#1940Club: The Secret of Dr Honigberger

Mircea Eliade: Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr Honigberger)

Original cover of the novella.

Before Mircea Eliade became a philosopher and historian of religions, he was primarily known as a fiction writer (and playwright) in his birth country, Romania. 1940 was a bit of an odd year for him – he had recently been released from prison for his support of the right-wing Iron Guard, but was then rehabilitated and even sent to London and then Lisbon as cultural attaché when Romania lurched to the right and later became military dictatorship during the Second World War.

This slim novella was written during this troubled period and perhaps that’s why it contains hardly any references to the politics of its time: it is pure escapism, with the future professor of religions very much in evidence. It is a story within a story and features mysterious disappearances, dusty and potentially dangerous manuscripts, time shifts and surreal/ghostly elements that are now common-place in fantasy literature, but which were perhaps rarer at the time.

The narrator is a young scholar of Oriental Studies (like Eliade himself), who has recently returned from a lengthy trip to India. He is invited to the house of Mrs Zerlendi, a widow, who would like him to examine her husband’s extensive library of Oriental treasures and determine if it might be possible to complete the monography he was writing about Dr Honigberger, who had travelled throughout India and the Arabic countries in the first half of the 19th century and was believed to have attained a transcendental state and special psychic powers.

The narrator is somewhat sceptical at first, and considers the deceased Mr Zerlendi a rank amateur. However, as he grows familiar with the valuable collection and even stumbles across a secret journal, he realises that things are not quite what they seem. Zerlendi did not die, but mysteriously disappeared all of a sudden in 1910, without a word to his family or friends, without taking any of his papers or clothes or money with him. From his journal, it emerges that he was following many of the ascetic and yogic practices described by Dr Honigberger in an attempt to reach the hidden world of Shambala, which some scholars thought was an actual location somewhere in the north of India, but which the narrator is starting to think is something like Enlightenment.

Just as the narrator thinks he might be uncovering the secret, he is suddenly kicked out of the house and library (under the pretext of spring-cleaning and that Mrs Zerlendi has fallen ill). He keeps trying to get past the gatekeeper, the fierce, limping housekeeper, but no luck. And then, when he passes by the house again after a few months, he discovers something very strange indeed: the Zerlendi family (still without the father of the household) in something resembling the future or perhaps an alternative universe.

There is no resolution to the mystery of what actually happened to the narrator or to Zerlendi, and readers often asked Eliade for an explanation, which he refused to give. Clearly the author’s professional interests in esoteric practices got the better of him, for there are far too many lengthy descriptions of those. There are times when the narrator seems to be critical of the fascination with all things Oriental that Zerlendi displays, but I wonder if Eliade the author is aware that he and his narrator are displaying all the same symptoms.

If anyone could manage to make an exciting premise boring (even in a short novella), then it is Eliade here. After he became a lecturer in religious studies, his literary output decreased dramatically. On the other hand, his academic works often read like novels, so…

For an updated and even more intriguing take on this story, with a science-fiction twist, I would recommend Paul Doru Mugur’s short story ‘zerlendi@shambhala.com’, the first in his short story collection Psychonautica, recently published in the US by New Meridian. (And I say that not only because I translated that book).

A translation of Eliade’s novella by Ana Cartianu was published in 1992 under the title ‘Doctor Honigberger’s Secret’, as part of an omnibus edition of Eliade’s Mystic Stories. Probably only worth seeking out if you are deeply interested in the subject or in the author. However, you can see an entirely different (and funnier) side to Eliade by reading his barely disguised youthful memoirs translated and published by Istros Books.

I know that officially the #1940Club is over, but I just wanted to add this fairly obscure book to the list. It didn’t take me long to read but it has taken me far too long to review. More about the reasons for that perhaps in another post.

#1929Club: Mateiu Caragiale

There were so many great books published in 1929 (Rilke, Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Nella Larsen and so much more). A favourite decade of mine anyway, and I have read quite a few of them in the past, but I am going to go quite obscure with my contribution to the #1929Club hosted by Simon’s Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This is my only contribution to this week’s extravaganza but I do urge you to read some of the other reviews and books.

Mateiu I. Caragiale

In Romanian, the book is called ‘Craii de Curtea Veche’ and it has been translated as either Gallants of the Old Court by Cristian Baciu in 2011 or Rakes of the Old Court by Sean Cotter in 2021. The author, Mateiu Caragiale, was the illegitimate son of one of the best-known Romanian playwrights and authors, a master of the prose style, Ion Luca Caragiale. His father was very much influenced by German and French literature, and mocks the affected use of French phrases in the Romanian bourgeois vocabulary of the late 19th century, but Mateiu seems to have been influenced more by the Levantine style, his work has been described as quite baroque and ornate, and he uses Turkish expressions extensively.

