came from television. When Western television dramas appeared people’s brains froze and their fancies started retreating. In Romania, all work stopped when the American soap Dallas was broadcast. Everyone stared at the screen and the only question visible like a Chernobyl cloud over the heads of the spectators was ‘WHO SHOT JR?’ I didn’t watch it, so I don’t remember if there was an answer, but this is why in my story, Walls and Curtains, the question ‘DID THEY FIND NEMO?’ looms so large over the series—it remains unanswered because I plan a sequel.
BRM: Did you discover any differences and/or challenges in creating a story to be presented orally versus one presented textually?
AC: Yes. I think people like to hear stories now. We live in a post-reader world.
BRM: If so, what were some of those differences and/or challenges?
AC: The main difference is that when we used to read, we would ignore everything that wasn’t in the text. If someone interrupted us, we killed them. This is why most readers in the past were murderers. If someone is telling a story, it’s OK if the bell rings, or a siren passes. You can always make the outer sounds part of the orality in progress.
BRM: Walls and Curtains is set in your birthplace, Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania. Why did you choose this setting? Why do you think you were revisiting your origin story in the first months of the Covid pandemic?
AC: I was very, very bored. Podcasts came into vogue, but I couldn’t listen to any of them. I decided to source my own from an older oral world. This happened to reside in the ten-year-old boy in Sibiu. I carefully unwrapped him out of the mothballs where I keep him whenever I run out of subject matter. Since you read some of my other books, you know that I have unwrapped this boy so many times, he has grown out of his swaddling into a middle-aged man, with a pot belly, who smokes a cigar.
He is by no means the ‘inner child’ that so many Americans strain to unearth from the lifetimes of entertainment that has turned them into a fine powder of clichés. Au contraire, he is a kindly nursed and well-fed creature that is layered in such a way that I can use my pen like a scalpel to separate him at whatever age seems appropriate for my current project. In this case, I had to remove the potbelly and the cigar, as well as a great many accoutrements of aging, and extract the ten-year-old. Once cleaned of all that mature goop, he was quite serviceable. I oiled him and wound him up. He marched into the story.
BRM: In your books, The Disappearance of the Outside and Whatever Gets You Through the Night, you present two storytellers, Mioritza and Scheherazade respectively, who tell stories which take all night and are told in mythic time or Mircea Eliade’s illo tempore.
AC: Stories that last all night around the fire are no longer common. Alas. We should reinstitute them at friends’ houses. The cold fire of TV is a solitary and sad affair.
BRM: Was this also your intention with the episodes of Walls and Curtains, for example, when one or both of your character fall asleep during their escape in episodes 4, 9, and 13? Is this because the story takes all night or ends in the dark?
AC: Children’s imaginations thrive in the dark. All stories are bedtime stories. Fantasies of escape take place at night because one is invisible then. The best heroes are thieves, dragons, and silent predator animals—they all work at night.
BRM: Which narrative techniques did you use to portray this time out of time?
AC: The same as any fairy tales, folk tales, and 1001 Nights, which is a compilation of fantastic stories. Whether written or told, the voice of the storyteller must be present. The techniques are the property of the storyteller—each one is unique.
BRM: Flight and exile are two recurring themes in your work. In Walls and Curtains, you and Shlezzy are trying to escape to the West.
AC: Reality is nasty and predictable: we write (even speak) to escape it. All humans are traumatized by history, circumstances, luck, poverty, or wealth, etc. The earth is a penal colony, purgatory, prison. Humans are a form that expiates. Escaping it is the goal of all religions, of poetry, and of stories. ‘Realism’ is a sadistic fiction.
BRM: After 55 years in America, why are these themes still so important in your work?
AC: America has more elbowroom to stretch out and explore. Otherwise, it’s a country born in wars like every other place. It is also a country easy to escape from, if there was any place to escape to.
BRM: Do you feel these themes have changed and developed over time?
