(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian original, click here)
My friend, G.N., a philosopher of culture and specialist in hermeneutics, ethnologist and folklorist, best known to specialists – and mostly among foreign ones – than to the public eye, told me the other day: D. P., why don’t you put poetry and prose aside and take on more serious business, philosophy, for instance. We were colleagues at the university, in Cluj, but after the Masters’ program “The Philosophy of Humanness” our creative paths separated: he followed a doctorate in the philosophy of religion at Sorbonne and Chicago, and I continued to write literature, which G.N. accepted and loved, but considered it to be secondary. With your talent, he used to say, you could get far. I used to smile and let him speak his mind. To me, literature – or at least part of it – did not seem unimportant, I used to say. Moreover, if you are good, it can take you far as well, whatever this “far” might mean.
He would leave me speak my mind as well, but he nodded, slowly, with doubt. I’m not saying you cannot become famous, he said to me, you could even be awarded the Nobel Prize… what I am talking about is the limits of understanding… I believe you can reach more through literature, I used to say. You gain direct access, if I may say so, to your and the collective unconscious, to mysteries you are still struggling with. Of course epiphanies might arise, although hazy and concealed, but it is possible, and it does happen. Let’s consider for a second Eliade’s fantastic prose. How many of his scientific theories were revealed in those texts? It’s different with Eliade, he used to say. With him everything abounded in mysteries, myths and symbols. But it is not the prose that made him famous, respected and quoted across the world. Probably not, I told him, but in the face of eternity, a life of fame is equal to an ephemeral second.
I enjoyed the discussions I had with my friend G.N., always polemic, fostering new ideas, and alive. Unfortunately, they became scarcer as his reputation grew among the world of specialists. He was always invited to congresses and symposiums across the world, he held conferences and courses at different universities, fewer and fewer in Romania, so that meeting him became a festive occasion, a kind of 29th of February or, even more so, a rare phenomenon, such as a total eclipse of Sun. Because if it would have been possible to witness the eclipse in Romania in 1999, in order to catch it again in 2001 one had to travel to South Africa; the options for meeting G.N. were somewhat similar: today at Sorbonne, tomorrow in Chicago and only the day after tomorrow, in Cluj (of course, “today”, “tomorrow” and “the day after tomorrow” symbolically speaking).
Then I got a phone call. It was passed midnight and at first I thought it was an apocalyptic angel or an air-raid warning, but I pulled myself together and I answered the phone. It was G.N., very anxious. He was calling from Princeton, ignoring that while it was daytime for him, it was nighttime for me. Tomorrow I’m leaving for Romania. I’ll probably be in Cluj on the 29th, do you want us to meet? Of course I do, I always did, what kind of a stupid question was this? I really must see you, he said, it is damn important. Thanks God you didn’t say an f-word, I told him, before falling back to bed again. I slept quietly until nine. I always said that being a writer, at least in Romania, besides the bad part of exposing yourself to famish, there is also a good part: you can organize your time as you please. I, for one, like to stay late at night, long after midnight, and then to sleep until 8:30 – 9:00. Sleeping during the morning always agreed with me, but I knew people who preferred sleeping at night, going to bed at 10:00-11:00 and waking up at 5:00 – 6:00 in the morning. To each its own.
I became part of a dangerous game, if only it would be just a game, he told me. We only met a few days after his arrival, being unable to synchronize our free time. At last, we managed to grab a coffee one morning, at our favorite coffee shop. He was anxious as I had never seen him before. Calm down, I told him. Breathe deep and speak to me. I entered this dangerous game… he kept repeating. Do you remember when I went to the US? Every single time, I answered with a tone which aimed for tranquility, but was interpreted as ironic. Tell me you are not one of them, he told me quickly. Tell me! One of them?! I looked at him confused. What are you saying, man? What did they do to you? What’s with you? Come to your senses, you’re starting to scare me. You are the only one I trust, he told me after scrutinizing me for a while. I’m sorry, I know you are not one of them, but I had to be sure. I’m being followed, he whispered afterwards. I’m no longer safe anywhere… Who is following you? I asked him already quite concerned. I knew he was very cerebral, much more rational than me, even starting from the university when he used to mock every exam, while I used to sink to my boots. He wasn’t one to scare off easy, and this time he seemed almost terrified, as I had never seen him before. They are everywhere, he told me. Now it is impossible to get rid of them… Wait, wait, I stopped him. I’ve seen movies as Conspiracy Theory myself. They were interesting, but they were only movies. You don’t understand, he told me. It’s not like that. It’s totally different. Then try to explain, I asked him. I don’t know if I can do this without getting you involved as well, he answered. I don’t know if I have this right… Please try! I’m granting you the right! I take full responsibility.