Although it was voted the best Romanian novel in 2001 in Romania (in a rather upmarket cultural publication), I have the feeling that it lives on more in the nostalgia of readers because of its style and subject matter, rather than that it is widely read and discussed. Published in 1929, the author took over twenty years to write it, so it is firmly set in the pre-WW1 period in Bucharest and describes a vanished world in a rather dream-like haze yet not entirely devoid of a critical eye. It has been compared stylistically to Proust (although much, much shorter), but the atmosphere evoked in the book reminds me more of fin de siècle Vienna, with endless discussions in coffee houses, lush parties, and a schizophrenic feel of looking to the future while desperately clinging to the past.

But the real pleasure came in our idle conversation, the palaver that embraced only the beautiful: travel, the arts, letters, history — history especially — gliding through the calm of academic heights.

Let’s not forget that Vienna too was often at the very border with the Ottoman Empire, and some of that languorous indolence that people have associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Ottomans has certainly sweetened the disciplined Germanic spirit of the Viennese. The Bucharest described by Caragiale is caught up even more between Western and Eastern cultural influences, but there are very many attractive details in the decadence that he describes. We don’t need to know that Mateiu Caragiale was also a keen genealogist and designer of coats of arms (who believed he might have been descended from an aristocratic family) to guess that he was quite wedded to the past and regretted its demise. Of course, there is a certain element of ‘Orientalism’ in this approach, the exoticism of something which had disappeared, although no doubt Mateiu would have hated to live during the period when the Ottoman Empire was controlling parts of the Romanian principalities or attacking and laying siege to them.

The title itself is clearly ironical. The Old Court is the neighbourhood in Bucharest situated around the former royal residence, one of the oldest parts of town which had become by Mateiu’s time a largely messy and noisy commercial area. ‘Crai’ in Romanian originally meant king/leader (and is still used as such in folk tales), but its meaning has now morphed into ‘philanderer’ or ‘vagabond’. Mateiu himself said that the title was inspired by an anecdote his father told about a band of ruffians who stole the symbols of power (fancy clothes, coronets, jewels) from the ruling classes following an uprising, then paraded through town wearing them, astride on donkeys and filthily drunk. So there is clearly a carnavalesque atmosphere of role reversal there, but is it condoned or lamented? Well, the epigraph to the book might demonstrate that it is neither: simply, it is different, and the rules you are used to do not apply:

“Que voulez-vous, nous sommes ici aux portes de l’Orient, ou tout est pris à la légère…”
Raymond Poincaré

The illustrations of Razvan Luscov for the 2015 edition of the book.

But what is the book about? Largely plotless, it is in fact the narrator reminiscing about his three friends, Pantazi, Paşadia and Pirgu, and the life of wine, women and elaborate food that they enjoy in Bucharest. Pantazi is the romantic nobleman who reads Cervantes in the original and who suffered from an ill-fated first love and therefore commits to a life of a rake, travelling all over the world, in an attempt to drown his sorrows. Paşadia is charismatic, handsome, wealthy, clever, passionate about history: the world seems to be at his feet, but for some reason he has become disenchanted and cynical about it all and leads a double life: the finest of intellects in the daytime, the lowest of animal instincts at night. Pirgu is low-born and keen to climb the social ranks (or at least make a lot of money): a scrounger, a bossy-boots, resourceful and resilient, the typical nouveau riche who despises the old traditions or fine intellect. Guess which one of the three thrives at the end of the novel?

The friendship between the four, if you can call it a friendship, is in fact quite dysfunctional: Pantazi mocks Pirgu’s uncouth manners, while Paşadia allows himself to be manipulated by Pirgu as if in an act of self-loathing or self-destruction. Meanwhile, the narrator observes it all but seems unable to intervene.

A strange little book, which I think must be nearly impossible to translate. I have not read either of the translations, but from what I’ve read from other reviews, Sean Cotter has done his best to convey some of the faded glamour and over-the-top flavour of the original, although I am not sure that his use of extravagant Latinate words works best as a substitute for words of Turkish origin (which are often used in a slightly pejorative sense in Romanian). The book is very funny because of its intentionally over-opulent use of language, despite its overall melancholic, dissolute feel.

In his review of the book, M.A. Orthofer singles out this particular passage as almost a description of what the author hopes to achieve with his storytelling style, and I would agree with that:

The narration undulated languidly, braiding a rich garland of notable literary blossoms from all peoples. Master of the craft of painting with words, he effortlessly found means to express, in a tongue whose familiarity he claimed to have lost, even the most slippery and uncertain forms of being, of time, of distance, such that the illusion was always complete. As though bespelled, I undertook long imaginary journeys with him, journeys such as no dream ever provided … the man spoke. Before my eyes unrolled charming throngs of tangible visions.

There is a film adaptation of this book from 1995 (which I haven’t seen), but above all, it was lovely to reread the book for the 1929 Club. It felt like opening an old perfume bottle and refamiliarising myself with some long-lost, slightly too-sweet but not cloying scent. This time around, I was also far less disposed to be lulled by the stylistic fireworks and give a free pass to this annoying bunch of men, who see women largely as fantasies, victims or sluts.

For your information, I prefer the father’s style, but nevertheless Craii remains a landmark book showing the tension between Occident and Orient in the Romanian psyche.