AC: Yes. There are a myriad of ways to escape. In the course of storytelling or fantasizing, one climbs a ladder of experience. Getting away is tentative at first, then one’s steps become more certain. It takes ten years to get the courage to go to the unknown place that may or may not be there. After that, it’s a breeze. The abyss starts to look familiar. You’ve been there before. Déjà-vu, déjà-eu, but without any practical memory of what’s in it.
BRM: If so, how?
AC: With a pen, keyboard, razor blade and wrist, or socially compatible criminal congeries, or another form of intimate desperado association.
BRM: How similar do you feel your route to the West was to the escapes mentioned in your books, especially the steel door in the Danube River, in Wall & Curtains with the room beneath it stocked with an abundance of American style food and jeans and T-shirts?
AC: My escape was a lot less dangerous, but just as tense. I had to renounce my Romanian citizenship. We were allowed to take only two suitcases with clothes. My mother’s photo albums and my handwritten poetry notebooks were not allowed. The airport police pawed through our clothes for hidden gold coins. The clothes smelled like onions and bacon from their hands when they put back our rags. This was a good thing because I had to start writing everything new, and I had to remember, and then imagine, all the people in the photographs. There weren’t that many, since most of my mother’s family was murdered by Nazis in Auschwitz. The clothes I threw away in Italy.
BRM: Cracks appear often in Walls and Curtains, first as a secret code or map of escape, then as cracks between the gravestones in the Ursuline convent tunnel, and also as the cracks between the floorboards in the shoemaker’s house, into which you lose your gold coins. In another book you wrote about: ‘the cosmic crack that story telling can create, and it is our choice whether to go through it into another reality or to go through the flesh crack and return to where we are.’ What do you mean by this?
AC: As Leonard Cohen says, ‘there is a crack in everything/ that’s how light gets in’. An artist is more conscious that cracks (spontaneous or premeditated maps) are a precondition to entering a (or THE) mystery. Writers are different than priests or therapists because writing (creating or finding) cracks is not an answer or a therapy. The results (god, health) are not predictable, and I might say, not even imaginable. The Internet memes escape through portals constructed by engineers, it is a crude simulacrum of the organic imagination of a true dreamer.
BRM: Your escape through the tunnel reminds me of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. Like Aeneas, you had a guide, a golem, whose eyeball lights your way through the tunnel.
AC: There are helpers out there, mostly kind animals with bright eyes who thrive on innocence. This is why they help mostly children. There are also plant guides and generous souls of the dead. The guides are not assigned; they choose the children (poets) they guide. I think the dead are free to choose.
BRM: Did you think of The Aeneid or other classical works when you wrote this part of Walls and Curtains?
AC: The Aeneid, like all the classics and moderns, are present in any story: language is a vehicle propelled by the motor of previous stories. This vehicle gets better and faster the more knowledge it consumes. Language has memory, thank the gods.
BRM: You use a post-Modern, broken narrative with many temporal digressions, anachronisms (for example, discussing crypto-currencies or receiving a phone call from Mark Twain in a story set in the 1950s), making self-reflexive comments on your own narratives, and telling stories without endings. In Whatever Gets You Through the Night, for example, Scheherazade says ‘To write a great story, violate the tenses.’ And just before that, she says ‘To tell a great story, leave them hanging.’
AC: Time is permeable. Chronology is a convention of sciences, but even in mathematics, discovery is not necessarily chronological. You did not need Newtonian math to think up quantum, though it was (and is) a great workable math.
BRM: Does this explain why your penultimate episode of Walls and Curtains is open ended for the reader to finish?
AC: Absolutely—there is a sequel—there is always a sequel, or a prequel, or a related (parallel) non sequel. How do we go on? We must find out what’s next or under it all or any ‘why’ that shows up.
BRM: Does this explain why the last episode has an anti-ending with a Nemo imposter?
AC: Every ending is a faux-ending; a red herring. Even death is a red herring. AQ