Norman Manea: Plicul negru (The Black Envelope)

The latest addition to my website is Norman Manea‘s Plicul negru (The Black Envelope), the last novel Manea published in Romania before emigrating to the United States. It tells the story of Anatol Dominic Vancea Voinov, better known as Tolea, during the bleak period of in Romanian history in the early 1980s. Tolea has been fired from his job as a high school teacher because of delicate relations — extremely delicate, I can tell you — with some teenage boys and has managed to get a job as a receptionist at the Tranzit Hotel, a hotel where people go for sex. Much of the novel is about his search for the contents of the black envelope, an envelope delivered to his father, which resulted in his father committing suicide. However, it also paints a grim picture of Romania as cold, hunger, poverty and unemployment prevail and there are spies everywhere, particularly spying on Tolea. All of this is seen through Tolea’s febrile imagination, giving us a novel that is often chaotic, where the line between reality and imagination is thin, often very thin. It is also a damning and cynical indictment of Romania under Ceaușescu. This novel is not for everybody but if you enjoy a bit of chaos and don’t mind not always being sure what is going on, this is certainly a worthwhile novel.

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