by Emily Laurent-Monaghan (Bucharest) and Maureen Winter (Turin)
“I would like to write a Philosophy of Failure, with the subtitle for the Exclusive Use of the Romanian People, but I don’t think I will be able to do it.”
—Emil Cioran to a Romanian Friend in Paris, 1941.
AFTER a twelve-hour flight, we arrive at the terminus: Henri Coandă airport, just outside of Bucharest. We wait for almost an hour as the empty baggage carousel repeats its endless circuit, some travelers increasingly agitated, some yelling. The inhospitable welcome is soon eclipsed by the kindness of our host, who drives us into the city. It seems that a train to the airport does not yet exist. There are many not-yets and uncoordinated coordinates, all waiting to be connected and smoothed out into a line. Lines, an architect once told me, have an “ordering effect” on the psyche.
As the traffic rushes toward the Romanian Arcul de Triumf, my eyes are pummeled by plastered billboards, the enormous Nestlé billboard standing out, with its glaring, plastic figure of Brad Pitt, appearing much younger, frozen in his Fight Club-era splendor. Wide boulevards are noisily populated by cars, cabs, and in-betweens (“Bolts,” an Uber equivalent). The Bolt is taken quite literally here. Over and over, my stomach does pirouettes as our driver weaves his way through the congested traffic, the city spinning like a plate, Romanian trance music blasting through the speakers. The cars drive on top of each other; when parked, they inch onto every possible surface.
The city is an obstacle course, a collage of styles and eras, with missing parts and endless fissures. A Dada city (and the city of Dada, if we consider origins). In consequence, it must be walked. One must remain alert to the tectonic sidewalks with broken cobblestones and cracked bricks. The cars drive toward you and never fully stop. But despite the furious roar of the streets, Bucharest is a flâneur city. It, and not he or she, is the truest character of Mircea Cărtărescu’s stories. The polished buildings and new cafés insinuate themselves, politely threatening to sanitize the seediness of the city. Bucharest resists the sclerotic course of most European cities, still managing to retain the grittiness that Walter Benjamin so enjoyed (about Marseille).
The first lodging we find ourselves in was built during the communist era, a ten-story apartment block in the “Stalinist style,” the bygone remnants of what was communist urban planning. The neighborhood’s denizens, especially the elderly ones, may have been the first to occupy these newly constructed apartment blocks. There is an explicitly social architecture to these spaces: the architects built them vertically, surrounded by many trees, and people tend to walk on your heels. At night, the moon appears close enough to bite.
On the opposite end of the city, our second dwelling is nestled near Cișmigiu Park (some call it “gardens”), a nineteenth-century creation that retains a decrepit elegance. The brick and iron benches sink into the circular arrangement of the poet’s garden, among statues of what was “Romanian literature.” The park is littered with dry leaves, and the birds are free to soil the benches with impunity. There is likely no better place to spend a sunny, warmish day in November, animated by the Soare cu dinti (“Sun with teeth”).
Without penning the same curiosity as Olivia Manning (author of the Balkan Trilogy), one is tasked to describe the ambivalence that hangs over the city, tending toward the question, “What does post-communism want?”, while attempting to avoid the oxcart and Ford trope, the mélange of primitive and modern that continues to enchant.1 Even today, the “contradictions” appear numerous, compounded through time. Byzantine entwined with neoclassical; turnips sold on the street corners as delivery boys speed by on their bikes, or worse, scooters; marble elided by concrete and plastic. Balkan kitsch juxtaposed with the Protestant minimalism of “spaces” for co-working, coffee, and “concept stores.” Walking up the Calei Victoriei, I glimpse a freshly painted storefront, a crumbling building. I pass by the Hotel Capşa, which was once home to the whisperings of the avant-garde, now adorned by a mountain of tires and a Botox clinic. Its environs shelter a cinema that screens old foreign movies, a third-wave coffee shop, and the old poet Eminescu’s pub across the street, now vacant.
This city leaves you wondering if it will manage to preserve its greatest “export”: its citizens, who move elsewhere to pursue the necessities of life. In the meantime, we may observe from the outside, closely, clearly, and confusedly.
A month ago, I moved to Turin, a city that is a total mystery to me—I don’t know anyone here except my partner, and before coming I had only done one quick Google image search to see what it resembled, which was the rough image of Italy I already had in my head: large porticoes with cafés nestled inside; pale orange and yellow facades; big, fancy squares; dramatic nineteenth-century statues. Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, these broad categories have been filled in with more meaningful details—the large crowds that gather under the porticoes on the Via Po on Sunday evenings, the humble courtyard of the otherwise extravagant Fondazione Einaudi, the gestures of the two figures that make up Luigi Contratti’s Pietà on the Ponte Umberto at the edge of the Parco Valentino.
Besides mapping the city geographically, I’m also interested in engaging with it temporally, finding out more about its communist history. What I know so far is not much. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci studied at the University of Turin and stayed on during the workers’ strikes, establishing himself as a notable journalist with multiple socialist newspapers. As a co-founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, he was later imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime and died at the age of forty-six, shortly after being released. Throughout the 1960s, Italy, like most of Europe, went through a series of political upheavals, and Turin played a major role. In 1969, an unstoppable wave of strikes that would spread to many other cities began in Turin’s largest FIAT plant, the flagship Milafiori.
Moving through the city now—one that some call the “Detroit of Italy”—it’s difficult to pick up on this history, but not impossible. Of note is the graffiti, which seems, at least so far, to be decidedly pro-communist. A few blocks from my apartment, there is a bright red tag that reads “Viva Karl Marx,” and I’ve noted about a dozen hammer and sickle tags speckled across the neighborhoods that I’ve been frequenting. In contrast to Paris, where most of the political graffiti I saw was wedded to the discourse of anarchism or “anticapitalism” (plus an enormous citywide feminist slogan campaign by Les Colleuses, so well-known that it’s been featured in the New York Times), Turin’s symbolics are much more openly Marxist.
This is exciting to me, not because I think Marxism is politically superior to anarchism, but mostly because I think that Marx’s critical theory (which, alas, probably does not translate into a politics called “Marxism”) is relevant. One way in which it’s relevant now—now that many on the Left have begun to question capitalism as a form of social life and thus wonder what might take its place—is as a framework for understanding the failed “actually existing socialisms” of the twentieth century. As the historian Moishe Postone pointed out, Marx’s theory shows that all of the large-scale historical patterns of the last century, including the rise and fall of the USSR, can be understood as part of the global, historical, and social formation of capitalism.
While the hammer and sickle graffiti might be a reappropriation of an older historical imaginary, it’s also a suggestion that we reimagine what communism is or could be—that is, not a (failed) political regime, but rather the possibility of destroying capital.
1. The historian Lucian Boia describes this phenomenon in Romania: Borderland of Europe: “What is remarkable, given the differences between these two writers [Paul Morand and Olivia Manning], is their fundamental agreement regarding the character of Romanian civilization. To both, Romania presented itself as a country only partially integrated into European civilization, a country of the margins, still characterized by a pronounced substrate of primitivism and a strange amalgam of modern urban life and rustic survivals” (9).↑