In the end I convinced him to tell me. He decided he will tell me what happened and that I am supposed to take everything as a story, as fiction. This way you won’t get involved, he said, making me promise that my role will only be that of a listener. I didn’t exactly promise that, but I calmed him down saying that I will not get involved and that I will not do anything that might expose me to danger. I love my family too much I said. This convinced him. We locked ourselves in his apartment, in his laboratory. It was a four rooms’ apartment, in which he did not live, it was only used for study. All walls, except for the bathroom’s walls were covered with heavy bookshelves, and in some rooms the books had started covering the floor as well. When you are famous, he once told me, you have one benefit: you no longer have to buy books, they are sent to you. In the living room, the huge desk was also covered with books, notes and papers, in what looked as an inspiring mess. The kitchen was abolished and turned into a library itself. G.N. made his coffee in an electric coffee machine, which was the apartment’s only appliance. I knew his “bunker” a little bit, his “building site” as I liked to call it. Not everyone could get inside and this happened on very rare occasions, because G.N. did not like to be disturbed when he was working. That is why he had abolished the door bell, the phone and he never answered to knocks on the door. Quite frankly, I don’t think he ever heard them…
I’ll start with what I believe it is the beginning. I ask you to listen as if you would be reading a story or watching a movie, without getting involved and without interrupting. Do you remember my study and the conference I held in Rome, last year? He started telling the story. About tradition and progress inside the church? I remember a little bit, I said. I did not read your study, as for the conference… Well, he did not let me finish, I talked about a pioneer, Lamennais, who lived from around 1780 until mid XIX-th century. He was a genius priest, thorn by two different longings: the Catholic Church tradition and the fascination of the modernity which came after the French Revolution. I’m not going to bore you with the details so I’ll skip to the other main character of my study, the well-known Luigi Sturzo: “the most important theoretician of the Catholic political movement” as my colleague and friend Gianpaolo used to call him. What I did not mention at the conference was the conclusion I reached, namely that Sturzo is none other than Lamennais’s reincarnation, reincarnation motivated first and foremost by the need to accomplish what he had already started. This conclusion, you must know, I’ve never uttered or written anywhere, because it is not worthy of a man of science, it fits better the play of parapsychologists. But I did think about it. And I wouldn’t have considered anymore, but at the conference, a man, who never said his name, asked me why I believed that Sturzo is the reincarnation of Lamennais. Right there, on the scene, in the middle of dozens of colleagues from all around the world, not to mention the general public and the press, I babbled for the first time in my life; then I denied that I had ever come to such conclusion. After all, there was no proof. Fortunately, no one minded the incident, but I for a change was very intrigued. I tried afterwards, during the cocktail, to encounter the mysterious auditor, but he was nowhere to be found. Then I forgot all about the incident myself, until two months ago, when I was invited to a CNN talk-show. Then, when it got to taking phone calls from the viewers, another guy called – a different one, considering the voice – who asked the same thing. I admitted then, publicly (and things do not get more public than on CNN) that it was a mistake, that I had never asserted such thing. Then we got to the never-ending discussion about reincarnation, and what do I believe about it. I tried to avoid this sensitive topic by describing a bunch of different beliefs of tribes and peoples. The compere noticed my embarrassment and switched to a different subject. That is how I got away this time as well. You are probably asking why I avoid saying what I think about reincarnation. Actually I am only avoiding the topic in public, and that is because I haven’t yet reached a conclusion. I am somewhat ashamed to discuss this subject which I can’t yet fully grasp… But I should move on. When I was in Princeton, last week, I got a phone call. The strangest phone call ever received! First, that number, connected to my room, was not known to the public, only the one in the Religious Studies Department, where I used to receive compliments and to engage in discussion every time I got there. Secondly, no one knew what I was working on at the time, because I had just started a text about Peter’s triple abdication and the cockcrow. At the phone, a female voice which sounded familiar, because it addressed me in Romanian. And, of course, it asked me the same thing. I asked who it was, but the woman said: “Do you really think that Sturzo is the reincarnation of Lamennais? Come on, you can tell me, now nobody is listening!” I denied it once more, then I demanded again to know who she was. The person hung up on me… Then, my dear D. P., I heard a cockcrow. Right there in the middle of the university’s campus, where besides squirrels, I’ve never seen any other mammals, and beside wild singing birds, no other bird! Then I realized…
I gave him a few seconds, keeping my promise not to interrupt, but he didn’t say anything else for a long time. He then looked at me and said it was time for me to go. I tried to protest, though faintly, because the determination on his face convinced me. And probably even more decisive was the fact that fear had vanished from his eyes. I could clearly see that he had got to the meaning of those strange experiences. So I left.
From that moment on, I’ve never seen G.N. Not me, nor anyone else. No one saw him afterwards; it was as if he had vanished. No one knows where he has disappeared. I, on the other hand, do. But, unfortunately, I can’t tell you.
 The famous essay writer and historian of culture Gianpaolo Romanato, professor at the University of Padua (A.N.).